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What is effectiveness?


by Craig Stanton



Effectiveness in every domain of our lives, including at work, comes from awareness and choice. 


Maintaining awareness and choice in the face of the many stresses that life and work present is significantly more challenging than we realize or may be comfortable admitting.  


We spend our time on “auto pilot” much more than we recognize.  Many of us spend our days caught in patterns of reactivity to the various stimuli that come at us from all directions, in the form of everything from Smartphones and double-booked meeting schedules at work, to the expectations, judgments and demands that we place on ourselves.  These stressors have a way of shifting us from a responsive and open approach to the world into a more reactive, closed, and edgy stance.  Often this happens without us even realizing it.


This shift - which is literally a measurable physiological and hormonal change in blood flow and activity from the thinking part of our brains to that part designed to protect us from threats - triggers a profound and lasting difference in how we feel, how effective and authentic we are, and how skillfully we respond to challenges. 


Maintaining responsive awareness directly influences every aspect of how we show up in business and in life.  Little things add up.  Individual decisions compound over time and become trends.  This is true at the both the individual and the group levels


How Do We Cultivate Effectiveness?


Brain science over the last 15 years has demonstrated that, for all of us, a significant percentage of thoughts, feelings, and actions occur automatically. That is, below the level of conscious awareness habits.  


The same science also demonstrates that habits, in turn, are triggered by feelings and preconditioned thought patterns much more than they are driven by intentional choices.  What does this finding mean about our ability to maintain consistently high-levels of effectiveness, or our ability to be at the “top of our game?” 


There is a narrow window through which awareness and intentional choice can shift habits and reactive patterns to responsive patterns – at both the individual and the group levels.  This window can be hard to identify, but through personal observation and practice we can learn to feel it and choose to use it.


So, where do we start?


Our core personal habits, our ways of reacting to people and situations, serve as a frame of reference that drives nearly all of our thoughts, feelings, and actions in response to internal and external stimuli.  Seeing and understanding our reactive patterns and their consequences for our performance, then replacing them through a process of identifying and practicing healthy, responsive behaviors is the most powerful way to achieve lasting and stable personal effectiveness.


What Role Do Leaders Play In Cultivating Effectiveness?


As organizational leaders, part of our role is to provide the framework within which work gets accomplished.  Organizational culture and effectiveness are in some sense by-products of the collective habits of every member of the team, and the role of the leader involves shifting those habits to ensure that they stay healthy and yield desired outcomes.  But it is difficult to shift individual habits and group-level system-dynamics in ways that are helpful if we don’t first see them clearly.


It takes what Daniel Goleman calls "panoramic attention" to identify what is happening at the system-level.  It is challenging for participants or members, including leaders, in any system to identify what is happening at the system-level.  All too often the individuals within the system itself lack the attentional focus needed to identify both the big and small patterns without getting reactive, judgmental, or caught up in the next tactical challenge that needs to be addressed.   This is one of many areas where the coaching dialog can be incredibly powerful – since the coach is generally not a member of the system.


What Role Do Feelings Play in Effectiveness?


As much talk as there has been in recent years about the role of emotional intelligence in leadership effectiveness, our experience in work environments suggests that most leaders still don’t understand the role of emotions in effectiveness.  Most of us have not yet learned to use feelings as part of our leadership (as opposed to being used by our feelings), and we don’t really understand them. 


Feelings arise in us quickly with great complexity, especially when you consider that the embodied brain takes in 11,000,000 bits of information per second and the most liberal interpretation of conscious processing can account for 50.  All feelings come from internal and external stimuli, and travel at incredibly high speed.  It is like we have all this information (10,999,950 bits per second), but we don’t know what it means and we don’t take time to decode it.  


Feeling states and emotions spread through groups far quicker and more efficiently than thoughts.  As thoughts filter through groups they often trigger resistance in the form of counter-thoughts or alternative thoughts – whereas emotions usually spread without us evening realizing it.  Some scientists refer to this phenomenon as “viral spread.”  Emotions precede thoughts and drive habits, and effective leaders learn how to use awareness of such feeling states to guide and support desired behaviors within themselves and others more skillfully.


The practice of being in touch with shifts in feeling states is foundational to effective leadership.  Detecting and decoding shifts in feeling states in oneself and others is essential to responsiveness (vs. reactivity).  Attuned leaders engage in inquiry to promote discovery of what is happening in the self and the other.  Depending on the level of relatedness the attuned leader has with other(s), she can anticipate reactions and stimulate responses almost at will.  Trusting their feelings allows attuned leaders to respond while others are still processing.


Individuals who suppress their feelings, think feelings are unimportant, believe feelings don’t belong in the workplace, and don’t notice the shifts in feeling states within themselves and others are at serious disadvantage.


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