Thursday, August 30, 2007

Perfection is Judgment by Michelle Kunz

If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now. -- Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121 AD - 180 AD)

Doubt yourself and you doubt everything you see. Judge yourself and you see judges everywhere. But if you listen to the sound of your own voice, you can rise above doubt and judgment. And you can see forever. -- Nancy Kerrigan

Perfection is judgment.
Excellence is acceptance.

I encourage you to read the quotes again. The power of this post lies in the depth of our understanding of where judgment begins. As indicated by our expert panel of two, judging starts within.

As in previous examples of how perfection can begin seemingly harmlessly and grow into a block, judgment appears to be desirable and even necessary. After all, we need to know the difference between mediocre and great or perhaps awful. How else can we do this without some degree of judgment? Perhaps if we more clearly define our terms we can choose not only a better word, but a better dynamic for making distinctions. For example, what is the difference between judging and discerning, and how is the energy different around these two words?

Dr. Ellen J. Langer, of Harvard University's Psychology Department, has done a great deal of research into the nature of mindfulness. In a recent keynote address, she delivered some of the startling results of her research:
  • Hotel housekeeping staff in a test group lost weight and showed measured improvements compared to the control group in areas such as cholesterol levels, heart and respiration rates and overall physical fitness. The experiment? Each group was asked to rate their current rate of physical activity and fitness levels (average rating: low). Then the test group engaged in discussions about how they spend their day. On discovery that they spend the majority of an eight hour work day in physical labor, they experienced an attitude shift about their activity levels. After several weeks, new measurements were taken, and the results were dramatic.
  • A variety of experiments report similar findings in situations where people are asked to describe a particular event or item with no further directions. When asked to describe a similar event or item, looking for subtle differences between the two, the ability of the subject to describe the second item increased dramatically. The theory? A context-driven task will produce far greater results than an arbitrary task. People need mindfulness to bring their full powers of attention and observation to the table.

What does mindfulness have to do with judgment?

Dr. Langer warns against the tyranny of evaluation. We all know what this means. Since grade school we have been sensitized and oriented to the results of a given task. How often did I hear in my teaching years, "What do I need to do to get an A in your class, Dr. Kunz?" How shocked they would be to hear me say now, "Show up and be mindful of and responsive to whatever takes place." What they don't understand is that a class dedicated to those principles might engage in the most lively debates on the subject at hand, increasing the possibility of a depth of knowledge unattainable through memorization of facts and figures most tests are aimed at capturing.

Judgment gone awry pushes us into a position of polarity. There is good and bad, right and wrong, my way or your way, up and down. We forget that in reality a vast number of possibilities exist along the way from left to right. They are infinite.

Judgment forces us to value results over process, and therefore we miss the infinite on the way from one pole to the other. We are either finished or not. If this is the way success if defined, we have missed great opportunities for insight, awareness and potential. We are stuck on the treadmill of grinding out activity and no longer value the experience gained along the path if we were to jump off and really walk somewhere.

Why is excellence acceptance?

Acceptance sounds admittedly passive. Why should we adopt an attitude of acceptance when we wish to become powerful leaders?

Because we misunderstand the true meaning of the word. Again, referring to Encarta, it is the fifth definition which conveys a sense of passivity: "without protest." The first four definitions are more active: saying yes (as in accepting an invitation), the act of taking a gift, the willingness to believe that something is true, and finally, coming to terms with something.

Acceptance serves us better than judgment because it is related to mindfulness. When we are mindful, we are aware, context-oriented and responsive. The power of this state lies in our ability to accept situations, events, other people, and ourselves as they are in this very moment with an understanding of what we might do to effect change if we choose to do so. This is the future-oriented thinking of a great leader. Unlike judgment, whose polarity usually locks us into a position of looking at what is wrong, acceptance allows us to see things as they really are -- the truth --, respond without the need to control, embrace spontaneity from ourselves and others, including mistakes which result from risks taken, and look at how the future might be different based on the entire experience.

Great leaders know how to embrace the gestalt of their experience and those of their team members in such a way that all parties feel liberated and empowered to move forward in creative, bold, mindful new directions free from the tyranny of judgment.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Control vs. Spontaneity by Michelle Kunz

Analysis kills spontaneity. -- Henri-Frederic Amiel

The author of genius does keep till his last breath the spontaneity, the ready sensitiveness, of a child...the ability to respond freshly and see traits and characteristics as though each were new-minted...instead of sorting them quickly into dusty categories and pigeon-holing them without wonder or surprise... -- Dorothea Brande

Perfection is control.
Excellence is spontaneous.

When we began this series we observed that many good intentions can be reshaped into obsession below the radar of our awareness, and control is another great example of this phenomenon. Some amount of control is often appropriate and perhaps even preferable, for example where highly emotional displays are concerned, but too much control can also lay the groundwork for apathy, boredom and at its worst, anger, frustration and rage.

In our last post we discussed how anger and frustration can be the natural result of the desire to be right, fueled by the resulting fear of making a mistake, which ultimately leads an individual to attempt to control aspects of life which cannot actually be controlled. This is one example of how control can be destructive.

Control can also result when an individual suffers from other types of fear (coupled with the resulting typical behavior):
  • Fear of intimacy (I will not allow myself to get too close)
  • Fear of embarrassment (I will control how others see me)
  • Fear of failure (I will control the outcome)
  • Fear of success (I will control the outcome)
  • Fear of losing control (I will exert more control)
  • Fear of intensity (I will shut my emotions off)
  • Fear of personal flaws (I will overwork or I will not try)
  • Fear of commitment -- to a person or a decision (I will procrastinate)

Control taken to these levels often becomes the overarching rule by which perfectionists run their lives, and although they may suspect something is out of balance, they may be unable to see where the inequity lies or make any moves to produce a change. Relationships suffer greatly, both personally and professionally, and overall effectiveness is compromised.

Why is excellence spontaneous?

For individuals who have relied on control to govern their fears, spontaneity at first glance seems like chaos. It is dangerous, inviting all varieties of unpredictability into a life where once ruled smooth uniformity and routine. Calm, cool and collected is traded for intensely emotional displays run amok. There are far too many variables involved to even consider, and the temptation is to shut the door and return to the familiar comfort of a highly controlled environment, whether internal, external or both.

However, let's examine the true nature of spontaneity and challenge these limiting beliefs.

According to Encarta, the first definition of spontaneous is: "arising from internal cause: resulting from internal or natural processes, with no apparent external influence." The definition most people associate with the word -- "unrestrained" -- is the third definition.

What would happen if we allowed our internal system of values and beliefs, our fundamental intelligence and creativity, to speak up and inspire us to say what's on our minds without concern for appearances, failure, negative feedback, rejection, pressure, politics, or any other perceived or real external influence?

A powerful leader knows how to be spontaneous and how to encourage it in others. It is in spontaneity that fresh ideas are born and problems solved. It is here that lively debate can occur, the lifeblood of a healthy, productive team. Why do we like brainstorming sessions? Because when done well, they are spontaneous, and fantastic schemes can be invented and explored without judgment.

Spontaneity is childlike but it is not childish. A powerful leader knows the difference and can confidently and adeptly nourish the former while keeping the latter at bay. Control has its place, but teams are hungry for spontaneity, and there is a wilderness of room available for exploration.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Excellence is Powerful by Michelle Kunz

Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power. -- Seneca (5 BC - 65 AD)

Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. -- Epictetus (55 AD -135 AD)
Perfection is anger and frustration.
Excellence is powerful.

This article's opening quotes are purposefully taken from ancient times. The struggle of humans to be at peace with what is not within our direct control is timeless. It is comforting to consider that since people first formed societies we have been engaged in power struggles, and it is from these power struggles that perfectionism arises. Whether overt or deeply hidden, perhaps even subconscious, the struggle to gain and/or maintain power over another person or situation which is rightfully not within our power is at the root of almost every stress we have ever known.

Tracing our path from the need to be right at all costs to the fear this breeds within us, we can easily see how perfectionism gives rise to anger and frustration.

Self directed anger

Directed inwardly, perfection's unrealistic goals set us up for self-hatred and ongoing frustration as we continually fall short of our own expectations. No one else could possibly design a more rigid set of standards than we do for ourselves. In fact, for many people those very standards keep them in a state of paralysis as they realize on some level they cannot meet their own viciously high standards and thus procrastinate beginning to avoid failure later. A self defeating cycle is then put in play as anger and frustration set in as a result of the procrastination. As self esteem suffers, the disconnect between our potential and our reality widens, and anger and frustration increase.

Anger towards others

When another individual (or a group of individuals) is the focus of our perfectionist tendencies, anger and frustration build in both parties. We perceive latent potential and set goals and standards based on our desire for perfection. As leaders, we are aware of the risk of making a mistake, so we are heavily vested in getting it right and making sure everyone else does, too. We are motivated by fear more than openness, so our desire is to drive every person and every project to our level of comfort. When deadlines slip, mistakes are made or someone can't keep up, anger and frustration flare.

Anger towards us

Meanwhile, the individuals at whom these impossible standards are directed may feel managed rather than led. They may feel they have no voice in their project, no choice in their methods and processes, and are no more than a body going through the motions to produce an outcome. They are silent in meetings, or perhaps show their resentment through sarcasm or constant joking. Even worse, they may find ways to stall -- sabotaging the effort through passive-aggression because their anger and frustration has no vent.

Why is excellence powerful?

Excellence is powerful because excellence is willing to be wrong, learn, and get even better. Excellence takes appropriate risks in the face of fear. When a leader combines the willingness to be wrong with appropriate risk taking, a powerful energy begins to take shape in their way of thinking and doing. They are free to explore, express, share, learn, expand.

Control is limiting. Power, in the way we are discussing it, is freeing. A powerful leader knows how to build levels of trust in her team in such a way that open conflict is explored without humiliation, rancor or harm. When team members, from the lowest level to the highest, can engage in lively, free, open debate, new and creative ideas are discovered which otherwise would have lain stagnant beneath the rubble of anger and frustration created by the culture of control.

A powerful leader pursues excellence because it begins first with the leader. And a powerful leader knows that this is, after all, the only thing within her power to control.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Taking a Risk by Michelle Kunz

In life we don’t get what we want, we get in life what we are. If we want more we have to be able to be more, in order to be more you have to face rejection. -- Farrah Gray

To use fear as the friend it is, we must retrain and reprogram ourselves...We must persistently and convincingly tell ourselves that the fear is here--with its gift of energy and heightened awareness--so we can do our best and learn the most in the new situation. -- Peter McWilliams, Life 101

Perfection is fear.
Excellence is taking a risk.

This pair flows nicely from the first of the series. If perfection is committed to being right at all costs, fear is a natural result of striving to maintain that position.

There are many aspects of fear experienced by those in leadership positions:
  • Fear of failure is perhaps the most widespread. If I fail will I lose my job? The respect of others? Backing? Credibility?
  • Fear of the unknown freezes us in mindless repetitions of past-relevant contexts. If we change some things, won't we have to change everything? If it's already working well enough, why mess it up? Why should we go in this new direction?
  • Fear of success is a subtle yet powerful block which affects many who are amazingly creative and talented. If I am successful, how will that success change the other areas of my life? If I am as successful as I dream I could be, how will I possibly sustain that long term? If I am successful and then fail, how will I live with the embarrassment?
  • Fear of rejection is a huge motivating force (for inaction) for many people. If I try this and they don't like it, how will I deal with the rejection? If they reject me/my product, does that mean they don't like me? Why should I propose this new idea if it is going to be rejected anyway?
  • Fear of losing ________ can cripple the otherwise motivated. If I lose my job/relationship/savings/self-respect/______ how will I ever continue on?

In the coaching partnership we eventually have a conversation around fear of some kind. Inevitably the client shares the common experience that something inside, experienced as self talk, or someone else's voice (often a parent or other authority figure) talking, begins chattering in very negative language whenever fear is present. That chatter can take many forms, but usually is some variation of the following:

  • "Who do you think you are?"
  • "You can't do this."
  • "You aren't capable."
  • "You should know better."
  • "This will never work."
  • "You're going to fail/look foolish/lose everything."
  • "Who are you kidding? Everyone knows you're a fake."

Negative self talk is incredibly damaging and blocking. While it is often difficult to shut it up entirely, it is not difficult to change its influence. Furthermore, self talk can shed light on very important aspects of our self and what motivates us (to action or inaction). Through the coaching partnership, the client is able to very closely examine the nature of such self talk, acquire greater self awareness, and replace it with new, empowering talk that over time can turn negative energy totally around where fear is concerned.

Why take risks?

Risks are where all the creative ideas lie. Nothing invented, discovered or created has ever been attempted without some degree of risk. To court risk is to court possibilities and excitement. Risk is where the future lies.

So how does a leader encourage appropriate risk taking? By leading the way. Modeling is a strong teacher as well as motivator. When your team observes you taking risks, failing, and taking more risks informed by the previous attempts, they will feel safer doing the same.

The more freely you can discuss your failures and share your experiences around that, the more willing your team will be to openly confront their own failures. This is itself a risk. Admitting where we made the wrong choice, and how we felt about the results is a vulnerable position to take. Powerful leaders know how to make this the starting position. They share the experience of failure and reframe it as they shift the energy from the past (what happened and how they felt at the time) to the present (what we have learned and where this leaves us now) and, more importantly, the future (what we are going to do with that new information to allow us to take another more informed risk).

As we learn to be comfortable with risk, we move from being blocked by our fear to using our fear to ignite our creativity and passion. Our drive for excellence moves to the foreground and our ability to lead with engaged, empowered vision grows. People are drawn to our values of excellence, passion and engagement and we no longer experience fear in the old way, for we know that every failure teaches us something that brings us closer to blazing success.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Perfection vs Excellence, Part I: Willing to Be Wrong by Michelle Kunz

If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward. -- Thomas A. Edison

If you're creative, if you can think independently, if you can articulate passion, if you can override the fear of being wrong, then your company needs you now more than it ever did. And now your company can no longer afford to pretend that isn't the case.
-- Hugh Macleod, How To Be Creative

As a recovering perfectionist I was given a list of distinctions between perfection and excellence about a year ago. After reading Slow Leadership's post on perfectionism, I thought it might be of value to my readers to explore the subtle differences brought to our awareness by the anonymous author in a series devoted to the topic.

Perfection is being right.
Excellence is willing to be wrong.

As in all things related to perfectionism, the idea starts out with the best of intentions. Isn't it good to be right? We have all been through the academic system, and being right guarantees high test scores, perhaps entrance to the college of your dreams, nailing that interview. Some situations absolutely depend upon being right; a heart surgeon cannot fool around with being wrong, nor can an airline pilot or anyone else in whose hands we place our lives.

But for most of us, being right or wrong is rarely a matter of life and death, and it is here that perfectionism can begin to take hold and place us into a rigidity death grip from which all our creativity and freshness is squeezed if we do not exercise a high level of self awareness. Whenever being right becomes the most important thing and life/death is not at stake, we are stuck.

In their book Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control, authors Allan Mallinger and Jeannette DeWyze discuss some of the problems with a preoccupation with being right:

  • difficulty in making even relatively simple choices (what if I don't get it right?)
  • relationship damage and erosion of trust (why can't you get it right?)
  • procrastination (I have to get it right, so I need to get ready first)
  • worry and stress (did I get it right?)
  • black and white thinking (there is only one way to get it right)
  • score keeping (you against me or me against myself or general scorekeeping)

And the list goes on.

Sadly, many leaders are extremely caught up in getting things right. And for good reason. There is a lot at stake. They have people to answer to above them, and people looking to them for answers below. In all directions there are people watching and the pressure feels tremendous. No wonder we so very badly want to get it right.

So where is the value in being willing to be wrong?

The value lies in giving up control over things we have no control over to begin with. Control is a mighty word. It sounds like something we all should have and want more of. But when we look realistically at what we have control over, the truth is rather uncomfortable. What we have control over is what we choose to do and what we choose to think about: how we choose to respond to our emotional state, how we choose to respond to others, what we choose to do with any given moment in our lives, and what thoughts we choose to spend time and energy on.

Everything else is out of our direct control. So when we make a decision (something we have control over) and things don't work out because the economy changed, the company did something differently than we had hoped, someone was out sick and we got behind schedule, someone quit, someone else didn't get their work in on time, we were out sick, or maybe someone gave us incorrect data, we end up with a wrong decision, but none of the reasons were within our control.

Yes, we may have to answer to all the people looking to us for answers. Great leaders learn the art of admitting they were wrong with humility, dignity and grace. They learn how to move the energy forward in spite of being wrong. They know that being wrong means a chance to learn something that moves you one step closer to true creative genius.

Which is much, much better than simply getting it right.