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Communicating with grit and grace

“I know what I want to say, but HOW do I say it without getting ignored or killed?” In my experience as an executive coach, this question stymies leaders, especially women leaders, as much as any other issue.  Why?  Because organizations often require women to operate within a painfully narrow stylistic range: nice, but not TOO nice; strong, but not TOO strong.  How on earth do you navigate this?

Here’s what doesn’t work.  It doesn’t work to dilute your message, minimize your strength, or chip away at your authenticity so much that you disappear.  Nor does it work to “damn the torpedoes,” and blow your listener away.

You do not have to choose between “zipping it” or “letting it rip.” Effective communication, whether at work or at home, is often both tough and tender. Whether you tend to communicate directly (“grit”) or with soft edges (“grace”), the greatest potential lies in blending the best aspects of both. This blended form of communication can turn a conflict into a moment that transforms a relationship.  It can turn a supportive encounter into a catalyst for action.

How do you achieve this kind of balance? The most powerful communication guidance I’ve found comes not from the worlds of business or communication, but from Buddhist teachings.  The principle is called “wise speech.”  Wise speech is any message that meets four essential criteria:

  • Truthful – clear, direct and authentic
  • Useful – actionable, relevant and intended to be of service to the other person and the situation
  • Unifying – acknowledges all perspectives, so that everyone’s view has a “place” in the conversation
  • Kind – respects the dignity, aspirations and frailties of all parties.

‘Truthful’ and ‘useful’ are the grit side of the equation; they make a message clear and actionable.  But directness can intimidate some, and cause them to shut down. ’Unifying’ and ‘kind’ are the grace elements; they cultivate respect and trust within the conversation.  But too much softness can obscure your message, appear inauthentic, or create stagnation in a relationship. The greatest power is in the blend. Holding your communication to the standards of wise speech is no easy task, but the payoffs can be great.

What about you?

Most of us tend to emphasize just one or two of the wise speech criteria, especially when the message is difficult. Which one(s) do you tend to default to?  What are the strengths and limitations of that?  (Don’t think about this in the abstract – examine this through the lens of real life situations.)

Which criteria are the most ‘foreign’ to you, or are the ones you most quickly sacrifice when the chips are down?  Again, what are the implications of that?

For the next two weeks, try holding your important communications to the four standards of wise speech.  Make mental or written notes of what you try, how it works and what you’re learning.  And let us know how it goes!

Grit and Grace…On Behalf of What?

I usually steer away from philosophy in this blog, focusing more on practical leadership topics. But from time to time, I think it’s important to step back from the ‘how to’ of leading with grit & grace and look more deeply at the ‘why.’  On behalf of what does this work exist?

The underlying purpose of Leading With Grit & Grace™ is to help individuals and institutions address what I call the ‘tyranny of success.’ On one hand, it is critically important to establish what we’re good at. This forms the very foundation of our effectiveness. For example, a leader discovers that she gets great results by being understanding with her people, so she adopts a compassionate leadership style. A company sees a spike in profits by downsizing, and develops a core ethos of ‘doing more with less.’ In other words: we take an action; we like the result. So we “rinse and repeat” a few times, and pretty soon, we’ve got a bona fide formula for success.  Great, right?

Not necessarily. We humans tend to fall truly, madly and deeply in love with what works for us, and this can become a problem. Over time, we may stop paying attention to whatever falls outside our loving gaze, and our attentions and actions become imbalanced without our knowing it. Seemingly out of nowhere, our once-reliable strategy for success starts to wreak havoc: not because it’s the wrong strategy, but because it’s built on a partial set of values that we believe to be complete. Sure, it’s great to be good to your people.  But at some point, too much kindness will tank your efficacy.  It’s great to maximize efficiency. But continually stressing your people and resources will ultimately exact a heavy price.

The tyranny of success occurs when we lean on one set of values (and their resulting behaviors) and neglect their necessary opposites: kindness to the neglect of firmness; profits to the neglect of sustainability; ambition to the neglect of service; growth to the neglect of recovery and stabilization.  It is in the forgetting of these necessary opposites that our strengths become liabilities and can begin to do real harm.  It is from this forgetting that burn-out, abuse, complacency, greed, exploitation, and demoralization arise.

So regardless of the scale or context in which we are working, the work we do at Leading With Grit & Grace™ is always about helping people and institutions to transcend the tyranny of their success, and to develop a more balanced and sustainable form of thought, action and impact. It is on behalf of this intention that we exist.

What about you?

What are your (or your institution’s) formulas for success?

What values are at the core of your formula?

What do those values make possible for you and others?

What are the positive opposites of those values?  Which of these positive opposites might you be overlooking or undervaluing?

How might you integrate some of those neglected values more fully to support your success?

Let’s Celebrate Women By Being Uncomfortable

I hate Women’s History Month. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s vitally important to keep remembering that – and why – women matter. It’s crucial that we keep examining and updating our perceptions of women, so that we see them in ways that are ever-more complete, current and correct. I just don’t think that Women’s History Month (“WHM”) accomplishes these ends very well. Unfortunately, WHM is often reduced to an annual box-checking exercise that masquerades as a demonstration of commitment to women.

I should know. I used to be a Diversity officer for a large organization. The traditional observance of WHM was this: We went into our storage closets and dusted off a bunch of yellowed lithographs of exceptional women. We put the photos up in the hallways (and removed them promptly on April 1st). We held a lunch and brought in a speaker or two to motivate and educate. Usually, the only people in the audience were women. And then we crossed off the “Women-valued-for-this-year” item on our organizational to-do list. We meant well, but I don’t think we helped anyone. Even though it was totally unsatisfying, I never figured out how to do something more meaningful. The only option I saw was to discontinue the charade.

Today, 25 years later, I believe that we should celebrate Women’s History Month (and every other “History Month”) by agreeing to make ourselves and each other uncomfortable.  I would like to see March become an annual invitation to reengage, refresh and reexamine our collective narrative about women. I’d like it to be the month where  leaders of both genders come together to assess where women actually stand in their organization, community or country. Where are we with parity, really? What advances can we celebrate, and how do we replicate and increase them?  Where are the gaps between what we say we believe and what we actually do? How do we find that out? What subtle and obvious barriers must women negotiate that their male counterparts do not? What are the organizational ‘clubs’ and power centers in which women still have reduced access or sway? What are the beliefs, behaviors and systems that accomplish this exclusion? When we look at our key strategic challenges, what could women’s perspectives and skill bring to the table that we may be missing?

Women’s History Month is also an invitation for us women to enter into our own discomfort. March is as good a time as any to evaluate ourselves as unflinchingly as we wish our organizations would evaluate themselves. Are there ways in which I have held myself back from making my own small history? Are there situations in which I routinely choose comfort over challenge? Are there necessary battles that I’ve backed away from? Or fights I’ve been fighting ineffectively or for too long? Are there places in which I have abandoned my own vision, principles or well-being in order to keep the waters calm? Are there younger women around me who are withering, either from the absence of a mentor or from active sabotage? Are there some paths that I could clear so that other women can make their own history?

Men… you too. Are you relaxing your attention on parity, since the tides of favor and power are starting to shift? Do you levy criticisms against women that you don’t levy against men? Do you hold women in your sphere to higher or lower standards than the men? What one step could you take to check that your impact on women aligns more fully with your best intentions?

Avoid the token nod to Women’s History. Organizations, beware self-satisfaction because you hired a lunchtime speaker. Women, resist viewing March as a a month of sanctioned victimhood. Men, nap not on your laurels. For Women’s History Month, let’s put ourselves on the hook for real dialogue and meaningful change. Let’s be willing to get uncomfortable this month and see what happens.

How is your ‘rest life?’

“I’m exhausted… like ‘end-of-my-rope’ exhausted. But I feel guilty taking time off.”

My clients, especially women, say this to me a lot. It comes from a deeply embedded cultural value that work is good, and non-work is non-good.  If you’re running from dawn to midnight, you must matter. If you’re well-rested, then you must be expendable.

Many of us take better care of our cars than we do of ourselves.  We understand that it’s necessary and advisable to get the car checked regularly, because routine maintenance may prevent us from getting stranded at the worst possible time. We know we shouldn’t wait till the car’s broken down to change the oil. We don’t see the car as somehow flawed because it requires regular care.  But when it comes to ourselves, this is EXACTLY how we tend to think – that we can only afford to attend to ourselves when we’re completely spent or hair-on-fire stressed out. We tend to view cultivating our ‘rest life’ as something we do only when the outside world has stopped making demands of us.  As if.  

I firmly believe that personal renewal is foundational to our effectiveness. I know the territory of burnout, and it’s very hard to come back from. I now understand that a rest life – in the form of quiet, solitude, reflection and engaging in the things that feed us – is essential, especially if we want to be effective in our work, family and community lives. Yet everything around us is calling us away from rest, toward overwork and its accompanying stress.

I’ve come to see stress as an addiction, as potentially dangerous as any other.   So does Patrick Lencioni, author of an excellent article on executives’ addiction to adrenaline. http://www.leadershipreview.org/2005winter/LencioniArticle.pdf   Stress is addictive for several reasons.  First, the chemicals that our bodies generate in response to stress produce an emotional and physiological “high.”  For better and for worse, stress is kind of a rush. If we go into stress mode more often and for longer times, our adrenal glands pump out those high-inducing hormones around the clock. This makes you restless 24/7, which can make time-outs very uncomfortable.  So you keep trucking, even though that’s drawing down your body’s reserves.

Stress is addictive also because our culture values heroics. We get kudos for pulling off that monster proposal, for solving that problem that no one else could solve, for being the first one to arrive at work and the last one to leave. Women have also internalized an expectation that they should ‘do it all’ and ‘have it all.’ But even if we could reach that standard (and that’s debatable), it doesn’t mean we should. 

You’re in luck.  April is National Stress Awareness Month. It’s a nationally-mandated excuse to become more aware of the stress in your life and its effects on you. With this awareness, you’re equipped to take action toward more balance and resilience. It’s a great excuse to move your ‘rest life’ further up the list of priorities, and watch how that affects the other parts of your life for the better.

Questions to guide your inquiry

On a scale of 1 – 10 (10 being best), how well do you currently attend to your rest life?
What are the pros and cons of attending to your personal care and renewal at that level?  How does your current level of care benefit you?  What is it costing you?
What rating would you like to be able to give yourself?
What would that make possible for yourself and for others?
What two concrete, doable steps can you take in April to move toward that level of self-care?

 

 

The Four Pillars of True Power

Last year, a company hired me to present “Leading With Grit & Grace” to its senior women executives. When the sponsor asked me to describe the content of the presentation, I said, “It’s about how women can wield their power and influence more effectively.”  Their response?  “Whatever you do, don’t mention the word power in your presentation!

This client was giving voice to a common discomfort with the notion of power in our culture.  Women seem especially wary of it, as if power is something that we shouldn’t claim or own. I think the reason we resist owning – or even talking about – power is because of how we define it. Most of us think of power as an oppressive and constraining force, a tool of domination. And unfortunately, our past and present are riddled with examples of power used in this way.  So these are legitimate concerns.

But because we resist this ‘brute force’ aspect of power, we tend to send the whole topic underground, burying with it all of power’s positive potential.  As we dissociate from the more coercive aspects of power, we also disown our ability to unite and mobilize others for productive and compassionate ends. This positive, connective force is what Joe Weston, author of Respectful Confrontation, calls “true power.” Weston contends that true power is supported by four pillars of internal capacity: grounding, strength, focus, and flexibility.

Pillar 1: Grounding. Our personal power is not unlike electrical current. Ground it, and it’s productive and safe. But when ungrounded, it has the potential to do real harm, so true power has to begin there. It’s the establishment of a strong physical, spiritual, mental and emotional foundation from which to encounter life.  Grounding keeps us rooted in our bodies, beliefs and principles, and thus stable in the face of challenge.  According to Weston, “Grounding…leads to an unwavering self-confidence and conviction in what you do and believe.”

Pillar 2: Focus. According to Weston, there are two aspects to focus: “finding stillness in the chaos” and “giving direction to one’s efforts.”  Focus brings a calm, clear quality to your power.  It enables you to sort through all that’s happening in and around you, and make a clear choice about what to bring forward.  Focus concentrates your energy, enabling you to act and speak with intent and precision.  To focus is to take a definite shape, something that can be uncomfortable for women.  To help us move into that discomfort, we need the next pillar: strength.

Pillar 3: Strength. This is the aspect we usually associate with power, and without the other pillars, it can turn into the kind of brute force that we rightly resist. Here’s how Joe Weston describes strength: “The innate force of strength is expressed in two ways.  The first is the courage to move out of your safe space and into the unknown, and the second is the physical force to accomplish your goals.” Strength is often a real skill of grit-based leaders.  But when strength is not accompanied by grounding or flexibility, it can turn a woman from bold to bitchy.

Pillar 4: Flexibility. Weston believes that flexibility is the most elusive, challenging, yet potent of all the pillars.  He sums it up in a Taoist saying: “In a heavy monsoon, the mighty oak will snap like a twig, but the blade of grass will survive.”  Flexibility is the key to versatility, creativity and compassion.  This is often a strong pillar for grace-based leaders, yet they will tell you that flexibility without the support of other pillars can result in weakness.  A leader who is grounded, clear and strong – while also able to adapt and adjust – is a force to be reckoned with.

What about you?

Each of these four pillars is essential to ‘true power,’ but the real potential lies in achieving balance in all four.  Which of these pillars are most developed in you?  What do those strengths make possible for you and others?  What happens when you overuse those pillars to the neglect of the others?

Which of these pillars is least developed in you?  What impact does that have in your ability to express ‘true power?’  How will strengthening that pillar help you to accomplish something that really matters to you?

What one or two steps can you take right now to get started?

 

 

To find out more about Joe Weston’s work, go to http://www.respectfulconfrontation.com/

 

Mountain or Spear? The difference between assertiveness and aggression

“The minute I express my opinion clearly, I get labeled as aggressive.”  This may be the most recurrent refrain I hear from the women leaders I coach.  They report that if they hold back or are soft-spoken, they get run over in conversations.  Yet if they come forward with strength, they get tattooed with what I call the “Scarlet B:” the reputation as a bitch (excuse the French).

There’s no doubt that organizations tolerate more forcefulness from men than from women, so women often have to operate in a much narrower stylistic swath.  At the same time, something has nagged at me about these clients’  stories.  In each of their organizations, I can name other women leaders who are successful and influential who have escaped the “aggressive” label.  And many of the women that I’ve coached do, indeed, have quite a sharp edge.  So while I fully acknowledge that organizations are often intolerant of strength in women, I don’t believe that it’s impossible for a woman to be both strong and avoid the Scarlet B tattoo.

The issue is not whether you’re coming across with strength – it’s rather the kind of strength you’re coming across with. There is an important distinction between assertiveness and aggression.  The word “assertive” has its roots in the Latin word for “to join,”  while “aggressive” has its roots in the Latin word for “to attack.”  Assertion stands its ground, like a mountain or tree.  It has a full and present quality that is based on your intention to make real contact with yourself and others.  Aggressiveness, on the other hand, has a forward-leaning, ‘coming at’ quality, and often reflects a loss of interrelatedness.  In women, there can be a sharpness or shrillness to the voice that often belies an underlying energy of anger, frustration, powerlessness or fear.  If left unmanaged or ungrounded, those emotions can give our communication a spear-like quality.

Unfortunately, because organizations tolerate more spears from men than from women, women need to take extra care that their communications are balanced and effective.  The bad news is that women carry an extra burden to be skillful in their communication.  But the good news is that that forces us into a style that research has proven to be most effective for leaders in general, regardless of gender.

What about you?

Recall an interaction in which someone told you that you came across as aggressive or “too strong.”   What were the circumstances surrounding that interaction?

What message were you trying to get across?  What qualities did your communication have?  (If you were watching yourself on videotape in that interaction, what do you think you would have observed about yourself?)

Now recall the emotions you were feeling in that interaction.  What were they?  Defensive, scared, angry…?  Were you aware of them at the time?  How did those emotions shape what you said and how you said it? Were there spear-like qualities to it?

Where was your attention when you were speaking?  Was it more on connecting to yourself and the other person?  Or was it more on getting your point across or being heard?

Now imagine yourself as a mountain, or as some other image that is both solid in itself and open to its surroundings.   How would that mountain (or other image that works for you) communicate that same message you were trying to convey?

What’s different about how the mountain would express itself from how you actually communicated in the situation?

What’s your sense of how others would perceive the two messages with respect to assertiveness vs. aggression?

What new awareness or understanding do you have as a result of this exercise?  What actions might you take as a result of these insights?

 

 

Can simple math improve your confidence?

Here’s a great HBR article on women and confidence.  Who knew that ’rounding up’ holds a key?   http://blogs.hbr.org/glickman/2012/01/confidence-is-a-numbers-game.html