Can't Stand Your Co Worker? Check Your Vision

If you like your job, take pride in what you do and work hard to move up in the ladder, but when you think about work there is this one person that makes you feel horrible about your day, you are in good company. While you may feel that the difficulty with that person stems from their incapabilities, professionally or on an interpersonal level, things may be a little different than you think. It is not just about that annoying employee's behavior, it is also about your perception of their behavior, and it makes just as much difference, if not more.

When we analyze the people around us, we can look at them through different lenses, and assign different interpretations and meaning to their behavior. When we look at people around us in general and assign meaning to their actions, we can choose to look at them through tunnel vision, or through peripheral vision. The outcome of these two perspectives is astonishingly different.

So what is tunnel vision? Tunnel vision is exactly as it sounds: narrow, single-tracked vision. It can happen in any circumstance whereby our perception is narrowed to that situation only, blocking out the bigger picture. What does this mean? It means that we interpret and assign meaning to the situation in a very constricted manner.

This is an example of tunnel vision, because the person complaining about Mary is not thinking about anything other than his or her own narrow perceptions. Of course, it may be that Mary genuinely is lazy and incompetent! In reality though, it is more likely that Mary has personal problems or health problems, she might be going through troubles, or she might have been unclear about the expectations. In fact, it could be all of the above.

What fuels tunnel vision is our human tendency to do two things: to focus primarily on ourselves and to assign meaning to events by inventing narratives. In terms of the former, we generally consider ourselves to be social and considerate, but often we are not. Instead, we see the world through our own lenses, and these lenses make us focus primarily on ourselves. We are designed around the need to feel good about ourselves. We want to think that we're wonderful--although we all know that sometimes we aren't! If we can't be wonderful then at least we would like to think that we are pretty close.

Here are three major ways that we overestimate ourselves:

1. We think we're nicer than we actually are.
In a study at Cornell, participants were asked if they would donate to charity. A staggering 80 percent said that they would, but the results of the study suggest otherwise. The researchers found that over the course of two experiments, only half of those who said they would donate actually did when given the chance. And it gets worse, because those who did donate gave only half as much as they previously said they would.

What's strange is that while they were wrong about what they would donate, the amount of money donated in reality was close to what the participants predicted others would contribute. So they overestimated how much they would give but got it right when predicting how much others would give. You could say that we have a pretty accurate idea of how selfish the rest of the world is, but in our imaginations, we don't perceive ourselves as being members of that world. Perhaps instead we all picture ourselves as members of an elite moral minority.
It wasn't just with money, either. Another study involved predicting whether participants would take on a complex task rather than an easy one when they knew somebody else would get stuck with the task they didn't take. Most people thought, "Of course I'll do the harder task! It's only fair," but when actually presented with the task, they were far more likely to pawn it off on the other person--even when they were told that person was a ten-year-old girl!

2. We think that our problems are the worst.
Studies have found that we perceive our pain, our unhappiness, and the things that bother us, as much, much worse than anything that others go through. We also assume that our lives are worse and that we are unhappier than those around us.

Part of this self-pity is due to the fact that it's a social norm for everyone to project only the good things about their lives--we like to brag about the positives while burying the negatives! As the author of the study pointed out, just look at people's Facebook photo albums--it's all parties, vacations, the new puppy, the new girlfriend, the new TV, and the gang laughing at a bar. Nobody posts photos of themselves straining on the toilet and screaming that their colon is full of burning rocks. And your photos are probably just as carefree as theirs. This also makes sense when you compare it with the study about generosity from earlier, where people basically paint themselves as heroes. If our suffering is worse than other people's, then damn it, we're downright heroic just for enduring it.

3. We like to think of ourselves in more heroic terms than we actually deserve.
We all have a narrative in our head regarding who we are and how we operate, and because we always prefer to think of ourselves in favorable terms, that narrative often portrays us as heroic. For example, in a situation where we are in conflict with another person, we naturally think of ourselves as the one who was right, imagining that we were suffering from the other person's bad actions, and yet we still managed to overcome the obstacle. Our internal narrative might tell us that we were handling the situation heroically, even though we may in fact be at fault. This narrative is clearly only in our heads, and it is quite funny to think that the other person, who may also be experiencing much suffering, will be thinking of themselves in similarly heroic terms. The truth is, probably neither of them is heroic! We prefer this heroic narrative, because it feeds into our favorite narrative of ourselves as good, positive, just, and right. Thinking of ourselves as heroes in terms of how we deal with the situation is now just the cherry on the ice cream.

So how does this link up with the resolution of workplace conflict? To understand that, we have to look at the close link between conflict and narrative identity.

Narrative identity, then, is the story that we tell ourselves about our lives, and we do this to create meaning. Our story is almost always positive, as that is how we like to see ourselves. Because we all have these narrative identities, there is no such thing as "the ultimate truth" about any situation. I have heard people say things like: "There is my story, his story, and the real story." My point is, I guess, that there is no real story. Reality is in the eye of the beholder, and it will always and forever be impacted by the meaning that we ascribe to it. People ascribe different meanings to different situations, and this happens in the workplace, too.

In a given workplace conflict, each person interprets the situation differently based on their own narrative identity. They interpret it in a way that would feed their narrative of themselves as heroes, as just and right, as wonderful people, and as victims of the situation. If they interpret it in any other way, it would mean that their narrative about themselves as good, hardworking, and positive people would be cracked and damaged--and no one wants to think that about themselves! So where there is fault, person A will blame person B, regardless of where the fault actually lies. "It's not my fault," they say, and even if they were willing to admit that they had some level of responsibility in the conflict, they would keep it to a minimum, because they would rather believe their own narrative that they are wonderful people who were just unlucky enough to find themselves involved with that other, difficult person.

Tunnel vision feeds into that perception exactly. We look at a conflict or an undesirable or unpleasant clash with another person in a very narrow way. We focus primarily on the interaction that we currently have with that person, not taking into account any other possible stressors or impacting factors on that person's behavior. We are not taking into consideration their personal life, their culture, possible misunderstandings, and so on. As a result, we assign meaning to our interaction from what we see with our tunnel vision.

I always like to think of people as diamonds. Just as the stones are multifaceted, so are people. We are multidimensional in our interactions with others, and sometimes, only one side of the diamond is exposed or visible in the same way that sometimes only one dimension of our lives is visible. Our spouses and friends are not always fully exposed to how we behave at work, for example. Our kids likewise see a completely different and often one-dimensional side of us; our parents see yet another. Together, all these different dimensions of our lives create the full diamond of who we are.

Tunnel vision has four main patterns that interrupt the goal of teamwork and deepen conflicts.

1. We judge ourselves more favorably than we judge others.
Judging ourselves more favorably than we judge others really just feeds into our personal narrative of being overall wonderful people. Judging ourselves more favorably is very likely to happen, because when it comes to our own actions, we have a lot of background information that helps us explain why we did what we did or behaved how we behaved. We know that we had a bad day that day, that we didn't feel well. We can compare the situation to other situations and say that this behavior is atypical of us, and so on. We will look at the situation through very self-forgiving lenses. When it comes to the other person involved, however, things are a bit different. First of all, we don't have sufficient information about her to put her behavior into context, and even if we think that we do, it's insignificant compared to the amount of information that we have about ourselves.

It's not just that, either. We constantly operate under our subconscious wish to glorify ourselves in order to feed into the narrative that we are wonderful, good people and wonderful employees. For that reason, in our subjective interpretation of the other's behavior, we would be more likely to assume that she is not as wonderful as we are, that her motives are not as pure, and that this is where her behavior stems from. Tunnel vision feeds exactly into that, because we judge the other person in a very narrow manner, just on the basis of our particular situation, whereas we judge our own behavior from a much wider perspective.

2. We attribute our behaviors to external circumstances and others' behaviors to internal character traits.
In social psychology, this is called the fundamental attribution error. This means that when it comes to explaining the behavior of the people around us, we tend to put the emphasis on internal factors ("He did this because he wanted to hurt me, or because he was looking for revenge," for example) rather than on possible external factors ("He did it because he was having a hard day, or because he has a lot on his plate"). This tendency to believe that people behave a certain way because they are out to get us or don't respect us is very problematic. We dismiss the possibility of this being subjective interpretation, and instead, we absolutely believe our own viewpoint. It's not correct, though. We are so unaware of so many possible external reasons for that behavior, and often we are so engulfed in our own interpretation that we don't even consider external factors as an option. We think: she didn't call me because she doesn't care enough to call. Perhaps she doesn't care, but the chances are that she didn't call us because she is sick or forgot or just had a fight with her spouse--we just haven't thought of those options.
When we decide that the other person behaved in a certain way because of those intrinsic unfavorable feelings they have toward us, we build an entire theory about it; we distance ourselves from the person; and we seek validation from others around us. So does this lead to teamwork? No, not really.

3. We tend to favor negative impressions.
Our tendency to focus more on negative impressions is called the negativity bias. The bias basically highlights our tendency to focus on things that are negative and unpleasant more than on things that are happy and pleasant. Even if we are optimistic, happy people, these types of events and feelings have greater influence over us and over our actions. This means that traumas, unpleasant interactions, and unpleasant feelings will have more impact on our behavioral choices than positive ones.

In the context of interpersonal behavior, it is a bias that we should work to overcome. It may cause us to judge the people around us based on the negative aspect of our interaction with them rather than based on good things that might have happened. In other words, we are picking out the bad and ignoring the good--and that certainly won't help us when it comes to interpersonal relationships!

4. We assume that others are similar to us and then judge them for being different.
This interesting dynamic is called the false consensus bias. This is where we tend to assume that other people's values, beliefs, and preferences are similar to ours. Furthermore, we believe that our own beliefs, values, and preferences are normal, right, and just. Then upon discovering that others don't share our ideal values, we find ourselves disappointed with them and judge them for it. The false consensus effect certainly feeds into our positive narrative about ourselves ("Here are the desired values, and here we are, matching them perfectly!"), and this boosts our positive view of ourselves. Our problem is that this stands in the way of our interaction with others. The false consensus bias manifests itself in tunnel vision dynamics, because we judge the other person's beliefs and behaviors through the very narrow lens of our own beliefs, which we consider to be not only the norm but also desirable.

In this dynamic, it doesn't even occur to us that our values are not the ultimate values, that the other person is entitled to her own values, or that the fact that she didn't meet our expectations doesn't mean necessarily that she is out to get us, does not respect us, or does not care.

Tunnel vision causes us to shift away from the other person or group in a conflict-saturated company culture. This means that it draws us away from the other person when we have a conflict with them. When we perceive people from a tunnel vision perspective, we don't take the time or make the effort to keep in mind where they are coming from or what they might be going through, and as a result, our tunnel vision keeps us away from them and deepens possible anger. This is especially bad considering that they are very likely to be looking at us from a tunnel vision perspective as well!

Here is how we move away from resolution of workplace conflict as a result of tunnel vision:

Step 1: We do not fully understand the situation, because we are looking at it in a one-dimensional and narrow manner (tunnel vision).

Step 2: We assign the situation a meaning that basically exists only in our own head.

Step 3: We get mad at the other due to our own assigned meaning, which may have nothing to do with what is actually happening.

Step 4: Our own invented narrative that resulted from our tunnel vision causes us anger and resentment toward the other.

Step 5: We shift away from the other

Flipping this around, using peripheral vision in our dealings with other people means that we take into consideration a variety of factors that may come into play as a cause for the other person's behavior. It is the opposite of tunnel vision and brings people closer to each other. The choice between tunnel and peripheral vision is a conscious choice. Not just in our workplace relationships, but with the relationships of all people around us.