Sources and Sinks: Which are you?
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We all know people who are energizing to talk to. Whatever the topic, they are full of energy. They make ideas better. Moods improve when they are around. And there are people who fall into the opposite camp. They always seem to spot the negative thing. They breed pessimism all around. And talking to them is exhausting. It is not surprising that people are excited to talk to the one and avoid at all costs talking to the other. Understanding which one you are can be a critical element to determining how to best navigate your career.
Sources (of energy) are typically well known in the organization. People fight to get them on their teams. They tend to be in high demand because they make everyone around them better. The vocabulary of the sources is dominated by words like “Yes, and…”. They take ideas and tend to see how to make them better. That’s not to say that they are not realistic, but rather than their natural inclination is to make things work.
Sources tend to be the optimists in the organization. This shouldn’t be mistaken for people who are the consummate “Yes Men”. Saying yes for the sake of saying yes is different than being a source of energy. Sources might look at things critically, but they naturally see the possibilities more than just problems. And when they see problems, they typically default to offering solutions.
As a leader, talking to a source is great. Sources might not believe in the mission any more than their more negative counterbalances, but they sure make things easier to work through. When a source walks into my office, I am open and willing to spend as much time as they would like to spend. Why? Because the ideas are great, but really it’s because I leave the conversation feeling energized. And when I am in the middle of my own heinous deadlines or dealing with the drudgery of leading a project, I value energy more than anything.
Sinks are another game entirely.
We all know who the sinks are. They always know all the problems in the organization. They can recount with remarkable clarity where the issues reside. They can tell you precisely why something is not ideal. It’s not that they are malicious or even ill-intentioned. They have every bit as much loyalty to the mission as the sources. From their perspective, they are just trying to help out.
The problem with sinks, though, is that it can be tiring to talk to them. As a leader, I can tell you that I frequently don’t have the answer to everything. Truth be told, I am just like anyone else. I might be privy to slightly more information because I am higher in the organization, but I am not uniquely capable of driving a company. Sure, I might be more decisive, but that is more about confidence than capability.
And leaders, like everyone else, have a need to recharge our batteries. But we cannot just unload on people, because as leaders, our moods impact people in sometimes profound ways. A leader I respect once told me that leaders need to be particularly careful about their body language and facial expressions. People watch leaders. and you might be just having a hard day, but someone will see that and read a lot more into it than you necessarily mean.
So leaders end up seeing all of the same things, but we simply cannot vent with the kind of freedom that others enjoy. We might go weeks or even months without really being able to kvetch openly. The only reprieve we have is when the sources come to us and infect us with their energy.
As an individual, this means that sources are more likely to get counsel with leaders. And one the things that really helps accelerate a career is executive access. Those that have access will be more likely to be invited inside leadership circles, more likely to get mentoring, and ultimately more likely to rise through the ranks of middle management faster than their peers.
As you look at your own personality, are you a sink or a source? If you are a sink, you might need to regulate yourself a bit. As a general rule of thumb, you likely don’t want to be negative more than one out of every four times you talk to senior management. This isn’t always true, but be particularly sensitive to it when you keep pointing out the same issues. You will also get away with more when you bring solutions to pair with your observations. It is highly likely that you are not the only one that see issues. It could be, though, that answers are not obvious. Merely pointing out issues does very little to move the ball meaningfully forward. Bring solutions.
If you are a source, you ought to take advantage of your innate strengths. Volunteer to join project teams, particularly brainstorming sessions. Speak up during meetings. Be vocal and let your energy raise your profile. You will be the better off for it. You just need the confidence.
Whatever your natural disposition, you can be successful. You just need to be self-aware, and plan your engagements accordingly. Nothing happens by chance. You can absolutely shape your future by being thoughtful about how and when to engage.