Tackle Life Together

A blog by Sally Waters

sally [at] homescrum .co.uk

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“A sense of poisoned rationality”: our standards and ways of working are emotive, not objective

Ways of working are emotive

Over several years of thinking about ‘ways of working’ at both a corporate and a personal level, I’ve come to the conclusion that people care a lot about doing things their own way. It’s an emotive subject. In many industries, the way things are done have become so calcified that there isn’t any room at all to challenge tradition and suggest new ways to approach getting things done. And mostly, people can’t really articulate why they hold on to the organisation’s traditions so tightly; if there is an explanation, it fails to mention anything about emotions or power dynamics, and instead is usually some rationalisation about why it is ‘objectively’ the right way to do things.

The same is just as true within households and families. It’s true down to the littlest things (which are, of course, the big things within daily living). For instance, one person (Francis) might sometimes load the dishwasher in a slightly haphazard manner, and run it when it’s not completely full. Another  (me) might prefer to carefully stack things inside the dishwasher to maximise the amount of things that will fit, because they (I) might have been raised with an obsession around not wasting energy. For these reasons I have, in the past, thought that my way was the ‘right’ way to stack a dishwasher. However, I have often been so good at getting lots of stuff to fit that the dishwasher is overloaded and there is no space between dishes for the soap and water to spread, so nothing washes properly.

Grandad showing my cousin Consuelo and me (looking worried in the middle) how he created his amazing icing decorations.

For a more extreme example, let’s take my maternal grandparents. Their standards of living were ironclad, and seemed to provide an unfailing sense of drive all the way into their mid-nineties. The table had to be laid just so for every meal; one couldn’t have dinner without a dessert; the washing-up had to be done immediately; and of course, every single child and grandchild was expected to attend a top university. My granddad was a prisoner of war in a Japanese prison camp for years during World War II, and while I don’t think his high standards were seen as unreasonable for the culture of his time, from a modern perspective I can’t help but think a lot of it was driven by unresolved trauma. By the time I knew him in his seventies and eighties he had apparently mellowed out significantly, and child-me mainly found him hilarious and charming, without noticing the tension underlying our interactions. There was always a level of criticism or judgement in his lectures about life, and there were occasional angry outbursts, such as that time one summer when he yelled at my eight-year-old cousin and me for not painting straight enough lines on the lawn for the croquet pitch. (Yes, the croquet pitch. Their strict standards weren’t helped by being incredibly posh.)

So why do people get so emotional about insisting on a certain way of doing things? A lot of it comes right back to group dynamics again; there’s a lot going on under the surface in how people relate to each other, and one way of asserting our identity, both at a shared group level and for each of us personally, is by putting a particular stamp on how we do things. Being expected to uphold certain standards can be a huge emotional burden, so when possible, it’s worth seeing whether you can examine why you find it so important for others to conform to your way of working and whether there’s room to let them do things in their own way.

How to accept different standards (to a point)

But what if someone really isn’t doing a task to a standard you would consider acceptable?

One of my ‘pet peeves’ about Francis is his tendency to forget to dispose of the pizza box when he’s made an oven pizza. I’ve lost count of the number that I’ve disassembled the cardboard box and put into the recycling bin. It’s such a quick thing to do to keep the kitchen tidy, and if I didn’t know he had ADHD and therefore a completely different way of turning visual input into tasks in his mind, I would have flown off the handle with frustration years ago.

However, at some point things changed, and I find myself reacting with only mild frustration when Francis does this nowadays. At some point, I found a broader acceptance and appreciation for the way Francis tackles keeping the house clean. Once we started Home Scrum, and had a way to make regular headway with chores of all kinds, Francis stepped up to doing most of the housework while I earned us enough money to stay afloat. He kept the house more consistently clean that it had been up to that point, even when both of us were sharing the responsibility. But it wasn’t perfect. He has a tendency to leave a job at a point that I would consider about ninety percent ‘finished.’ In the kitchen, the sides might not have been fully wiped down, and a few more ‘fiddly’ items might still be waiting to be washed up by hand. When I do the kitchen, my perfectionism likes to push me past that point. But on the other hand, Francis does a much better job than me of just doing the main part of a job that will make the biggest difference—emptying the bins, for instance, or loading the dishwasher. Faced with the same task and not much time, I will just freeze up and become anxious about not meeting my own expectations for the standard of cleanliness I want to achieve. And the practical difference between being willing to do ‘enough’ or being stricken by paralysis because of not being about to do ‘all’ of the job is enormous.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, partly because of Home Scrum, I have a broader sense of what Francis is contributing to the household, and all the tasks he takes on that I like to avoid. Having this bigger picture more regularly and visually reinforced helps me to judge the ‘standards’ for one task or other a bit less harshly, because I have less resentment or doubt about how much effort we’re both putting in. So an occasional stray pizza box doesn’t seem like much to clear up.

Autonomy, reactance, and ownership

Since our expectations and standards are all tied up with our identity, then we can see why things get messy when someone appears to threaten our autonomy to do things our way.

Learning independence

Children in particular don’t generally get much say in how to run their lives. A lot of kids yearn for some measure of autonomy. A lack of choice is, of course, necessary for many things; children aren’t ready to make big life-decisions. However, if they never get to feel in control at all, then it can lead to a very common response (just as likely in adults) called ‘reactance.’ 

Reactance is a feeling of wishing to reject requests or expectations from others, no matter how reasonable, purely to protect your own sense of self. Children with ADHD struggle even more with this, since they face more rejection and reprimands through their lives, and so reactance can develop to such an extent that it may contribute to developing Oppositional Defiance Disorder. Basically, it can get to the point of self-defence: submitting to what someone else wants you to do can feel like a threat to your very identity, and so can trigger people’s trauma and coping mechanisms.

Hopefully, Home Scrum can help with this. A board on the wall that everyone gets to influence is a shared, relatively neutral, source of tasks; therefore potentially it will seem much less objectionable than directly obeying a parent or a nagging partner. It gives everyone a framework to engage with what needs to be done, which should, over time, promote a sense of ownership over those tasks.

So, in short: be wary of assuming that everyone is going to be thrilled at the idea of changing the way that things are done. That goes for the whole system of using Home Scrum, but also for each task on the board. When possible, it is often better to live and let live, to examine your own reactions rather than imposing your expectations on others, and to try and see the positives of a diversity of approaches to life.

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