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:
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it does real harm to the organization. What is the behavior?
- Power, Authority, and Influence: A Systems View
- Power, Authority, and Influence are often understood as personal attributes. To fully grasp how they
function in organizations, we must adopt a systems view.
- On Badly Written Email
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- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: IV
- Some impasses that develop in group decision-making relate to the substance of the discussion. Some
are not substantive, but still present serious obstacles. What can we do about nonsubstantive impasses?
- Look Where You Aren't Looking
- Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can
also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve
our ability to prepare for adverse events?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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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.