Job Satisfaction: Self-Determination Theory Part 2

What are the biggest factors in job satisfaction?  Great pay, luxury, fun, prestige, job security, meaningful work, perhaps a job that serves a “higher purpose”?  According to motivation research, none of these are the ticket to an engaging and satisfying career.

Researchers in self-determination theory (SDT) tell us that an activity motivates us if it provides a sense of Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness.  None of these are as exciting as a fat paycheck or a chance to “change the world”, but they are the main factors that engage people with their work. The more a job feeds our basic needs, the more we can develop our true  potential.

What’s An Ideal Career Like?

A “great” job might feel like this:

Competence: You feel like you can take on and master difficult challenges.  It’s not easy, but you’ve got what it takes to be successful.

Relatedness: You feel close and connected with people, or have a sense that you are in contact with people that care about you and vice-versa.

Autonomy: You feel like the choices you get to make at work arise from your own personal interests and values.  You often get to do things “your own way”.

So Let’s Be Realistic

OK, when you’re jobless, the main thing is to get a job.  You gotta eat.  It might not satisfy all your needs.  The critical thing is what you do next.  Do I take a promotion if it’s offered?  When other jobs come up, which do I choose?   Job perks can seem like shiny objects that draw us like a moth to a flame.  Sometimes it’s the jobs that are the least fulfilling that have the shiniest perks. That’s a trap–the perks may be there exactly because job satisfaction is low. The trick is to find out how people at that job feel regarding those three core needs.  Don’t waste time talking about the perks.

Also, once you’ve got a job, it won’t satisfy all of your needs right away—no one’s going to let you be “autonomous” if you’re not “competent” yet.  And relationships take time.  But there should be some reassuring signs that at least some of these needs will be met.

What About The Money?!

Nine times out of ten, money follows motivation.  Raises, promotions, length of career, the courage to venture out on your own—all of these things come from motivation.  Amazing things can happen when we’re wholly engaged with our work.  Conversely, burnout can be pretty costly…

What About Personality?

“Know thyself” is not bad advice.  Jobs fit personalities.  But even if a career counselor can match you to a job, they can’t tell you if it’s going to fit your needs from a SDT perspective.  Why not? For one thing, you could work the same job in two different settings, where your needs are met in one but not in the other.  So what do you do?  Talk to people doing the job in as many different settings as possible.  Try to imagine how well you might do in their place (after all, they may be incompetent or unsuited towards a job that you might be successful at, etc.).

Our Role In Job Satisfaction

It’s fair to say that a big part of your satisfaction isn’t up to your boss.  If you’re not Competent, then it’s up to us to learn.  When it comes to Relatedness, it’s partly on us to build those relationships. Also, we don’t always exercise all of the Autonomy we’ve been given.  It’s tempting and “safe” to do things the way everyone else does, even if our own creativity or values suggest a different  approach.

Choosing a job is a big deal.  Some of us spend at least a third of our waking hours at work, so feeling engaged there could be 1/3 of our life satisfaction.  Looking at it another way, whatever we learn about our own life satisfaction or about our personal motivators, we could also try to bring to our work since we’re there so much anyways.

We are only truly trapped in life when we refuse to think creatively.

The Scavenger Hunt of Life

Do you remember scavenger hunts?  People in a race against time to complete a bizarre list?  Where you have to find a red shoe, obtain a business card from a policeman, or try to get a stranger to kiss you?  In the end, the winner is left with nothing but the glory of victory and  a pile of useless items.

Is our life so different?  A race to collect a bunch of items or to “do” certain things before it’s “all over”.  Wouldn’t it be a shame if we found ourselves at the end of life having accomplished a list that really never suited us in the first place? Who writes this “list” anyways?

The Right List

The “list” we carry within us is invisible but powerful.  Isn’t it interesting how often people will marry some version of their parent regardless of whether that was a great parent or not?

What about:

-the older man who is still trying to date girls that would have impressed his buddies from high school?

-the woman who got married young or got into drugs or decided to go to college mostly because that’s what her peers were doing?

-the 60-year-old businessman, still chasing his father’s approval in a career that never really suited him?

A lot of failed first careers and first marriages come from trying to match a list of features that didn’t fit us to start with.  Perhaps we could blame the job or the spouse, but for some reason it made sense to pursue that person or that job. The features they had were on the list.  But it was the wrong list.

Then there are advertisements, movies, TV, that helps us decide how we want to be, where it’s popular to vacation, and what’s important to own. If we’re going to write our own story, it makes sense to acknowledge that the ‘scavenger hunt’ list that we’re starting with is probably littered with other people’s ambitions and values.


Like characters in the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” it’s easy to pass through life performing in a “role” that obscures our personality or the deeper parts of who we are.  Usually scavenger hunts are ice-breakers or team building activities that help us break out of these ‘roles’ in order to connect with each other. In a scavenger hunt we get to see each other outside of our “roles”.  We get to see the girl that’s usually Gucci-ed and Louis Vutton-ed plowing through the lingerie in Wal-Mart trying to find the biggest polka dot panties they sell.  The facade is lifted just enough to get a glimpse of a person’s ‘real self’.  And we like that.

Support and Risk

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained”, they say.  But what is it that keeps us from “venturing”?

Fear.  Of doing our best and failing. Of making the wrong choice.  Of looking like a fool.

With a scavenger hunt, the embarrassment is not a thing to fear–in fact, embarrassment is probably of the point of it.  When we have spent much of life avoiding making a fool of ourselves, it’s somehow cathartic to go ahead and do it on purpose (insert Karaoke, Charades, etc. here).  There’s also something exhilarating about being part of a team,  struggling together towards a common goal.  It’s even better if there’s a challenge or risk involved. Everyone is stretching themselves and taking the same risks together. There’s little distinction between the “losers” and the “winners” in a scavenger hunt because they both took risks, stretched themselves in whatever silly way, and left the game with new relationships and memories.  Like life, that’s really the point of it all.

To be loved, you must be truly seen.  We connect more deeply with people who know all our strengths and weaknesses but still accept us. There’s no reason that we can’t find people in life who will support us when we take a risk and “shoot for the stars”.  There are people that will take the risks with us, or support us from the sidelines.  There are people who want more from us than our facade and we’ll be greatly rewarded when we take that risk to deepen a friendship.  People like that might be a good thing to add to our scavenger hunt list.

Mine is just one perspective of what makes a good ‘list’, but everyone’s different.  Some will feel the need to leave behind an Eiffel Tower or a War and Peace.  The main thing is that it’s OUR list, that we clean out the refuse of old influences or the more recent additions of media and culture. One list of things to consider is here. Other questions might include:

What am I great at?  What am I drawn to?

What would I try if embarrassment were not an issue?

What would be a valuable risk to take? Which people would join me or support me in some venture of courage and risk?

What’s on my list to do, to have, and to be?

The Year That Trust Died

On Halloween, 1938 the voice of Orson Welles voice came across the airwaves marauding as a newscaster. Beginning with the words, “We interrupt this broadcast…” he told the story of a Martian invasion in progress.  Widespread panic was followed by widespread anger when the hoax was discovered. Many attempted to sue for “mental anguish” and “personal injury”.  No one likes to be fooled.

It’s a laughable story to a modern person.  Can you imagine panicking about a Martian invasion simply because the radio told you to?  How could our forefathers have been so naïve? Yet behind the joke lies a serious question:  Was there once a world where most people told the truth? Was there a time when someone was trustworthy until proven otherwise?  It seems that whatever we’ve gained in street smarts, we’ve lost in faith.  Our trust is like a diamond mine that has been stripped down to bedrock and all that’s left are tiny veins of cautious naivete.  And for those remnants, the scavengers abound, digging for our trust with their deceptive ads, internet pop-ups, and email scams featuring Nigerian princes who want to “wire us a million dollars” for some incongruous reason. They’re all trying to find the last gem of innocence that’s not yet been plundered. What happened to trust?

The Year That Trust Died

According to Maslansky, et al, Trust died seventy years later, in the year 2008.  Their book “The Language of Trust” suggests that with the span of a year, the “Trust Barometer found that three out of four Americans trust business less than the year before.”  The old scams of snake oil, used car salesmen, and last-chance-offers have been left in the dust with this turbocharger of lemons called the internet. In gigabytes per second, we are pursued like never before with banners, adware, spam, viruses, links, etc. On the other hand, the internet also brings us a new level of honesty.  Bad products cannot defend themselves against the reviews of real people.  Some websites unravel hoaxes or smoke out dishonest news stories and dissect misleading political speeches.  If you’ve ever been professionally naked on camera or unprofessionally drunk in a karaoke bar…well it’s probably out there somewhere on the web. It’s hard to hide the truth now.  Ironically, however, all of this ‘revealed truth’ just makes us more cynical.  Silhouetted against the backdrop of all the contradictions and denials it’s hard to know who to believe and so we just give up on trust in general.

What’s the Risk in Safety?

Isn’t it better to be cautious anyways? It’s harder to fool a skeptic, after all.  The problem is that caution is risky too.  Trust is like money—it goes to waste if you don’t do something with it.  If I stash my savings in a mattress until my old age, I’ve taken a huge risk. For one thing, inflation itself will make the money into worthless old bills.  Then there are the potential earnings that have been lost.  Most important of all you lose whatever the money might have added to your life story: the travel, adventures, gifts, education, etc.  In money and trust and so many things, the greatest risk is not to risk at all.

Skepticism and New Ideas

This skepticism has another great risk: the inability to adopt new ideas.  When we listen to someone we’ve never met, saying something we’ve never heard, there’s an opportunity.  The value of the message could become immeasurable in our life, but we’d have to risk some inconvenience and a little trust in the unknown.  However, nowadays we don’t listen for news, we pursue it.  We can choose the websites, bloggers, and TV channels that are already aligned with our viewpoints and preferences.  If I only go to websites I’ve bookmarked, blogs I’ve subscribed to, and listen to Pandora radio “stations” that I’ve created, then when exactly is something outside my worldview ever going to get “in”?  How is something fantastic ever going to “rock my world” if new things rarely enter it?  Though we have access to more ideas than ever before, we give ourselves only small portholes to see the world through.  Anything larger than that and we fear of drowning in the overwhelming sea of options, crashing through into already complicated lives.

A Greater Trust

Perhaps there’s less trust in the world because there is less to trust.  Or maybe it just seems that way, who knows?  But if trust is a must, then what do we do? (Dr. Seuss might like that, so why wouldn’t you?!)

Maybe we just need to start with a tenuous trust in life itself. Trusting that if we commit ourselves to taking risks, then our instincts will tell us which ones to take.  That regardless of what happens, we’ll bounce back and find our way.  That if someone makes a fool of us (honestly, people will risk their lives before they risk embarrassment), our self-esteem will shield us from any great injury. And perhaps someday your biography, like those of the great men and women of history, will show that the greatest risks yielded the greatest rewards.


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Twins and the Freedom of Choice

How much of our life is controlled by our genes?  The story of Jim Springer and Jim Lewis has been told in many places–Time, People, and more recently, National Geographic. These are twins that were separated from each other at birth only to be re-united later in life.  What makes “The Jims” remarkable is that they were both 6 foot tall and 180 pounds, both had dogs named “Toy”, and they had both married a “Betty” who they later divorced to marry a “Linda”.  They both worked in carpentry and law enforcement and both preferred the same brand of beer and cigarettes.  Their hairstyles were different.

Finding two people that are this similar is rare (why else would all those magazines quote the same story for 20 years).  But the similarities between twins are nonetheless remarkable.  Studying twins has taught us a lot about what is strongly hereditary (like autism and diabetes) and what is less so (i.e. reading disabilities).  Alcoholism and IQ are frequently genetic, but not always: 20-30% of the time environment or other factors are responsible.

What does this mean for the freedom of choice? Are we actors on this stage of life, or merely the audience?  When we follow our “heart” are we really just reading a patchwork script of mom and dad’s DNA?  Is what the ancients called “fate” simply a gene sequence that slowly unravels its secrets through the course of a life? This is an interesting issue for ChangeStory, a site that is about decision making.  It makes you wonder what the point of trying is. I like to think that it’s not time to give up on choice altogether.  It’s often the case that our choices trigger our genes.  For example, a teen who is a “genetic alcoholic” will be just fine if he never takes a drink.  The diabetes that we got from Grand-mama doesn’t have to ruin our life if we make the right choices about foods, meds, and mates (if a diabetic marries a codependent baker, it’s all over).

Blame, Responsibility, and Decision-making

Understanding the power of genes makes us re-think the questions of blame and responsibility.  There are plenty of people that seem like good candidates for critique.  That guy is overweight, that lady drinks too much, and that other guy is way too pushy.  We think they should try harder.  But if we don’t know the impact of their genes, to what exact degree should we blame them for their situation?  And if I don’t know the details of my own genes, then to what exact degree can I take pride that I’m actually trying harder than they are?  Nobody knows.  All we can do is choose grace or judgment.  And even that decision has some root in our personality.

This knife of knowledge cuts both ways.  Nowadays it’s also easy to blame our genes for all the stupid stuff we do.  But neither nature (nor the law) is going to give us any slack for our struggles.  We can’t say, “Officer, put that ticket away, if Grandma hadn’t married that alcoholic I wouldn’t be driving drunk right now.”  The guy with high blood pressure may still have a heart attack if he doesn’t “own it” and manage it.

This puts us in the position of persistently having to take responsibility for something that’s not our fault.  Life is good, but rarely fair.

This puts us in the position of persistently having to take responsibility for something that’s not our fault.  Life is good, but rarely fair. If I had some rare  disease that causes a big horn to grow out of my shoulders, then I’d have to take responsibility for not impaling people with it.  They’re not gonna let me on the bus unless I can protect my seatmates.  Maybe in a compassionate society they would build buses with special horn-holes.  They might even allow me to get my schoolteacher’s attention some other way than raising my hand (ouch).  But in the end, it’s my condition and ultimately mine to manage with whatever help I can get.

Genetics and the Future

Genes are coming to the forefront of the medical world.  Soon to follow will be epigenetics (the science that explains variation in how genes are expressed).  This will undoubtedly create a privacy issue since the knowledge of your genes is like a printout of your weaknesses.  It’s also a balance sheet of how expensive you may be to life or health insurance companies.

But knowledge is power for the owner of those genes as well.  Each of us writes a “book of self”, a guide of what works for us in life.  Genetics is one more tool to make that guide as accurate as possible, avoiding any health pitfalls that may come our way.  But we don’t need a printout of our genes to know how genetically anxious, angry, hungry, pushy, or shy we are.  With a little honesty we can see our true selves, take responsibility for what’s there, and learn ways to manage it.  Then someday when the scientists pull out a printout of your genes and say, “Hey Frank, you look too relaxed–you’re supposed to be an angry guy!”, you can say, “Yeah, got that handled.”


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Five Themes For Escaping Domestic Violence

Sometimes domestic violence or “Intimate partner violence” (IPV) seems like an unbeatable phenomenon.  Abused and abuser are bound together by a force stronger than pain or hope.  Police officers and social workers  are rendered powerless by this mysterious attachment.  Arrests and well-intended referrals end with a defense of the abuser and a return home.  It’s a hard thing to understand so some will think of her (it’s often a ‘her’) as foolish or even careless about her children’s safety.  She’s not only abused but misunderstood as well, a lonely state indeed.

A victim of IPV is a person desperately in need of a “turning point”.  Domestic violence (like addiction) can take a person to the very edge of what they can survive, but not so far as to prompt a change. Like the saying about “cooking a frog”, the heat is turned up so slowly that the  victim remains unmoved. For some victims it’s a lifetime of this abuse, with memories of it living on in the children (some having as much resentment towards the abused as they do the abuser). Many others will have a magical change in perception and find a way out of the violence.  And perhaps as a result of the strength of the abused, the abuser themselves (who often feel equally trapped), can now find their own separate road to recovery.

So change does happen.  But how? And when?

Turning Points

Judy C. Chang, M.D. and her research group unearthed 5 common roads out of domestic violence:

Through a series of interviews of women that “made it out”, there were five distinct themes that consistently emerged:

  1. Protecting others: Change often happens when it becomes obvious that the violence will include their children.
  2. Increased severity:  The abuse can gets so severe that they seriously fear for their life.  With that comes the thought of how their death will impact other people, especially their children.  Another turning point is when the abuse suddenly becomes more degrading sexually or otherwise.
  3. Increased awareness of options, support and resources:  A way out has to feel possible and realistic.  Often it’s the compassion of a believable person, perhaps another IPV survivor, who can convince them that that they are worth saving and that there is a way out.
  4. Fatigue: The victim may come to a realization that the abuser and the abuse will not change.  In the addiction world they refer to this as getting “sick and tired of being sick and tired”.
  5. Betrayal:  Infidelity on the abuser’s part is a common ticket out of the violence.  It may seem odd that a person will be willing to accept life-threatening abuse for many years only to leave abruptly on a suspicion of unfaithfulness.  It’s as if the abused is accepting the abuse for the sake of the relationship and the intrusion of another person destroys the reason for their hope.

Motivation and Domestic Violence

Domestic violence (like addiction) is one of those inscrutable things that defies logic, having its origin in some primitive instinct that’s taken advantage of by a drug or a person.  To outsiders it seems like a problem with a quick and easy path out: “Just leave.”  To the victim the path of leaving seems narrow, long, and full of hazards.

Motivation is a hard thing to understand sometimes.  As we’ve said before, it’s not simply an emotion, it’s a more like balance with two competing sides and a tipping point in between.  We don’t have to understand the ‘logic’ of why someone would stay in an abusive relationship.  All we have to know is that if she (or he)  is staying, it’s because there are stronger reasons to stay than to leave.  Sometimes things have to get just bad enough so that they can get better.


The great thing about understanding these five key themes is that you can promote the change sooner.  What do these themes have in common?


Each one causes the victim to see themselves, their partners, or their options differently.  While some of these factors can’t be forced (i.e. I don’t recommend planting lingerie in the perpetrators briefcase or bedroom), some of the items are things that a friend or counselor can talk about.  In the hands of someone who understands stages of change and Motivational Interviewing techniques, these five themes could be especially helpful in saving a life.  Domestic violence is beatable.  Even if you are a victim yourself, consider the experiences of the women in this study.  If you can find a safe place to look into resources, perhaps a work computer, etc., then take a look.  It doesn’t mean that you’re ready to make a change or that you’re giving up. It doesn’t mean that you will ever need to leave.  You may be simply weaving a safety net for your own survival.  Just in case.

You can read the full research article here.

For other resources on Intimate Partner Violence, look here:


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A Committee of Myself

The committee members are all assembled.  It’s Friday and the morning is leaning into the afternoon, the refuse of lengthy deliberations scattered around the room.  A decision has to be made.  As the chairperson, you make a final request for opinions on the issue at hand: will it be a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’?

“It will never work,” Frank says.  Bad experiences have made him a sissy with anything risky.

Allie is wondering what people will think of her vote.

In a monotone voice George begins to elaborate, “It’s obvious what we should do, if you think about it…” He’s the logical guy. He’s Spock.

Jim is lazy.  If there’s a low-impact option that’s what he will support.

Gina is a humanitarian.  She will choose whatever seems best for society as a whole.

Joanne looks forward, “Are we going to like this decision 5 years from now?”

Jennifer is ready for the weekend and just wants get on with it.  At this moment, she doesn’t care much what the decision is.  That could change by Monday, though.

You close your eyes and the cacophony of voices seems to rise as your spirits fall.  There’s still no clear decision.

The Committee of My Mind

Welcome to the committee of my mind.  Now that you’ve met the members, what do you think of them?  Who would you listen to the most?  Can you identify the members of your own “committee”? Have you decided which ones should be ignored?

Writer Cecil Murphey mentions a unique approach to sorting out the options in hard decisions.  Instead of asking, “Do I want to do A or B?”, he asks, “Which PART of me wants to do A?  What about B?” We ought make sure that the best “members” of our committee are driving the vote.

It’s OK to listen to these voices in your head.  It won’t make you crazy and it might make you brilliant.  The more you listen, the more familiar they will become.  You can even give them names like Fear, Compassion, Prejudice, Reason, Greed, Intuition, and so on. You can say to yourself in the whisper of your thoughts, “Prejudice, I hear you, but you’re voice is not relevant here.  Intuition, speak louder because Greed is drowning you out.”

Facing a big decision? What part of you is saying yes or saying no?  Which parts of you are speaking loudest?  Which members of your “committee” should be asked to leave the discussion?


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Decision Making and Bias: The George Washington Story Part 2

Facing their biases may probably be one of the hardest thing that a decision-maker or leader will ever have to do.  Facing our bias requires requires accepting a situation and the people involved “as-is”, without being distracted by what we expect want them to be.  The leader who believes that they have no bias is a hazardous decision-maker.

While the guy on our dollar bill looks pretty egalitarian, Washington had to deal with his own significant biases in order to be successful as a leader.  Some of the biases he faced included Stereotypes, Style, and Sunk Costs.


When it came to stereotypes or prejudice, it seemed everyone had something to say about the soldiers from New England, including Washington himself. Of the New Englanders or “Yankees” Washington would say that they were “exceeding dirty and nasty” with an “unaccountable kind of stupidity…”.  In addition to being hard to manage, they were known to avoid bathing and washing their clothes because they felt that this was “women’s work”.  Seriously, what could be worse than an army of stinky misogynists?!  And yet it was from among these New Englanders that he chose his two most trustworthy generals, Nathanael Green and Henry Knox. The ability to push through his own bias saved his country and his life.


By nature, Washington was a perfectionist.  As such he was actually better suited to serve in the British army, where professional soldiers and trained officers dutifully carried out well-orchestrated battle plans. It’s said that during the chaos of war, he would send instructions home regarding the details of his renovations, including specific placement of curtains, etc. Nowadays we might have called him meticulous or even “anal-retentive” (thank you Freud for those images…).  With such a small rebel force, his choices in battle had to be the exact opposite of his inclinations. Things like guerilla warfare and sneaky nighttime maneuvers across the Delaware may not have been his style but they became his destiny.  Somehow Washington came to accept the sloppy army and chaotic war that he begrudgingly inherited.  Troops aren’t curtains; he had to learn to guide what he could not control.  Instead of making choices based on how things “should be” he worked with what is.  It’s strange to think that our greatest triumphs in life could be in some area that we’re not good at—or even want to be.

Sunk Costs

The bias of “Sunk Costs” is a strong one (as we discussed here).  Whenever we’ve invested a lot of energy or resources into a plan, we are biased to stay with it even long after it’s become a bad idea. In Part 1 we discussed Washington’s indecisiveness at the disastrous battle of Fort Washington (which was, incidentally, the first “Pentagon” in American history).  The issue of “Sunk Costs” was surely a source of this indecisiveness.  Imagine investing 2 months of effort building a strong fort only to abandon it.  He had to learn to “know when to hold ‘em…know when to walk away…” at least 200 years before Kenny Rogers would deliver this sound advice.

Bias: Wishes and Expectations

Our good decisions will forever be threatened by our wishes and expectations.  Many times the choice is between “having it our way” vs. being successful. To sum it up, biographer John McCullough writes, “It was such resolve and an acceptance of mankind and circumstances as they were, not as he wished them to be, that continued to carry Washington through.” -John McCullough, “1776”.

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The Courage to Risk Making a Bad Decision: The George Washington Story Part 1

What do you do when there’s only two choices and neither one is safe?  Or more bluntly, do I have the courage to make a bad decision?

Indecisive could describe George Washington’s early military career. By all accounts he wasn’t sure he wanted the job in the first place.  Leading a largely untrained and undisciplined army, he was always wary of open battle with the British.  If there was a tough decision to make, he was likely to split his army up to  “cover all the options” in lieu of following his instincts.  This issue came to a crisis point in November, 1776 where his indecisiveness compromised his army in the battle for Manhattan, New York.  In a bit of painful irony, it was in the bosom of his own Fort Washington that his soldiers suffered the most humiliating defeat of the war.

In a bit of painful irony, it was in the bosom of his own Fort Washington that his soldiers suffered the most humiliating defeat of the war.

The choice that he had to make was whether to defend the fort or to abandon it.  Though Washington would voice a vague feeling that the fort should be abandoned, he left the decision to General Nathanial Greene.  Greene was similarly conflicted and naturally kept looking to Washington for direction, “His Excellency General George Washington has been with me for several days…but finally nothing concluded on…”.  

It was like a weird game of ‘chicken’ where they were both waiting for the other to flinch despite being on the same team.

It was like a weird game of ‘chicken’ where they were both waiting for the other to flinch despite being on the same team.  Days would pass and, perhaps by default, the decision was made to defend the fort and more than 2800 soldiers were captured.  Only ~800 survived the ensuing imprisonment. 

A Great Leader Doesn’t Delegate Failure

Maybe in the back of his mind, Washington figured that if he delegated this horrible choice, then someone else could take the blame for whatever disaster ensued. Or maybe he didn’t have the confidence that he was, indeed, the best possible ‘chooser’.  The result was Washington’s worse nightmare come true. After it was all done, he ended up taking the blame anyways, both in his heart and in public opinion.  He had the option to blame it on Greene, in fact it was even subtly suggested to him, but he chose not to do so.  Washington shouldered his part of the blame and gained the unwavering trust of one of only two generals who would stay by his side for the entire eight arduous years of the revolutionary war (the other was Henry Knox a la “Fort Knox”) .  A good leader doesn’t delegate failure.  A great leader values loyalty over popularity.

The Pain of Improvement

After this incident, Washington faced growing criticism, insubordination, and concern among other leaders about his ability to lead decisively.  It’s the type of thing that could cripple a military career. Yet, for George Washington, it may have been just the thing he needed at just the right time.  In 1776, his job was not to have all the right answers, his job was grow himself into the kind of leader that could go on to win an eight year war against very unlikely odds.


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Changing Your Decision: Sunk Costs

The more we have invested in something, the harder it is to change.  One of the toughest barriers to good decision-making is the issue of “sunk costs”.

You might see this phenomenon in:

…an old car that’s just good enough to hold on to, but always troubling you with random costly repairs.

…a relationship that’s gone on just a little too long.

…a spiritual or political view that you’ve held for a long time that just doesn’t suit you anymore.

…a project or business idea that you’ve worked on for years, only now to realize that there are better ideas you could pursue… but only if you abandoned the original one.

This is the concept of sunk costs.

Research suggests that in the face of a failing endeavor people tend to increase their commitment, investing more time, money, etc.  Perhaps like a gambler, we feel that if we stay just a little longer at the table we can recover our loss and justify our original choice.

It’s hard to reverse the momentum that we’ve created.  It’s like accelerating towards a green light that turns red at just the wrong moment. You brake hard, you’re body strains against the belt, and all of the pieces of your life go sliding forward off the seats and onto the floor.  Change is hard.  Especially when you’ve got some momentum going.

Sunk Costs In Business

The idea of sunk costs exists in the business world in terms of investments, areas of expansion, etc.  The person or group that came up with the original idea often feels like its “their baby” even if it’s clearly failing in the marketplace.

There are two organizational approaches to solve this:

1. Having someone oversee the decision-maker to reduce their bias to “protect the original decision”.

2. Having separate teams.  One team may brainstorm or implement new ventures; the other would exist to re-evaluate or re-direct the resources.

Clearly there are some challenges with these as well—duplicating resources, communication issues, etc. Also you want to make sure you’re not abandoning ship “too soon”.

Personal Sunk Costs

What if it’s a personal decision and you can’t just “split yourself into teams”?  Then you do the next best thing, which is to imagine that the same amount of resources (whether time, money, or emotion) that you are currently investing into that “sinking something”  are now at your disposal.  Brainstorm all of the various new options available with those resources at your disposal.  If you had to make a brand new choice, completely forgetting the old one (as best you can) what would you do?

Not so easy to do, eh?  But if you can pull that off, then you’ve learned to overcome the barrier of  “sunk costs”.

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Decision-Making and Physical Touch

Sometimes the decision is in your hands…literally. An interesting research study by Ackerman, Nocera, and Bargh suggests that our sense of touch (ie hard vs. soft, rough vs. smooth, heavy vs. light) may actually influence our decisions about people and situations.

The authors suggest that these sensations of touch become attached to the concepts they represent, i.e. if someone says their roommate is “really rough” and you also know that bark is “rough”, then you might imagine that a chat with this roommate might feel a little like rubbing your face on a piece of bark.

In this study, the researchers found that if someone was evaluating an employee while sitting in a hard chair, they would rate the employee as more stable, rigid, and strict. They also found that heavy objects subconsciously conveyed “importance”. Participants holding a heavier clipboard would assess job candidates as “more serious” but also “less able to get along with others”. People holding the heavier clipboards would also contribute more money to serious social causes. In a puzzle exercise, they found that using smooth vs. rough puzzle pieces caused participants to 1. judge social interactions differently, 2. make different financial risks and 3. use different approaches to bargaining.

Never try to buy a car or negotiate a raise while wearing a wool sweater. Consider satin underpants instead. Everything seems easy in satin underpants. Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD

Referencing this study, writer Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD made the clever assessment that we should “Never try to buy a car or negotiate a raise while wearing a wool sweater. Consider satin underpants instead. Everything seems easy in satin underpants.”

So what does this mean for decision making?

Can we only trust our decision making instincts when holding (and wearing) nothing? Should congress deliberate in a weightless environment–perhaps a space station? Should we give judges squishy gavels to “soften” their verdicts? These studies, of course, are staged and may not carry the same intensity of decision-making that we use in life. But it does show us 2 things: 1. we are easily and mysteriously biased. 2. Our sensory environment matters when it comes to decisions.

Environments of Decision and Action

If our physical senses impact our thinking, maybe we should consider our immediate environment when it comes to important interactions. For myself, I know I’m a tougher negotiator over the phone if I’m at some kind of “desky” type thing with an office chair. Sweat pants or bunny slippers are going to take me down a notch. So maybe I should negotiate on a house price at my desk, but put off comforting a troubled relative until I can get home to the cushy sofa. Trying to get into medical school years ago, I would often study in an empty classroom. Instead of sitting in a students desk, I found that standing, speaking and writing on the chalkboard improved my exam scores dramatically. Passers-by may have thought me insane, but subconsciously I was telling my brain that I was a teacher who, naturally, would know the answers.

Perhaps flipping a fancy pen in your hands makes ideas come faster (even if you will eventually type them into a computer). Maybe different chairs create different attitudes. And it’s possible that those stylish but a-bit-too-tight jeans could actually backfire and turn you into a cranky or insensitive dinner date.

So, think back to times that you’ve been “in the zone”. What do you remember holding? Sitting on? Were you standing? Were you dressed up or casual?

When do you feel confident or even brilliant? What objects connect you to inspiration or confidence? What’s the environment like when you are fearless?

Can we touch relics of a past success and bring that strength through into the future?