“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Hamlet Act 1 Scene 3
Polonius to Laertes
I spend much of my professional life working with people to develop their interpersonal skills. Whether it’s to help them to be more influential, to resolve conflict, to deal with aggression, to coach others, there is one principle which supports many of the techniques we use, which is that of FLEXIBILITY.
If you have the flexibility to adapt your style from what I call your default, you will tend to provoke a different response from the other person. You won’t change the other person, but they will respond differently to you.
And so I introduce the idea of being a chameleon, able to change colour to match the requirements of the situation. Still a chameleon deep down, but able to be green, blue or brown as required.
There are several risks attached to this, which people often raise when we’re discussing it:
1. What happens if it gets detected? What happens if the other person detects the fact that you have either changed your style badly, so it looks like you’re faking it, or – even worse – they think you are mimicking them? This is very damaging to the relationship and trust will be impaired. You would have been better off not adapting at all and just being your “normal” self.
2. Can it be confusing to the other person? Might it not make you hard to read? Yes: if you switch styles too quickly, or introduce several styles in the same conversation, the other person can be distracted or confused, and again it will impair the relationship. They think they are dealing with an actor and might clam up as a result.
3. Doesn’t it mean you have to suppress your own personality?
This last point is the one I wanted to develop a bit today. Being flexible in your style and approach doesn’t mean you have to lose who you are as a person. Good leaders are clear about their values and consistent in the way they adhere to them. There is what Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones call “a consistent underlying thread” in their excellent leadership book “Why should anyone be led by YOU?”, in the path they take as a leader.
People readily pick up on inconsistency and incongruence – where people say things in a way which is not believed by others because they are not said with conviction or are not consistent with their actions.
This is why Shakespeare’s words are so powerful. “To thine own self be true.”
If there was one piece of advice I would give to a leader, it would be that: be clear about your values, think about how you are going to communicate them, and forge a path as a leader which allows you to be true to those values. Whilst using your intelligence to read situations and considering which approach is going to work best to deliver the outcomes you want.
Gareth Jones summarises this far better than I can in this short video:
“Be yourself. More. With skill.”
Please share your experience of this: either of people who embody this principle, or maybe those that don’t. What’s the impact? Do you agree with my position on this one?