Everyone experiences challenges at work. Whether it’s an individual contributor or the CEO, everyone has to go through the same basic set of issues that plague virtually all workers everywhere. But not everyone handles those problems the same way. Conversation is the usual outlet for most people. But how you conduct those conversations says a lot about you. The question during these conversations is: Are you a doctor or a patient?
Doctors and patients
We have all been a patient at some point or another. Regardless of how smart or rich or powerful we are, we walk into that little examination room and wait for what feels like an eternity before a white-coat-clad doctor passes the portal with her head buried in a file while she tries to determine who you are and why you are there to see her.
It’s an interesting dynamic between a doctor and patient. The doctor, by virtue of her position, has more authority in the relationship. And so most patients, regardless of their standing outside of that tiny examination room, assume a slightly deferential if not completely subordinate role. This transformation can be profound as commands yield to requests and confidence to hesitation. Otherwise powerful people take on an entirely different disposition.
Attribution of responsibility
Part of the doctor-patient relationship is the attribution of responsibility. When a patient sees a doctor, he expects on some level that the doctor will help make him well. In the extreme, there can be an abdication of responsibility as the patent yields entirely to the doctor.
The psychology here is powerful. When things are not going well, there is comfort in placing responsibility with someone else. Note here that I am talking about responsibility, not blame. When you do not know how to improve your situation, you can take solace in knowing that at least there is someone else who is in a position to know what to do next.
Of course, if we think about things a bit more deeply, we realize that the doctor is just another person. Sure, she has been trained and has more domain expertise than you, but she is ultimately no more responsible than you are. But this point somehow gets dropped when you sit on that table and she scrawls her notes in her doctor’s pad.
What if patients are doctors?
But what happens if the patient is himself a doctor? The relationship between patient and doctor changes. Doctors understand that other doctors are just people. Their skill comes from training and experience, both of which allow the doctor to participate in a medical process. And when that process works well, it yields answers.
When a doctor becomes a patient, he doesn’t give up responsibility. Rather, he and his doctor become complicit in reaching a positive outcome. They talk to each other more as peers than as subordinates. In these cases, the doctor himself becomes a part of the very process he is relying on to become better.
Doctors sometimes make lousy patients
Of course, some doctors-turned-patient assume that they know more than the doctors responsible for their care. It is essential that these patients work with their doctors, taking guidance but not becoming completely subservient. You want to have a clear leader, but you do not want to relegate yourself to being only a passenger along for the ride.
Applying the doctor-patient dynamic to working relationships
When there are maladies at work, where do you go? Most people will take their issues to directly to their boss. They will talk about the situation in excruciating detail. In many cases, they will bring up unrelated facts because they are not entirely certain which points deserve attention. They explain the situation with the hope of getting remediation.
If you think about it, this is not that different than a patient explaining symptoms to his doctor. Not every condition is a symptom. And the hope is that you leave the office with a diagnosis of what is wrong and some corrective action.
Are you a doctor or a patient?
When you have these conversations with your boss, it is instructive to know whether you are more doctor or patient. Doctors will tend to have a more authoritative conversation focused on the facts. The discussion is less about the noise that surrounds a condition and more about the possible remediation. There is next to zero attribution of blame as the dialogue is concentrated on remediation.
Patients behave differently. Without knowing the difference between cause and effect, they observe a bunch of symptoms without really tying them together. They focus the conversation more on the current state of things rather than the corrective action. The balance of the conversation leans towards describing in perfect detail the problem rather than the solution.
The bottom line
Every interaction with your management chain is effectively a dress rehearsal for your career. We all go through challenging times. You need to understand two things: first, your boss does not represent some panacea capable of curing everything, and second, how you talk to your boss says a lot about your capacity to lead yourself.
With this in mind, be mindful of whether the conversation you initiate is closer to a doctor-patient or a doctor-doctor discussion. If you find that you are too frequently playing the role of the patient, you likely need to change the dialogue. Try talking more about the process of remediation, spending less time on laying out every symptom in perfect detail. Perhaps consider possible solutions in advance of the conversation. And if the doctor has already diagnosed the problem, you might be better off spending the time on the treadmill rather than in the examination room again. More directly, be acutely aware of whether the issue is the lack of diagnosis or cure.