The air had suddenly been sucked out of the boardroom. Jonathan, the executive coach the Dropkick leadership team had hired, had just told Denise that her face was loud.
Betty looked across the room at Colin, her co-founder and partner at Dropkick through most of the last ten years, and saw that he was every bit as stunned as she was.
Denise had been the first employee at Dropkick, and had been an invaluable asset throughout. Her ability to wear multiple hats had helped them weather many storms, and she was absolutely brilliant. There was not a single engineering problem that she hadn’t been able to solve, and any time the team had brought her some new issue that needed to be addressed to move forward, she completed it — quickly, efficiently, and under budget.
In many ways, Denise was a rockstar. When the leadership team had decided to create a seat for a leader of development, Denise had been the natural candidate. Denise had performed her job well, being quick, smart and efficient, but her people skills were fairly lacking. She was often the dark cloud in any meeting, shooting down new and innovative ideas, and generally being fairly unwilling to look beyond what she already knew. She had a tendency towards being condescending and arrogant whenever someone offered a differing point of view, and people found her hard to work around.
Finally, to Jonathan’s most recent comment, her face often gave away her feelings, even when she was trying to be on good behaviour, creating an elephant in the room for everyone to tiptoe around. Rather than tackle her head on, or risk having an idea shot down, people tended to clam up around her.
Jonathan had just called out that elephant.
Denise’s face was doing calisthenics. She was clearly caught off guard being told she had a “loud face”, and was searching for the correct way to compose herself while everyone else watched.
Jonathan simply watched.
Denise settled her face on a midway point between scowling and curiosity.
Jonathan repeated himself, “Are you aware of how loud your face is?”
“I don’t know what you mean”, Denise snapped back.
Jonathan addressed the room, “So, if we’re going to develop your leadership, you’re going to need to be honest with each other. Leadership isn’t about tiptoeing around each other and hoping that you change, and it’s not about resigning yourself to each other’s character defects.” He paused and turned to Denise, “And just to be clear, I’m not calling your loud face a character defect — I think it’s a real attribute, if you can own it”.
Jonathan continued, “Have you guys noticed how loud Denise’s face is?” He looked around the room and got confirming nods from everyone. Eldin tried to combine nodding his head with taking a drink of water in the hopes that it would keep Denise from seeing him, but managed to dribble down his chin in the process and rushed to grab a napkin.
Jonathan laughed, “See Denise, Eldin’s so frightened of your face that he’s drooling on himself.” The tension in the room eased just a little bit, and even Denise laughed a little, in spite of herself. Throughout the laughter, Jonathan kept focused on Denise, and picked right back up once it had died down.
“So look, are you actually unaware of the expression on your face?”
Denise responded slowly, unsure of where the conversation was going, “Yes… I mean, no, I’m not unaware. Well, maybe?”
Jonathan nodded, “Great. Let’s find out the impact it’s having.”
Jonathan turned to the rest of the room, “What’s the story you’re making up about Denise’s expression?” The room sat silent for a while, and Jonathan waited patiently. As tension mounted, Colin noticed that Jonathan didn’t do anything about it other than sit there quietly, waiting for someone to go first. His patience was excruciating.
Colin eventually spoke, “I feel like she doesn’t want to be here and thinks she’s better than this.”
Denise’s scowl returned.
Jonathan acknowledged Colin’s willingness to go first, and then canvassed the rest of the room. He turned next to Eldin, “How about you Aquaman?”
The room laughed, but the intensity of the conversation remained. Colin took particular notice of how Jonathan’s humour created levity, but never detracted or distracted from the conversation or the energy. He made a note to ask Jonathan about this later.
Eldin, feeling a little easier now, offered, “I feel like she hates me. I never feel like I’m doing enough, and I’m scared that she wants me off this team.”
Denise’s expression shifted from scowl to hurt. Eldin and Denise had a longstanding partnership at Dropkick, being the two newest additions to the leadership team, and they had dubbed themselves the two mavericks. Denise loved Eldin and his commitment to doing good work — she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
Jonathan finished up with the rest of the members in the room, getting similar feedback from each of them. He turned back to Denise.
“Okay, so, that’s the impact of your loudface. Is that what you’re intending?”
Denise responded defensively, “Well, obviously not. I think Eldin’s awesome and I hate that that’s what he thinks I think. But then, what do I do, just not have any expression at all? Just smile all the time?” Denise adjusted her face into a rictus.
Jonathan laughed, “Well, /definitely/ not that.” Despite herself, Denise broke into laughter along with him.
Jonathan jumped in, “Oh my god, yes! See, that’s what I’m talking about Denise!” He turned to the rest of the room, “Did you notice that?!”
“Denise, when you smile, you light up a room. Your face is LOUD, just like you’ve probably noticed my voice is loud. People take notice of us. You can be frustrated by this fact, you can wear it like a burden, you can remain oblivious to it, you can claim it’s not your fault and say “I just have #loudface”, or you can be a leader and get responsible for it.”
Betty saw something on Denise’s face that she wasn’t used to seeing: genuine curiosity.
Jonathan carried on, “Most people remain oblivious to this stuff, because no one is willing, nor able, to point the truth to them. Rather than tell you that you have a serious case of loudface and what the impact is, they just tiptoe around you and hope that the eye of Sauron doesn’t glare at them. That’s fine, but it’s not leadership, and it’s currently in the way of what you’re here to create.”
Denise was nodding. She was clearly open in this moment, but also still trying to figure it out.
“So… okay, I mean, what do I do? Just smile a lot because that way people feel good around me? I’ve tried just having a poker face in the past, but that’s exhausting and eventually I resent people for not being able to express myself.”
Betty looked at Jonathan and was struck by the love she felt from him toward Denise — when she had worked with Denise in the past, she found it a challenge just to empathize with her, let alone appreciate who she was.
“That solution makes /complete/ sense. If your loudface scares people, then either put it on mute, or turn it to the 24/7 good vibes channel. The thing is that both of those approaches are geared towards shutting down your own expression, and that’s going to create resentment for you, and train your team to stop expressing themselves as well.”
Denise face was now displaying genuine awareness, and some emotion too.
“Oh my god… they totally are doing that. It feels like we’re flatlining lately, emotionally and energetically.”
Jonathan clapped gleefully, “YES! So that’s part of the consequence of this. I have good news and bad news. The good news is that we can address this, and there’s so much more available for you. AND, the world /needs/ your loudface. The more you learn to own it and be responsible for it, the more you can use it as the beautiful gift it is. The bad news is that this will feel frustrating for a while as you learn new skills. You’ll be like my dog walking on ice.”
Denise nodded, “I would like that.”
Betty felt emotion well up inside of her. In all her time trying to work, lead and coach Denise, she’d never felt her this way. Denise was open and there was a genuine desire to shift. What really struck Betty was that she was present, maybe for the first time in years, to Denise’s tenderness. Seeing and feeling Denise open to this possibility humbled Betty. If she could see Denise in this kind of light, she felt that anything could change on their team.
Jonathan, not missing a beat, turned to her, smiled warmly, and said “Keep feeling that.”
He turned back to Denise. “First, let’s check in with you. Eldin said he felt like you didn’t like him, he could never do good enough, and that you want him off the team. Is that how you feel?”
Eldin started to inconspicuously reach for his water bottle, then remembered how that went last time and withdrew his hand. Jonathan turned to Eldin briefly with a smile and said, “Good call.”
Denise blurted out, “No! Not at all. I love Eldin. If I’m honest, I feel closer to him than anyone else on this team. I mean, I’d really like for him to own more of his power, but I think he’s incredible and does great work. I guess I also wish he wasn’t so hard on himself.”
Jonathan nodded, “Great! So just notice that the message your face is conveying is different than what you’re intending. Here’s what I want you to practice over the next couple of weeks: first, just notice the expression on your face. Start paying attention to that. You don’t need to do anything about it — I just want you to start bringing this more into your awareness.”
Denise made notes.
Jonathan turned to the rest of the team, “Look, Denise is up for this, you can tell — but she can’t do this alone. None of us can. She needs your help. You can help her by checking in with her. No more tiptoeing around loudface. When you see an expression on her face and are making it mean something, your job is to ask her about it.” He turned back to Denise, “Are you okay if they do that?”
She nodded vigorously, “Yes, totally, that would be a huge help!”
“Great. Second, you’re going to start practising blurting.” Jonathan paused, and turned to the whole leadership team. “The first stage of developing leadership is blurting. We have to get things out of her head and into the space. You’re lucky with Denise — her face is already blurting for her, but she’s keeping her words in. Step one is for us to get her sharing what is so. Once she’s got the hang of that, the next step of leadership is responsibility and calibration — but for now, we just want her blurting.”
He turned back to Denise, “When I say you’re going to practise blurting, I don’t mean you say what you feel like saying and ignore how people feel about it. Your job is to speak your truth, rather than simply wearing it on your face, and then stay open to hear the impact of that with everyone. And thirdly, you’re going to check in with yourself and see if the impact you had is the impact you wanted to have.”
Denise interjected, “But what if the impact on them isn’t my fault? Like, what if they just made that up about me and it’s got nothing to do with me?”
Jonathan nodded, “As a leader, it’s never your /fault/, and it’s always your responsibility. It doesn’t matter what your intention was — what matters is your impact. You can sit there and wait for everyone to change the way they hear you, or you can step up and get responsible for your impact. That’s what a leader does. Are you committed to your leadership?”
Denise was emphatic in your response, “Hell yes! I’m up for this game!”
Betty was stunned. This was not the Denise who had entered the room this morning. And this was definitely not the leadership she had read about in books and in the courses she was taking.
Jonathan turned to her, and Betty noticed the tears in his eyes. His face didn’t show sadness — just genuine love.
“Now, Betty. Let’s talk about what showed up there for you.”