The Power of Persona

Have you ever found yourself embodying some character traits that simply don’t align with your personal values?  Maybe stress has been high and money and time have been in short supply. Or maybe the technological and systems based frustrations of living with COVID-19 and its impacts have complicated some of the task that you do on a regular basis as a parent, professional or in your personal life.  There are things that you simply have to get done… and there are things that you know from experience will become disaster zones if you allow them to pile up. We’re living in smaller spaces in every way that we can name.  The virtual world of work, school and leisure are crowded into the bandwidth available. 

Physical space constraints are impacting us viscerally, as well.  Think of the square footage that our lives have lost recently…  the office, the classroom, the bar or restaurant or retail space.  Many have even lost their incomes, homes and connections to friends, family and community.  Still, we must manage to live in the midst of this mess.  For those of us that are sharing constrained resources within our households and networks, we’re grateful to be able to work, relate and be educated during this season of compounding disruptions. 

But…  there are still impacts to assess, losses to mourn, mindset matters to manage and skills to develop.  Even if things are out of sync or off kilter, we have to recapture the utility and workability that we can from tools, systems and relationships that we’re able to access.  Personal work has never been more essential to surviving and even to thriving than in this moment.  If disruptions due to Covid-19 has strangled our ability to access some necessities, then substitutes must be appropriated. 

It feels somewhat like Life used to be a basketball game with two hoops, a smooth, fully marked court and a ball in play.  Now, the ball is still in play and the object of getting it into the hoops still exists for each team, but the zones of play have shifted to include ALL of the hoops including the four practice ones down the long sides of the court in my old junior high gym.  Now play includes offense, defense and penalties for six hoops, not the original two. 

Shots can go into any hoop from the opposing team as a layup or from any part of the court.  Sure, each team has three hoops, not six, in which to score points.  But with divided resources, it’s more difficult to play competently, consistently or successfully.  In like manner, life has become more fragmented and more challenging since the advent of this pandemic.  The shifts have created more complex rules of engagement for all of our roles and there are many ways in which the “ask” of the current field of play feels like it vastly exceeds what we have to offer.

As players in the game, it feels like our personas have shifted somewhat, too.  People who are careful in their roles as team leaders and who operate with a black and white filter for what is right and wrong might be struggling with the new normal and their personas now show up as controlling and micromanaging.  Parents who want their kids to have excellent grades and perfect attendance are facing school software that’s crashing and assignments that they can’t even see, never mind track.  Anxiety is in the space, along with anger, blame and shame.  These are the four horsemen of the Covid-19 Impact Apocalypse. 

Along with these bad dudes of the emotional world come some interesting and unhelpful characters.  Oscar the Grouch is popping up from his trash can of gripes with greater frequency.  The stench of his energetic signature is exceeded only by the volume of his complaints.  The baggage of the past has become the garbage of the present and children, clients and the community are experiencing the glowing green of his toxic spillover in the form of comments, flame emails and the proliferation of rules in the office, home and classroom space. 

He’s engaged with control in an effort to make things safe and tolerable.  Unlike his more charming namesake on the popular Sesame Street series, his grouchiness isn’t punctuated by much self-awareness or self-management. Oscar is an obstacle that is a bilateral black hole: he puts out complaints and negative energy while sucking up the precious resources of time, patience and goodwill that others must ration. He’s a “hit-and-run” operator and most of his interactions are negative. Others will go out of their way to avoid dealing with him and his calls, emails and meeting invites are avoided wherever possible.

The Count is also popping up with his inappropriate enumeration of things that he has gotten done and self-congratulatory speeches.  He’s there on the Zoom call hogging the meeting with a monologue of the status of every project he’s on and contributing nothing towards the topic of how to reallocate some of the work due to layoffs.  His jovial self-centeredness is tolerable in the normal office but too much in these trying times.  His kids are also sick of being told how great he is at parenting and problem-solving.  They’d like him to listen to their troubles and help with the hiccups in the online classroom. 

Big Bird is on the Zoom call too, talking about his friend Mr. Snuffleupagus from the foreign office that nobody ever sees and asking earnestly about how to solve irrelevant problems.  His large professional presence is an earnest persona that patters excessively and simply doesn’t discipline his focus to remain on the most critical priorities. Meetings run over because he always has one more question for his managing director. 

He never seems to save them for an email or for one-on-one check-ins.  And he easily gets his feathers ruffled if anyone tries to point out that he needs to move things along.  It’s not that he gets angry, no.  He just gets more unfocused.  Life on the home front is no better and Mr. Bird is often wondering why he’s so far behind on everything with work, wife, kids and all…

Bert shows up too, most often in accounting and human resources.  He is a scrupulous, organized fellow and his record of reliability and consistency generally serves his organization and mission very well.  Under stress, regrettably, he becomes evermore bound by “the rules”.  Unfortunately, his understanding of the rules in situations where he is under duress is a rigid, legalistic one that isn’t useful.  In ordinary times, he’s likely to send back expense reports that are under their total per diem but that included some snacks at the conference instead of regular meals.  “We cover meals.  Incidentals are your responsibility.” 

No matter that there wasn’t a restaurant at the hotel and the team couldn’t get away, no.  Disallowed.  And the total cost to the company goes up, because next time the team has their meals delivered at conference.  Bert has been costing companies money by enforcing the rules since companies first existed.  Now, though, he’s adding extra “rules” to his mental “roster”. 

He’s replaced rejecting expense reports with disallowing necessary home office equipment for remote teams, who find themselves using their own cell phones, laptops and printers.  Oh, he’ll buy a cartridge for the home printer, but only if the request is submitted two weeks in advance so that he can try to order them from the approved vendor list. 

Meanwhile, his colleagues are faced with making these purchases from their own pocket or deciding that they are now a de facto “paperless” environment until supplies come in.  That’s great, until they’re Zooming on a single screen with a client while simultaneously reviewing the most recent contract draft.  Because his kids need all of the devices they can use for online school and his wife’s laptop is off limits.

In addition to Oscar, Big Bird and Bert, there are other stress-based personas that pop up.  Teachers can feel removed from being able to influence their students online.  It’s a bit like Ernie observing his Twiddlebugs.  During season five of the show, a family of four Twiddlebugs made regular appearances as they moved through their daily activities, living out their lives in a window box.  Teachers have a sky eye view of the lives of their students in terms of academic, familial and social functionality and skill sets. 

But- the ability to communicate directly and to effect immediate change in the attitudes, behaviors and outcomes of their students is obviously different in the virtual world.  A standard in-person classroom is different from an online one and all parties are experiencing something of a disconnect and some real discomfort in the adjustment process.

Almost every office and classroom has a mascot, someone who is more silly, socially active and spirited than the rest of the group.  Elmo- everybody’s favorite water cooler or snack break companion!  The difficulty with Elmo is that while he’s great fun and a great distraction in an ordinary environment, in the more constrained circumstances of doing life at home, Elmo can seem, well… grating.  A little too much.  Elmo uses humor to cover for anxiety and isn’t very good at adapting comedic routines to the context. 

He’s prone to sharing a little too much personal information about himself and others.  He’s also known for sharing “not suitable for work” videos, tweets, texts, screen grabs and memes.  If you call him out on his attempts at humor, he’ll whine that he was just joking, trying to lighten the mood.  He got tickled about that gossip or about that awkward situation and thought that everyone else would laugh along with him.  HR sometimes has to deal with writing up or terminating Elmo and his kids wish that he would wise up instead of being a cut up. 

Then, there’s Maria.  She’s been in the office forever.  She has more knowledge of the history of the organization, its norms to date, its processes and its systems than anyone else.  She even retired for a few years, but found that it didn’t suit her.  Since her return, she’s found that things aren’t really up to her standards.  In fact, they’re downright slipshod.  The decision to discontinue some product lines was one she fought because they were always big sellers.  She doesn’t have to follow the current rules because (as she’ll tell you) she wrote the book on how her department runs. 

And it used to run a lot better when Bob was still the senior vice president and before Janet retired as chief admin.  She’s a bottleneck for every major change that’s proposed and the C suite is now painfully aware of the cost to the company’s bottom line of allowing her outsized sense of entitlement to reign unchecked.  They’re going to “re-retire” her after Covid-19.  They’re already planning a great party and slowly rotating her out of various aspects of her role. She’s too busy telling stories of the good old days and running “her” department to have noticed.  Yet.  Her kids are grown and gone.  While they are tremendously proud of her accomplishments, they do wish that she was more caring and less controlling. 

Cookie Monster is obviously head of sales.  He can really bring in the clients and he is always a force to be reckoned with.  Unfortunately, Cookie has found the mandatory salary reductions unpalatable and is being interviewed by the competition.  He has to look after his own interests and he needs plenty of dollars to keep up with his cookie habit.  All very understandable.  The problem is that Cookie has left his team in a bind. 

As head of sales, all of the reports for quarterly performance as measured against predetermined objectives are his responsibility.  But he hasn’t touched last quarter’s yet.  And this quarter’s are now due.  Cookie’s crumbs are going to stick to everybody else long after he’s gone because nobody’s going to be able to have relevant objectives without real data to base them on.  It’s part science and part art, certainly. 

But his team still needs those numbers!  It’s a good thing he’s moving on because he wouldn’t have lasted much longer in his current role.  At home, Cookie also tends to leave the scene when his kids or wife get angry, anxious or upset.  He’s a little selfish in the best of times, and very good with knocking out the big things like paying the bills.  In his mind, the messy emotions and practical needs of others are their problem, not his.  And he’s right.  It’s just that he doesn’t take into account how ignoring some of his other responsibilities compromises things for everyone. 

Sesame Street characters are so memorable precisely because they are larger than life and somewhat exaggerated.  Muppets are the brainchild of Jim Henson and are great for entertainment.  None of us, however, benefits from resorting to these more rigidly defined personas, even in crisis.  What’s needed are the living personalities of our resilient, mindful, consciously engaged selves. 

Reactions are a kind of energetic engagement.  In scientific parlance, they’re fast, hot and generally exothermic.  Responses are another kind of energetic engagement.  They’re a form of energetic engagement that’s mediated that’s still exothermic, but in a controlled way.  The power of self-awareness is found in its ability to buffer our initial reactions and to allow us to make a different choice.  Reaction is a default process, mindless and mechanistic.  Response is a deliberate process, mindful and even masterful. 

If an outsized sense of anxiety has you resorting to an outsized persona due to stress, call us!  We’ll help you to reconnect with your authentic self and restore a felt experience of living that is powerful, positive and passionately joyful.

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