Turning up the heat
March 14, 2021
This is the Too Many Trees newsletter, where I share what I’ve been writing and reading in the realm of leadership and personal development. My coaching practice is centered around the idea that we are more effective in moving towards our goals when we become more conscious and intentional in focusing our time and attention, and learn how our unconscious patterns are holding us back. If you know somebody that could benefit from my perspective, please forward this to them or let them know they can set up a free intro chat with me.
I was talking to a friend this week about a concept from Adaptive Leadership around turning up the heat to get people to change (this Harvard Business Review article is an introduction to Adaptive Leadership if interested). Under normal circumstances, there’s no incentive for people to change the way they approach their work or their life; one of my coaches once said that people only change under the influence of inspiration or desperation. So if a leader wants their team to change, they might need to make things more desperate and urgent for the team.
But you also can’t turn the heat too high, or people start to panic. They might just quit entirely, or start fighting uncontrollably. As Heifetz and Linsky, the Adaptive Leadership authors, put it, leaders have to “keep the heat high enough to motivate people but low enough to prevent a disastrous explosion—what we call a “productive range of distress.”
I really like this idea of a “productive range of distress”, and view it as a way of pushing a team into a form of deliberate practice, where they are systematically practicing just beyond their skill level. If it is too easy for them, it would be boring and business as usual, and if it is too hard, they will just give up. A good leader will push the team just beyond their comfort zone, and keep them there so that they accelerate their growth.
One other interesting idea that came out of the conversation with my friend is how people can take different roles in managing the heat. We were talking about race relations in the US, and they observed the different approaches taken by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. I posited that Malcolm X turned up the heat on America, which gave more impetus for change, and helped to enable part of King’s success as the one offering a lower heat option. We each have a role to play in driving change, whether we are the firebrand turning up the heat, or the conciliator lowering the heat and finding a path forward.
So what is the role you will play in driving a change that is meaningful to you - inspiration or desperation? How can you push your community to that “productive range of distress” so that they are willing to try new methods and ways of being?
And now for the normal personal development content:
Blog: I wrote the next post in my alignment series about alignment to reality. In Steve March’s coaching class, he offers the question: Are you able to be with this exactly the way it is with no agenda to change it? I find this question to be powerful in helping me notice when I am getting caught in an attachment to how I think things "should" be instead of accepting how they actually are. It helps me to discover reality by illuminating the interpretations and distortions my ego is using to filter events to protect my own sense of value.
LinkedIn: These are ideas or questions that help my clients (or myself), and that I share via LinkedIn to help a wider audience.
What is your intention for today? In my current class with Steve March, he recommends a daily practice of taking a minute each morning to set a conscious intention for the day, and a minute each evening to review and reflect on how you were able to carry out the intention that day, and I have been appreciating it.
What does “No” mean to you? I've come to appreciate "No" as a gift, as it gives the asker the ability to respond and have agency over what to do next. Saying “Yes” when I am not ready and able to deliver 100% on a commitment takes away that agency, and serves to make other people dependent on me.
What is the real commitment? Before saying “Yes” to a commitment, ask the asker what they really need, and by when, so that you can clarify what is needed, and ensure you have the resources necessary to make that commitment.
The effort isn’t the point. Working harder is an advantage, but working hard, by itself, doesn’t translate into impact. Exploring ways to multiply our effort through partnerships or doing something different can add more value than just putting our head down and working harder.
Articles and resources I’ve liked recently:
Complicating the Narratives, by Amanda Ripley: “The lesson for journalists (or anyone) working amidst intractable conflict: complicate the narrative. … When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen, in other words.”
The future of the middle class depends on student loan forgiveness - this is a wonderful example of the prior point of complicating the narrative. Anne Helen Petersen does a deep dive into the cultural biases encoded in the student loan debate, and the complex interactions between race, unrestrained capitalism in private college education, and the movement to have government do less only after white people had benefited from government programs and before those programs were extended to people of color: “When you insist on not seeing the student loan system in its current iteration as a driver of race-based economic inequality, you are perpetuating it.”
How to Write a Gratitude Letter - I love this idea of writing physical letters to a few people who have made a difference for you, even though I haven’t done this yet. It may seem awkward, but “A gratitude letter need not encapsulate your entire relationship, or cover everything this person means to you. You can say thanks for just one thing.”
Thanks for reading. See you in a couple weeks.