In this post, I explain why doing bad things to people is a wrong move, for your own self interest; and what is the correct strategy to follow. This is an extremely important point to remember, because the compounding effects of it are huge. This is not supposed to inspire you to make the world a better place; it is suppose to teach you something important for your own life and career, and help you avoid making a costly mistake.
Know Your Strength
The first thing to remember is your own power — power to leave an impression of people, to affect their feelings, and sense of well being, and generally impact their day. Like all great powers, this one comes with responsibility. When you are communicating with somebody — your colleague, your boss, your report, your wife, your child, the barista at Starbucks, the guy who cut you up whilst driving — style matters. Language matters. Tone matters. You may want to deliver a message — “you weren’t in early enough today”. “The coffee is too milky”. “You drive badly”. But how you deliver it will make a huge difference to the impact it makes on the person receiving the message.
Think of “mate, wtf, be here at 8 from now on” V “dude, we were struggling a bit this morning, if you can get here for 8 I’d appreciate it”.
What about “try to be a bit more careful next time — thank you” V “you drive like a ****, **** off”.
In these, and countless other cases, there is a genuine message to be delivered. But, how you choose to deliver it, makes the difference between triggering a thought in someone, and ruining their day. DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE IMPACT OF THIS. Think of how a random stranger cursing at you on the road, or your boss taking out their anger on you over something trivial, makes you feel. Think of how this resonates with you for hours, if not days. DELIVERY IS EVERYTHING. YOU CAN IMPACT PEOPLE’S FEELINGS.
Now, I am what I am, I hear you mutter. People that can’t take the truth as is should stay home, you’re thinking. Not so. Read on — you’re only hurting yourself.
What Goes Around
The next thing to consider is Karma. What I mean by this, is things you do rebounding and coming back, boomerang style, to the person who put them out there. This is not some mystical belief — this is what actually happens.
At times — in my case, quite often — you will be tempted to beat someone down. You will be tempted to take on some colleague who isn’t doing their job properly, and hammer them. Email their boss. Confront them publicly. Humiliate them or hurt them in some way. This extends beyond the office. Sarcastic remarks to slow or dumb witted waiters. Condescending or abusive language to a call centre employee. You’re annoyed that your internet is down. You’ve had enough of your incompetent boss. You get the picture.
So, if this describes you, two points. First, this is indulgent. By dishing out abuse, you are, at least on some level, self comforting. You are scratching some itch to complain, to vent, to dish out blame and abuse, which makes you feel emotionally better. You know this is true, because at those moments, to control yourself, despite your anger, is hard. The mere use of the word “control” suggests that this is something you are doing automatically, without thinking. It just flies out of you, emotionally.
Second, you are creating an army of people who hate you. The old saying goes, “beware how you treat people on the way up, you’ll be meeting all of those people again on the way down”. Every time you hurt someone, upset them in some way, you are creating an emotional scar. It isn’t what you did; it is how you made them feel. Do that enough time, and you’ll create an enemy.
NEVER UNDERESTIMATE HOW PEOPLE YOU NEVER EXPECTD CAN POP UP IN SITUATIONS TO HURT YOU.
This can be junior people who end up senior; colleagues who end up clients; acquaintances who end up neighbours; competitors who end up colleagues; or baristas who just spit in your coffee. The world is a small place; your ecosystem much smaller; and people come up and around again, and again, and again.
What this means is, just mathematically, the less you offend and hurt people, the less you are likely to end up needing a favour from someone who hates you. So think of this, the next time you are about to hurl some abuse — I have no idea where this person will be in five years’ time; do I have an excellent reason to make him an enemy? The point is, each time we do that, we are taking a little gamble. We are betting that this new enemy will never be relevant to us, or have any power to affect us in any way. This may be true once. Maybe five times. Ten times. Fifty? A hundred? Two hundred? How much vitriol can you put out there, in your little corner of the world, and expect it never to come back at you? Not much.
To Understand Is To Forgive…
…or so the saying goes. What you’ll see, if you think about it, is that you don’t even want to be harsh on people. Not really. If you take a step back, you will see that most of the time, people are doing what they are capable of doing. Either their frame is different — they are behaving as they would, within their set of constraints; which are different to yours — or they are simply limited in some way you hadn’t considered.
Maybe your boss gave you hell about some irrelevant deadline; but you consider, and see that they’re being abused by their boss, and just need to show some progress — any progress. Maybe then we’ll forgive them some overreaction? Maybe your colleague just isn’t smart enough to produce a piece of work as quickly as they should. Maybe they should be, but fact is, they are not. Still mad at them? Maybe the barista is snowed, and massively understaffed. She shouldn’t be — that Starbucks is badly run — but do you still hate her for your cold coffee? You overtake the driver going 10 miles an hour, obviously on their phone — and you realise it is a septuagenarian, going as fast as they dare. They’ve made you late for your basketball game; but still want to hoot and curse at them?
What this boils down to, is that 99% of the time, in life things aren’t happening to you; they’re just happening. It was Napoleon who said, “never blame on conspiracy what can be explained by incompetence”. He was dead on. The vast majority of things that happen to get under your skin, are just happening. They’re just happening for their own reasons. It doesn’t mean you ignore them — the title of this blog post isn’t learned helplessness — it just means chill out, and overreacting is just shooting yourself in the foot anyway.
And Who Are You Anyway?
There is another angle to consider here — you are quite likely to be wrong. The fact is, at any time in your life, you own all the knowledge you acquired up to that point in life; and therefore, everything you think, all of the judgements you make, are viewed through that lens. But think, how confident a 25 year old is; and how much wiser their 35 year old self is (usually). That judgement you came to, with absolute certainty, and that criticism you doled out with complete confidence, turned out to just be plain wrong.
But guess what — that enemy you created, well, they still hate you. And, those years on, once you realise the error of your ways? That’s normally just when they pop up for some karmic payback. And this effect, it never stops — your foolhardy 25 year old self makes no fewer mistakes at 35, 45, or 55. You are always learning; always looking back; always re-assessing. So be a bit humble before dishing out the truth to the world; it will be you, your older and wiser self, who will realise the foolishness of your behaviour.
The Most Important Thing
Now, as you progress in life, one of the most important assets you build is your reputation. This is because of our nature as a tribal people — think of a large corporation, most of people’s views of other people are based on what they here and water cooler chats. Sure, the guy next to you knows you inside and out, your merits and weaknesses. But the guy on another floor just knows what he heard about you here or there. People in another firm, further removed — it’s all hearsay.
Think of how many times in your life someone asked you, “hey you know such and such, I just interviewed them, what do you think?”. It’s enough to say one strongly worded sentence — “to be honest he is a complete snake” — to end that interview process. Hearsay.
And guess what — personal reputation, the hardest thing to build, is the easiest thing to destroy, and the hardest thing to repair. People may think of you things that are NOTHING to do with reality — but, those thoughts, that reputation, will build and destroy many a career. That reputation as a firebrand who speaks their mind and doesn’t suffer fools gladly may be ok once you’re Steve Jobs; but may torpedo you time and again as you apply for jobs which require team players. GUARD YOUR REPUTATION JEALOUSLY — and don’t tarnish it cheaply by ruining your PR from people who you thought didn’t matter.
What If I Have No Choice?
Sometimes you will feel that needs must. Sometimes something is broken, and needs fixing. Some colleague is letting down the team and needs to be gone. There is no way but to hurt someone. What should you do? Well, as my old boss used to say, “never leave your fingerprints on the knife”. If you need to criticise someone, need them to be chastised or punished, find another way. Find a sensitive way to do it. Do it in a wide, general way, so the message gets through but you aren’t singling them out. Get someone else to do it. Don’t waste your own goodwill by being the bad guy. Can it be somebody else?
Now, we are not saying be disingenuous — that would be a major error, stay true to yourself — but still, either find a non-confrontational way to do it; or find a way such that you are not wasting your goodwill. Think of that goodwill as your network capital buffer — erode it at your peril, it is hard to replenish.
This Works In Reverse Too
It is useful to extend this though in the opposite direction — actually doing nice things for no apparent reason. Now, this deserves its own blogpost at some point — but the message is that, basically, just like you can deplete your goodwill capital, you can add to it. Where you can, help people out. Take the time to email them that book recommendation. Pass on that CV. Go out of your way to conspicuously be seen to go the extra mile and help someone. Or take the time to listen to them. Or say nice things about their blog (…). Again, don’t be disingenuous — people aren’t stupid, and nobody likes a fake — but help where you can, go the extra mile. Why? Because, the same thing applies — think of that person you never imagined will pop up as an important client. Great you controlled yourself five years ago and didn’t get them canned. But imagine you helped their wife find a job when she got canned? Imagine you put them on to a great tutor when their kid was suffering at school?
Spreading good where you can comes back at you in spades. Both the good and the bad, generate network effects. 10 people hating you will result in hundreds thinking you’re no good. 10 loving you will result in hundreds thinking you’re a great guy. Want a network? This is how you get one. So don’t just correct — overcorrect. Stop the bad, throw in some good. Work on this, and make it a . You won’t regret it.
The Final Lesson
So what’s the summary of all this? Bad behaviour is probably stupid and will blow up in your face. Nice behaviour is a great habit, and will pay you back in spades. It takes work to not just act blindly; but it is completely worth it. GO OUT OF YOUR WAY TO GET THIS RIGHT. And watch the goodwill roll in.
Originally published at https://www.wisdomformykids.com on October 19, 2020.