We have all been impacted by a challenging co-worker. The unreasonable boss, the office gossip or the unreliable peer, and our deepest wish is that this person will see the errors of his ways and change. Unfortunately, it's rare for others to change, so what options do you have? I recently chatted with a friend who shared how he made it through a toxic working relationship by taking back his narrative.
"M" ( I was asked not to use his name out of respect for his co-workers) is the whole package. He has his own coaching practice, co-teaches at a well respected Coaching Program and is a Ph.D. scientist."M" recently shared his most challenging work experience. In his previous professional life, "M" headed up an International product development team. Due to a challenging team member, "M" spent almost three years with self-doubt, dismay and deep sadness. In his words, "Towards the end of that time, I could hardly get off the couch."
Here's M's story:
"I was promoted to head up the team I was on. One of the existing leaders did not have strong leadership capabilities and was undermining our team and her potential. As a result, our overall leadership team was not gelling. I reflected my opinion of this woman's strengths and challenges on her performance review, and she brought me up on HR charges."
"M" continued, "The charges were investigated and didn't come to anything, but that was the start of my three-year leadership challenge with this individual."
"M" laughed a bit and continued, "I want people to like me. And I want things to be good, and things weren't good. I knew it, and others on my team saw it as well. Finally, another member of that team came to me and said: "M, you're not yourself, what's wrong? And one Sunday in October, it all came crashing down on me when I couldn't get off the couch. Fortunately, I was reading a book called Be the Hero: Three Powerful Ways to Overcome Challenges in Work and Life by Noah Blumenthal. So that book and candid feedback from a trusted person helped me become aware that I was telling myself stories that were not hopeful, not grateful, and not empathetic for myself and this other person. And my negative stories were being seen by others, even though I tried to hide it from my staff and maybe myself."
I asked what story "M" was telling himself?
"M" answered, "I'm doing everything I can, Why don’t they see and understand this? I just want the team to work well. I was so focused on the individual as a problem that I was forgetting about all the great things to be grateful for in my life, I was not telling stories that were hopeful. I was telling negative stories. So I started telling stories that were grateful, hopeful and empathetic. And changing the stories changed how I was."
I asked for specifics about how "M" changed the narrative.
He continued, "Well, the story for gratitude was that things are going well, I have many team members that are doing well, I am being recognized for the work, our team is being known for the work. The hopeful story was that I will be able to work through this situation and I am doing the best job I can do. The empathetic story became, this person is not well physically and has a tough historical narrative as well. These stories helped me to change the way I went through my days. I realized I can construct a different story. I was able to really create a different frame of reference, and it had to come from within me, not some external place."
M's conclusion resonates. You can't fix other people, but you do have the power over your own narrative.
What are the stories you're telling yourself? We are hardwired to take facts and weave them into a narrative that supports our worldview. Most of our narratives are at best, loosely connected to hard and fast facts. Our stories are filled with interpretations and assumptions that allow us to confirm the reality we choose to create. Too often our negative stories have tremendous power, but they are no more real than the positive ones that would serve us better.
So construct your stories carefully. Ask the question, How true is that? How do I know it's true. A good friend, mentor or coach can help you see beyond your blind spots. Be aware of the assumptions you're forming and choose to make them positive. It will empower you. You can rarely change other people, instead create a narrative that is positive, powerful and doesn't allow others power over your own story.