Be selfish – help others for your own personal gain. It’s easy to see that teams (groups) work best and accomplish more when people work together. It’s even true for the individual as a part of the group. The group you belong to, of course, is the human race.
That said, if you want to get ahead the best thing to do is to help other people get ahead and work together. Easier said than done though. At work and in our personal relationships we worry about people “stabbing us in the back” and “throwing us under the bus.” While this kind of behavior is more subtle in personal relationships, it really comes out in an office environment.
I remember my first year working right after I got my bachelor’s degree. I learned a lot about databases and perhaps even more about conflicts between employees, both in my group and in other departments of the company. It was the only office environment I’d ever been exposed to, so I went right along with it assuming it was normal. My poor wife suffered too, since she had to listen to me complain incessantly about one employee in particular. Today I see things differently and I hope I would deal with the same situations in a different way.
But how can we see things differently and why is it important? I gained some insights into this from a book.
What’s the Problem?
I read Leadership and Self-Deception recently and it explains how our own preconceptions about people aggravate a situation. Are you thinking, “but, there are some employees that are just jerks?” And perhaps, “They’re the ones with the issues?” Yes, they’re jerks and yes they have issues. However…
A classic scenario for a patient and psychologist is the patient going to an appointment for the first time. It starts with the patient saying, “It’s about my mother, she’s too controlling.” Or, “It’s about my husband, he doesn’t care enough,” or “It’s about my wife, she spends all my money.” Or “It’s about (anyone that’s not me), he or she is (insert complaint here).” Those other people aren’t there and we can’t change other people. We can only control our own thoughts and actions.
Luckily, how we view people does affect other people’s behavior, even more than we realize. The problem is that we don’t recognize how our preconceptions negatively affect what we truly want. The thoughts we have about people (preconceptions) cause unwanted effects – they react to us differently. When we purposely look for failure, we invite failure and retribution by treating people in certain ways.
There’s a great example in Leadership and Self-Deception about a mother who wants her son to come home on time. He’s had a habit of returning late and she’s been quite fed-up with it. One day he asks her to borrow the car to go out. Knowing he’s always late, she says yes, but also says that he has to be home by 10:30pm. She set an unreasonably early curfew since she knows he’s been late before.
While he’s gone, she stays mad. She considers exactly what she’ll say to him when he gets home late and what kind of punishment she’ll impose to teach him a lesson. As the time ticks away she anxiously awaits 10:30. At exactly 10:29 she hears tires screech in the driveway and her son walks in and says “Looks like I made it mom.” She replies “Just barely!“
So what went wrong there? So, so much. If you asked the mom what she wanted, she would say “I just want my son to come home on time.” Her actions and thoughts don’t show that, though. While she was waiting for him to return she was contemplating what to do when he broke the rules. She was planning on his failure and based on her response (“Just barely!“), we can see that she seems to have even wanted him to arrive late. Her disappointment shows in her response, because she didn’t get to say all of things she was thinking about saying and didn’t get to enact the punishment she had planned. What’s more, she had set the curfew too early to begin with, knowing it may encourage her son to break it. This kind of toxic interaction is everyday normalcy for lots of people. It doesn’t help us get what we truly want, though.
“Just thinking positively” doesn’t work – it takes practice. The first step is knowing the issue exists. We might want to think “Of course there’s an issue. I’m treated unfairly all the time.” But thinking of the issue as “being treated unfairly by other people” is a misunderstanding. We are personally responsible for this problem. <– The personal responsibility is the key difference there. It’s the difference between something being “their” problem or “my” problem. It’s not about giving people “the benefit of the doubt.” It’s about understanding that everyone has different perspectives, motivations, and are working with different information. And it’s about changing how we see people.
It takes practice, but the benefits are many. Better people skills means better networking. Seeing situations more clearly by challenging our preconceptions means less stress. Being more respectful means better leadership.
If you read the book, you’ll wish others around you had read it as well.
What kind of situations have you been in where more understanding would have avoided a mediocre or toxic outcome?