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Your identity and your reactions
It takes just moments to create poor reactions and incorrect perceptions. However, we can take those moments back and allow ourselves to respond better.
Our identity, the beliefs we hold about who we are, or what we believe others think of us, is the center of nearly all of our work-related experiences. Yet it is our reactions that create the problems in most cases, and they rarely represent our identity.
Many of our work-related issues come from this identity concept. If you were to drill-down to the core of each problem, you would find your identity. Not in the sense that your identity is the problem, but what you are incorrectly assuming others think of you, or that they dissociate your behavior from who you think you are and wish to be.
Ask yourself: What kind of person do I want to be?
When you behave or speak poorly with others, are you considering whether that reflects your values? Probably not in the moment, and yet this is a major contributor to how people think of you. Inevitably we all lose our cool occasionally (likely very many times) and then ruminate in the embarrassment, or worse maybe, shame ourselves, in endless loops. It’s natural and all too easy to over-inflate the idea that others think about us in negative ways — or even at all.
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The key here is to remind ourselves of who we want to be, and try our best to behave in that way. But for many of us, our emotions are more powerful than our thinking brain. We all have our own sensitivities that make us say or do things that would appear to disagree with our values. In the best of cases, it is simply a matter of being tired and needing to take a break. In the worst cases, we believe there is a larger force outside of ourselves that is creating the issue and we’re mistakenly acting against that.
You are not your software
In software development, there are myriad ways in which building a product will challenge you, and because you have pride in your work, those challenges may seem personal. Why wouldn’t we take things personally? What other way is there to experience these? It’s certainly true that we have jobs based on some form of judgement about who we are, because of having gone through an interview process. Even more true, we get assigned work or projects based on who we are. It’s a fallacy that software product development is egalitarian, and it’s provable simply by blind testing any source code you read on GitHub.
As an example, find your most used software and read its source code. Without identifying the people whom wrote the software, try to judge whether they are good people. Seems silly, right? Maybe it’s impossible. So why then do we believe that our identity is in the code we produce or even the software we deliver? Conversely, however, in leadership positions, the team can reflect who we are, because a large part of leadership is culture, and people who report to you copy how you behave. And so here is a complexity that makes this experience contextual. Sometimes, it’s best to avoid attaching our identity to our outcomes, and in other cases, we should be careful to prevent inappropriate behavior from muddying our identity.
Exploring this identity concept is critical to helping cope with the normal and forever existing issues at work. And here is the bigger point: We all need help with this and it’s usually lost in the normal activities of building software. Certainly we all have gone through performance reviews, or have a feedback system at work. Some of them are formal, some of them are debatably useful. But on a day-to-day basis, how are we receiving feedback that helps us properly associate the criticism to the software or the process, and not to our identities?
What’s most critical to understanding this conflict is how we answer the question above. Do we want to be the person who is consistently difficult to work with? Does yelling and arguing match our values? Are we the types of people who create comradary or are we isolating and destructive?
They likely aren’t thinking about you
It’s natural for many of us to over-indulge in the notion that other people are thinking about us in a negative or even conflicted way. And even more so, it’s a bit of a shock when we learn that most people do not think of us as much as we believe they do. What a weird condition — we believe other people are actually paying attention to only the negative things we’re doing and simply disregarding the positive things. Let alone that they have time or space in their brains to think about us more than they think of themselves.
The best technique to manage our behavior is pausing and breathing before any moment of emotional reaction. However, that’s not always easy — our brains rarely give us warning or even the time before we lash out. But it is undoubtedly better to think about the encounter and respond after some contemplation than to react immediately. Once you react with emotion, it is more difficult to take back, if at all, especially when it’s aggressive or hostile.
We should always consider boundaries, and this raises the complexity of this topic. It’s fair to ask, “should I simply never respond emotionally?” Sometimes we are being trespassed and it would be proper to respond with emotion in order to protect our boundaries. You can always respond with more of your thinking brain by pausing and breathing. But that does not prevent the response from having emotional backing. Showing others that they have offended you or crossed a boundary is fair and important to maintaining your personal space.
It is rare that we can pin our work issues down to just a single condition. But our identity and how closely we attach our work output to it are the most experienced conditions. For some of us, it’s how we motivate ourselves to deliver high-quality outcomes. For others, it results from lifelong experiences of unfair treatment or misplaced frustrations. It can prevent us from being happy at work.
When you find yourself upset or disappointed in your reactions, first be kind to yourself. Second, remember that you’re a human with emotions, and that is perfectly normal. Software is a human endeavour. Last, be comfortable seeking help to process these feelings. It’s never a sign of weakness or ineptitude. Asking for help to examine these situations and to have outside coaching to provide you with fair and healthy feedback is a smart and effective form of improving these experiences, so that we can enjoy our time building software with others.