To take your leadership abilities to the next level, you need to think about the journey that got you to where you are and every aspect of your personality. Think about your life as though it were a trip. Take into consideration every highway and every pot-hole-filled, off-the-beaten-track road you've traveled; every river and swamp you've encountered.
Why do you need to look backward to look forward? Because history—your unique, personal history—is a critical factor in figuring out why you are the way you are, on both the positive side and the negative. One of the first things we do at The Handel Group when we begin coaching an executive is to work on discovering what his or her negative traits are. We look at personality, habits, and behaviors, and determine what doesn't work in the corporate environment and diminishes his or her ability to lead or work with others powerfully. (These same traits are very often similar to what doesn't work in their personal lives, but here we will stick to business…mostly.)
A few examples of negative traits may be micromanaging employees who don't need it; not trusting people; being harsh, impatient, or forceful; not taking the time to acknowledge and appreciate people; being late to meetings. These are just some examples, but you get the idea—and probably see one or two of these traits in yourself already!
Acknowledge Negative Traits
Before you start getting frustrated or feeling bad about yourself, remember that everyone has negative traits, even the most successful leaders and managers. But you can't fix what you don't know—or acknowledge—to be a problem. You'll see many benefits, both personal and professional, to doing this kind of work.
So how can you uncover your negative traits? Well, we recommend a few ways, some conventional and some not. One way is to reach out to people you both trust and feel comfortable with, and explain to them that you genuinely want to hear about your less-than-positive traits because you are sincere about changing your behavior. These could be siblings, friends, colleagues—anyone who you know will tell you the truth.
Another way to do this is to make a list of situations that didn't work out the way you wanted or that made you unhappy, and figure out your role in it. Did a work relationship get soured by your lack of trust? Have you had to apologize to employees because your bad temper made you treat them badly?
The third way—and something we do at The Handel Group with clients—is to ask you to list all of your parents' traits, positive and negative. Before you roll your eyes and decide this isn't for you, let me make it clear that we aren't getting into therapy here (though it may end up being a therapeutic process), but we believe that understanding all of the people in your life, all of your life's big events, directly opens a window to understanding the themes in your life that are not resolved.
System of Consequences
Your personality is made up of everything you ever experienced—everything you ever heard, witnessed, learned, mimicked, etc. To understand your personality, you have to know what you are reacting to, believing in, and reliving. The mission is to uncover unresolved themes—and resolve them. Here's how it might work: You look back and realize that your mother was a control freak, and how that plays out for you at work is you micromanage people. Maybe your father withheld praise, and you never think to congratulate employees on small victories or remind them that you know they are doing a great job.
After you determine what your negative traits are and you decide to do something about them, then what? How do you change a habit that's been hanging around for a long time? There are a few methods we use at The Handel Group and one of the simplest but most effective is the use of promises and consequences. For instance, my big thing was I could get really mean with people—be sarcastic, say really debilitating things to them. It didn't work and I was committed to changing that trait.
I promised that if I was mean to anyone, I had 15 minutes to realize it and then go back to the person and apologize. If I didn't catch myself or if someone else caught me, if it took me longer than 15 minutes to figure it out or if I didn't want to apologize, I paid the consequence, which was throwing $10 on the street. (Yes, I literally threw money on the street. It made me nuts to do that, but the whole point of the consequence is it has to be incredibly annoying. Giving money to a good cause isn't annoying!) After two months of catching myself and apologizing, and $100 to the street in increments of 10, I started to notice I didn't get mean anymore. I started to let people know in a respectful way that something they did just didn't work for me and we resolved it.
With one executive I coached, he realized he was grumpy often and that anyone who walked into his office at those times had to deal with the grumpiness. (By the way, he also realized he did this at home.) He told his entire team that he knew he was grumpy and he was going to try and stop it with their help. He put a glass jar on his desk and every time he was grumpy he had to put $1 in the jar and his people had the right to call him on it. At home he had his kids decorate a tin can with "grumpy" pictures and each time he was grumpy he had to put $1 in that jar, as well.
A system of consequences starts the process of being aware of your trait. Having the people in your life participate helps you identify and modify the behavior that's not working, and also lets the people who are most affected know you are sincere about changing and are inviting their help.
At first, most people don't want to acknowledge their negative traits, but by the time the process of discovery and change is complete, an amazing feeling of freedom enters the workplace. There is nothing more inspiring than seeing someone be responsible for their negative traits and it even allows others to face their own. The entire environment shifts, allowing for creativity, productivity, and effective teamwork.
So I dare you, tell on yourself to your team. Tell them that you know you can be harsh, or that you are late to meetings, that you can get impatient and bite people's heads off, or whatever your trait is…then tell them you are taking on the task of ending these traits. You can even ask your team whether there are any other traits they would like you to take on this year. Then set up your consequences, let them in on the game, and have fun with it. You'll be amazed at what happens.