Who Do You Need To Be?

I got a lot of interesting and thoughtful responses from last week’s article. That feedback was varied. Some of that focussed on how people try to diminish expectations and why it backfires (when giving a presentation, for example). And others addressed the consequences of when others tell us to tone it down, to downplay our abilities, to not project our confidence.

I’ve been thinking about these different perspectives in the time since.

One view came from a colleague, who in his work explores neuroscience and its influence on our behaviour. His comments focussed on the consequences of attempting to diminish expectations. In particular, what happens when we try to downplay or explain away potential challenges in how we deliver something like a presentation.

I had argued that you do your audience a disservice in doing so. You aren’t showing them the respect to be prepared, to be polished and to deliver them the best work that you can. He went further than that: they’ll also be extremely angry with you that you tried to manage expectations about it.

The idea here is that each of us has—hardwired into our consciousness—expectations of what “good presentation” is. There are rules about what that should look like, what that should sound like, how it should be delivered, and what experiencing a good presentation should means. When people don’t have those needs met, they get frustrated, angry and resistant. And when they get told that up front that they’re not going to get it (to lower the bar or otherwise) they just get that much angrier.

We pay attention to lots of cues when we interact with each other: the words we say, tonal inflection and how we speak, our facial mannerisms and expressions, and how we use body language. We are often unconscious of how we use the communication tools at our disposal. And our audience is largely unconscious of how they perceive us. But where there is a disconnect between perception and intent, problems emerge.

I also received a follow-up from the colleague that was the original prompt of last week’s column. She had shared the article with someone she had been mentoring, who was already talking about “dimming her flame” in response to criticism and feedback from others.

The confluence of these ideas is about how we present ourselves to others, and how others perceive us. As my neuroscience colleague suggested, a lot of this is about how our “performance” is perceived. In particular, it’s about the performance we intend to deliver, and the manner in which that performance is seen by others.

This is an idea that I’ve somewhat explored before, but want to revisit in the context of the shaping expectations and behaviours. As Piers Ibbitson illustrates in his (highly recommended) book The Illusion of Leadership, leadership is a role. It’s in fact one of many roles that we play.

Now, Ibbitson takes the idea of performance pretty seriously. He is a former actor and director with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK, and his perspective is grounded in acting. When he says that we play many roles, he means it quite literally. There are roles that we play when we show up as a parent. There are roles that we play with our friends. With our partners. With our colleagues.

At work, we may play the role of leader, of coach, of mentor, of disciplinarian or of motivator. In each instance, there are expectations of how those roles should play out. There is an idea of what a “good” and a “bad” performance looks like. We—all of us—have built in notions and expectations of how these performances work, and the manner in which they should play out. That influences how we individuals approach playing those roles, and it also influences how others around us respond to our performance.

This is where things get a little insidious and awkward. If we go back to the original illustration from last week that started on this particular road: sometimes people downplay expectations at the start of a presentation because it is self-motivated. And sometimes they downplay expectations because they’ve been motivated by others. What’s happening here is that multiple performances are overlapping, shaped by several perceptions and expectations.

First off, you have the role of presenter. Our expectations of someone in that role: they will be confident, they will be prepared, they will be coherent and they will tell us a story. There will be a beginning, and a middle, and an end. If it’s a formal, work-related presentation, there will be slides. Those slides will hopefully also be coherent, and will support and help illustrate the story being told. There are rules about what good slides look like, and bad slides. There are expectations about how good presenters dress, and how they carry themselves. They will speak confidently, clearly and in a way that everyone can hear them.

Now let’s overlay that role with a different one: the role of someone trying to “dim their flame.” There are a host of cultural and societal expectations loaded into this role, also. This is where we run aground in the rocky shoals of gender inequities. There are a lot of scripts reinforcing this role as well. One of the inherent challenges that women face in this role are numerous societal conventions about how women should and should not show up, present themselves and interact in the work place. That they shouldn’t speak out and express themselves confidently, that they shouldn’t highlight their accomplishments, and that they should be more self-deprecating.

What we have created in this scenario is a situation with massive cognitive dissonance. We have a situation where the expectations of two very different roles are in conflict with each other. The role of effective presenter is overridden with the role of diminishing perceptions and downplaying abilities. We have, by accident—or more likely design—set this person up to fail.

There is opportunity and there is challenge built into this reality. The opportunity is the recognition that we are performers, that we have the ability to shape how we are seen, and we can use all of the tools at our disposal to accomplish that role. We get to dress up, learn our lines, practice our movements and act out our intent in order to accomplish our goals. It’s our script, our performance and our outcomes.

The challenge is that other people also offer us roles. They give us scripts that they think we should follow. They criticize our costuming choices, our words and the tone by which we express those words. They critique our body language and the way that we carry and express ourselves. They offer us a different perception of what “appropriate performance” looks like, based upon what they want. That might be based on furthering their agenda, it might be about making themselves more comfortable, or it might be about actively diminishing us as a perceived—or real—threat.

As human beings, we’re torn between these two conflicting dimensions. We are social beings. We are built to thrive in collaboration and communication with others. The other side of that coin, though, is that we are all political players. And some use their political influence to support, nurture and develop the group. Others, though, use their political influence to support, nurture and develop their own personal agendas.

Ultimately, we choose the script that we follow and the performance that we give. But it’s important to recognize that it is a choice. It’s important to recognize that we have to make the choice. And it’s important to recognize that not deciding is also a choice.

As an illustration and an example, there was a situation not too recently where I had to give feedback to a client that did not reflect on them positively. There were a number of challenges in how they were interacting with their colleagues and direct reports that was having a negative impact. The executive was part of a small leadership team in their organization. They had a great deal of influence and power, and yet the way it was wielded was seen largely as negative.

The challenge once you get to the executive ranks is that people are often far less willing to provide constructive and honest feedback. Doing so can be considered—for very good reason—a career limiting move. Not getting feedback, though, isn’t helpful either, in that without prompting there is no basis for change or improvement. Worse, many executives find themselves in echo chambers, sometimes of their own design, where they only hear positive feedback. All that does is reinforce their self-perception that they are the smartest and most capable person in the room. They keep playing out the same script, and giving the same performance.

My role in this production was to be the bearer of bad news. To share with them feedback that they weren’t aware of, and that was undermining their ability to be effective. Here’s the thing: no matter how often you do this, it’s not an easy message to deliver. You are telling people things that can cut deeply, and that they may be entirely oblivious to. It can be tempting to avoid doing so, or to downplay what you here. To couch it in a way that softens the blow. Doing so, however, often means that they find a way not to hear the message, to downplay its relevance.

I opted to be direct, clear and illustrative. I described them the behaviour that I had seen, gave them specific examples, and indicated how it was perceived by others. I clearly stated the impact that their behaviour was having on the people around them, and the consequences it was having on the organization. My job wasn’t to tell them what to do about it—that was their choice—but it was to make sure that the message was clearly received and understood.

Being very candid, they didn’t like that conversation one bit. They had no idea they were being perceived in the way that I described. There was no appreciation of the impact that their behaviours had on those around them, and particularly on their direct reports. But they listened and they heard. And over time, I saw attempts to shift their approach. To listen and consult, not just tell.

It would have been easy for me to do nothing about the situation. I could have deflected or softened my message. I could have attempted to hint or imply what I was talking about, without clearly stating it. That’s a different role, though. It’s one where you become a complicit enabler for the behaviour that’s occurring. It’s not a role where you are an honest broker of information, difficult as that information might sometimes be to actually hear.

For the person I was providing feedback to, it would have been easy for them to ignore it. To go back to old patterns and scripts, and to performing “executive” in the manner that they were used to. To do that would have been to ignore the feedback and minimize the consequences and impacts. But people do that all the time. It’s when we recognize that we can play a different role, and have a different impact, that we can think about making a change in how we are seen and the outcomes that we create.

We get to decide how we show up. We get to pick the roles that we play. And we accept the scripts that other people offer us—or not. At the end of the day, its our performance, though. We get to choose the story we tell, and the way in which we tell it. The challenge is in choosing to perform the difficult roles well, and in doing so to craft stories that we are proud to share with others.

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