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Mindy, head of engineering for an enterprise software company, was angry with herself. “I went into that meeting with such intention to be calm. Listen to what my team suggests. Let them make the decisions they can make. Yet, when Aaron started going on like he always does, I grabbed control and took over. I noticed many of the others shutting down. But I was too far gone.”

She sat on her sofa, moping. “Why can’t I ever do the things I say I want to do?” she moaned.

She looked up at a gentle knock on her office door. Gwendolyn, one of the assistants for the company’s executives, was standing there, a look of concern on her face.

“You look miserable. Want to talk about it?” Gwendolyn asked Mindy.

We are the reason we aren’t succeeding

Mindy waved her in. Gwendolyn entered Mindy’s office, closed the door behind her, and folded herself into the other end of the couch.

Mindy explained what had happened. How it kept happening. How angry she was with herself that she couldn’t shift this pattern. Eventually, her diatribe against herself wound down.

Gwendolyn let this all sit for a minute. Then, she mimed getting up, opening a closet, pulling out a vacuum cleaner, and hauling it over. “Let’s just clean all that up now, shall we?” she said, miming doing just that and then unplugging the vacuum and putting it back away.

“When we say we want to do a thing, yet keep not doing it, one of two things is usually in play,” Gwendolyn said after she returned to the couch. “One, we don’t really want to do the thing. Or two, something about it scares us. Sometimes both.”

Mindy looked up at her, confused. “What do you mean, we don’t really want to do the thing? I absolutely do want to keep a level head in meetings with my team, and to let them make the decisions I’ve empowered them to make.”

“Is that what you want? Or what you think you should want?”

“Of course, it’s what I want. Why wouldn’t I want to stay sane in meetings? And to empower my team?”

“I can think of all sorts of reasons. But that’s not the point. Let me ask this differently: What is important to you about staying sane in meetings?”

Asking what’s important about our goal helps us identify what’s blocking us

“I want my team to feel safe around me. I’ve seen how they look when I start going off the rails.”

“What’s important to you about your team feeling safe around you?”

“I want them to trust me. And to tell me what they really believe, not just what they believe I want them to tell me.”

“What’s important to you about them telling you what they really believe?”

“I need their viewpoints to know I’m making the best decisions. They have vital information.”

“What’s important about their viewpoints?”

“Well, they have vital information, like I said.”

“Anything else?”

“Umm…I guess it’s their viewpoints, as much, or even more than, their information. When I’ve considered everything they bring up, I feel much more confident in making the decision.”

“What’s important about their viewpoints?”

“They come from such diverse backgrounds and experiences. Even the ones who, on the surface, seem to have had exactly the same life as I have, their lives have been pretty different. Those differences help them perceive possibilities and problems I miss.”

“What’s important about all those additional possibilities and problems?”

“If my decision takes into account, and can mitigate or eliminate all of those problems, and act upon all of those additional possibilities when, if, they occur, I know I haven’t missed any blind spots.”

“What’s important about considering every option?”

“There’s nothing left to be afraid of. Oh.”

Almost always, we aren’t succeeding because we believe something falsly

Gwendolyn stayed silent, holding space for Mindy to explore her new insight.

“I guess I’m afraid of making a mistake,” Mindy said after a bit. “I’m not sure I deserve this job. I’m just an engineer, after all. What do I know about leading an entire company of engineers?”

Gwendolyn nodded. “Anything else you’re afraid of?”

“The effect my mistakes can have. One wrong decision and we could lose our entire customer base. That means everyone loses their jobs. That might mean losing their homes, their ability to care for themselves and their loved ones. That might mean living on the street, or taking jobs that don’t fit, just to feed themselves and their families.”

“That’s a lot of responsibility to carry around.”

“So much responsibility.”

Identifying what’s blocking us helps us find options

They sat in silence for a while.

“I guess this is why we review our plans and big decisions as an executive team,” Mindy said. “To spread out our decision-making across multiple viewpoints and people.”

“George explicitly told me that was one reason, when he took over as chief executive officer and instituted those exec team reviews.”

“And, everyone here knows we might be out of business tomorrow,” Mindy continued. “That’s a fact of life with every business. Everyone working here has tacitly agreed to take on that risk.”

“That’s true. I don’t know how many of our employees think about that. Still, it’s true.”

“So maybe I don’t need to hold onto all this responsibility.”

“Maybe not.”

“I’m going to raise this at our next executive meeting,” Gwendolyn decided. “What responsibilities each of us has, and what we explicitly don’t have. Knowing we’ve decided how to approach these things as a group will make me feel a lot safer. Then I can do the same with my team, and on down the line.”

“Love it. I’m sure you aren’t the only one stressing about this.”

“I bet this is why I’m so stressed about not empowering my team. Wanting to get rid of a bunch of this responsibility.”

“That certainly seems likely to be at least one part.”

One question can be enough

“Thank you, Gwendolyn, for helping me work through this. All you did was ask, ‘And what is important about that?’ over and over. Yet, you got me to answers I’ve been struggling to find for days. Months, probably.”

“You always had the answers. You just needed a little help locating them. I’m glad I could help. You’re welcome.”

“I’m going to try this on my teenager. She’s always complaining about something or other. If this can help her as much as it has helped me, it could transform our relationship.”

Gwendolyn smiled. “It certainly could. I wish you all the luck in experimenting with that. Teenagers can be so tricky. I’m so glad my boys are all past that stage. Now they’re starting to recognize that I do have some smarts after all.”

Mindy smiled. “I can’t wait.”

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