Early in my career I enrolled myself in all kinds of leadership, management, and supervision training, seminars, and classes. I had been promoted internally and was learning on the job. I’m grateful for the team I was leading for their patience, my colleagues for their mentorship, and my boss for his trust. I learned a lot — some of it the hard way — but I also learned that I love managing a team to successfully meet shared goals and objectives.
One of the classes I took was titled “Dealing with Difficult People Without Losing Your Cool,” and it stuck with me for more than 10 years. (I even remember the name session verbatim.)
There is definitely more than one type of management — the people you supervise, of course, plus the people you need to succeed but who aren’t on your team, as well as the people above you that you must influence to get your job done. And, unfortunately, you are likely to encounter difficult people in any situation.
There was plenty of great content in that half-day session, but the piece that I’ve used over and over again — in work as well as in my life — is the best management lesson I ever learned.
Always know — and always heed — your circle of concern and your circle of influence.
Your circle of influence is what you have control over or the ability to affect. These are things like what you do, think, and say, how you spend your time (within reason, it is work after all), who you spend time with, the projects you manage autonomously, the job duties that are your sole responsibility, the team you are leading.
Your circle of concern are all the things that affect you but over which you have no control. These are things like what the president or CEO decides, how others react to a decision you made, and even policy decisions that someone in another team or unit made that directly affect your work or your team’s work. Even though it might concern you, and could even change your work time, priorities, or job, they are simply a concern. They are not yours to control.
The problem is that we get stuck trying to control or change things in our circle of concern and we do not succeed. This creates a crazy-making vicious cycle of workplace stress and discontent. It can even cause work slow downs, internal squabbles that suck management time, or loss of employees.
But mostly, it makes you lose your mind and wonder how you got this job in the first place.
It seems to me that people worry most about what concerns them and spend way too little time on what they can actually do, or influence.
As a manager, you must know which circle you are operating in at all times, and it is a good idea to start learning how to spot when your team spends too much time, energy, and effort in the wrong circle. Sometimes, it is your job to move something that was in their circle of concern into their circle of influence, if you have that authority. Sometimes, it is your job to help an employee figure out the best workaround for something immovable in their circle of concern. (There’s nothing wrong with workarounds.) Sometimes, your task is to figure out how your team members’ circles are overlapping and move or remove obstacles.
It is not easy to do, but once you’ve thrown up your hands in frustration over some issue or stuck project, remember the circles and be honest about where it truly resides. If it is in your circle of concern, you should feel less crazy for simply properly naming the problem. It’s subtle, but it helps.
Once you’ve figured out that you’re stuck in the quagmire of concern, start working on getting back into your circle of influence. In your influence circle, you can:
- Stay in control of your thoughts and actions; this is where your power lies.
- Keep others from having power over how you think, feel, and behave.
- Focus your time and energy on what you can control.
- Get back to work with a new outlook on the problem.
Of course no leader, manager, or employee can simply ignore all the things that are a concern. You can still work to improve the situation, solve the problem, set the next goal. The value of identifying the circles, however, is in realizing that there’ s a reason it is so hard.
Do you have any examples of when you got stuck in a “concern” and found a way back to your circle of influence? Or, what’s the best management lesson you ever learned?