Friday, October 25, 2013

The disproportionality factor - why do people get angry?

It has recently occurred to me that many of the conflicts and negative feelings I see from time to time at work and elsewhere are caused by two parties having very different levels of interest in something they are cooperating on. For one party, the party that wants something from the other party, the effort is extremely important, for the other party, the delivering party, it doesn't really matter.

For instance, think of a situation where you're going to a foreign country on the other side of the world. You have done countless preparations, booked the flights, scheduled everything around it at work, and now just need to obtain the visa from the embassy - which is late.

So you send reminders, press for it to go through, and finally get through by phone in the one service hour per day to a person who kindly explains that yes, he has your papers, and yes they look fine, but unfortunately he will not be able to process them because he's going to lunch and after that he has two weeks off so the case will have to wait on his desk until well into your travels.

I think most people would get pretty angry in that situation.

For better or worse, we have to rely on other people which means they sometimes have power over us. I am not talking about formal power relations, I am talking about the fact that when someone is doing something for you, you have effectively lost control over what happens. A manager who assigns a task to one of this workers is dependent on the worker to do his job. Otherwise everyone, not just the worker but also the manager although he's formally the one in power, gets in trouble.

And when you have lost control over something that is very important to you, and the other party has very little if any inherent interest in the matter, chances are something will go wrong.

Oops, you need to walk here? (by Gabriel)
I think of this as the disproportionality factor.

More examples: the bus is a bit late. For the driver, it's only 3 minutes, but for you it's the difference between being able to catch the train or having to wait two hours for the next one. Are you cursing at the transportation company? Yes, you are.

Or in reverse: you spend 10 minutes extra at work with the phone turned off to finish up an important project, get home in high spirits, and find an angry and hurt husband or wife who wasn't able to go to a concert because you were supposed to get home half an hour early to take care of the children. Which you had of course forgotten - because you weren't the one buying a ticket three months in advance in anticipation.

In a similar way at work: when we call the hosting company because our server is down, it's critical for us. But for the operator in the other end, it's just pressing a button to restart one server among thousands.

It happens with minute details too: why are people not aligning their vehicles properly at the parking lot - now I can't park properly! Why are people not formatting their code properly when they know I hate camelNotation! Why has this error in the software I'm using not yet been fixed when it annoys me everyday!

I think there are two things that are important in dealing with the disproportionality factor.

The first is that we need to understand what's important to other people. This goes both ways - you need to think about what's important for people you are dealing with, and you need to communicate effectively what you think is important.

The second is that we need to remember that on average, we can't expect people to really care that much about anything that isn't important to them. That's just human nature.

So we need to help them, not just by explaining what we think is important but also by helping them out, instead of just crossing our fingers and hoping for the best, and then getting ticked off when we are inevitably disappointed.

And sometimes, when in the land of the minute details, we perhaps need to help ourselves to just get some perspective.