Why higher expectations make us better people and organizations isn’t an easy message to deliver, but you can do it if you have the courage to be yourself. I lay awake all night before an important presentation. It was material I had presented before and had been well received. Why was I unable to sleep? When this happens I always ask myself, “What is my unconscious mind trying to tell me? Am I missing something in my presentation? Am I overlooking an important element or opportunity to make a difference?”
Each time I tried the relaxation techniques that usually work, I was interrupted by an image of me telling the group things about myself that I have never disclosed. After a while I realized that I was being kept awake by the fear that my audience would be unreceptive to my message because I wasn’t “one of them.” It was an industry that only tended to respect tough macho individuals who had proven their mettle in the military or high hazard work environment.
You can’t really tell whether or not you can trust someone or if they have credibility by looking at them or speaking to them for a few minutes.
You can’t really tell whether or not you can trust someone or if they have credibility by looking at them or speaking to them for a few minutes. Yet, unfortunately, psychological studies have proven that humans tend to judge someone within a few seconds of meeting them. Organizational research (Graen, 1976; Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1991, 1995) has shown that managers decide whom they will trust and listen to in a very short time. None of those impressions tend to change with time.
I was delivering a message to operational and health & safety leaders on the power of relationship-centered leadership. They had gathered to strategize on how to achieve a new level of safety performance by increasing employee engagement. The message I was to deliver is that if people don’t feel included, respected and trusted they will not take ownership or accountability nor contribute their best efforts. Relationship building is a key leadership competency.
This means letting go of some heavily ingrained lessons some of us have been taught like “trust but verify,” or “people should take responsibility because we pay them.”
Back to the voice in my head keeping me awake. It kept repeating, “You can’t tell who I am by looking at me.” I sensed some would dismiss me because of the way I looked and where I came from. I wasn’t sure if this was true, but it was keeping me awake.
I finally slept a few hours and upon awakening I decided to follow my intuition to tell my story. All of the great leaders I’ve met value and respect people. They form relationships with them, and based on those connections people build good teams, good lives and good results. This means letting go of some heavily ingrained lessons some of us have been taught like “trust but verify,” or “people should take responsibility because we pay them.”
I opened with:
“You might be wondering as we begin whether or not you can trust that what I say will be relevant or applicable. You might have read one of my articles and decided I might be worth hearing out, or maybe not. That’s normal. The way culture works we are hardwired to doubt anyone who has not had our experiences, and who does not look like us.
What we are going to talk about today requires a personal decision to trust. So I am going to tackle the barriers between us head on. I’m going to tell you the things that you can’t know about me by looking at me in the hope of creating a connection.
You can’t tell by looking at me that I was raised in one of the poorest parts of Mexico in a two-room house with 6 children. You can’t tell that I worked as a migrant farmworker picking potatoes and lugging sacks that would break an adult’s back. You can’t tell that when I moved to the United States I had to bear terrible discrimination, being called a Nigger and excluded by other children.
You can’t see how many times I thought about quitting because, ‘How much rejection can a person take?’
You can’t see my mother working as a house cleaner and getting all her children through college through sheer inspiration since she had no money. You can’t see me studying late at night after work to earn the grades to get into an Ivy League college.
You can’t see that I carried my message of trust and open communication to refinery operators only to have them turn their backs to me because they had no trust or respect for management, let alone me. You can’t see how many times I thought about quitting because, ‘How much rejection can a person take?’
If you had met me back then you might have felt how angry and resentful I was, but you wouldn’t know why. You can’t tell the ‘why’ by the way a person looks. All of this really affected my work and I was on anti-depressants until Peter Koestenbaum, my mentor, suggested I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. ‘Read this,’ he said, ‘then we will talk.’
Viktor was a Nazi concentration camp survivor. He reveals the terrible things that he had to do to survive like stealing food from other prisoners. ‘The best among us did not survive,” he wrote. Then came his transformation. During his time there, he found that those around him who did not lose their sense of purpose and meaning in life were able to survive much longer than those who had lost their way.
In circumstances where he was persecuted, starving, and abused he realized that he was the only one who had the power to determine how he felt and how he viewed his life.
In circumstances where he was persecuted, starving, and abused he realized that he was the only one who had the power to determine how he felt and how he viewed his life. Other people can tell you that you’re worthless, but only you have the power to decide whether or not it is true. No one can make you happy, unhappy, or angry except yourself.
I went back to my mentor with new hope. Then he told me (in a kind way) that I was carrying my negative assumptions and expectations into the training room and creating my experience. If I wanted to have a positive and productive experience I had to take responsibility for how I reacted to what people said or did.
Once I realized that what a questioning or emotional individual said was not a reflection of me I was able to react in an objective manner. I began to ask questions to truly understand what they were saying. Little by little the ‘difficult people’ in my life diminished. They only surface occasionally when I need a reminder. ”
I was saying that if you trust, respect, listen, respond to people’s needs, and believe that people will contribute to their best ability, they will. Everything I was presenting, every personal risk I was asking them to take in adopting the perspective that our expectations about people create our experience with them was based on my hard earned life lessons.
The interactive session went on for two hours and in the end I truly felt connected. I was myself and accepted. Some participants expressed their doubts, which I encouraged. The decision to trust is personal and if we are going to convince ourselves to start taking on these new beliefs and behaviors it is important for us to understand why it is so important for leaders to understand how their relationships with workers and colleagues can either add joy or suffering to the workplace. (See AES founder, Dennis Bakke’s The Joy of Work.)
Lesson learned: Next time you can’t sleep at night, ask yourself what you should be contemplating, and enjoy the adventure!
Rosa Antonia Carrillo, MSOD is president of Carrillo & Associates. She is a frequent speaker and workshop facilitator on the topic of culture and leadership. You may write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Other articles may be found at www.carrilloconsultants.com
©2017 Rosa Antonia Carrillo
Graen, G.B. (1976). Role making processes within complex organizations. In M.D. Dunnette (Ed.), Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology (pp.1201-1245). Chicago, IL: Rand-McNally.
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Graen, G.B. & Uhl-Bien, M. (1991b). Partnership making applies equally well to teammate-sponsor teammate-competence network and teammate-teammate relationships. Leadership Quarterly, 6(2), 219-247.
Graen, G.B. & Uhl-Bien, M. (1995). Relationship based approach to leadership: Development of leader member exchange (LMX) theory of leadership over 25 years: Applying a multilevel multi domain perspective. Journal of Management Systems, 3(3), 33-48