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Getting Unstuck

Stuck in “truth”

As she greeted me in the lobby, Miranda let me see she was fuming. I knew in an instant the decision she’d been anticipating had not gone her way.

For over a month, she’d been pitching her ideas about a major policy decision to everyone around her. Influencing the outcome had been our only topic of conversation during a previous coaching session. Now it seemed the decision had been made—and not in her favor.

Once we were sitting down, she could barely contain herself as she vented her arguments again. Her first argument, which she thought should be the only argument, was that every solution but hers would completely mess up their supply chain.

“Why?” I asked.

And she told me why the other solutions would be disastrous.

After she forecast her grim outcomes, I asked, “What if that did happen?”

“There’d be no product on the shelves in three weeks!” she replied before I’d even finished asking the question.

When I asked her what if that happened, she predicted losing major accounts and a decline in the stock value.

When I asked her what if that happened, she ran out of steam. She let out a big breath and smiled with resignation. “I’m just pissed that I lost,” she said. “I hate losing.”

She’d been stuck thinking her solution was the only right solution.

Stuck in your stories

Scott was stuck in a different way.

Scott’s a good manager, but managing Rachel had been a challenge for a long time. She always seemed embroiled in one “situation” or another. Her latest situation was a spat with a co-worker named Doug; it was now so spiteful they’d only communicate via email.

Scott gave me a lot background about some of Rachel’s past “situations.” To be honest, there was a lot to tell!

At the end of it all, I asked, “What’s Doug’s part in this current feud?”

“What do you mean?” he asked. “You mean what did he do other than being Rachel’s victim?”

“Exactly. How is he actively contributing to the situation? He has to be contributing somehow or he wouldn’t be in the story.”

Scott looked a little sheepish. “You know, I haven’t asked myself that question even once in all this. In my head, the problem’s been Rachel. It’s not surprising given her history, but it’s not fair either. And it hasn’t helped resolve the problem.” He gave a rueful laugh. “I can’t believe I forgot to think about Doug!”

Scott immediately conjured up several ways Doug might be contributing to the current situation. Those imagined stories immediately gave Scott new ideas for handling the situation. Suddenly, Scott was unstuck.

Stuck in strengths

MaryAnn’s story is different yet again.

Right when our coaching began, MaryAnn got promoted to senior vice-president of her Fortune 100 Company. “I want to get my arms around this SVP thing as fast as I can,” she told me.

Our early coaching focused on shifting her into her new position. At one point she said she felt like a salmon desperately jumping in turbulent waters.

But MaryAnn wasn’t deterred by discomfort. She pushed forward.

After she’d successfully launched her first major project—something she’d witnessed but never gotten to do herself until now—she said she’d finally begun to feel like an SVP.

“When I first became an SVP, I couldn’t ever finish my work,” she said. “I was always falling further behind. I wasn’t seeing my friends or family. And I was always so tired! Everything I’d been good at when I was a VP suddenly seemed like a liability in the new role.”

She continued, “I didn’t understand the shift in elevation. I had to stop working like a VP in order to get up to the SVP level. Letting go of all the things I’d done so well was really scary. It was so uncomfortable, I thought I was failing.”

MaryAnn had been stuck in an old way of working that, until then, had always been successful. She got herself unstuck by working—and thinking!—in a new way.

Miranda, Scott and MaryAnn were each stuck in different ways but they all faced the same challenge: getting unstuck from habitual thinking. Stuck thinking blocks new ideas that don’t fit into our familiar boxes.

We usually we know when we’re stuck. We just don’t know how to get ourselves unstuck.

What follows are three methods for getting unstuck that are particularly helpful in the workplace.

1 Getting unstuck from “truths”

When you are certain your way is right but you aren’t getting a lot of support, challenge your thinking. Miranda got unstuck from her visions of disaster by challenging every assumption she made.

Ask yourself “why?”

If you follow your thinking to its farthest logical conclusion, you may discover flaws in your thinking. Or you may find ways to address a concern others have raised. Or you may discover where your data is thin and needs bolstering. Or you might come to understand that you just have strong feelings about it.

Asking yourself “why” helps you get unstuck from things you are certain must be “true.”

You can use this technique to challenge your own thinking or to help others challenge theirs.

When using it with others, tread carefully. “Why” questions are practically guaranteed to put people on the defensive. “Why” sounds like a challenge and many people hear challenges as threats. When you use the technique, don’t use it to argue and prove your point; use it with neutrality. Allow the other person to explore her own thinking so she can talk herself out of being stuck.

2 Getting unstuck from stories

Consciously consider contradictory points of view—especially about people.

Scott was stuck in his story about Rachel. Since she’d been a problem before, she must be the problem again. And maybe she is. But maybe she isn’t.

It is human nature, when we think about people we see all the time, to discount data points that differ from our preconceived notions. It’s natural to repeat the stories that are already in our heads.

I experience this resistance against a new opinion all the time.

After coaching clients for months and hearing their stories about how they’ve changed, I’ll often reconnect with their bosses to see if they’re noticing the change. When I ask about specific instances, more often than not, the boss will say something like, “Now that you mention it, that has gotten better!” But until I asked, the boss had been stuck in his old way of thinking about his direct report—even though the change he’d been begging for had been right in front of him.

You have stories in your head about the people around you. When you’re stuck on people issues, consciously consider other versions of your stories. It will expand your thinking—even if you come right back to your original version!

3 Getting unstuck from strengths

Relying on old strengths can be a liability in new situations. MaryAnn had been a successful VP; after her promotion, it was hard for her to stop working like one.

It’s counter-intuitive to think that your strengths can get you stuck, but sometimes your strengths simply don’t fit the task at hand. At that point, put down the strength and do something new.

Choose to use an underdeveloped strength. Choose to ask questions. Or ask for help. Choose to emulate someone else. Choose to learn.

If any of those choices would create a shift, do it! It’ll begin to get you unstuck.

Given the daily pressures weighing on us all, it’s not surprising we do what we’ve done before. Operating on our assumptions, and working the way we’ve always worked, is fast and efficient. Until it’s not. Then we’re stuck.

Knowing how to get unstuck is critical if you’re going to maintain The Look & Sound of Leadership™.

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