If you’ve been to London and ridden the Tube, you’ve seen the signs that read, ‘Mind the Gap.’ They’re there to remind you to be careful about the distance between the train and the platform. Around the world, we face an equally dangerous gap in the way we manage work, but there are no warning signs for us. When we don’t bring our full minds to our work, we run the risk of falling into a deep hole of assumptions.
We spend the majority of our time at work. What would it be like if you gave your full attention to your colleagues during a meeting? What if you actively sought to understand what they’re communicating and their perspectives instead of paying attention to the voice in your own head?
The voice in your head is leading you astray
The best professional advice I ever got came from the CEO at Interwoven, Martin Brauns. I was an executive for the first time in my career and I wanted to be a good leader. He was a strong leader and good coach. Using Stephen Covey’s, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” he encouraged me ‘to seek first to understand, then be understood’ (habit #5). With that simple advice, he transformed how I worked with people.
This is what it means to seek first to understand. Say an employee gives you a spreadsheet with information. You take a quick look at it, and you spot an obvious error. Do you tell yourself that the person who gave it to you is careless, lazy or dumb? If you do, this self-talk will dramatically change how you show up for that ensuing conversation. When you confront (yes, that’s the word) this person about the errors, you’ll be listening for data points that reinforce your negative thinking. You’ll be looking to justify your belief instead of seeking to understand. You’re not actually listening or being mindful. You’re busy confirming your hypothesis. Now you’ve reduced this person to these three adjectives. But what if none of that is true, then you’ve fallen into the trap of mindless leadership.
Imagine instead if you were to ask about the error. Instead of making your assumption, you’d say, ‘These numbers aren’t adding up.’ This is a simple statement of fact. Your colleague reacts by saying, ‘Oh, you’re right. I got this spreadsheet from so-and-so in accounting, and I didn’t look at that part of the spreadsheet. I worked on this tab for you.’ That part of the spreadsheet is flawless. Now you have a completely different opinion of this person because you made the effort to understand first. Note the facts are unchanged in both scenarios.
Too often, we assume bad intent behind the actions of others. We fill the void in our understanding with our own negative beliefs. We turn off our minds and go on autopilot. After Martin Brauns introduced me to this habit, I realized that nine times out of ten, when I ascribed negative intent to someone, the person had no such intent. It took probing and questioning, but it was well worth the time to learn what was actually happening versus assuming. When we go through work mindlessly, we jump to conclusions—and when we do that we can’t see the real issues we should be addressing. It’s time to hit the reset button on the voice in your head.
How do you press that reset button?
Don’t Assume You know.
Here are three prompts I use when I find myself in this situation:
- Can you explain more about how you’re thinking about that?
- Can you help me understand what’s getting in your way?
- What have you been able to do so far?
You can still do your self-talk with these questions, but what comes out of your mouth changes:
- You think: He’s dumb.
- You say, How are you thinking about that?
- You think: She hasn’t finished?! She’s slow.
- You say, What’s getting in your way?
- You think: He hasn’t started?! He’s lazy.
- You say, What have you been able to do thus far?
I can’t tell you how many times I thought something wasn’t started only to learn that the person was most of the way done, but agonizing over perfecting the work. Or, that the employee had sent the work to me days ago, but had a typo in my email, so it never arrived. He thought I had it, and I thought he hadn’t sent it. There are so many explanations that aren’t negative.
In his book, “10% Happier,” author and journalist, Dan Harris, clearly explains how he tamed the voice in his own head. He uses ‘skillful…thinking, designed to direct the mind toward connecting with what is actually happening, as opposed to getting caught up in a storm of unproductive rumination.’ While this quote applies more to self talk about yourself, it can apply equally well to how and what you think of others. Let’s mind the work by bringing our full minds to work.
If you’re willing to try this the next time you automatically ascribe negative qualities to someone at work, hit the ❤ button below.