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