Marshall Goldsmith is perhaps the preeminent executive leadership coach in the United States. He has written a dozen or more books and served as an executive coach to leaders of many key international organizations. I had the good fortune of participating in a daylong seminar with him that had to do with his New York Times best-selling book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. I have also been certified in his Stakeholder Centered Coaching model, so, yes, I am a big fan of his.
In that book, Marshall Goldsmith identified the 20 habits that hold you back from the top and the first one of them is Winning Too Much. When you think about successful executives, one common attribute has to do with their highly competitive natures. It is not accidental that people who are driven to win and succeed are the ones that move up in and lead organizations. The problem is that sometimes our strengths carried to an extreme can be a vice. In other words, we can’t seem to turn off or moderate our competitive juices when in fact it may not really matter all that much or pushing to get our way becomes counterproductive.
My experience with executives in the companies I have worked for and in is that the senior leaders of these organizations have one thing in common: they are all pretty sharp cookies. There may be certain skill deficiencies or character flaws that present themselves after many years, but you don’t get to the upper rungs of organizations if you don’t have the intellectual horsepower to play at that level. So sometimes in the give-and-take of meetings or in discussions some people just can’t hold back from topping what might have been another excellent idea.
Habit number two is called Adding Too Much Value and number six is Telling the World How Smart We Are. These are all closely related. What happens in these situations is that our competitive drive makes it hard for us to let go of “showing off” other suggestions, adding different perspectives when we were simply piggybacking on whatever good idea has been put forward already, or playing “devil’s advocate” too much.
The question is why do we feel compelled to do that when a perfectly good solution or suggestion has already been put forward by a peer or a subordinate? I think a lot of this has to do with the fact – and I am speaking primarily of our American culture – that we have competition rather than collaboration drilled into us from a very young age. We are also a society that is more individualistic than collectivist in our orientation to the world.
Why We Compete Rather Than Collaborate
When my son was in instructional soccer as a kindergartner, there were no goalies and no score was kept; it was all about developing some skills and an interest in the game. But rarely did we leave a match where I didn’t hear a Dad, and yes it was primarily Dads, say something like, “Boy, you guys really put it to them today!” Remember, this is completely against the intent and purpose of 6-year-olds just learning the game.
As much as I hate to admit it, I am a bit of a perfectionist although my zest for control of things in life has diminished greatly over the years. In my work with my clients, a couple of assessments that I use can point out if an individual has tendencies towards perfectionism in their personality. This trait can often be a good thing because perfectionists get things done and pay great attention to quality and detail; however, too great a need for control can stifle people and organizations and leave many people consistently unsatisfied with the quality of their work.
How Perfectionists Are Challenged
There’s an excellent book called Too Perfect by Allan Mallinger and Jeanette DeWyze. I have used it to understand this topic better and have referred it to many of my clients whose personalities demonstrate a need for control that becomes counterproductive. What’s interesting about this to me is I had a sense that the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree as it related to my two daughters who are two years apart in age.
In the book, there is a 25 question quiz that can let you know how much of a perfectionist you might be. When my daughters were about 19 and 17 we sat in our kitchen and I read out each of the quiz questions to them and had them tally up their answers. There were two rather sobering things I learned that afternoon in my kitchen:
- Both of my daughters had developed reasonably high levels of control orientation, and;
- They were competing with each other as to who could answer yes to the various questions.
I saw that this was happening fairly all early on as I read through the quiz and I stopped and told them that this was not the right thing to compete on. Well, there’s a reason that the phrase “dumb old dad” is a part of how children view their father as their growing up.
I mentioned both of these personal anecdotes because they both reinforce this issue of competition versus collaboration. My experience with introducing total quality management to the consumer electronics division of the RCA Corporation earlier in my career taught me a lot about the various tools and techniques that go into group problem-solving and the effective collaboration it enables. It’s these tools and techniques, like brainstorming, the nominal group technique for sorting through a large number of options, and other approaches that allow collaboration to flourish in an effective way.
If we are not naturally collaborative creatures, use the tools you can find to assist you in making collaborative decisions.
How to Avoid “Is It Worth It?”
As a senior leader, you need to be able to set an example for restraint in not allowing yourself to overwhelm the suggestions and ideas of others, especially your subordinates, by insisting on getting your idea on the table for consideration especially when other very good ideas have already been put forward. In a recent blog by Marshall Goldsmith, entitled Is It Worth It, he suggests that as leaders listen to the suggestions and recommendations of others in meetings they need to consistently ask themselves, is it really worth it for me to add my idea or perspective here? Would it serve to diminish the suggestions of others or perhaps to send a signal that I am more interested in what I have to say than others?
Naturally, you must put your two cents in if you have a genuinely better idea or another suggestion might have a flaw in reasoning or content that you have somewhat unique knowledge about. You owe it to everyone to contribute your ideas then.
To sum up, the question “Is It Worth It?” will always be relevant under the following circumstances:
- Is the suggestion on the table effective and adequate?
- Is my suggestion or idea so unique or compelling that the risks of overwhelming the ideas of my peers or my team are worth it?
- Is throwing my idea out there simply because my competitive juices are flowing or because I have some unique knowledge or perspective to add?
- Is it in my best interest to show my collaborative and cooperative nature by not trumping another person’s idea but rather showing support for the contributions of others?
I look forward to your comments.