by Bryan Emmerson
Several years ago I was on a business trip with some employees for a convention. We had arrived the night before and we had some time to kill. Most of the guys wanted to go on a “pub crawl”. One of them (a factory shift supervisor) knowing that I wasn’t into that asked me if we could have dinner together. I could tell that something was on his mind so I agreed.
After we ordered our meals, I asked him, “What’s up”? “Human nature”, he said. “What about it?” I responded. “I just don’t get it. I watch people and just shake my head. I don’t understand why they do the things they do. I watch you, and you seem to handle people so well. You even know what they’re going to say before they’re going to say it. I want that. Can you teach it to me?”
“Human nature is simple”, I said, “Not easy, but simple. In fact, I can boil all human actions down to just two words and I can describe all human conflict using the same two words. Do you know what those two words are?” “I have no idea“, he said.
“Pride and selfishness”, I said. “Typically we get ourselves into trouble due to selfishness, and we stay there because of pride. ‘I’m not apologizing to him‘”. He had a bit of a questioning look on his face so I asked him, “Would you like me to show it to you?” He said, “Yes, please do.”
“Okay, let’s look at some behaviour that is polar opposite. Do you know what a philanthropist is?” I asked. “Sure”, he said,” That’s someone who gives away a lot of money.” “Well imagine a guy like that and compare him to a thief. That’s opposite behaviour, right? The thief is pretty straightforward. He is selfish and wants what he wants. There is a values tie-in but I’ll touch on that in a moment. The philanthropist is a little more complicated. Maybe he feels guilty about how he got his money and is trying to appease that guilt by giving money away. Or maybe he just enjoys it. $100,000 to him is like dashboard change to you and me. He has more money than he can ever spend, and he will never miss it. He just likes how he feels when he watches people do good things with his money. That desire for that good feeling is selfish. Or maybe he enjoys the spotlight. That’s pride.
“Let’s look at another example. Let's compare someone who is lazy to someone who is an over-achiever. The lazy person is quite simple. He wants to minimize his effort. The overachiever is a little different. Perhaps she has a longer field of view and is like the ant versus the grasshopper in Aesop’s fable. That is, she knows that if she works hard now, she will have a better / easier future. Or perhaps she likes the accolades of others (pat on the back from the boss, employee of the month, etc.). Again, that’s pride.
“That’s it?”, he asked. “Well, almost”, I said,” there area couple of caveats. The first is the human conscience. The conscience does four things: 1) it prompts us to do the right thing, 2) it affirms us when we done the right thing, 3) it warns us against doing the wrong thing, and 4) it makes us feel guilty when we’ve done the wrong thing. And it has two parts. The first part is what I call the moral warehouse. It’s the suppository of all values that we have learned, primarily early in life. For example, if you and I were in a crowded room and we got the last two seats, and an older gentleman walked in. Your conscience would be pricking you and telling you to stand up and give the man your seat because you were taught to respect age. If I learned no such lesson, then my conscience would be clear. My attitude would be ‘you snooze you lose. You should’ve been here earlier.’ The second part of the conscience is the activator. I think of it like a forklift accessing the lessons in the moral warehouse. Sometimes this can be damaged. For example, the stereotypical young man from the country going into the big city and doing things that he knows he shouldn’t do. After a while, his conscience ceases to work ... the wheels have fallen off the forklift. The lessons are still there in the warehouse, but they are no longer accessible. That is, his conscience no longer bothers him.
“The second caveat to pride and selfishness is that I believe there is what Blaise Pascal called a God-shaped hole in every human heart. We try to fill it with all kinds of things, but nothing else seems to fit. The bottom line is that 99% of all human behaviour can be explained and understood through the lens of pride and selfishness.”
Although we didn’t go into it at the time, my mind had gone back to a situation where that supervisor’s boss came to me with a situation that provides a real-life practical example to this lesson. It was during the time that I was Plant manager and about 30 years of age. My printing manager came into my office and said, “We have a problem”. “What’s going on?”, I said. “You know Gary (not his real name) on the #2 machine?”, he said. I said, “Yes, what about him?” “Well, instead of going upstairs to the smoking room or outside to take his smoke break, he is smoking in the stairwell. How do you want me to handle it?” Notice that the employee’s behaviour is being dictated by his selfishness - it was too much effort to go upstairs and too cold to go outside.
“Try this”, I said, “Take him aside to a quiet place, either your office or the supervisors’ office. Tell him that you have been hearing that there are people smoking in the stairwell, and although you would rather not make a ‘federal case’ out of it, you are going to get to the bottom of it. Tell them that you are more concerned about the behaviour stopping than going on a ‘witch hunt’. Tell him that he is a highly respected employee among both his peers and management and ask him to use that influence to steer people in the right direction.” Frank (the manager) said with a smile, “Are you serious?” I said, “Let’s give it a try and see what happens.” About a week later, Frank was in my office for our regular meeting. I said, “By the way, what happened about the smoking thing with Gary?” With a chuckle Frank said, “Problem solved!”
Most of the time, human nature leads us to the “dark side”. It’s rewarding when we can use it for good. In this case, Frank used both pride and selfishness to correct Gary’s bad behaviour. Selfishness took effect when Gary realized that he was "dodging a bullet" by not getting caught. Pride was used when he was told that he was up on a pedestal and greatly admired by both employees and management. This meant that he had a long way to fall if he were found out. Therefore, he was highly motivated to change his behaviour.
Understanding and using human nature is simply a matter of defining how pride and selfishness are causing particular behaviours and how they can be used to motivate others in a better direction.
I hope this has been helpful, and remember …