Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Amiable Enabling

A few years ago, an employee called me a "clothes abuser" after I shared that I often leave clothes on the floor. It happens a lot when I've only worn the clothes for an hour or so, like after getting home from work and evening meetings. I'll change into jeans and a shirt for the last few hours before bed. The next night might be a repeat schedule, so I'll put on the same jeans and shirt from the night before. They are often found on the floor.

Does my wife help me by picking up the clothes? No, that's called enabling. She doesn't just want the clothes to be off the floor; she wants me to make sure they're off the floor. In our society, we do a lot of enabling. Designated drivers enable their buddies to get drunk, instead of insisting that they drink in moderation. We have alarms on our cars that enable us to forget to turn off the headlights, leave the keys in the ignition or leave the seat belt unfastened. Maybe what I need is an alarm that dings when my clothes have been on the floor for more than an hour.

All of this enabling hinders our ability to learn and put into practice good behaviors. We learn from our mistakes. If we have a lot of gizmos and gadgets and diodes that warn us before we make a mistake, then we won't learn. Edison took two years to get a working light bulb. His original estimate was that it would only take him a few weeks. We learn to turn off headlights when we've had a dead battery a few times. We learn to pull into the gas station when the gage shows a low level if we've been stranded on the side of the road a few times. If we don't learn these lessons, we end up stranded a lot at grocery store parking lots, and a long way from home. Or maybe we'd invent a gadget that would refill our car's fuel tank each night.

What if we stopped learning from our mistakes? What if you never knew you made a mistake?

In many organizations, there are a lot of people who have personalities that are described as Amiable. They like stability and security. They dislike change and they dislike even more having conflict. They want to be okay, and they want you to be okay. Having to point out someone's mistake can drive an Amiable into a nervous breakdown. They assume that I'd say, "If I make a mistake, don't tell me about it. Just fix it. I don't have time to be making changes or trying something different. Besides in the time it takes to tell me about it, you could just fix it."

Unfortunately, if they follow through with this thinking, then my thinking turns into this: "What I'm doing is working just fine. In fact, I know my work is always perfect because you've never told me anything different. I already know everything there is to know about what I'm doing on this procedure because I've never made a mistake."

We wouldn't get very far with this attitude. Talking about mistakes is a lot easier and takes a lot less energy in the long run, than ignoring the problems and putting up with the mistakes. My wife would be upset with me when I'd point out problems with the food or service to the restaurant staff. With sincerity and a desire to see them not repeat the mistake, I'd let them know without any acrimony. Same thing recently with a cell phone service provider: when some information about my contract was available to me on the website, nor to the customer service rep I called initially, it seemed that they could improve. I don't demand an immediate improvement. I let them decide how this problem fits into the priorities, and also let them determine if there's a pattern of mistakes. (See another blog about unique incidents.)

It's okay to be Amiable. It's not okay to enable. Let's resolve in this new year to help others by teaching them about mistakes they're making. And invite others to help you learn.

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