We make up a lot of our minds about someone we’ve just meet in less than ten seconds. Whatever uncertainty remains is quickly reduced by body language and some quick conversation. It’s not much to go on when there’s help we need and work to do, but we put people in either/or categories pretty quickly. You’re either with me or standing in my way.
The problem is, these black and white judgments are nearly always wrong, at least in part. it's a shorthand that will always, well, leave you shorthanded.
Like our flash judgments about what’s good or bad, we’ll gain more from every exchange and accomplish more in every job when we slow those judgments down, postponing them indefinitely or at least until we have more information.
I fail at this all the time, so much of what follows is like talking to myself.
1. Good Work is Grounded in Two-Way, Human Exchange
We’re hard-wired to make flash judgments about people who touch our work, but that’s not the only reason we make these assessments. There are external pressures to produce results and we need others—often many others—to get our work done. It's like we have no choice but to act on limited information.
Our judgments about whether a co-worker (customer, supplier, boss, landlord, regulator, contractor, official, community stakeholder) is in the way of our work usually come in tandem with our pushing them to do what's needed as quickly and with as few excuses as possible. At the same time, we're also quick to assume that at least some of these work-related folks are our natural allies, see things like we do, are pursuing the same goals. We imagine that we have an esprit de corps with them even when we have no more reason to assume that they’ll be "there for us" when we need them.
In both instances, we’re jumping to conclusions because it's essential for us to know "what we have to work with” right away. Put another way, we’re not confident enough in our ability to navigate through the uncertainties ahead if we suspend these judgments about who’s with us, who's against us and who simply doesn’t give a damn about either our work or their's.
Instead of beginning a job with rapid-fire judgments, we could actually build enough confidence to see the work through if we began it (if I began it) by investing more time in the human exchange with everyone who is needed for, and impacted by, what we’re trying to accomplish. It's an investment of time and energy that always ends up proving its worth.
A recent articlecalled “How To Work Like a Human” begins with the following observation:
“The sad truth is that working life can often make us put on an armor that hides our own humanity and distances us from that of our colleagues. And when we lose touch with our humanity — when we replace empathy with efficiency, when we get curt instead of curious — it’s a surefire way to get stuck. We stop recognizing the value of human connection, and it makes our working hours less joyful, our working relationships less stable, and our work product less meaningful.”
She might also have added that acting like this often sabotages our objectives as well.
Although we live in a world of superficial connections, this argument is about building relationships: being curious about who people are, what motivates them, learning about their lives and about the people, places and ideas that they care most about. It’s a building process that relies as much on our disclosures: about the same things we want to discover about others, but also about our annoyances and fears and things we don't know how to do.
You may have to risk finding too much information in order to find enough. Some of it is your self-interest in getting the job done: the assurance that the people you need will step up when you need them. But when they're operational, these exchanges are far more reciprocal than that.
“[T]he person whom you ignore or mistreat is inevitably someone you’ll need to rely on down the road. But more important, so many opportunities open up when you treat every relationship with care and attention. You learn things from and about people. You build the kind of trust and camaraderie that makes you able to watch each other’s backs, promote each other’s interests, and seek each other’s advice.”
Implicit in the collaboration that this article extols is an additional benefit that is even more essential if you want to be engaged and sustained by the jobs that you do.
Investing in mutual, work-based exchanges that declare what’s important to you and your counterpart elevates both of you. You give yourself as well as your co-workers (customers, suppliers, bosses, landlords, regulators, contractors, officials, and community stakeholders) the opportunity to shine by taking the time to understand and affirm the priorities that are driving you. When we start with our humanity, the zero-sum games that often dominate our work become mutual exchanges that yield far more than the sum of their parts because both of you, along with the workplace itself, will gain every time.
2. From Illness to Health On The Job
This week, Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi shared an article with the wonderful title: “The Danger of Absolute Thinking is Absolutely Clear.”
In it, he decries two kinds of “absolute thinking.” One is the dichotomous or “black-and-white” thinking that we’ve been talking about, where things in life and work are either “this” or “that” with no qualifications in between. Similarly unproductive are categorical imperatives where we make rigid demands on ourselves and on others .
We take these quick, inflexible approaches because over-simplification is easier than processing the messy details. Gathering the necessary information and digesting it also takes up limited time and energy when there’s urgency to get our work done. But it’s a trap.
“In order to successfully navigate through life, we need to appreciate nuance, understand complexity and embrace flexibility. When we succumb to absolutist thinking for the most important matters in our lives – such as our goals, relationships and self-esteem – the consequences are disastrous.”
And that includes the goals, relationships and self-esteem that are attached to our work.
But Al-Mosaiwi, who is a student of psychology, has a point to make that goes beyond the likelihood of failure. He and a fellow neuroscientist have recently published findings they arrived at after examining the frequency of absolutist thinking in the language that was being used by more than 6,400 members in on-line, mental health chat groups.
Imagine being a fly on that wall!
Not surprisingly, their study found (as many studies had found before) that individuals who suffer from mental health issues used far more first person singular pronouns (”I”) in their speech than "normal" populations. They also used more negative-emotion words, talking about their bad feelings more frequently than you'd find in regular conversation. As a result, regular use of first person pronouns and negative emotion words have both been markers that clinicians look for when trying to identify people who have mental health disorders. What's of interest here is the study's finding that these 6400 individuals demonstrated black and white thinking in their speech patterns far more often than either of these previously touted characteristics. The study's conclusion:
“We find that the prevalence of absolutist words is a better marker [for mental health disorders] than both [first person singular] pronouns and negative-emotion words.”
Al-Mosaiwi’s research doesn’t mean that everyone who sees the world in black and white terms is mentally ill. But this research does indicate--pretty unequivocally, I think--that absolutist thinking is a reliable marker for poor mental health.
3. You’re My Chatroom This Week
I fight my human priorities, and therefore what's good for me, all the time.
I know that slow to judgment is better than fast, but I sum people up in seconds. I want to sort uncertainty into order so compulsively that I wonder sometimes: What scares me so much about disorder? When you’re confident that your center will hold, you should be able to tolerate some chaos (unpredictability and surprise) around the edges, right?
So Al-Mosaiwi’s implication is worth drawing. If I’m not fragmented inside or crazy, why be so quick to put everything in its presumed place?
The idea about "our receding humanity at work" is spot-on too. When preconceptions and biases immediately put everyone into helpful/not helpful categories, I’m cutting off the possibility to learn something I didn’t know, be assisted in ways I didn’t anticipate, and find collaboration that didn’t exist in my work before.
For me though, it’s not only about writing off the opportunities in other people. I’m even more foolish when it comes to my flash judgments about kindred spirits.
When I’m in my black/white, bad/good world, I’m also assessing the people and exchanges that will be good for my work. I usually don’t realize all that I’ve missed when I’ve written someone off. But when I "fall in love" with somebody that I wrongly presume is “another white knight,” the "falling out of love" that follows always feels like it costs me so much more.
(Turning away from love too fast. Falling in love too fast. I know: it sounds like my workplace is a dimly-lit, crying-time bar that's playing Country music.)
Nevertheless, some of my greatest workplace disappointments have come when the hill gets steeper and the finish line approaches. It’s when I realize that my presumed comrades at arms don’t see the same light at the end of the tunnel or won’t becommitting the same time and energy as I will to reach it. Disappointment becomes resentment. I feel like I’ve been taken in by their false promises before I get around to blaming myself that my initial judgments were either flat-out wrong or woefully incomplete in the first place.
Try leading with your humanity instead, I say to myself. Learn as much as possible before judging. Don’t take seconds but the days, weeks, months that you’ll need. What’s your rush? Recognize your tendency to nail it all down. Resist the urge or the instinct before you even start that next job.
Uncertainty holds as many good possibilities as bad ones. Your mental health is strong enough to keep it all together until you know more. And like a muscle, the ability to suspend judgment while seeking mutual gain with others gets stronger with use. There is no question about it.
It’s how good work gets done.
It’s the only way good work gets done.
It's time to leave your black and white thinking to photography.
Thanks for your survey responses last week and for reaching out when you have something to say.
I’ll see you next Sunday.
Your questions, comments and hellos are always welcome. Just hit reply.