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Published 03 September 2012 06:30, Updated 04 September 2012 05:08
The world is not fair. That won’t surprise many readers, but it is amazing how a subterranean belief that the world is a just place often lurks inside us – and it is not doing us any favours.
This idea that the world is fair is the reason we think we will get what we deserve. We don’t fight for what we want, we don’t play the politics and, when someone less deserving zooms ahead of us, we sit back and wait for karma to do its work.
Well, how long have you got?
Let me tell you, I have been waiting a long time for some people and they’ve certainly had a long party while I’ve been twiddling my thumbs.
Sometimes, someone’s rotten character will come back to bite them and they fall, and fall hard. But it has rarely been of any benefit (other than the delicious but short-lived feeling of schadenfreude) to the people they have ripped off, betrayed and suppressed along the way.
I’ve finally got around to reading Power: Why Some People Have It And Others Don’t by Stanford professor, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and I haven’t even got past the introduction and already feel inspired to blog about it. It probably says something about my character (and political awareness) that it has taken me over a year to blow the dust off the cover and open the pages, which are already starting to yellow.
Pfeffer is the no-nonsense author of a number of best-selling management books, including Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management.
“Many people conspire in their own deception about the organisational world in which they live. That’s because people prefer to believe that the world is a just and fair place and that everyone gets what he or she deserves,” he writes in Power.
“And since people tend to think that they themselves are deserving, they come to think that if they just do a good job and behave appropriately, things will take care of themselves.
“Moreover, when they observe others doing things they consider to be inappropriate, self-aggrandising, or ‘pushing the envelope’, most people do not see anything to be learned, believing that even if those people are successful at the moment, in the end they will be brought down.”
Do “nice” guys come first? Rarely.
Felicity was recruited as part of a new team of four people. They were all young, single, idealistic and ambitious and threw themselves into their work.
Within a year, they had made a name for themselves in the property industry they were selling to and they were reaping the rewards. Then their manager resigned.
“As a team, we looked at each other and agreed that – as one of us had been there a year longer – she should be the next manager. We wouldn’t challenge her for the job, although I’m sure any one of us would have been accepted as the new leader”, says Felicity (not her real name).
“We just waited for our CEO to do the right thing and offer the job to the most obvious person.”
That was their mistake. The team naively expected everyone else to be as fair as they were.
Another employee from outside that team – an accomplished political operator, but with substantially less experience – put her hand up for the job, made her pitch and was appointed before anyone had even spoken to the team’s choice.
“The new manager was a nightmare. She appropriated other people’s work, she would spend all her time schmoozing powerful people in the industry, leaving us to do all her stuff and we suspected she was bad-mouthing us to the CEO”.
It took a year or two, but all the team members resigned one-by-one and it took years for that department to regain any of the sort of dynamic energy it had enjoyed.
Pfeffer says that a belief that the world is fair ‘anaethsetises’ people against being proactive in building a power base.
In Felicity’s case, she and her colleagues needed to have built a direct line of communication to the CEO and make it immediately clear that their colleague was the right person to be the new manager – and their choice should have been proactive in lobbying for the job. Looking after the health of the team might not have been in their job descriptions, but it was as essential as growing the business.
Pfeffer says people believe in a ‘just world’ because of a desire for control and predictability: “How else could we navigate a world that is random and can’t be controlled without feeling thwarted and frustrated much of the time?”.
The flip side of the ‘just world hypothesis’ is that people get what they deserve. This is particularly poisonous when it comes to blaming the victim. I recall comforting a friend – a devoted and celibate Christian – who had been raped by a dinner guest as she prayed to her God for help.
When she approached her church counsellors, she was asked to ponder what she could have done to bring that fate upon herself. And then, helpfully, to hand her problems over to God and walk away from them.
“There are literally scores of experiments and field studies that show the just-world effect. Many of the original studies examined the opinions held by participants of people who were randomly chosen by the experimenter to receive an electric shock or some other form of punishment,” writes Pfeffer.
“The research showed that others were more likely to reject the (randomly) punished people and to see them as lacking in social worth – even though the observers knew those punished had received their bad outcomes purely by chance!”
Victims of random bad luck also got stigmatised, says Pfeffer. Children who go subsidised school lunches are thought to be less able students, ugly college students are thought less able to pilot a private plane than pretty ones, and welfare recipients are often treated as untrustworthy or incapable of managing any aspect of their lives.
The lesson to be learned here is not to put your head down, work hard and wait to be anointed. Recognise the reality of the world we live in, and make it happen.