Leading from the Inside, Out

I recently developed a workshop on “Leadership from the Inside Out”, which I’ve delivered to a couple hundred people. I was encouraged to format the key takeaways into a shareable post including:

  • ~9-minute guided reflection on shifting to Connection & Collaboration from Defensiveness & Distrust within a conflict
    (audio-recording format — attendees found this extremely valuable and some became emotional when sharing their experience with the group)
  • Tools and concepts within Adult development theory and emotional intelligence
  • An overview on the importance of developing Leaders from the Inside, Out, especially within the evolving culture conversation

Developing as a Leader from the Inside, Out focuses on the need for a person to develop an internal Operating System that creatively responds to increasing complexity within their external environment. As leaders develop this capacity for psychological complexity, they find themselves shifting from a mindset of defensiveness, distrust, and disconnection, to a place of greater trust and connection, resulting in more meaningful interactions, collaboration, and deeper relationships.

Most leadership training focuses on how a leader should react to the external demands and content of their environment, but top tech companies (i.e. Google, Asana, Facebook) are finding that their best rated leaders are focusing on their inner game, while most leaders tend to focus only on their outer game. Successful leaders upgrade their capacity to collaborate within the context of their environment, through mastering the inner game of their emotional responses, patterned reactivity, socialized assumptions or biases, and meaning-making towards a place of connection, instead of distrust.

Consider how the diverse, globalized society we need to function within, is increasing in complexity, stress, speed, and psychological demand. We’re connecting with more people from diverse backgrounds and different cultures, and joining teams across more timezones (the last 3 companies I’ve been part of have required me to operate on at least 3 different time zones). The term “VUCA” has also become popular in leadership circles, originating from a military concept to describe their environment — Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous.

If we zoom out and observe the psychological state of our culture, we’re seeing the harmful effects of not having the capacity to connect (with people) in our increasingly complex world, as referenced by the Former U.S. Surgeon General’s body of research on Work and the Loneliness Epidemic, even as we’re becoming more connected through technology and globalization. In the U.K., their government hired a Minister of Loneliness. We’ve seen over and over that we won’t bridge our differences without understanding how to build our capacity to take another’s perspective, and to default to trust over fear.

In terms of our internal development, it’s significant that psychological safety — the ability for someone to take interpersonal risks on their team (read: trust and vulnerability)––is the finding of Google’s landmark study on what creates their most effective teams. And Brene Brown’s talk on the The Power of Vulnerability, which is essentially the root of trust, is the #5 Most viewed TED Talk worldwide with 33.5 million views.

I’ll dive deeper into an example from my own developmental journey, wherein my reactive, distrusting, and defensive internal programming resulted in me exploding, uncharacteristically and unexpectedly, during a meeting with the VP of Engineering in one of my earlier companies, in a full-blown expletive attack. By developing our capacity to understand differing and more complex perspectives, and through overhauling our emotional intelligence, we can reprogram ourselves to prevent many of the operating system “crashes” we see happening when our programming isn’t compatible with the world we’re in.

The world is requiring people to look outside of the perspective we assume is how things work, and to see all the different ways other people can think, feel, and react to their individual experience of the world. Below, I’ll provide some tools and concepts that shift the neurological tendency toward disconnection, distrust, and defensiveness, and can begin to upgrade our internal Operating Systems toward trust and connection with each other, our colleagues, and our beliefs about the world outside of ourselves.

Before I Was Aware of What Was Going on Inside

So now I’ll recap how I found myself dropping F-bombs in a conference room during a yelling match with a VP of Engineering I worked with.

I had been brought into the product management team of a former company, not fully realizing a power struggle that was taking place with the Executive Board and the VP of Engineering. I didn’t have the information to understand why I was constantly encountering negativity, passive aggression, explicit aggression, or dismissiveness, but I made sure to meet it with equal amounts of resentment and impatience (since at the time, I didn’t know how else to react).

While the bulk of my interactions with this colleague were contentious, this particular one took place at a very high decibel level, and caused permanent damage to the relationship, although he ended up leaving the company a couple months after. My reaction that day still haunts me, but I used it as part of the wake up call I got, once I realized I hadn’t been aware that I was even building up the level of negativity that would cause the kind of explosion I had.

The VPoE was only ONE person I interacted with, but our conversations leaked into my subsequent meetings. I would roll from a meeting with him, in a place of a lot of defensiveness and judgment, right into a meeting with my friend who was our Designer. But, I could still be carrying that defensiveness, and would then interpret his most neutral feedback as criticism, or unnecessarily push to defend my ideas in brainstorming sessions. On a holistic level, it affected my ability to assert my opinions and to take innovative risks in my role.

As a leader, the more people someone leads, the more interactions they have in a day. So, the more opportunities there are for a single negative interaction, like with my VPoE, to spill over into A LOT of different relationships.

So how can we begin to reprogram our natural tendency for defensiveness?

Watch this insightful video explaining a brilliantly simple tool from The Conscious Leadership Group, the firm that provides the culture training for Asana. I’m a huge fan of this concept, and I even included it in some of the manager trainings I built while on the Learning and Development team at Zendesk:

To recap, when you’re approaching your environment from trust, curiosity, growth, or learning, you’re “above the line”. And when you’re coming from a place of fear, drama, defensiveness, blame, or scarcity, you’re “below the line”.

Below the line leaders tend to shoot down ideas, insist on only their point of view, and don’t take responsibility in understanding a conflict. When 2 people are below the line, nothing gets done. But the beauty of this is, when one person can get above the line, and ask powerful questions, they can shift the dynamic of a relationship. I also want to add that there’s a productive way to be above the line and in disagreement, as long as a person is being curious and asking questions.

Reprogramming to Trust & Connection Above the Line (Guided Reflection)

Please click on the audio recording below to complete a ~9-minute guided reflection, so you can start understanding when you’re below the line, how that feels in your body’s reactions, how you can catch yourself there, and how you might start reprogramming yourself to shift above it.

Reflect on a conflict or interaction in your life where you’re below the line.

Click here:

Post-reflection Takeaways

So how was that? Did anything surprise you?

Did you experience a shift? If not, how might you continue to look at your conflict from different perspectives?

Let’s recap the reflection’s takeaways for reprogramming ourselves Above the Line:

  1. Check in with your body to catch your mind
    It’s a lot more difficult to be defensive when our posture is above the line. Many people shared that they rarely tune into what’s happening in their bodies when they’re coming from a conflict below the line. Our body and breathing mirrors our thoughts, so practicing deep belly breathing, and keeping your shoulders open and forehead relaxed is useful in bringing more curiosity to a conflict. Amy Cuddy, Harvard expert and author on Presence, who has a great Ted Talk on the Wonder Woman pose, has some great research on this.
  2. Practice a checklist on your approval, security, and control
    Are any of these missing? If so, that may be pulling you below the line.
  3. Practice shifting with powerful presencing questions
How can I take another’s perspective?
What can I learn from this?
What can I appreciate?

If I hadn’t gone into meetings assuming the VPoE was going to be an a-hole, I might have asked, “How might he not be an a-hole?”. This might have alerted me to his own job insecurities and lack of feeling in control. Also, if I’d been able to cultivate more empathy from this realization, I may have avoided reacting as defensively to him, which would have left more room to improve the relationship and compelled me to dig deeper into his needs or priorities when we disagreed on the timeline or way in which he wanted certain features to be completed. Furthermore, I would’ve been better at preventing defensive spillover into my other meetings and work relationships, especially if I investigated “Am I Above or Below the Line?” more often throughout all meetings. Instead, I wasted a massive amount of time reversing the fall outs from our rocky dynamic.

Expanding Our Mindset Complexity

By asking myself more powerful questions consistently, I begin to rewire my fight or flight amygdala reaction into a mindset of:

  • Less right vs. wrong
  • Opportunity for win-win
  • Curiosity and possibility

The more I can embrace that I live in a complex world, and increasingly complex work environment, the more I come to the conclusion that it’s not black and white. The more frequently I can challenge my judgments or inner critic with “how could I be wrong?”––which is a fantastic inquiry I learned from adult development expert, Jennifer Garvey Berger, as part of the Growth Edge Coaching method––the more I can see the grey areas between my simplistic black and white stances. Then, the more I can see the grey area, the more I can realize that the people in conflict with me or who rub me the wrong way, might actually be more on my side or similar to me than I think they are. And this all gives me a deeper appreciation for, relationship to, and connection across our differing experiences.

Jennifer Garvey Berger, is a huge inspiration in my study of Adult Developmental Theory, which focuses on developing the capacity to hold increased and increasingly divergent perspectives. She illustrates this concept brilliantly in the below graphic. The more we can practice shifting away from defensiveness and quick judgments, the more opportunity we have to see that most perspectives of the world are on a sliding scale, a continuum, not a black/white, either/or construct.

Although it’s been around for a few decades, Adult Developmental Theory has been picking up momentum as companies are being forced to have actionable discussions about the state of our culture and the behaviors, habits, and frames of mind that just aren’t working for us anymore. Consider how you can approach a relationship conflict from seeing the answer as black and white to developing a mindset that allows for more possibilities, and consequently, more connection:

Growth Edge Coaching, Jennifer Garvey Berger Adult Developmental Stages of Mind Illustration

Putting it into Practice

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Viktor E. Frankl, Psychologist and Holocaust Survivor

I consider my “own way”, my path, as a sequence of my small decisions. And the pattern of my decisions shapes my overall perspective on that path — oriented either above the line or below the line. The more often I can check in with myself to notice when I’m above or below the line, and then determine the opportunity to shift to above the line, the more I’m able to provide a place of connection and possibility within my interactions and relationships. If I can lead from a more consistent place of connection, then I can influence anyone I work with to be able to make better decisions.

So this is how I remind myself to practice. Download the Mindjogger (iOS) or RandomlyRemindMe (Android) app and load in the following questions, which will pop up in a notification, randomly throughout your week:

Am I above or below the line?
How could I be wrong? (if you’re in judgment or noticing your inner critic)
What can I appreciate?
Recent text from a friend whose husband got held up at work.

Practice. Practice. Practice. I practice using a lot of these tools consistently with my friends — they’re the best accountability buddies and guinea pigs for my self-awareness building habits. Having a shared vocabulary and tools for building our self-awareness through each other, has been instrumental in a lot of my mindset shifting. Reprogramming our internal Operating System is slow, but very gratifying work. The leaders of tomorrow aren’t just experiencing less stress and more wholeness, as they shift away from being reactive, they’re seeing the rewards in the way their teams perform and the strength of the relationships they’re forming, even outside of work. 
Cheers to developing from the Inside, Out!

If you’d like to learn more about Inside, Out development, check out some influential resources and my further philosophy at my website InsideOut Quotient: https://insideoutq.com/philosophy/.

(Special thanks to Cynthia Wennstrom Barton for your brilliant workshop editing support!)