by Krishna on May 27, 2007

It is not a fun way to spend the Memorial Day weekend, but I am down with pollen allergies. Trapped indoors and taking medication, I started thinking about ironic an allergy is. Normally, a disease is caused when an external agent like a virus or bacteria attacks the body. However, in the case of allergies, a harmless agent like pollen triggers a false alarm in the immune system and causes all sorts of discomfort.

In this blog, I have talked many times about the risks faced in projects and how to avoid them. But it is just as important to know how not to over-react when things go wrong. A typical calm reaction to a problem that has materialized would be to fix it and then try to understand how it happened and whether it could occur again and if so, how often. Unfortunately, what happens in these situations (and I am no exception) is to become emotional and make a mountain of a molehill.

A rushed managerial reaction to unanticipated issues is to introduce new policies and procedures to prevent them from happening in the future. Though this may be necessary sometimes, doing so increases the bureaucracy within the organization and restricts its options for taking a different approach. For example, let us say that a customer complains about a product. Is that something that must be handled according to a manual containing a detailed set of instructions with canned answers by the customer service representative? Or should it be handled based on the situation using a viewpoint of customer satisfaction?

Another situation where I have seen over-reaction is in communication between people who have become alienated for some reason or the other. Family disputes are common examples, but you can also see this between managers and employees, different departments or even among co-workers. Each time one party communicates something to the other, it is viewed with tremendous mistrust and objected to.

For example, when there is tension between a company and its union, introducing any new process or machines into the company is doomed to fail, even if they make the employees’ lives easier. Why? Because the union mistrusts the company and thinks that the new process would be used to make employees redundant. You can understand the thinking, but the over-reaction may have been based on a miscalculation of the company’s intentions and is harmful to both the company and the employees, as it erodes the profitability of the company and the safety and comfort of the employees.

I have frequently heard people referred to as “high maintenance”. The concept is that such people react negatively to everything that happens to them, even if something is for their good. Recently, while I was doing some research on RSS and Atom, I ran across Dave Winer's profile on Wikipedia and his troubled relationships with people like Tim O’Reilly and others. Here is an example of a highly creative person who could have contributed greatly to many initiatives, but unfortunately is held back by his inability to adapt himself to work with other people the way they expect.

My experience with over-reacting people and organizations is that it is very difficult to change them. I have met hundreds of such individuals in my personal and work lives and given up on almost all of them. As an incurable optimist, I always try to get people to change, but this is one psyche in the character that is virtually impossible to remove. Each person is different and they have different reasons why they do this. Here is a collection of such behavior:

  1. Some people deny there is anything wrong in their behavior. Since they won’t admit to any problems, there is nothing to discuss.
  2. Others will say that their behavior is not optimal, but it yields results and that is what matters.
  3. A few listen politely to what you have to say and then turn around, point out your flaws, demonstrate your hypocrisy and then tell you to shut up.
  4. Some will listen even more courteously, thank you and continue to behave as if nothing was ever discussed. You sometimes wonder why you bothered.
  5. This is the way I am and I cannot change,” is the philosophy of some, who apparently think they were born this way. 🙂

Such over-reaction is a problem because I have seen the other side of the equation — how other people deal with over-reacting persons:

  1. Good-hearted people usually try to do their best to tender to the complaints of such persons, until they find out two things: Whatever good they do is never valued and any mistake they do is over-amplified several times.
  2. The most harmless thing that can happen to such a person is that he or she is isolated. People try to avoid having any dealings with them. It is not that they are angry at the person, but that they don’t want to ruin their day by a bad reaction.
  3. People consciously transfer good opportunities from this person to another. For example, if you have a spare ticket to a good show, you would rather give it to someone who thanks you than to a grouch.
  4. Bad news reaches this person late. Why be the messenger that gets shot? This happens to a lot of managers who overreact to silly mistakes that are easily fixed. Their employees are terrified of delivering the truly bad news. By the time they get the information, it is too late to do anything about it. If you ever had to ask, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”, probably it is time to take a hard look in the mirror.
  5. Not-so-kind-hearted people in power actively try to cause harm. Inside a company, trouble-makers (well-meaning or not) are always on the hit list to be fired first. Never heard of such a list? Nobody actually writes one down (heaven forbid), but you always know who the company would lay off first if they had some financial problems.

The last part is actually the most tragic thing because when these persons encounter real problems, they find that they don’t have any friends left. Visible success can help one gain a lot of friends, but when the chips are down, many friends evaporate because there is nothing in it for them anymore. The unfortunate problem with over-reacting people is that they delude themselves about the value they bring to others, and unfortunately realize this only when things go sour. Examples abound: The abusive husband, the uncaring parent, the irritable manager, the disgruntled employee.

It is a mistake to imagine that this behavior is the monopoly of certain individuals and we are exempt from it. Everyone (including me) has had their share of behaving irrationally and over-reacting. It is sometimes difficult to know when we have crossed the line from being a reasonable person who has outbursts sometimes to being an irrational jerk who people are afraid of upsetting. Here are a few guidelines:

  1. Look at your behavior carefully. If you find yourself angry, walk away and cool down. Speak with or email the person when you have greater control of your emotions.
  2. If you have just behaved badly, apologize to the person. It does not matter whether you were right or wrong in the situation, you were definitely wrong in your actions. When apologizing, don’t say, “I am sorry, but you made me behave that way.” Just say, “I should not have said that to you. I am sorry.” Period. Do not make excuses, it just devalues the apology.
  3. No one behaves like a normal human being under pressure. Provide release valves for the pressure by open, frequent communication. The more you talk with a person, the more you understand what is going on and the less likely to have a knee-jerk reaction.
  4. Avoid sarcasm at all costs. It is worse than direct attacks, because by showing your loathing, it destroys the other person’s self-respect. Managers, who sometimes don’t want to tell the truth to employees, use sarcastic remarks, making things much worse.

Anger, mistrust and other negative emotions are common human behavior. Nobody is a saint and we will make mistakes. However, we do have the power to change, if we consciously look at ourselves and recognize our flaws. Let’s start trying.

{ 1 comment }

Suraj February 15, 2008 at 11:51 pm

quite interesting!

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