Book summary: What got you here won’t get you there by Marshall Goldsmith
The book presents Goldsmith’s experience on what causes the most talented, ambitious, and successful professional to hit a career roadblock. Almost all the professionals which Goldsmith worked with had interpersonal issues of one form of the other which either didn’t matter in the early phases of their career or the professionals were so talented that they progressed despite those issues.
Put a comma in the wrong place and the whole sentence is screwed up.
Why we resist change
Successful individuals resist change, they believe in their skills and talent, they are confident and optimistic about themselves, they underestimate the role luck plays in their success. They have delusional beliefs about themselves, which ironically are empowering as well. That’s the kind of people you want to surround themselves with. But the downside is that their optimism can lead to overcommitment. Sometimes, they fail to realize that they succeeded despite behavioral flows and not because of them. They carry a superstitious belief that their behavioral flaws made them succeed. Higher they are up in the career; more problems are behavioral since no one reaches the top without being strong in their technical skills.
As you advance in the career, behavioral changes are the only significant changes you can make.
How successful people respond when asked to change
- They (the others) are confused
- Denial: Maybe they are not confused but their criticism does not apply to (a successful individual like ) me
- Attack: Maybe they are right but why is a smart guy like me listening to a loser like you
People will do something – including changing their own behavior – only if it can be demonstrated that doing so is in their best self-interest as defined by their own values.
The usual motives behind self-interest are money, power, status, and popularity. And these are the hot buttons to press to make them change. Ones people realize their mistakes, they usually overestimate their weakness, just like their strengths. That discourages fixing the behavior when the fix is really a small fix.
The bad habits
The underlying thesis of all interpersonal flaws
All interpersonal flaws have two themes – information and emotion. Information related flaws are of two types, sharing when it is not required (eg. adding too much value) and sharing too little leading to information withholding. Emotion-related flaws are of two types, sharing when it is not appropriate (or vice-versa), and conveying too much (or too little).
Knowing when to stop
Avoiding a mistake or stopping a wrong thing is as important doing the right ones but rarely do that get a notice. Gerald Levin as a chairman of Time Warner, turned it around, only to destroy it by merging it with AOL in 2000. It turned out to be the worse merger in history. Of course, no one would hear about CEOs who avoided the dot-com mania.
Fix: Have a to-stop list, a list of things which you would stop or won’t do.
Avoid being negative
Not all behavior is positive or negative. To be nicer, just stop being a jerk is sufficient.
Fix: Rather than struggling for a positive response, just don’t give a negative one.
Adding too much value
Successful people try to add their two cents to everything. The problem here is that, even if they add say, 5% value to an idea, the overall commitment of the person goes down by a much larger amount, say 50%, since they have lost the ownership of the idea.
Fix: Don’t try to add value unless you are certain that it’s substantial enough. More so, higher up you are in the organization.
Passing (unnecessary) judgment
While making judgments is essential, in many cases, passing unnecessary judgments is dangerous. When you judge others, they might decide not to help again or give a half-hearted effort (it will be judged anyway?). Something as naive as a boss saying “great idea” to one presenter and “good idea” to another can be misinterpreted as a ranking. The other problem which judgment brings is an argument. When you don’t judge an idea, no one can argue with you.
Fix: When someone expresses an idea, just say “Thank you. I hadn’t considered that “, don’t pass any judgment.
Starting with No, but, or however
When a sentence starts with no, but, or however, you might be making a great remark but the only thing the other person hears is that they are wrong. Nothing productive happens after that.
Fix: Start self-monitoring of how often you say these words. Try to replace them with “Thank you”.
Displaying how smart we are
Being smart turns people on. Telling them “how smart you are”, turns them off.
Fix: When a friend comes to you with something you already know, don’t tell them you knew that (are they suppose to second-guess before sharing something which they found to be useful with you?). Just say “Thank you”.
Information withholding flaws
Not sharing information breeds mistrust and suspicion. As soon as the other person learns about it, they wonder what else might be hiding. Many a time, the underlying cause of keeping others in the dark could be that you are too busy. The intentions aren’t bad, but the outcome still is.
Fix: Share information as much as possible. It is better to err on the side of oversharing than to be seen as withholding information.
Failing to give recognition
Successful people become great leaders when they learn to shift the focus from themselves to others.
Fix: Recognize people for what value they add to your life, even if it’s their job.
Claiming undue credit
Claiming credit for what you haven’t done is theft. It creates bitterness which won’t be forgotten.
Fix Every time you feel you did it, dig further, check if it was really you or someone else, this will expose the bias of crediting yourself too much.
Failing to express gratitude
When someone shares something or says a compliment, thank them. It is obvious but a lot of time people make the mistake of either judging the compliment (“Thanks for this effort? this wasn’t even my shot”) or express negativity or add too much value (see previous bad habits).
Fix: When someone helps you, compliments you, or suggests you an idea, say thank you, most of the time anything more than that does more harm than good.
Refusing to express regret
The thought of apology brings in feelings of loss, humiliation, and cession of power and control. All things which successful people hate. But refusing to apologize not only cause ill will at the workplace but other interpersonal flaws.
Fix: The bitterness against you for not apologizing lasts for long. If you made a mistake, apologize for it, you can’t fix it but you can prevent others from being bitter against you.
Making destructive comments
Destructive comments or jabs are forgotten quickly by the commenter but the target remembers them. And they remember that as your personality trait and avoid you.
Fix: Before making a comment, wonder how would it help relationship/employees/customers. If it won’t, just don’t make it.
Winning too much
Successful people argue more to prove their point. They withhold information to get an edge. They ignore others or put them down to prove their dominance. The end goal again is winning for the sake of it even if there is no reward.
Example: Most people would criticize a restaurant for a bad dinner despite the visit being decided by their spouse even though the relationship is more important than the food.
Fix: Stop trying to make everything a game to be won. Don’t just think of the pleasure of prevailing over the other but the relationship lost in the process.
Speaking when angry
Anger has value as a management tool against sleepy employees. But used too often and you get branded as a person with a temper. And that’s the persona which clouds all other positive traits of yours.
Fix: Keep your anger to yourself. If you keep your mouth shut, no one will ever know how you feel. Most often the cause is in you than in the other person.
If you have a habit of responding with “let me explain why it won’t work”, then you are just telling the others not to come back to you again. It is equivalent of a “Do Not Enter” sign outside your office.
Fix: Start monitoring your statements when someone offers a helpful suggestion. Think again, before responding with a negative remark, it might just be an attempt at conveying how smart you are.
Some people make blunt excuses (“I missed the lunch since it was marked for the wrong date”) while some make more subtle ones (like stereotyping themselves as an impatient person). Neither work.
Fix: Don’t make blunt excuses just accept your mistake and fix it. Rather than making subtle excuses ask yourself why can’t you fix it. Most likely you can, you just never questioned it.
Clinging to the past
Clinging to successes, failures, achievements, and mistakes of the past is a bad idea. Don’t use the past as an excuse towards your future. Even if people understand why your past trained you to behave in a certain way, they simply won’t accept you for continuing the same way.
Fix: Stop blaming others for your past. Accept whatever happened has happened and move on.
People love their dogs more than their spouses and kids. The dog’s liking, as opposed to its importance, for its owner clearly plays a role in terms of deciding who gets more love. The weird thing about playing favorites is that we see it all the time, we see it in others (and others see it in us) but we cannot see it in ourselves.
Fix: Think about what the person’s importance is to you (or the company) and then decide whether you like them more than that, if yes, you are playing favorites.
When you fail to pay attention when someone else is speaking you are effectively saying that you don’t care about them or what they say; they are wrong, stupid, and are wasting your time. People might tolerate many other forms of rudeness but not this one.
Fix: Become a better listener.
Punishing the messenger
Punishing a well-intentioned messenger, even when in your opinion the value they are adding is worthless, is dangerous. It tells others not to share anything useful with you since they never know how to respond.
Fix: Never punish someone from bringing a piece of bad news or warning you of a potential pitfall. Thank them for the same instead.
Blame everyone except oneself
No one is infallible and a desire to make oneself leads to passing the buck. Passing the buck is the flip side of claiming the credit you don’t deserve. Saddling someone with your failure is dangerous. You might think no one sees it but everyone around you notices it.
Fix: Never blame others for your mistakes.
An excessive need to be me
Some successful people suffer from an excessive desire to think about themselves. They think people want to talk to them or they have to project themselves as the sole owner of a project. This desire leads them to act in a very self-centric fashion.
Fix: Give the excessive desire to be self-centric. Remember it’s not about you but what others think of you.
Being obsessed with a goal is great but failing in the larger mission while being obsessed with a goal is not. It is equivalent of heading in the right direction but reaching the wrong town.
Fix: While being focused, don’t forget the larger picture. Attaining goals is good but not at the expense of annoying people around you, violating laws, or engaging in any other short term tactics which would lead to a failure in the long run.
How we can change for the better
1. Get the feedback
Get hold of your colleagues and ask them to help you improve, now you both are responsible for the same struggle. And when they give you feedback, thank them, don’t express your opinion (or you will never get another feedback).
There are four types of knowledge about us
- Public – known to us, known to others
- Private – known to us, unknown to others
- Blind spots – unknown to us, known to others
- Unknowable – Unknown to us, unknown to others
The real goal of the feedback is to find your blind spots.
It is easier to see our problems in others then to see it in ourselves.
- The indirect feedback – Make a list of people’s casual remarks about you and try to see the meaning behind them. You will find they are giving cues to your personality flaws.
- In a meeting, ignore the sound and see people’s body movements as you speak.
- Try sentence completion.
- Listen to your self-aggrandizing remarks – the things you boast as your strengths might be your biggest weaknesses
- Observe your behavior at home – People don’t behave differently at home than they do at the office. The same personality flaws persist.
“I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better in the future.”. Don’t explain it. Don’t qualify it. Just stop there.
It’s a lot harder to change people’s perception of your behavior than actually to change your behavior. It takes time and persuasion before they change their perception. Therefore, you have to actively tell them that you are trying to change for the better.
Most of our success in learning from others comes from how well we listen to them. Listen with respect (no secondary activity). Think twice before you speak while listening to others, is it worth it (even if it’s correct), is it adding sufficient value, or are you trying to show you already know that. The more you subsume your desire to shine in other person’s eyes, the more you end up doing that. The near-great are careful about listening most of the times. The great are careful listeners all the time.
5. Expressing gratitude
Learn to thank others when they, in their perception, share something valuable with you. It does not matter whether you knew it or not. It does not matter whether you find it to be useful or not.
6. Following up
There is a huge gap between understanding and doing something. Not everyone responds to your messages the way you intend them to. Follow-up ensures that people do what you want them to do. People don’t get better without follow-ups. Becoming a better leader is a process and not an event.
Feedback asks about what you did. Feed-forward asks about what you can do to improve in the future. Rather than asking people just about your mistakes, ask them how you can correct them and try to act on that advice. A side benefit is that, since they gave this advice, they will be focused on helping you improve as well.
The rules for changing
- Behavioral changes cannot cure non-behavioral problems – Sometimes, people think problems are behavioral while the real issue might be something else. If a CFO does not know how to spin the media during bad times, then behavioral changes cannot solve that.
- Pick the right things to change – There is a difference between miswanting and mischoosing. We want to be seen as a better person in some particular dimension of our choice. However, we cannot choose the path to success. The wrong path will lead to failure. The only right approach is to act on the issues which the people around us suggest.
- Don’t delude yourself about what you really must change – Sometimes, we think that the problem is somewhere else. Eg. your colleagues think you are bad at communicating but the underlying reason is that my health is in a bad shape. These links usually are superfluous. What you really have to fix is communication with colleagues.
- Don’t hide from the truth you need to hear – Sometimes, we avoid negative feedback since we don’t want to face it. We want to believe that it does not exist when it does. Facing the truth is better than living in denial.
- The desire for ideal behavior – There is no ideal behavior. Everyone has some flaws. The desire to fix them is great. But an unhealthy desire to be perfect is bad.
- Measure it – If you measure it, you can improve.
- Monetize the result (as a way to measure)
- The best time to change is now – Don’t live in a dream that you will start the process of improving some day. Start it now.
2 Replies to “Book summary: What got you here won’t get you there by Marshall Goldsmith”
Excellently summarised, I have re-read the book! Thanks!