Invisible Barriers: Getting to the Root of the Problem

Chapter 2

In this chapter:

Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness

How often have you seen people back down when it’s time for them to initiate a difficult conversation, publicly declare their commitment to act, or implement a strategy or business idea? Think of the person who turns down a job offer that is everything he said he wanted. Or the person who didn’t even apply when the opportunity she’s talked about for years finally came up. I’m sure you’ve seen it. People will walk away from an opportunity that holds great importance to them to fulfill an obligation to someone else.

Have you ever worked toward a goal only to delay or avert on the cusp of completion? Maybe you were waiting for a special moment, but when it arrived you backed down or “changed your mind.” In my line of work, I see this reaction often. It’s a natural aversion to risk.

What causes us to choke just as the universe opens up to us? It’s easy to judge someone else’s blown opportunity, but it’s tough to take responsibility for our own.

When I began my business, I wanted to know what causes people, including me, to choke. On the flip side, I wanted to know how successful entrepreneurs anticipate and overcome challenges that stop others in their tracks. What common practices do they share? I began to examine patterns of success and failure in a new light.

A single choice can be a critical turning point in the development of a leader’s mindset and the future being created. How we respond to one moment of choice can either ignite growth in the business or predict its early demise.

We think corporate decision-making is rational and objective. That’s why we focus on the tangible aspects, like operational workflows, physical assets, and money. But science has confirmed that judgement is predominantly subjective and emotional. Most thoughts that influence our decision-making are subconscious, occurring without our awareness. They are intangible.

I call these intangible factors Invisible Barriers.

A chain reaction takes place in the brain, at lightning speed, when you see an opportunity. Two kinds of tension are activated subconsciously: creative tension and emotional tension. Creative tension comes from not knowing the best way to realize the opportunity. Your brain notices the gap between Point A, where you are now, and Point B, where you want to be. Your mind jumps in to fill the uncertainty with concerns originating from fear, self-doubt, and insecurity. That’s emotional tension.

Creative and emotional tension, and the resistance they generate, are natural human responses to risk and uncertainty. They build up over time, like carbon in an engine, eventually stalling forward progress.

So many of us tolerate an unfulfilling career, or put up with things not working as intended in our businesses, because we’ve never been taught what it takes to bridge the gap between our current reality and our ideal future. We fail to recognize how creative and emotional tension, our own and our employees’, are impacting the tangible and operational aspects of our business. The Possibility Process is a proven structure to bridge the gap between our current reality and ideal future, in a positive, controlled, and productive manner.

You have immense power to turn your life or your business around. If you feel you have limited options or control over what’s happening in your life or your business, understand it’s not true. Emotional and subjective barriers are standing between you and your ideal future—as they are for everyone.

Read that last sentence again, so it sinks in.

Part I is about clarity. We need a vision of what’s possible. We need to understand where we might suffer from business blindness. And we must, mission critical, become aware of what’s really hindering our progress.

Ego is the front we show the world to protect ourselves; power is how we manage ourselves internally. I invite you to drop your armour and humbly explore the source of your power: self-awareness. A practical understanding of human behaviour will save you lots of headaches and
disappointment in the long run.

Your current reality is the result of a lifetime of lived experiences. Your actions to this point, particularly the way you respond to real and perceived threats, have been driven by your conditioning, often based on fear and scarcity thinking.

Don’t start the change process by fiddling with the tangible elements of business, such as money, product sales, marketing strategies, policies, and physical assets. That’s like tinkering with the Space Shuttle before it’s anywhere near the launch pad. Get the launch site ready first.

Like the support structure and platform in this image, you are the support structure of your business. Turn your focus inward to discover what you are (or are not) doing to produce the results you’re getting.

Breakdown comes before breakthrough. When a seed grows, the outer shell must crack and fall away. It’s an unavoidable part of the process of growth and transformation.

Know Your Patterns

Our lives improve only when we take chances— and the first and most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves

Let me ask you—do you talk to yourself? Maybe not out loud, but inside your own head?

We all have a narrative that plays in our mind. It’s a fundamental part of how the brain works. Mastering your interactions with the voice inside your head is your ticket to freedom, the key to generating possibility and abundance in every aspect of your life and business.

You have a constitutional right to freedom of expression. Nobody on Earth can shut down your self-expression faster or more permanently than the little voice in your head. Nobody.

I wrote in Countdown to Liftoff that business is a vehicle to fulfill on what matters to you. If so, the voice in your head is the backseat driver. When it warns of perceived harm, your physical reaction is medically measurable. In other words, although you may think of your backseat driver as an abstract concept, the physiological reaction that occurs in your body is real.

For this reason, we sometimes give too much credence to our backseat driver, which inevitably steers us off course. When we sedate our passenger, we put ourselves to sleep, too. When we let it run wild, guns a-blazing, we’re liable to shoot ourselves in the foot. There’s a better way.

There is value in getting to know your backseat driver. By recognizing your patterned responses to challenges and opportunities—your mindset—you can raise your tolerance for emotional tension.

In my experience, the top challenge facing business owners, both successful and struggling, is knowing where to draw the line in business relationships. Market competitiveness, time constraints, and financial risk increase stress levels. Creative and emotional tensions rise as we struggle to manage the conflicting demands of being compassionate while also meeting business needs.

As teams strive to figure out the best actions to take to reach a goal, the owner is continually confronted by people–performance issues. I’ve distinguished eight patterned responses to emotional tension in the workplace:

  1. The Consoler: A leader who gets overly invested emotionally in staff or contractor relationships. The Consoler is too “nice” and can be taken advantage of, particularly when overseeing dominant people or those who have a sense of entitlement. Supplemental mentoring produces insufficient results and becomes an investment made at the expense of the business.
  2. The Warden: A leader who keeps a stiff upper lip and remains emotionally guarded to the point of being unapproachable. With excessive professionalism, formality, and stiffness, the Warden comes across as being cold and uncaring. In a bid to maintain orderand do the right thing, the leader with this patterned response may unknowingly propagate learned helplessness in the workplace.
  3. The Avoider: A leader who turns a blind eye to ineffective performance. This often happens in small businesses where staff are family members or close friends, or where feelings of loyalty run on overdrive. This pattern shows up differently in large organizations and bureaucratic environments. The Avoider may feel vulnerable to potential job loss due to political backlash or feel powerless to influence the system. Regardless of company size or ownership status, the Avoider feels trapped in an unfulfilling business.
  4. The Captive: A leader who tolerates inappropriate behaviour from key staff or top performers. The Captive may be risk averse, not wanting to ruffle feathers or deal with conflict, or may fear losing the workers in question. This is common when the workers possess technical expertise that is essential to the business, are protected by a union collective agreement, or are routinely given preferential treatment for unknown or political reasons. Consequently, the leader may lose power, lack confidence, or feel “held hostage” in the situation.
  5. The Romantic: A leader who has idealistic notions and utopian ideals about the potential impact of the business. The Romanticoften lacks the language to articulate a vision in concrete terms or the clarity to produce a clear implementation strategy. A leader with this response pattern may aspire to unrealistic standards of perfection, and those standards inhibit initiatives from getting to launch. In a bid to differentiate, the Romantic may lose focus by overanalyzing, trying to solve too many problems at once, or creating verbiage that confuses potential allies. If the idea fails to gain traction, the team may get caught in a whirlpool of futile activity, producing hollow results.
  6. The Mercenary: A leader who maintains a sense of entitlement and superiority, making everything about him or her. The Mercenary
    speaks in terms of “I” and “me,” seeing others not as co-creators but as tools to achieve an objective. This reaction to emotional tension puts
    the spotlight on the leader’s own ambitions; the business gets built at the expense of other people. The Mercenary’s self-centred, egotistical
    behaviour is an old-school leadership stereotype that has given some successful business people a bad rap among the masses.
  7. The Playmaker: A leader who is less of a business builder and more of a deal maker. Often highly competitive and task focused, the Playmaker is oriented toward winning the deal, with little regard for the impact on people. This win–lose approach to emotional tension may not be personal or intentional but simply the result of keeping an eye on the prize—winning the deal. The business grows, almost incidentally, due to recurring successful deals.
  8. The Generator: A leader who listens attentively, asking questions to uncover the untold story behind the story being told. The inquiryis nonlinear, taking the conversation in surprising directions and making it difficult for others to predict where the conversation is going. The Generator is searching for style preferences, facts, values, inconsistencies, and other clues on multiple layers to predict whether a reasonable return for the business can be expected from the time invested. If the answer is yes, the Generator becomes a catalyst for both professional development and business growth. If the answer is no, the Generator decisively terminates the initiative as being a poor fit or having the wrong timing. Feedback may or may not be given.

In the first seven patterns, the leader is overcorrecting, either toward people or performance. A leader with the eighth profile, the Generator, stands the best chance of maintaining the delicate balance needed for optimal performance.

Steering straight is a dynamic process. Expect to weave as you strive to stay in the moment. In fact, expect all kinds of ups, downs, and blockages.

Mindsets and Roller Coasters

Your mindset matters. It affects everything—from the business and investment decisions you make, to the way you raise your children, to your stress levels and overall well-being

Our mindset is an established set of attitudes we hold. Ultimately, people look at situations in one of two ways: with a fixed mindset or a possibility mindset. A fixed mindset is an Invisible Barrier, often at the root of personal leadership challenges.

The trick is, we can’t hear ourselves think. Or perhaps we can, if we pause and do it with intention.

Communication themes in the left image indicate a fixed point of view, or a fixed mindset. Even when not expressed in words, people can feel the presence of fear, scarcity, and doubt running in the background.  Body language communicates, nonverbally, what words do not.

See the smile on the face of the woman on the left? Think of a time when someone smiled and said all the right things, but you were picking up a different message. Did it feel manipulative? Now have a look at the image on the right. It indicates an open perspective, or a growth mindset. Possibility lives only in an environment of trust, appreciation, and abundance thinking. We sense when people are genuine.

I was first introduced to the idea of a fixed mindset years ago, and in the intervening years I’ve seen it discussed in several contexts. I’m sure the idea is not new to you. But having heard an idea and really stopping to consider its impact are two different things.

Which ways of being, depicted in these images, is familiar to you?

We all have a go-to reaction when we feel anxious, threatened, or out of control. You’ll discover there is usually a statement you make, one you use to justify your behaviour or defend your point of view. Be honest with yourself: The words you use are clues to unearth where you may have a fixed mindset, holding you back.

Put a check mark beside the ways of being you recognize as your go-to responses. Think about what kinds of situations trigger you to communicate from a position of fear, scarcity, or doubt. What conditions cause you to be more trusting?

These insights are important for business owners to know, not only for their own leadership development but for staff development as well.  Let’s drill down a little deeper.

Identify the thoughts you have and the words you say most often. Say them out loud. Once you hear yourself say them, you’ll be better able to catch yourself in mid-sentence the next time something, or someone, triggers a reaction in you.

Pay close attention to when you use I–me or us–we terminology. Inclusive language helps you connect with people and build teams. If you tend to make others defensive, you may unwittingly be indicating that it’s all about you.

Consistency starts with you. Once you familiarize yourself with your patterns, you can learn to listen to yourself differently and support others without reacting to their patterned phrases. A shift in mindset can initiate dramatic changes for you and your team.

The limiting phrases illustrated on the left tend to creep into our thinking when the excitement of something we’re planning to do meets the reality of implementation. I call it the Entrepreneur’s Emotional Roller Coaster.

Whether we are starting a new business, developing a new product line, or reinvigorating our marketing, every project goes through development stages. Formulating the idea is the first phase. When the stakes are high (think of a double-digit return on your investment), optimism leads to euphoria. We are at the cusp of peak creativity.

Soon enough, though, cynicism, fear, and judgement, yours and others’, creep in. Anxiety blooms. Reality hits. We start to realize how much effort it’s going to take. Ten units of effort get one unit of result, like squeezing a sun-dried lemon.

Imagine all the business plans that have been written but never executed. Consider the great ideas shelved because the details weren’t worked out. Confronting what’s missing, or acknowledging what’s not working, dips us toward the uncomfortable feelings at the bottom of the Entrepreneur’s Emotional Roller Coaster.

If your vision is not clear enough or strong enough, you’ll begin to rationalize that you don’t want to develop this project after all. Your backseat driver chimes in with a host of reasons to quit. Wouldn’t it be easier? Maybe it’s just a pipe dream. Who are you to succeed at this anyway?

In this phase, we confront our own shortcomings. Listening to the voice in your head, not to believe what is being said but to identify the disempowering messages, can illuminate Invisible Barriers. Awareness of rigid thinking is the first step in shifting it to possibility thinking.

In another example, think about what happens when your employees ride the Entrepreneur’s Emotional Roller Coaster. This can happen when you assign someone a project but that person is unclear of your expectations or doesn’t know how to handle the assignment. You’ll learn more about bridging this type of situation in Part III of the book.

It takes effort, tenacity, and awareness to carry you through the dip, but then, momentum awaits. If you don’t quit at the bottom, you’ll find yourself moving toward a powerful new beginning. With transformed thinking, one unit of effort produces ten units of results. When that flip occurs, you’ll be grateful you didn’t give in to scarcity thinking.

I’ll give you a dry run on the Entrepreneur’s Emotional Roller Coaster at my expense.

When I was eighteen I started a business in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. One year later I had recovered my start-up costs and was starting to make money. That’s when I was presented with an opportunity to go to British Columbia.

My brother Jim owned a boat called the Bonnie May. She was a commercial diving boat that harvested exotic seafood—sea urchin, geoduck clams, and sea cucumber—for live export markets. It was too exciting an adventure to pass up, so I decided to go for one month.

Jim had warned me that the Bonnie May was a working boat. Still, I couldn’t hide my surprise when I stepped into the wheelhouse. It was the size of a walk-in closet. There was an oil stove for heat, two burners to cook on, a wooden bench along the back wall, a ship’s wheel, and navigation equipment. I climbed into my sleeping bag and went to sleep.

In the morning, we headed across the strait to the urchin grounds, where I was oriented to the equipment: a flat-bottomed sea truck with an open deck, surface-supplied air hoses for two divers, a bow winch, and a five-tonne crane. The bilge under the wheelhouse housed the air compressor.

My job was to haul in the bags of sea urchins that Jim loaded onto the sea truck. Once on deck, I would dump the product into large totes. When Jim’s shift was over, he would give three sharp tugs on his air hose, and I would pull him up. I was ready for my trial run.

When Jim descended the ladder and sunk to the bottom, I was alone on deck. I realized how little I knew. Still, I managed to keep pace with him as I brought the product aboard. It wasn’t until I got three tugs, signalling the end of his dive, that everything changed.

I neatly coiled the air hose until I had hauled in the slack. After that, I pulled with all my might but couldn’t gain an inch. It felt like a cannon was tied to the line.

I heaved with everything I had in me, but the rope gave nothing in return. My brother was underwater, and I didn’t have the strength to pull him up. If I used the winch, I’d pinch off his air. My body filled with dread.

I felt a sharp tug, then another, and another. I had no idea what was happening until my brother came into sight beneath the surface. Weighted with lead, Jim had pulled himself in.

I stood stunned on the deck as he climbed the ladder, tore off his face mask, and towered over me, shouting, “You are responsible for the lives and the safety of my divers! If you can’t do this job, pack up your things and go home!”

His words stung like a whip. I had not only failed at the job, I had nearly killed my brother.

The voice in my head conceded defeat. At one hundred thirty-five pounds, it was physically impossible for me to succeed … or was it? I wondered what it would take to achieve that level of physical strength and mental toughness.

Sometimes the universe reveals something unexpected. I had failed miserably, but what was revealed to me that day was that I wanted to succeed. Until that moment, I had known myself as a quitter. I quit piano lessons, dance troupe, bowling league, and, much to my mother’s despair, Minot State College. For the first time in my life, I had found something that mattered to me.

Aside from my brother, no one would have judged me for quitting.  I was a teenage prairie girl with a retail background. No one expected me to succeed in the marine industry.

In receiving hard evidence of my shortcomings, I had the opportunity to choose my path forward. It was my quit or transform moment.

I dug deeper than ever and found pools of strength I never knew existed. I was a commercial dive tender and relief skipper on that boat for two years. I showered in the bilge and slept on a piece of plywood suspended from the ceiling with seat belt strapping. Afterward, I pursued several other exciting opportunities in the marine industry.

That was my version of riding the Entrepreneur’s Emotional Roller Coaster. What is yours? I didn’t own the business in that example, but I did learn, as an employee, to break free of my self-imposed limitations. To inspire your people to grow, you must understand the discomfort they feel on the inside before the breakthrough occurs on the outside.

Personal growth is uncomfortable. The business is never served when we shelter people from discomfort. Provide concrete, fact-based evidence of where performance expectations are or are not being met. Deliver your communication and invite the recipient to choose the path forward, collaborating if necessary.

Take a moment to reflect on the challenges in your life that, once you chose not to give up, compelled you to reach for new heights.

The formulation stage is the idealistic and creative phase represented in the Emotional Roller Coaster image from optimism to euphoria. It
crests at peak creativity, where implementation has not yet begun.

The moment you begin implementing the plan, you enter the concentration stage. You realize you haven’t considered everything. The gap between your expectations and reality yawns before you. The future is uncertain; the risks seem insurmountable.

The natural response is defensive or reactionary. We have years of programming to respond as we have in the past. Resist the temptation to repeat old patterns of communication and behaviour. To transform your outer world, you must first change the way you respond to circumstances, disappointment, and upset. Each of us must reorient our internal guidance system to effectively manage creative and emotional tension.

When hope is lost and you’re ready to give up, you are on the verge of a breakthrough. Behind every breakthrough is a breakdown. The bigger the breakdown, the greater the rewards on the other side. By confronting my failure on the Bonnie May instead of making excuses, I reinvented myself and my life. Opportunities that I had never dreamed of opened up to me as a result of perseverance and self-development.

Do you see the importance of Step 1: Clarity? With awareness comes the power to transcend our reactive habits and limitations so we can stay open to opportunities, and even unimaginable new possibilities.

Breakthrough Boosters

  1. Write the names of three people you interact with on a piece of paper, leaving ample space between each name. Review the eight patterned responses to emotional tension. Which ones made you think of your own responses to people–performance issues? How do your patterns change with different people? What could you do differently to steer straight? Write down your insights next to each name
  2. What do you say to yourself when you are thrilled about an opportunity? When anxiety sets in? What words do you use when you are about to throw your hands up in defeat? Your thoughts have patterns.
  3. Look again at the two ways to communicate. What do you say when people aren’t listening to you, or when you feel powerless? Think of an alternative statement to use next time, and write it down to help you remember.
  4. Think about a successful situation or event in your life within the context of the Emotional Roller Coaster. How did you feel on the way up, during the formulation phase? Contrast that to how you felt when the rigour of concentration set in. What thoughts and beliefs saw you through to the momentum phase and eventual success? Write them down.
  5. Now choose a situation or event where you bailed during concentration. What thoughts and emotions did you feel? Recognize yourself. Know your patterns. Self-awareness is critical to your success.

Remember: You can find a solution to any problem you face, but you may not have identified its root. Be on the lookout for Invisible Barriers.

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