By Steve Savels.
“Failure?”, my client tried cautiously. “Or bully?”
My client (in my private coaching practice) was a senior manager in a multinational company. She and her team had been under tremendous pressure in the last months, because the market for their products was rapidly declining.
In her last management team meeting, she hadn’t been able to hide her frustration with her people anymore. “Why don’t you get it, we are going down and all you care about are some stupid, pointless projects!” she had shouted, leaving them all stunned. They had always known her as a very result-oriented but also friendly and encouraging person. After this meeting, she felt they were talking behind her back – and even less focused on getting the department back on track.
She was describing the scene to me a few days later. I told her: “I’m going to write down in one word what I think of you in this situation. You have to guess what word it is.”
The only words she could come up with were full of shame and guilt.
I showed her what I had written down: my note said “human”.
“I would never have thought of that”, she quietly said, holding her head in her hands.
Beating ourselves up for mistakes
Isn’t it a pity, that when we make a mistake, the first thing we often do, is beat ourselves up for it? We believe that this is how we learn and become better. But does that really work?
My client – an extremely intelligent, driven and successful woman who had turned around a global business unit and increased its profit margin with tens of millions of dollars in the last 4 years – had been thinking about the situation for days now, and there was no solution in sight. She was stuck in a mix of anger (mainly directed towards herself) and feeling sorry for herself.
Don’t we all get stuck in such a toxic mix sometimes? It’s all so human: to make mistakes – and to beat ourselves up for them.
Recognizing your humanity
What’s the way out?
Maybe it’s recognizing that you are only human.
And then what?, you might argue. Won’t that make me passive? The ultimate excuse for anything: I’m only human?
That’s also what my client thought at first. I think it’s a huge misunderstanding. There is nothing soft about acknowledging that you are human and capable of making mistakes. On the contrary, it takes a lot of guts to look at yourself as you really are: imperfect, vulnerable.
If you don’t acknowledge your humanity, you easily get stuck in a useless struggle for perfection. Truly admitting you made a human mistake – and didn’t do it because you are a failure or because there’s something else wrong with you – opens up the possibility to look more deeply: what actually caused me to react like this?
Looking more deeply and taking responsibility
My client started to look deeper and understood that her relationship with her boss was not very healthy. She had always seen him as some sort of father figure. Whenever she thought she might let her boss down, she got very upset, which led her into a downward spiral of stress reactions. When the pressure got too high, she took it out on the people below her.
This insight gave my client the keys to take up her responsibility again. She apologized to her team and took some more emotional distance from her boss and job.
She still is the same result-driven person, but a lot more relaxed. She has understood that there is only so much she can do, and that she cannot control the market. She doesn’t waste her energy in fighting against windmills anymore. And paradoxically, her boss appreciates her even more, not to mention the leadership team of her business unit.
Acknowledging your own humanity - and that of others who also make mistakes - is just one aspect of “heartfulness”. It’s part of many different insights, skills and attitudes that you can learn to be kinder and more compassionate with yourself – without becoming passive.