Observing human behaviour – when we choose to intervene and when we don’t

I know I’m not qualified to comment really, but I do find some parents attitude to parenting quite bizarre…

We had a coffee in Abingdon marketplace the other weekend. A couple of parents arrived with one infant in stroller and one youngster in backpack. Something was going on because the mother was in a right strop with the father. She humphed down in the chair and studiously ignored all three of them. So he parked the stroller by the table, got a high chair and put the youngster in it, then went off to get coffees. They were quite respectably dressed – she especially looked as though she’d come from a traditional Church meeting – quite prim and proper with thick tights and a matching ensemble.

He came back with just two coffees. Now, clearly (to me) the young boy in the high chair was going to associate being put into it, and up against a table, with getting food or drink. Why else was he (in his mind) going to be there?

When he realised that Dad had just bought mother and himself nice big cups of foaming coffee, and nothing for him and his sister, he did what any self-respecting young boy would do – make his presence known. He kicked out with both his feet. Now, bear in mind that he isn’t yet all that coordinated so whether he was just a bit irritated or seriously angry (I actually thought the former) his legs went out with some force. Result! The table was seriously jolted and both cups of coffee were spilt. Although there was a lot of mess, I doubt if more than an inch of each went flying – they didn’t have to go and buy replacements.

Father leapt up and went to get some cloths. Mother stood and faced down the boy – eyeball to eyeball she tells him what a stupid thing that was to do, how he should NEVER do that again, how he could have hurt his little sister, what a mess he’d made, and it went on and on. Eventually, father returned, mopped up while she continued to remonstrate with the child. Finally, she sat down, more humph, more ignoring the family. Father picked up the little boy (who was not crying but was very obviously extremely subdued) and took him for a walk around the marketplace.

So what do you do when these things happen? Do you just sit and watch – a little gobsmacked? Do you intervene and, if so, with whom and how?

It so happened that there was a convention of rescue dogs behind us.

At least, three humans each guardians of a rescue dog, were swapping notes about the abuse that their respective mutts had suffered in the past and how they had stepped in and saved them. One in particular had a very harrowing account of how he’d literally taken the dog from drug users on a street and, when he’d taken it to the vet because it was ill, discovered that it was doing cold turkey itself. I’d seen this bloke walk past a few minutes before, and to be honest wouldn’t have gone out of my way to talk to him – dressed a bit roughly, tattoos all over his arms, legs and neck, large dog in harness with muzzle. He’d further drawn attention to himself, by asking the assistant very politely while she was clearing tables if she could possibly bring him a coffee AND SOME ICE-CREAM FOR THE DOG because he didn’t think it was a good idea to bring his companion into the shop!

The contrast in attitude to another being was quite extraordinary.

I wish I could say I’d done something. Maybe ask the mother if she was alright? (Probably the preferred option!) Maybe offer to buy the kid some ice cream? Maybe suggest the name of a relationship counsellor? Maybe ask the father if he needed the name of a good divorce lawyer?

So, what are the fantasies and fears, projections, and stereotypes that influence our behaviour in situations like this? Which ones help us survive today and which are legacies from our cave-man ancestors? When does our sense of outrage provoke us to act? When does our sense of decorum prevent us? Are those people who do intervene more naive or more spiritually evolved?

Best wishes
Graham Wilson
07785 222380
executive-post.info | the-confidant.info

One Comment

  1. Well… Thank you for the feedback – someone has expressed concern that this blog article was outside the scope of management and leadership. I will try to make the connection more obvious in the future. Just for the record, these are some of the reasons I think that this is very much ‘on topic’.:

  2. Firstly, try to consider the situation that this article describes as a parable. Just because I made those judgements at a weekend, in a public space, of people that I didn’t know, doesn’t mean to say that I won’t make similar judgements back at work. Almost on a daily basis I encounter senior executives stereotyping in just the same way.
  3. As leaders (and managers) we don’t hang up our responsibilities when we go home at night, nor do we cease to have a responsibility just because we have no positional power. We are expected by society to demonstrate leadership at all times, to be role models.
  4. If you encountered such behaviour (one stronger individual abusing a less strong one) at work, you would probably label it bullying. In the street like this, with a mother and child it was abuse – emotional certainly, and potentially physical.. It sat (and continues to sit) on my shoulders because I did not intervene. At work, would I do the same? Sadly, the evidence is that many leaders do just that – they have not adequately prepared themselves to consider what they might do and so they don’t do anything. Well, let this scenario act as a case study for you to reflect on what such bullying might look like at work and how you would address it if you encountered it.
  5. We each of us have ‘baggage’. There are some things that push our buttons and some that don’t. I hold a regular monthly informal networking drink in Oxford (let me know if you’re in the area and would like to be invited – all are welcome) and three of the participants had read this article earlier in the day. One clearly had their abuse button pushed. They were SO furious that this had happened and I hadn’t intervened. I have a humanitarian button – when someone DOES do something, unasked, to alleviate the suffering of another I can easily well up in tears. I was on the verge of tears when I heard the story of the abuse suffered by the rescue dogs. I am ashamed of myself for not intervening with the woman. These buttons get pressed just as much at work as elsewhere. Often people don’t know what their buttons are – they simply react slightly differently to other people in the same situation. What are your buttons? What situations at work stimulate your emotions more than other people’s?
  6. We talk of people being more productive at work when they are ‘engaged’. Emotional engagement is about aligning people’s personal ‘buttons’ with the cause of the organisation. One of the keys to a fulfilling career is to find a profession, an organisation, a type of work, that aligns with your own ‘buttons’ – this is why we talk of people having a ‘calling’ or a ‘vocation’. Most times, it is out-of-work experiences that provide clues to these. In reading this article, ask yourself what kind of scenario would have got to you emotionally, and see if there aren’t any indicators in there that you might want to follow up in your own career planning.
    I could go on, but I hope that by now you can see why I feel that this is very much an item suited to a space for managers and leaders. However, I understand the criticism and will try to make sure that any future ones are more overtly aligned.
  7. By the way, if you want to engage in a discussion about this or any other article I have written, you are always welcome to leave a comment and I do try to reply ASAP.

    Best wishes, Graham.

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