Piggybacking (does anyone use that word anymore?) on Mark Beese's Beware of Well Intentioned Dragons at Leadership for Lawyers, I have often wondered what motivates dragons. They are not a rare species so are worthy of some wondering. I think we all know a dragon or three. You know the type. Fire-breathing creatures with hard-to-penetrate scales; aggressive, overbearing, uncollaborative beasts. Beese says:
Dragons lurk in law firms, often with the best of intentions to do something right (according to them) or prevent problems, but are lethal in their criticism, discouraging attitude, and negativity.
Do people who derive their self-confidence from good mental health and hone their interpersonal skills with an adequate level of compassion ever act like dragons? Sometimes, I suppose. I have found that dragons are typically acting from: 1) fear about their own adequacy, public image or ability to control, 2) power entrancement, or 3) ignorant insensitivity. Regardless of the cause, their long tails can cut a painful swath and their wings can create a damaging gale.
Fear can cause people to act in peculiar ways. Vernon Howard is a wise man on the topic of fear. Even though he wrote Psycho-Pictography: The New Way to Use the Miracle Power of Your Mind back in the mid-1960s, what he said as quoted below is now being proven by neuropsychology. (See, for example, this excerpt of Daniel Goleman's Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships.) Howard addresses dragon-igniting fear.
Whenever encountering a troublesome person, do not identify him as being cruel or stupid or rude or anything else like that. Instead see him as a frightened person. This is exactly what the cruel or rude person is. . . .
Now let's see how your switch in viewpoint changes things.
. . .
[S]ee what happens when you really understand that he acts as he does because he is scared. This will not make you negative in turn. It does not make you angry or defensive. You remain emotionally free of him. So you are able to proceed calmly and wisely. Not only that but your calmness impresses him; your strength is transferred to him. The process is reversed. Instead of his negativity transferring itself to you, you transfer your positiveness to him. It is much like offering a new kind of candy to a child; he may not understand it at first, but he senses that you are his friend. In time, he may taste that candy -- your understanding of him -- and the relationship is magically transformed.
And what can power do to a person's behavior? Listen to NPR's Health & Science on The Power of Power to Alter Mood.
Various new studies indicate the phrase "drunk with power" is accurate. Social scientists at Stanford and U.C. Berkeley show power can act like alcohol to lower inhibitions. We're not sure if it was power or alcohol that caused Mel Gibson to insist he "owned Malibu" when pulled over by police. The research also shows power boosts both adrenaline and serotonin levels. Maybe that's why Henry Kissinger called it "the ultimate aphrodisiac."
More about power from Stanford Business School in "The Half-Truths of Leadership." From the article sidebars:
Because leaders succumb to the same self-enhancement tendencies as everyone else, magnified by the adulation they receive, they have a tendency to lose their behavioral inhibitions and behave in destructive ways. They need to avoid this trap and maintain an attitude of wisdom and a healthy dose of modesty.
Sometimes people ignore with surprising blinders the feelings of others. Ignorant insensitivity can be dragonesque, too. I just learned of this incident so it's fresh in my mind as an illustration. Tara lives in Wyoming and her sister Greta lives in California. Tara knew that many members of her family were going to be arriving at Greta's house for Thanksgiving but was not sure about the exact schedules. Tara e-mailed her sister and asked that the family call when they were all assembled so she could talk to them. She told Greta when she would be leaving to attend her own Thanksgiving dinner and stayed in the vicinity of the phone until she left. No phone call came prior to her leaving. When she returned that evening still no call had come from California. Late that night Tara received this from Greta:
Sorry we didn't get around to calling you. I was so busy getting lunch together that I forgot to tell everyone else. We had a good Thanksgiving.
A casual slip of the mind causing a hurtful casualty in the relationship.
For seven tips on how to interact with dragons, see Mark Beese's post. You will find a mighty cute dragon graphic there, too. Speaking of Mr. Beese, earlier this month, I had a fun, energizing, thought-provoking meeting with Mark, Julie Fleming Brown of Life at the Bar, and Dr. Tojo Thatchenkery, co-author of Appreciative Intelligence: Seeing the Mighty Oak in the Acorn. I am grateful that serendipity found all four of us in Virginia at the same time.
A tip for dragons: Regardless of what makes a person don the dragon suit and breathe fire, he or she can learn to pull back the flames by reading a book written by my friend Bob Burg entitled Winning without Intimidation.
Note (added February 18, 2007, 5:45 PM Mountain): Related to this topic is Professor Robert Sutton's new book The No Asshole Rule. The book is getting a huge amount of blogosphere buzz in general and also on the legal blogs. For example: David Giacalone, Julie Fleming Brown, and Mark Beese all posted recently about the book. The American Lawyer carried an excerpt "The No-Asshole Rule." Just a couple of days ago, Sutton himself posted at his blog Work Matters on "Lawyers and The No Asshole Rule."