Several of my recent blogposts have offered examples of behaviors, particularly among bosses, that are considerably less-than admirable. Now, I am a firm believer that one should acknowledge, own, correct, and learn from one’s mistakes as a matter of course. Doing so requires strength of character and mind. In contrast, dodging mistakes is a mark of cowardice and fecklessness. Still, it is not enough to learn just from one’s own mistakes. There is another rich vein of error to mine for lessons: the mistakes of others, particularly those that manifest debilitating habits of mind or reveal adverse patterns of action.
Chronic error can be a great teacher.
It stands to reason, then, if positive paradigms do not always simply transfer one-to-one from person to person, then learning from and applying negative paradigms will not necessarily be a matter of just doing their opposite. Just because x is wrong doesn’t necessarily mean that negative x is correct. Life is way more complex and much more fun than that.
After all, his belief is one of our most powerful and enduring cultural assumptions: that work, any work, is inherently virtuous. I started imitating him. Soon I too was too busy for anything. I came in early and stayed late, just like him. I worked on holidays and fretted about taking vacation, just like him. Think about that. I stressed over taking a vacation. How perverse is that?
I lost perspective.
Over time, I started to see that while he was a hard worker, he was miserable and, worse, all his striving actually produced little of great value. I then reflected on what I was missing in life due to to my budding workaholism and how my own efforts generated little of value. In fact, after a certain point, value decreased the more I worked. I resolved to make better choices and started prioritizing more judiciously. Soon, although I was working less, my output improved, as did my outlook on life.
The behavior and habits of my boss had served as a wonderful negative paradigm, but if I had just done the opposite of him, I simply would have stopped working. Instead, I took what I learned from his errors and applied it to myself, adapting it to my style and the needs of my position. To be sure, I worked plenty hard, but I also began, as they say, to work smart.
As this story suggests, negative paradigms can be just as and even more instructional than positive paradigms. They not only offer models to avoid, but they can give one perspective that is not readily accessed otherwise. Negative paradigms offer powerful insights when we perceive how things are done wrong and can inspire us to reconceive how to do them right, but negative paradigms are only one tool for self-awareness and improvement. My own practices have evolved as I have paid heed to a mix of negative paradigms, positive paradigms, candid introspection, and research to determine how to best achieve my own goals while adhering to my principles and values. Applying each of these elements, these tools and paradigms, is critical to formulating an effective approach to one’s distinctive success. In this way, even the negative can be a positive.
The television drama Mr. Robot requires one to follow plot threads and characters that have been filtered through the mind of Elliot Alderson, played by Rami Malek, a man who is, on his best day, wildly delusional. The plot consists of misdirection, hallucinations, time jumps, multiple identities, and deception, so I naturally find it extremely engaging and compelling. It is just my sort of narrative. In addition, the dialogue frequently drops shards of wisdom, for instance when season-two character, Ray, played by Craig Robinson, lays this insight on Elliot: "Control is about as real as a one-legged unicorn taking a leak at the end of a double rainbow."
What is it about control? I suppose it is only natural that we want control in our lives. Otherwise, our existence would spin into chaos. But moment-to-moment, day-to-day, week-to-week control is enticingly ever-elusive. It is a bar of wet soap in your hand. The harder you squeeze the more likely the bar will shoot away. Yet, many of us persist in seeking to maximize control over every aspect of our lives and the lives of others. In the workplace, many bosses assume that it is their sacred duty to control every employee and every aspect of the job. If you have ever worked for one of these control-freak bosses, you know what a miserable disaster that can be. Most often their behavior takes the form of micromanagement or perfectionism. Whatever the case, the controlling boss eventually finds it maddening as full control slips out of grasp over and over, and, all too often, instead of adjusting to failure and choosing a different strategy, the boss tries to squeeze each bar of soap all the harder with the predictable outcome. If you have a boss who regularly says something along the lines of “we should do the same thing but just more of it,” you know you are in deep trouble.
I am not suggesting that bosses should cede authority or give into chaos, of course. Instead, wise bosses recognize and embrace the limits of control and learn to manage in the rough and tumble of daily existence and even in the midst of chaos, which we all inescapably must confront. In contrast, those who resist chaos the most zealously fare the worst in the end.
Okay, enough of the soap analogy. If you are stuck on it, go buy a bottle of body wash or a good ol' soap-on-a-rope.
Exerting just the right amount of control requires constant appraisal and adjustment, which is why it is so tempting just to squeeze harder and pretend that you will retain your grip (sorry). Some people, particularly some bosses, feel the need to get involved in everything in order “to make sure it is done right.” To shift my metaphor once and for all away from bathing products, they want to stick their thumb in every pie. But, it is axiomatic that if you stick your thumb in every pie, all you end up with is a bunch of ruined pies. It’s a simple formula, really. If you feel obligated to get involved in everything, you only guarantee that you will wreck almost everything. If you are such a boss, it is also axiomatic that your employees will find your interference demoralizing and will react accordingly.
Years ago, my wife, who is an attorney, had a boss who was precisely this kind of control freak. Stephen felt that if he did not insert himself into every detail of their work, his staff would screw it up. He fancied himself the ultimate in quality control, I suppose. Stephen was a good guy outside of work and wasn’t a tyrant otherwise in the office, but morale was abysmal. For some reason, he was particularly proud of his writing ability, which indulged in florid language and 50-cent words even when he was writing to their clients, many of whom were victims of inadequate education. Whenever my wife wrote anything at all, Stephen had to see it before it went out. As it goes, that is not a bad idea. Writing is best when you can get as many eyes as possible on it, and a good boss will check important written matter for tone or quality before it leaves the office. Still, Stephen thought he wasn’t doing his job unless he was revising heavily. No matter how polished my wife’s writing, Stephen would liberally replace lucid phrasing with tangled wording, alter punctuation, and rearrange sentence structure. My wife complained to me bitterly about it.
At her first annual evaluation with Stephen, he took her to task specifically for her writing. He chose one piece she had submitted to him, and he humiliated her by reviewing all the alterations he had made. If that were not enough, at the end of their meeting, he told her that she should take a writing class at the local community college.
Let’s put this in perspective. My wife is, in fact, a community college graduate who went on to earn a JD from a respected law school. Furthermore, she won her law school graduation award for the quality of her writing, and by the time she met Stephen, she was no novice. She was a lawyer with years of experience. Imagine someone like her being told she would have to go back to her beginnings.
As luck would have it, though, her husband had some knowledge of just what she would learn in that community college writing course, given that I had started my career in academia tutoring and teaching writing at just such a school. She asked me to look over the piece that Stephen had viciously critiqued. No surprise, aside from two small typos, her original was clear and impeccable. On the other hand, Stephen’s attempt at revising it resulted in several sentence-structure errors, distorted diction, and misused punctuation. In short, Stephen, despite a formidable lexicon, was a lousy writer, a really lousy writer. His revisions betrayed no mastery of the basics of grammar and mechanics. Simply put, he would have benefited greatly from my beginning composition course.
My wife, though, concluded that she could not win with him. While she neglected to follow up on his suggestion that she go back to school, she also stopped revising her writing. Instead, she just submitted slap-dash first drafts to Stephen, reasoning that, since he would tear apart anything she gave him, her time could be better spent on other aspects of her job. Of course, having to review her slipshod work only further convinced Stephen of her ineptitude. Demoralizing.
I tell this true story because I enjoy its irony, certainly, but also because it is a great example of the inherent failure of control-freakdom in the workplace. Stephen wanted to minutely control all the material produced by his office and did not realize or accept the fact that my wife was (by far) the superior writer. Instead of trusting in her skills, which she had developed over years, he flattered himself that he was the better wordsmith and went on to ruin her perfectly fluent documents. He just had to go and stick his thumb in that delicious pie. Worst still, certainly without intending to, he belittled my wife and thus encouraged her to submit shoddy work, which only resulted in more effort from him.
To control is stupid, to manage divine.
The deeper insight here is that the need to exert excess control is very often (maybe always) the result of ego run amok. It suggests that oneself is exceptional and that others are inferior. The truth is, though, that everyone is superior, inferior, and equal in a variety of ways. Workplaces that feature healthy teams acknowledge this fact and use it to their advantage. They encourage team members to share their abilities with one another and offset their shortcomings in order to achieve collective success. The leader of a team is not necessarily the most skilled at any, let alone all, of the team’s tasks. The team leader should be the one who is most skilled at bringing out the best in the team by striking the right balance. In other words, the team leader should simply be the one who is most adept at leading.
Now, in all honesty, I can certainly conceive of the existence of some sort of genius who is superior to everyone in everything. I can also recognize how such an extraordinary individual would be best left to perform in his or her preferred manner. This brainiac would be a paragon of efficiency, a one-person productivity machine, and must have as much leeway to perform at his or her top capacity to be as effective as possible.
Of course, my ability to conjure such a mastermind is entirely the result of an exertion of my imagination. The human imagination is a wonderfully versatile tool and allows me to envision a host of scenarios that are as equally outlandish as the existence of a supergenius master of all trades, a boss who can and should have total control. For example, I can also just as readily imagine a one-legged unicorn taking a leak at the end of a double rainbow.
So, I promised in my title to let you know how to maximize control in one easy step.
A short while back I wrote about the power of decency, but what about the superpower of decency?
Dr. Nichols' patient was struggling to breathe and begging the doctor to save his life. When his shirt was removed for treatment, the medical team, which Nichols described as "a Jewish physician, a Black nurse, and an Asian respiratory therapist," could see that his body was defaced with Nazi symbols, including a swastika tattooed prominently on his chest. As they set about treating the patient, Nichols reflected that a man with such emblems of hatred inked on his skin had likely devoted himself to devaluing, or worse, the lives of the very people working to save his. Nonetheless, the team prepared to intubate their patient, a procedure that would expose them to considerable risk of contagion in this age of COVID.
The scene Nichols paints deserves further rumination.
Think about it. Here we see a patient whose naked flesh proclaims his raw hatred for these individuals who risk their own health and lives to preserve his life even as they know their success would free him to continue to promote his noxious views and threaten their wellbeing and that of their families and loved ones..
Nazi tattoos are not some deplorable cosplay fad. They indicate a commitment to white supremacy and to classifying specific groups of people as subhuman or not quite human and decidedly intolerable. His Jewish doctor even recognized one tattoo as the insignia of the SS, who were responsible for designing and executing the "Final Solution," otherwise known as the Holocaust. Perhaps, you may argue, this patient had an explanation for the repugnant tattoos, such as he got them in prison because he needed the protection of a gang, or some such thing. Perhaps he had or would come to regret them. But why so many? And why keep them?
Reasserting the Human in Humanist
Nichols describes himself as a humanist in his Twitter profile, which can indicate a number of things. Based on his story, I would guess that he means that he derives his morality from serving humanity rather than from the doctrine and mores of an established religion, dogma, or code. If I am right, Nichols' humble commitment to the service to others is a stellar example of humanist morality in action. Clearly, the point of his thread is not to garner praise for himself and his colleagues for doing their jobs. Indeed, the narrative culminates in a moment of crisis when, exhausted by months of battling COVID in the face of those who deny its existence and reflecting on the hatred this particular patient expresses via his body markings, Nichols hesitates.
Again, the story is about Nichols' moral dilemma in the fog of his exhaustion.
It is a story of human decency decently told in 280-character bites. It even starts in medias res. For Nichols and his colleagues, this nightmarish scenario is just the quotidian, the day-to-day routine. Worn down as he must be, he still constantly does the right thing, the decent thing, no matter his feelings. His story is a companion to that of Jodi Doering, a nurse in South Dakota who told her tale of moral outrage in the midst of gruesomeness on Twitter and CNN at around the same time. She spoke of patients who deny the existence of COVID and call her names even as they are dying of the disease. Like Nichols and his team, she continues to care for them in the face of their hateful contempt. Her Twitter profile, which now apparently lists her name as Jodi Orth (@jodiorth), has a banner that reads "Be a Good Human," sadly an increasingly radical stance. In fairness, I must note that her testimonial has been disputed as exaggerated. Whatever the case, as Nichols observed, simply continuing to treat patients in the midst of COVID denial and hostility to medical personnel from a wide swath of the population is demoralizing in the extreme, and even more so in a place like South Dakota where the governor herself has abetted the spread of the disease and openly contributed to the widespread denial and consequent contempt for medical professionals.
These tales of frontline medical professionals, but two samples standing in for an untold number of told and untold stories, are more extreme than what most of us will ever experience. Still, they are clear instances of the power of decency, of remaining "a good human," in the face of horror.
I would go even further. For those of us in other walks of life, it is hard to imagine having to face anger, unreason, resentment, and hatred every day from the very people you are committed to serving, be they patients on a gurney or governors in the statehouse. Practitioners in other professions may confront similar dilemmas, (law enforcement officers, teachers, and, yes, even lawyers come to mind), but not perhaps in such stark terms and under such constant duress.
In this way, maintaining basic human decency, being a good human, is not just a power, but it is a superpower. It takes an extraordinary amount of fortitude to assert decency day in and day out even without the onslaught of abuse and offense that medical professionals, these human beings, face. Maintaining decency along with its attendant virtues of integrity and compassion is simple but not easy, for it is not enough to declare "I am an honorable person, a good human" or to merely intend to be a virtuous person. Decency demands constant vigilance, vigilance that itself is enervating, which is partially why Nichols flagged for a moment before proceeding to work on his patient.
Human decency, being a good person in the face of it all, is indeed a superpower. It is an act of heroism that may just save us all. While it is not as cool and fanciful as the ability to fly or turn invisible or punch through brick walls, it remains the only superpower that challenges our humanity and thereby the only one that can help make us fully human.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.