What to do when you could have done it a lot better…

Over my career, I have seen almost countless examples of where leaders have gone into important meetings half-cocked (which is a slang term for “lacking in adequate preparation and forethought”). In one fell swoop, people can be alienated and entire change initiatives undermined.

Maybe you witnessed your own versions of this? Maybe you’ve been the leader secretly cringing inside as the perfect collection of wrongness slips out of your mouth? And then perhaps the more you cringe the worse it gets! I think many, if not all of us, have been there; in a situation where we really wish we could rewind and start again. But the point is, no one is perfect. And, as painful as those experiences of “getting it wrong” may be, often they hold powerful learnings for us.

Yet, despite the knowledge that perfection does not exist, many of us strive for it to an almost excessive degree. It is at these times the little imposter inside of us can come out to play; ruminating in negative ways to strengthen the niggle that we might actually be out of our depth and, at some point, everyone else will know it too.

In times when our communication goes down like a lead balloon, it’s worth checking in on what was going on underneath the surface. We could spend a great deal of time hypothesising as to why this can happen, but for me there are five common categories this kind of heavy-handedness and poor communication falls into. I’ve shaped them into a model I lovingly named SPLAT.

The SPLAT Model

  1. Self-esteem – A common issue felt by many leaders is that of self-doubt. If we fear failure it can lead to us demonstrating some very poor behaviours. We can begin to overcompensate for the level of self-belief and confidence we have. Yet even this can be a double-edged sword; have too little self-esteem and we feel the need to shield ourselves, have too much and we can trample all over things.
  1. Pressure – There are no two ways about it, leading can be hard work. When we become overwhelmed by our stress (be that personal or professional) we can show up in very unusual ways. These reactions can become habitual and can fool us into believing we are getting results, even if those results are reactive ones. The amount of pressure we are under and our ability to cope are areas for reflection when we notice the cracks beginning to show. However, even better is to proactively manage or off-set the demands upon us. This might mean asking for help, renegotiating expectations, or even delegating mindfully to those with the capacity and capability.
  1. Love – I know this word has all sorts of connotations and meanings, but central to this model is kindness and care as universally held expressions of love. If we as leaders have little or no regard for those we are leading, our red flags should be waving. To be led by those with zero empathy and what can appear to others as borderline sociopathic tendencies is a nightmare, and yet many organisations promote people for their ability to “get things done” rather than how they do them. If we don’t have any love for the people we’re working with, then one could question if we’re a leader at all. It is more likely we’ve fallen into the trap of being a dictator.
  1. Awareness – If a leader lacks the awareness to understand their impact on others this can lead to them really putting their foot in it. It is when our intent, which might be good, misaligns with our impact that points to a lack of self-, social-, or political-awareness. Self-aware leaders are those who regularly seek genuine and balanced feedback from peers and team members. Awareness comes from combining reflective practice with insight and seeking continuous improvement.
  1. Technique – Developing emotional and communication skills is by far the most crucial thing when leading people. Knowing our ‘why’ and ‘what’ are clearly important, but without practising the ‘how’ things can get dicey when leaders deliver important messages. Often as leaders, we can feel as though we have to shoot from the hip rather than reflect on matters fully. Moreover, we can lack the headspace to really develop our skills. If we don’t manage this well our skill level can stagnate or even decrease.

So, the next time you have a moment where you feel like your message just went SPLAT, have a think:

  • Was I doubting myself or perhaps being a bit overconfident?
  • Did I leak my frustration or perhaps crack a little under the pressure?
  • Would people have known I genuinely care about them?
  • Did I miss something there or was my intent and impact at odds?
  • Was I using my emotional and communication skills effectively?

Remember, it is almost never too late to go back and ‘redo’ a conversation. In fact, owning when you could have done things better with your staff could go a long way in building trust with them. This does not mean we need to start falling on swords to somehow win the confidence of those we lead, but rather to show both reflectiveness and flexibility. To model what we would wish to see from others. If your people can see that you seek improvement over perfection, are human instead of unknowable, it can also have a positive effect.

In terms of how we manage our inner imposter through balancing our need for perfection verses a desire for improvement, we must first stop. Stop the internal beatings or the complete “I don’t want to even think about this” tactics. These are extreme responses and what we want to have are mature and constructive responses. So, shoot for the middle. Ask,

  • What really happened and what am I making it mean?
  • What can I learn from this?
  • What will I do differently next time?
  • What do I need to do now to recover the situation?

The art in all reflection is to look at ourselves with three eyes: the analytical eye to establish the gaps, the appreciative eye to see what was good and not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and the creative eye to generate new pathways to doing this more successfully in the future (Machon, 2010).

Ed Midson

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