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12 August 2012

Big self room to breathe

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

In my last several blogs I’ve been talking about what some of the conditions might be for you to bring your biggest self to work. One of those conditions I’ve called “room to breathe.” I work in too many organisations where there is no space for thinking or reflection, where meetings are scheduled six hours a day and it’ll take another five hours to do the work that the meeting agreements require. I myself fall into this trap, overscheduling myself even when I have heaps of control over my work and should know better.

So why is room to breathe so important?

There is lots of talk right now about the way leadership is about knowing/ doing/ and being. Leaders very often have the “knowing” piece down cold. I have only a few times in my whole career been with a leader who was struggling because of what she knew. Rather, leaders I work with tend to find their struggles in the “doing” and “being” categories.

What makes these categories so much harder? I think it’s because we practice the “knowing” category more than any of the others. From the time we are young, we tend to be assessed and rewarded for what we know. There are certainly ways we’re supposed to act and be, but they are rarely front and center—and they’re rarely taught in schools. It’s as if “knowing” is the hardest of the trio and the “doing” and “being” follow more closely and easily. I think that’s exactly backwards.

In fact, we know that changing the way you act is really hard. And changing the way you be in the world—the way you think, what you believe—is the hardest of all. And that’s where room to breathe comes in.

How often are you the person you most want to be? If that’s a large percentage, fantastic! For most of us, though, our best self is a little harder to find. We find that the busier we get, the farther that best-self recedes. As we get tired and stressed, we find ourselves in our most reactive, least thoughtful selves. And who blames us? The signals we’re giving to our brain and body tells us that we are in emergency mode—that we are stressed and running and don’t need to worry about good-to-haves like personal growth or even a decent immune system. Instead, stress gives our body the signal that we’re in an emergency and it’s all trouble. No need to breathe deep into our bellies because the shallow breath into our chest is what we need to shut down the neo-cortex and send the blood into our thigh muscles so we can get away quickly. That’s a good idea if you’re running from a lion, but if you’re running from meeting to meeting, it could make you sick.

What does time do to support us? First, it helps us catch our breath and remember what’s most important to us. People often talk about those times when their life comes into focus—when they realize what’s most important to them and they have a chance to make more intentional choices about their lives. The problem is that it’s often a tragedy that causes this—bad news from the doctor, a friend or colleague suddenly faced with loss or grief, a brush with our own mortality. Room to breathe means that we can get the space to make those decisions without the horror. We can be in touch with how important and precious our lives are without feeling them actually at risk in any immediate sense.

How do you make space for this? Obviously given the confession in the first paragraph of this blog, I have no failsafe suggestion. As a leader, though, I think it’s vital to prioritize this for other people—to remember that over scheduled people are bringing their smallest selves to work and not their largest. This is about modeling that behavior yourself, but it’s also about what you notice, what you praise, what you review when you talk about how things are going. If all you notice and talk about is the knowing stuff, and all you comment on is what has been accomplished, you’re unlikely to encourage much room to breathe. If you find yourself able to remember that bigness is what you’re after, you’ll check in about how people are spending time in reflection, what they’re learning about themselves, how they’re taking care of their minds and their bodies. You’ll show yourself to be a leader who cares about the whole person—the employee who delivers value today, and the potential that person has to deliver more and more value into the future. And who knows, maybe as you encourage others on this path, you’ll take more space to breathe yourself. That’s a possibility worth living into.


One thought on “Big self room to breathe”

  1. Digby Scott says:

    Thanks Jennifer – a timely reminder. Someone at work said to me today “that’s what I love most about working with you – your calm presence.” She was talking about my way of being, not anything I knew or even what I actually did. And feedback about my way of being is, to me, way more powerful than feedback on knowledge or behaviour,

    Reading your post, I’m also reminded of the Marianne Williamson quote “And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” I try to be the change I want to see in others, including making time for being. Not easy when everyone around you is busy knowing and doing, and that’s the accepted culture. So I think your idea of encouraging others to take to time to be can be very powerful, especially coming from someone who role models it themselves,

    Thanks – an inspiring post.


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