I was recently on a flight home from Chicago when I chose to listen to the whole safety demonstration spiel conducted by the flight crew - had someone quizzed me prior to hearing it I would have identified the exits and floatation device parts right, but I did not accurately remember the instructions for the oxygen mask. While I recalled the mask would pop down from above my head I did not remember that I should put my own oxygen mask on first before assisting others.
I could have sworn it was the other way round. No so – and I fly regularly so it was a shock to me to get this wrong. Beyond helping me to see that I should be paying more attention to these safety demonstrations when I fly it pointed to another item of concern – why did I not remember this correctly? It’s not like the safety demonstration is a big mental stretch, and when you think about it the instruction to attend to your own needs first is just good common sense. You are no good to someone else when you can’t breathe.
But we don’t tend to look after our needs first, do we? An informal poll of several of my colleagues showed a typical week day had a troubling pattern; a long list of things that needed doing and no list for the things that attended to a persons’ own needs. Sure there was a break or two in the work day to grab a coffee or a snack, but no time to read the back-log of great articles and blog posts that give us professional energy. No time to do more then eat lunch while hunched over a desk working. No time to take a mental break before heading off for the “second shift” of the day – home and family. Even at home there wasn’t much of a break as my co-workers cited the need for meal prep, homework (and not just the kids, often there was work brought home to complete where they could get the time to “think”). No oxygen masks here.
What would happen if we made the other list? The one that feeds our energy levels, gives us time to think up creative ideas and exposes us to interesting people and new information. What would happen if we chose to make that list and pursued it with the same vigor we’ve applied to our work? What if we chose to view this other list as our professional “oxygen mask” already within reach, just waiting for us to pull it on? There is a paradox in play here, just as many of us don’t give the in-flight safety demonstration much thought and take for granted the oxygen mask will always be there (and that we’ll know what to do with it) we tend to put off the things we want to do to accomplish the things we need to do.
There is a cost in all of this. When was the last time you looked forward to going to work? Not in a “Sure, I like my job” kind of way, but in an “I’d love to share with you the cool things I’m doing at work right now!” kind of way. Because the thing is even the coolest work projects become “one more thing to do” when we don’t breathe enough “oxygen” into our day – kind of like the way you might be feeling about reading all those great articles stacking up in your in-box (ugg!). So how long can you go on like this without deeper consequences that could range from perpetual discontent to a health issue?
We are only as valuable to others as we are to ourselves; in other words, go get your oxygen mask. This is important to keep in mind and follow on a regular basis so you give yourself the space and time to pursue the things you want, because (as it turns out) they are the things you need. Putting your own oxygen mask on first is some of the best advice I have heard in a long time. Go ahead, make that other list and pursue it - then take a deep breath of pure, sweet oxygen. You’ll be glad you did.
Carleen will be speaking at the Institute of Professional Management Annual Conference in Ottawa on April 16th On “Women in the Workplace - Failure to Thrive” (http://www.workplace.ca/events/event.php?id=164).
Optimism is a beneficial trait. When you see the glass as half full (rather than half empty) you can be a catalyst and a champion for activities that support your organization, your community and yourself. But is there such a thing as too much optimism? Like any other component of emotional intelligence, it is all in the balance.
To begin with let’s look at the definition of optimism; optimism is an indicator of one’s positive attitude and outlook on life. It involves remaining hopeful and resilient, despite occasional setbacks (Multi Health Systems, 2012). You can often tell when you are working with someone who is an optimist as she or he will generally look on the bight side, are willing to try different things (i.e. they may be more comfortable with risk) and see the best in other people and situations. Optimistic people come in all packages; more often associated with extroversion than introversion optimism can be found in both (you’ll see it in an extrovert more quickly then you may someone who is more introverted). On the surface optimism may not be the first trait that comes across, but over time you can likely sort the people you know into two camps; those who exhibit optimism consistently and those who don’t. But is there such a thing as too much optimism? Could there be a down side to this wonderful way of looking at the world? The answer to that question is “yes”.
People who hold optimistic tendencies without the balance of objectivity can experience some negative consequences. This goes beyond the occasional setback and more towards systemic occurrences. I’ll give you an example. I have a colleague whom I enjoy working with immensely; he is bright, funny, highly intelligent and up for anything. Work projects can be a lot of fun when he is on them because the team gets to do many interesting and creative things. However he is also highly frustrating to work with because he is never on time - for anything. Where his optimism gets him into trouble over and over again in is in the way he schedules his time. He is overly optimistic about how much time his meetings take (and he isn’t necessarily the one contributing to them running over the time allotted). He is also overly optimistic about how much time it will take to get to the next meeting – he always plans for the perfect commuting conditions, which as many of us know is rarely the reality. As I mentioned, he is a very smart man and it is not that the practice of time management eludes him, he just has a blind spot fueled by optimism that prevents objectivity from helping him to see he needs to put more flex in his schedule to allow for the times meetings spill over and bad traffic is present.
This “raging optimism” can also stretch into other things as well. While not a concern for my colleague, things like setting achievable goals (personal goals or goals for your direct reports or team) can be impacted by a malpractice of optimism. Think of the consequence this may have when goals are set without a “reality check” – you set yourself (your team, your employees) up for failure, time and time again. While that may not hold an optimist down for long it is very demotivating for those who were asked to meet those goals, impacting even the most optimistic of employees. An optimist in a leadership role who cannot see this as a consistent problem may also, in time, feel a negative consequence at work as those who consistently fail to meet the goals they set are addressed by the organization, and not always to the benefit of the individual. A good foil for optimism is “realism”, which is the ability to look at things somewhere in the balanced middle between optimism and pessimism. Realism provides that measure of objectivity that allows you to take into consideration what you’d like to accomplish and what the reality of the situation may allow you to accomplish (known variables, like people talking a lot in meetings and environmental factors, like traffic).
Within realism there is still room for the raging optimist, but it is to consider known variables before setting and communicating goals to ensure they are achievable. Optimists may naturally watch for those opportunities to support moving things forward even further then planned in measured and responsible ways. To borrow a baseball analogy, realism doesn’t mean you shouldn’t “swing for the fence” but keep in mind to make that a worthwhile exercise you first have to connect with the ball. Just like in baseball, that connection takes skill, practice, the right conditions and a bit of luck – that is the reality of the “game”.
Self-regard is an important aspect of our lives. Your level of self-regard can make a difference in what type of work you chose to pursue (do I apply for that promotion or not?), how kind you are to yourself (and others), how well you exercise your voice (assertiveness) and many other important aspects of life. It is a reflection of how you feel and the degree of objectivity you apply to your own internal self-image. Whether you think you are “doing well”, or are a “work in progress” or an “abject failure” has a lot to do with how you show up in life. Call it self-confidence, self-regard or poise our ability to count on it to be there for us in a positive way is key to how we handle many situations in life.
The DNA of self-regard is in our “beliefs, values, experiences, attitudes and expectations” (page 38 Emotional Intelligence in Action, 2nd edition, M. Hughes and J.B. Terrell). These things inform how we see and perceive both the world around us, and our interaction within it. Looking at it from a practical perspective many of us have a feelings of self-regard that serve us well; we are highly functioning and contributive members of society who are there for ourselves and others when needed. However, self-regard can be fleeting, which is a frustration to many of us. Self-regard enables many things, it helps us to effectively solve problems and to be assertive when needed, but only when our self-confidence is present; so what should we do when our sense of confidence deserts us?
Couples everywhere will tell you that the magic phrase “we have to talk” will create a crisis of confidence. If your boss sends you a cryptic e-mail asking you to meet with him/her as soon as possible without stating why, most people will feel anxiety. No matter how well things are going, or how well we know ourselves, life happens and occasionally we experience a confidence gap. Can you detect when you feel that gap and what its impact is on your ability to conduct yourself? How does this make you feel physically? Being able to be yourself is a key interpersonal skill, especially when you are practicing it under pressure and potentially during a physical response that may include an elevated heart rate, sweating, mild shaking, etc. This falls under the heading of self-management and it is key to consistently practicing self-confidence. Showing up for what may be a difficult conversation is a great step. Keeping your head about you before, during and after this conversation supports what you need to do to preserve your self-confidence.
This requires you to be able to practice objectivity; a practice that begins before you even enter a conversation like the ones outlined above. The reason your significant other may want to speak to you could be as simple as needing assistance to iron out a wrinkle that popped up regarding family; your boss may want to check on some specific fact of importance in her/his work. Remembering that not everything is about what you have done (or not done) as you head into these types of situations is key to remaining calm and feeling your self-confidence has got your back. You are good at what you do and how you are present for others - center yourself in this knowledge. Being able to express yourself (and feeling like you can rely on your abilities to express yourself even in trying circumstances) is also key to hanging on to your self-confidence consistently and is core to being assertive. We all know those people who have faced a “firing squad” in a meeting and handled it with grace. They too were likely experiencing an elevated heart rate, etc. but they didn’t allow that to interfere in their ability to remain objective and assertively (not aggressively) conduct a conversation that lead to a positive outcome. Practice makes perfect, no one does this right the first few times; the fact that you strive to improve as you go is also a key confidence builder, one that will serve you well no matter what life throws at you.
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I believe in giving back to others in many tangible ways. When I learn something new, or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website. You can always find my latest blog entries here, on Face Book or Linked In.