One of the most popular axioms in western culture is the Golden Rule, loosely summarized as “Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.” Although valid in general (who doesn’t want more love, respect and kindness?), the Golden Rule is flawed when it comes to personality styles and preferences. People just aren’t all wired alike; they have different needs, different ways they want to be treated. And this is particularly true during times of stress. At work, it is the leader’s task not only to know how he, himself, prefers to be treated in times of hardship, and how his staff might react in the pressure cooker, but also what each of his teammates might need in order to recover from the crisis and get back on track.

Eastern philosophy speaks directly to this phenomenon. In Buddhism, it’s posited that people respond to challenging situations with five typical, habitual behaviors. These five responses (or “hindrances”) are: 1) Aversion 2) Desire 3) Sloth & Torpor 4) Restlessness and 5) Doubt. The Five Hindrances arise whenever we’re faced with stress; a skillful leader must quickly and accurately identify and interrupt his team members’ hindrances if he hopes to pull his team through the crisis.

Let’s say your development team has been working on an important account for months but has consistently missed its deadlines. The client is now threatening to withdraw from its agreement, potentially costing your company millions of dollars in revenue. The five-person team reacts to this threat as follows:

• Jim (aversion/anger): “How could the client be so petty! We only missed the latest deadline by a few days. I have half a mind to call and give them a piece of my mind. And while I’m at it, I think I’ll have a stern talk with Gerald, who’s really been lollygagging the last two months. If anyone’s responsible for this mess we’re in, it’s him!”

• Gerald (desire): “Whew, what a rough week! I’d think I’ll head down to Dewey’s after work for a cold one. Maybe a big burger and fries to go with it – yeah, I really deserve a treat on a lousy day like this.”

• Mariah (sloth/torpor): “Blah! I don’t see how I can get up and go into the office tomorrow. I’ve got a few sick days saved; I’m staying curled up in bed, away from the cold, cruel world.”

• Alex (restlessness/worry): “This is terrible! Without that account, what’s going to happen to our department? Or to my job? I’ve got a family and a mortgage. It could be months before I find another job like this. Years maybe! This is very, very bad.”

• Tanya (doubt): “Could this all be my fault? I was a day late on my report. Was I wrong to join this department in the first place? Should I have stayed at my last job?—at least there we didn’t have such high-profile clients. I don’t think I’m ready for the big time.”

Do you recognize yourself anywhere above?

For each teammate, a habitual response to stress leads to a specific, archetypal behavior.

Jim goes directly to aversion, often manifested as anger.
Gerald falls into desire, often expressed as pleasure seeking.
Mariah reacts with sloth/torpor, often characterized by a de-energized retreat.
Alex responds with restlessness, often signified by mental agitation and worry.
And Tanya’s reaction is all about doubt, directed firmly at herself.

As the team leader, Jim’s task is now two-fold. First he must recognize and step out of his own aversion/anger pattern: not an easy thing to do. Clearly, he’s not going to solve any of his team’s problems until his own mind has returned to equilibrium. A lengthy work out at the gym might be in order, or perhaps a long walk with a friend, or even some meditation. Once his own mind is calmer, Jim can then assess and diagnose the symptoms of each of his teammates, identifying their specific hindrances and working to interrupt those behaviors.

Gerald (desire) will need convincing that work will soon be fun again.
Mariah (sloth) will need reminding that the workplace is safe, and that problem solving can be energizing
Alex (restlessness) will need assurance that everything will be all right and the world isn’t ending.
Tanya (doubt) will need confirmation that her abilities and judgments are, indeed, sound — at least most of the time.

It’s important, as well, for Jim to let people feel their emotions. He might say: “Take the weekend to do what you need to do and feel what you need to feel. That’s understandable! Then on Monday, let’s shake it off, roll up our sleeves and put on our thinking caps. With clear minds, we can solve anything!”

There is no magic prescription for diagnosing and navigating people’s hindrances. We are human, after all; we’ve have had a lifetime to develop our particular habits of mind. Sometimes hindrances just have to run their course. But as a team leader, understanding what to expect from your teammates-under-pressure, and being ready with an appropriate response, is absolutely crucial.

The new Golden Rule, then, is: Do unto others as they would have done unto themselves.”

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