“How can I get the cynics on my team to be more positive?”
“How can I find more time to manage my growing business?”
“How can I get my very junior staff to understand important developments on a project so they make the right choices going forward?”
What do these three questions have in common? The problem was unwittingly caused by the leader through an unconscious choice I’ve dubbed “style bleed.” Style bleed happens when you let a style that works well in one setting to bleed over into other settings, where it contributes to the very problems you want to solve. The challenge with style bleed is seeing when it’s happening.
In the case of the leader whose team was filled with cynics, the style came from years of working with regulatory agencies for pharmaceuticals. For two decades she had anticipated and responded to their demands as the drugs slogged along through the regulatory process.
With regulatory agencies – to say the least – there’s not a whole lot of dialogue, debate, or negotiation. It’s not as if she could say, “Well, if we provide this document in the exact style you want, we’ll expect you to give a little on this other document.” After two decades, she had become a master at anticipating, thoroughly preparing, and responding to non-negotiable demands.
Guess what happened when she interacted with her direct reports? Sure enough, the style that made her so successful with agencies flopped in a setting in which her job was to develop a team. Her interactions with them involved no dialogue, no debate, and no negotiation, though to her it felt like they did. Her team had checked out in terms of making their own decisions, and even in terms of checking their own work, because her instructions weren’t clear, but she would always fix whatever didn’t meet the expectation she hadn’t clearly articulated.
It took a lot of effort on her part, but as she began to consciously choose a different style for internal interactions than she used in external interactions, the team began to open up, and performance began to improve.
In the case of the manager seeking more time to grow his business, the style bleed came not from work, but from a longtime passion. A gifted pianist, he had practiced daily and performed often for the past eighteen years – which was twelve years longer than he had been in the workforce! Musicians practice untold hours before performing, and sometimes perform a piece only once, after hundreds of hours of working on it. The idea that you must practice, hone, and perfect your work before putting it out there greatly influenced his style at work.
Once we uncovered this style bleed, he began to assess each task, large or small, by whether or not it was truly similar to a high-stakes performance, and to target a more realistic personal standard for tasks that were less high-stakes and simply needed to be dispatched quickly and efficiently. This saved him hours in each week, which he could apply to the most important demands of his growing business.
In the case of the junior staff members who never seemed to understand important developments on a project, the projects were massive lawsuits and the leaders were two legendary trial attorneys who led the teams through complex, multi-year cases. The style bleed in this case was easy to spot – with great enthusiasm and remarkable intellectual power, they would quickly and unconsciously turn an announcement about a case development into a debate between them, each turning to the staff to make his point, as if they were the jury.
It was certainly exciting compared to a more typical staff meeting, but their very inexperienced staff members couldn’t follow it. They needed simple and straightforward explanations, not stunning displays of debate worthy of Perry Mason. However, in the presence of these two powerful and imposing men, nobody was going to speak up to say, “I don’t understand. Can you explain it in very simple terms?”
Once we discussed this style bleed, they were able to resist the temptation to turn meetings into trials when sharing basic and important information, and other attorneys and managers were able to jump in from time to time with explanations for the staff.
Do you see how easy it was for you to spot the style bleed in each of these leaders? Do you see how difficult it is to spot it in yourself?
Are you having trouble achieving a goal? Is style bleed one of the reasons? Here’s how to find out, and what to do about it:
Ask yourself where your standards and assumptions about your behavior came from. Go way back – these assumptions can be shaped in childhood, and it’s not always as deep as family trauma. In the case of the musician, his assumptions were shaped by the demands of the performing arts, which influenced him from the age of twelve, and which were a very positive aspect of his childhood.
Ask yourself if that’s really, truly the standard for the task at hand, or the best assumptions to make in this particular context. A different context often calls for a different style.
Ask your coach, boss or colleagues (or all of them) for perspectives on the appropriateness and effectiveness of your style. Often we don’t see style bleed ourselves because it’s hard to see unconscious assumptions and standards. It’s dark in the unconscious, and another person can often help out with a flashlight.
Try something different! Several years of a tight job market made a lot of people habitually gun-shy about personal risk at work. However, if style bleed is contributing to your frustrations or concerns, the only way to address it is to try a different style.
What are your thoughts about style bleed? Let me know in the comments!