One of the most important things you eventually work out when you have to manage people is that 90% of the challenge is managing yourself - and in particular your emotional responses to events that occur. All too often, these responses act like petrol poured onto a fire, resulting in flash flames and damage to nearby relationships.
To that end, there are three pieces of advice I have received in the past three years that had a tremendously positive impact on my performance as a leader.
Here are the phrases.
"Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” - Source unknown. Spray painted on the side of a Combi-van somewhere on the east coast of Australia.
“Don't ascribe to malice what can more likely be explained by incompetence.” - Source unknown. Heard on the Tim Ferriss Show.
“See things as they are, not worse than they are.” - Tony Robbins.
Though subtly different, each quote speaks directly to our innate, prehistoric human ability to see danger and catastrophe around every corner. The fight or flight response managed by our adrenalised limbic system.
During the course of a day we encounter many circumstances where our minds take the objective facts that concern an occurrence, moment, comment or otherwise, and pour on gallons of incendiary fuel, in the form of completely subjective (mostly imaginary) nonsense. Pretty soon we have a impressive blaze burning, sucking the oxygen out of our day and singeing our work and personal relationships. I'm tempted to go so far as to call this an act of emotional arson.
Think, for example, of the person who we perceive to have wronged us and how long we let the incident occupy our thoughts, working ourselves up into a rage over something that the other person is not even aware. Have you ever been guilty of this?
A good example would be when your spouse says something over breakfast that puts your nose out of joint. In response, you spend all morning being mad with them. Only to to find out that what you heard them say wasn’t what they meant at all.
Or recall the person who doesn’t complete a task to your exacting standard - were they really doing it to get under your skin? Or did they not do a very good job by accident, or because the training they received wasn’t good enough?
Perhaps your version of this emotional bonfire is sparked when a colleague calls in sick and misses work… and you think the worst of them because you don't believe they have a cold.
In each situation we often wind up mentally firebombing ourselves quite unnecessarily, with damaging effects on our happiness and productivity.
Far better to deal in cold, hard fact than combustible emotion.
Whenever you encounter a situation where you are at risk of an emotional explosion, try not to light the fuse on this self-damaging pathway of negative emotion. Instead, do your best to remain objective. You can achieve this by considering only the facts. The things that you absolutely know to be true.
Take, for example, the situation when you are in a rush and need a fast email response from someone in order to meet a deadline. The person you have emailed, however is not responding quickly enough. You become frustrated, angry even. Perhaps it has happened before. Your mind starts to fill in the blanks....
Now it is conceivable that the other person is doing it deliberately because they hate you, are on a power trip and wish to see your career ground into the dirt. But it is also perfectly possible that they were just in a meeting and did not yet see your query. The only thing you know with any certainty, is that you didn’t get an email response. So why build things up to be more than that?
How about the situation when someone says something you find upsetting. You can, of course choose to pull the pin on your flash bang grenade and blow up. But equally you could ask yourself whether they really meant what they said, or did you read something between the lines that just wasn't there?
How much hassle is involved in seeking clarification in the moment. A simple question like, “Hey, can I just check in on something you just said? I heard this…. was that your intention?” Chances are there was a miscommunication, but in the event it wasn’t surely it’s better to straighten things out at the source, than pour emotional fuel on the fire.
In the hit TV show Sherlock, the protagonist, Sherlock Holmes, is an expert at decoding complex sequences of events from tiny fragments of data. While this works for him, it is highly unlikely that it is working for the rest of us with normal human brains.
So, take a second next time you feel triggered and emotional to check in on what the facts are. Are you guilty of creating a large amount of entirely avoidable stress and anxiety that is damaging your productivity, creativity and relationships?
If you are, then try to recall whichever of these phrases seems appropriate in the moment and put them to use.
Think of them as mental fire blankets to be used to douse emotional flares and let calm reason win the day.