“Here lies the body of William Jay,
Who died maintaining his right of way –
He was right, dead right, as he sped along,
But he’s just as dead as if he were wrong.”–Dale Carnegie
Last week I listened to two stories about perceived injustice in the workplace.
In both cases I agreed that the actions described were unskillful because they had created suffering for co-workers. But, as a third party, I couldn’t gauge whether the infliction of suffering was intentional.
How much of the suffering was created by the actions, and how much was created by the perception that the actions had been unfair?
At most workplaces, employees share the common goal of making the organization successful.
In competitive sports, one party wins by outperforming the other. It’s the referee’s job to keep things fair.
But in the legal profession, your co-workers are your adversaries, and to succeed you must prove you’re right and they’re wrong.
Problem Solving, Competition, and Perfectionism
Scott Rogers, Director of the Mindfulness in Law program at the University of Miami School of Law discussed occupational hazards on Dan Harris’s 10% Happier podcast.
Lawyers are really good at problem solving. They’re competitive and like to stay on top of their game. They’re perfectionists. These qualities serve their clients well and are assets in doing their job. But, if lawyers can’t turn down the dial on problem solving, they’re constantly looking for the next thing that’s wrong. If they can’t turn down their competitiveness then they see threats everywhere. And perfectionism compels them to review documents again and again for fear of being shamed by a misplaced comma.
As a result, lawyers live with anxiety, depression, and commit suicide, even when they appear to be thriving in the eye of the beholder.
Rogers’s exposure to Transcendental Meditation during his early days in law school fueled his curiosity in introspection. In reading about mindfulness, he sensed that authors like Thich Nhat Hanh and Ram Dass were re-stating basic fundamental insights.
He quotes a talk by Ram Dass: “There’s nothing I’m going to share with you all that you don’t already know. It’s that we tend to forget. So, here we are, we’ve come together to remember.”
Rogers admires Ram Dass for his early work developing a healthy relationship with the voice in his head, and for deepening his connection with the heart. Rogers referred to this as an open-hearted embrace.
An open-hearted embrace is realizing that we’ve got more going on together than we think. We’re not quite the threats that we take each other to be, so we don’t have to be as guarded and stressed about each other.
“Going a little deeper, I think it speaks to this recognition that if we can really tame that voice in our head, not forget it, but really size it up and befriend it, then there’s this letting go of something that was never real in the first place.”
The feeling of connection isn’t touchy-feely, but actually inherent in the system in which we find ourselves. Realizing this is a game changer.
Rogers first practiced this open-hearted embrace during a case from hell.
He was sure he was right, and he was sure the opposing counsel and their client were misrepresenting the facts. It was unbelievably frustrating to feel that he was being treated unfairly, and he was having a difficult time setting the record straight.
In desperation, he performed his mindfulness practice and reached the insight that he was contributing to the suffering. Even though he may have been right, his sense of unfairness wasn’t relieving the stress of the situation, it was contributing to it.
He realized that we’re all in this together.
But how does the viewpoint that we’re all in this together affect your ability to prevail over your adversary?
It doesn’t mean that you don’t forcefully pursue what’s called for in the moment. But it does mean that you’re doing what’s actually called for to be responsive without overdoing it or under doing it.
You can compete with your adversary without losing your sense of connection to them as a human being. Just like you, they are living a life that began, they are going through challenges, and sadness, and celebration. And remember that just like you, their lives will end.
“That’s something you feel, not something you know just in your head.”
It’s seeing the humanity in your competitors while still competing, and not losing touch with the humanity within yourself, because the two run in tandem together. As you lose sight of it in the other, you’re losing touch with it within yourself, and as you maintain that awareness in the other, you cultivate it more fully in yourself.
Advantages of Embracing Awareness
Acknowledging that your adversary is just like you allows you to be present and alert. You hear what’s actually being said. Letting the person who’s talking finish what they’re saying, no matter how their views differ in terms of the legal matter, avoids notching up the tension in the room.
The ability to clearly distinguish between what’s actually happening and the story you’re telling yourself about what’s happening can help you respond more skillfully to whatever challenge arises.
And that’s a major competitive advantage.
Ten Minute Exercise
Ironically, lawyers, whose success depends on achieving opposing outcomes, have one advantage over co-workers who are pursuing a common goal.
Lawyers have to make the case that their point of view is 100% correct and reasonable.
Chade-Meng Tan, former Google engineer and author of Search Inside Yourself offers this exercise for reducing perceptions of unfairness in the workplace, and in life. (I’ve adapted it so that you can do it in 10 minutes).
1. Gather your writing tools.
2. Set a timer for two minutes.
3. Think of a difficult situation from your present or past when there was some conflict or disagreement, something real, something that has some meaning and potency for you.
4. Set a timer for four minutes to describe the situation as though you are 100 percent correct and reasonable.
5. Set a timer for four minutes to describe the situation as though the other person is (or the other people are) 100 percent correct and reasonable.
6. When the timer sounds, re-evaluate your sense of unfairness.
Two common challenges for understanding the opposing viewpoint:
Just like you, your co-worker prioritizes certain values based on their life experience.
Just like you, your co-worker sometimes has to act without having all of the relevant information.
According to Meng (what both friends and strangers call him):
“The more often you are able to see how each side in a disagreement is correct and reasonable, the more often you will be able to understand differing perspectives objectively and the more accurate your organizational awareness will become.”
And the less you’ll have to struggle with the additional stress of things being unfair.
It takes work to come to grips with perceived unfairness. These capuchin monkeys show us how hard it is to rationalize: it’s just an experiment.