July 25, 2012

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda


Who decides someone should do anything?

That was the question I posed recently during a lively debate over a latte or two (OK, three) with colleagues. The entire conversation started when a friend asked us for advice about an opportunity she was considering. “You really should do it” was the chorus from most everyone, but not me.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a total relativist believing there is only gray in the world, nothing but ambiguous space in which any decision can be legitimized as an acceptable one. But this whole notion of should is something I have always found to be a bit suspect.

When individuals believe something should be done they often make the statement as if some omnipotent God has issued a decree on the topic. In fact, what we should do can often be traced to a few perspectives: (1) the prevailing social norm; (2) what those offering the suggestion to us would do if they were in our situation; or (3) deeply engrained mental models we have grown to believe and accept over time.

Let’s use my friend’s situation for further illustration. She was trying to decide whether or not to accept a major promotion at her company. Doing so would significantly increase her visibility with the movers and shakers, as well as bring a fairly hefty pay increase. It also, however, would require a dramatically increased workload, significant travel, and an apparent reduction in her overall quality of life. So who can says she should move in that direction?

Operating under the dominant mental model that tends to declare all hierarchical advancement in an organization to be good, she should take the plunge. But when examined through the lens of her own personal values and priorities, the decision may not be quite so simple. Just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean we should.

This is the challenge we all face on a fairly regular basis. Deciding what to do based on our own internal barometer. Trouble is, prevailing social norms and dominant schools of thoughts are so pervasive and so powerful, we often succumb to their notion of what we should be doing.

And too often, we blindly enable the tradition of socially accepted “shoulds” without questioning their relevance or appropriateness for the matter at hand. Example: just because someone has been vice president of an organization doesn’t mean she should become the president. Yet that advancement is too often seen as inevitable. Organizations frequently fail to even assess the candidate’s skills and interests against the position’s demands and the organization’s needs.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda. It’s time to put on a better critical thinking cap as we approach our decisions. Just because one of your competitors is engaged in a particular action, doesn’t mean it would be a viable business opportunity for your organization. Just because your neighbors are adding on to their house, doesn’t mean doing so would be a good investment for your home. Just because one of your colleagues is jumping at a new position, doesn’t mean taking on that role is the right choice for you.

The next time you find yourself feeling you “should” do something, take pause. Dig a little deeper and assess whether you are responding to someone else’s notion of what is right for you, or a set of criteria more internally driven. That’s the only way we can make decisions true to our own individual and organizational purpose and values.


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