Are People Big or Small?

I have been struck by how often developers, leaders and managers come down on one side or another of this issue of people’s basic nature — mostly as a matter of belief rather than of observation.

Those who want people to be big, honorable, self-motivated, and self-directed often speak to people’s big side. They want to inspire people to be their best — to go for it, to dream big, to commit large. They want people to see themselves as forces for the good.

There is a difficulty here. Those developers and managers of others who take this tack are often let down and have to explain it somehow. People get frightened; they get tired; they sell out. They explain away their failings. They justify their failures. These things are normal occurrences — not always, but surely not never.

If one believes the positive “people are big” proposition, then it becomes incumbent upon the developer or manager to try more inspiration, more heartfelt motivational talk about how big the person is, and about how trusting themselves and giving it one’s all will carry the day.

Sometimes the new inspiration works for a while. Inspiration, however, is often short-lived, especially when “received” from another rather than self-generated. The number of ways and opportunities to sell out on the inspiration likely exceeds the external and internal support for fulfilling the inspiration — unless the environment is quite unusual.

There is always the other main approach — that “people are small” and not to be fully trusted. Those in this camp are less often disappointed. If they micro-manage, berate, manipulate, oversee, constantly follow-up, they are likely to get an outcome somewhere in the range that they expected. If so, it proves the concept. If not and this method fails, it also proves the concept. The key to managing people’s smallness is often to make a big consequence to failure and have the fear of the consequence keep people from selling out.

There is a difficulty in either camp. The positive “people are big” camp have to keep dealing with failures and sell outs of what was once an inspired focus. These failures seem to argue against bigness unless covered with an explanation for why the person wasn’t “being their real self”.

Those in the “people are small” camp get stuck constantly doing part of another’s job or work and being the “bad guy/gal” making threats and cajoling, always on edge about whether an outcome will be successfully achieved.

Neither approach seems wholly satisfying.

My approach is rather simple and obvious after observing and working with many thousands of people. I call it “people are big and people are small“. From this view, yes, inspiration is possible. As is generosity of spirit. As is self-motivated, self-generated leadership. And, yes, so is getting fearful, tired, worried, small, avoiding difficult issues, etc. And both arrive in the same package.

What is one to do with that? Everything. And everything in its proper timing and preemptive responsiveness. One can inspire people to take on what is a stretch for them, and be supportive of their attaining it. At the same time, part of the support is to build in the consequences for selling out, or being lazy, or misusing the support. Making the inspired direction public increases the consequences. As does checking in to see what people are making of the support you provide that they asked for.

My point here is that whatever side of the equation “people are big and people are small” you avoid, will cost both you and them. If you pretend that people aren’t wired for avoidance and fear, you will be surprised and undermined by them when those elements come into play. If you pretend that people cannot be inspired and generative, you won’t have any obvious evidence around you that let’s you see that they are and can be.

My suggestion is that you consider whether either side of this equation bothers you or is diminished in your approach to people. If it is, try exploring what it takes to address it well for three months. Take on being effective with it and discover what that takes. And see if becoming effective with both sides of the equation doesn’t balance out and improve your overall effectiveness in supporting people and their accomplishments.

About Ken Anbender

Kenneth Anbender Ph.D. has spent the last 50 years working with more than a hundred thousand people directly on the principles and methods that support the fulfillment of a human life -- in community and at work. He has developed a body of work that is licensable called The Contegrity Approach.
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One Response to Are People Big or Small?

  1. Tony Putman says:

    Very clear and to the point, Ken.

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