Do you see yourself as a superhero at times, smashing through obstacles and pushing yourself to your limits? You’ll achieve more if you slow down a little and put yourself first once in a while. Otherwise you might risk distancing yourself from the very people you wish to engage.
The days before internet and personal computers are a fading memory for most of us, if we’re old enough to remember at all. Imagine manually adding up numbers on a paper spreadsheet, or typing documents with a typewriter and then retyping them because you’ve made a mistake. At university, I used to spend long hours correcting architectural drawings, using tracing paper, technical ink pens and Gillette blades. Doing such things today would be a joke.
Over the past decades work has transformed in ways previously unimaginable; and, of course, change never stops. As technology and society’s expectations evolve, we too must adapt.
Without clairvoyant powers it’s difficult to envision what our jobs and daily routines will look like in, say, 5 to 10 years, but the trends are clear. We’re doing fewer and fewer repetitive and routine tasks that can be completed by machines, and more and more activities that require artistry, creative thinking and people skills. In order to remain efficient and competitive, we need to leverage those types of intelligence that machines can’t possess.
We can only solve burning problems and create value when we deeply understand the people we serve and collaborate with. Humans are complicated creatures with many idiosyncrasies, conflicts and flaws and we’d better embrace this fact if we want to earn the trust of our teams and clients and help them succeed.
Do we expect too much of ourselves?
It seems to me that most of us are getting better at accepting others for who they are. However, we struggle with accepting ourselves with all our physical and emotional needs, imperfections and (perceived) weaknesses. We find it much more convenient to look outside of ourselves and then try to be smart, understanding and supportive, rather than addressing our own issues.
Acknowledging our own limitations is admittedly difficult. In our highly competitive world, this kind of self-awareness doesn’t help us feel better about ourselves or make us look good. While work has been changing at a rapid rate, our expectations of ourselves haven’t changed that much since the era we actually had to work, in some ways, like machines.
Even on our most productive days, we can still be pretty hard on ourselves. When we notice a lapse in our energy and focus, make some mistakes, and fail to progress with our tasks as planned, we push ourselves to work harder. We often treat ourselves in ways we would never treat others, and believe that we’re doing the right thing.
Why is this a problem?
When we push ourselves mercilessly, we tend to ignore our own personal needs. Despite working insane hours, we don’t take nearly enough – or maybe any – breaks during the day. We often eat poorly, skip exercise and cut back on sleep. Ultimately, we put out physical and mental health on the line, and we risk burnout.
The quality of our work also suffers. With a run-down body and mind it’s hard to think clearly and intelligently. Therefore, when we stretch ourselves thin, we’re more prone to make mistakes and poor decisions.
The way we work lacks strategy and balance. We easily get caught up in the details and lose sight of the bigger picture. We may feel that we’re getting a lot done, but in reality we are probably not very effective. Operating in a constant state of urgency, we don’t allow ourselves enough time to explore options and contemplate. Consequently, we try to come up with solutions to problems in a state of mind that’s not very conducive to creative thinking.
Adding fuel to the fire, we don’t allow sufficient time for communicating effectively. We choose the wrong media, rush through conversations, and often leave problems unresolved. As we are fixated on getting things done, investing in our work relationships becomes a low priority, which can eventually erode social ties and trust.
These are well-researched and frequently discussed problems; however, one issue which I find especially intriguing isn’t getting much air-time. By working through thick and thin like superheroes we might in fact be distancing ourselves from the very people we’re trying to serve.
We live in two separate worlds
We are all empathetic beings by nature, irrespective of whether or not we have an empathetic personality.
As long as you’re mentally fresh and healthy, the part of your brain which allows you to identify with other people’s experiences is naturally activated as required. When you engage with someone whose thoughts and feelings you wish to understand and embrace, a specific neural network should fire up in your brain, helping you to step into that person’s shoes. Once this happens, you’re able to get a good sense of what they’re going through and the sort of help they need.
In contrast, when life presents you with a logical challenge, a different network switches on in your brain. You primarily engage this analytical part of your mind while assessing data, developing plans and strategies, and solving logical problems. Incidentally, these are the kinds of tasks you probably do a lot of while working around the clock.
These two modes of thinking allow you to look at issues holistically and understand their practical as well as their human, ethical implications. But here is the catch. You can’t think both analytically and empathetically at the same time. You might know this from experience, and it’s also proven by science. As one of these networks is activated the other is repressed, due to a biological constraint.
When you’re overworked, your thinking becomes less flexible and you can actually get stuck in the analytical mode. So let’s see what happens when you try to get to know a person – or a team – in this state of mind.
You could spend hours or days collecting information about them, but they remain strangers to some extent. You might methodically decipher their problems and needs, and come up with some sort of an answer through logical conclusions. But without being able to truly relate to their issues, will you be able to offer them the best solution? And will they have an amazing experience working with you?
Let me share with you some of my observations and experiences.
Superheroes only do half the job
My job as a workplace and workstyle consultant involves deep conversations with business leaders and employees, creative sessions, as well as long hours doing research, analysing data and writing reports. And like most of us, at times I also need to perform small miracles in order to meet demands and deadlines.
How am I trying to achieve the seemingly unachievable? Well, sometimes I work around the clock, ticking off tasks like there’s no tomorrow, determined to redefine what’s humanly possible. I forget about breaks and weekends, thinking, ‘I will eat properly, exercise and rest later’.
I’m proud of the fact that I consistently meet deadlines. However, I recently started to question if I’m actually serving my teams and clients the best I can when I take on the persona of a superhero.
In that headspace I find it rather difficult to empathise with their personal needs and vulnerabilities. Moreover, they might also find it more difficult to open up to me completely about their passions, game-changing ideas, hopes and fears. You probably wouldn’t feel comfortable either exposing your vulnerable side to someone who powers through like a superhero, would you?
‘No profound thoughts today’
I remember when a few years ago, at the end of an especially long and exhausting day, I accidentally bumped into a dear business contact. I said, ‘Hi John, it’s so lovely to see you. I always enjoy talking to you, because we have such profound conversations, but sadly that’s not going to happen today. I’m not in the right headspace, because I’ve been processing data all day without a break.’ (I must have expressed myself much less elaborately, because at that point even constructing complete sentences was a challenge.) He was surprised, but once he noticed my blank gaze he understood what was going on.
To be honest, this is all I remember from that evening. In that state, I was simply unable to connect with a person I could otherwise build rapport with in a split second. And I certainly had no capacity to engage in deep discussions or be excited by inspirational ideas.
I’ve also been on the other side of somewhat similar scenarios. For example, I recall catching up with a couple of team mates after they had been running back-to-back meetings and workshops all day every day for a week, and doing more work at night and on the weekend. On other occasions, my colleagues had returned to the office straight from the airport, after landing from an overnight flight following a gruelling overseas trip.
Although they were obviously spent, we had constructive discussions about facts and figures, systems and patterns. However, in our conversations there was no place for out-of-the-box ideas, playful approaches or intuition. I would have also loved to develop an empathic connection with them and resolve some of our differences but didn’t succeed. After looking at their busy schedules, I sensed that the dozens of interviews and workshops that these team members had facilitated in the previous week had an equally detached and rational tone.
Take off your cape
Working efficiently and meeting deadlines are of course important, but you need to be aware how the quality of your work is impacted. In today’s business climate you can only fully engage your teams and clients and help solve their problems when you’re able to put yourself in their shoes.
How can you achieve this? Take off your cape …
- Prioritise your health and wellbeing. Take breaks during the day, step away from the pressures of work, and spend time with activities that nourish your body and soul.
- Look after your social ties. Even during the most hectic times, you should be able to spend some relaxed moments with your teams. Communicate patiently, listen deeply, and express yourself freely.
- Allow time for, big-picture, creative thinking and contemplation. Check in with your purpose frequently, and see whether you’re heading in the right direction.
All these common-sense actions naturally take some time. Nevertheless, they will help you stay on course, and ultimately progress faster, while preserving your energy and sanity. You’ll work smarter, tackle tasks more effectively, and find it easier to stay on top of difficult situations. You’ll become more agile and influential – and aren’t these the true qualities of modern-day heroes?
Who do you need to be?
When I studied life coaching, I learnt that before I invite a coachee to relax I should get relaxed myself. And before I encourage them to feel enthusiastic about something I should first tap into my own enthusiasm.
The way I see it, the same law applies, to some extent, in essentially any knowledge- and service-based business. When your want your people to acknowledge and accept their limitations and their need for help, you should be prepared to do the same. When you want them to pursue what’s best for them and think freely about possibilities, you should also be in that headspace. And if your teams or clients would love to become superheroes themselves for a little while, that’s a perfect time to see yourself as invincible.
So before you put yourself second in order to perform that small miracle, why not ask yourself first: ‘What do my teams and clients really need? How do I want them to show up? And who do I need to be so that I can understand them, relate to them, and help them thrive?’