Sandy unlocked and opened the driver's side door, pushed the button to unlock the passenger door for Ed, and they both hopped into the car. They buckled up silently, while Sandy started the engine, put the car in gear, and moved out of the parking space toward the parking lot exit. Sandy felt it was best to wait for Ed to speak.
Finally, Ed did. "Well, at least it's over."
Sandy tried to be both supportive and honest. It was difficult: "Yes, it is over."
More silence. At a stoplight, Ed added, "If Alton hadn't made me so nervous, I could have explained the problem more clearly."
Ed's model of what went wrong is that Alton's actions made him nervous, and that caused his failure to perform. Perhaps. But we hear these explanations more often than they actually apply. Here are some other similar explanations:
- My boss is driving me nuts
- You made me so mad
- She destroyed my self-esteem
- I couldn't get a word in edgewise
- He left me no choice
In most cases,
are invalidIn most cases, these explanations are invalid. Let's suppose that Ed believes that his boss is driving him nuts. Unless his boss has him incarcerated or physically restrained, it's an unlikely scenario. To actually drive someone nuts requires great skill and significant time and resources.
It's more likely that his boss is doing some things that are pretty abusive, and that Ed is using those things to drive himself nuts. If that's what's happening, all Ed has to do to keep from going nuts is to stop doing that.
When we tell ourselves that someone else is doing it, we're telling our brains to look in the wrong place for the cause. That way, we can do what we want to ourselves without getting caught at it.
In a strange way, believing that other people have direct control over us is very liberating. It frees us to harm ourselves without feeling guilty or stupid about doing it. So for instance, if my boss is saying horrible things about me in front of others, I can use that to destroy my own self-esteem, and gain an excuse to eat cheeseburgers with fries, which is what I really wanted to do. Then I can blame my boss for making me sick and fat. The reality is much simpler: I ate the cheeseburgers myself. And the fries.
And there's another neat trick — we not only relieve ourselves of responsibility for our own actions, but we also "escape" responsibility for dealing with the consequences.
I have a small metal mirror on my desk. It's a memento with other meanings, but it also reminds me that when I want to shift responsibility to others, I ought to check my own choices first. If you get something similar for yourself, please don't think I made you do it. Top Next Issue
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- And on August 29: Please Reassure Them
- When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 29.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.