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Insights: A Book And Its Cover
February 09, 2010

A Book And Its Cover

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This week Bill looks at why we are so quick to judge others and explains that this intolerance has its roots in a misguided belief - that some values are right and some are wrong – and a clash of 'rules'.

I've done it. I've finally written a book ... after threatening to do so for a rather embarrassingly long time!

I'm not going to share too much more detail at this stage, save to say that as a loyal Insights reader, you will be amongst the first to be invited to buy a copy once it's published.

The title I chose for the book deliberately seeks to lend it a uniquely South African - and mildly humorous - flavour but the content is both serious and universally relevant. So the challenge came in creating a cover that would transcend the gap between 'quirky local' and 'broad international' appeal.

Appreciating the old adage

In tackling this challenge I started to gain a new appreciation for the old adage:

"Don't judge a book by its cover"!

When it comes to judging or being judged by others, I guess all of us can claim to have experience of this. So why exactly is it that people rush to criticize or find fault with others without really knowing them or understanding what's going on in their lives?

A question of values and rules

The answer, to a very large extent, lies in different value hierarchies and the unique rules we set (yes, we all have rules that we apply all the time) to gauge our adherence to our values.

Many years ago during my corporate days as a team leader, I was approached, one evening, by my boss, who started to complain about the timekeeping habits of one of my direct reports.

"My office, as you know, looks out on to the lift foyer, and I can't help but notice how your man X leaves to go home every day at 4.30p.m. prompt! That's no way for a man of his seniority to behave if he values his career and his performance bonus. He should be putting in a few more hours and not leaving every day when the cleaning and admin staff knock off. You need to have a word with him."

Before I could try and mount a defense for X, my manager had walked off, clearly unimpressed at X's apparent lack of respect for his job. As my boss rarely left the office before 7p.m. in the evening one could appreciate what was driving his perception of X as a team player.

In those days, I used to find myself working until 6.30p.m. or later most days, mainly because I would find the quieter period after 5p.m. to be useful catchup time (and I was never much of an early bird to work in the morning). The fact that X would routinely leave the office earlier than many others in my team never once bothered me though. I had come to know X, his capabilities and his personal priorities well, and I understood his motivation.

X was married to a wonderful lady who suffered from severe and acute asthma. Her condition typically deteriorated in the late afternoon/early evening and to be sure he was around when she most needed him, X would leave work promptly at 4.30 (something he was contractually within his rights to do.) X was never one to shirk work. He worked as as diligently and hard, if not harder, than many others in the team and was, in my opinion, an invaluable member given the wealth of technical expertise and experience he commanded.

Sadly, when the annual bonus determination time came, my senior simply vetoed my judgement on an appropriate reward, slashing X's allocation by a hefty margin, despite my protestations.

Looking back now, with the hindsight of my exposure to life coaching, its clear that career progression topped my boss's value set. One of the ways in which he measured adherence to this value was by the number of hours spent each day, slaving away at the office. I imagine one of his personal (unofficial and unwritten) rules to have been something like this:

"If I am to make maximum progression in my career, I need to spend and be seen to spend at least 12 hours a day in the office."

On the other hand, career progression came second or third on X's hierarchy of values, beaten into first place by a loving and protective relationship with his wife. I imagine one of X's rules for living in accordance with his top value was something like this:

"If I am to be loving and nurturing of my wife, I need to get home to be with her before 5p.m. each night."

Intolerance - believing in right and wrong

Looked at objectively, the beliefs and actions of both parties were guided by their unique personal hierarchy of values. Each person's appreciation for how to live to those values was determined by the rules they set. It would be wrong to single out either party's values as being more 'right', 'wrong', 'good' or 'bad' than the other's. If anything was 'wrong' it was the inability of my boss to show tolerance, in the career environment, for people with different value priorities.

In coming weeks I'm going to be dealing with values, beliefs and rules in more detail. It's a fascinating topic that, once explored, explains why people tend to judge a book by its cover, rather than peering beyond the cover!

Until then...

Warm regards to all readers,


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