Independent to a Fault: How NOT to Change Series, Part 2

By Sonia Tallarida


Independent to a Fault is Part 2, in my series of articles on ‘How NOT to change’. This series is a collection of 10 articles filled with tips and strategies, for individuals and teams, on the traps you’ll need to avoid to achieve successful change. 

We hear all sorts of buzzwords about change ready people – they are resilient, optimistic, action-oriented, independent thinkers and have a predisposition to action. These are all really useful traits that we mostly strive for, however even positive traits, when overdone or misused, can push you off the change path.  

When supporting our clients to take big leaps forward, we’ve noticed some similarities in the ways they accidentally block their own success. Some of these success blockers may surprise you.

Are you sabotaging your own success simply by doing what you thought was right? Follow this series and learn which tried and tested strategies you should avoid and which you should engage. 

Independent…to a fault

Independence is so valued that we fight for it. Across the world, wars have been waged, and debates rage over the value of independence. People across all cultures strive for it. To achieve independence is to be competent and trusted; it’s freedom from control, influence and the support of others. So what’s not to like? Surely, independence is a trait all leaders need to be touting, or can we be independent to a fault?

Anyone who knows a three-year-old knows has heard the words, “I do it!”.  It’s cute the first ten times. The 11th time I heard it was when I was trying to entice my little nephew into his car seat. We were, of course, in a hurry.  He, of course, was having none of that.  He insisted on doing everything his way, including his windy, unnecessarily slow, elephant walk across the lawn towards the car, not to mention the detours to check out a tree, a snail and our fascinating letterbox.  Eventually, we made it to the car, where he insisted on climbing in and fastening his seatbelt without any assistance. The whole ‘independent get-in-the-car process’ amounted to about 11 minutes rather than the two minutes it would have taken had I been allowed to assist him.

So why not just take control and insist on helping him, you may ask. Because, as any good aunty knows, hell hath no fury like a toddler denied of his independence – that’s why. Trust me, the defiance, the tantrums and the emotional onslaught that would follow such a rookie move is just not worth the 9-minute return.

Some of you are empathising with me on this one, and that’s probably because ‘toddler independence’ is now factored into your daily routine. Others are yet to discover the joy of navigating toddlerhood’s hurdles. If you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing a toddler’s fight for independence, you’ve got to check out some of these. We love the funnies Steve Harvey comes up with.

What might surprise you is that I don’t think this behaviour is too different from the way some adults function. And I can honestly say, I’ve often seen this sort of behaviour at play in the corporate world, but more on that later.

What’s reassuring is that, while it may be taxing for his parents and guardians, there’s an upside to my nephew’s type of independent action and thinking. As a result of this phase in his development he will likely grow to be someone who will ‘decide for himself’; someone who can understand that his actions have an impact; either a cost or a benefit.  He will be able to learn, adapt and notice what is happening around him.  He is a bright and interested child whose assertion of independence shows a well-adjusted attempt to explore the parameters of his world. He’s testing whether the boundaries and expectations imposed on him are useful, interesting, enforceable or flexible.  Two-year-olds are exploring their self-efficacy, their place in the world and their capacity to influence it.

We see this behaviour at work all the time.  It plays out in the team who refuses to follow a new process imposed on them by a distant authority; in the new team member who questions every assumption rather than follow along with the crowd; in “that” person who seems to find an opposing point of view to everything you say, and in the team who refuses to share data insights across the company. It’s frustrating, to say the least.

However independence is at the fore when the innovative genius suddenly notices a simple fix to a complex problem; when the team who refuses to give up in the face of defeat somehow manage to deliver the impossible; when the team member makes a decision in the moment, based on their assessment of the current situation, without fearfully stalling or avoiding until a manager arrives. Clearly, when used appropriately, independent thought and action can be a powerful driver of business, personal change and performance.

Personally, I have been proudly independent for most of my life.  I’d always thought it to be a powerful trait – not needing to lean on others; making my own way in the world. However, in hindsight I can say it’s been a double-edged sword.  On one hand, I am self-motivated, self-driven and self-reliant, and this has resulted in success on many levels.  On the other hand, having made up my own mind…usually very, very, very quickly (yes, that’s 3 x very)… I can find myself becoming a bit … well, stuck.

See if this strikes a chord; how many times have you found yourself sitting in a room full of people waiting for them to “catch up” because your mind has zoomed ahead?  What is the impact of that?  In my experience, I thought the impact was minimal, as I went about supporting people through their thinking processes.  I felt I was being helpful, facilitative and compassionate.  And usually that was indeed the case, however, at times I was confused to discover that people thought I was a bit arrogant or a bit of a “know it all”.  At school, I was considered a bit of a smart-arse.  I didn’t quite get why and I felt rather misunderstood. At times we need to learn to let other people into our thinking processes and allow them to influence our approaches.

When overused, the powerful trait of independence can result in significant issues. The major downsides to being over-independent are:

1) Closing up shop

When we place a high value on thinking that is developed independently, it can sometimes result in a flash of brilliance, however, more than often it means we’re closing our thinking processes off too early.  Consideration of others thoughts and ideas could build greater innovation, greater ideation and new levels of understanding.

2) Tarred with the arrogant brush

 ‘Overly independent’ people are often labelled with terms like; ‘not a team player’, ‘doesn’t play well with others’ and ‘know it all’.

When you are overly-independent those surrounding you can sometimes feel an inadequacy, even though it’s not intended.  When you have communicated that you already know what others are still trying to get their head around, it can create a feeling of defensiveness as people feel an inequality on an intellectual or emotional level. The insight can at times be ignored as people attempt to rebalance their own right to be equal with you.

(This is complex, so keep a look out for a future article on the impact of power imbalances.)

3) Stunted growth

At its worst, independent thinking and assessment can be a blocker to growth. This happens when you only accept feedback or advice that you yourself understand.  True growth and transformation requires a leap of faith, and a stretch towards a new way of thinking.  Often, new ways of thinking are best generated in collaboration with others, or when considering a viewpoint different from our own.  While we may not agree with the viewpoint, the simple act of considering it can accelerate insight.  I notice this myself; now when I quickly judge something as right or wrong, I make myself take a step back, to hold myself in the space of purposefully “not knowing” in order to allow myself the chance to wonder and provoke new thinking.


How to balance independence in your daily life – The ‘WHAT IF’ approach.  

Next time you notice yourself becoming fixed in your independent ideas, deciding on something too quickly or waiting for others to catch up to your thinking, try this strategy to adjust your independence back into the productive phase

  1. Hold the space:

WHAT IF I didn’t know the right answer? What else could be possible that I haven’t considered yet?

  1. Uncover the Benefit

WHAT IF someone else’s point of view has something of value?

  1. Shift your Focus

WHAT IF there is something else I can learn from this?– if not the content, what can you learn about the people, the process or the emotions or the attention levels at play?

  1. Change the Game

WHAT IF I changed roles? Rather than wearing the hat of the decision maker, try on another hat, such as coach. When you become the coach you force yourself to hold off your own decision-making in order to coach others through their unique thinking process on the same issue.

Try adding the skill of wondering “what if?” to your thinking and see where that takes you, let me know how you go.


Stay tuned for our next article in the How NOT to Change series on ‘optimism’.

We’ve helped hundreds of organisations across the globe to build and inspire high-performing teams. We’d be happy to talk to you about your individual needs and provide you with some ideas on how you can transform your culture and your business’ potential.

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