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Be a team player: bring all your selves to work


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When people ask “How’s it going?”, I sometimes have to stop and think. The expected response is either “great” on a good day or “fine thanks” on the others. (Some people still favour the old-fashioned reply, “fair to middling” or even “fair to crap” as a useful blanket summary of life’s vicissitudes.)

But rather than finding the right tone, what makes me pause is working out which “me” is being asked the question. Some elements either at work or at home are probably going very well. Others are more towards the “middle age is a bin fire” or “my dreams have turned to ashes in the mouth” end of the scale.

This is partly due to the level of post-pandemic chaos in our lives. But the contemporary tendency to develop side hustles as well as to have multifaceted jobs means many of us have multi-strand careers – we’re all “slashies” of some sort. Some wise words from a former top sportsman I read the other day prompted this question: if we are all wearing so many hats, how should we decide which one is the captain’s?

Mike Brearley, once at the helm of a very successful England cricket side, is now a psychoanalyst. He argues we each have a team of internal players, who we need to coach so we can use all their skills for tip-top performance – and find balance between them for a happy existence. “We all have an indulgent side, a playful side, a serious side, a work ethic, a superego or a harsh conscience,” he said in a recent interview with Cambridge university’s alumni magazine.

Sometimes this becomes an internal competition, a jostling to be the star player, particularly for people such as Brearley who have polymath tendencies (as well as being a top international sportsman and his later work as an analyst, he has been a philosophy lecturer). Just as sports people roll their eyes at intellectuals, “each side tends to put the other down and you feel like you are stupid or to blame for having this apparently alien thought or attitude”.

Instead of falling out with ourselves and indulging in the equivalent of locker room fisticuffs, his advice, in a book published last year, was that “captaining ourselves, like captaining a team, requires a willingness to allow thoughts and feelings their space”. He suggests “nudging rather than forcing” these parts of ourselves into being more effective.

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For those of us who will never be at the head of a national side or lead others to victory, these insights are useful nonetheless. We can all recognise the sensation of being pulled in different directions – as well as the “stay-in-your-lane” messages that can hold employees back from living up to their potential or developing new talents. Ideally, the Brearley method would mean using all the sides of our personality and all our skills to defeat that sort of limiting attitude at work.

It’s slightly daunting, though. Never any good at games, my idea of sports coaching is sadistic PE teachers making us play netball in the freezing cold. When employers say staff should feel comfortable enough to “be yourself at work” and they turn up with all their selves, could things get messy?

But if we each contain the equivalent of a sports squad we can presumably choose which selves to leave on the bench and which to play when various challenges arise. Realistically, when career decisions have to be made, we may have to exclude some of our ambitions – and even retire others.

A wise friend who was pondering a significant choice once observed something similar: we are all “a crowd, milling around, with different urges and desires”. Our work and personal ambitions may be hampered by the confusion that can arise, for all Brearley’s advice. Not all our players can expect to get the glory or be declared man or woman of the match.

Trade-offs are inevitable. So maybe, while learning to manage and motivate our internal team – we should also think slightly differently about what constitutes a “win”.

Adam Phillips, a great writer on psychoanalysis, is another who argues persuasively in his essay titled On Success that our goals and ambitions are multiple: “Our different selves have different projects”, he writes – but he adds that if you are losing in one area of your life, you may well be winning in another. That, at least, is a wonderful thought for those trying to play several games at once. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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