Today I am going to broach a subject which is really quite tricky, and as scientists I am not sure that we are really trained or prepared to do it. My subject today is that we should not take things personally. I know that we have all defended hypotheses in either public or private settings; but how many of us defend our idea due to its merits and not because it is our idea? I am sure most of us say that it is always due to the merits, but is it? Whenever we do something it is natural to become emotionally involved and our ego becomes invested in the success of the endeavor. Therefore, if anyone were to comment negatively it is very easy to see why your feelings may get hurt. I think it is only natural but the issue is that when it comes to a work environment we can’t take things personally.
I have learnt an important lesson from my summer teaching assistant. I have corrected her work and also reprimanded her for various actions; but it did not affect our working relationship. She always accepted my comments with grace and then continued to work as if the conversation had not occurred. I have always marveled at her ability to do this and wondered what her secret was. I have witnessed the opposing situation and know what the other potentials are: avoidance of the individual, fighting back, mean comments after the fact, simmering aggression which could lead to retaliation. None of these scenarios is going to make a happy or productive work environment, but I believe that the unpleasant situations happen as frequently as the congenial one. So what do we need to do to ensure that we all act professionally and don’t sour the work place?
Through reading a management book I realized what my TA’s secret was. She realized that I was correcting work or actions but that didn’t reflect how I felt about her. At no point did she take any of my comments personally and therefore they didn’t deeply affect her. I also hope she realized that I was trying to improve her work and by giving the feedback it would allow her to grow and learn. How many of us can take constructive criticism well? I know that I can certainly learn a lot from watching the grace my TA displayed in a number of situations and hope to emulate it in the future.
I wonder if we may take things more personally as we are less used to criticism? I assume that most individuals reading this have excelled at a number of different things and are more used to hearing praise then negative comments. Therefore, when we do get corrected it might have more impact than on someone who is more used to receiving negative comments. I also believe it is our natural predisposition to fight back, that is after all what we have been trained to do at graduate school, defending ourselves or our work is ingrained and has been for some time.
Can we change how we look at things and learn not to take things personally? Definitely. We continue to grow and learn, therefore while this may be a difficult pill to swallow, we can grit our teeth and do it. Sometimes it may be helpful to realize that people’s reactions really aren’t a reflection on us, or our work – but it is about them. They could be having a tough day and you would have a different response tomorrow. What the other person would probably appreciate is that you continue to behave professionally. You may get an apology later, or the individual may try to pay it back by acquiescing to something else in future, but you will certainly get better results by being professional then biting back, being grumpy, or having a hissy fit.
Since I had this eureka moment, I have been observing people in different situations. A number of people are able to remain calm (no matter what the circumstances) while others get their feathers ruffled and behave inappropriately. It is probably no coincidence that those who remain calm are also the ones who have the best reputations. Therefore, as I would like to emulate these role models I need to not take things personally. I need to listen to the words people say and not allow my emotions to cloud the message. If someone says “not at the moment”, it isn’t a slight against me and it isn’t a no; I just need to bide my time and try again in the future. If I plan an event and someone is unhappy, I need to consider how many people thought it was great but use the feedback if it is valuable.
Each of us is so much more than just our job. We are siblings, parents, partners, so we also need to put things into perspective. If someone doesn’t like one thing you do at work, is it that big a deal? It is better to try and do something and receive negative feedback, then stagnate and not challenge yourself. By not taking things personally you will probably have a much more relaxed view at work, which will also have good repercussions at home. So try and not think of taking the moral high ground as some people instruct; you are acting professionally which will be noticed by everyone important to you – those at work, and at home.