Curmudgeon, bellyacher, and old biddy are but a few of the unflattering terms used to describe people fond of calling out pretense, bad behavior, hypocrisy, or the unnoticed downsides of conventional thinking.
Some of these cross patches live to annoy. Picture the sourpuss who snarls and bites because he’s motivated by malice, the malcontent who sees arguing as a competitive sport, or the family spitfire who delights in disrupting holiday dinners with her dissenting opinions. Big pains you know where.
But not all cranks and crabs are mean-spirited, looking to troll, anger, or insult. Some contrarians see something different; others see the greater good; and their messages should prompt us to reflect, not criticize. Their point, if we listen to it, can encourage us to look further than our own self-interest. There’s lessons to be learned.
Curmudgeons’ versions of the truth unsettle us, and we hold it against them. ~Jon Winokur, The Portable Curmudgeon
About that greater good thing that some mavericks see. In a crazy, busy world in which people take pride in their uniqueness of character and experience, talking about the greater good can feel uncomfortable. Something woo-woo, socialistic, or based in bottom-line oriented cost/benefit analyses.
Aristotle says it’s a shared happiness in which everyone has wisdom, virtue, and pleasure.
Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts, says it’s having healthy children, strong families, good schools, decent housing, and work that dignifies.
Others describe it as improving lives, so people suffer less and feel valued.
Some individuals conflate the idea of a greater good with controlling people’s destiny and dictating their thoughts. That’s not the case. With a measure of self-awareness, openness, and compassion, it’s possible to promote collective well-being without having a collective identity.
There’s lots of truth in, and lessons to be learned, from the old line that variety is the spice of life.
The pressures of conformity, the focus on winning in the quantifiable sense, and the quest for materialism are capable, individually and collectively, of making us forget (ignore? reject?) the joys of difference. The grinches and whiners who tilt against the grain can help us remember.
Civilizations should be judged not by how they treat people closest to power, but rather how they treat those furthest from power—whether in race, religion, gender, wealth, or class—as well as in time. ~Larry Brilliant, philosopher, hippie, and author
In business environments that values profits over principles and people, it can be easy to adopt that same narrow bottom line perspective and forget about caring for or respecting all people. Even if they see the world differently than we do.
Lessons to be learned
However, if we give ourselves permission to be open to considering their message, the grumps and grouches who point out inconvenient truths can help us see the bigger picture.
If we let them, antagonists and killjoys can serve as a reminder for us to be less selfish and insensitive.
If we let them, the malcontent’s message can serve as a hint that it’s time for us to step back and reassess.
Advice from the Dalai Lama is helpful when reassessing. He counsels us to ask ourselves as well as others just who benefits by what we’re about to do. Is it an individual or a group of people? Just one group or everyone? Is the benefit for right now or for the future?
In the rush to grow the bottom line, to have more, and to be the biggest, perspective about the greater good often gets lost. If we let it, the resistance of whiners can help us tap into our curiosity and enable us to see from a different point of view.
The grumbler’s gripes can be like the canary in the coal mine that alerts us to our mind being closed and having lost the ability to see the other side without taking sides.
I place a high moral value one the way people behave. I find it repellent to behave with anything other than courtesy in the old sense of the word—politeness of the heart, a gentleness of the spirit. ~Fran Lebowitz, author
The next time a scold speaks out in a meeting, resist the urge to discredit or dismiss his words. Choose not to be annoyed by her lack of team spirit. Choose instead to listen. To reflect. To consider. To question. To step out of the profit-driven moment and think about the greater good. Look for the lessons to be found in being a better person and making a difference.
Being open-minded is a choice, and curmudgeons are there to remind us that we have it.
Despite combining multi-tasking with a lead foot, I’d backed out of my narrow garage countless times without mishap. Then came the morning of a mistake in judgment and a big car repair bill. Ugh.
Spending money on unnecessary repair bills cut into my shoe budget, so, after that, I backed out slowly and carefully, acutely aware of distance and speed. Repair bills and a ton of inconvenience were a mistake I didn’t want to repeat.
“Oh, that’s so sad,” said a gal pal to whom I recounted my morning challenge. “I hope you get your confidence back real soon.”
Get my confidence back? I hadn’t thought of my situation that way.
But now, the thought of a lack of confidence in my abilities was in my head every morning as I backed my car out. I wondered when my confidence would return. What a crummy thought to have so early in the day.
Low confidence. That was a malady I thought I’d escaped. Hair that frizzed in humidity, a weakness for chocolate that showed in a flabby belly, and a closet overflowing with shoes were issues I knew I had. Lack of confidence not so much.
My inner critic disagreed. It chirped that all women lack confidence.
Goodness, said my inner critic. Look at all the books and articles out there. Women having low confidence is an epidemic. Of course, you suffer from it. You’re not zipping out the garage like you used to, are you?
No, I wasn’t.
Confidence is a golden blend of self-esteem and self-efficacy. Were mine missing? Time to reflect and see if my inner critic was right.
As for self-esteem, I could check off all the boxes. I knew I was competent. I believed I deserved to be happy. I felt like I was useful and delivered value. All self-esteem systems were a go.
Self-efficacy is the judgment we make about our ability to master new skills, produce results, and succeed in specific situations. I’ve failed a gazillion times. Some days I even muck something up before leaving the house. But dusting myself off and trying again had never been a problem. One boss had even given me the nickname “Jane never-say-die Perdue.”
OK, self-esteem and self-efficacy were fine. So, what was going on?
While low self-confidence may be a common issue with some women, suffering from it didn’t square with my experience. (Stubbornness is another personal malady.)
Business women routinely make decisions, manage budgets, run households, and serve their communities. That stuff doesn’t happen in an absence of confidence; it only happens when someone has faith in their abilities. (Granted, they might occasionally doubt themselves a little, but humility is a good thing.)
Hmm. Is low confidence really just part of being a woman?
Could that supposed lack be a social meme, a cultural idea, that people believe because it’s plastered everywhere? Google “women and low confidence,” and there’s 274,000,000 results.
Could women’s alleged low confidence be a convenient social explanation for inequality? A cover for gender bias?
Don’t make my mistake
As I considered my situation more, I concluded low self-confidence wasn’t the problem. I’d let my pal put a thought in my head, and then I ran with it. My confidence was fine.
So, what was my deal? Cautiousness. I was being watchful and prudent. That’s all. Prior to the big repair bill, I’d operated on autopilot—car in reverse and go, with a thousand nondriving thoughts pinballing in my mind.
Fascinating how I’d allowed myself to get sucked into an unproductive line of thought by the power of suggestion from my pal and the ubiquity of the belief that women lack confidence. I won’t make the mistake of automatically buying that line of thinking any more. Being cautious is totally different than lacking confidence.
My words weren’t helpful, noble, or persuasive. Only critical. As Dale Carnegie once said, any fool can criticize. I didn’t want to be another fool; several others were already present.
Serving up one-and-done criticism is the easy stuff of fools. Criticism delivered from a detached distance and couple with a lack of concern for those who may be hurt, belittled, or marginalized is safe and effortless.
Criticism is, at its core, disapproval based on perceived mistakes or faults.
Ways of expressing that disapproval can be either constructive or destructive. If there’s intent to aid in improving those mistakes or faults because they’re really mistakes or faults and not merely biases, then lots of work comes after speaking. Criticizing is but the first step in what should be a process.
My experience has been that it’s the rare person who’s willing to invest in the whole process. You?
He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help. ~Abraham Lincoln
Parents, teachers, bosses, and others remind us to be mindful of what we say and how we say it. In the spirit of being our best possible selves, why not expand that advice to include thinking about why we say what we say—before we say it?
A few seconds spent examining our motives—am I speaking constructively in pursuit of solving a problem or am I speaking to prove my superiority—can make a dramatic difference in whether outcomes and relationships take a positive or negative turn.
Had I spoken that day, my comments would have joined similar useless words full of judgment and short on constructive feedback or persuasive reasoning.
To belittle, you have to be little. ~Khalil Gibran
Instead of serving a meaningful purpose, criticism can easily lapse into self-serving swagger and become destructive. Hurtful criticism leads to contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling, and polarization—all downward spirals of activity that fail to advance the greater good and further drive people apart.
Google the word criticism and hundreds of entries appear that offer advice on how to handle being harshly or unfairly criticized.
Perhaps, if people paid a little more attention to the “why” of their words, the number of articles would decrease because there’d be more compassion and less conflict in our interactions.
People seldom refuse help if one offers it in the right way. ~A.C. Benson
The next time criticism dances on your lips, begging to be spoken, pause and examine your motivation. Explore your purpose for speaking by asking yourself some questions.
Look for the “why” of your criticism
Ask, am I criticizing because…?
…I want to make someone look bad so I can look good?
…I think I deserve special treatment and I’m not getting it?
…I see a way to amplify my own achievements and social standing?
…I see an opportunity to devalue something or someone I disagree with?
…I want to gain power and control to humiliate someone into submission?
…I see the chance to advance my personal agenda?
…I enjoy pointing out what’s wrong and who’s to blame?
Criticizing for any of these reasons speaks volumes about someone’s character, purpose, and motivation.
Criticism is the only reliable form of autobiography. ~Oscar Wilde
Sharing alternate points of view often produces better results, so don’t hold back.
Being open and authentic, though, isn’t a license to be rude, hurtful, condescending, or manipulative. Disapproval about perceived mistakes or faults can be expressed without judgment, without personal attacks, and without meanspirited nitpicking.
The next time you express your disapproval based on perceived mistakes or faults, be kind. Display a willingness to help. Think bigger than yourself. Speak to help, not to hurt.
If the only reason you’re criticizing is to make yourself look better, just shut up.
I won’t be a “brand,” someone who seizes every opportunity to self-promote. I want to be someone who has a good reputation.
An invitation to connect
What set me off? A fairly long mass email from a fellow to his LinkedIn contacts.
His opening paragraph was brief yet warm and welcoming. He said he wanted to get to know his contacts better. Mentally, I gave the guy kudos for reaching out and starting the process of building better connections. Way to role model.
His second paragraph outlined his experience. Good stuff. Strong credentials. He painted a solid picture of his background.
In his third paragraph, he provided details about several of the leadership programs he conducts. He said he thought the recipients might find the info useful in case we were looking for programs to attend or bring to our organizations.
I felt a little twitchy after reading course descriptions more commonly found in promotional material. To me, the surplus of specifics felt unnecessary. Weren’t we just getting to know one another?
The fourth paragraph listed the awards he’d received. Impressive. Good for him. Great that he’s been recognized for his quality work. Recognition is good to give, get, and hear about.
Me or we?
But, but, but.
An uncharitable thought had started to jump around in my head and kept jumping.
So far, he’d shared lots of “look-at-me” stuff’; no “we” stuff. His style of “connecting” felt like bragging. That’s when I went back and counted the lines in each paragraph. Paragraph two had 11 lines, 22 in the third, and 14 in paragraph four. 47 lines so far about him.
Next, he listed places where his articles had been published should we want to read them and learn more. The titles were hyper-linked. Paragraph five was eight lines long.
Should we want more details on his innovative views on leadership, paragraph six gave us descriptions and links to videos of his speeches. That paragraph was seven lines.
Paragraph seven was an overview of the book he’d recently written. In eleven lines, he told us how it would help us be better leaders.
After reading 73 lines, I knew a fair amount about both his background and thoughts on leadership, but I didn’t feel any connection to him or that we’d gotten to know one another better.
On an intellectual level, I understood he was using his email to build his personal brand. The world is information-rich these days, and people have to stand out. Differentiating yourself is a challenge many people trying to make a name for themselves face. I get that.
Connecting or selling?
But, but, but. I felt talked down to, oversold, and more convinced than ever that going in the opposite direction from the latest “It” trend is the rightest thing to do. Maybe it was my biases, stubbornness (inherited and cultivated), or need to feel a personal connection that made me react unfavorably.
Regardless of the reason, his message didn’t feel like connecting; it felt like a commercial. Impersonal, almost clinical. Qualified but distant, detached. I wanted to get to know a real person, not be introduced to a brand.
How many times have you heard that line or one like it spoken at work?
Planning is important. Business plans, contingency plans, succession plans, project plans, etc. are all good—until they aren’t.
Plans bring order and continuity. However, they can also become obstacles to innovation, inclusion, and creativity.
Think about the colleague who has a detailed plan for everything and refuses to deviate from it, no matter how compelling new information may be. Think about the company that fails to recognize the institutional bias that’s been embedded in its long-time succession and promotion plans.
It’s easy to come up with new ideas; the hard part is letting go of what worked for you two years ago, but will soon be out of date. ~Roger von Oech
A few years ago, I served on the inaugural steering committee for a new community conference intent on becoming an annual event. The first conference was a roaring success; the second even better. The third not so much.
One of original steering committee members who had stayed the course shared her diagnosis as to why the third event was unsuccessful. “The plan had worked well, so we relied on it too much. Because we stuck to the plan, we missed out on including some excellent panelists and speakers. No one wanted to step outside the lines and do something different.”
Ever been in that spot?
Through social conditioning, training, preference, or the desire for convenience, people fall into one of two mental traps about planning and get stuck in their thinking.
One camp frets that chaos will result if there’s inadequate planning and control. The other believes too much planning and control will stifle creativity. The concerns of both camps are valid.
If both concerns are valid, then what’s the problem?
The problem is either/or thinking—accepting the notion that planning is either about control or chaos.
Planning for and achieving successful outcomes require both chaos and control, both disorder and boundaries.
These paradoxes are equally important but essentially different management requirements according to the late management consultant Peter Drucker. Regardless of how contradictory dealing with both disorder and boundaries sounds, they’re interdependent. Like it or not, both are necessary for success. Either/or doesn’t work.
The Wright brother flew right through the smoke screen of impossibility. ~Charles Kettering
The natural tension between the disorder that improvisors thrive on and the boundaries that control freaks adore can be managed provided people are willing to be curious and flexible.
3 ways to find the sweet spot for planning
Doing three things aids us in keeping curiosity, flexibility, and success front and center as we first create and then execute our plans.
1) Have a general game plan.
Know what you want to accomplish. Have a timeline. Define roles, responsibilities, and measures of success. Think about what could go wrong and how to deal with problems. Identify resources and stakeholders. Be willing to flex or scrap it all and re-invent when circumstances shift.
2) Get comfortable being slightly uncomfortable.
Recognize that always sticking to the plan provides a false sense of security that obscures new opportunities. Learn to be flexible with “how” the “what” of the plan is implemented. Be willing to challenge the end goal. Embrace and reward purposeful discomfort. Be willing to be vulnerable and sometimes not be certain of the next step.
3) Leave room for serendipity.
Whether that interaction with an unintended outcome or moment of “aha!” realization is engineered by an app or a spontaneous stroke of fate, be open and receptive to the mad genius possibilities it presents. Don’t let existing plans become a straitjacket. Roll with the punches.
Serendipity. Look for something, find something else, and realize that what you’ve found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for. ~Lawrence Block
Finding the sweet spot between too much and “just right” planning takes time and patience, but it can be done.
Have how you learned to manage the tension between chaos and control?