On a sunny day in 2010, while sitting in a leadership retreat on a small ranch in Sonoma, California, I got the results of my first 365 evaluation. Before this moment I had never had a formal evaluation let alone an evaluation by my entire network inside and outside of work. You see, I had opted to let my colleagues at work evaluate me and my fellow board members, peers of my volunteer group and my former managers and directors weigh in. I wanted to fully understand how to take my leadership to the next level.
The first ten years of my career performance had been assessed based on informal evaluation. Much of my work life in political activism and campaigning was in a resource plentiful environment, based on performance and relationships in a hierarchical context. If you wanted to achieve your goals and move up professionally in the labor movement, then you had to build powerful relationships that yielded results.
When I left the labor unions to work for an international human rights organization, everything changed. I found myself with a limited budget, needed to negotiation for resources inside the organization and make the case for resources. Much of my time as a manager was spent making and managing these relationships. It was so different than what I had experienced before.
As I opened the results of my 365 in a room full of strangers, I could feel my body filled with anticipation. While there were many things I expected to see, good and bad, only one thing stood out like a very large red danger sign. One line of my 18 page evaluation said needs to improve communication skills around giving and receiving feedback the score was consistent across the board. Truth be told, when I read it, it sounded something like “Ana – you suck at communication.” I felt the heat start to rise in my body, a slight locking of the jaw as my lips pressed together. And then like a tsunami - a million irrational thoughts came forward:
“Who was it that could have written that. It was probably Juan or Maria. They always hated me. This can’t be right? It must be about that project I just completed, they didn’t like having to work extra hours. Is this a sign of failure. Am I on the right path. Have I missed my calling. What am I doing with my life.”
The Tu No Puedes Committee was in full effect – like break dancers who just dominated their last battle. You get the picture.
For a long time I couldn’t make heads or tails of the communication piece. I thought of myself as good listener and effective communicator. I rated high in these areas but somehow I was missing something. I spent a day in shock and then had to come back to work later that week where I slowly started to peel the onion back to understand what I didn’t understand – how I could be a good and bad communicator at the same time.
I slowly began to discover that the real problem was that I dealt with people at arm’s length – getting just close enough to them to get the job done but not so close to have a meaningful relationship. I was sending my professional relationships mixed messages. On the one hand you can trust me and on the other hand I was saying I don’t trust you. So when things went wrong it made it easy to blame others for the failure of a project. I had a truly hard time trusting others and it was getting in the way of my leadership. So I stretched myself – looking for ways to open up to others, speak my truth and discover how I wanted to relate in the working world.
Trusting others was something dating far back in my life to my early childhood years. My parent’s migration into this country had left me with an unseen scar – fear of getting to close to others because I might lose family and friends. It goes to show you that there are things in our past that we might use to define or validate our professional behavior and limit our leadership potential.
Undoing this is a life long journey and the rewards have and continue to multiply. My ability to authentically negotiate with others grew exponentially as I allowed myself to trust and get close to others. My relationships with friends and family has radically changed. I even became clear about what was really important to me in every deal. The greatest lesson that I have learned so far is that in every relationship, some part of it is my responsibility and can be my fault.
Now some of you may be thinking, sometimes it is the other person’s fault or there are circumstances beyond your control. I also thought this for a long time. There are circumstances where someone is working on something and they fail. But I also realized it takes two to tango. Every relationship, every negotiation, every deal is made up of at least two people. Rarely are the failures of a project or a deal exclusive to one person. They are always shared even if your part in the failure is microscopic.
Failure is not just about making mistakes but its also about:
- Standing idly by when you know the project is going wrong
- Letting your colleague take all the blame
- Thinking it’s always because you’re a woman/thinking it’s never because you’re a woman (fill in the blank for race, gender, ethnicity, language, etc.)
- Failing to express what you want
- Providing realistic deadlines
- Saying their job is not as hard as yours
- Failing to develop creative solutions to budgeting limitations
- Saying you are ALL in when you are really never in at all
Taking ownership, even a partial or small one in a situation can make you a more effective leader. It can transform the power in every relationship from power over towards power with. To begin discovering improvement consider the following:
When it’s truly your fault, you HAVE TO OWN IT. Don’t pull a Trump and stick your head in the sand. When you mix facts with insults, all people remember are the insults. It actually dilutes your message. There are no excuses, own your mistakes, see them as learning moments and step back to evaluate how you can improve for the next time. If ever there was a time to put on your big girl shoes and apologize, it’s now.
Ask for authentic feedback. If you’re unclear where you need improvement, ask for honest feedback and be open and curious to the information being shared with you. This kind of feedback is for your benefit and your ability to show colleagues that you want to improve. Colleagues will often see this as a sign of good faith and open up further to you as you gather and evaluate improvements. Trust that this way of being vulnerable will demonstrate your capacity for emotional intelligence, strengthening your hand in any negotation.
Find the root cause of the problem. When you listen from an open place, you hear key information that may lead to the root cause of the problem. Asking questions, without getting defensive, can give you the results you need to take your relationships at work to the next level. Trust that you can discern the good and bad feedback to find the root cause of your resistance.
Trust. When you build relationships from a place of trust, the results are phenomenal. Allies and adversaries alike will respect you and believe that your relationship comes from a genuine place. Demonstrating trust means being transparent about your needs and expectations and vocalizing them to others in an authentic way.
Your turn: How can you take responsibility for your share of the failure? How can you change direction?
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