By the end of 2019 it is estimated that there will be 2.9 billion email users. That is more than one third of the worldwide population. Around 246 billion emails are sent each day. Business users receive about 126 emails per day. Right there is one source for email overload.
How do we get to email overload?
Email has a kind of seduction
Having a constant stream of email certainly gives us the feeling of being busy and in demand. There’s a kind of bravado we hear when people speak about their average daily email totals. The speed and immediacy of the messages flowing into our in-box can have a slightly addictive quality as we plough through them looking for the ones that we hope will make a difference.
The Harvard Business Review recently carried an article on what it called email addiction in which it stated the findings of a survey done for the Huffington Post. Here are two of the statistics:
Out of 1200 respondents, some 60% said they spend less than two waking hours a day completely disconnected from email.
20% spend less than half an hour disconnected.
Our email has embedded itself deeply into our lives.
It creates an illusion of multitasking
It’s not just our email either. We are linked in to any number of communication tools and apps. As we sit at our computers, we are subject to alerts and notifications providing us with information that we feel is essential to keeping in touch and getting things done. We can pride ourselves on being able to switch our attention between several different demands at once but perhaps we also need to question the quality of our attention divided into so many different directions. Think about trying to answer an email on your smart phone while waiting for your train to work, or juggling your shopping in the supermarket. It may feel like using every moment fully but is it worth the risk of making an error of judgement because your attention is not focused?
Our brain is not comfortable with shifting back and forth between several different tasks. It has the effect of splitting our attention and tends to make us less productive rather than more. The quality of attention we give to each task is so reduced that it becomes counter-productive. The risk of replying to an email in this way is quite high. With our attention so divided we are likely to miss things and respond inappropriately.
It’s the same thing if we are trying to write a report while we keep an eye on our incoming email. In his book, Your Brain at Work, David Rock states that:
on average office distractions take up about 2.1 hours per day
employees tend to spend about 11 minutes on a task before being distracted
people switch activities every 3 minutes
after an interruption it takes people 25 minutes to return to their original task
Some emotional reasons for challenges with email
A lack of intimacy as a communication tool
Neuroscience has discovered that our brain’s very design makes it sociable, inexorably drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain linkup whenever we engage with another person. That neural bridge lets us impact the brain—and so the body—of everyone we interact with, just as they do us. When we communicate face-to-face we are able to form an instant connection and enhance this by how we use our voice, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues.
Add to that the increasing body of study into mirror neurons, which enable us to instinctively feel another person’s thoughts, emotions and intentions and we have a clear picture of the volume and intensity of communication that flows between people when they meet.
None of this is available to us on email. We may conduct long and important business relations with people that we rarely—or perhaps never—see.
It’s easy to misinterpret the tone of an email
When we are under pressure to answer a large number of emails we naturally try to be as succinct and efficient as possible. We cut down on the niceties and go straight for the main point. Unfortunately, for the recipient who cannot see us and maybe does not even know us well, the effect can be quite negative. Email that we intend to be concise and practical can seem to be unfeeling, or even rude.
Add to this the brain’s negativity bias, which makes it much easier for us to interpret something as hostile, even when it’s not. Designed to help us remember dangerous circumstances so we could avoid them in the future in order to survive, this feature easily converts a neutral but business-like message into an unfriendly communication. Having not given our correspondent the benefit of the doubt, we are likely to pass the irritation on in subsequent emails we send throughout the day.
Three simple steps to avoid email overload
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume and persistence of our email traffic but there are a number of simple things we can do that will help. It’s a question of identifying them and putting them in place as our regular habit.
Here’s a few ideas for how to be practical with your email:
Have regular times of day for dealing with email. This will avoid the nightmare of your email spilling over your entire day and making it hard to accomplish anything else.
Try not to answer emails on your journey to work but use the time to prepare for the day. When you are in your workplace you can give better attention to the email you are writing.
Deal with the emails already in your inbox before you start on the incoming messages of the day. This helps you to keep track and prevents an important email slipping through the cracks.
Sort out your inbox regularly. It is encouraging to see the volume decrease in your inbox and helps you to keep track.
Turn off your notifications when you are working on other things. This decreases anxiety when you see emails surging into your inbox.
Check that sending an email is the best means of communication for the message you want to send. Would a phone call work better This helps to ensure good communication.
Check your subject line—is it identifying the topic clearly? The person receiving the email is as busy as you. Helping them assess how to deal with your message will make it more likely it is answered quickly.
Think carefully about who you copy in—do all these people need to see your message, or will it complicate things? It helps to keep the communication channels uncluttered.
We have already looked at how often someone gets distracted from the task in hand while at work and how long it can take them to get back on track. Distraction is not just something that happens to us at work. In 2010, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert and his associate, Matthew Killingsworth conducted a studyin which they developed a smart phone app to measure peoples’ happiness. During the day people were sent a series of questions asking them what they were doing and how they were feeling. The results showed that for 46.9% of their waking hours people were thinking about something other than what they were doing, and they were not feeling happy. Think about that for a moment—it is almost half of your life!
Meditation is the best way to work with distraction. Here is a very simple mindfulness meditation exercise you could try.
A simple mindfulness meditation exercise
Connect with your breathing
—stay with where the sensation is most vivid for you
—moment by moment by moment
—breath by breath by breath
—notice any changes in your breathing
Notice when your attention is not on your breathing
—check where has it gone
—dissolve the distraction
—bring your attention back to your breath
—begin again as if for the first time
Doing an exercise like this regularly will help you be less distracted with your email. Mindfulness means being present. Meditation means developing awareness. Both of these are useful skills with email.
Here’s a few ways to be mindful with your email:
Keep in touch with yourself by maintaining awareness of your body on your chair, your chair at your desk and so on.
Try to avoid sending email while you are on automatic pilot.
Don’t zone out at the computer.
Take regular short breaks to breathe deeply and relax your shoulders.
Re-read your messages before sending them—if they are tricky emails, re-read them twice.
When you receive a difficult email take time to separate the message from your reactions—make sure that you can get your reaction in proportion.
Keep a photo on your desk that helps bring you back when you are distracted.
3. Be kind
We have already discussed how email does not come with an instinctive way to connect. On top of that, the brain’s negativity bias leads us to interpret business-like emails as hostile. We all know that it is all too easy to have a misunderstanding—or worse—over email. Once we are upset ourselves—or have caused upset to someone else, the ripple effect spreads and spreads as we all pass on our irritation and stress to the other people we interact with. Kindness is not something we always think of in dealing with our email and yet engaging with kindness while we deal with our inbox will help the quality of our communication—and even help to reduce our own stress levels.
Here’s a few ways to be kind with your email:
Try to stay connected with the person you are writing to—visualize them in your mind’s eye.
Realize that the person you are writing to is just like you—they want things to go well at work and yet they have all kinds of hassles to deal with.
Put yourself in their shoes—how would you feel about receiving the email that you are sending?
Don’t just dash off a quick reply in order to get it done—it can end up taking up more time.
Never send an email when you are upset, disappointed or angry—‑chances are you are not seeing things clearly.
If you are unsure of an email, put it in your draft box and re-read it the next morning.
Alternatively—read a tricky email out loud to yourself to check the tone.
I would love to hear from you how you avoid email overload – do leave a comment in the box below.
If you enjoyed this post you could check out this free 5-day email course
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.
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.
Do you work with someone who you dread having to interact with? Someone who stifles you, who never gives you any positive feedback and is always disapproving? Do you find yourself with a difficult work colleague? It’s tough, isn’t it?
Most of us have to deal with a difficult work colleague from time to time but we may find that solutions are not always easy to find. When this happened to me a while back, I was surprised at how much it got to me. It made me look into what was going on more deeply and try to come up some new ideas for how to handle it.
My recent story
I run my own small business and do a lot of work online. Sometimes this involves working on quite complex projects with international teams of people I have never met in person. Most of the time this goes really well but just recently it went badly wrong. A new volunteer joined a team I was working with and was given responsibility for the project. To begin with, I really enjoyed her focused, organized approach and felt hopeful about our progress. However, as the weeks passed, she began to assume a more top-down approach in our relationship and things started to unravel.
It began to really affect me. Her refusal to meet me half way, her positioning of herself as the expert, her willingness to have me to the same work over and over again until it reached some standard that I was not privy to—it became demoralising. Most worrying was a sense of rebellion that became steadily more persistent. There was a voice in my head that kept saying, Why bother? She’s not going to like it anyway! Worst of all—I started to dislike her, and it was very hard to summon any sort of kind feelings towards her.
Eventually, I decided that enough was enough and the only way forward was to talk face-to-face and try to sort things out. We arranged a SKYPE session.
When the talking it out session fails
Here came my second major surprise. For me to have a conversation like this means allowing myself to be vulnerable, to try to connect with the other person and to attempt to put myself in their shoes. I did all those things—from explaining quietly what I found difficult in the way we were working together to inviting her to tell me what she found difficult about working with me. We talked for almost an hour but there was no movement at all. None. A couple of days later she emailed me to say she was withdrawing from the project and would not be contacting me again. My attempt to reach out and to heal had met with total failure.
What do you then?
I spend my life talking and writing about kindness and peace of mind. It is an extraordinary feeling to put on the back foot when you are trying to use all your skills and experience. For a while my reactions took over but when I calmed down I tried to take a more balanced view and to see what learning there could be in a seemingly immovable situation.
Here are some of the strategies I used to work with what had happened.
It would have been very easy to feel bad about the whole thing. A commentary started up in my mind telling me that I had created a real mess and all my years of meditation did not count for much. I began to feel guilty for not managing better. Fortunately, I have done a lot of work with my inner critic and it didn’t take too long to reign it in and get some perspective.
It seemed important to forgive myself for not being able to be perfect all the way through this story. I knew that I had tried hard, first of all to be patient, and then to have a meaningful communication with a view to healing the situation. I was only responsible for my part of the interaction—it was not possible to control the reaction of the other person in the story. She made her own choices.
It also occurred to me that situations like this must be happening over and over again in different workplaces all over the world. Meeting people we can’t always get along with is part of our human story, one of the challenges of life that we all face. To respond only by blaming oneself is to ignore the bigger picture and miss an opportunity to open up the experience to a deeper perspective. It was when I was facing the failure of my attempt to get things on a better footing with my colleague that I really started to think more deeply. Through reflecting came more insight.
In meditation we learn to work with everything that comes up in our minds—happy thoughts, practical thoughts, horrible thoughts—we don’t differentiate as we let them rise, and then let them fall away. Over time, we train our minds to notice what comes up in the mind during meditation but not to dwell on it. Again, and again, we focus on the method of meditation and not the thoughts that can pull us away. In time, this helps us to become more resilientto what life brings and less pushed and pulled by our reactions and worries.
This is because meditation helps us to develop the ability to cut through the cycle of rumination which we so often occupy our minds with. Instead of going over and over the stories we have in our minds, we can learn to be more available in the present moment, without judgement. In this way, it became easier to drop my anxious feelings about how things had gone with my work colleague and to have a sense of acceptance that that was just how it was. I was very conscious at the sense of relief I experienced when I began to let go of the upset and justifications that had been buzzing around in my mind.
Renew your commitment to kindness
There were moments after my colleague left the project where it really felt as if she had set me up and jeopardised all my work. I certainly felt angry and attacked. The project we had been working on had to do with compassion and I found myself struggling to understand how two people who care about compassion could find themselves in such a situation.
Again, my meditation practice helped me to drop the judgemental thoughts I was having, and to realise that actually I did not really know what was going on for her. The only person I could do anything about was myself. I also realised that my anger was hurting myself most of all and it was not helping the situation.
There is a wonderful Buddhist meditation called Loving Kindness Meditation.which explores the power of generating kindness for oneself and then sharing that kindness with people close to you, then people you don’t know so well and eventually with people who have hurt you in some way. It is said that anger cannot ever heal anger, anger can only be healed by loving kindness.
It reminds me of two quotes from Nelson Mandela,
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.
It felt wonderful to let my anger fall away. Maybe I could not heal the situation as a whole, but I could heal my own reaction. It can still bubble up sometimes when I am working through the results of her withdrawal, but it does not stay.
So where does this leave me now?
The most important learning to come out of this situation for me was that we need to adjust our goals to what is happening, rather than suffering disappointment and resentment about things we cannot change. There is no point in branding an interaction as a failure and then feeling bad about it. It works much better to keep digging until the learning becomes clearer.
It was also a good experience of accepting what cannot be changed. My habit is always to keep on at something hoping it will crack but that can actually make things worse. Turing my attention away from analyzing my difficult colleague to looking into my own behavior and understanding worked a lot better.
Re-affirming my commitment to kindness, even when the going is tough, was empowering. It felt like re-enforcing the importance of kindness as something worth trying to develop, even when you are not getting the response you hoped for.
What about you? I would love to hear from you about your experiences of working with difficult work colleagues and the strategies you tried.
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.
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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