The Spectrum

I learned an invaluable lesson my second year at drama school that I find myself sharing with my corporate clients all the time.

I was doing a scene from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, playing the role of Hermione. Really bad things happen to Hermione; her husband, King Leontes falsely accuses her of adultery and treason, her daughter is abandoned to the wilderness, and her young son dies. My teacher wanted more raw emotion from me in this role, for me to be more messy and distraught. He pulled me aside to ask what was holding me back and I told him that I was trying to stay authentic and believable in my despair. I mentioned that I was afraid of coming across like someone else in my class who always seemed emotionally over the top to me. I disliked watching what seemed to me like constant self-indulgent emotional response. My teacher put his head in his hands. “Corena,” he sighed. “You and this person are so opposite in every way. She lives in emotion. You live in pragmatism and logic. From the moment you each enter a room, before you have done or said anything, it is clear that you and she are entirely different people. You can’t use her as a guide for your behavior because you are too unlike each other. For you to come across as she does, you would have to go so far away from your natural self that I can’t even imagine what it would look like. Do you see? You have to start with you. It’s very dangerous to compare what you are doing to others because you are starting from such different places.”

This notion of being so different from someone else that any comparison is fool hardy seems like it should be obvious, yet this was a revelation for me. And apparently, a lot of us haven’t grasped this particular notion because it comes up in my coaching all the time

Clients working on speaking up more in meetings will say something like “Well but I don’t want to come across as pushy” or “I think it’s really annoying how everyone is always talking over each other and I don’t want to be like that.” Inevitably they have examples of their least favorite people they wish not to be like.

And I say to them what my Shakespeare teacher said to me. “Jane. You are so far from anything that remotely resembles pushy or rude that you could probably say just about anything at any time and not be perceived as rude. If you look at the spectrum of pushy, you are at the far end of the passive/not pushy side, which means there is A LOT you can do, a lot of ground you can cover before you are anywhere close to pushy territory.”

Someone working on being more vulnerable or bringing more of their authentic self to work is afraid of becoming the in your face over sharer colleague that drives them nuts.  “I don’t want to be like that guy. Better to keep things professional.” Nope, I say. You are too far at the other end of the personal sharing spectrum to worry. Your natural sensitivity and awareness of how people are responding to you will prevent you from crossing inappropriate boundaries; you are simply never going to be “that guy.”

Someone working on more effectively navigating the politics of their organization is afraid they will end up like the shrewd operator nobody trusts. Nope. Your baseline integrity will never allow you to be that person. There is so much you can do that will serve you in a “political” sense without compromising your sense of self or putting you in a league with the people you see doing it distastefully.

It’s important to know what you admire and aspire to and what you don’t.  Many of us look for models and mentors as we craft our professional identities. But be careful of the ways in which you try not to be like someone. We often overcompensate when trying to avoid being perceived in certain ways. We need to know ourselves and where we are starting from. Someone who never speaks up does themselves great harm when their focus is on not being the jerk always interrupting people. Someone working to navigate their organization more strategically will struggle if primarily focused on not being the shmuck down the hall. With awareness of where we are and where others are on these spectrums we can identify the vast middle ground on which we can adjust our behaviors to grow into the most effective versions of ourselves.

Thoughts for Women’s History Month

It feels appropriate to write something about women for Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. I’m reminded of when I was a kid and turned to my dad while shopping for Mother’s Day to ask, “How come there’s no kid’s day?” He replied, as most parents do when posed this question, “Every day is kid’s day.”  And so the implication of there being no men’s history month or International Men’s Day is clear.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I shy away from writing for women specifically. It has to do with wanting to honor the individual journey each woman is on. We women have a shared story and it is important to be aware of that story and how we have come to the moment we are in. Yet we are of all shapes, sizes, colors, economic opportunity, education level, preferences and experiences. I am always concerned in addressing women as a whole, about who won’t be able to relate, who may feel a little left out or left behind, disconnected from “our story.”

What I see in my role is the segment of our story taking place in corporate America, which is comprised of thousands of unique characters experiencing similar plot lines. If in a meeting a senior man doesn’t look any of the few women present in the eye or invite any of them to contribute to the discussion, Woman A may notice acutely and be outraged. Woman B may not notice at all, content to leave with what she needs to do her job efficiently. Woman C may feel disappointed by her inability to contribute but may not be able to identify why it was hard for her. Each of these experiences of the same situation is valid. Each is true.

We all pay attention to different things. We notice different injustices, feel them differently, cope differently. We have varying experiences and beliefs that inform how we perceive things and how we behave and respond to people and situations. There are also ways in which we are all so similar; I hear variations on the same frustrations and challenges over and again. But the variations matter. We each have different tools at our disposal, differing areas of resilience and susceptibility.

It seems incredibly obvious that we have to respect each woman as an individual charting her own course, yet there is a human tendency when we address the concerns or issues of a group to diminish the nuances of the individual. We want to put the challenges that group faces into neat boxes so that we can then box up a neat solution. Even though many of the issues women face in the work place today are the same, the solutions for how each woman addresses them are not the same. The ways in which she experiences and internalizes them are not the same. While we continue to do the necessary work of making our systems more inclusive, of creating environments where a greater variety of people are seen and appreciated and supported, we also must support the individuals, each trying to make her way in her way.

My sense from working with women who are trying to be as effective as possible, wanting to be valued for their contributions, questioning their desire to stay or aspire for more, is that we could use more spaces where women can safely share their experiences. Not more panels of women explaining how they have successfully made it to the top. Not more huge women’s groups where a small percentage of women share their stories. Not more organizations using statistics to shape policy. We need more spaces where Woman A, B and C can be in a room together sharing their experiences and perceptions without judgement. In group learning environments, women pull me aside to address any issue they feel is related to gender. They never bring it up in the group—it’s always in private. In coaching, women are sharing experiences with me that they are not sharing with anyone else in the company. What I see is that people still don’t trust this conversation. They don’t trust the validity or value of sharing their own unique experience navigating the business world. We need to keep lifting up more voices, at every level, and to draw out the great variety of experiences we are having. Organizations still have so much to learn from their women. And we still have so much we can teach and learn through sharing the vast array of world views and expectations that make up our collective story.  

Receiving Feedback

Over the past several years I’ve spent hundreds of hours working with people to become more effective deliverers of feedback.  It’s a topic most organizations are willing to invest in because what makes individuals and companies improve most quickly is an environment where people are effectively giving and receiving regular feedback. I emphasize effectively because feedback is so often delivered ineffectively, in which case a valuable performance tool can become damaging.

One of the comments I hear most frequently when practicing how to deliver useful feedback with executives is, “You should also provide a workshop on how to receive feedback, because there are a lot of people who make delivering feedback especially challenging.”

Receiving feedback is hard. Some are better at it than others for reasons including confidence levels, what kind of feedback they’ve received in the past, growth vs. fixed mindset…the list goes on. The ability to ask for, hear, and implement feedback is critical to growth. It’s worth getting good at it. If you are open to feedback, people will be willing to deliver more of it. And this makes you better faster.

Here are some suggestions for receiving feedback:

Understand that a lot of feedback isn’t actually about you. Often, someone is giving you information about how they like to work or see a deliverable or product completed. There is no need to take this personally, it’s just information to help you be more effective in delivering what they want. It’s essential, especially early in a career, that you can take in this information and move on without getting weighed down. If you have an idea about how to make something better, offer it up, but don’t get in the habit of defending against someone’s preferences for how they like things done-it’s a waste of your time.

A lot of people are bad at delivering feedback, but usually if they are making the effort, they are trying to help. Help them be more effective by asking the questions you need to better understand them. People won’t get better at delivering feedback unless they have the opportunity to practice, so we must not punish failed attempts. We teach feedback as a conversation; the giver and receiver agree on a desired outcome. If someone doesn’t make any room for your voice or makes you feel shut down, sometime down the road, say something like this to them: “Hey I want to thank you again for taking the time to give me some feedback. Can I share with you something that would have made it easier for me to hear?” Tell them what will help you continue to be receptive to their ideas.

Our instinct when someone is being critical is to be defensive. Even if everything inside you wants to defend yourself, practice simply accepting the feedback. You don’t have to agree with it. You can ultimately decide it’s not valuable and discard it, but in the moment, try to interact with it, explore the possibility of it. If you fight your instinct simply to defend yourself, later as you process what was said, there will likely be something in it of value to you. Accepting feedback in the moment does not mean you are entirely buying into what’s being said. It means you are buying into the value of feedback itself and are open to hearing it. (You can always go back to that person later if you are sure a grand injustice has occurred) If I had a dollar for every piece of feedback I’ve been given that I wanted to (or did) resist in the moment but later understood its value, I’d be a very wealthy woman.

You can practice receiving feedback by asking for it. After meetings, presentations, or calls with clients ask someone whose opinion you value, “Hey was there anything you think I could’ve done better in there?” Or, “Would you mind taking a few minutes to give me your thoughts on what I did well today and what I could’ve done better?” If you approach it casually about specific events, they will be able to approach it in the same way. We want feedback to be specific and casual; it’s easier to deliver and to receive when it’s not loaded with formality.

Very few humans can become their best selves when only hearing critical feedback. Make sure you are getting feedback on your strengths so you can build on them. If you are in an effective feedback culture, you are hearing as much or more about what to build on as you are about where you can develop.

Finally, find a trusted friend or colleague with whom to discuss your feedback. Someone who knows you well can help you sort through what you’re hearing. They may be able to make sense of something that doesn’t ring true to you or validate your feeling that you’ve been misunderstood and help you figure out why. We need other people to help us understand how we are perceived. We need them to be able to appreciate the impact of our choices and behaviors. Find your team that will make you better and encourage their voices.

Impostor Syndrome

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I love impostor syndrome. I love it not for what it is, which isn’t super fun, but because it gives a name to something we all experience.

It usually goes something like this: a client is admitting to me the lack of confidence they have about their ability to fulfill their role or advance in their organization. Or telling me about the tenuousness with which they feel connected to what they are doing, that they have the sense that everyone around them is more capable of the expectations and requirements expected of them. And I say, “ah, yes a little impostor syndrome.”  Their eyes grow wide and they exclaim, “What?! That’s a thing? Yes, I have that!”  Usually it is a relief to be able to name it. To know the thing is common enough to have a name.

Impostor syndrome is the feeling that one isn’t capable or qualified to be where they are or to be doing what they are doing. It’s doubt in our own abilities, a feeling that we’ve gotten where we are due to luck or a fluke. There is fear this will be exposed at any minute: that someone is about to realize we don’t belong here. The kicker is that impostor syndrome is especially prevalent in smart, high achieving people. When the term was first introduced in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, they thought it was unique to women. It’s easy to understand how a feeling of not belonging or being a fraud would be experienced more by women, who are working in systems designed by men, and at high achieving levels, are often surrounded by people who are distinctly different than they are. But we now know (and I’ve certainly witnessed) that impostor syndrome is experienced by plenty of men as well. In fact, at some time or another in our lives, we all experience impostor syndrome. We may even swing wildly back and forth between great confidence and gnawing impostor syndrome.

As with many of our thought patterns that show up to undermine us, the first step to dealing with impostor syndrome is to recognize it for what it is; a belief about ourselves that we are inventing. The next step is to figure out where it is coming from.

One possible source is a habit of constantly comparing ourselves to others. If this is a tendency of yours, remember that what we are really doing is comparing ourselves to our idea of others. The world is full of people faking it until they make it—we don’t know what people’s insecurities, hang-ups, mishaps or actual experiences are. Catch yourself, avoid the trap of comparisons that make you feel bad. They are almost always false comparisons.

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Another more subtle thing we might question if we are experiencing a pervasive case of impostor syndrome is, do I doubt myself or the system I am in?  Sometimes we question the validity or purpose of the thing we are a part of. If some part of you is thinking what’s the point of this, or this is such a ridiculous way to operate—you may turn that doubt inwards. Doubting processes and norms can be even more uncomfortable than doubting yourself. Consider what happens when people seriously start doubting their governments. When people believe the system is inefficient or not working it is destabilizing and can lead to chaos. On an individual level, it can often be easier to doubt ourselves than the systems we are a part of.

With time, experience, and growing self-awareness, some people will figure out how to kick their impostor syndrome to the curb. But most of us will have to wrestle around with it from time to time. What I recommend is to get kind of friendly with it so you can look it in the face and learn from it. When mine creeps up I take a time-out and ask, “You’ve come again?  Why are you here today?”  Sometimes it’s because I just got challenged by someone I respect. Sometimes it’s because I believe I could’ve done better that day. Sometimes it’s because I’ve taken on something new. Sometimes it’s because I don’t feel brave or my good feeling hormones took a nose dive or I didn’t get enough sleep. The key is to find out. Then give yourself credit for finding out. And then reward yourself for putting yourself in situations that continue to challenge you. This is growth. This is how you get better and wiser and stronger. If you are never doubting yourself, if you are never chatting with your impostor syndrome you are probably not stretching yourself, reaching your potential , becoming more you. Which is why you really can be friends with this thing. It’s there to make you think, to offer you a moment to look inwards, to let you know you are doing the good work of pushing out of your comfort zone into the great, wide beautiful and scary world.

Evaluating Lessons Learned and My Dating Guidelines

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(Image courtesy of https://www.funderstanding.com/educators/classroom-assessment/)

A topic that comes up often in coaching and leadership development is what people and organizations are doing to look back and assess lessons learned on successful and unsuccessful ventures. Some of the most powerful and frequently asked coaching questions are “When have you tried something like this before?” “What worked well for you then?”  “What would you do differently knowing what you know now?” “What would your stakeholders say were the most and least successful things you did?” These are really simple questions. Yet I’m continually surprised by how helpful they seem to be, because neither the individual nor their organizations have a process in place where these kinds of questions are being asked on a regular basis.

Looking back productively requires us to put aside natural cognitive biases that will want to create a story of what happened that makes complete sense and mitigates our responsibility in the areas we failed. Our brains will fill in missing gaps and areas of confusion to help us all get to a story we can live with. We have to fight against these natural tendencies. We have to acknowledge where we got lost, didn’t react well, or focused on the wrong thing. For an organizational process in which we do a deep dive on our failures to work, the culture has to support it. There has to be a system in place that builds structure around experimentation so that failure is productive. Failure is a positive when we can learn from it what to do differently next time. We don’t want to keep failing in the same ways, we want to come up with new, exciting, productive ways to fail. We are in a period of immense innovation, creativity and possibility. There is a great deal of talk about building cultures where people feel safe to fail. Given that we are fighting our own natures and a society that doesn’t in fact recognize failure positively unless it ultimately becomes a success, creating such a culture is challenging. Many a book could and will be written about this as our need to “fail forward” grows. It seems though that the way in which we look back is a good and easy place to start. We must have clear and open processes in place in which people feel safe to admit to and acknowledge where things went wrong.

While our organizations continue to figure out ways to enable their people to repeat successes and fail forward regularly, we can certainly work on this at an individual level. I’ve been trying to think critically about my own evaluative process lately.  There’s an exercise I often have participants  do after a day of learning and exploration that I’m going to try using more myself.  It’s as simple as making a note of what to keep doing, what to start doing and what to stop doing.  If we each committed to doing something as easy as this after each big meeting, sales pitch or new endeavor, imagine how quickly patterns would emerge that we could learn from. What do we say we’ll stop doing that we keep doing? What do we know we need to start doing that we don’t seem to be able to initiate? What are our stakeholders teaching us every time we meet them that we forget by the next time we see them?

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(Image courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/gforsythe/17255568561)

As the world around us keeps changing, one thing we can certainly track is our own interactions with it. If we put a trusted process around how we recognize and learn from our failures, it’s very likely we can get more comfortable with failure itself. And we can’t learn from failure until we are comfortable looking at it in the face.

So, what does any of this have to do with the Dating Guidelines mentioned in the title, you may ask? Well, I’ll tell you. An area of life in which I did extensive informal analysis and in which I failed in both stupid repetitive ways and in smart failing forward ways, is dating. I met my husband when I was 38, so I racked up many years of experience. I learned SO MUCH in all those years. And while I was learning, I was establishing new ways of approaching the process of dating and I was creating guidelines to help me stay in the often tiring game.  All those lessons learned and approaches that helped me enjoy it more seemed wasted rattling around in my own head. I needed to put some kind of structure around what I had learned both to document the energy and effort for myself and so that I could share it with others.

For any of you still in the dating world you will find these guidelines linked here. If you know anyone currently dating, I’d invite you to share these with them. They are not of the ‘how to catch a mate” variety, but are ideas for how to stay true to yourself, maximize your sense of fun and agency, and identify behaviors that may help you sort through common dating challenges.

If you prefer to listen to a summary, I was recently interviewed about my dating guidelines on Therese Barbato’s wonderful podcast about love, That’s What She Said. You can follow the link here for a listen.