My twelve year old Simon has recently discovered a passion for soccer. Maybe it was the recent World Cup that inspired him, or the stream of big name players from European leagues making the long trip to Australia for one last crack at glory.
Whatever the reason, he’s rarely seen without a football and talks of little else but the game. These conversations are usually happy ones but occasionally things take a turn for the serious.
Simon, you see, has an exhibitionist streak and a recent bit of ill-advised midfield showboating on his part in a competitive match led directly to a breakaway goal from the opposition.
The result was a half-time dressing down about responsibility and team spirit from head coach Alan, delivered at full volume and in no uncertain terms.
On their way back out for the second half, assistant manager Greg took Simon quietly aside, told him to keep his chin up, play for the team and prove Alan wrong. You’re a good player, he said. Now go out there and prove it!
Classic soccer management I thought to myself! The boss delivering the bad news, the assistant picking up the pieces and soothing ruffled feathers in the aftermath.
Speaking to my son afterwards, he admitted that he’d criticised himself in much harsher terms than the coach would ever have used after making his mistake. He’d also recognised the opportunity to go out and make amends in the second half.
In a funny way, the approach of the two coaches mirrored almost exactly what was going on between two warring factions in his mind anyway.
The truth is, we all have an Alan and a Greg in our heads. A good cop and a bad cop. A part of us that’s ready to offer up the harshest criticism at a moment’s notice and a part of us that will also seek to kindle the flames of confidence and self-belief.
Rather than trying to push away or resist these different parts of your personality, the key to managing your internal critics is learning to dispassionately treat them merely as different internal insights being offered to you by your subconscious.
It’s a bit of mental gymnastics that can serve you very well over the long term. Instead of panicking in the face of internal self-criticism, you can learn to recognise it as just one source of input and concentrate on identifying the useful content contained within.
This takes the potentially misleading and damaging aspect of self-criticism out of the equation. Remember, you are not your thoughts.
By learning to recognise your inner critics – and maybe even assigning some names to them – you give yourself a framework for processing your rapidly fluctuating internal emotional states from a safe mental distance.
It’s important to realise that you’re not trying to ascertain whether any of these voices are right or wrong. There will be more than a grain of truth in nearly any criticism, regardless of where it comes from.
The trick is in isolating the potentially useful component of any criticism without over-reacting to the manner of its delivery. Think of it as panning for gold. There’s a useful takeaway in every encounter if you’re prepared to do a bit of sifting.
This approach works just as well with external criticism, whether you’re delivering it or taking it. If you’re in any kind of management position at all, you’re going to have to be able to assume subtly different personas on different occasions and deal with a huge range of different personality types as you do so.
Some occasions will demand the sort of kick up the rear that Coach Alan so ably delivered to my wayward midfield maestro. Others will require a metaphorical arm around the shoulder and a gentler approach. By learning to embrace the different aspects of your personality, you naturally expand your set of soft skills and become a more flexible and effective manager.
Managing reports from the various outposts of the empire of your subconscious is a life-long learning challenge and it’s never too early to start honing your skills. That’s a big part of why I was so proud of my boy as I watched him struggle with those quite adult emotions in the context of a competitive encounter.
Once we’d talked it through, I could see he was already beginning to incorporate the idea of managing his internal critical voices in a new and powerful way. And it was a powerful reminder to myself of how these skills are just as important in the world of business as they are in the world of sport.
Learning how to skillfully accept, and learn from your inner voices is one of the key differentiators that makes a good manager great. Get your practice boots on and start taking some of the tips above on board to help take your career to the next level.