Sunday, October 25, 2015

If you can't change people, change people.

My friend and colleague Michael Wheeler, in his excellent book The Art of Negotiation, notes:

"Negotiation is never about us alone. What ultimately unfolds is a function of each party's attitudes and decisions, not just our own. Asking ourselves, 'How did I do?' is the wrong question.  It's a one-hand-clapping exercise.  Instead our starting point should be, where did we end up and how did we get there?"

I was reminded of this advice by a New York Times article about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon. Excerpts:

“My advice is fight for the things that you care about,” Justice Ginsburg said. Fair enough — banal enough, really. Then she added, “But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Justice Ginsburg [has] no patience for confrontation just for the sake of it. “Anger, resentment, envy and self-pity are wasteful reactions,” she has written. “They greatly drain one’s time. They sap energy better devoted to productive endeavors.”

As Ginsburg notes, one way in which the opposite approach is often evidenced is through self-pity and self-victimization.  I've run across this often in the health care world, and, sadly, it is a technique often used by the most prominent in the field.  As CEO of a hospital, I saw it when there were disputes between a particularly assertive chief of one service and two other, more passive, chiefs of service.  Each of the latter would come in to me with an aura of self-victimization, complaining about the colleague and asking me to solve their problems with him. This, even though they were just as senior, experienced, and famous in their fields as he was in his.

Their self-victimization was their way of avoiding responsibility.  Meanwhile, other chiefs figured out how to deal with the bully--through humor, redirection, or otherwise--knowing that pursuing the shared goals of the hospital was the overriding objective.

Look how Ginsburg deals with an angry and bullying member of the Court whose views are often widely at variance with her own:

“I’ve been known on occasion to suggest that Justice Scalia tone down his dissenting opinions … because he’ll be more effective if he is not so polemical.”

Imagine, giving advice to your philosophical adversary so that he will be more effective!  Ginsburg understands that in a court of nine members, today's negotiation is but one of many to come. But her thoughtful approach offers lesson beyond the Court.

Over the last several years, I have been teaching negotiation to corporate executives and advising corporations on complex and interesting business negotiations.  As is evident to many in the business world, the most important part of a negotiation with another party is first achieving an alignment within your own organization.  Indeed, many deals fail to be brought to fruition because of internal failures, rather than substantive business issues with the external counterparty.  As I've analyzed those internal problems, I've seen that a significant percentage of the failures occur because some division chief engages in a kind of self-victimization:

"No one cares about my point of view, so:"

"...I'll just be quiet about flaws I see in the deal;" or
"...I'll withhold important information from my division;"
"...I'll quietly do my part to undo the deal later."

These folks are actually more comfortable with having stopped an initiative that could be of broad corporate value because of the way they perceive their treatment.

It might--or might not--surprise my readers to learn that such things occur, even in highly profit-driven organizations.  What's the remedy?

It's easy to say that we should want to run organizations so that each person feels empowered, entitled, and encouraged to call out problems and state his or her objections.  But, even in those places, there are some people who will tend to engage in self-victimization and act as anchors on joint progress.  In the Supreme Court, where there is lifetime tenure, it comes to a teacher like Ginsburg to try to help her colleagues learn and grow.  In other organizations, things turn to the leaders to recognize the syndrome and deal with it directly.

You as a leader have a responsibility to create a true culture of engagement, substantive support to encourage full participation by all in your organization, and a commitment to your staff's personal and professional growth. In so doing, your key attribute as a leader must be empathy, to understand where the people in your place are in their own learning process.

But, here's where I offer what might seem to be self-contradictory advice--but it is advice informed by years of experience.  If, in the presence of that culture, support, and commitment, you are still facing key staff members who are characterological and persistent self-victimizers, it's time to cauterize the wound.  In such cases, revert to the old adage:  If you can't change people, change people.


Brad F said...

As I progressed through the post, I became more uncertain about your pronouncements on self-victimization.

One man's bullying is another man's need to assert authority; all leaders are not equal (cardiology chief vs. infectious disease chief [money/power]); internal squabbles may blow external deals, but it's hard for the victimized to align with greater goals when others subjugate them -- and joking, ignoring, or moving on doesn't comport with their character.

Ginsburg can flip Scalia the bird. They have a different kind of relationship. But would the same piece hold if Scalia went on the attack against junior members of the court? How would they react?

Officers have to choose when to step in and out of squabbles. The kind of scenarios you lay out, to me at least, seem more in line with what leadership sometimes needs to address: people are people and even in your 50s, 60, or 70s, kids still need a parent.

Don't take all above too literally btw. Folks do need to get a grip at times. You can only make so many withdrawals from the c-suite savings bank. But as CEO, you have to be shrink and decider in chief simultaneously. Not everyone is a Ginsburg.


Anonymous said...


As an aspiring leader to be, I really enjoyed this post. Things are not always black and white, but I do agree that self-victimization is a way of avoiding responsibility. I've often seen my own (former) manager engage in such tactics. I always thought it was them being passive aggressive, but what you wrote describes their actions perfectly.

If you can't change people, change people is fun adage, but what if the people that need to be changed are those in departmental "leadership"? The ones practicing self-victimization, stymieing staff engagement and not supporting professional growth of their staff? From what I've seen and currently witnessing, the people who are changing are the strongest staff who the organization needs.


Mike Pistoria said...


I really appreciate your blog - it is one of my "go to" sites for healthcare and leadership.

I'm curious from a learning standpoint - how did you handle the passive chiefs? What was your advice/instruction to them in their relationship with the "bully" chiefs?


Paul Levy said...

Thanks, Mike.

I did my best to advise them, but, truthfully, by the time someone is at that point in their career, basic patterns of behavior are established, and it is very hard to get them to change. Inherent in the self-victimization mindset is the belief that it is the other person's fault, and that they are powerless to do anything. So, in short, I cannot claim to have been very successful in those matters.