One of the bad habits that I talk about in my best-selling book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There is “Passing judgment: the need to rate others and impose our standards on them.” Some of you may have a boss who does this, some of you may do this yourselves. Let’s analyze this bad habit.
While, there’s nothing wrong with offering an opinion in the normal give and take of business discussions, because you want people to agree or disagree freely, it’s not appropriate to pass judgment when we specifically ask people to voice their opinions about us. In those moments when other people have passed judgment on advice they have solicited from me, my first thought is, “Who died and made you Critic in Chief?”
This is true even if you ask a question and agree with the answer. Consciously or not, the other person will register your agreement, and he or she will remember it with great specificity when you don’t agree the next time. The contrast is telling. The person thinks, “What was wrong with what I said? Why did I bother?”
People don’t like to be critiqued, however obliquely. That’s why passing judgment is one of the more insidious ways we push people away and hold ourselves back from learning what we may need to know to achieve greater success. The only likely thing that comes out of passing judgment on people’s efforts to help us is that they probably won’t try to help us again.
How do we stop passing judgment, especially when people are honestly trying to help us?
Try this: For one week – every time you feel like making a judgment, treat the idea that comes your way from the person with complete neutrality. Think of yourself as a human Switzerland. Don’t take sides. Don’t express an opinion. Don’t judge the comment. If you find yourself constitutionally incapable of just saying “Thank you,” make it an innocuous, “Thanks, I hadn’t considered that.” Or, “Thanks. You’ve given me something to think about.”
After one week, I guarantee you will have significantly reduced the number of pointless arguments you engage in at work or at home. If you continue this for several weeks, at least three good things will happen.
First, you won’t have to think about this sort of neutral response; it will become automatic – as easy as saying “God bless you” when someone sneezes.
Second, you will have dramatically reduced the hours you devote to contentious interfacing. When you don’t judge an idea, no one can argue with you.
Third, people will gradually begin to see you as a much more open-minded person, even when you are not in fact agreeing with them. Do this consistently and people will eventually brand you as a welcoming person, someone whose door they can knock on when they have an idea, someone with whom they can spitball casual ideas and not end up spitting at each other.
There is simply no excuse for making excuses at work – or anyplace else for that matter.
When you’re late to an appointment and you hear yourself saying, “I’m sorry I’m late but the traffic was murder,” stop at the word “sorry.” Blaming traffic doesn’t excuse the fact that you kept people waiting. You should have started earlier. You certainly won’t have to apologize for: “I’m sorry I’m early, but I left too soon and the traffic was moving along just fine.”
If the world worked like that, there would be no excuses.
I like to divide excuses into two categories: blunt and subtle.
The blunt, “dog ate my homework” excuse sounds something like this: “I’m very sorry I missed our lunch date. My assistant had it marked down for the wrong day on my calendar.”
Translation: “You see, it’s not that I forgot the lunch date. It’s not that I don’t regard you as so important that lunch with you is the unchangeable, non-negotiable highlight of my day. It’s just that my assistant is inept. Blame my assistant, not me.”
The problem with this type of excuse is that we rarely get away with it — and it’s hardly an effective leadership strategy. After reviewing thousands of 360-degree feedback summaries, I have a feel for what qualities direct reports respect and don’t respect in their leaders. I have never seen feedback that said, “I think you are a great leader because I love the quality of your excuses,” or, “I thought you screwed up, but you really changed my mind after you made that excuse.”
The more subtle excuses appear when we attribute our failings to some genetic characteristic that’s apparently lodged in our brains. We talk about ourselves as if we have permanent genetic flaws that can never be altered.
You’ve surely heard these excuses. Maybe you’ve even used a few of them: “I’m impatient.” “I always put things off until the last minute.” “I’ve always had a quick temper.”
Habitually, these expositional statements are followed by saying, “I’m sorry, but that’s just the way I am.”
It’s amazing how often I hear otherwise brilliant, successful people make willfully self-deprecating comments about themselves. It’s a subtle art because, in effect, they’re stereotyping themselves and using that to excuse otherwise inexcusable behavior.
Our personal stereotyping frequently comes from stories or preconceived notions about ourselves that have been preserved and repeated for years, sometimes going back as far as childhood. These stories may have little or no basis in fact. But they imprint themselves in our minds and establish low expectations that become self-fulfilling prophecies.
The next time you hear yourself saying, “I’m just no good at …” ask yourself, “Why not?”
This doesn’t just refer to our aptitudes at mathematics or mechanics. It also applies to our behavior. We excuse our tardiness because we’ve been running late all our lives, and our family, friends and colleagues let us get away with it. These aren’t genetic flaws. We weren’t born this way, and we don’t have to be this way.
If we can stop excusing ourselves, we can get better at almost anything we choose.
If you’ve read my best-selling book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, you know that most of us are successful in spite of certain behaviors. For instance, most highly successful people have the bad habit of Winning Too Much.
Winning too much is the #1 challenge for most people, because it underlies nearly every other behavioral problem. If we argue too much, it’s because we want our view to prevail (in other words we want to win). If we put other people down, it’s our way to position them beneath us (again, winning). If we withhold information, it’s to gain an edge over others. If we play favorites, it’s to gain allies so “our side” has an advantage. Our obsession with winning crosses the spectrum of our lives. It’s not just an issue in our professional lives, it works its way into our personal lives as well. It is incredibly difficult for smart, successful people not to constantly win.
Another classic behavioral challenge of smart, successful people is Adding Too Much Value. This bad habit can be defined as the overwhelming desire to add our two cents to every discussion. A slight variation on Winning Too Much, Adding Too Much Value is common among leaders who are used to running the show. It is extremely difficult for successful people to listen to other people tell them something that they already know without communicating somehow that (a) they already knew it and (b) they know a better way.
These are just a couple of the behaviors that the most successful leaders I know work on to become even better. A lot of leaders choose to forego change, believing that they are “successful enough” and that change therefore isn’t necessary.
What makes the most highly successful leaders different is what makes them some of the greatest leaders in history. I believe there are three characteristics that differentiate good leaders from great leaders.
The first thing successful people do is have Courage. Great leaders have the courage to get feedback and to look at themselves in the mirror, honestly. This isn’t an easy task. To truly look at yourself and to ask for, accept, and act on feedback you receive from others, you have to have courage.
The second thing successful people do is have Humility. If you’re going to get better, then that means you probably don’t think you’re perfect. This is a great place to start. Think about it. It is very hard for perfect people to get better! For someone to change, he or she first has to have the humility to admit there is room for improvement.
The third and final thing that great leaders do is they have Discipline. To be a great leader, you have to have the discipline to follow up and do the hard work to keep getting better.
There you have it: the three must-have characteristics of very great leaders: Courage, Humility, and Discipline. Are you a great leader? Do you know a great leader? How would you describe a great leader? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Let’s hear some more!
Here is one powerful way that I stand out as an executive coach. I have a unique compensation system – I only get paid if my clients get better. And, “better” means my clients achieve positive, measurable change in behavior, not as judged by themselves but by their key stakeholders. This process usually takes about 18 months and involves an average of 16 stakeholders.
My coaching approach has been described in several major publications, such as Forbes and The New Yorker. Here it is in brief:
My mission is to help successful leaders achieve positive, long-term, measurable change in behavior: for themselves, their people and their teams. When the steps in the Marshall Goldsmith coaching process are followed, leaders almost always positive behavioral change — not as judged by themselves, but as judged by pre-selected, key stakeholders. This process has been used around the world with great success — by both external coaches and internal coaches.1
I always use the same proven process. At the beginning of any coaching relationship, I get an agreement with my coaching clients and their managers on two key variables:
- What are the key behaviors that will make the biggest positive change in increased leadership effectiveness, and
- Who are the key stakeholders that can determine (six to eighteen months later) if these changes have occurred?
Then I get paid only after my coaching clients have achieved positive change in key leadership behaviors and become more effective leaders. Unlike many other coaches, I do not get paid if my clients do not get better. And, as noted above, better is not determined by me, it is not determined by my clients, it is determined by my client’s key stakeholders. It is in this “pay-for-results” fee arrangement that I truly stand out from other coaches.
Paying only for results is a good way to test if someone really believes what they’re teaching you. Ask them one question, “Do you want to bet on it?” If they say, “I believe it but I wouldn’t bet on it,” they don’t believe it that much. If they say, “Here’s the money,” they believe it! My coaching process is based on something I believe in and I bet on it every time!
Many coaches are paid for the wrong reasons. Their income is a largely a function of “How much do my clients like me?” and “How much time did I spend in coaching?” Neither of these is a good metric for achieving a positive, long-term change in behavior.
In terms of liking the coach, I have never seen a study that showed that clients’ love of a coach was highly correlated with their change in behavior. In fact, if coaches become too concerned with being loved by their clients. They may not provide honest feedback when it is needed.
In terms of spending clients’ time — my coaching clients’ are all executives whose decisions impact billions of dollars — their time is more valuable than mine. I try to spend as little of their time as necessary to achieve the desired results. The last thing they need is for me to waste their time!
How do you stand out? What makes you special? What are you willing to bet on? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas. Please send me a message on LinkedIn! I am looking forward to your comments.