The Skin of Rhino and The Soul of An Angel

workplace The concept may seem paradoxical – the ability to be both passionately engaged by your work and simultaneously detached from it.

Yet staff who can balance these two seemingly opposing approaches to their work are happier and more successful – and so are their employers.

In our practice, we have found that being engaged by one’s work does not mean being fused to it. Taking work problems home or chronically obsessing about work-related issues can be damaging to employees, their families and the business itself.

On the contrary, staff who work hard, perform well and succeed tend to cultivate a detached, but involved attitude.

Detachment should not be confused with a cynical outlook. It doesn’t mean being indifferent, uncaring or jaded–it is the ability to see the big picture, to avoid taking things personally and to apply one’s values daily.

There are three key elements required to remaining healthily detached:

Be Process Oriented
People who practise detachment concentrate on how a job gets done and have faith the outcome will take care of itself. Detached staff know they cannot necessarily control or force an end result. Instead, they focus on what they can control to bring a project to fruition. This may mean creating a sound strategy, mapping a solid work plan and nurturing others toward a common goal.

Being outcome oriented – believing a sale can be forced, a product pushed to market before its time or glossing over mistakes to make a deadline, lowers the chances for success. The tendency to take glitches personally or make the project outcome your sole raison d’etre (“If I don’t make this sale, I’m a failure”) creates a loss of perspective. Anger, frustration and helplessness, the antithesis of a cool, reasonable, patient and detached attitude, dominate over- involved people’s thinking.

Detachment from even the most desired outcome means keeping an eye on how things are being achieved. Are people getting credit when it’s due? Do staff have regular feedback meetings with the manager? When there’s a problem, is it dealt with promptly? Detaching from the outcome and focussing on process issues makes it much more likely assignments will be completed with fewer errors.

Be Your Own Compass
Staff who practise detachment well tend to judge situations and react according to a strong set of internal values. Referred to as an “internal locus of control” in psychology, this ability means that individuals are more likely to do what they believe to be right regardless of what others think. When staff have an “external locus of control”, they are more concerned with pleasing others or doing what they think others want them to do. Staff with a strong external locus of control will often try to second guess others, stay quiet when they disagree or go along with programs or policies with which they object.

Detached individuals are more concerned with how what they are doing fits with their overarching values. This may mean speaking up about initiatives that seem poorly conceived or it might mean tackling an unpopular topic in the workplace. Detached people do this without a sense outcome in mind, they remain focussed on the process of making their thoughts known in a respectful and firm way (for instance, they let a bully know about the consequences of his actions). By staying detached, the chance of taking negative feedback, angry reactions or other people’s confusion personally is reduced.

Remaining patient during times of duress, ambiguity or conflict is the hallmark of the detached individual. By taking a few giant steps back, detached employees perform better, are less stressed and remain consistently caring and positive even through tough times.

Be In For The Long Term
Detached staff know that change takes time, that business is best conducted with the long term in mind and expedient behaviour results in problems later on. For example, hiring the best person from the least desirable group of candidates because the position has to be filled is an example of short- term thinking that is destined to create havoc down the road. Detached staff and leaders can tolerate ambiguity better than most because they keep the big picture in mind. Building a strong foundation for the business becomes the main goal and actions or decisions that jeopardize this perspective are avoided.

Short-term thinkers are generally outcome oriented and tend to take situations, other people or circumstances personally. They either bulldoze their way through their work lives or become yes people. Neither attitude fosters a successful business or a healthy career.

Albert Schweitzer, physician, humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize winner made his life’s work the struggle to alleviate suffering in his hospital in Lambarene, Africa. This arduous task required Schweitzer to maintain the courage of his convictions while maintaining a compassionate stance. He summed up the paradox of detachment with his famous advice for leading a successful life: have the skin of a rhino and the soul of an angel.

Dr. Jennifer Newman is a registered psychologist and director of Newman Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development company.  Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.  Dr. Newman can be contacted at:

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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