“It is truly strange how long it takes to get to know oneself. I am now 62 years old, yet just one moment ago I realized that I love lightly toasted bread and loathe bread when it is heavily toasted. For over 60 years, and quite unconsciously, I have been experiencing inner joy or total despair at my relationship with grilled bread.”
I love this quote by Ludwig Wittgenstein (and have even used it before, in another blog post) because it’s something we all recognize about ourselves: we can be very smart and knowledgeable, and still be unaware of ourselves. If Wittgenstein, one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century—a man whose contributions focused on the philosophy of mind—could be duped by his own mind regarding something as simple as his taste in toast, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Despite our best efforts, we are truly enigmatic.
My work centers primarily on this one enigma of awareness: it is entirely possible to be aware of our strengths and weakness, and still not see their impact on others. I call this impact “the cost of doing business with us.” How much does it “cost” others to work successfully with us? What’s our price tag?
It sounds cold, but we all come at a cost. The cost we incur is the effort expended by colleagues, customers, and co-workers in order to get things done with us. This doesn’t just apply to some people, but to everyone. We all have to accommodate others. It’s the nature of social intercourse. If you’re a slow talker, people have to spend an extra 30 seconds of their time waiting for the words to come out of your mouth. If you talk fast, people have to expend the effort to interrupt, and ask you to repeat yourself. If you tend to be late for events, people have to adjust their schedules, or lose time waiting for you to arrive.
It’s not just the more challenging aspects of our nature that come with a cost, but our strengths and talents as well. A talent is just as expensive as a weakness. I have a great talent at seeing the bigger picture, for instance, and this comes with the cost of frequently neglecting details and making small mistakes that cause some teeth-grinding downstream. I’ve collaborated with hugely talented creative types who were indispensable to the quality of our project, but they frequently went past deadlines because they went through so many iterations and delivered way more than what was necessary, just because they were so passionate and committed to quality. But that took a lot of time and energy from others, and while we were happy with the end result, we definitely could have been done more quickly—with less time and effort.
This same difficulty of seeing the impact of our behavior is one of the reasons we struggle to see the environmental impact of our decisions, or the nutritional and health impact of our behaviors. Social marketers who try to educate the public about health issues such as skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, smoking, or drunk driving often contend with this problem: How do we get people to see the consequences of their actions?
Now, the problem isn’t simply that we cost something, nor is it necessarily what we cost. The problem arises when we don’t know that we come at a cost. Once we know that we cost something, and have an idea of what it is, then we can take measures to reduce the difference between our value and our costs.
We can’t change our basic nature. And we shouldn’t. But we can mitigate the extra effort and annoyance others suffer. At the very least, we can explain ourselves better. We can also acknowledge the other’s effort. And if it’s a considerable effort, we can offer to do something to make it easier. We can also anticipate and warn others. I’ve written about this before in terms of teamwork: to be more trustworthy, we can be aware of and admit our shortcomings. The more forewarned everyone is about what it takes to work with us, the more forearmed they are.
What happens when we don’t know the impact? Well, over time, we can undermine whatever goodwill we’ve accrued. And our behavior costs the organization in terms of time—not only our own, but also that of others. And the aggravation and annoyance we create can have real consequences in terms of morale, productivity, and even turnover.
Consider the case of my client, Evelyn*. Evelyn was the Provost of a university and considered a friendly and approachable leader, well-liked by co-workers and people in the community. As part of the coaching process, she underwent a 360° feedback process and was surprised to see some of the comments—which were the complete opposite to how she saw herself. While many comments spoke to her approachability and engaging nature, several described her as difficult to work with, and inconsiderate.
Evelyn was stunned. In her mind, she saw herself as friendly, approachable, and considerate. In our conversation, this is what emerged: While Evelyn intended to be friendly and considerate, others experienced her behavior as inconsiderate and even entitled. She had a tendency to ask—always in a friendly fashion, and always asking if “it was okay”—for things which disregarded others’ needs. For instance, she had a habit of asking her assistant to “just quickly” proof and send an important document or email at 4:45pm on a Friday. She never managed to send out agendas for important meetings with her executive team, frequently handing the documents out right before the meetings, not giving people time to prepare. She was often late, and would change her schedule at the last minute, without letting her assistant know—keeping him out of the loop and adding to his workload by creating havoc and disorganization for him to fix.
Here’s the kicker: Evelyn was fully aware of her struggles to be organized. We had been working on it for some time and, in fact, it was the very reason Evelyn sought coaching. What was eye-opening to her, and ultimately the catalyst for changing her behavior, was to see its impact: people didn’t see disorganization; they saw entitlement and a misuse of power.
This is one of the reasons feedback is crucial. It’s not only our job to know our strengths and weaknesses, but also—more importantly—to learn about the benefits we offer, the challenges we pose, and our cost to others.
*As usual, names have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.