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Reviving the neglected art of self-exploration

Socrates reminded us that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” But who should be doing the examining? Too many of us have never considered the possibility of it being ourselves, of imagining that we have the capacity to self-examine, and acknowledging that it is an important skill to develop.

When we are growing up we assume it is our parents and teachers whose role it is to pass judgement on us, and this assumption remains with many of us for the rest of our lives. We continue being “children”, expecting the ongoing oversight of “parents”.

On arriving here in the late seventies as a manager I expected – as I had been accustomed to in the UK – that the appraisal process would be initiated by appraisees assessing themselves. I was shocked by the pushback I received.

“But that’s your job,” I was told by some, and asked why I was avoiding my responsibilities. Did I not know my appraisees well enough? Was I insufficiently aware of how they had been performing? Had I been too lazy to prepare my assessment?

For some, it just did not feel right to think or talk about themselves. They weren’t the ones who should be doing it, period. Part of the problem was that they were not prepared to “brag”, to “blow their trumpet”, for such immodesty would be against their principles of humility.

(Which is why so many CVs lack the marketing appeal their authors actually merit.) On and on, so many justifications for self-assessment avoidance.

Yet for me one of the main ways I judge a person is by how self-aware they are, by their ability to observe themselves objectively and draw appropriate conclusions about what’s working well that they should feel proud about and what needs to change.

Such is the mature, emotionally intelligent person who looks in the mirror to learn from experience and to grow. Yes, they must be open to the input of others, but more as a way of enhancing how they study and coach and improve themselves.

Some weeks ago I wrote about Think Again by Adam Grant, a book I have been talking about ever since I read it. In my article I shared Grant’s take on self-awareness insofar as the relationship between competence and confidence is concerned.

It is logical to assume that the more competent we are the more confident we become, I wrote. And yet, Grant points out, some of us feel confident despite lacking competence.

This speaks of arrogance and complacency, of a lack of self-awareness. (In the context of appraisals, it may just be the appraisee’s way of negotiating for a higher pay review or a promotion.)

At the other end of the spectrum Grant draws attention to the “imposter syndrome”. Those who suffer from it feel they’re not up to the task, even in situations where they actually are competent and it is only their confidence that is lacking, I explained in my article.

This can turn out to be helpful, he and others have pointed out, as it keeps them away from the know-it-all mindset and encourages listening and learning, rethinking and unlearning.

To be relaxed about rethinking we must be confidently humble, with our egos in check, Grant tells us. Interestingly, many of those with whom I interact in appraisals display what I call “excess humility”.

Such people over-focus on their weaknesses while taking their strengths for granted – prompting me to move them away from their self-flagellating mindset.

Such guidance is part of what coaches offer, as coaching individuals or groups to indulge in constructive self-exploration is very much part of what those who play this role are meant to do.

So devote time to reflecting purposefully about yourself, generating self-knowledge that helps you navigate your way through life. Do so in calmness, in a quiet place, perhaps by going for a walk. Write about it, indeed make this a habit by doing so in a journal.

Yes, do also seek input from bosses, mentors, coaches and others, and be open to their contributions. Celebrate with them what is to be celebrated, and work on what needs to be worked on. Enjoy the journey. Not least the one where you accompany yourself.

How to make yourself suitable for coaching

I recently wrote a column on the coaching style of leadership, and today I return to my favourite current topic by looking at what it takes to be “coaching ready.”

Ironically it is often those most in need of such help that are least likely to want it or to benefit from it. Such people, for whatever reason, are simply not suitable candidates for coaching.

It may be that they suffer from excessive yet misplaced confidence, as they go through life with an “I’m OK, You’re not OK” mindset. It could stem from a sense of such gnawing insecurity – a deep down “I’m not OK” ego state – that they couldn’t handle their inadequacies being revealed to a coach. Or it could simply be that they have reached their peak and that therefore they and those around them must simply live with them as they are.

So leaving aside the uncoachables, how can we assess someone’s openness to benefit from linking up with a coach? The first challenge is that everyone is simply so busy these days that making time for it is far from easy. Even many who get going with a coach and find they are enjoying major benefits can fade out just due to being swamped with work.

Sometimes it takes a crisis to stimulate the demand for help, or perhaps a looming opportunity that risks being missed. Either way, are you up for confronting what you need to be doing more of and less of to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be? Are you relaxed and confident enough to learn and to grow, to expand your comfort zone?

Vital to the process is being completely open with your coach, not hiding any awkward truths that could impede how you benefit from your relationship with them. Equally necessary is following up time spent with the coach by putting into practice what you have committed to doing – including not allowing yourself to succumb to having “got too busy”, or to lacking the courage to have a go.

It is by experimenting boldly and by mitigating downside risks through behaving with emotional intelligence that you will reap the benefits of being stimulated into action by a coach. Doing so will allow you to celebrate breakthrough successes with them; to mourn together over initiatives that fell flat; and with the latter to regroup and relaunch.

Now let me move to the organisational level. For even if an individual is coaching-ready, if the leadership of the organisation is not then coaching is unlikely to deliver on its potential. I cannot stress strongly enough the need for those in board and senior management positions not only to be the sponsors and champions of coaching but also to consider engaging coaches themselves. After all, it’s for good reason that people say “it’s lonely at the top”, with no one with whom to share one’s inner hopes and fears, one’s aspirations and preferences.

For leaders to embrace a coaching culture they must first believe in the need and the possibility of developing their people. This in turn requires that employees are trusted and empowered, and that they are engaged and ambitious, innovative and responsive. It also supposes that coaching is but a component in a learning and development strategy; that rewards and recognition come through merit; and that those selected for coaching are neither merely the stars nor just the underperformers.

Next, does your organisation do well with its performance management? Most do not, and in particular they suffer from ineffective appraisal systems and inadequately thought through performance indicators – including in relation to the effectiveness of development initiatives such as coaching.

So time and effort devoted to coaching will be infinitely more effective in the context of robust performance management environments. Not to mention that coaching can play an important role in nurturing exactly such cultures.

My parting shot is that more so in the fast-paced relentless contemporary world we must step back and find time to reflect – at both the individual and the organisational levels. And there’s no one better placed with whom to indulge in such exploration than a coach.