“This will have a bit of preamble here, so bear with me. I grew up listening to punk rock, and there’s a lot about it I still love – the aesthetic, the spirit, the DIY attitude – but it often came at the expense of hating everything else. I listen to a podcast called “WTF with Marc Maron” and while it’s a podcast ostensibly about comedy and comedians, he describes it as ‘listening to the process of him becoming a better person.’
“When I came here I was skeptical and resentful and wondered what I could possibly learn from it. I’ve always been skeptical of programs like this and have approached a lot in my life with a closed mind.
“As I leave here, I am grateful and humbled and much more open to experiences. I adore you all and cherish our time together for not only helping me learn about me, but also for allowing me to be a part of your lives as well. Thank you.” – My closing remarks at leadership training, June 21.
One question plagues me after going through this terrific program: Am I an asshole? And I think I know the answer, because it’s part of a larger and much more interesting question.
Are we all assholes? Or is society an impossible construction that we all (basically) make work anyway?
It’s no secret I’ve gone through some issues over the last several months. I initially was so ambivalent about this leadership program because it felt like the consolation prize I didn’t ask for during my review. My new supervisor, however, urged me to treat it as a gift. And it’s quite the daunting gift. It’s five days of workshop preceded by up to 20 reviews by your peers, superiors, direct reports, and others as well as extensive personality tests and working style surveys and all sorts of shit.
I was skeptical, but managed to stay open to it. I believe, and I wrote this in one of my assessments, that it’s a fallacy that we know ourselves well at all. Economics studies, for one, consistently show people behaving irrationally, and behavioral psychologists seem to make their living demonstrating the disconnect between the right thing to do and the ways the universe and our own body conspire to trick us into doing the dipshit wrong thing pretty much always.
So it should come as no surprise that from a macro perspective, I wasn’t all that surprised by my results. But the nuances of each assessment never ceased to surprise me. In some ways, I am exactly as I thought I was. In others, I was struck by how radically different I appeared, but after consideration, understood myself even more deeply.
Before receiving one of our assessments, I turned to the guy next to me – a guy named Dom who seemed to be about my age, one of the only ones there who was – and I said, “I can’t wait to read this and find out what I already know. ‘Oh, hey, look, I’m an asshole.’ Science is amazing!” He laughed, and then we went on our way analyzing our own data.
Once that time was up, he points at the iPad I’m using and asks, “So, is that what an asshole’s profile looks like?” I laughed.
We got to talking, and one of the measurements was called “expressed influence” which measures my basic tendencies toward decision making and the need to be in control. My score was very low, which is very much how I like to do things. My management belief is that you can tell someone what to do or how to do it, but never both. When it comes to assigning work to my consultants, I make sure we all agree on the goals, the deliverables, and the timeline. And I tell them to get it done. They’re professionals and I hire them for their expertise and their ability to deliver. I don’t need also to tell them how to fucking do it. That’s a waste of everyone’s time, and as long as the goal and the deliverable gets to me at the agreed upon time, what the hell do I care how they achieved it?
Turns out, at least at this table at my leadership conference, I was the anomaly. Everyone else had high expressed influence scores. I shared with them what I just shared with you above, and it was fun to see everyone’s asshole pucker at the thought of giving up that much control over process.
What was incredibly enlightening was I had gotten to know these folks over the last few days and had cultivated great fondness for them. I then thought about their preferred management style, and how differently I might perceive them if we met in a working context. This one guy Joe, who is awesome, would probably be someone I hated with great vigor if I reported to him, based on the way he described his preferred method of tackling projects. How are these two people – Joe I loved and bullshitted with about the NBA Finals / Joe I suspected I might despise in a hypothetical working relationship context for constantly hectoring me about how a project was going – able to exist at the same time? It’s possible Joe thought the same thing about me. I don’t take offense if he did.
Having that realization increases your empathy for everyone you have ever crossed paths with, and sort of provides an answer to my lead question. Outside of a few very extreme outliers, I firmly believe basically everyone is a good person just trying to do their best the only way they know how. But frequently we encounter people who fundamentally understand the world in a different way from us. The “expressed influence” example from this leadership workshop is but a small example of that. I could rattle off a hundred more from that week alone just off the top of my head.
There are people out there you probably consider assholes. Likewise, there are any number of people who think back fondly on their interactions with you and say to themselves, “That asshole…” and mean it with every fiber of their being.
It’s only when you’re in a group all experiencing the same things and talking about them in an open manner that this type of realization is even possible. We were forced to consider virtually every aspect of ourselves, and the result is that by focusing inwardly, you naturally gain insight outward.
We are all products of too many data inputs both imprinted on our DNA and assimilated from experience that inform who we are and what we do in ways we’ll never even begin to understand. I feel empowered by this knowledge because I know not to rush to judgment on anything or anyone and will try to take a curious and sincere approach in anything I do. But I’m also totally flattened by the realization because it means the bedrock of knowledge of Things I Know continues to erode and wash away under my feet.
The more I learn, I realize, the less I know.
We’re all assholes. None of us. And society is an impossible construction that we all (basically) make work anyway.
For that societal construct to work at all, the superseding force of good that emerges while fighting how different we all are, has to be so much stronger than the force of evil, the overwhelming beauty of the realization hasn’t stopped inspiring me yet.