Thursday, May 25, 2017


If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don't have integrity, nothing else matters.” --Alan Simpson

I was at the airport in Denver, wrestling with a crossword puzzle (10 down, 9 letters, begins with I and ends with Y, clue: morally upright) while waiting to board a Southwest Airlines flight, when I heard the person sitting directly behind me stage-whisper this advice to his companion:
It doesn’t matter whether you actually have a disability—they can’t ask you for proof—just go up and request a pre-boarding document like I did. They have to give you one. Why should you wait to board with the C-group? We can sit together in better seats if we pre-board.
Intrigued, I turned around to look at the co-conspirators. The speaker was a tall, tanned older guy who looked like he had just come off the golf course. His companion was shorter but could have been a member of the other guy’s foursome. Their objective? Gaming the Southwest boarding process so they could get on board before passengers who had checked in early or paid extra for early boarding privileges. The shorter guy initially demurred, but when his companion gestured toward the ever-swelling group of pre-boarders assembling near the jetway, he acted. He was back in a minute with a pre-boarding document. Grinning and fist-bumping, he and his pal enthusiastically joined the pre-boarding scrum.

A few minutes later, my boarding group was announced and we pushed onto the plane. The co-conspirators were parked side by side in the second row, the middle seat between them piled with their personal items to discourage anyone from claiming it. They looked very pleased with themselves.

While gaming the boarding process at the airport probably doesn’t register very high on the moral lapse scale, it is another example of how societal norms about acceptable human behavior are shifting. Remember being taught that that behaving with integrity was critical to success in life? Our parents, our teachers, our clergy, our extended family, even our friends encouraged us to be honest, to make ethical choices, and to do the right thing. Maybe that’s what society expected of us, but it’s a new world out there, a world that rewards and celebrates achievement, but no longer obsesses about the behavior that enabled the achievement. It’s all about the outcome, not the process that produced the outcome. Imagine yourself back in school, taking a math test, writing down answers and not having to show your work calculations—it’s like that! Society admires people who win, and if those winners are clever or devious enough to win by taking advantage of shortcuts, cheats or hacks to beat the system, we often admire them even more.

While the “morally indifferent” behavior exhibited by the pre-boarders was disappointing, low integrity people who operate without any moral compass at all tend to act out much more egregiously, and in the work world that can be very challenging. I am thinking of folks I worked with over the years who, by many measures, enjoyed tremendous success even though they routinely played it fast and loose when it came to honesty, integrity, and doing the right thing. They had no rules, no limits, no honor, no shame, yet they were often celebrated as winners. They lied, and cheated, and misrepresented, and intentionally undermined their colleagues. Yet they were showered with praise, promotions, and rewards-- behavior reinforcement which helped to make them even bolder and more committed to their strategy. Sure, a couple got called out or got careless and eventually crashed and burned, but I still remember the other ones—the ones who got away, who behaved callously, immorally and unethically yet still ended up “winning.”

It’s difficult not to wonder how that happens. Why do employers tolerate low-integrity employees who behave badly? It might be a lack of attentiveness, or a leadership/management failure, or even a deliberate decision—intentionally excusing bad behavior because of “good” results. But experts such as Dr. Cameron Sepah and Jack Welch argue that companies should not tolerate “high-performing” employees who behave badly. Imagine a two-by-two with Performance as the Y-axis and Behavior as the X-axis. Sepah recommends companies deal with employees in each quadrant as follows:

His message is clear and it tracks with Welch’s—employees who behave badly must be rehabilitated or removed, not tolerated. But what, exactly, is bad behavior, and how capable and willing are executives to identify it and intervene? It’s often easier and more convenient to take a consequentialist view of behavior, where the consequences of a person’s conduct are the basis for any judgment about the conduct, which means behavior is only bad if the result is bad (i.e., the end justifies the means). Yet Peter Drucker tells us that if bad behavior results from the absence of character and integrity, that’s a weakness that cannot be cured:
By themselves, character and integrity do not accomplish anything. But their absence faults everything else. Here, therefore, is the one area where weakness is a disqualification by itself rather than a limitation on performance capacity and strength. 
For more on this topic, you might enjoy reading Amy Rees Anderson’s Forbes article Success Will Come and Go, But Integrity is Forever, but let’s close with Warren Buffet’s tongue-in-cheek description of the importance of integrity in the workplace:
Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy . And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it; it’s true. If you hire somebody without [integrity], you really want them to be dumb and lazy.
So don’t hire low integrity employees, but if you must, make sure they are also dumb and lazy!

Dean K. Harring is a retired executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator, and watercolor painter.  He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Harring Watercolors

Friday, March 10, 2017

Don't Make Me Hollah...

He was a droopy-eyed old timer, heavy around the middle, and when he strained in his folding chair to make change or rearrange his buckets you could see he had something wrong with one of his legs. But that didn’t prevent him from making serious eye contact with potential customers while bellowing like a beer vendor at Fenway Park.

“Don’t make me hollah, they’re only a dollah!” he would boom as I and hundreds of other commuters trudged past him to board our trains home. He was selling flower bouquets for a buck, and they were just the right size to carry on the train. Since he set up his cart at the main walkway to the platforms every weekday afternoon, anyone boarding a train had to walk right past him.

In the 1980s I walked by that guy most weekdays for almost five years, and I bought plenty of flowers from him, but I was young and preoccupied with my own issues so I never gave much thought to him or his business—and then I moved away. But recently, while planning a lesson on competition and competitive strategy, I started thinking about him and his business once again.

If you have studied economics at all, you probably know about Michael Porter and the work he has done on industry competition, particularly his “five forces” of competition model. You can watch him talk about that model here, but basically, Porter's five forces include competition from established and known rivals, new or emerging rivals, the threat of substitute products or services, as well as threats tied to the bargaining power of suppliers and customers. The weaker the forces, the more attractive the industry in terms of profitability.

As I remember it, the flower seller at North Station had no rivals on-site other than a more traditional flower shop inside the B&M terminal which offered a larger assortment of flower arrangements at much higher prices. I have no idea how he secured what seemed to be the exclusive right to sell flowers near the walkway to the train platforms, or why other competitors didn’t try to enter that space. Maybe he had competitors originally but drove them out of the market with low prices and superior location. Or maybe he had a special flower vendor’s license that was no longer available to potential competitors. I don’t know where he got his flowers, but I remember the wholesale flower exchange was not far away from the train station.

His sales transactions were quick, his product inexpensive. Impulse purchases were accommodated effortlessly--a commuter running for a train who decided to buy flowers from him could do so almost without breaking stride since he had just one price and he only accepted cash. Factor in the convenience and social usefulness of being able to purchase flowers at the last minute, particularly on birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, and it’s not hard to understand why buyers didn’t try to negotiate purchase prices with him.

I don’t have all the details, of course, but at least in my memory that flower vendor seemed to be operating in an ideal market featuring weak forces of competition, steady product supply, reliable and predictable product demand, low price sensitivity and the opportunity to make a profit. In other words, he was one lucky flower vendor! He had no real competition, so he didn’t need to worry about sources of competitive advantage, but I am sure he had a value proposition in his head built around what benefit he provided, to whom, and how he provided it better than anyone else. Using Geoffrey Moore’s template (from Crossing the Chasm) to outline his value proposition, I imagine it might have been something like this:

Value Proposition
For Target Customer B&M Railroad commuters at North Station, Boston
Who Need or Opportunity
who want to bring flowers home as a surprise, or gift, or symbol of love and affection
Our Service/Category we are the only flower stand directly on the walkway to the trains
That Statement of Benefit and we offer a wide selection of fresh flower arrangements—quick, one low cost, no waiting.

The good news is that after reminiscing for a while I was able to include the flower vendor scenario as a case study in the lesson I was developing. The bad news is that my efforts to get additional details about him came up empty. I’d still like to know which of Porter’s five forces of competition eventually impacted his business, when, and how, and what he did to manage them.

I plan to keep digging, but if you (or someone you know) commuted by train from Boston’s North Station in the late 1980s, please send me an email ( describing whatever you remember about that flower seller, his competitors, and the North Station marketplace in which he operated. It would be great to know the rest of his story.

Dean K. Harring is a retired executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator, and watercolor painter.  He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Harring Watercolors

Friday, January 27, 2017

Why Work Doesn't Work

“The price of anything is the amount of life you pay for it.” –Henry David Thoreau
I spent most of my working life inside insurance companies, and as my job responsibilities increased, my workspaces improved dramatically. I started my career at a desk in a noisy bullpen with about fifty other people, and I ended it forty years later in a hushed and private executive office suite, but one thing was constant: I always had difficulty getting my work done while at work.

Noisy people, piped in music, ringing phones, scheduled meetings, ad hoc meetings, offsite meetings, committee meetings, meeting invitations, scheduled and unscheduled visitors, emails, text messages, and seemingly endless requests from colleagues for input, collaboration or assistance interfered with my ability to focus and concentrate. So I came in early, and stayed late, I worked at home at night, or on the weekends, and on flights, in the quiet car on the train, and in hotel rooms, just so I could function without those interruptions and distractions. Many of my colleagues did the same thing. We were convinced that there weren’t enough hours in the work day to get our important work done, so we willingly exchanged “life” time for more “work” time.

Once I retired I realized that most of the work accomplished in those extra hours might have been urgent, but it wasn’t really that important. In retrospect, we probably would have been better off tackling the underlying problem, i.e., redesigning our workplace and reframing our work styles to make it possible for folks to actually get their work done while at work.

This all came back to me again recently when I listened to an HBR IdeaCast in which Basecamp CEO Jason Fried was interviewed by HBR’s Sarah Green-Carmichael. The topic: Restoring Sanity to the Office. You can read the full interview transcript and/or listen to the interview here. Some highlights of Fried’s observations:
  • You know, people go to work. And when you actually ask them when they get the work done it’s not typically during the day. It’s early in the morning, late at night, on the weekends, on a plane, on a train, somewhere else. And that’s always bugged me. It just doesn’t seem right.
  • It seems like something that, for whatever reason, people put up with. But they really shouldn’t.
  • It’s very hard to do really good work when you’re constantly being interrupted every 15 minutes, every 5 minutes, every 20 minutes, every 30 minutes.
  • Certainly there are some meetings that need to happen. But my point is that I want to push back on the fact that the meeting is the first resort. I think it should be the last resort.
  • The idea that we should just layer in more time because we’re inefficient with it and we waste it– I think, basically, if you really break down your day there is more opportunity to waste time than to use time in many companies.
Fried delivered a TED talk in 2010 (Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work) in which he identified the cause of the “work not happening at work” problem as M&Ms (Managers and Meetings.) Both interrupt work, and work interrupted can be every bit as damaging as sleep interrupted!

I work from home now and I control my own time and project schedule, so almost all my interruptions are voluntary and any distractions and time-wasting are of my own making. I work in a comfortable, quiet room, at my own pace, and I take breaks whenever I want to walk, or play with the neighborhood dogs, or fill the birdfeeders, or work on a watercolor portrait. I don’t have a manager interrupting me, and I only go to meetings I find interesting. I still keep a calendar, of course, but I have a different tool installed on my desktop that helps me think about how I am spending my time. It is called the countdown clock, and I installed it right after I heard Kevin Kelly (founding executive editor of Wired magazine) describe it during a Tim Ferriss podcast a while back. Based upon my birthdate, actuarial tables and a few other factors, the clock estimates how much time I likely have left on this earth.

You don’t have to be retired to use the countdown clock—it is nothing but a gentle, sobering reminder that time flies, no matter how you spend it. Kelly said it helps him think about what’s important each day. It helps me do the same thing, but it also helps me remember that exchanging “life” time for “work” time during my career probably wasn’t quite as important and necessary as I believed it was at the time.

Intrigued? You can read more about the countdown clock at Kevin Kelly’s blog and hear him talking about it in a short 2007 NPR interview here.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, is a retired executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator, and watercolor painter.  He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors

Thursday, November 10, 2016


 “I was a rock star in the 80s,” my seatmate told me on a short flight to Baltimore years ago.  He looked the part--tall, English accent, 80’s shag haircut.

He wasn’t bragging--I had asked him how things were going and he told me he played lead guitar for The Outfield. “We were big for a while in the 80s.”

During the 80s I had three little kids and I wasn’t actively tracking emerging rock music, so I confessed that I didn’t know The Outfield, which surprised him.  I asked about their biggest hit, and he said it was a song he wrote called “Your Love” which nearly reached the top of the charts in 1986.  You probably know the song as it has been covered hundreds of times since then and it still gets radio play on classic rock stations, but I didn’t know it by name. So he immediately did what any self-respecting rock star would do—he started singing the song for me. I recognized it (as did most of the people sitting around us) and to this day everytime I hear that song I remember my brief encounter with authentic 80s rock star John Spinks.

The Outfield (John Spinks, Alan Jackman, Tony Lewis)

I was thinking of that incident again recently while watching election coverage and ruminating about personal authenticity, which experts define as: 

…being true and honest with oneself and others, having a credibility in one’s words and behavior, and an absence of pretense.

On one level, Spinks’ serenade on the plane was intended to help me recognize his hit song.  On another level, it was offered to provide support for his rock star story. He was “walking the walk”, i.e., establishing credibility by demonstrating his ability to do something he claimed he could do or had done.  Walking the walk used to be an essential part of developing character and reputation, of becoming authentic.

When I was growing up, if someone in my social circles claimed they could do something, it was a given that they would have to prove they could actually do it, not just talk about it. It really didn’t matter what it was--dribbling left-handed, juggling, doing a cartwheel, throwing a curve ball, naming the presidents—nobody got the benefit of the doubt.  So the accountability model was very clear: if you said you could, and it turned out you couldn’t, you were going to experience social and reputational penalties.

When I entered the corporate workplace, however, I learned that in my industry being willing and able to walk the walk wasn’t quite as culturally significant as it had been in my earlier life. Folks who couldn’t walk very well, but who were accomplished at talking about the mechanics of walking, or at recounting the history of walking, or at criticizing how other people were walking, were recognized and rewarded as if they were the best walkers ever.  That puzzled me, but I figured either the non-walkers had never experienced the accountability model I had grown up with, or they had forgotten about it as they aged. So many folks who were comfortable just talking the walk and being inauthentic--misrepresenting their skill levels and exaggerating their accomplishments—yet they weren’t being called on it.

How does a workplace thrive without authenticity, without accountability, and without an operating culture that values folks who walk the walk more than those who talk the walk? Why do people remain in such a workplace? Well, it’s socially awkward and politically incorrect in most corporate work situations simply to call out exaggerators and demand they demonstrate the proficiency they are claiming, particularly if the exaggerator happens to be a powerful senior leader.   And leadership failure contributes significantly to the problem since tone is set at the top and leaders set the standard for what is tolerated in the work environment. Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker of Indiana State University describe it this way:

The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.

Which means if a leader is unwilling or unable to demand authenticity, to insist that the accountability model be an integral part of the workplace culture, it probably won’t be. How do you deal with a culture like that? Depending on how pervasive, inequitable and offensive the behavior is, and how important it is to you, you generally have three choices: tolerate it, change it, or leave it behind.

Whether it was Aesop or Lou Holtz who told us “After all is said and done, more is said than done,” embellishment is human nature and we all know it is often much easier to talk about doing something than it is to do it.  Call me sentimental, but I remember life being simpler and fairer when authenticity and character were important and accountability meant doing what you said you would (or could) do. But let’s leave the final word on authenticity to Muhammad Ali, who while he didn’t hesitate to talk about what he could do (“I’m not the greatest, I’m the double greatest”) or how he felt about it (“It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am") certainly did see a big difference between talking and doing:

Braggin' is when a person says something and can’t do it. I do what I say.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, is a retired executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator, and watercolor painter.  He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Speaking Up--Redux

A few months ago, in an article called Speaking Up, I wondered why some people decide to speak up when they encounter another person they feel is behaving inappropriately or offensively, while others don’t. The article prompted some interesting reactions from readers whose comments, not surprisingly, fit roughly into the broad human behavioral response categories I had described in the article: passive, passive-aggressive, aggressive and assertive.

Respondents in the passive category suggested the best course of action when confronted with offensive or inappropriate behavior is to let it slide--ignore it, walk away, don’t waste time dealing with it. They expressed concerns about assuming responsibility for policing the behavior of other people, for creating situations that could turn unpleasant or dangerous, and whether they had any legitimate right to judge whether another person’s behavior was offensive.

The passive-aggressive respondents were troubled by inappropriate or offensive behavior but believed it could be uncomfortable or dangerous to directly confront or challenge an offender. They were more comfortable complaining about the offensive behavior to others (or to a public authority) and hoping someone would do something about it. One expressed concern that confronting an offender might be interpreted as offensive behavior by others.

The folks in the aggressive category said they would not hesitate to confront a person, accuse them of behaving poorly, and demand an end to their offensive behavior, even if that behavior had been directed at someone else. These folks didn’t seem concerned that the confrontation might become unpleasant, or escalate into violence—some seemed eager to welcome that possibility. One invoked the film American Sniper, described the three types of people in the world (sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves) and said he was proud to be a sheepdog.

The most comprehensive comments came from folks who said that while they believed it was important to be assertive when confronted by offensive or inappropriate behavior, they thought it was equally important to pick their shots and respect the rights of others while standing up for their own rights. Several of these folks said that focusing intensely and objectively on exactly what was happening, and why, helped them moderate their emotions, determine whether to make an issue of something and appropriately manage their behavioral response. One woman reported on a recent experience in which she used the formula for assertive communication to ask a line cutter to go to the back of the line and much to her surprise he did.

While most of us use all of these response styles at one time or another, is there a best approach? The answer depends entirely on the situation and the person. When we encounter something we don’t like, we have a limited choice of responses (accept it, change it, get away from it) and we choose one based upon our interpretation of the situation. Two people caught in the same unpleasant situation may interpret it differently since they each filter the experience through their own mesh of moral values, ethical beliefs, behavioral tolerances, and social/cultural expectations. They then create a story about what happened and why, and that story triggers their emotional reaction (joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, or disgust) which in turn triggers their behavioral response.

Same stimulus, different interpretations, emotional reactions, and behavioral responses. Yet the flow from interpretation to emotion to behavior is neither automatic nor inexorable since humans have the ability to choose how to respond to a stimulus. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl described it this way:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.

So if there’s a best practice for determining how to respond to offensive or inappropriate behavior, it probably involves making the best use of that “space” between stimulus and response. That’s where we have the power to make a simple, personal choice to ignore behavior, or to fume about it, or to get in someone’s face about it, or to calmly and respectfully assert our rights—all based upon our interpretation of the situation, the degree to which it bothers us, and what makes us feel good about ourselves. It’s a uniquely personal, mindful process.

For a colorful, entertaining and salty point of view on how one man makes use of that space, check out Niall Doherty’s first-party rant about his quest to become more stoic and immune to insults. Also, you might enjoy Three Little Tricks to Deal with People Who Offend You by Leo Babauta and How to Deal with Annoying People by Marcia Reynolds.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, is a retired executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator and watercolor artist.  He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors

Thursday, June 16, 2016

You Need to See It Before You Can Paint It

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” –Alvin Toffler, futurist and philosopher

Years ago, when I first started painting with watercolors, I attended a series of workshops run by award-winning Annapolis impressionist painter Lee Boynton. Lee preferred to paint outside, from nature rather than from photographs, and before we started painting he would always ask the group to study the scene we were going to paint and tell him the color of the sky, or the trees, or the water. These were trick questions, designed to expose the cognitive bias known as the curse of knowledge, which Chip and Dan Heath, in Made to Stick, described this way:
Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it.
Students who hadn’t been exposed to Lee’s questions “knew” that the trees were green, and that the sky was blue, so that’s how they would answer, much to Lee’s delight. He would theatrically pull a few leaves off a nearby tree, poke a hole in the center of each, and ask us to take another look at the trees and the sky through the hole in the leaf and tell him what colors we could see. Invariably, this simple viewing device suspended the curse of knowledge by force-shifting our perception of the trees and sky and dramatically altering the colors we were able to see. Through the leaf, trees weren’t just green—they were blue, and yellow, and violet and green—and the sky now had elements of pink, gray, yellow, violet, orange and blue.

“Now you are seeing the light. Don’t ever start painting until you can see the light,” Lee would say, pleased that he had helped at least a few people to question what they knew and experience what it feels like to “unlearn” and “relearn” something through objective observation.

Good advice for visual artists, perhaps, but what does it have to do with anything else? The curse of knowledge bias isn’t selective—it also interferes with teaching, and communicating, and problem-solving, and learning, and planning, and selling, and negotiating, and personal relationships. If you have ever had trouble teaching someone something because they just can’t seem to grasp it, or struggled to learn something because it conflicted with something you already knew, or misread someone’s intentions, blame it on the curse of knowledge. Ditto if you had a communication fizzle because it didn’t convincingly connect all the dots for the reader, or if you failed to anticipate or solve a problem because you let what you “knew” get in the way of what you saw (or should have seen.)

Not only do we tend to favor the familiar and known (blue sky) over the unfamiliar and unknown (pink, gray, yellow, violet, orange and blue sky), the familiarity principle means we also feel more secure when we stay with what we know. As we get older and more experienced, we deliberately try to stay within our comfort zone by sticking with what we know and avoiding situations in which we might have to learn or do something new. That can be dangerous in any environment in which things are changing rapidly. Margie Warrell describes it this way in her Forbes article Learn, Unlearn and Relearn: How to Stay Current and Get Ahead:
To succeed today you must be in a constant state of adaptation – continually unlearning old ‘rules’ and relearning new ones. That requires continually questioning assumptions about how things work, challenging old paradigms, and ‘relearning’ what is now relevant in your job, your industry, your career and your life.
If, as Warrell suggests, learning agility is not only the name of the game but also the key to unlocking your change proficiency, what can you do to enhance your learning agility?

Start by reading Adam Mitchinson’s and Robert Morris’ Center for Creative Leadership white paper which describes learning agility as the willingness and ability to learn by continually discarding skills, perspectives, and ideas that are no longer relevant, while learning new ones that are relevant. Next, climb out of your comfort zone and take an objective look at your situation. You are seeking objectivity, so you’ll need to shift your perspective (as Lee had us do with the leaves) in order to neutralize the curse of knowledge. You won’t be looking for light, of course, you’ll be looking for an unfiltered view of reality--what is actually happening, what’s important, where the opportunities are. Only then will you be able to determine exactly what you need to learn, unlearn and relearn in order to adapt and flourish.

Sadly, Lee Boynton passed away in April of this year, but I’ll always remember his appreciation of color and light, his painting skills, his leaf trick, and one piece of thoughtful advice which, much like “look before you leap”, is probably of value in almost any situation: "Dean, you need to see it before you can paint it."



Dean K. Harring, CPCU, is a retired insurance executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator, and watercolor artist.  He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Speaking Up

“Don't expect to make a difference unless you speak up for yourself.” -- Laurie Halse Anderson
You know that prickly feeling you get when something happens and you feel you should protest, object, demand satisfaction or whatever--but you don’t?

Maybe some dolt cuts in front of you in line at the coffee shop, or the loudmouth sitting in front of you in the theater won’t stop talking during the show. Your colleague takes credit for work you’ve done, or your boss, distracted by her phone, is only pretending to listen to you. Trivial slights, you have bigger things to worry about, right? Sure, but sometimes when we let things like this slide, regret comes calling. We end up fuming privately, complaining to others, replaying the event in our head and imagining how differently things might have gone if we had just spoken up.

So why is it that some people speak up when they feel someone else’s behavior is offensive while others don’t? Certainly personality type has some influence (test yours here), but we all have the ability to choose to respond to any situation by behaving in one of four ways:
  • Passively (letting it slide)
  • Passive-aggressively (muttering to ourselves or others)
  • Aggressively (criticizing, blaming or attacking)
  • Assertively (standing up for our rights appropriately and respectfully.)
What’s more, most of us use all of these styles at one time or another.

How do we decide which style to use? It all begins with a stimulus, of course, something happens that bothers us. We analyze the stimulus, interpreting it to come up with our own version of what happened and why. Unfortunately, many of us aren’t very good at perceiving an event objectively because of attribution bias, which means we tend to attribute the behavior of other people to something personal about them rather than to something about their situation. In Crucial Conversations, Kerry Patterson described it this way:
Just after we observe what others do and just before we feel some emotion about it, we tell ourselves a story. We add meaning to the action we observed. We make a guess at the motive driving the behavior. Why were they doing that? We also add judgment—is that good or bad? And then, based on these thoughts or stories, our body responds with an emotion.
The emotion we feel generates our behavioral response. Let’s say you are cut off by another driver. You slam on your brakes and avoid a collision, but your coffee spills all over the passenger seat. If your interpretation of the event is that the other driver behaved recklessly and inconsiderately, you might feel angry and go into attack mode—blowing your horn, yelling, or gesturing at the other driver. If, however, your interpretation is that the other driver was driving fast because of an emergency situation, you might be annoyed or concerned, but not react at all. If that sounds wildly unrealistic, realize that attribution bias is more common in individualistic cultures, so if you are reading this in the US there’s a good chance your default behavior involves blaming the person, not the situation.

Psychologist Robert Plutchik identified eight basic emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust. He also identified an escalating range of emotions within each, so anger includes annoyance, hostility, rage and fury. Different people experiencing the same situation may come up with a totally different interpretation because their value and belief systems and attribution biases are different, which shapes their interpretation of the situation, their emotional reaction, and their behavioral response. That’s why many of us might simply be annoyed by being cut off in traffic, while others may feel rage and fury, prompting them to respond with threats and violence. (See road rage data for US and UK)

In primitive times, our basic stress response (fight or flight) helped us deal with life-threatening situations, and it still does, but “fight or flight” isn’t really appropriate for most of the personal offenses we need to manage today. Psychologist Randy Paterson, author of The Assertiveness Workbook, says that while people may shy away from conflict and criticism, assertiveness is a proven way to deal with offensive behavior. Assertiveness, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary means:
Forthright, positive, insistence on the recognition of one's rights.
Assertive people believe they are in charge of their own behavior, and that they alone will decide what they will do or not do in response to a situation that bothers them. They examine the offending situation carefully, testing their interpretation because they understand what they “think” is going on might not be what’s really going on. They assess the significance of the situation (is it worth pursuing?), they consider their goals in asserting their rights (what do they want to happen?), and they choose their battles realistically before moving forward.

According to the Mayo Clinic, behaving assertively can help you:
  • Gain self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Understand and recognize your feelings
  • Earn respect from others
  • Improve communication
It takes courage to assert yourself, but there’s a very simple but effective formula for assertive communication that frames up around these talking points:
  • When you (describe the other person’s action or the event of concern in a purely factual way)
  • I feel/I felt (describe your own feelings in response to the above action or event – for example, sad, angry, hurt, frustrated)
  • Because (describe your interpretation of the event and the reason why you feel the way you do)
  • What I would like in the future is or what I would prefer is (offer a future alternative that better meets your needs whilst not infringing on the needs/rights of the other person).
So to a line cutter you might say something like:
Excuse me, I noticed you just cut in front of me in line. That troubles me because it’s not fair to me or any of the people behind me for you to try to cut in front of us. The line forms at the rear, so please go to the back of the line.
How will the line cutter respond? Research tells us most line cutters who are challenged will back off, some will deny cutting the line, a few will ignore you, and the rest will respond aggressively and tell you to mind your own business (or worse). The line cutter’s response and your emotional reaction to the story you tell yourself about the response will influence what you do next. Whatever you do, remain calm, confident, and in control—no screaming or yelling—ever mindful of Mark Twain’s advice:
Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.
Finally, since you can’t control the behavior of other people, focus on controlling your own behavior. Whether or not you achieve your goal by being assertive, the very act of standing up for yourself will boost your confidence and self-respect and help you become a more effective communicator.

By the way, if you are ever confronted with a “chat and cut” situation, this Larry David clip could be helpful, but try not to behave like this guy. And since queue jumping is a global phenomenon, you might enjoy reading about the queue reality in the UK, queuing in Europe, and effective line cutting defenses in China.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, is a retired insurance executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator and watercolor artist.  He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors