I felt myself holding my breath as my client described a particularly challenging board member. He told me how a director had been belligerent and even threatening in 1:1 meetings, and how her aggressive tone had cowed other directors into not expressing their views. Finally he used the word – bully – to describe her, and I forced myself to breathe and relax, even though I felt like getting angry.
I have a very strong personal reaction to bullies, and knowing that this is so activating for me is an important part of my self-awareness. All of us have our hot buttons, and most of these will not change once we become adults. Ensuring that these hot buttons don’t become blind spots is one of our most important personal challenges, even more so for senior leaders as our behavior becomes amplified.
If we don’t manage our hot buttons, they become unconscious projections that distort our view of the world. Remember the classic Rorschach Inkblot Test? This was a popular psychological test in the 1960s – it has since been discredited as an assessment tool but it is still fun to look at the images. The idea of the test is to assess a subject’s projections by asking for his or her interpretation of various ambiguous inkblot images. Here is the first inkblot image:
Many people see a moth or a butterfly or a bat. But I see this as the face of a menacing bully. I will probably always see some kind of an angry face in this image, but with the benefit of self-awareness I can at least understand why this happens to me, and I can stay open to how other people might view the same image as a butterfly. This is the process of managing your projections.
In the example of my client describing the bullying director, I was very aware of my visceral reaction. I felt like telling my client to fight back and to call out this behavior in front of the entire Board, but I caught myself. I forced myself to see beyond my own projection, and explored a broad range of potential responses with my client. Then together, we determined the most appropriate course of action for this situation.
This is primarily an internal negotiation although, sometimes, one can call out a hot button in the room. In my example I might actually have said to my client, “Just so you know, I have a real issue with bullies, so my instinct is to confront her directly. There are other approaches that we need to discuss, and I want to make sure that my projection doesn’t influence our discussion too much.”
Your projections will be different from mine – you might react to rigid thinking, or lack of structure, or the colour green, or countless other things that have a specific meaning for you. Regardless of what your projections are, it is critical that you get a handle on them. You can do some of this work on your own, but it is important to also get feedback, as other people will see things that you don’t. Friends and colleagues can give you input, spouses and children are great sources of unfiltered feedback and, yes, this is a great topic to explore with your coach!