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Taking things personally?
Four ways to separate the personal vs. professional in business leadership

By High Performance Coach, Angie Ford.

    Ever found yourself taking things personally at work?

    Perhaps a particular employee triggers you? You notice a sense of reactivity lingering in your body, and find it hard to let go? Or a project isn´t going to plan and you notice your mood rollercoaster with it.

    You are not alone. Many leaders don´t realise how common this experience is, particularly in people-centric work like leadership.

    How do you navigate trigger feelings in your role as an effective leader?

    To answer this, let´s explore:

    • The biology of stress and why it feels so real in the heat of the moment.
    • Four questions to help you spot the “leadership myths” driving most triggers.
    • Techniques top performers use to manage emotional state when under pressure.
    • The most effective type of self-talk according to University of California Berkeley
      (not what you think!)

    It´s my hope that this article helps you take your leadership, influence and joy of working with others to a new level.

    First, the biology.

    Ever noticed when you´re triggered, how you care less for the other person´s feelings in that moment? (Then maybe regret it later).

    Even the most loving, caring person can be confronted by this surge of emotion. That moment we begin to “lose ourselves” to reactivity.

    Why do triggers feel so intense? In a fight-flight stress response, part of our brain´s cerebral cortex actually shuts down. We simple don´t need it to “run from the lion”, so our body shifts into a protective state.

    Thing is, the cerebral cortex is also responsible for our compassion and empathy. Remember that feeling of caring less for someone else in the heat of the moment? It´s not just a feeling – it´s biological. However in our modern world where there is no lion, this also means that your number one leadership tool - influence – just went kaput.

    What do you do, in the heat of the moment?

    First, remind yourself that this biology is real. This is the moment of self-leadership. Breathe and give yourself permission to settle before you act or speak where needed. This will help you shift state.

    Trying to change someone else can be exhausting, so focus on what´s in your control. Dig deep and choose to lead, not to “win”. Even when the other person is in the wrong, disengagement is ineffective. Choose to value your influence and the relationship to give yourself a shot at an effective outcome. This is one of the most challenging parts of leadership, so converse with a peer to help clear your mind if you have the opportunity.

    Remember you´re up against thousands of years of evolution, take care of yourself, slow down and do your best.

    Let´s now explore four questions that can help prevent triggers from even starting.

    QUESTION #1: Do you feel like you have to “know everything”?

    This is about feeling a pressure to perform and be the one who is good at everything, all the time. This is a common feeling for CEOs and business leaders.

    If you notice a subtle need to “be right” driving your decisions - good catch.

    Don´t judge - stay curious now.

    “Knowing” or “being right” isn´t wrong. It´s a modern day survival strategy designed to create a sense of control. Leadership is a landscape packed with change, and unknowns so it´s natural to want more certainty.

    Just check-in to see if this strategy is effective. For you and your team.

    Needing to “be right” changes your vibe. Ever hung out with someone who knows it all? We all have and although hard to admit, we´ve been that person too (I have! Ouch, honesty). This vibe can unintentionally repel or intimidate those around you. If you “know everything”, people may feel scared to make suggestions, or connect with you.

    In summary, the strategy of “knowing everything” is usually well intended, but ultimately exhausting for you.

    How do you shift gears?

    First, acknowledge yourself for noticing this thought pattern. Good catch!

    Most people underestimate the power of this first step. Awareness. Many move to self-judgement or denial. Choose honesty and acknowledge this thought without judgement. This is the very moment you interrupt your trigger cycle, and take back control of your inner dialogue.

    Next – give yourself permission to pivot. To make a new choice based on your values. Remind yourself that your role is not about knowing everything (phew!). Your role is about leveraging the knowledge of others.

    Susan David PhD describes this choice as “Emotional Agility” (EA). As an award winning psychologist from the Harvard Medical School, with over 20 years of research, Susan David points to emotional agility as the key to success in life and leadership. She shares how EA, “closes the gap between our intentions and our reality”.

    Suzi Batiz, the founder and entrepreneur behind the $300million company Poo Pouri, says:

    “I don´t know what I´m doing in business. I can figure anything out though. Every day I don´t know what problem I´m going to be faced with. It´s all new – every single day. I´ve never run a company this big. To say I know what I´m doing is like – really?” – Suzi Batiz

    Notice how she focuses on her in-the-moment resourcefulness rather than knowing the future? You can too.

    A powerful choice of great leadership is to give yourself permission to “not know”. Choose to model a love of learning instead. This choice gives your employees permission do the same, to love learning in their own work. You become a source of permission and trust, and encourage their individual expert knowledge.

    Long term - stay active in your own professional development training. Focus your time and energy into developing relationship skills. Nurture your ability to support and challenge others, without needing to understand their detail. Strengthen your connection to your intuition to help you make decisions.

    QUESTION #2: Are you rushing?

    One of the first things I explore with clients is the mental and physical pace at which they operate.

    We´re not looking for whether your pace is fast or slow. We explore whether your default tempo is serving you.

    There´s no such thing as one ideal pace. Like in sports, your daily pace will vary according to the activity and outcome you want to achieve, and your current skill level.

    “Rushing” however, is a mental and physical state that is unhelpful for quality outcomes, as well as your health. When we rush, were more easily triggered.

    Rushing often comes from focusing on a future result, rather than being present with the process here and now. It´s like an elite swimmer who focuses on winning the gold medal, rather than how they will execute their dive, time their first stroke etc. It seems logical to focus on winning gold, but from a performance point of view, it´s distracting.

    Many leaders fear slowing down.

    I get that. Slowness is often associated with inability or weakness. This is a myth. Slowing down won´t make you go backwards if your intention is clear. Ever seen a tiger right before it pounces? Slow.

    Slowing down is a technique to interrupt unconscious rush-patterns. It helps you deliberately put your energy where it matters, at a pace that serves you. Ever tried to smash a tennis ball hard over the net and instead watched it soar over the fence? Slowness creates space to operate intentionally, not reactively. Reactivity leaves us open to be triggered by others. Deliberateness is a calmer space to operate in.

    I call it, slowing down to speed up.

    Easy to write – but how do we remove the rush in reality?

    Here´s three ideas for you to play with if you notice a rush vibe creeping in.

    • Slow down your physical movement for 5-10 minutes each morning. Literally. Use this to establish a more aware mental state for the day. This sounds easy – it´s challenging! Moving slower is weird. Go with it, we´re using your body´s state to access mental state, just like an elite athlete does.

      As you explore slowing down, observe what happens to your mental noise, awareness and your ability to listen to others. Use this new awareness to connect to your values, and help you navigate challenging moments that would usually trigger you.

    • Take charge of your calendar. “No” is your magic word here. Remember running across the university campus to get from one lecture to another? Book white space between meetings so you can literally move more calmly between your activities. White space gives you pause at the beginning and end of each meeting. These small moments of presence allow you to enjoy the tasks, and connect to your colleagues more. Hot tip: Observe how small moments of genuine connection increase trust, your influence and your team´s productivity over time. These moments count for a leader.
    • Don´t leave your reflection and learning to chance. Create regular time each week or fortnight with a coach or accountability partner to reflect and review. This helps you stay in alignment with what matters for you and the business.
    • Question #3: How do you nurture your personal needs?

      We all have needs. Being a leader does not exempt you from this.

      There are the obvious ones - food, shelter, water. There are also less visible needs - love, connection, a sense of importance, growth, contribution.

      When these needs are ignored, our body seeks to fill them anyway.

      In leadership, this is usually when our unhelpful behaviours show up. Things like people-pleasing, perfectionism or procrastination. Strategies we often learned as children to get the love and attention of our parents. Very human, though exhausting and ineffective.

      Again – these are not wrong, so don´t judge yourself or you´ll miss out on key information. They´re just strategies trying to achieve a need.

      Instead - honour your needs. Prioritise self-care. You are not a robot.

      If you care deeply for others, the permission to step into self-care can feel foreign. Just start. Stay curious about how self-care allows you to better serve others.

      How do you practice self-care? Here´s some suggestions.

      Time with your family, to yourself, in nature, or doing creative hobbies. Move and enjoy using your body. Give yourself permission to sit with your calendar and say no to activities that are less of a priority now. Time is a limited resource. Help yourself distribute your time and energy in a way that is in balance with your body and it´s needs.

      Notice your self-talk. Over the years I´ve noticed a subtle and poisonous myth out there, that sounds like this:

      "If we are honest about our struggles, "weaknesses" or “failures” and try to be nice to ourselves, we won´t be successful. You should be hard on yourself or you might become complacent, lazy or weak." Mmmm…. Sounds painful to me.

      Recent research from the Department of Psychology at the University of California, explored the relationship between self-motivation and how we approach “weakness” or “mistakes” including compassion, self-validation and general positivity. They found that self-compassion came in at no.1, and was the only approach that moved the dial on motivation with any statistical significance (Breine and Chen, 2012).

      So remember, you are not alone in your experience of triggers at work. Be gentle and approach yourself with a “voice of kindness” as they describe it in the research. Practice speaking with yourself as you would your best friend, or child and take care of your needs.

      Question #4: Do you deal with stress in isolation?

      Feeling lonely, disconnected and staying in a silo of stress is dangerous. Although we are surrounded by people, this experience is all too common. Professor Brené Brown from the University of Houston calls it “psychological isolation”.

      Be the one who reaches out for help. Go first here. This is leadership.

      More than your words, your people model your behaviour. Give yourself permission to reach out when you feel stuck - it´s inspiring.

      Which reminds me of a song line from The Police.

      “It seems I´m not alone in being alone,
      100 million castaways, looking for a home”
      Message in a Bottle, The Police.

      Now there´s a band with a huge influence and following.

      Remember, negative thoughts are human. If you notice negative thoughts staying on loop – good catch. Time to act.

      Hot tip: Think like an elite athlete - don´t go your leadership route alone. Develop a routine of personal support as your norm. Don´t wait until things are hard. Psychological isolation creeps in slowly, so have a system of check-ins with peers or a coach to stay in your flow zone of performance.

      Which of the four questions stood out to you?

      #1 Do you feel like you should “know everything” as the leader?
      #2 Are you rushing?
      #3 How do you nurture your own personal needs?
      #4 Do you deal with stress in isolation?

      Now translate your insight to action - what is your next step?

      Keep it simple. Pick one, and go for it.

      Debriefing is natural human behaviour. If you are not sure of your next step, give yourself permission to reach out to someone you trust – a mentor, coach, advisor or sparring partner. Sometimes just having a space to hear your own words does the trick to navigate your triggers at work.

      Yours in top performance,
      x Angie


29 Somerville,
PH : 02 6247 4490

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