“You don’t belong here: you are a fraud! Why would smart people ever want to listen to you?” whispered the manager to the salesperson. Galvanized by this wake-up call that he desperately needed, the employee rose to the occasion and exceeded all expectations.
Does this sound realistic? Of course not! Who would feel upbeat by such senseless, demotivating speech?
This scenario obviously never existed – and yet the speech is 100% authentic: I heard it from a sales executive last week. It wasn’t directed at a team member though: it was directed at himself.
Your inner critic: your #1 judge
We all have an inner voice that continuously judges us. Its main message varies from person to person; in a separate post, we discuss how to identify your inner voice’s main messages. In this post, we discuss its negative impact on yourself and on your ability to grow your business, and what to do about it.
One of my client CEOs told me his inner voice calls him a “loser who sets the wrong example to his team and will never be a successful entrepreneur” when he doesn’t take over what his team members fail to accomplish. My inner voice calls me “lazy and complacent who will fail as an entrepreneur and a father” when I am idle for more than 2 minutes, even on vacation – and makes me feel guilty and shameful every single time it happens.
Our inner critic pretends to be helpful and necessary to our success, but its long-term impact is unequivocally negative. Why do we keep listening to our inner critic, even though it is obvious that its message is utterly uninspiring and demotivating? What can we do about it?
How does your inner critic afflict your performance?
Our inner critic constantly finds faults with self (for past mistakes or current shortcomings), with others, and with circumstances. This judge sounds helpful at first sight by shedding light on our shortcomings. While it has the appearance of a helper, it is a bully that blackmails us with shame and guilt, with pretty dramatic consequences in the long run. It tells you: “Without me pushing you, you will be unworthy of love / attention / success.”
Your inner critic negatively affects you in three significant ways:
Your inner critic has a long-term damaging impact on your own personal performance.
Your inner critic acts like a radioactive armor: it pretends to be protective but it will leave you poisoned and bald in the long run. Let’s get back to the two examples above:
- Client CEO: To respond to the guilt of not being the ideal leader his inner critic describes, this CEO feels the pressure from his inner critic to micro-manage his team when they don’t deliver, at the risk of becoming his company’s #1 growth roadblock – with the negative consequences on his team and on business growth that you can imagine.
- In response to my guilty feeling of missing out on learning opportunities for my children (and hence of not being a good father) if I am idle on vacation, I take them on high-tempo sightseeing trips (“We only live once, let’s get the most out of it”, right?) – with, here again, the exact opposite long-term impact on my effectiveness as a father.
“The inner critic is harmful because it triggers our self-protection mode, MIT Sloan sr lecturer Giardella says in this article. It’s a toxic, self-blaming message that is usually connected to a deep-seated feeling of shame that says, ‘Who I am is not ok.’”
Your inner critic promises happiness but never delivers it.
It is also the same inner critic (called “the judge saboteur” in Shirzad Chamine’s book Positive Intelligence) that promises you happiness when you… [sign this big contract / hire a more talented VP / double your business size / …]. “When you get those things, Chamine says, the judge saboteur lets you celebrate for a minute or a day. And then it gets right back into it, because ‘when’ is a moving target rather than a promise to be kept. Every year millions of people go to their grave still trying to satisfy the last condition to finally be happy.”
Your inner critic triggers relationship conflicts.
Our inner critic judges not only ourselves and circumstances, but also others. The issue is: it is contagious. A typical example is a love relationship: at first, you show your best side, which brings out the best in the other person.
But at some point the honeymoon is over: your judge saboteur starts to show up and negatively impacts your emotions. You get more easily irritated / annoyed / … by the other person’s behavior, which wakes up the other person’s judge saboteur – starting a vicious, self-reinforcing negative cycle that Giardella calls the “blame-shame” cycle.
What changed in the other person? Nothing. Their judge saboteur had always been there, hidden, and is now running the show – and so is your judge saboteur. To make things worse, your inner critic is a coward: it will never admit that it started this cycle. The good news is: since each of us triggers and reinforces this cycle, we can also weaken it by being less judgmental and weakening our own judge saboteur.
Manage your inner critic: discernment vs. judgment
Your inner critic’s assumption is that you “will only do the right thing under pressure, or out of fear of guilt, shame, or negative consequences,” says Shirzad Chamine. If your inner critic managed people, it would be the worst manager in the world, because it is grounded in negative energy and negative emotions: it wants to beat you up. And yet you let the worst manager in the world manage you from time to time.
Making the difference between judging and discerning is essential to better deal with your inner critic, Chamine explains:
- Discernment is “paying attention to the state of things as they are.” There is no shame, no blame, no negative emotions – just objective data. “Once you have made an observation like this, you can figure out what to do with that discernment.” Discernment is grounded in positive intentions, like personal development.
- Judging is the work of your inner critic and involves negative feelings when looking at the facts: disappointment, shame, guilt. As Chamine points out: “Your distress is not caused by what happened, it is caused by your inner critic’s reaction to it.”
Practically speaking: what can you start doing today?
Managing your inner critic is a long yet very rewarding process, and a crucial leadership skill. There are initiatives that you can take right now, like:
- Notice your inner critic when it talks to you. “Knowing when your judge is surfacing will enable you to identify and label it in its act of sabotage. Doing so is key to reducing its power,” says Chamine.
- Answer these questions:
- What would change, at work or in your personal life, if your inner critic’s voice was significantly weakened?
- When your inner critic is messing with you, what kind of emotions are you feeling?
- Recognize that everyone has an inner critic – try to decipher what your team members’ inner critic whispers into their ears. This will make it easier for you to connect with them at a deeper level.
- Take 5 minutes to assess how active your inner critic has been over time: on a scale from 0 (very little active) to 10 (extremely active), how active was your inner critic in the first 10 years of your life, in the second decade of your life, in your third decade, and so on until today. Which conclusions can you draw from the evolution of this score over time?
- Meditate and practice empathy. Shirzad Chamine has developed a very practical, on-the-go method to help ground yourself when your inner critic is assaulting you (I use it a lot, and I warmly recommend it). Please feel free to contact me if you want to find out more: Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.
Learning to identify my inner critic and to separate it from my own voice, and applying these techniques has helped me a lot. I now realize the long-term harm of my inner critic, can tame it, and remain calmer when someone else’s inner critic blows a fuse. It has helped me become a better leader – more able to grow organizations. I now bite my tongue before suggesting a heavily loaded vacation schedule (which costs me a lot of effort, I have to admit) – and, who knows? my children might even decide that I can still go on vacation with them this summer;-)!
I work with growth-minded CEOs who are frustrated by the way their business is growing. Often they spend their days fighting fires – typically a sign that their company has outgrown their management approach – and their inner critic is the company’s #1 bottleneck. In short, they feel stuck. I know the feeling: I have been in their shoes when I was running a business that we turned around from sales decline to double-digit business growth.
As a business coach my passion is to help leadership teams define their actionable business growth strategy, create a culture of accountability and effective strategy execution, and become better leaders – so they can grow faster and with less pain.
If you too want to grow faster and with less pain, contact me now: Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.
“My company has lots of potential, but I just feel my employees are not engaged. If I don’t push, nothing seems to happen. I’m working night and day and we’re still missing 40% of our targets. I once dreamed of being a firefighter, I guess that dream has come true. All I do is put out fires, I have no time to focus on my business.”
Sound familiar? CEOs and leadership teams can change this picture, it’s all about accountability. Creating a fierce culture of accountability starts with the CEO and leadership team.
Why is accountability important?
Accountability is about owning a problem. You want employees to behave as if they own the piece of business that they are running. When you are accountable for a specific result, you will do whatever it takes to achieve it – and you would like your team to perform this way as well.
Carlos Brito, the CEO of brewing company AB Inbev, summarizes his views on accountability in these words: “We always compare that to a rental car: you drive a rental car in a different way than your own car. With a rental car someone else will live with the consequences of your driving. With your car, you know that it will be yours the next days, months, and years, and you know that you will be living with the consequences of your driving. Employees who behave like owners are here for the long term, and they will live with the consequences of their decisions – good or bad – and that builds a great company.”
Why am I having accountability issues?
Accountability issues are very common among growing companies. When you founded your company, you were personally accountable for everything. As your company grew you started delegating the responsibilities for some results – e.g. production, customer service, or sales. However, you may not have created the communication channels required to hold your teams accountable. Why would you? You didn’t need any of this yourself, and yet you grew your business successfully. Why would these smart managers need anything different?
For one, your employees are not you. If they were, they would not be working for you: they would start their own business. Second, your company is now more complex than we you started: it has more people involved, and all these people now need to be on the same page. Third, when you started your company with a few employees, you could be on top of each of them and had short communication lines: you knew what everybody was doing, all the time. Now that your company has more employees it is impossible for you to manage them the same way: this would soak up all your time. This is exactly why you need to put a system in place that will achieve what you want (ie create accountability), without you spending all your time on it.
1. Lead by example
Like many aspects related to company culture, accountability starts with you and your leadership team. In order to create a culture of accountability you have to model the behaviors that you want to see in your organization. When it comes to accountability the rule is simple: when you make a commitment as a leader, you have to keep it. If you don’t, why should anyone else be interested in doing so? You can’t complain that employees miss their deadlines if you are occasionally late as well. As a CEO “all eyes and ears within your business are focused on you. What you say and what you do are invisibly and constantly observed, scrutinized and evaluated as your managers and employees are looking for clues as to how they should behave,” explains Mark Green.
Leading by example is not only about you sticking to your commitments, but also about your expectations from your team – and your behavior when your managers don’t meet your expectations. If your team members notice that there are no consequences for missing targets, why would they try their best? Similarly, if you tolerate one of your team members to produce poor results, why would other team members feel pressured to produce quality? When you hold your team to a higher standards, you are sending a strong signal across the organization.
2. Have the right people on the right seat
Without the right people on the right seat, nothing of what you can do will significantly increase accountability. The key question is: would you enthusiastically rehire everybody on your team? I advise my clients to assess employees on two dimensions; performance and adherence to company values. You will find more information on how to use this tool in this article.
Once you have the right people on your team you need to clarify their area of accountability. This is less obvious than it looks. The key question is: Who is accountable for each of the key functions in your company? As Mark Green explains “the exercise often reveals that there isn’t a single individual accountable for each function. When more than one person is “accountable”, nobody is accountable. It is easy to make assumptions that things will get done, but when there is not a designated person to account for a particular result, chances are, it is not going to happen. In this kind of environment, it is also easy to point fingers – Bob thought Mary would handle it, and vice versa. Other times, you’ll discover that a particular role hasn’t been filled by anyone at all; it is just implied that it will somehow be handled. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t!”
3. Clarify priorities
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” wrote best-selling author Stephen Covey. “Individuals or organizations with too many priorities have no priorities and risk spinning their wheels and accomplishing nothing of significance,” says Verne Harnish in his book “Scaling Up.” Focus on a small number of priorities that will have the biggest impact on your goals, make sure that everyone on your leadership team is aligned on them – and communicate them broadly.
When employees understand where your organization is going and which role they play in it, they work less selfishly and they tend to make better business decisions on behalf of the company – simply because they can see the impact of their decisions and how they impact overall results.
4. Define clear action plans and metrics
Once you have identified who on the leadership team is accountable for each function and what your top priorities are, the next step is for each of your leaders to answer Mark Green’s key question: “What are the 3 most important results the company expects you deliver in exchange for paying your salary – and how should these results be measured? This step determines the results and metrics for each of your leadership functions. As we all know, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. If you want to increase the speed and quality of a particular service you offer, you should establish specific metrics to gauge those factors and identify metrics and targets for them. You may determine if you reach or surpass a target for three months in a row, you have achieved that objective.” Pick specific metrics, make sure that your leadership team is on the same page and that everybody aims for the clearly defined results – so that the rest of your organization can follow your lead.
Similarly, once you have defined top quarterly priorities, the question becomes: what do you and your team need to do in each of the next 13 weeks in order to achieve priorities? There are only 13 weeks in a quarter – if you do NOT view your quarter as a 13-week race, you will lose weeks and time which you will NOT get back. A weekly plan clarifies what can be expected every week, in order to meet expectations at the end of the quarter. It also makes it much easier for your leadership team to hold people accountable to their own 13-week plan.
5. Establish a metronome-like meeting rhythm
Just as a metronome calls time and sets tempo in a musical performance, so do a small set of consistently executed meetings to hold you and your team accountable, and keep everyone on the same page. The essential regular meetings are:
- Daily huddles (no more than 10 to 15 minutes) to evaluate progress on the very short-term priorities and identify any blocking issues.
- Weekly huddles (no more than 90 minutes) to review the status of the 13-week plan and course-correct if needed.
- Monthly and quarterly meetings to review progress on the priorities, take corrective actions when needed, and identify new priorities for the upcoming quarter.
I often notice that the most impactful meetings to drive accountability are the daily and weekly huddles: they create peer pressure and hence take the heat off your shoulders as the leader. They also improve communication: You won’t need to have the same water-cooler conversation three of four times, as is the case when you rely on chance hallway meetings for communication. And finally they enable collective intelligence to solve problems.
In the end, how much difference do these tools make on accountability? Pretty big, as this example from another Gravitas Impact business coach, Glen Dall, demonstrates in Mark Green’s book “Creating a Culture of Accountability”: “I worked with the CEO of a multi-location dental practice. The CEO had started with one practice that they grew very successfully – and then began expanding. At one point employee turnover rates increased to 200%. The leadership team would plan and set goals, but frequently failed to achieve them. The growth rate was declining. The CEO felt over-extended, frustrated and stressed.”
With the leadership team Glen Dall leveraged these tools to have the right people on the right seat, set priorities and targets, as well as establish a proven system to follow up on them. The result? “After our first 6 months of working together, the CEO told me, “You should be proud of how far you’ve brought the team. I feel that we have accomplished more in the past 6 months than we were able in the last 7 years.” That is the power of accountability.”
As a business growth coach, I work with founders of mid-market companies who are frustrated because their business is not growing the way they want; my passion is to help them identify and remove the growth roadblocks they have been hitting so they can grow faster and with less pain. Often their roadblocks include a lack of accountability: they have no system in place to regularly follow up on their team’s many commitments, or their teams don’t have clear priorities and metrics. I would like to learn about your growth roadblocks; contact me to discuss at Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.
What about you? How accountable is your team? How has Covid impacted accountability? Over the past couple of years, how many quarters has your company reached and missed their targets? What were the consequences of hitting targets, and what were the consequences of missing them? Do you have clear metrics and regular meetings in place to follow up on each of your priorities?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.