Let Yourself Off the Hook

By Kevin Anthony Johnson, CPCC, PCC

A non-profit executive—I’ll call her The Boss— joined an organization with wide eyes and an expansive vision full of possibilities. The organization was well funded, housed in a multi-million-dollar facility with state-of-the-art technologies and the board’s chair seemed quite eager to get her onboard. Almost exactly one year later, the organization was in disarray, the board chair was challenged, and the executive was looking for an exit strategy. What happened?

When we take on a new role, there are always blind spots we’re managing. We overlook the poor record-keeping, the low morale, the over dependence on a limited customer base or funding source—because of the thrill of something new, the prestige of being chosen and the power to build something of our own. The nonprofit had seen the demise of its first executive after deep conflicts with the board chair. The Boss didn’t think twice about diving right in and owning her hard-earned leadership role, but the board chair had another agenda and the months ahead reflected a deep dysfunction and step-for-step undermining of her personnel, fund development and program strategies.

As you are invited to new roles, projects and opportunities, it’s important to pay attention to a few important sensations. These sensations are what I call “Hooks.” Hooks cause us to overlook otherwise obvious information, behavior and other cues that we’re being given. You may experience a hook as feeling unable to say no to an opportunity despite your awareness of other factors that you don’t enjoy or that your “gut instinct” doesn’t resonate with. The Boss recounted that she’d felt these things, but those clues were overruled by her self-admitted need for status and to prove something to herself and others–She could DO this.

The hooks are the result of your primitive brain hijacking your executive functions. They place distance between who you really are and the professional challenge or expression of your talent you really yearn for. Hooks disconnect us from our internal guidance system of intuition, values and higher aspirations, drawing us downward by playing on our primal instincts: security, social approval, survival. They dilute our decision-making power and cause us to hand over that power to those primal influences.

How do we respond to these hooks?

The answer is counterintuitive: bring them out into the open.  When we “out” our own hooks they no longer can rule over our decision-making. Researchers have called this the “name it to tame it” strategy, which leads to my suggested approach based on my own experience:

Look for the hook in yourself. The hook is hooked in you. What has the hook found in you that it can grip onto so strongly? Are you attracted to power?  Ambitious to the point of compromising your values and relationships? Does the possession of financial security drive your decisions more than your well-being? Recognizing your hook and naming it can liberate you to make more strategic decisions and create better professional boundaries. Doing your due diligence before agreeing to take on a new assignment may seem obvious, but with the pace of business increasing and the demands rising, the time for strategic thinking and reflection have become luxuries rather than staples.

Don’t be fooled. Hooks will play some amazing tricks on us and we may not even notice them until we’ve already taken the bait. Be kind to yourself as you explore your hooks. I’ve been hooked often. You will be too…it’s okay. Chances are, these hooks are all over your life and relationships.  Rather than keep these insights to yourself, try responding to your next invitation this way:

“I think the opportunity sounds fantastic—I’d say yes right now—but I know I can get caught up in (insert hook here.) There must be more to this than meets the eye. Can we get into the history of this project?  I want this to be a good fit for me AND the organization. I need more information before I can give a definite yes.” 

Feel free to customize, of course, using your own values and vocabulary. When you begin to speak about these “secret” hooks, you give yourself more capacity to make better decisions–or recover well when you’ve made a mistake.

The board chair was eventually ousted, the Boss later resigned her role with a generous severance package and left her successor with a solid roadmap to follow and avoid the pitfalls she’d experienced—and a personal plan to thoroughly vet her next opportunity, now being fully aware of the hooks that derailed her.

Whether it’s a new role, a project or “once in a lifetime” opportunity, you can minimize you blind spots by becoming more aware of the hooks in your life.  Isn’t it time you let yourself off the hook?




For a coach who will not let you off the hook in searching for your hooks, schedule a complimentary consult with Kevin.