Leadership Potential: Mastering the Art of Not Taking Things Personally

Leadership mastering the art of not taking things personally

Being an effective leader involves quite a number of key competencies. Some of them are obvious, like having a vision, negotiation and sales skills, executive management. Others come to mind less easily. This is precisely the case for today’s main topic: how not to take things personally. This is a skill with no proper name, which speaks volumes about how it is not in most people’s mind when they think about leadership. However, that doesn’t make it less important whatsoever. As we’ll see, not making things about you is truly an art in its own right: it comes from deep emotional roots, it can have very detrimental effects on you and your organization, but it can be helped, and we’ll see just how.

Product Manager – Coachyz
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mastering the art of not taking things personally

How not to take things personally: where does it come from?

The very first step to learning not to take things personally is uncovering and understanding why you tend to do it. Know this: you’re not the only one at all! Being able to see things from another point of view than our own is not an innate skill, it has to be trained and nurtured. Some individuals develop it along the way, others have to go the extra mile and that’s okay.

After all, by default, as human beings, we only experience life as just one person. Then we tend to perceive everything as only how it is related to our own person:

  • events;
  • other people’s behavior;
  • conversations, etc.

To put it simply, we more or less think that everything is about us. However this is only part of the explanation. The rest of it lies in the fact that we are naturally unable to truly know what others think or how they perceive things. We try to bridge this gap through another human mechanism: interpretation of all sorts of behaviors, comments or actions.

Going from there, you just need one trigger, one catalyst to make the whole thing catch fire. It usually takes its roots in unmet needs or unaddressed issues but the result is always the same: overwhelmed by emotion, you jump to the conclusion that you are being judged while it is not necessarily true. Let’s see together those different triggers.

Quick precision: all the following triggers obviously apply to both employees and business leaders!

Angriness induced blame

When someone experiences anger in the workplace, it can mess with how they see things and start a blame game with others, sometimes unfairly. This can result from a variety of factors, such as:

  • feeling overwhelmed;
  • feeling frustrated with someone you think is incompetent or inefficient;
  • experiencing a lack of control over a situation.

In such instances, it’s easy to just start throwing blame around to make yourself feel better. This is even more the case for people who have a tendency to react with anger in high-pressure situations. They are more likely to start pointing fingers instead of trying to figure things out calmly.

Example: imagine a project deadline is looming, and one team member, feeling overwhelmed by the workload, lashes out at a colleague for what they perceive as a mistake. Instead of calmly discussing the issue, they assign blame without considering all the factors at play, driven by their frustration and desire to vent.

Overreacting because of personal circumstances

No matter your level of responsibilities in your organization, when you’re dealing with heavy topics like relationship problems, health worries, money troubles, it can be more difficult for you to handle things at work. Even the smallest hiccup can feel like a huge deal when you’re already carrying around all that personal baggage. You end up getting highly sensitive to any criticism or conflict because, let’s face it, you are under massive stress and understandably, it’s hard to keep a cool head.

Example : suppose an employee who is experiencing difficulties in their personal life arrives at work already feeling emotionally strained. When a coworker offers constructive feedback on their presentation, the employee reacts defensively, perceiving the feedback as a personal attack due to their heightened emotional sensitivity.

Anxiety due to a lack of clarity

Quite a various number of reasons can explain why things at work might look murky and unclear, which in turn can make you anxious :

  • unclear expectations from the part of others;
  • ambiguous roles;
  • limited communication;
  • lack of feedback on performance from the manager, etc.

If you’re not sure what’s expected of you, what your role is, or if you’re doing a good job, it’s easy to start second-guessing yourself all the time. You end up feeling rather insecure, doubting whether you’re even making a difference or if you’re just spinning your wheels.

This applies to leaders too. It is not because you are the one in charge that you possess all the answers and it’s easy to fall into the rabbit hole of self-doubt and questioning your value when your company is going through a rough patch.

Avoidance strategy due to insecurity

Generally speaking, when you’re not feeling too sure about yourself at work – whether it’s your skills, what you know, or where you stand compared to others – it can make you want to avoid interaction altogether. You might start dodging the tough stuff, like tricky projects, meetings, procrastinate whatever you can, etc.

As a direct consequence, you then forget about mingling with your employees/coworkers or chatting with your associates. As a matter of fact, you’d rather just keep your head down and stay out of the spotlight. Well, it is bad enough when it is an employee who feels and acts this way, but for a leader, it is completely unsustainable for the whole organization in a very short term.

Criticism & shame

Criticism, particularly if it’s perceived as harsh, unjustified, or delivered insensitively, can quickly make someone feel ashamed or even humiliated. This may typically happen when feedback is directly attacking your sense of competence, value or worthiness.

When you are confronted with such criticism, you might start getting defensive, making excuses, or just shutting down to protect your self-esteem. But this kind of coping mechanism makes it really hard to have an effective and constructive dialogue to improve at what you do.

Example: during a meeting, a manager harshly critiques an employee’s presentation skills in front of their peers, highlighting every mistake in a condescending manner. Feeling deeply embarrassed and humiliated, the employee becomes defensive and does not dare to speak out anymore out of fear of being publicly humiliated again.

Defiance due to expectations

Unsurprisingly, when you feel completely swamped or when it seems what is expected of you is unrealistic or even impossible, you might start pushing back. Examples of this include:

  • tight deadlines;
  • ambitious goals with limited resources;
  • inflexible standards;
  • sense of being undervalued;
  • lack of autonomy/micromanagement, etc.

Even as a leader you can be in this situation, because some clients are particularly demanding and you just cannot afford to cross them. In any case, when someone feels cornered like this, they might start to be defiant or outright hostile as a way to assert their autonomy or protect their well-being.

the art of not taking things personally

How not to take things personally: consequences at work

As a leader, you might be tempted to ignore the issue that causes you to take a lot of things personally. However, trying to “push through” is never a good idea, especially when you are the top decision maker and the face of your company. Indeed, not addressing the issue may have several negative repercussions on both yourself and your business as a whole.

Consequences on your decision-making process

When you are a business leader and you take things personally, your decision-making process can be significantly affected. You may then let your personal feelings drive your choices instead of thinking about what’s best for the company. This bias clouds your judgment and prevents you from considering all available options or seeking input from others. So, instead of making strategic calls, you end up reacting emotionally and making decisions that don’t really move the company forward.

In interpersonal relationships & team performance

Taking things personally also takes its toll on interpersonal relationships within the organization. Incidentally, it also negatively impacts team performance. A leader who reacts emotionally to criticism or conflict can create an atmosphere of tension and distrust among the staff. This is detrimental to the team in many ways, such as:

  • it makes it hard for everyone to communicate together smoothly;
  • it can significantly drag down team morale;
  • it hinders performance.

In a nutshell, it prevents effective collaboration. On a more individual scale, team members may be scared to provide honest feedback or share ideas openly, fearing repercussions from a leader who tends to take things personally.

Long-term impact on the manager or leader’s mental health and well-being

Constantly making it about you isn’t just bad for business—it’s bad for your mental health and your personal balance too. It can lead to:

  • anxiety;
  • depression;
  • burnout.

You’ll notice that it has emotional effects similar to the triggers we described before. This is yet another danger of letting the issue run free: it creates a feedback loop and ultimately, a vicious circle where negativity begets negativity.

Plus, if you’re always internalizing criticism or setbacks, it can seriously dent your confidence and resilience to stress over time. And that doesn’t help either for your well-being.

How not to take things personally: learn what to do

So yes, resilience is indeed one of the keys to stop taking things personally as a leader, along with effective communication and management of your emotions. These are the three sets of soft skills –for a lack of a better word– you need to develop. With this aim in mind, here are a few pieces of advice you might want to put to use in your daily life as a leader.

leadership: not taking things personally

Work on emotional intelligence (EQ)

Emotional intelligence, sometimes called EQ (for Emotional Quotient, which is the measure of emotional intelligence), is maybe the most important skill to develop if you want to not take things personally.

Why so? Because emotional intelligence is actually a set of skills which help you assess, understand, handle and express your feelings in a constructive way. Some of these skills and notions are directly applicable to our topic at hand. Here they are.

Practice self-awareness

Self-awareness in this context, is about learning to identify what triggers your emotional response and negative thoughts. The good news is that part of the job is done since we already reviewed some of the most common ones at the beginning of this article. The list we provided is far from exhaustive though.

And even if it was, what really counts is for you to be able to identify which vulnerabilities are yours and why. This way you’ll be more prepared to take a step back when such circumstances arise, instead of reacting from the get-go.

Wield empathy as a shield

Compassion and to a larger extent empathy are essential to not take things personally because these concepts are defined by the effort to take a different perspective than your own. In other words, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

So obviously, empathy is to be used, encouraged, developed on as many occasions as possible: if you are able to understand why another person did or said something to you from their point of view, you will then easily see that they did it for them and not against you. Empathy is also sometimes referred to as social awareness.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is also something we already tackled without naming it: the capacity to not react on your emotions, to let yourself cool down. It is a good complement to empathy and self-awareness because these two are preventive “measures” while mindfulness is to be used on the spot.

Factor in the source of criticism

As a leader just like as any team member really, think about where criticism is coming from before letting it get to you. Ask yourself: is it coming from someone who knows what they are talking about and has generally good intentions toward you, or is it just someone lashing out? Knowing what you are confronted with can help you decide on your immediate course of action:

  • if this is someone you know has no reason to be holding a grudge against you, there is really low probability this is a personal matter;
  • if you know they are purposefully taking it out on you as a way to vent, there again, no cause for alarm, it is about them, not about you ; you just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, nothing useful can come from this, no need to take it personally. But as a leader, that does not mean you don’t need to take action later, just make sure to not make it personal yourself!

Distinguish facts from opinions

This might seem obvious but it needs to be emphasized: it’s not because someone says something about you during a feedback session that it means it is an objective truth. Facts are the hard truths backed up by evidence, while opinions are more like personal takes or vibes. By focusing on the facts and not getting bogged down by opinions that aren’t helpful, you can keep a clear head and use the feedback to make constructive decisions.

Set healthy boundaries that nothing can cross

Establishing healthy boundaries is essential for maintaining your emotional well-being as a leader. This means knowing when to listen to feedback and when to let go of comments that are unhelpful or irrelevant. By setting those boundaries, you’re taking control of what affects you personally, which is key for keeping your cool and staying on top of your game.

All in all, it’s important to keep in mind that taking things personally is not the end of the world, as long as it happens only from time to time. It’s only human. That being said, the efforts toward developing emotional intelligence, resilience and healthy communication are not that hard either. Besides, as a leader, it falls down on you to set an example. It will help you a lot in becoming a better leader.

Indeed, at CoachYZ, we firmly believe that behind every leader, manager or decision-maker there is an untapped potential only waiting to be discovered and harnessed. Become the best version of yourself, discover and join our coaching sessions!

Leadership mastering the art of not taking things personally
Product Manager – Coachyz

Coaching remains an essential tool in our toolbox, despite the ever-changing professional world. In the digital age, our approach has evolved from simply informing journalists to delivering rich, engaging content directly to our target audience. Good coaching must be personalized, relevant and adapted to the digital world to ensure optimal online visibility. What’s more, the incorporation of multimedia supports such as videos, images and interactive links can considerably enhance its impact. 

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To stop taking things personally, try to consider the source of criticism: who is talking and why. Then, distinguish facts from opinions: it’s not because they say it that it is an absolute truth. Finally, try to be self-aware: what can trigger your (over)reaction? Don’t overlook the role of empathy: make the effort to try and understand other people’s perspectives.

This really comes down to understanding your emotions and finding ways to cope with them or at least make it so they don’t impair your judgment and decision-making process too badly. Understand why criticism affects you, separate facts from opinions, and set boundaries to protect yourself.

It’s tough to completely avoid, but you can lessen its impact. Work on resilience and emotional intelligence, and find healthy ways to cope. With practice, you’ll handle criticism and conflicts without taking them to heart.

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