My friend Miss Take – the professor of the school of lessons-from-experience — taught me a good one again this week. It was a “dad mistake,” but reminiscent of “boss mistakes” I’ve seen and boss mistakes I’ve made. In short, I forgot that central authority figures speak with a megaphone, even when they think they’re speaking in a whisper. Here’s what happened.
My wife and 3 kids and I were sitting around as the weekend was about to begin. We’d been moving in different directions all week, were catching up and talking about Jack’s 17th birthday and how we could celebrate together. In a lull I announced what I thought was a great idea that Jennifer and I had kicked around for a few minutes the night before. “Mom and I were thinking we should spend the next two weeks doing a ‘privilege awareness’ period where we buy nothing but true essentials.” In my family, we all fashion ourselves champions of opportunity, social justice, and awareness, so I expected a positive reception. My excited suggestion was met by initial curiosity; for example, what counted as “essential,” and I got some inquiries about where I was “coming from.”
Then all of a sudden my little train of thought became a train wreck. One kid nearly erupted with guilt, thinking they were the precipitator and target of this new policy of austerity. As I intimated in last week’s RFL, in systems-thinking, the fact that one person “has a problem” is much better seen instead as pointing to an issue that belongs to the whole system.
A second of my young adult kids pushed back with me, seeking explanations for this idea that was, in her words, “coming out of left field.” So, I “moved to withdraw my suggestion,” recognizing the timing and presentation were poor. I then got schooled by this daughter who gave me great feedback about how sometimes my enthusiasm about some idea catches everyone by surprise; they lack context; they may feel indicted; they sense dis-satisfaction. I repeated back what I heard her telling me. I could see she was right. Parents and bosses have megaphones. We think we’re just us, just one of the guys, albeit one with responsibility and power. But often we fail to see how we can so easily tie into people’s sense of pressure, worry about measuring up, fear that they’re not getting it right. The only thing unusual about this situation is that this daughter stopped me in my tracks and helped me see the context into which I was speaking. As leaders we should always want to know the context and sense how we will be heard; it’s about them not us.
I offered that next time, I would (a) consider the timing, (b) provide context about what I was feeling, before I suggested big changes; and (c) be sure to let people weigh in on what we’d do together. (Now, I can hear an “old fashioned” voice — perhaps you hear it, or you would express it — saying, “Nonsense! It’s your house. You’re the boss. You buy the meals. Etc.” Likewise, in a parallel work situation, that voice would say, “You’re the boss. You’re hired to set the tone and direction. It’s not a democracy.” And, for final emphasis, that voice would say: “You don’t have time to explain and get consensus on everything! Just do it.”)
I don’t buy that. It’s very rare that an emergency dictates that we really DON’T have enough time. Instead, most times if we don’t take time now, we’ll pay for it later in resistance, mistakes, and resentment.
Next time I grab the invisible megaphone that “kids” and “followers” and “students” attach to most everything I express, I’ll try to slow it down, create context, listen, and be prepared to learn from them how to really
Lead with my best self.