Work isn’t personal, yet many leaders find themselves taking their employees’ behavior as personal. Consider, for instance, the employee who is constantly questioning your directives, who is always late with their report or who says “yes” to you but does something else. What about someone who solicits your opinion, but never follows your advice?
How do you interpret this behavior? It may be natural to experience such employee behavior as personal. However, taking employee behavior personally is the least productive way to create a more compassionate work environment.
A high percentage of arguments are aggravated by tense emotions. Volatile emotions are counterproductive and should be avoided at every opportunity. When you practice skills and tools to avoid reacting personally, you’re more likely to communicate and lead with compassion and support.
As an executive coach and business consultant, I spend time guiding leaders to value their employees by leading with compassion and accountability. Learning to communicate without reacting emotionally is a fundamental leadership skill that is essential to building a highly engaged, compassionate workforce.
Overview: Why Do You Care?
Studies consistently find that an engaged workforce is a higher-performing workforce. The most recent U.S. results from the semi-annual “Employment Engagement Index” presented in the Gallup Management Journal shows that “only 29 percent of employees are actively engaged in their jobs. These employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their companies. However, 54 percent of employees aren’t engaged. These employees have essentially “checked out,” sleepwalking through their workday and putting time ― but not passion ― into their work. In addition, it has been shown that 17 percent of employees are actively disengaged. These employees are busy acting out their unhappiness, undermining what their engaged co-workers are trying to accomplish.”
Thinking vs. Feeling
So, if we know employee engagement is linked to workforce success, why are so many employees disengaged? One reason is taking things personally. When we as leaders take things personally, we weaken our engagement from our responsibilities. For example, have you ever thought an employee doesn’t care if they do sloppy work? Even if it’s true, what happens when your feelings get into the driver’s seat?
Your feelings are driven by an accumulation of your knowledge, past experiences, ego and values, not facts. The reflective loop between our beliefs and the data we use to create meaning is frequently derailed by our emotions. For example, if you believe your opinions aren’t valued, you may automatically feel, “They don’t value me,” even in situations where the decision-making had nothing to do with you. An emotional response is often an automatic, unconscious response.
How do you know if you’re taking things personally? You react with your feelings before thinking. Some examples of emotional reactions include:
- Eye rolling.
- Emotional emails.
- Shutting people down, through tone of voice or sharp words.
Can you think of additional emotional behaviors, either in yourself or others?
The QTIP Paradigm
Marshall Goldsmith, executive coach, thought-leader and author of “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There,” hypothesizes that the five most important words a leader can ask are: “How can I be better?” One way “to be better” is to recognize when your emotions are in the driver’s seat.
For example, imagine you’re in a meeting and another team member interrupts you, disagrees with you or ― worst yet ― challenges you. Do you shut down, feel the person is doing it deliberately and defend yourself by getting angry, loud or something akin to any of these responses, or take a breath and not respond?
If your answer is, take a breath and not respond, you may not need to quit taking it personally. Any other answer required you to reflect on how to take your emotions out of the equation.
It’s natural to feel a sting when someone interrupts you if they do it in a way that seems rude or disrespectful. What isn’t compassionate is reacting with your emotions. Any time you find yourself taking something someone said or did personally you need to quit taking it personally. Notice how you react emotionally. For instance, do you write a negative narrative in your head, get angry or lash out, or avoid that person? Any of these responses, either verbal or nonverbal, interfere with positive communications and positive relationships.
What can you do differently in those emotionally charged situations? Stop and ask a question, don’t assume negative intent, count to 10, change the negative narrative in your head, be positive and you will reduce the negative drama inside yourself and in your organizations.
Laurie Copperman-Friedman is president of Strategic Business Consulting. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.