We have all been there. Those moments when city life feels too full—too many people, too much noise, too much everything. We long for some peace and quiet and a chance to regroup.
For most of us the immediate answer is not a holiday. We have families to care for, and bills to pay. That means we need to be able to work with our feelings of being overwhelmed by the city from within ourselves—to find inner space even when there does not seem to be any on offer.
When we feel overwhelmed it’s easy to withdraw, to close in on ourselves and try to put up a wall. This tends to solidify our feelings and cut us off from managing our feelings. To cope with feeling overwhelmed in the city in the long term, we need to be more daring.
Here’s some things we can try.
1. Take a moment
Think about how you begin your day. You jump out of bed to get started on the list of things that need to be done—get ready for work, hurry the kids up for school. You rush into the shower but instead of being present in the running water and enjoying the moment, you are thinking of that conversation you had with your boss the day before or worrying about getting your son to the dentist after school.
Research carried out at Harvard University in 2010 showed that for almost half of our waking hours we are thinking about something different from what we are doing. In other words, we are not fully present for many of our actions. This means that we are neither bringing our full resources, or, appreciating the moment we are experiencing. As life is uncertain, the only moment we can be sure of is the present moment—so it is ironic that we so frequently miss it.
Try to break up your day by taking short moments to nourish yourself. City life offers many good times to do this are when you are on tram, or bus, waiting in the queue at the supermarket, or changing from one activity to another.
Pause in what you are doing
Bring your attention to your body
How do you feel?
What is your mood?
Take a few slow, deep breaths
Feel the richness of the moment you are living right now
Continue with what you were doing
2. Stay open and curious
City life offers many opportunities to be open and curious. When you are going about your day you pass all kinds of people, lots of different activities and situations. Perhaps there are buskers in the metro, maybe you see a mother struggling to get her small children on to a tram or a bunch of visiting students laughing and excited about their visit to your city.
Cities are usually vibrant places with lots of energy. When we are tired or stressed it can be hard to go with the flow. We want to shut ourselves off from the noise and bustle. Instead, if we are being present, we can simply see what is happening around us. It’s not necessary to get into all kinds of opinions and judgements—we can just notice. We can stay open to new experiences, to new ideas and let them unfold around us without resisting. That way the activity can nourish and engage us, instead of exhausting us.
Try taking the time to look about you.
Look up, rather than looking down at the sidewalk.
Do you remember when you were a child being told, ‘Patience is a virtue’? It sounded really boring, didn’t it? Certainly, not a way to get what you want and to cut through the crowd. It took me a long time to appreciate the value of patience and to recognise the extent to which it eases stress.
There are so many moments in an average day in a city life where impatience can flare up—standing in line in a shop, waiting your turn in a café only to have someone barge in ahead of you. When everyone is in a hurry there are so many moments where people can act thoughtlessly—walking in big groups on the sidewalk, pushing you out of their way to get past. An angry reaction can rear up even when we are in a good mood—if we are tired, or worried it happens even easier.
The thing is, going with our impatience is exhausting and the emotions that impatience stirs up, such as anger and resentment, are not good for us. They increase our stress levels and can lead to higher blood pressure and heart problems. Positive emotions like kindness and tolerance, on the other hand, do promote wellbeing.
Being able to respond to challenging situations with patience is not a passive activity. It requires self-awareness and a capacity for seeing things from other people’s point of view. It involves flexibility and a degree of openness.
Next time your patience is challenged:
Try taking a moment to come home to yourself
Open up your awareness to view the whole situation you are in
Be aware of the needs of other people around you
Don’t focus exclusively on your own agenda
Engage your sense of humour
4. Do something for someone else
A couple of weeks ago I was on my way home and feeling pretty tired. It was a relief when the tram showed up. As it happened, I had a lot on my mind. A work project I was working on was taking much longer to compete than I had anticipated, and it was causing me concern. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a young mother with two small children—a toddler and a baby. I didn’t pay so much attention because of the problem I was working with in my mind.
It turned out that we got off at the same stop and the mother had all the struggle of collecting her buggy and getting the baby into it. As they moved off, I noticed that one of the children had dropped a soft toy on the pavement. Everybody was too busy to see. Luckily, I could pick it up and return it before it got trampled. The toddler say the toy and grabbed for it joyfully—it must have been a favourite—and the mother gave me a grateful smile.
In those short moments, my mood changed completely. I went from being self-focused and worried to feeling a great sense of wellbeing. Taking a moment to help someone else lightened my mood and helped me to feel less oppressed by my own concerns.
It’s all too easy as you go through an average day in your city life to put your head down and carry on. We are busy and we want to get on with what we have to do.
Even if we don’t see an opportunity to do something for someone else, we can at least smile. There is more to smiling than we think. It helps us to feel more open and accessible and it is pleasant for other people too.
6. Be grateful
Research is showing that people who make gratitude an active part of their lives are happier. It’s relatively easy to feel grateful for big things like promotion or moving to a new house but it’s harder to feel grateful on a daily basis.
If we look around and pay attention there is plenty that we can find to be grateful for in city life. Noticing the richness that we have in our lives is nourishing and will help us to feel stronger and more able to cope.
Here’s some ideas:
Before you go to sleep think of something that happened in your day that you feel grateful for
Keep a gratitude journal
Have a gratitude jar in the kitchen where everyone can contribute
Hold a gratitude session once a week with your family, where each person shares something that they were grateful for during the week.
7. Remember common humanity
It helps to remember that all the people in your street, in your neighbourhood, in your city want to be happy and they don’t want pain. It’s a fact of life. Maybe some people have strange ways of trying to be happy, but they still do. The longing for happiness is part of being human. Yet we all know that life can be hard and difficult times come for all of us. When city life seems too much to handle, remember to see all the people as a collection of individuals—who will have a lot in common with you on a fundamental human level.
Here’s a simple exercise you could try.
Pay attention to the people you pass in the street
Notice if you make a comment in your mind about someone
Be aware of the people you feel drawn towards and the ones you do not like the look of
Try to imagine how they might see you as you pass them by
Take a moment to be aware that everyone you see wants their day to go well and to avoid any unpleasantness —just as you do
Then realize that inevitably for some people things will go wrong during the day —let that feeling touch you and help you to feel a common humanity with your fellow travellers.
What’s it like for you as you arrive at work to start your work day? Are you gritting your teeth to face a problem that’s waiting for you? Is there a work colleague that you dread meeting? Are you interested and stimulated by the thought of the work day ahead, or are you already feeling bored? Whatever is going on for you, the chances are that your mood as you go into work will impact your whole day. If we feel that we are gearing up to force ourselves into ‘work mode’ then before we even see what the day holds for us, we’re putting ourselves under stress.
Instead of being poised to respond to the demands of our work day, we have already put ourselves on the defensive. Check out these four ways to start your work day with a difference.
Today really is the first day of the rest of your life
Actually, we don’t know what our work day will bring even though we might think we do. Sure, it’s likely that we’ve walked in through the entrance to our work many times; we’ve seen our workplace every day for quite some time, the faces of our colleagues are familiar to us. All this is true, but it is also true that we’ve never gone into work today before. We’ve never greeted our colleagues on this day. Our job has not unfolded exactly as we will do it on this present day. The trouble is we think because things have gone along in a particular way in the past, we know how things will go along today and in the future.
We can change all that in a heartbeat. Think of an early spring morning and that feeling of freshness and renewal. There is no reason not to have that kind of sparkle in any given day. By staying open to all possibilities and being willing to be available to whatever happens, we can feel vibrant and alert even with things we’ve done many times before.
Switch off the automatic pilot
Research carried out by Gilbert and Killingsworth at Harvard University in 2010 shows that for almost 50% of our waking hours we are not thinking about the thing we are doing at that time—we’re thinking about something else. Almost 50%% of our waking hours—that is almost half our lives.During times like these we are not fully present to ourselves, to our environment, and to our colleagues! It’s as if we are going through a lot of what we do on automatic pilot. We’re going through the motions but not fully experiencing what we are doing.
If we are not fully present, then things lose their sparkle. We are not noticing the details of our lives, the subtle changes that each moment brings. If we go into work with our minds full of a problem we need to solve, or a disagreement we had with a colleague, or even just the boredom of a day we would rather spend at home then we are robbing ourselves of the chance to appreciate the possibilities that the day holds. Perhaps our boss has a lead on the problem that’s troubling us; maybe our colleague is looking to apologize for their irritation and maybe it’s someone’s birthday and there’s cake to share! We don’t know but we could give the day the benefit of the doubt.
It is not just the day we can give the benefit of the doubt to, but our work colleagues could also benefit from a bit of friendly understanding. We might have all kinds of thoughts and ideas about the people we work with—she’s friendly, he’s a pain, why is she so bossy? Generally speaking, we divide up the people we work with into three broad categories—the ones we like, the ones we don’t get on with and the ones we are not interested in. Funnily enough, after a while it is quite hard for people to move from one category to another.
The bottom line is that we all just want to be happy, to manage our work as best we can and to avoid difficulties and pain. Whoever we are, we pretty much have that in common. Bearing this in mind when someone irritates us or has a different approach from us it can help to remember this. Just as we have anxieties and insecurities, so do they. Just as we want to be successful in our work, so do they. Just as we want people to like and respect us, so do they.
It’s worth asking ourselves how we might appear to the people we work with. Could we be one of the people they dread meeting when they come to work? Is it possible that there are people who are not comfortable with how we behave? If so, we would like to be given the benefit of the doubt ourselves—then it helps if we can do that for others.
Give yourself a break – lots of them
So, when you go into work the next time try to notice the feelings you are carrying with you—be aware of your assumptions about how you think the day will go and the worries that go along with those assumptions. Then try to dissolve it all and simply allow yourself to be present and to notice what is actually going on—your breath entering and leaving your body, your feet touching the ground as you walk, the feeling of the air on your face. Take in the weather and allow yourself to see the sky. Observe all the other people around you setting out on their working day—make an effort to see them as individuals, rather than a crowd.
All this only needs to take a few moments but in those few moments by allowing yourself to become present you are cutting your cycle of stress and opening up new possibilities for how you live your working day.
Something that happened to me the other day
Something happened to me recently that really brought this home to me. It was not work-related. There was some maintenance work going on in our apartment block. I did not take so much notice until we woke up one Saturday to find all the water had been turned off with no warning. There had been a mix up with letting people know and the correct notification had not gone out. There I was—no shower, no morning tea, no normal routine. It was horrible! We were warned the water could be off for 5 hours but happily, within two hours it was back on.
Those first moments of seeing the water rush out of the taps, flushing the lavatory and standing under the shower were so precious. All of them ordinary activities that happen day after day without me paying special attention to any of them. The shock of them not being there brought home to me that nothing is ordinary in itself—it’s how we choose to view it. It is actually a miracle to have easily-accessible running water in my home and when I come off the automatic pilot, I can see that clearly.
The underlying truth is that we might think we more or less know what to expect from our work day but we don’t. Anything can happen. Each moment really is all that we can count on, and it is incredibly precious.
Try answering these three questions to bring sparkle to your work day
As you leave the house: remind yourself that really is the first day of the rest of your life.
With that in mind, how do you want to set off for work?
While you are on your commute: try switching off the automatic pilot and being present to each stage of your journey.
What are you noticing that you have never noticed before?
As you arrive at work: bring to mind all the other people entering your work place and how, just like you, they want to have a good day.
What does that change for you?
It would be great to hear your answers in the comments section.
Do you cycle to work, or drive in your car? Maybe you take a tram, or bus? Perhaps you use the metro or ride a train. Whichever way you make the journey, your commute is a solid chunk of time twice a day, every working day. You’re not at home but you’re not in work either. The time is your own but not really. You’re free to be as you wish but within strict parameters. On the way in to work, the tasks of the day are already pressing for your attention. On the way home, anticipating a pleasant evening competes with processing what has gone on during the day.
Maybe we choose to use the time travelling to fend off the thought of the working day ahead by catching up on some good reading. Perhaps we shut ourselves off from the crowd by turning up the volume on our headphones. I hear of an increasing number of people who watch Netflix during their journeys. Alternatively, we could use this time to steal a march on our working day by scanning through our emails on our phone, or tablet and running through the schedule for the day.
Taking a fresh look at your commute
Here’s another idea—to take charge of this time by yourself and use it for your wellbeing.
In research carried out in 2010 at Harvard University it was found that people spend almost 50% of their time thinking about something different to what they are doing and that it undermines their happiness. One of the most common times when people were ruminating in this way was on their commute.
So how do we take a fresh look at our commute?
A lot of the people that I work with, who are interested in making meditation part of their lives, find it difficult to make the time they need for meditation. Quite a few are experimenting with using their commute as a time to do a meditation session. Some use a meditation app and listen to a guided meditation. Others simply wait to find a seat, and then sit quietly and focus on their breath.
Here is a very simple way to do this.
Try being mindful and come home to yourself
Take a few moments to check in with your breathing—pay attention to the sensation of your breath entering and leaving your body
Notice how your body is feeling—do you have any places that feel tired, or weary, or are you feeling fresh and up for anything?
Check in on your mood—are you feeling good about the day ahead, or is there something worrying you?
Try to become aware of the thoughts passing through your mind—notice how quickly they change and turn into other thoughts
Just register all this—try not to get drawn into feelings of liking, or not liking any of it.
What does this accomplish?
When we connect with ourselves in this way we are tuning into the present moment and getting in touch with how things are for us. We try to do this without judgement, without wanting to change anything—just with the aim of coming home to ourselves and settling our minds.
This will help us to move into our work situation in a more relaxed and stable mood ready for whatever comes our way. On the way home, it helps us to shake off the concerns of the day and get ready to spend an evening with our friends and family.
Consider other people as just like you
So much of the stresses and strains of the day come about during our interactions with other people. Often, we focus on the things that separate us from others, when in fact, there is a great deal that we all have in common.
If you still have time on your journey, try to turn your attention to your fellow passengers.
Notice who your neighbours are—take a few moments to scan the compartment, tram or bus and to see as many of the other passengers as you can.
Take note of the thoughts and emotions that pass through your mind as you do this:
—notice if you make a comment in your mind about someone
—notice the people you feel drawn towards and the ones you do not like the look of
Try to imagine how they might see you as you sit, or stand alongside them
Take a moment to be aware that everyone travelling with you wants their day to go well and to avoid any unpleasantness
—just as you do
Then realize that inevitably for some people things will go wrong during the day
—let that feeling touch you and help you to feel a common humanity with your fellow travellers.
What does this accomplish?
Reflecting in this way reminds us that everyone wishes for a happy life and wants to avoid pain and suffering but that pain and suffering are an inevitable part of life. Coping with all this gives a common thread to all our experiences. It enables us to see that however different our interests are, we are all in the same boat. This can help us to develop a feeling of equanimity towards others as we engage in our working day.
It’s up to us
Of course, sometimes we just want to read, or listen to music and that’s completely fine but we do have the option to take a fresh look at our commute. We can prioritise self-care and use this limbo-time in our day to develop our mindfulness—both of ourselves and of others. Spending a bit of time each day in this way will help us to deal with our work from a less stressful perspective. It will also help us to actually relax and enjoy our time when is over for the day.
Do drop a comment in the comment section and let me know if you have tried meditating during your commute and how you got on with it.
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There is a great deal of information out there about meditation. To meditate is very simple but to make time and space for it in our lives can be tough. We need to find simple, practical ways to make it a habit – just like cleaning our teeth – so it becomes a natural part of our daily schedule.
Here is a simple checklist that outlines the main stages of a session of meditation.
Over the next few weeks, we are going to look at each part of the checklist and go into more detail.
Until then, please get in touch and let us know if you think we have missed anything out. We always like to hear from you.
At the height of his career my father occupied a senior position in a local government architectural department. He had a large team that he was responsible for and had to conduct delicate negotiations with councillors and politicians. In spite of his heavy workload my memories are of him coming home for an early dinner every evening. We had uninterrupted weekends and the regular round of holidays during which—because this was pre-technology—he was never pulled away by emails, texts, or reports to finish on his laptop. His work life balance was never in question.
Few of us would recognize such a working environment nowadays. For most of us technology has helped to break down the barriers between work and home. We can work on stuff from home and look for friends and partners at work. We don’t expect to keep one job for life—moving along a predictable career path does not feature as a realistic goal in today’s more fragile economy. Perhaps most important of all, we long for a sense of meaning and purpose at work—a feeling that with our work we can make a real contribution. Daniel Pink in his book, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us reveals that the idea that we work primarily for money is a fallacy. Of course, most of us need to earn a living but we are also motivated by the need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things and to do better for ourselves and for the world. Belinda Parmar in her book, The Empathy Era backs this up with this statement,
69% of Millennials said they would work for less money at a company whose culture and values they admired.
Most surveys in the West reveal that at least half the workforce are unhappy in their jobs. One cross-European study showed that 60% of workers would choose a different career if they could start again.
An article in the Irish Examiner last autumn stated that 82% of Irish workers are experiencing stress at work.
The thing is that the brain interprets the workplace primarily as a social system. This means that it responds to work events with corresponding threat and reward dynamics—a clash with your boss will feel as important to the brain as the need to find food and water. Social pain is processed in the brain in the same way as physical pain, so threats to our status, security and wellbeing at work trigger the same circuits in the brain as threats to our physical safety.
A carrot and stick work environment will enhance this threat response leading to high levels of stress, whereas being treated fairly, feeling that work is meaningful and that one’s contribution is valued will help reduce stress and lead to a more harmonious, productive work environment. A stressful working environment will close down creative possibilities in the mind and have corresponding effects on output.
What are the qualities of a workplace that values wellness?
A work environment that provides good standards of wellbeing is more likely to be made up of people who are more loyal, more productive and provide better customer satisfaction. It is an outdated view that holds that staff wellbeing is an optional extra.
A recent report published by the New Economics Forum, identified five elements that are fundamental to wellness in the workplace.
A healthy work life balance
People want to work hard but not excessively so. Those working more than 35-55 hours a week tend to experience higher levels of stress.
Staff feel their skills are used and acknowledged
People want to contribute according to their level of expertize and to feel they are developing in their jobs. Feeling under-used is a potential source of stress.
People experience some degree of control in their jobs
Few people welcome being micro-managed and want to establish relationships of trust with their managers in order to enjoy a degree of autonomy at work. When this is not present, then stress levels rise.
Healthy work relationships
Workers want to have relationships at work that are supportive, respectful and understand mistakes, while avoiding blame. The impact of positive working relationships can be more influential in job satisfaction that an increase in pay.
After a certain level of remuneration, the benefits to wellbeing decrease but if income falls below a basic level then levels of job satisfaction decrease accordingly.
When these factors are in place, the workplace is more productive, efficient and happy place to work. Employees are less stressed and more satisfied with their jobs. They experience more loyalty and engagement and staff turnover is lower.
How meditation and compassion help in establishing good work life balance
Research conducted at Harvard University in 2010 found that for 46.9% of our waking lives we are thinking about something different from what we are doing and that this mind wandering does not make us happy. This means that for more than half of our time at work we are operating on a kind of automatic pilot and we are not fully present to our own experience or to the people around us. Meditation has been practiced in the Buddhist tradition for more than two thousand years but within the last twenty years research from neuroscientists is providing a foundation for what practitioners of meditation already know—it helps us to develop our attention and to become more present.
When we are able to stay present rather than ruminating on what might or might not happen if we take this or that action, we free up a lot of our energy and attention that would otherwise be caught up in anxiety and stress. We have the capacity to listen to other people without running a commentary in our minds that overshadows what they are wanting to communicate to us. We can manage our own emotions and moods more effectively because we can see more clearly what we are doing. From there it is a natural development to manage relationships with others with more openness and tolerance and less criticism and judgement.
Psychology professor, Jonathan Haidt has coined the term ‘elevation’ to describe the ripple effects of acts of kindness. We do not need to be involved in the action ourselves but simply by witnessing a person perform a kindness for another we experience an uplifting feeling, which makes us feel good. Applied to the workplace actively developing kindness and compassion helps to spread an attitude of service and commitment among staff. As they learn to care for themselves with compassion they extend that heightened understanding to others.
As with meditation, a compassionate working environment is likely to encourage staff to stay in their post, to need less sick leave and experience a reduction in stress.
What can we do as individual employees?
The great news is that meditation and compassion are trainable skills. We can learn to work with our thoughts and emotions in order to achieve a higher degree of wellness at work. The big take-home message from neuroscience our that our brains change according to our experience. As we start to train ourselves in meditation and compassion our brains gradually change to support our new habits.
As we saw earlier, having a sense of being in control at work is a very important factor in wellness and yet for so many of us this seems out of our reach. So much of what we do at work is in response to directives we don’t always agree with, for people with whom we feel we have little in common. The answer here is to learn to take control of ourselves in a fresh and meaningful way. We can pay attention to how we draw on our own strengths, skills and experience. Through training in meditation and compassion we can take control of how we react to any situation—whether it is one we like, or one we have trouble with. We can learn to view our work colleagues in a new light and try giving them the benefit of the doubt rather than feeling frustrated and stressed.
At the heart of it all is learning to view ourselves with kindness and compassion. Instead of demanding an unreachable level of perfection from ourselves we can learn to work with our imperfections and vulnerabilities with mindfulness and kindness. This gives us a stable foundation from which to reach out to other people in the same way.
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Very few of us are likely to set out for work with the intention of upsetting people. Mostly we want to do our job well, and get on with our day. How is then that so often we come home in the evening feeling annoyed by an interaction we have had and upset with a colleague? It got me thinking about whether anyone went home in the evening with bad feelings towards me!
Here’s some thoughts I had about ways in which it is possible that I might have got it wrong—without meaning to—and upset people at work.
Being too pre-occupied to listen well
Do you get impatient while people are talking to you? Are you tempted to jump in and make their point for them—because you see it already and more clearly than they seem to? Do you have to hold yourself back from interrupting?
The thing that I have come to notice is that people feel your impatience and it makes them uneasy. They don’t take it as a statement on your state of mind but on their performance and it makes them feel that they don’t have your full attention—which makes them less able to get their message across and increases your impatience.
These days I try to see listening as part of my meditation practice—part of being present, awake and curious. You miss so much by thinking you already know what someone wants to say, or by responding too quickly and cutting them off.
When we can allow someone the space to say what they want to say we are creating trust and communicating respect—so we are fostering harmonious relationships. We are creating opportunities to exchange useful information and to explore problems, which will help to boost creativity in our team.
It’s all too easy, when you are busy, to push ahead in order to get the job done and to overlook how people feel they are being treated. Of course, this is intensified if you are in any kind of managerial role, with people reporting to you.
In his book. 365 Thanks Yous, John Kralik tells the story of how he turned his life around by writing a thank you note to a different person every day for a year. Finding himself at a critical point in his life, he wanted to try and focus on what was good in his life, rather than what was going wrong. One of the stories that always sticks in my mind is the day he wrote a thank you note to his server in his local Starbucks. At first the guy thought he was being handed a letter of complaint and then he was amazed at being so beautifully thanked for something he did over and over again all-day long.
A lot of my work is carried out at a distance—through SKYPE, email, and online courses. Yet I find the power of appreciation is not diminished by distance. It shows you have noticed the effort someone has made, and you are the better for it. You need to do it because it feels right, if you are hoping for something in return it can get messy.
Talking about people behind their back
It can be seductive and oddly flattering to be pulled into a session of bad-mouthing your boss, or a fellow worker. For a while you can feel that you are accepted, and one of the in-crowd. You are being trusted to hear and share in the discontent someone is feeling. We all do it from time to time but when it happens as a routine part of each working day it can become unhealthy and potentially hurtful.
This was brought home to me very strongly during the years that I worked as part of the Executive Board of an international non-profit. I was the only woman on the team of four and many of our staff and volunteers in the national teams were women. Unfortunately, for some people I was an object of some envy and resentment. I was too slow to understand this and took too long to take measures to address it. After some time in the job—which I loved—I was told about stories that were circulating about me. Most of them were just inaccurate and came from people’s projections. Others had some truth but were recounted without a shred of empathy or understanding of the challenges that I faced.
I was shocked and devastated for a time but when I calmed down, I saw this was a great learning opportunity for me. There is nothing like being on the receiving end of gossip and speculation to help rid you of any inclination to engage it in yourself. I would never want someone to feel as I did during that period.
When you gossip about someone behind their back you erode trust. It always seeps out somehow and people come to know you’ve been talking about them. It’s difficult to ask them to trust you after that. Much better to approach someone directly to talk something through that is bothering you.
Not giving someone the benefit of the doubt
Imagine a situation where one of your children wakes up in the night with an upset stomach. You spend hours caring for them, changing sheets, bringing glasses of water and finally drop off to sleep at around 04.30. Your alarm goes off at 07.00. You have a splitting headache but you get out of bed because you are due to present a new project to your team at work at 10.00 that morning. Your child is over the worst but won’t be well enough for school. It takes almost an hour to arrange childcare and now you are late leaving the house. The train is packed and you don’t find a seat. By the time you get to work you are feeling very sorry for yourself but you do your best to give an inspiring presentation. It goes OK but lacks your usual flair and the team is doubtful and critical about the new project.
Your boss asks for a word after the meeting. He/she could take a number of approaches to your disappointing performance. He/she could start off by pointing out how flat you were and how your answers led to more, rather than less confusion. Or he/she could sit you down and ask what was going on and what help you needed to sort this out.
Which approach would you prefer?
When people behave in ways we are disappointed in, or uncomfortable with instead of immediately reacting, we could ask ourselves questions like these:
what might be going on for this person that I am not aware of?
what do I know about their situation which might help me to understand what is going on?
what can I do to support them?
These questions open a dialogue, which could lead to a solution of the difficulty, rather than an angry exchange.
Forgetting to include people
If we feel excluded from an event, we might say that our feelings were hurt. Neuroscience is showing that this might be more accurate than we thought. Research shows that the same area of the brain—the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex—is active when we process emotional/social pain, as when we feel physical pain, say from catching our finger in a door.
Our ancestors evolved to live in groups because they understood that the resulting protection was essential for survival. A sense of wanting to belong is hardwired in us and when we don’t feel we are included, then our threat response is triggered and we can become anxious, and uncooperative. The activation of the stress response uses resources that would normally go to the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain we use for—among other things—problem-solving, and memory. When we are under stress, we are more likely to make inaccurate assumptions.
It’s this kind of reaction that can lead to someone trying to create their own sense of belonging. This is where potentially toxic behaviours such as gossiping, cynicism, and forming cliques can come in.
It makes good sense at every level to foster an environment of openness and inclusivity in your workplace. It helps to make sure information is easily accessible, and people feel encouraged to comment and feedback on work processes. Ensuring all views are heard in meetings, welcoming and supporting new and younger staff is important. Then there are the small everyday events that can have such a big impact on people. Things as ordinary as remembering to make coffee for all members of your team, including everyone in your morning greeting and spreading your invitation to lunch widely. All this helps to create a sense of inclusivity and belonging.
Being too anxious to trust a colleague
Few employees enjoy being micromanaged. It leads to people feeling not trusted, undervalued and over-controlled. It is also exhausting for the person trying to micromanage. If you are continuously looking over your shoulder to check on what each member of your team is doing, you never have enough time and energy to do your own work. It’s a self-defeating process. The more you micromanage someone, the further it saps their creativity, ending up with them increasingly dependent on you.
No-one wants to be an irritating manager. Micromanaging is often rooted in an anxiety about one’s own abilities, and an insecurity around your position. Perfectionism usually part of the mix—not having the confidence to let people have the space to experiment and even to fail. Instead you feel bound to monitor each step of the way, so you can check for anything unexpected along the way. You are afraid to fail yourself, and so you project it on to everyone working with you.
One way of lessening your own anxiety and allowing an employee to feel valued is to ease up you focus on doing. Micromanaging is worst around getting things done and achieving the right goals. Of course, we need to do that but not at the expense of being.If we are paying attention to how we are when we take on a task, rather than simply on getting the task done—then we might be open to starting a dialogue with the people we work with. We might consider asking them to give feedback on how we manage, or to share what they feel are their main skills. It can be possible to ask if, or where they feel blocked. Perhaps it would be possible to share some of your own concerns and to talk together about how to work together with more attention to the process of the work.
Opening up the one-way dynamic of micromanaging could hold surprisingly helpful answers for both mangers and staff.
Do you have any stories you would like to add? It is always good to hear from you.
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