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Passivity
In The Workplace
 

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  Empathizing with others doesn't happen automatically with humans, unless we can relate with a similar experience in memory. If we spot something unusual in another person, we usually respond with scorn or annoyance, never pausing to consider possible sympathetic causes for the strange behavior. The customary response, then, is to laugh, heckle or ridicule. Certainly, empathizing can be learned or taught so that we may do so more readily, but it becomes a conscious, mental process and never really an automatic response that, say, a sudden, traumatic loss in memory couldn't eliminate.

I. Possibility

  In addition to our tendency to inadequately empathize, assuming similar past experiences is another common tendency. In our minds, all our past experiences become similar to everyone else's, and we don't customarily imagine, say, a victim of abuse or neglect or some other heinous criminal act as standing or sitting right there beside us, quietly keeping that traumatic experience from becoming known. On the flip side of that notion, we don't customarily imagine the possibility of some deviant individual standing or sitting right there beside us, working hard at gaining your trust, say, to take advantage of that later. Note that this is not an issue of paranoia; this is about possibility. You're a professional; thinking in terms of possibility is part of your job now. Forget about what is probably true. You must now consider the BIG picture.

...people often distort their thoughts about reality in order to make themselves feel more comfortable or happier.(Norman) Stuart Sutherland, Irrationality: Why We Don't Think Straight!, 1992.

People like to kid themselves.
Detlof von Winterfeldt and Ward Edwards, Decision Analysis and Behavioral Research, 1993.

  It is now time to turn your brain on and start recognizing possibility over probability. Billions of personalities in our world, with only one — yours — to comprehend them.

II. Policy and Procedure

  Three problems plague the workplace:

  • Rules that don't take into account certain, specific possibilities

  • Employees — superiors and subordinates — who either just don't try imagining or simply choose to disregard alternate possibilities other than those currently addressed

  • No means in place by which an alternate possibility or exception could be discreetly suggested and appreciated

A. Rules that don't take into account certain, specific possibilities

  There is an exception to every rule ... almost. You should always be suspicious of any rule written without at least one exception, because it more than likely sanctions or dictates some course of action that should be avoided in some particular situation. What happens if ... or in the case of ...? Brainstorm to eliminate all possible irrational consequences that could result from a poorly thought out rule before one surprises you some day.

We inhibit learning when we view people as machine-like, suggesting that they follow instructions like a machine, and force them to justify behavior exclusively in terms of previously articulated plans.... People do not simply plan and do. They continuously adjust and invent. Managing this process means managing learning, not managing application of a plan.
William J Clancey, "Practice Cannot be Reduced to Theory: Knowledge, Representations, and Change in the Workplace," 1995, in Organizational Learning and Technological Change, by S Bagnara, C. Zuccermaglio and S. Stucky (Editors); papers from the NATO Workshop held September 22-26, 1992 in Siena, Italy.

B. Employees — subordinates and superiors — who either just don't try imagining or simply choose to disregard alternate possibilities other than those currently addressed

    EMPLOYEES! Don't let your personal mood interfere with your professional outlook. Don't make excuses and perform according to how you “feel” or according to “what the policy is,” but aspire to take a step back, analyze the situation and consider the possibility for an exception to the rule. What is the right thing to do here? ..the responsible thing to do? ..any safety concerns? ..quality of life issues? Learn to CARE. You may not always be able to empathize depending on your own personal prior experiences, but you can still IMAGINE possibilities.

    We lead our lives day-to-day, typically, in a relaxed, easy state. Our thoughts revolve around information picked up by our senses and analyzed in a cognitive manner or style shaped by our experiences and influenced by our personal emotional attitudes. This is passive thinking.

    Passive thinking finds no safe place among professional decision makers. Professional decision makers have learned how to brainstorm and use their imaginative abilities to the utmost in the way of arriving at unforeseen solutions. They recognize their own personal attitudes and beliefs and disallow those thoughts from shaping or influencing professional decisions constituting their own individual responsibility. Instead, they stick to the tried and true scientific method of formulating hypotheses and conducting carefully controlled experiments to test their validity.

  Professional decision makers don't expect good ideas to just “happen.” They search for them, create them, imagine every possible contingency surrounding them and prepare for them before they even practically exist.

  Similarly, professional decision makers don't expect themselves to be immune to bad ideas or erroneous thinking. We're all human; we all make mistakes. But professional decision makers know how to study their ideas to root out the bad ones so as to safeguard themselves and others from possible unwanted or undesirable consequences. The idea is to rack your mind and use your imaginative and analytical capabilities to the fullest to recognize all the possibilities and discover what other possible approaches there may be so that you can compare and contrast their feasibilities, pros and cons before trying to do something that you may later regret.

  There is nothing magical going on here. Just self-discipline and putting your own mind to work even when you don't want to, doing what you have to do to get a job done ... professionally. It centers on CARING about what you do and how well you do it: caring for all those who will be affected by your decision, before you decide to implement it.

C. No means in place by which an alternate possibility or exception could be discreetly suggested and appreciated

  Quality never comes easy. Professional decision-making entails a lot of hard work that cannot possibly be accomplished by any single person in every single situation. In most cases, it entails a formidable job for even a group of dedicated individuals and over a very lengthy period of time. Although optimal solutions may take some time to arrive at, good, safe, viable solutions can usually be found which can be improved upon in time, assuming that we will later possess the ability and motivation to do so.

  But how can you ever hope to find that optimal solution if you stifle creativity among your subordinates? Ideas can hide in the most inaccessible places sometimes, well beyond your imaginative reach. Listen to and consider other perspectives! If you cannot prove that some particular idea bears no further scrutiny, allow for that possibility, regardless of your own personal beliefs or attitude. Appreciate and encourage all suggestions. You're gonna’ get an outstanding one some day!

  As true as that may be, still you must recognize a possibility for some timidity among the personalities in your gang. Even if they all seem to be outspoken individuals, certainly at times some things shouldn't be blared out for everyone to overhear. The means of communicating ideas (and complaints!) should be a discreetand anonymous — one if so desired.

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on Monday, February 2, 2004.
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