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Viewing People in Context

This is an excerpt from my book, A Worker's Worth, available here.

It can be mind-blowing, then, to consider the idea that every perception has validity. In other words, everyone has the right to their perception and for it to be recognized as their reality. It does not mean that their perception is always healthy or best for them or the people around them, but it’s their perception. No other person can magically change it in an instant. To quote Miller’s Law, “To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.”

Let’s also throw contextual constructionism into the discussion – it’s the idea that we all experience reality differently, and knowledge is dynamic based on our changing circumstances. So we all experience life differently, and while our knowledge is always changing and hopefully growing, we’re each going to see things slightly differently from one another. Even if we can come to an agreement on an issue, we will find that our world views, thoughts, feelings, goals, and personal values will create nuanced differences behind that agreement. Where do our commonalities lie?

In humanism, it is believed that all people share common needs. Two of the most popular theories come from Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow and have typically been used in the world of counseling and therapy, but businesses are discovering that they hold powerful organizational applications as well. Rogers surmised that in order to grow, people need interactions which include genuineness, acceptance (also called unconditional positive regard), and empathy. Maslow offered the Hierarchy of Needs theory, which is basically a pyramid diagram of how our motivations are shaped. These theories will be discussed more thoroughly in this book.

Both theories take to the view that people can grow if given the right circumstances. As Thich Nhat Hanh said,

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understand. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”

While it’s true that people have more free will and cognitive ability than lettuce, Thich Nhat Hanh’s point is quite valid regarding how to guide people to grow and flourish. We can contribute positively to the environments and experiences of others, even if person may ultimately choose a route that is destructive to themselves or those around them. After all, there are choices that others make which we cannot control; all we can do is our best. In those situations where someone makes a negative choice, that decision can be explained by saying that a person attempted to meet a need of theirs in the wrong way. Rather than pick apart their behavior and what we can’t control, we can focus on what we did – and can do better in the future – to contribute to the positive or negative influences in the environment around this and any person. In the end, they’ll make their own decision just as much as we’ll make our own decisions about who and how we want to be.

In the business environment, the attribution of genuineness, defined as openness and self-disclosure by Rogers, allows workers to establish connectedness with each other, whether with equals, subordinates, or superiors. That connectedness influences how communication is perceived and acted upon, as people in a trusting relationship will have better communication and act with greater engagement with one another, as opposed to communication in a suspicion-laden, aloof, and/or toxic environment. Acceptance, or unconditional positive regard, allows for greater creativity, transparency, and critical thinking.

People feel free to share their thoughts in a way that allows their system to grow, and safeguards it against the catastrophes caused by groupthink. Groupthink, as a rough definition, is basically when everyone is afraid to speak up (more on this later). It’s often caused by leadership oppression of free thought, whether the leaders intend to do that or not. Of course, this is not to say that a business environment should not be an anything-goes kind of place! Like with any relationships, the appropriate interpersonal boundaries and group rules have to be established to help people understand what kind of behavior is appropriate in the company. However, workers react better when it is done through teaching best behavior through shared goals rather than forcing behavior through abuse and tyranny.

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