From Work Space


Don’t forget that we are human

Recently my friend, a sales manager of a product line, told me furiously that he was leaving his company because the executives decided to cut off the business of his software.

I was surprised because we had just run together some successful campaigns for the software, and the results seemed promising. I saw no logic behind this decision. Out of curiosity, I dug deeper into the issue and discovered a whole drama.

My friend has this quirky personality and loves to criticize things. He made some “innocent” jokes about micro-management during a workshop and thought his jokes might inspire some ideas. Unfortunately, the jokes weren’t taken well by one manager. The manager felt so offended by these jokes and went quite far to take the revenge.

To cut a long story short, a stupid joke led to an office war and was finished with a lose-lose outcome.

So why would someone sacrifice a business just to revenge on such an absurd thing? This made me reflect my ways dealing with colleagues.

Office politics, an ugly word that makes corporate life sound so dull, and a situation that I always seek to avoid.

“No matter what, I will just be professional: work hard, play fair, judge based on good sense and don’t take things personally.” My corporate doctrine indeed kept me out of trouble. The bad thing is, it also kept many opportunities out of reach.

The problem with my theory was that I was idealizing human’s mind as perfectly logical, which is far from the truth. As human-beings, we don’t play fair; we are prone to prejudge and bias; we take things personally and we are unforgiving. My false mental model prevented me from developing deeper relationships with people, and thus prevented me from getting enough support for personal growth.

To develop a better mental model we need to first see people as human

1) Humans have emotions. This makes us prone to irrational thinking, even though we see ourselves as perfectly logical. More often, our logic is used to justify a decision already made, rather than used to make the decision.

During a meeting, a project team is reviewing Laura’s proposal. The idea looks good, but something feels wrong and I can’t quite locate it. “I don’t know… The interaction looks a little complex”, says Jake. Tiiiiin! I suddenly get it. Of course, nobody will “heart” the news to get personal recommendations, what a crappy interaction! What’s the point of bookmarking old news articles anyway? Other members seem to “get it” too. Suddenly the proposal has the manpower, technical, budget and a dozen of other issues. It only makes perfect sense to deny the proposal.

The decision-making process seems logical, expect that all the critiques were triggered by Jake’s first exclamation. In short, Jake made the decision, and the whole team searched for evidence to justify it.

Jake’s critique could be true, but Jake could have said that because of many reasons: He could be undergoing a hard time in his own project; he could be worried about his baby’s health; he could dislike Laura and made a bad comment; he could just be in bad mood. If the proposal was presented in another day, Jake could have liked the idea, and the meeting would have turned out very differently.

2) Humans are social animals. They love the people that they are close to and worship those in higher positions. Their behavior and believing are guided by their positions in the social hierarchy.

In my last story, Jake’s comment got social support because we love Jake. Jake is a charming one: he makes funny jokes, he cares about people and he is smart. Comparing to Jake, Laura is new to the team. She looks an agreeable person, but her trustworthiness needs to be tested.

Although personal charisma has nothing to do with one’s ability to make product decisions, our fondness to Jake made us immediately judge him as more trustworthy on any situation.

We need to observe and understand the organization

One thing that one can practice when entering a new working place is to observe the ecosystem of the organization.

1) Identifying decision influencers
Decision influencers are those who lead discussions to final conclusions at the turning point, such as what Jake did in my last story. They don’t have to be decision makers, but they contribute greatly to the outcome of any decision in an organization.

It might sound astonishing, but they tend to be the same group of people in a working place. Observing the turning points of meetings and discussions in your team, and you will soon find them. They are the most important people that you want to deal with if you need to get decisions made.

2) Understanding people’s perspectives
People are unpredictable, but paradoxically their perspectives are predictable on a certain level. That’s because the mental models of one are stable and these models decide how he views things.

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. You will find one who takes great care of details will always be picky about the font you use, and the one who sees large picture will always want to talk about the future plan.

Understanding people’s different perspective will help you to predict their reaction to your ideas, thus help you to prepare properly. You can also make use of it to get good suggestions of a specific aspect of your project.

Shared experience is important

To develop a deeper relationship, we need to respect people as human. The beauty of human mind is that it can sort out the ambiguities and vagaries in the circumstance, and react based on the context.

Jake can be too busy to talk with you, but be enthusiastic to chat with Laura. A bad joke can make a good laugh among friends, but can be totally inappropriate with your colleagues. Everything depends on context.

Shared experience helps us to develop empathy and lay down mental barrier during communication. That’s why after a coffee break and corridor talks, team members tend to achieve agreement more easily.

Try to create some shared experience with your colleagues outside the office. Whether grabbing a coffee together, volunteering for a fundraising event or just asking for suggestion about your travel destination, it will bring you more than what you expected.