Fred, a young leader who was having some problems with others, shared that he “just tended to be contrarian.” He described a habit of intentionally going against the grain, “just because.” Even though Fred was a young guy, he’d already created a short history of run-ins with coaches, teachers, and most of his managers. As we talked about these past and present situations, I pointed out the pattern he was describing and asked, “What’s your intent here?”
Fred stopped, thought for a minute, then said he didn’t know that he had one. When I asked what this was creating, he explained it was creating a lot of conflict and unease; and, he was frustrated and exhausted with how things have been going. I reminded Fred that anytime there is this much consistency in what we experience we are likely contributing to it, even if that is being done accidentally or unintentionally. We become the dominant factor in forming what we experience, even if that’s not what we really want.
Identifying the Patterns
It wasn’t that Fred had new ideas, or looked at things from different angles. It was his thoughtless habit of being contrarian without a real intent that created so much friction and dissatisfaction for him, his manager, and his peers. Thinking differently is helpful to check what angles may have been missed. Checking into a group’s assumptions can uncover erroneous starting points. Thoughtlessly going against the grain without intent or purpose can reduce someone’s effectiveness, and create the sense that they’re just difficult to work with.
At the end of our short discussion, Fred said he would take more time to reflect on his patterns, and think through his intent in future situations. We discussed both the technical outcome he will want to create, and also how he could show up—the mindsets, communication tools, and interpersonal behaviors he could set for himself. Some examples that I encouraged Fred to play with were being open, listening to understand, and asking more questions. These were simple examples of choices that he could make.
Since then, his managers have noticed a major shift. Fred chose to begin showing up differently. He’s choosing his goals for interactions and has shared that he’s enjoying work much more. The technical work has improved, as have his relationships with coworkers.
Against the Grain
While you may not have the specific habit of “going against the grain,” you are biologically wired to create patterns for yourself. These show up in what you do, and also how you think, communicate, and interact. Pattern creation is how you’ve consistently made life easier, developing ways of acting for really good reasons. At first, the perceived payoff is higher, and the perceived cost is lower. You find success, and then—actively or passively—decide to use the same approach in the next situation…and the next, and so on.
Before long, you’ve established a way to do things without really thinking about it. Your brain is on autopilot, so when a new situation comes up, you don’t really look at the details and tend to default to the standard process. Problems arise when the situation that the original pattern was based on doesn’t match what you’re facing now, and you don’t adjust. Then, you’re frustrated when the results are so different than what you expected. It’s tempting to blame others since you’re overly confident in your part.
This rapidly becomes expensive for you and others because the actual costs in these situations far outweigh the actual payoffs. Technical work might meet minimum requirements, though relationships with others will stagnate or decline.
A common example is being helpful and doing more than your share. This has led to more responsibility and perhaps managing team members. You want to be helpful to them, so you jump in and get to work, assisting with their tasks. Before long, you’re doing too much of their work, and not enough of yours. You’re staying late, and getting frustrated that team members continually come to you to solve their problems. Only you don’t realize that you accidentally taught them this way of working.
So what to do? Toss all your patterns, habits, and processes in the trash? Not necessarily…
First, decide on what your intent is. What technical outcome are you going for? Then determine how you want to communicate, think, and act. The clearer you are on that, the better you’ll be able to decide what tools to bring to bear.
Next, remember that everyone has patterns, and is creating more every day. These are created in a specific situation, and the one you’re facing now will be different in some ways. Your task is to determine how the current situation is different, and how to adjust your approach given your intent.
This can take time and be tiring. The more you work at this, the more you will master your part, and line that up with what you’re really wanting to do. And that shift is certainly worth celebrating and continuing.
Wingspan partners with leaders around the world to strengthen their behavioral performance and communication. Our approach centers on creating more intentional outcomes by developing healthy behavior systems, more productive interactions, and more meaningful relationships.