February 21, 2018

Hard to help?

Two businesspeople in slightly tense conversationAre you hard to help? Or does that just apply to some of the people you work with?

It’s such a waste when we make it difficult for other people to give us the help we need; when we let our pride or our ego put up barriers when others are trying to act in our best interests. You would think we wouldn’t apply the brakes to our own development and growth, but we do.

Maybe you wouldn’t do that, but don’t we all have some area of potential change where we resist?

To make progress, we need to start by being open to input ourselves. Then others are more likely to accept suggestions from us.

Like with much in life, we have to go first.

Welcoming feedback?

Four business people in a discussionWe know we need feedback: We need other people to let us know how we are doing; to challenge our ideas; and to shake our assumptions (especially if they are out of date). That doesn’t mean we necessarily enjoy the process, of course. Often it’s distinctly uncomfortable, or has the potential to be so.

How do you receive feedback?

Calmly and attentively?

It helps to realise that we react badly to feedback when we let it land in our ego; when we let it question our sense of identity.

It probably isn’t intended to do that—not usually.

With strength and presence, we can take a more objective view and be a kind of observer on the exchange. We can separate the learning from our sense of self—not always easy in the moment, of course, especially when feedback arrives unannounced, unexpected, and uninvited.

How do you handle feedback—welcome it, even—making sure you get the input you need without hurting too much in the process?

What’s the difference between espoused theories and theories in use?

Group in discussion at computerThe short answer is ego.

Organisations, teams, and individuals (including ourselves) have a habit of claiming to operate according to a set of theories that apply to our work. With the best of intentions, we set out to do our business based on a set of assumptions we would like to be true.

In fact, observation of what actually happens will usually reveal something different. In a perspective first articulated by Chris Argyris, we operate according to a rather different set of assumptions—our “theories in use.” It’s these theories-in-use that govern what is really done.

For example, espoused theories might be around customer service. In some organisations, unfortunately, the theories in use might have more to do with profit maximisation. The result is a debilitating disconnection between what management claims to be about and what it’s really about.

When challenged on this, leaders will typically resist admitting what drives them isn’t what they would like it to be. Their ego won’t let them.

Unaddressed, ego will maintain the discrepancy between espoused theories and theories in use, preventing the organisation (or the person) from really understanding itself, in turn preventing it from adapting and changing and growing.

An important role of leaders is to overcome this tendency, both in themselves and in others.

How closely aligned are your theories in use and your espoused theories? Can you see any gap between how you say you operate and how you really operate?

Another way this manifests can be summarised by “we judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions.”

Time to reflect on our actions perhaps.

New options made possible by your progress—have you noticed?

Fork in a pathSometimes they creep up on us…

New options, that is.

We don’t notice at first.

We’re so busy working on our current options—well, actually, our old options—that we don’t notice new ones have opened up.

I know I’ve done this—kept going with something that’s no longer the most productive approach available. That’s the danger of a head-down, get-it-done attitude (which we also need, of course).

But we need to take stock—probably more often than we actually do.

Otherwise, we’ll be doing the wrong thing righter—or at least, not the rightest thing—when we could be doing the right thing right.

The difficulty is, of course…

The new options only exist once we’ve covered some ground.

And at first, they seem more like threats than opportunities, because they’re unfamiliar. Our ego is defensive.

But of course, they’re our friends, or could be.

How do you make sure you notice new options when they’re there to be seen?

Maybe you have some now.

Do you fight your influences?

Group in discussion at a computerThat might seem a strange question, but think about it: Do you resist the learning which comes from your influences?

Actually, I think, most of us do.

Because influence means change, and change means discomfort for our ego, we tend to push back on ideas that contribute to our learning, particularly the more profound ones.

In fact…

The more powerful (and important and valuable) the influence, the more likely we are to resist it, at least at first.

Patience, therefore, is something we usually require in the people who influence us.

But perhaps we can learn to be more open. Perhaps we can learn to notice when we are resisting an influence. Perhaps we don’t need to fight it.

How about you? How open are you to the people who influence you?

How do you take “no” for an answer?

Man thinkingThere something about train fares…

We seem to have a remarkable ability to get worked up about relatively modest amounts of money when it comes to train fares. If our request for a reduced fare is turned down (for legitimate reasons, of course, though we don’t see it that way at the time), we sometimes don’t handle it very well. Our ego is hurt.

Recently I saw one ticket-less guy take it really badly. He ended up storming off and jumping over the exit barriers. Except he didn’t make it at the first attempt and fell back on the wrong side. The indignity of that prompted more abuse towards the railwayman who had offended. I can’t repeat here what he said, but you can probably guess: two words, not very original. At one level, it was hilariously funny…

Ok, so we wouldn’t do that.

But how well do we accept having a request turned down; being told “no”?

Sometimes we do indeed need to push harder.

Other times we do better to accept with good grace.

How do you take “no” for an answer, when really you’d be best to? How do you keep your ego in check? How do you stay cool when you need to?

Worth working on.

Someone has the answer: The question is do you want it?

Group of people talkingOr would you rather keep searching yourself?

It’s tempting to say “Of course we want the answer if someone else has it”?

But do we really?

Sometimes the loss of face, the embarrassment, or the hurt to our ego is too much to bear, and we avoid seeing what’s offered.

Of course it’s good to look for our own answers.

Sometimes though…

We’ll get a better outcome if we put our pride to one side and accept someone else’s wisdom.

That’s a kind of personal mastery, and an act of an inspirational leader.

A simple story of ego

Leisure centreThe lady behind the reception desk said “I’m sorry, but the pool closes at six o’clock on a Monday”

She must have made a mistake…

“Are you sure? The website says it’s open.”

She confirms the pool is definitely closed.

I’m for blaming something, so I say…

“I think the website must be wrong.”

The receptionist astutely says she doesn’t know anything about the website, avoiding meeting me on that field. I recognise reality (but not responsibility) and leave.

Of course, I’ve just got it wrong. The website is perfectly correct.

Such are the consequences of ego—in this case, mine. A little example highlighting a problem we all face—learning blocked by ego—our own and other people’s.

Where’s yours letting you down? And what changes when you reign it in a little?

Enabling learning—it’s all about the egos

Group of professional peopleRead the literature on organizational learning and you’ll find convincing descriptions of how fear or embarrassment impedes learning by individuals and teams. When something doesn’t turn out as expected, it’s a very human reaction to seek to cover up the failing—to step past it somehow—and then cover up that we’ve done that.

Repeat the process a few times and we enter the territory of what some people “skilled incompetence,” artful ways of consistently protecting ourselves from threat at the expense of inhibiting our learning. (This is Chris Argyris country.) Sure we might really be in danger, but usually, we overdo the fear and the embarrassment beyond the likely consequences.

In short…

Our egos make us defensive and get in the way of our learning. Now, we need our egos, because if we didn’t have them, we couldn’t function.

But they need managed…

Much of the literature advocates process approaches to overcoming these difficulties i.e. thinking head stuff—clever intellectual and conversational techniques to address the problem.

Really there’s an easier way…

Get the human connection right with your team and you’ll assuage the egos and neutralize the fear and embarrassment, thus enabling the learning they truly need.

Get the humanity right with yourself and you’ll sooth your own ego, and let in the learning you truly need.

Banter – Harmful or helpful?

Group of people listeningThe host pokes a little fun at the participants. It’s part of an elaborate pattern, you might even say a ritual, in some ways intended to lighten the mood. Trouble is, those at the receiving end feel a little intimidated and may think twice about contributing to the gathering. The end result is the banter inhibits the process, because it’s more about showing who’s boss.

In another place, the raillery seems to warm the mood of the meeting and put people at ease.

So what’s the difference?

And is banter a harmful or a helpful tactic?

Taking the second question first, I’d say be very careful. Banter, and humor in general, is very culturally dependent, and even if that aspect is OK, those less sure of themselves feel they can’t keep up. If in doubt, leave it out.

If you choose the riskier path, here’s what I think makes the difference…

There’s jocularity that puffs people up a little and there’s jocularity that deflates a little.


The quality of the meeting will be related to the self-esteem in the room. That seems likely, don’t you think?

So here’s my takeaway…

Keep ego and self-esteem in mind.

If you decide a little banter suits the circumstance and the people, reflect on this: Does your repartee build them up a bit, or does it knock them down a bit?

If you want a great meeting, I’d go for building them up.

That’s me.

What’s your take on banter?