Change for the Better

And then make it permanent.

by Marshall Goldsmith

MOST OF ANY LEADER’S annoying habits and interpersonal flaws are rooted in information compulsion.

Sharing and withholding are two sides of the same tarnished coin. For example, when you insist on adding more value, passing judgment, making destructive comments, announcing that you already know, or explaining why something won’t work, you are compulsively sharing information convinced that you are making people smarter or inspiring them to do better, when you are more likely having the opposite effect. When you fail to give recognition, or claim credit you don’t deserve, or refuse to apologize, or don’t express your gratitude, you are withholding information.

Other annoying habits are rooted in a different compulsion-one that’s centered on emotion. When you get angry, play favorites, or punish the messenger, you are succumbing to emotion-and displaying it for all to see.

You either share information and emotion, or withhold them. If s good to share information that helps people and good to withhold information when it harms people (many secrets should be kept). The same goes for emotion: it’s worth sharing sometimes, and other times, not worth it at all.

What Is Appropriate?

When dealing with information or emotion, you need to consider if what you are sharing is appropriate. Appropriate information helps the other person; inappropriate information risks hurting someone. Discussing a rival company’s good fortune can be positive if it gets your people to work harder, but if s inappropriate when it soils other people’s reputations. Instruction is usually appropriate, to a point. If s the difference between someone giving you simple directions to their house and telling you every wrong turn you can make along the way. At some point, with too many red flags, you will get lost, confused, or wary of making the trip at all.

Emotion, too, must be shared appropriately. For example, love is often an appropriate emotion, but even saying “I love you” can be inappropriate if you employ it too often or at awkward moments. Conversely, anger can be a useful tool if you parse it out in small doses at opportune moments.

When sharing information or emotion, ask, “Is this appropriate?” and “How much should I convey?”

Pause and pose these questions as guidelines for anything you do or say. You can change your annoying behavior-and your colleagues will notice.

Dealing with Feedback

Confidential 360-degree feedback is the best way for successful people to identify what they need to improve in their relationships. Successful people tend to have two big problems dealing with negative feedback: 1) they don’t want to hear it from us, and 2) we don’t want to give it to them.

Successful people are incredibly delusional about their achievements. Over 95 percent of them believe that they perform in the top half of their group! Giving people negative feedback means proving they are wrong. This works about as well as making them change-it’s not going to happen.

Feedback rarely breaks through to successful people, even when you depersonalize the feedback by talking about the task. Their identities are often so closely connected to what they do that they take it personally when receiving negative feedback They accept feedback that is consistent with their self-image and reject all other feedback

It’s also easy to see why we don’t want to give feedback. Successful people have power over us-over our paycheck, advancement, job security. The more successful these people are, the more power they have. Combine that power with the predictable “kill the messenger” response to negative feedback, and you can see why emperors continue to rule without clothes. When was the last time your efforts to prove the boss wrong worked as a career-enhancing maneuver?

Traditional face-to-face negative feedback also focuses on the past (a failed past), not a positive future. We can’t change the past. We can change the future. Negative feedback exists to prove us wrong (or at least we take it that way). Feedback can be used by others to reinforce our feelings of failure, or at least remind us of them-and our reaction is rarely positive. When your spouse or partner reminds you of your shortcomings, how well do you accept this? Negative feedback shuts us down. We dose ranks, turn into our shell, and shut the world out.

I’m not trying to prove that negative feedback creates dysfunction. Feedback is useful for telling us where we are and what we need to change. Without feedback, we wouldn’t ever know if we are getting better. We all need honest, helpful feedback to see where we are, where we need to go, and to measure our progress.

Such feedback is hard to find. But I have a foolproof method for securing it. When I work with a client, I first get confidential feedback from a dozen or more coworkers (selected by my client). Each interview lasts about one hour and focuses on: What is my client doing right, what does my client need to change, and how my (already successful) client can get even better!

Since my clients pick their raters, it is hard for them to deny the validity of the feedback. I enlist these coworkers to assist the change process. I tell them: “I’ll be working with your boss for the next year. I don’t get paid if he doesn’t get better, and ‘better’ is defined by you and other coworkers.” People like hearing this.

Four Commitments

I then present these coworkers with four requests-the Four Commitments:

Commitment 1: Let go of the past. Whatever real or imagined sins you have committed against people in the past, they are long past correction. You can’t do anything to erase them. So, you need to ask people to let go of the past. This isn’t easy. Most of us have never forgiven our parents, children, and spouses for not being perfect, and never forgiven ourselves. Without getting this first commitment, you can’t shift people’s minds away from critic toward helper.

Commitment 2: Tell the truth. You don’t want to work hard for a year, trying to get better based on what people tell you that you’re doing wrong-and then find out that they really don’t mean it. They are only saying what they think you want to hear. I’m not naive. I know people can be dishonest. But if you demand honesty from people, you can proceed with confidence that you’re going in the right direction-and that you won’t get a rude surprise at the end.

Commitment 3: Be supportive and helpful-not negative. This is asking a lot of people-to be supportive, without being a cynic, critic, or judge. People are just as likely to suspect or resent their bosses as respect and admire them. So you have to remove their judgmental impulses. Then they’re more inclined to be helpful. They realize that if you get better, they win too: they get a kinder, gentler, better boss.

Commitment 4: Pick something to improve yourself. This commitment helps everyone to focus on improving. You’re creating parity, even a bond, between you and the other person. Imagine if you announced that you were going on a diet. Most people wouldn’t care. But if you ask a colleague to help you monitor your eating habits and stay on track, you get a more involved and sincere response. When you add reciprocity: “Now, what would you like to change in yourself? I’d like to help you,” you enlist more support. Suddenly, you and your co-workers are engaged in the same struggle to improve.

Win-Win Exchange

In this two-way exchange, you and the other person also gain the strength to stick with it. Getting other people involved-and committed to changing something too-enriches the experience. You not only change for the better because you’re getting support from your coworkers, they change too because of what they learn by supporting you.

Put equal emphasis on changing yourself and the people helping you. Before you solicit feedback about yourself, find a few people to tell you the truth about yourself. If they qualify on all four commitments, invite them to supply and receive feedback.

ACTION: Use these four commitments.

Most of any leader’s annoying habits and interpersonal flaws are rooted in information compulsion. When dealing with information or emotion, you need to consider if what you are sharing is appropriate. Confidential 360-degree feedback is the best way for successful people to identify what they need to improve in their relationships. Successful people are incredibly delusional about their achievements. Here are four commitments on how to be a successful leader: 1. Let go of the past. 2. Tell the truth. 3. Be supportive and helpful — not negative. 4. Pick something to improve yourself. Put equal emphasis on changing yourself and the people helping you.

(originally published in Leadership Excellence)

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