SELF-MANAGEMENT Quit Now – Leave the ‘ain’t it awful’ club

They sat near me on an early morning flight, three smartly dressed 30-something people, sufficiently loud, articulate and interesting for me to pay some attention to their conversation. Managers in high-tech industry, I figured. Over the next 50 minutes they agreed repeatedly, that they could be vastly more effective if it weren’t for their staff, colleagues, senior managers and clients who, in various creative ways stuffed up and impeded their progress. Their senior managers especially. Yes, this was definitely an ‘ain’t it awful’ group.
Most organisations have them. They can form anywhere, at any time, at all levels of the hierarchy, in pairs or larger combinations, no matter what the group’s original purpose for meeting. The consistent theme is consensus that ‘we’ could be more successful, happy and achieving if it wasn’t for those appalling SOBs and pathetic individuals who get in the way. Wherever ‘ain’t it awful’ groups exist you can bet that certain things are happening in their members’ lives and certain conditions exist in their organisations.

Self-victimisation
Imagine three concentric circles describing the various degrees of power and autonomy you have over your situation. Within the central circle is an area for “things over which I have complete autonomy and control”; within the next, “things I have the ability to influence though not control”. The outer circle encompasses “things I have no ability to influence or control in any way”.
‘Ain’t it awful’ groups concern themselves with things in the outer circle (that they cannot change) and things in the second circle that they could influence but choose not to. They worry and complain about them and set out to involve others in doing likewise, about the same issues. They make themselves miserable while blaming other people for the effects, not understanding or bringing to consciousness their own part in the creation of their problems.
It’s not that these behaviours waste time: they kill time by spreading distortion, helplessness, anxiety, frustration and hopelessness, rather like heavy-duty computer virus. The process saps strength and tenacity rather than encouraging these qualities. ‘Ain’t it awful’ groups encourage self-victimisation and are exactly the opposite of empowering ‘support’ groups.

Support groups are different
Participants in useful support group are challenged to practise self-responsibility, to carefully define their problems, to identify and begin eliminating the causes. support group reminds its members of three things:
1. The practice of self-responsibility begins with recognition that each of us is responsible for our own existence.
2. This requires willingness to generate all the causes of all the effects we want to experience; and
3. If we need others’ cooperation to reach our goals, we must provide them with reasons that are meaningful in terms of their own interests and needs.
A support group challenges, “What are you going to do about it?” It asks, “Where and when will you start?” and offers, “How can we best support your progress?”

Awful origins
There are many reasons for the existence of groups. Conventional parenting, conventional schooling, the predominant arrangement of power in organisations, the seduction of self-victimisation and the tendency for misery to enjoy company, all contribute. Talkback radio probably does much to ensure they flourish. I blame my parents, or their parents. (Well, it’s not my fault!)
Conventional parenting and conventional schooling take overmuch responsibility for development away from the child. Adults establish the ideals, the curriculum, the criteria of competence. They determine targets and agenda, select and arrange the processes, measure progress and issue pass/fail judgements. To one degree or another the consequences are irresponsibility, inability to self-determine or self-assess, learned helplessness and negative expectations of power and control. When individuals take these into the life of hierarchical organisations, they automatically intensify the politics (the arrangement of power) especially those aspects of it that operate against self-responsibility and in favour of others’ control over the constituents.
No matter how flat, all hierarchies by definition represent an unequal distribution of power that depends on the willingness of people to (a) exercise power over others; (b) yield it to few; or (c) do both. The inevitable effects of the arrangement include varying degrees of competitiveness, irresponsibility, tension, frustration, resentment, boredom and apathy, depending on where we are situated in the hierarchy, our personalities and our aspirations.
The focus of ‘ain’t it awful’ groups usually includes what it is about hierarchies that cannot be controlled: the arrangement of power and its natural consequences. It would be more realistic to acknowledge these features as some of the things we have no ability to influence other than by accepting others’ control of us, becoming more powerful or more able within the organisation (so as to have more control over others or to better share power) or by transferring our services to organisation run as semi-autonomous anarchic collective – the Royal Australasian Society of Anarchists, for instance.
Misery likes company. Very many people have developed habits of joining-in, colluding with, supporting and in some cases revelling in negativity, complaint and gossip. These are often linked to habits of self-victimisation. ‘Ain’t it awful’ groups serve these habits well, each participant adding to each other’s sense of righteous indignation, possession of talents that are disregarded or overlooked, and constant struggle against widespread malevolence, stupidity and conspiracy.
“Most folk are about as happy as they choose to be.”

Start here and change
Our reactions and attitudes to the situations in which we find ourselves are entirely within our power to control. We can start by learning to understand our own part in what we find unsettling or challenging about our circumstances, by finding answers to this question: What am I choosing to believe, think, feel or do that contributes to this being problem for me? In your answers lie “the beginning of wisdom” and the power to change negative situations. Through this process we can become better self-managers.
We might make attitudinal changes by first learning more about our thinking and thought processes, and modifying any tendencies towards self-victimisation. For example, instead of giving away more personal power than is asked for or required, (which is what ‘ain’t it awful’ groups do), we can establish exactly what it is we have traded in return for paid work, hold the boundaries represented by that agreement, and teach others to respect them.
We can monitor and improve our relationship-management and problem-solving behaviours, especially those to do with confronting conflict, resolving differences, giving feedback (especially upwards feedback) and requesting behaviour changes. No matter what the nature of relationship, we can learn and implement better relationship-management practices.
These (and many other) steps towards progress require no-one’s permission but our own.

For manager or leader
Managers and leaders can do great deal to neutralise the damaging effects of ‘ain’t it awful’ groups by methodically empowering and enabling their usual participants.
You might learn more about developing cohesion, and how to increase commitment through increasing collaboration. No-one enjoys being left out of decision-making that affects their daily existence or their future. Minimise this tendency. Maximise involvement in problem-solving, decision-making and planning wherever possible, to maximise commitment to solutions, decisions and plans.
Managers and leaders can demystify their management, leadership and decision-making processes by making them transparent and therefore

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