Tiger Cave in Belize

Balancing Authority and Empathy

I live in the scary place between idea and execution. Where either really good things can happen or not so good things.

Below the surface my clients are usually some mix of excited and scared. The come looking for guidance on the way forward and empathy for the stress of uncertainty.

It’s a delicate balancing act to be the authoritative voice that guides a client to make tough decisions and challenges their assumptions while also showing that I understand how much is on the line and how scary all this uncertainty is.

What often holds us back is a need to be right that is instilled in us pretty early on, according to Mel Schwartz in Psychology Today

Our educational system is rooted in the construct of right and wrong. We are rewarded for what are deemed to be correct answers and the ensuing higher grades, which generally lead to more successful lives. Being right affirms and inflates our sense of self-worth. As students we learn to avoid as best we can the embarrassment of being wrong. Getting the right answer becomes the primary purpose of our education.

Rodger Martin wrote about how this holds us back in business on the HBR Blog Network

No matter how much of the ocean you boil, to discover the one right answer. There isn’t one. In fact, even after the fact, there is no way to determine that one’s strategy choice was “right,” because there is no way to judge the relative quality of any path against all the paths not actually chosen. There are no double-blind experiments in strategy.

To be a great strategist, we have to step back from the need to find a right answer and to get accolades for identifying it. The best strategists aren’t intimidated or paralyzed by uncertainty and ambiguity; they are creative enough to imagine possibilities that may or may not actually exist and are willing to try a course of action knowing full well that it will have to be tweaked or even overhauled entirely as events unfold.

For me is about making sure my client knows that

  • I am committed to their success but not their idea or concept
  • I care about the personal and professional risk they are taking
  • I challenge their assumptions and ideas because I care
  • Only through experimentation can we get to an answer that will work

I was on my skis looking down at  something particularly nasty once when a friend of mine who is a great skiing and trapeze coach told me I needed to trust in his judgement of my abilities instead of my own compromised judgement. He was right. That is the type of relationship I look to build with my ski students and my clients.

Image: I took this when my husband and I were hiking the Tiger Cave in Belize. It’s a pretty amazing place.

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