A Vicious Cycle
Samir was stuck in an unhealthy cycle.
Over the course of several years, I’d delivered a number of 360-degree feedback reports to him and his partners at their architecture firm. ‘Every report of Samir’s, including this current one, reflected the same good news-bad news portrait. On the one hand, people idolized Samir. They used words like “brilliant” and “genius” and “visionary.” On the other hand, they were fit to be tied and used words like “bottleneck” and “unresponsive” and “exasperating.”
I asked Samir what was stopping him from moving the needle on his repeated feedback.
He said, “I have this voice in my head that tells me I can’t make mistakes. I’ve had it forever. I remember feeling that way when I was in middle school. It motivated the crap out of me back then, but now the stakes are higher. I’m a lot more visible. So that voice, the one that wants to stop me from ever making a mistake, it’s going like gangbusters these days. The solution? Bury myself deeper so I can get everything right.”
“And do you?” I asked.
“Get everything right? Of course not. But that’s not even my job anymore! That’s why we have these fantastic people in the studio. But I know how much they rely on me, so I pour over the work like a madman, which means I keep being the bottleneck. But I’m afraid of speeding up in case I miss something important. Can you hear how stuck I am?”
“I can,” I said. “Tell me, when you’re pouring over the work, what do you notice?”
“Besides the work itself? I notice that wicked voice that tells me I can do better, that things aren’t good enough yet.”
I asked, “Are there behaviors that go along with that?”
“Not good ones,” he said. “I stop answering emails. I don’t make eye contact. It’s what they said in the 360, I’m non-responsive, if that’s a behavior. It’s a vicious cycle. Ugh! How do I get unstuck?”
Internal & External
I said, “I think you already have the tools, Samir. I’d like to see if we could rearrange the way you think about them.”
“Really?” he said. “That sounds like a magic trick, but let’s do it. Sounds great.”
I said, “I hear your story as having two parts. One part is that voice in your head. ‘I can’t make a mistake.’ That’s your inner part. Then there’s the second part, the behaviors everyone sees. Being non-responsive. That’s your outer part. Does this line up so far?”
He considered. “I think so, yes. My thoughts and feelings are on the inside and my behaviors are on the outside. Right?”
“Exactly. Those are the two parts. Now imagine putting a box around each of those parts and then stack them, one on top of the other. Behaviors on top, thoughts and feelings underneath.”
He smiled. “That’s a tidy little picture.”
I smiled back. “Glad you think so. Picture the horizontal line where the two boxes touch. Everything above the line isn’t just your behaviors, it’s anything you experience through any of your senses. Everything you could possibly see or say or hear. And touch and taste and smell. All that’s above the line. Below the line is everything that happens inside you. That wicked voice of yours? It lives below the line.”
“But, man, oh, man,” he said, “that line is porous as hell.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Because when those dark thoughts on the bottom grab hold of me, they drive me right up into the top box and make me behave in ways I don’t like. Who cares that there’s some line separating them?”
“Yes, right. When you get stuck, you’re circling back and forth across the line as if it doesn’t exist. But what I’m suggesting is that if you could begin to notice that line, begin to notice which box you’re in, it might help you break the cycle.”
He was intrigued. “Break it how?”
Away & Towards
“By noticing. But wait. Let me add an element. So far we have two boxes, one on top and one on the bottom, right?”
“Right,” he said.
“We’re going to turn those two boxes into four by putting a vertical line right down the middle. The top two boxes are the experiences you have in the world of the senses. And the bottom two boxes are your experiences in your inner world. But now we take that horizontal line and we put markers on either end. On the left end we put a marker called ‘Away.’ On the right we put a marker called ‘Toward.’”
He asked, “You’ll define those?”
“I will,” I answered. “First, ‘Away.’ Things on the ‘Away’ side are things we want to avoid. Things we want to get away from. Situations that make us anxious. Uncomfortable conversations. Interactions that might make us feel bad about ourselves. All the things we want to stay away from are on the left.”
I went on, explaining, “On the right is ‘Toward.’ Toward things are the things we gravitate to. They draw us toward them. They’re the people and interests that feel like home and warmth and love. That’s what’s on the right, on the ‘Toward’ side.”
He was smiling. “Parts of my job absolutely feel like warmth and home and love.”
“I’m so glad for you, Samir,” I said. “So let me ask. When you think of being in those righthand boxes, the Toward boxes that are so positive, what feelings do you notice?”
He smiled and gave me a “duh!” look. “Warmth and love! It’s great.”
As a way of modeling I said, “I’m noticing your feelings. Warmth and love. And I notice that they’re on the ‘Toward’ side on the bottom. They’re your inner life. What about the ‘Toward’ side on top? What do you notice in the external world?”
He laughed. “I’m can’t say exactly, but it’s brighter, lighter.”
I said, “I’m curious about something, Samir. Does the ‘Toward’ side have its own voice, like the ‘Away’ side has the wicked voice?”
“I think so,” he smiled. “I’m pretty good at celebrating my accomplishments.”
“I wonder then, when you’re on the ‘Away’ side, on the left, and that wicked voice is talking to you, can you still hear that ‘Toward’ voice?”
“No,” he said, “it’s binary.”
“In both directions?” I asked.
He stopped. “Ha! No! That little wicked voice never really goes away. Not really. Huh! Always in the shadows, isn’t he?”
I shrugged. “It’s why he’s wicked.”
“And it’s easy for him to be the louder voice.” He shook his head, saying, “I see it in my daughter and wonder if she gets it from me.”
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“She has a hard time celebrating. She’s a competitive soccer player, and it’s hard for her to accept a win or be proud of a job well done. Her wicked little voice never lets her feel like a champion. It makes me sad.”
“It sounds sad,” I agreed.
The Power of Noticing
“But wait,” he said. “Was there a tool here? I understand the four boxes. Away and Toward. Left and right. Internal and External. Top and bottom. But how do the boxes get me unstuck? Or how do they make my daughter happier?”
“Okay, there’s one final piece. This piece goes right in the center where the lines intersect. It’s not a box, it’s like a traffic control tower looking out over all four boxes.”
He said, “It’s like the super ego pulling all the levers, right?”
“No,” I said, “it’s really just an observation tower. When it sees your wicked voice saying, ‘You’re so stupid! How could you ever have thought that was a good idea?’ the observer notices.”
He nodded. “It’s perspective taking. It’s holding your misery at arm’s length and looking at it with some distance.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “noticing creates perspective. And perspective gives you choice. One hundred percent agree.”
He nodded in understanding. “That’s the tool for getting unstuck, right? Get perspective so you can choose which box you want to be in. Do you want to stay in the ‘Away’ box and let that voice pummel you? Or do you want to move over to the right where it feels so much lighter? I see. The tower is where you get choice. That’s good.”
“I’m glad if it’s helpful, Samir,” I said. “The structure I gave you is a variation of a tool called The ACT Matrix. ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It’s a guide for perspective taking. It has a series of questions you ask yourself to create a lighter heart.”
I shared a PDF of the model with Samir who shared it with his daughter. He thought it might make a difference for her. For himself, gaining perspective from the control tower gave him a definite push toward The Look & Sound of Leadership.