Micromanagers (Part 3/3): Look in the Mirror

In parts one and two of this series, we discussed the root cause of micromanagement and how you can respond as one who is being micromanaged. This third and last part of the series is written to you as a manager. Before you say, “That’s not me. I don’t micromanage.” Let’s look in the mirror. In part one of this series, I noted that most micromanagers don’t even know they are doing it. What are the signs of a micromanager (thanks to Jeff Foxworthy for the “if… you might be” construct):

  • If you’re never satisfied, and in your eyes something is always wrong with the work of your team… you might be a micromanager.
  • If you take issue with how work is done and are quick to offer unsolicited advice on how you would do it… you might be a micromanager.
  • If you frequently ask for updates from your team… you might be a micromanager.
  • If you often ask team members to CC you on emails… you might be a micromanager.
  • If you prefer that any communication with other teams, your peers, and especially your boss goes through you… you might be a micromanager.
  • If you often point out little mistakes (especially ones that are not important to the deliverable)… you might be a micromanager.
  • If you frequently request that team members let you review their work before sending it out… you might be a micromanager.

I get it. Details are important in business. But, be wary of these self-justifying traps:

  • My reputation is at stake; so I have to stay on top of this.
  • This is important, and we can’t make any mistakes.
  • I know the best way.
  • I have to make sure this work is up to my standards.
  • I need to control any communication with my boss.
  • I risk ridicule if I don’t have instant recall of any work my team is performing
  • Reviewing the work of my team is one of my more important roles.

Here are a few simple steps to escape your micromanagement tendencies. Be forewarned. It won’t be easy. Lean in. Your team will LOVE the outcome. 

Get over yourself. Business is the ultimate team sport. Stop behaving as if success depends so heavily upon you and your own efforts. Your career success is more dependent upon others than you realize. Stop rationalizing your micromanaging ways. Your good intentions make you a bottleneck that constrains the productivity of your team, dampens initiative, and suppresses creativity. Having your team so dependent upon you may fill some deep-seated personal need, but it holds them back and keeps you from investing time to grow your own skillset. 

Let go. You are too into the details. Let go of the minutiae. Yes, good managers follow up. The issue is a matter of degree. Micromanagers bore into ALL the details ALL the time. On the other hand, good managers establish effective and efficient routines for staying abreast of their team’s work. We use a shared Airtable base to post our respective Top Five priorities and post our brief weekly updates there as well. That tool allows us to unobtrusively stay abreast of each other’s current priorities and progress on them without interrupting each other. We accompany that tool with weekly one-on-ones between a manager and each direct support to both build relationship and discuss topics that require live conversation to effectively clarify expectations, solve problems, and relieve bottlenecks.  Another part of letting go is transferring accountability for outcomes and responsibility for methods (how the work is accomplished).  

Set clear expectations. A big reason you delve into the details is your own fault. You have not communicated in unmistakable terms what you expect. Consequently, your team members have to fill in the blanks by guessing. Despite their best efforts, they will misread your intentions. You then have to correct those misinterpretations. All the while your team members are stewing in frustration and saying to themselves, “Why didn’t you explain that to me upfront before I wasted my time!” As I noted above, when you’re laying out your expectations focus on the “what” and not the “how. Lastly, don’t forget an often overlooked element of setting expectations; namely,  identify what you expect in terms of reporting back to you. 

Expect occasional failure.  Very few business mistakes are fatal–either to the business or your career. We all know that we learn best and fastest through failure. Let your direct supports fail at times. But here again, keep your constructive feedback at an appropriate level. Constantly drawing attention to inconsequential errors only frustrates your direct supports and leads them to tune you out. Ask yourself, “Does this mistake matter to the outcome?” If not, let it go. As an aside, there are little yet recurring mistakes which can harm  Focus on your priorities. Reassess where and how you invest your time. Each manager has tasks that your team members cannot do.

Focus on those priorities. When you are doing the jobs of those you support, then you are not doing your job as a manager. 

I trust this series has helped you see a path for escaping an environment of micromanagement–whether you are the micromanager or work for one.

Micromanagers (Part 2/3): Gaining Trust

First, let me apologize for the long gap between parts one and two of this series. We lost both my in-laws in a span of three weeks, and the aftermath of their deaths meant I intentionally focused on my family for the past month-plus.

In my initial post about micromanaging bosses, I noted that a lack of trust is at the root of micromanagement. You can verify this by looking at your own feelings, and I can almost guarantee that part of your frustration arises from not being trusted. Addressing this lack of trust between you and your micromanaging boss won’t be easy. Of course, you can hang around and hope the boss changes, but remember, there is a high likelihood that the micromanager is blind to the impact of their ways. And, to compound the situation, many micromanagers feel their style is crucial to their success; so attacking micromanagement behavior directly is a losing proposition.  

That leaves you three choices: first, continue putting up with micromanaging behaviors from your boss; second, escape by changing jobs (but know you may end up with another micromanaging boss–they’re frustratingly common), or third, start taking steps on your part to build trust in the relationship. But, you might say, “Wait a minute. The problem isn’t with me!” Are you sure?  

You want to be trusted but are you trustworthy? Do you consistently behave in ways that inspire others to trust you? If you’re still reading, let’s talk about how to build trust in a relationship. It might be easier for you to think about the attributes of people you trust. 

Be reliable. Are you on time to appointments and meetings? Do you deliver assigned tasks on or before they’re due? Do you make and keep your commitments? Those repeated acts of follow-through engender trust from your boss. 

Be clear. This goes both ways. Are you prone to empty rhetoric, insincere comments, or exaggerated talk? Do you consistently hedge your bets or make empty declarations full of weasel words? If this describes you, it is no wonder the boss doesn’t trust you. Make your positions clear. Speak plainly so that your commitments are certain and specific. On the flip side, proactively seek clarity from your boss; especially when it comes to his/her expectations. When the boss is confident you know what is expected, they can more readily trust you. 

Communicate often.  Humans, as a rule, don’t like to be left in the dark. We don’t think positive thoughts when we don’t know what’s going on. If your boss is constantly asking for status updates, maybe it’s because you do not volunteer information. Withholding information can be a natural defense mechanism with a micromanaging boss, but if your boss already doesn’t trust you, then it’s completely counterproductive. Your boss should know what you’re working on and receive regular updates on that work. Even if your boss doesn’t require it, submit weekly reports on the same day each week with status updates on your top five priorities for this week and clarify your top five priorities for the coming week. Lest you feel like this is pandering to the micromanager’s way, reporting on your own work is part of your professional obligation. With those I coach, I repeated say, “The work isn’t finished until you’ve reported on it to those impacted by it.” I predict that your boss will love your weekly updates. But, you will also benefit. This discipline will make you more focused and, therefore, more productive, because no one likes to report “no progress” multiple weeks in a row.  

I would hope those proactive new behaviors on your part may be enough to trigger a reduction in micromanaging behaviors by your boss. If not, here’s what I suggest as a next step. Trust (or the lack of it) is definitely relational. So, lean into the relationship with your boss and make it personal. 

What does that mean? Normally in business, we’re advised to not make it personal, but hear me out. I’d start a conversation with your boss like this… “A while back, I was frustrated, because I didn’t feel like you trusted me. So, I decided to first work on making myself more trustworthy by focusing on becoming more reliable, making a purposeful effort to communicate more clearly, and sharing information with you more frequently. I want you to know that you can count on me to honor my commitments and in the interim not have to wonder where things stood on anything I had committed to deliver. However, I’m still sensing from things you say and do, that I still haven’t earned your trust. I’d like your insights on what I’m not seeing or doing.” 

By choosing to describe how something affects us, two positive effects occur. First, by not directly attacking the offending behavior, we don’t force the micromanaging to reflexively adopt a defensive posture. And, second, we paint a picture that is difficult to challenge, because it is our perspective. Of course, there are still relationally-challenged managers who are prone to say, “You shouldn’t feel that way,” but they tend to be rare. 

If your boss asks for specifics, I recommend that Feedback Model taught by Mark Horstman at Manager Tools.

  • Step 1 (Ask): May I share something with you?
  • Step 2 (Describe specific behavior): When you [describe the behavior]
  • Step 3 (Describe behavior impact): It makes me feel like you don’t trust me to do my job and leaves me frustrated
  • Step 4: (Discuss next steps): What can we do to build greater trust between us?

 If you find yourself working for a micromanaging boss, I trust (pun intended) these simple steps will help you build greater trust in your ability to do your job. If you’re the boss, ask yourself whether you are a micromanager. Part 3 in this series addresses how you, as the boss, can deal with your own micromanaging tendencies.

Micromanagers (Part 1/3): The Root Cause

Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

I suspect that most of you have personally experienced or know someone who works for a micromanager. You have likely told or lent a sympathetic ear to a seemingly endless stream of anecdotes fed by the smothering effects of micromanagement.

Micromanagers suck the life out of those who work for them; yet, it is an intriguing phenomenon that most micromanagers do not recognize this trait in themselves and even when confronted about this behavior pattern will reject the characterization and remain blind to the havoc and discontent they spread. This behavior is so strong that the typical micromanager rebuts this charge with a vigorous justification for their behavior. Micromanagers see their behavior as a logical reaction to the world around them and, consequently, harbor deep convictions about the necessity of their methods. What others view as a negative, micromanagers often view as a strength of their management style. Therefore, it is little wonder that breaking out of an oppressive micromanagement cycle remains elusive for most people caught in its grip. The negative energies which perpetuate this cycle often continue until the employee leaves in frustration or the manager gets fired for ineffectiveness.

In certain circumstances, improving our personal or professional effectiveness involves increasing or decreasing certain behaviors. The visible nature of these existing behaviors, whether positive or negative, make them easier to recognize and adjust. However, some of our more difficult personal and professional challenges arise when the missing element lies outside the circle of existing behavior patterns. In these circumstances, the challenge of awareness (the first step in any change) rises exponentially.

In the case of micromanagement, a focus on eradicating the oppressive behaviors will fail, because these behaviors are the result and not the cause. The most common cause behind micromanagement and missing elements in that relationship is a lack of trust and respect by the micromanager toward those they support. Although the problem of micromanagement usually starts with the manager, a healthy solution can start with either the manager or employee. The next post will discuss how to (re)build trust and respect and provide some suggestions for dealing with a boss who is blind to their micromanaging behavior. The third and final post in this series will address how a boss may eliminate micromanaging behavior.

What Do I Do Next?

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Roughly a year ago, I was approached by a client team member with a simple, yet profound, question; namely, how do I decide what to do next? The topic of priorities in business gets a lot of airplay. We know the importance of setting priorities. Your organization may even be pretty good at defining priorities for your company, division, department, or team. However, when you really stop to think about it, a surprisingly high fraction of the time, we are left to determine our own priorities. How do I do that effectively? How do I determine what to do now or next? 

One of the more powerful frameworks managing our priorities is Stephen Covey’s Four Quadrants. Covey proposed that any activity falls into one of four quadrants on a 2×2 grid that defined an activity as either important or unimportant on one axis and as urgent or not urgent on the other axis. His primary takeaway was that Quadrant II activities (those activities which are important, but not urgent) will get ignored unless we purposefully schedule them into our days. However, even that powerful framework falls short in terms of helping me understand what to do next.

After some reflection on the client’s question, I shared what has become an enduring and reusable framework for answering this question. We subsequently taught this framework to a client company that now reinforces it with repetition during companywide daily huddles.

  1. Serve Customers — Whenever we have an opportunity to serve a customer, no matter what our role or activities in the moment, we redirect our energies to serve that customer.
  2. Do Your Job — As part of our assigned role, we are accountable to our teammates for various deliverables. These commitments to the team comprise our second priority. This means that whenever we are unable to fulfill those commitments, we must find a delegate who will temporarily perform them. This phrase is a mantra for the Bill Belicheck-led New England Patriots. Whether you’re a fan of the team or not, their success is undeniable.
  3. Help the Team — Since we are all in this business together, we keep our minds and hearts attuned to the needs of our teammates. When they need help, we willingly and joyfully step into the breach and help; even when it requires personal sacrifice.
  4. Find a Better Way — When we have fulfilled the previous three obligations, we perpetually seek and test ideas to find a better way (including identifying and capturing opportunities, eliminating waste, solving problems, increasing speed, simplifying tasks and processes, improving quality, etc.)

Use these four guideposts to prioritize the investment of our your own time and talents. Only progress down the cascade when you have satisfied the current and higher levels. For example, you should not pitch in to help teammates (#3) at the recurring cost of ignoring your own responsibilities (#2). 

What are other frameworks have you found effective in deciding what to do next?

Grace AND Truth

Life is full of things that reside in perpetual tension. Sometimes that tension is constructive. Other times it undermines and destroys. Persistence and flexibility are two such attributes. Sometimes I must persevere, but other times pivoting is the best course. Both attributes are good things. Yet taken to either extreme creates a destructive imbalance. Continued persistence in the face of contrary facts is just plain stubbornness. Excessive flexibility lacks any sense of grounding and projects a weather vane of instability overly responsive to the last opinion or piece of information. 

Another such dynamic duo involves the principles of Grace and Truth. Those may sound like metaphysical concepts with no application in the workplace, but hang in there with me. For those of the Christian faith, the Bible describes Jesus as a man “full of grace and truth.” If you read about the life of Jesus, you will see numerous occasions where he extended a grace and truth in challenging situations. So, if it was good enough for Jesus, that suggests it’s good for you and me, too.

What is grace? When I extend grace to another individual, I grant them favor or just plain old kindness that reaches beyond common courtesy. Grace confers esteem upon and respect for the other person; sometimes before it’s earned. Grace is not performance-based merit. Rather, grace is often extended irrespective of how the other individual behaves. 

What is truth? Truth can be as simple as the facts or data which describes a particular situation. Truth can also be grounded in principles distilled from observing the repeated consequences or outcomes of certain types of behavior, whether in humans or the world around us. In my own worldview there also exist certain universal truths that link the physical, mental/emotional, and spiritual worlds. Even if that last point is a bridge too far for you, I encourage you to keep reading.

When we practice grace it feels like a good thing. We are loving on others. We are accepting them with their foibles and failures. We are not judging or otherwise giving offense. However, grace without truth can be harmful. When we avoid the truth, are we truly loving the other person or merely sidestepping the pain that sometimes accompanies honesty? Practicing grace alone invites a world where every person gets to define their own reality, and we risk losing the “common” in community. Unless we are lovingly authentic with others, we constrain effectiveness in their personal and professional lives and indirectly bring harm to the extended community affected by their life. When we extend grace without truth accountability dissipates and individuals and teams experience needless chaos and frustration.

We all know people who boast of their willingness to “tell it like it is.” These self-proclaimed realists often make bold assertions with little or no regard for how their declarative statements impact others. They see themselves as some ultimate arbiter of truth. Through their own lens they attempt to counterbalance perceived wishy-washiness or pollyannaish outlooks in others around them. However, their graceless approach destroys relationships and eventually causes others to tune them out or just plain avoid them. At times truthsayers make penetrating observations but these helpful insights go for naught if no one is listening. When our truth is not accompanied by grace our visage takes on a harshness that makes us seem unapproachable, and people who could benefit from our insights struggle needlessly in continued ignorance.

The key to speaking truth is object of your expression. Are you speaking truth to tear down the other person or sharing truth to build them up? Our hearts are sensitive antennas, and we can tell the difference. The Biblical admonishment to “speak the truth in love” perfectly encapsulates this principle. When we speak truth we must do so with the other person’s best interests as our aim.

Speaking for myself, striking the proper balance of grace and truth is HARD. We all have a natural bent toward speaking grace or truth and struggle to appropriately practice the complementary trait.

How do I practice grace AND truth in the workplace?

  1. First, identify which trait comes more naturally for you, and recognize that you have to consciously practice its complementary cousin?
  2. The next time you’re facing a challenging situation stop and ask yourself, “What is the proper blend of grace and truth in this situation?”
  3. As leaders pay attention to the mix of peacemakers and truthsayers when forming teams since their effectiveness needs a blend of both attributes
  4. This next point may seem antithetical to the theme of this post, but I find it most effective not to mix messages. While we should practice grace AND truth. There are times and places for each alone. If the honey of your extended grace is usually followed by the more bitter medicine of truth, then your grace loses its impact.

I’m in Transition; How Do I Choose a New Path (What is Right, Part 5)

In part four of this What is Right series (here) I mapped out a five-step decision for thinking through big, and potentially life-altering, decisions. As I start this post I am reminded of a favorite quote, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” Since some may struggle a bit when attempting to apply principles to practical situations, I thought I’d provide an example of applying this decision process to a practical situation almost any reader of this blog will face one or more times during their professional career.

Scenario: I am a professional in transition and faced with crafting a strategy to search for income. How do I apply the What Is Right decision process to my search? I don’t pretend the suggestions below cover every situation, but they will help you get started.

1. Is there a reigning principle of natural law in play? How is my search target (the business I would start or join) aligned with natural laws? Said another way, does the product or service which is the outcome of my profession have redeeming social value? Does that product or service contribute to society’s overall health and/or wealth or at least not contribute to moral decay? Does my prospective employer or partner(s) have a reputation for honesty and fairness–are they worthy of my trust?

2. What prior commitment(s), if any, effect(s) my choice or a new job or career? Have I made commitments to my family which should limit or constrain my professional alternatives? Would the job involve relocation, hours and/or travel which would preclude my follow through on existing commitments? Have I made previous financial commitments that require a certain level of income to fulfill? Have I made previous commitments in the community that should impact my decision?

3. What career path or job opportunity most aligns with my life purpose and goals? Is continuing down this professional path consistent with my life purpose or calling? Do I feel a passion for this type of work? Is my search target appropriate for my current season of life? Would this path or opportunity help me advance to or achieve certain long-term goals?

4. What Relationships could impact or be impacted by my choice? Whom do I know that could assist me in landing a desired professional opportunity? What people in my network have walked this same path and could provide me wisdom from their experience. Who is affected by my choice? What are their related desires or concerns? What people might move into or out of my circle of influence if I change companies or communities? How and where might my circle of influence expand or contract based on the professional alternatives in front of me? Whom might I teach or from whom might I learn along different professional paths?

5. What is Reality? Do external threats encourage or compel me to make a professional change? Should I change companies, functions, levels, industries, communities or careers? What are the odds for a successful transition if I change three or more of those at once? Do I have a distinctive and compelling professional story that aligns with the opportunity I’m pursuing (because the question is often not can I do the job, but will somebody hire me to do the job)? Do I have the talents and experience necessary to succeed? Is my prospective industry or employer growing, stable or declining? Turnaround specialists jump into sinking or floundering businesses all the time, but they both know what they’re getting into and how to get out of it. I may want to accept a position of lesser responsibility and compensation as a way of getting in the door, but what are the realistic odds of getting to my target compensation level in a timely manner? If I’m starting a business, do I have the financial reserves to carry my family and the business until the latter starts generating sufficient cash flow.

I’d be interested in hearing from readers your reactions to this decision-making model or ideas for other approaches you’ve found successful.

Relationships & Reality Matter (What is Right, Part 4)

Writing has long been a mechanism for me to mentally, emotionally and spiritually process issues, which is one of the reasons I initially began blogging. However, one of the challenges about blogging a multi-part series is that my mind continues to learn from new perspectives that change previous posts. This post is a direct consequence of that process.

During the past few weeks I had the privilege of a conversation with Gary Smith, a friend and fellow member of a CEO peer advisory group in which I formerly participated. Smith shared some powerful insights that expanded and enriched the step-by-step decision process I originally articulated in part two of this What is Right? series (here).

As a quick recap of that earlier post, when faced with a decision for which the best course of action is initially uncertain or ambiguous step through the following questions in order:

1. Is there a reigning principle of natural law in play? These are decisions where there is a universally applicable (although often not universally accepted) right versus wrong.

2. What prior commitment(s), if any, effect(s) my choice? These might be commitments of belonging (i.e. open-ended commitments we have made to others) or commitments of action (i.e. commitments to specific behaviors and/or deliverables).

3. What choice most aligns with my life purpose and goals (for this season of life)? In a secular environment we might call this a mission statement. In a spiritual context this is often termed a calling.

After my conversation with Gary Smith, I’m inclined to add two steps:

4. What Relationships could impact or be impacted by my choice? As an engineer, great ideas grab my attention. However, life experience has taught me that absent relationships even the best ideas die quickly or go nowhere. Why? Great ideas involve a diversity of skills and a depth of complexity over which no single individual can hope to have mastery. Relationships help us foresee issues that would otherwise trip us up. Relationships expand our minds and hearts to possibilities we would otherwise ignore. Relationships solve problems that would otherwise stymie progress. Relationships tap into resources without which a great idea would otherwise starve. Relationships lend us courage without which we might otherwise succumb to fear and doubt. Relationships leverage the power of shared passion without which we would otherwise give up.

5. What is Reality? Before we forge ahead into any new endeavor we must frankly confront reality. Do the numbers and other assumptions make sense? Test the math. Does the desired objective rely upon outcomes aligned (or wholly at odds) with historical norms? Bottom line…We must count the cost.

In part five of this series, we will take this What is Right? process and apply it to a practical situation that is confronting or will eventually confront readers of this blog.

Binary Thinking. What is Right? (Part 3)

This is Part 3 in a series on “What is Right?” (How to decide when the choice isn’t obvious). Part 1 (here) identified seven filters (tools) that can help you choose right. Part 2 (here) outlined a simple three-step thought process for applying those tools. This post describes a subtle, but potentially dangerous trap into which we often inadvertently fall. I call it the “Binary Decision Trap.”

In short, the Binary Decision Trap frames questions around issues with only two possible answers – yes/no, start/stop, go/stay, etc. Without denying the presence in life of authoritative questions involving right and wrong, we too often allow binary thinking to constrain our alternatives and thereby eliminate a vast array of potential outcomes which might enrich our lives. I want to quickly explore three perspectives around binary thinking. Why do we submit to, or even prefer, binary thinking? The consequences of binary thinking? And, how to avoid binary thinking?

Why we fall into binary thinking?

It’s simple. Binary thinking enables us to address the increasing complexity of our world. We quickly narrow our thinking to one alternative and frame it as a go/no-go, good/bad, us/them choice.

It’s easy. Admittedly, some decisions are substantially less consequential and deserve an easy decision process. However, we must guard against lazy thinking that allows decisions of import to drift into binary thinking mode.

Competitive mindset. The competitive nature of American culture cultivates a mindset that frames the world in binary terms—winners and losers. We especially see this happening in the political arena where players from all political persuasions leverage and twist every action and statement for advantage—whether to lift its own party or tear down others. When our minds and emotions get bombarded daily with win/lose dialogue it seeps unaware into every aspect of our lives.

Scarcity mentality. People with a scarcity mentality automatically default to “either/or” thinking. Their fixed-pie worldview condenses every issue into haves and have-nots; givers and takers; and winners and losers.

Consequences of Binary Thinking

Law of Unintended Consequences. We get surprised. Striving for simplicity causes us to devalue or neglect context. We naively consider inconsequential and ignore whatever caused the current situation. We also fail to speculate about the impact our choice may have on the future.

Polarization occurs. Binary thinking divides us. Advocates for either side of a binary decision quickly fracture into separate camps and harden their positions. Rather than facing off against the issue advocates face off against each other.

Extremes get amplified. Oversimplification and polarization make it easy to believe that more is better (or worse).

Arguing replaces dialogue. Binary choices drive stakeholders to choose a side too early in the thought process. Once we’ve chosen a side, we feel compelled to defend that choice. The dialogue which naturally accompanies a spirit of open inquiry gets supplanted by the argumentation which flows from a mind closed to other alternatives.

Winning replaces learning. Binary thinking encourages a win-lose mentality. Our thought process narrows to alternately selling or defending our position. Our energy gets consumed in advocacy and leaves no mental capacity for learning.

Identity crises. In extreme cases, we even let our identity get allied with our choice. At that point, our ego enters the equation, and we lose perspective. Rather than a dispassionate search for the best solution, we engage our intellect and emotion in self-defense. As an aside, this reminds me of one of the best pieces of business advice I ever received; namely, “Never get so closely identified with your position (on an issue) that when it goes down, you go down with it.”

Avoiding Binary Thinking

What practical steps can we take to avoid binary thinking?

  1. First, and most importantly, actively seek the best alternative; frame the issue as “ What is the best/wise thing to do?” Consider a variety of alternatives and mentally condition yourself to avoid staking out a position too early when faced with an important decision.
  2. Take time to consider context. How did I/we get in this situation? How have my own choices influenced the present? How have external factors contributed to present circumstances? What is driving current behaviors—My own and others? What’s changing around me that could make the future different from the past?
  3. Consider consequences. Invest time in contemplating what-if scenarios. I will discuss in a future post the fourfold test I use.
  4. Consider all the stakeholders. Who is affected by this decision? Ideally seek their input and perspective, but at a minimum reflect on how the various alternatives will impact them.
  5. Actively seek different points of view. There is wisdom in many counselors. Look beyond the circle of stakeholders. Listen and learn from those who have walked the path before you. Seek input from subject matter experts. Sound out the wise people in your life.

A shout out to Eric Jackson whose May 2004 column in LocalTechWire.com introduced me to the concept of binary thinking.

What is Right? Thinking it Through. (Part 2)

Part 1 in this three-part series on “What is Right?” mapped out seven different decision filters we can use when confronted with a choice. Those filters serve as tools in our mental decision kit. However, like most tools they produce the most effective results when applied by a skilled craftsman within the framework of a process. For example, it does little good to smoothly sand and finish pieces of wood before cutting and shaping the individual pieces into their final forms and assembling those pieces into the final product.

What process might we apply to making choices? The following three critical questions help us apply the seven decision filters (authoritative, aligned, aimed, available, attentive, acceptable, and appropriate) in a logical manner. Disclaimer: I do not intend for the following process framework to fit all situations or all seasons. For the purpose of this post we will focus on choices that fit under the umbrella of “What is the right thing to do?”

1. Is there an authoritative principle of natural law in play?

Natural laws apply to all peoples in all situations for all time. These natural laws are written on our hearts, and our own conscience acts as a witness; either condemning or defending the alignment of our behavior with those natural laws. We can squelch or cultivate our conscience but natural laws stand inviolable. Consequently, everything starts here. On a related side note, the whole concept of civil disobedience collapses as vacuous nonsense unless certain authoritative principles trump all else.

2. What prior commitment(s), if any, affect(s) my choice?

Commitments of belonging …Groups of people who have voluntarily chosen to align for a common purpose; whether they be countries, companies, clubs or communities (beginning with marriages and expanding outward), often create written and unwritten policies to govern the behavior of group members. Those policies describe “what is right” for inclusion in the group. As such, when I choose to join any group I essentially commit to conform my behavior to that group’s policies. Recent accusations that Todd Gurley, running back for the University of Georgia, may have signed his name to certain memorabilia items in exchange for compensation provides a great example of the interplay between these first two steps in the decision framework. Some argue that the NCAA’s policy prohibiting a player from financially capitalizing on their own image while doing the same for itself is not right. I happen to believe this argument has some merit; nonetheless, by voluntarily joining an organization aligned with the NCAA, Gurley effectively placed himself under the authoritative policies governing behavior in that organization. Consequently, if the NCAA determines his behavior violated their policy, Gurley may get barred from future competition for some period of time. Without speculating as to Gurley’s culpability or possible motivation, his situation reinforces the point that even when our behavior aligns with natural law, we may still find ourselves subjected to social ridicule, adverse financial damage, or, in extreme cases, risk of physical harm.

Commitments of action … One of my early mentors, Luther Boggs, made a statement which has stuck with me for decades. “A commitment is not a commitment, unless you are prepared to personally sacrifice to keep it.” Our lives are more productive and less stressful when we act with integrity and keep our commitments.

3. What choice most aligns with my life purpose and goals?

Some might argue that this question should come second, but I contend it rightfully falls here. Choosing what is right does not allow us to abrogate prior commitments merely because we define a new goal. For example, a husband or wife should not walk out on their family to chase a new dream. As highlighted in a previous post (here), a personal mission statement is a powerful and useful tool. Absent the guiding presence of a personal mission statement, you cannot really answer this question. You will especially struggle to determine your availability and decide what invitations to decline. So, if have not yet created a personal mission statement or captured written goals for major roles and responsibilities in your life, I encourage you to do so.

Once past those three decision gates we are beyond principles and priorities and into the arena of preference where demanding our own way is likely just selfishness and deference should typically hold sway. Into this space apply the decision filters of attentiveness to the needs of others, responding to the appropriateness of the situation and choosing to behave in a manner acceptable to the sensitivity of others.

Part three in this What is Right? series will discuss the Binary Decision Trap.

What is Right? How Do I Decide?

What is right? We face repeated opportunities (and sometimes requirements) during the course of each day to choose among multiple courses of action (including doing nothing). How do we decide? Absent compelling (internal) or constraining (external) forces human beings will default to choices that serve our own needs and desires. We will default to what is easiest or makes us comfortable. We will naturally decide and act to achieve our own goals or make ourselves look good. How do we overcome those inherent tendencies? What mental filters should guide our choices?

Here are seven factors which can help us decide and act more rightly more often:

Authoritative. In some situations there is a right and a wrong. Our society’s increasing focus on individual rights casts a relativistic pall, which marginalizes or even mocks this notion. Nonetheless, I contend that there are certain universal truths that apply regardless of time, place or circumstances. For example, abusing a less powerful person is never right.

Attentive (to the needs of others). Our judgment on what is right may change when we consider the needs of others involved. Right choices for a couple’s weekend activities change when they add a baby to their family.

Acceptable (to the sensibilities of others). Sometimes we choose to act in a certain ways purely out of respect for others. We may adapt our dress, actions or speech to comport with the acceptable social norms of certain situations or of other cultures.

Appropriate (for the situation). Circumstances often influence the right course of action. Certain behaviors suitable at a football game are improper during a church service. Similarly, decision-making methods appropriate in a stable business environment may not work right for a business in crisis.

Aligned (with core principles or natural laws). The right position or posture often requires that we balance competing forces at play. When we fall down physically, a relationship or business fails, or we struggle emotionally, we are most often out of alignment with certain core principles or natural laws. This principle led to the phrase, “right the ship.”

Available. At times rightness is a merely a matter of availability. If we cram events one after another into our daily lives, we have no margin of availability to respond to the inevitable opportunities or crises which intersect our lives unplanned. Creating such margin involves purposeful choices. In support of this principle we also make ourselves available without reservation or restraint to those closest to us. We will cancel other plans politely and firmly yet without hesitation or regret when those people need us.

Aimed. Pursuing the right course requires that we determine first the proper destination or focus of our attention and energy and, secondly, the most effective and efficient path or process to reach that goal. Stephen Covey called this “Beginning with the End in Mind.” Absent an aim our choices can lead to wasteful wandering.

Interestingly, two themes undergird this entire list of factors which influence what is right — Respect for Truth and Respect for Others. Said another way, identifying what is right rarely starts with us. A purposeful pursuit of right behavior involves looking outside of ourselves; not focusing on what makes us most comfortable, satisfied or happy. That’s not to imply that our ease, satisfaction or happiness is of no import. Rather, I believe it means that we find these elements of personal fulfillment through exercising a servant’s heart.

The next time you face a decision and want to choose rightly, consider applying the filter of these seven elements.

PROPS…The speaker at a recent Kettering Executive Network event, Andrew Dietz, discussed the importance of relationships in growing revenue and applied the principles from his book “The Opening Playbook: A Professional’s Guide to Building Relationships that Grow Revenue” to people in professional transition. When we’re selling a product/service or even ourselves, Dietz urged concentrating more on opening than closing. An effective opener, Dietz argued creates more opportunities to win. The keys to great opening involve the right connections, conversations and context. Dietz discussed each of those three keys, but that little question, “What is Right?” got me thinking and led to this post.