Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Recognizing Projection, Taking Ownership, and Using "I-Statements"

Often people take their feelings, unconsciously attribute them to someone else, and then treat those feelings as a threat to themselves. This is called "projection." We use projection when we don't want to take responsibility for our own feelings. For example, if I am uncomfortable around Jane, I may tell a friend that I think Jane hates me. It can sometimes be easier to displace our feelings in this way instead of examining difficult truths.

For instance, I might tell you: "You made me angry." I am angry. It is my feeling - but I turned it into something you did that hurt me. Or in a meeting, someone might say to me: "You just don't want anyone else to be the center of attention." instead of saying directly what they are feeling.

When we speak our feelings directly instead of projecting them, it's called "taking ownership" of them. Taking ownership is when I acknowledge what I am feeling instead of making statements about someone else. It is an important skill for members of teams, because it promotes clear communication and trust within the team. And helping team members learn to take ownership is an important skill for a facilitator or coach.

Take the "center of attention" example above. Depending on their feelings, the person could take ownership by saying something like:
  • "I don't feel like I've had enough time to speak, and I'd like to say more."
  • "I don't feel like people took my point seriously."
  • "It seems like you have spoken during much of this meeting - I'd like to hear from some other people."
Notice that all those examples are some form of an "I-statement." As long as we don't frame them like: "I feel like you are a mean person", I-statements are usually a good way to take ownership of our feelings.

It is helpful to be able to recognize projection in yourself. If you find yourself projecting, you can choose to take ownership of your feelings.  For instance, instead of saying "You made me angry", you can take ownership with: "When you said what you did, I got angry." Notice how the simple change in wording takes your statement from an accusation about someone else to a recognition of what I am feeling.

As a facilitator or coach, it can be helpful to be able to recognize when others are projecting, so that you can offer them a chance to change their message. When someone is projecting, you can invite them to take ownership by asking questions aimed at drawing out their feelings. You might ask:
  • I'm not sure I understand. Can you clarify?
  • What are you feeling right now?
  • Can you restate that as an I-statement?
Sometimes, simple redirects may not lead a person to taking ownership. In this case, you may need to try and infer specifically what the projecting person means, and ask them more leading questions to see if you can help them take ownership. For instance, if someone says: "Bob is talking too much", you might ask them something like:
  • "Is there more that you want to add, once Bob finishes his thought?"
  • "Is there someone else you are hoping to hear from as well?"
  • "Do you feel like your views were listened to and understood?"
As in any facilitation or coaching, it is important to balance the needs of the individual against the needs of the team. If a person doesn't readily take ownership, it may be necessary to move on and complete whatever is at hand for the team. Later, if you still feel it is important, you can ask the person offline whether they are willing to explore the conversation that took place.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Do you need to be awesome at work to have positive self-worth?

I suspect that, as people in tech, we measure much of our sense of self-worth against our performance at work. High performance means positive self-worth. Sub-optimal performance means reduced feelings of self-worth. Maybe this doesn't surprise you. Or maybe it is so automatic that you've never even thought about it as a thing.

Suppose I am doing a great job at work. Like many people, I'm feeling great about myself. I am able to advocate for myself, "sell" my value to managers and interviewers. I'm generous and kind to the people in my life. My success, creativity, and even happiness each seem to grow upon themselves. 

So what's the downside to using my success at work to good about myself? 

Consider this alternate scenario: I'm stuck on something, or it takes me longer than I'd like to create an adequate solution to a problem that I'd hoped to solve really well. I start to be hard on myself. I get hung up on thoughts of things I "should be", or "should know". I start to wonder about whether my employer really thinks I'm worth what they are paying me. I can't believe other companies could be interested in me. I withdraw from people, I ask fewer questions, I can become curt. When I'm in this space, unwelcome thoughts impede my analysis and I become even less effective, unable to break out of a rut of reduced performance. The possibilities for my future seem to narrow. Does any of this sound familiar?

Do those negative feelings help me get back to high performance? I say they don't. I say that feeling bad about ourselves makes us less effective and feeling good about ourselves makes us more effective. I'm not talking about the failed "self-esteem" movement, where parents tell their children that every little mundane thing that they do is wonderful and precious, where everyone gets a trophy and nobody distinguishes excellence from mediocrity. I'm talking about trying hard, recognizing myself when I succeed, cutting myself slack when I fail, feeling good about my effort sand looking for what I can learn from things that don't go well. We can have positive self-regard, be confident, and have an honest view of our strengths and weaknesses whether or not we are at our peak performance at any given moment. In fact, I say we must.

What do I do when I'm stuck in a loop of "poor work -> bad self-image -> worse work"?

It takes an act of will to remind myself that everything is ok, that this is just a temporary slump, that I've had many slumps before and that I've come through them all. Once I remember this, I take active steps to reach out more (even when I don't want to), to ask more questions (even when I think they reveal gaps in my knowledge to people), to step away from a problem and do something easy just so I remember that I am a capable person. 

So what do you think? Do you tie your self-worth to your work? Did you even realize that you were doing it? Have you considered that you don't have to? Are you willing to go after your best performance and happiness by decoupling self-worth from work success?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

What's Your Personal Mission?

Do you have a personal mission? I do. (I'll share it with you in a moment.)

A personal mission is a statement about what change I make in the world, and the work I do to achieve that change. A mission is made up of a clear vision and specific actions that I take to move the world closer to that vision. A mission is daring, more grandiose than I can hope to complete in my lifetime. It is larger than myself and my personal pleasures. It is larger than the people I love. Some people might call it a purpose. A mission is a mix of self-observation (what I am doing) and aspiration (what I hope to do / dream of doing).

A well written mission makes a clear connection between the things I do and how those things help me achieve my vision. Sometimes the work of a mission is solo work. Sometimes it is collaborative work.

A person's profession may or may not be related to their mission. Jobs and careers can function as support for a person's mission, as food and sleep do. Sometimes people are fortunate enough to see their work as a vocation rather than a job or a career. In that case, all their work is mission work.

A specific mission helps me focus my actions in the world. While there are myriad "good actions" I can take at any time, trying to perform many unrelated ones can leave my efforts diluted and ineffective. I can use my mission to gauge whether something I am about to undertake is worth doing. Does my proposed action move the world closer to my vision? Does it support my life in such a way that I have lots of energy to move the world closer to my vision? Does the proposed action drain me and leave me less able to change the world?

So here is my mission: I help create a world full of expressive, successful people through mentoring and demonstrating real openness.

The vision and actions parts are clear and measurable. There is a strong connection between the actions and the results I want. I work toward the vision in my profession as a software coach / developer and in organizations I belong to using all the actions, and out in the world, with my friends, family and people I meet, using some of the actions (obviously, mentoring is only appropriate in certain situations).

Want to create a mission of your own?

  • Consider all of the world's problems.
  • Consider your gifts, skills, passions, interests.
  • Contemplate ways in which some of the latter can begin to improve one of the former.
  • Try this format: I create a world of (or without) ________ by _______ing _________.

Example Missions:
  • I create a world without hunger by inventing innovative means of distributing surplus food.
  • I create a world full of educated children by teaching middle school social studies.
  • I create a world full of religious awareness by writing and performing spiritual songs.
Notice that none of the examples are small enough to complete in one lifetime. Notice that the visions are about the world, not about myself. Notice that the actions are measurable. Did I distribute food? How much? Did I teach again this semester? How many performances did I do this year? And notice that the actions can indeed move the world toward the visions.

Mission anti-example:
  • I create a world of happiness by improving myself.
In the counter-example, the vision is vague, it is unclear how to measure the action, and the action doesn't necessarily move the world toward the vision. 

Shadow Mission:

In addition to having a mission, I also find it useful to have a "shadow mission". Whereas a mission guides me to improve the world, a shadow mission states the kind of world I unintentionally create when I don't to the right actions.

Example Shadow Mission:
  • I single handedly create a world of isolation by berating people and being a bad example. 
It's helpful, sometimes, to check and see if I'm living out some of my shadow mission. Then I can choose to get back to the work of pursuing my vision for the world.

Do you have a personal mission? If you do, I'd like to hear about it. And let me know your thoughts on mission and shadow mission.