(Co)-Determination [v2]

Tuesday, May 5th 2020

I wrote awhile back about seeking Determination Models. I have more to learn on that (new resources welcome), but think I’ve learned a lot about it.

What I am more focused on learning now is co-determination models.

What I mean is: how to predict who will prioritize ‘we’ over ‘me’ — not just when doing so is easy, but when it’s hard.

That’s what the rest of this post is about. But before getting to that point I need to define two terms:

  • First: the We:They Boundary
  • Second: the Inverted U

Definition (1) → We:They Boundary

“I against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.”
— Bedouin Proverb

The We:They Boundary is David Marquet’s term for where we separate our idea of an inclusive “we” or “us”, from a the outsider “they” or “them” — where do we choose to mentally draw that line?

Inverted U

Though not a perfect analogy, it may help to picture a series of expanding circles, with a hard-border on who is/isn’t inside our “we”.

What’s important for my definition here is that people tend to feel directly responsible for/towards those within their We:They Boundary.

While not necessarily antipathic to those outside their We:They Boundary, people tend not to feel directly responsible for/towards “them”.

That distinction is the key for our purposes here.

…when I go into organizations, I listen for what I call the we:they boundary. Like, where is it “we”? Like we’re in engineering, but they’re in marketing. And where does it go from we to they? Because as soon as you go from we to they, that’s where the team boundary ends.”
David Marquet, Talks at Google

Definition (2) → Inverted U’s

The best (but seemingly, incomplete) way I know to think about people’s mindsets when doing hard things is the Inverted U — below are photos from two books:

Inverted U

Left-side is from The Leading Brain with labels for a management-explanation, and right-side is from Behave with labels for a biological-explanation.

Basically, we perform when our challenges push us…but not too far.

…[it illustrates] the relationship between arousal and performance on a remarkably simple graph…Peak performance comes at the top of the graph, the spot where the level of arousal is sufficient to provide optimal focus and attention. Without adequate arousal, we’re likely to feel bored or apathetic. And when arousal’s too high? Those are the instances in which our focus deteriorates into a situation of stress — or even worse, panic.
Friederike Fabritius, The Leading Brain

People’s “U” can be shifted more to the left, or more to the right:

The further to the right on the curve you are, the easier it is for you to access a state of peak performance under pressure…The amount of stress that would induce heart palpitations in others makes these right-siders feel more focused and creative.”
Friederike Fabritius, The Leading Brain

She goes on to explain that in different work, people with different profiles of Inverted U can perform differently (i.e. ‘left’ / ‘right’ different, but equal).

So… What?

So, what I’m interested in is: how do people react when they are too-far-right on their Inverted U?


Robert Sapolsky tells us that despite the fact “We love the right amount of stress, would wither without it” under:

…sustained stress and the right side of the inverted U…stress biases us toward selfishness…in other words, glucocorticoids narrow who counts as enough of an “Us” to evoke empathy.” — Robert M. Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

In other words, he says that when we are feeling overwhelmed our We:They Boundary shrinks in size.

We start to see fewer people as “we” and more as “them”. We shrink the scope of who we consider ourselves directly responsible for and towards. We try to get ourselves ‘out’ (but only ourselves; the “we”).

…But, do we all behave that way?

But… do we all behave that way?

Let’s start with why people under extreme challenges, quit:

…as an instructor you can talk to those people [who quit], and you can ask really important questions. My favourite question is: “Why?”
You said this is your lifelong goal, this is all you’ve ever wanted to do, you left a D1-scholarship to come here because you saw for yourself no value in the higher education. So you wanted to come to the seal community, and you quit. Why? Time and time again the answer I would get from the students is: they got overwhelmed.
Andy Stumpf, Navy Seal Instructor

That makes sense, and it’s exactly what the Inverted U research tells us. They were overwhelmed by staying “too far-right” on their Inverted U.

But…what about the people who didn’t quit?

we’re using the body to test the mind. We’re stressing the body. We’re gonna make you tired, hungry, hypothermic. We’re gonna get you so exhausted to the point that you’re gonna hallucinate and we’re gonna take a look at how you behave: do you value ‘we’ over ‘me’?
…[as instructors we] reinforce to people that there are consequences to other people from your behaviours…it’s one of the most beautiful things I think from the seal community…my experience has been in talking to people in their most dire moments, where things are getting the worst, they’re often more concerned about the people to their left and right than they are about themselves.
My biggest fear…is that I am NOT gonna be there when somebody needs me. It was my biggest fear in the seal community that I wasn’t gonna live up to this standard that the people to the left and right held of me, and then they were gonna suffer for it.
Andy Stumpf, Navy Seal Instructor

It seems that exactly what Navy Seal training is trying to test for is finding who does not fit the model mentioned earlier.

The vast majority of people facing extreme challenge shrink their We:They Boundary, so they can worry about themselves. But some people — and this is what’s so important — do not.

Some people when faced with extreme challenge, lean-into their responsibility for and towards others: they maintain (and seems even strengthen) their ‘we’.

The distinction in behaviour seems, from the interview, to be exactly what Seal Training (a great example of extreme challenge) is designed to test for.

It seems to be the (or at least, one of the) defining characteristics people need to excel when faced with repeated, extreme challenges alongside others.

Also important is to note how inaccurate people’s own predictions of how they will behave when it comes time actually are. Everyone who enters training, surely, believes they will prioritize ‘we’ over ‘me’ — but in reality, they don’t.

So… Who?

So, who will — in reality, when the time comes — prioritize ‘we’ over ‘me’ not only when things are easy but also when they get extremely hard?

Can we predict that? With accuracy better than random? If so, how?

That’s what I want to know.

In the past I tried to predict this by listening to people talk about their ambitions, their eagerness to seek challenges, etc, etc.

Basically, I listened to people’s self-narratives on how they predicted themselves to react in extreme challenges. Then, tried to judge how much I believed it.

This in hindsight, was pretty silly.

Now 99% of my attention is on what people do (or more specifically, have done in the past) and maybe ~1% of my attention on what they say.

In other words I pay attention to track record. Have they faced extreme challenge in a team before? When they did, did they prioritize ‘we’ over ‘me’? Or, did they rationalize their way out of their responsibility?

That’s my model now: to consider this character-trait completely unpredictable, unless/until it has been tested in the real world.

This model so far works very, very well.

Its effectiveness I think is a bit non-obvious, only since prioritizing ‘we’ over ‘me’ in one situation wouldn’t necessarily mean you would do so in all other situations. But at least in my experience, that is indeed the case. Those who have a track record of prioritizing it in the past, seem to always prioritize it.

It seems a consistent character trait that is relatively context-independent (though, I’m sure not completely).

Anyway, if the answer is “track record” and that’s all there is to it, I’m ok with that. I’ll use that heuristic going forward. But if anyone is aware of any good research or wise philosophy which may inform thinking on this, I would love to hear it.

So… Why?

Because I want to surround myself with people who prioritize ‘we’ over ‘me’ when things get hard, as part of their character.

More specifically, it’s my responsibility as leader to choose other leaders who will do so when things get hard. If I choose a leader who throws her responsibility to others aside, that’s a pretty huge failure.

Like I said, focusing on track record is working great so far. But if you know a way I could get even better at this, love to hear it.

Appendix One

I’m aware of the Grit Scale but consider it “track record”, too. Its questions (rightly) focus on explaining past actions, not making future predictions.

Appendix Two

Want to watch different people’s Inverted U play out in real-life? Watch the reality TV show 60-Days In.

Participants (voluntarily) enter Jail for 60-days. Neither the inmates nor the prison guards are aware they are not real inmates, so they are treated just as any other inmate would be. Obviously, this is a challenge.

Prior to entering jail the participants predict how they will fair. Some are cocky, some are humble, but of course none expect to fail.

It gets interesting once you observe how they actually behave. Many of the most cocky, quit. Many of the most humble, succeed (and even thrive).

Without exception those who quit rationalize why quitting was outside their control, or why their own behaviour did not lead to it.

Despite quitting, they still view themselves positively as ‘the type of person who would face…’ exactly the types of challenges they just quit. This time just didn’t count, apparently. Their rationalizations flex as much as they need, to maintain that self-image. There is a recap-interview episode at the end of the series that is particularly interesting.

If you’re interested in what (actually) makes people determined, and how people (actually) behave, rather than what they simply say about themselves, this is the best place I’ve seen to observe it.

If you watch it, try to predict in the first episode how each person will fare once they’re inside. I tried. I was about 50% right.