Chief of Research, Workforce Productivity, Organizational Performance
This op-ed was originally published in The Globe and Mail on January 9, 2019.
Imagine that you’ve just locked your keys in your car for the second time this month. Once you realize what you’ve done, what’s your typical reaction?
Our reactions to this kind of situation fall on a continuum from calm to angry. Locking our keys in our car is an inconvenience and, yes, frustrating. However, does it warrant getting upset or angry, lashing out at ourselves, or creatively blaming someone else?
At work and at home, how we react to such situations is influenced by our perspective. Perspective is the attitude we attach to events that happen in life.
This micro skill explores how calibrating our perspective can help manage our emotions and stress whenever we have a difference between what we want and what we have. Being able to maintain a positive perspective in both good and challenging times is good for our mental health.
There’s little chance any one of us will have a life in which every day things go as perfectly as we expect and plan. Life happens, mistakes happen, and sometimes things just don’t go our way, regardless of how hard we try.
Our perspective is influenced by our expectations and standards we set for ourselves and others. Notice in the following example how perspective can be changed by new information:
A peer at work starts to miss timelines, resulting in your projects being late. You express your concerns and frustrations with each missed timeline. Every day there’s a new issue. After two weeks, you become uncharacteristically short with your peer and finally reach the point that you report the situation to your manager.
The perspective you form in this situation is that your peer is not being respectful, is not being a team player, shows little regard for the problems they’re creating, and must be corrected or even replaced.
When you report the issue, your manager informs you that your peer found out just two weeks ago that her husband has been diagnosed with a disease and has three months to live, and she’s distraught. The manager shares that the company is looking at options to get her paid leave in the next few days, so she can be home with her husband for the remainder of his life.
Does this new information influence your perspective? It would for most of us, because missing a deadline and the impending death of a loved one are not on the same scale.
Creating a positive perspective begins with accepting that whenever we have a difference between what we want and what we have, most of the time, things could be worse. A healthy perspective focuses on what we can control and the meaning we attach to a situation.
Locking our keys in our car doesn’t mean we’re dumb. It’s simply a product of some distraction or not paying attention because our mind is focused on something else.
We own what we think about a situation, which drives our perspective and ultimately our reaction. Context like the above example of a peer facing the loss of her husband would result in most of us quickly shifting any degree of frustration to empathy and compassion.
One way to take charge of our perspective is to attach context as to the degree of importance something really has.
Taking charge of our perspective begins with accepting that it influences our emotional reactions, our internal dialogue and our behaviour.
Three steps for promoting a positive perspective in life-challenging moments:
1. Acknowledge the challenge—Whenever you have a difference between what you want and what you have, acknowledge the fact. It’s healthy to acknowledge disappointment. It can help motivate us to accept learning from a situation. Try: “Locking keys in my car is frustrating. I need to remember to take the key out of the ignition before I close the door, because it self-locks.”
2. Level the situation—Context is helpful for shaping our perspective. Most times, things could be worse. This doesn’t make the situation any better; it just levels it. Try: “I could be running late and not have CAA. Luckily, I left early, and I can call CAA to come to open my door.”
3. Does it really matter?—Reframing a disappointment can help move past it quickly. Try: “CAA is on the way, and my appointment knows I’ll be late. So, no big deal; I’ll get there when I can.”
The more we focus on promoting a positive perspective, the more we’re able to look for the positive and not burden ourselves with a negative perspective that serves little purpose and provides no benefit to ourselves or others.