Don’t let your Outer Critic get out of Control

Four expert ways for leaders to ditch their Outer Critic and inspire people instead

I’ve often written here about our Inner Critics or Gremlins. These are the unconscious thought processes that act to keep us safe by sabotaging our attempts to change or to do something challenging or outside of our comfort zones.

Instead of keeping us safe, all this process really does is to maintain the status quo. And when things then change around us, as they inevitably do, instead of being ‘safe’, we’re left unprepared and disadvantaged. The very things our Inner Critics are fearful of tend to happen because of, not in spite of this process!

That’s why getting clear about and learning to live with the Inner Critic process is such an important part of leadership and personal growth.

But if you’re a leader, or anyone who really should be inspiring and developing the people around them, there’s another insidious aspect to this process. That’s when our Inner Critic is allowed to spill over and become our Outer Critic too.

I’m talking here about all the times when we’ve given voice to those small or large criticisms of the people around us. All the times we’ve said out loud (or just to ourselves), things like:

  • “Why does he have to do it that way, every time!”
  • “She’s just not good enough”
  • “She’s too incompetent/stupid/aggressive etc”
  • “If only he wouldn’t be so clueless/clumsy/timid/etc”
  • “Can’t she be more thoughtful/prepared/polished/etc?”
  • “He just doesn’t know how to work as part of a team/work independently/work hard enough/etc!”
  • “Why can’t she be clearer about what she wants/say what she means/etc?”

I’m sure there are many more examples.

Like the Inner Critic, the Outer Critic has a similarly important function. It’s intended to keep us from harm or to avoid a loss of some kind.

That’s why the times when we’re critical of others are usually when something that’s important to us is threatened by a shortcoming on their part. When their words or actions might lead to the loss of an opportunity or to some kind of ‘damage’ to a valued outcome, person or resource.


The great paradox of the Outer Critic is that just speaking our criticisms of others actually rarely even makes us feel better. And even less rarely does just speaking a criticism by itself actually make any difference to what’s happening.


I think our Outer Critic is a way of expressing our own fears, but without having to take any action that might put us out of our comfort zones. As my gran might have said: It’s all mouth, and no trousers.

One of the turning points in my own leadership journey was the realisation that you simply can’t complain people into changing. If you want something different from people, without having to do so every time, criticising just does not work.

So what should you do instead of criticising? Or if you’ve somehow go to a place where you realise you’re moaning, complaining about and criticising a LOT of people and things, how do you break out of that cycle?

In my experience, there are four important strategies for dealing with your over-active Outer Critic. All of these are crucial things for leaders to be doing anyway, so it’s no surprise that when you are doing these, it’s almost as if there’s no room, or maybe no need, for the Outer Critic to make itself known. Here they are, in descending order of positive impact:

1. Make sure you’re actively pursuing something positive that’s really important to you.
I can’t emphasise this one enough. Think back to the last time you were around someone on a mission. They might have told you about what was wrong with things, because ‘fixing’ something is an important part of some people’s missions, but I bet they won’t have moaned, complained or criticised. And when you’ve got something important to set your sights on, neither will you. There just isn’t time ☺

2. Either be prepared to get down in the arena and sort it out yourself, or walk on by.
There’s a great passage from a speech in 1910 by former US President Theodore Roosevelt, which is often referred to as “The Man in the Arena”. I’ve put the relevant extract in the picture at the top of this article, which you can download and save for yourself by clicking and then right-clicking. The message is essentially this: be the one taking action, or move on.

3. “Be the Change you Want to See”
This quote is often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see”. It’s a really resourceful way of dealing with your Outer Critic. There are times for all of us when we genuinely don’t have the means, power or resources to step-in and deal with a particular issue, in a particular place and time. For those occasions when you can’t take action on that specific issue, but are convinced there’s a better way of doing things, then instead of moaning, complaining or criticizing, show people how it could be done, in the areas where you do have choice and control. Don’t criticize what is, inspire what could be.

4. Learn to make specific requests.
One of my very early coaching instructors, the late Laura Whitworth, gave me this gem of advice: “A complaint is just an unvoiced request”. This is a fantastic discipline to practise if you find that your Outer Critic has made an unwelcome appearance.
Take your criticism and search out the request that’s buried away inside it.
For example, instead of saying to your companion in a restaurant: “I hate how they’ve given us a table in the draft by the door”, call over your waiter and ask to be moved.
I can tell you from personal experience, that this ‘make a specific request’ approach sometimes even works with your teenaged children!


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Why not make a difference when you can?

How to use simple observation skills to make someone’s day

A few experiences recently have reminded me how important this is.


I had my weekly ‘thinking morning’ in my favourite coffee shop earlier this week. New staff member is there, just finishing her training. I’m writing notes but also got my ears open and she asks the manager about the plants around the cafe. The manager says that watering the plants is on the roster, but that nobody really knows anything else about them. New staff member looks around and says: “They’re all succulents, simplest plant in the world to take care of. I’ll look after them.”

Of course, my spidey-sense is really tingling now, because here’s somebody who’s just revealed both an expertise and a sense of purpose. I decide to buy an extra coffee as an excuse to open a conversation: “I heard you mention succulents – sounds like you know your stuff about plants?

This simple bit of listening and initial nosiness was all it took for me to hear this woman’s life-story and how this was a stop-gap job until she could work as a florist. And you can tell when just hearing someone like this, being witness to their hopes is big deal! All the succulents were well looked after and sung to that morning.


Last month I had lunch with a friend who I first met as a business acquittance a few years ago. He never misses a chance to ask if I remember what I said to him back then, during what was then a tough time for him. I don’t really remember what I said, but I do remember the impression I got of him at the time, which was of someone just hanging-on by his fingertips, with the strain showing, but also with this little flame flickering inside him, of something very important he wanted to fulfil. Just looking at the way he stood and a simple bit of listening about what he was trying to achieve was enough to reveal all of this.

The way he tells it, it went something like this:

Him: “I’m not sure if I can take this anymore, and I’m at the end of my tether“.

Me: “Sometimes, all it takes to turn things around is just hanging-on a little bit more“.

And it seems that simple homily was enough, because now he does exactly what that little flame was all about.


Then an email arrives from a former client, somebody I coached nearly 15 years ago. It’s to tell me how they’ve just made the next giant step towards realising a business plan we first crafted, on a beer mat (it’s a long story, but I kept a supply of them back then for doing just that…) , all that time ago. The email includes the line: “Do you remember when you asked me about X? That was the real turning point for me.

Again, I don’t really remember what I said. But I remember thinking about how strong and determined this person was.


So, this is my really important learning.

That there are opportunities to say and do things which make a huge difference for people, just waiting around for us to grasp them. And that people will remember you did this for years and years.

All it takes is a simple bit of observation, listening to what they’re saying, taking in all the other impressions you have of this person. And reflecting back something true about them.

As it’s so possible to do this, why not do it whenever you can?


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Having An Outcome Focus

Outcome Focus:
My top 3 shortcuts to individual success and great team dynamics

If there’s one thing that makes the most difference between individual success and failure, or between great team dynamics and anarchy, it’s having an Outcome Focus.

That is, knowing clearly and distinctly what is wanted in any given situation.

If you don’t know what outcome you want, as a leader, an individual or as a team, it’s almost impossible to agree on how to proceed or to focus on where to put your efforts. As Lewis Carroll wrote:

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

So it’s frequently a great source of surprise to me to discover how often people don’t really know what outcomes they want. Or to find out that nobody in a team has had a chance to talk together about what they’re trying to achieve. As a leader, if you were to do absolutely nothing but talk about the top three or four outcomes you want people to focus on, I’m convinced you’d be providing more leadership support for your teams than 60-70% of the leaders I know!


But how do you have more of an Outcome Focus? How do you get clear yourself about what you want in any situation? And how do you help the people around you to have the same clarity?

If you’re ready to have more of an Outcome Focus, I’ve set out my top 3 tips below.
But before you get into those, it’s always worth checking – do you already know what outcomes you want?

Perhaps you know but haven’t said it out loud or written it down. If that’s the case, do that now.

And if that’s not the case, or if you find yourself very well able to say what you don’t want, or if you find that you know you want less of something, but aren’t sure what outcome you actually do want, read on…


1. Visit the Future – and look back

This is one of my favourite techniques, because it’s a chance to raise your head from the everyday pressures and take stock of a much bigger picture. Pick a time-frame (it doesn’t matter what: an hour, a day, a week, a decade, will all work); use your imagination to transport yourself forwards in time; take a look back to the present-day, and answer these questions:

  • What do you want to be different in future?
  • Where do you want to have got to?
  • How do you want to be feeling?

2. Listen to Yourself Complaining

How often do you hear yourself or other people complaining about something, in this kind of way: “He said/she said…” “She did this or that…” “They don’t understand/ care/ appreciate…”?

Us coaches like to hear this kind of complaint because it’s usually a good springboard for action – after you’ve done some work with it. Here’s why it’s so useful…

Take this (edited) real example of a complaint, given to me by a client just last week:

“I’m so sick of having last-minute tasks dumped on me and my team, only to find out later that some vital piece of information was left-out so that we wasted our time responding.”

A complaint is really two different things that have understandably got mixed-up together:

  1. A complaint is an expression of some hurt or injury you’re feeling;
  2. A complaint is a hidden or buried or unclear desire for something to change.
    That is, it’s an Outcome!

First, you have to deal with the hurt or injury that you’re feeling.

Take the example above, and imagine that you’d had those last-minute tasks dumped on you. You might be feeling annoyed, disrespected, resentful of the time you gave-up over the weekend, or any of a number of emotions. And of course, emotions are useful, once we see them clearly, because they’re nature’s way of proving the energy and impetus for us to take action.

Second, you have to get really clear about the outcome that’s hidden away inside your complaint. You have to make that outcome conscious, instead of unconscious, and to turn it into some kind of request.

Using that same example again; once you’d stopped hurting about the way you were treated and were able to think rationally, what is it you’d actually want? Is there a request you might need to make? Is there a change you would want to have happen?

3. Ask Each Other Why

Young kids are great with the “Why?” questions when they’re trying to make sense of the world. But somewhere along the way, we seem to learn that asking too many “why” questions just annoys people – so we stop. But how can you have a great Outcome Focus if you don’t know why you’re doing something?

As a team member, how many times have you felt that you’re all doing something because somebody else, at some other point in time decided it was the thing to be doing? And you don’t really know why. Or you feel like maybe you were off that day, when everybody else talked about why this particular course of action was such a great idea.

As leaders or as team members, make sure you can answer these questions:

  • Why are we doing this?
    • Yeah, but really why are we doing it?
    • What do we actually want to get?
  • Why are we behaving the way we are? Will that get us what we actually, really want? Is there a Complaint that we haven’t really expressed or explored and which might be driving our behaviour?
  • Why don’t we want something else instead?

 

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

Carl Jung

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Leading Millennials and Different Generations

The only Guide you’ll ever need for Managing those Tricky and Demanding Millennials
#Irony 😉

If you looked around the world of leadership and management at the moment, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s a real problem in the way that people born between the mid 1980s and the early 2000s – the ‘Millennials’ – are behaving at work and in how they need to be managed.

But actually, there’s a much simpler and lazier explanation as to why so much is being written about this generation and its leaders. Since April 2016 Millennials have been the largest demographic in the western world, in the USA for example, overtaking Baby Boomers (76m people) by at least a million. If you’re a member of or a manager of this generation, that makes you an easy marketing target.

Since I’ve been coaching different generations (from people in their 80s to their late teens and everything inbetween) for over 18 years now, I didn’t want to miss out on the chance to jump on this particular rickety bandwagon. So I’ve produced my own guide on how to manage the main generational groups.


You’ll see in the table below, that I’ve set out each generational group (Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z) together with their: Wants, Needs, Flaws and Super Powers.

And I’ve also given a series of four Top Tips for the Leaders of each generational group.

I’ve based this analysis on both my years of experience in working with different people and on some of the actual real research into what motivates and makes people tick. The definitions of the generations are vague (it’s done by marketing people…), and the birth years tend to overlap quite a lot; sorry.

If you have several different generations in your workplace, or are struggling to successfuly lead people from the Millennial group, then I hope this will help.


Click the picture below and then right-click it and select “Save as…” to download your own copy:

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Love to Run; Hate to Train

Imagine this: What you love doing takes less than 10 seconds and you rarely get to do it!
Lessons from Bolt

I write this shortly after watching “I am Bolt” – the sports documentary about sprinter Usain Bolt as he prepares for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Whether you’re a fan of sports documentaries or not, I think you might enjoy this really captivating film about a very charismatic athlete.

There was lots of useful stuff in the film for me, particularly about the joy of doing something you’re great at, and I’ll write more about that in future.

One part of the film that really struck me was Bolt’s hatred of training. He says it again and again: “I love to run, I hate to train”. This from a man whose actual competitive event is over in less than 10 seconds!


Imagine that – the thing you love to do is over in less than 10 seconds, you probably don’t even get to do it competitively more than once a week, maybe much less, and to do it as well as you know you can, you have to do something you hate, again, and again, and again.

And you don’t just have to do this while you’re becoming good at your thing; you have to train and practise all the way through, even when you have multiple Olympic gold medals. Even when you are the best in the world.


I’m quite inspired by this.

I’m looking around seeing if I can re-frame all the stuff I hate doing to be the equivalent of “training”, for the 10 seconds I do love.

Does it help, do you think, this kind of reframing?

I suppose you’ve got to know what the thing you love doing is, so that you can tell which bits (the ones you hate) are just necessary “training”. And then you’ve got to decide if the thing you love doing is worth dedicating yourself to. Not just so that you can be the best in the world – most of us never get the chance to measure that in any meaningful way. But so that you can be the absolute best version of you, doing what you love to the absolute best of your abilities.

I’ll settle for that.

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Tools to Inspire Others

Six ways that leaders should be able to inspire the people around them

These are some fairly basic tactics for the leaders’ kitbag. Six ways that you should be able to apply day-to-day, even moment by moment, to help the people around you feel inspired.

Click the image above for a full-size version and/or right-click it to download a copy.

If you notice that you’re making excuses or feeling unable to apply any of these, in general or with specific people, it’s worth asking somebody else to apply them to YOU first of all. It may be that, as the leader, you’ve lost sight of your own capabilities or resourcefulness, aren’t really feeling the ‘why’ at the moment, or just need to hear something inspiring yourself first.


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When Leaders Need to Fight

The four types of grown-up fighting and three battlegrounds every leader must be able to win

Co-operation, compromise and connection are essential tools in the leader’s kitbag. If you’re spending most of your time as a leader doing those things, you’re probably getting it right. But if you’re never spending any time at all in conflict, maybe it’s worth looking at  where and how you might need to be doing some grown-up style fighting.

Click the image above and then right-click it to download/save a copy of the graphic

First, the three battlegrounds that you must have control of

That’s YOU – the resources, respect and room to do you what you need to do, to the best of your ability.

Then there’s YOUR TEAM – are you looking out for them; clearing the way and getting them what they need?

And of course YOUR BUSINESS or organisation itself – as well as planting the right seeds, are you fighting to keep your crop healthy, safe from predators and clear of invasive weeds?

Second, the four types of fight you’re going to need to engage in

FAIRNESS – Are you, your team and your business being treated with fairness and respect and not being taken advantage of? If not, you’ve got a fight on your hands!

RESOURCES – Are you, your team and your organisation getting the resources you need to do the job you’ve got to do? If not, where do you need to come out fighting?

DETERMINATION – Are you taking a stand for yourself, for your team and for your business when it matters? If you’re not standing up for all three of those – who is?

COMPETING – Are you, your team and your business able to compete with the strength and flexibility that it takes to win in a complex and inter-connected world? You don’t have to play for a win-lose scenario, but you absolutely can’t be the losers yourselves.

“Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”
Mahatma Gandhi

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Helping People to be Team Players

The top four reasons why people don’t always act as part of your team

Lots has been written about why people might want to be part of a team or group. But the issues behind why people don’t always behave like team players even when they could are much less well known. Even more unfamiliar are the steps you can take to get them back on-board, provided you know a little about what’s driving them.

I’ve set out below the top four reasons why people don’t always act as a fully-paid-up member of your team, and what you can do about it. There are more reasons than these, but these four are the ones you’re most likely to encounter at work. Let me know if you’ve got a different type on your team, and I’ll try to help!

Here are the four situations we’ll be looking at:

  1. The erratic shooting-star
  2. The defender of the status quo
  3. The detached daydreamer
  4. The toxic specialist

1. The erratic shooting-star

You may have someone on your team who is usually initially enthusiastic about new initiatives. Or who is always finding something interesting or shiny “over there”, slightly off the path of where you’re trying to get to. You may have seen that this person’s enthusiasm can often be enough to distract the rest of the team (and my experience is that they’re great at parties too). You’ll probably also have seen that they often run out of steam before actually delivering anything good.

To get this person fully on-board you’ll need to legitimise their investigations and explorations and make the most of their strengths. Find ways to have them investigate ideas, resources and opportunities. You may need to manage their expectations, so that what they are investigating are legitimate, current requirements for your unit, not stuff that is too far away from your goals. Have them present their findings to the rest of the team, and make sure that they get recognition for having done this. Do not make them responsible on their own for delivering on these ideas. But do enlist their help in keeping the people with lead responsibilities enthused and supported.

2. The defender of the status quo

You may have someone on your team who is usually responsible, committed and loyal. Yet there are times when people with these traits don’t act like complete team players. In my experience, this is particularly prevalent when forces outside your immediate team are driving changes. Or when there are on-going uncertainties in the external operating environment. In those times, this person may act like the last line of defence, holding back the barbarian hordes – when you actually need them to help with changing the existing order of things!

To get this person fully on-board you’ll need to do two things:

  1. Make sure that you (as the leader of the team) are fully committed to the changes that are taking place. You’ll need to be able to argue in their favour, both logically and emotionally. This is all about sending a clear signal of how you most need this person to direct their loyalty to you and the team;
  2. Help them see that there are practical steps you can all take to make the most of the changes or uncertainties. Boost their confidence by demonstrating that your team is not helpless.

3. The detached daydreamer

You may have someone on your team who is usually easy-going, agreeable and happy to go with the flow. But there may be times when you’ll find them saying yes to things without any real intention of doing them. Or you may notice them taking dubious short-cuts. If you’re not careful, you may not notice until it’s too late that this person has been ignoring problems or failing to deal with stuff – basically just sitting on it.

To get this person fully on-board with the team, recognise that what they really want is a sense of peace and harmony. They may have forgotten that to get to peace and harmony, we often need to work through problems with hard physical effort, not disappear into our inner worlds.

Make sure they are acutely aware of the problems or tasks that were previously being ignored. If possible, enrol others in expressing how uncomfortable or disturbed this person’s inaction has made things for them.

To the extent that you can, encourage physical exercise or assign tasks that involve physical effort to help get them out of their heads a little.

4. The toxic specialist

You may have someone on your team who has developed a deep understanding of a particular area. They may also be the “go-to” person, specialising not only in their subject, but also in their knowledge of the organisation and how to access its resources. In the bad times, you may find this person to be highly critical of others. And that there is a trail of ‘casualties’ in their wake – people who have not felt willing or able to live up to being their colleague.

The key thing to understand about this person is that, above all else, they value competence. As part of, or even leading, a team of competent, high-performing people with the independence to manage their way of doing things, they’re great! Change any one of those components and they can become extremely and unconsciously toxic.

There are three things you must do to help get this person back on-board with your team:

  1. Teach them that the abilities to get on with others of all levels of skill, and to develop their colleagues for the longer-term, are themselves competences. And that you require them to become good at these things too.
  2. Make efforts to enrol them in designing any changes to workflows (and they’ll be reluctant to ‘waste’ time on this). Do not make changes without genuinely listening to their views.
  3. Decide whether or not their value to the business, if they don’t change, is outweighed by the problems they are causing.

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Three Empowerment Techniques

Three simple ways you won’t have thought of to help someone empower themselves at work

OK, you might have thought of some of these, but they’re so simple, and so effective, that they often seem to get overlooked and are definitely worth repeating.

First things first, notice that it’s about helping someone to empower themselves, not doing it for them (which is actually disempowering). I reckon a lot of corporate programmes fall down right at this first hurdle, trying to spoon-feed empowerment to their staff instead of creating the conditions in which people want to take power for themselves. Perhaps that second option is just a bit too scary in some organisations?

1. Ask for their help

Nothing helps people realise what they’re capable of better than an opportunity to help somebody else. If you can do this in a way that is genuine, i.e. on something where you really do need their help, that’s good. If you can do it in a way that shows that asking for help is itself an act of strength, not weakness, even better.

2. Tell them what you see

This one is really so sweet and so powerful that it should come with a government health warning! People take themselves for granted. They forget about their good qualities and they focus on the things that they don’t like about themselves. You can change that in an instant with this way of giving people recognition.

Take a moment to remind someone about a resourceful quality of theirs that you have noticed them using. The format is really simple, but does take some guts to use. It goes like this: “I noticed that you were really [resourceful quality] during [recent situation]; that’s a great quality to have.”  Here’s an example of the kind of thing I’ll say to the barista in my coffee shop, just for practice:

I noticed that you were really calm and helpful with that difficult customer just now. That’s a great quality to have.

3. Be kind in their presence

Everybody knows by now that acts of kindness are contagious; when you see someone being kind you tend to pay it forwards yourself.  People are less aware that there’s an unconscious association of kindness with resourcefulness. It’s like part of your brain says to itself: “Oh, I’ve just been kind! I must have the strength of mind and physical resources that mean I can spare some for others”. Whenever you get the chance, role-model this for people and use the contagious power of kindness to remind people just how resourceful they really are.

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Informal Team Alignment Exercise

Is your business the “winningest” team?
Fun wordplay to help your team stay aligned

This is a fun exercise to try when your team is working well together and you’d like to keep the momentum going, or for when you need to lighten to the mood a little.

My 14 year old son is mad about American Football at the moment, so we’re learning lots of new team sport strategies and techniques and the jargon that goes with them. My favourite piece of American Football jargon so far, has been the term “winningest“, which the OED defines as follows:

Winningest
adj, North American, informal:

Having achieved the most success in competition:

‘the winningest team in pro-football history’

I did a lot of my early coach training in the US and I’m a big fan of how North Americans don’t let formal grammar get in the way of clear, concise and even fun communication. So I’ve been using this approach recently in my work with top teams and boards, to help them think about what kind of team they are. It also helps with getting more creativity and risk-taking, as it’s a subtly-rule-breaking exercise.

I usually start by introducing the term winningest and then ask them to take some other words they like and make similarly informal terms out of them that help describe who they are as a team.

Start with an “…ing” word and just add “est” to play along. Don’t worry about which part of speech your word is (because that’s kind of the point here). For example:

  • Amazingest – we’re the team that makes you go wow
  • Challengingest – we just don’t back down
  • Encouragingest – every one of us is a born cheerleader
  • Energisingest – you’ll never feel tired on this team
  • Fulfillingest – simply the most rewarding team to be part of
  • Surprisingest – we really love new ideas
  • Workingest – we try harder.

If your team was an “…est”, what kind of est would it be?


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