What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

To all successful leaders who want to “take it to the next level” and get even better!

Read on …

Habit #1 Winning too much

This is easily the most common behavioural problem that I observe in successful people and this underlies nearly every other habit. There is a fine line between competitive and over-competitive, between winning when it counts and when no one’s counting — and successful people cross that line with alarming frequency.

  • If we argue too much, it’s because we want our view to prevail over everyone else (it’s all about winning)
  • If we’re guilty of putting down other people, it’s our stealthy way of positioning them beneath us (again, winning)
  • If we ignore people, again it’s about winning — by making them fade away
  • If we withhold information, it’s to give ourselves an edge over others
  • If we play favourites, it’s to win over allies and give “our side” an advantage

If you have achieved any modicum of success, you’re guilty of this everyday. Even when you are in the checkout line at the supermarket, you’re scouting the other lines to see which is moving faster.

Even when the issue is to our disadvantage, we want to win!

Lets say you wanted to go to dinner at restaurant X. Your spouse wants to go to Y. You have a heated debate about the choice. But you grudgingly yield and end up going to Y. The experience confirms your misgivings. Option A: Critique the restaurant and smugly point out to your partner how wrong he or she was. Option B: Shut up and eat the food. Mentally write it off and enjoy the evening. If we do a “cost-benefit” analysis we generally conclude that our relationship with our partner is far more important than winning a trivial argument about what we eat. And yet … the urge to win trumps our common sense.

We can become more successful if we appreciate this “flaw” and work to suppress it in our interpersonal relations.

HABIT #2 Adding too much value

This is a variation on the need to win — the need to add value. It’s common among leaders used to running the show. They still retain remnants of the top-down management style where their job was to tell everyone what to do. These leaders are smart enough to realise that the world has changed, that most of their subordinates know more in specific areas than they ever will. But old habits die hard. It is extremely difficult for successful people to listen to other people tell them something that they already knew without communicating someone that (a) “we already knew that” (b) “we know a better way.”

That’s the problem with adding too much value. Imagine you’re the CEO. I come to you with an idea that you think is very good. And then you say “Good idea, but it’d be better if you tried it this way.”

The problem is, you may have improved the content of my idea by 5%, but you have reduced my commitment to executing it by 50%, because you have taken away my ownership of the idea. That’s the fallacy of added value. Whatever we gain in the form of a better idea is lost many times over in our employees’ diminished commitment to the concept.

I am not saying bosses have to zip their lips. But the higher up you go in the organisation, the more you need to make other people winners and not make it about winning yourself.

For bosses, this means closely monitoring how you hand out encouragement. Even better, before you speak, take a breath and ask yourself if what you’re about to say is worth it.

Habit #3 Passing judgement

There’s nothing wrong with offering an opinion in the normal give and take of business discussions. You want people to agree or disagree freely.

But it’s not appropriate to pass judgement when we specifically ask people to voice their opinions about us. Even in the most gentle, intimate moments, when people are offering us their most acute (and helpful) snapshots of ourselves, we can’t help passing judgements.

This is true even if you ask a question and agree with the answer. Consciously or not, the other person will register your agreement. It’s no different than a CEO in a meeting asking for suggestions about a problem and telling one subordinate, “That’s a great idea.” Then telling another subordinate, “That’s a good idea.” And saying nothing at all to a third subordinate’s suggestion. The first individual is probably pleased and encouraged to have the CEO’s approval. The second individual is slightly less pleased. The third individual is neither encouraged nor pleased. But you can be sure of two things. First, everyone in the room has made a note of the CEOs rankings. Second, no matter how well-intentioned the CEO’s comments are, the net result is that grading people’s answers — rather than just accepting them without comment — makes people hesitant and defensive.

People don’t like to be critiqued, however obliquely. That’s why passing judgement is one of the most insidious ways we push people away and hold ourselves back from greater success. The only sure thing that comes out of passing judgements on people’s efforts to help is that they won’t help us again.

A Doctor does not care how you broke your leg. He only cares about fixing your leg. You need to extend the same attitude — the doctor’s mission neutral purpose — to dealing with people trying to help you.

Try this: For one week treat every idea that comes your way from another person with complete neutrality. Don’t take sides. Don’t express an opinion. Don’t judge the comment. If you find yourself constitutionally incapable of just saying “Thank you,” make it an innocuous, “Thanks, I hadn’t considered that.” Or, “Thanks. You’ve given me something to think about.”

This will significantly reduce the number of pointless arguments you engage in at work or at home. People will gradually begin to see you as a much more agreeable person, even when you are not in fact agreeing with them. Do this consistently and people will eventually brand you as a welcoming person, someone whose door they can knock on when they have an idea.

Habit #4 Making destructive comments

Destructive comments are the cutting sarcastic remarks we spew out daily, with or without intention, that serve no other purpose than to put people down, hurt them, or assert ourselves as their superiors. They are different from comments that add too much value — because they add nothing but pain.

They run the gamut from a thoughtless jab in a meeting (“That wasn’t very bright”) to gratuitous comments about how someone looks (“Nice tie” — with a smirk) to elaborately planned critiques of people’s past performances that everyone but you has forgotten. (“Do you remember the time you …”)

Press people to list the destructive comments they have made in the last 24 hours and they will quite often come up blank. We make destructive comments without thinking — and therefore without noticing or remembering. But the objects of our scorn remember.

Further, once the comment leaves your lips, the damage is done and it’s very hard to undo. You can’t take it back. No matter how fervently you apologise — and even if the apology is accepted — the comment lingers in the memory.

Destructive comments are an easy habit to fall into, especially among people who habitually rely on candour as an effective management tool. Trouble is, candour can easily become a weapon. People permit themselves to issue destructive comments under the excuse that they are true. The fact that a destructive comment is true is irrelevant. The question is not, “Is it true?” but rather, “Is it worth it?”

We instinctively avoid destructive comments when it’s a survival issue. We know the difference between honesty and full disclosure. We may think our boss is a complex ass, but we are under no moral or ethical obligation to express that — to the boss’s face or to anyone else for that matter. You need to extend this survival instinct not only up the organisation but across and down as well.

Before speaking, ask yourself:

  1. Will this comment help our customers?
  2. Will this comment help our company?
  3. Will this comment help the person I’m talking to?
  4. Will this comment help the person I’m talking about?

If the answer is NO, the correct strategy does not require a Ph.D. to implement. Don’t say it.

TIP: Spend a few 1000 dollars and you will get better. Offer 10$ to anyone who hears you make destructive comments about another person. The financial pain may get you thinking in the right direction.

Habit #5 Starting with “No,” “But,” or “However”

When you start a sentence with “no,” “but,” “however,” or any variation thereof, no matter how friendly your tone or how many cute mollifying phrases you throw in to acknowledge the other person’s feelings, the message to the other person is You Are Wrong. It’s not “I have a different opinion.” It’s not “Perhaps you are misinformed.” It’s not, “I disagree with you.” It’s bluntly and unequivocally, “What you’re saying is wrong and what I am saying is right.” Nothing productive can happen after that. The general response from the other person (unless he or she is a saint) is to dispute your position and fight back. From there the conversation dissolves into a pointless war. You’re no longer communicating. You’re both trying to win.

If you keep a scorecard of how many times your colleagues use these three words to start a sentence, you’ll be shocked at how commonly used these words are.

If you drill a little deeper, patterns will emerge. You’ll see how people inflict these words on others to gain or consolidate power. You’ll also see how intensely people resent it, consciously or not, and how it stifles rather than opens up discussion.

Stop trying to defend your position and start monitoring how many times you begin remarks with “no,” “but,” or “however.” Pay extra close attention to those moments when you use these words in sentences whose ostensible purpose is agreement with what the other party is saying. For example, “That’s true, however ….” (Meaning: You don’t think it’s true at all.) Or the particularly common opener, “Yes, but …” (Meaning: Prepare to be contradicted.)

Once you appreciate how guilty you have been, maybe then you’ll begin to change your “winning” ways. (Irony intended.)

Habit 6# Telling the world how smart we are

This is another variation on our need to win. We need to win people’s admiration. We need to let them know that we are at least their intellectual equal if not their superior. We need to be the smartest person in the room. It usually backfires.

Many of us do this covertly and unwittingly all day long.

We do this whenever we nod our heads impatiently while people are talking, whenever our body language suggests that we are hearing something we haven’t heard before. (Are those your drumming fingers I hear?)

Alternative phrasings — “I think someone told me that,” “I didn’t need to hear that,” to the downright arrogant “I am five steps ahead of you.” The problem here is not that we’re merely boasting about how much we know. We’re insulting the other person.

What we are really saying is, “You really didn’t need to waste my time with that information. You think it’s an insight I haven’t heard before. You mistake me, the ever so wise and lovely me, for someone who needs to hear what you are saying right now. I am not that person. You are confused. You have no idea how smart I am.”

The paradox is that this need to demonstrate how smart we are rarely hits its intended target.

Being smart turns people on. Announcing how smart you are turns them off. So, how do you tone the need to tell the world how smart you are?

The first step is recognising our behaviour. Stopping this behaviour is not hard — a three step drill in which you (a) pause before opening your mouth to ask yourself, “Is anything I say worth it?” (b) conclude that it isn’t, and (c) say, “Thank you.”

Habit 7# Speaking when angry

Anger has its value as a management tool I guess. It wakes up sleepy employees. It raises everyone’s metabolism. However, emotional volatility is not the most reliable leadership tool. When you get angry, you are actually out of control. It’s hard to lead people when you’ve lost control.

The worst thing about anger is how it stifles our ability to change. Once you get a reputation for emotional volatility, you are branded for life. We save a special place in our mind for our chronically angry colleagues.

How do you stop getting angry? I doubt if I could shut down your rages at life’s injustices and follies. But I can make you appreciate that (a) you’re probably not angry at the proverbial “other guy” and (b) there’s a simple way to lose your reputation for getting angry.

Anger is rarely someone else’s fault. It’s a flaw that’s solely our own. A Buddhist legend tells of a young farmer who was covered with sweat as he paddled his boat up the river. He was going upstream to deliver his produce to the village. He was in a hurry. It was a hot day and he wanted to make his delivery and get home before dark. As he looked ahead, he spied another vessel, heading rapidly downstream toward his boat. This vessel seemed to be making every effort to hit him. He rowed furiously to get out of the way, but it didn’t seem to help.

He yelled at the other vessel, “Change direction, you idiot! You are going to hit me. The river is wide. Be careful!” His screaming was to no avail. The other vessel hit his boat with a sickening thud. He was enraged as he stood up and cried out to the other vessel. “You moron! How could you manage to hit my boat in the middle of this wide river? What is wrong with you?”

As he looked at the other vessel, he realised that there was no one in the other boat. He was screaming at an empty vessel that had broken free of its moorings and was going downstream with the current.

The lesson is simple. There is never anyone in the other boat. When we are angry, we are screaming at an empty vessel.

All of us have people in our lives who drive us crazy, whom we hate with a passion. We may have spent countless hours reliving the moments when this person was unfair, unappreciative, or inconsiderate to us. Even remembering this person bumps up our blood pressure.

Getting angry doesn’t improve the situation and life’s too short to waste on feeling bad. A sage would say that the person making us so angry cannot help who he is. Getting mad at him for being who he is makes as much sense as getting mad at our desk for being a desk. If we had his parents, his genes, and his background, we would be him. That’s easier said than done, but it comes closer to the real issue: More often than not, we might as well be him because we are really angry at ourselves.

As to the second point, I can help you lose your reputation as a person who gets angry with one simple piece of advice. It is this: If you keep your mouth shut, no one can ever know how you really feel. Once you appreciate the payoff of saying nothing — that if you’re silent, you cannot make an ass out of yourself or make an enemy out of someone else — then you might have a chance of getting better.

The next time you start to speak out of anger, look in the mirror. In every case, you’ll find that the root of your rage is not “out there” but “in here.”

Habit 8# Negativity, or “Let me explain why that won’t work.”

“Let me explain why that wont work.” ‘The only problem with this is.”

This is the telltale phrase of negativity. This is a major annoyance because it’s emblematic of our need to share our negative thoughts even when they haven’t been solicited.

It’s not like overusing “no,” “but,” and “however,” because we’re not hiding our negativity under the mask of agreement. Nor is it the same as passing judgement on someone else’s ideas — because we’re not rating or comparing anything. We’re not saying it’s good, better, or best. It’s clearly not the same as making destructive comments — because it’s not overtly nasty.

“Let me explain why that won’t work” is unique because it is pure unadulterated negativity under the guise of being helpful. We employ it to help establish our expertise or authority as superior to someone else’s.

If negativity is your flaw, monitor your statements the moment someone offers you a helpful suggestion. Paying attention to what we say is a great indicator of what we’re doing to turn people off. If you catch yourself frequently saying, “Let me tell you why that won’t work,” you know what needs fixing.

Habit #9 Withholding information

Intentionally withholding information is the opposite of adding value. We are deleting value. Yet it has the same purpose: To gain power. It’s the same old need to win, only more devious. You see it in people who leave you out of the information flow. You see it in people who answer every question with a question: they believe revealing anything puts them at a disadvantage. You see it in its passive-aggressive incarnation in people who don’t return your phone calls or answer your e-mails or only give partial answers to your queries.

Reflect on how you felt about the following events:

  • A meeting you weren’t told about
  • A memo or e-mail you weren’t copied on
  • A moment when you were the last person to know something

By withholding information, you may think you’re gaining an edge and consolidating power, but you’re actually breeding mistrust. In order to have power, you need to inspire loyalty rather than fear and suspicion. Withholding information is nothing more than a misplaced need to win.

It may not be easy to change the ‘divide and conquer’ behavior, but one can focus on all the unintentional or accidental ways we withhold information.

  • We do this when we are too busy to get back to someone with valuable information.
  • We do this when we forget to include someone in our discussions or meetings.
  • We do this when we delegate a task to our subordinates but don’t take the time to show them exactly how we want the task done.

More often than not, we don’t withhold information out of malice. We do it because we’re clueless. That’s a good thing. Willful maliciousness is not a “flaw” that we can fix here. But cluelessness is easy to change.

It may be simply the case that we are too busy. We mean well. We have good intentions. But we fail to get around to it. Over time it begins to look as if we are withholding information.

How do you stop withholding information. Start sharing it!

Make sharing information a higher priority in your busy day. In doing so, you will not only improve your communication, you’ll be proving that you care about your coworkers — demonstrating that what they think matters to you.

Habit #10 Failing to give proper recognition

This is a sibling of withholding information. In withholding your recognition of another person’s contribution to a team’s success, you are not only sowing injustice and treating people unfairly but you are depriving people of the emotional payoff that comes with success.

In depriving people of recognition, you are depriving them of closure. And we all need closure in any interpersonal transaction. Closure comes in many forms — from the emotional complexity of paying our last respects to loved ones before they die to something as pro forma as saying, “You’re welcome” when someone else says, “Thank you.” Either way, we expect closure.

Recognition is all about closure. It’s the beautiful ribbon wrapped around the jewel box that contains the precious gift of success you and your team have created. When you fail to provide that recognition, you are cheapening the gift. You have the success but none of the afterglow.

When I ask why people fail at recognition, the answers say more about the people responding than the people who aren’t being recognised. “I just got too busy.” “I just expected everyone to do great work.” “I never realised how important it was to them.” “I was never recognised for my great work — why should they be.”

Note the aggressive use of the first person singular pronoun. It’s a hallmark of successful people; they become great achievers because of their intense focus on themselves. Their career, their performance, their progress, their needs. But there’s a difference between being an achiever and a leader. Successful people become great leaders when they learn to shift the focus from themselves to others.

Of all the interpersonal slights we make in our professional or private lives, not providing recognition may be the one that endures most deeply in the minds of the slighted. Except for …

Habit #11 Claiming credit that we don’t deserve

Claiming credit is adding insult to the injury that comes with overlooked recognition. We’re not only depriving people of the credit they deserve, but we are hogging it for ourselves. It’s two crimes in one.

The world isn’t always paying attention when we excel. People have their own agendas to pursue. But even the most highly evolved human being would have a tough time grinning and bearing when neglect turns to larceny. That’s what it is when someone claims credit that they do not deserve: theft.

When someone you work with steals the credit for success that you created, they’re committing the most rage-inducing interpersonal “crime” in the workplace. And it creates a bitterness that’s hard to forget.

Now imagine you’re the perpetrator rather than the victim. You wouldn’t claim someone else’s resume or college degree as your own. That’s because those achievements are well documented. Your claims can be challenged. But when it comes to determining exactly who came up with the winning idea, the evidence gets fuzzy. It’s hard to say who deserves the credit. Given the choice, we fall into the success trap and give ourselves the benefit of doubt. We claim more credit than we have earned and slowly begin to believe it.

There’s no telling what a group can achieve when no one cares for the credit. We know this in our bones.

Here’s a simple drill that will transform you from a credit miser to a credit philanthropist. For one day (or longer if you can handle it) make a mental note of every time you privately congratulate yourself on an achievement, large or small. Then write it down. End of day, take apart each episode and ask yourself if it’s in any way possible that someone else might deserve the credit for “your” achievement. Was your idea inspired by an insightful comment from someone else in the room?

As you go through your list, consider this make-or-break question: if any of the other people involved in your episodes were looking at the situation, would they accord you as much credit as you are claiming for yourself? Or would they hand it out to someone else, perhaps even themselves?

We have a strong bias to remember events in a light most favourable to us. This drill exposes that bias and makes us consider the possibility that someone else’s perspective is closer to the truth.

Habit #12 Making excuses

Excuses may come in two categories: blunt and subtle.

The blunt excuse: “I’m sorry I missed our lunch meeting. My assistant had it marked down for the wrong date on my calendar.” Message: See, it’s not that I forgot the lunch date. It’s not that I don’t regard you as important, so important that lunch with you is the unchangeable, nonnegotiable, highlight of my day. It’s simply that my assistant is inept. Blame my assistant, not me.

The problem with this type of excuse is that we rarely get away with it — and it’s hardly an effective leadership strategy.

The more subtle excuses appear when we attribute our failings to some inherited DNA that is permanently lodged within us. We talk about ourselves as if we have permanent genetic flaws that can never be altered.

It’s a subtle art to make wilful self-deprecating comments about oneself. And using the stereotype to excuse otherwise inexcusable behavior. We also behave as if we want to prove that our negative expectations are correct.

The next time you hear yourself saying, “I’m just no good at …,” ask yourself, “Why not?” If we can stop excusing ourselves, we can get better at almost anything we choose.

Habit #13 Clinging to the past

I don’t have much patience with therapy that clings to the past — because going backward is not about creating change. It’s about understanding.

Understanding the past is perfectly admissible if your issue is accepting the past. But if your issue is changing the future, understanding will not take you there. The only effective approach is looking people in the eye and saying, “If you want to change, do this.”

But for some reason, many people enjoy living in the past, especially if going back there lets them blame someone else for anything that’s gone wrong in their lives. That’s when clinging to the past becomes an interpersonal problem. We use the past as a weapon against others.

When we make excuses, we are blaming someone or something beyond our control as the reason for our failure. Anyone but ourselves. But sometimes we blame other people not as an excuse for our failure, but as a subtle way of highlighting our successes. It’s no more attractive than making excuses, but we usually require a really smart person whom we love to point it out to us.

Stop blaming others for the choices you made — and that goes with double emphasis for the choices that turned out well.

Habit #14 Playing favorites

While almost every company says it wants people to “challenge the system” and to “be empowered to express your opinion” and “say what you really think,” there sure are a lot of performers who are stuck on sucking up.

If leaders say they discourage sucking up, why does it dominate the workplace? Why they still play favourites? The simple answer is: We can’t see in ourselves what we can see so clearly in others.

Take this test. How many of you own a dog that you love? Now, at home, who gets most unabashed affection? Your partner, kids or your dog? More than 80 percent of the time, the winner is the dog. Now, do you love your dog more than your family. Most likely, it is a resounding NO. So why does the dog get most of your attention? Gives unconditional love? Never talks back? Always happy to see you? In other words, the dog is a suck-up.

If we aren’t careful, we can wind up treating people at work like dogs. Rewarding those who heap unthinking, unconditional admiration upon us. What behaviour do we get in return? A virulent case of the suck-ups.

The net result is manifestly obvious. You are encouraging behaviour that serves you, but not necessarily the best interests of the company. If everyone is fawning over the boss, who’s getting work done? Worse, it tilts the field against the honest, principled employees who won’t play along. This is a double hit of bad news. You’re not only playing favourites but favouring the wrong people!

Leaders can stop encouraging this behaviour by first admitting that we all have a tendency to favour those who favour us, even if we don’t mean to.

We should then rank our direct reports in three categories.

  1. How much do they like me? Rather, how much you think they like you. Effective suck-ups are good actors.
  2. What is their contribution to the company and its customers? A players? B, or C?
  3. How much positive personal recognition do I give them?

What we’re looking for is whether the correlation is stronger between one and three, or two and three. If we’re honest with ourselves, our recognition of people may be linked to how much they seem to like us rather than how well they perform. That’s the definition of playing favourites.

This quick self-analysis won’t solve the problem. But it does identify it — which is where change begins.

Habit#15 Refusing to express regret

Expressing regret, or apologising, is a cleansing ritual, like confessions in church. You say, “I’m sorry” — and you feel better. But like many things that are fine in theory, it’s hard for many of us to do.

Perhaps we think apologising means we have lost a contest (and successful people have a practically irrational need to win at everything). Perhaps we find it painful to admit we were wrong. Perhaps we find it humiliating to seek forgiveness (which suggests subservience). Perhaps we feel that apologising forces us to cede power or control (actually the opposite is true).

Whatever the reasons, refusing to apologise causes as much ill will in the workplace (and at home) as any other interpersonal flaw.

If you look back at the tattered relationships in your life, I suspect many of them began to fray at the precise moment when one of you couldn’t summon the emotional intelligence to say, “I’m sorry.”

People who can’t apologise at work may as well be wearing a t-shirt that says, “I don’t care about you.”

The irony, of course, is that all the fears that lead us to resist apologising — the fear of losing, admitting we’re wrong, ceding control — are actually erased by an apology. When you say, “I’m sorry,” you turn people into your allies, even your partners.

We reap what we sow. If you smile at people, they will smile back. If you ignore them, they will resent you. If you put your fate in their hands — i.e., cede power to them — they will reward you.

If you put all your cards in someone else’s hands that person will treat you better than if you kept the cards to yourself. To gain a friend, let him do you a favour.

Apologising is one of the most powerful and resonant gestures in the human arsenal — almost as powerful as a declaration of love. It’s “I love you” flipped on its head. If love means, “I care about you and I’m happy about it,” then an apology means, “I hurt you and I’m sorry about it.” Either way, it irrevocably changes the relationship between two people. It compels them to move forward into something new and, perhaps, wonderful together.

The best thing about apologising is that it forces everyone to let go of the past. In effect, you are saying, “I can’t change the past. All I can say is I’m sorry for what I did wrong. I’m sorry it hurt you. There’s no excuse for it and I will try to do better in the future. I would like you to give me any ideas about how I can improve.”

That statement — an admission of guilt, an apology, and a plea for help — is tough for even the most cold-hearted among us to resist. And when you employ it on coworkers it can have an alchemical effect on how they feel about you and themselves.

There’s a magic in this process. When you declare your dependence on others, they usually agree to help. And during the course of making you a better person, they inevitably try to become better people themselves. This is how individuals change, how teams improve, how divisions grow, and how companies become world-beaters.

Habit#16 Not listening

People will tolerate all sorts of rudeness, but the inability to pay attention holds a special place in their hearts.

When you fail at listening you’re sending out an armada of negative messages. You’re saying:

  • I don’t care about you
  • I don’t understand you
  • You’re wrong
  • You’re stupid
  • You’re wasting my time
  • All of the above

It’s a wonder people ever talk to you again.

The interesting think about not listening is that, for the most part, it’s a silent, invisible activity. People rarely notice you doing it. You can not be listening because you’re bored, or distracted, or busy composing what you want to say — and no one will know it.

The only time people actually see that you’re not listening to them is when you’re displaying extreme impatience. You want them to hurry up and get to the point. People notice that. And they rarely think better of you for it. You may as well be shouting, “Next!” at them.

When you find yourself mentally or literally drumming your fingers while someone else is talking, stop the drumming. Stop demonstrating impatience when listening to someone. Stop saying or thinking “Next!”

Habit #17 Failing to express gratitude

Dale Carnegie liked to say that the two sweetest words in English language were a person’s first and last name. After all, who doesn’t like to hear their name on other people’s lips?

I’m not sure Dale was right. To me, the two sweetest words in the language are “Thank you.” They’re not only disarming and pleasant to the ear, but they help us avoid so many problems. Like apologising, thanking is a magical super-gesture of interpersonal relations. It’s what you say when you have nothing nice to say — and it will never annoy the person hearing it.

Yet people have a tough time executing this. Whether they’re receiving a helpful suggestion or unwanted advice or a nice compliment, they get confused how to respond. They have too many options. They can dispute the comment, question it, fine-tune it, clarify it, criticise it, amplify it. They’ll do practically everything but the right thing. Say “Thank you.”

You: “You look great. That’s a gorgeous dress!”

She: “Oh, this old thing? It’s just some rag I found in the closet.”

You tune out. She’s going on and on about the dress, but you’re looking at her in puzzlement. You’ve just handed her a sweet compliment, and she’s arguing with you! In effect, she’s saying, “You are confused if you think this is a beautiful dress. It is nothing compared to the other really beautiful dresses in my closet. If you were smarter, you would know that this pathetic old rag is hardly conclusive evidence of my exquisite sartorial taste.”

That’s the chilling effect of not saying thank you. You create a problem where none exists.

I try to teach people that, if they don’t know what to say, their default response to any suggestion should be, “Thank you.”

No matter what someone tells you, you are not going to learn less. When somebody makes a suggestion or gives you ideas, you’re either going to learn more or learn nothing. But you’re not going to learn less. Hearing people out does not make you dumber. So thank them for trying to help.

The troublemaking phrase I always look out for is, “I’m confused.” — because it is so subtle and dishonest. He’s saying you’re confused — which is another way of saying, “You’re wrong.”

Gratitude is a skill that we can never display too often. And yet for some reason we are cheap and chary with gratitude. Gratitude is not a limited resource — nor is it costly. It is as abundant as air. We breathe it in but forget to exhale.

Pick something to be grateful for. Do it now.

Habit #18 Punishing the messenger

Punishing the messenger is like taking the worst elements of not giving recognition and bagging the credit and passing the buck and making destructive comments and not thanking or listening — and then adding anger to the mix.

It manifests itself in big and little ways.

It’s the momentary snort of disgust you exhale when your assistant reports that the boss is too busy to see you.

It’s the expletive you neglect to delete in a meeting when a subordinate announces that a deal fell apart. If you had calmly asked, “What went wrong?” no damage would be done. The subordinate would explain what happened and everyone in the room would be wiser for it.

It’s not just bad news, however. It’s all the times that people give us a helpful warning about something — a red light up ahead when we’re driving, fact that our socks don’t match — whatever.

If your goal is to stop people from giving you input — of all kinds — perfect your reputation for shooting the messenger. On the other hand, if your goal is to stop this bad habit, all you need to say is, “Thank you.”

Habit #19 Passing the buck

Passing the buck is one of those terrifying hybrid flaws. Take a healthy dose of needing to win and making excuses. Mix it with refusing to apologise and failing to give proper recognition. Sprinkle in a faint hint of punish the messenger and getting angry. And what you end up with is passing the buck. Blaming others for our mistakes.

A leader who cannot shoulder the blame is not someone we will follow blindly into battle. We instinctively question that individual’s character, dependability, and loyalty to us. And so we hold back on our loyalty to him or her.

Unlike the other subtle flaws, passing the buck is one of those obviously unattractive personal habits — as obvious as belching in public.

Passing the buck is the dark flip side of claiming credit that others deserve. Instead of depriving others of their rightful glory for a success, we wrongfully saddle them with the shame of our failure.

And unlike other flaws, which we’re rarely aware of, we don’t need other people to point out that we’re passing the buck. We’re well aware of it. We know we must shoulder the blame for failure, but we can’t bring ourselves to do it. So we find a scapegoat.

Infallibility is a myth. No one expects us to be right all the time. But when we’re wrong, they certainly expect us to own up to it. In that sense, being wrong is an opportunity — an opportunity to show what kind of person and leader we are.

How well you own up your mistakes makes a bigger impression than how you revel in your successes.

If passing the buck is your challenge, no matter how much you think you’re saving the hide, you’re actually killing it.

Habit #20 An excessive need to be “me”

Each of us have a pile of behaviour which we define as “me.” It’s the chronic behaviour, both positive and negative, that we think of as our inalterable essence.

If we’re poor at returning phone calls — deal with it, that’s “me.”
If we are procrastinators who habitually ruin other’s calendars — “me.”
If we always express our opinion — hurtful or noncontributory — being “me.”

It is easy to cross the line and begin to make a virtue of our flaws — simply because the flaws constitute what we think of as “me.” This misguided loyalty to our true natures — this excessive need to be me — is one of toughest obstacles to making positive long-term change in our behaviour. It doesn’t need to be.

Change becomes possible when you realise that this stern allegiance to your definition of yourself is pointless vanity.

Less me. More them. Equals success.

Keep this in mind when you find yourself resisting change because you’re clinging to a false — or pointless — notion of “me.” It’s not about you. It’s about what other people think of you.

Habit #21 Goal Obsession

Goal obsession turns us into someone we shouldn’t be.

Goal obsession is one of those paradoxical traits we accept as a driver of our success. It’s the force that motivates us to finish the job in the face of any obstacle — and finish it perfectly.

A valuable attribute much of the time. But taken too far, it can become a blatant cause of failure.

In its broadest form, goal obsession is the force at play when we get so wrapped up in achieving our goal that we do it at the expense of a larger mission.

It comes from misunderstanding what we want in our lives. We think we’d be truly happy if only we make more money, or lost 30 pounds, or got the corner office. So we pursue these goals relentlessly. What we don’t appreciate until much later is that in obsessing about making money, we might be neglecting the loves ones or harm our body or trample upon colleagues at work. We start out with a road map heading in one direction but end up in the wrong town.

It also comes from misunderstanding what others want us to do. The boss says we have to show 10% revenue growth for the year. When it appears we will miss the target, goal obsession forces us to adopt questionable, less than honest methods of hitting the target. If you examine it more closely, we’re not really obsessed with hitting the 10% growth; our true goal is pleasing our boss. The only problem is that we either don’t see this or refuse to admit it to ourselves. Is it any wonder our values get mixed up? Goal obsession has warped our sense of what is right or wrong.

As a result, in our dogged pursuit of our goals we forget our manners. We’re nice to people if they can help us hit our goal. We push them out of the way if they’re not useful to us. Without meaning to, we can become self-absorbed schemers.

Goal obsession is not a flaw. It’s a creator of flaws. It’s one thing to pursue your dreams — but not if that pursuit turns a dream into a nightmare.

Our quest for a successful outcome may end up doing more harm than good to our organisations, our families, and ourselves.

The solution is simple, but not easy. You have to step back, take a breath, and look. And survey the conditions that are making you obsessed with the wrong goals.

Ask yourself: When are you under time pressure? Or in a hurry? Or doing something that you have been told is important? Or have people depending upon you?

Probable answer: All the time. These are the classic conditions of the goal obsessed. Consider “What am I doing” and, “Why am I doing this?”

Ask yourself, “Am I achieving a task — and forgetting my organisation’s mission?” Are you making money to support your family — and forgetting the family that you are trying to support? Are you on time to deliver a sermon to your staff — and forgetting to practice what you’re preaching?

After all this effort and display of professional prowess, you don’t want to find yourself at a dead end, asking, “What have I done?”

Changing for Better: Feedback

Until something better comes along, confidential 360-degree feedback is the best way for successful people to identify what they need to improve in their relationships at work.

Successful people are incredibly delusional about their achievements. Basically, we accept feedback that is consistent with our self-image and reject feedback that is inconsistent.

Four commitments of giving feedback

  1. Let go of the past
  2. Tell the truth
  3. Be supportive and helpful — not cynical or negative
  4. Pick something to improve yourself — so everyone is focused more on “improving” than “judging”

Make a list of the last dozen or so people with whom you’ve had professional contact. Then run the four commitments against each name. If any of them qualify on all four commitments, they’re as good a place to start getting feedback.

Important: Stop asking for feedback and then expressing your opinion. Treat every piece of advice as a gift or a compliment and simply say “Thank you.” If you learn to listen — and act on the advice that makes sense — the people around you may be thrilled.

Solicited Feedback

“What do you feel about me?” 
“What do you hate about me?”

These are actually irrelevant. In the workplace, you don’t have to like me; we don’t have to be buddies to work together.

In soliciting feedback for yourself, the only question that works — the only one! — must be phrased like this: “How can I do better?”

Semantic variations are permitted, such as, “What can I do to be a better partner at home?” or, “What can I do to be a better leader of this group?”

Pure unadulterated issue-free feedback that makes change possible has to (a) solicit advice rather than criticism, (b) be directed towards the future rather than obsessed with the negative past, and (c) be couched in a way that suggests you will act on it; that in fact you are trying to do better.

Unsolicited Feedback

If we’re lucky, every once in a while something or someone comes along who opens our eyes to our faults — and helps us strip away a delusion or two about ourselves. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, we should consider ourselves lucky and grateful.

Here is Johari Window, a schemata to explain us to ourselves.

The interesting stuff is the information that’s known to others but unknown to us. When that information is revealed to us, those are the moments that create dramatic change. These blindside moments are rare and precious gifts. They hurt, perhaps (the truth often does), but they also instruct.

We need these painful unsolicited feedback episodes, when others reveal how the world really sees us, in order to change for the better. Without the pain, we might not discover the motivation to change.

Two great lessons:

  1. It is a whole lot easier to see our problems in others than it is to see them in ourselves.
  2. Even though we may be able to deny our problems to ourselves, they may be very obvious to the people who are observing us.

This is the simple wisdom of the Johari window: What is unknown to us may be well-known to others. We can learn from that.

As human beings we almost always suffer from the disconnect between the self we think we are and the self that the rest of the world sees in us. This is the value of unsolicited feedback.

If we can stop, listen, and think about what others are seeing in us, we have a great opportunity. We can compare the self that we want to be with the self that we are presenting to the rest of the world. We can then begin to make the real changes that are needed to close the gap between our stated values and our actual behaviour.

Observational Feedback

Some of the best feedback comes from what you observe.

Every day, people are giving feedback, of a sort, with their eye contact, their body language, their response time. Interpreting this casual observational feedback can be tricky; learning that something’s not right is not the same as learning what’s wrong and how we can fix it.

The good news is that these feedback moments are plentiful and, with some simple drills, we can manipulate them so that patterns emerge to tell us everything we need to know to get started. Here are five ways you can get feedback by paying closer attention to the world around you.

# Make a list of people’s casual remarks about you
For one day, write down all the comments that you hear people make to you about you. That’s smart. You’re late. Are you listening to me? Any remark that, however remotely, concerns you or your behaviour, write it down. End of the day, review the list and rate each comment as positive or negative. If you look at the negatives, maybe some patterns will emerge. That’s the beginning of a feedback moment. You’re learning something about yourself without soliciting it — which means that the comment is agenda-free. It’s honest and true. Then do it again, the next day, and the next.

# Turn the sound off
Turn the sound off and observe how people physically deal with you. Do they lean toward you or away? Do they listen when you have the floor or are they drumming their fingers waiting for you to finish? Are they trying to impress you or are they barely aware of your presence? This won’t precisely tell you what your specific challenge may be, but if the indicators are more negative than positive, you’ll know you have some work to do.

# Complete the sentence
Pick one thing that you want to get better at. It could be anything that matters to you. Then list the positive benefits that will accrue to you and the world if you achieve your goal. As you get deeper into it the answers become less corporately correct and more personal. As the benefits you list become less expected and more more personal and meaningful to you, that’s when you know that you’ve given yourself some valuable feedback — that you’ve hit on an interpersonal skill that you really want and need to improve.

# Listen to your self-aggrandising remarks
Maybe I am no expert on inventory control …
I probably wasn’t paying attention …
I don’t have any ego invested in this …
These pseudo-self-deprecating remarks — the one’s we say about ourselves but don’t believe — are the rhetorical devices and debating tricks of everyday communication that allow us to get an edge on our rivals. Nothing wrong with that. To a student of intra-corporate warfare, such self-deprecation from others should put you on high alert. Whatever they say, you know they believe the opposite. The same could be said of each of us. We should be on high alert when we hear ourselves make self-deprecating remarks — because they might be giving us feedback about ourselves. When you say “I am not very good at thanking people,” it is quiet possible you don’t believe it. Self-deprecation can be one of those honest feedback moments that makes a signal sound in our brain. “Pay attention,” it tells us. “This might be something worth observing.”

# Look homeward
Your flaws at work don’t vanish when you walk through the front door at home. Anybody can change, but they have to want to change — and sometimes you can deliver that message by reaching people where they live, not where they work.

These five examples of observed feedback are stealth techniques to make you pay closer attention to the world around you.

When you make a list of people’s comments about you and rank them as positive or negative, you’re tuning in the world with two new weapons: judgement and purpose.

When you turn off the sound, you’re increasing your sensitivity to others by counterintuitively eliminating the precious sense of hearing.

When you try the sentence completion technique, you’re using retrograde analysis — that is, seeing the end result and then identifying he skill you’ll need to achieve it.

When you challenge the accuracy of your self-aggrandising remarks, you’re flipping your world upside down — and seeing that you’re no different from anyone else.

Finally, when you check out how your behaviour is working at home, you realise not only what you need to change but why it matters so much.

In Conclusion

Feedback tells us what to change, not how to do it. But when you know what to change, you’re ready to start changing yourself and how people perceive you. You’re ready for the next step: telling everyone you’re sorry.


Apologising is the most magical, healing, restorative gesture that human beings can make. Without the apology, there is no recognition that mistakes have been made, there is no announcement to the world of the intention to change, and most important there is no emotional contract between you and the people you care about. Saying you’re sorry to someone writes the contract in blood.

How to Apologise?

The healing process begins with an apology.

It doesn’t matter what we have done or what compels us to apologise. Once you are prepared to apologise, here’s the instruction manual.

You say, “I’m sorry.”

You add, “I’ll try to do better in the future.”

And then … you say nothing.

Don’t explain it. Don’t complicate it. Don’t qualify it.


After the apology, you must advertise. It’s not enough to tell everyone that you want to get better: you have to declare exactly in what area you plan to change. In other words, now that you’ve said your sorry, what are you going to do about it?

It’s a lot harder to change people’s perception about your behaviour than it is to change your behaviour. Cognitive dissonance: we view people in a manner that is consistent with our previous existing stereotypes, whether it is positive or negative. Within that framework it’s almost impossible for us to be perceived as improving, no matter how hard we try.

However, the odds improve considerably if you tell people that you are trying to change. Suddenly, your efforts are on their radar screen. You’re beginning to chip away at their preconceptions. Your odds improve if you tell everyone how hard you are trying, and repeat that message week after week. Your odds improve even more if you ask everyone for their ideas to help you get better.

Eventually, people start to accept the possibility of a new improved you.

Don’t forget the “Dumb” Phase

Your efforts to change may not get instant acceptance from your colleagues. You may have to fight your way through a “dumb phase.”

Some truly great wines which can last for decades and tend to improve with age, go through a “dumb” period when the wine goes to sleep for a few years and then wakes up and improves dramatically in the bottle.

It’s the same with any project you undertake at work. The best ideas are like great wines. They improve with age. But they can also go through a dumb period when they need time to settle and sink in.

Every successful project goes through seven phases: the first is assessing the situation, the second is isolating the problem; the third is formulating. But there are three more phases before you get to the seventh, implementation.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t pay close attention to phases four, five and six — the vital period when you approach your coworkers to secure the all-important political buy-in to your plans. In each phase you must target a different constituency. In phase 4, you woo up — to get your superiors to approve. In phase 5, you woo laterally — to get your peers to agree. In phase 6, you woo down — to get your direct reports to accept. You cannot skip or skim over them. You have to give them as much, if not more, attention, as you do phases 1, 2, 3, and 7. If you don’t you may as well be working alone in a locked room where no one sees you, hears you, or knows you exist. That’s the guaranteed result of committing “one, two, three, seven.”

What’s true for getting people to solve a corporate problem is just as true for getting people to help you change for the better. It takes time and relentless persuasion for any idea to gain traction. Think of your “advertising” as recruiting colleagues up, over, and down to buy in to the concept. If you don’t, you are committing “one, two, three, seven” on yourself. You can’t get to seven without counting from one to six. Anything less is bad arithmetic.


80% of our success in learning from other people is based upon how well we listen. Listening is not a passive activity. Good listeners regard what they do as a highly active process — with every muscle engaged, especially the brain.

Three things all good listeners do:

They think before they speak
You can’t listen if you are talking. Keeping your mouth shut is an active choice. Particularly when you are upset about what you are hearing. If you can master this, you can listen effectively.

They listen with respect
Did your significant other ever say, “You are not listening to me!”? You look up and say, “Yes I am.” And calmly provide a verbatim playback of everything said to prove that you were listening and that your companion in life … is wrong. What have you accomplished by this virtuosic display of your multitasking skills? Was it smart? No. Does your partner think more highly of you? Not likely. Is anyone impressed? Hardly. Your partner might as well think: “Gee, I thought you weren’t listening. But now I realise it is a deeper issue. You’re a complete jerk.” This is what happens when we listen without showing respect. It’s not enough to keep our ears open; we have to demonstrate that we are totally engaged. If you’ve never done it, listening with respect makes you sweat.

Always gauging their response by asking themselves “Is it worth it?”
While listening, are we busy composing what we’re going to say next? Orchestrating a comment that annoys them? Inject a destructive tone? Asking “Is it worth it” forces you to consider what the other person will feel after hearing your response. It forces you to play at least two moves ahead. Not many people do that. You talk. They talk. And so on — back and forth like a beginner’s chess game where no one thinks beyond the move in front of them. It’s the lowest form of chess, it is also the lowest grade of listening.

We are certainly capable of doing these. We did on our first date — paragons of attentiveness and interest. With our boss — lock in on our boss’s eyes and mouth — searching for smiles and frowns, as if they are significant clues about our career prospects. Basically, we are treating our date or our boss as if they are the most important person in the room.

The only difference? The great listeners do this all the time. They treat everyone equally — and everyone eventually notices.

Why don’t we do it? We forget. We get distracted. We don’t have the mental discipline to make it automatic. Listening requires the discipline to concentrate.

Here are some tiny tactics

  • Listen
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Don’t finish the other person’s sentences
  • Don’t say ‘I knew that’
  • Don’t even agree with the other person (even if he praises you, just say ‘Thank You’)
  • Don’t use the words “no,” “but,” and “however”
  • Don’t be distracted. Don’t let your eyes or attention wander elsewhere while the other person is talking
  • Maintain your end of the dialogue by asking intelligent questions that (a) show you’re paying attention (b) move the conversation forward, and [c] require the other person to talk (while you listen)
  • Eliminate any striving to impress the other person with how smart or funny you are. Your only aim is to let the other person feel that he or she is accomplishing that

If you can do that, you’ll uncover a paradox: The more you subsume your desire to shine, the more you will shine in the other person’s eye.

Do it all the time.


Thanking expresses one of the most basic human emotions: gratitude. You either fell it or you don’t. Gratitude is a complex emotion — it is frequently interpreted as submissive behaviour, slightly humiliating. This may explain why parents must constantly remind their children to say, “Thank you.” Its one of the last and hardest things to teach naturally rebellious kids.

Here’s an exercise to get you started. No matter how far along you are in life, think about your career. Who are the people most responsible for your success? Write down the first 25 names that come in mind. Ask yourself, “Have I ever told them how grateful I am for this help?” If you’re like the rest of us, you probably have fallen short in this area.

Writing a thank you note also forces you to confront the humbling fact that you have not achieved your success alone. You had help along the way.

Most important, it forces you to identify your strengths and weaknesses. After all, when you thank people for helping you, you’re admitting that you needed help in the first place — which is one way to pinpoint your deficiencies. This helps you identify your old weak spots (which may still be weaker than you think.)

Eventually, you’ll come to see that expressing gratitude is a talent — a talent that goes hand in hand with wisdom and self-knowledge and maturity.

Following Up

Once you master the subtle arts of apologising, advertising, listening and thanking, you must follow up — relentlessly. Or everything else is just a “program of the month.”

Follow-up is the most protracted part of the process of changing for the better. It goes on for 12 to 18 months. Fittingly, is’s the difference-maker in the process.

  • Follow-up is how you measure your progress
  • Follow-up is how we remind people that we’re making an effort to change, and that they are helping us
  • Follow-up is how our efforts eventually get imprinted, on our colleagues minds
  • Follow-up is how we erase our coworkers skepticism that we can change
  • Follow-up is how we acknowledge to ourselves and others that getting better is an ongoing process, not a temporary religious conference.

More than anything, follow-up makes us do it.

A Nightly Follow-up Routine

Have a coach. Let them ask the same questions each night. A sample set:

  • How happy are you?
  • How much walking did you do?
  • How many sit-ups?
  • Did you eat any high-fat foods?
  • How much alcohol did you drink?
  • How many hours of sleep did you get?
  • How much time did you spend watching TV or surfing the Internet?
  • How much time did you spend writing?
  • Did you do or say something nice for your wife?
  • Did you do or say something nice for your kids?
  • How many times did you try to prove you were right when it wasn’t worth it?
  • How many minutes did you spend on topics that didn’t matter or that you could not control?

These questions may sound petty, even shallow. Do they matter to you is what matters. The nightly call is a form of enforced follow-up. And it works! Also, it is the rare individual who has the stamina and discipline to call us daily! Almost any one in your life can function as your coach.

It’s a simple process. Pick an issue in your life that you’re not happy with and that you want to improve. Make a list of dozen small daily tasks — nothing so major they will overwhelm your day. And have your coach ask you about each task end of each day. That’s it. Results will not appear next day. If you stick to it, you will change. You will be happier. And people will notice.

Practicing Feed-Forward

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