It comes as an unwelcome surprise to all of us when we discover the gap between the way others see us, and the way we see ourselves. The bigger the gap between our personal identity and our public reputation, the more painful it can be to come to terms with. But why does it occur? What does everyone else see about us, that we don’t see about ourselves? And why can’t everyone else appreciate the positive qualities that seem so obvious to us?
If these are the types of questions that seem to run through your mind more often than you’d like to admit, then you may have derailers acting on your personality. A derailer is an element of your character that tends to be positive in moderation, but when applied too forcefully it has the tendency of pushing people away.
One type of derailer comes from our instinct to move away from others. If you have a very excitable, skeptical, cautious, reserved or leisurely personality, you may be overly sensitive to negative feedback from other people, which is then interpreted as personal criticism, rejection or betrayal. As a defence mechanism, you may see yourself detach, become aloof, or otherwise avoid making meaningful personal connections.
Alternatively, you may have an instinct to move against others. This tendency is most likely to apply to you if you have a particularly bold, mischievous, colourful or imaginative personality. Expecting to be liked and admired, people in this category are often surprised when things don’t turn out as planned. Rather than understanding and acknowledging their mistakes, they may instead blame and lash out at others.
A third type of derailing instinct is to move toward others. This category may sound preferable to the first two, but it comes from the desire many people have to please people in positions of authority, particularly in situations of conflict. Most common among the highly diligent and dutiful personality types, people with this instinct are more likely to be deferential to their bosses even when their peers (or subordinates) expect support instead. People with this type of personality derailer end up earning pats on the back from bosses, resentment from subordinates, and respect from neither.
Choosing the right path forward
Office politics is never easy, even for those lucky people who seem to be born with the most winning personalities. For the rest of us, it sometimes feels like walking through a minefield. So how can we be expected to navigate it?
The first task is to make sure that we aren’t making things worse for ourselves. Your colleagues and subordinates are most likely adept at sniffing out any of the generalised instincts mentioned above, quickly sensing whether your personality makes you insecure (moving away from others), arrogant (moving away from others), or deferential (moving towards others). You’ll do yourself a big favour by acknowledging any of these shortcomings to yourself, and making efforts to overcome them.
By softening the instinct to defend yourself against conflicts both real and imagined, the invisible wall around you will fall away. You may continue to receive criticism, but that’s okay; you need only listen carefully to it, acknowledge the parts that are accurate, and pledge to do better next time. You will find that true strength comes from admitting fault, not deflecting responsibility.
The instinct to protect yourself from social conflict is a natural one, but it comes at the cost of forcing you to see the world in terms of you versus everyone else. By altering that worldview, a radical reorientation becomes possible. You can – at last – see yourself as a real member of the team, experiencing all the personal and professional benefits that come with it.