Restraint: Cool Thoughts on a Hot-Button Issue


Published on: July 2015

Written by: Scott Weighart

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a meeting feeling frustrated with a conversation that seemed to be going in circles?  The answer seems so clear, but people are talking, not doing!  High-energy, go-go, get-it-done people often find the pace of discussion and decision making is maddeningly slow.  And in these situations, our frustration and impatience can be written all over our faces.

In our research on  executive presence, we’ve found many leaders face this challenge.  It’s associated with one of 15 qualities of a leader we measure in the research-based model –  Restraint.  We define Restraint as “the ability to display a calm disposition, characterized by reasonableness and by avoidance of emotional extremes or impulsiveness.”

Over the last year and a half, we’ve used the Executive Presence Index (or ExPI™) to assess the executive presence of over 1,000 leaders and quite a few leadership teams as well.  I’ve analyzed hundreds of these assessments and been struck by how frequently Restraint is one of the lower-rated facets in the model.

Why would that be?  Our hypothesis is that many leaders have risen in the ranks because they are driven, decisive individuals whose  “action bias” has helped them get things done.  As one HR business partner told me the other day, high potentials think “it’s all about working hard and being technically proficient.  They think, ‘If we just work the crank harder, we’ll get ahead.’”

That thinking is absolutely right—up to a point.  However, as you move  to a more senior level, the very qualities that helped you advance can start working against you.  An action bias can start to feel to others as impulsive or dominating, leaving little room for others to share their ideas or concerns.  If you don’t slow down, ask questions, and show that you can discuss hot topics with cool deliberation, then you’re going to shut down dialogue.  When you do, people may start to perceive that you’re lacking in any number of qualities of Executive Presence, including Concern, Humility, Composure, Resonance, and Inclusiveness.

One leader who comes to mind here is “Dan,” who we met while he was attending one of our Executive Presence Mastery Seminars.  As part of a reflection exercise, Dan shared a story about a meeting with his boss and the leader of another business unit.  This other leader announced that he had made a decision: He was going to throw out a sizable amount of inventory because it didn’t meet his needs for a market.  Dan could not believe that this guy had made such a “dumb” decision, and he was quick to make his opinion known.  As you would imagine, his comments generated a lot more heat than light.

Dan realized that his intention to make his opinion known was overshadowed by the negative impact it had on others.  “Berating him about it accomplished nothing—except making him see me as unreasonable, hot-headed person.”

Dan’s boss intervened and began asking questions.  His tone was matter of fact, and he quickly helped his counterpart drill into what steps could be taken at this point to make the most of the situation—in light of the fact that the decision had been made, for better or worse.

In the “wisdom sharing” discussion that followed, the facilitator recommended that Dan find a trusted advisor who could help him monitor his level of Restraint.  When the coach conducted a follow-up coaching call several weeks later, Dan reported that he had shared the developmental goal with a handful of trusted peers.  They’d actually joked with him about it—suggesting that he needed one of those dog collars that sends a small jolt of electricity when the dog’s behavior is out of bounds.

Everyone laughed at that, but it led to a good idea.  Now when Dan starts to get agitated and frustrated in a meeting, his colleagues simply cue him by slipping their hands up around their throats, as if they’re touching an imaginary dog collar!

What’s exciting about understanding your challenges, and sharing them with others, is that they become partners in your leadership development.  None of us can go it alone.  Having an assessment of your qualities of presence, understanding the impact you’re having, and sharing your plan to improve with trusted colleagues can help you accelerate your growth and become the leader you want to be.

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