The 1/3 Rule of Managing Situations

The PhD program has been a life changing experience. Though the program is not over yet, and doesn’t seem to be anytime sooner, I still deem that I have learnt a significant lot, both on the cognitive and behavioral front.

Most of the insights and heuristics that I carried from my working life at Wipro and the consulting experience at several organizations have got a chance to get synthesized here. I am increasingly realizing the truth in the dictum of my hero- Nicholas Nassim Taleb that ‘knowledge is subtractive.

Which means that intelligence comes with delayering of knowledge and the evolution towards the more abstract. This intelligent often takes the shape of heuristics, or mental shortcuts.

Here is one such rule-of-thumb that has served me rather well in all these years. The rule is about how you manage uncomfortable situations.

The sheer variety of people, their behaviors, likes and dislikes, makes the world such a wonderful adobe, and offers us our unique identities. However, not everyone is comfortable with differences, especially with difference in opinion.

A difference in opinion could easily escalate to differences among individuals, and that can be avoided with some careful thinking. Since PhD means ‘Doctorate in Philosophy’, one should expect philosophical discourse coming from me.

The real question here is – how should one manage an uncomfortable situation, especially the one originating from a difference in perspective.

Our lives, both personal and at workplace, are replete with such instances, and I have seen that managing such situations is an art, and like most art forms, there is some latitude for learning.

The heuristics that I prescribe is as follows:

A good one-third of all the situations should be ignored, as idiosyncrasies of people around us; the next one-third should be tolerated, knowing that the cost of not tolerating could be higher than the cost of tolerating; and the ones that could not be ignored or tolerated must then be confronted.

Remember the sequence of actions- Ignore –> Tolerate –> Confront. Let me explain in detail with the help of a commonplace example.

Imagine that you visit a hospital for a scheduled health checkup. Next to you is a person getting a shot and is screaming of pain. Certainly the feeling is discomforting, especially if you know that next is your turn. What should be your response?

You simply ignore the situation, for you can’t and shouldn’t do much about it. Next is your turn and you see that the prick is indeed nasty and pains a lot. Here you tolerate the pain, for you know that it’s for your good, as the price you pay to revolt is higher than the benefit of tolerance.

Finally, it’s time for you to settle your bill, and you see a mistake in the billing. Do you ignore or tolerate it? Certainly not. You confront the situation, and resolve it.

Now this might read like a very mundane example, but if you look closely enough most situations in life can well be managed with this simple heuristics. However, one needs to remember certain key axioms.

  • Learn to ignore things.
  • Increase your tolerance levels.
  • Not everyone is comfortable with confrontation.
  • For transactional interactions, best is to ignore or tolerate.
  • Confront only when the interaction is non-transactional and long termism.

If intelligence and wisdom is about simplification, delayering and reduction, one must have the prudence to know the difference between trivial and vital.

Selective attention to the phenomena around us becomes a key capability, for your mind can only store finite information, let alone knowledge, and it is best to keep it free for the vital incoming insights. Equally important is to develop tolerance to ambiguity, variety, and scarcity.

It is witnessed that tolerance not only keeps you cool in a situation, but also earns you favor from people around. I am by no means advocating you to tolerate the injustice or unethical behavior; but instead about virtues of developing the capability of not being perturbed by the vagaries of the nature.

The growing unrest in the world is an indication of growing intolerance, and negative confrontation. If we are made different by nature, why don’t we make peace with it, and enjoy our uniqueness?

Finally, I come to confrontation, and anyone who has been through a relationship knows rather well that not everybody is good at confrontation. An confrontation could well dovetail into an ugly clash of egos and can leave a permanent dent in a relationship.

You must confront only with people with whom you don’t have a transactional relationship in future. If a relationship is transactional, or one time, there is just no point in confronting.

Best is to ignore or tolerate, and move forward. Think of road-rage or silly fights people engage in with complete strangers. Certainly not worth your time and taste.

Confrontation, as a mechanism should be deployed only selectively, as this calls for intense cognitive and effective involvement; and if not managed well, can well lead to some regrettable experiences.

Hope this 1/3 Rule would serve you well in your personal and professional life.

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Dr. PavanSoni

Pavan Soni is an Innovation Evangelist by profession and a teacher by passion. He is a Gold Medalist from MBM Engineering College Jodhpur, and did his PGDIE from NITIE Mumbai. Pavan has completed his Doctoral Studies from IIM Bangalore in the domain of innovation management.

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