I had a session with a very special client who was gleefully telling me how she broke the rules.She had learned in many leadership classes how to confront an employee about performance issues—you tell them directly and objectively what they are doing you don’t like, set clear expectations about what you do want, give them what they need to be successful and move forward.One thing you would never do is address an issue to the entire team and treat a single performance issue as a group reminder.
My client did the opposite.She had a group meeting where she discussed positivity (the behavior she wanted from her employee) with the whole team and decided to have a follow up meeting with the person in question without ever mentioning the “problem.”She chose instead to focus on the times when the employee was demonstrating the behavior she wanted.My client told me, “[this person] is a lot like me.Pointing out her mistakes will not work.She wants to do well.Someone who wants to do well doesn’t need to be hammered, they need to be redirected.”
I have no doubt this somewhat unorthodox method will work.Why?Because my client has successfully diffused a number of tricky situations and has created the strong and supportive team environment she has always wanted.More importantly, she has learned to rely on her own judgment—trusting in all she has learned, her experience and her empathy to show her the way.It is an inner directed rather than outer directed approach to leading.
It wasn’t always this way.For many years, my client lived by the rules.Her upbringing was strict and hierarchical.If an authority told you to do something, you did it, no questions asked.This is typical of what Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, in their book Immunity to Change, (http://www.amazon.com/Immunity-Change-Potential-Organization-Leadership/dp/1422117367/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1331325577&sr=1-1) describe as the lowest plateau of three in adult mental complexity, the socialized mind.Kegan and Lahey use terms like “team player,” “faithful follower,” “seeks direction,” and “reliant” to describe this mindset.
As you can see, there is nothing wrong with these characteristics.Many valuable employees can be characterized this way.The problem with the social mind is that we live in a world that is increasing complex.The more complex the world becomes, the more mental complexity it demands of us.Development of our mental complexity and the mental complexity of those we lead becomes critical to our ultimate success in a changing world.
Mental complexity is not about IQ.Mental complexity is not abstract thinking.Higher plateaus of mental complexity, the “self-authoring mind” and the “self-transforming mind” are characterized by the ability to follow your own compass, recognize the strengths and limits of your thinking, to observe yourself, to find your own voice.It is these characteristics that support greater innovation, self direction and personal responsibility.
Growing into these higher levels of mental complexity isn’t easy.It requires stepping out of the way you have approached a problem to look at it from a completely new perspective.It is much more than learning a new technique, it requires fundamental shifts in thinking.It requires trying new things, experimenting, being open to questioning what you have always believed.Yet when you make that shift, transformational change is possible one step at a time.
My client is a great example of this.One by one she started questioning assumptions about life and work she had held her whole life.She tested those assumptions and by trying something different—taking small steps that dominoed into a giant leap.Now she thinks for herself.She still listens to authority, but she makes up her own mind and acts accordingly.That, to me, is the mark of a true leader.
For more information on Kegan and Lahey’s work, see http://www.uknow.gse.harvard.edu/leadership/LP3-4.htmlor http://www.learningforward.org/news/jsd/kegan233.pdf .
Plum Cluverius, PCC is an executive coach with over 30 years experience in leadership development.She lives and works in Richmond, Virginia.