A friend has a problem at work and it is clearly upsetting them. They ask you for your advice.
You empathize and then suggest an approach. They tell you it wouldn’t work.
You suggest another approach. They tell you that wouldn’t work either.
Nothing you can come up with seems to have any impact and they continue to complain about how unlucky they are to have so many insoluble problems.
A common problem.
Periodically you will meet someone who complains about an issue but then doesn’t seem to want to actually do anything about it. This behaviour confuses many people. If the problem is that bad, surely the person would want to do something about it?!?
In people’s minds, this kind of fatalistic “There is nothing I can do about it” rhetoric is usually associated with a feeling of no understanding (or control) of the situation but in many cases the opposite is true.
Let me tell you what I think is happening for at least some of these people. The main problem is that they feel that they have a little bit more understanding of the situation than those around them. This might sound counter-intuitive but bear with me.
This feeling of extra understanding causes several problems:
The first problem it causes is they become almost completely unpersuadable. They feel that they understand more than you so why should they listen to you? Their arguing style becomes one of defending their point of view rather than exploring other possibilities. They say “That wouldn’t work” rather than asking “How would that work?”
The knowledge that they are right and that the rest of the people are wrong leads us to the second problem. Because they feel that they did the right thing, they don’t think that they contributed to the problem in any way themselves. This leads them to look for external causes for the problems. Instead of asking “How did I affect the problem?” they ask “Who else caused this problem – because it certainly wasn’t me?” They blame others rather than looking to see how they could have contributed to the problem.
How is this demoralising? Wouldn’t having a greater understanding than those around you be motivating? Knowing that you were better than them? Well, it is to start with but repeated experience teaches them something else . . .
Lost car keys.
Imagine that you had lost your car keys. You can’t find them but you knew for sure that the keys hadn’t fallen between the cushions on the sofa. You would look everywhere but the sofa. If they had fallen between the sofa cushions, you would look everywhere else and never find them. You would complain to your friends that you had looked and looked and looked. You’d get demotivated, fatalistic and probably a bit angry: “I am never going to find them.” You might even get some jealousy here too: “Why is it that other people can find there keys and I can’t?”
With the lost keys the solution is pretty easy: someone who thinks the keys might be in the sofa looks there and finds them. However, interpersonal problems are rarely that simple. “Have you tried letting them know how you feel” from someone else will elicit a response like “That won’t make any difference”. This is the equivalent to a “There is no point in looking in the sofa because I know the keys are not there” in the key hunt. There is no way to prove the value of the advice. The person with the problem has to try it for themselves.
And you cannot persuade them of the value of this advice because the first problem was . . . . . . that they are unpersuadable! They simply tell you “That wouldn’t work”.
Looking in the wrong place.
Never looking at their own part in interpersonal problems will quickly teach someone like this that these sorts of problems are largely unsolvable. They say thing like “Yes but people don’t change.” – You are left on the receiving end of the “That wouldn’t work” speech.
If interpersonal problems were just the fault of one side or the other then only looking to others for the solution would mean (on average) that they would be sorted out half the time. However, interpersonal problems are rarely that clear cut. Both sides usually contribute a bit. This means that it is not just half the time that the problems continue. It is most of the time. Together this makes a powerful set of experiences for them to learn that these sort of problems are largely unsolvable.
Most people who feel that they have more understanding than those around them are very resistant to changing this view. After all, it makes them feel special and that is a really nice feeling to have. The problem is it also usually makes them feel demotivated and fatalistic too.
There are 2 things to take from this. The first is that if you are on the receiving end of the repeated “That wouldn’t work” speech then don’t take it personally. It is not about the quality of your advice or suggestions; it is about their inability to accept that they make mistakes and take responsibility for those mistakes.
The second thing to realise is that accepting that something is your fault (when it is) is often difficult on your ego but there is a big consolation prize. After the hurt ego comes the realisation that you KNOW you can do something about the problem. This is real empowerment.
It is only natural . . .
We all have a natural bias towards belief. This is generally a fairly good thing. If we didn’t naturally believe things, we wouldn’t have made it as far as we have as a species.
When life was relatively simple and things didn’t change much, this tendency helped us avoid a lot of problems. Imagine some hunter-gatherers picking berries: When the older people said ‘Don’t eat those ones’, believing them saved you a lot of stomach ache (or maybe even a painful death).
The ability to accept information from others and so learn quickly from each other has made us the dominant species on the planet. Believing others means as a team, humans prospered. I am not saying that being sceptical never had its advantages but running with the crowd was safe and that was quite an advantage. However, for innovators, it is advantageous to be conscious to what degree the pure belief was reasonable and where scepticism was appropriate.
Nowadays, there is a problem though.
Now life is a little more complicated AND things are changing at a rate the humans have never really experienced before: The global economy is undergoing a period of radical transformation into a fully networked world – Outernet, Industry 4.0, Smart Cities, eHealth and 3D-Printing are some of the revolutionary changes that are imminent or are in existence already.
If you are not happy to just run with the crowd and if you want to be ahead of the game, simply believing just doesn’t work anymore. As we enter new territories and interact with those who say that we should believe, it is a necessity to be more sceptical.
However, the bias towards belief is still strong and that means being sceptical actually takes effort. If you are distracted, stressed or not completely on the ball, you tend towards belief. This means information slips into our brains untested.
Marketers use this bias all the time. We tend to believe people who are familiar to us. This bias served us well when people were familiar to us because we knew them personally. The problem is that the world is a little different now. For example, I have never met George Clooney but because he is familiar to me he is still able to influence my choice of coffee maker. This is a problem because George is an actor not a coffee making expert. He was paid to influence me.
Now, don’t get me wrong.
I am very happy with my choice of coffee maker. What I am saying is that this quick belief is time saving and lazy. My thinking probably went something along the lines of: George Clooney probably wouldn’t endorse something really bad and they must be reasonably good or they wouldn’t make enough money to afford him so I’ll get one.
It is worth noting how our brains filter information too. We have a kind of border control that asks “is it reasonable?” as the information COMES IN. But, once the information is past border control it tends not to be checked again unless something really serious happens. Once these “facts” are in your head it takes a special effort to get them out. There needs to be a specific reason to “deport” them.
This is why a lot of confidence tricks work. As each little bit of information comes in we check it to see if it is reasonable. If it is, it gets allowed in and it is then not usually checked again. This allows us to be drip fed misinformation:
The e-mail from a friend saying that they are on holiday and they have lost their credit card and need help paying the hotel bill. – Seems reasonable, these things happen . . .
The second e-mail that says you cannot pay the hotel directly because their payment system is having problems. – Not unreasonable right? These things are temperamental . . .
The third e-mail that asks you to wire cash to an account to help out . . .
It is obviously a scam when the information is all presented together but when we are presented the information piecemeal it seems reasonable.
There is such a bias towards belief that we are even very vulnerable to mere innuendo. In psychological tests it has been shown that the headlines “Matt Pollard associated with fraudulent business”, “Is Matt Pollard associated with fraudulent business?” and “Matt Pollard not linked with fraudulent business” were ALL equally damaging to Matt Pollard’s reputation.
The last one is just as damaging because people think that there is no smoke without fire? Right?
So the next time you think you know something remember that perhaps you do know it but it might not be true. It is important to remember that you might be wrong.
Checking and being more sceptical takes extra effort but it can help you avoid some serious mistakes and take advantage of opportunities that others might miss.
When has being sceptical helped you? Maybe to avoid a mistake or see an opportunity? How do you manage the balance between believing and thinking (being sceptical)?
Many people have difficulty forgiving others but it really is a skill you should cultivate. And not for other people. Do it for yourself.
Forgiving is often seen as a gift or favour to the other person rather than to the forgiver themselves but in my opinion this is not the case. If you don’t forgive, you will, in many cases, be causing yourself negative consequences.
To see the first aspect of this problem, look at it this way: forgiving is a way of saying “I think you can learn and do better next time”. Not forgiving is a way of saying “I know you will screw it up again”. Not forgiving is saying that you are closed to the idea that someone can change. There are several problems with ‘knowing’ that someone is going to screw something up.
If you haven’t forgiven them, you certainly won’t be doing anything to help them to improve and teaching / coaching them. Why should you coach them when you are the wronged party? Well, coaching will help them to not disappoint you again in the future.
Even without this help they might make good if it wasn’t for another very powerful factor: very expectation of failure. The confirmation bias (the tendency that we all have to see what we expect to see) leads us to look for and so see failure if that is what we expect.
This ‘tendency’ doesn’t sound like a big deal but it really is. Imagine how quickly you would get demotivated if the referee in the sport you played was always biased against you? How about if the Frisbee you were throwing curved to the left? There would be an absolute limit to how far you could throw it because it would just go in a circle.
A small ‘tendency’ can have a big effect over time. The bias to see failure has a considerable effect on the person you have failed to forgive. Each time they make a small improvement, you see a negative. Perhaps they haven’t improved enough. Perhaps they didn’t do everything exactly how you wanted it. This will be communicated is the words you use, your tone of voice and your facial expressions.
The other person will quickly get the message. They will feel that they cannot do anything right. They feel they get no credit for even trying. They quickly stop trying to get it right because nothing they do works. Remember that they are trying not to disappoint you.
Another reason to forgive is selfish too: If you don’t forgive them you are going to be angry and bitter. How long do you want to be angry? The rest of your life? The rest of theirs? Being angry takes a lot of energy. Energy that could be better spent on improving you situation rather than blaming other people.
This bitterness quickly becomes an easy pattern to slip into. You can tell yourself that you were right not to forgive then as they have screwed up again while denying that you had any part in the system.
This brings me to a word of warning: You actually have to forgive them or neither of these problems disappears. It is not enough just to stop publicly harping on about the past failures while still harbouring the bitterness and low expectations. You don’t have to forget but you actually have to let both of these opinions go and properly forgive them.
I am not saying forgiving other is easy. It isn’t. But do it for yourself not just for other people.
There is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that the greater the power imbalance in any organisation, group or country, the more abuse takes place. If abusive behaviour is not challenged then it continues.
Needless to say, in a company, this abusive behaviour takes a heavy toll on productivity. People get demotivated, they spend their time and effort on minimising the damage and not on getting the job done. Now, obviously there needs to be some hierarchy within an organisation so that the organisation has direction. A clear hierarchy is not a problem. The problem comes when the relative gap between the upper and lower levels is large. If anyone can act with impunity, it probably won’t be long before they start abusing that power.
So what does this mean for your group?
It means that if you are in charge you might need to relinquish some of your power and if you are an underling you need to learn how to robustly defend yourself.
I’m certainly not saying fight all the time or go around starting fights. I’m just saying be ready to defend yourself when you need to. It is not just “OK” to defend yourself – it is that you are pretty much crazy if you don’t. Many nice people are used to self-regulation and so expect others to do it too but they very often don’t self-regulate. The nice people need to resist the abusive behaviour.
You get what you settle for.
Nice people often feel bad about making the waves that a robust defence entails but they shouldn’t. The tendency towards abuse of power was neatly encapsulated by Lord Acton when he said “Power corrupts”. Unfortunately he was right. Every time you don’t robustly defend yourself, you teach someone who is abusive that it is OK to be abusive to you and to others.
Just a bit of clarification here: I am not talking about when someone attacks your ideas. Those attacks just need to be defended with facts, logic and discussion. I am talking about when the attacks are personal. This includes rudeness, unfair treatment or making you feel bad about yourself. Basically any part of an interaction that leaves you thinking “What an @$$#0L€”.
If you allow this treatment to continue, it will.
How you defend yourself depends on your situation. Whether you defend yourself shouldn’t really be in question.
You have all heard it when flying:
“In case there is a loss in cabin pressure, yellow oxygen masks will deploy from the ceiling compartment located above you. Please secure your own mask before assisting others around you”.
Securing your own oxygen supply first before helping others might seem selfish but it really isn’t. Think about it. If you help other people first then you are going to be without all that helpful oxygen. While breathing the rarefied air of the depressurised airliner you will be getting more and more oxygen deficient. That means: dizzy, disorientated and panicky – Not the best state to be in in an emergency.
How many people are you going to be able to help before you start to make bad decisions and then slip into unconsciousness and so need help yourself?
However, if you put you put your oxygen mask on first, you can then spend as much time as is necessary helping other people. Even if they are dizzy or have slipped into unconsciousness you can still put a mask over their face and secure it and they will probably suffer no long term ill effects.
Now this post isn’t about airline safety. My point is that maintaining your capability and your strength isn’t necessarily selfish. It is about being able to perform well and help people to the best of your ability.
This extends to your reputation too. The generally accepted wisdom is that you should not pay too much attention to people who are overly negative or people who are negative to score points. The sayings affirm things like “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never harm me” and “Hard work is its own reward”.
Drawing a line
However, I think there is a distinction to be made here: I believe that you shouldn’t let other people’s negativity get you down but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something about that negativity. I believe that you should take pleasure from a job well done but that doesn’t mean if someone else tries to take credit for that work that you should not do something about it.
It is very easy to let things affecting our reputation go as we are constantly told that substance not appearance is what is important. But perception IS important. If someone else takes credit for your work then they gain in reputation and therefore influence. That dishonest co-worker who has just done you out of the credit for your good work, has gained greater influence for the future. You can be sure that in the future, he/she won’t suddenly develop a conscience and use that extra influence for the good of the group.
A similar thing is true for the negativity. If the only voice being heard is the perpetually negative one then it will have an effect. Even if other people know that the person is habitually negative and compensate for that a bit their minds are still being focused on the negatives of your idea.
It is easy to think that a great idea will speak for itself but that is rarely true. People need to be persuaded. Howard H. Aiken once said “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” If you don’t strongly advocate your ideas then that great idea might not get acted upon. Opportunities will be missed.
When it comes to defending your reputation or your ideas, don’t feel you are being petty. Don’t feel guilty. Do something about it.