Fortunately, I do not know anyone who sets out on their day intending to be not kind to anyone at all. It’s probably the same for you too. So why is it that in any ordinary day all sorts of unkind things happen?
Let’s look at our own behaviour at work. We could ask ourselves if in the rough and tumble of an average working day we find ourselves unintentionally being not kind. The thing is that individually each action may seem so small as to be insignificant. It can be the cumulative effect which is damaging.
Often it is because of habit, or insecurity, or pressure that we fall short in being kind. So, here is my list of six lazy ways it is easy to fall into being not kind. I call them ‘lazy’ because they are not necessarily intentional—in fact, usually they aren’t. They are largely due to not noticing what is going on with other people, or how your behaviour is affecting them.
1. Being pre-occupied can mean being not kind
When we are stressed, or really busy then it is all too easy to become turned in on ourselves. Our priorities take centre stage and our ability to see what is going on around us is reduced.
At work this can easily become a sense of self-importance. This can lead to the feeling that what you are doing is so vital that it takes precedence over everything else. It gives us permission to prioritise our own story and not pay so much attention to other peoples’.
It can creep up on you in quite a subtle way. From your point of view, you are simply trying to do a good job. There is no intention to let your kindness slip but that is what happens when you become too self-focused. You don’t give your full attention to the needs of people around you and you miss things.
2. Gossip can lead to unkindness
I would be willing to bet that you are not the workplace gossip at your job. They are usually pretty easy to spot and not so difficult to politely avoid. It’s much more difficult to manage your own reactions and emotions without unintentionally being not kind.
If you are in any kind of team-leader, management role everything you say has an enhanced significance for the rest of the team. When someone in your team is struggling then how you talk about them in the group is very important. You need to find a way to give them difficult feedback without damaging their confidence and their ability to learn. They will be listening to every word you say, and what others tell them you said with a sensitivity heightened by fear and anxiety.
Whatever your role is, there are always people at work who are less easy to get on with than others. It is these people that you need to take special care to talk to and talk about with great skill. Just one off the cuff comment made in irritation can cause tremendous harm.
How does your workplace handle feedback and constructive criticism? It’s another example of something that, when it is done well, can help a colleague move through challenges. However, if it is done without kindness then it can be an enormous blow.
Most of us have probably experienced receiving both kinds of feedback ourselves. One of my most useful work experiences was when a colleague—not a boss, or manager—asked to talk to me and set out to inform me of all my faults as she saw them. It was a devastating experience but when I recovered, I realised I had an excellent list of what not to do if you want to give someone helpful feedback. I still draw on that list to this day.
The main thing that I realised was you need to give the kind of feedback that would be helpful to you, yourself. That is the only feedback that people can really hear and respond to.
4. Blame will make you not kind
According to research, blaming mistakes on other people is socially contagious. Observing someone blaming their mistakes on other people can lead to you doing the same thing to protect your image. Such a cycle does not help anyone.
In a workplace where blame is part of the norm, staff are less likely to succeed, and much less likely to be creative. Anyone who is in the habit of blaming others misses out as well. You don’t get the chance to learn from your mistakes if you don’t take responsibility for them.
It seems that optimistic people blame less, and pessimistic people more—with the prize going to narcissists.
For most of us the time to watch out for lazily blaming someone else for a mistake is when we are tired, worried, or over-worked. It’s not that we want someone else to get into trouble—it’s just that we don’t want to have to deal with it ourselves.
It would seem that kindness and bullying are pretty far apart—how could someone interested in promoting kindness also engage in any kind of bullying activity?
Let’s take it down a notch—instead of bullying think of steamrollering, pressurising, over-persuading someone. When I think back to my years of managing an international non-profit, I am pretty sure that I used tactics like this. I was convinced that what I was doing was so important that people needed to get on board. Indeed, what I was doing was important, but I forgot to treat each person I dealt with as an individual, with their own strengths and weaknesses. I wanted everyone to go at my pace and it exhausted some people.
Does your enthusiasm and passion for your work ever translate as pressure for other people?
6. Not listening is not kind
Once again, we rarely simply ignore someone when they speak to us—especially at work—but we often listen in a distracted way. We’re busy, the speaker is taking too long to make their point, and so our attention wanders. The thing is that we feel it when someone is not giving us their full attention and it’s unsettling. Our ability to communicate is reduced.
When we don’t listen with full attention then we don’t hear all the levels that are being communicated and we don’t pick up on the accompanying body language, or emotional signs. That’s where the unkindness can come in. We miss stuff—someone’s concern, or even distress—and the person feels overlooked. Maybe it is simply information that we don’t completely process, which leads to mistakes further down the road.
It’s not only distraction which blocks our listening, it can be our opinions and prejudices as well. If we think differently to the speaker, we tend to listen through a critical web which filters out the points we just want to refute. It’s even worse if we don’t like the person who is talking to us because then we listen through a whole range of remembered slights and disagreements.
Wanting to fix what the person is telling you can also get in the way of listening deeply to what they are saying. We are so busy thinking of the response we want to make to put them right that we don’t listen fully to what we are being told.
Something to remember
None of us is perfect and there will be days at work where our kindness might be less than others but watching out for these six lazy ways we can be not kind can become a good reminder. For me, the underlying basic principle is to try and put myself in the shoes of the other person, or people. An easy way to do this is to ask how you yourself would feel if you were being treated in any of these six ways. Think how it feels to be the subject of gossip, or to receive withering criticism. No-one wants to be pressured to behave in a certain way and no-one enjoys being blamed—especially when the blame is unfair. We are all busy and trying our best and we all like to be listened to with kindness. Remembering this is a basic key to avoiding being not kind.
If you have found the ideas in this post interesting you might like to look at my new online course, How to Make Kindness Matter at Work. You can find out more here.
Meetings can be dynamic, creative events where plans get moved on and decisions made. They can also be boring, tedious and sometimes feel like a big waste of time. Whatever the case, many of us spend quite a lot of our time in one sort of meeting or another. That gives us plenty of opportunity to ensure that any meeting we are part of is a mindful meeting.
Preparing yourself for a mindful meeting
My sister is in the kind of job where she can have back-to-back meetings all day. Sometimes her boss schedules an extra meeting at the same time as one she already having! It’s all she can do to make sure she has all the documents and information she needs for each meeting, never mind having the luxury of doing a sitting session before one begins.
One thing you can do though is to use the set-up time of the meeting to come back to yourself. There are always a few moments of chatting and settling before a meeting gets going. You can quietly focus on your breath as you sit down and sort through your papers.
Remember your goals
I have been in too many meetings where people just talked for the sake of it, without any real purpose. It helps to be clear for yourself about what you are hoping that the meeting will achieve. Having this in mind will help you to contribute to the meeting in a way that will help it move along in a creative way.
What are your personal goals for the meeting? There are the kinds of meetings where you might have a private goal of not wanting to lose patience, or not wanting to feel put down by another member of the group. No-one else needs to know about these goals. They are for your own growth and development. Gently keep them in mind, not to beat yourself up, but to help you manage the situation as you want to.
It’s very easy to get distracted in a meeting. Maybe you get bored and your mind wanders. Or perhaps you are caught in intense discussion that takes all of your attention. It helps to have something to remind you to be present. I like to take notes by hand in a meeting, so I use my pen as a reminder to be present. Each time I pick it up to write, I remember I am trying to contribute to a mindful meeting.
You could also use each time you take a drink or when a different person speaks. A friend of mine carries a special stone in her pocket to remind her to come back.
See who is in the room
As the meeting gets started take some time to look around and notice who is there and how they are. Remember, that just like you, each person in the room has worries both inside and outside of work—bring to mind any specific problems that you are aware people might be facing. Allow yourself to feel a sense of common humanity with what they are going through—it will really help if things get intense and difficult to remember how much in common, we all share.
As you work through the agenda notice when your attention wanders and you stop being fully present to what is going on. You can use your breath as an anchor of it helps. Simply notice where you can feel your breath entering and leaving your body and rest your attention there for a moment, or two until you feel you are ‘back’. This will help to maintain a mindful meeting.
Keep a look out for when you feel irritation, or frustration rising and recall your scan of the room at the beginning and try to see everyone as simply doing their best. Again, you can use your breath to help you settle.
Be mindful of how much you are speaking and the tone of voice you use. Are you making it easy for people to listen to you and to hear your point, or are you pushing them away with an impatient tone, or hurried explanation?
Listening can be a good mindfulness practice. Rest your attention on what is being said at any given moment. Try to keep your attention there and not let it stray off into thoughts and rumination. By bringing your full attention to what is being said you will find that you get less tired, will stay in closer touch with the progress of the meeting and can contribute more.
Notice when opinions and judgements come into how you are listening. Try to drop them and keep your attention open and receptive. Pay particular attention to how you listen to people in the meeting you do not agree with. It is so easy to mentally dismiss what you think they are going to say before they have even started to speak.
Try to stay aware of your facial expression as you listen. I know my concentrated face can look pretty grim—I don’t mean to, but my expression gets kind of stuck and I need to consciously relax and assume a more neutral, pleasant expression.
What about if things get difficult?
If you feel that the meeting is getting bogged down, you may find it possible to introduce some skilful humour to allow people to relax for a moment and let off steam.
If this feels too risky, doing things like bringing along fruit, or cake can help people relax and be normal together while they enjoy the treat.
Suggesting people simply sit in silence for a moment or two to get things back in perspective can be beneficial also.
I have a story from a workshop I gave years ago that always stays with me. A CEO of a non-profit shared how on one occasion she found herself in a meeting that was becoming acrimonious. She was not a main player at the table and did not see how she could skilfully intervene to turn things around. So, she simply stayed quiet and looked around the room wishing everyone present happiness and well-being. She said that normally she would have left a meeting like that exhausted and unhappy but after this one she felt invigorated.
A few days later she met up with another participant from the same meeting who asked her what she had been doing and commented, ‘I felt the meeting was deteriorating so badly and then I looked over at you and you looked so calm and focused it helped me settle and feel better.’ Just as anger and irritation can pollute the atmosphere of a meeting, self-awareness and kindness are also contagious but in a healthy way.
I am a Brexit refugee. It’s been over twenty years since I left the UK to live in Amsterdam. Except for an interlude of five years working in France, I have been there ever since. It has been wonderful to have the freedom to live and work in Europe. This freedom is in direct contrast to the UK, where I have not been allowed to vote since my absence from the country passed the fifteen-year mark. It was not even possible to vote in the Referendum in 2016.
Dutch friends started off being completely puzzled as to why the UK wanted to inflict such harm on itself by leaving the EU. These days they are mostly in a state of shock at the continuous unravelling of anything they recognize as British competence. They feel my pain, but they are also glad it is not happening to them.
It’s almost impossible to explain the chaotic mess that the Brexit process has become. When I try come up against my own feelings of shame and embarrassment at the closed-minded perspective that brought us here. The thing is though, that one day this process will be over and then the UK will need to work diligently to heal the scars of this battle. I would love to see kindness put at the forefront of this work. It’s hard to see how we will move forward without it.
What would a kind approach to Brexit look like?
There is a growing body of research into the benefits of kindness. It turns out that they are considerable and wide reaching. Kindness benefits the person offering it, the person receiving it and all the people who witness it.
It affects us on a physiological level—kindness can improve heart function, lower blood pressure, slow aging and strengthen our immune systems. The author and scientist, David R. Hamiltonexplains that through the production of the hormone, oxytocin and the neurotransmitter, serotonin our levels of wellbeing are raised.
On an emotional level—anxiety, stress and depression can all be reduced through preforming genuine acts of kindness. In his ground-breaking book, The Healing Power of Doing Good, Allan Luks documented the good feeling that you get from helping others and which is now referred to as the Helpers’ High.
Imagine some of these benefits being injected into the Brexit debate right now.
To begin with the insults, posturing and inflammatory accusations would need to stop—completely. We would need to start listening to each other. If possible, to appreciate that each person is acting from what they genuinely believe would work best. If someone disagrees with me it does not make them a bad, or stupid person.
I saw a great example of this recently when my Dutch partner sent me a video clip of the author Michael Morpurgo and historian Robert Tombs have a civilised disagreement about Brexit on Channel 4. Morpurgo is for staying in the EU and Tombs is for coming out. During the brief extract from their discussion neither man insulted the other. They listened to each other’s arguments and neither thought less of the other because they had an opposing point of view. It was remarkably reassuring to see that this kind of exchange is still possible.
When Ireland recently voted to overthrow the ban on abortion, much was said and written about the Citizens’ Assemblywhich was set up to give people a voice in such a big decision. Since then there has been talk about doing something similar for the Brexit debate. The former Labour PM, Gordon Brownhas put his weight behind this idea. His suggestion is to bring representative samples of leavers and remainers in regional groupings. The idea is that they could then take the time to go more deeply into all the issues that make up the Brexit puzzle.
The Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland was not perfect and has its own criticisms to answer. That’s perfectly understandable with big initiatives. Just because something is not perfect is no reason not to try not move forward with it. There is little cause to apply the word, ‘perfect’ to anything about the current debate raging in Parliament and across the country.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It involves an understanding of what another person is feeling from within their own frame of reference. You could say it is a bit like walking in someone else’s shoes.
Edwin Rutschis the founder of Centre for Building a Culture of Empathy. He has run many Empathy circlesdesigned to facilitate dialogue on many different issues. One feature is an empathy cafe where people gather to discuss challenging issues. He has run several dealing with the polarisation of political views between the right and left in the US.
Actively using the skills of empathy to understand another person’s views, rather than to weaponize them would add enormously to any Brexit discussion.
Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?
As I read this quote, I am aware that it can take courage to look through the eyes of someone whose views you find appalling. It’s natural to feel quite apprehensive about what you might see. My understanding is that Thoreau is talking about looking beneath and beyond the opinions of the other person. He is celebrating the insights into the heart of another person when we allow ourselves to look with judgment. On the occasions when all we see is aggression and self-interest, then can we let the limits of such an attitude touch us with compassion?
What can I do?
Recently I have realized that any change in the quality of the discussions around Brexit has to start with me. It’s a daily occurrence for me to shout at the TV when the news is on. There are MPs who I cannot bear to listen to and that goes for some of the media coverage too. My Facebook page is swamped by articles and cartoons charting the course of this debacle. There is a level where all the aggression, lies and procrastination has seeped into my own relationship to the whole thing.
If I want to change how Brexit is talked about, then I have to find a way to change how I am talking about it myself. I need to connect more actively with my own compassionate heart, rather than complain about the lack of compassion in others. It’s not enough to take comfort from the privacy of my hostility—thinking unkind thoughts undermines compassion as well as actions.
It’s so seductive to carried along by ideas of cooperation, inclusion, and common good but then to place people who see things differently outside your circle of respect. One strategy that I find it helpful to try and separate a person from their actions. When I can do this, I find we have much more in common than it appears. The right wingers pushing for an anti-European, nationalist agenda are wrong in my view, but if I remember that, just like me, they struggle with insecurities, anxieties, and fears then they become human again.
If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.
It’s about remembering that we are all human beings—complicated, vulnerable and imperfect. When my own opinions and beliefs are in full flow, this can get overlooked completely. Then the person on the other side of the argument becomes the ‘other’ and no longer worthy of care and respect. When I dehumanize those I disagree with it becomes easier to at best dismiss them and at worst vilify them.
My Brexit grief
The truth is that I am in mourning as a result of the 2016 Referendum. I never expected the UK to vote to leave the EU and to this day I still hold out hope of a second referendum that will put a stop to the whole process. My grief is on so many levels—ranging from my concerns about my own personal status as a Brit living in Europe, to a deep sadness about what the UK seems to stand for these days. I am embarrassed, ashamed and deeply shocked. Although I have always been a bit of an anarchist there was always a sense that the UK was on the side of decency, good governance and some level of wanting to contribute to a better world. This feeling has been rocked to the core.
All this needs to find a place and to work itself through. It’s my belief that will happen much more effectively if I can curb the more extreme expressions of this grief and find a way to resolve it through kindness.
When you are getting ready for work in the morning, is there a work colleague who comes into your mind who you dread seeing, and would rather avoid? If there is, then the chances are that you have a difficult person to deal with at work. Unfortunately, it’s not likely to be a problem that only you are facing. Difficult people at work can cause a ripple effect that has negative consequences throughout the workplace.
Everyone is difficult some of the time of course, so what does it take to be seen as a ‘difficult person’? There are people who complain all the time and are impossible to please. Then there are others who seem to want to turn everything into a competition, or worse, a battle. I have worked with people who treat their staff pool as a free audience for them to play out their own personal soap opera—they demand attention and tend to suck all the energy out of a team. Perhaps you’ve met the perfectionist? Someone who cannot accept anything that is less than perfect and projects their exacting and unrealistic standards on everyone around them. Quieter but just as deadly is the person who quietly goes behind everyone’s backs and gossips and manipulates to get their own way.
Toxic behaviour of any kind takes up time, energy and resources to deal with—all of which could be applied to the actual work to be done. Such behaviour can impact productivity and lower inspiration and morale among any team. It causes stress, absenteeism, and a higher rate of staff turnover.
However, it does not have to be all bad. Difficult work colleagues can help to focus our attention and encourage us to check our own habits at work. Let’s look at some practical, accessible steps that anyone can take to help them to deal with a difficult person at work without risking any of these negative outcomes.
Maybe as you read this you are thinking that you are always paying attention, and this is too obvious to mention? Perhaps you have not heard about the researchthat was done at Harvard University in 2010. It showed that for almost 50% of our waking hours, we are thinking about something different to what we are doing. This means that for almost half our life we are not fully present to ourselves and what we are doing.
Let’s take a moment to consider what that means. If our minds are elsewhere when we are interacting with another person then we are going to miss all kinds of signs as to what is actually going on. Our memoryof the interaction will be flawed and incomplete. We are going to be seeing people and events as we think they are, rather than how they actually are.
This is particularly important when dealing with a person we experience as difficult. We are going to need to able to discern clearly the other person’s behaviour, as well as our own responses to it. It won’t help to get caught out by defensive reactionswhich could add to the problem. Things will only get worse if we exaggerate the difficult behaviour of the other person. Developing equanimity, on the other hand will give us the grounding we need to understand and work with the challenges they present for us.
What we can do
One of the best ways to learn to be present is to make mindfulnesspractice part of your everyday life. Try to spend at least 10 minutes every morning sitting on a cushion, or hard-backed chair connecting with your breath. Simply rest your attention on the rhythm of your breathing. When your attention wanders away, notice it has wandered and bring it back. Keep doing this over and over again. Slowly, steadily you are training your mind to be present.
During the day we can use STOP moments—very short moments of mindfulness meditation.
This is how they work:
Pause with whatever you are doing
Connect with your body, feel its strength, let it ground you
Take a few deep, slow breaths—release any tension you are feeling
Let your thoughts come and go without chasing after them
Enjoy the few moments of calm and spaciousness.
Take that feeling with you as you pick up your activities.
I don’t think I have ever met someone who owned up to being a poor listener. Each of us believes that when people talk to us we hear what they are saying. Sadly, most of the time we only just scratch the surface. We are used to putting our case, telling our story and we want others to listen to us. If we put ourselves in the centre, then it is hard to embrace the whole circle. Much of our listeningcomes from a place of believing we have the correct response, or the right solution and we can’t wait to share it with the person we are talking with. That comes across for the person talking to us, who senses that we are putting our own reactions ahead of their needs.
Susan Gillis Chapman has written a book, The Five Keys to Mindful Communication in which she uses the three colours of traffic lightsto help understand the different levels of communication. When we have someone at work who we are having problems with, the chances are that our communication is going to be the red light, where defensive reactions are predominant. At these times, how we listen is of over-riding importance. Our difficult person is expecting to not be heard, is almost provoking misunderstanding. We cannot afford to shut down and close ourselves off from the signals they are sending. If we can demonstrate that we are trying our best really be present and to listen without the inner commentary of our own opinions, then we have a chance to move to yellow light communication, where things can become more fluid. Of course, our goal is the open communication of the green traffic light.
What we can do
Try to avoid conversations with your difficult person when you are tired, hungry or stressed.
When you know you are going into an interaction with them, try to take a STOP moment beforehand.
Listen with your heart as well as your head.
Ask yourself what is really going on for the other person.
Look for any emotional clues.
Watch out for repeated words or phrases—the chances are these are the issues that are on the other person’s mind the most.
Consider your attempts to listen with an open mind and heart as your contribution to healing the situation.
Give up judging others
Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the leading figures in the mindfulness movement, described mindfulness as being, an intentional, non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Why was it necessary to highlight this quality of non-judgment? If you think about it, we judge just about anything. In fact, we divide the world up into things we like and want, things we don’t like and don’t want and things we don’t really care about. We spend a great deal of effort going after the things we want, because we think they will make us happy and avoiding the things we don’t want, because we know they will make us unhappy. The thing is that none of it works. Lasting happiness is much harder to achieve than we thought and it’s hard to avoid challenging things happening to us.
Our like, don’t like and don’t care attitudes are just as easily applied to people we know, as it is to the things that happen to us. We hold our friends close and avoid people we do not like and in between is a huge mass of people we don’t ever really pay attention to. If we have a difficult person at work, they are likely to fall into the category of ‘don’t like and don’t want.’ Obviously, this is a weak position to try to find a solution from.
What we can do
We already mentioned the importance of equanimity as a basis for working with difficult people. It enables us to be present to the person and the situation but to not be drawn into it, to not be affected by it.
Without equanimity we are defenceless in the emotional territory of the difficult person.
We can see things as they are, rather than from the point of view of our own self-focus.
It is not necessary to draw courage from judgments which enforce our own opinions and prejudices.
Equanimity allows us to be open to what happens, rather than pre-judging any outcomes.
It is easy to think that we don’t have time for kindnessin the workplace but this is a misperception. Being kind does not take more time, it just requires us to be present to ourselves, our work colleagues and the situations we find ourselves in.
Jonathan Haidthas researched something he calls elevation, or a heightened sense of wellbeing. This is the effect of people either experiencing kindness themselves, or witnessing it happening between other people and feeling the benefit personally. When this kind of interaction happens in a work environment it has the effect of building trust, commitment and loyalty. How we try to deal with a difficult person at work can contribute to the overall wellbeing of a workplace.
We’ve seen that it is all too easy to want to avoid difficult people at work, and to not have to deal with them—but let’s take a moment to try and see this from their point of view? Few people set out to be disliked—if their behaviour is provoking dislike, somewhere that is probably causing them distress.
What we can do
Ask yourself what you know about your difficult work colleague
—are they under stress, is there something going on at home?
Look for any small thing that you like about the person
—maybe you have the same taste in music, or they like the same movies that you do?
Try to separate the person from their actions
—all of us do stuff which is not always nice, but it does not mean we are all bad people.
Whenever you can, try to give your difficult person the benefit of the doubt.
Observe how they are with other people
—are there other people they get on well with?
—I once had to work closely with someone who said I reminded him of his mother (with whom he had a problematic relationship). Although I found working with him very intense, I noticed that many other people sought him out for collaboration. The problem was something sparked very directly between the two of us.
Don’t forget yourself
Having a difficult relationship at work can be very disheartening. We can feel guilty, inadequate, somehow reduced by being embroiled in a difficult communication. It’s important to remember that we are one part of the puzzle and that the problem has many elements. At the same time, it helps to recognize that although we might not have started the problem it is inevitable that somewhere along the line, we could play a role in perpetuating it. We need to take time to look into our own behaviour and check our own emotional habits and vulnerabilities.
My main meditation teacher always used to say that if you want to remove a difficult person from the world, you can begin by looking into where you need to disarm your own destructive tendencies.
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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