In a coaching conversation last week, I was talking with a new client, Aaron, about his manager. Aaron had a litany of complaints which boiled down to perceived rudeness, a chaotic and reactive environment and the sense of a gap between what his manager said he was going to do, and then what actually happened. Aaron was finding work increasingly difficult to navigate. He and I sat down to work out what was actually going on. After 20 minutes or so of talking through specific examples, I provided some feedback to Aaron about how it seemed as though his manager was ‘doing their best’. Aaron found my response quite offensive.
When I questioned Aaron some more, he stated:
“It’s because this manager’s best, it isn’t good enough”.
I asked for some more information and together we worked out that Aaron found the erratic nature of his work environment and manager unpredictable and therefore, at times he felt unsafe. We sat on that understanding for a moment, before I asked to return to Aaron’s reaction to the statement that his manager was ‘doing their best’. Aaron's reaction felt like something we needed to unpack together.
Together we realised that the behaviours that Aaron’s manager was displaying were not below the minimum line of acceptance. Examples of 'threat behaviour' would be bullying, harassment, stealing etc. These are true threat signals. When questioned, Aaron was confident that he had not experienced or witnessed such activities.
Therefore, Aaron was perceiving a threat in his work environment, that didn’t actually exist. Sure there were behaviours being exhibited that would be frustrating and annoying, but they weren’t unsafe in the truest sense of the word.
As we move about our days, we are constantly taking in information and making sense of it. Often this is unconscious, as our brain selectively tunes into things that it thinks we need to know. For Aaron, his brain was surfacing a lot of interactions and events that he was ‘coding’ and interpreting as a potential threat. As such, he was spending a lot of time and energy with incorrect information, which was activating Aaron’s feeling of being unsafe. It was destabilising Aaron, and both the quality of his work and his relationships at work were suffering.
Now that we understood what was happening for Aaron, the relief in the air was palpable. Aaron had been wondering how he was going to continue working in his job. Now that he had language for the feelings he had been experiencing, he felt lighter and more relieved. He could name what he was doing, and, having mapped it out with me, he could short circuit himself from going through those well used, negative thinking pathways. Best of all, within a week or two of consciously re-wiring his thought patterns, the perception of constant threat in his work environment would greatly diminish. He will likely find that, soon enough, it disappears back down into unconsciousness, allowing Aaron to focus on doing his job and working more cohesively with his manager.
It is clear now that Aaron’s ‘safety radar’ was incorrectly attuned. Together, we retraced the origins to a previous role, where he was in a negative environment and experiencing behaviours at the hands of his management which fell below the minimum standard. Although Aaron had left that role, he had never talked to anyone about what had happened to him. As such, his perception system had become ‘stuck’. Together we were able to reset it to work in a way that was more functional for him.
How do you recalibrate your thinking?
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