I believe that our work and relationships at work serve as an important lab for our “growing up”. Most of us arrive at our first jobs barely formed. If we are lucky we have lots of enthusiasm and energy to make up the serious lack of skills. For highly technical folks this may be less true as their undergraduate degrees or training may involve more hands-on practice, building and “making”. But most of us are still learning about the “world of work” when we get our first real job and we have big developmental leaps ahead.
Growing up at work, much like general life, is equally as uncomfortable as it is fun and exciting. The percents will vary for each of us at various times. We will work on fun projects with people we respect and admire. And there will be times when we work on projects we dislike (or find futile) and with people we don’t like. When the latter happens, even when we are advanced in our careers, I believe it is a golden moment. In my experience, not liking something or someone is much more about us than about the project or the person. If we are open to observing and exploring the discomfort, it can provide a fruitful line of inquiry. In so many ways learning to work with a difficult colleague or on a project we don’t like helps us find out who we are and develop new skills. When we come through a challenge, we have a possibility to become more skillful: more adaptable, humble, and more compassionate for others, and ourselves. As in Taoist teaching, challenging work and people are like water over stones, always uncovering more facets of who we are while rounding out the rough (or unskilled) patches.
Often leaders hit a point in their careers where they don’t experience as much, if any real challenge. They will have business challenges for sure. But at the upper levels of management, they will be handing most of these challenges off to their team. The real challenges become much more about inspiring peak contribution of each member of your team and the performance of your organization as a whole. At the highest levels of leadership it is less realistic to expect our direct reports to challenge us to grow. The stakes are often too high. We need more challenge to come from our peers, boss and board.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard members of a CEO’s team say, “We all actually get along really well. The real conflict is at our next level. They can’t seem to get along!” Pardon me if I am skeptical. In my humble practitioners experience, it is way more likely that all the things that you are not discussing or resolving at your level, are handed down a level. The unresolved disagreements that exist on the top team are being played out at the next level.
Many leadership teams need help to become more open and honest in their meetings. It can take time and practice. Sometimes it will require changing the composition of the top team and creating greater psychological safety to discuss the “undiscussables”. A skillful internal consultant can sometimes help or collaborate on this. But often this role is too dangerous. There is always a chance that in their discomfort the team will blame and reject the facilitator. This response, though ineffective, is understandable. For this and myriad other reasons, there can be great benefit from leveraging an external facilitator.
We all need to be challenged at every stage in our careers. The opportunity to learn, grow and “grow up” never ends. We can always learn and get better. Most of us require the challenge of others and support through the inherent growing pains. Feeling more confident and skillful saying whatever needs to be said and doing what needs to be done in service of creating a great enterprise, makes it all worth it.
Welcome to Moira's blog. I write a (mostly) monthly post about the work of building better work places: people strategies, systems, teams and leaders.