Ironic Outcomes: Three Questions to Ask When you are Getting the Opposite of What you Want

A year or so ago I had a coaching conversation with a Human Resources Manager for a retail company. The manager confided in me that conflict made her uncomfortable. She described the lengths to which she would go to avoid raising challenging issues or delivering candid feedback. She feared that confrontation could destroy the rapport and trust she had cultivated with her colleagues; rapport and trust she depended on to ensure her colleagues included her as a thought partner and adviser.

By way of example, she described a damaged relationship with a colleague who had come to believe that she was trying to sabotage his career, “He accused me of going behind his back to his manager about complaints I had received from his direct reports.” As we talked, it became clear to both of us that her choice to avoid delivering timely, direct feedback to her colleague had metastasized into a judgment he now held about her motives. Her colleague no longer invited the HR Manager to his staff meetings and stopped visiting her office to seek input on key decisions. To put it another way: By going out of her way to avoid conflict, she had created conflict. She inadvertently got the exact opposite outcome that her behavior was designed to achieve.

Consider other familiar situations:

  • The person who wants to have close relationships with everyone yet ends up isolated because others judge his behavior as “needy” and overly personal.
  • The person who wants to avoid surprises and produce high-quality work ends up surprised by missed deadlines and avoidable errors because her micromanaged employees are afraid to take initiative and use their own judgment.
  • The well-intentioned manager, who wants to empower his direct-reports through delegation, yet ends up undermining everyone’s self-confidence when he is forced to rescue the project at the last minute after having steadfastly avoided giving any guidance along the way.
  • A co-worker who wants to influence the thinking of others by considering all sides of an issue, yet ends up being excluded from meetings because he is viewed as a contrarian that slows things down with useless observations and theoretical questions.

The behaviors described above go beyond simply being ineffective or even counterproductive. I refer to a situation where the result produced is the exact opposite of the result desired as an “ironic outcome.”

Ironic outcomes differ from outcomes that are unintended or counterproductive in that resolving the situation calls for a transformative level of self-awareness.

A Behavior Change to Fix an Unintended Outcome

When the consequences of our actions are unintended and unwanted, we can sometimes make a quick adjustment to our behavior to fix the problem. For example, a colleague gives me feedback that I haven’t requested input from one of my team members who seems reluctant to speak up in meetings. I start listening more actively to the team member and I notice greater engagement and better quality discussions.

Revising the way we Think and/or Feel to Fix a Pattern of Counterproductive Outcomes

When the consequences of our actions turn counterproductive, in other words our efforts are actually making things worse, we may need to look beyond our behaviors to our thoughts and feelings. For example, it might be uncomfortable for me to openly challenge my boss, but I’ve noticed that the boss actually seems to enjoy the give and take of debating ideas. She tends to favor advice from colleagues who openly disagree with her in meetings. Opting for a behavior driven by my anxiety has reduced my effectiveness as a team member. Perhaps I work on becoming comfortable with a more provocative style by finding non-threatening venues to try out the new behavior. Over time, I reduce my anxiety about speaking my mind candidly at team meetings.

Transforming our Beliefs when Confronted with Ironic Outcomes

When the outcomes turn ironic and what we’re getting betrays our intentions, it’s a clue that a pattern of behavior has taken charge. One telltale sign that we’re dealing with ironic outcomes is the way we justify our behavior. Instead of offering some version of “I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea at the time.” You might hear us offer a more rehearsed and philosophical justification: “I just think it’s wrong to…” or “People just don’t understand that…” etc.

Each of us, I suspect, has experienced the frustration of getting the opposite of what we want while offering a kind of righteous defense of our behaviors. When we invoke generalized value judgments to explain ourselves, we may be bumping up against situations where our underlying beliefs are at odds with the protocols of our roles. We can experience what Jack Mezirow refers to as a “disorienting dilemma.” We entertain self-defeating thoughts: “I’m not cut out for this job,” or “This is not the work I’m meant to do.”

Not all ironic outcomes augur catastrophe, but there is a long-term cost to repeatedly producing the opposite of what you want.

Three questions can help you rewire a pattern of behavior that produces ironic outcomes. A word of caution: the steps are few, but the elevation is great. You’ll either need the capacity to be brutally honest with yourself, or be fortunate enough to have someone in your life that can be honest with you without having his or her own axe to grind.

Question One: Where might you be exerting effort that is out of proportion with the situation?

In the case of our HR Manager, it took a lot of effort for her avoid and mislead her colleague. For example, when her colleague asked how she thought a contentious meeting had gone, she responded diplomatically, “People are a little anxious about all the changes, but I think everyone will be fine.” She felt in that moment the stress of holding back her true assessment of her colleague’s behavior and how it had led to several unproductive interactions.

Question Two: What beliefs are you using to justify your choices?

When pressed, the HR Manager admitted that she often avoids a confrontation because deep down she believes that leaders prefer to work with people who are supportive and positive. She assumes that her commitment to being supportive and positive will result in a seat at the table when leaders are making decisions. She also believes that because she is uncomfortable with confrontation, raising an issue will result in her appearing flustered and that will undermine her need to be seen as a competent professional. This is an example of what Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey call, “competing commitments.

Question Three: Of the assumptions you use to explain your behaviors, which ones might need to be reframed? Which ones might be holding you back?

There are good reasons that we are attached to the belief systems that drive our behaviors. Our beliefs serve us well… until they don’t. Just because beliefs no longer serve us, does not mean that we can easily abandon them. Something valuable gets lost whenever we change our beliefs, and our aversion to loss makes change hard. The value that the HR Manager places on being supportive and positive has helped her become a trusted thought partner and popular boss.

The point here is not to abandon the belief, but to either demote it or re-conceptualize it. The HR Manager’s current and future roles will occasionally put her in situations where she will have to reconcile being “supportive” and “positive” with being “candid” and “direct.” For the HR Manager, learning to see candor and directness as supportive will allow her to raise issues in a positive manner, ultimately enhancing rather than undermining her professionalism.

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