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.
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.
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?
Wouldn’t it be lovely if humility smelled like warm chocolate chip cookies so we could easily find ours when we lost it?
A small group of us were sharing comeuppance stories—times when we’d gotten too big for our britches and had taken a big fall from grace.
Betsy’s fall was the most dramatic. She’d been off-the-charts successful in her marketing job for a cosmetics company. Another company recruited her for their CMO job, complete with huge salary, signing bonus, and jaw-dropping perks. Betsy enjoyed her amazing perks for only five months. The CEO who’d recruited her fired her, saying Betsy was overly self-righteous, too self-important, and unnecessarily scornful of employees who weren’t executives.
“Go. Now. Be gone,” said the CEO as she made a sweeping away gesture with her hand. “I want you out of here immediately.”
Betsy said the CEO’s office had glass walls. So, while the CEO’s words were unheard by others, she saw everyone watching the dismissive gestures. And smiling.
It took Betsy five months to be able to say she was glad the humiliating experience had happened. Without it, she said, she would have remained too big for her britches, believing the myths about herself. She said she might have even become more unbearable.
“I got what I deserved. I let my success go to my head,” she said.
As do too many others.
Getting what we deserve
The endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. ~Anne Lamott
Not letting success steal our self-awareness is at the heart of staying humble. We control whether that happens or not. Either we let success go to our head and become self-important jerks, or we don’t.
Success isn’t some kind of a sentient being that inhabits our bodies, takes control of our mind, and miraculously makes us someone new.
Becoming successful or powerful or rich only shows what we really were all the time.
Hubris is an accessory we acquire.
If we were kind before being successful, we stay kind. If we were thoughtful, we stay thoughtful. If we were open-minded, we stay open-minded.
Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real. ~Thomas Merton
How could Betsy and the rest of us have stayed grounded enough so we didn’t have a comeuppance story to tell? A smorgasbord of choices and options exists. To make sure we don’t get too big for our britches, all we have to do is be self-aware.
If you’re looking for suggestions for how to avoid having a comeuppance story, here’s 31 ideas to get you started. Take a look and think about what could work for you.
Be mindful of the expectations you set for yourself and others
Listen more, talk less
Humility is a quiet gift we give ourselves and others.
Quiet anything easily gets lost or overlooked in today’s hurly-burly pace of life. But, as with most good and worthwhile things in life, we have to want quiet humility. Have to work at having it. Have to never lose sight of its importance.
Owning the responsibility to maintain our humility makes all the difference.
Whether he or she works as a CEO, a coach, or any job that requires motivating others, a great leader is at heart a good salesperson.
Because, if an organization’s leadership isn’t constantly persuading the rest of the team to buy into an idea or a philosophy, the team is likely to splinter, which means everyone starts moving in his or her own direction.
Selling and persuading is much more than simply barking orders, which, regardless of the circumstances, rarely gets the job done.
Leaders don’t always have formal authority or positional power to compel people to do what they want done. So, in many situations, they need to persuade, convince, and sell people on their ideas.
If a leader is to be a successful salesperson and influence others, he or she must first understand what their people are thinking. Then, the leader taps into whatever the person’s strongest emotion is at that time.
Ultimately, being an effective leader who can persuade and influence others is a matter of appealing to people’s heads, hearts, and hands.
Appealing to their head, heart, and hands
Here’s how a leader who’s a salesperson makes persuasion and influence work:
The Head – This is an appeal to the intellect.
Leaders can persuade people through rational arguments that include market research, customer surveys, and case studies. They also should highlight the business benefits of ideas and how they will help employees. In some situations, it helps to explain the consequences of not changing. Explain what’s at stake and what they will lose out on if they don’t change.
The Heart – This is an appeal to emotions.
People only change their behavior when doing so makes them feel better. The leader needs to connect to people’s need for status, order, honor, security, and purpose. Engage their hearts by making employees feel they are part of something big and special.
The Hands – This is persuasion through direct involvement.
Give employees something to experience viscerally, like the way salespeople let someone take a car for a test drive or how new restaurants offer a taste test. Demonstrations help people experience the value and benefits of a particular idea or innovation. Direct experience can alter how a person thinks and feels about a new initiative.
Leader as salesperson
Having the right mix of facts, emotional appeals, and involvement helps sell ideas and proposals. Once that’s done, the leader needs to close the deal by asking for people’s commitment to whatever is proposed.
Commitment is an act, not a word. ~Jean-Paul Sartre
In some cases, you may need to start small. Get people to commit first to taking baby steps. That’s progress.
Today’s contributor, Paul Thornton, is an author, trainer, speaker, and professor of Business Administration at Springfield Technical Community College in Springfield, Massachusetts.
At one point in my career, I was a vice president in a Fortune 500 company that had $2 billion in annual revenues. I successfully managed a department of 150 people, consistently delivering projects ahead of schedule and under budget.
When asked by the CEO to describe me, can you guess what my boss said?
He said I was a “soft and round Aunt Polly.”
Wow, that stung.
I can’t deny that I’m a woman. That I’m blonde. And that I’m overweight.
But why would my boss describe me by my appearance and sex instead of my accomplishments?
Because I’ve hit the trifecta of stereotypes. Tilt, tilt, tilt for being a dumb, fat broad.
It’s 2019, and gender stereotypes still exist that make it challenging for business women to be seen as both a good leader and a good woman.
That really troubles me.
What about you?
Is that the kind of workplace culture we want for our children and grandchildren?
For the women and men who want their kids and grandkids to have a different experience, now’s the time to partner up for change.
Provided both sexes are willing to modify a few workplace practices, together we can change how leadership is defined and practiced. Together, we can put an end to the stereotypes that limit the potential and passion of too many.
9 ways to say good-bye to gender stereotypes
Here are nine actions you can take to bring equity and gender-balanced inclusiveness to your leadership practices.
1. Be mindful of gender stereotypes that influence your thinking about which sex is better suited for certain kinds of work.
Social conditioning nudges people to think about leadership in terms of masculine traits, a practice that puts women and feminine attributes at a disadvantage.
If you find yourself thinking that men make the better bosses because they’re good at taking charge and women the better assistants because they’re the best at taking care, stop. If you always ask the women in your meetings to take the notes or plan parties, stop. If you question the leadership potential of a kind-hearted man, stop. If you describe assertive women as shrill, stop.
Stereotypes push us to apply a specified set of expectations to a whole group of people, whether they apply or not. When we do that, we ignore individual attributes and deny people their potential.
2. Check for inconsistencies in how you select a man or a woman for a job or evaluate their promotion readiness.
Research tells us that women are judged on their past performance, men on their future potential. Why not evaluate all candidates on both their past performance and future potential?
3. Assure that all voices are heard equally in the meetings you conduct.
If the men keep interrupting the women, call them out. If the women remain silent, call them into the discussion. If anyone co-opts an idea that someone presented earlier, assure that proper attribution is given.
4. Monitor how you pay your people.
If you supervise others, look for—and correct—any wage disparities that exists between sexes, ethnicities, etc., holding the same positions.
5. Sponsor both women and men and be proactive about it.
For anyone who has the audacity to insinuate that an inappropriate relationship exists in a mixed sex sponsorship, call out their boorish and stereotypical thinking.
6. Let go of the incorrect myth that power always corrupts.
There are those who use the power of their position for personal gain, but don’t confuse power with the selfish person using it. Power reveals what a person already was.
7. Avoid the “parent” trap.
When a man becomes a parent, it’s assumed he’ll be more dedicated to his work because he has a family to support. When a woman becomes a parent, it’s assumed she’ll be less dedicated to her work because she has a family. Be on the lookout for these incorrect assumptions. Along the same lines, don’t penalize either moms or dads for using family leave time.
8. Don’t confuse physical presence with true inclusion.
Just because there’s a woman or a minority on a team doesn’t mean there’s an inclusive, participative environment with meaningful engagement. Ask yourself some tough questions about whether your leadership practices are reflective of real participation or just window dressing presence.
9. Be willing to be vulnerable so your biases can be detected and managed.
While we all work hard to not be biased, we still are. Create mechanisms so that the presence of biases, gender and otherwise, can be safely and nonjudgmentally identified and eliminated.
Seeing someone else’s biases is much easier than seeing our own. That means using tact, grit, kindness, persistance, and grace are essential for achieving progress, openness, and inclusion.
Psychologists once believed that only bigoted people used stereotypes. Now the study of unconscious bias is revealing the unsettling truth: We all use stereotypes, all the time, without knowing it. We have met the enemy of equality, and the enemy is us. ~Annie Murphy Paul, journalist and author
As you head out to work tomorrow, remember the shining eyes and hopeful faces of your children. Build the kind of place where you would want them to work.