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Why Smart Women Make Bad Decisions #1 – The Big Lie of Empowerment

You hate your boss. You feel bad about this, but the truth is incontrovertible.

You thought perhaps working remotely would mean less contact with Tamara, but zoom has given her unfettered access to your entire team.

When the pandemic hitched a ride into Australia, you packed up your desk, set up your computer in a room with an attractive background, and switched on zoom. Not realising you wouldn’t be turning it off for 6 months.

At the beginning there was a sense of world war two camaraderie. While the chaps at the Home Office strategized in drawing rooms, cigars clamped between their teeth, on how to fight the blasted thing, you and your team would bunker down in your shelters and fight the good fight.

That was in March.  The WW2 feeling has faded. You now find yourself trapped in the early chapters of a dreary post-apocalyptic novella. It should never have been published in the first place and you suspect the end will be awful.

Tamara however was made for a global pandemic. A war like footing meant the line between the end of the workday and the beginning of home time was now non-existent.

Tamara works 24/7 and yet inexplicably has a roaring social life. Instagram is dripping with images of her being thin and childless with her thin friends and their boats. In the hundred million zoom calls you’ve had with her, you’ve seen no signs of life in her home,except for an incredibly restrained bearded collie called Ghost.  He has an unnerving habit of looking directly at the camera with his one eye blue eye and one brown.

Tamara feels it’s permissible to contact you by any devise available. If you don’t answer her email, she texts you. If carrier pigeons were available there’d be one bearing Tamara’s missive in its little canister, tapping at your loungeroom window.

Dinner with Oscar is now punctuated by constant phone pings.

Optimistic Oscar has of course found a way to turn this constant interruption into a positive.

‘Gee Babe,’ he says, ‘She really relies on you doesn’t she!’

‘Hope I’m not interrupting.’ she texts. Adding some irritating and inappropriate emoji. 

She is interrupting.

‘No, it’s all good.’ you text back.

‘I texted Melanie, but she was in the middle of a family dinner.’ texts Tamara.

Of course Melanie was in the middle of a family dinner. Melanie has no trouble saying no to Tamara.

‘Just because Tamara works relentlessly doesn’t mean we have to jump every time she calls.’ says Melanie. ‘God Kat you’re the worst push over.’

It’s easy for Melanie to say. She has one of those straight up personalities. The sort to tell an uber driver to go the shorter way or send back a cold coffee. You do not send coffees back. Half concerned you’ll look painful and demanding, and half concerned the barista will spit in it.

You want to apply for another job but last time you’d asked Tamara for her support she’d been less than helpful. The conversation had taken place over a zoom call. She sat in her office, Ghost at her elbow.

You’d been on the call for ten minutes before you’d noticed you only had makeup on one eye.

Byron was still wet from lying in the pond at the park and had chosen to jump up on your lap in the middle of the call. He had barked repeatedly and knocked your tea off the table. Ghost had sat perfectly still. Evaluating Byron’s zoom performance.

‘So how are you going during the Covid?’ Tamara had said. Ticking off the mental health question. 

‘I’m fine.’ you’d said.

Actually, you’d been having terrible headaches. The masked doctor talked to you in the car park through the window.

‘It’d be stress related. Take breaks between calls.’ she’d said. ‘Go and look out the window for a couple of minutes.’

Last time you’d looked out the window, the couple from upstairs were having a massive row on the street. She threw a shoe at him. She was wearing two shoes so must have had one secreted about her person, which you’d found intriguingly pre-emptive.

‘Ok so coping well. Good.’ said Tamara ticking off some invisible list. ‘So, why do you want to apply for this position?’

Your interest in moving to Risk, was because you find Tamara difficult, demanding and intimidating. She micromanages everything you do. Last week, she’d given you the task of selecting the top twenty applicants for a position. Which you’d done. She thought eighteen of them were under par, and two were possible.

‘I’m not sure you’re across the criterion.’ she said, before going away and compiling her own list.

You didn’t actually care about the new position in Risk, you just wanted to be away from her.

‘I feel I’d like to get some experience in Risk.’ you’d said. ‘Broaden my skill base.’

‘I think you should consolidate your skill base in the position you have, before you go off to Risk.’ she’d said. ‘I’d like to see you really working on your accountability. See if you can work on not second guessing yourself.’

Working for Tamara was like being in an operating theatre. You the nurse, would proffer Tamara the surgeon the appropriate instrument which she would then knock out your hand, roll her eyes at you from behind her mask, and select her own.

‘Anyway, so let’s take Risk off the table until you’ve really got this position under your belt.’

You wanted to scream at her. Your use of mixed metaphors is appalling, and I can’t get this position under my belt because you won’t hand off any authority to me.

That was two months ago. Things have not improved. The work week is now seven days. Weekends are non-existent. She called you last week from a boat. You could hear the lapping of the water and the sound of beers being extracted from an eskie.  You were in the cinema. She called you right at the climax. You took the call.

So back on the zoom.

It’s Saturday night. 8.30 pm. You’re drinking wine from a teacup. You assume someone as professional  as Tamara doesn’t drink on zoom calls.

‘I think the rationale is too simplistic.’ she says.

You sigh inwardly

You’d locked this down last week.

‘You said you wanted it in plain language.’ you say.

‘Mmm,’ she says. ‘Well there’s plain and there’s kindergarten.  I’d like to bring Brian in just to get his input.’

You don’t want Brian’s input. Brian has been at the firm for about four thousand years. Nothing is ever conservative enough for Brian.

‘Great idea.’ you say.

‘Ok I’ll get Shelly to book a conference call with the three of us for 7.30 tomorrow.

Brian likes to have his meetings early.’

Of course, Brian does. He probably needs an afternoon nap.

A door slams somewhere in Tamara’s house.

The door opens behind her.

A small head comes around the door. A child.

Tamara turns around.

‘Mummy’s on a call. Remember I told you if the door’s closed that means don’t come in.’

Tamara’s child.

The child stands hand twisting the doorknob.

‘There was a noise.’

‘It’s the wind Nathan’.

‘I don’t think so.’ says Nathan.

‘If you have to go that’s fine.’ you say hopefully. ‘We can reconvene in the morning.’

Nathan’s eyeline moves hopefully towards his mother.

‘Also, where’s Dad?’

Tamara looks at you directly for the first time.

‘Well, that’s another question.’ she says.

 

Ghost shifts slightly, looks up at his mistress.

‘Alright Kat let’s talk at 7.30. Expect an invite from Shelly.’

Poor Shelly. Probably just sitting down to Schitts Creek, and she now has to pointlessly set up a meeting. 

‘I could just text Brian.’ you say.

‘It’s ok, Shelly doesn’t mind.’ she says

‘Mum?’

Tamara never leaves zoom calls, just exits the room. You watch her stand move towards the child.

The door bangs again somewhere in her house.

‘Nathan,’ she says, taking his hand. ‘It’s just the wind.’

Maybe she smiles at him, maybe she doesn’t.

The door closes behind them.

You leave the call. Drain the last of the wine from the teacup.

The mental picture of solitary Tamara in her life dissolves. A child is now in the frame. And a father. An absent Father. Either absent this evening or more permanently absent.  There could even be another child sequestered in the house that will materialise at the door one zoom call, asking for a juice.

Either way, Tamara is in possession of a family, and that, is surprisingly, one up on you.

 

Chapter One

 

What’s going on with Kat?

Let’s start off with the premise that we are not rational beings. Our interpretation of events, and our interactions with each other, are all viewed through a highly flawed filter. Our cognitive processes are littered with unconscious and seriously unhelpful bugs.

These are called cognitive biases.

We use heuristics, mental shortcuts, to solve problems and make judgements quickly. They’re essential in assisting us to make our way through the world. Without short cut decision making we would literally be unable to function. But these heuristics have a dark side. For example, we automatically allocate things into groups, whether or not they belong together. (This is how racism, sexism ageism, all the isms arise)

We also believe people or movements because they sound authoritative, regardless of whether or not what they are saying is valid. Whether it’s the political, spiritual or philosophical sphere, or dietary, wellness, or medical advice, if the voice touting the product or approach sounds valid, we are likely to believe them regardless of the veracity.

We rely on sweeping judgements and errant instincts.

We look at life through an autobiographical lens, all the time operating under the misapprehension that we’re objective.

Social media and the manipulation of the particular bubble we operate in, has undoubtedly made our capacity to analyse our judgements worse. But this is exactly why we need our critical thinking skills to be sharpened.

Rationality and objectivity are not out of our reach. They do however need a steely determination to examine our mental processes even we feel certain our assessments are correct.

So, over the course of this blog I hope to illuminate some of the biases that subvert our thinking and lead to poor decision making.

So, to the story.

 

The Big lie of Empowerment

An empowered workforce dripping with discretionary energy. That’s the goal isn’t it? We want employees who understand their job description and are given the autonomy to enact it.

However, far from being empowered, many employees struggle to wrest authority from their managers.

Empowerment has become little more than a husk of a notion.

The dictionary definition of empowerment is ‘The authority or power given to someone to do something.’

It sounds obvious but in order to give someone something you have to let it go.

So, to wrap a metaphor around it; If you are giving someone a gift, at the moment you hand it to them you have to release your grip.

This simple action of letting go, or not letting go as the case may be, is at the centre of so much drama, loss of productivity, churn, and the focus of a thousand backroom conversations.

What causes it? Why can’t managers let go?  It’s not as if empowerment isn’t front and centre of their corporate values. They walk through foyers every day (well they did before covid) past mission statements proclaiming customer centric cultures fuelled by empowered workforces.

Well, they can’t let go because the structures under which they operate won’t allow them to.

Tamara may well have a highly controlling perfectionistic character. But behind every perfectionist is a person afraid they’re not going to do well enough. That they’ll be perceived to be underachieving which to a perfectionist, is like death.

So, who manages Tamara? How many performance reviews is she receiving a year? Are they high quality conversations? Because if the manager managing Tamara has low skills when it comes to giving constructive feedback, then Tamara is going to leave the review either feeling diminished and criticised without improved understanding of the impact of her behaviour, or possibly worse, under the impression that everything is going fine.

 

Motivated Reasoning

Tamara herself is unaware that she is driven unconsciously by her issues around control and perfectionism and has post rationalized her reaction to Kat’s request.

We all post rationalise constantly. We make an emotional decision in the unconscious part of our brain (the limbic system) then post rationalise it in the conscious part of our brains (the prefrontal cortex).

This is a quick unconscious process and being smart doesn’t ameliorate the danger you’re in from going with your gut response. In fact, having a high IQ often simply means your post rationalization sounds more convincing to yourself and others.

Tamara genuinely believes her own justification, which would be along the lines of Kat is under confidant, she won’t back her own judgement, and moving to another area is premature.

 

What could Kat have done differently.

Kat has issues with being clear and succinct with what she wants. She is aware that she is intimidated by Tamara and feels unable to stand up to her, but how valid is this perception?

Humans are highly responsive to the unspoken power dynamics that are played out between people every day.  We may not be able to exactly explain why, but some people intimidate us, while some people present no threat. In some relationships, the power imbalance is always present. One person is always dictating the outcomes. While some relationships are more fluid, the power balance moves back and forth. We’re not consciously aware that we’re in response to an unspoken power dynamic, because it happens mainly in the unconscious part of our brain, but before we know it, our conscious brain has justified the reaction we’ve had to the power imbalance.

This is what’s happened to Kat. She knows she can’t hold her ground but has justified her reaction. It feels right. In her mind she’s just not the sort of person to push back.  But feeling right is not the end of the story.

Kat needs to apply some critical thinking to her reaction to Tamara. She never gets beyond the fact that she can’t hold her ground. She never questions why and what she can do about it.

 

The problem with authenticity.

In these situations, look at someone else who can hold their ground and ask yourself how they do it.  Kat observed Melanie holding her ground and put it down to Melanie having a tougher personality. This is of course to some degree true, but the idea that we can’t learn to incorporate different aspects of behaviours is not true.

Often, we hide behind the idea of authenticity. We are told to be ourselves. But who are we? Are we the same at the age of 20, 30, 40, 50? No, we’re not. We grow and develop. We automatically adapt and adjust to our circumstances and environment, but we can be more deliberate in what we choose to incorporate into our behaviour. 

The thought of saying no to Tamara made Kat extremely uncomfortable. But in this situation the feeling of discomfort should not be the arbiter of whether or not you hold your ground.

This goes to the point of being able to discern which instincts should be listened to and which need to be questioned.

For Kat, to not pick up the phone, or telling Tamara that it’s the weekend and she’s happy to talk to her on Monday, feels dangerous, but it’s a feeling, not the truth. The only way through these situations is through them.

She needed to feel uncomfortable, say no to Tamara, and then notice that the world didn’t fall apart. Tamara is used to Kat being on tap. She may buck at the change of power dynamic but once she gets the idea that Kat has boundaries she may just well adjust.

Challenging the power dynamics, either in a one-off situation, or an established relationship, is not easy but it’s not impossible.

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