At Headcorn, the airfield where I learnt to skydive many years ago, I picked up the nickname ‘Special Branch’ on my second jump. This was earned after I landed in a tree on an otherwise empty dropzone — a feat of accuracy I was unaware of at the time.
Two things happened that day:
1. I was in a heightened state of fear; and
2. I focused on the object I needed to avoid.
“Fear is a necessary companion” – Elizabeth Gilbert
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Fear is part of being human, it’s a necessary function that keeps us safe. The problem occurs when we run at the same heightened level of fear for all situations. For example, it’s good to have the tension of fear when jumping out of a perfectly good aeroplane; when you lose that fear you are most at risk. It’s also important to have perspective, to assess the level of fear for the situation you are in.
1. Does this level of fear and (fill in the gap) match the situation?
2. What’s the worst that could happen?
3. What am I really afraid of?
I had this conversation with one of my clients Remy*. Remy desperately wanted his team to step up, and he would regularly complain about the lack of leadership, ownership and knowledge that his team showed. Some days he would smile indulgently when he spoke about the dependency his team had on him. Other days he would say the same sentence with frustration, anger and blame.
Remy described himself as the linchpin of the department, without him it would all fall apart. He only saw obstacles and focused on them. Some of these were valid and some were created and viewed from the lens of amplified fear — the fear of letting go of control.
We need to let go of control in order to gain control.
With focused effort and practice Remy learnt to let go of the fear of letting go. I asked Remy to share the top three tips that helped him detox from the need to control every aspect of the work he and his team did.
“When we first talked about control, I pushed back. It wasn’t the first time someone had raised this, my reaction was to shoot them down. Awareness that I was the problem was hard to accept. This was the biggest hurdle. When you asked me what I got, what my payback was from control, I disliked you even more! Once I got through this the rest was surprisingly easier.
“I went back to leadership basics, and started delegating tasks/projects that I assessed as being low risk. My job then was to stay out of the way, which I did. No surprises that my team began to do more, once they trusted that I wouldn’t overreact and their confidence and trust grew.
“I separated business critical issues and my need to control issues. This was achieved by: planning more and allowing my team members to run the planning sessions, and managing myself. I broke the habit of offering solutions and replaced it with asking for solutions. Nothing I did was revolutionary, it just felt like it at the time. We all work so much more productively together now and I no longer lose good people because of a controlling leadership style”
Stop focusing on the obstacles
When we are taught to set goals, the advice is always to focus on what you want from the goal. Equally important is to turn away from what you don’t want, put less focus on the block — or in my case, the tree! To land in one of the trees that lined a big empty airfield resulted from being ‘object’ or ‘target fixated’.
Object fixation (or target fixation) occurs when you are so intently focused on an object or target (in this case, it was keeping the trees in sight so I didn’t fly into them) that you are unable to see anything else. Of course, the opposite happens — what you focus on is where you will end up, hence finding myself hanging from a tree on a cold day in Kent back in 1990s. The simple remedy would have been to turn my back on the tree.
In business and life it’s not easy to turn away from the obstacle, however being fixated by it is problematic. We can get so focused on what we want to avoid (the obstacle) that we don’t give space for what we do want and like a moth to the flame, we get burnt.
Remy and his team began to reframe their discussions and meetings on what was needed, and this took them to a more creative space to solve challenges. They kept the hazards in sight, however, they didn’t make it the sole focus and gave space for other conversations to happen.
When the conversation is focused on what must not happen this leaves no space for what needs to happen.
• Innovation is lost here — it’s suffocated from a lack of oxygen;
• Diversity of thought, process and opinion is stifled, resulting in frustration and a lack of progress; and
• The focus is on the problem and fixing it, when understanding the issues causing the problem would better serve the higher agenda and strategic outcomes.
Like a coin has two sides, next time your team gathers and the conversation is on the obstacles, flip to the other side and drill down on what is needed to move away from landing in it.
*Remy thank you for taking time to reflect back over our work many years ago and for sharing your learning.
If you haven’t seen Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted Talk ‘Your Elusive Genius’ take some time to watch it and be inspired.