It’s inevitable that from time to time we may find ourselves disillusioned, maybe even feeling burnt out.  And there is a load of content out there that speaks to self-care, how to maintain balance through practices like yoga and meditation amid all the stress, and it’s all very wonderful.  I’m a big believer in all kinds of mindfulness practices.  But I’ve often said that a good self-care routine won’t do the job of an unhealthy mindset.

I was reminded of this principle this week as I was working with a client.  She’s sleepwalking through each day of life – tired, lethargic, devoid of a sense of purpose, and it was the latter of these complaints we honed in on for our work. 

A good self care routine won’t do the job of an unhealthy mindset

“This project is painstaking work.  And the only thing that matters is whether I make a mistake.  It’s exhausting.”

That would feel exhausting, right?  Her story reminded me of another client, an organization I spent quite a bit of time with a year back.  One of the high potential new recruits had been promoted to the supervisor of the loan processing department for a bank.  Her work as an individual contributor was excellent without a doubt – painstakingly perfect.  And when you think about it, that’s probably a good thing considering we’re talking about the practice of processing loans.  Money is riding on whether the documentation has been completed correctly.  One error can derail an entire process and create unnecessary delays.  This individual had performed well in the past, and then had been thrown into a leadership role without any training or development.

When I met up with this client a year or so into her new role, it wasn’t the rosy story of success she’d wanted it to be.  The turnover in her department was sky high, and no one (and I mean no one) in the bank wanted to work in the loan processing group.  The group had a reputation for being difficult to work with interdepartmentally as well.  But it wasn’t for lack of trying on the supervisor’s part.  She was working her butt off and giving her best.  And yet, she couldn’t keep a good employee if her life depended on it.

What we focus on drives the outcomes we get

The solution to this conundrum lies not in how hard we work or try, but what we’re focused on.  This supervisor tended to be critical, and it showed up in what she focused on with her team.  Instead of focusing on the vibe she wanted to create for the department and what a high performing team could look like, she focused with laser precision on mistakes and the tiniest of errors.  And she found them, again and again and again.  Well intended folks would come to work day after day to be told again and again that they had made yet another mistake.  They were told to correct it.  And yet the same mistakes would happen every month.  At the point I met up with her, she was convinced it was intentional and retaliatory.  I didn’t think so. 

If the performance of a team is hinged on avoiding making a mistake, how empowering is that?  Is that kind of focus going to entice anyone to jump for joy, or be include to give discretionary effort?  Ironically, the laser focus gift of spotting errors that enabled this supervisor to rise the ranks was now her downfall.  Her gift of critical precision that had enabled her to be an effective individual contributor, but it wasn’t the right outlook for leading a team.

This happens all the time because it’s a way of thinking that is motivated by fear. As human beings we’re super susceptible to fear based thoughts.  Fear of not looking good, fear of not getting it right, fear of making a mistake, fear of not doing a good job. 

Inspiration lies in purpose, not avoiding a mistake

And even without a managerial influence pushing us to that place of fear we often do it to ourselves, because we learn early on to motivate ourselves with fear.  Just like my client the other day, where everything on this current project is a drag because everything is geared at her not making a mistake.  It’s soul crushing. But is it the nature of the work, or is it her mindset that’s causing the problem?

But the interesting thing is we can choose to shift the focus from ourselves and judgment of ourselves of others, to a higher place, a more purposeful place.  And the best leaders are the ones that recognize this.

When I first started facilitating leadership courses years ago and for many years into my tenure, I was crippled by fear.  Of not knowing enough.  Of not getting it right.  And so, every course I taught, I prepared an excessive amount for.  I thought about every situation that could transpire where a question might be asked and what I would say in response.  I lived in constant fear of making a mistake, of not knowing the answer to a question.  Because that was what my life was about – my credibility.  Deep down that was where my sense of worth came from.  I just didn’t realize it. 

At one point I was totally burned out and almost quit teaching.  Something I had loved, something I knew I was good it.  But the price was too high, right?  The demands of the job were too exhaustive. 

Not necessarily.  My focus just wasn’t in the right place.  The focus of my teaching and training has shifted significantly over the years to where it really should be – the learner.  What they need, helping support them in their learning.  When we can shift our thinking from the limited and judgmental frame of making a mistake to the powerful one of what do I want to create, guess what’s on the other side?  Joy. And when my ill-fated supervisor switched to a frame of possibility and what this team of hers could create, they actually managed to do it.

Coaching Questions for Thought:

  • What are the situations that push you into a place of fear – I can’t make a mistake, I have to look good, I have to prove, I have to get this right?
  • What is that frame of thinking costing you or your team?  Burnout, unnecessary stress and strain?  Turnover? Lost time with family and friends?
  • What would happen if you let go of the judgment of self and others and shifted the goal to a more powerful frame based on what you want to create, versus what you want to avoid?

Shelley Pernot is a career and leadership coach who is passionate about helping her clients develop clarity, confidence, and compassion for self.  She is particularly adept at working with high performing women who are hard on themselves.  Reach out to me here for a free consultation to learn more about the coaching process and how it may benefit you!