I was recently reading “Leadership and Self-Deception” by the Arbinger Institute. Fundamentally, this about the two mindsets we have when interacting with others. We either see the other person as a unique individual or we see them as an object (problem, hinderance, annoyance, etc.). We go back and forth between these two mindsets all day every day, even during the same conversation, and they color the effectiveness of our communications.
I got a personal taste of this when returning home from the business trip where I was reading “Leadership and Self-Deception”. Since I live a 4 hour drive from the San Francisco airport, I had left my car at the airport parking garage for the return trip. When I got to my car, I discovered the battery was dead. I was a little annoyed by the delay, but someone from airport parking authority came right away, jump started my car, and I was on my way.
I got on Highway 280 and headed north to San Francisco. Just after exiting on Highway 1, the heavy traffic slowed to a brief stop and my car died. I was in the middle lane with no power in the car. No flashers, no lights, no starter. I was on a flat spot of the road and could not get the car rolling. There I was completely stuck with heavy traffic all around me.
I called 911 and a kind woman in dispatch took my information and forwarded it to the San Francisco police department. Meanwhile, people all around me were shouting at me and honking, but there was nothing I could do. I was feeling pretty miserable and I was afraid I might be hit by a car trying to go around.
Then a nice gentleman in a car on my left asked if I wanted help pushing the car. I replied that I thought it was probably too dangerous with the traffic. His companion pulled off the road and the gentleman carefully got out, paused traffic, and came to my car. He talked me gently through what to do as he held out his right hand to pause traffic to the right. People actually stopped and let us in!!
The next lane over was an exit to another road, and again a polite hand gesture stopped traffic to let us through. He pushed me past the exit to the right shoulder and said:
“A while back my car died on the Sacramento Bridge in heavy traffic. There was nothing I could do but wait for help. For 2.5 hours I was the most hated man on the bridge. So I had to stop to help you.”
People who were angry with me were treating me as an object, and it was a pretty miserable experience. I was upset and not thinking very well about what to do. The gentleman who stopped to help saw me as a human being in need and it changed my whole day. I still had a problem with the car, but I was able to resolve the issue (and get home) quickly, easily, and in a positive state of mind.
It does feel different to the receiver of your message when you view them as an object or an individual person. When you view them in any way as an object, no matter how kindly, they will tend to resist you and your message. When you view them as a person, unique and special, they will tend to be positive and receptive.
In business, we have to work hard to get over the people are objects mindset. How often do you hear people referred to as resources (you mean like paperclips?) or they are the “offshore group” or the “contractors”, but certainly not people like the employees right here in the room. How often do you refer to the people working for you as “my directs”? Of course sometimes we need a shorthand way to describe a whole group of people, but if we get into the habit of doing it all the time, we stop seeing the individuals and just think of the group, and the group is usually “them” not “us” or “me”.
Language is a huge indicator of our mindset toward others. Being aware of and changing the language we use when thinking, writing, and speaking is a big step toward seeing others as people.
While reading “Leadership and Self-Deception”, it hit me hard that one of the business situations where we most often treat people as objects is when giving a presentation. The other people are “students”, “employees”, “delegates”, “congregation”, etc., but we are not thinking of each person as a person. They are not people “like us” because we are the “teacher”, “boss”, “expert”, “minister”, and so are in some way “better”. This us-versus-them mindset is treating others as objects. We are less effective at communicating our message when other people feel we are treating them as objects.
Interesting, in 2009 I took a workshop with Edward Tufte on data visualization. During the workshop he mentioned that he hates using PowerPoint. He says the word power describes precisely what happens – the speaker is in a position of power over the others in the room. He does not use presentation software in his workshops; he makes use of posters and other objects to illustrate his points, and he spends a lot of time walking among the people attending the workshop.
Over the past few years, I have worked with a small group of consultants on creating professional training that does not involve someone presenting at the front of the room. Making the training more interactive is another way to get past the “I am an expert, you are not” mindset that creeps into typical training.
I have been doing something similar with progress reports. Instead of creating a typical report, I create some kind of interactive tool to help people get engaged with the information and make it their own. For example, after interviewing a lot of people on a particular topic, I created a poster that looked like a bunch of sticky notes with statements gleaned from the interviews. Then I invited the leadership team to not only review the suggestions, but cross off the ones they disagreed with and create their own stickies for things they thought were missing. This provided far superior feedback because the leaders were engaged with the information in a way they had never been when reading a report or seeing a PowerPoint presentation.
If you are paying attention, you will see that this article itself is not very personal. As an example, I will rewrite the previous paragraph using names of people instead of referring to them generically. See how this changes the feel of the information for you.
“I have been doing something similar with progress reports. Instead of creating a typical report, I worked with George to create an interactive tool to help Helen, Mike, Sarah, Jason, and Henry get engaged with the information. After interviewing Mike, Sarah, Jason, Henry, Bob, Joe, Liz, Mary, Susan, and Paul, George and I created a poster with sticky notes that had statements from the interviews. Then I invited Helen, Mike, Sarah, Jason, and Henry to review the suggestions, crossing off those they disagreed with and creating new stickies for information they thought was missing.”
Now instead of a generic “leadership team” reviewing the information, we have Helen, Mike, Sarah, Jason, and Henry reviewing the information. It is easier to see them as people when they have names instead of a generic description.
It is real work to change a mindset from viewing people as people instead of objects. No one is perfect at it. But when we really try to think of the actual people, then not only do we communicate better, we also create a work environment that is a much more pleasant place to be. I think you will find that when you really focus on thinking of the individual people working for you, instead of thinking of them as “my directs” or “my resources”, you will become the kind of leader that everyone wants to work for.