Saturday, December 17, 2020

Thoughts for the Holidays

This is my last regular posting before the holidays, so I thought I would leave you with something to mull over in spare moments between eating, drinking and opening gifts.

When did you last pay conscious attention to the categories your mind is using?

Your mind naturally fits whatever it perceives into one or more categories, so you know what it is and what to do with it. It's almost automatic; as are the categories your mind uses. Did you choose them deliberately? Probably not. Mostly they come from the society in which you live, the groups with which you associate and the beliefs you hold. From churches to employers, just about every recognizable grouping has its own way of seeing the world and categorizing it. If you're a member, you'll be expected to follow along, more or less. Too much dissension from "approved" categories will likely get you thrown out.

This has been going on for a very long time. I recently came across a quote by an Argentinean writer, which listed the categories of animals provided by an ancient Chinese encyclopedia (Don't ask!). They were:
  1. Belonging to the emperor.

  2. Embalmed.

  3. Tame.

  4. Suckling pigs.

  5. Stray dogs.

  6. Frenzied.

  7. Sirens.

  8. Innumerable.

  9. Included in this category.

  10. Have just broken the water pitcher.

  11. From a long way off look like flies.

People's heads are full of untested categorizations. Mostly they use them without question; life feels more predictable that way. Bosses categorize employees from "A" performers (Try to Keep) to "C" performers (Try to Fire or Transfer). Your own department comes into the categories of "hard working," "understaffed" and "indispensable." Most other departments fit into the categories of "bloated," "untrustworthy" and "wasting resources we could use much better." You look around the meeting table, picking out "friends" and "enemies."

Fit someone in a category and—hey presto!—you know all you need to know about them in a second. Kathy is in the category "air head;" Bob is categorized as a "geek." So Kathy will not have any useful ideas and can only be given the simplest work; while Bob is clever, but you should never include him in any social functions. What more do you need to know? Look at all the time that saved. If you'd been a Slow Leader, you would have needed to get to know each of them and found out about the real person. Who has time for that?

We even create categories that apply to people and events in general.
  • Some people are never trustworthy (Those whose eyes are too close together, perhaps?).

  • The "bottom line" always comes first (Wouldn't that make it the top line?).

  • Profit always comes before people (So who, exactly, produces this profit? Chimpanzees?).

  • You must always cut costs (Seems like a great opening for highway robbers).

  • The customer is always right (Yes, I think that sub-machine gun would fit into your school bag. Would you like it wrapped?).

  • If you don't watch people, you have no idea what they may get up to (Working? Thinking? Changing things?).

  • There is always a right way and a wrong way to do anything (So much for "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover").

The more rushed and stressed you are, the more tempting it is to jump to an instant conclusion, based on some unquestioned categorization. How many shall we order? However many we ordered last time. What's the best way to lower costs? Fire more people and outsource the work to China. The Denver Region are asking if we would cooperate on a new promotion. The Denver Region is staffed by idiots who never have any useful ideas.

Of course, if you really can't allow yourself time to think, and you still want to be safe, you can always straddle a whole number of categories.
  • The guys in the Home Office say they must have the sales projection immediately. Take last quarter, add ten percent and include a note that the numbers aren't seasonally adjusted.

  • We've had three hundred of the new model returned because of manufacturing defects. Get someone to cross-tabulate all the defects by plant, date of manufacture, date of sale, region, customer type and nature of defect...and tell the Board we're looking into the difficulty, but it's too early to reach a firm conclusion until we've analyzed on all the statistical data.

And if all else fails, you can always send a message that your premises have been overrun by innumerable frenzied stray dogs and suckling pigs belonging to the emperor, which looked like flies from a long way off and broke every water pitcher in the place. Oh...and it's okay now, because we've had them embalmed.

Relying on shortcuts is the curse of all rushed working. When there's no time to think, about the best you can do is fit things into a preset category, usually based on a cursory look; then treat it the way that category has always been treated. There's no time to consider the context, the background, or the possibility that this event, this time is the exception that's going to destroy all the rules. Pressure to hurry always increases conformity and limits innovation, putting a severe penalty on considering anything beyond what's already known and categorized.

The mental categories you use produce the way you see the world. Now would be a good time to take them out and check them to see how much sense they still make. Especially the ones that deny you have a pet cat and insist it must be a tame siren, because those are the only two categories of animals left.

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Tim Lucas said...

Great post.

I think the aspect of rapid cognition that ties in with slow leadership is that resisting the urge to act on impulse takes training, which in itself takes time.

You can be a gung ho police officer and enter a house with bullets flying around you but you will not be able to resist your impulses and act irrationally. Marines, on the other hand, spend years training on the ability to enter a building under file whilst taking injury and still being able to keep a low heart rate and to think and act rationally.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about similar things in his book Blink. A highly recommended read!

3:25 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Tim. That's a really good point.

3:48 PM  
Rabbit said...

Pressure to hurry always increases conformity and limits innovation, putting a severe penalty on considering anything beyond what's already known and categorized.


I had an employer who was always moving at a frantic pace. If he couldn't give an answer (or get one!) in what seemed like a fraction of a second, he went on to something else.

He lived by simple (and stupid) mantras like, "Always add. Never take away."


9:01 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...


Thanks, as always, for your perceptive comment. I've known folk like that too -- trapped by erroneous beliefs that choke any thoughtfulness out of them. It's very sad.

7:46 AM  

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