I stood on the balcony of Room 211 at Rheinhotel Dreesen in Bonn/Germany a couple of weeks ago, looked down to the river promenade that runs right below this side of the hotel, and it was undeniable. The Rhine had crested overnight. Where yesterday pedestrians had strolled and bicyclists had hurtled toward Bonn-Mehlem, there now was the mucky, agitated mass of the Rhine river, covering the entirety of the promenade, charging ferociously toward Cologne and beyond.This was real. It couldn’t be wished away.That evening, after dining at Bistro L’Unico with my colleague Joachim Liehr, I strolled back to the hotel with him to look at the flooding Rhine. That spot right there, I said to Joachim and pointed to a corner where the side street slopes into the promenade. Right before I went to meet you for dinner I could still stand there and take a picture. Now there’s no way we can reach that spot without getting totally wet. Reality. Undeniable.This did, indeed, happen. Let us, for just a moment, consider the rising Rhine a metaphor. How often have you worked in situations where being under water seemed to be the norm, and you felt like you were performing in a life raft, every single day? Or you sat in a meeting and thought to yourself I can’t believe we’re having this conversation. This is just a little nuts and out of touch with reality! I have visited businesses where products are clearly losing their competitive edge, and yet innovation is not rigorously pursued. I have worked with executive teams that are clearly dysfunctional, and all that seems to be taking place are repeated conversations about just how dysfunctional the team is.The river is cresting.The evidence is minimized.Action is avoided.It got me thinking – so what are our individual and systemic character flaws that prevent us, or the system in which we work, from facing what’s actually going on right under our noses? What are the behaviors, and thinking, that prevent us from taking action?Put these behaviors on your “MUST AVOID” list. I mention a few below. And I also suggest a couple of mindset adjustments that will open the doors to action.
Let’s assume you have data that tracks how your products or services perform, as well as data about the health and vitality of your workplace culture. Do you trust the data you have? Are you confident that you’re tracking helpful markers? What sort of conversations do you have about your markers? Markers are just markers – they are tools for meaning-making. What sort of meaning do you cull from “bad news?” Do you take action? How quickly do you act?We minimize by calling a downturn cyclical. We minimize by saying hey, it’s also happening elsewhere. We minimize by telling ourselves that it’s not the first time something like this has happened. We minimize by reassuring ourselves that we don’t like to over-react.Stasis assured.
You wish to take action. You reach for a quick one. An action you have taken in the past. An action that has never solved anything. Like rotating an under-employing employee into a different role on another team. You feel good because you took action. You have simply passed the problem along. You have solved nothing.Avoid band-aid solutions. Avoid quick fixes. Avoid getting busy just because getting busy gives you the illusion of solving a problem. Getting busy is a narcissistic choice. It makes you feel better. Gets you nowhere.
You pride yourself on being a positive thinker. A glass half full kinda person. You don’t like to constantly dwell on what’s wrong. You’re an advocate for strength-based leadership and like to maximize assets rather than always pinpointing what doesn’t work. You avoid your gap-analysis obsessed colleagues who seem obsessed with constantly analyzing problems. They depress you. Zap your energy.Fine. Just make sure you’re not the one with blinders on in a fairytale world.
When we say of another person that s/he is a mess, it is rarely meant as a compliment. Few people I know like a messy desk or a messy office. The word mess is a dirty word for many of us. We don’t like things to be a mess. We will go to great lengths to avoid a mess.Have the courage to name a messy situation a mess. It is liberating to call a rough situation what it likely is – a mess. By not pretending that a mess is not a mess, we acknowledge both the enormity and complexity of a situation that needs to be improved. And it makes it easier to actually walk into the mess. Because we’re in touch with reality.
It’s the biggest leadership jail. The pressure to have answers. Because that’s why you get paid the big bucks, right? Why you were given the promotion and took on all this new responsibility, right? There’s great power in turning to your team and saying We have a bit of a mess here, and I don’t have all the answers. Let’s figure this out together!There’s true power in knowing that collective wisdom is richer and deeper than individual wisdom. It always is. It’s kinda arrogant to think that you have to have an answer for everything, isn’t it! Trust the collective wisdom a little more. Get out of I-have-all-the-answers jail.Joachim had to let go of 45 employees the day after we had our dinner in Bonn. During the annual Awards Dinner at his firm, a few weeks back, he was given an award for being the most inspirational leader in this global enterprise.Letting go of a hefty chunk of employees and, at the same time, being voted most inspirational leader may seem incongruous. Joachim has been in his new leadership role for less than a year. He inherited an underperforming mess. He took steady, rigorous action in collaboration with his team.Everyone had felt the mess. It didn’t feel good.Joachim faced it.Inspiring. Go figure.