I didn’t realize it until the holidays. After grinding it out for nearly 12 months during 2018, doubling the size of our workforce and doubling the size of my family, we shut DX down over the Christmas break. I swore not to work for at least 10 days, and I didn’t. But I did take the time to reflect on the past year, and my teeth ended up wonky from all the kicking—the self-inflicted kind.
I am my biggest critic. As an entrepreneur, leader, husband, and father, this was the year that shook me up like no other. So clearly, I needed that kick. In fact, everyone needs a kick in the teeth now and then. At DX, our entire business is designed around kicking leaders in the teeth. So, I got a dose of my own medicine—and it felt good. I learned more in 2018 than my previous 18 years in business combined. Bring it on, 2019!
My Four Main Leadership Lessons Learned:
Respect the Power of Emotional Intelligence: A team member sent me an email that triggered a deep, negative, emotional response. I told that person how their email hurt my feelings. The silver lining came when we spoke about it. They said it was refreshing to know that I’m not Superman. I’m just as human as they are. Knowing I can be hurt just like everyone else strengthened their connection to me.
For years, I’ve tried to be Superman for my team, regardless of what was going on with the business or in my life. 2018 taught me that letting feelings out is better than keeping feelings in. Being transparent and letting people know where you stand has a strong positive effect on your team. Just be you. Just be human.
Here’s more on the background thinking behind Emotional Intelligence:
Millennials Are Humans Too: In our research into psychological safety, I have come to believe that we’ve over-cooked, over-marketed, and misunderstood Millennials. I cringe whenever I hear someone say, “How do I lead a Millennial?” The answer is simple: You lead them like anyone else—like humans. Fundamentally, nothing about leadership or humans has changed in the past 25 years, apart from the millions of books and models that repeat the same old stuff and make the authors lots of money. I’m a Gen Xer. When I was in my first job 18 years ago, I wanted feedback. I wanted coaching. I wanted to be empowered. I wanted clear expectations. I wanted to be treated fairly and feel included. I never got any of that. Since getting a new job was not the easiest thing to do, I took what (lack of) leadership I got and was thankful to have a job I liked.
Here’s one thing that has changed since I entered the job market 18 years ago. As of 2018, we have more job openings than people to fill them. Today, it truly is power to the people! Today’s talent pool has choices and they have the internet. They’re going to work where they are treated as humans. Humans have always wanted to be treated like humans, but leaders haven’t had to do that in the past. Well, now we do. It’s expected. It’s not a Millennial thing. It’s an evolution thing.
Amy Edmondson’s definition of psychological safety sums up why we should spend time and money to get our leaders where they need to be in today’s talent climate:
“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”
Reflecting over the Christmas break, I also realized that, even though I’m building a business that helps other businesses create psychological safety, I haven’t achieved this with my own team. I just completed my end of year review, which had an anonymous feedback loop called a 360 as part of it. It revealed things about me that I wish my team had told me at the time, not anonymously at the end of the year. In 2019, I will work on creating psychological safety within my team so they are more likely to give me real time feedback and be more comfortable with conflict. I can’t understate how powerful it is. Hard to gain and easy to lose.
Here’s a simple way to look at psychological safety using the DX Learning C.A.R.E.™ Model:
- CLARITY – Leaders must ensure that everyone on the team knows what is expected of them on a regular basis.
Humans crave predictability. If I don’t entirely understand what is expected of me, why it’s expected of me, and its link to a higher purpose, I’ll question my role and my motivation and not be 100% engaged.
- AUTONOMY – Empower your team, and don’t control everything they do.
The brain is designed to survive, and therefore designed to control its environment. We need to know that we have options—that we have choices about what we do and how we do it. If not, we’ll find a workplace where we do.
- RELATIONSHIP – Give your team candid feedback, openly communicate, and get to know them on a personal level.
We are tribal creatures, and therefore social. We feel safer when we have a sense of belonging with like-minded people. We want to be part of a group with relationships that have meaning beyond the daily grind.
- EQUITY – Be fair. Don’t have a favorite on your team. Include everyone based on where they are and what they need.
When we feel the effects of being treated unfairly, it’s like being punched. Evolution has dictated to our brains that, in order to survive, resources must be handed out equitably. When we see people being treated unfairly, it triggers an emotional threat response.
Ask yourself. If I asked my team (or my wife/husband/kids), “do I do these things for you?”, would they categorically say yes to all four without a millisecond of hesitation?
Dealing with Conflict Doesn’t Come Naturally: It’s easy to tell others to “deal with it.” And yet, I absolutely let things slide that I should have nipped in the bud. My fear of hurting other people’s feelings gets in my way. I’m human, and I’m like you: Totally inefficient at leading. We’re not built to be natural leaders. The way the brain is wired, we have to fight millions of years of evolution to do what our team members expect. We may think we are leading effectively as no one tells us otherwise, but I guarantee you are not as optimal as you could be. By not dealing with conflict, you hurt your team, you hurt yourself, and you hurt your business. I promised myself that I’d confront my own demons on this one and work through my internal issues to confront challenges head-on, both at home and in the office.
We are Accountable for Making Great Decisions: 2018. DX Learning year four. And we made our first loss. We had already surpassed more than 50% of start-ups. I thought we were invincible, that we could do no wrong. We went from $0 to a lot in a very short time. Isn’t it amazing how humans can get so complacent so quickly? As leaders, we’re accountable for making great decisions. Honestly, I’ve probably made more bad decisions than good ones. Why?
When you get smug and big-headed, you make horrible assumptions and don’t gather as many facts or do the things you should. You sway from what got you here, and you lose your focus. Always gather as many facts as possible before making any decision where the consequences could have an impact on the business and the people in it. The buck stops with you. You are a leader because you make the right decisions more often than not. I’d heard that when you assume, you “make an ASS out of U and ME.” Now I get it!
These are only a few of my learnings this past year. Here are my recommendations to help you avoid things I learned the hard way:
- Do some homework on emotional intelligence and find out how you can improve yours. The easiest and cheapest way is to seek feedback from others to drive your self-awareness. Create a feedback culture within your team so you receive feedback as well as give it. Be open about your feelings, and create a transparent workplace where others know they can also be transparent.
- Read Amy Edmondson’s book, The Fearless Organization, and watch her TED talks. We’ve made leadership very complex, but it’s actually simple—just be human and treat others like humans, too. The C.A.R.E.™ model is an easy way to link what you should be doing as a leader, and creating a safe workplace where people have the confidence to speak up about work and be themselves.
- No one likes conflict. (Well, some do.) Just know that you do more harm than good to your team when you don’t tell the truth and fail to confront issues as they arise. If your people trust you, they will know you have good intentions. Just call out problems right there and then in a human way. Part of emotional intelligence is self-regulation. Don’t get upset—keep to the facts and they will listen.
- Remember that the more successful you get, the easier it is to think you can do no wrong. You can. People look to you to make decisions that will keep them safe. Making assumptions and hoping it will work out is not leadership. Always do your due diligence and do what is right for your team. You can never gather all the data, so do the best you can with what you can get and remember that you’re not alone.
- Aspire to be the great leader you are at work at home too. You have humans at home who expect to be treated like humans. Give them effective feedback. Don’t be controlling. Give everyone the chance to think for themselves. Be very clear with expectations—and treat everyone fairly. Be there for them, as you are your team at work. I turn off my phone at home during the week between 5pm and 8pm so I can be wholly present for my family. I challenge you to “turn off” for your family, too.
Every day is a chance to get better. Seek opportunities to grow. Look for feedback and be open to it. Try to seek to understand and seek not be understood. Ask more than you tell. Be clear on expectations, and don’t assume everyone understands you. Be fair. Be human.
Leaders, I have so much more empathy with you after this year—especially if you have a family. It’s a lonely job at the top. Don’t expect thanks, but give it. Don’t expect recognition, but give it. Don’t expect feedback, but give it. Don’t expect people to be clear with you, but be clear with them. Don’t expect people to treat you like a human, but treat them like one. It’s not about you. It’s about them. We have the most unselfish job in the world, and it’s hard bloody work.
Thank you to my wife for being my biggest supporter. Wouldn’t be here without her. To all DX’ers past and present, thank you for your patience and putting up with my flaws and allowing me to improve every day.
From my family to yours, let’s all be better humans this year.