Self-(un)fulfilling Reality, Part II

Scientists use control groups in experiments since the simple act of observing or measuring can have an impact on the experimental outcome. Our tendency to influence our environment also occurs in our interactions with others at work or at home.

However, we are often completely unaware of our influence on an interpersonal dynamic. For example, I may observe that a colleague or friend is very defensive; makes me wish they would just get their act together and not be so insecure. What’s blind to me is my role in making them feel defensive. That person may be simultaneously wishing that I would quit being so critical.

What? Me? I’m not critical!

Just because I think this other person needs to get their act together, start doing their job, quit going around talking to everyone about how it’s not their fault, doesn’t mean I’m critical!

It’s probably easy for you to see this dynamic because you’re not in the middle of it. Three observations are noteworthy. First, just because I may not have said anything critical to my poor victim, doesn’t mean that my body language, tone, or actions don’t broadcast my feelings. Second, the trait I’m complaining about (defensiveness) is the exact same behavior I’m exhibiting. This is called projection. Projection means that I hate and criticize a trait in someone else because I hate it in myself.

Finally, my subliminal and not-so-subliminal messages and projection means that I am probably influencing the outcome and dynamic of this relationship without my knowledge. Me? I’m completely innocent, right? By viewing the other as the defensive one, I am making her defensive through the criticism that I am fooling myself into believing that I am hiding from her. In other words, I am creating my own reality through my expectation of others.

We are told that children rise to the level of our expectations. This has actually been demonstrated in scientific studies. If a teacher believes an average child is gifted, then that child will outperform other students.  Others rise to (or fall) to the level of our expectations.

I believe the same dynamic holds true for adults. If you’re a manager and you believe that an employee is incompetent, lazy, careless or immature, how will you treat them? Are they likely to be engaged or given opportunities to develop or excel? What behavior will result?

Beware your expectations. You may be creating the behavior you’re expecting and being a hypocrite in the process.

Now consider flipping your critical expectations to the positive. Instead of finding what’s wrong or lacking in others, find what is admirable or excellent. What behavior are you inviting now, in yourself and others?

Now, doesn’t that feel so much better?

Giving Without Burnout

The old adage, “it’s better to give than receive” is really true. Givers are not only more successful than takers, but givers also experience more positive emotion than those on the receiving end.

There are limits to giving; givers that give indiscriminately risk burnout. Instead, givers should give in a way that benefits and feels good to them so that they can keep on giving. For example, effective givers communicate their needs and ask for help and buy-in from others to help them to continue to give successfully.

Good giving is also authentic. What are you passionate about? What type of tasks and roles do you enjoy and allow you to excel? What type of impact are you yearning to make on the world? Give in a way that feeds your soul.

Giving should feel energizing, meaningful, and constructive. If you’re giving in a manner that is sapping your soul or creating a lot of negative emotion, then it’s likely unsustainable, unhealthy or not useful. For example, if you’re giving to someone who is a perpetual taker, then your efforts are likely to have little impact on the recipient’s growth or neediness level regardless of your level of personal sacrifice. Your efforts and energy just will continue to disappear into a black hole with no apparent impact.

Instead, consider your time and effort as a precious commodity, even though they don’t show up on a balance sheet. Be as (or more) judicious with your time and energy as you are with your other resources. Plan how you can use them in ways that benefit both you and others. If you’re not getting a good return on your investment, try a different approach or perspective.

For example, for the perpetual taker/complainer, give them a limited time to vent, then affirm their feelings (“wow, it sounds like it’s been a really rough time for you”). Then switch the direction of the conversation to focus on how they will create a solution. Keep redirecting the conversation to their solution instead of trying to fix the problem for them or allowing them to continue to complain. In doing so, you might help them to stay in a generative mindset and find their own solutions. In addition, they may eventually see that you will no longer solve their problems for them. That’s a nice win-win, isn’t it?

In addition, change your perspective if you’re feeling guilty about continuing to invest in what feels like a black hole. Preserving the dysfunctional status quo is not a good gift for either party. By continuing to invest in a situation that is not improving, you are withholding resources from others that could actually benefit and grow from your investment. Instead, consider giving to someone or something that has a need that is limited in time or scope and/or where the solution can result in an impactful change for the recipient. Wouldn’t that feel so much better and more constructive?

Finally, consider the idea that a gift that makes you feel resentful is not really a gift. It actually may harm the relationship in the long run.  Such a gift could also be hurting the recipient if you are enabling bad behavior or helping them to avoid a problem or a time-bomb that needs their attention. In other words, look to the long-term consequences of your gift and ask yourself whether it is having the intended or desired benefit to you and the recipient.

In conclusion, finding new strategies and perspectives can make giving a joyous experience again. When giving is pleasurable and energizing, then that’s an effort that is sustainable, beneficial and generative. When it is not, then it’s time to make a change in either action or perspective. After all, you wouldn’t want to deprive yourself of one of life’s greatest joys, would you?

Meaning at Work

Getting surprised while doing a training session never seems like a good thing. When I train, I like to anticipate what the range of reactions will be so that I am prepared to handle them.

However, on Friday I was leading a session on job crafting – an exercise that helps you edit your job to be more satisfying, fulfilling, and productive – when I got a surprise reaction from this group of 50 or so female leaders.

In hindsight, maybe it’s related to the fact that I had just strayed from the traditional exercise.   Duh.

We had just finished identifying their strengths, passions, values and job tasks. Then I asked them to consider their personal mission and the purpose of their work.   Then to my surprise – everyone burst out laughing. Not in a that-was-really-funny-Susanna way, but in an are-you-kidding-me? kind of way.

I then explained to them that finding and building meaning at work can enhance worker satisfaction and motivation. Think about it: if all your life you wanted to be a teacher, and you have a job teaching people how to sell a video game that you believe to be bad for children, likely you will not enjoy your job. Once I explained this concept, they thankfully seemed to settle into the exercise without that element of incredulity.

But why the initial reaction? Is the notion of meaning and purpose at work so out of reach, at least upon initial reaction, for some people? Do most of us really just go to our job for a paycheck and little else?

Research on callings tell us that approximately 1/3 of the adult population considers their job simply a means to a paycheck. These participants self-selected for this seminar, so perhaps they are disproportionately represented in this category as opposed to the 1/3 of the population who are pursuing their calling through their work.

Are you in that means-to-paycheck group? Can you draw a connection between what you do at work each day and your life’s mission (what you long to contribute to humanity)? If so, perhaps you feel relatively good about how you spend most of your day. If not, why not? Maybe your answer will surprise you.