Why Adjectives are Eroding the Truth

I don’t yell as much as my mother.  I consider that an accomplishment. Unfortunately, my kids never knew my mother, so they have no idea how well I’m doing.

That’s the problem with comparisons.  We all live in our own world, a world forged by our experiences.  Consider these statements:

I’m a pretty good boss.

I had a great time.  

Where do the words pretty good or great originate?

My colleague (and daughter) Elizabeth McLeod says, “Every adjective we use is in reference to our own reality.  As humans we are constantly comparing everything.  That’s how we make a reality.”

Imagine your first two bosses yelled all the time.  They never offer you a word of praise.  One day you become a boss.  You’ll likely feel like a hero if you only yell occasionally and praise once a month.

You’re comparing yourself to the reality you know, your past bosses.  Your employees have a totally different frame of reference.  Your team compares you to the bosses they’ve known.  And, they also compare how you make them feel versus how they feel when they are away from you.  Said another way, if you make them feel terrible, it doesn’t matter if it’s not quite as terrible as your last boss made you feel, it’s still terrible.

In our discussion about self-perceptions, Elizabeth said, “We see things on a spectrum; we hear things on a spectrum.  This person’s work is better than this one; this food is better than that one.  Comparison is how we make sense of the world. But your spectrum is different from everyone else’s spectrum.”

Elizabeth whose Masters degree work is in industrial psychology says, “We consider our perceptions a universal reality, but they are just reality in your own mind.  We have thousands of words in our English language that are dependent on how each of us experience reality: good, great, bad, smelly.  When we use adjectives like they’re facts – good boss, bad boss – it creates cognitive dissonance.”

Here are two statements:  See if you can determine which one is a belief and which one is a fact:

  1. I’m a good boss.
  2. My boss makes me feel terrible.

It may seem like they’re both subjective. But statement A is a belief, while statement B is fact.  B is a fact because it’s a specific truth about one person’s experience; it doesn’t claim to be universal.  It claims to be a feeling, and it is.  Statement A is a blanket statement; it’s a belief that may or may not hold up to a wider reality.

Bosses (and parents) are frequently frustrated when they do more than their predecessors, yet their team (or kids) expresses little gratitude for their herculean efforts.  Cognitive dissonance (mental stress) occurs when the leader is confronted with facts – disgruntled employees reporting candidly on a survey or unhappy kids – that contradict the leader’s belief.

Let’s flip the parenting example.  Was there ever a moment in your own childhood when you said, “Wow, my parents are so much better than their parents?”

Benchmarking ourselves against others is hard coded for humans.  In modern times it translates into trying to be a little better than the norm.  But your past norm may not be the appropriate comparison for your current situation.

Think about the adjectives you use to describe yourself – good, bad, better, best – are they based on current reality?  Or are they rooted in old norms keeping you from the truth?