Changing your life script at work

Past experiences can block personal development and performance. Jackie Sykes explains how to get past this

We all have a story about ourselves, a ‘life script’. This script becomes the lens through which we experience our lives and is the reason why some patterns of experience seem to repeat themselves again and again. While most scripts were formed in childhood, they can still have a big impact on our personal development, our careers and how we experience our working lives.

But our life script, like any narrative, can be re-written once we are aware of it and the impact it is having. Here are six of the more common life scripts that can block personal development and performance and some suggestions for rewriting them. You might recognise elements of them in your own life.

It is often easy to spot when we are operating from a script by listening carefully to what we say or the pattern of our internal narrative.  If you do this you are likely to hear the rigid words of obligation like ‘should’, ‘must’ or ‘ought’, rather than the flexible language of choice. The same applies if you are listening to other people of course.

I always put other people first

This script is slightly more common in women than men, probably as result of upbringing and expected social roles. It’s also prominent in middle managers with large teams reporting to them (giving them lots of stakeholders to please but only limited resources to do so) or in roles with very high operational demands. This script can act as a real blocker to personal development and is fuelled by the belief that if you please others you will be OK, but your own needs are not so important.

People with this script can be reluctant when it comes investing in themselves because they view it as being a bit self-indulgent. They can also find traditional performance appraisals difficult because behavioural feedback lands heavily. They are programmed to please others and data that they aren’t completely doing this is difficult to digest; at an emotional level at least.

A great way of working with people who have this script is to invite as much self-appraisal as possible. It is often easier for people to quietly consider and reflect on where they may have fallen short of a target or expectation than it is to hear this message from others.

Bad things always happen to me

These are people who have a marked fear of failure. They can also be perfectionists and under stress, will strive still further to avoid error in the belief that any mistake could have catastrophic consequences. Letting themselves off the hook is not on their agenda and their internal narrative is harsh and severe.

This pattern can clearly cramp innovation and creativity and discourage people from trying out new things or simply having a go. It leads to an excessive focus on detail under pressure and an inability to prioritise effectively or see the bigger picture.

Some organisational cultures compound this behavioural patterning by fostering a climate in which people are afraid to make (or admit) mistakes. So in an appraisal situation, provide lots of positive feedback and reassure them that ‘good is good enough’. They don’t have to be perfect. It’s also important to ensure that they are not given unrealistic targets or they may work all night to meet them! Be receptive and attuned to this sort of patterning and deal with it accordingly.

I always get left out

This is an early script about abandonment and fear of rejection. In business, it can be found in the person who hovers on the edge of social groups, the one who is waiting to be invited rather than the one who does the inviting. If you are in sales, it could be this script that sits behind your fear of initiating new business contacts. It can also drive jealous and possessive behaviour and make you a difficult colleague to work with.

So the sales person who doesn’t like cold calling or chasing leads for fear that they are putting pressure on people is really afraid of their approach being rejected. In their childhoods, they may have experienced being left out by siblings or not picked for sports teams. Later in life, the same fears can be triggered by workplace situations that re-enforce that belief system. As a result their own reputation management is hard because of their need to be wait to be invited.

Find out from people with this patterning when and how they want to be included and help them by creating opportunities for them to join in. Don’t expect them to put themselves forward and take it easy as they explore what it feels like to be part of a group. Gently include them and give them plenty of positive feedback. 

I’m never good enough

This one either exists in its pure form or comes in disguise. The pure form is easy to spot and it can lead to depression and under performance. The disguised version is more like “I’m only as good as my last project / the most recent deal I closed”. This is an easy script to accidentally collude with. It’s a programming that can drive people to strive for more and more to try and counteract the empty feeling within.

Be sensitive to the fact that people with this life script are constantly trying to grapple with the feeling of never being good enough. What they need is the affirmation that they are appreciated and that they have succeeded. They will benefit from regular reassurance that they really are good enough, both in an appraisal and more generally.

I must not show my feelings

As organisations strive to encourage authenticity from the boardroom down, people who feel uncomfortable admitting weakness are hard to get to know and poor role models for others. Today’s leaders have to be confident enough to show their vulnerability at times – they will be respected for this. After all, if people won’t admit to their mistakes, how can they ever learn and move forward?

People with this script have a need to be ‘strong’ that usually stems back to childhood, one that says “I can cope and don’t need help” or even, “boys don’t cry”.

When working with or appraising people with this patterning, be aware that they may hide their personal feelings behind a wall of facts and logic. The key in these situations is to provide a trusting and supportive environment where they feel able to open up and admit that they would benefit from some help and support.

People are just a resource for me to use

There are those who view other people as simply pawns in a chess game and have difficulty maintaining any real connection with others. They may be perceived as callous, unthinking or unfeeling and often exhibit a manipulative style (sometimes interpreted as bullying). Whilst they might have a reputation for ‘delivering’ or being highly task-focused, this comes at a cost to others. They can often appear charming, but behind the scenes they are manipulating others for their own gain. This behaviour can be exacerbated under pressure.

These people can be especially tricky to deal with because they will achieve or over-achieve. Moreover, they can manipulate and use people in a way that appears to align with the company culture and values, providing them with a defensive shield against potential criticism of their way of working.

An effective approach to dealing with these types of people is to draw on 360 degree feedback. Ask them to explore their reputation in relation to their peers and key stakeholders, so that they learn that how they meet their targets and the way in which they interact with colleagues is just as important as meeting the targets. 


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