I’m guessing this has happened to you once or twice in your career. A colleague comes into your office and exclaims, “Everyone in the unit thinks ….” Or perhaps it’s “We never ….”
Usually the comment is explosive. And you fall for the “everyone” or “never” comment.
But if you pause a moment and think about it, the comment is probably not correct. We have a habit of exaggerating a bit, wouldn’t you agree?
So I’ve learned to probe a bit before falling into the trap. When the comment is “everyone thinks,” I’ll ask, really, everyone? Generally, that’s all it takes for the person to back off the extreme comment. But perhaps he doesn’t. Then I might say, “So when I walk down the hall and ask Alice and Jimmy and Gail if they agree with your statement, each is going to agree?” That’s typically when the “everyone” comment falls apart.
The “never” comment is similar. Perhaps it is true that “we never” have done something, but if you are fairly certain it’s not true, challenge the comment.
I’ve had people tell me, “No one agrees that ….” And my response is, “Absolutely not a single person in our organization agrees?” Again, people tend to back down.
Why do we allow people to get away with holding extreme positions? It’s a learned behavior. They’ve learned that exaggeration works, and most of us fall for it. But it’s not typically a true statement they posit, so we should ask them to be accountable.
How did we learn that it works? Most of us have to go back to our childhood. As children, everything is extreme. Can’t you just hear a child cajoling or wheedling a parent by saying, “Everybody in my class gets to …” when they’ve been told they cannot do something.
The parent caved, probably knowing full well that everyone in the class does not get to do whatever, but the game is on. The child learns the language works and they perfect their skills through their teen years. Freddy says, “Dad, everyone has a 2 a.m. curfew. Why is mine at midnight?” Unless Dad is willing to contact each of the parents to confirm the veracity of his son’s statement, Freddy probably “wins” and gets to stay out later.
So the child learns and perfects the behaviors into young adulthood and then enters the workplace. As most supervisors, in my experience, don’t like to challenge statements like this, the worker continues manipulating the supervisor. Why? Because he can get what he wants.
And have you noticed that it’s generally the same people who exhibit these behaviors? They’ve learned that a squeaky wheel gets attention, so they squeak for all they are worth.
Colleagues watching the squeaky wheels wonder why we put up with it. You’ve even observed squeakers creating havoc for other supervisors and have wondered yourself.
So let’s stop kowtowing to these comments. Expect specificity. When someone says “everyone,” ask for the exact number the person has queried. If the statement is being made by a child in your home, ask for names or a number. Don’t put up with the embellishments. I predict that if you stop falling for it, it will stop happening. And that will be good for everyone.
Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.