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How to Stay Balanced and Productive

This article first appeared in Shambhala Sun, January 2005 under the title “Breaking the Habit Habit”.

Everyone knows the old adage “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” In the work environment, the trees are the immediate pressures you feel: demands and directives from above, needs and problems from below. The forest is the bigger picture, the picture beyond the immediate pressures.Most people react to remove pressures as quickly as possible, relying on ways of working that are familiar to them. The result is a progressive narrowing of perception and response. You don’t see the forest and your reactions and the results of your reactions create more pressures because they don’t take the forest into account. A vicious self-reinforcing cycle develops — pressures and reactions give rise to greater pressures and stronger reactions.

A department head did solid work for which he was rewarded with generous raises, bonuses, and various perks. Yet he still watched fearfully for any sign of disagreement in his superiors. He changed his opinion, ignored his staff’s recommendations, or took over a subordinate’s work whenever he felt doing so would solidify his relationship with his superiors. He couldn’t understand why his department experienced low morale and high turnover.

The head of a company that distributes time-critical products hit the roof whenever a truck was late or a staff member didn’t have the latest numbers at his fingertips. He diverted all the energies of his staff to address “the crisis.” The business wasn’t growing as it should, a fact that only increased his volatility. His staff had given up trying to tell him that the constant diversions prevented them from putting in place the systems needed to ensure smooth operations.

The immediate pressures of a situation tend to blind us to what is really important. This phenomenon is acutely present at all levels of corporate life where fear of losing one’s job, fear of not being able to control outcomes, or threats to one’s identity are constant and often over-riding concerns. The energy of such fears puts us on edge, so that any element in a current situation that resonates with unresolved associations easily triggers emotional reactions such as anger, neediness, or confusion.

Three things happen then. First, the emotion projects its own worldview. When you are angry, you see everything in terms of opposition and the only options are fight or surrender. When you feel needy, no matter how much you may have, you feel it isn’t enough, so you have to have more.

Second, internal agendas take over and cause you to ignore much of what is happening around you. The department head’s concern for smooth relationships with superiors caused him to ignore the work and feelings of his staff. The company head’s crisis mentality prevented his staff from developing robust systems.

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