Matt felt a tightness in his stomach. Meg had just phoned to tell him of two projects that were in trouble, and she wanted them "cleaned up" before the quarterly report deadline. She demanded, "We need these projects reviewed by the end of the month." Matt had agreed, because after all, she was his customer. But now he was wondering why he had agreed. He couldn't possibly complete those reviews by the first, and if even one of them turned up some dirty laundry, he'd be even more overloaded.
Why do we so often agree to meet the needs of others with so little thought for our own needs? When we're tempted to overcommit, how can we recognize it in time to stop ourselves? Here are some partial answers to these big questions.
One metaphor for this pattern comes from Jean McLendon, who suggests that each of us has a metaphorical hula-hoop. We're all trying to hula-hoop as best we can. That's difficult enough, but we really get into trouble when we try to hula somebody else's hoop. If you've ever hula-hooped you know that eventually, no matter how good you are, the hoop sometimes gets away from you and drops to the ground. When that happens to someone close to us, some of us feel the urge to help our neighbor hula.
But you can't hula someone else's hoop without messing up your own efforts. You can observe, advise, cheer, make suggestions, and offer support, but as soon as you try to hula for someone else, you get into trouble yourself.
Try it. Get a friend and two hula-hoops, and put one around you and one around your friend. Then try to hula your own hoop and theirs at the same time. You can't do it. People just aren't built that way.
As soon as you try to
hula for someone else,
you get into trouble
yourselfWe each must learn to stay in our own hula-hoops.
When Meg expressed to Matt her urgent need for project reviews, he saw her dropping her hula-hoop, and felt like helping her hula. Matt's job was to conduct project reviews, but the urgency was actually Meg's, not Matt's. By adopting Meg's emergency as his own, Matt was stepping into Meg's hula-hoop.
To remind yourself to stay in your own hula-hoop, buy yourself a gift — get a real hula-hoop and take it to work. Lean it against a wall in your office. Whenever you're about to commit to something, glance over at your hula-hoop and check that you're staying within it. If you are, fine. If not, then figure out how to say no. And if anyone asks you what that hula-hoop is doing in your office, just say, "It's a gift to a hula-hoop champion." Top Next Issue
For an application of the Hula Hoop Principle, see "When You Think Your Boss Is Incompetent," Point Lookout for September 20, 2006.
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- Manipulated Commitments
- Manipulated or coerced commitment looks pretty good on paper, but it might not lead to dedicated action.
When the truth is finally revealed, trouble can be unavoidable.
- The Problem of Work Life Balance
- When we consider the problem of work life balance, we're at a disadvantage from the start. The term
itself is part of the problem.
- Staying in Abilene
- A "Trip to Abilene," identified by Jerry Harvey, is a group decision to undertake an effort
that no group members believe in. Extending the concept slightly, "Staying in Abilene" happens
when groups fail even to consider changing something that everyone would agree needs changing.
- Not Really Part of the Team: I
- Some team members hang back. They show little initiative and have little social contact with other team
members. How does this come about?
- How to Listen to Someone Who's Dead Wrong
- Sometimes we must listen attentively to someone with whom we strongly disagree. The urge to interrupt
can be overpowering. How can we maintain enough self-control to really listen?
See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 28: Four Overlooked Email Risks: II
- Email exchanges are notorious for exposing groups to battles that would never occur in face-to-face conversation. But email has other limitations, less-often discussed, that make managing dialog very difficult. Here's Part II of an exploration of some of those risks. Available here and by RSS on March 28.
- And on April 4: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
- People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on April 4.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
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