Do you know what your weaknesses are?
How are your personal weaknesses reflected in your team? And what do you need to do to start working through those weaknesses to become a better leader?
I sat down with Brian Wang, a Silicon Valley based executive coach at Dashing Leadership, to talk about overcoming weaknesses, how those weaknesses affect our roles as leaders, and working with the inner critic that can strike many of us.
In this wide-ranging interview, we talked about:
- Uncovering your weaknesses
- Understanding what's necessary to work through those weaknesses
- Knowing how they affect your team as a leader
- And what you can do to develop self-awareness & manage your inner critic.
Brian had some amazing insights, so I'm super excited to share them with you and the other readers of the Lighthouse blog. You can use them to not only improve as a person, but to become a better and more well-rounded leader.
Thanks for taking the time to talk and share your knowledge, Brian.
Looking Within to Become a Better Leader: Lessons on Self-Awareness and Overcoming Your Personal Weaknesses
A few months ago, Brian tweeted this out:
When I ask about a person's weaknesses, I like to offer different angles:
1. When your inner critic speaks, what do you hear it say?
2. What are some areas you want to work on?
3. When you're very stressed, what sort of reactive behaviors show up?
Various kinds of awareness 🙂
— Brian Wang (@brianmwang) June 28, 2019
I love these questions. Not only are they useful for leaders working to uncover their own weaknesses, they're also useful questions to use with your team. You can use them as key aides when you're coaching your team members to be their best, too.
Realizing the depth behind this great tweet, I reached out to Brian to see if he'd be up for digging into them, so we could share the insights with you. Fortunately, he agreed to an interview.
Finding the right words...
When we started talking, Brian shared how he came to recognize this helpful pattern of questions to ask:
"Part of it came from observing how different clients reacted to this question around weaknesses.
Everyone is familiar with, ‘What are your strengths and weaknesses?', and most people really hate that question. They treat it cynically. And for a good reason, because it is asking people to reflect on areas that might be uncomfortable.”
Brian said he had to cultivate a sense of curiosity to help him find the best ways to understand, "How does this person view themselves?”
By doing that, he could really understand the leaders he was coaching to help them thrive.
I was also interested in knowing what kinds of principles underpinned the questions, so I asked him to elaborate on the 3 angles he tweeted about as we started our interview:
1) "When your inner critic speaks, what do you hear it say?"
Brian says when he's sitting down with someone, he wants to find out what kind of inner narrative they have. By understanding their thoughts and emotions, he can better understand the root of their behaviors.
"Sometimes I would ask… ‘When you have this inner critic, what do you hear them say?' Sometimes people would look at me like I'm crazy... 'Are you asking me if there are voices in my head?'
...I had come to respect that different people relate to this question around weaknesses in different ways...so I started experimenting with other questions.”
Brian learned the what many managers learn, too: everyone is different, so you have to often have a few different ways of asking things to get to the same place with everyone.
2) "What are some areas you want to work on?"
This second question, as Brian describes, is a more straightforward and outward-facing way of asking the same question.
Some of us are more self-aware than others, but we're all aware of certain areas of ourselves we want to focus on.
Brian says this framing, "was easier for folks to answer,” so it's a way to get the same information if you or someone on your team aren't quite tuned into their inner critic.
Once you understand the areas someone wants to work on, you can dig into why they chose them. That typically leads to a reveal of their inner motivations and what their critic has been saying.
3) "When you're very stressed, what sort of reactive behaviors show up?"
Brian says this third question is another way to get the same information the first question was after in a different. In some cases, this question is even more effective:
"When you're feeling overwhelmed, oftentimes, we get into a knee-jerk reaction mode, and that often will be influenced by your world view and the story you're hearing in your head even if you can't hear it very well.”
Brian gave some great examples of what this kind of knee-jerk reaction can look like. I bet some of them feel familiar:
- "I get angry and start shouting.”
- "I panic and get really anxious.”
- "I see and think really negative thoughts about this other person that I'm interacting with.”
Brian says these kinds of observable behaviors are reflective of the kinds of thoughts we have about ourselves and the world.
By asking this question, you can get a better idea of what their inner critic is saying even if they don't exactly know themselves. You can then work backwards from the negative behavior to causes and internal trains of thought.
Taken together, each of these questions give you a way of approaching the same subject in different ways. They allow you to form an idea of what your (or your team member's) inner critic is saying.
From there, you can identify what your underlying thoughts and beliefs are. That's important because it's these thoughts and beliefs that are manifesting as visible weaknesses or shortcomings in your behavior.
Of course, while these questions are a great first step, working on your own weaknesses isn't so simple.
How to begin working on your weaknesses
Brian's done a lot of work with founders and other leaders, and been a founder himself, when he started fitness social network Fitocracy, which he sold in 2015.
With his experience at a variety of companies and now helping other leaders, I wanted to learn more about his approaches.
To continue our discussion, I asked him to talk about how leaders can become more self-aware and take the next step towards working on their own weaknesses. Below are three lessons on the importance of developing self-awareness and overcoming your personal weaknesses to become a better leader.
1) Understand how your actions affect your company culture
One of the things Brian does with his clients is ask them to take a look at themselves in relation to the challenges their teams are having.
It's critical to understand how your actions affect your team. As a leader, your actions will shape your company's culture– whether that's a good thing or bad (it's often both).
Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, agrees, as he wrote:
"Leaders prime the emotional state of the organization.
...when they're ineffective, when they set poor examples of how they treat other people, that trickles down throughout the company.”
People take cues from your behavior.
If you're excited, they will be, too. Meanwhile, if you're clearly worried about hitting certain goals, your team will pick up on that anxiety and reflect it, too. Worst of all, if you're moody or angry when things get extra stressful, your team will pick up those behaviors as well.
This kind of behavior is deeply ingrained in us as humans. It's an evolved trait, scientifically proven as part of our biology.
How the mirror neuron system makes your emotions contagious
Research by Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues at the University of Parma, Italy has shown that if you spend a large amount of time with someone, you'll literally pick up on their emotions.
The term is referred to as "emotional contagion” and it's backed up by a recently discovered network of cells in the brain called the 'mirror neuron system."
The human mind is equipped with a system that fires neurons which replicate (or "mirror”) the behavior of another person as though you were the one acting that way (our mirror neuron system):
The only caveat is that you need to have felt the emotion before to copy it. Unfortunately for us, we've all felt those same feelings of stress, anxiety, etc. before, so your team is already primed to pick up on your negative emotions.
Example: The Frenzied Founder
Brian gave a great example of how this problem can manifest:
"I have one client who is often running around in this anxious frenzy, worried state, feeling like the team is not getting enough done and they're not hitting their growth targets fast enough."
Unfortunately, as a result, his team adopts some of that same anxious frenzy.
"One thing that I'm working on with them is just being aware of how that anxious energy can ultimately impact the team's ability to perform in a calm and collected way.”
This is tough for early-stage companies. They're pushing so hard to get things done that little time or energy is usually spent looking at how certain behaviors could be impacting morale and team effectiveness.
"They expect that people who join the team will just be self-starters and folks will be very resilient right off the bat and they will just get things done.”
While that may be the hope, it's often not the case.
"You have to be really, really sensitive to how you come across in the way that your own emotions will show up at work.
I definitely did this a lot when I was a CEO...it is one of the things I really wish I had not done.
I was a ball of stress, it would very clearly show up, and people can detect it. I would probably be a little bit moody, and it's hard to be a productive person around that environment.”
This echoes what Andy Cook, CEO of Tettra tweeted recently:
Ask yourself: "How is my behavior affecting my team?” to start becoming aware of how your emotions and behaviors might be impacting your team in ways you hadn't noticed before. Some of the problems and challenges your facing are very likely to have been created by you.
2) Be willing to open up and take action
As you become more aware of how your emotions and behaviors are affecting your team, you start to become comfortable with opening up about what's going on. This is a big step forward because it can help your team understand you better and build trust.
If they know what's going on, there's less confusion and more empathy. Your team might even have ideas that can help solve or improve things faster. They'll also empathize with the pressure you're under when you take the time to open up a little.
The problem is, oftentimes we do the opposite and just expect others to know what we're thinking without any explanation. That's a huge mistake as a leader. As much as you would never want to dump all your problems on your team, you also don't want to swing the pendulum all the way to telling them nothing.
Don't expect your team to be mind-readers
Too often we expect those around us at work to be mind-readers. It doesn't work, as Brian describes:
"So you will have this observable behavior, but without explanation for what is driving it, or even if that behavior is to be expected, the people on the receiving end often have to just wonder, 'Did I do something wrong?' or 'Is this person just an asshole? What's the deal?'
There is so much power in explaining your patterns... It really removes a lot of the mystery that often exists in workplaces where people can guess motivations.
If you don't want to explain what is going on, people can't help but come up with their own stories.”
You are around you 24/7, but your team members only get small slices of who you are. Knowing how certain situations bring out the good and bad in you, and admitting to your team what can happen helps them better understand you. They may even be more forgiving of your occasional lapse.
Open up to your team. They already know.
I personally experience this where if I'm very stressed, I get more terse in chat conversations. I'm still mostly as friendly and approachable as ever if we're on a call or meeting in person, but my Slack messages can come off as curt.
As our remote team has grown, it's been important to let the team know this can happen, and talk about solutions. This has included asking them to call me out when they feel I'm being too abrupt and direct in chat, and switching to calls as much as we can.
This has not only helped me improve my communication with the team, but it's led to them being helpful when I need it most; when they've noticed I'm stressed, they've offered to take some of the support load off my plate, reschedule meetings to free up my time, and worked to manage my expectations more clearly on key work.
The more open and honest you are with your team, the more trust you'll build with them. This is much better than letting them create their own distorted narrative to explain your actions.
Showing vulnerability can help (but only if you back it up with a plan)
Brian says that a little honesty and vulnerability can go a long way, but only if you have a clear plan forward and communicate that plan to your team.
"It is OK to be vulnerable, it is OK to share you're feeling scared or anxious about not hitting certain goals or feeling disappointed that maybe last quarter wasn't as strong as you had hoped it would be, but it really has to be paired with a clear plan of action for moving forward.”
If you don't communicate that clear path forward for your team, you're just passing your worries onto your team and leaving them stressed and uncertain about the future. It's your job as the leader to make sure the path forward remains clear. Brian really emphasized this repeatedly in our conversation as he mentioned again:
"It is really, really important to have both that honesty and that vulnerability, but also a clear way forward.”
Open up and share how you're feeling, but don't end the conversation until you've given your team a path forward. Remind your team of your mission and lay out the plan for getting where you need to go.
Set a clear path forward
Leaders lead. That means that you're helping your team see the path forward. If you're feeling nervous, they may be, too, and it's your job to refocus everyone's energies towards action and improvement. Here's how Brian explained it:
"If you look at how emotional intelligence as a concept is often described, the two key components are awareness and then also management.
If you only have the awareness part but no management, it is pointless. One has to come after the other.”
I often tell managers when they start doing 1-on-1s in Lighthouse, if you talk about things in your 1-on-1s, but don't follow through on those conversations with action, it's almost worse than never having talked about them at all. That's why we call out setting action items explicitly every time.
By bringing that issue to life, then doing nothing about it, you're communicating to your team member that what you discuss with them isn't that important. Pretty soon, without action, they won't bother bringing issues to you, nor listening to what you have to say. They won't see the point.
Doing what you say you're going to do is one of the best ways to build trust with your team. It is also the strongest way to set an example; a leader who does what they say they'll do will have a team that also keeps their commitments.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true; if you're unreliable and inconsistent, your team will be as well, because teams take on both your best and worst personality traits. As Brian put it:
"If you're a leader or a CEO, everyone is going to look at you and they're taking cues from your own behavior.”
As you work to fix your personal weaknesses, it's important to not just identify them, but share some with your team, both in what the weaknesses are and the plan going forward. That's the process that takes you from flawed manager to inspiring leader.
Want to learn more so you can grow into an inspiring leader? Start here:
- Build up your emotional intelligence: How to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence to Become a Better Leader
- Work to get better at leading by example: The One Key to Building and Keeping a Great Company Culture
- Improve your self awareness: How to Develop Your Self Awareness Skills to Thrive as a Leader
And get help becoming a more consistent, organized leader who always asks the right questions with your team by signing up for a free trial of Lighthouse here.
3) Use all your tools to build self-awareness (and manage your inner critic)
At this point, you may have taken steps to begin improving your self-awareness.
However, developing self-awareness is a tough, long-term effort.
Fortunately, there's more you can do in addition to using the questions we touched on earlier to start noticing how your inner critic might be affecting your ability to lead.
Brian outlined three ways he suggests to his clients to build self-awareness:
Method 1: Ask those you trust
Brian says one of the best ways to build self-awareness is to ask the people around you whom you trust for feedback.
You can ask them questions such as:
- "What are areas do you think I could be improving upon?”
- "What are some behaviors you wish I would stop doing?”
- "How do other people view me?"
- Or like a retro: "What should I continue doing / stop doing / start doing?”
As Brian explains, "Starting with some of those behavioral questions is a good way to get a view of how other people view you. With enough diverse opinions, then you can start to triangulate around some of these things that are definite areas you need to start to work on.”
It can be scary to ask these questions, but if you focus on the future, and improving for the sake of you and your team, it can be easier to embrace it. Best of all, when you ask a few people, you should start to hear patterns. That allows you to focus on a few of the highest impact areas that will mean the most to you and your team.
Method 2: Work with a coach
Talking with those around you isn't always easy, and there may be things you're not comfortable opening up about to the people you work with. That's where Brian says a coach (or even a therapist, if there are more deep-seated issues) can be useful:
"It allows you to have this very personal, vulnerable space where you can have conversations that you might not otherwise have.”
Brian is probably a little biased on this one since he is a coach, but as someone who has worked with coaches and therapists before, I can endorse the major benefits.
In particular, I find it helpful to have someone who is outside my day to day work who can help me see the big picture when I'm caught in the weeds. They often spot patterns across my life that only someone in their position could see.
Method 3: Practice mindfulness
There are several ways you can practice mindfulness, whether it's a simple breathing practice during a break, a more formal meditation practice to start your morning, or journaling.
One practice Brian suggests to his clients is to pause when you're feeling extra stressed or when a negative emotion springs up to notice what's happening.
He says you don't need to drop everything and sit in deep meditation to do the practice. Instead, he suggests taking a day and counting how many times you notice yourself feeling anxious, angry, or whatever the feeling is that you're dealing with at the time.
It's a simple practice, but one that can help you build more self-awareness. It will also help you start noticing patterns over time. Ask, "What are the triggers that tend to give rise to those emotions?” Brian says.
Once you know your triggers, you can do something about them, and make sure you take the action to address them as we discussed earlier.
Manage Your Inner Critic
In his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams writes:
"Humans rarely (if ever) do anything because of logic and reason. The part of us we consider rational is, in reality, a rationalizer. Your mind is creating little movies in which you are the star.”
The problem with our inner narrative is it often works against us. It's telling us, "you're not good enough,” or that, "something always goes wrong for you.”
One of the biggest benefits of improving your self-awareness is it helps you recognize your inner critic and the narrative it's playing on repeat in your head. Unfortunately, without you knowing it, your inner critic could be reinforcing negative beliefs and ideas that often are untrue.
Luckily, once you know what those beliefs and ideas are, you can rewrite them.
To do this, Brian suggests cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which includes a collection of techniques that improve mental health, including two techniques we've already talked about: mindfulness and self-monitoring. Both will help you catch your critic getting in the way, as Brian describes it:
"When the inner-critic comes around and tells us things like, ‘Nobody will take you seriously,' you can pause, identify the story you're hearing, and then assess what evidence exists to support or reject that story.”
Your goal is to separate fact from fiction. Ask yourself, "What about your inner critic is true and what is false?"
If you notice a thought popping up repeatedly, look at yourself honestly and ask whether there's evidence to support the idea or not. Over time, this can help separate a false narrative from things you really need to fix. You can start replacing the negative thoughts with more positive ones, correcting your critic.
"The idea is to ultimately figure out what story you're hearing, what might be feeding into that story, and then making the conscious decision to create a new story.
You can't control all the facts, but you can control your internal narrative.”
Changing your inner narrative
Brian says another technique, reframing, can be useful to shift your inner narrative:
"For example, let's say you pitch an investor and they end up passing on investing. Instead of the narrative that says, ‘I am really bad at telling stories and this business is doomed,' you can say something else like, ‘Every investor pitch is an opportunity for me to improve my skills and if I keep at it, I'll tell the right story to the right person.'”
This simple act of reframing the experiencing changes the way you process it. Instead of seeing it as a failure, it's now a productive experience where you can learn and grow. This can flip your mindset 180 degrees, so instead of dreading your next pitch, you'll look forward to the opportunity to grow and learn more.
Conclusion: Improve yourself, improve your team
As a leader, with anything that goes wrong on your team, start by looking in the mirror and asking, "How did I contribute to this?”
On the surface, it might at first look like something is not really your fault. However, if you look deeper, you might realize that, "I never trained this person how to do that,” or, "I never set a clear expectation.”
A good leader recognizes they always played a part in their team's success and failures.
Importantly, regardless of how much responsibility you deserve for an issue, owning some of it makes your team want to take responsibility and do their part as well. That's how you create great teams where everyone is accountable and improving often.
This also removes the "blame game" from your team's vocabulary. Instead, Brian reminded me the crucial lesson of leadership:
"Finding in what ways you have some responsibility and what part you play… is super important because at the end of the day that's all you can control.
You can't control others' behavior… all you can do is account for your own.”
The more you work on yourself and improve your personal weaknesses, the more your team can grow and thrive as well.
As Brian write on his LinkedIn profile:
"What [great leaders] all have in common is a drive to grow so their companies can win.”
I couldn't agree with Brian more. Good leaders want their teams and companies to succeed, and they know that success depends upon their willingness to grow as a leader and as a person.
To that end, Brian and Lighthouse are on a similar mission: to empower leaders to be the best they can be.
Thanks to Brian for taking the time to share his unique insights on overcoming your weaknesses and becoming a better leader. You can learn more about Brian's services by checking out Dashing Leadership and follow his insights like the one that inspired our interview on Twitter @BrianmWang.
Brian's suggested books and links for learning more about building self-awareness: