You Can't Change Reality with a Reference Point

When my kids were young, they were required to clean their rooms on Saturday mornings before they could dive into television, the backyard, the computer, etc. One Saturday, my son bounded down the stairs and headed for video games in record time. He reported that his room was clean, but I was skeptical and went upstairs to check it out. As I looked into it from the hallway, it did indeed look tidy. Everything seemed to be in its place. However, as I stepped farther into the room to close his closet door, I discovered something different. As I walked to the far side of the room and my vantage point changed, I discovered mounds of dirty clothes and toys neatly arranged on the far sides of the bed, the chair, the bookcase, etc. They were packed on all the sides facing away from the door. It was as if some strange flood had washed in and out again leaving all kinds of debris pressed up against the larger objects in the room like little drifts piled perfectly out of sight from the doorway. I turned to my son and said, “I thought you said your room was clean… “and he responded with complete earnestness, “It was clean, but I didn’t know you were going to look at it from over there…”

My son seemed to think “clean” was more a question of my reference point than reality, and it’s not just 10-year-olds who think this way. Individuals and organizations struggle to see reality clearly too, and they often settle for a more preferable version of the truth that is tempered or tailored by the use of alternative reference points. Sometimes this reorientation is deliberate, occasionally even manipulative or nefarious, but usually it’s unconscious and instinctive. People don't even know they’re doing it. As a result, reality, the real reality, gets misunderstood or missed altogether to the detriment of individual and collective success. Leaders should be wary of the ways we all seek to reshape reality with preferable reference points. Here are some common reference points that can distract or diffuse your sense of what's real:

The Competition Instead of the Finish Line 

Greatness is measured by how close you are to your own high aspirations, not by how many others are farther away from them. This means that being able to identify individuals or organizations that are worse than you or yours doesn't actually improve your own situation.

There will always be individuals and organizations behind you. As long as your eye is on them, you have some idea of how close you are to the bottom, but you’re dangerously oblivious to how far you are from the top. This can give you a false sense of success or lead you to the mistaken impression that you are getting better simply because others are getting worse. This reference point has the tendency to make you feel better rather than actually be better. While it may offer encouragement, it may also disguise the fact that you are only in the unremarkable “middle of the pack” or simply enjoying good company as you fail. When the race matters, have the focus to look to the finish line instead of the other runners.

Progress Instead of Attainment

“Most Improved” is a dubious distinction in everything from third grade soccer teams to professional performance reviews because it says, “Your commitment and progress are noteworthy in spite of the fact that your overall performance is not.” It’s not that improvement is bad, but attainment is better. In reality, no amount of progress or improvement can make up for the fact that you’re still not where you need to be How far things have come may be a source of consolation or encouragement, but how far they have to go is more descriptive of the reality that is most important. In personal and organizational performance, it’s not the distance between you and some lesser previous state that matters most; it's the distance between you and a greater future one. When the trip matters, have the courage to focus on the destination instead of the odometer.

Bargains Rather Than Necessity

I have a friend who gets suckered by good deals. When he sees a bargain, his excitement about the amount of money he will save completely eclipses his regard for whether or not he needs the item in the first place. As a result, he has a garage full of “great deals” he’ll never actually use. In the moment, each of these purchases represented a “win”, but now, the dusty collection is a monument to wasted money. Organizations can get caught up in “the deal” too and jump at opportunities that are perfectly priced but poorly aligned. When the bargain looms larger in your consideration than what you need or when you need it, your actions will be based more on how much you can save than on whether you need to buy-it in the first place. This reference point confuses opportunity with strategy and is the impetus for all kinds of money problems and mission drift. In the end, no amount of savings will offset the resources you squander unnecessarily. When resources matter, stick to your shopping list and ignore the Buy One Get One Free signs.

Pros Instead of Cons

It’s often wise to consider the positives and negatives of a decision before committing to it, but it’s even more important to remember that the Pros don't actually cancel out the Cons or vice versa. In real life, many of the pros and cons coexist and you will continue to experience both positive and negative implications of your choices downstream from the decisions. For this reason, don’t let your reference point become simply the number of Pros on your list. Items are weighted differently. So, some pros are more compelling than others, and some cons are actually “Deal Breakers”. It’s not simply a matter of math: More Pros = Good Call. Make the lists as exercises to help you fully understand the implications of your choices but resist the urge to sum them up. As tempting as it is to calculate the best move by simply canceling out pros with cons, no simple calculus can replace the courage and judgment of real leadership.  When the answer matters, show your work; focus more on getting the right equation than on simplifying the solution.