Sitting in the Denver airport earlier this summer, I heard our gate attendant get on the loudspeaker to announce that we had to switch gates. As I started to pack my things to make the move, I noticed that the guy next to me was absolutely irate. He couldn’t believe we had to switch gates and he made it known to everyone within earshot. Out loud, he kept ranting about how annoying the airline was, how they always do things like this (to him!), and he just couldn’t believe we had to move gates. Because he was inconvenienced, he was determined to turn everyone against the airline and its employees.
Frankly, I felt bad for him. Who cares about a gate change? It meant, at most, we’d be boarding five minutes later than planned. But, for whatever reason, he took the gate change personally.
He assumed that the airline was out to get him.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
This talk track happens a lot in office environments. We hear something about a competitor, news from our boss, or a bad update from a colleague, and our head goes to one place—
I can’t believe this is happening to me.
In other words, we take an event and make it extremely personal.
- If we didn’t get the raise, it must be because we’re not good enough or someone on the team got it instead. (Screw you, Carrie!)
- If we didn’t get that deal, it must be because my company’s marketing isn’t strong enough. (If only the CEO actually knew how to market, our inbound sales would be incredible!)
- If a colleague shares a hard opinion about our performance, it must be because I’m inherently flawed. (I was late to another meeting and that means I’m a lazy or careless person.)
Over and over again, we immediately jump to why <insert any good thing> didn’t happen or why <insert bad thing happening right now> is happening, and we make it all about ourselves.
Jim Collins, in his epic management book, Good To Great, talks at length about—as the title indicates—why some companies stay “good” while others become “great.” He studied hundreds of companies to understand why certain businesses make the leap to become amazingly successful in terms of their profit and revenue growth while others just stay flat. One of the biggest reasons he found that growth actually happens? When CEOs and their teams care more about the company than themselves.
Another way of saying it: Companies tend to succeed more when a CEO and their team’s egos take a backburner to the needs of the company.
So, when I hear people fall into a victim mentality around any particular event, believing it’s all about them, it feels clear to me that they’re focusing on themselves and not the bigger picture—the company and continuing to improve our work across the board. Instead, I think they’re actually putting their ego in front of the company and doing it over and over again.
Here’s an example—the issue of raises. Say you didn’t get the giant raise you wanted this year.
I’ve had it happen to me and took it personally.
But, now that I’m a CEO, I know how complex decisions around a raise can be. I know how important it is to stay laser-focused on our budget. And, I know that that means there are some years when we can give giant raises and other years when, as a company, we just can’t give raises at all.
When we can’t, though, most teams take it personally. People often think it’s a direct commentary on their personal performance. Inevitably, someone feels like, if they had done more, they would have received the raise. And, sometimes, people feel like money is being kept from the team and is instead being funneled only to the top—straight to the CEO. Sometimes that might be true but making an assumption and believing your company is just out to get you is…
All about ego.
In reality, a CEO is probably trying to keep enough cash in the bank and invest in new hires to make the company even more profitable and sustainable down the road. A lack of raises often has nothing to do with any particular employee and much more to do with the growth of the business. But it sure doesn’t feel that way to a lot of employees.
I’m not saying it isn’t natural. It’s an incredibly human response, so I’m not shaming anyone here. In fact, the same thing happens to me all the time, the same way it happens to other bosses. Any time an employee gives bad news (like leaving the company) or gives critical feedback about the team (including me) or the company itself, it’s so easy to take it personally. But someone choosing to leave a company isn’t a personal attack. People have complex reasons that go into when and where they work—factors like their family and friendships, their savings goals, where they want to get to in their careers, shifting interest in the day-to-day activities they get to do at work, and so much more. Or, sometimes, people just want a change. There’s just too much going on to fully understand why people choose certain things, which means there’s not a lot of reason to take any one particular behavior or event personally.
What To Do About It
When I find myself making things more personal than they should be, I ask more questions.
This might be the biggest area I think most of us could stand to grow.
Instead of making a bunch of assumptions when someone says or does something that triggers your “This Is About Me” response, try asking about it instead. Ask yourself it it really is about you, and ask the person or people who triggered your response what really is going on behind the scenes.
If you didn’t get a raise, ask your boss why and make sure they know you’re looking for an honest response.
When a colleague gives you feedback, ask them to tell you more.
And, when clients decide not to work with you, ask why they didn’t. The extra bonus here? For every rejection you get that comes with honest feedback, the more you get insights into what’s working for your customers and what’s not.
One thing I love from Brené Brown that’s been a great tool around this, too: You’re allowed to share how something made you feel or what it brought up for you, but try pairing it with “The story I’m telling myself is…” For instance, you can always say to your boss, “I didn’t get the raise and the story I’m telling myself is that it’s because you actually don’t feel like I performed well this year.”
This does a few things that are incredibly helpful:
- It distances the emotionality of an event from both of you.
- It allows you to be honest about your story and the fact that your prior experience is likely leading you to react a certain way or see things through a certain lens. And even though your story might have created an assumption, your feelings are still real and valid.
- And, it shifts your question from blaming the person for their action (“I can’t believe you did that…”) to inviting them into a conversation about what they really meant (“Can you let me know what was going on for you that led to your decision?”).
Asking more questions helps us ensure that we’re not focused solely on ourselves and our own ego and instead gets us focused on something bigger than just us.