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Shades of Gray
08/15/2011 - Previous | Next | Issues Home
Nan S. Russell -- If you want to be winning at working, adjust your eyes to see more gray and adjust your beliefs to understand, for the most part, people are doing what they believe to be right, for reasons they believe are right.

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A paperweight sits on my desk, etched in silver with the message: Life isn't always black and white. It serves as a reminder there are few absolutes at work (or in life). Yet, it would be easier if there were; if good ideas from bad, trustworthy people from non-trustworthy, and right paths from the wrong ones could easily be discerned.

I've learned in twenty years in management that increasing one's perspective increases the gray, as words like always and never become obsolete for describing most situations and most people.

But early in my career, I was convinced there were right ways and wrong ways to do things at work. Of course, my way being right and someone else's wrong. Dug-in positions that at the time seemed immensely important strike me now as limited in knowledge, understanding, or perspective.

Now, I'm as convinced there are often many ways to accomplish the same goal and many right answers to the same problem. Certainly some approaches may be better than others, but whose interpretation defines better?

It's a subjective workplace and a matter of judgment if an idea is a good one, a performance rating accurate, or a decision correct. Sometimes that interpretation is based on quarterly profits, employee morale, organizational goals, personal filters, necessity, or a passionate champion embracing a challenge.

But that subjective element often frustrates us. We think there should be a play book we understand or a standard method to judge an outcome so we can agree whether it's good or bad. Yet we have differing vantage points, information, and criteria depending on our roles. There may be big picture, long-term, short-term, temporary, personal, best, best of the worst, and a long list of considerations and evaluation benchmarks.

I learned this concept years ago while debating a my boss over a decision he was about to implement. Then a Human Resources Director, I was concerned the decision would impact morale. At the time, HR was the filter by which I judged most work issues. He gently closed the discussion agreeing with my view point, "Yes, it's true employees will be unhappy. But they'll be unhappier if there are layoffs next year. My job is to make sure everyone has a job."

If you want to be winning at working, adjust your eyes to see more gray and adjust your beliefs to understand, for the most part, people are doing what they believe to be right, for reasons they believe are right. If we could stand behind them and see what they see, we might even come to the same conclusion.

Absolute thinking limits perspective, causes mistakes in judgment, misunderstandings, disappointments, conflicts, and frustration in the workplace. Most work issues are not black or white, right or wrong, win or lose. They are varying shades of gray.

Nan Russell is the award-winning author of Hitting Your Stride: Your Work, Your Way (Capital Books, January 2008), and nationally syndicated radio host of "Work Matters with Nan Russell" weekly on webtalkradio.net. Nan has spent over twenty years in management, including as a Vice President with QVC. Today she is the founder and president of MountainWorks Communications, as well as an author, speaker and consultant. Visit www.nanrussell.com or contact Nan at info@nanrussell.com.

© 2011 Nan Russell

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