The year I graduated from college, I was looking for a good way to stay in shape. I enrolled in martial arts classes at the Black Belt Martial Arts Center. The gym was an almost magical place where the instructors were always positive, but were simultaneously always pushing me out of my comfort zone and encouraging me to test my physical limits. It was not only the best exercise I’ve ever gotten, but it was so good for my mental health as well. I miss martial arts and plan to pick it back up.
Before one of our classes, Master RJ Lee shared, “The Ten Rules for Being Human” by Cherie Carter Scott, which are posted below.
I have these rules and the Holstee Manifesto on my desk at work, reminding me every day of some of these basic life truths, which I have found to be important guidance, especially as an adult.
But one of these rules in particular have been coming up for me repeatedly lately as I observe the world and, more specifically, as I lead a change management effort. Rule #7 has manifested itself several times this year in meetings, phone calls, and the occasional hostile or nasty email. At its basic level, I interpret #7 much like the concept of projection in psychology.
In Psychology Today, projection is described this way: “Unconscious discomfort can lead people to attribute unacceptable feelings or impulses to someone else to avoid confronting them. Projection allows the difficult trait to be addressed without the individual fully recognizing it in themselves.”
Originally described by Sigmund Freud in 1895, Carl Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz built upon Freud’s description of projection as a defense mechanism. Jung and von Franz believed that projection represents a fear of the unknown, which is inherent in change, especially in a work environment that was previously static or predictable.
I’ve been giving extra thought to this concept lately, especially at work. I have been trying to figure out an answer to the question, what does a leader do when people lash out in what is a clear projection?
The best answer I have come up with is first, not to take it personally. In the style of servant leadership, if the leadership can recognize a clear projection, it is obviously much more about the needs of the person speaking to you. In other words, “It’s not about you.”
Next, there is internal work a leader must do to make sure that the projection does not get solidified in their mind as fear. I took a course last year from Stanford University that offered a helpful trick. I learned than when I experience a difficult moment in leadership, like someone lashing out at me, and I internalize it negatively and dwell on it. When I would go to sleep, my brain hard-wires that memory and it can trigger a fight-or-flight response when I confront the same thing again. Instead, if I take a moment and engage in reflection (I use a journal) to reframe the incident before I sleep, my brain will not hard-wire the negativity. I try not to let one instance of discomfort have a profound impact on my behavior in similar situations moving forward.
After that internal work is when I decide on the next step. I think about the impact the particular behavior could have on the broader team culture and usually consider that first. From there, I check in with my definition of leadership. That usually helps me decide the best next step.
When confronted with a clear projection, leaders start with the internal work of self-management and self-reflection. Leaders must then consider the broader impact of their response on both the team and their larger goals.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Leaders work hard on the internal processing of incidents and use tools for reflection like the Ten Rules for Being Human and the Holstee Manifesto to put those difficult moments into perspective.