Is there anyone besides me who hates those stock photos of business people that appear in the brochures and websites for conferences, business schools, and cell phone companies? It seems that every time business people are represented theyre in this standard configuration: theres the good-looking white guy (often slightly older & graying at the templesis this whos really in charge?), the African American woman, an Asian man or woman, and someone who looks vaguely Hispanic. And theyre all looking thoughtful and earnest.
Check it outsomeones holding a pen, poised to write down some powerful insight; someone else is gently touching his or her chin, indicating reflective contemplation; and another person is looking at a computer monitor or spreadsheet as if peering into a box of gold. And theyre all having such a wonderful time! Their expressions say, Im a real business person! Look at me looking earnest.
Its so canned, it makes me throw up a little in my mouth. If youve worked in business for at least a month, you know thats NOT how it really is. In 30 years of consulting, training and coaching leaders, Ive been in many leadership meetings with clients where real conversations were happening, and none of them looked or felt like that. Not one.
What yanks my chain most is that this widely-used advertising image of business people permeates our subconscious, which is willing to absorb just about anything were willing to stash in it. It then says, Oh, okayI guess thats how business people are supposed to look and act. It sets us up for acting artificial, overly-poised, and inauthentic.
Which makes having the real conversations that our businesses depend on more difficult to have.
If people play-act their way through meetings, pretending there arent troubling issues, or avoiding conflict, or making nicey-nice, theres no way to build the trust needed to get down to bedrock so they can talk about what matters most in the moment. Everyones playing a role, cautiously avoiding topics that feel threatening and might lead to conflict, or worseembarrassment.
This kind of inauthenticity comes in three major flavors, each measured by the Leadership Circle Profile in the Reactive Dimensions: Controlling, Protecting and Complying. If youre unfamiliar with the power of the Profile to uncover these stratagems, take a look: www.leadershipcircle.com.
The Better Possibility
Leaders have the chance to model authenticity and honesty over looking good and in-control. No, Ill go further: they have the responsibility to do so. And when they dochoosing to be truly themselves instead of acting like they think theyre supposed topeople respond in kind. Defenses are lowered and trust grows.
At The Leadership Circle, and our consulting arm, Full Circle Group, we believe in the promise of leadership. Its an implicit promise made by everyone who accepts a formal leadership role to lead in a way that focuses followers on creating what matters most, and releases the untapped reserves of energy tied up in caution and anxiety. To fulfill this promise requires leaders to courageously invite people first into honest conversations about whats really going on.
Risking vulnerability is the key here. Leaders and followers alike will create greater trust and higher productivity by simply being who they areshowing their true selvesrather than wasting energy being someone who they think others expect them to be. Were all in the same boat; we all pose now and then, acting as if we know more than we do, pretending were never surprised, and that weve got everything under control. However, as soon as a respected leader openly admits that they feel this way, and commits to dropping the pretense, a collective sigh of relief blows through the room. Then the real conversations can begin to happen: real concerns can be expressed, true emotions surfaced, and honest requests made. By going first, the leader makes everyone elses decision to relax and show up just a bit easier.
So, the next time you find yourself in one of those stock photos, notice your own sense of yourself: are you putting on a bit of an act, posing as if? Are you censoring your thinking? Working hard to say things in just the right way? Trying to get it right? Is there something that everyone in the room, or on the call, seems to be colluding to avoid talking about?
Then this is your moment.
Take a breath, let your shoulders drop, and let the group know that you want to say something that feels risky to you. Perhaps you want to surface a topic that feels undiscussable to you, or put a half-baked thought out there (or whatever), but that you feel uncertain and a bit vulnerable about it. Naming your own caution and anxiety is the courageous actoften more so than the discussing the topic itself. So just do it. Get it over with and put your thinking out there. Invite others to follow suit and share their perspectives. Invite disagreement, and demonstrate non-judgmental listening. Make room for people to express their discomfortthats all part of moving into the real conversation that wants to happen.
The choice to show up as my true self is one I must make every day, every meeting, every conversation. It often feels like swimming upstream. Its an acquired taste, and it takes some getting used to. But I know that when I stay with it, I eventually feel a sense of freedom from anxiety, and my caution fades. And others respond in kind. Its the way to true connection with others; there is no other path. Were all tired of holding up the masks, the business personas. We want to be real, true people, not role players. And we know that leaders who truly connect at multiple levels (head and heart) with those they lead, are the ones who create the trust for others to show their true selves. Lets let the posers stay in the brochures.