As a business leader, you know the challenges of managing cash flow, dealing with personal issues or handling a customer who is dissatisfied – all problems we sign up for as leaders. Yet in my work as a business strategist for twenty-five years, there is an issue more common and potentially disabling to leaders than any of the above – limiting beliefs.
Back in the 50s Walt Kelly, creator of the comic strip character Pogo, expressed it best, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
One way limiting beliefs show up in our lives is in the form of false equivalencies. False equivalencies are defined by the belief that doing something or not doing something will make us “good” or “bad.”
Here are three common ones – you might recognize in yourself – I know I did!
Abandoning a project/goal/position = being a quitter
Tolerating unacceptable conditions = being patient
Taking time off/resting = being lazy
False equivalencies can keep us trapped in situations, limiting our options.
Mark, a CEO of a rapidly growing manufacturing company, came to me for some “next step” work when his company was going through a growing phase. He had a loyal team who had been with him since the company’s formative years, yet he was resisting trimming out the staffers who weren’t able to grow with the company and adding more experienced management to his team.
Puzzled at first, I recalled Mark’s telling me about the early years. “We had an investor, who was wise and eager for us to succeed. During his lifetime he supported us and mentored me to become the leader I am today. Not only that,” Mark continued, “but my father also gave me lots of runway to learn and grow. Even when I messed up, he cheered me on. Their loyalty and belief in me changed my life.”
Because of Mark’s positive experience with loyalty, he had an unwavering belief that if you cared about people, you stick with them, mentoring and training them into being the executives they needed to be.
For Mark, being loyal equaled sticking with people regardless. This belief made Mark unwilling and unable to consider adding to his team or replacing one of his original team members who continued underperforming in spite of additional education and coaching.
For Mark, being “less loyal” to his underperforming employee actually meant he was being more loyal to his other employees and the company. Once Mark understood false equivalencies were undermining his company’s growth potential, he felt empowered. “Now I can feel good rather than guilty about taking an action I need to take,” he said. “I can replace my underperformer with a superstar!”
Emma was another leader who was being limited by false equivalencies. In the hospitality industry she had profitably managed food industry operations for a succession of companies. She was looking for a way to burst out of where she was in her career to something new that would reengage her passion.
After exploring Emma’s strengths, beliefs and talents, she suddenly looked up at me with tears in her eyes, and said, “I just realized I’ve held on to a career I stopped loving a long time ago because I didn’t want to be one of those people who gives up. My grandmother used to say, ‘Only quitters quit,’ and I’m not a quitter. You can call me anything, but never call me a quitter. In my family that was close to a mortal sin!”
This belief was playing out in Emma’s career and also in her personal life, where she’d found herself staying in a marriage that was verbally abusive. “Crazy thinking, isn’t it?” she remarked.
False equivalencies are sneaky. Usually, our rational self knows the false equivalency is not true. If someone asks you if money buys happiness or if people with PhDs feel more loved, you would laugh and say, “Of course not!” But inside all of us lie some unexamined equivalencies, and they can hurt our growth potential, and create a feeling of “stuckness” right when we are looking for an expansive horizon.
When figuring out whether you might be harboring a false equivalency, it can be helpful to make a list of your best characteristics (this can actually be really fun!):
And then consider which of them you might be overusing. We overuse characteristics because we are fearful we may become the opposite (i.e., if I’m not persistent, I’m a quitter).
Now make a list of these overused characteristics and our belief about them:
– Having money/a degree/good looks/fame = being loved/safe/respected/in control/worthy/happy
– Wanting to make money = being greedy/selfish
– Aspiring to do more than my parents = being arrogant/dissatisfied
– Wanting nice things for myself and my family = being shallow/materialistic
It can be incredibly illuminating to make this list. Once you become aware of your false equivalencies, it’s much easier to ask: “What do I really know to be true?” Like Emma, you may realize that doing the opposite of your characteristic could, in fact, be a strength.
“It’s so obvious now,” Emma told me, after she understood how much false equivalencies were sabotaging her career success. “I realize that leaving my old career or getting out of an abusive marriage is not the same as being a quitter. This is an amazing realization! It reminds me of that Kenny Rogers song ‘The Gambler,’ with its good advice about when to hold and when to fold. Sometimes it’s important to hold on even when it’s hard, and sometimes the wisest thing to do is to stop!”
Identifying false equivalencies is one of the fastest ways I’ve seen for business leaders to identify what’s holding them back, so they can break through the barrier to living large.
What are the characteristics you are overusing – loyalty like Mark? Persistence like Emma? Have you made false equivalencies into barriers? Let us know all about it in the comments below!
Elizabeth B. Crook is CEO of Orchard Advisors, helping CEOs grow their bottom line and work effectively with their teams. Her new book is Live Large: The Achiever’s Guide to What’s Next (CLICK HERE to get your copy). Download your free Personalized Success Plan worksheet today.
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