It was a Friday afternoon, and I was preparing for the last meeting of the week. I was tired and found it difficult to focus. Maria, a colleague with whom I was working on a project, joined our call a couple of minutes late and after a brief hello and a halfhearted how are you, she started venting. “I am so angry with my boss. He really doesn’t care about anyone, he’s just asking, asking, asking and pushing for more. And everyone is really doing their best but he never appreciates, he never seems to be satisfied with what we do. Why can’t he be more like his boss? She has that inspiring energy that gives you confidence and a reassuring feeling that it’s going to be OK, you know? She cares about the people.” As tired as I was, I knew I had to clarify what happened before moving to the topic of the day. I knew that otherwise, she wouldn’t focus on what we had on the agenda anyway. So, I asked Maria why she was so upset.
It all started with a presentation she had to give in front of her management team. It was a project status meeting, not a big deal, but one of those meetings where you get a go/ no-go from the management. So, still quite important. Maria had been working on her presentation skills for a while and she had agreed with her boss, Tom, to make her aware of what she could improve after an important presentation. When the presentation ended, Tom walked with Maria back to the office and gave her feedback: you did well, the presentation was credible, but you need to improve your persuasion skills. You need to speak slower, use less hand gestures and not repeat information from the charts. You also need to work on your body posture. I can recommend you a coach if you want.”
She thanked Tom and told him she appreciated his candid feedback. But when he left, she felt disappointed and distressed. An hour later, Maria gets an email from her boss’s boss, Elena, saying “Thanks for all the hard work you put into this project, Maria. The presentation today showed us only the tip of the iceberg, but I know how many teams are working behind the scenes and how much detail is required to put this together. Great progress, keep it up!” While reading the email, her mood lightened up a bit as she thought, "there, it was not that bad after all."
Maria’s frustration has to do more with perception rather than hard facts. She deliberately asked her boss for feedback, and she got it. But she could have seen the feedback from a different perspective. She could have seen it as a learning opportunity, digest it and have a few take-aways to improve next time. Or she could have seen it as an act of caring. Her boss took time to observe her during the presentation, take notes and have a talk with her after. Instead, she perceived it like a threat and interpreted it as lack of appreciation. Sounds familiar? I know this happened to me many times. It’s not Maria. It’s just human nature.
Why So Negative?
Rationally, what happened was not so dramatic, and you might say, clearly not a reason to get upset with someone. But as Dan Ariely would put it, as humans, we are predictably irrational. And what we remember at the end of the day is not what people said. It’s how they made us feel. Tom was looking for flaws and areas of improvement for Maria. He was focusing on identifying blind spots and weaknesses. Elena was focusing on her strengths.
But getting constructive feedback and working our weaknesses is important right? Only by knowing our weaknesses can we improve. Well… it depends.
The way our brain works is more complex than we perceive it. And it has to do with how we react to what others say and how we manage our perceptions and emotions. Our autonomic nervous system is made of two parts: the sympathetic system, responsible for preparing the body for the “fight, flight or freeze” response and the parasympathetic system, responsible for the rest-and-digest and feed-and-breed responses.
What happens when we receive “constructive feedback” is that our sympathetic system is activated, so even when we are deliberately seeking for feedback, we get unconsciously in a “fight of flight” state whenever we feel like someone is criticizing us. It feels like rejection or a personal attack. We close ourselves. On the other hand, when someone is reminding us about our strengths and what we do well, the parasympathetic system activates, and we enter in a more relaxed state. In that state, we are open to learning and accepting new information without feeling attacked. And then boom… magic happens and new connections start building.
What caused Maria’s frustration had less to do with her boss, and more to how her brain is wired. As humans, we have been “gifted” with a natural negativity bias, that we need to understand, accept, and learn to work with.
Our brains act like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones, says psychologist Rick Hanson.
As bad as it might sound, negativity bias is actually good. It gave us evolutionary edge. It’s a great advantage to know and recognize that good things are nice but bad things can kill you. So, we unconsciously react to negative stimuli to protect ourselves. The only way to change our reactions is to reframe our perspective and make the situation feel less threatening.
To do that, we can start from the assumption that the other person has a positive intention. That will help us create a safe space and reduce the feeling of personal attack. If we disagree with what is being said, we can ask some clarification questions, again, out of curiosity and not as defense mechanism. Instead of asking “Why would you say this and that?”, you can paraphrase “Just to make sure I understand, when you say this and that, do you mean….?”
Psychological safety is by far the most important factor in building strong positive relationships and teams. When people feel safe to speak up and express their opinions, they are being true to themselves and feel authentic.
It all starts with self-awareness
If we want to understand the world around us and have more positive interactions with other people, we need to first understand ourselves. What is our personality like, what motivates us, what do we value, what do we believe in? What brings us joy and how do we cope in the face of adversity? How do we self-manage and handle our emotions? What are we good at and what weaknesses do we have? Only by reflecting on all these aspects, can we be ready to manage the ups and downs that life brings us.
Our sense of self shifts when we are at peak or in a valley. If we don’t have a good grasp of who we truly are, our ego might take over when we are winning and feel on top of the world. That’s not a lasting feeling and there will be different times coming. The same happens when we are down. We might feel insecure and lose faith in ourselves.
Self-awareness helps us calibrate and see all these ups and downs as learning experiences. If something worked unexpectedly well, ask yourself: why did it work? How do I do that again? In Japanese, the idea of continuous improvement and optimization is called kaizen, which means “change for the better”. How do we incorporate a kaizen philosophy for ourselves, in everything we do?
“Optimization stems from the conviction that you can do better. It’s less about fixing what’s broken and more about improving what works. […] Always reflect backwards and incorporate forward.” Scott Belsky
Another Japanese concept that I like as it is related to self-awareness and self-discovery in the context of finding purpose in life is ikigai. It comes from Okinawa, the Japanese town where most 100-year-olds live. Ikigai is not a thing, it’s a feeling. It’s feeling a sense of fulfillment when you do what you love, but at the same time, what you do is something that the world needs, and it can also pay your bills. Discovering this sweet spot is a process and it can take a long time. It takes work with yourself, introspection, maybe trial and error. It’s not something you do once and that’s it. It’s a discovery process that will help you better understand who you are, what you love and what you are good at. This guy explains it a lot better than I do.
How are you intelligent?
Do you ever get those sponsored ads that invite you to take a five-minute quiz to find out how intelligent you are? You only need to answer these ten questions and you will know if you’re an 8 or a 5. It’s like taking a multiple-choice test to find out if you’re a good parent. If there is one discovery that changed completely how we understand and relate to our intelligence is the concept of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change and adapt with new experiences. Our intelligence is not fixed and assigned at birth. It’s something we continue developing throughout our life, through learning, new experiences, and deliberate practice. I have written a more extensive article about fixed versus growth mindset that you can check out.
We are born with 100 million neurons and each neuron has around 2.500 synapses. By the time we are three, each of our neurons has up to 15.000 synapses, as we are absorbing everything around us and we learn at an incredible speed. However, as we continue to develop, we start losing part of those synapses, so we end up with half that size by the time we are adults. We strengthen some connections, and we lose others.
When we are focusing on our natural inclinations and strengths, we are creating skills that help us achieve mastery in the field that interests us. Brain growth is like getting new buds on existing branches, rather than growing new branches.
So rather than getting stuck on finding out how intelligent we are, the better question we should ask is “how am I intelligent?” Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner developed a theory of multiple intelligences, to capture the full range of abilities and talents that people have. Gardner’s theory suggests that we all have a dominant strength in one of these eight areas:
Knowing our dominant strength is important because we can build our knowledge and mastery in a certain range of domains, in a more natural way that feels good and helps us stay in the flow. But we need to understand that beside the fact that intelligence is very diverse, it is also dynamic. We use multiple parts of our brain when we perform a task and by pushing ourselves to find new connections between things, we create unique outcomes that are difficult for others to reproduce.
For example, my dominant intelligence type is linguistic-verbal, and the way I approach everything is with pen and paper. But that doesn’t mean I will limit myself to this and not use other forms of expression. Visual elements are very important to me, especially in my marketing work or when I write a newsletter or a new article on my blog. Logical thinking is also something I use every day in the way I approach business projects. When I work as a coach, during change strategy sessions, I use my interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. I always like to relate what I learn and experience back to my own feelings, actions and decisions. But it all starts with words on a paper…
So, how are you intelligent?
“Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”- Albert Einstein
Sir Ken Robinson has crafted the concept of “The Element” as being the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion. It’s that thing that we like doing and when we do it, it immediately puts us in state of flow. We feel authentic and free and in total harmony with time. I have written in the past about what flow is and how we can find it. It starts with a challenge that takes us just a little bit out of our comfort zone. We have clear goals and real time feedback. We are completely absorbed and focused. We lose ourselves in the moment and the ego disappears. Time disappears and we feel more energized.
“The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding”. (M. Csikszentmihalyi)
Find your Unique Ability
The worst we can do is think that our work is just a job that helps us pay the bills and enjoy the “real life”. But we spend most of our waking life working so when we fill our days doing something that doesn’t motivate us and doesn’t use our unique strengths, we will not feel very balanced and happy. I discovered the concept of Unique Ability through a marketing course I took a while ago and it’s an idea developed by Dan Sullivan, owner of the Strategic Coach, an organization that helps entrepreneurs become more successful and happier. According to this concept, your unique ability is made of four elements:
1. An obvious superior ability that other people notice and value
2. You love doing it and you want to do it as much as possible
3. It’s energizing for you and others around you
4. You keep getting better at it and you feel you’re on the path to mastery
The theory sounds easy and almost common sense. But it's not. Because getting to this level of awareness requires several hours set aside for reflection and that's not something that comes easy. We need to be intentional about it and plan reflection time in our weekly schedule. I will give you a short exercise that I learned during that same training.
Make a list of ten people you trust and whose opinion matter to you. It can be family, friends, colleagues, a mix from different areas of your life. Send them a short message and tell them that you are working on better understanding your unique talents. Ask them this simple question: “What do you think my unique ability is? Something that I have or I do very well, that makes a difference?” Seeing yourself through the lens of other people is extremely powerful and it helps you understand yourself from a totally new perspective.
You will then read the answers and try to find some patterns. It could be that the pattern is so obvious that you will wonder “How could I not see this?” Or it might be that people see different unique abilities in you and you will need to spend more time making sense of the feedback and relate it back to how you feel about those things. In either case, this simple exercise will give you a great base to start thinking about your strengths and passions.
And then the big question: what am I doing with this unique ability at this moment in my life?
“Mastery is like swimming- it is too difficult to move forward when we are creating our own resistance or swimming against the current. Know your strengths and move with them.” Robert Greene, Mastery
Excellence is built on strengths
Focusing on our strengths rather than on our weaknesses and building further knowledge and skill from this standpoint, has a lot to do with finding pleasure in the experiences we create for ourselves. Leaning into our strengths, makes work more fun. When we work on something that doesn’t bring us joy but only pain and discomfort, the chances to get into a flow experience are smaller. We will give up faster and we will not find the energy to continue. This doesn’t imply that everything we do always needs to be pleasurable. If we want to grow and learn, there will always be discomfort at the edge of our comfort zone, especially when we seek new challenges. But when the challenge is an extension of what we do well and of what we like to do, we will find the right drive and balance to keep us in the flow.
“Only when you operate with a combination of your strengths and a disciplined self-knowledge can you achieve true and lasting excellence.” Peter Drucker
Looking back at my conversation with Maria, it’s clear that on one hand, she needs to find better coping mechanisms and learn how to manage her emotional distress, so she doesn’t enter in defensive mode every time she receives constructive feedback. On the other hand, her manager could do a better job delivering that feedback in a way that emphasizes strengths and creating a psychologically safe environment. In the end, it all starts with empathy, personally caring and assuming positive intent. This helps us see the potential in others and directly contribute to their growth and happiness.
So what is your superpower?
The characters I use in the stories to illustrate concrete situations, are inspired by my own personal experiences and real people I interact with, but I change the names and context for privacy reasons.
Recommended and Mentioned Resources:
The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything [BOOK], by Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica
Mastery [BOOK], by Robert Greene
Nine Lies About Work: A Free Leader's Guide to the Real Word [BOOK], by Markus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall
Managing Oneself [BOOK], by Peter Drucker
Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences [ARTICLE], verywellmind.com
A Beginner's Guide to Unique Ability [RESOURCE], strategiccoach.com
Do Schools Kill Creativity [TED Talk], Sir Ken Robinson
How to Ikigai [TED Talk], Tim Tamashiro
Chris Voss's Tactical Empathy: 6 Reflective Listening Skills Combined [VIDEO], How Communication Works
10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation [TED Talk], Celeste Headlee
Angela Duckworth: How to Cultivate Your Character Strengths, [PODCAST], Finding Mastery with Michael Gervais
What Managers Get Wrong About Feedback, [PODCAST], HBR IdeaCast
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