Attempting to create fairness of outcome not only fosters a culture of obsessive scorekeeping, it is actually filled with an array of psychological traps. It assumes that everybody values all rewards the same. In reality, some want higher salaries; others want more vacation time; still others want verbal praise or acknowledgment.
Fairness is more than treating employees or children or friends "exactly the same"—it means taking into consideration individual needs and personal motivations. When, as in a family, treatment is more customized to the needs of individual children, everyone feels special—and happy.
Yes, fairness is still an admirable quality. You just have to make sure you're keeping your eye on the right scoreboard.
Purpose: Passion Without Obsession
Passionate people are mesmerizing. They embody purpose and meaning in life and work, and often the two merge seamlessly into their life's work. "The more elusive the boundaries between your work and life, the more successful you probably are in both," reports Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London. He encourages people to find "work-life fusion."
Being passionate about things feels good, too. It boosts energy, stamina, drive. It means you care deeply about something beyond yourself to the point of full immersion, which is likely the only way vaccines are invented, symphonies are written, or middle schools acquire good teachers.
But passion can also crowd out other things of equal importance, place emotion above logic, and lead to burnout. At its darkest, it can turn into obsession, a pursuit that dominates all else and occupies the mind to an alarming degree.
Robert Vallerand, a professor of psychology at the University of Quebec, contrasts healthy passion (what Breeden calls "harmonious passion") with obsessive passion. Individuals with harmonious passion, Vallerand says, engage in an activity because they want to. Those with obsessive passion engage in an activity because they feel they must—say, to prove themselves to an overly critical parent or to capture the market before anyone else does.
While harmonious passions coexist with other aspects of life, obsessive passion is a compulsion that blinds individuals to risks, produces tunnel vision, and ignores the needs of others (or even oneself). Researchers studying professional dancers found that those who are obsessively passionate about dancing are most likely to suffer chronic injuries. They push themselves too hard, losing track of their own health and stability (and probably passing on their destructive brand of obsessive passion when they became teachers).
"Harmonious passion isn't about lowering standards or wimping out," Breeden says. It's about finding a level of passion that is sustainable.
The Cost of Being Agreeable
Agreeable people, in the nomenclature of personality psychology, are softhearted, trusting, and helpful. They tend to be modest and altruistic, willing to compromise, generous in spirit. Happiness and optimism come easily to them, even when circumstances are rough.
They don't make waves very often. And therein lies the problem. There are times when everyone would be better off if they did.
Conflict is inevitable in work and life. There will be honest disagreements, actions taken that do not please everyone, hard decisions to be defended, territorial claims to be held. Assertiveness is a necessary trait, and it is often lacking in people who are overly accommodating, making them easy prey for those who would take advantage of another's trust or generosity. If you can't say no, offer constructive criticism, or stand firm in your decisions, you won't be an effective worker, supervisor, partner, or parent.
And being a nice guy at work can actually diminish your paycheck and decrease your odds of promotion. Being agreeable has a particularly strong impact on men's salaries, find Beth Livingston of Cornell, Timothy Judge of Notre Dame, and Charlice Hurst of the University of Western Ontario. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, they explored three questions: Does being nice affect your success at work? Does being nice affect your happiness at work? And do the effects of being nice differ for men and women?
Overall, they found that men made more money than women (no surprise here). Also, men who scored high on agreeableness made substantially less money (as much as $10,000 per year) than men rated low in agreeableness. While there was also a tendency for women high in agreeableness to make less money than women low in agreeableness, the difference was small. Employees high in agreeableness, however, rated themselves as happier at work than did those who were low in agreeableness.
Agreeable people are less likely to push themselves forward for recognition or advancement," suggests Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done. "They tend to do more selfless things at work. Unfortunately, doing things for the good of the group may not always get them noticed when it comes time to give out raises and bonuses." A happier life, however, may compensate for a dip in income.
Despite the stigma, nice guys also do pretty well in love. In two surveys of college women, Geoffrey Urbaniak and Peter Kilmann of the University of South Carolina found that niceness and physical attractiveness were both positive factors in women's choices and the desirability ratings they assigned to men as potential dating partners. Niceness was most important when a woman was considering a serious, long-term relationship, while attractiveness was more important when considering a casual, sexual relationship.
Once a relationship is established, however, the emotional power dynamic becomes more complex. Being nice, agreeable, and quick to compromise may be alluring at first but can lead to dependent or clingy behaviors that become a burden to a partner, who must do more decision making. Also, the agreeable partner may be suppressing negative emotions that manifest in passive-aggressive behavior, affairs (virtual or otherwise), or bottled-up resentments that eventually end the relationship.
Expressing genuine emotions and standing one's ground are valuable skills in love and work. Both can coexist within the virtue of being an agreeable personality.
Collaboration, With Clarity
Some people are natural collaborators. They welcome input from others and aim for consensus on decisions large and small. It's an empowering quality in a supervisor, and on the whole, it increases diversity, fosters relationships, and creates "buy in" and engagement from all parties.
Buzzwords like "breaking down silos," "synergy," and "cross-pollination" have emerged from the value of collaboration, and as clichéd as such concepts have become, they've largely changed the workplace for the better. Redundancies have been reduced, new ways of thinking introduced, and the energy that comes from "mixing it up"—working toward a common goal with colleagues having different perspectives and skills—is invigorating.
But collaboration can also lead to diffused accountability. Decisions take longer, and are made collectively. Everyone feels the need to weigh in, even in the absence of anything to contribute. And if things go wrong, who can really be held responsible?
Further, says Breeden, "Automatic collaboration leads to underperformance and low productivity for the sake of playing well with others." Extraverts, he observes, have a special tendency to engage in wasteful collaboration because they draw their energy from others, and they often feel the need to talk through their thoughts with partners. "Extraverts," he adds, "can become workplace vampires who suck the productivity out of their coworkers."
Not to mention that there are some people for whom collaboration is totally nonproductive. It devalues those who prefer to work in isolation, or even need a bit of alone time to spend inside their own heads—the very employees who might be about to come up with the next innovative leap, as long as it doesn't get killed in committee. "Our companies, our schools, and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink," argues Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. "Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in."
Even when we think we're working alone these days, we're actually not, says Breeden. With your smartphone next to your laptop with easy access to search engines, we are more likely to be compiling a remix rather than producing something new or revolutionary. And constant distraction spells the death of creativity.
His fix? Collaborate only with intention, clear boundaries and expectations, and an understanding of individual responsibilities, and leave plenty of time for unplugged, independent thought. That way lies inspiration.
The Myth of a Balanced Life
Whether you're talking with business consultants, parents, or yoga instructors, no virtue seems to rank higher than balance these days; it's an ideal championed by the earliest philosophers and the most modern citizens. Creating balance among all the elements of life—work and home, self and others, self-discipline and enjoyment—seems to be the goal.
Buddhist physician Alex Lickerman of the University of Chicago says balance "at once describes a feeling of being in control of multiple responsibilities as well as the sense that several important areas of one's life aren't being neglected in favor of only a few. A balanced life, most would agree, feels less stressfully lived than a non-balanced life, which feels overwhelming and unsatisfying."
But the pursuit of balance is itself the cause of much imbalance. We are left to achieve it in lives that change, quite literally, moment to moment. Balance operates through a constant stream of choices. Too often it leads to constant compromise and mediocrity in all things.
Work-life balance, today's preoccupation, is probably the greatest mirage. It is achievable, as in almost all other domains, only in summation, not in the conduct of everyday life, where projects and deadlines demand bouts of concentrated commitment. Balance, then, is more a long-term goal.
The danger of achieving "perfect" balance and sticking to it no matter what? A cloistered, overly controlled life. Breeden champions what he calls "bold balance." It respects moderation but also accommodates the kind of dynamism seen in the flow of tides and the cycles of the seasons. "The ocean is anything but bland, and the four sometimes extreme seasons point to a continuing and complex balance among many natural cycles," he says. Balance, then, is not a static system, but one that requires constant attention and awareness. It's why yoga doesn't consist of only the tree pose.
Finding balance is more an internal matter than a superficial allotment of time. You need to know what is most important to you right now, what you need to build on for the future, which tasks or habits are draining your time and attention, and how much recovery time you need. The most important virtues today may in fact prove to be nimbleness and adaptability.
"Achieving balance ultimately rests on having courage," Lickerman says. "The courage to make difficult choices, to exclude other possibilities in order to choose the one that suits you best, to let go of fearing the disapproval or disappointment of others."
Mary Loftus is associate editor of Emory Magazine in Atlanta.
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It is time to establish what we share and what we don't share with other animals
Published on March 10, 2014 by Thomas Suddendorf, Ph.D. in Uniquely Human