Thinking to Grow Options

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Is black and white, lazy thinking, limiting the potential of your organization, people and ultimately your leadership influence? Innovation starts with what is happening in your individual and collective thinking so laziness in your thinking will sink your ship.

Today it’s all about the story; if you listened to episode 102 or read the related post – Black  Or White Thin king is Lazy Thinking – my review below will be enough to refresh your thinking. You can always use the links above to refresh your memory fully before continuing.

So my client story in episode 103 was all about Marco, at least that’s what we’re calling him. Marco  was promoted to a divisional VP position and one of the perks was the budget for a coach of his choosing. We had met a year earlier at a networking event and had periodically chatted about a few different things happening in leadership trends so he called me to seek input on how to select a Coach.

I had grown to know Marco as a very thoughtful, reflective and determined leader so I wasn’t surprised he had earned this opportunity and that he was taking his time to consider how to best approach the role.


Before we jump into Marco’s story, below are the three suggestions I offered you last week and I hope you’ve started considering them or working with them in the meantime:

  1. First, become conscious of the moments or situations when you or members of your team sink into this limited, black and white thinking mode. In other words start noticing, taking note – no action initially. You want to start by finding thinking patterns in yourself and others.
  2. Once you’ve developed insights and some clarity about the patterns, start playing with different ways to moderate your thinking, calling  out patterns for yourself and others and shifting in that moment to  expand it in an effort to moderate and even modify the patterns. Again, keep noticing the impact.
  3. You may be ready to practice some invitational questions as a way to stay away from this limiting thinking- be sure to invite multiple perspectives again, in an effort to expand the thinking.

Marco’s Story

So Marco had a great track record as a leader- he had been a highly regarded Director in the company for a few years. He’d been loved and respected in his branch and perhaps only grudgingly respected by his peers because of the highly competitive nature of the dynamic and culture of the organization. (Frankly, I surmised this from some of Marco’s stories.)

Marco’s promotion was the result of the untimely death of his boss and long time mentor AND largely due to the circumstances and the delay in filling the position, Marco knew he was accepting a particularly difficult situation.

Marco felt the pressure to strengthen relationships with former peers, especially those with longer tenure in the company as well as those who had competed with him for the position. Our work together started with a focus on relationship building and a lot of reflection on goals, and values and strengths and expanding Marco’s mindset and solidifying his focus. He had decided his number one relationship focus needed to be on building trust across the division.

One day a couple of months in, he surprised me by saying he wanted to shift his focus in our conversations to talk about how he could improve the strategic thinking within the team of Directors reporting to him. He relayed to me that he’d been struggling with what seemed like battles that he suspected were rooted in the organization’s competitive culture. I recall him commonly referring to them as turf wars and he wanted to understand how he may be contributing to the lack of collaboration or collegial support because to use his words, “Rox, it feels like we have some unsteady water ahead and I need to batten down the hatches now so I’m ready to steady the ship when we hit the worst of it.”

As we explored, he acknowledged that he was struggling to remain open. He found himself aligned with long time colleagues who shared his own beliefs about how the directors could improve their branch performance. He had been successful enough to earn the promotion so he struggled with thinking he needed to consider other ways of doing or thinking about possible approaches. Interestingly, the two new directors he had personally hired since coming into role were challenging the status quo almost daringly. He felt his leadership being challenged AND that brought up a few issues we needed to dig deeper around which just made matters more interesting. Not to mention, the two contrarian directors, are both women making him more concerned about his internal reaction. While he admitted to resisting bringing the issue to me, one day he remembered something I had said in passing more than a few times- “when you feel uncomfortable as a leader, the good news is that it usually means you are about to learn something valuable – so I advise you to get comfortable being uncomfortable if you want to grow as a leader.” 

Without getting into the weeds of the differences of opinions or perspectives, because that is rarely where my time is best used by my clients, we’ll stick to the plan Marco created while I held space for him and then I’ll share  three of the examples of how it worked out for him.

  1. Mining the Data – Marco’s Journal  Marco started recording insights from his meetings with the entire team and individual member, especially when issues related to these conflicts came up. It wasn’t his nature to be long-winded  and ramblings but he documented perspectives, emotions including reactions, expressed and unexpressed. He charted them to better understand thinking patterns, both his and the team’s; he examined new perspectives that were surfacing and examined past organizational cultural norms. It started to become clear to Marco  that his team was deeply entrenched in polarized thinking, between past comfortable practices and new innovative options. He told me one day, after responding to a particularly pointed question I asked, that he just realized it felt safer for him to side with his former peers because their approach affirmed what he had done in the past that ultimately resulted in his promotion. Feeling affirmed when stepping into a new position feels especially good – he was vulnerable and feeling like he was right reassured him. He was overwhelmed to recognize that these other ways of responding to the business pressures would stretch him both in his confidence and in his leadership but could position his division to lead the way to new ways of doing things. I observed some discomfort even as he shared his reflections; it was at this point coach and client meaningfully dig into the weeds/insights.
  2. Now Marco was ready to play with modulation – checking himself and members of the team when these conversations came up. Marco’s plan now called for proactive modulate: how he designed the agenda for meetings; how he posed questions for discussion; he even prepared for when he would slip up during a meeting. He reported that slip-ups happened fairly frequently in the first few weeks but he became very attuned to himself and would call himself out directly and ask the team to allow him to revisit something from another angle. A few months into his plan, he told me that one member of his team had confessed that he had gained so much more trust for Marco through that period because he could see Marco working hard to open up his own thinking to model the way rather than demanding it of the team.

Marco used some of the language we talked about last week. I supported his efforts by helping him unpack those that were meaningful for him, including:

  1. Once, when he realized by using polarized thinking in his approach each of the team members would firmly take sides, he shared that he jumped in and acknowledged his weak thinking by saying something like, “I need to point out that I just heard myself  a minute ago using language about your respective branches as though you are in competition with each other and I regret that because it strikes me that we can learn from each other AND respect our unique needs and strengths better with a collaborative approach, We are not against each other. We are part of the same company and for our brand to be strong in this market place we need each other. I want to return to the earlier point and rethink it togetherI didn’t help us find clarity in our thinking by implying there’s no room for different approaches” Marco reported that there appeared to be a big sigh of relief in the room and a healthy discussion on options was generated as a result of his confession.
  2. On another occasion, Marco reported how in one meeting one of the “contrarians” proposed something unique as an experiment in her branch, offering to share the results with the entire team but requesting support from both Marco and her peers. The team, it appeared saw this experiment as a threat to the status quo. Marco reported to me how he had felt paralyzed for a couple of minutes while the conflict got heated but upon clearly recognizing what was happening he acted on some of the thinking he had been doing on exactly these situations and he halted the reactionary conversation and offered something like, “well it seems to me, at least on this issue, this approach may help us all see new options”, he silenced the room AND he realized over time that with this gentle redirect he had started a shift in his own and entire team’s thinking or perhaps the focus of their thinking.
  3. Marco also grew to love working with invitational questions. Remember, these are the kinds of questions that invite the group to explore and choose options for continuing a generative conversation. One day Marco was delighted to share how he had used them to help one of the contrarian directors seek support for her experiment by posing an opening question in one of the team’s meetings. He had put her planned report on the agenda and he found an opportunity when she reported a problem she was encountering to jump in and pose the question to the group, “does anyone have an ideas they like to offer Carrie on another way she might approach this or is there a way we as a team could think this through with her?” Marco was surprised and encouraged by the interesting ideas that were generated. He also suggested to me that he learned that by working it this way the conversation remained constructive and solution-oriented.

Imagine how, by taking the challenge to let go of polarized thinking, you may be better equipped to lead an innovative team where conflict and difference ultimately becomes an asset that sets you, your organization apart from the real competition.

An opening, suggested by a gentle modification will be noted, and even if it doesn’t change the immediate thinking dramatically it opens up minds and provides an opportunity to return later in the discussion or at another time.

The more invested you are in your point of view as right—morally or intellectually or practically superior—the more difficult it is to listen to another’s. The more invested you are in viewing the other person as wrong—silly or ridiculous or stupid or bad—the more difficult it is to compromise, change, and find a way to move to where you want to be.

Next time: It’s episode 104 which is the final episode in year 2 of ImpactBank’s the KICKASS koach and I’m going to use that as an opportunity to answer some of the questions you’ve posed.


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