The Frog and the Scorpion
Who are you
We’re not all the same
Like Attracts Like
The Frog and the Scorpion
The Frog and the Scorpion is a well worn story. It is a classic that can be applied to many types of human interactions including human resources at the office. The story is about a Frog and a Scorpion that find themselves together during a vicious rain storm in a tropical region. The torrential rain tumbles down around them while they both watch the nearby river turn brown from the turbidity. The Scorpion asks the Frog if he can ride on the Frog’s back to cross the river. The Frog, being no dummy, quickly rebuffs this request as he rightly fears the Scorpion’s sting. The shrewd Scorpion offers, “Scorpions can’t swim. If I sting you while we’re crossing the river, I’ll drown, of course I don’t want that to happen.” The Frog can’t argue impeccable logic such as that the Scorpion has offered so agrees and the two begin their swim across the raging river. As they approach the mid point of the river crossing, the Scorpion settled on the Frog’s back stings the Frog. The poison quickly takes effect as it courses through the Frog’s blood. The fading Frog dizzy from the poison utters, “Why, why would you sting me, now we’re both going to die?” The Scorpion simply shrugs and says, “A Scorpion has to do what a Scorpion was born to do. Scorpions Sting.”
Who Are You
This short fable is a great metaphor to try to understand aspects of ourselves and others. One of the takeaways from the fable of the Frog and the Scorpion is that people’s personalities differ. The maxim of “know thyself” inscribed on the Temple of Apollo in Greece affirms the importance of learning what makes us tick. Regardless of our age, job function, or experience we should seek some objective assessment of our personality. Who are you? No, not what’s your birth sign. This past summer, the family was sitting around visiting after a nice dinner. Our eldest had stumbled across a link to a personality test online. He became interested, took the test, and became engrossed in his result. He shared the link and the rest of the family begin chipping away at it. First, his dad, then a brother, his mother, and, finally, the youngest. The test took around fifteen minutes to complete and cost nothing. You’re provided with a pretty detailed review of your profile within seconds of completing the test. According to the test provider, we each fit in to one of 16 types. The profile gives a list of our tendencies and describes how we are likely to behave in certain situations. It details what our strengths and preferences are as well as areas in which we’re likely to struggle or become frustrated. It then goes on to provide a list of some historical or famous people that fit the profile in which you reside. The questions were straightforward and the balance of information received relative to the effort put forth was fantastic. It was a quick, simple effort and the return was well worth it. The assessment is available here.
We had a wonderful time reading our own profiles to each other. It’s helpful to get a better sense of who we are. Almost as much fun was listening to others read theirs. The accuracy of the assessments was profound. What’s amusing is that aspects of our personalities aren’t obvious to us as they are to others. We knowingly smile as they read theirs. We then laugh as they seem to criticize or question the assessment. We hear the assessment as a picture perfect perspective that matches our view of them, yet they discount the assessment. For example, “No, that’s not me, I’m not quick tempered.” These sorts of statements aren’t a reflection that the test is flawed but that we may be lacking a bit of self-awareness as to our own propensities.
The site we used was just one of dozens available. It claims to be accurate based on millions of folk across ages, gender, and regions having taken this format of profile. Many separate tests have been developed over the years which seek to put us into categories. The test you take is less important than taking something to help you learn a little about your tendencies. Personality tests have moved to a burgeoning business. Testing in the workplace has become a $2 billion industry annually. Perhaps, you’ve been introduced to a version of one of these tests in a work context?
We’re Not All the Same
As with our family, discussing our results in work groups is entertaining conversation and we all learn a little something about ourselves and each other. It becomes clear why certain people are more likely to have disagreements. Conflict doesn’t simply follow the roles we play in the family or work. It stems from differences in personality. Some of us may be Scorpions, some Frogs, and some other animals. The mid-80s hit song, People Are People by Depeche Mode, gave us the lyrics, “People are people, so why should it be, You and I should get along so awfully?” Personality tests help us recognize that even though we are all people we have deep differences. This is natural. Yes, we have preferences or defaults as to how we approach each other and situations. Recognizing that we have differences is important to encourage humility in our own approach. Others don’t see the world the way we do.
Life’s more like chess than checkers. We each have different tendencies. These lead to different strengths and weaknesses. We don’t each move the same distance with each move. Some of us are pawns, while others of us are rooks, knights, or bishops. It’s helpful to know both what kind of chess piece we are as well as that of those with whom we spend time. If we don’t take the time to find out, getting through our work days becomes like playing chess in the dark. It’s neither easy nor productive.
Thomas Erikson wrote the book, Surrounded by Idiots. Having this title on your desk is a guaranteed conversation starter. People see the title and smile knowingly or nervously. We’ve all felt misunderstood. We’ve all wondered what others were thinking. The irony of the title is that Erikson’s message isn’t an acknowledgement that the world is full of people conspiring to make your life miserable. Instead, Erikson suggests that if you feel like you are surrounded by idiots, it may be you that’s the problem and not others. He writes about research on personality profiling used in the workplace that breaks people down into four groups. Erikson’s message resonates with many due to its simplicity. He introduces four groups which are represented by colors. The colors help us remember the mood or main feature of the personality types. Reds are hard chargers that are dominant, commanding, and comfortable in confrontational contexts. Yellows are fun loving, social optimists. Greens just want to get along. They are friendly and easy going. Blues are interested in being precise. They want to understand things and make sure things are in order. The colors represent easy to understand buckets of behavior into which we can sort ourselves and others.
Erikson details certain colors are complementary while others are more likely to create conflict. Erikson’s work clarifies that differences exist. He also helps us recognize that each type serves a purpose. Though it may not seem like it to us personally when we’re being frustrated by someone else, we can see circumstances where differing personalities shine at things with which we struggle. We learn to not just see differences and sigh, but to respect the differences and even seek them out. From being aware of who we are, to who others are, to appreciating these differences is a long and winding journey. Extending our knowledge of our differences we can strive towards the highest level of understanding which is proactively working to welcome our differences. Yet, why is it so difficult to appreciate those that are different from us?
Like Attracts Like
As obvious as our differences are, they’re not so easy to smoothly manage. Our default form of interpretation, communication, teaching, or coaching is to view things from our perspective. We interpret things based on what works for us. We communicate based on how we would like others to communicate with us. We teach the way we would like to be taught and we interpret people’s behaviors from our perspective and thinking as opposed to theirs. It’s natural that we want to be around others that see the world like we do. It feels good to be around those that are similar in personality, looks, and beliefs. Conformity is comfortable. We have a bias to those that are similar. As the aphorism offers, “Birds of a feather flock together.” We coalesce around those that look the same and think the same as us. Embracing a diversity of opinion or background isn’t our go to response. Our default is the opposite. Left to our own devices we tend to congregate with others who are like minded. Matthew McConaughey writes in Greenlights, “We learn to measure people on the competence of their values that we most value.” Al Pittampalli writes in Persuadable, “Conformity toward shared beliefs leads to feelings of attachment and solidarity with fellow tribe members. It’s like the glue that holds groups together.”
When we gravitate to those that are like us, positive feelings are our focus. We seek belonging and deny differences. We become less critical in our thinking. We accept beliefs without evaluating reasons. This conformity expands into polarization. When we’re like-minded and committed to conforming we don’t have discussions. We have conversations in which the purpose is to pat each other on the back for having the same beliefs as one another. When we care more about belonging than we do results, Groupthink shows up and debates disappear. Talking is about supporting ideas already held. Support reinforces the group’s ideas with clearer certainty. Group members become more invested in adhering to the ideas and become overconfident in their truth.
We seek those that share our interests and views. Even when hiring, we may think we are open to diversity, but our biases draw our interest to those that are similar to us. Erikson writes, “Managers bring in new people who are just like themselves because they understand each other.” It’s our default decision. It’s easy and comfortable. It feels good. It’s not just those in power adopting nepotism and hiring family and friends. It’s any of us. The sad reality of too many job interviews translates into social skills scoring higher on decision criteria than objective evidence of competence. When overwhelmed by the number of candidates to consider as well as broad categories of “competence”, we default to our gut. Intuition becomes the basis of selecting new hires. “I just liked Julie more than Joey.” Interviews can introduce noise which distorts decisions. After all, this is one of the arguments for conducting interviews. Those that will be working with or managing a prospective employee want to be part of hiring decisions in order to ensure that they will be able to work well together. Again, this is natural, but has costs.
In 2008, Bill Bishop released a book “The Big Sort”. It involves a discussion of how culture in America has evolved in recent years into separate silos based on like seeking like. It’s a book about how we choose groups based on common interests not differences. Bishop points out that in 1976 less than 25% of Americans lived in places where election results were largely one sided. However, that has shifted dramatically in subsequent years. Now half or more of voters live in what Bishop refers to as landslide counties. Most of the American population is an areas where they are only around and exposed to those with points of view similar to theirs. Bishop writes of this time, “Americans were busy creating social resonators, and the hum that filled the air was the reverberated and amplified sounds of their own voices and beliefs. The result is balkanised communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible.” Even though Bishop is writing about America, the results are similar in other countries and contexts. Our quest for homophily helps us feel good, but we aren’t smarter or increasingly capable as a result.
Did we booze from the same bong? In College, did we sing the same songs? If we hire based on answering yes, then our process is all wrong. Who do we want to attract? What similarities are worthwhile? Biases blind. The ingroup bias explains our tendency to like and choose those similar to us. On top of this is we have the halo effect through which we transfer our positive assessment of someone in one area (personality, for example) to other areas of competence. Because we like them, they must be good. None of us are immune. Our decision making becomes clouded by the confirmation bias through which we further reinforce our perspective favoring those most like us.
Recently, several musicians of British band, Mumford and Sons, asked one of their long time members to leave. The tension wasn’t caused by a dispute related to musical direction. It had nothing to do with members trying to show each other up and jockey for a position of leadership. The conflict wasn’t even about money. Apparently, three of the four members are aligned with respect to not just their musical aspirations but political beliefs. One of the four shared a different political perspective. Not sharing the same world view wasn’t considered as a positive factor in any way to producing four albums over fourteen years and winning a number of awards as a band. The band has been nominated fourteen times for a Grammy award of which they once one Album of the Year for their second album, Babel, in 2012. The rich, prolific, and productive history together wasn’t enough to keep the four working forward. The conflict over differing perspectives couldn’t be sustained. What was the straw that broke the camels back and led the three to throw the fourth overboard? Nothing other than a tweet. A tweet that offered support of a recently released book and its author. The tweet noted “Finally had the time to read your important book. You’re a brave man.” Moreover, the tweet was subsequently taken down by the tossed member and an apology offered. Neither was sufficient and the three like-minded members have stuck with their decision to part ways.
Unfortunately, the experience of Mumford and Sons isn’t the exception. It’s more the rule that those that don’t share like views are cast aside. It can be done quietly or loudly, but dissent and difference isn’t as appreciated as we might like to think. We are more likely to go along in order to get along than we are to speak freely and try to add to conversations. Our group efforts aren’t enhanced by everyone parroting the same song. In next week’s note we’ll offer some suggestions on how to develop desirable differences within your team seeking to embrace former Japanese business executive Soichiro Honda.
Honda has observed, “if you hire only those people you understand, the company will never get better than you are. Always remember that you often find outstanding people among those you don’t particularly like.”