At face value, the idiom, “you can’t see the forest for the trees” is a clever reminder to zoom out and see the bigger picture. Digging a bit deeper highlights an even more important idea – that we can look at any situation from a variety of lenses.
Everything is a matter of perspective, and it is our ability to move between viewpoints that allows us to balance big picture thinking with identifying difference-making details.
I had an executive client who was struggling in their relationship with a direct report, a senior director. There was churn in the c-suite and in the interest of “protecting” this director, my client had been choosing to not communicate details around what was going on.
There was certainly some logic to this thinking – manage uncertainty throughout the organization, keep unofficial information to a small audience of decision makers, and avoid distracting employees from their existing work.
The effect of this approach, however, was that my client had been acting as a filter and was doling out specific actions and small slivers of information that gave no context to the bigger picture. This was perceived by the director as micromanaging and they could sense there was more to the story that they weren’t privy to.
My client was focused on an individual tree, “protect my direct report”. This was having negative consequences on the performance of the team, it widened the power differential, and was degrading a relationship which had once been strong.
Through our work together, my client began to zoom out. They identified things like:
Once my client started seeing the landscape from this vantage point – what was working well, what wasn’t, what was most important – the forest – their options started to open up. It was from here they could dive back down into the trees to answer questions like:
The conversations between my client and the director changed drastically & the dynamic that resulted was tremendous. The increase in transparency led to more trust, and the approach of “partnership” allowed the director to self-identify and execute on areas of impact. Further, my client felt relief in no longer having to act as a self-appointed gate keeper and could engage more openly with their team.
Everybody in the picture was happier, more aligned to the purpose of the organization and were able to use their skills to make forward progress.
As you navigate your challenging decisions, it is helpful to zoom out and look at the forest before you identify which details – which trees – to focus on.
For integrated career and life decisions, look across these segments:
For leadership decisions, the following segments are important areas to keep in mind:
Everything is a matter of perspective – we have to remember that there is both the forest and that it’s made up of the trees. Seeing the forest helps us scope the problem and understand the landscape. This allows us to dig down & focus on the key details.
Some questions to consider:
What’s challenging for you these days? A career decision? A difficult conversation? Staying motivated? Figuring out what’s next?
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