Everything feels hard these days
Don’t you agree?
The past few months, I’ve noticed that teams of all kinds are struggling to connect and collaborate despite all best intentions.
According to Gallup, the trend of worker engagement (and disengagement) continues to go in the wrong direction. I’m guessing that this isn’t too surprising because we can see frustration leaking into the cracks of society as well. Driving these days feels like more people are both distracted and upset than ever before.
When I was younger, I had a theory that road rage came down to a misinterpretation of intentions and an attribution of character based on behavior.
What I noticed in myself was that I had a different reaction based on the kind of car it was that cut me off and what the person driving looked like.
I would inevitably feel differently about a Mercedes with tinted windows cutting me off than I would about a Chrysler, Buick driven by someone’s grandmother. It was easier to attribute arrogant intentions to the first and carelessness to the second.
Much of how we interpret what we see in the world is through a set of basic heuristics, or biases about how things work.
They allow us to shortcut having to figure out what a garbage truck is and what it’s for. It’s why we know to stop at red lights, and why we can often navigate foreign grocery stores or department stores. We recognize the language of the layouts without having to think about it much. We make assumptions about what to expect. Otherwise, every new moment would be exhausting.
It’s a helpful bias, except when it isn’t.
The attribution theory is one that allows us to either attribute personality traits to behaviors (others perception of us) or blame the behavior on a particular situation (our perception of ourselves). (McLeod, S. A. (2012). Attribution theory. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/attribution-theory.html)
Why is this important to know?
If we put it in the context of road rage, it means that everything you do to me looks like an extension of your character, while everything I do to you will feel to me like it was necessary given the situation.
And this is how everyone looks at the world.
It’s no wonder we have such a difficult time understanding each other.
I’ve noticed that just being aware of this psychological effect helps when dealing with the various minor inconveniences on the road.
It’s like a more sophisticated version of “everyone is doing their best.” I recognize that other people at least think they are doing their best.
This thinking is a great deal harder when you’re working with groups.
It’s one thing to have a total stranger cut you off and drive away, but it’s another thing entirely when you have to work with that person every day.
The problem with “Jim”
If Jim (just picking a name, apologies to all the “Jims” out there) keeps interrupting you in every meeting or taking credit for your work, then it’s difficult to assume the best intentions.
In fact, we will begin to tell ourselves a story about Jim that includes detailed reasoning about why he behaves that way specifically to us.
If self-esteem is something that you struggle with, then the assumption might be that Jim behaves this way because of something inherently weak or faulty in you.
If you have a more robust ego, you might just assume that Jim is a jerk.
Either way, Jim’s behavior fits into a story where he becomes the villain, and you become the victim.
Herein lies the difficulty of working in groups. All of this story gets written in our heads, and Jim often never gets to know how his behavior is impacting others.
That is, until he gets a performance review that says he doesn’t work well with others, and suddenly he’s a problem and labeled as toxic.
Look, maybe the “Jim” in your life is actually toxic. Some people are just so damaged that they can’t help but be jerks.
What I’m most interested in, however, is how often we just assume that conclusion without testing the waters first.
What if we just communicated?
Communication is the key
Here’s the proposal. What if you gave people the chance to know how you experienced them, without making them immediately wrong or right?
What if you were willing to be vulnerable?
Let the other person understand how their behavior looks to you, without attributing intentions to their actions?
There’s even a model for this for facilitators that was developed by the Center for Creative Leadership.
It’s called SBI or Situation, Behavior, Impact.
The purpose is to depersonalize the experiences that we have with each other and better understand how we intersect and crash into each other.
When we’re able to look at our own behavior dispassionately, we have a chance to learn something about how other people experience us.
If you can let down your guard and let people see you, they have a chance (just a chance) to connect with you.
Take the time to communication what you experience of other people you work with.
Make some space for the difficult conversations. Call out the stories that form in your mind. Be curious about how others experience you.
If you can make this a habit in your team, you might find that you work with greater efficacy, effectiveness, and joy.
And ask for help
Don’t forget to bring in a professional to facilitate these conversations, if needed. ?
The only thing that you risk losing is the story that you’ve been telling yourself in your head.
One step at a time, we can make work and society a little less crazy and a little more enjoyable.
All we need is some willingness and practice.
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