The Agreeableness Trap

I work for a small company, and as you might expect, employee relations are much more close-knit than you might find in a larger work environment.  It feels very much like a family, but that is more by design than it is a byproduct of the number of people.  The leadership and staff have worked very diligently on developing core values that make this atmosphere a reality.  They have created a company culture of like-minded people who truly care about each other. This kind of work place is a first for me—and that alone is something to say because my career has spanned multiple decades while never being exposed to a like experience.

Imagine my surprise when I heard these words recently at a company brainstorming meeting: “don’t keep quiet to avoid hurting feelings.”  I literally had to scan the faces around the conference table to see if I had missed the joke or had dozed off and dreamed it.  (I am not admitting to nodding off during meetings!)  But I was certainly caught off guard.

Well, I had heard correctly.  The complete phrase was actually: “Don’t be afraid to bring up issues (don’t keep quiet to avoid hurting feelings)”.  The more I thought about it, the more it began to make sense.  If there is truly an issue, it certainly doesn’t benefit anyone to practice “agreeableness” at the cost of nipping a potential problem in the bud.  Of course, we are not being encouraged to take a cold-hearted approach in confronting the matter, but to utilize the people skills that we have been developing to communicate in such a way that our critique is received as coming from the heart, and for the betterment of the company as a whole.

I was recently challenged by this exact scenario when I found myself confronted with the fear of applying some constructive criticism where I thought it was needed.  The topic was well within my wheelhouse and my coworker’s experience was limited in comparison.  I was afraid that she would see my corrections as an attack on her work.

I decided to go ahead and share my input with her, and ultimately, everything worked out better than I could have hoped for.  I even opened up about my own reluctance to share due to my fear of her possible reaction.  She really put me at ease as she helped me understand how I was falling into the “agreeableness” trap myself.  The end result was a collaborative effort that yielded very positive results for our relationship and the project.

I thought a lot about the experience in the days to come and I discovered a new way to understand myself and situations like this.  It became apparent to me that I was actually the one who was susceptible to being hurt by criticism.  I recalled numerous times where I had gone away from a discussion feeling hurt, rejected, or even angry.  The effects of an unhealthy environment became apparent as I remembered business as usual for me in the past was more about “sitting with your back against the wall” to protect yourself from the threats that might be walking in.  I now understand that my life experience has a lot to do with why I am so apprehensive about critiquing another person’s work.  I realized that I have been subconsciously projecting my own fearful behavior on to those around me and expecting them to respond like I would in these situations.

Self-awareness can be a tremendous tool if you decide to take advantage of it.  If you make a conscious effort to identify undesirable trends in your life, and have the self-discipline to implement change, in time those positive results become a habit.

Nowhere to Arrive

I am a work in progress.

In my life, I feel I’ve always been on the way to somewhere; maybe I think this because I’ve been in school since I was five. I’ve always been striving to “arrive” somewhere –  to get to high school, to graduation, to college, to my first college final exams, to summer, to Regionals for Irish dance, to Christmas break, to Spain, to senior year, and finally to college graduation. But then what’s next? What’s next on the list of “getting to?” No one can tell you that. As an up and coming adult graduating from college, that is one of the big things that you have to figure out on your own. That’s one of the things that has been hard for me since graduating. I have often focused too much on where I am getting to, instead of what I have the opportunity to learn along the way; how I can make the most of being in process; and how I can enjoy the process. Here’s the thing – we are always and forever in process.

When I was hired and started working full time after graduation, I felt like I should have already “arrived;” I should have been an expert in my field, right? I should have had my young adult life figured out, right? I should have been completely independent and able to fend for myself, right? Wrong. Well, maybe half right. Yes, I needed to graduate with a degree in an area of interest. Yes, I needed to move out on my own and be a responsible adult. Yes, I needed to be independent. But, I did not need to be completely self-sufficient. As human beings, I believe we were created with a need for connection and community, and a need to be in process with other human beings. The value of this is something I am learning every single day.

In my daily life – work and personal as one, since they are essentially one in the same – I am beginning to internalize the idea that being in process is part of the job. It is not something I do outside of work in order to be better prepared for my job, although that is a piece of it; on the contrary, deepening my understanding alongside my team is encouraged, expected, and essential to our company culture. The notion of saving the imperfect and messy process for “home life” is an unrealistic societal expectation and slows or stops the uncovering of someone’s best self.

Sometimes I wish I could “arrive” somewhere. But that would be the easy and unfulfilling way. If I “arrived,” I might no longer have a need to learn from others or keep my heart open to the possibility of authentic relationships with others. Others-centeredness might not exist if all of us already know everything. I might then wonder if there is more to life, and the answer to that would be, yes, there is more. That’s why we are all a work in progress.

Being a work in progress can elicit opposing responses – willingness to learn, or constant frustration with yourself; patience and acceptance, or punishment; forgiveness, or an unrealistic standard. It is a choice, and often a difficult one, because you are, in a way, choosing how you will view perceived failures and expectations; you are choosing your mindset, how you want your life to look, and how you want to look at your life and the lives of others.

Before we can truly love others, we have to love ourselves. When your inner voice is telling you that you are not worth it, that you have not tried hard enough, that you are inadequate, you do have the power to tell it the truth (Danielle Krysa, Your Inner Critic Is A Big Jerk). None of us are perfect. We are allowed to be imperfect, so long as we recognize it as a truth, rather than as an excuse.

When you are frustrated that you are “not where you want to be,” in whatever way that manifests itself for you mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, etc. – be encouraged. We are all in process. I encourage you to try writing down some truths about who you are and about your life.  Even if this seems small and insignificant, it can help shift your perspective back to where it belongs, if you are willing. “I am not always in control.” That’s my truth for today.

What if Work Could be an Awakening to Living Wholeheartedly?

I have always had the drive to have a job that makes a difference. I think most people would say they feel the same way.

My first job out of college was idealistic; we thought we were going to change the world with our products. We worked hard for long hours to get things off the ground. The stress levels were heavy. At the end of the day, all I could manage was to collapse onto my couch and watch Netflix. I had no emotional space left. I had no physical energy left. I couldn’t uphold the high hopes my art professors had of me continuing my studio practice. The relationship with my fiancé was rocky. He would say, “You need to learn how to leave work at work,” at least once a day. I carried the black cloud of stress and pressure with me wherever I went. It consumed me.

We get used to the pressure, the darkness, the stress. We think, Everyone feels this way–so I just need push through and keep going. One day at a time. But what if work could be a place to blossom? A place to live wholeheartedly (Brene Brown) and let that flow into all the other parts of your life? A place to refresh, renew, and grow in all areas?

It’s possible. Here are some characteristics of companies that grow their employees instead of draining them:

They are truly interested in the other areas of your life. Do you like to paint? Draw? Dance? Make music? They find ways to incorporate that into work or support you in your endeavors.

They encourage travel and play as a necessary part of your personal growth and innovation.

They believe that when you are physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy you do your best work. Then they back this ideal up with action, not just talk.

Titles aren’t important. Not because it’s a startup that hasn’t picked titles yet, but because there are no egos. Even from the top level. Titles are seen as necessary tools to get you where you need to go in the outside world, but internally everyone is just as important as the next.

They balance that belief with the idea that you are unique, special, and valuable as a sum of your parts, not just for your degree or experience. Who you are as a whole is more important than where you’ve been.

They are flexible when it comes to your job and growth. They believe you are the right person for the team and the company culture—and of course value your experience and schooling—but once you dig into your job, they are not afraid to flex the role around you. Bottom line: they don’t try and nudge and cajole you into a rigid role.

A company that sees you as a whole, sees you as valuable, and sees you for who you truly are, is unfortunately not very common. But we deserve to stop separating work as a thing to just “get through.” We are living one life, where everything we do is connected, and the ripple effects are powerful. Sometimes you don’t even know what you’ve shut down until it comes alive again. When your job values you as a whole person, work can be the epicenter of life and love and green things to grow in every corner of your world.

The Sunday Night Blues

I don’t know how other people experience this, or if they even do, but the “Sunday Night Blues” are a reality for me almost if not every week. I might enjoy “Sunday Night Blues,” if it was a weekly music event that promoted local artists, or something like that; however, in my own experience, The Sunday Night Blues are far less fun and enjoyable. They are the result of thoughts and emotions that build up because they are not properly dealt with in the moment.

I first experienced The Sunday Night Blues about eleven years ago, but I had no name to assign to it until now. My parents divorced when I was twelve years old, and after that, I grew up in a split home that I wished I could fix. I didn’t understand how this could happen in my home. I tried to make the most of the time I had with each parent, but being stuck in the middle of a two-sided story and switching houses every Monday morning made Sundays very difficult. Every insecurity, every fear, every feeling of inadequacy, would resurface every Sunday night, and when Monday morning came, a surplus of emotions would spill into my week. Some weeks were better than others, but the same issues continued to fester.

Especially when another person was added into the mix, I unhealthily bottled up feelings that I felt unsafe processing in the moment, and I felt like I never did enough, excelled enough, or tried enough, no matter how much I knew my parents loved me. I didn’t realize that this grew into a lack of trust in people. I felt I couldn’t even share everything that was on my mind with my own family, so how could I fully lay my heart out for others? Emotions remained in my head and in my heart because I wanted to not get hurt and to be perfect, since my family wasn’t. This was the beginning of my Sunday Night Blues.

I have been out of college for a year, and I have wondered why I still experience the Sunday Night Blues. I am working in a place that I love, surrounded by some of the most wonderful people I have ever met, and I have very little to worry about. I look forward to returning to work each day, and I now see weekends as breaks, rather than as precious commodities. I have wondered why Sunday nights are still difficult, despite these things.

At Tensility, we work to eliminate power and control, starting in our work community. I have learned that control manifests itself in different ways for different people, and it can rear its head when there exists some form of a threat, whether perceived or real. Remaining others-centered allows us to view the situation from an outside, more objective perspective, rather than an internal, subjective one.

Internalized ways of living and being are not easily uprooted or reversed. Emotions can turn into a certain kind of control over a person, and because I feel emotionally safer than I ever have, I have felt things I left untapped and untouched. I am finding out the hard way that being perfect is not possible, and there’s a difference between knowing this in your heart and knowing it in your head. Perfection might often be masqueraded as success, but for a perfectionist like myself, it is nice to know every once in a while that being imperfect is okay, even necessary.

Being imperfect allows me the freedom to be myself with others. The Sunday Night Blues happen when I forget or don’t have confidence that there are people I can trust. I forget that it’s okay to reach out. I forget that life is a process meant to be shared. When I forget, I withdraw instead of risk being authentic. This destroys connection and is not fair to others.

My challenge to everyone else who has experienced or currently experiences the Sunday Night Blues is to think about your personal reason for why it happens. When I was able to put words to what I felt, I gained a different perspective, and it was very freeing.

Saying No

We are in an age of overstimulation. Even in relatively small Bend Oregon, there are a handful of fun events to do any given night of the week, not to count the many festivals throughout the year. We have friend time and family time and every time in between. Holidays, birthdays, traveling, presents to buy, things to accomplish. We don’t want to be left out, and we also don’t feel justified in saying “we can’t make it!” when there isn’t an obvious excuse. In all this whirlwind of activity, we live our lives moment to moment, week to week, until we wake up one day and realize how much time has disappeared.

When you feel stretched thin and out of control, can you really be your truest self, and accomplish your best work? We don’t believe so. This is true not only on a personal level but also as a company.

We center our core around our company “Hedgehog,” a concept by Jim Collins and his team. In simple terms, we focus on the intersection of three things. What we can be the best in the world at, what drives our economic engine, and what we are deeply passionate about.

In reality, staying true to our core is a challenge. It means we must unbiasedly understand what we can (and can’t) be the best at in the world, find our own economic driver and how we fit into our industry, and dig deep to find our true passion at the core of our company. Perhaps most importantly, a true understanding of the intersection means saying no. Saying no to opportunities that are outside our hedgehog. Saying no to some jobs we probably could figure out given time, but are not in our core competency. Making “stop doing lists” (also a Jim Collins concept), and rearranging resources when employees have too much on their plate.

When you ask yourself “does it fit in our hedgehog?” before making decisions as a company, it does some miraculous things.

1. You create a space for forward-thinking instead of reactive action.

2. It brings peace and effectiveness when employees aren’t trying to force things to work that won’t.

3. Employees have clarity on how to contribute to the companies march forward.

4. You avoid the overpromise-underdeliver results that drain morale.

5. People feel successful, confident, and hopeful, instead of out of control.

It is a powerful thing, saying no.

Our personal lives are so deeply connected to our workday that if you are living a life without saying no, you might start to feel out of control. When we start to feel like we are out of control, we all react in different but unhealthy ways to gain that control back.

So in life and business, it’s healthy to say, “No,” sometimes. Don’t say no to everything; just take the time to analyze if it is in your core competency.

Find the power of your new spirit animal: the hedgehog.

The Confrontation of Compliments

A new year is upon us. We are making resolutions and plans for 2018. We are thinking about ourselves a lot this time of year, and that’s not a bad thing. We are evaluating our talents, our struggles, and where we want to improve. We are also thinking about how we can change the world for the better, and what kind of impact we can have on the lives around us. Sometimes the smallest parts of our day can make a difference for others.

Take for example, when we are confronted with compliments. How do we usually react? Often, we brush it off, make it seem small, shoot a compliment back, add an exception, downplay our part in whatever it is we are being thanked for. In a social experiment by John Bates called “The Compliment Experiment”, he runs through two scenarios of accepting a compliment. When he receives a compliment the first time, he brushes it off, shrugs, and makes light of it. He then asks the giver of the compliment to assess how it made him feel.

Take a moment to think about how you feel when you give someone a genuine compliment, and they give a “pfftttt, it’s nothing” reaction. How does it make you feel to be brushed off? Do you feel like you contributed to that person’s day? Do you feel more connected to them? Do you get that warm fuzzy feeling inside? No. You feel superfluous. You aren’t needed, that person is doing fine on their own. Whatever meant a lot to you, didn’t mean anything to them. If we want to make a difference in the world, how can we do that if we are making others feel small?

We are generally trained from a young age to be humble. In the second grade, when you stated, “I’m faster than you”, you got scolded for being unkind. We learn quickly that being polite is more important than the truth. And while we do, of course, want to be kind in social interactions, it is also OK to know what you are good at, and what you are not good at. So, when someone says that we are good at something, or says they are thankful for something we did, how can we react in a socially acceptable way, without seeming prideful? How do we make the individual giving the compliment feel valuable?

Bates shows us that it is simple to genuinely and graciously accept a compliment. He looks them in the eye and heartily says “thank you”.

That’s it.

Don’t block it with another compliment. Don’t shrug and say “no big deal”. Accept it as the gift that it is, and store it away in your heart. Connect with this special someone that got up the courage to share their thoughts with you. Shake their hand, or give them a hug if you have that kind of connection, but just let the compliment be. Don’t add to it, and don’t take away from it. Be thankful for that person in your life, or that passing stranger that told you your face looks like sunshine.

This year try simply accepting compliments when they are given to you, and see what a difference it can make.

Art Credit: Caligraphy by Crystal Binoeder, Painting by Addie DeLong.

The Battle for Hope

She sits across from me, two fat tears running down her cheeks, sobs emanating deep from her heart.  She aches for those in her life that face injustice and feeling unloved.  And also she aches a little for those moments in her life where injustice and self-centeredness try to steal her, too.  I cry alongside her, for her boundless and beautiful heart.

Another lady sits by my side.  She recounts the daily injustices of those around her and most especially, those she experiences.  There are no tears, though…Just a dull sense that it is the most she can expect.  I can’t prod her into waking up from the daze of getting through, of numbing herself to being alive.  And I cry again, deep searing tears, for the pain that is not felt and the life that is being wasted.

The difference between the two is simple and stark: hope. In the first, hope is alive.  In the second, it died years ago.

A person who still has hope can feel the pain of others because she believes that life can change.  She believes everyone has the right to a bright future and living to their potential.  Most importantly, they believe that themselves also deserve a bright future, fully engaged in their life and their work–and that it has meaning.

Tensility’s basic belief is stated like this:

We are a company that believes that the extraordinary is not only possible, but how life should be—both in business life and in personal life. We are not satisfied with ordinary. We expect the extraordinary in how we do business, in how we interact with people, and in the effort we make to give customers what they need.

To live a life with hope, we have to believe that the extraordinary is possible.  And then we have to get up every day and live our lives that way.

We have to give up some things, too: cynicism, control, minimization, self-deprecation, fear…  None of these have a place in a life with hope.  They are sneaky, though, because they are qualities that are often admired, or even confused with humility or being sensible. The danger to thinking like this is that the end destination is apathy and injustice.

Since we spend 8 (or more) hours a day at work, 5 days a week, our workplace is a direct influence on our soul.  It can shape our lives for good or for evil.  So, we have to choose which we will stand for, and which we want to create.  Work should not dull you to life, to feeling for your fellow man, or even to yourself.  Work should not be a place to kill off the hope inside you.

That is why we are battling to create a company of hope.  And it is indeed a battle.  The weapons are simple, but they are not for the faint of heart:

  1. Follow your inspiration. Don’t put it in a box.  Try it out, give it life, and then see how you can combine it with others’ ideas to make it more than where you started.
  2. Create value. Find ways to use your strengths and inspiration to create value for customers, not just for yourself.  Great inspirations often die because they are focused inward, on what we need or want.  Look outward and combine your inspiration with value creation.
  3. Kick insecurity out. We all have triggers that make us retreat into the realm of cynicism, invisibility, or fear.  But a company filled with hope has no room for those insecurities.  It is based on trusting the best part of you and letting others see you.  Where there is insecurity, courage fails us.
  4. Choose to see the possibilities. The world will tell you your’re foolish.  Don’t listen.  The world is longing for courageous people to live fully and without cynicism.

As Admiral Jim Stockdale reminds us, we must face the brutal facts before us with an iron will, but believe in a future worth having with a heart as light as a feather.  In business, we still need to mind the margins, be sensible with our decisions, and sustain the business into the future.   We need plans and we need to clean the toilets.  But with light hearts, we can come alive, create value, and live each day in hope.

At Tensility, we want to create a place where each person believes they deserve a bright future fully engaged in what they are bringing to their life and to the company,  We want to create a place where we fight against injustice and self-centeredness when we see it.  And we want to create a place where we can lead others out of the darkness of apathy and into hope.

Let’s believe in hope, and let’s fight for it.  Will you join us?

Art Credit: Collages by Genevieve Gaudreau
Painting: Addie DeLong