Are you caught up in a cycle of feeling like a victim of situations or people outside your control at work? Have you noticed that this feeling may trigger some negative or self-protective behaviors (as I described in my earlier blog post), and may prevent you from getting what you want or exercising your full capacity at work? Luckily, Shayne Hughes and Brandon Black’s excellent book Ego-Free Leadership illuminates the source of this dysfunction and provides a way forward.
Hughes and Black describe this negative cycle as feeling “at the mercy.” Simply put, when we feel this way, it may seem like external situations and other people have put us in a no-win situation. As a result, we typically feel resentful, frustrated, trapped, angry, and possibly powerless. We may feel this suddenly (on a bad day) or chronically, over the course of months, years, and even decades. We may not realize it, but we’ve given up our agency to influence these circumstances. We think: Why can’t the situation or other people change? But in actuality we are merely reacting; we are not doing all that we can.
These are challenging circumstances, and not just because of the stress involved, but also because we often have a poor perception of the real threat. In fact, our brain may not be trusted. It may interpret minor situations or common errors into abandonment, judgment, aggression, or other negative outcomes. We may wrongly perceive that the colleague who provides unprompted negative feedback is gunning for our job and relishing in our innocent mistake. Or we may silently criticize the networking contact who cancels lunch on us—twice—as being disorganized or selfish. We may incorrectly believe that being left out of a meeting is an ominous sign for our career. The potential for overreaction and unnecessary angst in the workplace is unlimited.
Needless to say, these misunderstandings (and the ego-protective behaviors that naturally follow) are not great for our overall performance. We may spend unnecessary hours, days, or weeks being upset over minor issues, wasting critical time when we could have been otherwise productive. We may be physically but not mentally present at work, showing up only in the physical sense because our minds are so distracted by feeling angry, hurt, left out, mistreated, or insulted. We may short-circuit our own development by refusing to work with certain individuals or by undercutting our own capacity to be present and open with the many people we deem unworthy of our trust.
We may even engage in some type of passive-aggressive or other negative behavior, withholding important information, engaging in unnecessary competition, or purposely undermining those with whom we have a disagreement. Most dramatically, we may make major career decisions based on misinterpretations and misunderstandings, requesting transfers to new teams or offices, or even leaving jobs.
This is what happens when we feel “at the mercy,” and it can become a permanent state if we aren’t careful. Luckily, we do have the power to regain our control over these circumstances; it starts with ourselves. An important first step is recognizing these reactions and developing a capacity to understand that they are irrational and a function of underlying triggers.
Understanding the inherent irrationality of these responses, and that we do in fact have more control over our mind than we realize, is a significant challenge. As I mentioned in my previous post, these problematic responses may sometimes provide us with short-term ego benefits. In particular, our preoccupation with ourselves will ensure we are the hero in our mental stories. But this preoccupation fails to provide us with what we want in the long run, which is the capacity to be focused—fully and calmly—on the work ahead of us, working in alignment with the world, not against it.
If it’s been a long time since you’ve felt this way, you may benefit from spending some quality time with Ego-Free Leadership.
We all carry inside us the capacity to push away the imagined fears, slights, and preoccupation with ourselves that disconnect us from others and prevent us from performing to our full capability. Hughes and Black provide a very helpful road map to deliver us from feeling “at the mercy” to a place where we feel centered and, as they write, “at the source.” To get to the latter, we must take the time to both examine our actions and obtain a deeper understanding that there are outcomes that matter more than our own egos.
This type of self-knowledge goes much deeper than superficial behavior changes. In fact, the typical, shallow approach to handling workplace issues will be insufficient to overcoming these challenges. Instead, the first step is understanding what underlying issues may trigger you so you can step outside of this reactivity and begin to address its point of origin.
As an example, go back to the original questions from part one of this blog post: Do you feel the need to be the smartest person in the room? Where did this come from? What purpose does it serve? What negative reactions does it prompt? And importantly, what are the costs of this behavior? Questions like these may enable us to see the behavior clearly, outside of our own ambiguous and self-protective interpretations.
The next step is truly compelling: getting outside of ourselves to focus on our intentions for the other person. This is not about getting us to change as a result of shoulds, oughts, or other depersonalized appeals. Instead, it is about thinking of much higher motivations: Why do we care? What is our intention for the other person or for the group? What is our purpose in this interaction?
This step places us squarely outside of ourselves and focuses us on a greater intention. It reorients our place to its rightful position: one of many individuals in the world. This enables us to connect to much larger goals outside our own gratification.
Simply put, our goals determine our behavior. If we are focused on a self-worth goal, such as being the smartest person in the room, we will naturally approach every interaction with a mindset narrowly focused on self-preservation. If, instead, we can identify and address the potential sources of underlying threats to our self-worth, we’ll free up the bandwidth to connect with larger goals—and ultimately other people. This will naturally create a new font of energy and potential to fully exercise our strengths and productivity in the workplace—and even our personal lives.