The business world is fantastic. It's also challenging. Over the course of your career, you'll face ethical, cultural, political, and personal dilemmas in the workplace. You'll work with difficult people. You'll find yourself in compromising situations. You'll have to balance who you are as an individual with what your employer asks of you.
Can you stay true to who you are without sacrificing your success? Absolutely YES.
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Stop Telling Stories

Stories You Tell Yourself
And Others In The Workplace:
Why You Should Consider Stopping

Nothing undermines your success faster
than the stories you tell yourself and others in the workplace.
Fear, uncertainty and doubt make for great stories.

When was the last time you made it through an entire day at work without worrying about something? How often do you find yourself imagining negative outcomes in times of stress? How many of your relationships in the workplace are clouded by uncertainty or doubt as to where you stand or how you're perceived? How often do you talk with your friends or colleagues about things others have said or done to you? 

The moments we spend thinking about these things add up to hours over the course of a given week. We tell ourselves, and sometimes others, "stories" about all of the things happening around us. Here are a few examples, although I could fill a page: 
My boss doesn't respect me or treat me the same as others. My team member just doesn't get it. My boss/peer/co-worker is incompetent -isn't it obvious? I'm better than/worse than/different than others and <whatever happened> isn't right. This change is going to be awful. This decision ruins everything. That person doesn't deserve it. I wonder if I should've done this vs. that. I totally screwed that up. I'll be awful at this. My job is at risk. I'll never get ahead here. 
Fear, uncertainty and doubt make for great stories. Sometimes we don't even realize that's where our stories usually start. Often it all plays out just below the surface, unconsciously impacting our thoughts, words and actions on a daily basis. So what's the big deal? After all, everyone tells stories to themselves or others on occasion. 

Stories wreak havoc on your success in the workplace. You aren't at peak performance when you have stories, either real or imagined, playing in the back of your mind. It's virtually impossible. You can only deliver your best job performance when you stop telling yourself stories and stay present with what's real and what matters. 
How do you stop telling stories, to yourself and others, in the workplace?
The Danger Of Stories

The idea of storytelling sounds so dramatic. We picture campfire storytellers from our youth and their very spooky stories. Storytelling in the workplace is far more subtle. At one end of the spectrum, we have insecurities that we chew on in our own minds. We worry, we stress, or we believe the worst is about to happen. At the other end of the spectrum, we may tell raging stories to ourselves and anyone else who will listen about how others around us are wrong or incompetent, or how we've been treated unfairly. 

The most insidious stories are the ones we tell ourselves about others; the other person plays the role of villain and we play the role of victim. Often we're not even conscious that we're telling stories, even as the words play over and over again in our minds. 

Emotions of fear, uncertainty and doubt are easier to process in the form of stories. The same is true of disappointment, anger and resentment. These emotions are no picnic for any of us. By telling ourselves stories, we may feel better... or we may feel worse. Either way, we reinforce concerns in our mind or simply replace them with other emotions that are equally non-productive. 

When we're feeling anxious, we're doing one of two things: 
We may be looking back at something that's already occurred. We said something we regret, or we're questioning something we've done. We're replaying the events of an interaction or incident. We're wondering if we should've done x or y. We're concerned about how others may be judging us. We're angry about the actions of another and we villainize them to avoid examining the role we may have played in a situation.
Alternatively, we may be looking forward, worrying about something that "might" happen. We're anticipating trouble or consequences from a potential future event. We're expecting something to go wrong, or be other than what we'd like. We're worried we may be hurt, disappointed, damaged, or treated unfairly. We assume someone else will decide or behave in a way different than what we would want.
If we're looking back, or we're looking forward, there's one thing we can't possibly be doing. We can't be fully present in any given moment. We're telling ourselves stories, and those stories color our actions and reactions whether we want to believe it or not. Stories also impact our ability to be productive and deliver high quality results. 

The litany of what we may be concerned with runs the gamut: making a mistake, failing completely, being talked about, being judged, being rejected, being treated unfairly, facing conflict, not being valued, not being retained, and so forth. 

When these thoughts are in our head and we don't address them in a rationale way, our ability to be successful is inhibited. We will not, cannot, perform at our best if we're burdened by stories. It doesn't even matter if the stories aren't true. The biggest problem is that they seem so true as we tell them.

Three Steps To Eliminate Stories

To stop telling ourselves stories, we have to first understand them. I'm not suggesting therapy sessions, where we're reclined on couches and analyzing our thought processes. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) I'm merely suggesting that most of us don't stop to try and understand why we're looking back with concern, or looking forward with worry. We don't try to gain insight as to why we're struggling in a relationship. And we don't always look for productive ways to improve our situation. It's easy to make our concerns about someone else or something else

Here are three things you can do to stop telling stories and get back to being awesome at your job.

1.  Be An Observer.

Imagine you're observing whatever concern or situation is playing out in your mind. You're not involved in the situation; you're just observing. Being an observer allows you to "step behind" the thoughts you're having, and simply observe them for what they are - a story. If you don't personalize the experience, you can gain great insight as to why you're having anxious thoughts in the first place. 

Take a moment to sort it out. Here's how. Ask yourself these questions and try to answer them objectively. 
What's really true about the situation? What do you know for sure is true or likely? Is it possible that what you're telling yourself isn't really true or accurate?
Why are you feeling anxious (fear, uncertainty, doubt, frustration, anger, resentment)? Did you do something you now regret? Are you anticipating an action that doesn't feel right? 
Are you concerned you didn't make the right decision? Are you worried you're about to make a bad decision? 
Did someone disrespect you or challenge your confidence? Did they intend to? Does it matter even if they did? Can you change their opinion? Do you want to? Do you need to? Are you allowing history to impact how you view this person's current words or actions? Is thinking about it going to make it better?
Are you worried about someone you care about? Do you believe they're incapable of managing a situation without your involvement? Can you get involved? Should you?
Do you doubt someone's competency, intention, or judgment? Do you have enough information to make that assessment? Are you being fair? Can you engage in a way that's productive to limit potential harm? Should you talk with someone about your concerns? Does thinking about this concern help in any way?
If you wanted to stop thinking about the situation entirely, what would it take? Is action needed to bring the situation to a better outcome than the concern that currently exists in your mind? If you shared your concern, would you then be able to let it go?
As an observer, try and understand the story you're telling yourself and why. Validate your assumptions as objectively as you can. You may gain great insight as to what triggers an anxious response in you and why. You also may decide it's not worth thinking about in this level of detail. That's absolutely perfect, because it means you shouldn't be telling yourself a story about it in the first place. 

2.  Be your own best advisor.

Sometimes when we're in the thick of a situation, we can't be objective. When we go to our friends, or close co-workers, they usually choose to validate our stories because it feels like the right thing to do. Colleagues who are a little more removed from you personally, though, often provide very objective advice and feedback. Imagine that it's another colleague experiencing what you're going through. 
If you knew a colleague who was looking back, worried about something said or done, what would you do to help? Maybe you'd tell him that he was over-reacting or reading more into a situation than was warranted. You may help him identify an action he could take to "fix" a situation or "undo" damage that had been done. You'd likely tell him to either forget it, learn from it, or act on it. He may need to do all three. You probably wouldn't recommend he worry about it, play it over in his mind, and assume that bad things will happen as a result.
Let's assume now that your colleague was looking forward, worrying about some future possibility. You may tell him to ask for more information or to express concern to someone who could help or provide support. You might suggest that he take action to try and influence what's yet to come. Again, worrying and assuming the worst wouldn't likely be on your list of advice. (Unless, of course, you didn't really like this person.) You probably wouldn't advise that he talk about it with anyone who would listen, and wonder and worry about how awful it will definitely be.
If your colleague was struggling with a relationship, you might ask about the history of the relationship and how the past might be impacting the present. You'd probably give very clear guidance on a few things he could say or do to improve the situation, or escalate concerns to someone who could. You wouldn't suggest allowing the relationship to remain unsettled or  non-productive, so that your colleague continued to struggle. You'd come up with alternatives to try and resolve the concern.  
The point?  Be as good an advisor to yourself as you are to others. Any time you find yourself in a situation where you're feeling anxious or uncertain, and telling yourself (or others) a story, consider what a colleague might observe or advise in the situation. My guess is that it would be productive.

3.  Be a performer.

When you're feeling any kind of fear, uncertainty or doubt, you're not at your best. If you're able to understand what's behind the emotions, take action, and stop telling stories... you'll bounce back. Often times, the best thing you can do for yourself (and others) in the meantime is to simply get back to work. Step away from the concern or ambiguity and behave your way out of an anxious state. You do this by shaking your stories and settling back into real life. Choose to be someone who isn't distracted by stories and performs well on the job.

In my career, it looks something like this: I take a re-set from whatever non-productive thoughts I'm having. I dig into a project or work assignment. I tell myself that for the next  <x> amount of time, I'm going to do my absolute best work. No stories. No distractions. Just great work.

The trick to this approach is to consume yourself with productive activity. Disallow time for storytelling, to yourself or others. Don't allow yourself to think about what's occurred in the past. Don't let yourself worry about the future. 

When you handle periods of anxiety or uncertainty with this approach, you get beyond the concern much faster. You allow yourself only to do your best possible work in any moment. Before long, the stories fade. (Well, until they come back, at which point you repeat the cycle.)

Bottom Line

Everyone tells themselves and others stories in the workplace. We do it in our "real" lives as well. The strongest performers in any business know how to do great work, without emotional distraction.

It's perfectly normal to feel uncertainty in the workplace on occasion. Things go along as expected. Suddenly, something falls outside of what we consider normal. Our very natural reaction is to feel some degree of uncertainty or anxiety. 

Choose to move beyond concerns quickly and avoid being distracted by stories. Be an observer when you feel yourself responding to a situation. Try to really understand what's causing your anxiety. Be as good an advisor to yourself as you would be to a colleague experiencing your situation. What might they observe or advise you to do? One of the best ways to keep from dwelling on a story about what's happening around you is to put your attention back on your work. Dig in and watch the story fade to the background.

Whether you're conscious of the stories you tell or not, those stories impact your performance on the job. Increase your emotional awareness at work and try to silence the whisper of stories in your ear. It's critical to your professional development and your performance.

When all else fails, just focus on doing great work. It leaves little time for anything else. Including stories.

More soon,