One of the most popular axioms in western culture, going all the way back to Ancient Greece, is The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as they would do unto you.” In other words, treat others the way you, yourself, would like to be treated. Although useful in general (who doesn’t want love, respect and kindness, for example?), the Golden Rule is flawed when it comes to specific personality preferences. Quite simply, people are not all the same; they have different needs, different ways they want to be treated, and this is particularly true in times of stress. Whether at work or at home, people respond to stress and pressure in a variety of ways. The team leader’s task is not only to know how she, herself, prefers to be treated in such situations, but also to understand how her staff reacts to the inevitable pressure cooker, and what each person might need in order to move beyond the crisis and to get back on track.

Buddhist teachings have much to say about how our minds behave under pressure. The Buddha posited that people, although different in countless ways, tend to respond in five typical, habitual behaviors when faced with challenging situations. 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 challenges in our life. A skillful leader must understand and interrupt his team members’ characteristic responses to stress if he hopes to pull his team through the crisis.

Consider the following workplace scenario:

Your development team has been working on an important account for weeks, but keeps missing its deadlines. Not surprisingly, the client is threatening to withdraw from its agreement, potentially costing your company a million dollars or more in revenue. Here’s how the five-person team reacts to the threat:

• Jim, the team leader, responds with aversion, manifesting as anger.

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

• Gerald responds with desire, manifesting as a retreat into pleasure-seeking.

Gerald: “Whew, what a rough day it’s been! I’d sure feel a lot better tossing down a cold one at Dewey’s Tavern. With a big burger and fries to go with it – yeah —  I really deserve that on a lousy day like this.”

• Mariah reacts with sloth or torpor, characterized by a de-energized retreat.

Mariah: “Sigh!  There’s just no way I’ll be able to get up and come in to the office tomorrow. I’ve got a sick day or two saved up; I’m calling in with a cold or something. I just want to curl up in bed and hide away from the world.”

• Alex responds with restlessness, expressed as mental agitation or worry.

Alex: “This is terrible! Without that account, what’s going to happen to the company? Or to my job? I’ve got a family and a mortgage. It could be months before I find a job like this. Years maybe! This is bad — very, very bad.”

• And Tanya reacts with doubt.

Tanya: “I wonder if this is all my fault. I certainly was late a day on my report. Was I wrong to join this department in the first place? Maybe I should’ve stayed in accounting. Perhaps I should’ve stayed at my last job—at least there we didn’t have such high-profile clients. I might just not be ready for the big time.  Argh!”

In each case, a mental hindrance leads to an archetypal response.   AS team leader, Jim’s task is two- fold: he must first recognize how his own thoughts have gone the rabbit hole of of aversion and that he can’t solve anything until his mind has cooled down. A long walk, a talk with a friend, or even meditation might be a good step for him. Once his mind is clear, Jim must then diagnose the symptoms of each of his teammates, identifying their specific hindrances and working to interrupt those behaviors, if possible.

Gerald, for example, might need to be lured back from his retreat (into desire) before he sabotages his job (and his waistline).

Mariah will need to be coaxed out of her self-imposed hibernation.

Alex will need some assurance that the world isn’t ending.

And Tanya will require a pep talk that her abilities and judgment are not inherently faulty.

There’s no magic remedy for healing people’s hindrances. We are, after all, humans; we’ve had a lifetime to develop our mental and emotional habits. Sometimes our hindrances just have to run their course. But as a team leader, understanding your teammates tendencies under pressure will allow you to know what to expect from them in times of crisis,so you’re ready with an appropriate response.

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

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