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Follow the Contradictions

Tuning into those nagging thoughts instead of pushing them away can help leaders ferret out possible trouble ahead.

It’s Friday afternoon, and an unsettling meeting that you had this morning with a major customer still echoes in your mind. Even as you start wrapping up this week and planning for the next, you can’t seem to let it go, nor can you put your finger on exactly what’s bothering you. Despite the hour, the phone keeps ringing and messages still need to be returned, so you focus your attention on the urgencies of the moment, feeling too busy to have any other choice. It isn’t until the following Monday that you get the difficult news that your customer is taking its business to a competitor.

The signal was there, telling you that something wasn’t quite right, but you rushed past it and dove into other tasks. If you had stopped to reflect on Friday afternoon’s hunch about that uncomfortable meeting, would you have realized what went wrong, reached out to the team, and at least given yourself a chance to address its concern?

Your ability to handle these situations depends on your sensitivity to the nagging thoughts and gut feelings that are all too easy to ignore. I call them contradictions because they run contrary to the ingrained thinking that carries most people through the day. To “follow the contradictions” means paying attention to the people and circumstances around you, pausing to consider any faint indicators that something may be wrong. This can reveal cracks that may exist in the logic of your everyday beliefs, which are all too easy to overlook when you’re constantly putting out fires.

Why is it so difficult to notice and consider the inner echoes of a contradiction? Part of the answer lies in my last strategy+business post, in which I described a common dynamic, the manager’s dilemma: As someone in a leadership position, you simply do not have the resources, either within the organization or yourself, to handle the demands on your attention and time. By trying to accommodate every request, you only fall further behind. This leads to counterproductive behavior patterns that further deplete your already compromised capacity. One of the first capabilities compromised is the ability to remain present and follow the contradictions. And that’s too bad, because each of those little indicators represents an opportunity to refocus your attention on the high-value priorities that can give you better alignment and traction in your relationships and on your priorities.

Contradictions are always emerging. An employee sees something alarming, but doesn’t talk about it. A board member starts to tell you something informally, but suddenly stops. Moments like this provide opportunities to guide you through potentially troubled situations if you take the time to learn from them. Unfortunately, many leaders feel they don’t have the resources to address yet another task in their brain’s inbox. (See another earlier post.) The busier you get, the faster you move and the less you notice. The less you notice, the fewer opportunities you have to pick up on the subtle signals that something is amiss.

Here are some ways you can apply mindfulness to learn to follow the contradictions:

• Give yourself permission to take a step back. As demands pile up, it is easy to get caught in a reflexive cycle of jumping from one pressing issue to the next. Allow yourself the time to reflect on whether you feel uneasy about something.

• Ask what and why. When you feel the hint of a contradiction, ask yourself: “What is really going on here?” and “Why could this matter?” Search for the answers without falling back on presumptions, and don’t rush to label things good or bad. These inquiries can expose the source of the contradiction.

When you can’t shake a nagging thought, ask yourself: “What is really going on here?” and “Why could this matter?”

• Look for the underlying dynamic. There is always more going on below the surface than you can see. You cannot assume that the people you deal with — customers, employees, or other stakeholders — will explicitly voice what they are feeling. Nor can you assume that what you have always done in the past will continue to please. Thus, you need to validate your perceptions by tuning into the factors that have led someone in your professional sphere to signal you this way. These factors might include a shift in, for example, a customer or other stakeholder’s goals (which now suddenly conflict with yours); an expectation that an employee had of you that you unknowingly failed to meet; or a trust issue that you haven’t seen. Explore these issues as openly as you can — if you can talk about them, it not only gives the relationship room to grow, but it avoids the secondary effects of these gaps, including the loss of your credibility.

• Be prepared to feel uncomfortable at first. Following through with contradictions can lead you to face things that you might prefer to avoid. But would you rather be the last to know that something you’re doing is not meeting expectations? You avoid this by learning how to notice those contradictions and use them as opportunities for conversation.

While you may not be able to change or influence certain external circumstances, following the contradictions is a concrete action that will restore some of your personal resources and eventually enable you to move beyond your dilemma of shrinking capacity and increased demands. When you make it a habit to think this way, you see contradictions sooner and respond more effectively.

Let’s return to our earlier example. It’s Friday afternoon, and you just can’t get that unsettling customer meeting out of your head. All around you the office is abuzz with colleagues wrapping up the week’s tasks. Your first instinct is to push the unsettling thoughts down and plow through your inbox, but instead you give yourself permission to take time to follow the contradiction. As you ponder the root of the problem, you feel you’re wasting precious time, but you persevere. You recall that your customer’s team members shot each other odd looks during the meeting and weren’t smiling and chatting as they left the conference room. What was potentially below the surface of these signals? There could be other explanations, but the risk that they may be unhappy about something and unwilling to tell you openly is too great, so you make a phone call to check in.

Maybe you save the day with that phone call, and keep the customer; maybe you don’t. In either case, you’ve strengthened the relationship and made it impossible for the customer to act without your influence. Moreover, you’ve distilled the nagging voices in your head into a concise problem with an obvious solution. In short, by following the contradictions and communicating with others about them, you test your hunches in a proactive, trust-oriented way that sets you apart. And your ability to follow the contradictions will make you an even more present, engaged leader.

Jesse Sostrin

Jesse Sostrin is a director at PwC’s U.S. Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence. He is the author of The Manager’s Dilemma (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He writes and speaks at the intersection of individual and organizational success.

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