Free your leadership by challenging assumed constraints

BY: Susan Fowler

PUBLISHED: June 28, 2023

Initially posted on SmartBrief, June 28, 2023

As a kid one summer, I captured grasshoppers in a glass jar. I was transfixed watching the mechanics of them jump. I remember the ping as they flung themselves against the tin lid I’d punched holes in so they could breathe. Before going to bed, not wanting to wake up to a jarful of dead grasshoppers, I removed the lid, fully expecting them to hop to freedom. But the oddest thing happened. They could pop right out, but they only jumped as high as the lid had been before I removed it. I finally had to dump them from the jar to save their lives.

Years later, in the book I co-authored with Ken Blanchard, “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager,” and Self Leadership training experiences, I incorporated what I learned from the grasshoppers,* using the term “assumed constraint.” 

Assumed constraint: A belief that limits your experience

A moment of clarity recently rocked my world when I realized I had succumbed to assumed constraints — continually hitting my head on a metaphorical ceiling of my own making. By failing to challenge assumed constraints, I was limiting my own opportunities, stifling the creative problem-solving and innovation of my entire team and thwarting the growth of my startup organization.

How to challenge assumed constraints

Practicing what you teach can be the hardest lesson to learn. So with with my vulnerability on display, I hope the example from challenging my own assumed constraint serves to both guide and inspire you to challenge yours. 

1. Identify a potential assumed constraint to challenge after brainstorming barriers holding you, your organization or your team from progressing on goals and dreams.

For example:

  • We don’t have enough people (or money, or time) to …
  • We can’t retain people because our entire industry suffers from high turnover.
  • I’ll never gain the authority I need to influence my organization because I’m not part of the “in” group.

I discovered a slew of barriers I believed were holding my company, Mojo Moments, and me back. I chose to challenge this one: 

Our sales cycle suffers because we’re fighting an uphill battle to change the minds of leaders and HR professionals who are stuck with outdated approaches to leadership based on leader-centric, command-and-control and top-down management theories proven ineffective, untrue or counter-productive to people’s optimal motivation. 

2. Flip the potential assumed constraint.

Now take your assumed constraint and flip it to state the exact opposite. My flipped assumed constraint:

Our sales cycle benefits from working with enlightened leaders and HR professionals who are hungry for alternatives to outdated theories of motivation and leadership approaches they know aren’t effective. 

3. Be proactive through a positive statement of action with a rationale for its relevance, meaning and significance.

Inspired by your flipped assumption, craft an action statement that leads to a values-based and purpose-full outcome. My positive action statement:

We will focus our marketing and sales efforts on the promise of optimal motivation and unlocking psychological sense to promote workplaces where people can flourish and achieve significant results simultaneously.  

Get ready for what happens when you challenge your assumed constraints

For decades, I’ve waged war on antiquated beliefs about motivation — focusing my efforts on explaining and proving what’s wrong with traditional leadership competencies and approaches to workplace motivation. My efforts were founded on the belief that most leaders and HR professionals are stuck and unwilling to change. But challenging an assumed constraint means confronting whether your belief is real or assumed. The belief that jumping off a 100-foot cliff will result in physical distress or death is more real than assumed. But like me, you might experience a significant aha moment when you consider these questions:

  • Are the beliefs underlying my assumptions true? 
  • How do I know they’re true? 
  • What would be different if what I believed wasn’t true?

What might happen if I believed the world was full of leaders longing for alternatives to motivation? How would our marketing efforts change by focusing on attracting leaders who are hungry for empirically sound, fresh and wildly relevant approaches to motivational leadership? Letting go of my belief that we had to combat, convince and cajole leaders from their outdated practices revealed entirely new opportunities for helping them change.

Through this process, I realized how tired I was from the constant uphill climb. Are you exhausted from battles you don’t need to fight because you haven’t challenged the assumptions that led you into combat in the first place? When I flipped my assumed constraint, something miraculous happened. I experienced the vitality generated by unleashing a new perspective, recognizing a myriad of options and gaining the freedom to explore new approaches for marketing and selling our work. More important, to me, anyway, is how my energetic shift has affected our entire team.

This newfound vitality shouldn’t have surprised me. When you challenge an assumed constraint, you fulfill the three psychological needs required for optimal motivation. 

  1. You create choice. Assumed constraints limit your options and thus your entire experience. Flipping an assumed constraint opens up a universe of possibilities.
  2. You create connection. When you craft a positive action statement aligned with values or a noble purpose, you manifest meaning and significance — a potent way to fulfill your psychological need for connection.
  3. You create competence. By identifying an assumed constraint, flipping it, and crafting a positive statement of action, you tap into your expertise to make the statement a reality. You are more clear-eyed about the skills and resources you have and those you might gain through the process of taking positive action.

The grand irony for me is that by challenging my assumed constraint about how my company and I approach our work on motivation, I shifted my own motivation! I hope you’ll try this simple, yet potentially profound way to generate the vitality to fight the good fight and liberate yourself from what’s holding you back.

*Because of the wealth of information and dramatic examples tied to the detrimental effects of elephant training that led to the banning of elephant acts in circuses, I replaced the grasshopper metaphor with “elephant thinking” to describe the importance of challenging assumed constraints.

(Image credit: erhui1979/iStock Images)

Susan Fowler, CEO of Mojo Moments, is the bestselling author of “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing” Her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals” presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard.

Subscribe to Mojo Moments Newsletter