Our Common Challenge
Welcome to the club, Brene Brown. She joins the elite world of management and leadership gurus whose name becomes a brand associated with addressing a critical and common leadership struggle. Like most leadership issues, people have been talking about vulnerability, difficult conversations, and transparency for a long time and have generated similar solutions. But today, one often hears comments like, “you know, the Brene Brown thing.”
Part of Brown’s appeal is despite being a world renowned expert on all things related to interpersonal challenges, she writes so candidly about her on going struggles. She establishes common ground with all of us and reminds us that we never eliminate our need for acceptance and understanding. Or as Ken Blanchard would say, we are all recovering addicts when it comes to pride and fear.
In Dare to Lead, Brown tells the story of her husband coming home from work, discovering there is no luncheon meat and expressing his profound disappointment. Brown who was stressed from commitments in all directions, interprets the comment as a direct criticism of her role as a wife and mother for not having dinner on the table. She replies with a heavy dose of sarcasm and tells him how he can get his own groceries. Her feeling of self-justification is short lived as her husband reminds her that in 30 years of marriage he has never come home and seen dinner on the table and for the last five years he has been the one doing the grocery shopping. Her husband remains calm, and asked “what’s going on?” Brown then backtracks to discover what is the real story she is telling herself in this moment and realizes it is all about feeling insecure to deliver with excellence in all aspects of her life. (It turns out her husband was just really hungry and had been looking forward to a ham sandwich when he got home.)
So much of Brown’s message is the importance of self-awareness and intentionality. There is power in recognizing that we are all facing a common challenge to really listen and provide feedback and insights when we see the problem and the solution differently. Like a lot of solutions, we tend to do better when we start out creating the right environment for dialogue rather than leading with a solution based solely on our own assumptions.
The power of the right question needs to be applied both to ourselves and to others. As the ham shortage example above illustrates, we often need to ask what story is driving my feelings and behaviors. Unfortunately, we often don’t stop to ask that question until we have reacted poorly and often publicly. This also highlights the need for trusted relationships and truth tellers in our lives.
Brown also highlights the importance of curiosity rather than defensiveness when people see the world differently. Again having a few standard questions or phrases to respond to differences often creates a path to understanding and not conflict. Brown offers questions and phrases like, “That is not my experience, tell me more,” I am working with these assumptions – what about you?”, “what problem are we trying to solve,” and “we’re both dug in. Tell me more about your passion around this.”
Another powerful insight Brown presents is the effect of “assuming positive intent” or believing others are doing the best they can. The belief that we are surrounded by people who are lazy and thoughtless often leads to an “us versus them” mentality at the leadership level. When leaders are told that people are doing their best, their attitude and behavior changes from a contest of wills to teaching and applying resources to skill gaps and even seeking opportunities that are a better fit for the person.
Human nature Is not going to change. So, we should not structure conversations, meetings, teams, and decision making as if people will see the world with pure objectivity or at least the same way we do. Leaders who create cultures around the messy realities of human relationships build in lots of space to be human. This generally means slowing down processes so communication takes place at a deep level. While slowing down may seem counter intuitive to operating at peak efficiency, the improved relationships will translate into better results in less time.