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When cats and coworkers are annoying: why you should care about scripted behavior

We often follow scripted behavior, which might be a problem when important decisions are at stake. Paying attention to when you're (re)acting out of habit rather than actually making a decision can improve workplace culture, get you better outcomes, and help you grow your business.

My cat follows a script. If you don’t spend a lot of time with him, it’s easy to assume everything he does is for a reason, even if the reason might be a mystery. But in reality, he consciously makes only a fraction of his decisions; the rest of his decisions make him.

For example, he sits by the front door and meows every day at the same time to be let out. Ten minutes later I hear him calling me to let him in. Ten minutes later he wants back out. Back and forth, in and out. Dinner is interrupted by this. Work is interrupted by this. Relaxing with a book or movie is interrupted by this. Setting aside the fact that I’m an enabler, I want to know why he needs to do this. Is he bored? Testing or training me? If he’s going to annoy me, I want it to be for good reason.

But the more I’ve learned about him, the more I’ve realized that he has a script. I’ve followed him out a few times to see what he’s up to. It’s nothing that indicates reasoning. Sometimes he relieves himself. Sometimes he darts off like he’s after prey, but then ends up staring into space. Sometimes he just sits there. There’s a pattern regarding the timing, but not the motive. Going in and out is what his script is telling him to do.

People have scripts too. Scripts help us know what’s expected of us socially, which helps things run smoothly. But scripts aren’t always great. At work, for example, some of us have managers who react to every request with skepticism before they look for hope. Some of us have colleagues who consistently say “no” before they say “yes.” Some people are generally contrarian while others are almost too agreeable. It’s natural to think there’s intent or purpose to these behaviors, but it’s often the case that scripts are telling them what to say. It’s not their fault: they’re human. I have scripts, and I notice only some of them, often with embarrassment. They’re automatic, so they’re hard to spot.

Even though scripted behavior is natural, it’s important to be mindful of when it’s happening, and here’s why:

1. Scripted behavior can mess you up. Your scripted behavior might feel like conscious decision-making, but it’s not. Scripts don’t encourage us to take into account all possible options and their outcomes. Some choices and decisions could be way better for you than those your scripts lead you to choose. Scripted behavior may feel right because it comes naturally, and it’s something you’re comfortable with. Often, the returns from our scripted behavior are positive, even though they are not always great, which reinforces the script. But following a script is not always the best choice. Many times, it’s actually better to actively choose.

2. Scripted behavior can cause problems for others (which in turn causes problems for you). Because scripted behavior is automatic, it’s often not the appropriate reaction to every situation. Scripts are contextually triggered, but they’re not highly customized. For example, a colleague might respond to each work request with an analysis of all the things that could go wrong. For him, this might come naturally. His script might be telling him to be diligent and careful. But not every task requires “catastrophe analysis,” so he may come across as pushing back too much, or as ineffective and unwilling – which isn’t great for his reputation. Our scripts motivate us to act before we know what’s happening. We could end up saying or doing things that may range from irrelevant to insulting, depending on the situation. If you annoy enough people with your scripted behavior, you may not get what you really need from those you count on.

3. Paying attention to scripted behavior can open you up to opportunities. Consumers often follow scripts when they make purchase decisions. Businesses try hard to be appealing and relevant, but when their target consumers are following scripted behavior, all that effort might not matter. In many cases, a business’s greatest challenge could be a script that tells consumers to purchase something else. In the workplace, understanding the scripted behavior of your colleagues can help you figure out what you need to do to be persuasive and impactful. If your boss initially reacts to new ideas with skepticism, for example, and if you know this is based on a script, then you can see the scripted behavior for what it is, rather than as a firm decision, and work around it.

Scripts aren’t always terrible. When someone asks us how we’re doing, we tend to say we’re fine, even if we might not be. We’re following a script. Although our response might not be entirely authentic, inauthenticity sometimes serves a purpose, which is civility and social bonding. In intimate relationships we can get real. In less intimate ones, we don’t really want to share all the details, so we conform to a script that's appropriate for the context. It’s not always a bad thing. But when it is, it can be a problem, so it’s important to pay attention.

I could say more, but I have to go. The cat wants out.


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