Fabulous. I won Bronze

Thursday, 18 May 2023

Having trouble at work with people seeming unappreciative? Was that gift and award not received as well as you had imagined? Do you or colleagues have those: "What if?" and the "If I had only..."  moments? And what about you as a leader? Do you have those moments when you say: “If only I had dealt with that incident sooner or differently, I could have avoided these consequences”. Or conversely, “If I dealt with that incident any differently the consequences could have been much worse”.

It may be that there is some counterfactual thinking going on which can lead to conflict in the workforce. Upward counterfactual thinking focuses on how the situation could have been better. Downward counterfactual thinking focuses on how the situation could have been worse. 

Here is an interesting parallel in sport. It is hard to imagine a Bronze medallist at the Olympics being more happy than the Silver medallist. However, study after study has shown that as the athletes stand on the podium, the Bronze medallist is indeed consistently more happy than the Silver medallist. Why might that be and what parallels exists in the workforce?  

The most obvious counterfactual thought for the silver medallist might be to focus on almost winning gold. She would focus on the difference between coming in first place, and any other outcome. The bronze medallist, however, might focus their counterfactual thoughts downward towards fourth place. She would focus on almost not winning a medal at all. The categorical difference, between being a medallist and not winning a medal, does not exist for the comparison between first and second place. It is because of this incongruous comparison that the bronze medallist, who is objectively worse off, would be more pleased with herself, and happier with her achievement, than the silver medallist. (Scientific American 2012)

‘A person’s achievements matter less than how that person subjectively perceives those achievements’. (Psychologist William James) For example, your work colleague might be thrilled to earn a 5% benefit (defined anyway) at work until she learns that your colleague down the hall earned a 10% benefit for the same reason last year. However, is there ever a case when the individual with the 5% benefit is happier with his or her outcome than the person with the 10% benefit? Perhaps if Arthur only expected a 3% benefit but received 5%, while Emily expected 15% but only received one worth 10%, then indeed Arthur would be more satisfied with his outcome, despite it being objectively lower than Emily’s outcome.

 And how about the farewell gift? One colleague seems quite content with a gift voucher worth ‘$50’ until s/he realises his workmate’s voucher was worth $100. Another worker may not even have expected a parting gift so may be deliriously happy with the voucher he received. (There are good reasons to codify in practice who gets what and when and in what circumstances to avoid this!)

Non-Referent Upward thinking: thinking situations could have been worse. Eg I think about how much better things could have been.

Other-Referent Upward thinking: thinking situations could have been better if it were not for other people. Eg If only another person (or people) had spoken up at the time, this situation would have turned out better.

Self-Referent Upward thinking: thinking situations could have been better if it were not for one’s own actions. Eg I wish I had a time machine so I could just take back something I just said or did. 

Non-Referent Downward thinking: thinking situations could have been better generally. Eg I think about how much worse things could have been. 

Upward counterfactuals are thoughts as to how a situation might have turned out better. For example, a driver who causes a minor car accident might think: “If only I had swerved sooner, I could have avoided the accident.” In contrast, downward counterfactuals spell out the way a situation might have turned out worse; that is, the same driver could think: “If I had been driving faster, I might now be dead.” Upward counterfactuals seem to be the most common in everyday life. (Psychology – research and reference)

Whenever someone says “if only” or “almost,” or use words like “could,” “would,” or “should,” s/he may be expressing a counterfactual thought (If only I were smart; I almost won that prize, etc.).

What do we do with all of this? The idea is to learn from counterfactual thinking so that we can correct mistake, and avoid slipping into negative thinking in the future. Counterfactual thinking can serve a preparatory function so we can avoid the same mistake in the future.

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