The older I get the smarter Sigmund Freud becomes. It’s all about our families – our parents, siblings and powerful figures in our family constellation. When I had kids of my own, I found I was running amuck in Freud’s notions of power and authority. Since then, I’ve taken (and continue to take) some hard looks at myself. In my work, I began searching out, in earnest, the blind spots in many of my clients.
I know an incredibly talented CEO of a small private company. She is organized, conscientious, politically astute and measurably successful. But, if happiness is part of the criteria for success, either hers or others, she was failing. And, because of her inability to be happy, those around her were caught in her web of discontent.
As a child, she was criticized mercilessly. Nothing was good enough and, as a result, she was never good enough. Intellectually she was capable of seeing her many strengths, but emotionally she was vulnerable and had turned her self critical nature on herself and others.
She had zero tolerance for mistakes – by herself or others. The result was individuals were constantly afraid of failing in her eyes because she had no acceptance of anything less than perfect. She was reluctant to delegate to anyone and was forever burdened with doing too much, not letting go and creating a constant state of stress – always overly busy and on the verge of having something fail.
Those who did have responsibilities would come to her two, three, even four times to check out their progress so that, in the end, they would pass her test of acceptance. These individuals rarely took a risk, less frequently initiated anything and continually remained dependent on her. Since she was so critical, rarely did she gives kudos for work well done, since it could always be better – and this she would gladly show you. Professionally, she was praised as for her outcomes. Yet, many vilified her behind her back for being callous, insensitive and, humorless.
Highly intelligent and conscientious, she decided to bring her 35 key leaders together to assess the state of the organization and, together, look toward the future. In a design aimed at protecting confidentiality and encouraging candor, she had everyone respond to several questions. One question was: “What are the issues that, for whatever reasons, are not being addressed, and need to be addressed, if we are going to be the best we can be?” (It should be noted that despite her discomfort with criticism, she agreed to include this and another question that would result in some judgment of the organization and, even, her.)
The design worked to a “T” and nearly every individual felt safe enough to discuss the challenging questions in an open and candid manner among small clusters of other leaders. The resulting data were organized objectively. Then, because Mary wanted to signal to the group that such collaboration was healthy and desired, the highlights — critical concerns from across the data — were shared in front of the entire group.
Since such feedback and process were not the norm, people were rightfully nervous. They knew that Mary might take things personally and feared she might react defensively or with anger, or both. While this did not occur, she did become somber – appearing overtly sad and withdrawing from much of the ensuing conversation.
Witnessing this, some of her colleagues came up to her informally and asked if she was “all right.” She confided that she felt unappreciated and “betrayed” by the day. Those typically perceived as “in Mary’s camp”, immediately began to point fingers, blame others and suggest that this was not the kind of collaboration they had in mind. A good day would be to say only good things about the Mary and the organization.
Given the things that had the potential to have been said, the critical statements were “mild”. Yet, Mary was initially emotionally triggered and later even more so as individuals offered sympathy as a means of placating her and to diffuse any potential anger.
The next day, Mary was still bitter and hurt. This is understandable, since for the six years of her reign she had protected herself from any possibility of receiving feedback that would question her perfection or that of the organization.
Mary had inadvertently created a barrier preventing her behavioral “blindspot” from being revealed by those from whom she needed the truth. Her own unfinished business from the past was crippling her, in spite of all her good work, and her leadership potential.
Mary’s denial and sympathy seeking behavior only exacerbated the problem. Had she acted positively toward the feedback, helped support change where appropriate, her critics would, most likely, have given her kudos and, probably, supported (or at least been neutral) to any changes. They would have also waited to see her responses in the future. Forgiveness is usually created over time, while “hope” can be generated in the short term.
A week later, after further conversation, she discerned the pattern that she had been living, recognized that her strong response – feeling betrayed and unappreciated – to people who were trying to gift her with the truth was how she handled almost any criticism, any disconfirming responses to her efforts. Worse yet, she realized she was becoming a source of toxicity that trumped her many strengths as numerous individuals increasingly disliked her lack of openness and acceptance of her own shortcomings when they were evaluated and expected to own their failures.
So What? The clues to much of our own blindspots or ineffective behaviors are there to be seen. If asked, people will tell us if they are protected and if they believe their truth may lead to positive results. The courage was for Mary to seek the truth known to many and rarely seen by her.
Her strong feelings of self-criticism and doubt were clues to how she had to change to be happy and more productive. The good news is that the self-awareness of her impact and its implications for her leadership was the first major step to change. She had all the tools to be among the best. Only she stood in her way.
Coaching helped her develop a plan to demonstrate new openness to her staff. Counseling helped her discern the original of the emotional triggers that energized the criticism of self and others. A year later, she reported that the single insight about how her family of origin had created a protective wall around her all those years later has been seminal in her new openness and success as a leader.
There are, parts of Freud I don’t buy, that make no sense to me. But, in general, the impact of our family of origin on ourselves as leaders, parents, friends and relationships, is spot on. So often what gets us into trouble in our relationships can be seen vividly at the times when we are either angry and attacking, or feeling impotent and withdrawing. These times are usually accompanied by “big” feelings. The problem is that in the moment of conflict it’s difficult to focus on our part of the equation in the midst of becoming defensive or blaming of others.