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.
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.
“If the recognition program you’re putting together doesn’t reward people with money, Scott, it’s worthless.”
“You’re wrong about that, Bill. Making money isn’t the only reason people work.”
“I can’t believe how naïve you are, Scott. You do-gooders are all alike. None of you understand business.”
Could you imagine hearing a similar exchange where you work? Hearing two people get wrapped up in their views and be openly scornful of each other’s opinions? Happens a lot, doesn’t it? And, sadly, not only at work.
Leadership practices that favor control breathe life into this line of limiting thinking. Back in 1905, Max Weber, a sociologist and political economist, introduced the theory of bureaucratic management. Weber believed this style of management—with its impersonal rules, rigid requirements, command-and-control hierarchy, and machine-like focus on efficiency—was the most effective way to run an organization.
Some leaders today agree with Weber, thinking the bureaucratic style is the best and only way to manage. Convinced of the truth and rightness of their beliefs, those who support the bureaucratic style often act like Scott and Bill—self-righteous and dogmatic about their preference and dismissive of other points of view.
Dogmatism has been unflatteringly described as the arrogant assertion of opinions as truths or as a rigid state of mind in which it’s believed that things don’t change. The dictionary definition of dogma is a principle or set of principles that are laid down by an authority as being incontrovertibly true.
Saying something is incontrovertibly true is rigid. It means the position is undeniable, beyond question, irrefutable. That’s black-and-white, right-and-wrong absolute. Not pretty.
Having principles and believing in them, living them, is good. That goodness starts to become bad, however, around the word incontrovertible. When people take the position that their view is incontestable, that’s a problem.
Because passion becomes prejudice. Intolerance is tolerated. Polarization prevails. Listening lessens. Voices are silenced. Hearts and minds close. Curiosity ceases. Flexibility vanishes. Learning stops.
There’s no room for differences.
No one says I’m going to take this job and become dogmatic, but sometimes people do just that.
Even worse, they’re unaware of having done it. Rigidity of thought and practice are like thieves that come furtively in the night and steal flexibility, growth, and change. The opportunity for inclusion, too.
When someone gets caught up in dogmatism, they can find themselves suddenly arguing with everyone, amazed at how stupid people have become. They sneer at other’s inability to see the wisdom of their ways. They’re constantly defending their turf, incensed about what their colleagues do or don’t do.
Could that be you?
Are you so sure you’re dogmatic about it?
Are you that person who’s arguing with everyone? Feeling some concern that your certainty may have quietly hardened into dogma?
If you are, do a self-audit.
Ask yourself these seven questions to determine if your sureness about a topic, person, belief, etc., has become inflexible and dogmatic.
1) Has my communication style become abrupt and dismissive?
Hardcore dogmatists believe that it isn’t worth their time to converse with nonbelievers because they have nothing of value to offer. A dogmatist will change the topic, give short answers, or ignore what’s said. They may lob insults—how dumb is that—trivialize, or harshly criticize. They look away, smirk, roll their eyes, sigh, or interrupt. They’ll use disdainful hand gestures, maybe even walk away.
2) Do I feel more anger and despair about differences than I used to?
Because they know they’re right, dogmatists look to impose their beliefs on others. When that proves impossible, feelings of anger and despair follow. They’re frustrated in dealing with people who refuse to see how misinformed and mistaken they are. Dogmatists are fond of phrases like should be, always are, and never, and use them frequently. When their expectations are unmet, the dogmatist feels anger, frustration, and contempt for fools.
3) Do I look for ways to prove that I’m never wrong?
Dogmatists pull themselves up by beating others down. They don’t make mistakes or have errors of judgments. Only the “others” who are wrong do that. A dogmatist knows the truth, so they don’t have to agonize over it. Nor will they compromise or move toward moderation.
4) Have I changed my circle of friends and only associate with those who share my beliefs?
Dogmatic individuals are confident about their beliefs. They hold on to them even when evidence contradicts them, so associating with people who think similarly is comforting as well as affirming.
5) Have I stopped listening to people who have opinions that differ from mine?
Dogmatists focus on their certainties. They’re interested in other people as long as they support their image of rightness. A dogmatist doesn’t see any way for someone who doesn’t share the same beliefs to make a good point, so they feel no need to listen to them.
6) Do I reach conclusions quickly based on how I see the world?
Dogmatists use an all-or-nothing, my-way-or-the-highway approach to life. That includes decision-making and problem-solving. If one solution to a problem clearly aligns with a dogmatist’s perspective, they select that option and view time spent seeking out alternative solutions a waste of time.
7) Do I see the world in terms of black or white?
To a dogmatist, the world is simple. People are either a good guy or a bad one. Someone is either a friend or foe. Someone’s position is either right or wrong. Dogmatists don’t see complexity or nuance. A problem with two answers that are both right yet contradictory doesn’t exist. There’s a single category or label for everything and everyone.
Recognize yourself in any of these questions?
If you do, reach out to a trusted friend or colleague. Ask for their help in finding less rigid and irrefutable territory. You, and those around you, will be happier.
P.S. Please indulge me…for purposes of illustration, I went to the off-the-charts extreme in defining a dogmatist.
Taylor sits in her 6 x 8 cubicle waiting for the next IT ticket to come her way and suddenly feels the walls closing in around her. She feels like she’s suffocating.
She’s only a few seconds away from a panic attack, her third this month.
In her mind, it’s all because of her job. That belief makes Taylor like many other people who don’t like their jobs either.
A survey of 8,000 workers across three continents—North America, Europe and Asia—found that 15 percent of Americans hate their jobs. That number was nearly 5 percent higher than the next closest nation of job haters.
Taylor won’t deny that she would be part of that 15 percent. Although she has taken a leave of absence because of the stress she feels from her job, she and admits that her job has caused problems in her personal life, she feels stuck in a job she doesn’t like, with little hope of leaving it in the near future.
While Taylor is quick to blame co-workers, her workload, or what she sees as poor management, the answer to her problems might actually be closer than she thinks.
Most people don’t want to acknowledge responsibility for their life, their story and what is not working in their life.
Look inward to find the answer
People who are stuck in situations they don’t like should take a step back and ask themselves, “how did I create that?”
For those who are unhappy with their job situation, there are some questions they need to start asking themselves:
Do I hate my job, or do I hate my field?
Those who are frustrated with their job situation shouldn’t be so quick to look for a career change. Often jobseekers will take a position just to get their foot in the door of a certain industry or company. Perhaps it’s time for you to examine other positions that more closely resemble that ideal job or have a discussion with management to evaluate which position in the company is the best fit.
What kind of work would I do for free?
Perhaps music producer Quincy Jones summed it up best when he said: “The people who make it to the top, whether they’re musicians, or great chefs, or corporate honchos, are addicted to their calling. They’re the ones who’d be doing whatever it is they love, even if they weren’t being paid.” People who are passionate about their work often feel as though they never worked a day in their life.
Do I have the courage to act?
Plenty of people stuck in a job they don’t like know what they want but give up quickly after a few rejections. It takes courage to make a change, particularly when it comes to a career.
I encourage you to go beyond the boundaries of who you believe yourself to be. If you do, you’ll discover that you’re more than you think you are.
It is necessary…for a man to go away by himself, to sit on a rock and ask, ‘Who am I, where have I been, and where am I going?’ ~Carl Sandburg
Today’s LeadBIG contributor, Carol Talbot, is an author and keynote speaker who has delivered inspiring messages to corporations and conferences in more than 20 countries. She is a Certified Master Trainer of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and a Master Firewalk Instructor who fires up teams and gets them to walk across burning hot coals.
There’s that old saying that two things in life are inevitable—death and taxes.
I think several other items can be added to that list, with one of them being conflict. Conflict is that uncomfortable, sometimes nasty stuff that happens when we feel threatened at the intersection of imbalances in power, money, or values:
Power conflict is prompted by disparities in control and influence.
Economic conflict results when there’s jockeying for access to and ownership of limited or scarce resources.
Value conflict bubbles up when there are varying preferences, principles, and practices between people’s ways of life and their ideologies.
Differences, another item that can be add to the list of inevitables in life, rest at the heart of all conflict.
People’s reaction to differences isn’t dissimilar from their reaction to conflict. Some try to ignore it, others try to vanquish it.
Others outsource taking care of it. “Come on, sweetie,” implored my mom. “You and your sister have to get along. You’re the oldest, so smooth it out.”
We can love what we are, without hating what- and who we are not. We can thrive in our own tradition, even as we learn from others, and come to respect their teachings. ~ Kofi Annan, diplomat
When some people encounter the discord that’s prompted by differences, they, also like my mom, want the antagonism to go away.
That’s really not an option.
sometimes the differences in power, money, or values are just too broad or deep to be closed. In those cases, the best we can hope for is to manage the conflict, manage the middle ground, and lessen the potential for destruction.
6 methods for managing discord
Experts tell us six courses of action exist for managing conflict:
Severing the connection
Avoidance might work in the short-term, but doing so is like playing whack-a-mole. We can’t hide forever from conflict.
Annihilation is effective in ending the discord. However, wiping someone or something out isn’t a viable method for addressing conflict except in cases of war or defensible homicide. (And some rightfully pushback on its need in those circumstances).
Severing the connection isn’t much better. While severing may be less violent than annihilation, it’s avoidance that can result in cool neglect at best or oppression at its worst.
Compromise is reached through mutual agreement or negotiation. While the underlying differences may remain, the parties agree to split the differences. Everyone gives up a little. It’s like the lessons we learned in childhood about sharing our toys and playing nice in the sandbox.
Some people say that when you compromise, you’re selling out. Things are either my way or the highway.
Other people see the personal and societal benefit in give-and-take as they believe there’s no one answer for all beliefs, morals, and values.
In synthesis, the sixth method for managing discord, people agree to maintain their differences while transcending them in pursuit of a greater purpose. If that sounds a little contradictory or confusing, think about inhaling and exhaling. Life isn’t possible without doing both despite that they appear to be opposites. The same two sides of one coin principle applies to many of life’s joys and challenges. Love isn’t possible without thinking and feeling. Leadership isn’t effective without results and relationships.
Differences simply act as a yarn of curiosity unraveling until we get to the other side. ~Ciore Taylor, author
Achieving synthesis requires people to abandon the polarization that results from I’m right/you’re wrong positioning. Synthesis depends on people’s ability to see both sides of the coin. It requires that they focus more on “we” than “me.” It means people decide to be both curious and accepting of the differences that contribute to a greater good.
Synthesis demands that people shift their paradigm about conflict, discord, and differences. That shift involves moving away from seeing conflict as something negative to be stamped out to embracing differences with trust and acceptance.
Creating the bridge from one side of the coin to the other is something everyone can do—provided we put our heads and hearts into it. What do you think?
Louie was doing his job well, He was actively selling Marie on all the reasons why she needed to list his firm’s talent assessment on her company’s website. His boss would have been proud if he could have heard him.
He mentioned making money three times and improving metrics four times in response to Marie’s questions.
“Louie, thank you for reaching out,” said Marie. “I appreciate you taking the time to go things with me and answer my questions. From where I stand, there isn’t an alignment between our companies’ interests, so a partnership isn’t going to work.”
“If I may ask, what interests aren’t aligned?”
“Metrics and money.”
“Wait a minute, Marie. Aren’t you interested in metrics and making money?”
“I am, just in a different way than you are.”
“Money and metrics tell me our business is doing well, but they aren’t the reasons we’re in business.”
Back in the 1950’s, the average lifespan of a business was 61 years; today, it’s around 18. Marie wants to beat both of those metrics. Her moonshot goal is achieving what the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan Hotel in Japan has done. The hotel opened in 705 AD and is still operating. Impressive.
Professor Makoto Kanda from Meiji Gakuin University studied the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan Hotel and other long-term operating businesses to understand their longevity. His findings? These long-term organizations focus on a central belief, a purpose, that isn’t solely tied to making a profit.
That’s different! An orientation to something more than money and metrics is hard to find in most Wall Street analyses and reporting.
Numbers falls short when measuring success
Quantitative metrics are valuable for tracking and assessing the effectiveness of a specific business process. However, making quantitative metrics the only measure of success creates a number of other issues such as:
While many experts promote metrics and AI as the antidote to bias, that’s not really the case. Bias is built into data and algorithms, and that bias can skew greater over time as the algorithms learn.
Initiative, innovation, and risk-taking lose out because they tend to harm metrics.
The long-term is sacrificed for the short-term.
Certain stakeholders are marginalized because of their minimal role in achieving the “right” numbers.
People fall into binary, either/or thinking patterns that tend to produce an artificial value hierarchy between business practices. For example, it’s not uncommon for companies to believe that improving the bottom line is more important than employee engagement or development.
Quantitative measurements do help people manage more efficiently. However, using a mix of quantitative and qualitative metrics makes managers both more efficient and effective.
A study by James Zenger found that 14 percent of employees viewed a manager who focused only on results as being a good manager. Twelve percent thought a manager who focused on relationships was good.
What about managers who delivered both results and relationships?
72 percent of employees saw them as a good manager. The really sad study finding? Less than one percent of managers focus on both results and relationships.
85 percent of managers prefer either results or relationships. Emphasizing one preference over another means there’s a counter balancing factor that isn’t being used. Picture the playground teeter-totter with one side up and the other down. A singular focus on metrics (teeter up) results in workplaces where employees aren’t fully engaged (teeter down).
The reverse is true, too. Too much emphasis on relationships and too little on results puts sustained business performance in jeopardy.
Going for both money and meaning
Marie’s business, the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan Hotel, and the one percent in Zenger’s study focus on actions that aren’t solely tied to making a profit.
These individuals and organizations have mastered “teeter-totter” leadership in that they balanceboth quantitative and qualitative aspects of managing and leading. They:
Get things done and are kind
Have high standards and give positive feedback
Have a plan and interact with people
Speak directly and are encouraging
Are decisive and consider impacts on others
Are analytical and have good interpersonal skills
Provide direction and listen to feedback
Are candid and show empathy
Think about today and tomorrow
Are self-aware and trust others
Compete externally and collaborate internally
Measure KPIs as well as smiles and laughter
Deliver the numbers and make people feel valued
Think about places where you’ve worked. Did you thrive in an environment where you were only as good as your last set of numbers? Or where you felt like you were valued and made a difference and were held accountable for solid work performance?
Now think about your leadership legacy. Do you want people to think of you as the boss who only cared about money and metrics, or as the boss they willingly followed because he/she focused on a central belief that wasn’t solely tied to making a profit?