The Cost of Taking Things for Granted

In this article, we’re going to quickly cover taking things for granted, and specifically what’s going on behaviorally when we’re doing that to people (or they’re doing it to us) and how it both drives, but also constrains performance. And we’ll start (as we often do), with the three basic factors that make us do anything.

Broadly speaking, there are only three reasons why we do anything when it would be easier not to. And let’s face it, it would almost always be easier not to do something. If you’ve got someone in your life and they’re in the habit of doing something, they’re either a) getting something from it, b) they’re getting rid of something they don’t like, or c) they’re preventing something they also don’t like. It’s really not more complicated than that. Have a loved one who used to leave the cap off the toothpaste and, after months of nagging, now reliably puts it on without you ever having to say a word? They’ve learned to prevent. Were you to die and leave them alone, I’d lay 2 to 1 odds that, once an acceptable period of mourning had past, they’d be be back to their old ways. (And I’d set the odds higher, but apparently ⅓ of Americans believe in ghosts).

And aside from getting people to do things, training them to prevent has an impact. Take a moment now and think what it’s like when your actions are in order for something not to happen. What’s it like when you’re trying not to upset someone? What’s it like when you’re trying not to get in trouble? Put yourself in that world for a moment. It isn’t fun, is it? What you also may or may not be present to is that while it’s not fun, it also slows the action down. How quickly do you answer a question if you know the wrong answer could set the asker off? Probably, you’re much more careful.

This is what drives so much of work behavior. Just about any job has elements that plain aren’t fun and that people don’t get a lot out of doing. Sure, doing them might benefit the business and, in the long run, it might make it possible for them to keep a job, but the in-the-moment, what’s-in-it-for-me aspects of activity that make things enjoyable – such as seeing immediate results, being recognized, or otherwise rewarded – just aren’t there. In the absence of those things, we do them because we’re afraid. We’re afraid of getting in trouble. Afraid of looking bad. Afraid of losing our jobs. Now, it might not seem like fear, but if it has even an ounce of stress on it – even if you would only call it concern – then fear is in action. And when we’re motivated by fear, aside from sucking the fun out of life, our performance is constrained.

Here’s your assignment. Think of somewhere that you count on people for results. Have it be something where they’re somewhat reliable for getting them done and you don’t tell them you appreciate the work they do. Now think of the difference that it makes for a) their coworkers, b) you, c) the organization, and d) the organization’s clients. Now, go tell them you appreciate their contribution. So they don’t get suspicious, you might clean up the fact that you don’t routinely appreciate their contribution. Say something along the lines of, “Tom, I just noticed that you’re pretty reliable for getting me a weekly update of where your projects stand. What I don’t think I tell you enough is what a difference it makes for the executive team to reliably have that information. A lot of the growth we’ve had over the past two years is because we can focus on using the information instead of getting it. It may not always make it obvious, but I really appreciate that it’s always on-time and accurate.”

Take that on as a practice, and you will see the people around you getting happier. You’ll probably also start to see them going above and beyond in places you didn’t expect. And you’ll notice yourself being happier as you surround yourself with happier people.