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self-management

Few children grow up thinking, “Someday I’m going to be a manager.” Truth be told, few adults probably do too.

Management is an elusive field. It’s hard to find the right candidate because, aside from the stature and increase in pay, it typically raises your stress level and negatively affects your interpersonal relationships. Just the word “manager” can conjure negative feelings in employees.

Managers may not have clear visions of how to lead and what to delegate. They may fear a coup of their very position and then become withholding with regard to tasks and responsibilities. They may battle with inner demons of respect and loyalty. Managers are people who are rarely trained in the art of management and thus leave a trail of inconsistency in their wake.

Employees are oft left with the role of self-management in lieu of strong leadership. Navigating inconsistent management is a skill in itself. The good news is it can only help you!

Factors that Contribute to Inconsistent Management

The main ingredient for inconsistent management is a lack of self-efficacy.

Rarely is inconsistent management a case of someone so confident they adhere to the Emerson belief that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” More often it is someone who wishes to be perceived as consistent; their underdeveloped self-awareness is the very thing that leads to their erratic decision-making.

In 2010, researchers at the University of Western Ontario (J. Robert Mitchell, Dean A. Shepherd, and Mark P. Sharfman) conducted a study to figure out the how / why behind managerial erratic decision-making.

What they found was the following:

“Erratic strategic decisions are less likely from managers with greater metacognitive experience and for managers who operate in more dynamic environments.

Conversely, erratic strategic decisions are more likely from managers in more hostile environments, especially when dynamism in that environment is low.”

Meaning…

  1. Self-awareness – or the absence of – is one main component for inconsistent management. Managers who do not self-reflect and aren’t aware that they don’t self-reflect will lead to a higher rate of inconsistency. Their lack of self-awareness about how they’re coming to their decisions (past experiences, thought patterns, metacognitive processes) informs the efficacy of their decisions.
  2. Dynamism – The more dynamic the work environment the less inconsistent the decision-making; most likely because decisions have to be made, there isn’t time to deliberate. Given too much time, anyone can second-guess their decisions.
  3. Hostile & Changing Environment – The work environment doesn’t have to be hostile, it can simply be ever-shifting with regard to personnel, protocol, or allocation of space.

And I would add a 4th:

  • Lack of knowledge / experience – If you do not have any past relatable experience to draw upon, chances are you will not know what to do to produce a desired result. You may not even know what the desired result is.

Where does this leave the employee?

Learned helplessness

Learned helplessness is when we are conditioned to think we are powerless to change a bad situation for the better, thus accepting that there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

In the context of inconsistent management, there are two forms of learned helplessness:

  1. When the manager projects an image of incompetence, sending out conflicting messages and confusing directions. The employee is left feeling hopeless regarding the manager’s competence.
  2. When the inconsistent management takes the form of inconsistent reinforcement, meaning complimentary one day and critical the next. The employee may have initially felt competent, but now feels incompetent due to their boss’ inconsistent reinforcement.

Solutions:

  • Speak with HR.
  • Find new employment.
  • Bounce experience off trusted colleagues for confirmation.

It is crucial for the employee to keep their self-efficacy intact. Doing so requires self-awareness that it’s even setting in.

Hopefully they’re reading blogs about learned helplessness. Hopefully they’re recognizing the behavior as inconsistent and problematic and running it by someone. It can be HR or a trusted colleague. They need to confirm their own sanity to ensure the problem isn’t on their end.

Emotional Contagion

A manager with inconsistent moods that lean toward negativity is a form of mild torture; you’re never sure who you’re going to get. The only upside is it it’s a great lesson in learning what you do have control over, which is your own mood. So, start there:

  • Step outside for a moment.
  • Watch a video you know makes you happy.
  • Listen to a song you know makes you happy.
  • Talk to someone that makes you happy.

When to confront your boss & when to let it ride

Good question. More often than not, I’d suggest letting it ride. Inconsistency is likely due to insecurity. Tapping into their issues may threaten them and consequently hurt your professional standing. I recommend:
  • Pick a time when you’re fairly certain you’re on their good side and they’re pleased with you.
  • Pick a time when they’re in a good mood and seemingly open and receptive to the outside world.
  • Pick your battles. Make sure this is truly a situation that needs to be resolved and addressed before you can move on with your work.

Reframe it back to the manager for clarity

If the inconsistency is with direction and conflicting messages, the employee should ask for clarification:

  • Reflexive mirroring. Repeat what they said back to them so they can confirm their own statement and add what you need clarification on. Have the manager give a clear directive so the onus is on them.

For instance…

“I heard that you want the project done asap, but that we should also focus on this other project immediately as well. I want to make sure I do exactly what you want – which should I make the priority?”

When it comes to inconsistent reinforcement, the employee can do the same thing – throw the ball back, i.e.:

“I want to improve and make sure I’m doing the best job – what is the area you feel I need to work on?”

Asking your boss for clarification shows respect and protects you from future misunderstanding. With inconsistency, there are no rules, so you want to do your part to get on as stable ground as possible.

Speaking up for yourself will also embolden you. When you act and express yourself – even if the conditions don’t change – you will change internally because speaking up for yourself has an ameliorative effect on the soul.

When you don’t stand up for yourself or your needs, you tap your willpower. You are left feeling drained, exhausted, and you increase the likelihood of learned helplessness.

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We can be swayed by titles – manager, boss, CEO, etc – but it’s always important to remember these are not divine kings sent to us from the heavens, they are regular people who were hired into a position.

Though inconsistency and incompetence are infuriating, it’s important to allow compassion and understanding in. This is a person with faults, insecurities, goals, and dreams like everyone.

Perhaps they took on more than they can handle, maybe the inconsistency is a result of trickle-down inconsistency from the top and they’re just trying to stay afloat; perhaps they never even wanted to be in this position but couldn’t resist the pay increase.

Put yourself in their shoes, consider their life, what might be happening in their world. Consider the fact that if they leave and you get their job that a) that might have been one of their fears all along and b) you might not be so consistent yourself.

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We all talk to ourselves when we’re alone. When we’re walking down the street, when we’re sitting in front of the computer, when we’re waiting for our car to come out of the car wash.

And when we talk to ourselves there’s a narrator with a particular bent. Sometimes our narrator is inspiring, but sometimes our narrator confirms our deepest fears for us. Of course it’s always us narrating our own story.

You’d think we’d always choose an inspiring narrator, yet so many of us – myself included – fall prey at times to a terrible, uninspiring narrator. Where does this narrator come from? He/she is born out of our core beliefs.

Our core beliefs are all the ingrained positive and negative thoughts that influence how we think and feel about ourselves, and the world around us. Unless discovered and diminished, core beliefs tend to solidify and resist change.

Here is a list of some common negative core beliefs:

  • I always get the short end of the stick
  • I must be perfect at all times
  • I can never change
  • I must only look out for myself because no one else will
  • I am not a people person
  • I am never listened to or respected
  • I must strictly adhere to my plans

To compound matters further, our core beliefs start to hang out with our cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are beliefs our minds tell us to reinforce something that is untrue, and they typically reinforce something negative.

So you might start with the core belief, “This always happens to me” and end up with the cognitive distortion, “This will happen to me forever.” (Overgeneralizing)

Another example would be starting with the core belief, “I am never listened to or respected” which is then cemented in the brain with the cognitive distortion, “I must be boring and insignificant.” (Emotional Reasoning)

Do this enough and you will build a world around you that reflects your inner negativity, which will add to your stress, which will reinforce your negative self-talk, and so on and so forth. It’s a self-inflicted Murphy’s Law. The loop has to stop somewhere.

[There are approximately 15 cognitive distortions that psychologists have sorted out over the years that you can find here.]

How Negative Core Beliefs Affect a Leader’s Reaction to Stress

These negative beliefs and self-talk undermine a leader’s ability to handle stress effectively.

If you take as an example the core belief of “I must be perfect at all times” it’s easy to see how this will create anticipatory anxiety: you will not be perfect at some point in the future.

That anticipatory anxiety becomes a daily stress – either in the forefront or as a constant background buzz. The reaction to that daily stress is to mount even more anxiety and high-wire behavior to avoid the fear from coming to fruition.

Then, should we find ourselves imperfect at some point (which we of course will) we do not have the required cognitive energy to handle the stress as the anticipatory anxiety has already burned it up.

As another example, a leader with negative core beliefs might react to the news that sales are down by thinking, “This always happens to me.” Or in anticipation, “this is going to happen to me.”

Again, this response does not have the required resilience to think about how to change course. It has already deemed the current reality as permanent and unfixable.

We all write scripts for ourselves for how we will act or not act in certain situations. Rather than write yourself as the character that gets killed in the first act, write yourself as the hero who thinks outside of the box, who keeps the negative self-talk at bay.

How Negative Core Beliefs Affect a Leader’s Ability to Lead

When we bombard ourselves with negative self-talk, our anxiety mounts. As our anxiety mounts our stress builds, and it becomes contagious for all around us.

You might have an MBA from Wharton and a law degree from Harvard, but if you are a stress case your peers and colleagues will not notice your credentials; they’ll only notice your stressed out behavior.

Neuroscience backs up the notion that people find it hard to work for leaders who do not handle stress effectively. Everything that goes on in our environment affects the brain’s limbic system (emotional center). So it goes to reason that a stressed out leader will contaminate the emotional wellbeing of those around him/her. Frantic people make other people frantic.

Effective stress management makes you and everyone around you more efficient and productive.

How to Manage Our Negative Core Beliefs

Become Cognizant. Listen to your inner voice. How is it talking to you? Would you tolerate it if a friend talked to you in the same way? Pay close attention to your exact words and write them down. You’ll begin to see how the voice in your head contributes to stress.

Challenge the negative thought. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is my negative thought?
  • What evidence proves this thought true?
  • What evidence proves this thought false?
  • What unhealthy feelings and behaviors does this thought cause?
  • What will eventually happen if I continue to think this way?
  • What advice would I give a friend who feels this way?
  • What conditions should I accept right now? What won’t change?
  • What can I do to make my thinking more positive?
  • What words will express my new healthy thought?

How to Ultimately Beat the Negative Self-Talk

We don’t have to become Pollyannas to shift our self-talk. Simply by maintaining a healthy dose of realism we can improve our psychological health and ultimately our leadership skills. It is a learned optimism.

1. Get a coach or therapist. If your brain is looping with negative self-talk I highly recommend a coach or therapist to help break the spell. It is a sign of strength to admit you need help and allow an outside perspective.

2. Commit to Your Life. Pardon the new age analogy, but if you were a plant would you be flourishing and robust or would you be withered and half-dead? Get yourself in shape, physically, socially, and professionally. Water the plant! The more you are fulfilling what you see as your innate self the less time you’ll have to listen to the negative self-talk, but also…the less it will actually be talking to you in the first place.

3. Perceive Control Over Situations. You can choose how you react to a stressor and thus exert some degree of control over it. This takes practice, but you have to start. Don’t fret if you aren’t a master at perceiving control over situations at the beginning. You need to create new neural pathways in your brain, which requires repeated tries.

4. View Stressful Events as Problems or Opportunities. Those who cope successfully with stress tend to look at the silver linings as well as the clouds. Plus, once the event happens you have to react to it in some way. Might as well do it in the way where you and those you lead stand to benefit.

5. Give yourself some space. If you find that you are consumed with negative self-talk and cognitive distortions you may need to clear your head with a vacation or some time off. I recognize this may not be possible given your circumstances but see if you can carve out some personal time to re-boot your brain.

The bottom line is how do you want to feel about your life on a daily basis? While it may seem like you do not have control over your thoughts, actually the opposite is true: you do. And in each moment when you hear negativity in your head you have the opportunity to halt it and switch to something that feels good.

There’s no question life throws “unfair” curveballs our way. I’m not asking you to like them, but I am suggesting that once the curveball is acknowledged you don’t dwell on how bad it makes you feel.

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I am an avid crossfitter and I am a leadership development coach. As of two weeks ago these were two separate aspects of my personality that did not cross over, until…

…I arrived at my crossfit gym one morning to see a “Goals & Gainz” list on the board outlining 10 traits that required zero talent, all of which are proven leadership traits.

10 factors for success copy

It’s common for new and established leaders to have moments of self-doubt and engage in social and professional comparisons. We live in a time when geniuses abound, but we have to remind ourselves that success often comes down to perseverance, not genius. It’s about consistency and follow through. That’s where the genius lies.

The skills to succeed aren’t God-given; they aren’t based on IQ or circumstance. They are skills anyone can acquire with practice. If you want to be rise to the stature of Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg then research their professional success and emulate them if need be.

Aspiring leaders and entrepreneurs can easily emulate the greats to develop their own leadership style that will push them to the top.

  1. Being on Time – You can be as good at arriving on time as Richard Branson. This is a character trait that is so easy to accomplish and promotes respect for all parties involved. Chronic lateness does exactly the opposite.
  2. Work Ethic – You can have the same work ethic as Marc Cuban. In fact most business icons have written books about their work ethic. Pick one up and research their routines. You will need to believe in the virtue of hard work. Even an early windfall or premature success will not sustain without the backbone of hard work to keep it going.
  3. Effort – You can exert just as much effort as Bill Gates. The key is to be willing, and also to exert the right kind of effort so you don’t waste your time. Effort separates most successful leaders from the rest of the pack. They do not stop and they work at their goals like there are 1,000 rumpelstiltskins trying to beat them at their own game.
  4. Body Language – You can convey the same body language as Sheryl Sandberg. Study the greats and see how they communicate nonverbally. Get a coach if need be to see where you might need work on your communication. Nonverbal cues may not be the secret to propel you to the top but they can definitely hinder you from getting there. Some traditions take body language very seriously.
  5. Energy – You can harness the same energy as Oprah. While some of us might be born with a natural zest, it’s easily attainable and just takes the right medicine: sleep, proper diet, meditation, exercise, and some fun. It’s not rocket science; it’s the natural consequence of living healthy.
  6. Attitude – You can have the same attitude as Franklin Roosevelt. It may have to be cultivated if you don’t have the leadership attitude to begin with, but you can get it if you want it. You can learn from a mentor and by emulating the greats. The more you emulate the more it becomes who you are.
  7. Passion – You can have as much passion as Arianna Huffington. If you’re doing what you love and aligned with your goals the passion will come if you want it. You have to want it though, or the passion lays dormant inside of you. Once you begin and keep going, the passion will grow.
  8. Being Prepared – You can be as prepared as Roger Federer. Tennis players are a great example of preparation as they practice hitting drills for most of their lives so that when they are in a match they have the muscle memory to hit the shot the way they need to. They can then concentrate on where they want to hit the ball without worrying if they have the skill to execute it. Similarly, prepare yourself so you have the ingrained skills to execute your ideas.
  9. Doing Extra – You can go the extra mile just like Barbara Corcoran grew Corcoran Realty into the empire it is. It’s just a matter of doing it and not stopping. You always have a choice of doing or not doing. Choose doing and you’ll see the fruits of your labor if you do a little more. Even when you’re burnt out you probably have at least 20% more in you to give, if you’re willing.
  10. Being Coachable – This is where you make it or break it. Recognize there is no leader that has done it alone. Most leaders had someone – be it a mentor, a coach, a book, a role model – from whom they learned. Being Coachable is about cultivating curiosity and resisting the status quo bias, which urges you to keep things as they are. Read, learn, grow, evolve, keep an open mind, frame challenges as opportunities.

***

When jazz musicians are learning their craft they first learn – note for note – the solos of their idols. Once they have those solos under their belt they develop their own style, but they don’t develop their own style until they’ve first emulated the greats. Likewise, aspiring leaders and entrepreneurs can easily emulate the greats to develop their own leadership style that will push them to the top.

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants” – Isaac Newton.

The only talent required for any of these skills is the humility to accept that we all learn from those that came before us.

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