Worried You’re Too Serious? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am serious person. I was a serious child, raised by very thoughtful and serious immigrant parents. I have always had high expectations and standards for myself.

I am now a manager of a large group of people and I am continually frustrated that almost none of them live up to my expectations. The typos in people’s emails make me tense and it is almost impossible for me to point out the mistakes without being mean.

I am in a constant state of agitation, with an equal amount of energy going into self-regulation. I know I should let people be themselves and be more accepting, and that most errors ultimately don’t really matter.

I am trying to be more at peace, and in fact, I have started a mindfulness program. But I keep circling back to taking it personally when my people turn in substandard work or miss deadlines.

How can I stop being so rigid?

Too Serious

Dear Too Serious,

You are who you are. It’s a combination of nature and nurture—and no matter how hard you try, you are not going to achieve a personality transplant. I know. I have been trying my entire conscious life.

Your foray into mindfulness training is an excellent step. Mindfulness is defined by researchers as “self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment,” and “adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.” *

The practice of curiosity, openness, and acceptance will help you to relax a little bit. However, you are still going to wake up tomorrow and be yourself. So here is another idea.

Clearly, thoroughly, and honestly, share with your people who you are, what you expect from them, and what they can expect from you.

At our company we call this sharing your Leadership Point of View (LPoV). In essence, it is an examination of your leadership values—the values that inform your standards for yourself and others. These often come from your parent role models, but also from the observation of leaders you admire and from your own life experiences.

In your LPoV you tell the very human stories that explain and give context for your leadership standards. This information will help your people to understand you better and to know what your rules are. Almost everybody wants to make their boss happy, so giving them the very clear roadmap of how to do that is usually appreciated.

The act of creating your Leadership Point of View will help you to define, for yourself and others, what you will insist on and where you are willing to let things slide. You already know which battles aren’t worth fighting. Making it explicit for yourself will help you choose when to give feedback and when it just doesn’t matter.

When you present your LPoV, you share these expectations explicitly. Right now, your expectations are probably mostly implicit, and you are hoping your people will read your mind.

Instead, spell it out. For example, as surmised from your message to me, you could share:

  • I expect all written communication to be well organized and free of errors.
  • I expect all team members to meet deadlines, or, if this is not possible, to re-negotiate deadlines before the actual deadline.

Our coaches and I have worked on LPoV with countless clients and it makes a big difference for them. I use it myself and I share it in writing whenever I onboard a new employee. It will feel very risky to you, but do it.

On the topic of taking things personally, I am reminded of a book by Don Miguel Ruiz titled The Four Agreements. It is essentially a code of conduct based on ancient Toltec wisdom that can help to unwind deep seated self-limiting beliefs. In short, the Four Agreements are:

  1. Be impeccable with your word.
  2. Don’t take anything personally.
  3. Don’t make assumptions.
  4. Always do your best.

You are probably already impeccable with your word, and clearly doing your best. However, you are taking too much personally, and you are almost certainly making assumptions.

Mr. Ruiz’s prescription for not taking things personally starts with a reminder that nothing is actually about you. You might share this book with your team and encourage discussion about it. A lot could change if everyone on the team agreed to use the Four Agreements as a guide.

In the meantime, keep up that mindfulness training, and breathe. Next time you are annoyed at someone around you acting like the human being they are, just take a deep breath in and let it out slowly.

Craft and share your LPoV. Let your people in on how hard it is to be you. Be clear about your standards. Be persistent with holding them to your standards but also be curious, generous, and kind. They will come around.

Love, Madeleine

*Bishop, S.R., et al; “Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition”; Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, V11 N3, 2004, pp. 232

About the author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!


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