When I was 17 years old I got a job being a breakfast prep cook for a small restaurant on Cape Cod. The head cook (let’s call him ‘Bob’) was an ex-semipro tackle who weighed about 300 pounds and had the unfortunate job of teaching me everything he knew about cooking. His teaching methods were simple:
- Yell at me to do something.
- When I didn’t do it correctly the first time ask me “WTF were you thinking?”
- Yell some more.
(Ah, brings me back to middle school)
The more he yelled, the stupider I felt. I spent about two weeks “training” with him and every day I was more of a confusing mess.
Then one day I came into the restaurant and he wasn’t there. The owners came down from their upstairs apartment and announced that I was now the head cook…
Needless to say that that first day was pretty uncomfortable.
After a few days though, I relaxed and taught myself how to cook diner food for over 200 people.
Over the years I have wondered why it was that I was an idiot when Bob was around and yet able to run the kitchen when he was gone? I knew that I was scared and that his yelling didn’t make me any better, but I have since realized the impact of our emotions on the people who work under us. While most leaders are not yellers, I have seen people react in the same way as I did at seventeen when asked to do things. I also have experienced myself in situations where I was supposed to giving instructions but only managed to make someone feel a sense of panic.
(Like, maybe teaching someone how to drive?)
My theory about Bob is that he knew exactly how to cook, but he had no idea how to teach anyone how to cook. After reading books on how our brains interpret emotions from other people through something called the “mirror neurons” I have a better understanding that my panic was in part his own panic. What I mean by that is that I wasn’t just responding to the yelling, rather to something much more primal inside of him that is feeling fear. Our mirrors neurons are so powerful that our emotions can actively impact the people around us, which is especially true for those people who look to us for guidance and leadership. When they feel fear, we all feel fear.
Fear of what?
- Fear of making a mistake.
- Fear of being embarrassed.
- Fear of losing control.
As a human being, we probably experience at least one of those feelings every five seconds. If you work in a high-pressure job, you probably experience all three every second of the day. Why?
I think it is because we believe that we are supposed to be in control.
The illusion that we can control an outcome of a situation leads us to feel fear when that outcome doesn’t emerge in exactly the way that we expected. Most of the time this doesn’t matter because the stakes are low, but when you add in that your team, your employees and your peers have to perform a certain way in order for you to be successful, that can cause people to lose their minds.
Many people seem to think that they can mask their fear from the people around them simply by smiling or acting calm.
The trouble is that, even if you are good at masking your fear (and your negative thoughts), the muscles in your body won’t lie. They will reveal tension that is hidden to most of us but not to the mirror neurons in our brains. For example, if you are watching someone give a presentation and you believe that he will screw it up, your body will tense and you will give off the vibes of fear (or judgment). Some people are not even that subtle about it.
(The woman on the left thinks things are going really well…)
What can we do about our fear?
What if you practiced the discipline of not playing into your fear and the fear of the people around you and instead just see what is happening?
Try these step.
- Regulate your breathing (2 seconds in, 2 seconds pause, 2 seconds out, 2 second pause, repeat).
- Chose a set of muscles on your body, tense them as hard as you can for 30 seconds and then relax.
- Bring your awareness to your body (feel your feet on the ground, your seat in the chair, etc…).
If you are able to do those three exercises, then you will have calmed down your mind a little. From this calm place, try to look again at the person you are coaching/leading. You might see someone making mistakes, but you also might see them making certain victories. Focus on the victories and comment on them.
If you can be more present for the people on your team and in your office, you will be able to create an environment where real learning and growth can happen. You will be triggering people less and they may even begin to surprise you with their abilities. The goal is to create the right kind of space for them to be successful.
Most importantly, when you do give them critical feedback, you won’t be communicating it from a fearful place. You won’t be inadvertently “screaming” at them with your tension, and they will have a better chance of hearing you and integrating what you want them to learn. You might even begin to see the progress they are making rather than focusing only on the struggles they are having.
What we hope for is to create an environment where people get to be their best selves.