Last week, I sat in on a fantastic presentation on building a performance mindset. A mental performance coach shared that one skill of top athletes is the ability to differentiate between talking to yourself vs. listening to yourself. Positive self-talk has long been understood to enhance athlete performance; listening to yourself, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect. When we listen to our inner critic, it can dismantle our healthy superhuman views of ourselves.
This distinction gave me new language for a problem I’ve seen with countless executives and leaders facing a setback or an unfamiliar challenge. For example, Howard, a brilliant commercial leader in the pharmaceutical industry, struggled in his new job. Already a high-performing executive, he had taken on a new geography with a problematic culture with poor results. Confident in his ability to turn the situation around, Howard over-promised on his first-year results and received a damning review from his boss. He was disappointed, disheartened, and was struggling with confidence. The good news is that Howard recognized his problem and sought out coaching to help.
Howard and I had worked together before. I knew his capabilities: he has a deep understanding of the industry, an enviable knack for human relationships, and has built high-performing teams. AND he could tell you all of that, with sobriety and humility. The problem was, external messaging from his team, his boss, and the business began to chip away at his self-talk. He started listening to negative messages. He began questioning his capabilities. He longed for his old job, wondering, “Why did I get myself into this? I was so successful before!” And when we take on a negative perspective, we begin to seek data that confirms it, often creating a downward spiral.
Another fact about Howard: like me, he is an Ironman athlete and understands the principles of #enduranceleadership. We immediately began working on changing his cognitive messaging:
Reframe. Howard realized that the past performance dips were inevitable in light of the sloughing off underperformers and rebuilding a long-embedded culture. He had put together a strong team and was slowly but surely building trust and credibility, despite what the numbers said. Yes, he had made some mistakes, but his team was ultimately better positioned to meet the current year’s performance goals as a result.
Countermand negative messaging with disciplined self-talk. This required daily self-reflection and written articulation of the positive developments of the day. At first, they were small victories: progress in a relationship, the team coalescing in approach to a client shift. But within a few months, the successes became bigger: signing a new contract with the Ministry of Health, delivering a critical product to a massive client well in advance of the deadline, promotion of a high-potential team member. By articulating these aloud to me in writing, Howard was reinforcing positive self-talk.
Focus on what’s possible. By looking toward the future, Howard began to let go of the past that was plaguing his self-confidence. In strategic planning sessions with his team, they recognized new opportunities in a changing market segment. They made realistic plans to approach these opportunities with achievable metrics. They recognized progress here would take months, even years, but could have a long-term benefit.
Encourage others. When coaching his team, Howard began using some of these same techniques of encouragement and success recognition. Articulating the value and capabilities of his team members helped him reinforce his own. Research shows that athletes who encourage and support other athletes are more likely to perform better and create an “upward spiral” of performance in their organizations.
By the end of eight months, Howard and his team were making new market inroads, had signed some unique and critical multiyear contracts, and were set to outperform the year’s goals. His boss was hailing him as a “hero” in his leadership of the team and the business. But it began with Howard leading himself. Like an Ironman who experiences a debilitating cramp halfway through the marathon, Howard used self-talk to reframe his current condition, took a disciplined approach to countermand negative self-messages, and made realistic plans to cross the finish line. Along the way, his encouragement of his team members bolstered his self-efficacy.
As leaders facing a year of uncertainty and change, your self-talk may make the difference between limping through the year or finishing strong. What commitments will you make to help you through moments of failure or a lack of confidence? How can you encourage yourself when the road ahead is unknown or when you face a setback? Using the self-talk strategies that Howard and other #enduranceleaders employ, you just may find yourself at the end of 2021 celebrating a solid finish.
BONUS: For a truly fun and inspirational video of positive self-talk, watch this 4-year-old show us how positive self-talk is done!