TWH#37: A Recipe for Self-Improvement
"Talk less, listen more, and be decisive when the time comes." —Satya Nadella
I talk too much.
While many struggle with not speaking up enough, my challenge in engineering leadership has been the opposite. In one-on-ones or team meetings, particularly the ones I would lead, my need to speak up and say things is often unstoppable. And when I start, I can also ramble. Not good.
Luckily, thanks to some degree of self-consciousness coupled with the kindness of external feedback, I was able to gain clarity on the issue and do something about it. This week’s post attempts to reverse-engineer this (still ongoing) process and turn it into a formula you can apply to working on any aspect of your own self-improvement:
Don’t be fooled by the seemingly sequential nature of this process. While helpful to break it down this way, all steps work in parallel, in a continuous loop. We’re never, ever done with ourselves.
You can’t solve a problem you are not able to see—or feel. This is no exception.
It started for me with a gut feeling that I intervened too often, and went on for too long. When asking for feedback about a particular meeting, I would be told something along the same lines. I started paying more attention and trying to do better, but quickly realized this is not the type of thing you improve on sheer willpower alone. I would get engrossed in the topic at hand and again speak up more than I intended.
Being aware of a problem is still not enough. You also have to accept it as it is—and as you are, in this case. Moreover, it must be a problem you believe is worth fixing, and that now is the time.
In other words, you accept it.
Fortunately for me, even if I didn’t yet fully understand why this was happening, it was clear to me that my effectiveness as a leader was being negatively affected.
Why did I act like this? What compelled me to overcommunicate in meetings? Why couldn’t I help myself?
As I reflected on this, I realized that my thirst for knowledge—in the form of books, podcasts, blogs, you name it—was in fact a double-edged sword. My head was brimming with ideas, concepts, frameworks. Couple that with the complex nature of tech teams and startups, and at every corner I saw an opportunity to add something. This only increased as my scope and responsibilities grew. There was just so much at stake, and so many details to care and worry about.
As I became increasingly mindful of what was arising in me just before getting triggered to speak, I realized something else: that it was also fear driving me. Fear that if I don’t say this then bad things will happen, because the team won’t see it. Implicit in this was the idea that I was more experienced than the team, and that they can avoid important mistakes due to my wisdom. While in some aspects this was objectively true (from a pure experience perspective), the premise was still fundamentally flawed. Yet, it was impelling me to keep the team safe.
One day, during a session with a mentor, I brought up this issue with him. As he was listening along, he commented softly almost under his breath, “yes, you were very hurt.” Needless to say, it gave me pause. It opened the door for me to realize that—surprise, surprise—past traumas were also, in part, shaping my behavior in the present.
Without turning this piece into (even more of) a therapy session, suffice it to say that a lack of validation as a child likely has something to do with this. While my present challenge was in relation to my team, I had to acknowledge and accept that I was very much still in relation to my dad as well.
Armed with awareness and understanding, I could finally do something about it.
One thing that helped was an increasing fascination with quiet leadership1. The more I learned about it, the more inspired I became by those leaders who helped others think better. Their ability to synthesize and connect the dots for everyone at the end of a meeting fascinated me. And that required listening a lot more than talking. I wanted to be more like that.
Ultimately, my process of overcoming this issue hinges on my personal values and goals; on observing the consequences of my behavior; and in realizing when and how my behavior is in conflict with those values and goals.
The more I say, the less others contribute. As a leader, my job is to create space for creativity, inclusion and diversity of ideas. If I overwhelm others with my input, theirs can’t surface. And no single mind can reach the best answers alone. This went against my value of truth-seeking, and my goal of helping the company succeed.
The more I say, the less others learn. Failing is an essential part of learning—the discovery of what doesn’t work. By over-intervening in an attempt to prevent “preventable” mistakes, I was precluding my team members from what was essential to their learning and development. This went against my value of helping others grow, and my goal of building the best possible team to help the company succeed.
The more I say, the less I scale myself. Scaling companies is about scaling leadership: good enough decisions made, rapidly, no matter who’s making them. My behavior was shifting the burden of leadership: the more I spoke and drove, the less my team felt compelled to do so. This diminished my ability to scale as a leader, as you can’t (and shouldn’t) be everywhere. This went against my value of creating leaders (not followers), and my goal of helping the company scale its operations.
A former coach of mine once helped me see the distinction between values and beliefs. Values are lived beliefs. Beliefs are just that: beliefs. By acting against my values I was not living them, downgrading them to mere beliefs. That wasn’t acceptable, and it helped me clean up my act.
Everything is a skill. Everything can be improved as long as you have the will to work on it.
Whatever you’re trying to improve in yourself, the awareness-understanding-overcoming loop can help: What is really going on here? Why does this happen? What is the impact? And what can I do about it?
Clarify what your values are, and confront the brutal facts: are you really living up to them? It’s in the conflict between values, goals and behaviors that personal growth happens. Look closely. Act on it. Look again. Rinse. Repeat.
What about you? Do you have a process for self-improvement? Let us know in the comments. 🙂
See David Rock’s Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work, Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, and Jocelyn Davis’ The Art of Quiet Influence: Timeless Wisdom for Leading Without Authority for excellent takes on this topic.