My friend John struggles with his boss. He claims she is quick to criticize him, and takes for granted the things he does well. Discouraged, he complains about her every time we talk. “Listen to what Stacy did today! She drives me nuts.” Whenever he tells the story, he is the victim and Stacy is the bully. What’s interesting to me is John is an Event Planner for several Fortune 500 companies, traveling all over the country creating memorable events, telling lots of important people what to do. But when it comes time to go toe-to-toe with his boss, things get fuzzy for him.
I recently heard about a theory in psychology called “requisite variety.” Its premise is that the person in the room with the most variety of responses has the greatest power in that room. Because of his flexibility in responding to people, he often gets the result he wants. The opposite of this behavior is a “one trick pony,” someone who responds in predictable ways. Oftentimes the “one trick pony” keeps getting the same unhappy result, because he responds in the same way over and again. This is certainly true for my friend.
John has three typical knee-jerk responses, whenever his boss criticizes him: He gets quiet, avoids her, or gets defensive and hostile. I suggested he play with responses. Instead of his usual three responses that make him unhappy, why not channel Mary Poppins and pull something surprising out of his bag? I said, “John, you’re powerful when you are in charge of an event. I’ve seen you in action. You’re loose and laser-like. What happens with your boss?”
“Stacy’s my boss. She’s difficult. Lots of people feel the same way I do.”
“Yeah, but they don’t struggle and shrink-to-fit like you say you do. Lots of people poke back at her, and you’ve said she laughs it off.”
“Well I’m too nice then. I can’t do it.”
“Nice works well with babies and Grandma. Just try something a little different in how you respond to her. Respond in a way that’s a little outside your comfort zone. Do something novel. Just see what happens between you two. Run an experiment.”
“You’re a doofus. This will never work,” he said.
“Ha! That’s a good start,” I said.
A week later John called me. “I did that requisite variety thing,” he said.
“And . . .?”
“She teased me about how I organize my files and I said, “So glad you noticed. You know I live to annoy you.” She laughed! And I felt a lightness between us I hadn’t felt in ages. I think we’re onto something here.”
His experiment reminded me of a Carl Jung phrase, who said, “I’d rather be whole than good.” To me, this notion of being whole gets at the heart of “requisite variety.” Many of us respond in scripted ways that may have worked in our family of origin or the systems we grew up in (like “playing nice”). As a result of this conditioning, we hew to our script, when what is called for is improvisation. What’s really interesting about John is that his new range of behaviors changed the way his boss interacts with him now. Stacy stopped criticizing him. The uncomfortable pattern between them dropped. When you drop out of habitual responses and engage in requisite variety, you invite others to do the same.
So giddyap, gorgeous. Next time that difficult person comes around, see what happens when you break out a fresh response. The truth is, each of us has way more tricks in our saddlebags than we can possibly imagine.