I remember my first time: It was about 30 years ago…

… and I was facilitating a strategic planning process with the leaders of a struggling insurance company. It’s when I explicitly went “meta” in a meeting (long before Facebook went Meta).

We were evaluating a potential future scenario for the company when Chuck, the CFO, began blasting the exercise, his colleagues, and of course, the consultant (me) for “wasting our time on hypotheticals.” And then he just sat there, fuming.

I tried to draw out more of Chuck’s concerns, while his colleagues just froze up, trying to stay out of Chuck’s bull’s eye. They were looking for me to get things back on track. But I didn’t know what to do.

(I’ve since become much more comfortable with not knowing what to do, recognizing it as a natural and even valuable part of the process, but back then I still believed that “real leaders” and “real consultants” should always have the answers.)

So, I decided to simply ask folks to take a step back and look “back in” at what we were doing together. Then I sat back in my chair, turned my palms up and waited.

Surprisingly, Chuck was the first to speak. He acknowledged that some interesting ideas had been raised in the exercise, but that he was feeling huge pressure to get to concrete actions. “As CFO,” he continued, “this weight on my shoulders is making it almost impossible to engage in long-term speculative conversations.”

Other team members began sharing their observations about the exercise, the company and how we might proceed. Ten minutes later, the team—including Chuck—decided to continue with the scenario planning, but with a heightened focus on shorter-term actions they might take while pursuing their strategy. An hour later, we were translating the learnings from that exercise into the beginnings of a new strategic plan, along with some bold tactical steps to take over the next several months.

This experience revealed something important to me: the power of intentionally taking a step back from whatever you’re doing in order to see it with fresh eyes. I call this a “meta-move.” (My friend Lucy calls it “going into the bubble.”)

Meta-moves aren’t anything unusual. We all do it, but we may not realize it. Anytime we shift focus from being in an activity or conversation to becoming an observer of it, we’re making a meta-move.

But you can learn to make meta-moves intentionally and explicitly in your interactions, and there are many good reasons to do it. Here are just three:

1. You gain a new perspective about whatever you’re doing and how you’re doing it
2. It can defuse powerful emotions that you or others may be feeling
3. It creates space for others to step in and feel greater ownership of whatever you all decide to do next.

So the next time you’re finding yourself spinning your wheels, or are uncertain how to proceed, try hitting the pause button and explicitly “going meta.” It may be the most powerful leadership move you can make.

 

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