Deciding right and wrong for others and causing them guilt and blame doesn’t help anyone

May 8, 2012 by Joshua
in Blog, Leadership, Tips

Prelude: this is about leadership (of others and yourself)

Yesterday I outlined an essay on the counterproductivity of deciding right and wrong for people who disagree with you. Today I’m fleshing out the essay.

The point of this blog is to help people lead — to influence others, to work with them in teams, to negotiate with them, and so on — even when you disagree. So I’ll leave deciding right and wrong for others, figuring that, since some issues haven’t been resolved for thousands of years, you might not resolve them before you have to deliver on your project (or while you improve your life if we’re talking about leading yourself).

Successful leaders ship while attract people to work with them. Today’s post covers how to ship and attract others even when you disagree.

Today I’ll consider disagreements where you can still work with the other person. Tomorrow I’ll consider extreme cases, where under no circumstances would you work with the other person.

People disagree

Has anyone told you you behaved wrong for something you didn’t consider wrong? People would have called you morally wrong for sharing a lunch counter with someone with different skin color. Many considered the idea of women voting or wearing trousers wrong. You can find people today with these beliefs.

The people at the receiving end of that moralizing — you, often — don’t believe they’re wrong. We’ve all been on the receiving end of people moralizing about things we felt so normal they didn’t warrant being called ethical or moral consideration.

People consider their behavior normal or right because they are based on their beliefs

Everyone believes what they do is normal, right, or, if conflicted, at least the best option they can think of when they do it. Their reasons, however logical they sound to themselves at the time, are based in their beliefs and personal preferences.

Those beliefs and preferences are not based in logic, no matter how much anyone thinks they are. Whatever logic they use ultimately rests on premises. Those premises aren’t based on deeper logic. They’re beliefs. If you disagree with another’s beliefs, that disagreement itself shows neither they nor you base your beliefs in something that everyone agrees on.

Everyone either universally agrees on some points or has differing beliefs and preferences. On points on which we agree, we already agree and can work together, no problem. The points that follow apply to imposing beliefs and preferences on others who disagree.

You don’t have to justify your beliefs to anyone (nor they to you)

Regarding beliefs and preferences, you don’t have to justify them to anyone, nor does anybody else. You can look for deeper areas of agreement, but no two people agree on everything. Where you disagree fundamentally, you can’t justify yourself to them, nor can they to you.

Labeling something morally or ethically right means it is consistent with your beliefs and preferences, which need not coincide with anyone else’s.

If your goal is to lead — to ship while attracting people to work with you in the future — you have to ask yourself how much you need others to agree with you if you feel compelled for them to. Can you return to it later, after you’ve shipped?

Imposing your beliefs and preferences on someone else is either redundant if you agree or counterproductive if you don’t.

What makes imposing your beliefs and preferences on others counterproductive?

First, appealing to universals, higher powers, or absolutes works only if you agree what you appeal to is universal, a higher power, or absolute. Maybe you do have perfect access to universal, absolute truth or to a higher power. Right now they don’t agree with you and you need to ship.

As long as they disagree, appealing to your absolutes and higher powers — however right you are (or believe you are) — will sound to them like “I’m right and you’re wrong” and generate disagreement and emotions that repel people, not attract them.

Second, appealing to blame and guilt tends to motivate resentment. Even when guilt and blame work they risk alienating and creating resentment. You mortgage your future as a leader.

Why label an issue as moral or ethical?

Ask yourself why you consider an issue moral or ethical. People disagree on many behaviors that affect others without labeling them moral or ethical. Doing so calls the other person wrong when you disagree. It also forces them to call you wrong from their perspective.

Labeling something moral or ethical presupposes everyone shares the same beliefs and preferences or, if not, that others should adopt yours. We call this moralizing, meddling, being self-righteous, being holier-than-thou, etc. Do you want to work with people like that?

If others behave differently, they obviously don’t share your beliefs and preferences. Trying to impose yours on them doesn’t make your position more ethical or moral, it only means you’re meddling.

If you succeed in making them act as you want against their beliefs, that doesn’t make you right, it only means you were stronger. Leadership through dominance may work sometimes, but it rarely attracts people to work with you.

Consider your own beliefs

Leadership forces you to learn and grow as a leader and as a person. Working with people you disagree with is one of the key places where that happens. It forces you to understand yourself better.

Before considering imposing your beliefs on others — what else are you doing when you call them wrong? — consider your own beliefs.

If you consider an issue moral or ethical, your own beliefs probably conflict

When you consider an issue ethical or moral, examine your beliefs on the matter. You likely have conflicting beliefs. We all do. Perhaps you have some reasons not to eat meat while also holding beliefs against eating meat.

If your beliefs contradict each other, declaring an absolute position misrepresents yourself. You would be more honest to declare yourself torn, concluding you don’t know of any absolutely right answer, you just do the best you can given contradictory beliefs. You might also add everybody else does the same.

People are attracted to leaders who they see as human — that  they understand to have conflicts like everyone else. They recognize when someone is faking perfection, which makes them suspicious and repels them.

Would you rather follow someone who called you wrong and tried to make you feel guilty or someone who agreed that some issues remained unresolved, even within themselves, but understood your beliefs and worked with you anyway?

People who act despite moral or ethical uncertainty — who doesn’t, at some point? — consider some of their behavior right and some wrong. They accept their internal conflict and behave as best they can for themselves. Some issues have remained unresolved for thousands of years. We can’t resolve them all, even internally, within our lifetimes.

Accepting their own internal conflict, they try not to impose part of their conflicted beliefs on others.

What do you do when you’re conflicted or you understand others disagree?

Simply saying you are behaving according to your  beliefs as best you can communicates honestly, genuinely, and authentically.

I don’t see how anyone can fault another for behaving and communicating honestly, genuinely, and authentically.

Remember, none of the above says you can’t decide what is ethically or morally right for yourself, but this post is about how to behave when people disagree.

Also remember, none of the above applies to cases where people agree. If you see someone, say, stealing and they agree stealing was wrong, you don’t have to look within yourself. (You still might try to understand their motivation and internal conflict, since they stole anyway, before acting.)

And none of the above applies to legality, such as how groups of people agree to respond when someone’s behavior conflicts with someone else’s. Legality is a different issue.

We all want to improve our lives. Examining and understanding our personal beliefs and living accordingly tends to achieve that goal. Moralizing to others tends to achieve the opposite.

Trying to understand ourselves, recognizing our contradictions, and stopping moralizing achieves our goals and avoids the opposite. We collaborate more effectively in teams, increase our ability to negotiate, attract other people to work with us, provoke fewer arguments, and so on. We lead.

Tomorrow: extreme cases, where we can’t work with the other person.

Read my weekly newsletter

Initiative leadership spodek

On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

2 responses on “Deciding right and wrong for others and causing them guilt and blame doesn’t help anyone

  1. Pingback: How do you lead when you can’t stand working with someone? » Joshua Spodek

  2. Pingback: The New York Times had a contest about my post » Joshua Spodek

Leave a Reply

Sign up for my weekly newsletter