Last week was the first time in a long time that I didn’t post. I went on a road trip and did not write ahead of time, as is my normal practice.
I can’t remember the last time – if ever – I have gone away for a full week without my husband or son. A few days here or there, sure, but not for this long of a stretch.
The good news is, they got along just fine without me here. The better news is, so did I. An entire week where I wasn’t someone’s wife, mother, employee or manager. One where I didn’t have to be “on” for someone.
It may not be anyone else’s definition of a perfect vacation, but it came pretty close in my book.
The amazing part was, I still planned. I still problem solved. Road trips demand it, whether it’s knowing which way to point the car, anticipating traffic and weather challenges, or figuring out stops for food and gas.
By the end of the week, I felt refreshed. Not just my energy and spirit, but my leadership skills as well. An epic road trip can teach us more than any class.
Going someplace new highlights our imperfections.
When we are surrounded by what is familiar, including friends, family and co-workers that know us, we feel comfortable. Going someplace new, our habits, speech, and interactions may or may not fit in. Strangers aren’t used to us, and may blurt out or react to our quirks. It’s a great way to learn how we can be perceived by others.
In a small Wisconsin town, a waitress dropped everything to ring me out, rather than make me wait “because you are in such in hurry.” I wasn’t in any more of a hurry than normal, but it made me realize my demeanor and approach was putting out a sense of impatience in the laid back atmosphere. I’d like to say it didn’t happen again on the trip, but have you driven in small coastal towns on a warm weather day?
This week, my life changed. It’s all for the good, but with all growth, we must also leave something behind.
We may even be that someone, if it’s time for another’s growth.
Over the years, I have embraced all the change life and work has thrown at me. This time is no different. I have a mostly new team and look forward to learning more about their work and how to best help them in the coming months.
However, I must say goodbye to the team I’ve built over the last 2+ years.
It’s time for them to move on to the next step in their journey. Like kids going off to college, it’s time for them to leave the nest.
I didn’t expect it to be this difficult to let go. I didn’t expect to grieve.
It hit me hard. I worked from home one day, leading up to the announcement. With my head on the counter, I let it all consume me.
Brushing the tears away, I realized what a gift they have given me. Not the hard work and accomplishments. But how they have transformed me. Made me a better leader. More self-aware and compassionate.
While I grieve, I am also very proud. So proud of what we built. Most of it, the world will never see. It is something to be felt and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Over the years – of different homes, schools, friends, companies, roles, and mentors – I’ve taught myself to look forward so that I’m not reeling from what I’ve left behind.
What I’ve finally learned is that it’s okay to look back. To remember with fondness the relationships, the challenges, the triumphs. To cherish what was great, even when we have to let go and move on to the next step in our journey.
The next time change comes, don’t be sad what you have is over. Be grateful that it happened.
Have you ever been called difficult? Felt out of step with those around you?
Maybe you’ve been told that your results are awesome, but your delivery could use some work.
If you’ve been given the difficult label, with actionable feedback to address it, that’s wonderful. Not the difficult part, but that you have input to help you get past it.
However, what if you have the label, with no actionable feedback? Then welcome home.
What it means to be labeled “difficult”
For the better part of forty years, I’ve been on the see-saw of being a highly talented “difficult person.”
I call it a see-saw because of the ups and downs. On one end, many managers (teachers, friends, family…the list is endless) love the performance. They love knowing someone that can solve difficult problems.
On the other end, they may be uncomfortable engaging with you. Or they may get the occasional feedback of someone else’s discomfort.
Depending on the person, they may think the risk is worth the reward. That whatever “difficult” interactions you have, it’s nothing in comparison to the work that is getting done.
Or, they may want to address it, but are unsure how to get the behavior to change. You may hear a lot of “You’re awesome, but…”
Hearing “but” enough times begins to kill your engagement. It makes you feel as though your output is worthy, but the package it comes in…not so much.
That was my life.
The benefits of difficulty
I’m the one friends and family would call on to solve their challenging problems. I was the “911” project manager at work, tackling any project that was over budget, behind schedule or otherwise couldn’t get done.
I also made folks uncomfortable. It was nothing overt – I didn’t walk on people or treat them poorly. Over time, once folks got to know me, we would connect. Early on, however, I’d get that difficult label thrown at me.
It was frustrating. I was honest (maybe too honest). Hard-working. I treated my teams well. I delivered.
Yet, there was always a “but.”
Leading difficult employees
Leaders get plenty of advice on dealing with difficult employees. I think the advice is mostly wrong.
Late last year, I participated in a tweetchat through #LeadwithGiants, on “Dealing with Difficult Employees.”
Was I such a chore that people needed to “deal” with me? I’m sure I was to some. Maybe too many along the way.
On the chat, I admitted to being a “Recovering Difficult Person”. I tried to share my experience, hoping to influence the perception of what makes a difficult person.
I watched the tweets fly as many leaders provided input on what they thought drove “difficult behaviors.”
None of it fit my experience.
Others provided input on how to handle those same behaviors. Too many responded that after a while, it’s time to move on.
How many of my former managers felt that way? That maybe my output wasn’t worth the effort of managing me?
The right feedback makes all the difference
I’d implore all leaders, please don’t give up on your difficult people. Especially the difficult people.
It took me many years of meaning well and trying to do the right thing. Of wanting feedback – any actionable insight – and receiving nothing but “buts.”
Until one manager was told he had to help me. He had no idea how, so he hired an executive coach.
At first I resisted. I thought she was a developmental coach, and I didn’t need one more person giving me “buts.”
Instead, she changed my life.
I used to feel like people wanted what I could do, but not who I am. Pick pick pick. But but but.
So much of what I do is tied up in who I am – my passion, my work ethic, etc. I did not know how to do what I do and be someone else. I didn’t want to be someone else.
I didn’t think I should have to be someone else.
My coach helped me see that I could be me and still deliver if I added one thing – compassion.
After so many years, I perceived that my value was in my work, but that otherwise others didn’t value me as a person.
I had stopped being human in my interactions. I was a machine – work work work. Deliver deliver deliver.
Once folks interacted with me enough, and I got the sense it was safe, a connection was established and people swore by me. But early on, I’m sure they wanted to swear at me.
Compassion as a tool to transform
Compassion has allowed me to step back and see how others perceive my messages and my delivery. It has allowed me to connect with friends, family, coworkers and customers in a way I didn’t know was possible.
The most wonderful part of this experience has been assisting other difficult people. I can help them understand how they are being perceived, as well as why. They walk away with actionable steps to transform their interactions with others, while staying true to who they are.
Unfortunately, I have met many – too many – individuals who want to do well, and are not receiving feedback to help them better connect with those around them. They are highly talented, and with a little direction, could perform even better…shedding that “difficult” label for good.
I’d like for all leaders who are losing patience with a difficult employee to consider one thing: no difficult employee is a lost cause.
If he or she is generally a good human being that means well, there is hope.
It took me many decades of struggling through work and home. Working with a coach really did change my life. Her actionable input gave me a path to transform from difficult to powerful. From machine to human.
My journey isn’t complete. Unlearning decades of behavior isn’t easy. I not only have to have compassion for others, but compassion for myself.
I try to remember that everyone starts out wanting to add value and do the right thing. Maybe they are lost. As leaders, let’s commit to helping them find their way home.
We are often our own worst critics. So when someone else chimes in with their own criticism, it’s as if we expected it. It reaffirms our fears.
As a result, It can be difficult to take a compliment. To say thank you without thinking “but”.
If we’re not careful, we can fall into the trap of what we didn’t get done. Focusing on the mistakes we made instead of being proud of our accomplishments. Of what we were able to do.
While it may be easier to believe the bad stuff, because it sounds like the fears running around our heads, that doesn’t make it true.
To make it easier to believe the good stuff, we have to flip our thinking. While humility is good, self-sabotage is not. We have to periodically remind ourselves of our strengths. Of how much we rock.
The next time someone offers a compliment, pause before deflecting. Embrace the feeling and sentiment to say thank you. Resist the urge to argue or mentally check off what could have been done differently.
Over time, the good stuff will be easier to believe.
I’m a rule breaker. Well, maybe more of a bender. I believe in spirit and intent, as sometimes rules take time to catch up with reality.
Going into this past weekend, I was really looking forward to Captain America: Civil War. I’ve long said I am Iron Man, and identify with Tony Stark as someone who has had to figure out how to lead without the suit. However, when it comes to Team Iron Man or Team Cap, I’ve been Team Cap all the way.
While I say I’m a rule bender (Tony frequently bends, shapes or ignores rules as he sees fit), I have a firm grasp of what I see as right and wrong. I understand the rules – all the nuances of the rules – to make sure I don’t put a toe past them.
If Tony and Cap are each on one side, then I know Cap is going to be squarely on the side of right. That’s just what he does. In effect, he’s the balance Tony needs.
At least that was my position going into the weekend. The reality, as expected, is murkier than a strict definition of right and wrong.
If you haven’t seen the movie, you may want to stop here. Spoilers ahead.