Over the course of my career, I have focused my attention on the leadership challenge of how to become a better leader and a better person.

One of the most helpful resources for me has been the idea of staying “out of the box” with other people. As you may know, this is based on a model developed by The Arbinger Institute called collusion.

In essence, the lesson is that when we are “in the box” or in collusion with other people, we continuously draw the worst in them and they in turn draw the worst in us.

In The Box

In my experience, one of the hardest things to do when we are in the box with other people is admitting our own role and our contribution to the conflict.

It is a lot easier to blame the other person and justify our behavior.

I have noticed that when I accept responsibility for my role in collusion, my options for leading away from conflict become evident and easier to pursue than when I am stuck “in the box” and can’t get out of my ‘victim trap’.

Not surprisingly, I fall in the box much easier during times of pressure and stress.

Unexpected Issues

Stress and pressure are typically on the rise at work when we run into unexpected issues on projects with fast approaching deadlines and/or when new big projects are added to our already loaded project list.

This was definitely the case a few weeks ago. It was the middle of week and one of our teams was behind on a big deliverable. I was asked to provide a detailed cost estimate for a one year, complex project – in one day or less.

The scope for this project had not been clearly defined and two staff members with experience in the subject where out of the office for the rest of the week!

Sound familiar?

My Favorite Person

To make matters worse, “Barb”, the executive who requested the estimate, has a tendency to set unrealistic expectations and can be very abrasive. Not getting an estimate to her would likely result in issues with my leadership and a few “jabs” along the way about my teams.

As you can guess, Barb is not my favorite person.

Actually, she is not very popular in the whole organization and can even intimidate her superiors. However, she has been promoted over the course of her career and has a lot of authority.

While I was able to focus on the cost estimate and was cordial with the people I was working with to develop a quick proposal, I knew I was running short on my supply of “being nice” fuel.

Then, it Happened

I received a completely unrelated email from “Jake”. While Jake and I have become good friends over the years, it is worthy to note that I am an extrovert who does not like to spend too much time on details, and Jake is an introvert that can never get enough information.

While I prefer quick verbal discussions, he appreciates detailed emails and time to think things through.

The email from Jake was the third email from him on a project we had been communicating about for a couple of days. In my mind, the scope of the project had been discussed and decided.

However, Jake needed more discussion and more detailed information. So I called him, and, as you can imagine, the call didn’t go well.

Although Jake had nothing to do with the pressures I was experiencing on the other projects, I ended up using an irritated tone with him, and took a few verbal “jabs” at him and his team while we went through his questions.

I treated him the way I was expecting to be treated by Barb!

Justifying Frustration

I found myself treating him this way after years of self-coaching and coaching others on how to recognize the signs that we may be “in the box”.

After writing countless articles on how to treat others the way we want to be treated, I treated Jake the way I did not want to be treated. I was in the box, and I could not stop myself from justifying my frustration.

Recently, I was doing a one-on-one coaching session, when my client asked me, “How do you do it? How do you stay out of the box with others?”

The most important answer I could provide her was that I often don’t succeed at staying out of the box.

The Box is Like an Addiction

Many times, it lures me in through my negativity bias and assumptions. This is especially true during stressful times, like the situation I just described.

In my next article, I will be sharing the steps I take to get out of the box when I fall in and the rest of the story with Jake. To conclude this article, I would like to point out another important insight that I share during many of my sessions.

Often, people ask me what to do when others are abrasive with them. Participants want me to know what to do with the “Barbs” of their workplace.

The best answer I can give them is to lead in a different way. In the story above, I almost succeeded in following my own advice.

Here’s What I Did Right

  • I kept the pressure I was feeling from Barb away from the folks I was working with to determine the estimate of the project Barb requested.
  • I took time in answering their questions and used my empathy strength theme to identify with what they were going through in having to provide an estimate with not a lot of detail.
  • I was cordial and patient.

You already know what I did wrong. I took out my frustration on a colleague who was trying to do the same thing I was trying to do!

My advice to everyone who wants to know what to do about the Barbs of the world is to work hard at not being like Barb. While I can’t control what Barb does, I can always control what I do, and how I react.

How Do You Stay out of the Box?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Al Gonzalez
Al has worked for 16 years helping others maximize the quality of their leadership at Motorola, CBS Sports, and Cornell University. He’s used these experiences to develop trust-based leadership tools for all levels of management.