Choose Your Arguments Wisely

I have always taken some foolish pride in the humble nature of my upbringing. For many of us, it’s part of being an American: reveling in how poor we were and how much we had to overcome to achieve our current station in life. Since Horatio Alger, this has been part of the American Dream. It’s the reason parents still lecture their children with memories of their childhoods that begin with “When I was your age …” There’s nothing wrong with a little of that if the lecture imparts some useful instruction — and the children aren’t rolling their eyes thinking, “Dad’s at it again.” In general, this is a waste of time.

While “I had it so tough!” is bad at home, it can be even worse at work. When we do this, all we’re doing is trying to elicit other people’s admiration for our having had it rougher than they did. It’s pointless, almost perverse bragging — and what does the “winner” of the argument really win? I embarrassed myself when I got into a contest with a client about which one of us was poorer growing up. After laying out all the necessities of modern life that we lacked in Valley Station, I tossed down my trump card: “The first three years in grade school,” I said, “we had an outhouse.”

My adversary countered, “In West Virginia, all we had were outhouses. What’s the big deal? And by the way, we had dirt floors in my home!”

“You know what?” I said. “You win. I can’t top dirt floors.”

I felt like a fool afterward. And I suspect that the winner didn’t feel any better. That’s what happens when you try to glorify your past for all its deficiencies and all the suffering it brought upon you. It’s no different for any debate about details in the past, even the good times. All you’re doing is creating a contest of competing memories. Except for its limited self-entertainment value, what’s the point of that?

Why we do things like that is a perennially pointless argument; we never really know what other people’s motives are. We can speculate — with generosity, if we attribute goodwill to their motives; or with paranoia, if we suspect hostile intent — but no matter how strenuously we probe, we may never get a frank answer.

Leaders have gone to war for centuries without revealing their true motive for spending so much of their nation’s blood and treasure. And so it is in the workplace: People do things that annoy or enrage us, and it’s almost impossible to get to the bottom of why they did them, yet we waste hours trying.

This is not cynicism. Think about the last time someone questioned your motives. Did you respond with concern, or just get angry and feel like arguing?

Remember this when you find yourself angrily asking, “Why did you do that?” In almost all cases, negative attributions are met with hostility.

Since you can never “prove” the other person had ill intent, you can never really “win” this pointless argument. If the other person did truly have bad intent, he or she would never admit it in public. If the other person did not have bad intent, he or she will be hurt by your unfair comments. What have you won in either case? Nothing. What have you lost? Mojo, that spirit that starts inside and radiates outside.

A reporter from the Chicago Tribune once asked me if managers today are more abusive than in the past. It’s a logical question in a discussion of executive behavior.

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “Not so long ago we fought a civil war because half of America thought slavery was a good thing. If that isn’t abusive, what is? We used to have sweatshops. As recently as 30 years ago in the U.S. a manager could pretty much say anything to an employee and get away with it.”

We’ve come a long way. Most major companies now believe in certain inalienable rights at work. We have the right to be treated with respect. We have the right to be judged by our performance and character rather than by a fluke of lucky birth. If we’re women, we have the right to be paid as much as a man for doing the same job. When inequities such as these arise, they’re worth arguing over.

Marshall Goldsmith is an authority in helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. He is the author or co-editor of 31 books, including MOJO. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.