Ever Hear “You’re Too…?” (intense, emotional, hard-driving, idealistic, etc.)

Ouch! This feedback strikes at a gut level. It may be surprising that what you consider normal is perceived by others as extreme. This disconnect occurs when your unique qualities manifest with more intensity than that of the average person. The irony is that you feel criticized for something fundamental to your success! People with this “too” intensity hear things like:

  • You’re too much of a perfectionist; you can’t expect us to keep up.
  • You’re too goal-oriented; you only care about results, not people.
  • You’re too busy; you never have time for friends or family.

Ignoring these perceptions can restrict your career options, as well as personal relationships. The challenge is pausing long enough to recognize your current impact and identify your desired one.

Take Chris for example, who earned a critical role based on superb attention to detail, great intelligence and unparalleled dedication. This intensity, however, yielded an unanticipated result. Chris’ “efficient” directness was perceived as condescending, and colleagues worried about getting on Chris’ “bad side.” People said Chris was too task-oriented and too fast-paced. There was also significant personal impact. As the workday grew longer and longer, there was less attention to family, individual rejuvenation and personal health, which was suffering.

Like Chris, you may wrestle with this internal tug of war. On one side stand the “too” qualities that you have come to rely on. Staring back is your unintended, limiting impact. So how do you integrate this feedback while remaining true to yourself? You may even wonder “Why bother? Things have gone okay so far.”

Work through the following five steps to find out. After all, “okay so far” just doesn’t cut it for the intense, passionate “too-something” person.

 1. Take Inventory

Find some blank paper and uninterrupted time. Record your responses to the following:

  • List five influential people in your life right now. They would say I am “too ____________.”
  • In what other ways are you “too” something?

2. Look at Your Present Impact

It’s not often that we genuinely assess how our way of moving through life affects those around us and, ultimately, ourselves. Go beyond the quick, obvious answer and search for the most honest response.

  • How does being “too” something help you succeed?
  • How does it get in the way?

These observations offer the “You Are Here” point on the journey to creating your most desired impact.

3. Define Your Desired Impact

What does “impact” mean to you? Consider the ripple effect of everything you do, say, don’t do or don’t say. Think in terms of your effect on others, your environment and yourself. The results may be expected and hoped for, or unanticipated and undesirable. The following questions will help clarify what you want to generate from here forward.

  • How would you like to be described by your peers? Superiors? Subordinates?
  • Ideally, what would your family/friends say is special about you?
  • When will you be successful?
  • What legacy would be most satisfying?

4. Discover the Gaps

Notice the space between your current and desired impact. In this step, you will outline some possible strategies for narrowing that gap. For the moment, ignore practicalities and shake off any sense of “rules.” Let all sorts of ideas mingle on the same page. What possibilities emerge when you consider:

  • What are the easy options?
  • How could I challenge myself?
  • What strategies would the five most influential people in my life offer? (To crank it up a notch, go ask them!)
  • What could I start today?

You now have a list of possible options. Among them is the potential for sharing your talents more effectively. Don’t squelch your “too” talent; just use it with greater awareness and precision.

5. Bridge the Gap

Review your list from Step 4. Ask “Which option(s) would be most effective?” Pick a few that you are willing to commit to. To help you succeed, address the following:

  • When will you begin?
  • How will you evaluate this strategy?
  • Who can support your efforts?
  • What is your truest motivation for persevering?
  • How will you hold yourself accountable?

Through this process, you will boost your self-awareness and sense of personal leadership. Chris dramatically shifted peer perceptions, created a richer life outside of work and addressed serious health issues. By calibrating your style, you will find greater ease in your interactions and more support for your vision.

(Originally published September 2004 but still relevant!)


Find Yourself a Dragon

I’m big on transparency and authenticity in communication; it cuts out a lot of second-guessing and off-track interpretation.  By transparency, I mean speak and act in a way that makes it easy for others to know what you’re thinking while respecting professional norms.  (I shouldn’t even have to say that, but there are still those who roll their eyes in meetings.)

Transparency is an especially important tool for introverts who often host a party of ideas in their head, but may appear impenetrable to others.  In the absence of obvious clues, colleagues tend to infuse the “no-response” response  with their own meaning – often incorrectly.  (Maybe I should write another article for these Guessers called If You Don’t Know, Ask: A Guide for Improving Communication Until You Perfect Telepathy.)

To be more transparent:

  • Verbalize your thought process. Don’t wait until your cerebral ducks are in a row, share imperfect but promising ideas: “I haven’t worked out the details, but I’d like to toss out Huge Great Idea and get some feedback.”
  • Let people know when you’re unsure about something. Tell them what you need. “Candidly, I’m caught off guard by this sudden change.  Can you walk me through your thinking?” or “May we regroup tomorrow after I’ve had a chance to sleep on it?”
  • Express emotions to demonstrate commitment and professional concern. I’ve seen lots of misinterpretation as outwardly expressive types assume everyone conveys passion the same way they do – exuberantly , spontaneously, and verbally.  Clue them in by saying things like “I’m so dedicated to this project and feel frustrated by the minimal attention it’s receiving.”

If transparency were a formula, it’d be:

“What’s the conversation in my head now?”


“What would be useful for others to know?”


“Here’s what I need to say.”

While transparency is about being in alignment with others; authenticity focuses on being in alignment with yourself.   You’re known as being authentic when your words, actions, and values overlap to present a consistent  message about who you are and what people can trust about you.  Authentic means moving through the world according to your own compass without the magnetic pull of Shoulds and Oughttas dragging you off course.

Admittedly, it’s not always easy, especially in groups.  We facilitator types have tools to help. My favorite is a fierce dragon which I discovered with my team coaching co-leader, Tascha.  This mighty mite glowers from the center of the table, challenging particpants to seize what they need from the session.  It’s a personal talisman for courage and an ally for speaking difficult things.  The dragon may also be a symbolic request for tolerance, flagging  “I’m about to say something that’s hard for me.”

oct dragonInitially people awkwardly appreciate the cute feistiness of the little guy, but no one really anticipates “needing” to use him. Eventually, someone is compelled to say something difficult and  acknowledges the dragon, even if jokingly “Wow, I probably need the dragon for this one ha ha.”  They don’t always reach for the dragon, but the comment focuses others’ attention, curiousity and often respect as this brave colleague leads  into a deeper conversation.  By the way, we do toss the dragon to anyone who mentions it; it’s easier to say something hard with the dragon’s encouragement.  We also recommend that teams who want more candor and boldness get their own talisman.

During the off hours, Fierce Dragon sits on my book shelf glaring at me, daring me to be braver in every word I write, clearer about every prioritization (you procrastinating again?)  and more direct in the conversation I’m having.

*Originally published October 2009 in Jump In newsletter.


Comfort Zone as Irony

Spend enough time talking about professional development and eventually you’ll bump into The Comfort Zone. 

Sometimes, awareness of that imaginary land helps us see opportunities for pushing boundaries and climbing out of quicksand.   Other times, referencing our comfort zone is like playing a “get out of jail free” card.  The phrase automatically grants some sort of quasi-acceptable excuse for staying stuck.  We admit something from beyond the horizon is calling, but are put off by the perceived difficulty of the trek, so we legitimize the current position. 
Teams have comfort zones as well.  I’ve heard people talk about their group’s comfort zone as if it were some vortex sucking them down into unified mediocrity.  Once I worked with a group who clearly yearned for change but kept pulling back to the comfort zone defense.  In fact, little, if anything, was comfortable!  Their interactions were infused with distrust and territorialism.   The only things remotely “comfortable” were:

  • familiarity with the situation
  • a common language of dissatisfaction
  • a tacit agreement about the futility of pushing for better

These people clearly were rooted in some zone, but a better name might’ve been the Status Quo Zone or the Mess We’ve Made Zone.  Seeing the irony in their uncomfortable “comfort zone”, helped them realize they had little to lose by trying different things. 
How about you?  Ready to venture somewhere new?

To start, give your current zone a name which honestly reflects its characteristics.  What does it look and feel like?  What are the rules here?  (My zone is defined by the lilac scent of control, quickly answered emails and neatly folded laundry.  How embarrassing.)  

Now identify another place you may want to go.  Be more specific than Anywhere But Here or Aways Out Yonder.  Choose a landscape that will support your goals, desires and even barely whispered dreams.  Harmonious Partnering Zone or Creative Ease Zone, perhaps?  Imagine going through your day in this land.  What about it supports and encourages you?  How can you begin to build that zone as homebase?

*Originally published in Jump In newsletter September 2009.


Expanding Leadership Perceptions

by taking liberties with cluster analysis

We’ve all heard “what got you here won’t get you there”, yet we still tend to lean heavily on our trusted strengths and strategies when stretching for something new.  Sometimes that works, but often it doesn’t because what we’re aspiring to requires a different skill set. 
Consider a fantastic individual contributor who’s valued for his attention to detail.  That may be important in the current position, but is it a priority for the next?  That more advanced role probably relies on different skills such as conveying vision, meeting budgets and/or managing conflict.  Not only does the employee need to know what the decision-makers will be looking for, he also needs to know how he is perceived relative to those skill/experience requirements.  When trying to launch a transition, evolve your leadership or develop an employee, these two questions are good starting points: 

1. What are the critical skills, abilities and qualities required?
2. How am I perceived relative to those crucial factors?

To help clients prepare and position for their next role, I created a tool that (very) loosely links the above idea with cluster analysis.  This statistical technique groups similar data points into discrete categories to aid in analysis.  Don’t let the thought of stats stop you; this tool is elegant in its simplicity.   Imagine what you do and say as a stream of data points flowing into your environment and available for assessment by your boss, colleagues and customers.  Over time, these people will frequently experience related data items and this group of similar impressions forms a cluster.  For example, every time you close a deal or hit a revenue goal, you’re adding another ping of data to your “meets targets” cluster.  As this cluster develops significant mass, this trait becomes one of the things you are known for.  Clusters can represent both desirable and undesirable traits.  The collection of all your clusters presents a composite of your current leadership style. 
Cluster analysis is not a perfect metaphor and I apologize to those of you that find this confusing (or possibly offensive).  Several clients, however, have thought it useful for highlighting areas of focus and tracking progress, so I’m passing it along.  Here’s how you create your Leadership Cluster Analysis:

1.  Identify Current Clusters Jot down the various categories for which you are known.  In other words, what opinions are others forming by the repetition of what you do and say?  Here’s a simplified example:

cluster 2


2.  Incorporate New Clusters As you anticipate your desired career path, what skills, abilities and personal qualities will be advantageous?  Consider things you already do well that will carry forward as well as new, mandatory requirements for your next position.  Demonstrating strength in the core competencies of your current position casts a positive glow, which makes it easier to be noticed, but also only confirms that this role is a good fit.  It doesn’t mean you will be perceived as ready for the next step.
To be considered a viable candidate, others will need to see how you fit with the requirements of that next position.  How do you know what these are?  Read the job description, speak with the hiring manager, observe the traits of successful people in that role, and mine your own performance reviews for clues.  Now, add these to your Leadership Cluster Analysis:

cluster 3
3.  Shift Perceptions Through Focused Activities Now the fun starts as you define the desired “clusters”, start to populate them with “data” through your actions, and ultimately become associated with these characteristics as well!  (At the same time, look for ways to depopulate undesirable clusters.) This step requires strategizing to create options; it may be useful to have your boss, mentor, coach or experienced colleague help.  
Consider activities that boost your expertise in these areas and make it visible to others.  For example, attend a course/read a book on strategic planning and then present an overview to the team, or volunteer for a companywide initiative that will build new experience and greater visibility.  One client, who had never managed people, volunteered to run the organization’s major philanthropic activity involving the coordination of numerous volunteers.  This success enabled others to see her potential and support her bid for a managerial position.  Sometimes reinforcing a cluster is just a matter of tweaking how you express yourself, using language and tone to change perceptions.
As you move through your day, keep your Leadership Cluster Analysis handy.  Every time you do or say something that provides another data point, mark it down.  To get things really moving, challenge yourself to earn a certain number of data points within a certain timeframe.  You’ll be surprised at how many opportunities there are once you get the hang of it, and your Leadership Cluster Analysis will start to shift:

cluster 4

Recognize that this is not an overnight process, it takes time to catch people’s attention and build trust in the trend they see forming.  This diligence, however, yields another reward; people recognize the courage, commitment and openness required for creating such a shift and those characteristics become valued clusters in your profile as well.

*Originally published January 2009 in Jump In newsletter.  ©Insight Edge, 2009


Clean It Up

Don’t let the title fool you; this is not an article about excessive Post It notes or unfiled stacks crowding your desktop (and floor in some cases).  It’s about straightening up the less tangible messes we create in our interactions.  Frequently, we’re not even aware of how some of our responses may be upsetting and divisive.  In the context of team coaching , we refer to these destructive attitudes and behaviors as Team Toxins.
Dr. John Gottman, award-winning psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Washington, is world reknown for his relationship studies and ability to apply leading-edge research to everyday situations.  “Team Toxins” are a derivative of his work.  They refer to 4 categories of behavior which significantly contribute to breakdowns in relationships. 
Team Toxins
Blaming/Criticism:  Attacking the person rather than addressing specific behavior.  Clues:  “you alway” or “you never”

Contempt:  Acting/talking in a demeaning fashion; often the implication is that you are better than the other person.  Clues: eye-rolling, audible sighs, name calling

Defensiveness:  Assuming all comments are a personal attack, refusing to take responsibility for your own actions/inactions.  Clues: making excuses, ignoring the other person’s concern and deflecting by adding your own complaint, saying “yes, but”

Stonewalling:  Avoiding conflict by not engaging, changing the subject and/or physically steering clear of the situation.  Clues:  withdrawing, remaining silent, pretending not to have an opinion, skipping uncomfortable meetings.  (I notice this one more frequently among high performing teams.  It appears to be more “polite” or “professional”, but don’t kid yourself; it’s still toxic.)
Anything sound familiar?  I’m betting your answer is “yes”; most people have had some experience with all of them.  If we’re honest, we’ll acknowledge that at some point we’ve dipped into the dark side ourselves.  (I tend to slip toward defensiveness.) It’s normal.  It’s normal and it usually doesn’t work so well, does it?  With repeated use, Team Toxins can become an unhappy norm that erodes relationships, damages morale, obstructs communication and ultimately undermines the team’s success.
Just writing about them makes me feel I have boulders in my stomach.  I’m suddenly aware of all the other tasks on today’s list.  I see how easily I could be coaxed from the grayness of the Toxins to something more “fun”.  Unfortunately, this shift parallels how many of us dodge addressing the toxic behavior on our teams or in our relationships. 
It’s a nasty, energy-sucking cycle and it takes awareness and courage to break it.  The first step is to recognize the toxins and their impact.  Just reading this article has started that process for you; pass it along to others.  Now you have a common understanding and language; use it to talk about what’s going on.  Together, consider:   

  • What’s a better way to manage frustration/disagreements?
  • What do we do when we notice toxic behavior?
  • How will it be different working in a ‘cleaner’ environment?

Create a few agreements to help you stay on track.  One team, for example, uses the “timeout” hand signal when they see a toxin creeping in.  Once alerted, the group can address it and move on.  Sometimes, if things are really heated, a five minute break helps.
Stepping into this conversation also requires a certain courageous boldness and commitment.  Someone has to acknowledge the snarly elephant in the room sullying any sense of joy and creativity.  Feed your bravery by imagining how it could be better.  Clearing out the current mess makes room for toxin-free collaboration, clearer purpose and brighter energy.