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We tell stories to make sense of our experiences. Presentations lead with anecdotes, and data is accompanied by narratives about real-world implications. We also tell stories to ourselves — about the competence of our peers or projected project outcomes. Since entrepreneurs are prone to big thinking, good stories become inventions.
Bad stories can be just as big … and destructive. In my experience, three negative stories tend to plague entrepreneurs, stalling productivity and collaboration. As a mental health professional, I work with entrepreneurs to develop the tools for reframing. Below are common negative stories living in the heads of great leaders and some simple tactics to change the plot — a good reminder this Mental Health Awareness Month.
First, it’s important to understand that negative stories are not negative thoughts. Everyone has the occasional inkling: Are we launching too early? What if I fail? Negative thoughts are discrete and more easily thwarted with a quick break, breathwork or a reminder of past achievements. Negative stories are more involved, repeatedly affecting our behavior and interactions. We carry negative stories like big, fat books under our arms.
1. Criticism is intolerable
Internal narratives come from early lived experiences. A child who grew up with hyper-critical parents often feels unworthy as an adult. Letting people down becomes unacceptable, a belief that can wreak havoc when you have a customer-oriented business.
One of my clients, let’s call him Peter, is a perfectionist. Peter is the product of a strict upbringing, hyper-attuned to unhappiness among his customers. After some lukewarm reviews of his customer support staff, Peter is hesitant to scale. He refuses to outsource customer service, afraid that growing a team will dilute quality of service. So, his company isn’t growing.
Because he doesn’t have outside support, Peter responds to emails at 3:00 a.m. and works weekends. Customers’ opinions control his narrative and work habits. This isn’t viable for the business or his mental health.
The key to reframing perfectionism is to think long-term. If entrepreneurs are in control of everything, the company can’t grow. Redefine success to think more like a SAAS founder: The best product is a finished product. Set realistic expectations, and be clear about what clients can expect. What is perfect? Now, what is reasonable? Draft a customer bill of rights, and communicate realistic deliverables.
It is an entrepreneur’s responsibility to define terms for how people interact with your business.
2. Everyone is incompetent but me
Entrepreneurs often tell themselves negative stories about the capacity of others. These are trust issues that might stem from absentee caregivers. In this scenario, leaders lack faith in their teams and are hesitant to delegate tasks or offer professional development, which leads to stifled collaboration and unhealthy culture. Solopreneurs with trust issues don’t seek mentorship or advice from peers. This is a problem for the business, and it’s incredibly lonely.
By nature, founders often start alone. Even with staff, it’s the entrepreneur’s job to lead teams, not make friends. Industry relationships are transactional. All of this can make entrepreneurs wary of developing meaningful connections or relying on others.
While you work on trusting people, trust the process. Develop and test standard practices so that teams execute efficiently and consistently. Even small companies benefit from this.
Remember, your people are also passionate, with their own motivations to succeed. Meaningful professional development programs ensure leaders know what drives teams and ensure the company facilitates those goals. This will foster productive working relationships and promote collaboration. Surely, entrepreneurs can trust others to work towards their own goals — a relatable concept.
3. I don’t belong here
Imposter syndrome affects all of us — including 84% of entrepreneurs. This is by far the most common negative story among entrepreneurs: a persistent inability to believe that our success is warranted.
Reframing imposter syndrome
It’s not about you. Entrepreneurs start and lead businesses because of a belief in the mission, product and customers. Reposition negative stories about imposter syndrome away from the ego. Get back to the mission statement, and change the way educational software is developed, or empower people with technology that reduces household waste. The why of your company is bigger than you.
Disrupters have crises of faith in their competence because they push boundaries. Use imposter syndrome as a positive trait to help guide your own learning. Seek mentorship and training in the areas where you feel most insecure.
The stories we tell ourselves as entrepreneurs have a profound impact on our productivity, collaboration and leadership. By recognizing and reframing negative narratives, we unlock our potential and foster growth. Perfectionism can be transformed into a focus on long-term success. Trust issues can be overcome by developing standardized practices and investing in professional development to build strong and collaborative teams. Imposter syndrome can be embraced as an opportunity for learning. As entrepreneurs, we have the power to shape our success.
We are the authors of our own stories.