We Feed Off Your Fear…

A couple of weeks ago we celebrated Veterans’ Day, and of course all government offices, banks, schools, and many businesses were closed in observance of this special day to honor all who have served, and continue to serve our country. As I drank my morning coffee and watched the local morning news, my wife and kids came down for breakfast.

I asked, “Are you off work today?” not sure if her company was closed in observance of the holiday. She looked at me quizzically, and said, “No, I’m working today. Why are you afraid of being home alone with your two kids?”

To which I quipped, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I am!”

Then, from the other room, I heard the voice of my 12-year-old daughter in a sinister tone, “We feed off your fear…”

What does that have to do with you as a Project Manager? Maybe nothing, and maybe everything. The attitude that you bring with you to the work environment is the one that will almost surely drive your entire day, and more than likely impact the attitudes and expectations of your project teams.

So many of us like to think that we “leave our personal lives at the door” when we come to work. But how true is that, really? Have you ever had one of those mornings? You know the ones. You burn the toast, have an argument with your spouse, kids, or significant other, someone cuts you off on the way to work, you’re 5 minutes late for the status meeting that you’re supposed to be running. The kind of day when you think to yourself that it would have been better to just stay in bed. We all have those from time to time, but we rarely, if ever, think of the impact it can have on others in our lives.

Think about this for a moment. You’re sitting in a conference room, waiting for a project status meeting to begin, feeling pretty good about your morning and excited to give your positive status update, when the meeting organizer rushes in, out of breath, a look of frustration on their face, and unceremoniously drops their stack of papers on the conference table and launches into the meeting without so much as a “Good morning.” What’s the impact on you and the rest of the room?

Our intuition goes into overdrive, and without thinking, on an unconscious level our brain senses danger; triggering us to become agitated, even though we may have been having a great day up to that point. Without the tools and experience to understand what’s really happening, and to sense that it’s really not about us, we run the risk of spiraling out of control internally. This can include the rapid release of adrenaline and cortisol (known as the “stress chemical”) in our brains. Once that happens, the possibility of gaining control of our emotional state is severely inhibited. We literally feed off their fear, anxiety, agitation, anger, etc.

Maybe you’ve experienced this for yourself, and seen a project meeting rapidly escalate into chaos. Maybe you’ve even been the cause of it. I know I have! The ability each of us has to impact the people around us is anchored in our sympathetic nervous system, which activates our fight or flight response. It’s kind of a cruel twist of fate that in all the years of our evolution, this primitive mechanism remains relatively intact, and at times can even seem overpowering.

When presented with a situation that is unfamiliar or one that triggers memories of difficult or even traumatic experiences, our fight or flight response kicks into high gear, flooding our system with powerful chemicals that radically alter our ability to think clearly and respond effectively. But, we still have a choice, if we learn to help ourselves become aware of it.

The key for each of us in that situation is to ask three powerful questions. By doing this, we can regain conscious control of our mind and emotions, and respond far more effectively to any situation that may be present. The first question is, “What’s really going on here?” Am I reacting to something that isn’t what it seems? Is this simply someone who’s in a bad mood, and acting emotionally?

The second question to ask yourself is, “What meaning am I assigning to this situation?” Am I making this about me? Am I sensing a threat where none exists? Am I reading too much into his/her actions?

Finally, ask yourself this question. “What action or response do I want to take?” Will I engage in this on an emotional level and risk losing complete control of my ability to think and act clearly? Or will I respond in a way that allows me to remain engaged intellectually, and make the best decisions and responses?

Ultimately, the people around us have control over their responses, as do we over our own. However, it’s always important to keep in mind just how powerfully we can impact others by our attitude and reactions, and the way we “show up” at work. How you show up can make the difference between your project team excelling or crashing. Would you rather have them feed off your fear… or your excitement?

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