What has been the most meaningful growth experience of your life so far? Growth is an interesting phenomena, because it usually reveals itself after a while and we sometimes recognize it long after the actual events. However, there are situations where growth can be recognized in the moment it is happening or starting to take place. If you are awake and prepared, these can be golden moments. But be aware: it is anything but a comfortable ride. The ultimate guide to change is that it is painful.
As a team: In case you have been working in a team, can you recognize the turning points where your team has taken a noticeable step towards better functionality? These are usually turning points generated by a conflict or a significant change in the context. Things don’t work out as hoped. This is what we might call the “storming” phase in a team’s existence. But does a team then need to wait around to organically get to this point in their development? The answer is no. With a bit of willpower (and sometimes external support from e.g. a team coach) this phase can be self-generated and change can be powered in a safe and trusting environment.
Here comes the warning though: this does not save you from the pain. Developing a team will usually require lifting some of the most profound questions on the table: Are we really a team? Do we want to be a team? Why do we exist, what is our purpose? Where are we going? Do we trust each other? How do we communicate and provide feedback to each other? The sign that you are moving in the right direction in your conversations is that they go from “nice” and “fun” to difficult. These are conversations that will take time, energy, effort and the right kind of leadership, but the benefits can be unexpectedly high both in the short and the long term.
As a leader: Talk about leadership and growth, this is where another source of pain comes in. If you are like any other leader, you think that you are doing a relatively great job and that things are running more or less smoothly. Spoiler alert: this is most probably not true – at least if you want to take your team to the next level. As a leader your most painful mission will be to look in the mirror, and in comes a big need for humility. When your team starts to question whether you are a potential team or in fact an dysfunctional team (see Katzenbach & Smith, 1993), you will have to swallow your pride and listen to what people have to say. When your team starts to question its own existence or purpose (which has been crystal clear for you since the beginning), you will have to take a deep breath and lean in to what might be the most important conversation you have had so far. The good news is that after this pain usually comes a big sense of reward from tackling the foundational questions and starting to build a more solid future together.
Growing as a leader (and usually, simultaneously as a person) involves taking risks (of saying things that people might not want to hear or asking questions that people might not like), making yourself vulnerable in the eyes of others, skill and curiosity to raise the right questions and have challenging conversations, and courage to do all this. And meanwhile: humility to take in constructive feedback based on your endeavors. This might create some cracks in that (almost perfect) picture in your mirror, but when you look at the bigger picture it should be worth it.
As an individual: And talk about those cracks in the reflection in the mirror: eventually, growth will modify your self-image. How ready are you to let go of some of those dearly held images of yourself? The spoiler alert here is: nobody is perfect. Some of the biggest growing experiences that human beings face are having children or experiencing a crisis. Sometimes receiving eye-opening feedback from a trusted person can turn the direction of one’s life. Yet again, some people choose to grow and to self-generate opportunities for growth voluntarily; growth is a habit but also a value for some of us.
And this brings us to a very important point: in all it’s pain growth can also be deeply enjoyable and rewarding. With the right mindset growth can create outstanding results. Ask some of the most successful people in the world: their journeys have been extremely painful, but many say that they would not change a thing even if they could.
Thus, here are (only) a few potential things to keep in mind in approaching and when recognizing opportunities for growth:
Maintaining a growth mindset: “A “growth mindset” thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.” A growth mindset (instead of a fixed mindset) leads to a desire to learn and therefore a tendency to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as a path to mastery and learn from criticism. (Carol Dweck, 2006)
Curiosity, compassion and courage: the three elements (the 3 Cs) that have been identified in both great leaders and coaches (David Clutterbuck, 2020). Cultivating these characteristics comes down to maintaining a curious attitude (instead of a judgmental or fearful one), being compassionate towards yourself and others, and having the courage to raise up challenging topics.
Thinking long-term: Having goals and a common direction helps in maintaining course during rough times. Also, knowing that the pain is temporary and that there will be much bigger rewards waiting for you once you go through this change can be a helpful thought and will make the pain much more tolerable.
Being clear on what matters the most: and looking at the bigger picture. Having a clear sense of your compass, so your most important values and bigger purpose will help you in maintaining integrity throughout the way and have less regrets later on.
Seeking for an external mirror: Whether it is a good friend, colleague or a professional (individual or team) coach, their job is to catch us on our flawed thinking and behaviour and provide an objective mirror to reflect on what is going on.