Loosening the Grip of Self-Seal

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By Gael O’Brien
President, Strategic Opportunities Group

Picture suddenly stepping into a body-size, heavy-duty, zip-lock bag that you pull up over your head and securely close from the inside. You’ve metaphorically self-sealed, shutting out anything that conflicts with what you already think.

Self-seal fuels ethical vulnerability. Of particular concern is how self-seal compromises decision making. It shuts employees down when they try to point out alternative solutions or potential red flags to a boss who disregards them. Upping the degree of difficulty for Chief Compliance and Ethics Officers (CCEOs) is that leaders operating from the lens of self-seal aren’t conscious of doing it. Nonetheless, the behavior is toxic to a culture.

Leadership expert Margaret Wheatley coined the term self-seal over a decade ago in Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. “We create ourselves by what we choose to notice,” she wrote. “….We self-seal. We don’t notice anything except those things that confirm what we already think about who we already are.” Sharing traits with cognitive bias,  self-seal shrinks in proportion to heightened self-awareness.

Self-seal can happen to any of us. It can be activated by stress overload, fear of mistakes and styles that are more reactive, overconfident and conflict adverse. While it can look like arrogance, it is more situational. It gives itself away in verbal and physical cues that CCEOs can detect. Self-seal can be incorporated into training, creating awareness about how to notice it in oneself, take steps to break the seal when it shows up and observe it in others. Talking about it as a risk makes it safer for leaders and teams to call each other on it when it shows up in a meeting and come up with safeguards.

Verbal cues like the dismissive conversation stopper, “we’ve tried that before and it doesn’t work” restrict exploring how a new approach might create a better outcome. Body language often shifts to crossed arms, more rigid bearing, leaning away from others, not making eye contact and a tone of voice that scares off discussion. Re-emphasizing the pros of one’s own solution in response to any con curtails debate. Unchecked, consequences can lead to a disengaged team, fissures in trust, thwarted innovation potential and risks of unintended consequences to decisions insufficiently vetted.

A CEO, after a presentation I gave on ethical vulnerabilities, wanted to talk more about self-seal because he’d been blindsided by recent feedback from his team that was similar to what I’d described. He asked for some solutions. I recommended he talk to his team about self-seal, why it won’t work for him or anyone to be in it and express appreciation for their feedback. I suggested he focus on keeping his breathing and body relaxed in meetings, maintain eye contact and pay attention to his team’s reactions and expressions particularly when he spoke. If people start pulling back, take the signal to listen more, modulate his tone and ask more questions, including whether they feel the necessary angles are being addressed.

We start to break out of self-seal, as this CEO did, when we get out of our own head to see the bigger picture. CCEOs can play a significant role in self-seal awareness. They can reinforce avoiding self-seal by staying alert to the impact we have on others and being open to new information. They can also encourage, as some CEOs already do, that key decisions – after being vetted in a devil’s advocate approach — go a step further (if a team seems too attached to a decision) to use independent, outside counsel review to assure unintended consequences are addressed.

In her TED Talk On Being Wrong, Kathryn Shultz warned: “Trusting too much in the feeling of being on the correct side of anything can be very dangerous.”

CCEOs know that. Training about self-seal reinforces that message.

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