Brain Flatulence – A Common Leadership Trait

Open Mouth and Insert Foot

We have all, at one time or another in our lives, said or done something to someone that we have regretted later. If you don’t agree with this statement then you are either a perfect specimen of a human being or have a BLIND SPOT the size of Mount Everest. It is after all a normal and natural feature of human nature that when we encounter situations that are difficult or generate strong emotion – we react in less than desirable or compassionate ways towards others.  But how does this happen and what can you do to prevent it?

Brain Flatulence

I call this phenomenon ‘Brain Flatulence’ because it leaves those who are downwind of the incident with rather an unpleasant experience that lingers longer than one might anticipate. I am talking about those times when you make a flippant remark or rebuke that is directed at someone and is insulting, derogatory or hurtful in anyway. It may be calling someone an ‘idiot’ or ‘stupid’ or possibly something much worse. It doesn’t even need to be something you say, it could be a certain expression, a roll of the eyes – any non-verbal behaviour that implies much the same thing, ‘I don’t value you’.

We are what we think

Every action has an opposite or equal reaction, at least that’s what Newton proved and this theory equally applies to human behaviour. Our behaviour (the things we do and say) creates consequences for ourselves and others and according to Chris Argyris, an eminent Harvard Professor of education and organisational behaviour, our thoughts represent the control centre for all our actions.  Argyris spent 20 years studying the mind of the business executive, groups of high achieving intellectual professionals with sound academic credentials.

He specifically focused on the way this group reasoned while solving difficult human and technical problems. One of Argyris’s significant discoveries led him to conclude that there were deeply embedded patterns of thinking common to this group that had a massive influence on the way they behaved and reacted to situations. He found that when members of this group encountered difficult or challenging situations they would react in ways that were completely contradictory  to the way they said they would act but not only that, their actions would create negative unintended consequences for themselves and others. In other words what they did was very different to what they said they would do. What was most staggering of all – they were completely unaware of doing so.

Argyris identified 2 primary patterns of thinking that influenced the behaviour of the executives in his study, which he likened to a ‘master programme’ or in IT terms an operating system. The operating system that people use in these situations is rarely the one they say they use, he called this one the Espoused Theory, in other words this is how I say I behave. He called the other a Theory of Action – this is how I actually behave.  There are critical differences between the two. Each theory or way of thinking is predominantly made up of values and assumptions – the things that we consider to be important to us. Argyris claims that our Theories of Action are based upon a common set of governing values that are universal and in fact most human beings are predisposed to act in accordance to these governing values, which are developed through interactions with others and socialised into us from early childhood. Most striking was that Argyris had observed the very same Theory of Action across all sectors of society, he says; ‘We have observed the same theory-in-use among rich and poor, white and black, male and female, young and old, powerful and powerless and in several different cultures.’

The governing values Argyris describes are;

1. To remain in unilateral control

2. To maximise winning and minimise losing

3. To suppress negative feelings

4. To be as rational as possible

The ultimate function of these governing values is to protect ourselves from embarrassing or threatening situations and to avoid feelings of vulnerability and incompetence.

So when we are confronted by difficult or challenging situations we all tend to react immediately in service of these values and we are unaware of it. So whether you are a high flying executive or the office general dogsbody you are equally susceptible to this way of thinking and acting.

Congruent in Every Interaction

Don’t despair – there is hope!

1. Switch off your autopilot – do you have any sense of your own personal values; the things that are important to you with respect to communication. The next time you experience some ‘brain flatulence’, ask yourself to what extent was that statement or comment consistent with my values? What happened that triggered my response? What could I have done differently?

2. Remember the platinum rule – Most people think that the golden rule of communication is to treat other in the same way you’d like to be treated yourself. There is another level, it’s called the platinum rule – Treat other people as they’d like be treated.

3. Ask for feedback – If you think you’ve stepped out of line with someone, ask them for feedback. It’s not easy to do but if you are committed to being congruent and values-driven then you’ll need someone to guide you and let you know when you or off track with your goals.

Don’t let others suffer as a result of your mental incontinence or is it incompetence!

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