It’s Complicated: Why You Do What You Do

“What a jerk,” you remark to yourself as you walk away from your latest disagreement with That Guy. ‘Pretty safe to say he is thinking the same thing about you. You might even move from thinking about his behavior to wondering, “What is with that guy?”

Why do we do what we do? If we can gain some insights into this seemingly simple question, perhaps we can be a better leader, coworker, or spouse. The good news is those insights are available and make sense when you start looking.

How about a test? Is there a test we can give someone to determine why they do what they do? Consider, for a moment, going to the doctor for your annual physical. What test would they run to determine your health? Of course, there is no single test: height and weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, EKG, EEG and the list goes on. The tests depend on what you want to know and when you want to know it. It is a very similar concept when we try to answer why you do what you do. There are many psychometric assessments that can give some insights. Psycho what? Psychometric tests are designed to measure someone’s personality characteristics and aptitude (or natural abilities). They identify the extent to which personality and natural abilities compare to others. Ideally, when hiring, we would match people with the right abilities to the right position.

Myers-Briggs, DiSC, FIRO, Human Patterns, Emotional Intelligence, and many others might be part of the equation that explains why you do what you do. And, like at your annual physical, some tests tell more than others, depending on the situation. In fact, anytime someone asks you to take a test/assessment, you are entitled to know what they are looking for, its relevance to the situation, and its statistical validity. This last part is especially important. You want an assessment that has been widely validated, to insure the results are accurate. The one that some consultant created on a spreadsheet and gave to fifty-two people on Survey Monkey is not the one you want. Sure, it’s a great revenue stream for him. But it’s absolute schlock for you.

Assessments can point to your skills, competencies, preferences, aptitudes, etc. (depending on what we are looking for), but they don’t tell us why you are the way you are. For that, we need to think about a bullseye. In the middle is that black spot, the ten ring, the bull. Then, there are concentric circles. You are the way you are because of two things at the center of the bullseye: your DNA and your upbringing. To use a computer example, DNA is your hardware. Your upbringing is your software. In ways we don’t even know yet, DNA combines to form the incredibly unique creature called a human being. I have two kids. They are as different as night and day. ‘Same DNA, but one is male, one female; one is introverted, the other, extraverted. One is a sensitive artist; the other, a loud, brash football player.

The software is the programming you received from your environment. Some was intentional, such as how you were raised and educated as a child. Some unintentional, such as how you learned about relationships by the way the parents communicated (or didn’t). Other programming comes from what society has told you is right or wrong, possible or impossible. In the words of Dr. Lanny Hass, PhD, “You didn’t grow up in my mama’s house…and I didn’t grow up in your mama’s house.”

Let’s take the programming analogy further. Lanny grew up on a farm in Iredell County, North Carolina. I grew up in the suburbs of Long Island. That geographic contrast alone has given us different perspectives on economics, politics, race, perspective, hobbies, and so much more.

But the programming doesn’t end there. Lanny and I are both Baby Boomers. Our kids aren’t. This brings on the whole “Generations in the Workplace” conversation. Maybe throw in some Birth Order, too. As you can see, this is complicated. But it isn’t a mystery. You can measure some of these hardware and software aspects. You can certainly think about them and begin to connect the dots.

And, in connecting those dots, we begin to move out from the center of the bullseye. In the next ring is what we think and believe. It is where we begin to identify motivations and desires. The problem with this ring, though, is I cannot see it. All I see from you is your behavior. And behavior is the outermost ring on our bullseye. This is where we started this conversation, with you wondering why That Guy is behaving like a jerk. At this point, I don’t know. But upon further thought, investigation, and getting to know him, we may find out that he grew up in a hostile, conflict-ridden environment. He learned to relate to people in a fight-or-flight manner; to attack before they attack him. So, when you ping, he pongs. It is a natural response, developed and practiced over decades, and it worked for him back then. With this understanding of his programming, we now have options and “being a jerk back” is only one of them.

The best place to start is to think about you. Self-awareness is one of the hallmarks of great leadership. You probably aren’t a jerk. But do you hold people as accountable as you might? Maybe you are reluctant to fire someone because you remember how rough it was in your house when your dad got fired. It’s a complicated jigsaw puzzle. You will not solve the puzzle until you take the pieces out of the box, and look at them one at a time. When you do, you may have some frustrations. But you will have breakthroughs, too. It’s worth it.

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