In training sessions on communication skills, interpersonal skills or even performance management, I often try to sell the idea to managers that if they can find the source of their frustration with other folks in something that they themselves did, it will be a great source of power to them in their professional lives.

So for example, when an employee is not performing to the manager’s expectations, she should ask, “What did I do to contribute to this problem?  Did I not communicate the expectations clearly enough?  Did I imply through words or actions that the project was not important?”

Or when a colleague throws us under the bus in a staff meeting, we should ask, “What did I do to make him think he needed to do that?  Did I make him feel unsafe?  Did I create a culture of ultra-competitiveness?  Did I fail to communicate that we have the same goals?”

This is easier said than done, and it tends to earn me a lot of resistance from class participants.  “But what if it really is all the other guy’s fault?” they’ll ask me.  “What if there’s nothing I could have done differently?”  I’ll usually respond by suggesting that if you can see the disappointing behaviors of other people as being within your sphere of control, you’ll be liberated from a lot of frustration and helplessness at work.  What power!

A good friend lent me a great book this week, called The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Ben Zander.  The authors  explain twelve practices for seeing more possibility in life, and one of them is called “being the board.”  Being the board involves imagining oneself as the board on which the game of life is played.  It refined my understanding of bringing external events and the behavior of others into one’s own sphere of control in this way: it is not about blame or fault.  It is not a matter of the manager seeking to blame her own lack of communication for the employee’s performance problems.  Fault simply becomes irrelevant when one is “being the board.”  What matters is the choice, the ability to change one’s own behavior to get a different result.  Or, in some cases, the ability to question the underlying assumptions that make a situation appear a certain way.  Perhaps my view of an employee’s performance problem is created by my assumption that I have the only useful definition of acceptable performance.  Perhaps there is another definition.

I like the sense of possibility that I get from looking at things this way.  And perhaps with the word “fault” removed from the discussion it will be easier to sell to training participants next time.  Now, the question is, can I put it to work for me next time I get angry about something someone else did?  That’s the real test.

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