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by Ronald A. Warren Ph.D.
Many highly intelligent motivated professionals let their habitual emotional
reactions get in the way of learning. Even some of us who say we relish
constructive criticism can have strong emotional reactions when we receive
negative feedback about our attitudes and behavior. It is easy to become
defensive and shut out what others have to tell us.
Hard truths about our personality and behavior often generate emotions that
block the impetus for change. We feel vulnerable when confronted by personal
flaws or shortcomings and, in that state, some of us are unable to take a
constructive approach to identifying the solutions that will make us more
successful and satisfied. This may be especially true if the input or feedback
you receive is surprising to you and you are taken aback.
People commonly exhibit three emotional reactions to feedback that interfere
with their ability to learn from it: rather than accept responsibility for our
behavior, we often ignore, deny, or blame someone or something else. These
defensive reactions are so second nature that you may not be aware you are
responding defensively to feedback. But it is important to understand that any
of these three emotional reactions will prevent you from learning from feedback
and using constructive problem-solving methods to improve.
Each of these emotional reactions is described below, and while you read
through the descriptions, think whether these emotional reactions play a role in
your psychological defenses. Do you try to ignore feedback about areas you need
to develop? Do you find that you would rather deny than confront issues in your
life? Have others ever said to you that you find someone or something to blame
rather than reflect on your role in problems or difficult situations? What
events need to occur for you to move to acceptance of the validity of feedback
about your developmental needs? What are the psychological mechanisms that have
historically interfered with your ability both to accept full responsibility for
your counterproductive behavior and to create the foundation to constructively
solve how to change your behavior to be more effective at work?
Ignorance might be bliss for some matters, but when you are looking at your
personality and behavior, ignorance is not bliss. Without insight into your
attitudes and behaviors, you are stuck with unconsciously repeating them --
whether they work well for you or not. Consider the differences between your
ordinary work behaviors and how you might work on an important project or job
assignment. When you are assigned important projects, you apply your
intelligence, education, and experience and may consult with your peers to
ensure the best possible outcome. You make a conscious effort to apply all your
business smarts and technical knowledge to make sure the job is done right.
Contrast this with your everyday approach to work. For most people, their work
behaviors are more often the result of unconscious processes -- habits -- than
of carefully crafted efforts. Illogical as it may be, people tend to ignore (or
blame others for) past failures and problems and simply repeat what has not
worked for them in the past.
People seldom apply their intelligence, education, experience, or a peer
review process to their behavioral repertoire. It is the rare individual whose
work behavior is the result of a methodical, thoughtful, critiqued effort.
Because most people do not make conscious behavioral choices, they
"default," or revert, to personality-driven habits, many of which are
Peter Ustinov said, "Once we are destined to live out our lives in the
prison of our mind, our one duty is to furnish it well." This thought
certainly can be applied to your behavior at work. Since you are destined to
spend many, many hours in your place of work, it is in your best interests to
perform well, to figure out what behaviors work and which do not and then apply
that knowledge in your work life. That essentially is the task here: to
understand your attitudes and behaviors, then choose to demonstrate those
behaviors that help you to be more productive and satisfied at work and to learn
to suppress those that are counterproductive. Easier said than done.
Unless a special effort is made to avoid it, you will lapse into old habits
-- especially in familiar situations like your workplace. Your job, if you wish
to increase your ability to succeed and feel satisfied, is to gain control of
counterproductive habits through sheer force of reason and will, through a
conscious, disciplined effort to change your behavior (for those of you who
cannot handle the concept of change, because it just feels TOO BIG, try
expressions like modify or moderate instead of the word change).
Changing your behavior requires that you think about how your personality
traits affect the way you communicate, collaborate, set goals, deal with
conflict, and feel about things. These issues are complex, but be reassured that
even slight behavior modifications can mean the difference between success and
failure. And remember: ignoring problems will ultimately be more painful than
finding the solution to them.
Denial takes two forms. The first is to refute the validity of the feedback
on your behavior and the second is to accept the validity of the feedback but
refute that in your case the behavior is counterproductive. According to the
first type of denial, a person might say, "I don't think I'm pushy,"
and, following the second type, someone might say, "I'm pushy, but that's
the only way to get anything done around here."
The second form of denial is to agree that counterproductive traits are
prominent in your personality makeup but deny that they have a negative impact
on your performance. This is common among people who have attained some success
as a result of their intelligence and technical skills. Their history of success
makes it easier to discount the importance of their personality traits in their
human-capital equation. For instance, very aggressive, pushy people may excuse
their always-on-the-offense style by saying, "that's what got me where I am
today," thinking they are commenting on their success, when in fact their
intelligence and hard work is what brought some success while their hostility
likely brought them high blood pressure and bad relationships.
Blame is expressed in three familiar forms: self-blame, blame of others, and
blame on outside influences in the world. Self-blame, guilt, is a very popular
form. It does no good to feel guilty about your personality and behavior styles
unless this awareness leads to change. Guilt alone has no benefit, so if you
feel compelled to take a dip in the pool of self-pity, make it brief. While it
is important and constructive to be aware of your flaws and shortcomings,
becoming preoccupied with them serves no useful purpose and is in fact
Many people focus too much on their negative attributes and feel diminished
by the presence of any counterproductive traits; what is most beneficial,
however, is to maintain a balanced perspective on both strengths and weaknesses.
Perfection is an unattainable ideal, but improvement is possible. Accept that
you are imperfect and get on with it.
The second form of blame is the often used, frequently abused, blame of
others. Perhaps because 75 percent of your coworkers have counterproductive
personality styles, it is easy to see them as prime targets for blame. The fact
that 75 percent of workers have personality problems that they carry with them
to work means a stressful work environment, and under stressful conditions some
people place blame on others. However, you must gently remind yourself that
blame doesn't solve the problem, it only displaces it. Besides, I know of very
few people who can actually have an impact on changing a coworker's personality
or behavior. But, you can certainly change your own. When you master your own
behavior, your relationships with others will improve and perhaps your more
positive interactions will serve as an impetus for coworkers to make
improvements as well.
The final form of blame is the familiar tendency to blame outside influences
in the world for problems. Your work situation, company politics, family stress,
the economy -- these are just a few outside influences that are common targets
of blame. Often there are truly legitimate issues, problems, and irritations
that the external world generates. But, your goal is not to change the external
world -- an impossible task -- but to master your own attitudes and behaviors in
the world in which you must operate effectively. One key to more successfully
negotiating your way in a stressful world is for you to understand how you
respond to stress and then to change or moderate your responses to better cope
in a stressful world.
article is excerpted from The Achievement Paradox, ©2002, by Ronald A.
Warren. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, New World Library. www.newworldlibrary.com
About the Author
Ronald A. Warren, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist who specializes in
employee assessment. Working in the United States and abroad, his clients have
included United Parcel Service, Hyatt Hotels, Consumers Union, Walt Disney World
Attractions, British Airways, and Maytag. Ron's firm, AchievementParadox.com provides
consulting services to organizations in all areas of organizational measurement,
including 360-degree assessments for corporate training programs. The ACT
Self-Profile is available free at: http://www.psychtests.com/act.
MAPII is available
and at www.pantesting.com.
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