Hidden Variables in Conflict: Bias and Belief

When conflict arises, it seems de rigueur for parties to blame the other and to focus only on how we are right/virtuous and the other is wrong/flawed. Two psychological processes help us to understand that tendency. Confirmation bias and selective recall means we only notice or remember data that confirm our hypothesis or position but ignore or forget the information that refute it.   These tendencies may be especially pervasive when we become emotional during the conflict. As a result, we each become entrenched in our righteousness, and gridlock occurs.

Hopefully, once parties calm down, reason can prevail. But it doesn’t always happen, especially if emotions stay high around the issue and forgiveness evades either or both parties.

I have never seen a conflict where, after talking to both parties, I thought one side was completely at fault and the other entirely innocent. That is not to say, however, that both parties behaved equally well after the conflict began.

Considering the possibility that you are wrong or at least equally responsible is a hard thing to do. We are often invested in the illusion/delusion that we are perfect or always right because otherwise we will be abandoned or not OK/loved/accepted/safe/included/understood. These schema beliefs provide the emotional gasoline for that conflict spark.

And don’t think you don’t have any schema beliefs. We all do.

So consider that, at minimum, we each bring confirmation bias, selective recall and schema into any interpersonal dynamic, especially conflict.   It’s a natural human tendency, so don’t feel bad.  But don’t feel like you’re off the hook, either.

In the end, if we wish to have healthy relationships we have a responsibility to understand and manage our own biases and beliefs.

Understanding and accepting that we all have these tendencies is a good starting place to explore our roles and responsibilities when we have conflict with others. Those responsibilities include focusing on our own part in the conflict in a constructive manner. A constructive approach means understanding how our own biases and beliefs contributed to the start or escalation of the conflict, then finding strategies to improve in the future.

On the other hand, a constructive approach does not include either going to the other extreme and assuming all the blame or pointing fingers at the other’s failure to manage their own schema and biases. You don’t want to undo all that good you are trying to do by adding martyrdom or hypocrisy to the list, right?

I know it’s hard and scary work. It takes courage and honesty to really look at oneself without the usual rose- or grey-colored lenses that we’re comfortable with. But in the end, I feel it is the mature, loving and right thing to do to grow beyond our adolescent tendencies and take responsibility for our actions especially when our subconscious variables are in the mix.

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Closing Doors

“When one door closes, another opens”

I love this statement because it reminds me to look forward toward possibilities rather than back on past losses. Usually I think of this phrase relative to big things such as jobs or relationships. However, this concept also applies to the small events that happen in our lives every day.

Recently I wrote about my minor injury. While starting my convalescence right before the 2 week holiday break, my computer also decided to take an extended vacation as well. So there I was during the break, bum ankle, a computer vacationing at Disney Land, cumulatively spelling disaster for this energizer bunny. My family will tell you there was a lot of pouting and off-couch rebellion during my convalescence. I definitely was not a little angel.

Normally when faced when the usual bumps in the road of life such as delays, repairs, reversals, injuries, mistakes and mishaps, I fume, storm, and fight back (sounds suspiciously like a temper tantrum). But I am more circumspect regarding setbacks these days (don’t worry – not even close to achieving angel status). What should I do instead? How can I better manage my frustration? What can I learn by sitting quietly? What should I do/not do? What in my life needs attention that I have been ignoring? What am I focusing on that I should be letting go of?

Setbacks, large or small, at minimum are invitations to reflect and regroup. They’re not an indictment of our quality or qualifications as a friend, potential mate, person or professional.  They’re not a sign that the universe is against you and your chance for happiness. Rather, they are an opportunity to stop, find a positive perspective, and reflect on life and the direction it’s heading. Viewing setbacks or delays as a wonderful gift and opportunity not only will make you feel calmer but more powerful and optimistic.  In other words, all those little frustrations are actually gifts.  It’s just like Christmas, every single day!

What is your most frustrating, recurring delay or problem?  How can you approach it as the gift that it is?  Within, you might find a lovely surprise.

Trust at Work

Trust is an important element of motivation, so creating trust in the workplace is critical for employees to perform at their best.   Transparency and open communication is essential for trust. But it’s so much more.

When I was a kid, back during the last Ice Age, employees had an implied and actual contract with their employer. If they were loyal to the organization, the organization would be loyal to them. They had generous pensions and could trust that they could retire comfortably after a certain number of years of service without worry.

That concept seems laughable and naïve these days since the pension seems to have caused financial ruin for many companies. Though the model is not financially sustainable, this idea of a reciprocal relationship between the employee and employer also seems to be as outdated as the dinosaur.   In other words, what the modern contract seems to amount to is: You work as hard as possible, and take on incredible stress and responsibility with little or no support. In return, I give you a paycheck and maybe some benefits. I may or may not treat you well, help you or recognize your efforts.   I may or may not help you grow as an individual or care about your personal or professional well-being. I will dispose of you as soon as I think it will benefit the organization. If the time comes when I think it’s time for you to go, I may simply escort you from the building without so much as a “thanks for your service.” And for that, you better show your appreciation to me and make this job your first priority.

And employers wonder why employees don’t work harder or show a better attitude.

Granted, this contract may be implicit since few managers will actually say something like that. But just like I do a terrible job of trying to appear happy and friendly when I’m actually grouchy or upset, words, tone, and actions belie true intentions.   Being transparent and openly communicating about this You Are A Cog in the Machine philosophy will not improve trust. It will improve disengagement and resentment.

In my opinion, the difference between a manager and a leader is whether they treat employees and colleagues well given the realities of the modern workplace. Treating someone well does not mean you never, ever fire or discipline them. It simply means that when that time comes, you treat them as you wish to be treated. Treating someone well also does not mean that you constantly praise and affirm them. Instead, it means being authentic and true with your praise and reward, and not because you want something from them.   The Arbinger Institute (Leadership and Self-Deception and arbinger.com) teaches this philosophy about doing business either by treating others as objects – an obstacle, irrelevant, or a means to an end, or as people – whose needs, wants and desires are as important as your own. Until one learns the difference and behaves accordingly, I believe true leadership will continue to evade them.

The Trouble With Smart People

Pretty much everyone I know is smart. So friends, don’t hate me for what I’m about to say. But someone has to say it and I’m known for speaking what I believe to be truth.

We can be a real pain in the buttinsky.

There. I said it.

At least know that I’m including myself in this equation. In fact, it’s my own experience from which I draw this conclusion.

In my last blog, I wrote about the difference between confidence and arrogance. We can easily cross into arrogance in a blink of an eye – yours truly especially. Arrogance can be very global to our whole lives, or to a major part of our lives like our work (which is mostly what I was referring to).   But arrogance can also be situational and episodic. Either way, it can lead to stupidity.

I like to think that I usually keep my ego in check, but I’m rethinking that assumption after a recent minor injury. As a (non-practicing) health care professional, I felt that I was capable of self-prescribing my recovery plan. A week later I had made little or no progress.   It took a chorus of not only my immediate but extended family (and a few friends) to send me to the doctor and get and X-ray and some crutches.

Some people are more open to input than others.

And, as usual, I see the fallacy in others but not my own folly.

“Why do you look at the speck in your brothers eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?”

I frequently see others bypass the wisdom of experts, even when offered for free, because of their belief that their knowledge, wisdom and ability to strategize into the future is complete.   They are (I am) an island, and you can keep swimming on by.

In certain areas, I am a wise consumer. I tend to get care, advice, and supervision proactively when I know I’m out of my league.  In that case, what I don’t know is just ignorance.   But when in an area of comfort and knowledge, what I don’t know are blind spots potentially reinforced by arrogance. Health, psychology, relationships, education, parenting… my blind spots are vast and deep.

“Ignorance is bliss but knowledge is power”

Which do you choose?

Confidence vs. Arrogance

Know it all

Know it all

Way back during my misspent youth, I was often called arrogant, among other things. I defended it as confidence, and that others didn’t understand me.

In reality, it was me who did not understand. My definition of confidence mainly was thinking that I knew.   I was knowing. I was wise beyond my years. I understood the world and how it worked. I had a fair amount of certainty around those assumptions, and my self-esteem depended on that certainty. The more that my self-esteem depended on my knowledge and righteousness, the harder I defended it and the more smug I became. Since I knew how the world worked, I pretty much could manage anything and everything in it.

Pretty laughably naïve, in hindsight.

As I’ve grown in wisdom and humility over the years, I believe I am much easier to be around. I am increasingly aware of how little I know, and how the knowledge that I do have is very subjective.   First, my need to distill and simplify my world means that I don’t understand it’s inherent complexities.   The more I distill, the less I understand. Second, whatever knowledge I do have is also subjective: Whatever I notice or know is subject to my interpretation. You will notice, remember and interpret things differently from me; thus we have different realities.

Therefore, the difference between confidence and arrogance, IMHO, is the degree that we appreciate uncertainty and complexity. The more that we are open to the reality of others and our own human limitations, the wiser and more confident we become. I think it’s ironic that confidence comes not from knowledge and certainty, but rather with comfort with the unknown and our own vulnerability.

Are you certain? Or are you open?

Do you know? Or do you suppose?

Are you curious? Or are you bored?

Do you admit you’re wrong? Or are you always right?

There you have it. My certainty about the world is about my need to be right.   I still go there sometimes, unfortunately.  But I know now that there are certainties in our life or in our world. I’m just not sure what they are. And that’s OK with me.

Bliss downsides

I love to write about callings and following your bliss because that’s, well, my bliss. Anything having to do with helping others follow their passions and dreams that helps them to realize their authentic potential is where I feel I can make the most impact.   It’s not something that would ever be listed on a job inventory for career seekers. That’s why our bliss is unique and specific to us and is uncovered in a highly personal journey.

I have so far only focused on the upside of pursuing our bliss. But there is a downside to the search for and pursuit of your bliss. Roughly 30-40% of people are searching for their calling. Searching for your authentic purpose can cause significant anxiety at any age (Rainey, MAPP capstone, University of Pennsylvania, Scholarly Commons, 2014). The need and desire to identify that unique and authentic gift that we feel we’re here to share can be compelling, yet frustrating.

Sensing a calling can also have its downsides. Those who sense, but cannot live their calling can also experience profound frustration and sense of loss.   Think: the lawyer who longs to play their cello all day but whose obligations (financial, personal, professional) do not permit a job change.   Also, living a calling may cause a willingness to endure and tolerate long hours, high work demands and suboptimal work conditions.

Potentially, living your calling may have additional personal challenges and costs. I find my bliss is an irresistible draw: like a moth to a flame, like a chocoholic to a Godiva Ballotin.   I can pursue my calling unremittingly all day, then ask for more. In the meantime, the world, my friends, my family, and other obligations may swirl around me while I’m oblivious to anything other than the pursuit of my bliss. In so doing, I fly willingly and eagerly into the fire. I can only imagine what it’s like to live with someone (like me) who’s addicted to their bliss and pursues it with unremitting focus.

Unfortunately, that oblivion is a distinguishing aspect of flow: losing track of time and self-consciousness while absorbed in an activity. Though there are advantages to being in flow, including using your strengths and typically performing with excellence, some attendance to the external world and obligations is in order to avoid getting burned.

I think it’s important to remember that the most important bliss isn’t our bliss at work. Our bliss is also with our loved ones, for without which the work has no meaning at all.   We may not allocate the time in our day in a way that reflects that priority (we spend more time at work than at home, for example), but as they say, on our deathbed we never wish that we had spent more time at work.

We live our bliss in our personal lives too. I have always, in retrospect, approached even my personal relationships from the point of view of my calling – helping others to be the best possible versions of themselves. The best possible version of me lives a well-balanced life with time for intimacy-building, rest and recreation. In that manner, I can pursue my calling during business hours with energy and enthusiasm, yet nurture and foster my private life with the same gusto.  That’s what it’s all about.

Your Bliss: Prospective or Retrospective?

Working with students in higher education is such a privilege because I often get to participate in their important career, and thus, life decisions. Their whole life and career are in front of them.   The possibilities seem endless since they can prospectively plan their bliss into their daily work. According to comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, following our bliss allows us to feel fully alive; work as a vehicle for bliss has huge implications in terms of our motivation and well-being at work.

However, most of us don’t have that luxury of planning bliss into our career. We may be mid-career, with mortgages, dual careers, debt, aging parents and, well, fear of change that may impair our ability to go bliss chasing. We may have come to terms long ago that our bliss ship has sailed and we missed the boat.   At my age, I just don’t think I’m going to give it all up to try to go become a dancer on Broadway.

But that’s a cop out.   No, I will never at this age get to start a dance career where I will be able to earn a paycheck, much less make a living. But what’s to stop me from taking a dance class? If I really feel the need to perform, why not videotape for Youtube? Or the school “talent” show? Sure.

Better yet, there’s so much we can do within the context of our current jobs. We may not have chosen our current job or career path because of our bliss, but it doesn’t mean we can’t find bliss at work. Researchers Bunderson and Thompson reported in 2009 in a seminal paper on callings that zookeepers, whose job mainly entails cleaning cages and caring for animals, frequently find that tedious work to be their calling. In other words, they had a passion for the work and felt it had impact. Similarly, Wrzesniewski (1997) similarly found that callings exist across a range of jobs, ranks, and disciplines from janitors to CEOs.

The key is whether you make meaning of the work you do. For instance, much of my job is pretty routine. In higher ed, we’re awash in bureaucracy and I shuffle a LOT of forms around. Form-filling is not my calling, but underneath that task I am enabling the degree completion of our students. By not passing the task on to faculty, I am also freeing their time to do the important work of research and advising. The task, though mind-numbingly boring, plays an important role in the school that enables success of our students and faculty.

In other words, my focus and interpretation matter. I can either focus on how parts of my job are soul crushing, or how those small things make a difference to others. I’m never going to enjoy filling out forms but at least I complete that task cheerfully instead of with anger, resentment or martyrdom.

How about you? Do you have a calling or just a job? How can you find more meaning in your job and be more aware of the positive impact of your work on others?