Category Archives: Coaching
We’re generally intelligent people…so why do we do such dumb things?
One of the best ways to explain our counterproductive behavior is the Ladder of Inference. This elegant model was first developed by Chris Argyris, building on the work of S.I. Hayakawa and Alford Korzybski, and articulated further by William Isaacs and Rick Ross. Start at the bottom and work your way up:
Selection: Our starting point in any experience is the process of identifying and selecting certain data from the sum total of all observable data.
Although the clients in my coaching practice come from a wide range of professions and work in organizations of all sizes, I see a large number of startup founders and other leaders from early-stage companies. And my work with these clients–as well as my own experience as the first employee at three nonprofit ventures–has led me to view startups as distinct human systems. There’s no one-size-fits-all template to describe how these systems operate, nor are the interpersonal principles in startups fundamentally different from those in other organizations. But there are some tendencies that I see in my startup clients’ companies on a consistent basis:
1. Complex Group Dynamics
This point underpins all the others below: Startups are deceptively complex organizations. The small number of employees and, often, the shared background of the founding team can give the impression that the company’s interpersonal dynamics will be simple and easy to manage.
It’s been an unusual year. There have been some very high highs: I believe I’m doing the best work I’ve ever done with my clients and students; my brother David realized a long-held dream and opened a bar; I began writing for HBR; I stepped into a new role with Stanford T-groups; and I realized how much I have to be thankful for.
And there have been some very low lows: I failed at an important project; I blew out a disk and was in pain for months; I’m no longer in pain, but I’m still struggling to exercise regularly (and to meditate at all); I wrote almost nothing from March through August; and I was reminded (several times) of one of my greatest weaknesses.
In 2007 Jakob Nielsen wrote a compelling piece on Life-Long Computer Skills:
There is some value in teaching kids skills they can apply immediately, while they’re still in school, but there’s more value in teaching them deeper concepts that will benefit them forever, regardless of changes in specific applications.
We often live out the pattern graphed above–at least I do, and many of my coaching clients and MBA students do as well. If our initial attempts are unsuccessful when advocating for (or against) a position or when seeking to influence others to do (or not do) something, we’d like to steadily and evenly escalate our assertiveness and emotional expressiveness as time progresses (i.e. the dotted blue line).
What we actually do can look quite different. Early in the process we tend to underdo it–we do escalate, but verrrrrrrrry slowly. “That’s OK,” we say, “it’s not that big a deal”–even as our frustration builds. But eventually a switch gets flipped, and our levels of assertiveness and expressiveness increase much more rapidly. Soon we’re overdoing it; we’re unable to control our frustration, and we act too assertively–even aggressively–and we say or do things we later regret (i.e. the solid red line).
So if we do see our own experience reflected in this graph, how can we make sense of what’s happening?
The more I work with senior leaders, the more convinced I am that there are just three critical leadership tasks. They’re very simple to understand and tremendously difficult to do:
1. Set our priorities.
Don’t let them be set for us by others, by circumstances or by our Inbox. And the more senior we are, the more latitude and choice we have, the more we need to rely on our judgment and intuition. This requires being open to influence while resisting advocacy, being attuned to the data while knowing when to ignore it and take a calculated risk.
Last night I facilitated a workshop on Startup Communication at Bloomberg’s San Francisco offices aimed at helping co-founders 1) communicate more effectively with each other, 2) establish group norms in the company that support better communication and 3) model better communication with their employees.