Taking things personally is a recipe for conflict, but understanding the motivations of other humans is an essential ingredient in effective leadership.

I had a nemesis at work.

I mean, that’s how I thought of him in my head. (I was careful never to say it out loud.) He was my colleague, and his role was an important one. But everything my team tried to do was blocked, criticized, or put in a corner by him or his leadership team. There was little collaboration between our two organizations and a lack of trust in decisions made “on the other side”.

The problem was, we both worked for the same company. We both had the same goals. We both served the same customers. I felt stuck. And I knew something needed to change.

So, I scheduled some time with him. And when we sat down across from one another, I said, “This isn’t working for me, and I’m not sure what to do about it.”

His reply changed everything: “I feel a tremendous amount of pressure to deliver results.”

Suddenly we had a connection to build on. I realized that the behavior I had been so troubled by and was taking personally had nothing at all to do with me or my organization. It wasn’t personal. I had to start by looking past the personality and get curious about the person. I’d often heard people say things like, “You have to meet them halfway.” But truly successful leaders are able to check their egos enough to lead with empathy. They go more than halfway to close the gaps that exist in so many relationships.

The Power of Human Connection

I’ve thought a lot about that moment over the years. (My former adversary and I went on to have an incredibly strong partnership, the kind where you know each other so well that you can almost predict what the other will say before they say it — which is a really useful trick in meetings.)

For much of my career, I had received feedback that people found me to be very formal. The notion always made me chuckle and scratch my head a bit. I play banjo. I raise pigs and chickens — my boots often reveal the evidence. In the office, though, I wore a suit or a sportscoat. I was often rushing from one meeting to another, my face buried in my phone to make sure I knew the agenda for the next discussion. That’s how many in my organization saw me.

One of silver linings of the pandemic lockdown was how much of that facade was stripped away. I didn’t bother with a sportscoat when I worked from home. The truth of it is, I grew up in Georgia and, now living in Maine, the coat served to keep me warm more than anything. And rather than rushing down hallways, my team could now observe me in my natural setting. They could see the banjos in my office. (Go ahead and make the jokes — we banjo players are used to them.) They might even hear a chicken in the distance.

When we all got to see each other where we feel and behave the most like ourselves, something shifted. Suddenly, my team gained more insights into my life. And that went both ways. Ironically, in working remotely I got closer to my team, and they got closer to me. That’s something that continues to pay dividends.

A Lesson in Listening More

At one point, one of my managers and I were talking about how things have evolved over the past few years.

“Our team is like a jazz band,” he told me. I was intrigued. I asked him to say more about that.

“We all know the direction we're headed,” he explained, “but at any given time, any person on the team might be taking the lead and using their 'instrument' to advance the group. And the rest of us have to listen — really hard — to know when to support them, when to lift them up, and when it's our turn to step in. And at the end of every solo, there's a moment to recognize the individual, and then carry on.”

I love music (I’ve already admitted to the banjo thing) so this metaphor really spoke to me. If you've ever played an instrument with others — or even just listened to a really good group of musicians jamming together — you know that unspoken back-and-forth of a band coming together for a common purpose and love of the outcome.

That's a team.

What's the lesson here? Even when you're playing, 80% of your job is listening to others. As CIOs, our job is to build the skills, norms, and practices it takes to enable a kind of rhythm within our teams. We create an environment that fosters a similar back-and-forth in the service of a shared purpose in our complex organizations. No matter the industry, we sit at the intersection of every other function in the organization and are uniquely positioned to transform the experience of our colleagues and our customers.

We set ourselves and our organizations back if we take things personally. But when we seek to understand others — and facilitate understanding within our organizations — we get the kinds of performance that we seek.

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