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The workplace is a stressful environment for many of us. We are constantly aware of the need to try and keep up appearances in front of our colleagues as countless factors combine to trigger us in different ways: that coffee you just spilled down yourself might just be the final straw in a cocktail of looming deadlines and incessant emails.

Everyone responds to these sorts of pressures in different ways. Imagine a pitch that an employee has put together for an external contract has just been rejected and their  manager calls them in to discuss it. They might react by acknowledging the things which they could have done differently, and work with their manager to identify what they need to do to bring about a better result next time. But you can probably think of someone who might react in a very different way, perhaps refusing to accept that they could have done anything differently or  criticising the prospective client  themselves.  However, no one is bound to one type of reaction in every instance. Contextual factors both positive (a recent promotion) and negative (a bad journey to work) can affect the way in which someone responds to a particular situation  on a given day.

The reasons behind these differences in behaviour can be found in a place that for most people has always lain out of sight: the subconscious mind. The fundamental workings of this obscure area govern the ways in which we naturally react to certain situations and how easy we find it to recover from them. By examining what goes on there we can better understand our own behaviours and even predict how we might behave in the future. But it is important to bear in mind that just because our subconscious shapes how we naturally want to respond, it doesn’t have to dictate how we actually respond. Different people can control these feelings to a greater or lesser extent, and this can once again be affected by contextual factors.

Our subconscious mind is shaped by the experiences we have when we are growing up. These can leave us with some deeply ingrained ideas about ourselves, including how we interact with the world and want to be seen by others. Psychologists have ways of looking back to these earlier stages in a person’s development and using them to analyse their adult behaviour. For example, the different reactions in the scenario above can be attributed to different manifestations of a perfectionist streak: the first person exhibits this characteristic to a lesser degree in that they are able to own their mistakes while still striving for a good result, while the other tries to direct attention away from themselves when things go wrong.

Being more aware of  where our feelings and reactions come from can have a host of benefits in the workplace. By breaking down the components of our subconscious mind we can more easily identify things which might be holding us back, highlighting areas for improvement so that we can push ourselves to the next level. We can also harness this understanding before we even enter the workplace, to think about the types of  environment and cultures which might suit us best. If you have a deep-rooted rebellious streak, for example, you may find it harder to feel at home  in an office which has a rigid sense of hierarchy.

Understanding what makes us who we are  can also be beneficial at the interpersonal level. By knowing  where our differences with other people lie we can behave more empathetically with our colleagues, particularly in management scenarios. For example, if you know that a member of your team is more dependent than the others, you might modulate the way in which you assign and monitor their work. Likewise, if another member has something like the perfectionist streak shown above, it may be a good idea to think carefully about how you give feedback on their performance.

And finally, an insight into our subconscious mind can also help us improve our response to those ever-present workplace stresses. We cannot control how we feel but we can certainly go some way to controlling how we behave, and knowing more about our underlying motivations can help us take stock of any negative emotions that may arise – irritation, demotivation, anger – and pinpoint where they are coming from. We can draw on this self-understanding to help us mitigate these responses in the future, leaving ourselves less vulnerable to knee-jerk reactions, and make conscious choices that are good for both our wellbeing and our career.

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