It’s not Personal

Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

Don Miguel Ruiz

When I was new to leadership positions, one of the challenges that I found incredibly difficult to overcome was that I often took things too personally. I was keen to do my job well, and my fear of failure meant that I was terrified of “doing the wrong thing”. When outcomes weren’t as expected, or people provided negative feedback – constructive or otherwise – it was very hard not to take it personally, because it hit upon my innermost fears and insecurities. It hurt my ego.

As you can imagine, this impacted some of my decision making, because my decisions were made from a base of emotion. The result was that my decisions did not always serve me well, and outcomes were not always as expected.

So how did I change this?

I have used a number of techniques to assist me in taking things less personally. When I first decided that this was something that I would like to change about myself, I didn’t know about Emotional Intelligence or “Way of Being” or mindfulness, or any of the concepts and practices that are very popular today. All I knew was that I wanted to find a way to take things less personally.

My first approach, based purely on what I thought might work,  and not on any theory whatsoever, was to become an observer in situations where there was a high chance of me taking something personally. For example, if someone was providing negative feedback, I would visualise myself standing outside of the conversation, watching someone providing negative feedback to someone who just happened to be like me. Then, as the observer, I would try to objectively establish whether the feedback was justified, and I would use this to determine an appropriate response. This approach worked well for me.

Some time later, I started to learn about emotional intelligence and emotional quotient. This enabled me to further develop my skills and approach.

One tool that has helped me in recent years is to understand the difference between assessments and assertions. Assertions are statements that are supported by fact and can be right or wrong – for example “the sky is blue”, “Mary is a doctor”. An assessment is basically an opinion. It is based on the evidence that we have available to us but, unlike an assertion, society has no rules or standards that can be applied to make it right or wrong. For example, “Mary is a good doctor”, “Mary is an excellent doctor” or “Mary is a bad doctor”. We can try to ground an assessment by looking at the evidence that we have available to us. It still won’t make the assessment right or wrong, but it helps us to further understand the basis of the assessment. For example, I may have had a number of experiences where Mary the doctor misdiagnosed me, or gave me medication that didn’t help. Examining this evidence may help to ground my assessment that Mary is a bad doctor. Someone else may be amazed that Mary was able to diagnose their “head cold” as pneumonia, enabling them to be treated before becoming terribly ill. Examining this evidence may help them to ground their assessment that Mary is an excellent doctor. So, two very different assessments, but both with evidence that seems to ground them.

So, why does understanding assessments and assertions help to not take things personally? Well, I found that this helped me in many ways. Firstly, understanding that an assessment is basically an opinion with no right or wrong helped me to take the focus off right and wrong. If there is no right or wrong, then I don’t need to judge myself so harshly if someone else’s opinion differs to mine. Additionally, if there is no right or wrong,  then it is perfectly reasonable that my own assessments also carry validity, even if they are different to the assessments made by others. It also helped me to understand that different people may all assess a situation differently and, based on their interpretation of a situation, they may even be able to ground their different assessments against the evidence that they each have.

So, if someone is giving me negative feedback, I try to look at what evidence they used to make that assessment. If I feel the assessment is grounded, I can then accept that and make a choice to change my behaviour to support the assessments that I would like them to make. If I don’t feel that the assessment is grounded, then I can accept that and respond appropriately. Ultimately, the benefit to me is that I am taking my ego out of the equation because I understand that an opinion is an assessment and I know that there is no right or wrong to measure myself against.

Do you take things too personally? What might you be able to achieve if you take things less personally?

Note: Assessments and assertions have really helped me with much of my learning. If you feel that they would be of benefit to you, you might like to visit this link.


How’s that Ego?

True leaders understand that leadership is not about them but about those they serve. It is not about exalting themselves but about lifting others up.

Sheri L. Dew

I remember when I first accepted a management position. I naively thought that having the word “manager” in my title would help me to achieve results. I considered team successes to be my doing and, well, I had an ego.

But an ego is fine, right? There is nothing wrong with a little self-confidence…

Good try, but ego and self-confidence are two very different concepts. Ego is about self-interest. Self-confidence is about believing in ourselves, and having faith in our own abilities. It is possible to have one and not the other. Because ego is about self-interest, it can result in bad behaviour. This article explains the difference very well.

A leader who is prepared to forgo self-interest is a leader who has every chance of serving their team and working towards great results. The reason for this is that everything starts to become about the team and the outcomes, rather than the leader. This opens up a whole new world of decision making, and a whole new view of the world.

I remember one day a few years ago, one of the most senior leaders on the account that I was working on instructed my team to complete some work that fell within the scope of another team. I advised this leader that it was still under the control of that team, but offered to provide assistance if required. My team was funded for specific tasks, so focussing on this task would remove them from a funded task on to one that, under our contract, we would not receive revenue. It would also place our funded tasks at risk. Additionally, only the other team had the authorisations and access required to complete the requested task. The response from this leader was “You mark my words. Your team WILL be doing this, and they WILL have this done by the end of the day, or else!”

In my assessment, this is an example of ego. An agreement had been made between this leader and the client that my team would do this. The leader had made the agreement without an understanding of what was involved, and with no consultation with the appropriate teams. Instead of realising their error and learning from it, the leader responded to the professional opinion of the team by becoming defensive and making it about them and how they felt. This behaviour was not enabling my team or the organisation to succeed. In my assessment, it set the team up to fail, because it meant that they had to re-direct their focus from funded activities in order to get something working over which they had absolutely no control and no authority to do so. This is not serving the team.

It is great to have self-confidence, but don’t confuse it with ego. Keep the self-confidence; you’ll need it. However, perhaps it is worth looking at how ego serves you. Leadership is not about receiving personal accolades. It is not about you at all. It is about serving a team in a way that ensures that team is empowered to be the best that they can be. It is about focussing on outcomes. My feeling is that, in the example above, a leader who could manage their ego would have worked with me to determine the best outcome for the team and the client. They would not have let their ego get in the way of an outcome. They would have approached the team and arrived at a solution (based on the professional recommendations of the team) before committing to the client.

A colleague for whom I have a significant amount of respect once explained this to me very well, albeit in a manner that was neither politically correct nor eloquent. He said “There is no I in team, but there is one in d*ckhead. Be a team, not a d*ckhead.”

Check your ego. How is it serving you?