By Cecilia Calderón – March 2022

“Argue for your limitations and you get to keep them.”

―Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

Yes, when we defend or argue for our weaknesses, we don’t change. We can see this from two perspectives: The inside-out and the outside-in.

Inside-out has to do with how we talk to ourselves and, more importantly, how we convince ourselves not to do or say what could positively change our lives. Outside-in looks at the impact on ourselves and others—specifically, our teams and organizations—when we defend, rationalize, or justify our ineffective behaviors when we get derailed.

The Inside-Out

How we talk to ourselves matters. When we don’t show up, we rationalize it to ourselves and others because we are “too shy,” “too scared,” “not smart enough,” or “not experienced enough for this.”

We say things like:

  • “I’m not going to do that; it is too cheesy.”
  • “It’s not so bad after all.”
  • “I’m not that lucky.”
  • “I don’t have the [money, time, experience, etc.].”

You get the gist.

The focus is often on what you do not have and why you can’t achieve what you want. The emphasis is on the limitation instead of the possibility. In other words, when you are focusing on how the deck is stacked against you, you may actually be stacking the deck against yourself.

The negative impact is clear and overwhelming. You stay where you are, and there is no growth or change. Our best self does not show up.

The Outside-In

One of the things that matters most in people-leadership is what we choose to do or say (or not do or say) when we are frustrated, angry, or disappointed—even when the reason we are upset is legitimate.

Often, the events that trigger us and the emotions they elicit may be legitimate or valid. However, our reaction may not be rational. If we defend our inappropriate or ineffective behaviors, we can’t move past them. Common ways we justify, explain, or excuse is:

  • “I feel terrible that I lost my temper again, but…”
  • “Hear me out, this is why I got upset…”
  • “I get so frustrated when they make mistakes again and again.”
  • “You make me angry when you…”

We all say similar things to justify our behaviors when we have not responded appropriately to a situation because we are afraid to make the change. The way to change is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. We need to learn to respond differently.

When some of our behavior patterns are ineffective, the way to get different results is to change these behaviors. We need to be courageous to navigate the pain created by the situation and not act on it. We need to get comfortable with the feeling that catastrophe awaits if we do not respond in the way we usually do—because it does not.

Our patterns, as ineffective as they may be, are there for a good reason: to protect us from danger. Therefore, we must retrain ourselves to new patterns and remind ourselves that every error doesn’t necessarily lead to catastrophe but does provide an opportunity to teach or guide. Let me exemplify using a scenario that I have heard from many clients:

You’ve instructed your employee or team to create a necessary document, report, or process. What arrives back to you is not what you expected, either in content or quality. You are rightfully disappointed and frustrated. Because you are already stressed and feel this error will lead to a disaster, you react with frustration with your words, tone, and volume reflecting this. You fix it instead of providing feedback and coaching. This, in turn, overwhelms you more because now, you have even less time. After a few times of you justifying this behavior (getting angry and fixing the problem yourself because they “can’t”), you’re even more frustrated at your team and have missed opportunities to work together to fix the root of the issue. Nothing changes for you and your team, trust continues to be lost, and the cycle repeats itself.

It’s vital as leaders that we address content and quality issues in a thoughtful, more effective way. Solve the real problem, not the symptom. What if, in that moment of truth, when you realize the deliverable is not at all what you wanted—when your heart is beating fast, your stomach is tight, and your hands are sweating—you invite curiosity. You may discover that you did not give clear instruction, that the person or team is overwhelmed with too much work, or that they did not feel safe to ask you clarifying questions or ask for help.

“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.” -Seneca

How do you stop? How can you stop giving time and energy to the very thing that is holding you back and keeping you exactly where you are? When you defend your excuses, your rationalization, and your justifications—you succumb to your weaknesses and limitations.

It is far better, and much more effective, to choose the empowering route—to rally behind your dreams, your vision, and become the leader you truly can be.

What are you going to do to step out of your comfort zone? What excuse do you need to sacrifice to achieve your goals? Where or with whom do you need to be courageous to do something different? What do you need to give yourself the permission to do?

The choices and the results are up to you.

Remember, emotions and moods are contagious—all of them. This is especially true when you are a leader. Learning to regulate your emotions is fundamental to effective leadership. The trick is not about changing the triggering eventsthere will always be a new triggerit’s what you choose to do when triggered that changes the game.