Change Work May 2006

Pass the Remote!

Have you ever heard something like, "He always makes me nervous"? Or, "She makes me so angry"? Or, "People like that are really irritating"?

Have you ever said something like this yourself?

Isn't it amazing how other people can trigger your emotions? As if they have a remote control for you, with buttons for "happy", "angry", "sad", "afraid" and so on. How do they do this?

The answer is ... they don't!

People just do what they do because it's how they've learnt to behave. They've found through experience that they can achieve what they want (some of the time) by speaking and acting in a particular way. They probably aren't aware of how this works - particularly the effect on others' emotional states.

But whether they act deliberately or not, "How do they do it?" is not the right question. You need to ask, "Why do I let them?"

Even if the immediate answer is "I don't know!", the question itself admits the idea that you are responsible for your own feelings irrespective of what others may do or say. If you don't usually exercise that responsibility then it's likely that you're stuck in a pattern of responses that are reactive in nature. I know that I certainly used to be - and still lapse into that pattern from time to time. Now though, I can "see" it happening and know what to do to break out. This is part of what I coach others to do as well.

Here's another thought though. Isn't the manipulating colleague, the insensitive boss or the office bully just as stuck in their particular patterns as you might be? Also, the negative, obstructive, "glass-half-empty" person who holds up progress with the same old mantra time and time again. They are all doing what they know how to do: a very limited range of behaviours. They can't "see themselves" doing anything else!

This idea of flexibility in behaviour - or lack of it - is an embodiment of Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety.

First published in 1956 in the field of cybernetics, Ashby's Law essentially states that "variety is required to regulate variety within a system". In other words, the more complex and variable a particular system becomes, the more flexibility and variety is required to manage those changes. Ashby's Law relates to systems of all types, including organisations, economics, families, interpersonal relationships and mental processes.

Now, as discussed above, you can't actually regulate or control the "system" of people around you. You are part of the system as well. What matters is how effectively you can respond to what happens. If you only have a very small number of behavioural options then you are usually reacting. With a wider range you can choose the best option and influence the outcome positively.

The control you exercise is over yourself.

Most people can't do this. Those that can are usually deferred to.

In that sense, they are powerful.