Matt felt a tightness in his stomach. Meg had just phoned to tell him of two projects that were in trouble, and she wanted them "cleaned up" before the quarterly report deadline. She demanded, "We need these projects reviewed by the end of the month." Matt had agreed, because after all, she was his customer. But now he was wondering why he had agreed. He couldn't possibly complete those reviews by the first, and if even one of them turned up some dirty laundry, he'd be even more overloaded.
Why do we so often agree to meet the needs of others with so little thought for our own needs? When we're tempted to overcommit, how can we recognize it in time to stop ourselves? Here are some partial answers to these big questions.
One metaphor for this pattern comes from Jean McLendon, who suggests that each of us has a metaphorical hula-hoop. We're all trying to hula-hoop as best we can. That's difficult enough, but we really get into trouble when we try to hula somebody else's hoop. If you've ever hula-hooped you know that eventually, no matter how good you are, the hoop sometimes gets away from you and drops to the ground. When that happens to someone close to us, some of us feel the urge to help our neighbor hula.
But you can't hula someone else's hoop without messing up your own efforts. You can observe, advise, cheer, make suggestions, and offer support, but as soon as you try to hula for someone else, you get into trouble yourself.
Try it. Get a friend and two hula-hoops, and put one around you and one around your friend. Then try to hula your own hoop and theirs at the same time. You can't do it. People just aren't built that way.
As soon as you try to
hula for someone else,
you get into trouble
yourselfWe each must learn to stay in our own hula-hoops.
When Meg expressed to Matt her urgent need for project reviews, he saw her dropping her hula-hoop, and felt like helping her hula. Matt's job was to conduct project reviews, but the urgency was actually Meg's, not Matt's. By adopting Meg's emergency as his own, Matt was stepping into Meg's hula-hoop.
To remind yourself to stay in your own hula-hoop, buy yourself a gift — get a real hula-hoop and take it to work. Lean it against a wall in your office. Whenever you're about to commit to something, glance over at your hula-hoop and check that you're staying within it. If you are, fine. If not, then figure out how to say no. And if anyone asks you what that hula-hoop is doing in your office, just say, "It's a gift to a hula-hoop champion." Top Next Issue
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
For an application of the Hula Hoop Principle, see "When You Think Your Boss Is Incompetent," Point Lookout for September 20, 2006.
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- Responding to Threats: I
- Threats are one form of communication common to many organizational cultures, especially as pressure
mounts. Understanding the varieties of threats can be helpful in determining a response that fits for you.
- Fooling Ourselves
- Humans have impressive abilities to convince themselves of things that are false. One explanation for
this behavior is the theory of cognitive dissonance.
- Scope Creep and the Planning Fallacy
- Much is known about scope creep, but it nevertheless occurs with such alarming frequency that in some
organizations, it's a certainty. Perhaps what keeps us from controlling it better is that its causes
can't be addressed with management methodology. Its causes might be, in part, psychological.
- Preventing Toxic Conflict: II
- Establishing norms for respectful behavior is perhaps the most effective way to reduce the incidence
of toxic conflict at work. When we all understand and subscribe to a particular way of treating each
other, we can all help prevent trouble.
- Directed Attention Fatigue
- Humans have a limited capacity to concentrate attention on thought-intensive tasks. After a time, we
must rest and renew. Most brainwork jobs aren't designed with this in mind.
See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
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