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Earl R Smith II, PhD

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This essay has its roots in a chance conversation with an old friend. He shook his head and wondered why one of his employees kept acting in ways that sabotaged his own interests. It got me to wondering - then asking - then asking some more. This is a journey inward as much as outward. After all, none of us are exempt from being human.


I’ve been a student of human behavior for at least four decades. During that time I’ve become fascinated by behaviors which people adopt and which are self-sabotaging. Over the years I have developed a list of these behaviors which I used to keep track of the tendencies of people that I met. [Have you noticed that there seem to be a lot more self-sabotaging in the world? I have.] I recently began to suspect that the percentage in American society was shifting even more towards the negative tendencies. My natural curiosity – as well as my damaged sense of national pride – led me to do a bit of research.

In my advisory work I teach clients to open files on each person they meet and keep a record of their experiences with them. This keeps them from wasting time with non-productive relationships. Recently I have received a number of requests for some sort of organized presentation of the system. [There were it seems other people who were having the same experiences] I set about to formalize the list and provide a guide for using it. I even developed a ‘point system’ that seems to work remarkably well. [Everybody starts out with a hundred points. Points are deducted for each transgression.] I came up with eleven habits of self-sabotaging people. Here is the list:

1. They Are Late: I consider this unthinking treatment of others (and me in particular) to be one of the seminal indicators of a lack of respect. Being on time is one of the easiest ways to indicate to a person that their time and the potential relationship are important to you. It is also one of the easiest compliments to pay. You simply arrive on schedule.

Self-sabotaging people are almost always late for meetings. Somehow they don’t seem to recognize the incredibly insulting nature of this behavior. “Your time is so unimportant that I do not need to conserve it. You will see me when I get there. Until then, you wait!” seems to be the prevailing attitude. This, of course, quickly translates into “You are barely worth my time and should be happy that I showed up at all.”

When confronted with the insulting nature of this behavior these people usually come up with something like “I am sorry. My schedule always seems to get out of control. I am a victim of my own celebrity.” This replaces one insult with another – “You are not worth it” becomes “You are the true victim of my incompetency. It is your burden to bear.” Of course you are then asked to believe that they are going to prove completely competent in other, more demanding areas. [Give me a break - minus ten points]

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2. They Are Unprepared: I am constantly amazed at how little time self-sabotaging people spend preparing for meetings. As a matter of course, I prepare as if the individual that I am meeting is important and the matters we are going to discuss have substance.

My company’s website provides a lot of information about my interests, core competencies and projects. We do that for a reason – so that people can go there and find out about us. I also publish a lot of articles on various subjects – again to help people know what my interests are and identify possible common interest. We go to a lot of effort to make that information available. So what does it say about a person when they come to an initial meeting without spending any significant time on the website? In other words, they are winging it!

Most often I have spent a fair amount of time on their site (including printing out selected portions to use at the meeting). Pages will have highlighted areas where I want clarification or additional information. I spend time going over things that either interested or confused me. Self-sabotaging people are generally not even conscious of the difference in our preparation levels. [Minus ten points]

3. They Are Unfocused: I get to a meeting and quickly discover that the other person has not thought through why he was interested in meeting with me. I remember meeting with a guy who had asked me to advise him on a new career direction. We set up a session to which he arrived late. [Minus ten points – I was doing him a favor and he returned it by insulting me] When we finally settled down and my temper came back under control, I asked him what he wanted to do – what direction he was considering. “I really don’t know,” was the reply “I’ve just started thinking about it.” I paid the check and left Bo Peep to find his sheep. [Minus twenty points – a double!]

4. They Are Superficial: “I just wanted to meet with you to see if you could help me get business.” Wow, I love this one. When the hell did I become your business development department – and, if I understand you correctly, an unpaid one at that? Give me a break. And if you really want to bring the conversation to a complete halt, ask “what’s the quid pro quo”. Usually the response is something like “Well, I’d be happy to pay you a finder’s fee if I do get business from one of your introductions.” Sure, I’m likely to risk the time and reputation of one of my valued contact by introducing them to someone who is intent on wasting my time! [Minus ten points]

One more out of this particular barrel – I get a call from a person who has linked up with me through Linked In. She is traveling to the DC area and would like to explore a ‘possible common interest’. She is very expansive in her vision of a possible common project. Some of what she says makes some sense. So we schedule a dinner. As the dinner starts it quickly becomes clear that she has read some crap by some networking guru that told her ‘never to eat alone’. So she cooked up a shallow-water rationale. The meeting was totally unproductive – a complete waste of my time - but she did get to fulfill the author’s proscription. Another friend of mine was subjected to exactly the same treatment by this person during the same visit to the area. [Minus twenty points – another double!]

5. They Are Uninformed: I work in a number of fairly focused spaces. I have accumulated quite a bit of knowledge, experience and some wisdom in those areas. So I am always a bit shocked when I am subjected to a monologue by somebody who clearly does not know what they are talking about. The oldest wisdom is that ‘knowing what you don’t know is far more important than knowing what you do.’ But these people don’t seem to have a clue. They prattle on and I glaze over. Maybe the time will go faster if I can fall asleep! Private ignorance is your own business but public ignorance is offensive to the people who are forced to sit through its display. [Minus ten points]

There is one variation of this tendency which I find particularly offensive. I have had people brazenly disrespect people that I know well – and that they know I know well. When I ask about their relationship it becomes clear that they don’t know the person they are disparaging. What’s the point? Does this self-sabotaging person really believe that I will cast aside a deeper relationship and disown a friend because of their uninformed and self destructive behavior? What to they think I am going to think of them because of this? People who are convinced that ignorance is their best side are such a pain. [Minus ten points]

6. They Are Unaware: I call these people the situationally challenged. They don’t seem to have any understanding of what a particular venue or occasion calls for. They plow on with their droning pitch oblivious of what is going on around them or the reactions of the people who are being forced to listen. The rest of the world seems to disappear for these people and, if I am not the focus of their monologue, that includes me. I am nobody’s nobody! [Minus ten points]

There is one particular variation of this behavior which really boils my oil. I call it the one-lane highway syndrome. I maintain a very extensive mailing list and sometimes I get asked to send out notices of events. I will admit that I used to do so routinely as a friendly accommodation. But a number of experiences have caused me to rethink that response. Here is an example of what I mean:

A person who runs events was in the habit of asking me to inform my contacts about them. At first I complied but then something happened that changed my mind. I asked for support for an event that I had organized. The individual responded that, since a competing organization was part of the event, he couldn’t support it. I realized that, should I have applied the same conditions, I would have not mailed out my notices. So I guess he saw me as a greater fool. Subsequently I requested another favor only to receive a variation of the same response. The message was clear – this is a one-lane highway and that lane runs from you to me! I owe you nothing in return for your consideration and support! [Minus twenty points]

7. They Are Inconsiderate: I have watched people cut out a third member in a group in order to drill down to what they obviously see as the ‘golden fleece’ – maybe the senior member of the group. Occasionally it has gotten so bad that I had to ask them to leave. I have seen people invade a private house and hijack a social occasion with an ideological tirade. I have seen guests disrespect their host and wonder why people find them repugnant. After all, aren’t they just telling everybody the truth?

When something like this happens, I am reminded of A Light Woman - a poem by Robert Browning which observes:

‘Tis an awkward thing to play with souls,
And matter enough to save one’s own

These idiot-logues - these ‘players-with-souls’ - are to be avoided at all costs. Civility is a compliment easily given and almost always graciously received. Boorishness is just that – boorish. What an individual will do socially is a pale reflection of what they will do in business relationships. [Minus twenty points]

8. They are Ungrateful: I always keep a plus and minus account for each person that I have helped. This lets me identify, and then avoid, people who seem to think I am a vendor of goodies and that they have no responsibility to return the favor. You should begin to keep the same records. The first thing that you will discover is that with certain people your tendency to help is often responded to with a complete lack of gratitude and no interest at all in evening up accounts.

In his marvelous book Rising Sun, Michael Crichton has Captain John Connor talking with his junior partner Lt. Webster Smith. Connor mentions that another character once saved his life. Smith responds that Connor was being reminded of that. No, Connor replies, he would never do that. It is my obligation to remember.

People who need to be reminded to remember that you took the time and made the effort to help them should not be reminded they should be avoided. [Minus thirty points!]

One of the tendencies that I have is to put together people who I think might have common interests. Over the years I have made numerous introductions – some of which have lead to substantial amounts of business and significant relationships. For the most part these individuals repay my kindness by offering their support or introductions in areas that are important to me. But there is a small percentage that sees the contributions I make as a net benefit. I have even had a couple of these invite me to drinks and then ask “who else do you know that I should meet?” I always reply “Given my last experience with introducing somebody to you, why should I want to go through that completely unsatisfying process again?” The conversation tends toward a proclamation of exceptionalism – but it is over for me from the very beginning. At least I will get a drink out of it! [Minus twenty points]

9. They Are High Maintenance: We’ve all met this kind – or, shall I say, been subjected to them? Recently I had a meeting scheduled with a person who had contacted me suggesting collaboration on a rather major project. An hour before the meeting I received an e-mail asking if we could start half an hour later. I agreed – after all these things happen. I arrived at the restaurant on time only to wait for a further half an hour while this person navigated the four blocks from their hotel. Additionally she introduced a third individual into the meeting - contending that she had previously mentioned this person. She had, of course, not done so and the person was an irrelevant participant. It never seemed to occur to this person that she had just branded herself as an unreliable and disrespectful partner in any collaboration. First, the restaurant was an accommodation – chosen because it was close to her hotel. The delay in the start time was also an accommodation. And now my consideration was returned by subjecting me to this insulting behavior. And in the end this person was so socially unaware the she suggested that, after all her disrespectful behavior, that we split the check. [Minus thirty points]

Another of this type seems to think that a discussion of the challenges they face in delivering on their commitments is necessarily of interest to me. They go on and on about how difficult their life is and how much effort will be required to live up to their obligations under any agreement. When this starts happening, I generally close the book and move on. I will deliver on my obligations and deal with my challenges. I expect the other person to do the same. Instead they seem to want to make their problems, as well as mine, my burden. [Minus ten points]

Finally there are the types who seem to need a den mother to remind them of deadlines and obligations. You have to constantly be after them to deliver on their commitments. They see it as part of your obligation to do so. Thanks, but my life is complicated enough and you had a mother – I’m not yours now. [Minus ten points]

10. They Are Opportunistic: This behavior is decidedly predatory and easy to spot. Go to any ‘networking’ event and you will see them prowling around. They go from person to person with basically the same proposition. “Hi, I’m so-and-so and I need this. Can you provide it?” Nothing about who you are or even who they are – they apparently are only a need that you either can satisfy or become nothing to them.

I am a big believer in the proposition that whenever opportunity knocks it is best to open the door. My experience is also that opportunity will flee when confronted with an assault rifle or a lunge for the jugular. Most people, when approached by someone who is clearly not interested who they are – only in how they can be used to satisfy a need, are offended. Productive relationships are not built on predatory tendencies. [Minus ten points]

11. They Are Full of Hubris: I have saved this one for last because it is by far the most egregious behavior of self-sabotaging people. Hubris arises out of the cult of self-anointed-celebrity – individuals who have lost contact with the fact that they, like all of the rest of us, are human – that they are just as fallible as the rest of us - that they are going to die like the rest of us – and that they should respect others as they wish to be respected.

This type of person is an expert at the one-lane-highway proposition. It is, of course, their right to expect that things only move in one direction – from you to them. You are after all, their lesser! What could be more reasonable? So here is my question, why would you have anything to do with such a person? Because of what they could do for you! Grow up and smell the night-soil. They will never do anything for you - you will only do for them.

I organized a program that involved a panel. It was one of my ‘cruise ship’ programs – we ran it during a Caribbean cruise. I had scheduled a meeting with a person who had expressed an interest in the program and the panel. Prior to our meeting, I had supplied the brochure, URL address for the event website and a fairly detailed description of the mutually beneficial arrangements that we should focus on. So we met at this office. It quickly became clear that the only question on his mind was “Am I on the panel?” “Well how about the quid pro quo suggestions,” I replied? “You should be happy that I have agreed to be on your panel. My name alone is enough contribution,” was effectively the response. And this from a minor player from a mid-range firm. Such self-aggrandizement is butt ugly. [Minus fifty points]

Here is another one. I build advisory boards as business development engines. They are the most productive way I have ever found to turbo-charge the process. The boards are made up of four to seven highly experienced and connected individuals. Their job is to identify major chunks of new business and to assist the company to capture that business through a strong and persistent advocacy. Occasionally an individual is interviewed for board membership who is convinced that their presence on the board will be enough to draw new business in. They think that making introductions is enough. What is fascinating about these individuals is that they have combined a radical overestimation of their important with a massively delusional vision of the way business is actually done. [Minus fifty points]

Using the System My files get updated after each meeting, phone call or other experience. When a person’s score drops below 80, I put them on the ‘provisional’ list. These are people I will do business with only if there is no other option with a higher score. When a person’s score drops below 60, I let them know that I am not interested in dealing with them unless they can improve my experience with them. When the score drops below 50, I don’t return calls.

Well, there it is. Give it a test drive and let me know what you think. Send me your stories – enter them in the comment box below. I would like to hear from you.

© Earl R. Smith II, PhD

I look back on the first three months of my work with Dr. Smith with wonder. My journal reflects a journey of self-discovery so vast that I hardly recognize the person who wrote the first entries. It's been a year now and I am happier now than I have ever been.

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