The Psychology of Contradictory Sayings and their Applications to Surviving the Workplace

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion,

Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

I love that quote-Talk about opposites attract! William Blake was one of my mom’s favorite poets. It was the first book of a bigillion that she went on to give to me throughout my childhood. She just loved reading and being transported to another world in her head- And who wouldn’t when the harsh reality outside our apartment window in the South Bronx was so harsh and too real. Blake’s quote shows the power of opposites, contradictory sayings and maybe even dialectical thinking.

Being in Curacao celebrating my sons fourth birthday reminded me of these. Right above the warm sea waters and blazing sun, in the middle of the ABC islands, near South America and the Caribbean islands you have palm trees juxtaposed with cactus trees. I understand there are cacti in the Galapagos and other such islands but it just screams out to me the old adage: opposites attract. To me this is the natural beauty of opposites in vivo.  And, yes there for those gaming nerds out there, Cactus Island is an island just south of Cosmo Canyon in Final Fantasy VII. It is the only place where Cactuers are found, and thus the only area in the game to get more Tetra Elementals. Apparently cactuses on an island are a very very important place and concept in a non-reality world.

Anyway, back to contradictory sayings. We’ve all heard of those sayings that when put together you wonder how they possibly can be true.  Of course, context is everything (or what social psychologists like to refer to as moderator variables).  Contradictory sayings can be applied to romantic relationships; everyday life or the workplace as outlined below. Read carefully because these are helpful hints, in the form of contradictory sayings, to help you navigate the workplace.

1)      Opposites attract but feathers of a feather flock together: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is probably the most influential of Blake’s works and it consists of a vision of a dynamic relationship between a stable “Heaven” and an energized “Hell”. In romantic relationships, having similar attitudes and perhaps even personality types is key to success. However, individuals in a relationship may want to differ on their individual key points of self-esteem and worth.  This is so you are not in competition with each other.  That’s why you can have an artist married to a scientist –they probably have similar attitudes or political affiliations but they each get their self-worth through different career trajectories. Now how does this play out in the workplace? It actually seems to work just the same way with workplace friendships and alliances. Yes, alliances. Remember that at times the workplace is like a game of survivor and you must figure out who will be on your team and get you to the end goal.

2)      Don’t judge a book by its cover but of course clothes make the man. We all know (or should) that stereotyping can be a bad thing since it acts as a mental shortcut so we don’t have to process a particular person or group anymore than need be. But stereotypes, it should be noted, come from base rate information and provided at one time necessary information that perhaps was needed to make instantaneous life or death decisions (i.e that tiger is likely to eat me, I better run).  Stereotyping can lead to discrimination and that is definitely a big no-no in the workplace. So, while you shouldn’t judge a person immediately based on superficial information the way they clothed themselves-meaning the image they decide to put out there- does convey a message that you would be hard pressed to ignore.  If someone dresses like they are going to a nightclub or a beach party what does that mean in terms of their work ethic or their focus? There is even research that shows that the first two minutes are key to making an impression in an interaction such as a job interview. And Ain’t that the truth. There have been times when two minutes into an interview I have closed my notebook and prayed for it to pass.

3)      You’re never too old to learn yet you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Let’s face it: Age matters. It’s a state of mind and it does impact teamwork, productivity and morale.  But it doesn’t impact work in terms of older individuals not being able to learn. That’s just not true.  Research has shown that learning continues throughout the lifespan. As a matter of fact, the largest segment of facebook users are now older than 30. Now, both the younger and older generations are quite stubborn and it is that which impacts the team’s productivity. Sometimes younger individuals in the workplace feel entitled to their positions (or better) and thus, it isn’t that they are too old to learn it’s that they feel that they already know everything there is to know. Then the older generation may feel put upon in that they may be viewed as natural mentors but that is not the position they want. Finding a balance between the generations is a tightrope to delicately walk across.

4)      Many hands make light work but beware too many cooks spoil the broth.  Ok, in general, about two-thirds of the way into a job interview I am conducting, I tend to ask a forced-choice question: “team project or individual assignment?”  Answers, when people actually answer them truthfully, are very telling. I tend to not lean towards either type;  I just like to hear the rationale. I, myself, far prefer individual assignments. How many divas can there be, really? But in terms of being a supervisor, when a large scale project comes along that requires discrete tasks and skillsets you indeed need many hands and have to ensure the assignments mirror the skills and that all are informed of their roles. But democracy in team projects at work doesn’t really work. At the end of the day when a crucial decision needs to be made “la que manda aqui soy yo” [I am the one that rules here].

5)      Its better to be safe than sorry but but but  nothing ventured, nothing gained. This particular saying is one I like to refer to as CYA-Cover your a$$. Period. Copy your boss on crucial emails. Don’t blindside your supervisor or colleagues unless you are planning to take their position. While you have to always engage in CYA you can’t be ruled by it. Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission, no? Sometimes you have to go with your gut and go for it! You won’t break glass ceilings of any kind by staying at your desk copying your boss on every email-it just serves to create enemies (“Blind copy” or “forward” function is your friend).

6)      If at first you don’t succeed, try again however don’t beat your head against a stone wall. This contradictory pairing is one I like to think of more in terms of Kenny Rogers’ famous line: you got to know when to roll them and know when to fold them. Some battles are not worth picking or waging in the workplace for there are some you just have to lose (or just not try). As a matter of fact, to win some bigger battles you got to let others win smaller skirmishes.  In terms of repeatedly trying certain tasks you can learn from failure until you succeed. But make sure you do learn from failure and eventually succeed. Trying and trying again because you can’t learn from your mistakes is just not cool and is a waste of everyone’s time and effort.

7)      Look before you leap but realize that he who hesitates is lost. In the workplace you do have to take careful, measured steps. I believe in looking at the data in order to make informed decisions. Data, when it exists, is your friend. So, looking before you leap doesn’t mean you take forever to leap to a decision it just means you are informed. Use the tools at your disposal. Once you make an informed decision-commit to it! Don’t second guess or flip flop. A leader doesn’t let others see her sweat! If you are in a tricky situation –Bullshit your way out. It’s what I tell my trainers to do out on the road. I even told a staff that in their annual review. Bullshitting is a key skill.  But make sure to be informed.

I will leave you with this thought from the band The Doors, who found one of their titles through a quote from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite”

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