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Self-improvement is always pretty challenging—but working remotely and other changes to our professional lives can make it even harder. Susan Ashford, a University of Michigan professor, has researched the most effective approaches, which she explains in her new book The Power of Flexing: How to Use Small Daily Experiments to Create Big Life-Changing Growth. Here are excerpts from our recent conversation with her, edited for space and clarity:

Could you summarize what the tactics are?

Researchers talked to successful and effective people, not just those who were high in the hierarchy, but people who were deemed really effective in their roles. They asked them how they learned to do that. What they found came to be known as the 70/20/10 rule. When highly effective people cited the origin of their learning, 70% was from the experiences they had, 20% was from other people, and 10% was from books and courses. So it’s a little ironic that I wrote a book on how leaders learn, but the book is asking how to get the most out of that 70%.

If you think about it, we go through a lot of our experiences fairly mindlessly. We operate on habits. We’ve all driven from one place to another and not remembered how we got there. We’ve all interacted mindlessly with others. We don’t really learn a lot from our experiences unless we’re tuned in to what’s happening. One of the things we could be tuned into is ourselves—how our actions are coming across to others, the impact we’re having, and our own effectiveness. The practices in the book are based on that idea—that we learn the most from experience, but only if we are present in them and able to flex within them.

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The practices start with the mindset that you bring to experience, so we talk about Carol Dweck’s work and having what she calls a growth mindset, which has also been called a learning mindset. The idea is that I want to come at this experience open to learning instead of clenched-jawed, anxious, and displaying a performance mindset. I still want to perform, but I also want to learn from others and about myself. Working on your mindset is one practice. Is it tending towards trying to prove how great you are or trying to avoid anyone thinking you’re weak or a failure? If you have that mindset, you’re not going to be open to exploring and flexing.

Another practice within the book is setting an intention for how you need to grow. Experiences are chaotic. There’s a lot to be achieved within them. If you have a sense of an area in which you need to grow—whether that’s being a better listener, becoming more influential, being seen as more approachable, or being more open—you’re more likely to pay attention to how you’re doing on that dimension. Set an intention for how you want to grow somewhere on this personal and interpersonal effectiveness spectrum. Then think about what you are going to do. What are you going to try differently to achieve that? I call these experiments, small things you can do to be a better listener to be more approachable.

One of the people I interviewed wanted to be more approachable. He talked about getting to meetings early rather than coming in right at the last second and diving right into the task. He would force himself to leave earlier and get there early, so he could greet everybody when they arrived. One of his experiments was just to smile more often because he realized that his resting face was very serious and somber.

Those are three practices that you can use as you approach an important experience, like a difficult conversation or a retreat you’re running, whatever it might be. Within the experience, you need to work on trying your experiments. You need to think of something that reminds you to do them and then pay attention to the feedback around you, which could be the behaviors of others. In the approachability example, do people come and approach you or do they tend to stay away? Do they raise issues in the meeting and seem open or do they seem more closed?

You also could ask for feedback. You could ask a trusted colleague and say, ‘Hey, I’m working on being more approachable in my work life. Do you have any ideas for me?’

The last two practices are emotion regulation and reflection. With emotion regulation, extremely negative or extremely positive emotions both get in the way of learning. You need to keep those in check somehow. Finally, reflection can happen both after the experience and during the experience. Take some time to think about what you’ve learned. Do you need to keep working on that goal? Should you try a new goal? Do you get any feedback? Do you know anything? What do you know? How do you synthesize that with being the person you most want to be?

Are there certain types of opportunities that people should be looking for to challenge themselves? And then what is the way to most benefit from them?

When the 70/20/10 finding came out, industry loved that finding. Instead of sending their high potential people off to courses or designing training for them, they could put high potential people into experiences to learn more. Then they asked the academics, ‘Okay, tell us about the characteristics of experiences that help people to learn the most so we know where to put them.’

Academics studied it, and a couple of different studies identified several key dimensions. For example, experiences that are highly visible are more effective because they’re more challenging. Experiences where there’s a lot at stake are valuable for the same reason. Experiences where you’re crossing boundaries also help people learn. Say you’re a marketing person and you have to work with someone in operations, for example. That gives a challenge to the experience as well. Experiences that cross cultural divides also increase developmental challenge, whether that’s having to work with someone from a different country or from a different race, gender, or other difference.

You could seek experiences that have those characteristics, but you also have to have a way of capitalizing on the learning. That goes back to employing some of these six practices.

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Many of us haven’t worked around colleagues for awhile—is there any advice you give to people who are reentering a more intense interpersonal context than we have been with the return to the office?

First, remember that you’re making that shift and put something about your personal effectiveness or your interpersonal effectiveness on your radar. In other words, be intentional about it and recognize that this is a change. You’re not just going back to the office; you’re going back to a much closer interpersonal world.

The second one is more pointed, but I would tell people to work on being present because we’ve all slipped in being present. We’ve all been on Zoom calls where it’s clear that people are listening but might be doing something else. They’re doing their email at the same time. They’re reading a document at the same time. They’re trying to keep their kids working on their school stuff at the same time.

I think we’ve lost our ability to be present with another person. Of course, some people weren’t always that great at it, but we used to be better at it when we were interacting in-person more. For example, if someone starts talking to you across your desk, you could actually clean up all your paperwork while they’re talking, but it’s much more obvious in person. In general, it’s just a bad habit, so that’s the specific thing I offer to people.

I want to ask you the question that we hear a lot from people in this moment of change: ‘What kind of leader do I need to be now?’

First, if we think of what we’ve been going through as a crisis or trauma, what do people want from their leaders in situations like that? I boil it down to three things: confidence, competence, and compassion. They want confidence because they are scared, and they want to know that someone is confident that we’re going to get through this. They want competence so that they can believe the first claim. If you don’t come across as competent, your confidence doesn’t mean a lot. With compassion, they want people that, whether they can accommodate it fully or not, are compassionate about what people are going through.

What the book adds is that people feel the most alive and vital when they feel themselves growing. While the book empowers people to grow on their own, it doesn’t have to be a solo enterprise. We need leaders to ask, ‘How are you growing?’ There was one researcher who met with new leaders every two weeks, and he asked that question. He found, over time, that because they knew he was going to ask, they were growing more and paying attention more.

How are you growing? How do you need to grow to be most effective in the role you have right now? For the role you want to get? Asking those simple questions infuses work life with more hope, optimism, and meaning.

Read a full transcript of our interview, including discussion of how asking for feedback makes leaders seem more effective. Buy a copy of Ashford’s book, The Power of Flexing.

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