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Are You Carrying Too Much Weight?

I'd like to share the following with you written by Dr. Michael O'Brien, The Leading Question (TM) is a newsletter series from the O'Brien Group that will feature short topics on key change leadership issues facing CEOs and senior executives in high-change environments.

Are You Carrying too Much Weight? How to Improve Your Leadership Fitness

As a runner, I subscribe to a number of health and fitness magazines. And almost every issue carries an article on the physical effects of being overweight. One focused on a prevention program that teaches high school students what it feels like to be overweight by having them spend a day wearing a backpack filled with 30 pounds of rocks. After the experiment, the students discussed the strain and pain in their back, shoulders, and feet, and the sense of agility they experienced when they were able to let go of their weighty burden.

Recently, an article in Psychology Today on the destructive effects of holding grudges reminded me of the students and their backpacks full of rocks.

At The O’Brien Group, we see many clients who I can identify as carrying their own backpacks filled with the ‘rocks’ of grudges and blame. And while the backpacks may be imaginary, the toll this weight takes on them and their leadership performance is very real.

Instructive Past, Destructive Future

Grudge holding does not make us bad people; it is an ingrained part of the human psyche. Researchers believe it functioned as a survival mechanism among early human societies as a way of identifying freeloaders who weren’t contributing fairly to the hunting and gathering of the group, yet expected a full share of the proceeds. These ideas of fairness and justice, especially in linking effort and reward, still exist to this day and explain why there is societal condemnation for corrupt politicians, welfare scammers, unethical business executives, and anyone else we deem as trying to cheat the system.

However, the challenge for today’s business leader is that our personal radar for fairness can develop well beyond such obvious cases of malfeasance to include even the smallest slights.

The need for complete fairness can actually hinder your leadership of others as you subconsciously avoid trusting people or situations in which you might not get a perfectly fair shake. Psychologists refer to “"injustice collecting" as the condition of accumulating or tallying up unfairnesses in dealing with others. Those who engage in such accounting are constantly adding rocks to their backpack and become both physically and emotionally weighted down.

The payoff, albeit fleeting, for people who engage in injustice collecting is the sense of nobility, superiority, and justification it provides. If I’m outraged over perceived slights you have done to me, I get to be “right” as you are “wrong.” In my mind, I get to be better than you.

Beyond the obvious parental refrain of “two wrongs don’t make a right,” lies a deeper problem; leaders who make the issue or situation about themselves and their need to be “right,” give up their right to lead in that instance. Leadership focuses on influencing others, not about the cheap thrill of being right.

Losing Weight

Breaking the cycle of injustice collecting begins with noticing when an interaction with a person has you upset and assigning blame, what I call the “Should Mindset.” As soon as your mind begins to think that “he/she should have done that” or “I shouldn’t have to do this,” you lose your capacity for leadership as you begin to make the situation revolve around yourself.

Instead, realign the situation to preserve your leadership of that person and the situation.

First, recognize that you are upset and that it is OK. Everyone gets upset. The key is not to become upset about being upset. This behavior increases the load in your emotional backpack and leads to your stories about the other, their lack of trustworthiness, and the harboring of grudges.

Leaders are able to recognize when they are in the state of upset and rapidly move through it by forgiving the person who upset them and themselves for being upset. Forgiving clears your mind of the clutter surrounding the upset and allows you to be present in the moment to solve the problem.

After extending forgiveness for the upset, leaders move to solve the issue at hand by reframing the situation for action.

Shoulds Into Coulds

One of the most powerful tools we teach executives is how to reframe a situation from one of breakdown to one of breakthrough. It starts with turning your “shoulds” into “coulds.”

For any given upset, first simply write down all your “shoulds” about yourself, the other and the situation. Next, substitute the word “could” for each of your “shoulds.” Notice how new pathways for action begin to occur to you. You’ll see what you could do to influence others, to better lead through the breakdown to resolution and improvement.

For instance, “Tim should get his reports to me on time” becomes “Tim could get his reports to me on time.” Then your ‘leadership mind’ can generate ideas for what YOU could do to help him do what HE could do. For example, you could tell him about your upset and make a clear request for when reports are due or you could find out what is preventing Tim from getting his reports to you on time and then remove the roadblocks.

Forgiving and reframing enable you to maintain your leadership and work toward a positive solution rather than become bogged down by the weight of carrying the grudge and upset.

Suggestion: Spend the next week really noticing when you are becoming upset about someone and their actions. Forgive them, and look deeper into the situation by reframing your “shoulds” into “coulds” to open up the possibilities. Not only will you find yourself getting more and better work done, you will find your emotional backpack lightening and your leadership fitness building.

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