Don’t Be Right — Be Effective

Shouting never helps.

Is it me, or is everybody getting a bit overwrought these days? Election rhetoric tends to cause a certain degree of national divisiveness, but this year it is compounded by the added stress of pandemic concerns, economic woes, and social justice issues. Everything seems to be subject to debate, even such former “givens” as whether or not our kids should go to school. We’ve somehow lost the ability to engage in civil discourse; the simplest disagreements can provoke rage.

There is plenty of misunderstanding to go around and not enough empathy. No one was ever convinced to listen to a differing opinion when it’s being shouted at them. In fact, most opinions are grounded in our emotions — and an appeal to logic is wasted. People don’t like how they feel in confrontational situations. Arguments don’t lead to understanding. That’s why, as people of influence within our community, our businesses, and our families, we have an obligation to take the high road.

Don’t worry about being right — worry about being effective. Work toward unity. Act with integrity. Focus on common goals. Be productive. Inspire other people to do the same. This is the only way we can move forward as a country, a society, and an industry.
There are only two ways to deal with a landmine — you can set it off, or you can quietly, patiently, carefully dig it out and defuse it.

It it’s time to come together. The first move is yours.

Get schooled

Thoughts while visiting colleges with my daughter

I really enjoyed the privilege of taking my middle daughter on a tour of potential colleges. She is a bright young woman with plenty of options; she is clear about what she’s looking for. That’s good, because, personally, I felt drawn to each school we attended. Not just as a parent. I imagined attending EVERY school we visited as a student. To me, they all seemed like magical places of learning, with beautiful campuses, rich histories and a who’s who of professors just waiting to impart the secrets of the universe. After four years within their hallowed halls, I would emerge a well-rounded, brilliant, empathetic and nearly perfect human specimen. By the way, my children find this fantasy of mine hilarious. I suppose it is.

It’s the curse of the life-long learner — every opportunity to learn new things seems invaluable. Every educational environment seems awesome. And every earnest place of learning, especially a few of the prestigious schools my daughter was considering, seem like a big deal. At least, it did to me. No doubt, some of this derives from my experience as an Indiana kid reared in solid Midwestern values; I sometimes wonder what I missed by not attending a popular school. But I think what really struck me is the incredible opportunities available to all students. I’m not sure younger people are geared to see this. I suspect it’s an adult’s reflection on the narrowing world of “what’s possible” for us at a time when, for our children, anything seems possible.

Anyway, on this journey with my daughter, two things became really clear: 1) Any environment designed to optimize learning is good. 2) In choosing a college, we drive ourselves crazy for all the wrong reasons.

As a father, I want what’s best for my daughters. What parent doesn’t? But it occurred to me, even as I was being awestruck by our tour of colleges, that the ultimate choice was important only insofar as it was my daughter’s choice and it provided her an environment conducive to learning. What mattered most was my daughter’s own commitment to learn and her overall happiness. And if she chose to attend the free city college for a couple years, and then transfer to a local university, she would thrive. She will succeed because she is primed to get the most out of every opportunity to learn, and there are innumerable, excellent opportunities.

Just about the time the college visits were going on, the scandal broke regarding certain wealthy, entitled parents hiring someone to fraudulently inflate their kids’ entrance exam scores and bribe college admissions officials. Sobbing mothers appeared on the nightly news saying they just wanted to secure their children’s futures. Again, what parent doesn’t? But it’s not something you can achieve just by writing a check, and they must know that. So it makes me question their real motives.

My personal opinion is that as parents we often have so much invested in our children’s success that it becomes an extension of our own personal equity. We like being able to casually mention at dinner parties that our kids are attending a popular school and rubbing elbows with the elite or Nobel Prize winners. We like to flaunt our own brilliant parenting skills.

I suspect we also do this as business leaders. How many times have we heard about C-suite corporate leaders who make a short-term decision to impress Wall Street, their shareholders, or the people at the club, knowing that it will hurt long-term productivity, innovation, and growth? How often is our first consideration “how will this make me look?” instead of “how will this affect future growth?”

Whether we are acting as parents or business leaders, we need to constantly examine our own motives. If we’ve launched our children into a lifetime of learning habits, and designed our organizations for continuous improvement, we’re doing our jobs.

Judge by intentions, not actions

This is a bit counter-intuitive, because we’re taught to judge people not by what they say, but by what they do. All well and good. But if we take time to consider what someone intended to do, outside of the actual consequences, it helps us know how to respond.

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One way to look at this is to stop and think about how we judge our own actions, and apply the same level of understanding to other people. For example, if we crash into someone in the park while trying to catch a Frisbee, that person may think we’re an inconsiderate jerk, but we’d be indignant if they didn’t accept our apology. After all, it was just an accident – we didn’t mean to bowl them over. And if we proceed make amends – and replace the soda we knocked over – they will probably give us a pass.

Apply this to the business world. We need to find a way to judge people by their intentions – and then deal with the consequences of their actions as needed. Grudge-holding, back-stabbing, passive -aggressive behavior – it’s a colossal time-suck. It drains our energy. So much of this daily drama could be quickly diffused if people would just take a minute to consider what the other person intended. Were you really left off an invite list because of a conspiracy to undermine your authority, or was it a simple administrative error? Is someone challenging your opinion because they don’t like you, or because they want to ensure the best outcome for the team? This is especially critical in multinational businesses, where cultural differences can easily cause people to lose their trust or, even worse, lose face, where no harm was intended.

When we learn to rationalize the intentions of others as well as we do our own – when we become more objective about judging intent vs. behavior, we will be better (and happier) employees, managers, co-workers, parents, children and spouses. We will deal with consequences more effectively. And if this honest scrutiny leads to the rare conclusion that someone really is behaving badly, we will be able to measure our response appropriately, instead of lashing out in anger. That’s what leaders do.