What People Teach Us: Opinions & Protecting Yourself From…Yourself

Leadership Lesson: You should take into account how others may view you, as an exercise in considering all points of view—and their merits.

An anonymous op-ed by a alleged White House insider claiming to be part of a “quiet resistance within the administration of people choosing to put country first” appeared in the New York Times last week. An op-ed crafted and published in anonymity is a first for the NY Times, so the stakes are high considering the writer’s claims and anonymity and the newspaper’s relationship with the target of the piece, the President.

As expected, everyone seems to have an opinion on the method of delivery. And from the right and the left, and everywhere in between, people are utilizing the piece, yet again, to reinforce their own opinions about Trump and his administration.

The opinion pool is so vast that it’s not even worth getting into why the message in the op-ed either makes sense or doesn’t. The more time goes on, the more fractured the country becomes, each side becoming more entrenched in its positions. There’s an ever-diminishing space for mediation or discussion. It’s all or nothing, so why try to convince anyone in this particular post?

But there is something valuable here — a direct message about a leader’s behavior, approach, and policies.

First and foremost, this post isn’t about #45. Most of us have stopped spending too much time criticizing his actions. In most instances, those criticisms of his general leadership are interpreted as political attacks and indictments of his approach, policies, and administration. Admittedly, I don’t agree with his approach, policies, and administration, but I can separate my disagreement with his political strategy from my views on the general leadership lessons he provides. So this is not an opinion on his politics.

So, #45 policies and the op-ed and its backlash aside, what if a leader could learn from such a situation? What would that look like?

Consider if you were the target of such an anonymous message in your workplace or environment. There are various steps to take in response.

Fight the Urge to Lash Out

Harness the instinct to lash out. Yeah, we’d all like to respond with emotion. We’re all human. It’s natural. That’s how we’re built. Controlling emotions isn’t about pretending they don’t exist. Emotional intelligence isn’t about becoming absolutely numb. It’s about recognizing there’s a feeling there and being able to keep it in check so people don’t get lost in and ratchet up their emotions, opting instead to leave room to build a conversation through an ideas-based debate.

Related: Emotional Intelligence: This Is What It’s Like To Break The 4th Wall

Outline Why That’s Not The Way To Go

A leader should express to his or her followers that anonymity is not the way to go. But, first and foremost, this can’t be conveyed in a defensive tone. It can’t be a backlash. (Remember, keep the emotions in check.)

It’s more to explain that, although it opens up a bigger dialogue and discussion, any form of anonymous messaging misses the mark of its intention, because no one is able to have a conversation with the writer. No one can follow up with him or her to flesh out the ideas, pick their brain, or work collaboratively toward compromise or resolution.

Therefore, openness fostered in the environment from the get-go, before any anonymity is deemed necessary, is key. A leader should convey that a culture of openness is important for two reasons, to start.

First, everyone needs to be heard for their own benefit. What might someone be holding in that they’d like to share? Expressing themselves and sharing their skills makes them feel like they’re contributing and able to engage, leading to greater satisfaction.

Related: Your Leadership Wake: As A Leader, How Do You Acknowledge Others?

Second, everyone needs to be heard…for their own benefit. Same words, different thinking. Beyond the person’s own benefit of expression in the moment, each person that is open and honest will benefit under this second meaning because what they become open and honest about might serve the organization or mission, improving the environment and eventually rippling the benefit back to them.

Approach Objective Partners and Non-Partners Alike About The Behavior In Question

Beyond expressing to others that anonymity is not the way to go, it’s important to ask others about the behaviors in question. Take into account the concerns, and assess them as objectively as possible with trusted stakeholders. Anyone who may be subjected – or I should say “exposed” – to the work environment outlined by the writer may be able to help either corroborate or dismiss the charges. A diverse group of partners and colleagues should be approached so as to expand and diversify the court of opinion, perception, and feedback.

Open It Up To Other Behaviors

While you’re at it, see what else might need some tweaking. Go beyond the areas targeted in the anonymous note to find what else others might have concerns about. They may see the same issues as the writer and/or have their own concerns to share. This builds off on the “Outline Why That’s Not The Way To Go” item above and the idea that transparency and openness are best for everyone involved in your mission.

Opening it up to other behaviors demonstrates you’re not only open to rectifying issues brought up but also proactive about getting in front of the ones unidentified at the moment.

Such a situation is a valuable learning and development opportunity, even if it’s anonymous, whether you’re a formal leader or not.

Even if you don’t have this situation come up, this is still a good self-assessment exercise to carry out. If someone is open to truly learning about themselves, they need to consider what others may see as weaknesses or shortcomings. It takes some courage to open oneself up to others, opening up to more directed feedback and criticism than one might be used to.

Aside from the “Fight The Urgency To Lash Out” and “Outline Why That’s Not The Way To Go” items above used in “anonymous” situations, the rest of the steps can be used to get a sense for what people around you may disagree with you on in other situations.

People around us are resources only to the extent we really seek out all they can offer. Even their opinions of us can shape the way we develop forward.

When considering those around us, we all probably have a good idea of who we get along with and who we don’t and everyone in between. Relationships differ in so many ways from one colleague to the next. Personalities vary broadly. You can probably identify who will tell you like it is and who may be holding back. Even then, you may be surprised how much more exists behind the facades you think you have figured out. But asking the right questions in a genuine manner may reveal a different side of people you never knew existed.

Those from whom we feel our opinions, work styles, decisions, or approaches may differ can offer a lot of insight as to why they don’t see what we see. The people you don’t have the greatest connection with – what do you believe would be their concerns about you? You may have a sense of some of the issues, and maybe not a clue about the rest. What can you assess on your own? Maybe there have been aired grievances that have gone unresolved. That would be a good place to start.

Opening up a discussion, while keeping these steps and considerations in mind, doesn’t mean you have to accept everything that’s said. But the open conversation sets an ongoing tone and conversation in motion primed in honesty and transparency.

Know what’s in front of you and approach it, before the unknown approaches you unexpectedly.

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