First, Do No Harm

How we think about our lives, our work and our environment is complicated. Literally. There is a great deal that we still don’t understand about the cognitive workings of the human mind. And there are a number of shortcuts and techniques our minds employ that we aren’t consciously aware of (hence the absolutely epic number of cognitive biases that influence how we make decisions).

This is true for how we act—and particularly react—to situations and circumstances. Someone doesn’t hold the door open in front of you? You silently seethe. An elevator door isn’t held? You snort in annoyance. Someone cuts you off in traffic? You probably utter several expletives while gesticulating wildly.

Action, reaction. Stimulus, response. We do what we do, largely because that’s how our minds have been trained to respond. Trained by whom, though? That’s the challenging question. And the answer includes a long list of suspects: society, our community, our parents, our friends, our teachers, experience and—largely—ourselves.

We have the experiences that we do because we choose the experiences we want to have. And while some of us might disagree quite strongly, we are indeed the greatest shaper of our own existence.

I was reminded of this as I was preparing a new presentation based upon the research that led to Exercising Agency. Previously, presentations have focussed on conveying and communicating what the research found. In this presentation, I was endeavouring to answer the question, “So what?” Not to explore the research and what it meant, but to identify how it is relevant and what we can do as a result.

The need to do that was illustrated by two separate case studies that came out of the research. Both scenarios reflected similar environments, but the participants told very different stories.

The first individual was the manager of a PMO in an aerospace firm. The organization was highly political. Decision making was described as being random, chaotic, and driven largely by what was described as an “old boys’ club.” Decisions made one day would be overridden later with no consequences. Overall, what was described by the research participant was a frustrating and challenging environment.

He had been brought in to make change. The organization had not previously had a PMO, and the stated intent was that structure, formality and rational decision making was required. Unsurprisingly, the individual had experienced a great deal of difficulty in making any headway. He felt ignored and dismissed, and he was incredibly frustrated and angry about the entire experience. He felt that his work wasn’t valued and appreciated, and people were working around him to get their way. They just weren’t listening to reason.

Contrast that with another case study, this time in a pharmaceutical organization. The organization itself was still highly political. There was minimal process, and what was in place was not sufficient to get things done. In this environment, it was necessary to work within and outside of the rules—the written ones and the unstated ones—if you wanted to get things done. Relationships were important, decisions were made politically, and individual influence and power went a long way in determining your fate.

The research participant in this case study was in a similar position, with several layers of executive reporting above her in the organization chart. The decision making process was described as insufficient and arbitrary. And yet, despite this reality, she felt no where near the same frustration or difficulty in getting complex and difficult projects done.

These sorts of challenges, in fact, were her bread and butter. In her words, “My projects seldom fail. [I] can usually take the approach that I believe needs to occur to get traction. It often takes a long time to get the initial traction. But I understand how to work with the culture of most of the sites…” The environment was equally political, but nonetheless she felt extremely comfortable doing the work necessary to attain a positive outcome.

So what makes one person successful while another person despairs? You can blame it on environment, but both are actually quite similar. You can ascribe it to position, yet both players are at similar levels in the organization chart, with a similar (low) level of formal authority. In the context of research, what made the difference was agency. One possessed the confidence to get things done, and to work within, around and through the organizational culture, while the other one didn’t.

The challenge is how to operationalize agency. How to develop a perspective that sees outcomes as possible, and provides guidance and direction on how to move forward. How to build a belief that—despite our environment—we can successfully successfully navigate a challenge that inevitably fail would fail if unmanaged.

A fairly useful model of understanding how this works comes from the resilience and positive psychology literature. Often called the ABC model, it was developed by Albert Ellis in 1957, and is a key component of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It’s an incredibly simple framework, based on an acronym: ‘A’ stands for adversity, whatever the event is that activates a situation. ‘B’ represents the personal beliefs of the individual. ‘C’ then reflects the consequences of how those beliefs play out in response to the adversity.

The challenge is that most of us aren’t aware of underlying belief systems. This is where we came in to this discussion. When an event happens (the adversity of someone cutting us off while speaking in a meeting, for example) we react to that (we get mad, frustrated, impatient or angry). What we don’t do is challenge the beliefs that let do that reaction.

The reason that we get angry is because we attach the cause (the interruption) to our inferred motive about why that person cut us off. The frustration and anger often comes from a perception that we aren’t being heard, we’re being dismissed, our perspective isn’t being valued, that the interruptor views themselves as superior to us or any other number of—in this case, very negative—reasons. These beliefs might be true; at the same time, they might also represent nothing like actual reality.

The reason that we were cut off might have been as simple as the fact that the other person was distracted. Or actually didn’t hear us speaking. It might also be because they were incredibly excited about what we were saying, and wanted to reinforce it with their own viewpoint. They might have felt the need to back up our experience with their own perspective. Rather than being an opponent, they might just as easily be an ally. A range of scenarios are possible, but we tend to latch on to one and fast-forward to the finish line, firmly believing that our untested interpretation is the truth. And our inner, unexplored, unchallenged beliefs are what drive us there.

So how does this help to explain and understand agency? It actually offers a great deal of insight. Let’s go back to our earlier scenarios and explore them with a different perspective.

Our aerospace PMO manager, based upon the adversity they are encountering in implementing a more process-based approach, is very clearly angry, frustrated and constrained in their role. The challenge they are experiencing is fairly obvious, and the consequences are visibly evident. What we can’t know directly is the beliefs that are leading to those consequences. We can, however, make a few inferences.

It’s clear that the person sees politics as a roadblock to moving forward. They described the environment as an “old boys’ club,” implying that relationships and connections mean far more than roles and process. That provides some useful insights into the behaviours at work. They see an environment where politics is everything. They also see themselves as an outsider, someone who isn’t in the “club.” And clearly evident is the fact that people in the organization don’t respect the rules, and a belief on behalf of the individual that they should.

Our pharmaceutical manager, however, would appear to have different operating beliefs that drive their role and how they get things done. She describes an environment where it is necessary to show success early to gain support. She describes politics as being inevitable. And she also sees herself as an outsider brought in to challenge the rules and conventions of the organization. She sees her success as being a product of knowing the rules, working within and outside of them as necessary, and facilitating conflict and difficulty without taking ownership of it herself.

Those beliefs lead to very different consequences. She expresses confidence in her role and her ability to get things done. She sees herself as being capable of navigating the organization and getting things done. It takes work and negotiation and patience and effort, but the consequence of her beliefs is a certainty that in time she will be successful, and deliver results that the organization needs and values.

In short, the beliefs of the aerospace manager are leading to negative, unhelpful and arguably harmful consequences. They are beyond dissatisfied, and it’s easy to see a scenario where they choose to leave the organization. The beliefs of the pharmaceutical manager, by contrast, lead to consequences that are productive, constructive and healthy. There’s still work to be done, and a great deal of it. But the individual manages from a place of certainty that at the end of the work there will be a positive result.

So what beliefs might help the manager in the aerospace PMO come to a different perspective? Without changing anything about the environment—of which they have no control—there is a lot they can do to shift their perspective. Adopting a belief that they are an agent of change—that they were brought in to the organization to help shift how the organization operates—is a helpful starting point. Know that they need to respect the culture, that it is a fundamental aspect of how the organization behaves. That their role is to help to nudge the culture in a positive direction. That politics is inevitable, but that a little process can help to encourage a shift.

Those beliefs might lead to some very different consequences, including the need for patience, for constructive support and engagement with the politics and the political players, and that they need to seek opportunities where they can have the greatest impact.

Part of what enables us to make a difference—to exercise and engage with agency—is a perspective that we can, in fact, make a difference. The beliefs we hold in the face of the situations that we find ourselves in will ultimately shape the consequences of our experience. Our opportunity is to explore, question, challenge and change those beliefs. An essential question that we need to ask is whether our beliefs—and the consequences that they create—are helpful or harmful. Where they aren’t working for us or for others, there may be an opportunity—or a need—to make a change.

5 Comments to “First, Do No Harm”

  1. Jim Duggan says:

    This is one of your best articles. Very insightful as it articulates something that I personally have found difficult to articulate.
    The idea of exploring and understanding our beliefs and the connection to consequences is useful for those times all of us deal with challenging situations.
    Thank you!

    • Mark Mullaly says:

      Thanks so much, Jim! I really appreciate it.

      It’s a really useful model and framework, and one I’ve found really helpful.

      Hope you are well!

  2. Frank Saladis says:

    Hi Mark,
    Thanks for the article. You provide a lot to think about. Regarding the situations where someone cuts off a speaker, interrupts a session, or does something that may cause a possible negative reaction – It is important not to instantly react to the situation but to consider the best possible approach to deal with it. The reality for many is that there are people in organizations who actually want to be disruptive and intentionally create problems (for political reasons, jealous etc). What I think we should attempt to do is focus more on what the intended objective is and seek a positive outcome while maintaining composure when confronted with these types of challenges. It seems to me that exercising agency and the ABC model are a blend of emotional intelligence, conflict management, leadership capability, and relationship management.

    • Mark Mullaly says:

      Hey, Frank. Great to hear from you. It’s been ages; hope you are well.

      You are absolutely right… there are lots of reasons why things happen, and a key thing to consider is underlying motive and intent. Part of that is the motives of the other person, and part of that is the beliefs and default presumptions that lead us to our default conclusions, and default reactions.

      There is certainly a lot that agency leverages from emotional intelligence. But I see agency as a broader framework, in that it ties into it a number of personal, social, environmental and relational factors that lead us to believe we can make a difference (or not). Some of that is based on our personal qualities, and also on the environment we find ourselves in, and the cause-and-effect interactions of defining what’s possible. There are a lot of interesting similarities between models of how we exercise agency and how we negotiate effective outcomes (thinking particularly of the Harvard model as outlined in “Getting to Yes”).

      Thanks again. Keep in touch.

  3. Lyn McDonell says:

    Mark — This article is excellent. Great insight and it conveys subtle points well — whether we are effective and impactful — or not making a dent — may be more up to our perspective than we think! We need to be aware and watchful on our own assumptions, to persevere and work within the norms of the environments, and see and articulate the positive path, being an enabler for the client re-framing issues. I like Frank’s advice above that “we should attempt to do is focus more on what the intended objective is and seek a positive outcome while maintaining composure when confronted with these types of challenges.” Will reflect on this — the concept of agency. Very interesting, Mark.

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