Welcome All!

If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Discomfort leads to Avoidance – But it doesn’t have to.

You missed your step while walking down the stairs to your basement. You hurt your left knee - badly. The next few days you’ll be working hard to relieve your left knee by putting most of the load on your right leg and knee.

You hit your right shoulder real hard at the office when a colleague opened a door unexpectedly and slammed it right into you. Of course you are doing everything with your left arm now, in a determined effort to spare your right arm and shoulder.

You slipped on a muddy path while walking your dog in the woods and fell. You hurt your tailbone and are now trying to minimize the pain by using your body differently – That was me, yesterday.

We all know what the problem is with these examples: In your efforts to minimize pain and discomfort you step into avoidance mode. To a certain extent this is necessary for your body to heal – every physician will tell you this. You also know, however, that those body parts that are supposed to help you avoid discomfort stemming from the injured limb, they will be over-used. They will be strained to a point where they create their own discomfort and problems. You know this and you act upon it, or so you should.

Why is it then that we think it’s so different in communication and collaboration? Why is it that so many people avoid the discomfort of having that bold conversation with their peer about underperformance that has hardly gone unnoticed? Every such conversation that is left ‘not held’, is creating new problems or exacerbating the original problem. Why is it that so many employees do not provide candid feedback upwards and so many managers don’t provide it downwards? Every feedback being held back is a chance missed to increase trust, collaboration, and effectiveness. Why is it that bad leadership goes unchallenged for so long?

Leaders know that many of the people around them don’t dare to be honest with them. Most the leaders participating in my coaching programs tell me during our conversations - which are, of course, candid, direct, confrontational, provocative and disruptive as needed - that this is lonely and counterproductive. Many other leaders belief that their people do tell them the truth about what’s happening in the organization and about how they perceive their leaders, which they generally don’t, given the nature of a leader’s authority and power. Leaders will have to actively seek candid feedback and, when they get it, respond with an open mind and with curiosity. You don’t necessarily have to feel on top of the world and be all happy when you receive negative feedback. You can however make it a ‘habit of attitude’ to welcome candid feedback for the sake of learning about others and yourself.

All feedback, whether downwards, upwards, or sideways, that is being withheld, creates new problems: confusion, secrecy, underperformance, lack of alignment, hidden agendas, disengagement and much more.

Getting back to the ‘Why is it that … ‘ question, and without going into psychology too much I will say this. There are many dynamics at work besides the workings of authority and power, such as habits that were formed in a land far away, our striving for harmony, self-defense mechanisms, projecting our own desires and fears unto others whether right or not, inconsistent or unrealistic expectation management, thinking errors and more. And yes, I do know about hierarchy, about organizations where the culture is far from open let alone that candid feedback is appreciated and encouraged. I do realize that your upcoming performance feels endangered with a candid-feedback-session.

But let me ask you: What’s so bad about discomfort? Why do we act as if it were a permanent state of mind and body? Why do we often treat it as an all-or-nothing situation? What happened to having a candid, bold conversation while at the same time remaining sensitive to and actively inquiring about how our views are being perceived? What happened to correcting mid-course if the conversation isn’t working out the way you had planned it? What happened to clarifying your intentions to set the right stage? What happened to speaking from the heart to the heart?

Please, be candid – It’s the best show of respect and of a genuine connection. Please be candid – It’s the only sure route to learning, collaborating, and succeeding. Please be candid – speak out, stand up, and be the one who notices and discusses. If you do it respectfully, in a direct and transparent manner, and, if necessary, in a private setting, you’ll be surprised how many people appreciate your perspective, even if they don’t immediately acknowledge it. I’m the living proof. Ask my customers, ask my former colleagues, ask my former bosses.

If you wish to read more on this topic, two good articles are:

And last, a TED talk by Margaret Heffernan about good disagreement being central to progress: http://www.ted.com/talks/margaret_heffernan_dare_to_disagree.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=linkedin 


  1. Well-stated, Carolien, and I know that one of your assets as a coach / consultant is candor. Truth-telling is one of Authenticity's "3 Ts" in my book Navigating Integrity . . . We have witnessed the damage that its absence causes via insincere performance feedback and bad news that is never revealed or revealed too late. A question form my book: "What difference would it make if there was 10% more truth-telling in your organization? 20?"

  2. Profound question Al. I look forward to learning from your book Navigating Integrity that I just purchased for my Kindle. Watch out for my next post Provocative Coaching and thanks for your readership and comments!