You’re on a team that’s been tasked with solving a problem at work. It’s a pesky issue that nobody seems to understand. Suddenly the new guy—the one who came on board just last week—starts asking what comes across as a series of “naive” questions. A lot of the questions begin with the word “Why.” He challenges the status quo.
Within minutes, you and the other “veterans”—guided by the new guy’s questions—discover a number of blind spots that had helped create the problem in the first place and then had forestalled its solution.
What happened here? The new guy, unimpeded by his lack of seniority, stepped up to the task and showed his teammates how to fix the problem.
This was an example of emergent leadership. It’s when someone self-identifies as a leader and steps in to help take ownership of successes and failures.
Emergent leadership was masterfully explained in Mark Sanborn’s 2006 book You Don’t Need a Title to Be a Leader: How Anyone, Anywhere, Can Make a Positive Difference.
A fresh addition to that discussion can now be found in Don’t Wait for Someone Else to Fix It: 8 Essentials to Enhance Your Leadership Impact at Work, Home, and Anywhere else That Needs You. This recent book is by Doug Lennick and Chuck Wachendorfer, principals at think2perform, a high performance leadership development firm serving small and large organizations in a variety of industries.
Good leaders are expected to make smart decisions. So, what’s the key to preventing things like mental bias and overconfidence from getting in the way?
Wachendorfer cites research by the Hay Group showing that decision making has twice the impact on performance than talent and skill combined. Unlike your IQ, he says, you can improve your decision making with practice, focus, and effort. “From time to time, everyone suffers from psychological phenomena like bias and framing effects that can cause them to make poor decisions,” he says. “Effective leaders will slow down their decision making to take those phenomena into account and how they might be affected by them.”
To mitigate the impact of those phenomena and improve decision making, Wachendorfer and Lennick use a tool they call the 4Rs.
- Recognizing the thoughts, feeling and actions of those involved is the first most important step. It allows you to see the human landscape more completely. Often leaders sacrifice emotions for speed; they want everyone to respond very quickly. Usually that’s not the best response. Effective leaders realize they’ve got to slow things down to improve decision making. That leads to the second R – Reflection.
- Reflection allows people to step back and look at the bigger picture, consider their values, notice whether any of their biases are at work and influencing their thinking. Reflection also allows people to calm down and when they’re calmer, they can think more clearly and engage their pre-frontal cortex, which is the logical, thinking part of the brain. Now that you’re calm and can think more clearly, you can move to the third step – Reframing.
- Reframing is about considering all your options, weighing the tradeoffs, advantages, and disadvantages for each of the alternatives. This step enables people to mitigate their biases and challenge their assumptions or heuristics more thoroughly.
- Finally, the fourth step is Responding and deciding.
“This 4R process doesn’t always take a lot of time but it does take practice and practice makes it permanent,” Wachendorfer says. “It requires self-awareness (Know Your Real Self) and knowing your values (Know Your Ideal Self) so you can rely on them when necessary.”
The authors advise leaders to “let go of what you know.” What does that mean?
“Among other things, it means letting go of the need to be right,” Lennick says. “Knowing ‘how’ to do that is essential for you to optimize your potential. Like it or not, the right strategic or tactical thing to do changes over time. As Jeff Stiefler, former president of American Express, explains, ‘Everybody wants to be in a groove. No one wants to be in a rut.’ Grooves become ruts when we can’t let go of what we know.”
Lennick cites four steps to letting go of what you know:
- Be curious.
- Choose growth over comfort.
- Resist being defensive.
“Try new things,” he advises. “You will learn some things about what you thought you already knew.”
What role does self-awareness play in all this?
“Self-awareness is the foundational first step in what we call the Leadership Logic Chain,” Wachendorfer says. “Becoming more self-aware allows you to see patterns in your behavior, notice when you’re getting emotional or being present. Athletes talk about being “in the zone”. Being in the zone is being physically, mentally, and emotionally present. When leaders are present, they tend to perform better, and are more effective in their relationships.”
Self-awareness is about paying attention to what you’re thinking, feeling, and doing, he says. “Better decision making is grounded in self-awareness. So, it’s almost counterintuitive that to build a great relationship with others, the person you have to pay the most attention to is yourself.”
Of course, empathy and compassion can help a leader bring out the best in others. But how, exactly, does that work?
“Empathy is about recognizing how someone else is feeling,” Wachendorfer says. “Empathy is often confused with compassion when, in fact, they’re very different responses. Empathy is the ability to understand and appreciate what others are thinking, feeling, and doing—and why. Compassion, on the other hand, involves taking the next step—using what you have come to understand about others to show that you care about them concretely.
Wachendorfer says practicing empathy helps leaders recognize when people are “stuck.”
“Often there will be emotions in the way of someone changing behavior,” he says. “It could be stress, confusion, fear, or uncertainty that’s causing someone to hesitate. Effective leaders are in tune with their own emotions and alert to the emotions of others. Recognizing how someone is feeling can be as simple as noticing their body language by saying ‘you look … concerned, tired, confused, upset, etc.’ or ‘you sound… frustrated, anxious, excited, etc.”
When you notice someone is emotional, he says, you know that thinking clearly and logically can be more challenging and they need help getting unstuck.
“Being empathetic can then lead to compassionate action,” he says. “That’s why we connect them instead of keeping them as separate concepts. When a leader recognizes that someone is having a hard time, they can take steps to help them deal with that emotion.”
Absent both empathy and compassion, Wachendorfer says, people often stay “stuck” and are unable to make the necessary behavioral changes to produce better results in their lives or in business. “Leadership at its most basic and fundamental level is about influencing peoples’ thinking and behavior. Behavioral change is often necessary to grow. As we like to say, changing behavior is simple but not always easy. Simple and easy are not synonymous.”
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