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
For an application of the Hula Hoop Principle, see "When You Think Your Boss Is Incompetent," Point Lookout for September 20, 2006.
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
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- Conflict Haiku
- When tempers flare, or tension fills the air, many of us contribute to the stew, often without realizing
that we do. Here are some haiku that describe some of the many stances we choose that can lead groups
into tangles, or let those tangles persist once they form.
- Are You Micromanaging Yourself?
- Feeling distrusted and undervalued, we often attribute the problem to the behavior of others —
to the micromanager who might be mistreating us. We tend not to examine our own contributions to the
difficulty. Are you micromanaging yourself?
- When You Can't Even Think About It
- Some problems are so difficult or scary that we can't even think about how to face them. Until we can
think, action is not a good idea. How can we engage our brains for the really scary problems?
- Favors, Payback, and Thoughtlessness
- Someone at work who isn't particularly a friend or foe has asked you for a favor. What happens if you
say no? Do you grant the favor? How do you decide what to do?
- Making Memories to Cherish
- We all have cherished memories — lovely moments we can replay whenever we want to feel happy.
How would you like to have a lot more of them?
See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
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