When 7-Year-Olds Are In Charge

Imagine this: You’re around 7 years old. You are in a classroom. Your teacher asks you to come up to the blackboard to spell a word: Antidisestablishmentarianism. You’ve never heard of it, and have no idea how to spell it. How do you feel? Probably embarrassed at your lack of spelling chops, humiliated that you have to expose your ignorance, angry that you’re being put on the spot, afraid of being laughed at or yelled at….

Fast forward. You’re now an adult, in a business meeting. The boss has been hearing from the same three people for half an hour and needs a new perspective on the thing they’re discussing. They (I’m going to say ‘they’ instead of ‘he or she’ because it’s easier and I don’t want to imply all bosses are either ‘he’ or ‘she’ by picking one. I’m sorry for the singular/plural disagreement.) call on you. How do you feel? Maybe you don’t think anyone’s idea is particularly good, but you don’t have a better one to offer. Maybe you haven’t been listening because it’s been the same stuff over and over, and you’re thinking about lunch. Chances are good that your inner 7-year-old will take over – you’ll feel embarrassed to be put on the spot, humiliated that you have nothing to offer, angry that you had no warning, afraid of being laughed at or yelled at….

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The thing is, the boss had the best of intentions. They wanted to hear from more people, get more ideas, even the beginning of an idea to start a new conversation. But the person being called on is suddenly in fight/flight/freeze mode and can’t come up with anything intelligent to say. Everyone feels frustrated. No ideas come out. Another meeting wasting more time with no outcome.

Does this sound familiar? I know my inner 7-year-old comes out at times. Often when I need to do something very adult and responsible like call clients or speak on stage. I feel afraid and embarrassed and very, very young. It can be a real challenge to remember that I’m an adult now, that I’ve got this, that my inner child is safe, and my adult self can handle whatever comes my way.

In the meeting example above, often the person being put on the spot doesn’t have the chance to collect themselves before needing to respond. What can a meeting group do to help them out?

I’m so glad you asked! First of all, treat all questions and comments with respect and lightness. That is – if the boss yells at people for asking dumb questions, no one will ask questions. If group members grumble that their precious time is being wasted answering dumb questions, no one will ask questions. Then, when a single question could change the course of the company, no one will ask it and the company could go under. It really is that dire. Every question needs to be treated with respect – no put-downs, no grumbles, have a real honest desire to answer seriously. However, some questions are veiled grumbles or put-downs themselves, and these don’t need to be taken seriously. But you can’t put them down either, or the more 7-year-old-inclined of the group will retreat. So humor and compassion are key.

Next, reassure the person who is staring at you like a deer in the headlights that their answer isn’t life or death. Ask them to start a conversation, not have complete answers. That’s what the team is there for – to come up with a stronger answer together than anyone can do on their own. Is anything feeling off for you? Do you have any concerns? What sounds right about this plan? In your experience, will this work? Tell us about your doubts. We can help flesh it all out.

Note how different this is from: if you see a flaw in the plan, it’s your responsibility to fix it. Or, if you think there’s something wrong, what do you think is the right thing? These types of responses make people much less likely to say anything. Too much pressure, too much responsibility, too much extra work.

Another strategy: assume any problem or mistake is just data, not failure. People do NOT like to fail. Having one’s mistakes scrutinized is very painful and likely to bring out the 7-year-old in us. Having one’s mistakes seen as information about what works and what doesn’t takes some of the sting out of it. And seeing that data as a piece of a new brainstorming session can help move it into a positive new idea.

Leaders who are sensitive to the emergence of our inner 7-year-olds can make a world of difference to the people who follow them. People who assume everyone around them is as tough as a Navy Seal will squash new ideas left and right. People are just grown-up little kids, at least some of the time, and having our inner children be respected and not humiliated will bring out loyalty and great new ideas. I pinky promise.

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