Thursday, October 25, 2012

Not Fair

Today's topic isn't so much about agile or coaching, it's about abuse and abusers and the line between the good guys and the bad guys.

Decrying Abuse

It's amazing how often I come a person who argues that some person in authority is unfair to them or others, and should not be allowed to behave in such a way. If the observed behavior is really unfair or abusive, I tend to agree. It is a human phenomenon (well documented here) that people will often use their power to mistreat people, even while providing a good face to their own bosses. This "kick down, kiss up" strategy works for some people for some time.

Quite often, the complainer (whom we will name A) outlasts the overbearing jerk (whom we will name B) in the organization. Peace and joy should then rule, and the world should be a happier place, right? 

Well, no. Quite often A will begin to do the very same things that were unfair when done by B. How can it be? Isn't it the same unfair behavior? 

It is and it isn't. Sometimes we put the accent on the wrong words. The problem wasn't "he shouldn't be allowed to abuse me" but rather "he shouldn't be allowed to abuse me."

Pathological Jealousy

Sometimes it is really pathological jealousy. A is mad because B can abuse people, but A cannot. It would be "fair" enough if A could pass out the abuse too. This is a classic "meet the new boss; same as the old boss" scenario. 

Remember high school? When you were a freshman, you were a target for the upperclassmen to pick on, but once you were a sophomore, you'd paid your dues and earned the right to pass out some of your own abuse. It was bad when you were a freshman, but now it's just the natural order.  Maybe you had similar college or workplace "hazing."

We see too often that people really want to be the ones doing the abuse. Or that's how it looks. Maybe there is a more evolved and studied reason for this phenomenon. 

Maybe it's because "we are the good guys."

Okay for the Good Guys 


The brain has various survival mechanisms to protect the ego. There is a self-serving bias in we consider ourselves the good guys. Kids like to be Batman, and it is hard to convince a kid to be the "bad guy" in a game. Likewise, your political party is a fair-minded group of thinking people who want the country to be great. Your denomination has the best theology. Your high school football team is the best, and only failed to win the state tournament because they didn't have a fair chance against the bigger schools. 

On the other hand, the brain is less charitable toward our fellows, especially those outside our group. We fall prey to the Fundamental Attribution Error. When someone else does a bad thing, we know in our heart of hearts it was merely exposing that they are bad people. If they misplace a belonging, it's because they're forgetful. If they trip over a shoelace, it's because they are clumsy or are poor at knotcraft. If they pour coffee on their white shirt, it's because they are messy people. 

For the "good guys" (us) it is a different story. We only trip over a faulty shoelace. When we can't find a belonging, it is because someone moved it; they may have stolen it. If we spill coffee, it's because the cup is defective or we were distracted or jostled, or it was just a meaningless accident. 

The "good guys" would only do a bad thing if they had a really good reason, in the pursuit of a more pure and just ideal.  

The line that separates the good guys from the bad guys? It's the us/them line, whether a political platform, a national border, a race or nationality, a religion, or a difference in philosophy.  Those who aren't part of our group? Those who disagree? Out-group bias says they might be the bad guys.  

Only we should be allowed to invade countries, fire coworkers, rudely demand service, refuse to tip, steal parking spots, dawdle at work, cross streets in long diagonals, cut people off off in traffic, slap  people, yell abuse at other drivers, take opportunities at other people's expense, and receive subsidies. 

After all, we're the good guys.  

Otherwise it wouldn't be fair.