Leadership is about coaching. Here’s how to do it well.

You can start with one simple behavior change that will bring a massive impact.

If you’re a leader or a manager, you probably wear a lot of hats. You’re a project manager, delegator, spokesperson, and most importantly, a coach. But the problem is that no one ever tells you how to be an effective coach, or even what that means. Are you supposed to act like a sports coach? A therapist? Perform some bizarre (and arcane) HR ritual?

The answer is none of the above. In fact, it’s about making one tiny change to your behavior, one that will bring a significant impact. Being a coach is about being more curious, and being slow to give advice and take action.

Now, I’m not saying that that coaching never involves giving advice. At times, your job is to provide an answer. If the building’s burning down–for example–you don’t want to have a conversation about how people are feeling about the smell of smoke.

But the truth is, most of us are advice-giving maniacs. We don’t listen as much as we should. Think about the last time someone talked to you about a complex issue. Did you listen intently? Chances are, after about three sentences, you formed some initial thoughts, and you probably jumped in to voice them.

Start with a simple question

It’s a simple concept to understand, yet it’s difficult to implement. According to a 2015 survey, on average GPs interrupt their patients after 18 seconds. I wouldn’t bet on managers doing much better.

Being curious involves asking questions–and they don’t have to be complicated ones. Start with, “And what else?”

Yes, it’s hardly the probing, introspective coaching question you expect. But it works really well.

It is based on the understanding that the first answer someone gives is never their only answer, and it’s rarely their best. Far too many of us spring into action before we’ve uncovered the truth. We don’t probe a little further to dig beyond their half-baked thought or the first thing that’s come to their minds. “And what else?” allow us to push a little deeper.

This question works so well is that it’s a self-management tool. You know you have an ingrained habit of leaping in with advice, solutions, opinions, and ideas. We all do. “And what else?” is one of the most effective ways of taming your inner advice monster and staying curious a little bit longer.

How to ask the question effectively

This question is powerful because it’s almost always usable. You can generally get more bang for your buck by following up with “And what else?”

Of course, tone matters. You can ask this question from a place of boredom, frustration, disinterest, or disdain, and it’s unlikely to be effective. But when you ask from a place of genuine curiosity, the other person won’t even register that it’s a question. They might not even click that you’ve asked this before.

If you feel like you need to move things forward or end the conversation, ask them, “is there anything else?” This indicates that you’re prepared to end the discussion, but you’re giving room for anything important that they might still want to bring up. It’s an emotionally intelligent way to send a signal that you’re about to close the conversation.

Coaching is an essential leadership behavior. Curiosity is the driving force in being more coach-like. Questions fuel curiosity. If you’re looking for just one question to add right now to your leadership repertoire, “And what else?” might be it. Remember, as a leader or manager, your job is not to have all the answers–but to guide your employees to come up with the right ones.

5 leadership lessons from FDR that inspire reinvention during times of change

When the U.S. stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, shock waves collapsed markets worldwide. Three years later, 15 million Americans were out of work — one out of every three people. Capital investment dropped from $10 billion in 1929 to $1 billion in 1932. Farm income plummeted 60 percent. Worldwide gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 15 percent.

The following spring, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was sworn in as the 32nd president of the United States. He took urgent and bold action to save American from ruin. “The country needs — and, unless I mistake its temper — the country demands bold, persistent experimentation,” he told the American people. “It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

More than 80 years later, the lessons of FDR’s leadership are still relevant for business leaders — especially those leading a company through difficult times. These five leadership lessons from FDR’s presidential campaign, early days in office and tenure as president have stood the test of time.

Leadership lesson 1: Provide an inspiring vision that gets people excited.

During his run for office, FDR campaigned on a “New Deal” for America. While he was short on specifics, his energy, charisma and message of hope resonated. “Happy Days Are Here Again” played at all FDR events. Campaign Manager Jim Farley observed that Roosevelt’s “ability to discuss political issues in short, simple sentences made a powerful impression. There was a touch of destiny about the man.”

Americans thought so too, and elected FDR in a landslide.

Leadership lesson 2: Lead with optimism, no matter how dire the situation may be.

The day before FDR’s inauguration, banks in 32 of the country’s 48 states had closed. Deposits evaporated. Money was useless anyway — there was nothing to buy.

On Saturday, March 4, 1933, gloomy skies matched the nation’s mood at FDR’s inauguration. Yet he radiated optimism. In his address, FDR proclaimed he would speak with “candor,” lead with “vigor,” and act “boldly.” He assured Americans of his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” As he spoke, sunshine emerged.

Leadership lesson 3: Work collaboratively with your colleagues to develop a plan for change.

While thousands attended inaugural celebrations, FDR invited his cabinet to the White House where Justice Benjamin Cardozo swore them in as a group — a first. Roosevelt had assembled his team in February, a bipartisan mix of conservatives and liberals, including the first female Secretary of Labor. FDR joked the Saturday swearing-in meant they would “receive an extra day’s pay.” It signaled his presidency would start with action, not ceremony.

That night, FDR stayed up past 1 a.m. with longtime aide Louis Howe, discussing the plan that would become known as the “Hundred Days,” a bold experiment in governing that set the bar for new leaders. Henceforth, the first hundred days for executives in all types of institutions would become the symbolic benchmark for measuring their early successes.

Leadership lesson 4: Take bold action and demonstrate courage.

FDR’s approach was informed by three elder statesmen: Antioch College professor Arthur Morgan inspired FDR to think big. Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell encouraged FDR to take and hold the initiative with Congress. Retired Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes told FDR, “You are in a war, Mr. President, and in a war there is only one rule, ‘Form your battalion and fight!’”

On Sunday, March 5, 1933, FDR met with Congressional leaders to enlist their support, and then issued a proclamation closing the country’s banks. The next day he met with U.S. governors to explain his decision. He received a standing ovation.

That Thursday, Congress convened in a 100-day special session. In just seven hours, legislation safeguarding banks and depositors was introduced, passed and signed. FDR’s first days in office set the tone for his presidency and were characterized by speed, confidence and a willingness to try new things. “There are many ways of going forward,” he noted, “but only one way of standing still.”

Leadership lesson 5: Make decisions that benefit the greater good.

During the Hundred Days, FDR introduced — and Congress established — dozens of agencies that stimulated farm programs, initiated conservation programs, outlawed child labor and lifted wages. Timing helped. With war looming, American industry awoke — providing new jobs and what Roosevelt called the “great arsenal of democracy.”

FDR created opportunities to get Americans working and feeling good about themselves. Though crippled by polio and unable to walk since age 39, FDR exhibited the courage, vision and willpower to get America back on her feet.

5 Reasons Executives Wait Too Long to Fire Their Direct Reports

Of all the difficult decisions executives face, few torment them more than having to fire someone on their own team. High-risk innovations, layoffs, and even major acquisitions don’t cause as much angst as removing someone from a senior position.

Recently, a client of mine — a division president of a large manufacturing company, let’s call him Kyle — struggled with this problem. One of his VPs of sales had missed his targets for the third consecutive quarter. The VP had been given a coach and additional resources to help him succeed, but was still unable to turn around his performance, causing significant employee turnover in his region. Removing him seemed like the obvious choice, but Kyle was tortured by the thought. “I want to give him one more chance,” he said. “Is it wrong to want to give him every possible chance to make it?”

Kyle, who did not routinely struggle with difficult decisions and leads one of the highest performing divisions in his company, is not alone. Firing someone is a decision rife with complexity and personal angst. But avoiding it only prolongs the inevitable and increases the consequences of keeping a poor performer at the top.

In my work with senior executives, I’ve observed five things that often get in the way of making the necessary call. Recognizing and correcting these behaviors early on can help you overcome the fear of firing an under performing leader and prevent the damage that may occur if you don’t.

A determination to fix others. Well-intended leaders often feel genuine commitment to helping direct reports succeed. The importance of coaching and feedback has been drilled into them. But when your commitment to someone’s growth exceeds their ability to grow, you are unwittingly contributing to their failure.

Kyle offers a case in point. He set out to help his VP of sales turn things around and he wasn’t going to stop until he did. He saw the VP’s under performance as his own personal failure to effectively develop younger executives. In reality, however, the VP was years away from thriving in a role with such high demands. While Kyle’s desire for people to succeed was admirable, his belief that he could, and should, make that happen was a form of arrogance.

This is not uncommon. Another HR executive I worked with prided herself in developing leaders others had given up on. She invested in coaching, training, and created “developmental assignments” for struggling leaders. She sometimes succeeded at uncovering great talent that others had prematurely discarded. But too often, under the guise of creating a culture that prized employee development, she set people up to fail by keeping them in roles they’d long proven to be incapable of handling.

Be careful not to confuse your commitment to employee development with masked “savior syndrome.” Playing the hero could come at the expense of someone else’s career.

Fear of delivering a fatal blow. One of the unique complexities of removing an executive from their role is the damaging consequences it may have on their career. Falling from a high perch can make a leader damaged goods when pursuing future opportunities. As a result, bosses may experience guilt when it comes time to let that leader go — guilt for not preparing that person to take on their current role or guilt about the struggle that person might go through when looking for a new job. But you can do much greater damage to their career and reputation by allowing them to publicly struggle. A better solution is to have an honest conversation with that person and offer support.

In Kyle’s case, a conversation with the VP of sales about his poor performance and his future aspirations enabled Kyle to see that not succeeding in this role didn’t deem the VP unemployable or untalented. While disappointed, the VP knew he wasn’t delivering, and was relieved to acknowledge it. He’d been thinking about other roles in the organization for which he was better suited. Kyle saw that he could help his VP look for more suitable opportunities within the broader organization or provide a reference for him at another company.

Other leaders can follow this example. Feeling guilty about a potential outcome that you have no control over helps no one. In fact, 68% of executives who are fired find a new job within six months.

Ego. Firing executives is especially difficult when you hired them in the first place. The decision to hire someone is a rejection of your leadership and it’s natural to fear what people will think when you need to go back on that decision and remove them. But no one is infallible to making a bad hire, and no one has complete control over whether someone succeeds. You should do everything you can to hire with rigorous standards and onboard effectively. You should not become so attached to your own hires that you lose objectivity.

In the example of Kyle, he had promoted his VP of sales two years earlier and he feared his judgment would be called into question if the VP failed. Though the VP excelled during his first year, further solidifying Kyle’s decision, market headwinds and major competition made his second year difficult. The VP was simply too inexperienced.

It’s common for leaders to be blind to the shortfalls of those they hire. But Kyle needed to see that, while the decision to promote his VP was a calculated risk, the conditions of that risk had evolved and keeping the VP in his current role could have serious consequences for the whole division.

Public visibility. When an executive is fired, the world inside and outside the organization sees it. Irrationally or not, people speculate about what’s going on. While you can’t control what people think about a major decision, you can minimize unfounded conjecture by being intentional in your communications about the exit and why it happened. Internally, try to normalize difficult exits by letting your team know that moving on is a part of business and be gracious to those who are leaving. Externally, focus on looking forward. Publicly acknowledge the aspirations your organization aims to reach or the challenges you are working to address. Remember, it looks far weaker to ignore poor performance than it does to address it.

Kyle feared that his boss, the CEO (for whom he was a succession candidate) and other key stakeholders outside the company, might conclude his division was unstable or his team was weak once he fired his VP of sales. And for the VP himself, it could mean public embarrassment and loss of respect. What Kyle needed to consider was what people might conclude if he didn’t remove the under performing sales VP. It is far more cruel to leave a leader publicly poundering, particularly in Kyle’s case when the VP’s under performance drove other talented employees out the door.

Perceived indispensability. Often, executives fear the disruption a departing executive might cause. Certain it will result in irreparable damage, they convince themselves and others of the executive’s indispensability to justify tolerating a poor performance or bad behavior. I have seen this fear used as an excuse for not firing under performing executives many times, but I have never seen this fear materialize. With a carefully choreographed transition plan, it’s possible for an office to return to normal quickly. Important people, like top customers, understand that things change. What they want to know is how you’re going to take care of them, regardless of who does it.

One of my clients once put up with horrific behavior from their sales executive because they “couldn’t possibly risk” losing his customer relationships. Externally, the sales exec was highly regarded. He spoke at conferences alongside top customers and was regularly invited to exclusive gatherings of prominent buyers. Internally, he was loathed for what he got away with: never attending meetings, refusing to learn new technologies, and consistently violating travel expense guidelines. Eventually, a newly appointed leader had the courage to clean house and replace him, and those who followed in his example, with fresh talent. They didn’t lose one customer in the wake of these exits, and within a year, top-line revenue had grown by 35%.

The complicated decision to remove a senior leader from their job should never be taken lightly. And while there’s no way to avoid some fallout from such a choice, the decision to ignore irreversible poor performance is a choice with far greater consequences. By acknowledging the above behaviors, and practicing ways to overcome them, you will not only help your organization move forward, but also the employees you’re afraid to let go.

5 Little Words That Will Make You a Much Better Leader

Author Simon Sinek offers a dead simple mantra to instantly level up your leadership.

We all know great leaders excel at articulating their vision. What’s less often appreciated is that listening is an equally valuable leadership skill.

Why? First, because feeling truly heard is deeply empowering for a team. As Yale business professor Marissa Kind has explained, “when employees feel listened to, they are less likely to feel emotionally exhausted and less likely to quit their job. They are also more likely to trust — and like — their bosses, and feel committed to them.”

Second, because you need to actually hear and process information about the world to be able to set a sensible vision in the first place. Listening well makes you smarter.

So how do you get better at this essential but under sung skill? There are a million suggestions out there, but perhaps one of the most powerful is also the simplest. It comes from author Simon Sinek and consists of all of five little words.

“Be the last to speak.”

In the quick snippet of a talk below, Sinek offers a profound leadership lesson that’s dead easy to remember: be the last to speak.

“I see it in boardrooms every day of the week, even people who consider themselves to be good leaders, who may actually be decent leaders, will walk into the room and say, ‘Here’s the problem. Here’s what I think, but I’m interested in your opinion. Let’s go around the room.’ It’s too late,” he warns.

Instead, cultivate the skill to hold you tongue until everyone else has weighed in. Not only does this allow other participants to feel heard, but it gives you an obvious advantage: you get to hear everyone else’s brilliant ideas before you contribute your own. Of course, you’ll say smarter things compared to when you first walked in itching to put your ideas instantly out there.

The logic behind the idea is unassailable, but actually putting this wisdom into practice can be harder than it sounds, Sinek warns. We’re all dying to jump in and prove our brilliance or correct others’ errors, after all. But if you can manage to just keep your mouth shut, you’ll instantly level up your leadership.

Here’s Sinek’s complete advice if you want to check out the complete two-minute clip.




After a busy 2018 of Vistage workshops, keynotes and client engagements across the country and around the world, I thought this was a good time to reflect on the Trends from the Trenches I’ve been hearing and seeing from CEOs and their key executives—and from their clients, college students and customers. What are they seeing? What are the major trends they are confronting as they wrap up 2018 and begin to plan for the new year? Well, some are rather disturbing. Others are very encouraging. Here are ten that are worth sharing. But please, don’t get change fatigue. The pace and path of change are not slowing down. I invite you to enjoy the journey and learn how to “see, feel and think” in new ways. Here we go…

Pay Attention to these Top 10 Trends

George Washington vs. Workplace Drama

10 Ways to Dial It Down from America’s Founding CEO

When George Washington was a teenager, he both copied out by hand and tweaked 110 “rules of civility and decent behavior.” These rules had been compiled by Jesuits in late 16th century France and made the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.

Manners were up in the air in this new world when Washington put quill to paper. You see, manners were designed for men of high standing, determined by birth. “Court”-liness literally referred to a king or nobleman’s court and how one should act in that context.

What was expected of most commoners was not really manners but deference. You can see this in some of the rules that Washington copied out.

For instance, rule 26 began, “In pulling off your hat to persons of distinction, as noblemen, justices, churchmen, and company, make a reverence bowing more or less according to the custom of the better bred…”

Manners for everyone

But you can also see a break from hard caste in the very next sentence with “but among your equals…” Washington would oversee the rise of a new nation in which most men were equals (with the unforgettable exception of slaves).

These new people believed that the democratization of power called for not less but more widespread observance of manners. Washington sought to model these manners in his life, on the battlefield, as a farmer-businessman, and as president.

10 rules plus one more

Many of Washington’s rules are still relevant today. For this issue on how to motivate your team in the workplace, I offer a curated list of 10 rules on how to behave that will help today’s leaders to command respect, capped off with a bonus rule that we all would do well to head.

  1. Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.
  2. Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.
  3. Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.
  4. When a man does all he can, though it succeed not well, blame not him that did it.
  5. Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.
  6. Speak not injurious words neither in jest nor earnest; scoff at none although they give occasion.
  7. Be not forward but friendly and courteous, the first to salute, hear, and answer; and be not pensive when it’s a time to converse.
  8. Detract not from others, neither be excessive in commanding.
  9. When your superiors talk to anybody neither speak nor laugh.
  10. Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust.

Bonus: Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

Help Your Team Do More Without Burning Out

As we begin our coaching session, Nick is fired up. He radiates energy, his eyes are beaming with determination, and he never really comes to a full rest. He speaks passionately of a new initiative he is spearheading, taking on the looming threats from Silicon Valley, and rethinking his company’s business model completely.

I recognize this behavior in Nick, having seen it many times over the years since he was first singled out as a high-potential talent. “Restless and relentless” have been his trademarks as he has risen through the ranks and aced one challenge after another.

But this time, I notice something new. Beneath the usual can-do attitude there is an inkling of something else: Mild disorientation and even signs of exhaustion. “It’s like sprinting all you can, and then you turn a corner and find that you are actually setting out on a marathon,” he remarks at one point. And as we speak, this sneaking feeling of not keeping pace turns out to be Nick’s true concern: Is he about to lose his magic touch and burn out?

Nick is not alone.

In a psychologist’s practice, common themes rise and wane across a cohort of clients. Right now, I see a surge of concern about speed: getting ahead and staying ahead. More clients use similar metaphors about “running to stand still” or feeling “caught on a track.” Invariably, their first response is to speed up and run faster.

But the impulse to simply run faster to escape friction is obviously of no use for the long haul of a life-long career. In fact, our immediate behavioral response to friction shares one feature with much of the general advice about speeding up: It is plainly counterproductive and leads to burn out rather than break out.

To add insult to injury, the way to wrestle effectively with the challenge of sustainable speed is somewhat counterintuitive and even disconcerting — especially to high-performing leaders who have successfully relied on their personal drive to make results.

From ego-drive to co-drive

The key to speeding up without burning up is a concept I call co-drive. Sustainable speed does not come from ego-drive, that is, your own personal performance or energy level, but rather from a different approach to engaging with people around you.

Rather than running faster, Nick needs to make different moves altogether. First, he must let go of his obsession with his own development, his own needs, his own performance, and his own pace. Second, he must start obsessing about other people.

It may seem illogical, but the leap to a new growth curve begins by realizing that the recipe is not to take on more and speed up, but to slow down and let go of some of the issues that have been your driving forces: power, prestige, responsibility, recognition, or face-time.

The talent phase in our careers tends to be profoundly self-centered, even narcissistic. If you need to move on from the first growth curve in your career, and want to take on more challenges, you need to exchange ego-drive for co-drive.

Co-drive requires that you momentarily forget yourself — and instead focus on others. The shift involves an understanding that you have already proven yourself. At this stage, the point is to help those around you perform. The change to co-drive involves moving from a stage of grabbing territory to a stage characterized by letting go of command and control.

Beyond teamwork

So here is what Nick needs to do: Rather than striving to be energetic, he should aim to be energizing. Rather than setting the pace, he should aspire to make teams self-propelling. Instead of delegating tasks, he should learn to lead by congregating.

Be energizing, not energetic. Here is the paradox: You can actually speed things up by slowing down. There is no doubt that being energetic is contagious and therefore a short-term source of momentum. But if you lead by example all the time, your batteries will eventually run dry. You risk being drained at the very point when your leadership is needed the most. Conveying a sense of urgency is useful, but an excess of urgency suffocates team development and reflection at the very point it is needed. “Code red” should be left for real emergencies.

Nick has always had a weak point for people, who, like himself, are high-energy and get things done. These “Energizer Bunnies” are his star players. However, with the co-drive mindset, Nick needs to widen his sights and recognize and reward people who are good at energizing others. Energizing behavior is unselfish, generous, and praises, not just progress, but personality too.

Seek self-propulsion, not pace-setting. If you lead by beating the drum, setting tight deadlines, and burning the midnight oil, your team becomes overly dependent on your presence. Sustainable speed is achievable only if the team propels itself without your presence. Jim Collins wrote that great leaders don’t waste time telling time, they build clocks.

Self-propulsion comes from letting go of control, resisting the urge to make detailed corrections and allowing for informal leadership to flourish. As Ron Heifetz advocates, true leadership is realizing that you need to “give the work back” instead of being the hero who sweeps in and solves everybody’s problems.

In Nick’s case, he should resist the urge to take the driver’s seat and allow himself to take the passenger seat instead. Leading from the side-line, not the front line will change his perspective. Instead of looking at the road and navigating traffic, he is able to monitor how the driver is actually doing and what needs to improve. In his mind, he should fire himself — momentarily — and see what happens to his team when he sets them free and asks them to take charge instead of looking to him for answers, deadlines and decisions.

Congregate, don’t delegate. From very early on in our careers we learn that in order to solve big, complex issues fast, we must decompose the problem into smaller parts and delegate these pieces to specialists to get leverage. Surely, you can make good music by patching together the tracks of individual recordings. But true masterpieces come alive when the orchestra plays together.

One example is the so-called Trauma Center approach. When a trauma patient comes in, all specialists are in the room assessing the patient at the same time, but constantly allowing the most skilled specialist to take the lead (and talk), not the designated leader.

The most well-run trauma teams I have observed know when to jump in and when to step back. To put it simply, it’s no use working on a finger if the heart is failing. A trauma team relies on trust and patience. They trust each other’s specialty and work very symmetrically. There is a very strong “no one leaves before we are done” mentality in those teams.

To Nick, this may sound like good old teamwork, and while Nick is certainly driven by a good measure of self-interest, he is also an accomplished leader who masters the dynamics of teamwork: Having shared goals, assigning roles and responsibilities, and investing in the team.

But there is more to co-drive than plain teamwork. It is about re-working the collaborative process it self. Rather than cubicled problem-solving, sustainable speed requires a shift toward more collective creation: Gathering often, engaging issues openly and inviting others to improve on your own thoughts and decisions.

Co-drive requires a different mindset. And it goes beyond team-work. Adam Grant from Wharton has done research demonstrating that a generous and giving attitude towards others enhances team performance.

Try, for instance, to take a look at your own behavior yesterday and gauge the balance between giving and taking. Givers offer assistance, share knowledge, and focus on introducing and helping others. Takers attempt to get other people to do something that will ultimately benefit them, while they act as gatekeepers of their own knowledge.

Grant’s conclusion is clear: a willingness to help others is not just the essence of effective cooperation and innovation — it is also the key to accelerating your own performance.

Maturity and Caliber

Headhunters call this change of perspective from ego-drive to co-drive “executive maturity.” The mature leader’s burning question is: how do I help others perform?

The developmental psychologist Robert Kegan calls the leap a subject/object shift. You progress from seeing and navigating in the world on the basis of your own needs and motives — and allowing yourself to be governed by these needs — to seeing yourself from an external position as a part of an organism.

It requires a certain caliber and self-assuredness to act in this way. The ability to put your ego on hold may require a great effort. It might be worthwhile reminding yourself of the words of the American President Harry Truman: “It is incredible what you can achieve, if you don’t care who gets the credit.” If you succeed in making this shift, and thereby improving the skills of the people around you, then you will also experience a greater degree of freedom.

So next time you are feeling stuck, don’t ask: “How can I push harder?” but “Where can I let go?”

by Merete Wendell-Wedellsborg

Understanding Why We Overreact at Work

Dirk was puzzled about what just happened. To the best of his knowledge, he had only asked Jerome (a recently hired senior executive), to deal more proactively with some of the company’s clients. But Jerome had suddenly become angry, defensive, and stalked out of his office.

Jerome, for his part, was also confused. Why had he reacted like that? Usually he was quite in control of his emotions. Somehow, however, Dirk’s comments had hurt, and he had reacted without thinking.

We can understand something of what happened between Jerome and Dirk by understanding that the human brain is wired for pattern recognition. In short, our brain acts as a sort of pattern matching and pattern generating machine, and when things aren’t already in patterns it tries to make sense of what it sees by fitting it into familiar shapes. Our previous experiences are used as a shortcut for understanding and interpreting new information. It makes sense: if a match can be found between new and old data, then our stored knowledge can be applied to the new situation at much less “cost” than our brain having to figure it all out again.

The same kind of sense-making process is at play when it comes to our relationships with other people. Based on our existing “relationship data bank,” our brain unconsciously organizes new experiences in such a way that they fit the relationships we are familiar with. Thus, when we are trying to understand someone we don’t know well, our brain tricks us into assuming that this person will behave similarly to a previously experienced other. We feel good about a person who remind us of loved ones, while alarm bells will go off in our brains if that person reminds us of previous acquaintances who caused us pain. In this way, we often attribute to people characteristics that aren’t really there, automatically and without thinking. And we tend to act towards people in the present based on our experiences from the past.

After calming down, Jerome realized that Dirk reminded him of his overbearing father. When Dirk leaned over his big wooden desk and told Jerome to be more proactive, it reminded Jerome of how his father used to lean over the kitchen table and ask why he wasn’t more of a go-getter. His over-reaction was almost exactly what he had done in fights with his father, too – getting angry and storming away.

This “erroneous” interpersonal connection was first described by Sigmund Freud in his famous Dora case under the name of transference. Trying to understand this unsuccessful therapeutic intervention with his patient, he came to realize that its reason lay in his failure to recognize the transfer of emotions held by Dora for a person from her past onto Freud himself.

Given that the original sources of our transference reactions are important people of our early years, such as parents and other caregivers, as well as siblings and close family members, transference reactions tend to be directed toward people who perform roles similar to those originally carried out by these people. Thus, doctors, teachers, celebrities, and authority figures in general are particularly prone to acti­vate transference responses.

It is transference when you fall in love at first sight with the person who reminds you of someone with whom you had once a passionate love affair. It is transference when you trust someone instantly, without realizing that this person reminds you of a trusted figure from the past. It is transference if you are enthralled by a boss who resembles an encouraging and supportive grandmother. It’s also transference if you take an immediate dislike to someone who reminds you of a negative influence in your past.

If you have ever had an emotional reaction to someone which was clearly too intense for the situation, you have most likely experienced a transference reaction. As transference reactions are essentially a reliving of the past, the reaction they trigger is often inappropriate, and even bizarre, in the context of the present.

Transference reactions are not troublesome in moderation. They can create problems, however, when our reactions become excessive, and when they prevent us from building an appropriate relationship with someone who can have a strong influence on our lives. And when we are susceptible to repetitive, excessive transference reactions, we are most likely troubled by some deeper issues or unfinished business from the past.

While our unconscious transference reactions can easily lead us astray, creating awareness of them can help us to become more conscious of our hidden motivations and learn to avoid repeating mistakes and thus to be more in control of our lives.

Reflect on patterns of behavior that have gotten you into trouble, and where you feel that your judgment has repeatedly been poor. To help you in analyzing what has happened, ask yourself the following questions: What kinds of people make me feel anxious, angry, sad, or happy? What do I like or dislike about them? And who in my past do these people remind me off? How are they similar or different? Discovering the ghosts of past is the first step towards not letting them interfere with life in the present.

Dealing with transference issues on your own can be challenging. You might consider enlisting a therapist or coach. With their help, past conflicts can be worked through and left where they belong — in the past.

Allow for Pushback

When You Want Your Team to Disagree

We’ve all been there: a project manager or supervisor asks you to do something you disagree with for some reason. Perhaps the assignment in question takes up too much time or maybe the proposed strategy doesn’t work with the overall mission. In any scenario where employee and supervisor are in disagreement, the situation is ripe for office drama.

As an employee, this can cause a lot of anxiety. No one likes having to step out of their comfort zone to challenge someone who is in a position of power. When your livelihood depends on your paycheck, sometimes it’s easier to just sit back and go with the flow even when you vehemently disagree with something, for good reasons.

The other side of the desk

For the supervisor, these types of disagreements present a whole different set of obstacles and opportunities. Being a leader means being being confident in your ability to make decisions for your entire team. But this responsibility does not mean that every choice you make is perfect.

In fact, if you are a good leader with hiring authority, you will have assembled a team where each individual was carefully selected based on their own unique skill set. Since each person has something different to bring to the table, it would be foolish for a supervisor to refuse to acknowledge the opinions of their employees.

After all, even if you are at the head of a ship or department, you cannot possibly know everything. It is for that very reason that leaders have staffed their teams with able workers.

How can leaders allow for pushback?

It is absolutely important that employees respect their supervisors. Yet fostering a collaborative environment where everyone has a voice doesn’t have to mean losing respect. As with most things in life, there is a right and a wrong way to go about it.

There is a major difference between constructive criticism and disrespect. If, for example, an employee responds to a disagreement by simply shouting, “you’re wrong,” this obviously does not help create a an environment of respect.

If instead, disagreements and concerns are met with substantial evidence as to why this plan may not work, then any leader would be wise to consider what is being said. An employee may say, “I really appreciate your ideas, but I do have some data that possibly contradicts with the goals of this project.” This is much easier to work with.

As a leader, paying attention to how concerns are worded will help you gauge how to respond. A hostile employee may be carrying baggage from elsewhere into your meeting, meaning you may have to read between the lines of what is being said in order to get to the bottom of their concerns.

But employees who come prepared and armed with helpful data should absolutely be taken seriously and listened to by superiors. In fact, you may be surprised at how much insight they are able to offer.

What pushback makes possible

No one likes being met with resistance, but sometimes it is necessary both for the leader’s professional growth, as well as the employee’s.

Think of it this way: You hired each person for a reason. Allowing them to voice respectful dissent shows that you trust your own hiring decision. If you let your employee voice their concerns, it helps to foster an environment where passive agreement is discouraged.

You are saying, It is okay not to agree with everything. That is a good thing because friction during the collaborative process forces more creative thinking and better end results. A team full of “yes men” accomplishes very little that is also new. A team of “let’s think this through” men will bring new ideas to the table.

Take a beat

Disagreements do not have to result in office gossip and they most certainly do not have to result in a sit-down with human resources. More often than not, those things represent a failure to truly communicate.

So when you find yourself in disagreement with someone you work with, especially one of your employees, maybe take a beat. In that time, think of the best way to allow for pushback in the spirit of collaboration. If you can turn this into an opportunity to boost mutual respect, there’s no telling how much you can accomplish together.

by Brittany Hunter