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Objectivity: The Power of Seeing Things as They Are

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Let's be honest:

  • Have you ever over-reacted to a situation?
  • Have you ever taken something personally when it was not really meant that way?
  • Have you ever misinterpreted the tone of an email, text or tweet?
  • Have you ever judged someone unfairly simply based on the way they look?

The truth is we all have experiences like this. We are all subjective about the way we respond to the people, circumstances, and events in our lives. It is the nature of the mind. This is what we tend to do:

We perceive through our senses; a person, situation or an event. In an instant, we project our own mental models, i.e., our understanding of the way things are or ought to be, our background, experiences, and fears onto the person, situation, or event. Often, the result is that we judge and respond to things incorrectly. We commit what psychologists call cognitive appraisal errors. These errors can impact us at work, at home, in business, in all aspects of our lives.

Here is a simple yet extreme example of how the lack of objectivity can play out at work. Put yourself in Jim's shoes.

Jim has been in his new job for six months. He has always been conscientious, hardworking and a solid performer. He is considered to be "on the fast track." Every morning around 7:45 a.m., Scott, Jim's boss, passes by Jim's desk with a warm and boisterous "Good morning, Jim." But one day, Scott walks by Jim's desk and just nods. Jim's mind starts spinning with the following thoughts:

I heard rumors about downsizing. Scott was probably told that he has to reduce headcount. I've only been with the company for six months. I'm the employee in the department with the least tenure, so Scott has no choice but to fire me. He didn't say hello because he feels bad about it. I'm about to lose my job, which means I'll lose my family because they'll leave me if I can no longer support them.

As a result of these thoughts, Jim becomes so anxious that he runs into Scott's office and bursts out: "Are there going to be layoffs soon? Am I on the list?" Scott looks at Jim like he is crazy, shakes his head. "What are you talking about? Just relax. No one's said anything about layoffs."

Jim was reacting to his boss's subdued greeting from a position of subjectivity. Had he seen the situation more clearly, without responding from his own insecurities and fears, he would have begun by looking at the facts: every morning around 7 a.m. for many months, Scott passed Jim's desk with a warm and boisterous greeting. Today Scott passed Jim's desk without saying hello. Period. End of story. Jim made up everything else. Can you blame Jim? Were his thoughts irrational? The only thing in question here is Jim's response. Acting on his fears by running down the hall and cornering his boss is the real problem. Scott's perception of Jim changed that day. Jim's lack of objectivity cost him his reputation. As Jim later learned, his boss's twenty-year-old daughter had just been injured in a car accident. Scott was too preoccupied to give Jim his usual boisterous greeting.

Now let's look at a more personal case. Patricia and Sam have been dating for four months. They have so much in common. A match made in heaven. Every morning around 8:00, on his way to work, Sam calls Patricia to wish her a good day and to tell her that he loves her. "Have a good day sweetheart, I love you" is the morning sign-off. One morning Sam doesn't call Patricia on the way to work. It is 9:00 a.m., Patricia is at work and naturally she is quite concerned that she has not heard from Sam. She is worried that something awful has happened to him such as a car accident or something even worse. Finally around 9:30 Sam calls Patricia and apologizes for not calling her earlier. To her, he seemed a little distant. He says that he will call her later. Patricia is quite upset. She is thinking to herself:

Sam did not say, "I love you" so obviously he is seeing someone else. While I'm sitting here wondering whether he is hurt, on the side of the road somewhere, he got to work late because he was out last night with someone new. I do think he cared for me, but he probably fell in love unexpectedly with this person and is now afraid of hurting my feelings. He knows how much I care for him, so he won't want to tell me at work because he knows that I'll be too upset. I think I'll call him back, let him off the hook, and tell him that I think we should start seeing other people.

In this case the only thing that happened was that Sam did not call at 8:00, and when he finally did call he didn't say I love you. That's it. Patricia projected her fears and her mind came up with the worst possible reason for his not calling and not saying I love you. Her prior relationship made her insecure and she assumed that Sam no longer cared for her. It turns out Sam got a flat tire on the way to work. Knowing the tires were bald, he was embarrassed to tell Patricia because he didn't want her to think he was irresponsible. Patricia projected her past experience onto what happened and over-reacted. Her lack of objectivity cost her a potentially good relationship.

Can you relate to either of these situations? Can you imagine doing something like this? The good news is that we can all learn to be more objective, to see things as they are so that we can be happier and more successful in all areas of our lives. If you are interested in learning how, read my blog: Objectivity: The Power of Seeing Things As They Are, each week. The blog is based on a popular course I teach at the Babson College Graduate School and Babson Executive Education.

Until next week: How do you define objectivity? Please tweet me your definition.