I was awestruck by this New York Times’ picture of the rubble of a home destroyed in a recent California wildfire. The charred sculpture seems a haunting symbol of our collective inability to address the challenges we face.
Today’s Conversation explores how unrecognized fears undermine the courage we need to act in our own best interest.
Herman Hesse’s 1922 novel, Siddhartha, portrays Siddhartha’s journey from spiritual seeker to businessman and back. The story provides penetrating insight into the challenges that can derail effectiveness.
After leaving his life as a samana (spiritual mendicant), Siddhartha entered business because he had fallen in love with an elegant courtesan who required expensive gifts.
In his first job interview, Siddhartha was asked why he believed he could manage Kamaswami’s vast estate without any previous business experience. Siddhartha enigmatically replied,
- “I can think,
- I can wait, and
- I can fast.”
Taken in the story’s context, Siddhartha’s reply referred to his confidence that he could conduct business free from greed, hatred, and delusion. Siddhartha radiated charisma and was hired on the spot. In a short time his dispassionate mindset led to a profitable expansion of the business.
At first his previous experience as a spiritual seeker seemed to protect Siddhartha from the karma of his new life. Over time, his detachment from his pastimes of drinking and high-stakes gambling crumbled and he became ensnared by his life choices. One night he left it all and attempted suicide.
Despite his impressive success in business, the storyline suggests that Siddhartha’s quest as a spiritual seeker had not prepared him to successfully reengage in the world. Why not?
When analyzing the reasons for poor outcomes, one should look for an underlying fear that can explain the suboptimal performance (credit this insight to Gus Lee and his book Courage, The Backbone of Leadership). Then, by acting with better awareness of those fears, one can confront challenging situations more effectively.
In Siddhartha’s case, a fear of not being “unique enough” created anxieties that made him vulnerable.
- He left his father never to return because of his father’s “conventional” Brahman beliefs which Siddhartha chose not to follow.
- After meeting the Buddha, Siddhartha justified relinquishing the Buddha’s teachings because of the “need to find his own way”.
- Being good at business did not satisfy his need for uniqueness either, so he just “played” at it.
His belief in the importance of being unique also made him particularly susceptible to the charms of a courtesan’s compartmentalized love.
This need to be “unique” caused Siddhartha to undervalue the importance of knowledge already gained. His inability to solidify wisdom as he encountered it led to a life that eventually spiraled out of control.
Gus Lee outlined three steps to uncover the hidden fear that may be sabotaging one’s effectiveness:
- Identify a specific area(s) in which one is underperforming,
- Sort out the potential fears that may be undermining better results and choose which fear seems fundamental, and
- Decide whether the fear justifies one’s approach to the situation.
This exercise is powerful because we almost always exaggerate the potential negative consequences of our under recognized fears. They then become the hobgoblins that hobble our effectiveness.
Here is an example of the usefulness of these three steps in an area of underperformance in my own career:
- For decades I had accepted my strength in mentoring “stars” and my weakness in mentoring “average” employees. My acceptance guaranteed that I would continue to be an average boss for those that I deemed to have average performance. Was there a fear underlying my ineffectiveness? Yes.
- My fear arose from the extreme embarrassment that I imagined I personally would feel if I were just an “average” employee. This led me to greatly exaggerate how uncomfortable others would feel when performance issues were addressed.
- This exaggeration of how bad it might be for them made me blind to the obvious reality that employees want to grow and need skillful counsel when they aren’t doing well at their work.
By recognizing and then addressing the root fear underlying subpar results, one can dramatically improve performance.
Before finishing, I wanted to circle back to the societal ineffectiveness symbolized by the charred sculpture. What societal fears might be driving our current ineffectiveness? We’ll explore that question in the next Conversation.
Tomorrow’s Fix Today™,
Switch Healthcare designs solutions for self-insured employers dissatisfied with the healthcare status quo.
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