Learning Spirals

What type of learner are you? When you are being educated about leadership, do you take in knowledge quickly? Do you easily incorporate new information and practices into your routine? Or do you learn more gradually, encountering key teachings more than once and absorbing them slowly over time?

Or, perhaps are you like Wanda, a leader who learns in both ways.Wanda is a well-regarded nurse executive who is polished, articulate, and dedicated to the well-being of her organization’s patients. She has received a number of profes­sional acknowledgments throughout her career.

As her coaching partner, I know Wanda has faced steep challenges, and I have seen her han­dle them with aplomb, at least on the outside. But we have both noticed something else: the players and the details change, but at their core, her biggest obstacles are almost always about the same thing.Wanda and I call these repeating themes her “learning spirals.” Each time she meets a “lesson” yet again, she pauses to think deeply about what has happened and why.

Initially, Wanda found these “spirals” frustrat­ing, wondering why she couldn’t just “get it” the first time. Eventually, she understood and forgave herself for her human propensity to go through significant leadership “tests” more than once—or even many times. Now, when she goes through a learning spiral, she has a fresh view of its impacts, and she has more tools to combat its potency.

Let’s get specific. One of Wanda’s greatest challenges is her desire to be liked. Early in our partnership, Wanda realized that she not only wanted to be liked, she needed to be liked. She had an intense longing for validation and acknowledgment from others. Even though she received lots of accolades from her colleagues, they never seemed to satisfy her.

Left unconscious and unchecked, the conse­quences of Wanda’s need for approval severely affected her leadership and the quality of her life.A few ramifications were:

• Wanda had great difficulty saying “no.” So, she almost always said “yes” to requests, thereby losing control of her time.As a result, she lost any semblance of balance between her personal and professional life, and she privately complained of being overworked and tired.

• When Wanda was recognized for her con­tributions, she did not take others’ appreci­ation to heart. She was outwardly gracious, but inside she was “shy,” deflecting even the most heartfelt acknowledgments.

• Her need for acclaim also affected her marriage. Her husband had problems of his own, and when he failed to provide con­tinuous positive reinforcement, Wanda felt unseen and unheard, even though she knew he loved her very much.

Once Wanda clearly saw her long-held requirement for recognition, she took steps to reduce its power:

1. She practiced saying “no” even when it was uncomfortable. Instead of reflexively allowing herself to say yes so she could “help,” she thought carefully about each request.Was it a priority for her, for her team, or for her organization? If not, could she genuinely afford the time and effort it would take? She also thought about whether someone else was better equipped to take on the responsibility. How could she delegate more and provide others new opportunities to develop and grow?

2. She reflected on why she needed so much external approval. She thought about her professional and personal recognition, see­ing again that no matter how much there was, it was never enough.This process took time, but eventually, she accepted that the recognition she sought from others would never satisfy her. Eventually, she realized that what would help her the most was genuine self-love and gratitude. She began a daily practice of acknowledging the many gifts and joys that existed in the life she had built. Most important, she started to gen­uinely value the role she was playing in her own success.

3. She regularly reviewed her priorities at work. She did this at least weekly, and sometimes more often.This practice kept her focused on what was most important and discouraged her participation in nonessential activities.

4. She asked a trusted colleague to help her concentrate on her priorities and her newfound practice of saying “no.”

Wanda was successful in seeing herself through new eyes and incorpo­rating new behaviors that enhanced her well-being, both on and off the job. But a few months later, she encountered another situation in which she said yes to a low-priority, time-consuming request even though she was swamped with work. Once again, she had given in to her strong need to be liked.

So, what happened? Had Wanda forgotten her increased self-awareness and hard-won growth? No.Wanda remained dedicated to improving her leadership. But Wanda is like many of us who make fundamental changes in how we interact with the world: we fall backwards from time to time. Changing deep-seated habits takes time, sometimes a long time.

As Wanda thought about this “slip,” she appreciated that needing to be liked was a life-long pattern. It’s not easy to override, but she also respected that she had built a “tool chest” of ways to remain motivated.

Now, many months later,Wanda recognizes that her “like me” need comes up again and again. Usually, she takes a breath and chooses how she will respond. But if she does slip, she reminds herself that profound learning and abiding change can take many years. She also remembers that her new behaviors will eventually become habits, too.

Wanda is on the path to greater personal and professional satisfaction. Along the way, she is embracing new strategies to stay on plan:

1. When the old reflexive behavior comes up, she sees and manages it more quickly.

2. She (quietly) celebrates when she stops short of saying “yes” with­out thinking.

3. She finds new ways to affirm what she does well and who she is as a person and as a leader.

4. She no longer brushes off acknowledgments she receives. Instead, she savors them.

5. She reminds herself of the conse­quences of falling back into habitually saying “yes.”

6. She revisits her requests of sup­port from others.

Wanda’s growth as a leader is a work in progress. Still, she knows that her learning spirals contribute to a fulfilling journey that is well worth taking.

* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader.

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