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5 Small Moments That Can Make a Huge Difference In Your Leadership Style

How to show up as a leader in mundane, everyday moments.

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BY Ayse Birsel - 08 Jun 2018

5 Small Moments That Can Make a Huge Difference In Your Leadership Style

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Does being a leader feel overwhelming to you at times?

When you look at great leaders like Indra Nooyi, Alan Mulally, Sheryl Sandberg, and Frances Hesselbein, it's easy to forget that leadership is something you get better at with practice. In the magnitude of their greatness, leadership can feel overwhelming, big, and often unattainable.

At those moments, think about this simple but powerful trick from Laine Joelson Cohen, NA Director at Citi Leadership and an Executive Coach: use the small moments. Leadership is how we show up in the small, mundane moments.

Cohen's approach resonated with me. I am keen on breaking big, complex issues into small, manageable parts and then putting them back together in new, often unexpected ways. That is how I solve complex problems, simply using my DE:RE process (short for Deconstruction:Reconstruction). Cohen is doing something similar with leadership--deconstructing leadership into its smaller parts to make it manageable and then reconstructing them into a greater whole.

First, you have to take a moment to recognize what these small moments are. They are everyday conversations and interactions you have at work, and even at your home, that you might pass by if you're not paying attention. Pause and take a moment to recognize them. According to Cohen, how we show up in the small moments has a huge impact on our leadership and how we're perceived.

I asked Cohen to give me an example. She told me that recently she had her team run a meeting, but she came out of it feeling like they could've done better. In that small moment, her gut instinct was to tell them what they did wrong. Instead, she asked them to identify what went well and what they could've done better. Their answers covered all her points and more. She ceased the moment to ask and listen, changing that small moment into a learning opportunity. Instead of criticism, she leads with positivity, empowering and motivating her team.

Here are four small leadership moments, most everyone encounters at work (or at home):

1. Listen when someone comes to you for help.

Often we make the mistake of giving people suggestions when they ask for help (I do this all the time since as a designer my reflex is to solve problems). Cohen told me that the best way to help someone is to actually ask them what they think would be a good solution and then create a space in which they can try it out. This way they develop ownership of the solution, as they learn how to cease the moment and make a change.

2. Create a safe environment, when someone comes to you with a mistake.

Imagine someone comes to you and says, "Boss, I screwed up." What do you do? A. yell at them; B. jump in to take over; or C. help them work through it. Choose the latter says Cohen, and create an environment for growth and show them you trust them even when they make a mistake. This is especially important in innovation where failure is part and parcel of the exploration process and yet so many leaders have a hard time with this critical step.

3. In moments of conflict, take emotion out of feedback.

When there's conflict and you need to give feedback, give positive feedback instead of negative, and do it quickly. This kind of situation doesn't age well and gets bigger and bigger. Negative feedback is fraught with emotion--people get upset, they cry, or even scream. Cohen says, simplify the situation with SBI, Situation Behavior Impact, that executive coaches use.

Let's say someone on your team came late to a meeting and interrupted the flow of an important keynote speaker. You're upset with them and think they were disrespectful. Instead of telling them they messed up, state the situation (you came late); the behavior (this interrupted the presentation); and the impact (it disrupted the flow, took the presenter off their game and it took us a while to get back into it). This takes the emotion--me and you--out of it, makes it more objective and gives the other person room to explain what happened. It's a skill, the more you do it, the more comfortable you get.

4. And yet, recognize emotion when you see it.

When a colleague is upset you can avoid it or match it. Or you can recognize it, which is what is needed here. Something as simple as, "You seem upset, what's going on?" can open up a dialogue. You might find that the person is not upset but frustrated. This then gives you a chance to understand why they're frustrated and how you can be of support. Cohen says, this way, you've both identified that something is going on and created grounds for communication at that moment or later, if they prefer waiting.

Cohen suggests that the small moments can also happen at home and that you can transfer these skills to your life. For example, when her younger daughter approached her about who she should vote for at a school election--her best friend or her older sister--Cohen kept her calm. She didn't say, "You should always vote for your sister, blood is thicker than water." She took a deep breath and said, "I can't make that decision for you. What would you hope your sister would do if she was in your situation?" The answer was, vote for my sister. Crisis averted, one more vote won, a small moment for learning and growth ceased.

Small moments equal big gains in kindness, thoughtfulness and genuine leadership.

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