Isn’t it amazing how little things can make or break our day?
Monday morning an email made its way into my inbox where the subject heading alone made me cringe.
It promised a few unhappy hours ploughing through complex matters without deriving any benefit from it, only to be rewarded by a lose-lose conversation with the sender at the end. Hurray – what a way to start the week.
Could I ignore it? ‘Accidentally’ delete it?
If in doubt, procrastinate. I decided to just get on with my agenda as planned.
Our brain has a mind of its own
Yet, things like these have the wonderful tendency to stay with us and push themselves into the forefront of our minds. It had started as a mere nuisance. Over the cause of the next few hours my mind, superficially occupied, but clearly with a couple of devious brain cells to spare, had turned it into an insult. A rather personal one.
How dare anybody suggest I do something like this? How little must the sender think of me? Surely they wouldn’t dream of sending such a thoughtless, generic message to anybody they truly valued?
Tales of woe – hugely biased
Over lunch I let rip to a colleague: “You just don’t do something like this! Not unless you don’t mind alienating them. So, they clearly don’t think highly of me.”
He was baffled. To him, what had happened was a potential nuisance, but he could absolutely not see the insult, the slight, the snub.
He then proceeded to tell me about his ‘awful’ morning. How he had had an important client presentation that he spent all weekend getting ready for. And how he had failed. “Failed – in which way?” I inquired. Well he had mixed up two important figures during the Q&A and not caught the mistake himself. Another colleague had to correct him.
Silently I wondered what would have been worse for me. The mistake, or the fact that it had been so obvious – to a colleague and thereby to the client.
Instead I asked: “So, that’s just one small bit of the presentation. Mistakes happen in the heat of the moment, especially, when we want to do really well. How did the rest of the presentation go?” “Oh, really well”, he replied strangely listless. “They asked us to pitch again in the second round. And they specifically asked if I would be the project lead from our end before they re-invited us. The head of their team said to me as they left: ‘I much look forward to hearing more of your ideas. They are very convincing’. She probably just wanted me to feel better. She’s nice like this.”
Now was my turn to be baffled. How did he manage to twist events so that they appeared in the least favourable light for him? Why was he focusing on the negative? Why was he not gleaming with pride that he had gotten us into the next round?
Why are we so ‘hung up’ on negative interpretations of events?
Our brains are curious things. Why are they so ‘hung up’ on potentially negative things?
Because, according to David Rock’s superbly researched article “Managing with the brain in mind” (Strategy+Business, issue 56, autumn 2009) the human brain is a “social organ”.
Our survival – literally – depends on acceptance
How others view us matters.
We spend far more time on worrying that they might not see us favourably than contemplating what it is that they specifically like about us. Our very survival as mammals depends on acceptance. Being caught up in that worry trap is, as the article explains, “both mentally taxing and deadly to the productivity of a person. It uses up oxygen and glucose from the blood, diverted from other parts of the brain including the working memory function, which processes new information and ideas.”
If we feel (mis)judged, our productivity and creativity suffers
So, that’s our output, our creativity and our fun at work we put at risk by paying disproportionate attention to how others might (!) find fault with us.
Implications for leaders
Rock wrote his article for leaders, wanting them to see that “the ability to intentionally address the social brain in the service of optimal performance will be a distinguishing leadership capability in the years ahead.”
In other words: If you know how to act so that your team members don’t waste time and mental capacity worrying what you think of them, as they feel secure in the knowledge that they are recognised for all the right things, you are on to something.
A way to get out of the worry trap
Yet is there something we can individually do, when we find ourselves in the worry trap?
In 1955 Dr Albert Ellis devised the Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy. It sounds like an oxymoron, yet it enables individuals to examine and challenge unhelpful thinking. The basic assumption is that if you straighten out the thinking, the emotions will follow.
This is all the more important as worry renders us helpless, passive. All we can think of in the grip of worry is avoidance tactics. So, I won’t deal with the email request, my colleague will not prepare for the 2nd round as whole-heartedly as he might.
Start arguing properly with your gremlins
The link to ‘helplessness’ got Martin Seligman, guru of ‘learned helplessness’ turned authority on ‘learned optimism’ and founder of positive psychology onto the case. He built on Ellis’ work and suggests to try the ABCDE technique (in: Learned Optimism. How to change your mind and your life).
The power of this technique comes from the fact that it makes you aware of just how unhelpful your thinking is becoming (a great chat over lunch with the right kind of colleague clearly has a similarly uplifting effect).
A stands for the adversity. We get annoying emails. We make mistakes. B stands for belief. This is the crunch point. Do we allow ourselves to believe that this message is an insult, or that an earnest compliment is just a sweetener after a humiliating but inconsequential mistake? C stands for consequences. What do we do as a result of the belief? Delete the email? Stop short of preparing properly for the second round? D stands for disputation. Have a proper argument with yourself. Is it likely that the email sender wanted to snub me? More probable, they have some pressures of their own that influenced the wording of the offensive message. Is it likely that my colleague’s professional reputation hinges on getting two figures mixed up late into a pitch meeting and under pressure? E stands for energisation. Having disputed your own thoughts, checked them for any evidence, alternatives and usefulness you will have climbed out of the worry trap and be ready for your next conscious, active move. Stuff happens. It’s how you re-act to it that matters.
Do for yourself what you can easily do for others
What’s really interesting here is how easily we can do this for others. So, if our brain is prone to take things a bit too personal, how about we counter-act that with a huge dose of healthy perspective and mischievous modesty: Do I really matter enough for people to spend time concocting schemes of how to best ruin my Monday morning? I thought not. So, where is that dreaded attachment? Let me tackle it here and now and be done with it.
What are your best ways to re-gain perspective and re-boot your desire to act?