Two Foolish Habits of Otherwise Brilliant People

Corporate Peacekeeper (and referee of last resort) Anna Maravelas thinks we all have too much of it at work, at home, in our cars, in line for double decaf latte. And she’s not gonna take it anymore.

Maravelas is confident that she not only has diagnosed our predominant collective affliction, but also knows the cure. This is a woman who doesn’t mince words. “Modern civilization is teetering on the brink of an epidemic of emotional idiocy,” she says. “Cynicism, irritability, anger, depression, and hostility are on the rise.”

Oh, yeah?

Face-to-face, summoned to New York from her native Minnesota, and asked (nicely) to prove it, Maravelas hauls out a battery of statistics on everything from road rage (up 51 percent in the last decade) to the emergence of something called assault insurance for umpires at kids’ sporting events. Her demeanor is incongruously calm and unassuming as she explains that our world has become a pressure cooker. “Everyone feels rushed,” she says. “And each of us has about 30 frustrations a day.

They can be little things, hassles, minicrises, but when we’re tired, we get mad.”

To put it bluntly- which she manages to do in an improbably soothing voice- “Thirty times a day, we have a chance to screw up.”

This brings Maravelas, who is a psychologist by training, to her favorite topic: The self-defeating habits of otherwise brilliant people. At the root of every conflict, she says, lies one of two behaviors. “The first is to blame someone else when a problem arises. The other is to blame ourselves. I call these reactions the stinky twins. They grow out of the same DNA, or thinking pattern: I’m frustrated because of someone’s stupidity. The only difference is the target: another person or ourselves.”

Finger-pointing, she says, is rampant in the workplace. When the deadline is missed, the client walks, or the new product’s a nonstarter, we reflexively look for dumb things other people did. Even PhDs with astronomical IQs make this mistake, Maravelas says. “They are duped by the dazzle of contempt.”

Blood pressure rises; productivity falls. Get mad enough and your body is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol for up to two hours. “During that period, you are more likely to overreact to the next frustration,” Maravelas says. “And since reciprocity is considered the most reliable predictor of human behavior, it’s likely that others will serve your hostility right back to you.”

Maravelas also points to research by John Gottman, PhD, founder of the Relationship Research Institute in Seattle, showing that once your heartbeat goes above 100 beats per minute (up from the typical 82 for women), you can’t process information well enough to solve a problem. Fortune 500 companies and small businesses hire Maravelas to eradicate lose-lose behavior because it erodes the bottom line. And home is not a refuge: “Plenty of people tell me that they hold it together at the office, and then walk in the front door and explode because someone left the milk out.”

The stinky Twins, knee-jerk anger and self-blame, are often connected at the hip. “For example, a mother sees her child has gotten a bad grade,” Maravelas says. “She screams at him, then she beats herself up for yelling and being a bad mom.”

Maravela’s prescription for the prevention of self-flagellation and flip-outs is curiosity. “It makes you smart, sexy, and successful,” she says, then amends herself. “Well, okay, maybe not sexy. But effective, knowledgeable, and respected.”

To illustrate, she offers a hypothetical situation that’s central to her book, How to Reduce Workplace Conflict and Stress. “Let’s say you’re running late for an important appointment and your anxiety is increasing. At a red light, you watch with irritation as the driver in front of you focuses her attention on the backseat. Sure enough, when the light changes, she doesn’t notice. You tap you horn impatiently, but she ignores you. Instead, she gets out of her car, opens the back door, and starts digging around. Your heart is racing as you roll down your window and scream at her to move. It takes several more minutes before she does.”

You might think, That woman is an idiot. She doesn’t care about anyone else. You could blast yourself: Why did I take this route? I can’t even drive to an appointment without getting behind some freaking stuck car.

This scene, however, is based on a true story that Maravelas read about in a local paper, and neither driver was at fault: “The reason the woman didn’t move her car when the light changed was that her toddler was choking in the backset. She was frantically clearing the child’s throat.”

Maravelas is fond of acronyms: If the stinky twins are BO (blame others) and BS (blame self), the effective response to frustration is BIBS, for baby in the backseat. “More than one CEO has told me he now uses that catchphrase to avoid flooding with anger,” she says. “It’s code for, ‘There’s something going on in the other person’s life that I can’t see. If I knew what it was, his behavior would make sense to me.’ ”

When the deadline’s missed
Or the client walks,
We reflexively look for dumb
things other people did.

Maravelas coaches warring colleagues to approach one another with an open mind. The result isn’t instant accord, but the start of détente. One of the toughest challenges is to confine grievances to hard facts, not interpretation (“She’s so competitive”), speculating (“He must think I’m a pushover”), or embellishments (“She always does this”). Frequently, just one or two small incidents (like not following up with a call) have become the tiny, hidden irritation at the heart of a giant pearl of resentment.

Sparring partners are asked to turn their focus from “Who was wrong?” to “What went wrong, and how do we fix it?” In one instance, a pair of supervisors settled on biweekly lunch dates to keep conversation flowing and send a message to their subordinates that “Mom and Dad aren’t fighting anymore.”

All of this is lovely, but it begs the question: What if the other person really is an incompetent jerk?
According to Maravelas, a rotten egg is rare. “When I started my business 15 years ago, I thought I was going to be finding bad people who needed to be punished,” she says. “Then I realized I was dealing with all these good, reasonable people.” They simply lacked insight into how their behavior affected others, or the skills to articulate what was bothering them, or the confidence to speak up rather than simmer. Out of roughly 200 conflicts she’s handled, she concluded in only three cases that someone needed to be fired.

“I certainly hold people accountable for their actions,” she says. “But the big shift I’ve made is that I’ve realized how much more useful it is to do that with warmth instead of contempt. I ask clients to tell themselves what I say to myself: ‘You can be effective or self-righteous: Pick one.’”