The Right Double Standards

by Krishna on May 22, 2007

I have been meaning to write this article for a long time now. However, every time I started writing, I have gone off on a tangent and ended up talking about something else. Part of the problem was that I did not have the right title — something that could be used as a focal point in expressing this idea. Recently, I came across the phrase “double standards” and then it struck me that I could use it to explain my thoughts.

So what is this all about? Well, in simple words, “You should have a higher standard for your own behavior than you should expect from others.

We are all very familiar with the opposite situation. For example, a teacher or a doctor penalizing us for coming late to class or an appointment, but no apologies if they keep us waiting for long time. That is the case where a person has low standards for himself while expecting everyone else to maintain high standards. That is the original meaning of “double standards”.

We all agree that examples of the above are wrong, but isn’t the opposite of that expecting the same standards from both ourselves and others? We do the right thing and we expect others to do the right thing. Wouldn’t that work?

The answer I consistently find in most venues (work, personal, etc.) is that “No, it doesn’t work.” And this has a very simple reason: People don’t have the same set of values. They are not alike. They have various human flaws (see “Seven Deadly Sins”). They make mistakes unknowingly and unconsciously all the time.

If you expect everyone else to follow your values, you will be sorely disappointed. Most people will NOT rise to your expectations. The reverse is also true: We never rise to people’s expectations. They expect us to behave in a certain way and they are disappointed at our actions and words. The unexpected disappointment leads to a very harmful problem. Since someone did not do what we wanted, we are angry at them. This starts a vicious cycle of hatred and contempt.

As you can see, quid pro quo in terms of standards is inherently a delicate equilibrium that can be easily shattered. So what is the solution?

The answer is to build a high level of tolerance for the actions and behavior of others. For example, if someone doesn’t do what you expect, search for a charitable reason. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Try to understand why they are doing what they are doing. Don’t automatically assume that they are evil.

Above all, talk openly with people. Let us say that someone did something you didn’t expect. Meet or talk to the person and ask him, “This is what I thought you would do. But you did this instead. Any particular reason?” In 90% of the cases, the person usually has a very valid reason. In other cases, some fault of theirs like fear of something may have prevented them from doing it. Although it is their problem, you can anticipate someone else in a similar situation doing the same thing and you can be prepared.

Some people may not tell you the real reason. This is also to be expected. People are usually ashamed of revealing their faults. Things like fear, ignorance, carelessness, etc. are common human weaknesses, but nobody (including I) likes admitting to them. So give them some rope.

Now, like everything, this principle of “right double standards” while maintaining personal high standards can be used correctly and can also be misused in many ways. Let me explain a few instances where it is used in a wrong way.

The first and foremost is the disease of self-righteousness. This is common in some people who observe a lot of public religious practices. They never do anything bad and also do a lot of good things like giving to charity or performing services for the community. The problem is that they become very vain about their own piety. They don’t expect other people to be as good as them (which in fact may be difficult), but use that fact at every opportunity to show that they are better than others.

But self-righteousness is not limited to religious people, of course. It can manifest itself when a person has any good quality which others do not possess in the same quantity. For example, I have seen a few persons who go out of the way to help other people, but are always complaining about lack of gratitude, the insensitivity of people who are being helped, etc. Also the same people complain that they are the only ones requested for help.

The irony here is that if everyone did the same thing as the self-righteous person, he would not be valuable anymore. Consider a case where everyone went to church, gave lavishly to charity or helped out with every request. This person would not be able to compete or crib. His usefulness to society comes from the very fact that others are not as virtuous as he is.

Moral: If you are going to complain that you are doing something good while somebody else is not, stop complaining or stop doing the good thing. In a software development team, an example would be the guy who runs around helping everybody else with their debugging problems and then complains about long working hours.

Another misuse of the “right double standards” is using it against others. For example, you can “teach” someone to expect mistakes from you and, therefore, to be prepared and cover up. The programmer who wants others to expect bugs from him. The manager who wants subordinates to be ready for his irrational whims. I saw an example of this recently in the movie “The King of Scotland” where Idi Amin tells his advisor, “But you did not persuade me (not to expel the Asians), Nicholas. You did not persuade me!” as if Amin did not have a mind of his own.

Such behavior only works to frustrate other people who only see you as untrustworthy and never buy into your arguments. While it can be used successfully against subordinates to keep their mouths shut for a while, it only brings resentment and hatred. Even an evil person can buy loyalty from his people by being consistent in his likes and dislikes. But an intrinsically good person can alienate people by changing the rules while the game is played.

A final mistake is appeasement of unacceptable behavior. This is the opposite of self-righteousness where the person assumes that no one can ever make a mistake. Such a person keeps making excuses for people’s errors and never holds anyone responsible or accountable. This has the effect of encouraging more of the same mistakes.

The idea is that even when making allowances for failures, everyone should be clear about where you stand — what your principles and standards are. When someone is not following what you desire, you should explain what you expected and why they did what they did. Then you have to come to a final understanding: Whether you have to change your standards, whether the other person has to start improving his behavior or maybe a mix of both. And if the other person fails to meet his end of the bargain, you can decide what to do next.

Well, so much for misuse, but how do you use this principle to help you in the first place? Here are a few examples:

  1. If you are a manager, expect your employees to make silly mistakes, forget things and not follow up on everything you say. Therefore, you should try to help them like documenting the high priority tasks, project guidelines and using a task management system.
  2. If you are an employee, expect your manager to give you incomplete and inconsistent information. Your manager may not address your concerns immediately because of other pressing needs. Therefore, you should take it on yourself to clarify if things are unclear and keep reminding the manager about the things you want.
  3. If you are a parent, don’t expect your children to be as mature, thoughtful and serious as you. Allow them to take risks and be playful while setting high-level guidelines for behavior instead of micro-managing. Don’t talk down to them.
  4. If you are a teenager, don’t expect your parents to understand what is going on with your peers at school and sports. They are more worried about your safety and future than your immediate emotional needs. Ask your parents for guidance — they have seen the world at least twice as long as you have.

I can keep going on — teacher vs. student, politician vs. constituent, among friends, colleagues, relatives, etc. But I hope I have made my point, which is simply not to expect things to go and people to behave the way you expect. Instead, reach out to them and see how you can make the best of things.

I would like to end this with a problem when you follow this principle, namely, it can be very difficult and frustrating. Tolerance is not easy. It is easier to vent your frustration and anger. Also when you continue to exhibit high standards, but it doesn’t bring you any tangible return like recognition or praise, it is easy to say that it is not worth it and be like everybody else. From time to time, you will find yourself reverting to old habits, especially under pressure.

Regardless, don’t give up on your good behavior. Ultimately, you will find it more liberating because you will find it much easier to handle setbacks and solve problems.

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