Dissonance and a Trip to the Grocery Store

DissonanceNoun. “A tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements.”

A couple recent humorous experiences on the receiving end of customer service have gotten me thinking about the disastrous role dissonance plays in business.



Waiting in line for a cashier at a grocery store, I got to observe a two-minute sample of the manager’s style. In fact, everybody got to observe it. She was loud, as upbeat as upbeat can get, in-your-face enthusiastic. She bounced from lane to lane, calling out to customers, “I have a short wait for awesome Angela in lane 3!” Her sing-song inflection sounded more appropriate for toddler daycare. “Yay for Angela!!!” “Hey everyone! I have no wait at lane 6 for Leslie! The loquacious Leslie! Haha! Ever loquacious!” Leslie didn’t seem amused. “What does loquacious even mean?” “It means you’re always talking!”

It might not have seemed quite as strange–enthusiasm and fun isn’t bad. But all of the cashiers were quiet, calm, and formal–they even looked frustrated and a little offended. The manager just didn’t match the rest of the team. If everyone had been as bubbly as the manager, it might have been a fun experience for all us customers. Or if the manager had been positive and enthusiastic, but a little less AAAAAAAAAAH!!!!!, the whole picture might have been less weird.


I was sitting with a young adult friend at a big, mainstream, “progressive” bank. She was opening up new accounts and we were hitting it off chatting with our personal banker. He was a nice, genuine guy–the kind you can tell isn’t just selling “nice” to you. They were chatting about soccer–their common interest–when up walked a younger, dressed-to-a-tee manager. He jumped right in, cutting the banker off mid-sentence. “Hi! I’m Alan! I’m the manager here, and I’m very excited you’re here. John will take very good care of you!” (John was taking good care of us before you cut him off!). Alan patted John patronizingly on the shoulder.

John looked a little disgusted. But not surprised. Like he was used to his manager butting in and derailing the meeting. He had quite successfully changed the tone from a genuine, friendly one to a cookie-cutter, fake, impersonal one. “Here’s my card! Again, my name is Alan and I’m the manager, so if you ever need anything at all, please let me know! It was really great to meet you guys!” He turned and walked away. He left us feeling jarred and confused. What just happened?

It was very obnoxious. It’s like if you were listening to a calm, relaxing acoustic artist and suddenly Skrillex jumps in with a massive bass drop, throws some big electronic squawking your direction, and then turns and walks away, leaving the acoustic music to clean up after him. It just doesn’t mix. #dontask #kidsthesedays


Thinking back to those experiences–both managers gave great examples of general management “don’t”s: Don’t call your employee loquacious. Don’t interrupt your employee’s conversation. The list goes on.

But those mistakes wouldn’t have done so much damage to the brand on their own. What was most damaging was the dissonance. The grocery store manager didn’t match her cashiers. Taken alone, either side could have connected with their customers, but watching the intense clash uncovered the fakeness: There was no genuine team happening there. And the bank manager. Maybe he was just a more outgoing, bubbly personality. But if you’re going to interrupt a friendly conversation, make it fitting.

Do loud, crazy, fun, hilarious, intense. Or do calm, quiet, professional. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. But when you’re presenting a brand, there can’t be such a mismatch–especially all in your face, all at the same time.

It’s like unbearably obnoxious music. As a customer, I just don’t want to be around it.

Why Some “Help” Really Hurts


When I visited a school in a Ugandan village, the local leader I was working with told me that the buildings were not being maintained and would continue to fall apart, because everyone knew that western aid-workers would just come rebuild them if needed.

Very revealing.

This doesn’t mean I think assistance programs are bad, but this concept makes you think hard about how aid should be shaped to have good long-term effects. I remember seeing lots of very clear and damaging cases of “shifting the burden to the intervenor” while living in and visiting some very poor areas in Africa.

Consider this–from Peter M Senge’s excellent study, The Fifth Discipline: The Are & Practice of the Learning Organization:

“The long-term, most insidious consequence of applying nonsystemic solutions is increased need for more and more of the solution. This is why ill-conceived government interventions are not just ineffective, they are “addictive” in the sense of fostering increased dependency and lessened abilities of local people to solve their own problems. The phenomenon of short-term improvements leading to long-term dependency is so common, it has its own name among systems thinkers–it’s called “shifting the burden to the intervenor.” The intervenor may be federal assistance to cities, food relief agencies, or welfare programs. All “help” a host system, only to leave the system fundamentally weaker than before and more in need of further help.”

You see lots of this. And it’s not just in poverty relief. You see it in personal life. You see it in business–when companies use kid gloves and cute initiatives to train and empower leaders (watering down what real, complicated leading looks like) and end up just babysitting a lot of managers that were never given the chance to be taken seriously. You see it in customer service–when out of a desire to go above-and-beyond, companies accidentally train customers to be extremely high-maintenance instead of self-reliant. Examples are endless.

So the tough question is–how do you help AND avoid that effect?

I don’t have a perfect answer, but I think it starts somewhere along the lines of: “Teach a man to fish…”

What do you think?


Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. – Chinese Proverb

How to Create Your Own Luck

“Diligence is the mother of good luck.” – Benjamin Franklin

I distinctly remember a day at the office last year when it hit me more clearly than ever before that you create your own luck. Not always. Not indefinitely. But generally–you can make yourself get “luckier.” As the old Greek proverb goes, “God helps those who help themselves.”

It’s not magic. It’s common sense. But a little gem of common sense that doesn’t seem quite so common to many an “unlucky” person.

Here’s what happened:

I was working as a team with a few sales reps of sorts who would send people my way. The more they sent my way, the more they got paid and I got paid. Having been in their position before, I had lots of tips and best practices to share. I had especially become very good at collecting leads. Since it was their place to contact leads, not mine, I knew I could benefit the entire team by sharing my leads and strategies with them.

I dedicated a lot of time to helping the most senior sales rep with gathering leads and making referrals. I even took on some of her workload so she could focus on building her sales. But she just didn’t deliver. She spent a lot of time finding ways to avoid actually making the referrals. Sales is scary.

Then there was the most junior of our sales reps. She had very recently started with the company–no prior experience, lower rank and pay. No reason to expect she would be the big producer. So I still sent some leads her way and gave suggestions here and there. But she wasn’t my focus. I started to notice, though–whenever I sent her a lead, she delivered. And then I got an email that changed the whole relationship: “Hey, I wonder if you have any suggestions for prospects I could contact?” Immediately my focus shifted. I gave her twice the help that I gave anyone else.

I started to feel a little bad: Was I playing favorites? Shouldn’t I be helping everyone equally? Was I giving the new girl an unfair advantage? So just to feel “fair,” I tried to even it out–invest as much time and energy into the more senior rep. And it just didn’t pay off. When I helped her, nothing happened. When I helped the new girl, results happened.

So I came to the conclusion: The bottom line increases more when you help those who help themselves. The recent hire was creating her own “luck” by producing results and asking for help. Her behavior attracted help.

I have always distinctly remembered her example. Sure, you need “luck.” But often “luck” is sent your way by people who see your initiative and realize investing in you will pay off.

Even if someone won’t directly benefit from giving you help, there’s just something about your having a good work ethic that makes people want to give you a leg up.

Want “luck?” Give people reason to believe in you and help you.

“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” – Thomas Jefferson

I ran across something I wrote down when I got home that day last year:

“There are thousands of people around you who are watching and are impressed when you do something well. They then WANT to help you. For instance, when I see one person looking for prospects and another on Facebook, I am impressed with the first person and try to find ways to help them and encourage their behavior: e.g. sending them my own leads.”


“The day you decide to do it is your lucky day.” – Japanese Proverb

“It Was a Good Learning Experience”

“What the hell just happened?”

I sat with my boss behind a closed door. We were both stunned. Didn’t really know what to say. Something shocking and incredibly hurtful had just happened. We were totally blind-sided. Couldn’t have been much more painful or much scarier.

I took some deep breaths and realized there was only one way I could handle it. “You know what? . . . A year from now, this won’t even matter.”

A year later I realized I was totally wrong. A year later, it did matter! It had turned out to be one of the most beneficial experiences of my life. I had learned valuable lessons, grown so much as a communicator, and developed some key relationships–all because of this “bad” experience. In fact, if I could take the whole event back–I wouldn’t! It was a good learning experience–too good!


It wasn’t the last big “bad” experience I’ve had. But each time they feel a little different and go a little better. I’ve learned four important lessons about “bad experiences” that are really helping.

1. It WILL turn out for your good–IF you want.

Sometimes people seem to end up in a genuinely worse place after an upset. But most of the time, that’s a choice. In my experience and the experience of everyone else I’ve gotten to talk to about life’s tough things, it depends on your attitude.

The more earth-shaking the experience, the greater the potential to grow from it. You can learn big things. You can develop toughness. You can end up wiser. You can gain more perspective. You can deepen and strengthen relationships. You can even take advantage of whatever changed and leverage it to take even bigger steps forward.

The key word is CAN.

2. Once you understand that it will turn out for good if you want, the GOOD will happen faster.

The bad-leads-to-good perspective doesn’t change the fact that pain hurts. What the perspective does change, I’ve noticed, is how quickly your focus (and therefore feelings) start shifting from the pain to the benefits.

The first time as a kid that you feel like you’re drowning in the deep end of the pool, you panic and splash around and it hurts and you’re terrified. Eventually you realize you can swim to safety. The next time you’re in too deep, you already know your plan of attack: Look for a wall and start swimming.

In the same way, once you truly understand that you can make a “bad” experience turn out “good,” you start working on it a lot more quickly.

3. Even the “worst” outcome sometimes feels worthwhile when you compare it to the new You that will come out of it.

Let’s say it gets really bad. Like you get fired. Or you go broke. Or your car dies. That seems like a pretty clear negative, right? An obvious net loss.

Well not necessarily. In fact, if you decide to leverage it for your own good in every way you can, to look for the silver linings and chase them–often you end up much better for it. Sometimes it takes a year. Sometimes half. Sometimes a month. Sometimes even less. But eventually you’ll probably be glad you had the experience, even if it turned out really bad. Would you take back all the “bad” things that happened to you as a kid? Or are you too grateful for the You they’ve created?

(I don’t want to be flippant or fake. Sometimes the “worst” means you’re dying of cancer. Or you lose a loved one. That’s real. Sometimes maybe there’s really no light at the end of the tunnel in this life. But 9 times out of 10, when someone’s in despair–they can still come out a better, wiser, stronger person in the end. It’s those 9 times I hope this post might help with.)

4. Finally, if you make the “learning and growing experience” mentality a habit, bad experiences will just become “good learning experiences.”

You can be a person who lets bad stuff break you down and stunt your growth. Or you can be a student of life and let all the experiences–“good” and “bad”–be good learning experiences. You can commit to focus on growing as a person when times get tough.

I can tell you from personal experience–the more you force yourself to focus on the learning and growing opportunities when bad things happen, the sooner it will become second nature. And once it’s second nature, as a general rule, things just go much better. Things don’t hurt as badly. Pain doesn’t last as long. You get better at learning and growing. You become a pro at bouncing back from upsets and just doing life better than before.


When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And when life kicks you in the butt, grab a pen and start taking notes. Make that a core part of who you are. You’ll be a happier, stronger, wiser, and more effective person.

Of course. There’s another option. You can let everything just break you down. You can stop getting back up when you fall. You can just give up on yourself. Sometimes we start to do that, and it’s very sad . . .

“Eeyore, the old grey donkey, stood by the side of the stream and looked at himself in the water. ‘Pathetic,’ he said. ‘That’s what it is. Pathetic.'” – A. A. Milne

How will you deal with “bad” experiences in the future? Will they leave you weaker or stronger?

“You just have to decide whether you are Tigger or an Eeyore. You have to be clear where you stand on the Tigger Eeyore debate.” – Randy Pausch