Our big letdown with leaders

A good piece in Sunday’s Boston Globe Ideas section reveals we human beings disappoint easily.  And if we are easy to disappoint we are acutely set up for big letdowns from leaders all around us.  However, the big letdown and disappointment we beings feel really may have more to do with us then the leaders themselves.

Here are a bucket of paraphrased quotes and article take-aways:

  • Disappointment and regret are distinct emotions, triggered by different sorts of events and motivating us to act in different ways. Being disappointed with a person feels different from being disappointed with an outcome, and the difference demands a different response.
  • Research suggests that the counterfactual, what might-have-been if different decisions had been made, different policies pursued, or different politicians elected, grows increasingly positive in memory.  This then sets us up for future disappointment.
  • Regret is triggered when we think our own decisions don’t pan out
  • Disappointment is what we feel about circumstances that are beyond our immediate control.
  • Regret–or, more accurately, our desire to avoid future regret–is a major factor in how we decide what to do, what to say, and what to buy.
  • Disappointment … usually drives us to do not much at all, making it a less fruitful emotion for marketers and professional motivators. Negative emotions like anger or fear give people energy and incentive to act; disappointment does the opposite.
  • Art Markman, a psychologist at the University of Texas says, “[w]ith disappointment and sadness, they’re very low-energy kinds of states…[w]hich is why people who are sad and disappointed don’t do things like vote.”
  • Disappointment depends on its target:  when people are disappointed in other people–a friend that fails to show up for a birthday party, for example–they tend to be angrier and less sad than when they are disappointed in a blameless outcome like a rained-out baseball game.
  • People who are disappointed seem to prefer to blame people over circumstances.
    • Justin Kruger and Laura Kressel at New York University, along with Jeremy Burrus, then at Columbia Business School, last year published a paper in which subjects were told of people forced to make a decision between two or more bad options–in one study the experimenters used summaries of real-life custody cases in which judges had to choose between two seemingly unfit parents. Even when the lack of good options was explicitly laid out in this way, the test subjects still blamed the decision-maker for the poor outcome.
  • Over time, people tend to get less rather than more forgiving of missed opportunities.
    • People say their regret depends on how far back in time they’re asked to go.  One reason is over time we steadily minimize the barriers to action that shape our decisions. Our instinct is to come to believe that the thing we didn’t do would have been less difficult than we found it at the time.
  • How does one fight disappointment? In our personal lives we can try to keep our expectations realistic, or work to change whatever it is that’s not living up our expectations.
  • Psychologists categorize feelings as either “approach” emotions like hope–and, interestingly, anger–that impel us toward the object of our emotion, or ”avoidance” motivations like fear or disgust that drive us away. Hope and anger feel very different, but at the most fundamental level, both emotions send us toward the thing that incited them.
  • Disappointment, because it is deflated hope, is essentially an approach emotion, just a very low-energy one.  The way to reach low-energy people is, somehow, to reinspire them, to give them a vision of the future that gets them into the voting booth again.
  • There’s ample research in the psychology literature that shows just how incorrigibly optimistic and trusting human beings can be, and how vulnerable, as a result, they are.

Perhaps we should look less for leaders to lead more to the leadership within ourselves and own the change we want to see.  We can’t continue to project what leaders should be if we, ourselves, fear taking a leadership role.  There is little today to show that followers are what make the innovation engine hum along.

We are bound by paternalistic organizations, where leaders deem your worth, your direction, and your approval, if you want to own a stake in your future, it rarely involves following.  Leaders need to quell their fear of who knows best and invite skepticism and strangers into the discussion, only then is ownership shared.

As I’ve seen and advocate in organization change and transformation, sustainable change happens less through leaders driving their vision downward and more from an organization’s base.  When the base identifies, communicates, and insists on the need for change they want to be part of they then create, construct, and take part with greater commitment to the future they helped construct.  I wrote a bit more about this in Change management bottom up or top down.

Leadership comes from all levels.  Leadership is a verb, not a noun.  Those titled or gentry leaders should take confidence in their hard decisions from a quote the authors of the paper Between a Rock and a Hard Place include:

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right—for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” Eleanor Roosevelt

3 Sources or further insight:

  1. The Big Letdown by Drake Bennett from the Boston Globe
  2. Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Damned if you Do Damned if You Don’t .pdf download
  3. Investigating Appraisal Patterns of Regret and Disappointment
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