At work, we are precisely as good as the sum total of the decisions we make.

Unfortunately most of these decisions are influenced if not driven by a whole raft of factors, which we are generally unaware of.  In this series of thought pieces I unveil a number of these influences and suggest how to make better choices in real time.


“Motorway moments”

Someone cuts you up on the Motorway.  Even if you don’t voice it out loud, the word “Idiot” (or similar!) springs instantly to mind.

Without thinking about it we tend to assume that the actions of the other driver are behavioural rather than situational.  In other words they’ve cut us up because it is in their character to do so.  We quickly ascribe a label to them which fits the bill: Boy Racer, Fossil or School-Run-Mum.

In fact, there’s a good chance that they simply don’t know the roads or they took a bad decision.  If we are honest, we probably find ourselves in that situation on occasion and do exactly the same.

Whether we choose to think of the event as driven by the other person’s character or by circumstances is a crucial point.  If it’s the former, then this has a significant impact on us.  Their “lack of respect” makes us feel worse about ourselves and can spark a range of unhelpful emotions:

  • I’m going to chase after them and show them who’s boss. This will restore my self-respect.
  • Passive-aggressive. The world is full of these idiots, I’m going to wise up (become more cynical) so that this won’t happen again.
  • This kind of thing always happens to me. I must be worth less than I already thought.

Over the years our brains have learnt that these emotional reactions and the behaviours they encourage are like to protect status with others (or our perception of it.)  But, these reactions are ultimately unhelpful leading us to do something unnecessarily risky, or to think in ways which will be harmful to our future selves.

However, our own response can be very different if we realise that the event was probably situational, i.e. driven by the coincidence of the circumstances rather than by some intention-driven behavioural trait of the other person. We can appreciate the problems the other person might be experiencing, and we can quickly bring ourselves back to the point that all is well with the world.  We can even give ourselves a psychological pat on the back for being the kind of person who can take these things in their stride.

The interesting thing here is that when presented with a situation such as this, aside from the instinctive and instant flash of danger awareness, our short-term emotional state is largely about the way we chooseto think about the event that has just happened.  Further, our self-perception, future behaviours, habits and even character are molded by the accumulation of choices such as these.

Luckily we don’t get cut up on the motorway every 5 minutes, but how often do we get hijacked by similar “Motorway moments” during a day at work?  Customers’ needs, Colleagues’ reactions, wave after wave of emails, a procession of unproductive meetings; all of these things are loaded with opportunities to interpret events or comments as either behavioural or situational.


How to avoid “Motorway Moments”

So how do we catch ourselves in the moment and choose the most helpful way to interpreting events?

Well, 80% of the battle is right there in the question.  If we can recognise a “Motorway moment” when it presents itself, then we will have a decent chance of choosing how to react to it.  The problem generally is that we are too busy paying attention to other things to notice that we’ve had an unhelpful emotional reaction to some small (but significant) event.

Step One is therefore about being primed for this to happen, having a mental label prepared and ready to stick on to the event.  I think I’ve used the phrase “Motorway moment” enough to help that stick as a helpful label!

Step Two is then about paying full attention to what has just happened and the underlying (unhelpful) assumptions you might have made.  Once you’ve highlighted these assumptions, then you can unpeel them and replay your thinking with new inferences which leaves you without the emotional baggage (and decision interference) that the original assumptions generated.

Step Three (perhaps the most important of the three) is to then think about that assumption in more general terms and to ask yourself, what other situations might this be generating unhelpful emotions and thus driving less than optimal decisions?  How can I rewrite my own assumptions to generate better decisions in the moment form now on?


Executive Coaching   

An Executive Coach works with high performers to explore the assumptions and drivers hidden beneath our thinking. This helps us make better decisions in the moment, improving performance and making work more rewarding in every way.