This one time at work (that’s a joke for those of you that remember American Pie), I was talking to Emily, who at the time was my VP at my company. She was offering me data about how much our project managers are working. We were noticing that very small things were slipping, and Emily wanted to let me know that she thought I should throw more resources at project management—maybe even hire some extra help.
The deeper we got into it, the more my frustration grew because some of the data didn’t point in that direction. In fact, if anything, the data pointed to the fact that the project managers needed to spend more time on certain phases of their projects.
Emily’s job as their manager was to remove obstacles for them and report to me about what was happening in the field. But her reaction seemed stronger than the proof, so I prompted her, “Why do you feel so strongly about getting them additional help when the data doesn’t really point in that direction?” She said, very clearly, “I remember being a project manager and feeling really overwhelmed and not being sure that I was right that I didn’t have enough time to get things done.”
Once what Emily was feeling was in the light of day, which is what happens to the truth when it’s spoken, we could tackle it. I said, “Emily what do you hear yourself saying?” Her response, “I’m pulling from my own experience.” Exactly! Emily was putting herself in their shoes, which is a wonderful thing to do as a manager. But we have to be careful, both as parents and as managers, about letting our own experiences dictate the way we make decisions. Do we want the people we show up for carry our baggage?
I struggled with my weight (I still do). I also struggled with friendships as a child (that thankfully, I do not struggle with anymore). I wanted very much for these issues to be different for my children. And I did everything I could from a macro perspective—I picked a great guy to be their father, together we picked a wonderful community to raise them, and so on. But the hardest thing was the micro perspective—I had to sit on my hands, or bite my tongue when it came to eating too much candy or watching them pick certain friends.
I had to own my own experiences around these issues so I could parent in a way that I had defined as successful for myself. I believe this may be the hardest thing I have ever done and continue to do. This is true in management as well: I know that when I’m getting emotional then old stuff is coming up for me at work. I need to figure out what it’s about so I don’t let it cloud my judgement.
When you feel triggered or frustrated or you don’t understand why you’re having an emotional reaction, take a break. Take a walk. Ask for time to think about it more. No good manager will say—“You cannot take time to think about this!” And you can always say to your children, “Mommy needs a time out so she can think this through”, or “Daddy isn’t sure what to say and I want to say the right thing so I need some time.” Think about what a gift you’re modeling–you don’t need to know right away.
If it’s old stuff, then talk about it with a friend or a therapist. Or journal about it. No matter how painful it may be to hold it, working through it will get you to a clearer place, where you will understand your own reaction to the issue at hand.
And the truth is, as Steve Almond says, “Sometimes we need to look backward to move forward.” Understanding why we behave the way we behave is our stuff, and getting it out in the open helps us move past it. So carry your own bag, understanding it’s your bag and shouldn’t have to be carried by others.