Knowing You Can Leave

comfort risk Back in the day, when I was a relationship therapist, I used to say to my clients, “If you don’t know you can leave the relationship, you’ll likely never achieve a satisfying intimacy.” Or something like that. It was a provocative statement and a bitter pill to swallow. My intention, however, was not to threaten the sanctity of their marriage but, on the contrary, to help their relationship grow and evolve. My point was this: if you think you can’t survive without your partner, you will naturally avoid taking risks. You won’t be able to have difficult conversations and you’ll avoid being vulnerable. As long as your interactions are motivated by keeping the peace and avoiding loss, you will come up short on intimacy. On the other hand, if you are willing to be bold, take risks to reveal yourself, and be open to the experiences, feelings, and thoughts of your partner,  you will grow your capacity for a greater closeness and a richer, more successful relationship.

I thought when I became an executive coach I’d encounter very different issues than the ones I did as a couple’s therapist. While the topics and contexts are different, fear of loss and its dire consequences are still at play.

I work with extremely bright and competent leaders—people with years of experience doing what they do very well; people who objectively have no reason to doubt their value in the marketplace. Yet something I’ve observed time and again is that being bright and competent does not necessarily make people immune to the fear that if they tell the truth, and speak about things that are hard to discuss, they put themselves at risk of losing everything, including their influence, reputation and job itself. So they go along to get along.

When couples stop being honest with one another, marriages fall apart. When leaders don’t take the risk to share what they really think, the organization suffers and it’s bad for business. When those in charge are more focused on getting approval or not upsetting the apple cart, they rob the organization of its capacity to face into critical issues. Granted, some of this fear is legitimate. Systems are set up to protect themselves and if you color too far outside the lines, the system may reject you. But most of the time, the hesitancy to speak up is the leader’s lack of courage and trust in her own voice. I know this because when people are coached to bring out their points of view constructively, the feedback is often overwhelmingly positive, and sometimes even great things happen.

Bottom line:

  • You’re in your role because you know things. You’re good at what you do. The organization needs your good thinking to grow and evolve.
  • If you hold back your thinking because of a fear of loss or judgment, you are not serving your role and your career will likely stall.
  • If you do make every effort to bring out your best thinking and you do it in a way that can be received, you will have great power to effect change.
  • If it turns out that your organization does not value what you have to offer—get a divorce and take yourself somewhere else. But 9 times out of 10 the one who doesn’t value you may turn out to be you! So…
  • Take the risk. Trust your perceptions. Find a way to communicate your thinking.
  • The shareholders are counting on you.
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