Bad things happen. We plan and we plan, and sometimes bad things happen anyway. Even when we anticipate difficulties, events might unfold in unanticipated ways, or we might be unable to execute the plans we had because of other unanticipated events.
Yet, when bad things happen, we can feel like failures. We might believe there was something more we could have done. We lose confidence. Our performance degrades. If this cycle continues, it can affect our personal lives — even our health.
Why we do this is a bit mysterious. In calmer moments, we do know that we can't control everything, but maybe we want to feel like we're in control of more than we actually are. It's a difficult habit to break. To make some progress, though, to come to peace despite failures, we can contemplate exactly what in Life truly is beyond our control.
- Hindsight is often a distorted view
- Sometimes there really is something more we could have done. Usually there isn't, but even when there is, given what we knew at the time, it's possible — even likely — that we made appropriate choices, despite the clear indications otherwise when viewed with hindsight. It's possible to have made correct choices given the information we had at the time, and then later to realize that if we knew then what we know now, we would have made different choices. That's OK.
- We forget about the limits of possibility
- Even when hindsight reveals a better alternative, it might not have been possible at the time. Choosing it might have resulted in disciplinary action, reassignment, or termination. Was it a real choice? Even if we had advocated it, would it have been approved? Would people have supported it? Would resources have been available? Hindsight might reveal a better choice, but the then-current reality might have precluded it.
- Promises are interconnected
- In modern organizations, Even when hindsight reveals
a better alternative, it
might not have been
possible at the timeour plans and decisions depend on commitments from others — assurances of support, resources, reliable information, and more. They promise, and we accept their promises. Sometimes, people break their promises, usually involuntarily. They give their word based on promises others make to them. Viewed this way, modern organizations are little more than webs of promises, and when some promises are broken, promise-breaking travels through that web like grassfire. There isn't much anyone could have done about it. When your plans fail because of one of these global promise collapses, is there anything different you could have done? Probably not.
Whether due to limited information, limited capabilities, or our limited ability to keep our promises, we can control only some of what happens around us. It's a difficult reality to accept. Even though we might prefer the fiction of failure to the reality of our limitations, reality is always a better choice. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- When Leaders Fight
- Organizations often pretend that feuds between leaders do not exist. But when the two most powerful
people in your organization go head-to-head, everyone in the organization suffers. How can you survive
a feud between people above you in the org chart?
- Breaking the Rules
- Many outstanding advances are due to those who broke rules to get things done. And some of those who
break rules get fired or disciplined. When is rule breaking a useful tactic?
- Stalking the Elephant in the Room: II
- When everyone is thinking something that no one dares discuss, we say that there is "an elephant
in the room." Free-ranging elephants are expensive and dangerous to both the organization and its
people. Here's Part II of a catalog of indicators that elephants are about.
- Problem Displacement and Technical Debt
- The term problem displacement describes situations in which solving one problem creates another.
It sometimes leads to incurring technical debt. How? What can we do about it?
- Influence and Belief Perseverance
- Belief perseverance is the pattern that causes us to cling more tightly to our beliefs when contradictory
information arrives. Those who understand belief perseverance can use it to manipulate others.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.
- And on April 22: Intentionally Misreporting Status: I
- When we report the status of the work we do, we sometimes confront the temptation to embellish the good news or soften the bad news. How can we best deal with these obstacles to reporting status with integrity? Available here and by RSS on April 22.
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- Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?
Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.
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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.