“Perhaps the strangest thing about [an] illusion of control is not that it happens but that it seems to confer many of the psychological benefits of genuine control. In fact, the one group of people who seem generally immune to this illusion are the clinically depressed, who tend to estimate accurately the degree to which they can control events in most situations.”
― Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness
In Lars Van Trier’s disturbing movie Melancholia, Justine is a bride with a history of mental illness. As the planet Melancholia threatens to crash into and destroy Earth, Justine is the steady force for her young nephew as pure panic takes over the others, including her usually happy and fortunate sister Claire.
Psychology researchers have noticed this phenomenon. A depressed person’s ability to absorb bad news is stronger than healthier people’s, e.g., Justine’s depression primed her to expect catastrophe which allowed her to function in spite of it, where the others broke down as they struggled and raged against the shock.
Which sister would you rather be? Justine or Claire? I used to think like Justine, the unflinching realist: Better to be prepared as much as possible for oncoming doom than suffer the devastating shock that comes with it. Now I think I’d side with Claire: Why worry? Sure, doom may be coming but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Let’s have tea.
This choice comes down to more than the typical optimist/pessimist argument many motivational mavens churn out. The formation of your world view is a much more complex and changeable process. But the most influential factor on that world view is your ability to “lie” to yourself.
Self-deception, illusion, delusion, etc., whatever you want to call it, how well you can reposition a situation to fit within comfortable parameters is the most unrecognized skill in highly effective leaders. Being able to take emphasis from internal and put it onto external factors is what separates the middle guys from the big guns. If Claire the CEO didn’t make her third quarter targets? “The bad weather really hampered sales. We still did better than last year’s 3rd quarter. And maybe the targets are too high!” Claire would then kick back and have a beer, energized for the 4th quarter sales. “Realistic” middle manager Justine would speak to – or perhaps scream at – the sales team, pore over the books to see what went wrong, and squeeze out more hours from already overused resources. She’d go home deflated and worried.
Here’s the thing: Justine may be able to eke out a tiny increase in profit for the next quarter, but Claire will be the one who continues to get promoted. Let’s look at two powerful techniques Claire has in her arsenal to keep a rosy outlook (barring another planet colliding with ours, of course).
- Reframing: If the scene you have seems overwhelming, increase the setting.Don’t just look at the third quarter numbers, look at the last 5, 10, 15 years’ 3rd quarter and year-end totals. Look at how you did compared to competitors’ 3rd quarters. Keep looking for more data until this quarter’s abysmal performance doesn’t seem so bad.
- Shifting Locus of Control: No man is an island, except when he is. External factors, not personal ones, are more responsible for downturns than you are. Personal talents are more responsible for upturns than luck. The bad weather may have impacted sales but it was the great motivational speech you gave to the sales managers that brought those numbers back up at year-end.
When applied appropriately and positively, these techniques can help anyone cope with stress at work. They can ease your worries and save your self-esteem. A Machiavellian application of denial (reframing) and blame (shifting locus of control) will have us fantasizing about a bulk order of nooses for the c-suite.
These coping styles, especially when peppered with humor, can help get you through your kid’s teen years or your neighbor’s noisy divorce. This isn’t a happy-joy, Up-with-People mind trick. We don’t have to pop pep pills and plaster cheerleader grins on our faces to deal with reality. Remember: reality has multiple aspects. Choose to concentrate on the ones that will lessen your load, and let the Earth shatter another day.
Photo Credit: Know Your Meme, Like A Boss
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