Refereeing Freedom

I am officially a new soccer referee.

Ahead of me is a life of attempting to make sound judgments while enduring angry players, opinionated spectators and stressed out coaches. To you it may sound like a depressing way to spend my time. To me I think, what better way to combine my favourite sport with a character-building experience?

As I stumble my way through missed calls, improperly awarded penalty shots and carding players that bug me, I am discovering the intricate and rich relationship between the spirit of the game and the referee. The role of the referee appears simple: apply the laws of the game. However, apply the rules too strictly and the game gets bogged down. Fail to apply the rules and the game descends into a chaotic mess. This dynamic balancing act is captured by the mysterious and unwritten rule called Law 18. Law 18 states that the referee must prioritize the spirit of the game above the other seventeen laws.

The connection between the game, the rules and the referee had me thinking about other kinds of games we play in such arenas as finance and economics. What is the connection between lending and regulation? Markets and rules? Freedoms and limits?

To begin with, kids who play with other kids quickly understand three basic tenets. First, a game without rules is not a game. Second there is no game if there are no players. And third, a game is not fun if people don’t follow the spirit of the rules. These fundamentals can help us understand something about the adult games that we play.

No Rules No Game

As the US and Canada post record job losses in November, more and more people are asking questions about the financial game we take for granted.

That we have moved from trading crops to trading minerals or paper to trading electronic bits and bytes is a testament to the complex system we have learned to play. But sometimes we forget the basics. Sub-prime mortgages given to unqualified buyers is one of the obvious ways in which we rigged the game to fail. The underlying issues, on the other hand, are more numerous and complex than I can likely explain in my lifetime (consider asking George Soros instead).

Nevertheless, at least one part of the crisis story is the trend over the last few decades towards killing the referee. Governments call it deregulation. In the US and to some extent in Canada there has been an almost fanatical belief that free-markets can solve anything and everything and therefore must be unshackled from government rules and regulations.

Consequently, restrictions and requirements for mortgages, auto loans, credit cards were significantly relaxed starting in the Reagan years. New financial instruments allowed banks to sell off bad loans around the world to hide their value. Rating agencies, unable to determine risk, relied on the issuers to figure out risk. Imagine the referee asking the offending player what the rules of the game are!

The idea of being “unshackled” from the rules may appeal to our deep adolescent desires of raging against the machine. Yet if one were to stop and consider even momentarily the consequences of a game played without rules, it’s not hard to imagine the kind of game that would be played. Cheating, aggression, violence, spectator fights… and I’m only thinking about soccer.

Players will agree that there are good refs and there are bad refs, but no serious player would claim that having no refs is good for the game. Likewise, there are likely good and bad regulations or regulators, but this is not an argument for removing them.

Unfortunately, it is easy during the game to think that it’s all about scoring the highest number of points or making the most profit, and forget that a referee is what keeps the game playable. Corporate executives will, like players, push the limits of the rules, but the whistle must still be blown and blown with confidence.

No Players, No Game

In the end, the “free” market is one among many kinds of games that are played in life. The market can solve a limited range of human challenges, but with its short-term memory and transactional mindset, the market is hardly capable of solving all problems.

Markets rarely explore the frontiers of our understanding (too impractical) or invest in long-term projects with high social benefits (not enough return on investment). Furthermore the market also cannot tell us who we are as much as advertisements might claim otherwise.

Ultimately we must remember that the game is created to serve society and not the other way around.

So why do we play games? Why do we have our kids play soccer for that matter? Some hopeful parents might intend for their kids to become rich and famous. Wiser parents know that the game is meant to develop their kid’s discipline, teamwork, and resiliency among many other character traits.

Likewise, adults may think they play the market and financial game to make a profit. While it’s true no one likes to lose at the game, would you play a game where people cheated all the time, injuries were faked, and the opposing team was so impoverished they hardly constituted the title of “opponent”?

The true benefit of markets is that they enable innovation precisely because they allow the players to compete, fail, and try again. But they need players. A society that gives all the advantages to the wealthiest and fails to support the social programs that enable everyone else will collectively have less ability to face global challenges. (See Mokr’s Gifts of Athena for more on the connection between innovation and social structure).

So you see, the best kind of games are ones that have a lot of replay value. We play games so that we can play again. Playing games that kill off other players defeats the purpose.

No Limits No Freedom

What does all this mean to us practically speaking?

It means that before we rail against the seeming injustice of taxes and regulations and limits, we should stop and think more broadly about what it is buying us. For example, if the speed limit were lowered, we might feel that our freedom is being limited, but what if it also “frees” us from the risk of a pointless death? Or from the financial, emotional, spiritual toll of accidents? Likewise, each time we remove a regulation to increase our return on investment or reduce our taxes, what is the cost to our collective ability to play the game?

Perhaps having limits and rules is what makes us more free. Perhaps the challenges facing our globe require us to involve as many players as possible.

Life evolves quickly though and we must be ready to adapt the structure of the game. We must be ready to cultivate our own Law 18, a law that is unwritten precisely because it relies on our judgment and sense of fairness to figure out how the game should be played.

Your Turn to Comment

  • What do you think about freedoms and limits, free-markets and regulations, games and rules?
  • What makes it hard to compete as a collective?
  • What is the role of the referee in life?

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
U Venture

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges.

The Idol Delusion Factor

Singing usually reserved for karaoke nights at the local club went public when American Idol aired six years ago on TV. You’ve seen the auditions, and I’m sure you’ve thought: “How can people who sing so horrendously defend so vigourously their obviously glass shattering performance? Don’t they know that they can’t sing?”

We may have a good laugh at other people’s self-delusion. We may even feel better about ourselves because we, of course, would never be that misguided. Or would we?

If anything, there are scores of people on TV shows hinting at the possibility that fooling ourselves is more commonplace than we would like to believe.

As it turns out, there is a very powerful psychological theory introduced by Leon Festinger that explains an aspect of human behaviour we would do well to understand. It is called cognitive dissonance. What the theory holds is that if a person holds two ideas, attitudes, opinions or beliefs that are inconsistent, they will attempt to reduce that dissonance in such a way as to match their self-image often at the expense of reality.

For instance, let’s say I were to impulsively buy an iPhone. I might return home and realize that it’s expensive, unnecessary, and boy was I stupid to lock myself in for three years. But I also hold this belief that I am a smart, financially wise, waste-not kind of person. These two sets of thoughts create an uncomfortable dissonance in me. To get out of dissonance, I could return the iPhone and admit my foolishness, OR I might maintain my image and rationalize that I need it for my business, that it saves space, and that I was actually smart to purchase it.

Dissonance removed.

The drawback to rationalizing actions is the price paid in objectivity. I might not be able to afford it in the long-run or perhaps the iPhone provides no significant productivity gains. I am in effect lying to myself to make myself feel better.

The concept of cognitive dissonance has very practical applications when it comes to understanding relationships where emotions can conspire with misunderstanding to create further misunderstanding. Consider this cartoonish diagram of a breakup scenario.

Cognitive dissonance in the breakup of a relationship.
Cognitive dissonance in the breakup of a relationship.

Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (Mistakes were Made) describe this as sliding down a pyramid where each person starts with a shared perspective, but after a series of rationalizations find themselves sharing nothing in common at the bottom of the pyramid. The rationalizations are so powerful that they affect how people interpret their memories. The diagram illustrates a common phenomenon where couples in love will see their partner as doing no wrong while couples out of love will see their partner as doing nothing right.

In 2003, rationalizations occurred on a collective level in the United States. Even after weapons of mass destruction were clearly not found in Iraq, many Americans actually believed the opposite, that WMDs had been found. Those that supported the war likely did not want to believe that their president or country had attacked another country based on a false pretense. Rather than dealing with this uncomfortable dissonance, it was an easy leap to accept the administration’s message that the war was for liberty and democracy in Iraq… a message that was well publicized only after the WMDs were not found.

Given the strength of cognitive dissonance and the pliability of memories, what then thus this mean for us? How then do we act “rationally” on anything? Luckily we have found a number of ways to manage the limitations of the human brain and our powers of observation. Here are a few starting points.

1. Admit that you are fallible

The first step is to admit that our memories are not perfect and that our interpretation of events are biased particularly when emotions run high. It is easy to believe what we believe is the “truth” because we believe it! This circular, self-reinforcing argument may help us feel more “grounded” in the moment. Yet as we all know, life has a tendency to burst our bubble over and over again whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

To admit when we have made a mistake runs counter to our society’s insistence that mistakes are a sign of personal failure. However, to admit a mistake is to take responsibility for our actions and learn from them.

The next time you feel cognitive dissonance, rather than immediately defending your actions or justifying it, stay with the discomfort and take a hard look.

2. Do good rather than feel good

At the source of our reluctance to admit fallibility is our desire to see ourselves as smart, good people. Certainly we should preserve a sense of self that is positive and productive. However, the criteria of feeling good is a poor standard to live by. From going to the gym to speaking honestly, there are plenty of times when we must live up to higher standards.

The hard truth is recognizing that we are conflicted beings. I am both caring about the environment and destructive of it. I am a good listener some days and a poor one on others. The ability to live with the dissonance between who we think we should be and who we are helps us to strive to be better rather than believe we have arrived.

3. Work on your guidance system

Admitting that we are fallible does not now mean that nothing is knowable. It just means that we must be more diligent in our thinking.

Consider how crime scene investigators reconstruct past events by testing theories against eye-witness testimony and forensics evidence. Or consider how scientists manage to understand the nature of disease. Much as a GPS uses multiple satellites to triangulate a position, we need our own guidance system to continuously triangulate our thoughts and actions.

One part of the guidance system can be the truth-tellers in our lives. Because of our own tendency to fool ourselves, it helps to have other people challenge our perspectives. Peer review in professional journals has proven to be a powerful means of triangulation because ideas or thought are subject to different perspectives possibly not considered by the contributor. In a way, good friends are like peer reviewers that can reflect back what we are doing well and what we are doing poorly.

Another aspect of the guidance system is our ability to be investigators in our own thinking. How are we at collecting evidence? At testing theories? At interviewing witnesses? For example, while facilitating I might observe someone to have their arms crossed and gaze averted and immediately jump to the conclusion that the participant is anger or avoiding something. Rather than testing my theory, I may leap to false accusations which in turn makes misinterpretation self-fulflling.

Take the time to ask yourself: How do I seek out my blindspots? How often do I look for evidence that challenges your worldview? Not an easy task, but worthwile nevertheless.

Facing our own ignorance, learning from our mistakes and continuously do better is of utmost importance for us as individuals and as a collective. Remember that we are often the deluded Idol. We just don’t always have the good fortune of having someone point it out to us.

Your Turn to Make Comments

When have you rationalized actions?

How have you learned to face your mistakes?

What helps you to prevent self-justifying thinking?

Why do we rationalize things?

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
U Venture

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges.

Sketching Out a Game Plan

Chris Hsiung’s occupation seemed the perfect fit. A software engineer for eight years at Nortel Networks Corp., he had grown up glued to the keyboard. But he also had a calling, seeded in past days as a junior high peer tutor: Hsiung wanted to guide people. He founded U Venture in 2007 and now offers strategy on everything from career transitions to exploring your hidden creative side. But to go from coding to coaching, he needed a little guidance of his own.

For Hsiung, 32, it started in Paris. Embedded in France by Nortel for a year-long stint, he was shocked when he returned to Cowtown in 2002. “Culturally, we’re very different,” he says of the European approach to business. He recalls being denied entry to the Paris office one weekend by security because working overtime was not permitted without the vice-president’s approval, something that would assuredly never happen in Calgary.

Hsiung sought reconnection with Calgary’s community, turning to the Leadership Calgary course with Volunteer Calgary. He liked its “lifelong learning” focus – it fit with his knack for teaching people, a talent he had used while implementing software training programs at Nortel.

However, Hsiung soon realized he wanted a lifestyle change, as well. After attending a lecture by Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire in 2004, he was flooded with an array of mixed emotions. He began to think about his role in the world and the difference that he could make. “He was talking about child soldiers. It had a strong emotional impact on me,” Hsiung recalls of the lecture.

He injected this newfound altruism into his life. Jumping onboard with the Learning Village, an after-school activities program, he started looking for courses in volunteer soccer training, but came across a life-coaching course instead. “It was serendipitous,” he says. “There were no soccer-coaching courses available.” He signed up thinking it might provide a few new skills. Instead, he got hooked.

While pursuing his Co-Active Coaching certification at the University of Calgary, Hsiung hired a life coach of his own to help him with his quest for self-reinvention. He was taken aback when his coach suggested he change employment gears. “He said, ‘It seems like you want to go off on your own,’ and I said, ‘No, no, no.’?” Then, waking up one morning, he had an epiphany. He realized that lifelong learning was his passion – and that coaching others was the platform he needed to pursue it.

But Hsiung still had to face his biggest barrier in making a career change – letting go of societal expectations. He worried about disappointing his parents, who had supported his engineering career and didn’t consider jobs other than the standard doctor, lawyer or engineer to be viable occupations. “You always get these signals of what success is,” he says.

Other fears existed, too. Hsiung had to deal with taking a pay cut. “Usually, when you start a business, you’re in the hole,” he says. He reworked his finances so he wouldn’t “burn through them” right away, took on roommates for extra income, and dipped into his savings to start Human Ventures in 2007.

Almost two years later, he is often called upon to coach people through similar life transitions, but doesn’t recommend making any drastic life changes such as the ones he went through. Instead, he suggests people change their lives through small increments.

“I remember coaching one person who had a passion for mountain bikes on the weekends. She loved sharing that with other people. It struck me: ‘Why don’t you hold a workshop and charge money for it? Then, you can see if there’s any interest and if you like teaching.’?” says Hsiung, offering a final piece of advice: Always test the waters before taking the plunge.

by K.D. Attwell

“Sketching Out a Game Plan” was featured in the October 2008 Edition of Calgary Inc.

You too can do harm…

Are you capable of committing great evil? The real answer, as history has demonstrated over and over again, is a resounding yes. Take a quick browse through psychology, sociology, anthropology and you will find the evidence overwhelming.

Milgrams Shock Generator (Ontario Science Museum)
Milgram's Shock Generator (Ontario Science Museum)

Now you will have a healthy reaction that claims, “Of course I’m not evil. Sure I make mistakes, but overall I am a good person.” But how do you know? How do you know your current actions aren’t causing untold suffering elsewhere? How do you know there aren’t circumstances where you will commit atrocities?

The uncomfortable truth is that many of our decisions are influenced by circumstances far more than we would like to believe. People who committed genocide through action or inaction believed themselves to be good people. If we cannot understand why good people do evil, then we risk making the same error in judgment ourselves.

Allow me then to share a revealing experiment with you and suggest how we can strive to be less influenced by our circumstances.

Before I begin, it will be easy to dismiss the evidence. It will be easy to say “I would never do that!”. However, consider that 86% of Australians rate their job performance as “above average” and 90% of American business managers rate their performance as superior to that of their average peer. In other words, we understate our faults and overstate our abilities.

Pretend that you really do fall into the normal range of human behaviour as you read through the following experiment.

** Selected excerpts from The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimardo **

Imagine that you have responded to a university ad where you are paid to be a part of a research experiment in finding ways to improve memory and learning. You arrive to find a scientist in a formal lab coat and another applicant. The task is straightforward. One of you will be the “teacher” who gives the other person the “learner” a set of word pairings to memorize. During the test, the teacher gives the learner the key word and the learner attempts to respond with the associated word. If the learner gets it right, a verbal reward is given. If the learner gets it wrong, the teacher presses a lever on an apparatus (shown in the picture above) that delivers a shock to the learner.

The shock machine has 30 switches starting from 15 volts at the left and increasing by 15 volts for each switch to the right. The switches are labeled from “Strong Shock” to “Intense Shock” to “Danger, Severe Shock” to the last switches marked ominously with “XXX”.

Straws are drawn and you become the teacher. You are given a sample shock of 45 volts (the third lever) to get a sense of what it feels like. The test begins. The learner initially does well, but later starts making errors and you start pressing the switches. The learner complains that it hurts. You look at the experimenter, who nods to continue. As the shock levels increase in intensity, so do the learner’s screams, saying that he does not want to continue. You hesitate but the experimenter insists you have no choice but to continue.

Now the learner begins complaining about his heart condition. Errors become much more frequent. You plead with your learner to concentrate, but to no avail. The learner screams “Let me out of here! You can’t keep me here! Let me out!” Obviously by now, you don’t want to continue. Nevertheless, the experimenter reminds you of the contract, your agreement, and moreover claims responsibility for any consequences.

After pressing the 300-volt switch, the learner doesn’t respond. You want the experimenter to check on the learner, but he does not and instead tells you that if the learner doesn’t respond within five seconds, consider it wrong. You become distressed, but are told to follow the rules and keep posing the test items.

** End excerpts **

How far would you go? How many switches would you flip?

Like most people, you would claim that there that you would have walked out before the end of the experiment because only sadists would continue to the last switch.

And like most people, you would be wrong. In the now famous Milgram’s Shock experiment, two out of three, roughly 65%, of the volunteers went past lethal shock levels…. a result that has been replicated across the world at differing time periods.

Sit with that number for a moment…Two out of three of your friends would knowingly flip the switch to the point where the learner was unresponsive and likely dead. More astonishing is almost every person who shocked the learner to the point of silence continued to flip the rest of the switches to 450 volts. Don’t believe me? This exact experiment was carried out again on this TV show:

Why does this happen? What is it about the situation that causes normal people to kill instead of to walk away?

There are many reasons, but the most powerful one is the human instinct to obey a legitimate authority figure. That behaviour is easy to see in kids who try to please the parents. As kids become adults, the authority figure changes to become the boss, the police, their peers, or religious authorities. Often, the institution backing the authority confers even greater power to the individual. In Milgram’s experiment, the scientist is the authority figure backed by the institution of the university (incidentally, compliance rates dropped when the experiment was not held by a university).

Where do you abdicate your power and responsibility to a perceived authority figure?

Do you ever assume the spouse doing the repairs knows what he or she is doing even though you see a mistake? Ever follow a person on a hike and realize you have no idea where your going? Or do ever feel nervous when a police officer is driving right behind you? These are all micro-examples of how we shutdown our thinking to defer to authority.

Milgram’s experiment had many other important factors that contributed to compliance. They included

  • Having a contractual obligation to do the job… (“I’m am obligated to do the job.”)
  • Creating rules that seem reasonable at first but are later not… (“Rules are rules after all!”)
  • Diffusing responsibility… (“I didn’t do it. He told me to do it.”).
  • Progressively increasing the steps towards the outcome… (“What’s another 15 volts?”)
  • Making the exit cost high by allowing dissent but not giving permission to leave… (“At least I voiced my issues.”)
  • Providing an ideology to justify the use of any means… (“This experiment helps people develop better memory.”)

All of these aspects tap into deeply embedded characteristics of human beings. Every one of us has fallen for the above traps in minor and sometimes major ways. Their power over us should not be underestimated.

Knowing this, what can we do to reduce the likelihood of blindly obeying an authority figure?

The short answer is to develop our character. The long answer would far exceed what can be written in this article, but I will nevertheless highlight a few key practices for character development.

1. Develop high levels of personal responsibility…

Milgram found that he could increase compliance to 90% by one changing one simple variable: create a teaching team where the teacher tells someone else to shock the learner. In other words, diffuse the responsibility.

When we give up responsibility for our actions, we stop thinking about what we are doing, and as we all know, it is easier to NOT think than to think. Taking responsibility then requires us to think continuously of our own actions and its impact.

2. Keep the bigger picture in mind…

We are often told to take responsibility for our actions. What is less said is that we should be taking responsibility for our actions and inactions in the short-term and in the long-term. No easy task!

I have played in soccer games where I lose my temper (and all perspective) or driven a car in a fit of rage. Under pressure, we may find ourselves unable to act quickly enough (“It happened so quickly I couldn’t do anything”) or the consequences of the action are too distant in time or distance to matter to us.

Learning to think, to maintain perspective, to see the big picture under pressure and stress is a lifelong practice of taking ownership of our lives.

3. Accept the fact that we do harm and then do better…

The reality is that many of our actions already do harm. We just don’t see the consequences immediately. We may work for companies that create conflict in other regions of the world. We may buy products that are environmentally damaging. We may drive when we could walk or take transit. Of course, we will justify all these actions and minimize the issues and exaggerate the positives.

But if we want to move forward, then we must accept our fallibility and seek to do better. We are fallible and that’s okay, if we take responsibility for it.

4. Seek out examples of resisting authority…

Milgram also found that compliance rates dropped to 10% if the participant was shown an example of someone refusing to continue the experiment. Having a single model person demonstrating how to say “no” to the authority was enough to help others rebel against authority! No wonder dictators would kill any person who defied them. As Hopper from the movie It’s a Bug’s Life said, “You let one ant stand up to us, then they all might stand up!”

In life, it helps to know about people in the past who have resisted authorities for a cause. Rebels such as Nelson Mandela and Che Guevera and Rachel Carson are valuable parts of our global culture. They provide us positive examples of standing up to authorities rather than blindly following them out of ignorance or fear.

Ultimately, life is where we practice and test our character. Helen Keller said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Although it is hard, wouldn’t you want to be the kind of person that refuses to flip the next switch?

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
HUMAN Venture Coaching

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges.