Stop trying to change your colleagues. (It doesn’t work.)

A central tenet in my work with leaders and their teams is that we, ourselves, are where the real action is whenever we’re working with other people. This applies regardless of our role or seniority in the organization.

When folks hear this, I get many different responses, including: “Wait, isn’t that kind of self-centered—don’t we need to keep those other folks at the center of our focus?” Or, “Sure, holding up the mirror to my own role is a good idea, but my boss really is an *#%hole.” Or variations on these themes.

(BTW, the *#%hole may be a team member, a colleague from another team, or anyone else, but wherever they are, it usually seems clear that they are the obstacle to our success.)

I sure know the feeling: If only that person or team over there weren’t [so closed/clueless/such a bad listener/fill in the blank], life would be so much easier! I’ve had plenty of people in my life whose sole purpose at the time seemed to be to make things difficult for me. Even though we may secretly know it’s not true, it’s not a good feeling.

Let’s take a real-life example from a Professional Services leadership team I worked with several years back, where their bosses were the problem

This six-person team was responsible for a large department of professionals in a global tech company. They’d asked me to help them turn around their department’s performance. They’d been missing their targets and getting bad ratings from their customers.

I started by asking a simple question: Why do you think this department is where it is right now—how did you get here? Here is a sampling of their responses:

  • Our numbers—the quotas we get from our bosses—are unrealistic.
  • We’re not empowered – saying no to requests from other departments is futile; someone higher up will just override it.
  • Our metrics are always fluctuating, depending upon
  • We’re always making concessions to whichever customer our bosses tell us is more important that day.
  • Our colleagues in other departments (i.e., Sales, Marketing, R&D, Finance, etc.) are not in alignment with our goals and strategies.

Their other responses were similar.

I then asked them to explain these responses (given that all these folks were seasoned leaders who’d been in their roles for many years). 

Again, I took verbatim notes of their explanations, some of which were…

  • Lack of maturity by senior leadership (our bosses) to remove obstacles.
  • Lack of consideration for our views by senior leadership.
  • Senior leaders place demands on us without understanding the implications.
  • Our senior leaders don’t listen well. They just want what they want.

Again, most of the rest of their comments were variations on these themes.

After this round, I heard nervous wisecracks and noticed that some folks were visibly uncomfortable.

Next, I asked them to reflect on this second list (their explanations for their explanations), and once again wrote down their observations. Here were several of their responses:

  • I’m embarrassed by these lists.
  • It’s all outward-focused!
  • We need to make some fundamental changes in our own minds.
  • It just sounds like excuses backed up by excuses…
  • …we sound like a bunch of victims, and we’re supposed to be leaders!
  • I hate this list!

This was a turning point for the team. As they examined their own thinking more clearly, they realized that their previous assumptions about “the problem with their leaders” were less about their leaders and more about their own beliefs and feelings.

As these leaders stepped down from the self-righteous pedestal they’d been teetering on for so long and began recognizing their own role in perpetuating the “problems” they’d thought lay elsewhere, the mood in the room was transformed.

Now, instead of resentful victims of their bosses, they were a team of thoughtful, curious leaders taking responsibility for themselves and their circumstances, and they began earnestly exploring how to move forward together in a new way.

Here are a couple of questions for you: Take a moment to revisit the team’s “explanations for their explanations”—the second list of bullet points above, and then ask yourself:

1) What types of solutions do you think you’d come up with if you tried to solve “the problem” of your bosses being immature, inconsiderate, overly demanding and lousy listeners?

2) And how well do you think those solutions would work? How receptive do you think your bosses would be to those solutions? (If you were the boss, how receptive would you be to someone trying to solve those “problems” in you?)

 In case you’re wondering, these leaders left that meeting with a clear and cogent set of new actions they each committed to, to turn their organization around. And none of them involved trying to change their bosses.

Over the next year, they transformed their department’s performance. But it wouldn’t have been possible unless they’d been able to see that they, themselves, were ground zero for change.

Of course, there really are some #%holes out there. But probably not as many as you may think. And even when you find yourself working for one, becoming aware of how your own thinking and beliefs may be contributing to the problem (and certainly to your own suffering) will still be transformative. 

If you’re interested, I go into more detail with this example and many others in my new book, Full Contact Performance, available at bookstores and online booksellers everywhere.

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