Change Your Story, Better Your Experience, Level-up Your Leadership

Facts Matter Katrina Calihan.jpg

In my coaching and organizational work, I witness daily how the stories we create deeply impact our work experience, relationships, decision making and workplace culture. In every situation, there are assertions – objective facts, and there are assessments – the judgments, opinions and stories we create out of assertions.  Can you guess which one most of us live in when talking about and processing our work lives? If you’re thinking assessments – you’re spot on.  

Much of the time, assessments are helpful.  Our brains automatically scan and interpret our environment, seeking patterns and knowledge from past experiences to quickly enable us to gain understanding and take appropriate action.  Assessments can also be risky and dangerous.  Left unexamined, we are vulnerable to conflating our judgments as facts and anchoring into our stories as truth.  Great leaders learn to hold distinctions between assertions and assessments; they build self-awareness loops to question their thinking and stay open to a wider set of possibilities.  

Personal standards and values drive individual assessments. Unfortunately, conversations that communicate standards don’t often occur, and if they do, it’s not with crystal clarity. Instead, many leaders assume their standards are universal and adopted by their teammates. When behavior bumps up against those standards, rather than discussing the concerns, leaders may make false assessments, deliver unfair feedback, or worse, say nothing directly and express themselves through negative energy and passive behaviors.

Let’s look at an example: In the past 3 weeks, your direct report, John, has been 10 minutes late to your staff meeting twice, called off work on a Friday, and arrived at the office after 10am 4 times.  These are the assertions – the objective facts.  You believe that presence in the office and on-time arrivals equal commitment and hard work, and you have a personal standard to follow suit in your own actions.  As a result of this set of facts, you create a story, an assessment, that John is unreliable and not dedicated to the team.  It’s likely you did this automatically.  

Left unchecked, this story leads you to have negative feelings and opinions about John, and you may even start looking for future evidence to support your story.  Our assessments often become self-fulfilling prophecies, in which we look for data to support them.  This is known as confirmation bias.  Later, you sit down with John to share this feedback – ‘I’m concerned about your dedication.  Lately, it seems you’re not committed to the team and project.  Your work ethic has trailed off in recent weeks.’  What do you notice about this feedback? There are no assertions, just assessments.

There isn’t a person among us who hasn’t felt sidelined by feedback like this, and it lands with a damaging thud.  What comes next is erosion of trust, dismantling of engagement, fissures in relationships, and defensiveness.  A dead giveaway that you’re in the land of assessment is when you find yourself defending your position.  That is a flag to slow down, question assumptions, and evaluate possibilities.  In contrast, assertions can be validated as true or false. 2+2=4 does not require defending. 

Can you imagine instead, the powerful positive impact on performance and relationships that would result from communicating standards and exploring assertions before we concretize our stories?  What if, in the above example, you had never told your team exactly what the start time was for the day because your company had a flexible culture? When did John's lateness go from within bounds to unacceptable?  We need to be aware of our undrawn and uncommunicated lines in the sand and learn to examine them.  What if in your feedback conversation you had led instead with, ‘I noticed you’ve been late on X-Y-Z occasion.  It’s out of your norm, and I am concerned about you.  Can you tell me what’s happening?’  What might you have discovered with this approach while building your relationship?

This example is a simple one.  It is one of countless scenarios we find ourselves in daily, making micro-assessments that can stack up to major errors in judgment with critical consequences. As senior leaders, we have even more responsibility to get this right because the ripple effect travels further, the stakes are higher, and the water is muddier.  These concepts don’t only apply to assessments about others’ performance – they apply to key business decisions and how you navigate your own work experience.    

What can you do to change your stories, better your experience, and level-up your leadership?  

  • Strengthen your self-awareness and emotional intelligence by noticing the current state of your moods and emotions.  Swings in these areas affect the assessments you make and vice versa.  If you're feeling joyful, you may assess others positively.  Whereas, an irritated mood may lead you to be critical.  
  • Assume positive intent from others.  In my experience, people mean well and want positive interpersonal connection, but diversities in style, thinking and approach, coupled with reactive responses, lead to frequent miscommunications.  
  • Stay curious – question and dispute your thinking.  As an observer of yourself, notice your train of thought.  What are your patterns?  Are you naturally positive or negative?  Do you assume the best or worst of people? Do you tend to over-analyze and read into interactions?  Look at the assertions – what is really true?  Ground your assessments in the facts and allow yourself to open to a wider set of possibilities.  
  • Have open, direct and authentic conversations with colleagues.  Embrace your vulnerability in conversations and communicate honestly. Too often we come at conversations from everywhere except the center of the target.

We are assessment and meaning making machines.  Slowing down to examine our internal assessments takes courage, practice, a willingness to let go of righteousness, and an openness to expanding the complexity with which we experience the world.  Leaders who master these skills will be rewarded with deeper connections, engaged teams, innovative results, and a thriving culture that welcomes diversity of people, thought and experience.
May your world and possibilities always be expanding, and may your stories represent the best version of yourself and others, Katrina

Why the Pursuit of Perfection is Riddled with Flaws

Point of Arrival Katrina Calihan.jpg

It doesn’t take much investigation to reveal why so many of us have been hooked by perfectionism.  Through bombardment of mainstream and social media – where so much of what is celebrated is airbrushed and what is showcased is a selective editorial of only our fabulous moments – the message is clear: being perfect, whether it’s having career success, physical beauty, or having the perfect family, is the path to happiness and worthiness.  Many of us received messages from the time we were small that perfect performance and behavior bought us love and attention.  Pressure to pursue perfection is pervasive, but the path is riddled with flaws.  It’s time we wake up and create a new aspiration to live authentically instead of perfectly.

I know you’re probably thinking that your boss wants you to be perfect at work, but I would guess you’re wrong.  Perfectionism has a dark side, and it’s distinctly different from being hard working, having appreciation of excellence, holding high standards, and being committed to results.  Everyday in my coaching practice with clients, I see the damage derived from perfectionism.  A few of its hallmarks are:

  • Holding yourself to an unattainable bar that sets you up for disappointment and the feeling of ‘never [fill in the blank] enough’
  • Overworking in an unsustainable way that leads to burnout
  • Not producing timely results because you’re over-iterating
  • Micromanaging your teammates in an attempt to control every detail
  • Adopting a self-critical and judgmental inner voice that is harsh on yourself
  • Playing it safe and not taking risks for fear of failure
  • Hiding mistakes and pretending you’re ok, even when you’re crumbling inside
  • Never asking for help for fear you’ll be found out as an imposter

For most people, all this striving for perfection strips us of true satisfaction, happiness and actually enjoying our work and lives.  Perfection is a dangerous path where people are especially prone to the error of thinking that self-worth is equivalent to the ability to be perfect.  In the end, perfectionism is an anxiety inducing, often obsessive, and disconnected way of living your life.

The good news and bright side is that with courage, self-awareness, openness, and willingness to experiment and dispute your thinking, you can unravel and eventually undo perfectionism.  Here are some tips and actions to help you along your path to authenticity:

  • Become aware of your inner voice – notice how you talk to yourself and begin talking to yourself like you would a sweet friend, with compassion
  • Embrace that what you do, how you look, what others think of you, how successful you are, etc., does not equal who you are – you get to create your identity and self-worth
  • Ask for help when you need it – and pay attention to what happens
  • Take a risk or try something that feels out of your comfort zone – we learn so much through new experiences and mistakes
  • Admit your mistakes – especially at work, your team wants to know you are human.  It gives them permission to be honest about their mistakes with you
  • Know when good enough is enough – challenge yourself to prioritize what needs more attention and what does not
  • Don’t boil the ocean – focus on the 80/20 rule – what 20% of activities will give you 80% of the results
  • When someone else comes up less than perfect, be compassionate - none of us are perfect
  • Reach out and get support to build resilience – share what you’re working on with a friend, trusted colleague, mentor or coach – ask for accountability 

When we hang up perfection for authenticity, we make way for courageous connection, richer learning experiences, cultivation of a growth mindset, honest living, and perhaps the best gift of all – an improved, more loving relationship with ourselves. Let's let the ivory tower of perfection fall!

May you embrace your imperfections today, and may you still be perfectly enough, Katrina

Why is Some Change so Hard?


Happy 2017!  I love the New Year.  It’s a natural time to take stock of the past and look hopefully into the future.  And, in addition to the cold temperatures and over-packed fitness classes, the New Year also brings those dreaded resolutions!  I say dreaded not because I don’t believe in making commitments and declarations, I do (!), but because for so many of us resolutions create intentions that we fail to follow through on.  And that leaves many of us feeling stuck, disappointed, unhappy, and unkind to ourselves.

Why is some change so hard?  What is that one BIG thing that you have been declaring to change forever, and yet you’ve made no progress?  Maybe you want to get healthier, become a better listener, take more risks, or better manage your piling commitments?  Regardless of what IT is, any goal we have comes with a set of tips, steps, best practices and associated actions.  Want to lose weight? Eat less, exercise more!  Simple, right? But it isn’t… 
There are 2 important ways we process change:

Way 1: The Tactical Change – In this case, creating a change is as simple for you as learning and applying some new information, skill or competency, and putting it into action.  This change is something you don’t have any baggage or hang ups about.  There’s no underlying resistance to trying and adopting the change.  When my tennis forehand needed improvement, I followed my coach’s instructions – “Stay sideways, Katrina.  Watch the ball hit the strings!  Follow all the way through!”  I did, and the forehand got better.

Way 2: The Transformational Change – This is the category for those failed intentions.  It’s the case when you know what goals you have, but even after you learn the skills and steps, you don’t do them or stick with them.  Why?  More than likely, you are resisting the change because of underlying, competing commitments and assumptions you hold dear, of which you may not even be aware. 

Through our experiences and evolution as people, we develop organizing principles to understand the world around us.  Think of it as your internal operating system or worldview.  Through your unique lens, you use your way of knowing your experiences to make decisions, judgments and sense of the world around you.  Where you’ve had traumas or negative experiences, you create shields of protection to ensure safety in the future.  Know this – we all have a field of vision, and we all have blind spots.  And, outside that field of vision is a new world of possibilities and ways of being and doing. 
Here’s a 5-step discovery process to support transformational change – set aside some time to consider and write down:

  1. Identify your most important 2017 goal or commitment that you have been stuck on or unsuccessful achieving for some time.
  2. List what you do and don’t do that doesn’t support your goal.
  3. What are your hidden competing commitments and worries that stand in the way of you achieving your goal?
  4. Go deeper now – what are your underlying personal assessments and assumptions that stand in the way of you achieving your goal?
  5. Dispute your assumptions through real-life experiments.  Create a plan to test a new way of being, doing and thinking that opposes your assumptions and supports your goals.  Take note of the data you receive, and use it to broaden your field of vision.

Here’s an example to bring this to life:

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In the above example, a Step 5 disputation experiment could be to commit to proactively sharing an expert opinion in a situation where the contribution is different than what is being offered by the group.  Through at-bats like this, it may be realized that diverse contributions are valued, and that bringing alternative points of view does not lead to dissention – breaking the connection between sharing as a pathway to disapproval, conflict and likeability.  Eventually, a stronger leader will emerge, who steps up to add more value, and is seen as an advisor in the organization. 

Often, we don’t change because we haven’t uncovered and faced the column 4 forces – the underlying assessments and assumptions – that are keeping us stuck.  Surfacing them can feel scary, risky and vulnerable.  What do you have to gain by facing those fears?  You have the possibility to free yourself from their hold, achieve new heights, and continue to learn and grow.  Transformational change requires courage and commitment, and it leads you to becoming a more fully realized version of your best self. 

Test it for yourself, and send me a note to share your experiences! Don’t go it alone!  Tell the people close to you what you’re working on, and ask them for support.  Involving others gives you buoyancy, help and accountability in the process. 

My coaching practice is designed to support and accelerate transformational change.      Please contact me to set up a complimentary coaching session to begin your discovery.

Here’s to your journey in 2017!  May you let nothing hold you back! 
Happy New Year, Katrina

Reference: This article was inspired by and adapted from Immunity to Change, by Kegan & Lahey.