Monday, July 9, 2012

Embrace Your Irrational Colleagues

Have you ever wondered why perfectly sensible, rational, and intelligent colleagues resist or reject perfectly sensible, rational, and intelligent ideas? Obviously it's not because they are stupid. There is just something going on that we don't realize.

Here's a quick example: A large, over-crowded urban hospital was trying to free up beds by reducing unnecessarily long patient stays. To that end, an analysis showed that one particular floor never seemed to discharge patients over the weekend. When the nursing and administrative team was asked about this data, the head nurse insisted that she would not support any attempts to increase weekend discharges, saying only that it wasn't a good time for patients to leave the hospital. Clearly, on the surface, her position made no sense. Eventually, she shared the fact that several years earlier a few patients had lost valuables during weekend discharges. So, to insure their security, the head nurse made sure that patients' personal items could only be unlocked from the safe in her presence (she had the only key) — and she didn't work on weekends!

It's easy to laugh at a story like this one. But the reality is that the nurse was doing what she thought best, which made her appear irrational to others. Once the underlying history and motivation was revealed, her behavior made sense. It then prompted a review not only of the discharge procedures, but also of how best to secure personal property.

Irrational behavior is part of the human condition. There's a long list of things that we know we should avoid, but do them anyway; and an equally long list of things that we know are good for us but that we avoid. That's why people smoke cigarettes, drive after having a few cocktails, or don't floss their teeth. At some level, conscious or unconscious, each of us has a compelling reason — such as short-term gratification, peer acceptance, convenience, lifestyle, and many more — for doing the "wrong" thing.

Organizations of course are composed of people, all of whom act irrationally at various times and seemingly do the "wrong" things. So it's no wonder that we often run into a colleague, boss, or subordinate who just can't seem to consider a completely reasonable suggestion. If you find yourself in this situation, here are two simple and "rational" guidelines to keep in mind:

  1. Don't try to fight irrationality with rationality. It will only make you more frustrated and the other person more defensive. No matter how many well-constructed arguments you offer, you won't make headway until you understand the underlying motivation that is driving the other person.
  2. Focus on discovering, understanding, and embracing the other person's rationale. Even if your adversary is being driven by unconscious motivations, it's important to try to figure them out. Resistance to apparent logic always comes from somewhere, and you won't be able to breakthrough until you understand the reason. For example, sales people often resist logical and straightforward sales-model changes because they fear that compensation will be affected, or that customer relationships will be harmed. Until you understand and deal with those underlying issues it's difficult to make headway.

Years ago a senior executive told me that managing an organization would be a lot easier if there weren't any people involved. On the other hand, it wouldn't be nearly as interesting.

What's your experience with understanding — and embracing — irrationality in your organization?

Ron Ashkenas is a managing partner of Schaffer Consulting and a co-author of The GE Work-Out and The Boundaryless Organization. His latest book is Simply Effective.

Thanks to Ron Ashkenas / Blogs HBR / Harvard Business School Publishing


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