The White Coat Theorem

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I still remember that afternoon in 2002 very clearly. It is one of those deep images that I have interspersed in my otherwise patchy overall memory. I was in Fort Wayne, Indiana meeting with my key client team member, and she had just presented her initial findings and recommendations to the program sponsor of the engagement I was managing. The sponsor then proceeded to rip my clients findings apart point by point, all the while smirking and pretending to make a joke of the whole thing.

After that point, the program sponsor left the room and my client was reduced to tears. The only thing I could think of at that moment was my background in Choice Theory. With my thoughts still rooted in what, for me, has been a life-saving body of work, I turned to my client and told her that I thought her findings and recommendations were on target, and yet there was nothing that she could do to change the program sponsor’s sarcastic and, in my view, misguided opinion of them. The only thing she could do was believe in her work as much as she did before she presented it, because she could not control the way the program sponsor felt about it.

It was a bit of a shock to her system, but I actually think my client team member was then able to see that the views of our program sponsor were just that. Those views did not diminish my client team member’s recommendations. In fact her findings and recommendations really stood on their own.


Introduction to Choice Theory

Before I ran into Choice Theory, as described by William Glasser (1998, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., New York), I wouldn’t have known how to approach the situation that I’ve described above with maturity and calm. I might have tried to fix the situation for my client by interjecting myself and, in some way, attempting to diffuse the negativity that was happening. What I know now is (1) it wouldn’t have helped and (2) I wouldn’t have been able to really control the outcome any more than my client team member or the program sponsor were able to. It really was all about control — that was what my client team member wanted and what my program sponsor wanted: complete control over the outcome being discussed.


Trying to Control Outcomes

In Choice Theory, Dr. William Glasser points out what becomes quite obvious after you are familiar with the topic: we all want control over outcomes and, especially, we want to control each other actions, and this is, unfortunately, a really destructive and pointless objective.

Dr. Glasser elaborates:

Choice Theory explains that, for all practical purposes, we choose everything we do, including the misery we feel. Other people can neither make us miserable nor make us happy.

In fact, Dr. Glasser argues further, “external control” operates in opposition to what is healthy for almost of all us and propels:

….misery (that) continues unabated not because we have thought it over and decide that controlling others is best. It continues because when people do not do what we want them to do, coercion and control are all we think of using. It is the psychology of our ancestors, parents and grandparents, of our teachers and leaders, of almost all the people we know or know about. Coercion, to try and get our way, has been with us so long that it is considered common sense, and we use it without thinking about it.

Dr. Glasser’s stated objective for his book — and, it seems, for a large portion of his institute’s work -- is about the “human toll” of this external control approach:

….and how it can be reduced by learning why external control is so harmful and how a new, pro-relationship theory can replace it. Choice Theory is an internal control psychology; it explains why and how we make the choices that determine the course of our lives.


Our Life and Work are Largely Determined by our Relationships With Other People

It may be obvious to state, but as soon as we start to mature toward adulthood, we quickly realize that most of life — including that subset of life that we call work — is determined by our relationships with other people, and fundamentally our wants and needs will have to somehow pair to the wants and needs of the other person in each relationship. This is a fundamental truth in all relationships, including marriages, friendships, and professional relationships of all types. In all of these relationships, wants are negotiable, needs are not.


The Need Pairings and How They Can be Applied to Work Situations

The basic concept is: we have certain inherent need strengths. Although these can change, they generally don’t change much, since need strengths, Dr Glasser argues, are built into the fiber of our personalities. Here are the five basic needs Dr. Glasser asserts that we all have in varying strength levels:

  1. Survival — “The Spanish word ganas describes the strong desire to engage” in the struggle for survival. This is our level of desire to work hard and do whatever it takes to “…ensure survival, and go beyond survival to security. Ganas is a highly valuable trait; if you want a job done, hire someone with a lot of it.”
  2. Love and Belonging — This is the strength of one's need to essentially give to and care for others and to belong to something, either an intimate relationship, friendship, a professional relationship, or a group of some type.
  3. Power — This is essentially ones' level of need to control situations, people, and outcomes.
  4. Freedom — This the strength of one’s need to be free of control, even - at times - at the expense of relationships.
  5. Fun — This is essentially the strength of the need for, and enjoyment of, continual learning. As Dr. Glasser puts it we “…play all our lives. And because we do, we learn all our lives. The day we stop playing is the day we stop learning.”

From the workplace standpoint, the most interesting thing about these needs is the way that they do (or don’t!) fit together. There are definitely some need pairings that don’t pair very well in the work setting. For example:

  • A person with a high need for Love and Belonging will want to nurture relationships (in both a personal and a professional sense). This means that they will value teams and other team members, and that will usually be more important to them than their own level of Power in the team or in the organizational as a whole. This person does not pair well with a person with a high need for Power or with a person with a low need for Love and Belonging.
  • It is rather obvious that a person with a high need for Freedom will find an exit path very quickly from any team where there is a leader or team member with a very high need for Power. Indeed, team leaders may have to work very hard to reassure a Freedom-loving team member that their extremely precious Freedom (like oxygen to those with a high need for it) will not be threatened.
  • In general, the worst need pairing in the workplace is any person with a very high need for Power paired with anyone else. People with a very high need for Power will tend to destroy most relationships, simply because they are not that important to them, and they obstruct their Power. Power alone is largely what matters to people with a high need for it. In some cases, people with a low need for Power can tolerate these people for awhile, since people with a low need for Power do not need to win all the time.
  • As anyone who has been in this professional situation can tell you, the most destructive need pairing is a pairing of two people with a high need for Power. These people will attempt to destroy each other. This would be a good time to head for the hills if you are on this team!

Most of the other need pairings work very well together, as long as people continually remember that to try and coerce and control each other, and to try and control outcomes, is a fairly destructive habit in any workplace setting, as well as in our overall lives. If you want to work well with others, this approach will not be very successful for you.


The White Coat Theorem

So how does all of this help us in dealing with what we do in our lives, especially in our work lives? Well, if you are in the helping profession, which I do consider myself to be in as a management consultant (my main reason for doing what I do is because I want to solve problems for clients), then you can see that understanding a little bit about Choice Theory can be very helpful. Indeed, when you are trying to solve a problem for a client, and are acting in any kind of consultative role, I cannot see how you could possibly avoid applying some version of Choice Theory.

The reality is: in most situations you cannot just utter a command or dictate a prescription to a client, or even to a subordinate, since we are now (fortunately) past the era of slavery. In most cases, we must help in ways that involve understanding that people will make their own decisions and take their own actions. In many cases, these decisions and actions may be things that we as the “consultant” (or helper) in the consultative relationship may see as terrible decisions. We still hope to persuade people to do otherwise, but, ultimately, people must make there own decisions and take their own actions, and we have no ultimate control over this.

This is a distressing situation for many of us in the helping professions, and yet we must not let this destroy us. If we let the failure of our clients to make good decisions and execute appropriate actions impact us too much, we will not be able to help the next client.

I call this the White Coat Theorem, since it reminds me of a time when my father’s cardiologist informed my mother that my father was very unlikely to follow the diet and treatment plan prescribed for him, after another one of his major heart attacks, and this could end up being a very sad situation.

The cardiologist had to be able to take off his White Coat at the end of the day and accept the fact that my father, and all of his other patients, would make their own decisions and take their own actions, and there was nothing he could do about it. The extent to which he could help was limited, and if he was to continue on and help other patients, he had to realize he could not control his patients decisions.


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