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What does it mean to not take the Personal, Personally?

I recently had an epiphany. I was sitting in a workshop (yes, actually in a workshop!), and one of the participants observed that "when you're facilitating a group and challenging them to think differently, it's you, the facilitator, who the group directs their frustration and anger towards." This person explained that it's seldom a lack of skill or experience as a facilitator; rather, it's human nature to re-direct discomfort onto the person who asks the difficult question. The comment stopped me in my tracks.

First, it explained, at least in my mind, why I frequently become irritated with my wife when she asks me to explain a piece of fuzzy logic that I already know isn't well thought out. It made me realise that I needed to change how I reacted to her questions and focus more on the question than attacking the person - obvious as that should have been.

Second, it made me think about leadership and a quote by Heifetz and Linsky that when you are leading change in an organisation, you can't take "personal attacks personally." Heifetz and Linsky focus on adaptive change, dealing with problems without a clear solution, which covers most organisational issues. In these circumstances, as a leader leading change, you ask uncomfortable questions of the organisation or very senior people. Therefore, it is not surprising that human nature re-directs that frustration and discomfort onto you, the leader.

In leadership situations where I've been challenged and chastised for the changes I've pursued, I've often reflected on the idea that you shouldn't take the 'attacks' personally. Intellectually, it always made sense, but I craved approval and consensus in my heart. I'm a consensus-based leader and don't love fostering or being in conflict. Because of this, I've realised that despite knowing I shouldn't in my head, I take attacks on ideas personally rather than seeing them as an attack on the position. My lightbulb moment was this one comment, which brought these ideas to life for me.

Since then, I've been asking myself what I would change in a future situation change management role? I've concluded that I'll need to ask myself the same question that I asked my wife to ask me when I get frustrated with her questions: "am I (or in this case, are they) angry at the person or the question?"

This question is the first step to shifting focus away from the personal attack and onto the question. Essentially, you need to check-in and decide if the frustration directed at you is about you or the situation. "Is this about me, and should I take it personally?" The second step is to ensure that I am satisfied with how I act in this situation. To put this to the test, I've found myself returning to the 3 Is framework more and more. I'm checking in with my identity, intent, and integrity. If I'm acting congruently in the situation and believe that I'm working toward a positive outcome for the organisation, I must remember not to take the personal personally.

In my experience, this appears to be simple, but it isn't. I'm hoping that this moment of inspiration will provide me with a framework to help me check in with myself during a period of change. It seems more useful than advice focused on "growing a thick skin." We should not believe that bringing about change and leading in the face of adversity is simple. We must acknowledge that much of the change required at all levels of society in the future will be extremely difficult. Waiting for people with the self-confidence or arrogance that gives them a thick skin, on the other hand, ensures that most of us don't step up to lead when, in fact, we are likely more empathetic leaders.

Leadership and change are hard. Given our world's challenges, we need more people to step into leadership roles, provide more compassionate leadership, and not wait for the self-belief and self-confidence to take on these leadership challenges unhesitantly. Finding ways to re-frame the individual or group frustration is a skill we all need to learn, and it starts by not taking the "personal, personally".


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