Episode 190 – Meta-Leadership: Integrating Thinking, Emotion, and Behavior

Original Air Date

Run Time

39 Minutes
Home Manage This Podcast Episode 190 – Meta-Leadership: Integrating Thinking, Emotion, and Behavior

About This Episode

Constance Dierickx

Better leadership leads to better outcomes. Our guest Constance Dierickx PhD., author of Meta-Leadership: How to See What Others Don’t and Make Great Decisions, lays out a new paradigm for leadership that offers leaders a way to synthesize thinking, emotion, and behavior. Meta-leadership encompasses a multifaceted approach that goes beyond conventional leadership attributes, emphasizing not only the possession of knowledge and skills but also a keen sense of observation and discernment. One reason leaders move from good to great is when they recognize that their own thinking, emotions, and habits of behavior can be an obstacle. That self-awareness is a key step to becoming a more effective leader.

In the context of project teams, there is an expectation that leaders should exude confidence and make swift decisions. However, this creates a tension between the desire for certainty and the reality of uncertainty. Listen in as Constance explains how meta-leadership empowers leaders to comprehend the underlying factors that influence decisions, facilitating a more informed and balanced approach to decision-making. Constance describes how to improve your own leadership style from a holistic perspective rather than merely focusing on a specific skill set.

Constance earned her PhD in clinical psychology focusing on decision science and crisis intervention with individuals and organizations. She’s an internationally recognized expert in high-stakes decision-making, and she has advised leaders and delivered speeches in more than 20 countries. She’s the founder and president of CD Consulting Group.

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Favorite Quotes from Episode

"And I can't stress the importance of showing sincere interest in other people. Don't say it. Don't say, “I'm a people person.” No one believes you. Don't say, “People are our greatest asset.” No one believes you. Public relations, vanilla pudding. Do not spew the typical stuff. Say things that are sincere and memorable and uniquely yours."

Constance Dierickx

"it is unreasonable to treat every question the same way that you need to separate what is truly urgent from what is only urgent because somebody's anxious. And if you're just solving somebody's anxiety, it's not a reason to leap into action."

Constance Dierickx

"If you need to be in charge more than you need to do the right thing, that's bad. That's a really bad sign."

Constance Dierickx

The podcast by project managers for project managers. Constance Dierickx lays out a new paradigm for leadership that offers a way to synthesize thinking, emotion, and behavior. Meta-leadership goes beyond conventional leadership attributes, emphasizing not only the possession of knowledge and skills but also a keen sense of observation and discernment.

Table of Contents

02:29 … Meta-Leadership
04:42 … Adopting a Meta-Leadership Strategy
07:24 … Meta-Leadership Enables Decision-Making
10:12 … Factors that Drive our Decisions
14:36 … A Tension between Certainty and Uncertainty
18:45 … Dealing with Unprofessional Behavior
24:35 … Meta-Level Awareness
26:16 … Kevin & Kyle
27:22 … The Courage to Fail
32:23 … Listen, Learn, and be Curious
36:55 … Connect with Constance
38:42 … Closing

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  And I can’t stress the importance of showing sincere interest in other people.  Don’t say it.  Don’t say, “I’m a people person.”  No one believes you.  Don’t say, “People are our greatest asset.”  No one believes you.  Public relations, vanilla pudding.  Do not spew the typical stuff.  Say things that are sincere and memorable and uniquely yours.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  I’m Wendy Grounds.  In the studio with me is Bill Yates and Danny Brewer.  We’re so excited you’re joining us today.  We’re talking with Constance Dierickx, and she is the author of a book that we have read called “Meta-Leadership:  How to See What Others Don’t and Make Great Decisions.”  Constance is really fun to talk to and has excellent advice.  I think you’re going to enjoy this conversation.

She earned her PhD in clinical psychology focusing on decision science and crisis intervention.  She’s an internationally recognized expert in high-stakes decision-making, and she has advised leaders and delivered speeches in more than 20 countries.  She’s the founder and president of CD Consulting Group.  And we’re going to be looking at her book “Meta-Leadership.”  One of the things that comes out of her book that I thought was really interesting was good leaders become great in part because they recognize that their own thinking, emotions, and habits of behavior can be a source of error.  So this is time for a lot of introspection.  We’re going to be looking at ourselves, looking a little deeper and how are we being meta-leaders?

BILL YATES:  Even to decision-making.  And here’s an example of how Constance applies this idea of meta-leadership.  Let’s say I’m contemplating a significant decision.  Here are questions that I should answer.  Who am I trying to please?  Or who do I not want to disappoint or annoy?  What pressures am I experiencing to make one decision or another?  Are there opinions that I am minimizing or dismissing because I don’t like that person that they’re coming from?  Am I being closed-minded?  Those are some of the questions that we’re going to be prompted to consider as we look at this topic and discuss it further with Constance.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Hi, Constance.  Welcome to Manage This.

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  Thank you, Wendy.  It’s delightful to see you and Bill on my screen.


WENDY GROUNDS:  Can you describe for our audience what you mean by meta-leadership?

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  Yes, yes.  So “meta” is a prefix from the Greek.  Someone needs to tell Mark Zuckerberg that it’s not a word unto itself, although I doubt he’ll listen.  “Meta” means above or beyond.  And so we think about metacognition, which means thinking about your thinking, which I write about in the book.  I have a whole section on thinking.  We think about meta-analysis.  So researchers will sometimes take a group of studies that have something in common.  Maybe they’re all studying the effects of a new antidepressant, and they collapse the data and do what’s called the “meta-analysis.”  And so you get the “meta‑study.”

I have worked with boards and CEOs for 25 years.  And I always ask myself two questions.  One is why do these smart people do things that don’t look so smart, which has haunted me for decades.  But the other question is what do great leaders do differently?  And I’ve been so lucky to work with a number of extraordinary leaders.  What I’ve found that they do is that they think above and beyond, and they’re synthesizers.  So meta-leadership really lays out a new paradigm for leadership that offers leaders a way to synthesize thinking, emotion and behavior. 

And looking at what we gain by overlapping, what is the overlap when you have metacognition, awareness of emotion, and the ability to observe habits of behavior?  You get a really powerful combination that leads to insights.  And generally in great leaders, it also surprisingly leads to empathy, not only for others, but for themselves.  Anne Morriss and Francis Frei, researchers and consultants like to say leadership is imperfect humans leading imperfect humans.  And we sometimes forget that.

BILL YATES:  Yes, that is so true.  That sounds just like our day-to-day struggles with projects.


Adopting a Meta-Leadership Strategy

 BILL YATES:  We haven’t really arrived as a leader and there we are thrust into these projects.  So I love the application of what you’ve shared in your book and the research that you have with project management and just thinking about how to apply that.  If a project manager were to adopt this meta-leadership strategy, how might that lead to success?

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  Well, it would lead them to utilize, but also be appropriately skeptical of their tactics.  Tactics in project management tend to be well known, well understood, and well practiced.  And there’s a lot of training and education in project management.  A lot of it’s very good, but it does narrow your aperture.  It sort of closes that lens. 

And I want to say specializing in anything does that.  You know, when you have a PhD in clinical psych, for example, I’ll just go with that one since that’s what I know best.  It does tend to, you see the world through that particular lens.  And what I’ve found is extremely beneficial is to be able to switch out your lenses, not throwing in the garbage what you know about project management, but just widening that lens.  And that means being less of a specialist, less of an expert, if you will.

I know in my business practice, in my advisory work, showing up and throwing up on people everything I know is a sure way to be shown the door.  Because first of all, I’m not respecting the context.  Project management is done in a context.  And so we have to respect the context, which means we have to be curious and learn about the context. 

So with consultants, I’m fond of saying to coaches, people that are executive coaches will contact me quite often, and they start telling me what their methodology is.  And they all think it’s groundbreakingly special.  It is not.  It is all some version of a procedure, a checklist.  It’s not that that’s bad.  It’s just that people marry it.  We marry Six Sigma.  We marry some stakeholder paradigm.  And what I wanted to do with “Meta-Leadership” was say, this is a paradigm that lets you be aware of all the other paradigms that you’re hanging onto.

BILL YATES:  Awareness is one of the biggest takeaways I had from the book, the self-awareness and awareness of the environment.  We’ll go deeper into that.  That’s a key word for me.

Meta-Leadership Enables Decision-Making

WENDY GROUNDS:  Another big part of the book is decision-making.  How meta-leadership enables decision making.  And if I just can add a quote that you said, “A common but surprising cause of bad decisions is past success.”  Can you elaborate on that and talk about decision making?

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  Yes.  It would probably help the listener to sort of imagine, to pick out from their experience an example of a leader who was the, I know it all, large and in charge leader.  They come into your company from XYZ.  We’ll just pick on the external hire, right, who comes in at a leadership level, kicks in the door and says, well, when I was at fill-in-the-blank, when I was at GE, when I was at PepsiCo, when I was at P&G, whatever it happens to be. 

That’s an example of a failure being born from the seeds of success.  What happened there that worked well, no doubt there are some principles we can extract from that.  But what people tend to do is they apply tactics from situation to situation.  And sometimes the situations look strikingly familiar on the surface.  But again, if you are curious, and you take the time to learn about the context, you will be able to see differences and distinctions as well as similarities.  Then the decisions you make will be much better.

You know, another success trap that leaders have is that they don’t realize what decisions they’re making.  They don’t realize what decisions they’ve already made or what decisions they’re postponing.  So being acutely attuned is really super important.  And it’s why an external advisor is so important because internal people are less likely to tell you the truth.  I work with a lot of CEOs, and I always tell them – they say, “Well, I think I know what’s going on.”  And I’m like, “Eh, my money’s on you don’t.  My money’s on you know a great portion of what’s going on.  My money is also on some of what you think is a two out of 10 is really an eight.”

But here’s the good news.  Once you are asking yourself the question, you can engage in a process to find out.  And it’s the experimentation, the finding out, and curiosity is a very emotional thing that really distinguishes great, great, great leaders from the “eh, okay” leader.

Factors that Drive our Decisions

BILL YATES:  This brings me to the next question we wanted to discuss with you.  What are some questions we should ask ourselves to understand the factors that are driving our decisions?  Can you describe those to us?

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  Sure.  Yeah, they’re really in three categories.  The book is organized in the three sections that it is for a reason.  And so the three areas are thinking, feeling, and behavior.  And the reason is – I’m going to go ahead and tell you.  I’ll let you in on a secret.  The major theories of behavior change all have those three elements, that if you want to change behavior, you are more likely to be successful.

Now, you might be successful if you do one or two, but you’re better off to do three.  If you use information and thinking, emotion or motivation, if you will – not your employee engagement score, by the way, which does not measure motivation in case anyone’s wondering – and behavior.  So the questions you can ask are not what am I thinking, and definitely not what’s my decision-making framework, but how am I thinking about this?

And you could use a couple of dimensions.  You could say, how important is this thing that I’m thinking about, and how likely is this thing I’m thinking about?  And if it’s not important, and it’s unlikely, and it’s easy, then just forget about it.  But if it is extremely important and has a great deal of significance or high risk, then it’s really important to say, how am I thinking about this?  Am I oversimplifying it?  Am I using past success as the rationale for why I’m about to do A, B, or C?  And if the answer to that is yes, then my advice is call a halt and rethink.

The second part is, what am I feeling, and what are the causes of what I’m feeling?  You know, it’s so funny to me that my clients tend to psychoanalyze each other at work a lot more than I am psychoanalyzing.  They’re all scared of me doing that.  And I’m like, I don’t have time for that.  And by the way, I’m not here for that.  I’m not here to do clinical work.  Now, occasionally I run across somebody that needs a clinical intervention, but I never diagnose people.  It’s inappropriate.

And let’s take a minute to talk about what emotion is.  A lot of times when we say “emotion,” what we’re really talking about is all the labels we’re putting on our feelings because people are rationalizing creatures.  We are story-making, meaning-makers, predictors.  You know, our brain is trying to say, what’s going to happen next?  And it’s important because it keeps us safe.  So we don’t want to get rid of that.  But when people learn to tune into those subtle signs that we often dismiss, like my stomach’s in knots, my neck is tense, I realize I’m holding my pen like this.  In my case, my jaw gets tight.  And when I’m really mad at somebody, I’m gritting my teeth.

And so asking yourself what am I feeling is more to do with the physiological symptoms that then we label, right, as something and saying, what’s going on here?  Being more agnostic rather than leaping to, well, I’m feeling this way because, you know, Susie didn’t do what she was supposed to do, and she’s always like that, and she’s lazy and unmotivated, should be fired.  You see how fast that happens?  That’s what we do as human beings.  Sometimes it helps us predict danger and keeps us safe.  So we don’t want to get rid of this.

And then the third thing is to say, what do I typically do in a situation like this?  And here’s the big one, the big power.  What are the agreed-upon habits of behavior that we share?  What do Wendy and Bill do when a podcast guest goes off the rails, for example?

BILL YATES:  We just go right along with them.

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  Well, you edit.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, exactly, right, right, right.

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  Probably edit that out.


CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  But you have some shared assumptions about what you’re doing.  When you get a group of people – it doesn’t have to be a big group, it could be a small group – that have the same assumptions, that’s what we call organizational culture.  And it is powerful, and we ignore it at our peril.

A Tension between Certainty and Uncertainty

WENDY GROUNDS:  So on a project team, the project leaders are expected to be able to make quick decisions.  If you think about a project manager, he’s making decisions all day long.  And we tend to have a very low tolerance for uncertainty in other people.  We completely excuse it in ourselves, but there’s what you call this tension between certainty and uncertainty.  Can you unpack that a little bit for us?

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  Yes.  Project managers are certainly expected to be very on top of things, especially if you’re running a PMO, and you’re the person, you’re the woman in charge, you’re the guy in charge.  You’re supposed to go, “ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch.”  So one of the ways that you can balance certainty and uncertainty is to be honest with people and say, “That’s not a question that I can answer right now.  That is too important.”  Or “It’s so important, it deserves a little bit more thought.  I need a little more information.”  And then start asking questions.

There’s two reasons to do this.  One is it helps us manage our own fear that we’re going to be judged as unsure of ourselves, unprofessional, not up to the task, whatever label you want to put on.  It helps us manage our anxiety.  And leaders don’t like to admit they have anxiety, but I’ve got news for you.  We’re all human, and we feel it sometimes.  But you’re also modeling for other people that it is unreasonable to treat every question the same way that you need to separate what is truly urgent from what is only urgent because somebody’s anxious.  And if you’re just solving somebody’s anxiety, it’s not a reason to leap into action.  It’s harder when it’s our anxiety, right, because we want relief fast.

I mean, in Freud, people like to make fun of Freud, but Freud was right about a few things.  And one of them is that people will do a lot of things, even dysfunctional things, to get rid of anxiety.  It’s absolutely true.  So certain and uncertain, we like certain; we don’t like uncertain.  But practice with holding that tension makes us better.  And then if you can just give yourself five or six seconds to actually say, “Is this as urgent as it appears?” that will help you.  If it is, if the building’s on fire, then for Pete’s sake stand up, get everybody out.  But how often does that happen really?

BILL YATES:  Yeah, there’s usually more space, more opportunity to reflect and analyze and dig into it.  Sometimes we, I think we panic as leaders thinking, “Oh, I got to make a decision right now.  Everybody’s looking at me.  I need to say yellow or red right now.”

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  Right, exactly.  And the problem is that we externalize that, and we say, “Those other people need an answer.  You know, the project needs.  I have to be a leader.”  It’s really hard and slightly embarrassing to admit, “I’m a little freaked out here.”  I mean, and this is why women have a tendency – this is a very bad, overstated stereotype.  But women are more comfortable sort of like meeting up in the ladies’ room and admitting, like, “What the – what was that?”  You know?  But men have a lot of social and cultural pressure to not do that.  Admitting that something seems wackadoodle is not enough.  You know, we have to figure out what to do about it.  But I know when I was a stockbroker I got criticized a lot for caring too much about my clients.  Yeah, that was code for…

BILL YATES:  That’s a good criticism.

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  Yeah, yeah, that was code for you’re too emotional, and you’re too much a girl.  So anyway, I had to – I had to leave that job.  It was awful.  It was terrible.

Dealing with Unprofessional Behavior

BILL YATES:  Speaking of terrible experiences – oh, dear.  You were so vulnerable in the book to share one about a situation where you had someone screaming at you.  And this was at work.  These were with quote/unquote “professionals.”

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  It was clients, yeah.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  And this, as I read that, my heart went out to you.  There was that, that empathy moment.  And there was also that “I can relate to that.”  And I know many of our project managers can.  They’ve been in situations where they’ve had a customer, a sponsor, a direct manager, maybe even a team member or a contractor yelling at them, screaming at them, putting pressure on them.  I like the way you addressed it and the way you talked it through.  And I thought, okay, this is something I need to have Constance speak to our group about because they’ve been there, done that, unfortunately.  They need your advice.

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  Right.  Exactly.  Well, when somebody is screaming at you, and right after they’ve screamed at you, one of the things that’s happening, if you’re a normal human, which I’m sure your listeners are all in that category, is that you are being bathed in stress hormones.  Now, I didn’t write about this in the book because it’s a little geeky and wonky.  But you’re being bathed in stress hormones.  Do not expect yourself to handle it with great elegance.  You will not dance across the stage like Fred Astaire.  You will be rattled.

So one of the things you can do is you can simply stop, and you say nothing for a few seconds.  And then you say, “Your behavior at this moment is inappropriate and unprofessional.  We’re going to stop now and come back to this in a few minutes.”  So that’s the doing.  The thinking part and the leadership part is to understand a couple of things.  One is people are very attached to their roles.  Our identity is often very wrapped up in our work.  So something is feeling overwhelmingly important.  The person that yelled at me, yelled at me because I stepped on his toes.  I made an assertion that just violated his sense of identity.

Now, this person was known to have a bad temper.  He was, you know, when I talked about this later to the leadership team, they were all like, oh yeah, that’s – let’s call him, I don’t know, let’s call him Doug.  You know?  Yeah, that’s how Doug is.  So now that becomes a leadership issue because if you’re tolerating that crap, it’s your problem.  It’s your problem if you let somebody treat people that way.

But, on the other hand, you can ask yourself, you know, what assumption did I make?  What was the assumption I made?  I mean, I operate like a peer of the CEO, and that’s how CEOs treat me, and board chairs.  And I’m operating like a peer.  I thought we were discussing something pretty significant about their business to do with risk management, but he took umbrage to that.  So in hindsight, I probably could have talked to his boss, the CEO, and played that out.  But at the end of the day, I would have just been trying to walk around his problem.

Now, I will say that people like Doug are pretty rare in organizations.  Usually a temper flare is not all that recurring.  But if it is, you probably have a problem with the person.  But in organizations, people tend to over-diagnose the interpersonal and the personal issues far too much.  A lot of times people will talk to me about somebody who’s a problem.  And I’ll say, well, what is the objective they’re assigned to achieve?  And what is their role?  What are the parameters around their role?  What’s their authority? 

You know, we just have a conversation about that.  And what are the agreed-upon processes?  Somewhere in there we will find a problem that, if solved, will resolve the personality problem.  But there are cases like this person, who did, by the way, lose his job later.  And why did he lose his job?  Why do you think he lost his job?

BILL YATES:  There’s a point at which it’s like, okay, we’re done with that nonsense.  You’re gone.

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  You think it had anything to do with the fact that he was so aggressive and hostile and thin-skinned.  And once again, I have never heard a leader say, “Gee, I wish I had waited longer to address that problem.”  No one ever says that to me.  They always say, “What took me so long?”  And I have to bite my tongue to keep from saying, “Well, I told you.”  You know, one CEO I had told for over a period of two years to get rid of his CFO.  And it was only under pressure from his board that he finally did it.  And they found all kinds of issues.  That’s what happens, though.  You have somebody who’s a problem.  You get rid of them.  And you start cleaning out their desk drawers metaphorically and literally, and you go, “Oh, it’s worse than we thought.”  Right?

So in project management, people in that role are juggling not only their own set of things they have to do, but they’re dealing with humans, imperfect humans leading imperfect humans, who have strong opinions, strong feelings, a strong sense of identity.  And so it’s all the more reason to be really clear about what are we trying to do here?  Who’s doing what?  What are our agreed upon processes?  It does not mean you have to be a psychologist.  But sometimes I think being a project manager feels like that, yeah.

Meta-Level Awareness

BILL YATES:  Well, this is very freeing for me because these types of situations, I have come out of those personally in the past and thought, man, why could I not say then what I know I could say right now?  You know, your brain’s overloaded.  The emotions are overloaded. My amygdala is saying fight or flight.  So it’s understandable.  And hitting that pause button and even going a step further and saying, whoa, time out.  This is not behavior that I’ve experienced at this company before.  We need to take a break and let’s reconvene.  So thank you for that advice.  I appreciate that.

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  All right.  And let me add one more thing.  I have found in my own work life that when I’ve made a mistake, when I’ve left a meeting and regretted something, and I go back and say – I did this with a division president, oh, gosh, this has to be 15 years ago.  But I said something that was – it just left too much room for doubt about something that I thought was important.  And I went back to him, and I said, you know, I don’t like the way I expressed that idea.  And I don’t know how it landed on you, but I’d like to know.

He was amazing.  He said, “You know, it was a little odd, and I was left wondering, and I thank you.”  Anyway, we talked for three minutes and cleared it up.  So rather than sit and ruminate and worry, you can go back to most people and have that follow-up, and it doesn’t need to take a long time to do it.  But I think it shows just a meta level of awareness, if you will, of the interpersonal process.

Kevin & Kyle

KEVIN RONEY: Did you become a project manager by accident? Are you loaded with technical experience, but you don’t know the fundamentals of project management? Many of our listeners find themselves working as project managers—without ever having applied for the position. If that is you and you are trying to get up to speed as quickly as possible, we are here to help! Learning the fundamentals of project management can increaseyour chances of successfully delivering projects on time, within budget, and meeting stakeholder expectations.

KYLE CROWE: Project management fundamentals are the core principles, practices, and techniques that are the foundation for effective project management. Knowledge of these fundamentals will help you identify your project’s objectives, scope, deliverables, and success criteria.

KEVIN RONEY: If you want to learn how to define the scope and goals of your project, how to create a schedule, draft a budget and integrate risk by identifying and assessing the project’s uncertainty take a look at the Velociteach course: PROJECT MANAGEMENT FUNDAMENTALS by Andy Crowe.

KYLE CROWE: This course also focuses on leadership components, such as communication excellence and the very essence of project management—knowing how to lead a team. Understanding the fundamentals allows you to approach your projects with a structured and organized methodology, increasing the likelihood of project success.

The Courage to Fail

WENDY GROUNDS:  Can you talk about learning the courage to fail or be bad at something; we don’t want to look weak in front of our teams. Can you talk about not to be afraid of appearing to be weak?

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  Yes.  So courage, it turns out, is something that we can strengthen and learn how to do.  The mistake that we make about ourselves, and the one that we make about others, is we think that people are courageous if they show up bravely when the stakes are really high, whether or not they’ve ever shown up as courageous before, or whether or not we’ve ever shown up as courageous before.  And it’s an outlandish assumption, but it’s a human expectation that we often have of ourselves and others.

There’s a professor at the University of Virginia whose work I absolutely adore and who happens to be just a wonderful human being.  His name is Dr. Jim Detert.  And I met him in London at Thinkers50, and he was up onstage speaking about courage.  I’d written about courage in my first book.  And when I saw him in the program, my stomach flipped over because I thought, what if his research says I’m wrong?  Oh, am I going to – oh.  So when he started talking, I was, you know, my brain was flooded with stress hormones.

Well, it turns out that what his research showed confirmed what I’d been saying; and, boy, was I relieved.  And I interviewed him for “Meta-Leadership.”  He’s in the book.  What we can do is we can help ourselves.  We can look for opportunities to be courageous when the stakes are lower so that we build up some muscle.  And we can actually write down for ourselves what would it look like if I were courageous.  What would it look like?  What would I do?  And, what would I say? 

And practice and rehearse it in the mirror, just like I tell solo entrepreneurs, almost all of the ones I work with.  I only work with a few a year, but every one of them charges too little.  They just fall over in a dead faint when I tell them that.  They say, “Well, people tell me I’m expensive.”  I said, “What do you expect them to say?  You need to learn how to sell value.”  And so I have them practice with the mirror and practice with me saying, “The fee will be X.”

It’s the same sort of thing.  Set yourself up.  Look for opportunities to practice when the stakes are low.  You can practice with a really good friend who adores you, who thinks you’re great.  You can practice by yourself.  And, you know, you just start to build up some capability.  It’s really good to practice with someone else watching you so you get feedback.  And then if you’re a manager, let’s say you’re a project manager, and you want your project team to be more courageous.  For example, you want them to tell you when something’s wrong.  But you’re the boss; right?  And they don’t want to go, “Hey, Bill, this isn’t working.”  Why?  They’re afraid you might jump on them.

So if you’re a project manager, don’t jump on people for giving you bad news.  It doesn’t mean the bad news is right.  But join with them in an exploration of finding out.  “Well, let’s take a look at that.”  When somebody gives you bad news that you think is worth considering, and it’s in public, you need to have a really good reaction to that.  If you jump on them, what you have taught everyone watching is that you will not tolerate them telling you what’s going wrong.  But you need to know what’s going wrong just as much as what’s going right because you can’t do anything.

The whole ignition problem at GM apparently was not due solely to engineers doing bad things, but a culture in the company that made it impossible for them to say, “Wait, something isn’t right here.”  We can talk about things like, same problem at Volkswagen.  Wells Fargo, who’s paid out beaucoup bucks because the people in retail banking were doing things that were wrong.  And that’s been litigated.  They’ve paid fines.  And the CEO, John Stumpf, lost his job, and so did other executives.

So your project manager listeners could take a look at Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety because it’s all about this.  And she did a lot of research in hospital settings where you want an OR nurse to be able to say, “Excuse me, Dr. Blah Blah, but I think there’s some forceps in the abdomen.”  Right?  You don’t want somebody’s abdomen to get closed if there are gauze pads and sponges and surgical instruments.  But fear is a powerful motivator, and it will keep us quiet.  So you have to build it up slowly.  Don’t expect people to give you big bad news if they can’t give you a little bad news.

Listen, Learn, and be Curious

BILL YATES:  One of the things that you brought up is this idea of curiosity, and it applies to project managers who don’t know the technical skills of some of the members on their team.  This is something that I hear frequently.  You know, as a project manager, I’m unsure of myself because I can’t do everything that my team members do.  They know stuff that I don’t know.  Talk about the importance of being willing to listen and to learn, and being curious.

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  It’s very close to the top of the list.  I’ll give you an example of a leader that I’ve worked with quite a lot.  We’ve worked on a couple acquisitions and some other things.  And what he does to learn about the team, many of whom are doing jobs that he’s not an expert in; right?  Project managers leading people that work on project management might have a little bit of a leg up, but they still don’t know the individuals.  And I think that’s what you’re getting at.  So what he does is, when he takes over a new location or a new business unit or something like that, which he’s done multiple times, is he really takes his time.

And in fact I wrote a Harvard Business Review article about why new leaders should make decisions slowly, which flies in the face of this archetype of “I’m a new leader.  I’m going to kick the door in and tell people how it’s going to be.  And I’m going to show them I’m in charge.”  If you need to be in charge more than you need to do the right thing, that’s bad.  That’s a really bad sign.  So what this leader does is he takes his time, and he gets to know people.  He likes to go into a physical location, you know, back in the before times when people went into offices a lot more.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  I remember those.

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  But you can do this virtually, where he spends time with people, asking them about their work history.  Like, “Well, tell me, how long have you been here?”  And he asks them questions like, “Well, what do you like about what you’re doing?  What do you think we could do better?”  He does this at a speed that is very kind of comforting.  He conveys patience, not just in the fact that he’s going to spend 10 or 15 minutes with a person.  And I mean, it’s not an hour.  For those who are terrified, it’s like, “Oh, it’ll take all my time.”  No, it won’t.  You’re not going to talk to everybody on that same day, first of all.  But he signals to them that he’s patient and curious by the speed of his speech, which is not in any way halting, but it’s very inviting.

So he learns about people.  And he’ll come to me and say, “You know, I noticed this person over here.  They’re in this job, but I think they might really be good at this other thing.  Would you go talk to them?”  And then I’ll go talk to them, and then we compare notes.  But in that way, he starts slowly, but later he’s exceedingly capable because he has knowledge that other leaders don’t have.  Other leaders say, “Well, do you have a talent book?”  And they look at, you know, the pictures and the org charts and – oh, I said that in a mocking tone; didn’t I?  Oh my goodness.

BILL YATES:  I see that you love them.

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  I, you know, talent books are an example of when we use something that’s a shorthand for the thing itself.  There’s a name for that, by the way.  It’s called subrogation.  It’s where you use something, particularly a measure, as the thing itself.  I think I talk about this in the book.  So employee engagement equals your employee engagement score.  Yeah, not so much.  Not so much.  It’s an indicator, of course.

And so that’s what this one leader does.  And I can’t stress the importance of showing sincere interest in other people.  Don’t say it.  Don’t say, “I’m a people person.”  No one believes you.  Don’t say, “People are our greatest asset.”  No one believes you.  Public relations, vanilla pudding.  Do not spew the typical stuff.  Say things that are sincere and memorable and uniquely yours.  The leader that I’m talking about happens to be very beloved.  People want to work for him.  Some people clamor to get on his team.  And working with him has been just one of the joys of my professional life.

Connect with Constance

WENDY GROUNDS:  Constance, this has been amazing, but unfortunately we’re running out of time.  If our listeners want to get in touch with you, if they have questions, or if they’d like to get their hands on your book, where should they go?

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  Well, of course the ubiquitous Amazon has the book.  Barnes & Noble made a nationwide purchase for the book.  I also love independent bookstores.  Actually, Fountain Books in Richmond, Virginia has a supply of signed copies.  My website, ConstanceDierickx.com, and I’m assuming it’ll be in your show notes, has some free resources on it, including a meta-leadership self-assessment that’s completely free.  You have to give me your email address, but that does not mean I will be calling you or hounding you in any way.  It’s just it’s a reflective tool for yourself.  And as you know, I live in the Atlanta area, but my clients are everywhere.  And I’d be happy to hear from anyone who’s listened to the podcast.  That would be great.  And thank you so much.  You asked really thoughtful questions.  It’s clear that you read the book.

BILL YATES:  Well, this has been fantastic.  This book on “Meta-Leadership” really prompted some thinking back for me.  The experiences that you’ve had at the highest level within organizations, and the chance to really dig into that and see these leaders and ask them to stop, reflect, think about these three different attributes, these three different lenses, as you described, and see, okay, what kind of bias, what kind of history do I have here?  What’s affecting me?  Why am I feeling this emotion?  What can I slow down?  Those are really helpful and very applicable to our audience.  So thank you for sharing this.

CONSTANCE DIERICKX:  Oh, I am delighted to have joined you, Bill and Wendy.  Thank you so much.


WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s it for us here on Manage This.  Thank you for joining us.  You can visit us at Velociteach.com, where you can subscribe to this podcast and see a complete transcript of the show.

You’ve also earned your free PDUs by listening to this podcast.  To claim them, go to Velociteach.com.  Choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs, and click through the steps.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.


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