This article first appeared in Shambhala Sun, January 2005 under the title “Breaking the Habit Habit”.
Everyone knows the old adage “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” In the work environment, the trees are the immediate pressures you feel: demands and directives from above, needs and problems from below. The forest is the bigger picture, the picture beyond the immediate pressures.Most people react to remove pressures as quickly as possible, relying on ways of working that are familiar to them. The result is a progressive narrowing of perception and response. You don’t see the forest and your reactions and the results of your reactions create more pressures because they don’t take the forest into account. A vicious self-reinforcing cycle develops — pressures and reactions give rise to greater pressures and stronger reactions.
A department head did solid work for which he was rewarded with generous raises, bonuses, and various perks. Yet he still watched fearfully for any sign of disagreement in his superiors. He changed his opinion, ignored his staff’s recommendations, or took over a subordinate’s work whenever he felt doing so would solidify his relationship with his superiors. He couldn’t understand why his department experienced low morale and high turnover.
The head of a company that distributes time-critical products hit the roof whenever a truck was late or a staff member didn’t have the latest numbers at his fingertips. He diverted all the energies of his staff to address “the crisis.” The business wasn’t growing as it should, a fact that only increased his volatility. His staff had given up trying to tell him that the constant diversions prevented them from putting in place the systems needed to ensure smooth operations.
The immediate pressures of a situation tend to blind us to what is really important. This phenomenon is acutely present at all levels of corporate life where fear of losing one’s job, fear of not being able to control outcomes, or threats to one’s identity are constant and often over-riding concerns. The energy of such fears puts us on edge, so that any element in a current situation that resonates with unresolved associations easily triggers emotional reactions such as anger, neediness, or confusion.
Three things happen then. First, the emotion projects its own worldview. When you are angry, you see everything in terms of opposition and the only options are fight or surrender. When you feel needy, no matter how much you may have, you feel it isn’t enough, so you have to have more.
Second, internal agendas take over and cause you to ignore much of what is happening around you. The department head’s concern for smooth relationships with superiors caused him to ignore the work and feelings of his staff. The company head’s crisis mentality prevented his staff from developing robust systems.
Third, you lose touch with your intelligence and abilities. One woman, a competent human resources administrator, consistently met feedback by digging in her heels and refusing to listen. Her reaction was, “I don’t let anyone mess with my career.” Yet, when asked how long she would need to find a similar job, she replied, “One phone call.” She viewed any feedback as a threat to her survival and lost touch with her own competence.
In the work environment, you tend to be drawn to and placed in roles where your reactive tendencies serve the interests of the organization, regardless of their effect on you and those around you. Some people react to challenges by working through to do lists, others by connecting and relating to people, others by analyzing and planning, and others by trying to take control.
At first you feel comfortable because what you are doing comes easily to you, but as time goes on, problems may arise. In an environment of reward and punishment and ever-present fears of loss of job, control, or identity, you rely more and more on that one way of working. You go around hammering everything into place, or connecting with everyone and everything, or analyzing everything, or trying to control everything. Your work life narrows, losing its challenge, richness, meaning, and mystery. Inevitably, compensating behaviors set in (substance abuse, workaholism, obsession with money or status, lack of attention to family and personal life) and develop into stress-related illnesses (physical and emotional depletion, digestive disorders, ulcers, compromised immune system, etc.).
How do you step out of this self-reinforcing cycle, short of not working? The key is to make a balanced effort in your work life and not rely on just one way of to meet all situations. To see the forest, you have to step back from the trees and look with different eyes.
Start to explore how you approach your work, how much time you spend in each of the four ways of working:
- doing or making sure things just get done, working through task lists, setting frameworks, defining what is expected, managing projects
- relating to people, building relationships, listening to problems, catching up on what others are doing and letting them know what you are doing
- exploring, analyzing, looking at how things work, looking for deeper relationships between systems, looking at who or what is dependent on your work and who and what your work is dependent on
- leading, creating the conditions for others to be able to work effectively, providing direction, order, and protection, motivating and inspiring people to negotiate changes in their work.
Estimate how much time you spend in each of four areas listed above. Then estimate how much time you should be spending in each area to do your job properly. The comparison reveals where your habituated tendencies have been reinforced by your work environment and are pulling you out of balance. Now you know where to start.
As your priorities change, you will spend time in areas you neglected and shift responsibility for things you used to do to others. People around you will react in different ways: those for whom your old ways were convenient will resist the changes, while others will welcome them. You will, inevitably, see more clearly how your work environment systemically reinforces reactivity in you and in others. You will have to meet the challenge of not being run by either internal or external systems. And, in meeting this challenge, you may well see a bigger forest, coming to new understandings about what is truly meaningful to you in your work and in your life.