Dave and I were teaching a cohort in person a few weeks ago, after months of teaching LEAD 24/7 over webinars. We were both happy to be back with people. I was overly excited to be face-to-face again, and I knew I’d have to work to stay focused on our material and not get distracted just catching up with participants.

I was opening the session that day—welcoming participants, introducing the topic, and setting the tone for the day. As I was speaking, I noticed Dave in the back of our teaching space. He was on the edge of his seat, leaning forward, elbows on his knees. He looked extremely annoyed, and he was staring right at me. I continued with the intro, but found myself getting distracted by Dave. We know each other quite well by now, and there was definitely something going on with him. I started feeling nervous. What was I doing wrong? Had I pissed him off? Was I spending too much time having people catch up? I began questioning how I’d structured the intro and how I was behaving, all while trying to DO the intro as well.

After a minute or so of this, I realized that I was being ridiculous, and more importantly, that I was projecting, big time. I had no idea what was bothering Dave. If it was something I was doing, he’d tell me at our next break. If it was urgent, he’d interrupt me to let me know. We work hard to have a high level of trust on our team, and we practice what we preach with feedback. With those thoughts in mind, I was able to set that anxiety aside, continue with teaching, and get the group into their first triads for the day.

As soon as our participants were in their groups, Dave rushed to the front of the room, right next to me. “This white board is so crooked. It’s driving me nuts!” I looked to my right and sure enough, there was an off-kilter portable whiteboard just behind me. I hadn’t even noticed it. Dave and I had a good laugh about all of my concerns while he fixed the whiteboard.

We talked about projection in the Living Systems chapter of LEAD 24/7. Projection is one of the dysfunctional ways we humans temporarily release our own anxiety in an anxious system. It’s dysfunctional because it doesn’t help a system get any better, and it doesn’t help the person do the more emotionally mature thing, in my case that would have been asking Dave what was bothering him. (Thanks for beating me to it, Dave!) Imagine if I had stopped the intro because of my discomfort and asked Dave why he was shooting daggers at me. Imagine if I’d kept going, but done a poor job because I was so certain that Dave saw something in my behavior that pissed him off. Imagine if I’d assumed he was upset with me, but said nothing about it the entire day because I wanted to avoid a potential conflict. Long term, would that help our relationship or hurt it?

There is so much anxiety in our world right now. Perhaps more than we’ve experienced as a nation in decades. It’s easy to project—to KNOW what a person is thinking—even in the best of times. It’s much easier when so many of us are trying to get work done through webinars and conference calls. Does someone seem completely checked out? Maybe they are, or maybe they have a two-year-old playing with the cords under their desk or a loved one waiting to get a COVID test result back. Does someone keep looking down during your webinar? Maybe they’re nodding off or not paying attention, or maybe they’re taking copious notes. We so often don’t know what’s going on in other people’s minds. It serves us well as leaders to remember that.

This week, I encourage you to pay attention to when you might be projecting. As much as possible, set those thoughts aside until you have a chance to check in with the other person. We all project, and right now it’s easy to get in our own heads about other people’s motives because living systems anxiety is so high. Let’s try to break that pattern. Here’s to a projection-free week!

Lead on,

Image by Khánh Hmoong. Used under CC by 2.0 license.