Frustration, Waste, & Personal Performance

Of course, you work hard, try your best! Maybe you even try a little too hard. It’s a natural direction in which achievement-oriented people will err and eventually self-correct. Experience, insight, mature judgement, they'll come, but perhaps sometimes they come too late or at too steep a price may. Let me explain. 

Frustration

There is nothing more basic in human psychology. You try to acquire, achieve, or grasp something, but it eludes your best efforts. It’s out there, and you are here. It’s where you want to be, a destination, but getting there feels harder than it should. So, you wonder, “Is it me?” Even less helpful, you may rashly conclude the shortfall is the fault of others, “It’s the situation and others. Damn, I have bad luck!”  

Frustration is the consequence of our “deviation monitor”, which is the covert voice in our head that tells me "you are not where you should, could, or must be." After this initial message, it may continue, “And that's awful, unbearable, and ….” Or perhaps, we're able to regulate the effects of our deviation monitor. Perhaps we notice low-level, but building frustration and nip it in the bud by how we respond.   

Waste

In manufacturing, quality management is about maximizing the production of products that meet or exceed a standard. This means achieving an ideal, and doing so in a way that is also efficient. And it means not just doing that one time, but building into our operations a discipline of continually finding ways to improve our processes, and ways to ensure that our product maximizes value for the customer. It's about eliminating waste, wasted time, material, effort, and about making every investment payoff. 

If we are to go about this approach to business in an adaptive manner rather through fits-and-starts, from crisis to crisis. We will need to cultivate a positive attitude toward the feelings of frustration that we, our colleagues, and our customers experience. They must be treated as data: “What are they (our frustrations) telling us about what might work better?” In this way, frustration becomes a cue for a transformed attitude of productive curiosity. 

Personal Performance

Personal performance might be evaluated in terms of our capacity to self-manage the emotional work of noticing and responding to frustration in ways that minimize waste and maximize production, and increase our underlying capacity to produce. When left to run its more neurotic, maladaptive course, rising levels of frustration generate a sense of desperation, a loss of perspective (objectivity), exhaustion, conflict, and burnout.   

When we recognize that our energy is largely felt and managed through an intelligent, adaptive use of emotional data, we – even the most hard-headed rationalists and data hounds – are more likely to thrive and reduce waste. That's important because waste not only means lost opportunity; it can mean harm to self or others. It means less energy available for positive, productive purposes, and for treating one another well. 

The Solution

Space won’t allow me to fully spell out the path of adaptive growth and development that is most responsive to this challenge. But this brief discussion is sufficient to reveal a few characteristics of that developmental path:

1)     It’s rooted in the person and in a person-centered view of organizational work and relationships.

2)     It’s reliant upon greater emotional freedom (a practical kind of mindfulness & reflective attitude).

3)     It’s inherently social, concerns ways to be and to be with others that shape norms of collaboration.

4)     It’s best learned when practiced in the workplace and outside of work, adopted as a basic way of being & relating.

5)     You’ll need a coach, commitment, and sustained practice (6-12 months) to make it your way of being.

The 4 T's of Great Relationships

Tension – Trust – Telos – Traction

Whether you are new to an organization, a role, or a vitally important leadership challenge, you won’t get much done without good relationships

In this article, I provide some clear guidance for how to cultivate great relationships by attending to what I call the “4 T’s.” 

Tension

Some will associate tension with stress, conflict, and strain – negative stuff. And when tension is a force that builds, persists, and becomes chronic, it is negative. It exhausts us, depletes our social, emotional, and mental capacities to function at the top of our game. But episodic moments of tension are normal, and they can be a sign of vitality – it depends on what we do with the experience.  

Tension becomes something negative and unhealthy in relationships when it is not attended to as data. When we react to emerging, low-level tensions by ignoring, denying, or avoiding explicit notice of them, we let fears govern us. We reinforce a habitual tendency to avoid things that feel difficult. We come to see them as being beyond our control, as threatening our wellbeing. 

Fear grows in the darkness. But when we cultivate the capacity (mindfulness) to simply notice emerging tension – in our body, in our mood, in our thoughts – let it be and accept its presence, then we are freer to discover its source, course, and meaning. We then become more able to see the “logic” of it, what it is about, the worries or troubled thoughts or feelings that must be addressed. 

Try it in a relationship that you’d like to improve, and also in one that’s going well. Notice when you feel tension, what do you and others do with it? Does it evoke curiosity, seeking to understand, reflective dialogue? Do you give the conversation time to breath? Or do you “run” and try your best (you and others) to not discuss the “elephant in the room.”  

Trust

If you have a readiness to navigate episodes of tension and conflict, to discover its meaning and work through it to resolution, it’s likely that this relationship is one in which trust levels are high. The opposite is also true. This is especially true of the trust we place in the motivations and intentions of others. Trust grows in light and transparency.  

When we work through tense and difficult moments, making ourselves vulnerable, acknowledging we’re part of the problem, we co-create trust and safety. But there’s more to trust. We must also trust the competence of others, their insight, practical savvy, technical know-how, and their capacity to execute. Our mutual success depends on it. We must trust their humility and capacity to know their limits? 

We’ll want to know that we can trust the integrity others to keep confidences and to be there for us when we need support. If this aspect of trust is lacking, we may still trust their commitment to working through differences and their competencies to be a reliable leader or partner. But most of us will want at least one other person with whom we can share this more intimate trust.  

Notice the importance of emotions up to this point. The mood and emotional qualities of a relationship are foundational. We and others may express them too cautiously at times. But this blinds us to noticing tensions and building trust. When we use emotional experience as data, and suspend our biases long enough to understand what they’re telling us, our minds are better able to do their work. 

Telos

The third “T,” telos, from the Greek τέλος for "end", "purpose", or "goal", characterizes the practical, purposive nature of relationships at work. Are we aligned on the ultimate or strategic aims of our work together? We may drift from such alignment in the course of execution. It may seem clear at the outset, but then we may adaptively redefine our purpose and ends based upon experience and feedback.  

This is the most rational-logical element of the 4 T’s. In the early “forming” stage of a team, for example, we observe a rather formal quality of interpersonal dynamics characterized by politeness, deference to authority, and artificial harmony. As work intensifies, a “storming” stage emerges, differences manifest. They register cognitively, but also emotionally as tension, which becomes the first real test of trust.  

In the storming stage, as we put our thoughts, feelings, concerns, and points of view on the table. We can choose to examine them or retreat. When we’re able to face up to the differences, use emotions as data to inform our deliberations, we are usually able to improve our knowledge of one another, even as we adaptively redefine a “truer” version of our telos.   

Traction

Through our emerging capacities to navigate difference and work through conflict, we implicitly create normatively positive, constructive ways to reckon with our differences – that’s the “norming” stage. These norms of interaction, procedure, and mutual respect deepen trust and create a more authentic quality of engagement. As this takes shape, we enter the “performing” in which we gain traction. 

Traction is well-aligned action, interdependent action. It’s gained, sustained, and lost on a daily basis. It’s the discipline of executional focus. When we drift in ways that cause us to lose focus, momentum, and efficiency. We may be tempted to react poorly, blaming others and defending others. But now, with greater confidence, we adaptively notice, examine, and learn from the tension rather than run from it.   

Over time, the normatively positive response more prevails. We will come trust our capacity to welcome feedback, view issues with curiosity, thereby allocating more mental bandwidth to positive, solution-focused thinking. This is the heart of great relationships; it’s believing that “we’ll survive the tension if we face it squarely with fresh eyes, and we’ll come out the other side in a better place.”  

Conclusion

This discussion describes the work that must be done to forge and maintain great relationships at work, but also outside of work. The effort required consists in self-managing and learning to jointly monitor and manage the state of the 4 T’s. We do it by stepping back, reflecting on the dynamics of interaction (what’s happening and how’s it feeling?), by asking about the state of Tension, Trust, Telos, and Traction that we’re currently experiencing, and by the proper action even when it’s difficult.

Two Selves, Together and Apart: Practical Consequences

The “I” and the “Me”

William James long ago distinguished two selves, the “I,” the active, experiencing agent of the present moment, and the “me” or narrative self, the storied agent with a past and future.[1] It has been thought that they are naturally linked in experience and are most distinguished in terms of their temporal aspect.  

This is all quite simple on its face, but it becomes more complex when we consider the dynamics of adaptive development and change. Insofar as the narrative self (me) brings to each new moment a point of view, beliefs, and assumptions it preconditions how the “I” will experience and interpret the now. 

Some psychologists[2] refer to this conditioned way of seeing the world as being “embedded” in one’s own presuppositions and habits of thinking, feeling, and relating. That is, we’re embedded or centered in the subjective stream of experience, the living "I", which is constitutes the “me.” It's our common way of being, usually no problem. 

But what if our familiar ways of seeing and responding to the world include self-limiting beliefs about self, others, situations, and relationships? In that case, we may benefit from “dis-embedding” in order to see the situation with fresh eyes, more objectively, without the filters of legacy beliefs. 

Mindfulness as Dis-embedding

This brings us to the power of mindfulness meditation as a means of “de-centering” or “dis-embedding” ourselves. Neuroscience research and psychological science[3] has been learning more about how the “I” and “me” modes of self are activated in the brain as the physiological correlate of how we attend to things in our mental experience. 

From research by Farb et al (2007)

From research by Farb et al (2007)

So, although the “I” and “me” areas of the brain usually and by default function in a closely linked manner, the brains of those trained in mindfulness meditation work a bit differently: They exhibit a capacity to see the here-and-now with little or no influence from the “me.” They suspend the judgments usually provided by the "me."

Thus, for those who have tendencies to ruminate on negative or self-limiting thoughts and beliefs, and to generate negative or troubled moods (anxious or depressive) as a result, greater emotional freedom is purchased by the “mindfulness effect.”[4] Beyond mood issues, research also shows that mindfulness is able to enhance problem solving.  

In either case, this additional cognitive flexibility and emotional freedom enhances our potential to adaptive learn, problem solve, and cope with peak moments of challenge more resourcefully. And this explains why mindfulness training is finding its way into professional and personal development practices. 

Notes:

[1] In traditional grammar, we would call “I” the first person “subjective case” (the subject in a sentence) and “me” the first person “objective case” (the object in a sentence).

[2] See Attachment in Psychotherapy by David Wallin, Guilford Press: 2007. Also, Attachment-Based Psychotherapy by Peter Costello, APA: 2013.

[3] See Farb et al, 2007, Attending to the present: mindfulness mediation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference, in SCAN, (2) 313-322.

[4] See Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy by Segal, Williams & Teasdale, Guildford Press: 2013. Also, see Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Bantam Books: 2013.

On Willing Avoidance

Avoidance is not inherently bad. When we avoid unhealthy temptations in the bakery, or when we avoid reacting too immediately or harshly to others at work, both may be virtuous examples of avoidance. But when we consistently avoid certain kinds of challenges or issues that cause us discomfort, avoidance can not only be unhealthy, it can lead to stagnation, block our development, further reinforcing the fears that underlie our avoidant reactions. In that case, avoidance serves to strengthen a “flight” reflex. 

What we may not as readily appreciate, however, is that such unhealthy avoidance tendencies can be the product of our willing. We usually think of willing (volition) as a conscious, determined, assertive act, often in the face of resistance, adversity, and perceived risks. As such, an approach orientation arises from a conscious act of will. On the other hand, the avoidance orientation, may also be willed, but we may be less inclined to own our authorship of this act. We may prefer to see it as natural necessity. 

An Example  

John was launching his own professional practice as an IT consultant. He had developed some niche skills that he believed could be better rewarded outside of the large consultancy in which he had been employed. He dreamed of greater independence. With support from his wife and encouragement from a few friends, he made the leap, and the first few months were exhilarating. He prepared his website, created a compelling bio that conveyed the power of his experience and abilities. Prep went well. 

Where things slowed down was in attracting and developing clients and business. Some of the work he had done with the larger firm was embedded in larger projects, work that clients were not as inclined to break out. They liked the ease of dealing with a one firm. Still, he was convinced that he could serve some smaller clients, but it required proactive marketing and selling of his services. He prepared to do so, he struggled with taking action – he avoided the feared situation. 

His wife recognized that John was not ready to call it quits; he really wanted to spread his wings and make a go of it. However, she also noticed that he struggled with approaching prospective clients and with asking for their time, and for their business. She suggested he see someone who could help him understand what was getting in his way. It was like he was stopping himself. John knew in his heart that she was right, that she loved him and was telling him what he needed to hear. 

Relational Coaching

John saw a psychologist. They took time in the first two meetings to get a clear an accurate picture of him and his situation, the strengths he brought to his work and the challenges associated with his new role as entrepreneurial professional. They then examined the situations and activities he feared and avoided. They did this in more detail than he had ever thought possible: When he pictured himself in the situation, what did he feel, think, do, struggle with? What happened, what did it mean, and then what?  

They discussed which of these feelings and thoughts were longstanding, a part of who he believed himself to be. They examined the notion that adult identity development is ongoing, perpetual, and largely stimulated by the roles we take on and the challenges we face. John came to see that he could choose to approach or avoid taking roles and facing challenges. It was really up to him. He also came to see that he would benefit from testing his desire to take these roles, but that meant approaching them. 

From these conversations, John achieved a fresh perspective, greater confidence in himself, and in what he might be able accomplish through his coaching relationship. He needed to set stretch goals, create action plans, experiment with graduated levels of challenge, and process his experience and problem solve issues with someone who at this point really knew who he was, could readily empathize with his struggle, and could offer support and a bit of “tough love” to keep him honest in his attempts.  

Conclusion

John had illuminated his less conscious and fearful tendencies that resulted in willing avoidance. He found relationships (his wife and his coach) in which he could confess his fears, discover that they are normal emotional reactions that need to be understood, honored, and then overcome with intelligent action. He recognized that he, like all human beings, will face adaptive challenges, and must further evolve his self-identity when he chooses to take on new and challenging roles. 

It did not for John, and it does not for any of us, happen overnight. Nor did it happen all at once; it was a step-wise process of reflection and discovery, insight and decision-making, and risk-taking and learning. All of this would have been difficult if not impossible to pull off by himself, in the privacy of his own mind. You might think of the small cadre (John, his wife, and his coach) as the nucleus of a network; not simply a social network, but a developmental network.

Behavioral Integrity and Culture Change

integrity.jpg

INTEGRITY. This idea or construct in leader development is often mentioned as a fundamental element of character, a basic requirement. It includes what might be distinguished as “behavioral integrity” and “moral integrity”. The former concerns “walking our talk” or acting in accordance with our expressed commitments in routine, practical ways that yield the expectation in others that “if she says she’ll do it, you can count on her doing it” or “if he espouses these norms of behavior, he will enforce them.”

In this respect and relevant to shaping cultural norms, I came upon a study[1] that investigated the effect that leaders have on promoting a family-friendly work environment. It found that “When organizational climates support the work–family balance of employees, supervisors provide considerable work–family guidance to their subordinates. Yet, the extent to which climate and supervisor guidance influence employee outcomes depends on supervisors’ work-family behavioral integrity.”

What does that look like? If a leader verbally advocates work-family balance in his/her spoken guidance to employees, but then in his/her actions shows special recognition to those who arrive early and stay late, the leader may be perceived in lacking behavioral integrity: “He recommended that I make sure the doctor visits for my child are in my calendar, or that I modify my schedule to accommodate a need to do school drop-offs, but when I do these things, I fear that he sees me as a slacker.

We could probably apply this same principle to any organizational value or cultural norm that we are say we honor, e.g. expressing dissent, communicating dialogically/laterally versus hierarchically, taking risks, etc. Employees in organizations who’ve become acculturated to a hierarchical climate in which dissent may arouse defensiveness, in which lateral communication may spawn turf issues, or where trying something new and failing meets with a punitive response face a challenge, as do their leaders.

The challenge for both parties involves learning and unlearning. Employees must learn from experience, must witness, that management has really changed, that it is really safe to behave differently, that doing so will be not only be accepted but respected. As for management, they must anticipate that acting on such norms for employees may involve risk-taking. Therefore, they must show some patience and a readiness to reinforce early displays of the desired behavior change.

[1] Paustian-Underdahl, S. C., & Halbesleben, J. B. (2014). Examining the influence of climate, supervisor guidance, and behavioral integrity on work-family conflict: A demands and resources approach. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35(4), 447-463.