Beware Your Filters

No, not coffee filters—people and message filters. We like to think that we are thoughtful and discerning in our responses and with our reactions (or lack thereof). However, the reality is that we typically react to people, situations and communication based upon the filters through which we experience everything, which are usually unconscious. In leadership, the goal is not to avoid emotions and reactions – it doesn’t work – but to be more aware of them (and their causes) in order to avoid communication or actions that negatively impact your leadership and influence. Conscious leadership is about being aware and using that awareness to interact differently with people in order to build trust (not break it), clarify communication and expectations (not confuse them), and build relationships (not disconnect with people). Awareness of your filters and when and how you use them is one key element of growing yourself as a conscious leader.

Let’s look at a real life example. I work with a senior leader who sometimes sounds and appears defensive when asked questions about certain projects and initiatives that are his responsibility. These reactions are palpable and not only have an impact in the meetings where they occur, but may also cause team members to hesitate even to ask questions, much less to challenge this leader on anything, because of uncertainty about the reaction. This leader is becoming aware of his reactions and is committed to minimizing them and improving his communication effectiveness. The challenge is that if you simply try to stop a behavior, it rarely works. Reactions are just like that—even if you can somehow avoid the visible reaction, you still have it internally and people experience it in different ways or in different scenarios. One leadership truth is that you can’t hide your emotions – you can only try to mask them, and masking doesn’t work.

Enter the filters. I asked this leader to list the most positive perspectives that he believes his team members have about him and his leadership, and this was his list:

  • Confident
  • Gets things done
  • Reliable
  • Consistent
  • Supportive
  • Accountable
  • Diligent
  • Can count on him

Let’s call this the filter of the effective and reliable leader.

I then asked him to list the most negative perspectives that he sees of himself or the things that he is most concerned about, and this was his list:

  • Uncertain
  • Dropping balls
  • Not following through
  • Risk of failing

Let’s call this the filter of the doubting leader. I’m guessing you can already see the issue.

I then asked him which filter he typically listens with when asked questions about projects or initiatives that he’s responsible for, and he said the doubting leader. In other words, when people ask questions about his responsibilities (whether in a challenging tone or when merely seeking an update), he often hears them through his own doubting leader filter. And when he hears questions through HIS doubting leader filter, he often reacts defensively, which is natural because he’s hearing the questions as doubting his leadership because of HIS filter. However, when he listens to questions or even challenges through his effective and reliable leader filter, he doesn’t react or feel the need to defend himself – he merely provides updates and answers the questions.

The foregoing is a reality for many of you in your leadership, whether professional or personal. How often do you negatively react to questions from a spouse, partner or child because of the filter you choose to listen with? For example, if your partner asks you if you stopped to get milk and cereal on the way home, do you listen with the reliable partner filter (and merely answer the question) or do you listen with the forgetful partner filter (and feel attacked or like your partner doesn’t trust you to get things done)?

The key point and challenging truth is that your reactions are most often based upon the filter you choose to use rather than the communication, the experience or even the tone and attitude of the other person. Even if the other person’s communication is objectively challenging or even attacking, your reaction will be mostly based upon the filter you use to listen. This is one key element at the heart of conscious leadership – being aware of your filters, owning the fact that you create and implement them, and then choosing which filter you use when you interact with others. As you grow and evolve as a leader, beware of your filters and use them wisely.

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