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We are sense-making creatures. Our brains are wired to help us navigate our lives by creating stories to make sense of our world, our day-to-day experiences. Having self-awareness to see when you are telling yourself a story is powerful. Even more powerful is having a simple tool to help you challenge those stories to assess their level of “truthfulness.”

In today’s post (Challenging Your Stories, Part II of II), I’ll provide an example of using the approach that I shared in last month’s blog (Part I).

How We Operate – The Ladder of Inference
In last month’s blog, I highlighted that we each “climb” our own unique Ladder of Inference (inside our heads) which is how we generate our stories (i.e., assumptions, conclusions, beliefs, etc.). This happens so seamlessly that we tend to operate as if our stories are facts, or what I call capital T Truth. In fact, these stories are our truth, with a small t.

A Simple Example
I assume you can relate to this one. You’ve sent an email to somebody (Jack) and did not receive a response. Based on this you know that Jack is mad at you. It’s the Truth. Hence, you act accordingly. You start to avoid Jack in order to ensure you don’t have an unpleasant encounter. After all, he is mad at you.

Challenging Your Stories – An Example
Last month we introduced a set of five questions that can be used to challenge your stories. Let’s apply those five questions to the example above. Your story is ‘that Jack is mad at you’ (because he did not respond to your email). (Below represents a conversation you have with yourself.)

Question #1 – “How do you know that to be true?” (That Jack is mad at you.)
“In the past, when he didn’t respond to some of my other emails, it turned out that he was mad at me.”

Question #2 – “What other valid stories could one create based upon the same observable data?” (Note, the observable data here is that Jack did not respond to your email.)
“Sure, there are lots of reasons why he may not be responding to my emails. He might be super busy with other priorities. Or maybe something difficult is going on in his personal life. Hmmm. I guess I can’t really be certain that he’s mad at me.”
By identifying other possible stories, your brain is loosening its grip on your story about Jack being mad at you. Your brain starts to allow that ‘maybe this isn’t the Truth (with a capital T).’

Question #3 – “How might you act differently if you didn’t believe this story to be true?”
“Firstly, I wouldn’t be trying to avoid Jack. Secondly, I would be more proactive in getting his input either by resending those emails and/or stopping by his desk.”

Question #4 – Do you think it would serve you to act in that way?”
“YES! I need his input to move forward on an important project.”

Question #5 – How will you experiment with acting differently?”
“I’ll just do it. I’ll stop avoiding Jack. If I see him, I will ask him about it. And I will resend the email. Maybe I’ll preface it with a sentence asking if he has the time to get to this by tomorrow, or if not what quick advice might he have for me to push this forward.”

A Powerful Technique
I hope you can see how powerful these questions can be. You can imagine that this self-talk “conversation” only takes a few minutes. Of course, it is not always this easy…but often it is!

Let’s look at this situation from a more distanced viewpoint. You were stuck on some things due to the situation with Jack. If asked why you were stuck you would be likely to say something like “It’s pretty hard to make any progress when Jack is mad at me.” As we’ve shown, it was NOT Jack being mad at you that had you stuck; It was your story that Jack was mad at you that was getting in your way.

Try This Out!
Think about your own current situation. Where do you have assumptions (stories) at play that may be blocking your forward progress? Try challenging one of these stories using the five questions above and see what action / next step emerges to propel you forward.

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We are sense-making creatures. Our brains are wired to help us navigate our lives by creating stories to make sense of our world and our day-to-day experiences. The self-awareness to see when you are telling yourself a story is powerful. It’s even more powerful to have a simple tool to help you challenge those stories and assess their level of “truthfulness.”

Today I’ll share one tool – a set of questions – that you can use to challenge your stories.

How We Operate – The Ladder of Inference
I’ve written about the Ladder of Inference before. We all take in ‘data’ and experiences, much like a video-recorder would capture them. We then respond / act based upon that input. However, a lot takes place in our brains (sometimes in the blink of an eye), in between the stimulus and response.

In that blink of an eye, we add meaning (assumptions, conclusions, opinions, beliefs) to the observable data, based on our own Ladder of Inference. These are our stories. This Ladder – and our stories – are 100% unique to each of us as they are built upon our own life experiences.

We tend to operate as if our stories are facts, or what I call “capital T” Truth. But these stories are often just our truth, with a small t.

Quick Example
I assume you can relate to this one. You’ve sent an email to somebody (Jack) and did not receive a response. Based on this you know that Jack is mad at you. It’s the Truth. Hence, you act accordingly. You start to avoid Jack in order to ensure you don’t have an unpleasant encounter. After all, he is mad at you.

Challenging Your Stories
Once you start to be more aware of your stories – and see them as stories rather than the Truth – the door opens to begin to question or challenge them.

This will allow you to more objectively evaluate just how “truthful” your stories are. By stepping back, you often find that your assumptions aren’t the Truth (with a capital T). This realization can allow you to experiment with how you might respond or act differently to whatever situation you are faced with.

Here’s a go-to list of effective questions that you can use to challenge your stories:

1. How do you know that (story – whatever you are thinking) to be true?

2. What other valid stories are possible based upon the same observable data?

3. How might you act differently if you didn’t believe that story to be true?

4. Do you think it would serve you to act that new way?

5. How will you experiment with acting differently?

For question #2, the goal is NOT to create a laundry list, but to come up with at least one or two. Just knowing that there are other possible stories loosens your brain’s “lock” on your story being the Truth (capital T).

In question #5, the word “experiment” is important. If you think about a scientist conducting an experiment, there is never a “failure.” Although the outcome may not be what was intended or hoped for, the experiment reveals information / an outcome. In this spirit of experimentation, it can be easier to go for it and to review what happened with a neutral non-judgmental stance.

Question #5 leads to an action. Walking through the five questions should always result in an action that moves you forward.

Summary
We are wired to create stories to make sense of our experiences. Our own Ladder of Inference is generating stories (assumptions, opinions, conclusions, beliefs) on an ongoing basis.

Being able to see when you are treating your stories, your truth, as the Truth, is great self-awareness. Taking the next step to challenge those stories, to assess their level of truthfulness, can serve you.

In my next blog, I will share a detailed example of how to use the five challenging questions I introduced above.

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Do you know which of your behaviors most get in your way? Do you get help from your trusted friends and colleagues in your personal and professional development? The Johari Window is a model that illustrates, in a very simple manner, how you can leverage the power of others to accelerate your own growth and development. Let’s see how it can help you.

The Johari Window

The Johari window (image above) was created in 1955 by two American psychologists, Joseph Luft (1916–2014) and Harrington Ingham (1914–1995), to help people better understand their relationship with self and others. It’s a really useful framework to reflect on how you see yourself vs. how others see you. Let’s take a look at its four quadrants:

(1) ‘Public’ / ‘Open’: things about you that both you and others are aware of.

(2) ‘Hidden’ / ‘Façade’: things about you that you are aware of, but others are not.

(3) ‘Blind Spot’: information about you that you are not aware of, but others are.

(4) ‘Unknown’: information about you that neither you nor others are aware of.

Finding Areas for Improvement

Are you familiar with the concept of a blind spot when driving? These are certain places around our vehicle that are not visible to us in our mirrors at a given moment in time. Awareness of blind spots is key to being a better driver because we will look more intentionally to see what’s there (e.g., before switching lanes).

Like the cars, we as humans also have blind spots regarding our own behaviors. Many of us operate, however, without wanting to “see what’s there.”


To accelerate your personal development, it will serve you to proactively identify those self-limiting behaviors that are in your blind spot.


To identify these self-limiting behaviors is actually quite simple, but not always easy. Start by soliciting feedback from individuals whom you trust and will be honest with you. These should be people who care about you and your growth and who see you in action on a regular basis and hence have a valid perspective on how you “show up.”

Here are a couple of ways to approach these individuals (your ‘support team’):

  • Ask an open-ended question such as “I’m curious. If you were to encourage me to shift one thing about my behavior so that I could be more successful, what would that be?” Give people time to consider this instead of expecting an on-the-spot response.
  • Show them a list of common self-limiting behaviors (here’s a list from my prior blog) and ask them to highlight any that they see in you.

In seeking out this information, you are effectively “expanding” your Public quadrant while shrinking the size of your Blind Spot quadrant (see image below). This increases your awareness of how you are perceived by others.

 

 

Working on Your Areas for Improvement

The Johari Window framework not only helps you to identify behaviors to work on, as described above. It also illustrates a simple approach to working on those behaviors.


You can further accelerate your personal development by disclosing what you are working on with trusted individuals that can provide you with feedback on how you are doing.


For example, let’s say you’ve learned of a blind spot around how much “space” you take up in meetings. You decide you want to work on speaking less and listening more. But don’t stop there. Tell a few close colleagues about this, and ask them to observe you and give you feedback. Their help will make it more likely that you’ll shift your behavior…and faster.

In this instance, you are effectively expanding your Public quadrant and shrinking your Hidden quadrant. (See image below.)

 

 

Use Your Public Quadrant to Support Your Personal and Professional Growth

The size of the Public quadrant in your Johari Window is owned by you. As we just discovered:

  • You can expand the Public quadrant horizontally, reducing your Blind Spot quadrant, by soliciting feedback from people you trust.
  • You can expand your Public quadrant vertically, reducing your Hidden quadrant, by disclosing your development areas to trusted individuals.

It’s your career. It’s your life. Be discerning on when/how to leverage the power of others to accelerate your own growth and development.

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What if you changed how you “show up” in the world? I’d argue that it could positively alter your life. That said, it’s tough, if not impossible, to be a ‘new you’ in one fell swoop. But the good news is that big changes are possible if you make small shifts on an ongoing basis.

As I’ve written about in prior blogs, we all get in our own way. Self-limiting behaviors are often deeply entrenched habitual patterns that are years or decades in the making. The idea of shifting even one such behavior can be daunting and trigger significant resistance. “It’s too big to tackle” or “It’s the way I’m wired” are examples of the self-talk that emerges when we begin to confront our self-limiting behaviors.

Small Shifts Lead to Big Changes

It doesn’t need to be daunting. Think of a meteor on a collision course with Earth. Scientists believe (and hopefully they are right!) that we could send a rocket into space and create an explosion that would just nick the trajectory of that meteor…less than a one-degree course change. After that, the meteor wouldn’t just miss the earth; it would miss it by miles.

 

Like the meteor, your life and career are on a trajectory. Imagine a graph with potential realized on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal axis (see image above). By making small shifts in your behavior, the cumulative effect over time can be profound! Think of this as “radical incrementalism”.

Here’s an example. Take someone who frequently interrupts others. It’s pretty easy to imagine what that person’s “trajectory” will look like if s/he doesn’t work on that self-limiting behavior. But what if that person starts to make small shifts toward becoming a better listener. How much more of their potential will that person have realized in 6 months? A year? Five years?

The Simple, Real-World, Manager Test

When I present this concept to groups of employees I ask the managers in the room, “Are you more likely to give new opportunities to employees who are proactively working on developing themselves, vs their peers who are not doing so?” The answer is always a resounding “yes.”


The way you “show up,” (the way you behave, the way you interact with others), WILL influence the types of opportunities that present themselves to you in your career and in your life.


Instead of resisting this inner work because it seems too hard, push yourself to take bite-size steps that over time will add up to big changes for you.

Different Labels – Similar Concepts

I saw Robert Egger, Founder and President of LA Kitchen, present recently at a Conscious Business Leaders Forum. He talked about his philosophy of “radical incrementalism;” continuing to chip away at something small piece by small piece.  Although he used it in a societal context, I love this phrase and it absolutely applies to our individual growth.

Amy Cuddy, famous for her viral TED Talk on power posing, has recently published a book called ‘Presence – Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges.’ She dedicates an entire chapter to what she calls ‘Self-Nudging’ which is all about making small, incremental shifts.

And there’s Jeremy Hunter, an associate professor at the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University. He describes this process as “bending your future.”


By applying radical incrementalism – making ongoing small shifts in our behavior – we are literally “bending our future” toward realizing more of our potential and being our best selves.


Making it Personal

Over the last few years I’ve been bending my own future. I now see this as life-long work…always shifting, always bending! One of the most important things I’ve been working on is worrying less about “needing everyone to like me.” This perceived need led to many self-limiting behaviors where I took care of others at my own expense.

I’m also working hard on being more present and focusing my attention on the individual(s) or task at hand in a given moment. It is all about tiny shifts forward!

Where might you start making small incremental shifts to start bending your future toward achieving more of your potential?

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We like to do things fast.

“Clear the to-do list.”             “Check the box.”              “Done.”

Our need for speed will almost always backfire when we’re trying to make changes to our behaviors or mindset. To make a sustainable change, we need to slow down and pay attention to what we are currently up to, our “as-is” state.

Think about New Year’s resolutions. Anecdotally it’s safe to say that a significant majority of those desired behavioral shifts fall by the wayside fairly quickly. The gyms are full in January; February, not so much.

One missing ingredient is self-observation. For illustrative purposes, let’s imagine you have a self-limiting behavior (which I’ve written about in prior blogs) of “frequently interrupting others” and have a stated aspirational goal of becoming a great listener.

Instead of simply biting your tongue to stop interrupting others (which might work for a few days or even a few weeks), my experience working with many individuals over time suggests that your best bet is to start by developing a self-observation practice.


However counter-intuitive it may seem one needs to spend ample time simply noticing their as-is state.


A Non-Judgmental Stance – You Are a Scientist

When you start paying attention to a behavior that you see as “needing improvement,” your Inner Critic is likely to become agitated and vocal. (“Wow, I had no idea I interrupt others THIS often, man, I really do suck.”)

An approach I suggest is to consider yourself a scientist collecting information about an interesting specimen. That’s you! Scientists are trained to be objective neutral observers. The data itself is interesting and insightful.

The Inner Critic will not go away but there is hope. When you shift your inner dialogue from beating yourself up (“I can’t believe I interrupt others this often”) to one of curiosity (“Wow, this is fascinating, I had no idea I interrupted others this often. I wonder what’s up with that?), amazing opportunities to affect change can happen.

Just as a scientist records her/his observations, I suggest getting started by picking a self-limiting behavior and recording the answers to a few questions like these a few times a week.

  1. How often in the last few days did I <interrupt others>?
  2. Roughly how much time elapsed between my <interrupting others> and my awareness of it?

Over time, your brain will realize that you are paying attention to this self-limiting behavior (interrupting others) and will bring it to your attention more quickly. This allows you to start digging underneath the surface behavior (interrupting others) to investigate the underlying “stories” at play.

Doing the Inner Work to Support the Outer Change

Those underlying “stories” (the inner work) hold the key to making a sustainable shift in a self-limiting behavior (the outer work).

For example, with the self-limiting behavior of interrupting others, a person may find an underlying story that “I need to speak over people in order to ensure my ideas are heard” or “If I dominate the conversation I will ultimately get what I want” or maybe even “I know I am right and don’t want to waste my time hearing other ideas.”

Whatever it is, seeing what is truly going on underneath the surface gives you new awareness / insight into the behavior. And this is where the real opportunity is. If you simply change the outer behavior (bite your tongue and stop interrupting others) without addressing what’s going on inside of you, I can assure you the behavior change will be short-lived.

So, before you race ahead to make your next behavioral change, do yourself a favor and give yourself permission to spend some time to more fully understand your current as-is state. Watch yourself.

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I wonder if reading through this brief blog could lead you to a powerful new insight?

I spent some time recently with a friend and colleague, Julie Stuart. She introduced me to some new ideas, including the idea of “wondering”.

As we wandered through lovely Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland Hills, she began to show me how easy and powerful this practice is.


I wonder if getting outside might help you shift perspectives on something where you feel stuck?


The following is a rough take on our conversation.

Julie: “I’m really enjoying the practice of wondering. The idea is that we try to drop all our preconceived thoughts about why we can or can’t do something and simply wonder aloud about things. Would you be willing to try that with me?”

Me: (Thinking…I’m not sure how I can drop all my preconceived thoughts about stuff..so this sounds like it will be hard.)

Me: “I’m feeling some resistance to this but sure, let’s go for it and see how it goes.”

Julie: “OK. The way we’ll do this is that I’ll wonder something aloud and then it’s your turn. We’ll keep taking turns and see where it leads.”

Me: “Sounds good.”

Julie: “I wonder what it would be like if you weren’t feeling resistance to this?”

Me: (Thinking…Damn, I better come up with a good ‘wonder’ else she will think I’m lame. Wait, that’s my stupid inner critic getting in my way. Just dive in!)

Me: “I wonder where else my resistance gets in my way?”

Julie: “I wonder what I’m going to have for dinner tonight?”

Me: “ (Thinking…OMG. I love you for saying that. You’ve just removed all the stress/resistance I was feeling about this having to be super serious and perfect.)

Me: “I wonder if my girlfriend and I will watch a movie tonight?”

Exiting the conversation and returning to the blog. This went on for a while. After a few minutes, Julie lightly shifted our focus by saying “I’m going to start wondering about your business if that’s ok with you.” It was.

We ended up on a park bench staring at the beautiful tree-covered rolling hills. Julie made it clear that I could “jump out” of our wondering at any time if I felt called to have a conversation about what was coming up. We began flowing back and forth between conversation and additional wondering. It was beautiful.

Suffice to say that LOTS of new and interesting ideas came forward during the remainder of that conversation.


I wonder what aspects of your current top priorities could benefit from a bit of wondering?


Fast forward to that evening. I was telling my girlfriend about this activity and could tell she was intrigued. I suggested that maybe we try it. She had no hesitation and was ready to jump right in.

It proved to be both enjoyable and valuable. There was an issue she had been wrestling with for a while (and I had been talking about it with her and doing some light coaching on it). Well, in about 10 minutes of wondering, she came up with multiple new ideas and insights that led to positive action. Wow. 10 minutes.

There’s something about “wondering” that feels less daunting or stressful. There’s no need to get it right or be perfect. Wondering can be playful and we can “wonder” things that we might not be comfortable “stating” or “asking.” There’s a freedom here that makes a real difference in the types of questions and ideas that come forth.

Wondering cues imagination. Our more normal modes of thinking tend to be limiting and keep us (often unknowingly) closed down. Wondering and imagining are expansive and open us up.

Here’s a cool HBR blog that was posted just a few days ago entitled 5 Questions Leaders Should Be Asking All the Time. I was excited to see that “I wonder….?” Is included in the list.

I’ve become a bit of a “wondering evangelist.” I attended a coaching conference last week and couldn’t contain myself from sharing this with many other coaches. And here I am now, sharing this more broadly through cyberspace.

Here are a few additional wonders to help get your juices flowing:

I wonder what I might do on <xyz project> if I wasn’t worried about being judged?

I wonder what it would be like if I didn’t take care of other’s needs before my own?

I wonder what I would be doing if I really believed in myself?

I wonder who in my world would be up for wondering with me?

I wonder if it would serve me to make wondering a new go-to practice?

I wonder if I can be ok with knowing that sometimes the practice of wondering won’t lead to any breakthroughs or insights?

 

The list of possible wonders is infinite and certainly each of us has our own list of things to wonder about.


I wonder what you will wonder about? I wonder what that might lead to for you?


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I wanted to share a few thoughts on a book I’m reading called “An Everyone Culture – Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization” by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey.

This book is exciting for organizations that want to create a culture where people can become better versions of themselves while doing great work and driving highly successful business results.

Deliberately Developmental Organizations (DDOs) place a strong emphasis on raising self-awareness across all employees. DDOs also:

  • Leverage employee strengths, AND help people overcome their limitations and blind spots in service of becoming a better personwhile improving their mastery of increasingly challenging work.
  • Provide an environment where employees are not only developing skills, but also their mind-sets and abilities to see more deeply and accurately into themselves and their worlds.
  • Encourage feedback that penetrates beneath behavior to the underlying assumptions and mind-sets.
  • Incorporate practices that allow people to work on their “interior” lives that would typically be off-limits (at most companies).

For many companies, becoming a DDO may be a significant ways off. Nonetheless, even making a few shifts can be a game-changer. I LOVE the idea of starting to move in that direction.


If an awareness-centered organization is appealing to you, I’d encourage you to pick up the book. It showcases three highly successful DDOs (Decurion, Bridgewater, and Next Jump) along with their philosophies and core practices. It also offers some great ideas for getting started. (Here’s a link to a Forbes interview with the authors about this book.)

Or heck, take a look at my Coach Your Self Up (CYSU) program. It’s totally aligned with the DDO concept and offers a low-risk approach to “sticking a toe” in the DDO waters.

 

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Here’s a simple and insightful way to think about achieving your career and life goals. Let’s jump in and play with this right now. Pull out a sheet of paper and write down one career or life goal at the top of the page.

Force Field Analysis is a change management tool to help identify forces that either support or oppose a desired change. Applying this tool to your own career (and life) goals can provide you a fresh perspective.

Draw a line down the middle of your sheet of paper underneath your goal statement. Label the left-hand column as “Helpers” and the right-hand column as “Hindrances.”

Include Both the “What” and the “How”

As you can see from the above diagram, the focus of this exercise is primarily on internal forces. Of course, there are lots of external forces at play too, but I prefer to focus on the forces that I have control over.

It will be helpful to include a few subsections (draw a line across the middle of the page) to categorize the forces affecting the life or career goal you have chosen. I like having a subsection for the “What” (think technical / functional) and a subsection for the “How” (think behavioral). Some of you might be more comfortable with subsections like Knowledge, Skills, and Attributes.

You can choose to create another subsection for external forces too if that serves you. Trust your gut and don’t overcomplicate this.

Helps You Think About Hindrances

One of the things I love about this approach is that it requires you to think about the forces working against you. It circles us back to one of my favorite questions, which is “Where do you get in your own way?”


To achieve our goals, we not only want to leverage and maximize the supportive forces. We also benefit from minimizing those forces working against us.


A Simple Example

Let’s look at a simple example. Let’s say I tend to frequently interrupt others. This is what I call “a self-limiting behavior,” which is essentially a “force” that opposes me in my desire to get promoted, or become a great collaborator or whatever career/personal goal I have in mind. Using Force Field Analysis, I can jot this (”frequently interrupt others”) down in the right column as a “Hindrance” to achieving my specific career goal.

On the other hand, developing my listening skills would be a supportive force that helps me achieve my goals. I can jot this down (“great listening skills”) in the left column as a “Helper.”

The Double Whammy (In a Good Way)

So, if over time I reduce my tendency to interrupt others AND develop my listening skills, I get a double bonus. First, I’m weakening that particular “Hindrance,” and thereby reducing the power of an opposing force. Secondly, I’m strengthening the supportive force of “listening” that is helping to propel me forward.

The result: a stronger positive force and reduced resistance. Bang!

The next time you are pondering your career goals and status, consider taking the time to do a high-level Force Field Analysis. You might be surprised to find that you have some “double whammy” opportunities to propel you along your path.

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You, like most of us, have a tough time “paying attention.” You know it would serve you to be better at it. Yet it’s still a challenge. What if you had a new way of viewing what’s pulling at your attention that also helps you be more focused? I have found a framework that works for me that I want to share…

Interference
In the new book “The Distracted Mind – Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World,” authors Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen discuss the idea of goal interference. (referred to as “interference” in this post.) Interference is anything that gets in the way of focusing your attention on the intended target (the goal).

External vs. Internal
Interference can come at us externally (i.e., through our five sense) or internally (i.e., our thoughts or physical sensations).

Distraction vs. Interruption
The authors split interference into two types: distraction and interruption.
• Distractions occur when there is no conscious choice to stick with the interference.
• Interruptions occur when you decide to stick with the interference. You effectively choose to multitask by adding a new “goal” (the interference) to your initial “goal” (the original intended object of your attention).

Some Simple Clarifying Examples
External Distraction – You are in a meeting with several colleagues at work. You receive a text message. You’re aware the text came in. You ignore it (you may or may not have noticed who sent the text). You maintain your focus on the meeting.

External Interruption – You are in a meeting with several colleagues at work. You receive a text message. You see that it’s from one of your teammates who has a question. You respond to this text while continuing to “pay attention” to the meeting.

Internal Distraction – You are in a meeting with several colleagues at work. Somebody mentions the name of the VP (Alicia) of your org which triggers the thought that you are meeting with Alicia this afternoon. You know you’re not fully prepared for that meeting but you let go of that thought for now. You maintain your focus on the meeting.

Internal Interruption – You are in a meeting with several colleagues at work. Somebody mentions the name of the VP (Alicia) of your org which triggers the thought that you are meeting with Alicia this afternoon. You decide to spend some time thinking about what else you need to do to get ready for that meeting while continuing to “pay attention” to the meeting.

Don’t Let Your Distractions Become Interruptions
You can use these distinctions to help improve your attention. When you become aware that there is interference at play (e.g., a text message arrives or you start thinking about your meeting with Alicia) gently tell yourself to let the “distraction” go and not let it become an “interruption.”

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Do any of these tendencies seem like you?

  • I frequently interrupt others when they are speaking.
  • I am too easily distracted (emails, texts, etc.) during meetings and/or conversations.
  • I talk too much in meetings (i.e., I “take up too much space”).
  • I don’t speak up in meetings (even when something wants to be said).

These are just a few examples of “self-limiting behaviors.” Whether or not you personally relate to these patterns, it’s likely that you know someone who exhibits one or more of them. And I’d bet that it’s easy to see how such behavior can block someone from reaching her/his potential.

What if you turn the mirror back on yourself? If you aspire to reach your fullest potential, it’s helpful to identify and begin to work on shifting your own self-limiting behaviors!

In this article, I will:

  • Provide some context about the importance of working on self-limiting behaviors.
  • Share a list of common self-limiting behaviors.
  • Suggest some action items to use these ideas to help yourself, your team, and your organization.

Behaviors and Professional/Personal Development

Many companies ask their employees to identify development/growth goals in two areas. The first is “The What”, or technical/functional skills. The second is “The How”, which are more behavioral and soft-skill oriented.

It’s easy for employees to identify development areas associated with “The What”. However, many people struggle with identifying behaviors to work on (The How). Those of us in the HR arena know that “how” a person shows up at work has huge implications for her/his overall career success.

career-trajectory-image

Think of someone you know that frequently interrupts others. It’s pretty easy to imagine how their baseline career “trajectory” will be constrained if s/he doesn’t work on that self-limiting behavior.

Now imagine a different trajectory if that person starts to make small shifts toward becoming a better listener. How much more of their potential will they realize in 6 months? A year? Five years? How many more career-enhancing opportunities may be presented to that person because they are engaged more productively in meetings, or within teams or with their direct reports?


By making small shifts in our behavior we are literally “bending our future” toward realizing more of our potential and being our best selves.


I want to acknowledge you readers who embrace an emphasis on developing strengths. I’m a huge fan of strengths-based development. And I also believe that each of us has self-limiting behaviors that warrant attention.

By the way, behavior may be a loaded word for some people. I use this word literally and non-judgmentally: “the way in which one acts or conducts oneself.”

It may seem obvious, but most of us don’t simply decide to change a behavior and make it so. We must first acknowledge that one or more of our behaviors (that may have served us in our past!) are now detrimental to our success, whether at work or in our personal life. This requires self-observation and the willingness to identify behaviors that don’t serve us well.

We must also recognize that this will push us out of our comfort zone and will hence often trigger fear and internal resistance. This work is important but not easy.

Example Self-Limiting Behaviors

As noted, it’s often difficult for individuals to identify behaviors that they want to change. Below I’ve listed some relatively common self-limiting behaviors for your review. This list can also be shared with employees to help get them thinking about this topic.

Check out the list below. Do you see yourself in any of these statements? Here’s a hint: don’t beat yourself up….be curious!

  • I frequently interrupt others when they’re speaking.
  • I don’t listen to others when they’re speaking.
  • I succumb too easily to distractions (emails, text messages, etc.) during group meetings.
  • I succumb too easily to distractions (emails, text messages, etc.) during 1:1 conversations.
  • I’m unable to say “no” (when it’s a viable and reasonable option).
  • I talk too much in meetings (i.e., I “take up too much space”).
  • I don’t speak up in meetings (even when something wants to be said).
  • I speak too softly.
  • I solicit the input of others with no intention of changing my position.
  • I take credit for the work of others.
  • I blame others when things go wrong.
  • I talk about others behind their backs.
  • I react too negatively / emotionally when issues arise.
  • I get frustrated too easily / often.
  • I complain a lot.
  • I’m unable / lack confidence to make decisions.
  • I’m condescending and/or dismissive of others.
  • I frequently ‘bully’ others until they acknowledge that I am right.
  • I am consistently late.
  • I treat people as objects (lack of empathy).
  • I don’t solicit advice or help from others when it would help me to do so.

It is common for people to identify with multiple behaviors on this list. However, it’s also normal to not identify with any of the behaviors listed. While it’s possible to not have any self-limiting behaviors, I’ve not yet met anybody who matches that description.

One way to push through uncertainty is to consider soliciting feedback from people you trust. Ask them to help identify one or more self-limiting behaviors they see that may be in your ‘blind spot.’

Call to Action

I hope you’ll agree that if we aspire to unlock more of our potential, it serves us to always be working on our personal/professional development. This includes addressing our self-limiting behaviors.

These behaviors influence how we impact and are perceived by others. Imagine how powerful it would be for you to minimize, or even remove, one or more of these self-imposed barriers from your life.

Here are some ways you can get value out of the ideas shared in this post.

  • Choose one(!) self-limiting behavior and commit to working on it for at least a few months.
    • Research shows that we are more likely to succeed with behavioral change if we are focused in our efforts.
    • If you can’t think of any self-limiting behaviors that apply to you, consider sharing the list above with colleagues you trust to give you candid feedback. You likely have one or more self-limiting behaviors hiding in your blind spot.
  • Document your goal / intentions somewhere (e.g., personal journal, formal development planning tool).
    • Research shows that the simple act of writing down our intentions increases the likelihood that we will follow through.
  • Share your goal / intentions with one or more trusted colleagues / friends who can help hold you accountable.
    • Expanding the sphere of accountability will help you stick with your plans. You’re not only more likely to stick with it if you’ve shared it with others, you can ask for support from those people as well.
  • Share this list with your team or department, and encourage others to join you / start a larger dialogue. “How can we help each other be more effective at working with each other?”
    • This can be a simple process of encouraging everyone, in the spirit of being his or her best self, to be working on a self-limiting behavior.
    • This helps to create an environment where employees can become more comfortable being vulnerable and feeling like the team/organization is supporting their ongoing development.
    • Here’s a clean one-pager that you can use to share this information with others.
  • Reach out to me at mike@coachyourselfup.com if you would like a free set of slides and corresponding speaker notes and agenda to lead a more in-depth 45 – 90-minute workshop on this topic.
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If you are interested in finding out more information about Coach Your Self Up, please fill out the form or contact Mike Normant directly at mike@mikenormant.com or 415.713.4680.

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