Anything but that.
Have you ever noticed a temptation to signal helplessness?
I once was in a particularly difficult spin class where the instructor kept shouting to us to increase the resistance on our bikes.
About halfway through the class, I was feeling like I had made a terrible mistake. I was picturing the yoga class down the hall and wishing that I had made a different choice. I was struggling, big time.
At some point, the teacher shouted, “If you’re making a face, then you can probably put in more effort.”
I looked at my face in the mirror and noticed the intense grimace plastered on it.
She caught me.
Our ways to avoid failure.
In the book Impro by the improvisation teacher Keith Johnstone, he talks about how students learn all these ways to avoid failure in school.
Some will scrunch up their face when trying to figure out a tough problem, while others might shrug their shoulders in defeat.
Whatever the case, we learn all these ways to signal to the authority in the room that we need help.
As a former teacher, I can tell you that seeing a student struggle (sighing, rubbing their temples, slouching in their chair, etc…) is an invitation for engagement.
Signs of frustration are often a signal for help, and we bring those behaviors into our adult life.
What’s the problem with the grimace and the kid slouching in her chair?
What’s the big deal if we carry these techniques into our adulthood?
Well, they are designed to do one, powerful thing for us, which can hold us back from becoming all that we’re meant to be.
They keep us safe.
If you’re a leader, teacher, manager or parent, you’ve probably heard all the excuses.
Sometimes it must feel as though your entire day is filled with a litany or reasons why something can’t happen.
They become stuck.
Dealing with the fear.
If you want to help people who are doing whatever they can to avoid the pain of failure, then you have to deal with their fear.
The problem is that you can’t talk them out of fear of failure. It’s basically a survival trait.
The perfectionist who is wound too tight and keeps trying to control for every outcome (paralysis) or the “blocker,” who has a myriad of excuses for why he can’t be successful, are all seeking some sort of safety and comfort.
The biggest mistake that many of us make as leaders is that we either give up on them or we try to take away their discomfort. Either way, we signal to them that they are correct to be afraid.
Want a student to feel vindicated about their fear of learning something new? Take away the thing that they were afraid they might get wrong. They get to be both right and safe, which, in my experience, reinforces that assumption.
Let’s start with the idea that everyone is afraid to fail.
Every manager and leader is also afraid to fail at their job.
What if I’m no good at this?
What if my team fails because of me?
Deal with your own fear first, if you actually want to help someone else.
The more space you feel in your communication with your team, the more calm and calming your voice will seem to them.
Name the problem.
Just like the spin class teacher identified the uselessness of my grimacing, we can do the same for our direct reports.
Just name it.
I sometimes wonder what the impact would be if leaders could name more clearly this fear of failure without bringing fear into the conversation.
As Amy Poehler (the Saturday Night Live and Parks and Rec star) once said, “Everyone is afraid. All of the time.”
The difference is whether we’re willing to drop our habits and techniques for avoiding failure and step out into the spotlight.
Are we willing to be seen?
The better you are at naming the fear and the techniques without judging or blaming people for being weak, insufficient, or cowardly, the easier it is for people to settle down and drop the patterns.
Failure as our friend.
Finally, we want to create an environment where failure isn’t the enemy, it’s actually our friend.
The goal is to create new ways for your team to fail in small ways so that they can get accustomed to it and grow new muscles around the idea of learning.
Because that’s what we’re really talking about here, how to learn and grow.
If you have scared people working for you, you will have people who feel small.
People who feel small don’t come up with big ideas.
Big ideas take courage, risk, and the willingness to trust.
All of that can begin with you.
As long as you’re willing to be curious about your own ways that you avoid failure.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to communicate with clarity and calm, or if you’re looking for some coaching, please drop me a line.
Check out my new podcast It’s Not Personal with CIO Ken Grady. You can also find us at www.itsnotpersonal.net
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