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August 2014: Capacity to Choose vs. Need to Avoid

When I get home from work and decide to have a drink, I am not demonstrating alcoholism.

When my long-time friend, Alan, was in active addiction, he came home from work, had to pour himself a succession of drinks and couldn’t stop. For him, as an alcoholic, there was no decision, only compulsion.

This simple example highlights the difference between capacity to choose (“I can”) and need to avoid (“I have no choice”). Lest you think alcoholics are unique in being compulsive, let me assure you, dear reader, that all leaders have compulsions. Some know it and some don’t.

Leaders usually make stupid decisions when they’re not thinking and choosing. Knowing about your compulsions is a first step toward choice.

I want to explore four common compulsions in leadership that demonstrate the important distinction between need and capacity: Helping others without thinking, automatically working insane hours, avoiding criticism and watering down a difficult message.

Helping Others without Thinking

A client I’ll call Denise recently told me, “I need to nurture people; it’s part of my make-up.” She explained how she looks for opportunities to help and take care of others. Denise isunbelievably nice! The kind of nice that is not able to be believed. She’s the first one to volunteer, to visit a sick friend or to take someone who can’t drive to the dentist. In fact, she cannot resist an opportunity to “be there for others.”

Denise’s 17-year-old son responds to his mom: “Stop trying to control everything I do!” What she intends as helpfulness, he experiences as control.

Denise’s mother confides, “Sometimes, Denise asks if she can run an errand for me, and I really don’t need anything, but she’s so intent on wanting to help that I tell her she can take my car and fill the gas tank.” Denise’s mother seems to catch on that the errands have more to do with Denise’s need to be helpful than with the mother’s reality needs.

This problem has less to do with helpfulness and more to do with observational blindness. Denise is unaware of the forces that propel her into compulsive caretaking. Whether constructive or destructive doesn’t get considered; her behavior is simply automatic.

Automatically Working Insane Hours

How does a leader determine the optimal number of hours per week to work? If that decision is based on choice, questions would be posed: What tasks and responsibilities can be off-loaded or delegated? What family responsibilities are important to make time for? How many hours per week should be set aside for exercise, social time with friends, reading, reflection?

If, on the other hand, a leader’s work habits are dictated by compulsion, the likelihood of a chronically crazy work schedule increases.

If you want to know how compulsive you are about work, pay attention to your language. Compulsion shows up in what might be called “victim language,” which is quite common in leadership: “I have to be at that meeting,” or “I can’t get out of that commitment.” Sometimes I say, “If you had to get out of that meeting, do you think you could figure out how to do it without causing a stir?” Of course you can. See how easy that was?

It’s a pretty safe bet that those who work automatically are working beyond the point of sanity.

Avoiding Criticism

A client said to me: “I don’t like to be criticized.”

I responded, “Good to hear that you are like the rest of us!”

Of course criticism is hard to handle. It’s because criticism ratchets up the stress response: breath quickens, knuckles whiten and the body starts to sweat. It’s deodorant time. The message blares from the military loud speaker in our brain: “This is a threat, put up your defenses!”

One of the common defenses for criticism is avoidance. Quick! Change the subject! Crack a joke! Pretend to be deep in thought! Turn the tables and fire something back about the criticizer! These automatic avoidance behaviors get turned on loud and fast.

The alternative is choice: How did I contribute to this? How do history and context come into play? Is there accuracy in the criticism? What are my reactive impulses all about? How can I relax myself and respond calmly?

Watering Down a Difficult Message

It’s not easy to tell a boss he has a piece of spinach hanging from his teeth. Or to question the motives of a co-worker. Or to demote a direct report who happens to be a friend.

At such moments, the automatic forces of approval-seeking leave a leader dancing, wiggling and squirming with discomfort. It’s as if she wails in anguish, “I don’t want to say it! I don’t want to say it! I don’t want to say it!” When the ancient need-to-be-liked kicks in, before anyone knows it, all kinds of interesting conversation is going on that has nothing to do with the essential message.

What’s going to call the shots in these situations: Capacity to choose or need to avoid?

Will it be, “I need to stay comfortable, so bring on the ducking and swerving!” Or, will it be, “I can sidestep this, but I choose not to. I have an important message to deliver, and though I’m not comfortable, I’m going to deliver it anyway.”

Driven by the automatic forces of emotional comfort, the message gets jettisoned. Driven by the capacity to choose, the message gets delivered.

The invitation is to be honest with yourself about where the emotional forces of avoidance are showing up and strengthen your capacity by practicing, practicing, practicing…choice and courage.

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