Being a better leader and a better husband
I’ve written previously on the peculiar trend of employers and employees establishing mental barriers between home and professional lives The siloing of the two environments fosters dissonance by creating mental and emotional silos between the two environments. Those of us with enough experience in these environments know the frustration this can create over time. Over the past year, as part of my transition into a new leadership role, I’ve become more aware of my own silos and how poorly they’ve served me. I’ve endeavored to break down these silos to better transfer lessons from one setting of my life to the other.
What’s driven my revived self-reflection on this topic is the personally difficult decision I made to leave my job as a hospital administrator to work as the administrator for a physician group. This decision placed me in a setting where I have a smaller team and fewer resources with which to accomplish organizational objectives, but more autonomy and freedom to cultivate the skills to achieve these objectives. With my new job, I’ve been given the opportunity to step back and reflect. I’m starting fresh in an organization that expects more; they expect me to foster, and participate in, a healthy workplace culture.
I transitioned into an environment where the leadership team was deeply interconnected and highly dependent on each other’s actions. Each role and person functions as an integral part to a much larger engine that works to keep the organization functioning efficiently. To my surprise, despite how interconnected the team was nominally, they showed incredibly poor teamwork. I had entered an environment fraught with friction and minor disputes, hurt feelings, and frustrations. Attempts to broach critical subjects that required open dialogue were often met with silence or with a select few dominating the conversation. My perplexity gave way to annoyance which gave way to exasperation.
I found myself returning to a book that I’d read as part of my orientation for the job. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni, helped to put the challenges with my team into perspective. The dysfunctions Lencioni addresses are absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. The book highlights how easy it is to put our personal interests above the interests of the team and how crippling this trend is to organizations that are trying to sustain long-term success. Especially profound for me were the parallels I could draw between the business examples featured in the book and personal examples in my life as I began the process of transitioning into my marriage. The dysfunctions that I found myself returning to over and over again were the ones I felt most pressing given my current work challenges and some of my most challenging personal obstacles: absence of trust and fear of conflict.
- Trust: Lencioni argues that the absence of trust comes from the unwillingness of the parties involved to be vulnerable with one another. This is a powerful point, and one that underscores so many of my own professional and personal disagreements. Without a willingness to be vulnerable, you are never meeting the other person as an equal. It’s imperative to show that you’re making a good faith effort to be open, often by taking the first step yourself, in order to encourage the other person to let their guard down as well. I’ve translated this to a conscientious personal attempt to always be upfront and honest with exactly what my perspective is and where I’m coming from (even if it’s something personal). Seeking a trusting environment involves acknowledging that trust is important and that at times personal concessions should be made as a gesture of trust.
- Conflict: We should never embrace conflict (I find the word itself distasteful, as it implies an antagonistic dynamic) but we should embrace diverse perspectives and the discussion of nuanced ideas. Without trust and a stated mutual interest for compromise and collaboration, discussions and disagreement will always devolve into conflict. In professional relationships, this manifests as the development of organizational silos with sectors of the organization being divided against themselves: Night shift vs. Day shift, Operations vs. Finance, Management vs. Labor. Without trust, there can be no hope for honest, open discussion, and without open discussion there is never progress on the key issues that hamper progress. This lack of conversation, the perpetual feeling that certain topics are “off limits”, proliferates passive-aggressive behaviors and cripples any larger group’s ability to function as a cohesive unit, because it’s often the topics that are most in need of disagreement and discussion that are the critical factors to success.
I soon realized that as interconnected and interdependent as my team was, the reason we were still having so many interpersonal issues was because of that interconnectedness. The constant cycles of working with one another had caused wounds and frustrations that had organically developed were now deeply embedded. With no outlet for these negative feelings, they continued to fester. These frustrations would then begin to manifest in the normal day-to-day interactions between the various team members, and without a proper outlet, this cycle of dysfunction would self-perpetuate.
Having identified these deep wounds and raw nerves as the source for so many of our challenges, I did something simple: I blocked a half day for all of us to get together and start over. There was nothing particularly scientific about my approach; I believed that if we paused with one another and simply stated how important it is to all of us that the team worked (which it is) then we needed to acknowledge how the in-fighting and disputes were hurting our ability to perform. The meeting was long, awkward, and we digressed frequently, but the benefits were felt almost immediately. There’s something powerful about reaffirming a commitment to someone or something. It feels like it forces a conscious part of your brain to sync up with the subconscious . That shift, however subtle, can make an incredible impact. The team began to be more open with one another. They were open with their frustrations and became more comfortable dissenting with one another directly and professionally. Admittedly, after some weeks I could see the trajectory start to shift towards some of the old, comfortable, dysfunctional behaviors, so I’ve set quarterly team meetings to reaffirm the dysfunctions and our commitment to avoiding them.
What I learned most through my first few months at my new job was the necessary acknowledgment, when you’re part of a team, that the needs of the team, of the group, often take stronger weighting than the needs of the individual. Many on my team would concede that point while simultaneously demonstrating behaviors that they much preferred their individual interests over the interest of the team. I don’t think that level of cognitive dissonance is especially uncommon; there’s a prevalence in all of our day-to-day lives to espouse a value and desire while unintentionally working against that very concept..
This dissonance is made worse by the hierarchical nature of most organizations; the easiest way to mediate disagreement is to angle for a superior to resolve the dispute for you. Why bother with finding compromise or collaboration when I can simply take the issue to a higher-up and convince them that my way is best? I have the luxury of being in a small organization where silos form with greater difficulty due to the requirement for constant collaboration and interaction, yet I still deal with regular occurrences of team members seeking for me to weigh in and cut some Gordian Knot. I have adopted the policy of refusing to resolve any conflict that is not brought to me by both parties. If only one team member brings me a problem that they’re having with a peer, it often means that they haven’t truly taken the time to establish trust and encourage discussion with that individual over the matter at hand.
I never realized how readily people avoid challenging discussions and how eager they are to have someone handle these challenges on their behalf. It’s not that it surprises me that people want to avoid sensitive and challenging discussions — it’s taxing and often uncomfortable. What’s surprising is how harmful avoiding these discussions can be, yet people do so anyways. I hesitate to call this behavior selfish, but it’s becoming harder for me to interpret it any other way. If you’re choosing your own comfort over the benefit of the team, then you’re actively making the team worse. Even if you felt that the other person was being unreasonable and wasn’t interpreting the facts correctly, you have an obligation, if you acknowledge the value in the team functioning successfully, to show leadership by being willing to engage in discussions on those topics and find compromise and common ground.
Imagine my surprise, when, after lecturing on the finer points of my “teamwork” perspective at work, I realized how much I’d been working against the interests of the team in my own marriage. For me, it has been the trap of often considering my wife’s perspectives as “unreasonable” or a “misinterpretation of facts”. The insidious nature of this perspective allowed me to routinely disregard her opinion if I didn’t think her reasoning was sound. By doing this, I actively contributed to a lack of trust in our relationship, because I took away her ability to trust that I would take her opinion seriously and attempt to give her perspective as much equity as my own. Instead, I found a way to justify my own perspective over hers, by anointing my opinions as the “logical” perspective, especially in situations where my wife’s feelings were hurt. My thinking: if it’s illogical for her to have hurt feelings (based on my “logical perspective”) then it’s natural for me not to give her perspective equal weight.
Often my wife and I find ourselves in the midst of disagreements where we’re bickering about the disagreement itself more than the catalyzing event. We align opposite one another, trying to out argue or to prove our moral high ground regarding the topic at hand. These situations outline a unique benefit of workplace disagreements or arguments between young siblings: there’s a tacit understanding of the potential to have the disagreement moderated by a boss or parent. Between many romantic partners, no such mediation exists. The argument has to be resolved without a moderator.
The worst part of these disagreements is the highlighted paradox within the argument itself. The nature of disagreement is for parties to be at odds, working against one another for mutually exclusive purposes. This idea runs counter to the foundational concepts behind being married: the value of the partnership maintaining a level of strength. The relationship takes on a larger purpose because it represents the binding agent for the individuals involved. It becomes something to nurture and protect. This is impossible to do if the parties involved in the relationship are constantly working to “win” over the other person.
There’s a moment after many disagreements, after my wife and I have resolved the inciting incident, where I think: “why don’t I feel any better? If we’ve resolved the argument, why do I feel so low?” This is because the stakes aren’t limited to the boundaries of the discussion; also at play is whatever equity you’re adding or taking away from the partnership itself. If I “win” the argument, I, as the individual, may have secured a victory for my specific interest, but depending on the nature of the argument, I could have potentially weakened the partnership to a greater magnitude. The thing marriage has done for me, above anything else, is highlighted how inextricably tied I am, not just to the outcomes of another person, but to the feelings of someone else. I cannot act as if my actions and inactions do not have an impact on the person who partners with me. Any move independent of the mutual benefit to our marriage risks weakening it.
The child in me continues to think this is unfair. I reflexively resist the idea that my “facts” cease to matter as much as her interpretation of facts. If my wife interprets my actions as damaging to her, who is right? Doesn’t she, as the wounded party, deserve a chance to have these wounds mended? In these situations do I owe her an apology, even if I know in my heart that my actions were not intended to offend? This is such a critical question, because it mirrors a philosophical argument in our larger society. If one party interprets another party’s actions as offensive, what is supposed to happen? Who “wins”? My childlike and fallacious thought process is highlighted in an engaging article in The Atlantic, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, called “The Coddling of the American Mind” about the philosophical debates on college campuses regarding students’ protection from perceived offensive content. A key paragraph from the piece states:
“Because there is a broad ban in academic circles on ‘blaming the victim’, it is generally considered unacceptable to question the reasonableness (let alone the sincerity) of someone’s emotional state, particularly if those emotions are linked to one’s group identity. The thin argument “I’m offended” becomes an unbeatable trump card. This leads to what Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor at this magazine, calls the “offendedness sweepstakes,” in which opposing parties use claims of offense as cudgels. In the process, the bar for what we consider unacceptable speech is lowered further and further.”
The article highlighted the challenge I experience when someone, especially my wife, tells me that I’ve done something to hurt their feelings when I’m sure that the facts are that their feelings shouldn’t be hurt. Here’s the hard truth: it doesn’t matter what I think if I acknowledge that I’m supposed to be on the same team as that person. The second I concede to being part of a team, to being part of a marriage, then I am forfeiting the right to hold my opinion and perspective as having greater weight than the others on my team. It is only through acknowledging the need for equilibrium and equity that I’ve been able to sincerely empathize with my wife’s perspective. We are a team and I am obligated to act in the interest of the team, over my own.
Understanding the value of teamwork, and how it manifests and should be nurtured, both personally and professionally, has drastically improved my self awareness and ability to acknowledge the larger scale of my actions and their impact, beyond any immediate situation or discussion. It’s helped me to better integrate this lesson, in a personal and professional context that helps me to continue to find equilibrium between these two environments. I continue to rely on lessons that I learn at home to be successful at work, and I rely on lessons learned at work to be successful at home, and both my teams are better for it.
-The idea for this article came from a conversation that Allison (my wife) and I had some weeks ago. I originally opened the article with the below anecdote, but eventually felt that it was more an aside than strong content for the points I was trying to highlight above. I ultimately decided to leave it as an appendix because it’s a nice personal story and gives some insight into Allison and my relationship and upbringing. Hope you enjoy.-
The conversation took take place during a tradition that I’ve grown fond of, what my wife refers to as “breakfast dates”. Both of us have found it difficult to take intentional time isolating ourselves for a traditional “dinner date” so she suggested that instead we isolate ourselves during what is an isolationist time of day anyways: breakfast (though we’ve both acknowledged that 2017 should be the year the “dinner date’ makes a long-overdue cameo). This isolated time for the two of us often has us softly musing on our relationship, the future, and any of the more mundane anecdotes that we’ve yet to share in the two hours of interaction we get during most weekdays.
Fresh off of the traditional holiday family tour, we found ourselves in a nature vs. nurture discussion: utilizing our respective nuclear families as an exploration on how our personalities may have been influenced. We spent a significant amount of time, specifically, discussing our family trends around conflict and resolving arguments. I realized how underdeveloped my own conflict resolution skills have been until recently, which I directly attribute to the lack of open conflict from my own upbringing.
Admittedly, I must admit to a unique luxury from my upbringing as well. My parents do not fight. Period. They do not argue, they do not bicker; they have always exuded a mutual partnership and respect. Through blessings, fortune, or careful filtration, they kept any discord from showing to their two sons. The flip side to this coin is how incapable I was to work through disagreements on my own when my eventual romantic investments began to erode. I was unfamiliar with the proper way to disagree, to have conflict without argument.
As I explored these thoughts with my wife, she appropriately pointed out to me that having no baseline for conflict resolution from personal experience may not make someone any worse off than one who has a poor baseline for conflict resolution from their parents. She’s right of course; I have plenty of friends who seem to mirror a distinct argumentative style of one parent or another. And is this any surprise? Our own internal armchair psychologist would suggest that we’re raised to emulate the behaviors (and flaws) of our parents to a lesser degree. Is it any wonder, then, that our own adult relationships are eerily similar to the rhythms and beats of our nuclear families? We fight as our parents fight, in fact seeking similar disputes for the very reason that these disputes make sense to us and seem perfectly natural.
It is only through the growth and experiences of our adulthood, and likely workplace lessons, that allow us to learn and overcome the implicit biases from our nuclear environments.