Flipping the Switch

Sometimes it just takes one moment for everything to change…forever… 

Taking people to the next level is very different from flipping the switch. Although both acts are in service to others, taking people to level four when they are at level three is more linear and progressive. It is usually done with an open person who is willing to move and just needs a bigger picture or more experienced perspective to help him or her move along. Flipping the switch is different.

When I encounter people who are stuck at a certain place, but feel there is nothing wrong or nothing more to learn, I find these people often have blind spots and implement major defense mechanisms which prevent them from being open to learning. Often, “Flipping the Switch” is the technique I use when dealing with these really smart people who just happen to be stuck.

Really smart people have the hardest time learning because they already know a lot of the answers. They also have developed very well defined defense mechanisms to keep themselves “right” and others away from their weaknesses. They often convince themselves that because of their success, their particular style or approach is the best one and there is no reason to do any of the tough work of learning anything new.

Years ago, a company hired me to help its attorney, Michelle, learn to work better with other people. Michelle was a very smart attorney. She had an amazing pedigree; she had a degree from a top school and had worked for one of the world’s foremost business law firms. She left her firm and went in-house like many really bright young women to get out of the daily law firm grind and to have something more in her career than billing hours and a love for craft. Michelle had long, dark hair and was really attractive; she was in a so-so relationship with a longshoreman (which never seemed to make sense to me except that it was a so-so relationship), and she worked for an entertainment firm. Her boss was an up-and-coming star. He was on the same path as she was, leaving behind a large law firm, only his goals were to do well as the General Counsel and then move on to a CEO position, perhaps even later to start up his own enterprise. Her boss was about seven years ahead of her.

Back to why I was hired, the company didn’t seem to like Michelle much; several employees underneath her had quit and her assistant went on stress leave. Michelle just thought it was good turnover since, in her eyes – they were all weak anyway. She was lovingly referred to as the “workhorse” of the department because she was so dedicated, worked all the time. She was extremely efficient and got twice as much work done as anyone else. Nonetheless, Michelle’s boss thought she was a problem. Clients were starting to complain, board members were starting to have issues with her, and her people were flocking away.

When I asked if she thought there were any issues with her or her style, she said, “Not really.” Her explanation for the actions around her all had to do with external forces. “They were weak,” she would justify, or “those people are just a problem,” or “those clients are never happy,” or “that board member always complains,” she would say. In essence, the locus of the reasoning for any and all issues fell on outside elements of the situation and none fell internally onto her. It did not even occur to her that she might be the common denominator or the problem. When I probed more deeply to see if she felt even a little bit responsible, Michelle kept giving me more excuses and continued blaming outside sources. In the end, it was clear that Michelle was unwilling to take any responsibility for any issues and, quite frankly, didn’t think there were any real issues to consider. Michelle is the perfect example of a person with a blind spot who has clearly defined defense mechanisms.

So how do I help someone like Michelle? Flip the switch!

It is easier to “Flip the Switch” at work than it is at home. At work, I am asked to help people whose jobs are in some way at risk. These people are usually very valuable players (for example, Michelle was a “workhorse”), but if they don’t get through their issues they will either be sidelined, segmented off, or fired; so really, they have to go along with the process. At home, well, it is way trickier.

At work, I tend to find their blind spots and look for the thing they are protecting. I do this through questioning strategies that follow their circular logic so that I can see where the arguments and thinking start. I ask a lot of questions, looking for their motives or reasons. I ask them what they think others are thinking about them, including the people below them and their bosses. I ask them to look at the problem objectively as if it was happening to one of their peers and what would they do. I ask them why they think I am here, working with them. I ask them to pretend as if there is an issue and to see if they can. Eventually, I can start to predict their answers because they have shown me their entire landscape. Everything usually fits together quite nicely for them.

Then, I go collect data. I interview all the people around them. Again, I ask over-lapping questions and write down their exact responses. This process is fascinating. Generally, what I get is that everyone sees the poor behavior, yet in their quest to understand, they each offer different explanations. In Michelle’s case, people said she was just terrible with people, she made her assistants cry, and she was sweet one second and very mean the next. She was volatile and vindictive and so forth. Then they offered the “why”: she has an over inflated ego, her mother must have been like this to her, she has her favorites and those she punishes, she came from a spoiled place in her last job, she is just a prima-donna and a control freak, she is afraid of doing anything wrong for fear her boss would fire her, etc. In short, everyone sees the elephant and all have different explanations for Michelle’s poor behavior.

Once I have enough data, I combine all that data into a poignant report using the exact words of those interviewed and I schedule a Friday afternoon meeting with the client.  Preferably, the meeting is off-site where we can have a drink if the client wants. I then take a deep breath and prepare for psychological battle. With Michelle, as with many others, they listen to the feedback, read it over and over, and try to defend themselves, but soon find it overwhelming that everyone sees them as the issue. I call this slaughtering people with the data. Comment after comment saying the same thing in different ways, category after category all looking at the elephant from different angles. The data become irrefutable (although many clients attack me at this point, because they have nowhere else to turn.) The process is like shining bright spotlights into the dark blind spot. I illuminate the shadow with so much light that it would take a wizard of extraordinary proportions to stay in denial. (Yet some have.)

This obliteration of the darkness is the key to flipping the switch. Yes, I could have helped Michelle with the external behaviors her boss was looking for, to stop yelling at people, to manage people with more respect, to treat people as humans, to slow down and think twice about the impact of her words and actions. However, all of that work would be just chasing symptoms and superficial. It also would fade fairly quickly because, deep inside, she would have considered any new behavior prescribed as just a big pain in the ass and against her will.

Instead, by shining the light, crushing her, and making her see through her blind spot, she had a shift in perspective and “got it.” Michelle, like most got a gestalt, which changed everything for her. Once her worldview shifted, she came back to me begging for ways to change, asking for techniques, and acknowledging how blind she had been. At this point, the switch is flipped and the rest is simple.

The important point of this story is that Michelle (and people like her) can flip their switch and in one moment change everything. It is not about chasing symptoms. It is not about incremental change. It is about helping people to embody a complete situation or experience or perspective, in essence, fully “getting it” and changing on the spot. Chasing symptoms around never seemed like a good idea to me. For a more linear and perhaps “nicer” process, go the “Take People to the Next Level” route instead.  It’s easier to do and a lot less hurtful.

But, if you feel a linear approach won’t work or take too much time, see if you can help people change in a moment. It is something most won’t try and many believe will not work. For me, I’ve seen it work on numerous occasions, and although it is not foolproof, it sure is fulfilling when it works.