Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Eating Your Own Soup

Sometimes I wonder why feelings are seen as a disruptive influence at work. I think they're just the opposite: they're the key to motivation and inspiration. Yet we insist on keeping a cork in the bottle.

A client of mine who serves as an internal coach at a large company recently gave me a tour of a team work area we would soon be working in. While there, he introduced me to one of the team members and invited me to observe their regular coaching meeting. I welcomed the opportunity to observe these two people and their interactions, so I accepted. There is so much you can learn by watching facial expressions, listening to tempo and tone, and noting what is and what isn't discussed.

After about five minutes of discussions, the team member confided to us that he felt some fear about introducing, in the next team meeting, an important new realization he'd just had. The team had completed planning, etc, and was ready to roll. He didn't think they would take kindly to the prospect of rethinking yet again.

This is a common situation in the workplace, and I'm sure you recognize it. Ideas don't always cooperate with the linear approach to work that most of us follow. Some ideas insist on waiting to reveal themselves until after plans have been made! From my vantage point, the leadership challenge in that situation is to find a way to make good progress while still permitting "backtracking" when important ideas arise. And, of course, you have to make the work environment safe for those ideas in the first place. When you are able to do those things consistently, you have mastered one of the three key challenges of the creative leader, the challenge of momentum.

Feelings of safety result from the kind of reception one gets from others when expressing ideas. And that, in turn, results from others' confidence that they are capable of hearing the idea, and possibly using it, without negative consequences. You might be surprised to learn how little of that kind of confidence there is at work. We are all so driven by milestones that we are actually afraid of them, and we've forgotten how little intrinsic value they really have.

In this little vignette with my client, I saw a growth opportunity. The team member's fear was not unusual, but the fact that he was willing to express it caught my attention. I was so impressed that I took a chance and put my two cents in. I suggested that, rather than work out a strategy in this coaching session, he might bring his fear directly to his team and have them work through it, with facilitation by his coach. I thought this would permit the team to gain confidence in its resilience. I also thought that the outcome might be better and more organic than one based on a pre-digested delivery from this coaching meeting.

I was gratified to hear that my suggestion thoroughly delighted my client. After a short exchange, he and the team member agreed to proceed as I suggested. The team's portfolio involves fostering diversity, and that involves facility with emotions, especially fear. So my client called my suggestion "eating our own soup". I thought it an apt description.

As leaders we often feel anxious at the prospect of emotional distress among our charges. Group distress can indeed be frightening, but it also a cauldron that cooks up real growth, innovation, and teamwork. It's an opportunity for a leader, not just a risk. And sensitivity is a key.

As our little meeting was about to end, I told the team member that I felt a little responsible for the path he was now on. He had agreed to become even more exposed than he might have wanted. Though he had courageously agreed, I cared enough about him to check that he hadn't agreed simply out of courtesy or a feeling of being under pressure. I asked him directly and watched for the non-verbal signs. Based on what I saw and heard he seemed fine. I admire both his courage and that of my client. I love having clients like this!