You're the cause of many of your own problems in the workplace.
Ouch! It hurts, but it is the truth. You are the cause of many, if not most, of the problems you experience in the workplace. By the way, so am I.
This is especially true if you tend to believe that you and a handful of your peers are the only ones that really get it or understand what is going on. If you think you work with idiots, view others as enemies, and/or hold on to grudges, you are the cause of many of your own problems.
If your positions never evolve … If you aren't willing to look at a situation from others' perspectives … If you have an all or nothing mentality … If you never give thought to unintended consequences … If you give no thought to the impact of your decisions on others, both now and in the future …
Well, you get the picture. I am stepping all over my own toes. What about yours?
Face it … Your thoughts, feelings, emotions, moods, and intuitions are tricking you—they're failing you. What are the implications?
Well, your decisions are more likely to recreate your past than they are the future you desire.
A Look in the Mirror is Warranted
We are going through a reorganization here at the university that has invoked many strong feelings and opinions. Delivering a high-quality education is no easy task. It is a complex, uncertain, and volatile enterprise. And, yet, there is little to no grace in our interactions.
Does this sound familiar to you? What about in your workplace?
Do you find yourself in meeting after meeting, interacting with people who are complaining and trashing others who they believe are the cause of their problems? The attempts to discredit others, dismiss them as ignorant, or hold them accountable for past issues that are not entirely their fault or without complete information can be mind-numbing. Forgiveness and trust—the benefit of the doubt—are often scarce.
The embarrassing thing is that I am guilty too. I find myself joining the firing squad, complaining constantly, and blaming others.
Like me, do you fall prey to the fundamental attribution error and attribute others' negative or frustrating behaviors to their intentions or personalities while giving yourself a pass?
Well, I want to challenge you to look in the mirror and accept some of the responsibility for the problems you are experiencing. But, be careful as you cannot always trust what you see or your thoughts and feelings. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind.
The human mind is powerful. With little effort, we can accomplish some sophisticated tasks. Yet, the cognitive processes that usually serve us well can also lead us astray. Our brain relies on mental shortcuts or cognitive biases to save time and conserve energy.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more vivid than in filtering information. Our brains need to skim and filter insane amounts of information and quickly, almost effortlessly, decide what is actually important. In this process, our brains are attempting to ease the pains of information overload.
Well, as you look in the mirror and reflect on the above, you should know that our mental shortcuts and biases have a profound effect on how we process information about others. We tend to notice others' flaws more easily than our own, and this shapes our interactions.
We suffer from bias blind spot, a cognitive bias where we are quick to point out the impact of biases on others' judgments. Yet, we do not give much thought to the effects of our own biases. This bias is similar to naïve cynicism and naïve realism, which stem from a higher opinion of oneself than reality. Both are grounded in the belief that we see things objectively and others do not. So, we tend to think that the people who disagree with us are uninformed, irrational, or biased.
Noticing others' flaws is less painful. It requires less energy on our part than it does to confront our own weaknesses and biases. So, we must be aware of these tendencies and the tradeoffs or resulting mental errors they might introduce.
Do things tend to escalate quickly for you such that workplace interactions become personal? Do you view any of your co-workers or superiors as enemies (e.g., us vs. them)? Is it possible that these cognitive biases are subconsciously leading you astray?
Indeed, some introspection is in order. This is when we look inward and examine our thoughts, feelings, and motives. Yet, it may not be enough because of another pesky bias—confirmation bias. So, amidst the discomfort of examination, our mind does its best to come up with coherent explanations consistent with what it already thinks or knows.
If the space were unlimited, I would introduce several other biases: self-serving bias, motivated reasoning, and the overconfidence effect.
We struggle to unearth the real reasons we feel the way we feel, believe the things we believe, respond to others the way we do, and make the judgments we make. We struggle because those reasons are often buried so deep that it is too painful to surface them independently. So, our self-knowledge or self-awareness is often inaccurate or lacking.
Self-awareness, then, is a combination of your perceptions (introspection) and how other people see you (feedback).
Asking for feedback fosters self-awareness. If done correctly, it forces us to compare our own perceptions with how other people see us. This can improve the accuracy of our self-knowledge.
We all tend to overestimate our strengths while overlooking weaknesses. This is especially true for those in leadership positions because their environments tend to reinforce their superior self-image. Those who ask good questions and create safe conditions for honest feedback counteract this tendency.
Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, states that "people with greater certainty about their feelings are better pilots of their lives.
He argues that "the inability to notice our true feelings leaves us at their mercy."
How are you doing in self-awareness? Do you seek feedback such that you've developed an internal and an external self-awareness? Are you able to recognize and monitor your feelings, even as they happen? Is it possible that you are at the mercy of your thoughts and feelings, which dramatically affects how you show up in the workplace?
Locus of Control
We humans have a knack for getting trapped in webs of our own creation. We create and re-create (socially construct) realities that restrain and enable future actions. In many cases, those realities are prison-like such that they exercise control over us and limit our potential.
So, we often feel powerless and stuck. We fail to realize that we were, in many ways, the architect of our problems. Our decisions recreate our past—even if it is a less than desirable one.
Whether you believe you are trapped or not, are you in charge of your future—your destiny? Locus of control describes the degree to which individuals believe that outcomes result from their own behaviors or forces external to themselves.
In many ways, it is less painful to blame external forces to absolve ourselves of any responsibility. Yet, an external locus is also an orientation that ensures we remain trapped and reinforces the idea that we have little to no control over our lives. From here, we often stop seeing the things that we can control and may even be resistant to help from others.
The locus of control choice is yours. Are you trapped in an unsatisfactory mode of existence? Do you find yourself complaining and blaming others a lot (i.e., searching for enemies)? If so, would things look different if you adopted an internal locus, let go of the victim mentality, and broke free from the notion that yours is an unalterable reality?
Look, the decisions we make today will have a profound influence on the future we experience. We often want to find an enemy to blame for our problems. Yet, a look in the mirror may show us that we are that enemy—that we are the cause of many of the problems we experience in the workplace. So, let me leave you with a couple of questions.
Will you continue to approach your work in such a way that is likely to recreate the past? Or, will you make a change and start creating the future you desire?
Assuming you are on board with option 2, the best way to get started is to gather your colleagues to discuss what I shared above. Then, commit to a critical examination of each other's decision-making processes. Allow those around you to point out the biases affecting your reasoning and do the same for others. But, to the extent possible, do so in the absence of outcome information lest you fall prey to outcome bias and hindsight bias.
 Bazerman, M. H., & Moore, D. A. (2012). Judgment in managerial decision-making. John Wiley & Sons.
 Benson, B. (2016). Cognitive bias cheat sheet. Better Humans.
 Eurich, T. (2018). What self-awareness, really is (and how to cultivate it). HBR.
 Morgan, G. (1998). Images of organization: The executive edition. Thousand Oaks, CA.
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Travis Bland is the Associate Dean of the College of Public Affairs and Administration and an Associate Professor in the Department of Public Administration. He studies, consults, and offers workshops on organizational health, strategic planning and execution, and the management of people. To learn more, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.