Are you one of those leaders who skirts discomfort and ducks relationship challenges?
Leaders who confront problems and those who pause to think in the face of confusion are in short supply, but avoiders show up everywhere. You might say they’re hard to avoid.
If the toll that avoidance exacts on businesses, families and society could be calculated, the sum would surely be astronomical: wasted time, unfinished projects, weak relationships and low self-confidence.
How can you tell that you’re part of the prolific species of “avoiders”?
Here are some giveaway signals:
The cost of avoidance
A recent conversation with a client, Lisa, embodied how destructive avoidance can be.
A 48-year-old single professional, Lisa works in a successful, family-owned dry cleaning business, where, I thought to myself, her parents might be “hanging her out to dry.”
Mom and dad, both mid-70s, are in a “fading-yet-clinging” stage where they’re not all that necessary, yet ill-prepared to call it quits.
Lisa avoids honesty with herself and intimacy with her parents by concealing what’s she’s up against: She suffers from migraines, chronically loses sleep, eats
on the run and doesn’t exercise. With few friends and no relaxing outside interests, Lisa is grossly overextended, routinely working 70-hour weeks to keep the 50-employee business going.
Just like a taste for vodka can usher an alcoholic to death’s door, Lisa can’t seem to regulate the over-functioning that hastens her demise.
Thinking enough was enough, Lisa disclosed to her mother, “I don’t know if I can keep this up.”
With furrowed eyebrows and a shaky voice, her mom replied, “If you ever left this business, your father would die.”
A clearheaded leader would be able to smell the mother’s manipulation a mile away. Lisa’s terror about confronting her parents prevents that clarity. Instead, avoidance kicks in. She wants to discuss her energy limitations, but she doesn’t do it. She knows that things have to change, but she wimps out. Lisa secretly wishes for a different life, but she can’t bring herself to say so.
For many years, Lisa has blamed her parents for her stuckness. Only recently, with outside assistance, has she begun to consider her own part—chronic, anxiety-driven avoidance—in this triangular drama.
In rare cases, avoidance can be strategic and useful. More commonly, it is a sign of emotional distress, triggered by discomfort or the anticipation of disapproval.
Standing up to avoidance requires will and skill.
Consider the following strategies for reducing avoidance:
Identify your particular pattern of avoidance:
“I get uncomfortable to the point of wanting to leave, whenever someone criticizes me.”
“I can handle most conflicts at work, but with my spouse and kids, I become passive.”
“If the decision is a big one, with significant consequences, I tend to procrastinate.”
“When I detect another’s discomfort, I change the subject.”
“Serious conversations are a turnoff to me. I want to keep things positive.”
Increase your tolerance for disapproval:
Put yourself in situations where disapproval is likely, so you can begin to normalize it. Expect disappointment when you make a decision or take an unpopular stand. Permit others the freedom to communicate dislike or disdain for your position, and make it your mission to respond matter-of-factly.
Practice taking stands:
Tell others what you will do and won’t do, and under what circumstances. Without blaming or accusing, communicate what you want or don’t want. Notice how others respond. Observe your emotional state after making a tough decision. Can you resist “caving in and changing back” when others disapprove? Stay open to revision based on additional data.
Because most avoidance is automatic, reflecting on your own “ducking” tendencies is the essential first step.
John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at [email protected].
1/13/2017 (c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].l