Avoid Excuses & Rise To The Occasion By Asking This Question

by  Mary C. Schaefer  |  Leadership Development
Avoid Excuses and Rise to the Occasion by Asking This Question

I overheard a conversation at a cafe. One man was complaining to another how a dating relationship had fallen apart.

He said, “I was trying to be mature about it but then she said ____, and I told her off. I mean, what did she expect?”

It sounded as if he thought her reaction gave him permission to go off. My question is, “What do you expect of yourself?”

What Do You Expect?

We can be so tempted to be drawn into the drama. Have you ever heard yourself excuse your actions with:

  • What else could I do?
  • How was I supposed to react?
  • What choice did he/she leave me?

You might feel as if you are painted in a corner. You were given no choice but to defend yourself. You needed to lay some truth on them. They need to understand how they were out of line. I get it. I’ve been there.

Is It About Them Or You?

I remember a lengthy talk, long ago with a manager about his habit of verbally abusing his co-workers or subordinates for making mistakes. He would humiliate them to the point of saying things like, “I can’t believe you are that stupid.”

We talked about the purpose that served. Were they hearing him? Was it having the desired effect?

He kept bringing the conversation back to how important it was that they know they made the mistake. He literally thought he had no choice but to point it out to them, in his way. The more “stupid” the mistake or oversight, the more he thought he was entitled to ramp up the humiliation.

He knew it was not in his best interest from a career standpoint. He still felt very righteous in his choice of response. I think we get in a rut sometimes.

Ask Another Question

I distinctly remember the moment I asked him these questions. What do you want to think of yourself in this situation? Who do you want to be?

He was silent for a good 30 seconds. He said he had never thought of that before. This doesn’t happen very often, but I saw a light bulb go off over his head.

I want to be clear that I’m not criticizing this manager. I do want to be clear how easy this question is to overlook, particularly when we are pumped up.

He and I discussed at length what the answer to this question could mean for him. We talked about dignity, respect and integrity. He did not connect his purported values to these types of situations. After all, what choice did these people leave him?

What he came to was realizing there were choices that were his to make. We went so far as for him to visualize looking in a mirror and asking, “Who do I want to be in this situation? What do I want to think of myself?”

We talked through how his values applied in these recurring situations. We had to talk it through because this was so new to him. He was not in the habit of looking for his choice points in these situations.

“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”
~ Albert Einstein

It Takes Practice

He needed to practice making conscious decisions in these situations. I’d love to report that his career life was rosy from that point on. I know he continued to struggle for the few months we continued to talk.

What I also know is that continuing to ask the question, “Who do I want to be?” serves all of us who aspire to be character-based leaders.

How do you make sure you are expressing who you want to be, every day?
Photo Credit: Boggy

About The Author

Articles By mary-schaefer
Speaker, coach and trainer Mary Schaefer’s expertise is in creating work cultures where organizations and human beings can both thrive. She is a former HR manager. Find out more about how Mary helps managers empower themselves to make the most of their human resources with this special collection of articles selected for LCG readers: http://www.reimaginework.com/LCG/  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Jane  |  08 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Mary, you asked the right thought provoking question. I hope the person on your story went on to make changes in his management style. I know the broken spirit that comes from working for a bully. To change their spots, a Leopard first has to recognize they have spots and then want them to be different. I’ve seen a transformation in people. For my husband who lived cantankerous for years, our conversations were more along the lines of, “Is this how you want to be remembered? When people think back what are they going to recall? Do you really want your grandkids to remember you ornery?” Like you pointed out in this article, we have to see the flaws or we have no impetus to fix them.

Mary C. Schaefer  |  08 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Those are some great questions too, Jane. I’m encouraged to hear you have seen transformation. Thanks for commenting.

Alan Derek Utley  |  08 Jan 2016  |  Reply

While I haven’t yet been – and probably never will be – accused of calling someone stupid, I have certainly fallen into the trap of saying things or behaving in ways that I later regret. Because I know this about myself, I’ve taken to a little self-talk from time to time. For example, if I know that I’m entering a stressful or high-stakes day I’ll often spend the length of time it takes to drive to work to think through the day ahead and plan what I want to say and how I want to act. This kind of planning helps me more readily access the best part of me when the going gets tough. That’s one way I go about expressing who I want to be, every day.

Thanks, Mary!

Mary C. Schaefer  |  08 Jan 2016  |  Reply

That’s called emotional intelligence, Alan ;) I was talking with someone about it last night. You’re showing self-awareness, self-reguation and social skills with that example you gave. Yes, sometimes we indulge ourselves, but as aspiring character-based leaders we try to think before we speak or act. I love the way you put it, “This kind of planning helps me more readily access the best part of me when the going gets tough”

You are also reminding me of motivational talk I was listening to today. The speaker said, “It’s not that we’re not allowed to have negative thoughts or feelings. We just can’t stay there.” I know I struggle with NOT feeding my grievances, even if they are in my head.

It goes back to the central question: “Who do I want to be?” I’m glad I hang around people who regularly ask that question.

Thanks for commenting!!

Valencia Ray M.D.  |  08 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Great article, glad to see you addressing self-awareness and self-Response-Ability…the ability to respond. When we feel/act like a ‘victim’ and dodge taking responsibility to shift our mindset and behavior, we just perpetuate the cycles that limit our potential and promotes continued cultural ‘dysfunction.’ Enjoyed this, thanks.

Mary C. Schaefer  |  08 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Thanks so much for your comments, Valencia. I’m all about self-responsibility and empowerment.

Loved this: “When we feel/act like a ‘victim’ and dodge taking responsibility to shift our mindset and behavior, we just perpetuate the cycles that limit our potential and promotes continued cultural ‘dysfunction.’ ” – SO TRUE!

Jon Stallings  |  08 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Great topic Mary. How often do we allow the actions of others dictate how we act. It takes practice to make sure we stay true ourselves. I have worked hard to change the way I think. I try to remind myself that at the end of the day I am the only person I can really change. I admit though I am still a work in progress.

Mary C. Schaefer  |  09 Jan 2016  |  Reply

You summarized it perfectly, Jon. It takes practice. I am only responsible for me. I’m a work in progress. Thank you for reminding ME! (and for commenting)

John Smith  |  12 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Mary – sorry I’m late commenting on this engaging post – been a little sick.

As usual, you throw a bright light on another slightly seamy side of being humans.

As I read your experience with that manager, I was reminded of all the times I have heard someone say some version of “What else could I do?”, usually followed by some version of “They made me feel ……” (fill in with “mad”, “hurt” or any other negative emotion).

This type of talking, thinking, and acting is indicative of a lack of emotional intelligence, especially the part where we identify the source of an emotion we are feeling. The trick?: It’s always us.

Nobody else can make us feel anything. Emotions are always an inside job and we ultimately choose how we will emotionally react to a situation. This is not always a well-received idea, especially by those who prefer not to own their emotional reaction.

Your approach with your manager of helping him to consider the congruency (or lack thereof) between his actions and his values was spot on. I would bet he is a better manager today for having had this interaction with you:).


Mary C. Schaefer  |  12 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Thanks for commenting, John. Your comments just made me realize that I don’t think we can be great until we fully see and own when we’re tempted to not be great. Now that is not profound. The important part for me is to not belittle ourselves for our temptations. It’s important to be humble and adjust bad habits, but we also need to own AND LOVE our humanity. Otherwise, if we can’t have compassion toward ourselves, we don’t do a very good job at being compassionate with others either. (I feel like I’m writing another post… sorry.)

Your mention of emotional intelligence is right on target. I’ve heard that term so often since the start of this new year. It may be a overarching theme emerging.

Thanks again, John. As you know, I always look forward to you weighing in. Glad you are feeling better! Mary

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