Counter productive behavior and perspective

Most infants hate changing clothes. So, they generally cry, kick, and scream when it happens. That is, of course, completely counter productive. It only lengthens the process and makes it worse.

I found myself amused when I observed this counter productive behavior the other day until I realized that we aren’t all that different as adults. We often do our equivalent of crying, kicking, and screaming when we deal with inevitable change, have an unexpected difficult conversation, or worry about something we don’t control.

That’s why taking the time to develop the sort of perspective that leads to equanimity can be very powerful. The sooner we can eliminate the counter productive behavior, the more productive we can be.

And, a great way to develop that sort of perspective is to spend more time with folks who have that perspective.

Good for you

“When someone says something is ‘good for you’ when it is also good for them and when they don’t face the downside of the decision, it is likely not good for you.” | Nassim Taleb, Skin in the Game

The underlying structure of incentives in a system are more powerful in driving behavior than the individuals within it.

When in doubt, look for and understand the incentives.

PS: While this has powerful implications in business – whether you are hiring consultants (“extend our contract – it’ll be good for you”), bankers (“do the deal – it’ll be good for you”), or real estate agents (“buy the house – “it’ll be good for you”) – it turns out to be perfect when examining our motivation as friends and parents as well. Is what we’re saying good for them or good for us?

Optimal Stopping

We were trying to sell an old car recently and had placed it in a used car parking lot. These lots charge a monthly rent. So, you are incentivized to sell your vehicle within the first month. The question for us, then, – when is the optimal time to sell? For example, do we hold out till the end of the month and wait for the best offer?

Luckily, mathematics has a solution for us. The optimal time to stop is at 37%. If you have a 100 candidates for your next role, the most optimal way to make a decision on the best candidate is to reject the first 37 and then pick the first of the next few that is better than the first 37. Essentially, the algorithm suggests we use the first 37 to calibrate.

Optimal stopping can be extended to time as well. In this case, we had 30 days to sell and 37% of 30 days is 11.1 days. By that logic, we would hold out for the first 11 days and then sell – assuming a half decent offer comes along. Our first offer came after 14 days and we sold for a price that was eventually slightly lesser than we’d planned for. But, we had no regrets because math told us that we’d made the optimal decision.

Algorithms like optimal stopping are likely the future of psychology and behavioral economics. Optimal stopping can be applied to choosing a restaurant, a spouse, and while buying a house. As we learn about our fallibility in making decisions, we can use algorithms like this one to get better at making decisions.

(H/T: Algorithms to Live By – Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths)


Abuse is a pattern of behavior used to gain and maintain power and control. And, it is more prevalent than we think. In fact, the likelihood that you have either been mildly abused or engaged in mild abuse is high.

If that sounds shocking to you, go back to when you were a kid or teenager. Is there a chance you engaged in a pattern of behavior to mess with another kid? That’s an example of mild abuse. And, the chances are high that you were that other kid at some point in your life.

Abuse is prevalent wherever there is plenty of insecurity (hence, the teenager example). The higher the insecurity, the greater the chance people display bully behavior. And, when they display bully behavior frequently, they become bullies for the long term. We’re naturally wired to think of physical or sexual abuse when we think of abuse. However, there are plenty of other means – digital, emotional, and mental. And, it isn’t easy to realize you are being abused in these forms. It is like the story of the frog in boiling water. You start with mild abuse and the pattern of behavior escalates.

It isn’t easy to spot this. And, it is hard to end it because you fear for your happiness and well being. The longer you’ve been in the pattern, the harder it is. It is also confusing because it always uses love or care as a front – “I know best.”

But, know this – if you are in a relationship where you walk out of most interactions feeling worse about yourself, it is time to walk away. And, if you find yourself feeling helpless because of another human being, again, time to walk away. Most abuse is disguised as love. But, remember, love means respect – in action, not just in words.

And, if you’ve identified yourself to be in such a situation, get help – either find a therapist or find places online that offer professional help.

I would never behave like that

When we see behavior we don’t like, it is tempting to write it off. “I would never behave like that” or “how could he/she do that?” might feels appropriate.

But, is it?

Would you really “never” behave like that? Given the same upbringing and an identical situation, you probably would, too.

Instead, a better question is – “what would it take for me to behave like that?”

There always are a few situations that might result in behavior you didn’t like. Perhaps if you felt out of luck and stressed? Or, if you felt desperate to find a job? And, what if you were in financial stress? Or, if that behavior was rationalized because of good results in the past?

Asking the “what would it take?” question inspires more empathy than the write off. It is also a lot less hypocritical.

We are only as kind to others as we are to ourselves. One way, then, to be kinder is to learn to be kinder to ourselves. But, the other approach works, too. As we learn to be kinder to others, we learn to be kinder to ourselves.

Also, as a rule, it is good to be careful with “always” and “never.”

Low flame

When we try to make changes in our lives, we often try to make changes on high flame. Making changes on high flame involves putting a lot of heat on something and expecting near instant change. When we do this, we forget that a lot of great cooking gets done on low flame.

The classic high flame approach is the new year’s resolution. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves in the month of January and expect instant results. The downsides are obvious – we often walk away feeling burnt from the experience.

The low flame approach is a much slower, longer term approach. It involves consistent heat over a long period of time. If you follow the low flame approach, building a strong culture in your organization will not revolve around a culture and values push. It will involve a steady set of initiatives over a long period of time. Similarly, there is no big product launch, only a consistent iteration on your minimum viable product.

The biggest benefit of adopting a low flame approach is when we’re making changes in our personal life. The best way to get fitter is to eat healthier and fit regular exercise into our weekly schedule. This never happens easily. Changing our schedule involves a lot of slow tweaking over time. While we might be able to force a change every once a while, we need to slow down, observe ourselves and allow time for the momentum behind the change to build up.

Slow, consistent, thoughtful, long term – there’s a lot of power in the low flame approach to change.

Tweaking the environment

One of the more powerful things you can do as a leader is to pick an environment that encourages people to behave in a certain way. This is part of the sort of intention that is required to shape culture. For example, a meeting room with lots of opportunity to write will likely have more brainstorming. A meeting room with a lot of light will likely encourage more divergent thought. Ideally, you’d pick meeting places that are consistent with the culture you want to build.

I was reminded of how powerful tweaks to your environment can be just a few days ago. The monitor I use to type these posts, for example, was supported by 3 books as its height isn’t adjustable. Even so, it was slightly shorter than the right ergonomic height.

So, every once in a while, I would slouch as I was working away on the laptop. A few days back, my wife took a photo of me eating breakfast while slouching and I found myself immediately attempting to correct my posture. But, as the immediate reaction is just one of instinct, I thought about the problem for a bit.

It was soon apparent that the fix was a simple – just add a fourth book.


And, voilà, I slouch so much lesser now. The height of the screen makes me sit up straight – the environment shapes my behavior.

It is always interesting to look at our behavior (and, in some cases, those of others) and ask ourselves – what could we change about the environment to encourage different/better behavior?

Deconstructing critic behavior

Behavior is a function of 2 things – a characteristic of the person interacting with a characteristic of the situation.

This is a simple yet powerful definition as it helps us understand why different people react to the same situation differently. And, most importantly, it explains why the same person might react to the an identical situation differently on different days. It all depends on which characteristics are interacting at which time.

Seth had a fantastic post on “Reading between the lines” the other day when he cautioned against analyzing rejection too much. His conclusion was –

If you really want to know why someone didn’t like your work, you’re going to have to put a lot more effort into it understanding the person who rejected you. Reading the tea leaves in the rejection letters and one-star reviews is pretty worthless.

I was part of a team that ran an event for a diverse group of 600 people last year. And, while we had many positive reviews, a bunch of indifferent reviews, we also had a few one star reviews. In one of these cases, one of the one star reviewers took it out on one of our team members about how she hated us for it. And, as discussed it the next day, we came to the same conclusion – when you get such a strong reaction, this isn’t so much about the situation itself, but the person. It is similar to the idea – “If you are angry or bored, it is really your problem.”

This is not an easy lesson to learn though. This is because there are very few people (~5%) who “build.” Most of the others spend most of their time either maintaining or criticizing. So, the small proportion of builders get a disproportionate share of the negative feedback since the critics tend to react negatively to change. But, Seth’s post is a great reminder that we ought to read into the constructive stuff and ignore the rest.

And, in this case, perhaps revisit this definition of behavior and remember that behavior is caused by an interaction of 2 things – so, it is not all about you.

critic behavior
Image Source

The behavior you expect

(Before I begin, I apologize to all of you who read this on RSS for going MIA on you over the past 4 days. The RSS feed was broken and I didn’t notice there was an issue. I got that fixed this morning so you should receive 4 days worth of posts today. It is an annoying problem that I run into every months – the encoding system seems to take issue with the occasional apostrophe / single quote as it is interpreted as code and that, in turn, ends up breaking down the system. Thanks to those of you who let me know. Apologies for the trouble.)

A team I am a part of organized a meeting yesterday for our “extended” project team. I was planning to sit in the back and get some work done. But, I noticed the attendees were joining me in the back instead of sitting near the presenter (also a team mate) right up front. So, the presenter asked asked everyone to move forward. I urged them to do so, too.

To that, one of them just said – “I’m just following your example.”

I realized I was the problem, not them. So, I moved ahead, shut my laptop down and got ready to engage. Things got much better.

One of the funny / difficult things about leadership is that we often forget that our behavior is always noticed. That’s just the nature of the job.

And, it is a reminder that the most powerful way for us to lead the way is to simply role model the behavior we expect.