Are you an above the line person or a below the line person?

Above and below the line behaviour is a shorthand way of describing how you relate to the world and respond to problems, mistakes and disappointments.

Below the line people react to problems by denying them completely, blaming others for them, or making excuses. Here’s an example. You’re sitting at home after a hard day’s work, feet up, relaxing. From the kitchen, you hear a crash. You call out ‘What happened’ and the response is: ‘Nothing!’ That’s denial.

You persist. ‘I heard a crash; what was it?’ If two people are in the kitchen, you might hear ‘Mary did it!’ That’s blame. Or you might hear ‘Awwww, it wasn’t my fault; the milk carton was wet and it slipped.’ That’s an excuse. All below the line responses.

Wouldn’t it be nice to hear ‘I dropped the milk carton; I’m just getting the mop to clean up the mess.’ That’s an above the line response. That’s taking responsibility.

A lot of children never learn to let go of below the line behaviour and carry it with them right into adulthood. They don’t stump up to their mistakes. They don’t face stumbling blocks and set-backs and fix them. They refuse to accept problems. Instead of taking responsibility, they deny, lay blame or make excuses. They never learn and they never grow.

Much better to give up the ‘victim’ mentality, stop blaming others, and take responsibility. Taking responsibility for your own choices and their consequences is more likely to move you forward, towards your goals and towards learning life’s lessons.

Are you an above the line person or a below the line person? What about your team members? How can you help any below the line team members start accepting responsibility for their actions and their consequences?

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How to give feedback

Leader-managers owe it to employees to let them know their contributions are appreciated and how they could contribute even more effectively. No doubt you agree.

But do you get hung up on the word ‘feedback’? Don’t. Banish it from your mind and replace it with the word ‘information’. That way, you aren’t thinking ‘complaints’ and ‘criticisms’ but ‘insights’ offered in a caring, helpful way. Caring, helpful insights are indispensable to healthy workplaces and work teams.

This means banishing negative general comments and body language that implies ‘Oh, no – not you again’. Sarcasm, rolling your eyes, ignoring people or their efforts, and even heavy ‘hints’ fall into this category. It also means banishing telling people they’ve done something ‘wrong’ without explaining how to do it ‘right’.

Instead, motivate and lift people’s spirits with positive general comments that show you’re glad to be working with them. When you want to make sure what you’re commenting on is repeated, be specific – say what you appreciate and why you appreciate it. That builds and maintains first-rate performance.

When you want to help someone contribute more effectively, be constructive. Provide practical information that can help the person lift their performance.

So here’s your challenge for this week: Tell each of your team members something that you appreciate about the way they work and contribute. In a different conversation, show them how they could tackle a task to achieve a more effective outcome. (To find out why to separate your positive and constructive comments, see my blog Why the ‘sandwich technique’ for feedback doesn’t work.)

The imposter syndrome

Here’s a statistic that you won’t find in the Australian census: Up to 70 per cent of leaders sometimes fear they don’t really belong in a leadership role, that they’re ‘winging it’, and that they’re about to be rumbled and exposed as a fraud. Feeling like a fake is so common that these suspicions actually have a name: Impostor syndrome.

Being a leader is seldom what people expect—it’s filled with surprises, unexpected lurches forward, dismaying steps backward and struggles to live up to what you think everyone expects from you.

Decades after becoming a leader for the first time, most leader-managers recall their first months in leadership as a transformational experience. They say they felt disoriented, overwhelmed or confused—sometimes all three at once. Most new leaders think the job is too big for just one mere mortal. Many experienced leaders feel the same way.

The truth is that becoming a good leader is a journey of continuous learning and self-development that even for the most gifted, leading and managing is a demanding—although rewarding—never-ending process. Today, you need so many more, and much deeper, technical, conceptual and people skills than leaders of even 15 years ago, never mind a generation ago. But when you pay attention and work at leadership, you end up with a strong and flexible set of leadership muscles that others can draw strength from and that you can use to make a worthwhile and lasting contribution to your followers and your organisation that lasts well into the future.

Deal gracefully with change

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again: Change is all around us. Society, the marketplace, the economy and technology are all transforming with dizzying speed. For instance:

  • Australia’s economy has become a service and knowledge economy, which means organisations don’t gain their value from their machinery and equipment but from their people. Organisational wealth comes from successfully storing and using knowledge to create innovative products and services and develop innovative, sustainable, value-adding and profitable systems.
  • Our definition of what a family unit is continues to change.
  • The capabilities of information, communications and bio and nano technologies (e.g. motor the size of a pinhead) continue to soar and promise to transform our lives.
  • Globalisation makes it easier for epidemics to wipe out or temporarily disable a significant portion of our population and wipe out all or part of an organisation’s supply chain.

And that’s just a sample of what’s going on around us. The world is changing so fast that standing still doesn’t exist – we’re either moving forward and making progress or we’re going backward. In fact, the speed of change is speeding up, and right now is the slowest we’ll ever experience it.

To survive, never mind thrive, we all need to stay on top of the game and better still, stay one step ahead. We all need keep up to date with trends so we can more easily adapt as everything around us changes. Perhaps more than anything, we need to keep learning – about the area and industry we work in, about the technology we use, and about new ways of doing things.

The blame game

You’ve probably seen the diagram of a small circle, labelled ‘Things you can control’ with a larger circle around it, labelled ‘Things you can affect’ and a much larger circle around that, labelled ‘Things you can neither control nor affect’. That huge outer circle includes things like the weather and the economy. In the ‘Things you can affect’ circle are matters like your family’s happiness and the results you get at work. In the ‘Things you can control’ circle is basically yourself: your behaviour and your attitude.

That diagram of three circles leads us to Denial, Blame, Excuses and Responsibility. So imagine this: You’ve had a hard day and you’ve finally made it home and are sitting comfortably with your feet up, trying to chill out. The kids are in the kitchen and you hear a crash, tinkle, tinkle. ‘What happened?’ you ask. And what’s the response? ‘Nothing!’ That’s Denial; something has clearly happened.

So you say, ‘Don’t tell me nothing! I heard something break!’ And you hear ‘It wasn’t my fault, it was his fault.’ That’s Blame.

So you say, ‘I don’t care whose fault it is–what happened?’ And you hear, ‘The bottle was slippery and it fell out of my hand.’ That’s an Excuse.

Wouldn’t it be nice to hear, ‘I dropped a bottle. I’m just getting a mop to clean it up.’ That’s taking Responsibility.

Quite a few adults have turned Denial, Blame and Excuse into something of an art form, which means they focus not on the little inner circle of Control, but on the big outer circle of No Control. So nothing changes.

Let’s take a look at the first refuge or the irresponsible: Blame. Someone slips on the pavement. Do they blame the council for not sweeping up fallen leaves or do they take responsibility for not taking care how they’re walking? Blame is a great defence mechanism. It preserves your sense of self-esteem by avoiding admitting to your own shortcomings. But you’ll keep slipping on leaves.

Someone leaves the sausages in the frying pan too long and they burn. Do they take responsibility for being distracted or do they blame their partner for not doing their share of the housework so they have to multitask. Blaming others is great when you’re in attack mode. And it’s great when it’s easier to blame someone else rather than accept responsibility. But you’ll just start an argument and keep burning the sausages.

Blame is also handy when you think you can lie and get away with it. ‘I didn’t drop the bottle and leave the mess behind.’ Then you cross your fingers and hope no one saw you drop the bottle.

Of course, not everything is our responsibility. But when it is, we need to step up to it. The more we play the blame game, the more we lose. And the less we learn.

Managers, team leaders and parents take note: Step up when you need to. And teach your team members and your children to step up, too.

Dealing with setbacks and stuff ups

On any given day, do one or two, ok maybe a dozen things go not quite as you’d hoped? And do you ever make a mistake? Things happen and no one ever does everything perfectly. It’s how you handle it that counts.

When something goes wrong, accept it. It is what it is. Reframe it positively,  look for the humour and and see what you can do to make the situation better.

When you make a mistake, on the outside, own up. Apologise when necessary, and fix it. Obvious enough, really. But that isn’t the end of it. What you do on the inside is important, too.

Here are four ‘don’ts’ (and these apply to things going awry, too):

  1. Don’t get angry with yourself (or anyone else).
  2. Don’t make it bigger than it is; a mistake doesn’t make you a horrible, useless person and it probably won’t ruin your life for all eternity.
  3. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen.
  4. Don’t mope.

And here are three ‘do’s’:

  1. Put it in perspective.
  2. Figure out what you need to do better, or need to learn in order to do better.
  3. Don’t repeat your mistake.

That’s how to learn from experience. And you know what they say about experience: It’s something you don’t get until just after you need it.

The truth is, we need to make lots of mistakes in order to get really good at just about anything. In fact, it’s a far better mindset to think not of mistakes but of ‘learning experiences’ or ‘life lessons’. That’s the recipe for getting better, and better, and better.

It’s also the recipe for handling mistakes well on the inside. When you can do that, you automatically handle them well on the outside. You don’t say: ‘I’m so stupid, I blew it yet again!’ You say: ‘I could have done it better and here’s how I’ll approach it from now on.’

Mistakes, learning opportunities, mishaps and misadventure–they’re all grist for the mill to be taken in your stride.

The link between achievement and self-esteem

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The jury is in but divided, but more about that later.

However, the jury is in on which comes first, self-esteem or achievement. Some scientists noticed that providing lots and lots of empty praise — giving every kid in the race, including the last one, a trophy — leads to inflated but baseless self-esteem. It can even have the opposite effect to what the providers of lots and lots of meaningless praise intend. The researchers found that kids with unrealistically high self-esteem might be more willing to enter dangerous territory, like cheating, experimenting with drugs and stealing.

It’s also been shown that telling kids they’re smart, whether they are or not, makes even the genuinely smart kids less willing to apply effort, preventing them for reaching their full potential. These genuinely smart kids end up thinking that putting in effort to learn means they aren’t smart and they become more concerned with protecting their reputation as smart, in looking smart then being smart.

So, to have the sort of high self-esteem that’s worth something, you need to achieve worthwhile goals first. To do that, you need three things:

  1. You need to put in effort and understand that trying hard does make a difference.
  2. You need willpower to keep putting in the effort. We’ve talked about the importance of willpower before and the good news that it’s just like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.
  3. And you need something called self-compassion, which is different from self-esteem. While self-esteem often involves the need to be special and above average, when you have self-compassion you don’t compare yourself to others and you can cope realistically with mistakes and failure without them crushing your self-esteem—after all, everyone makes mistakes and falls short sometimes.People with self-compassion tend to look after themselves by exercising more and eating more healthily for instance. They have learning goals rather than performance goals and learn for it’s own sake, not for grades or to impress people.

These three qualities — effort, willpower and self-compassion — are what help you achieve and your achievements build genuine self-esteem. Once you’ve earned your self-esteem, you are likely to be happier, more optimistic and more motivated than people with low self-esteem, and less likely to be anxious, depressed and negative. You’re not going to be an obnoxious person with an over-sized ego based on nothing, either.

The bottom line is, earn your self-esteem through your achievements, not from just be ing handed a trophy for merely running in the race.

And as for the which came first, the chicken or the egg, well, that’s still a conundrum. Some scientists say the chicken did because two non-chickens mated and, via a genetic mutation, produced the first chicken. So the chicken came first. But other scientists say the egg came first because two non-chickens mated and via that same genetic mutation, produced the first chicken. But their logic is that since it was a chicken inside the egg, the egg came first.