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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See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
- Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
- And on December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
- Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
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