How to Manage Work Relationships that Push Your Buttons
Via LinkedIn : Richard muttered to himself, “There she goes again! Liza always wants to be the center of attention.” Richard tried to block out the long tale Liza was telling co-workers about her meeting with a client. Later, he mentioned his ongoing annoyance to his colleague. Bill said, “I don’t know why Liza bugs you so much. She’s not that bad.”
Diane stopped listening to her team members and looked out the window. She thought, “I swear I’ve heard this same argument a dozen times. They just go around and around about what Frank thinks Sam should have done and how Sam feels Frank always gets his way. They never get anywhere.”
Why do some co-workers annoy you but don’t distress others? Why does it feel like some people always have the same disagreement?
There may be many answers to these questions, but here’s my first thought: Whatever bugs Richard about Liza or causes the repeating argument isn’t about the here and now or even about Liza. It’s about the past.
Liza’s tale isn’t the problem. It’s how she triggers a habitual response Richard developed to cope with difficult situations earlier in his life.
The team members with the repeating argument have probably slipped into responding to each other based on a similar habitual coping strategy. Those responses might have been appropriate when they were first developed. Now, they get in the way of having authentic, effective relationships with people who are far removed from those early experiences.
Where Do Habitual Responses Come From?
Let’s look at the neuroscience of habit formation. As we develop a habit, the brain switches from active learning—based in the pre-frontal area—to habitual responding—which is based in the basal ganglia, outside our conscious awareness. When the right trigger comes along, we respond with that habit, without our being aware. Habits stored by our brains mean we don’t have to pay attention to the many good habits that serve us well – everything from how to brush our teeth to what not to say to your boss.
The problem comes when habits don’t work for us. For many of us, our automatic reactions become set into negative emotional patterns, called schemas, that drive our lives. Dr. Jeffrey Young has identified 11 of these patterns that he calls lifetraps. These lifetraps can show up in the workplace, for example, as people who are never-satisfied perfectionists, convinced they’re a failure, overly dependent on others, or distrusting.
You’ve probably met someone who tends to veto everything, always sees the negative and never the positive. Leaders who are very critical, always giving F’s and never giving A’s, are very demoralizing. That emotional habit alienates the people around them and works against the overall goals of their organization. If someone on their staff is in the “convinced they’re a failure” lifetrap, that negativity is all the more powerful.
Moving Beyond Self-Defeating Habits
Lack of awareness of habitual responses is part of what keeps us repeating them. In her book Mind Whispering: A New Map to Freedom From Self-Defeating Habits, Tara Bennett-Goleman explains that the first step to changing a habit is to notice it. Instead of responding on automatic, becoming mindful of your response. Get to know the triggers that start a habitual response. And, notice the way the habit operates.
Developing mindfulness helps us notice ways of thinking and acting that often go by invisibly. When we are aware of what we’re experiencing, we can step away from the automatic and instead choose a different response.
Making changes in our behavior is the core of self-management, one of the key components of emotional intelligence. The good news is that by becoming aware of our habits and picking a different response, we can rewire our brains. For example, Richard could realize Liz reminds him of his overly-entitled older sister and how he tried to avoid her. With that insight, Richard can choose to focus on other qualities Liz brings to their work.
What about that pair with the repeating argument? It just takes one to stop that pattern. By recognizing the emotional habit behind their argument, Frank or Sam can choose a different response and get back to work.
Brainpower: Mindsight and Emotional Intelligence in Leadership is a collection of streaming videos and audio downloads with Daniel Goleman and Daniel Siegel.
Brainpower provides leaders, executive coaches, management consultants, and HR professionals with a science basis for their leadership development work.
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