What I Gain from Regret

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I saw her across a crowded room at a post conference networking event.  It had been nearly twenty years since we had any contact. Our last conversation could be described as “chilly.” At that time, she was my manager. She also represented a few firsts for me -my first female manager and the first manager hired from outside of the company – both anomalies at the time. She saw things differently,  including my preferred career choices.  We disagreed, and I made the changes she wanted more difficult than they needed to be.  After a few promotions, she left the company and we lost touch. Interestingly, as time went on, I grew to understand her view and recognize that she had good ideas – ideas I should have tried.

What is Regret?

My reflections in the moment, that I was wrong and should have tried something different, connected me to the universal emotion of regret. Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong, summarizes the conditions of regret in her TED Talk Why Should We Embrace Regret. Regret, it seems, is the result of agency and imagination. Agency is a personal decision that results in a choice; imagination helps us score that decision to the present. Regret occurs when we imagine the alternative outcome as scoring much better results than the ones we experienced. Psychologists call this counterfactual thinking; think of it as the “if -then” thought process. “If” we had tried something different,’ “then’ something better would have happened. It’s our mental manipulation of the imagined better outcome that produces regret.

 Is Regret Wrong?

Some espouse a view that that regret is to be avoided; that a life free of regret is a desirable goal. This view scares me. Does it mean we should avoid decisions because they require a choice? Does it mean that we live without empathy for others who live with the adverse consequences of our decisions? Does it mean that we shouldn’t reflect and conclude that we could have done better? If so, I don’t want a life free of regret. What I want is to make regret constructive instead of destructive, to make it something that informs my future choices instead of ruminating over past ones.

 Four Reactions to Regret that Keep Us Stuck

Schulz presents four common ways we react to regret that get in our way:

1. Denial – the Make it go away  reaction. This shows up in “I didn’t”, “They did” and other fault-finding statements. When we look for justification, we might just be stuck in denial.

2. Bewilderment –  the How could I have done that? reaction. Listen for this in the overuse of why, how and what questions. When we are looking for that one more fact that will make it all make sense, we are stuck here.

3. Punishment –  the I could kick myself reaction. Punishment shows up in self-blame that the whole mess is entirely our fault; that somehow we lack the infallible judgment  present in everyone else, so we excuse ourselves when we get into messes.

4. The Infinite Loop – Playing the decision over an over again like an infinite loop.  The players are the same, the outcomes are the same we just can’t stop ruminating or sharing our story of woe just to make sure we remember how bad it was.

Positive Alternative Reactions

I wonder if those who say they want to live without regret really mean that they want to live without these four reactions. Fortunately, alternative reactions help us put regret into perspective and serve as a catalyst for an improved attitude. Substitute self-limiting reactions to regret with one of these:

1. Consider what we can control. The article Don’t Look Back In Anger from the May issue of Science presents a case that healthy aging produces constructive responsiveness to regret. (There has to be some advantage to getting older!) Results of experiments show that healthy older people have a better perspective on factors they can control, and as a result engage less in counterfactual thinking that they could have made an alternative choice where all factors would have broken in their favor. The good news is that you don’t have to wait to get older to understand that you will never control all factors in a decision, and the alternative outcome might have just been different, instead of better.

2. Laugh at yourself. Schulz points out the benefits of humor, even dark humor, to force us into a different perspective. When we lighten up on ourselves and others, we can see decisions that turned bad as bumps in the road instead of the end of the road. Self-effacing humor has the additional advantage of encouraging empathy and forgiveness.

3. Use regret as a teachable moment.  Have you heard the phrase: When we know better, we do better? Research from Texas A&M and Idaho State University supports this point. A study shows that one benefit from counterfactual thinking is that it supports self-regulation for the next time we face a similar situation. In practical terms, it means that regret over a failed exam motivates a student to better manage study time in order to pass the next time. If we imagine not only different outcomes, but also different behavior to achieve them, counterfactual thinking helps us make better choices about things we control to improve results.

 A Happy Ending

So, many years later, a wiser version of myself moved across the room. My former manager greeted me with a look of surprise and a smile. The words came easier for me in that moment than they would have years earlier. I expressed regret that I was not more open to her ideas, recognition that in hindsight she was right, and I was sorry for any difficulty I caused her. She was gracious and generous in accepting my apology. Curious about my current status, she even offered advice for my new endeavor. And, this time, I listened.

References

Schulz, K. Why We Should Embrace Regret  Kathryn Schultz TED Talk

Brassen, S., Gamer, M. Peters, J. Gluth, S., Buchel, C.  (2012) Don’t Look Back in Anger! Responsiveness to Missed Chances in Successful and Non Successful Aging. Science, May 2012.

Smallman, R. and McCulloch, K. (2012) Learning from Yesterday’s Mistakes to Fix Tomorrow’s Problems: When Counterfactual Thinking and Psychological Distance Collide. European Journal of Social Psychology, Jan. 2012, vol. 42 pp. 383-390.

Five Things I Wish My Commencement Speaker Had Mentioned

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Once again this year, no institution invited me to be a commencement speaker. Good thing I have a blog! It’s the perfect vehicle to list five things I wish my commencement speaker had mentioned.

Continuous learning is your lifelong asset.

One thing that’s common to all careers is that requirements change. Stay relevant through learning. Learning is not limited to formal education. But all learning can be facilitated by cultivating curiosity, establishing the habit of reflection, an openness to new ideas and trying a different way to do things. From cycle after cycle of disruptive change, those most willing to learn are those who thrive. Those stuck in what they once knew wonder what happened.

Happiness and generosity are related.

Dan Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, has research to support the view that generosity contributes to the happiness of the giver. Give two people $20.00 with directions to spend it. The one who gives it away to someone who needs it more often reports being happier than the other who buys “stuff.” It doesn’t matter if happier people are more generous or if more generous people are happy- the undeniable relationship also exists in the workplace. Be generous with your support, wisdom and resources. See if what you give away makes you happier at work.

People skills, not technical skills, are your competitive edge.

Technical skills are the price of admission for your job. Hired as programmer?  It’s hard to write code significantly better than the others hired with you. Hired as finance pro? Everyone has access to the same software, spreadsheets and formulas. Those with similar smarts, education and experience will produce technical results that fall in a narrow range. Those with the strongest interpersonal and leadership skills more frequently engage others and thereby produce a greater impact. Technical skills get you in the door. Technical skills supported by strong people skills create your success.

Walk on the edge.

Margaret Wheatley suggests that our optimum experience and development comes when we walk on the edge. You know the edge -the point where you are outside of your comfort zone but not into chaos. Your path is doable, but demands your full attention and effort. Shooting for over the edge encourages chaos, walking far inside of it minimizes your talent. Stay sharp and find the edge.

Make self-awareness your most valuable trait.

Don’t worry so much about your “leadership style.” By the time you read this, your personality preferences are set. Trying to be someone you are not will ultimately be inauthentic and ineffective.  Do put effort into cultivating self-awareness. Self-awareness is like a GPS for leadership navigation. Find ways to take in feedback to know when to tone down or dial up your preferences.  Know when the route to success requires your strengths or someone else’s.

What have you learned that you would add to a commencement address?

To 2012 graduates everywhere, congratulations on your achievement. May this important passage be one of your many successes.

To Get the Benefits of Change, Manage Transition

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The sweet little girl in the photo is my granddaughter, Lucy. Her smile that lights the world has been temporarily replaced with an explosion of concern. Lucy’s Mom just rocked her world by removing a basket of treats, disrupting her plans for a blissful experience with unlimited chocolate. Lucy’s expression captures what we all consider when confronted with unplanned change:  Wait! What just happened here? A minute ago, I had everything all figured out. Then, the senior woman in the house changed my plans. Now what? As we mature, we are socialized not to show a face like Lucy’s. But that doesn’t mean that change, even positive change, doesn’t bring the same confusion and disappointment.  We simply learn not to show it. 

People leading change often forget what William Bridges observed decades ago in his classic work Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change.  Bridges observes that it’s not change that’s so challenging, it’s transition. He defines change as the situation, i.e. the new decision, the new job, the new rules, the new plan. Transition is the psychological process we undergo to come to terms with the change. Change is external – open and apparent for everyone. Transition is internal. We don’t see the personal turmoil of transition, unless people like Lucy make it obvious. When we don’t see the turmoil, we forget that it’s there.  Or, we pretend it’s not there so we don’t have to deal with it.  The mistake of focusing only on the change and not the transition has derailed otherwise positive change or made it much harder than necessary.

Change is often presented as a contrast between a “bad” past and a “good” future. Thus, the rationale goes, we’ll eagerly make the sacrifices necessary once we understand the potential. What this contrast ignores is that the past was good for some people. They figured out the game. Things got easier. They learned how to succeed. Change takes away ideas and behaviors as comfortable as sweatpants on a Saturday morning. No number of business case presentations on the necessity for change will make people who prized the past feel better about what they may lose.

Keys to Successful Transition

If you haven’t picked up Managing Transitions in a while, or ever, it’s a rich guide filled with examples and ideas to help people navigate the badlands between where they are and where they are going. My key recommendations from this work are summarized below.

1. Plan for change and transition. Change is discreet, episodic and impersonal. It’s described in plans or timelines everyone follows. Transition is complex, emotional and personal.  It’s expressed in reactions to endings, losses or sacrifices.

2.  Recognize transition travels at the speed of each individual.  Transition progress is measured in the unique journeys of people. It doesn’t respond to quarter end deadlines or change milestones. Business case presentations, pep talks or threats won’t accelerate transitions. Helping people figure out how they can succeed in the new world, and some patience, will.

3.  Celebrate transition victories. It doesn’t matter if you thought “they” should have adjusted faster or with greater easeWhat matters is that your talented associates are learning to give up the personal success of the old to try out the promise of the new. Small steps are big deals. Treat them that way.

The good news is both change and transition are manageable. That’s good news, because the benefits of change are realized through transition. With support, understanding and patience, people will make the private conversions necessary to move from endings to beginnings. Just like with Lucy, it’s possible to see those smiles again.