When asked about their biggest challenge at work, many managers responded—and one person screamed (using all caps)— “PEOPLE.”
We struggle to get along with other humans. But only because we are human too. When artificial intelligence creates a human-like robot, it’s not clear who will get replaced first: the employee or the manager.
While there’s still time, let’s work on our own intelligence. Let’s fix a few bugs in our code. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Wait until you’ve read through the rest of this post. If, by then, you still don’t think you have a code that’s crawling with bugs, then I want to hear from you.
What’s interesting is that it’s mostly well-meaning, decent people who have a hard time getting through to their fellow creatures. Imagine a high-caliber con artist—we’re talking Catch Me If You Can, or at least Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Imagine one of these individuals infiltrating your organization. Would he have any problems getting hired? Of course not! A handshake here, a fake degree there, and he could be the CEO if he wanted to. (If you think it’s a stretch, take a look at Chapter 2 of my book, Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? I’ve got facts about lying on your resume and faking it till you make it.)
Would the con artist ever complain about other people? Not at all, right? He’d be in hog heaven. He’d have everyone carrying water for him and thanking him for it. To understand how and why this happens, I recommend Robert Cialdini’s book Influence. He has collected years of scientific data and case studies from marketing, religious cults, college fraternities, primitive societies, and many other walks of human life to show how easy it is to manipulate people into doing things they don’t want to do. It’s changed my life and how I view the world.
So, why is it that most of us find ourselves on the wrong side of the human fallibility?
It is our uncanny ability to construct our own reality. We are constantly battling people who refuse to see things our way. And we are easy dupes for anyone willing to accept our worldview and operate on our terms.
Let’s take the last post, for example. We had an IT Project Manager who said his biggest challenge was “keeping staff interested in growing with new technology.”
We don’t know what chain of events led him to reach that conclusion. But if it’s anything like what I’ve seen over the years, then the technology in question is a piece of software that is unpopular with the folks at the office.
Let’s say the new software is the project our IT guy manages and champions. He talks to one person after another. People either have tried the new system and, to put it mildly, didn’t get hooked. Or they never tried it at all. He hears some combination of “I haven’t got all day to figure this out” and “There’s nothing wrong with the way we do it now.” And the light bulb goes off in his head, “These people are lazy, and they hate technology!”
We can pretty much assume that no one in the office said the words, “I am not interested in growing with new technology.” No. No one even whispered it behind his back. And yet, he’s so confident he has put his finger on the root of the problem that he declares it to be his biggest challenge at work.
The IT PM doesn’t “buy” the responses he hears. But instead of digging deeper, he substitutes his own explanation for the one given. (“This software isn’t hard to learn. These people don’t want to learn anything!”) The advantage of the new explanation is that it’s not valid: companies cannot grow without learning and adopting new technologies.
Since he can show his opponents to be wrong (at least in his mind), he doesn’t need to change anything in his worldview. His project is still valuable. His choice of software is still a good one. And he is still an important employee—even more so now that he has tasked himself with enlightening the masses about technology.
The IT Project Manager has bought himself peace of mind. But at what cost? He is no longer dealing with real colleagues. He can’t relate to their bizarre, but real feelings about the new software. Instead, he surrounds himself with imaginary beings operating under imaginary motives. And the only predictable outcome is that his peace of mind is also imaginary.
Does this sound familiar? It should. We do this all day, every day. Cialdini calls this the consistency principle. His research proves that people overwhelmingly stay true to their original decision, even when new data shows it to be incorrect. The danger is not only that we disconnect from other people, but also that we become vulnerable to being conned into subsequent bad decisions.
Because our IT Project Manager has excluded the possibility that his coworkers do not hate all new technology equally, he may continue on the path of shoving his project down their throats. It would be easy now for the software vendor to persuade him to put more money and time into it. And the probability of success of these subsequent measures is fifty-fifty at best. Why? The decision to pursue them is based on a false and incomplete set of facts.
Now, let’s roll the tape back to when the IT Project Manager first gets the bad news. Maybe he’s talking to our old friend Sally from Publications and Internal Communications, and she tells him she’s not using the software because every update has to go through IT.
It’s tempting to argue with Sally and tell her she’s missing out on all the beautiful features of the new software. However, knowing Sally is also susceptible to the consistency principle and will not give up her position without a fight, the IT PM could choose another path.
He could nod his head understandingly and raises his eyebrows periodically to show shock and disbelief at Sally’s ordeal. He might even chime in with something like, “I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this. You must hate this new technology.”
By empathizing with Sally, the IT PM will invoke another law of psychology: the rule of reciprocity. Sally will feel compelled to respond in kind and will attempt to reassure him that things are not as bad as they seem. “Well, I can see that it has a lot of potential, we just have had no luck figuring it out,” she might say.
The IT PM does not need to challenge her statement or take it on blind faith. Both options are dead ends. The trick is to “unpack” Sally’s words. A good way to start is to sum up her response by saying “It seems like...
“It seems like your department is having trouble learning the software.”
“It seems like you can’t get the software to do what it’s supposed to do.”
Notice that, instead of relying on his first impression, the IT PM is now waiting for Sally to confirm it. Once that happens, he is ready to move on to what-ifs.
“I see. What if we had a training session dedicated to Publishing and Internal Communications? Would that help?”
“What if we gave in-depth training to a designated individual in your department?”
“What if we changed the feature you don’t like?”
“What if you had a more intuitive system?”
The goal of this conversation is not to be nice to Sally, but to have a correct and complete understanding where she stands on the new software. Once you’ve reached your conclusion, it is useful to once again ask for confirmation:
“Sally, it seems like you’re opposed to using any new system, and that you’re deciding to stick with email.”
What are the chances that Sally will respond with an unqualified “that’s right”? Pretty slim, huh? She will leave herself some room to “grow with new technology.” But regardless of Sally’s position, she’ll no longer pose a challenge to IT. Substituting facts for knee-jerk reactions has that kind of power to resolve issues. Try it.
We always want other people to grow and develop as it benefits our agenda. When they don’t, we like to criticize them and invalidate their motives. The irony is that calling someone lazy is the laziest thing we can do. It doesn’t require the mental effort of setting aside our ingrained biases and listening from the mindset of the other person. Now who is the one not interested in growing?
The next time you have to deal with people, remember to let go of “they just don’t get it.” Of course, they don’t. But that’s not the point. Instead, focus on what you don’t get. Then, not only will you find new solutions to old problems, you will also make new friends and admirers.
Your power to influence people rests in your ability to understand their problems. It’s an awesome power. Don’t underestimate it while you’re still grappling with the concept—and don’t abuse it once you’ve mastered it.
If you hate people, you might like my book, because it breaks them up into manageable pieces.
Tim is president and co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.
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