The other day I was reflecting on the power of feelings and what an impact they have on our lives. Their power can be positive and empowering but it can also be negative. A book about feelings, that changed my life, is The Choice by Edith Eger. Her horrific experience of the Holocaust; the things she saw and experienced, are shocking and yet as she puts it, she made the choice to be a survivor and not a victim. Her career in psychology blossomed and she has helped many people lead full lives by moving beyond, sometimes "insurmountable" problems. She aspires to help other people make the choice to heal and thrive.
On a smaller scale, feelings can be considerable in the workplace. When things aren’t going well, the impact on our lives and wellbeing can be significant. In this post I’ll share a technique that I’ve used when feeling low at work. In this technique, I found that identifying what I was feeling was the first step in improving my work environment and, as a result, how I felt.
The example I’ll share is one where I’d been asked by leadership to coach teams on a new project. I came on board feeling excited, curious and keen to help. I started meeting the teams, who shared what they were enjoying as well as the challenges. The teams seemed motivated and positive and I had a good feeling about this project.
I listened and gave them my full attention. It was interesting to me that most of what they shared was about situations I’d experienced with other teams. That’s not to say that there are standard methods to use, or simple changes to make, to remove the challenges. However, there were definitely opportunities for me to coach and help them improve their system of work.
I encouraged them to get involved in innovating, experimenting and improving their system of work. I shared my background and experience. I offered my coaching, mentoring and teaching skills. The teams seemed interested and shared plenty of ideas. I felt chuffed. Time passed. I waited, and waited . . . but all my one-to-ones, meetings and planned sessions kept being postponed due to “urgent work”.
I wasn’t happy. I tried some different approaches but nothing seemed to work. There was no expectation from the leadership that change would happen quickly. They all knew that change takes time and that the teams were busy under tight deadlines. They even reassured me that I was doing the right things. So why was I unhappy? Time to be honest with myself. Step one was to ask myself this question:
Step 1: What three words best describe how you’re currently feeling about work?
Three words instantly sprang to mind:
Isolated: it felt like I was on a ship and I could see that there was a small hole in the hull. I was trying to let people know that this hole was getting bigger and that if we waited too long all hell would break loose and fixing it would be a big effort. Yet the crew just laughed and told me to stop worrying, it would be fine.
Embarrassed: I was proud of how I helped people think well. Proud how I helped them and the business grow. This time my efforts seemed to make no difference, things just carried on as before. How could I justify my salary?
Confused: I couldn’t understand why no one was willing to make change happen. They’d come up with ideas and seemed enthusiastic. They were intelligent, motivated and positive about what they did. Had I done something to offend them? Had I misunderstood them?
Before starting to think about how I might change these feelings, I needed to identify how I wanted to feel about work (step two). This stems from a quote by Russ Ackoff:
When you get rid of what you don’t want, you do not necessarily get what you do want and you may get something you want a lot less.
So I asked myself:
Step 2: What three words best describe how you want to feel about work?
This took a little longer to figure out. What was my coaching approach really about? These three feelings came to mind:
Effective: I’d help people to think well for themselves, to free their minds and use their skills, knowledge and experience to create and innovate. I’d help them encourage others to think independently, to have a genuine interest in what they will think next. I’d also have the art of teaching as described by Einstein:
It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.
Creative: I’d have more courage to experiment with different ways to work with others. I’d push the boundaries of my thinking, never accepting the first ideas that sprang to mind.
Appreciated: People would come up to me and let me know something good that they noticed about what I was doing. This would lead to me having more confidence and the courage to keep trying new things. They’d ask me “what do you think?” because they respected me. I’d feel included, part of the team.
The image of a place where I had all three of these feelings gave me a buzz of ideas. Where I’d been stuck in a rut, feeling low and a victim of the environment, I now saw a path not only to surviving but to feeling effective, creative and appreciated.
I suddenly saw assumptions I’d been making. I’d assumed that there was no way I could get a more active interest in change, that I’d done all I could. I’d assumed I wasn’t appreciated despite people having let me know, unasked, about things that I’d done which had helped them. Having realised that I’d been making many assumptions that were untrue, I asked myself the incisive question:
Step 3: If you knew that you can feel effective, creative and appreciated at work, what would you do?
I had a few ideas. The one that stuck with me needed some courage. I let the teams know how I was feeling and how I wanted to feel. I couldn’t believe their response. They were surprised that I felt that way. They said they were already starting to work differently as a result of our conversations.
They realised that they had been focussing on improving technology in preference to ways of working. They admitted they were avoiding conversations about ways of working because they needed to ask some difficult questions.
They agreed on a first question to think about. They confirmed the agenda and attendees. This time the meeting wasn’t postponed and a difficult topic was thought about and a new approach agreed. A few of them got in touch with me afterwards and gave me appreciation for helping them see things differently, for being honest and for my resilience. The journey to feeling effective, creative and appreciated had started.
If you decide to give this approach a go then please do let me know how you get on.
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