More Sponge, Less Rock

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On April 8, 2000, Saturday Night Live featured the skit “More Cowbell.” It is considered to be one of the show’s most iconic, frequently used as an example of excessive enthusiasm or overindulgence in any activity.

(Click below if you’d like to take a trip down memory lane and get a good laugh in the process.)

All leaders are occasionally subject to criticism, disagreement or “arm chair quarterbacking” from those that we lead or the constituencies we serve.

This can be extremely frustrating. It may also be unwarranted. But – it is simply part of being out in front and making things happen.

When these challenges inevitably arrive, we alone choose our response. Our response, in turn, will have either a positive or negative impact on those we lead.

Today, taking a cue from our Saturday Night Live friends, I’d like to suggest that we as leaders can respond to criticism in one of two ways – like a rock, or like a sponge.

Rocks, by nature, are hard and inflexible. They can’t absorb anything. They can’t conform to anything. They can do great damage when thrown.

Sponges, on the other hand, represent the opposite. They are permeable, conforming, and absorb from their environment.

So, my suggestion for our leadership is this:

More sponge. Less rock.

Here are five ideas for adding a little more sponge to difficult interactions.

One – Guard Your Initial Reaction

Defensiveness is the enemy of both understanding and improvement. When criticism comes, resist the urge to defend or justify yourself. Simply absorb it, take a step back, and let it pass through you. This will create a relaxed, healthy tone for the conversation, which will help prevent immediate escalation.

Two – Actively Listen

Being relaxed fosters active listening, allowing you to really absorb what the other party is trying to say. It is difficult to listen if your defenses are up. Being relaxed helps build trust, and sets the tone for you to listen thoughtfully and with an open mind.

Three – Seek Understanding

An open mind paves the way for true understanding, which is your goal. What are the perspectives, motivations and messages that the other party is really trying to convey? Asking clarifying questions can help shed light on this.

Four – Absorb Selectively

Once you’ve gained understanding, then you can process and respond as needed.

I have a rule during difficult conversations. Even if I disagree with much of what the other is sharing, I always treat them with courtesy and respect, and I always try to absorb at least one nugget of information that I can use for improvement or growth.

Absorb what has value, and dismiss the rest.

Five – Share the Learnings

One of the cool things about sponges is that you can squeeze out the excess liquid, then fill them up again.

So, once you’ve processed and absorbed what you need to from the difficult conversation or interaction, then share what you learned with your team.

In this way, you’ll grow, and they’ll grow. And if those two things happen, then most likely your entire organizational will grow as well.

Providing “more sponge” in this way will strengthen your culture and will provide a basis for continuous improvement. People strongly gravitate towards this type of authentic leadership.

Just to be clear – adding more sponge doesn’t mean you go soft on making the hard decisions when you have to. It just creates a healthier and more resilient environment for when you do have to make the tough calls.

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