What Are You Thinking?

I have spent 25 years coaching leaders in the workplace, and during this time, one thing has become increasingly clear to me: Our thoughts create our experience.

This concept is most easily understood in terms of the self-fulfilling prophecy: we tend to get what we expect. This is why the most effective coaching incorporates two levels:

  • Developing skills and new behaviors required for successful performance
  • Observing and fine tuning thoughts to create desired experiences and outcomes

For example, I recently coached an executive—let’s call him Bill—who was co-leading a major initiative with a peer—let’s call her Virginia. Although they had similar work experience, Bill was concerned that Virginia’s “ambitious nature” would lead to a power differential in their partnership. As the project unfolded, Bill attempted to hold his own, but Virginia gradually became the dominant player, leading most team meetings and fostering stronger relationships with key stakeholders. While many issues hindered Bill’s success, his own negative thoughts were the determining factor.

Bill couldn’t perceive himself as someone able to maintain equal footing with “a force” like Virginia. The situation required him to bring more to the table than he believed was possible, creating fertile ground for self-critical thoughts. As a coach, I know that everyone faces challenges like this, and that when left to its own devices, the mind tends toward the negative.

Bill’s dilemma was a call for growth, a perspective that could help shift his attention away from painful negative thoughts. Once Bill made this shift, he was able to view Virginia as his partner in growth, and began to focus on strengths he needed to develop, such as assertiveness, rather than the frustration he felt about his situation. Adopting a development-oriented approach provided a solid foundation for Bill to practice new behaviors and uplifted his spirits in the process.

A key factor in how our thoughts create involves where we place our focus. What we focus on tends to strengthen or grow. Bill focused a great deal on Virginia’s increasing power and challenging behavior, which was counterproductive, because focusing on these issues only ensured and intensified their presence and effect on him. But this principle has much broader implications. What do we tend to focus on in the workplace? Our challenges! This is beneficial when we’re feeling positive about our ability to resolve issues. But, when we focus on the negative aspects of problems—what’s not going well, what we don’t want to happen, what we can’t necessarily change or control—we’re actually strengthening their hold.

I recently coached a leader—I’ll call her Ann—who was relatively new to her firm. She noticed that when she shared ideas at senior team meetings, they often were ignored, but one of her peers would state the same idea later in the meeting and be acknowledged for his or her contribution. The more Ann focused on this frustrating experience, the more it seemed to occur, and she began to feel invisible. Ann entered coaching to develop new behaviors that would ensure her voice was heard. But, even the most powerful communication techniques won’t breed success when you perceive yourself as invisible. Ann’s breakthrough came from the practice of visioning exercises. Once she envisioned herself as a valued contributor, she was able to leverage communication techniques that made this a reality.

Leaders today have packed schedules that leave little time for reflection. But, when you consider how our thoughts create, awareness of them becomes a top priority. I encourage you to observe your thoughts and to maintain focus on what you want to create, on the positive. One hint: you’ll know if you’re on track, based on how you feel—you’ll feel good when you’re thinking positive!

Copyright Jill Kanter, 2015