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Winning at Working


Nan Russell

Aug 29, 2015

The Not-Me-Syndrome

A common pastime at work, it seems, is pointing out flaws, missteps, and problems -- especially the boss's, a coworker's down the hall, or that roadblock person in some other department.

Stories of performance and style inadequacies, or snippets of memorable negative encounters can be repeated for days or even weeks. Some live perpetually in the work-culture, fueling rumors about a perceived inept, difficult, or bureaucratic department or person based on years-ago happenings.

Certainly, difficult people, poor leaders, and problems exist at work. But, the reality is most people aren't that way. Still, entire industries exist with training courses, and books and articles flourish devoted to how you should deal with these people. Articles like "How to Work for an Idiot" to "Ways to Cope with the Coworker from Hell," and everything in between.

In this Age of Me where selfies, personal-branding, and self-expression push limits of common sense and beyond-tribe community, did you ever think "What about me?" --  does someone at work believe those things about me? Might you be someone else's difficult person or idiot boss? It's not a question we typically ask ourselves, but if you want to be winning at working you should.

While we're quick to want to fix everyone else, to think the problems at work are about them, most of us fall short when it comes to seeing our own impact on others, even if it's milder than being a "coworker from Hell." In my first executive role years ago, while going through 360 degree feedback, I quickly discover that what I intended, and how it was perceived by others, was vastly different.

If I've learned anything in my 30 year career, it's this: self-awareness is a critical and challenging skill to develop. Today, as me-focused approaches encourage and reinforce projection outward, not reflection inward, it's even harder.

From popularity and work performance, to driving skills and general intelligence, we have the collective tendency to overestimate our skills. Duke University Professor Mark R. Leary calls it the "better than average" effect, noting in his book, The Curse of the Self, that "most of us have a higher-than-average perception of ourselves, often blinding us to our shortcomings."

This "illusionary superiority" even applies to how trustworthy we think we are. Take criminals for example. While they wouldn't typically top most trustworthy lists, that's where they see themselves. According to research from the British Psychological Society: "Jailed criminals think they are kinder, more trustworthy and honest than the average member of the public."

This "better than average" effect can yield a "not-me syndrome." It's not me that's creating stress, building road blocks, or diminishing trust -- it's someone else. It's not me who needs improved communication or more trust-based work relationships -- it's them. And it's not me who's micro-managing, or failing to follow through on my words or commitments -- it's those other people.

But, people who are winning at working don't rationalize their shortcomings or failures. They try to understand them, recognize them, and learn from them. They ask themselves the hard questions knowing that self-honesty and self-awareness are key to building trust, operating with genuine relationships, getting great results, and reaching their goals.

What people who are winning at working know that people who aren't is this: self-awareness is a critical success skill. There are many ways to create it, to become mindfully aware of our personal intentions, word-action alignment, and impact. But, each requires persistence, focus, and ongoing work to achieve. For those who want to be winning at working, a focus to eliminate the not-me syndrome and gain self-awareness can't be optional.

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