I’ve realized how much other people affect my actions, and it scares me.

I want to believe that I behave the same way regardless of who I’m with.

But that’s wrong. It’s terribly, embarrassingly, laughably wrong.

Want some examples?

I walked into the gym with a plan to do a few light cleans and nothing else. Once I got there and began futzing around, a few other athletes started talking about doing a workout together. When I saw the workout’s description as the athletes got ready around me, I hauled out some equipment and asked to do it along with them. It was a split-second decision, but I know for a fact that I would have done no such thing on my own that day.

In the middle of a conversation with another programmer, I caught myself insulting someone else’s code. I despise when programmers do this. I try to speak out against it at work. But on this occasion, I was not at work: I was somewhere else. I couldn’t believe I had actually just done that. I felt so ashamed.

I was walking past a Starbucks, fighting wind and cold, when it started to hail. I ducked into a Starbucks to get my umbrella out of my bag. As I veered toward the Starbucks, a man greeted me outside and asked if I could buy him a sandwich. I assumed he was going to ask me for money and responded “sorry” before I realized what he had said. But right there in front of me, another guy darted out of the store and handed the man a fresh Starbucks sandwich. Once I got inside the coffee shop and procured my umbrella, I looked outside the window. The man had pocketed the small sandwich and continued to stand in the intensifying hail. I hopped into line and purchased a sandwich. I handed it to him on my way out. The man accepted my sandwich and crossed the street to eat in a doorway. Had I not seen someone give him the first sandwich, I don’t think I would have purchased the second one.

And these are just examples I noticed; how many times do I not notice how I change my actions based on the actions of other people?

The influence doesn’t seem to be exclusively good or bad. It pushes me to help others (sandwich), it pushes me to hurt others (even if I don’t know the programmer/s I was insulting), and it pushes me to do things that don’t affect others (the workout). So that’s confusing.

I thought I might do it specifically in circumstances where I want to gain approval from the person who influences me. There’s some evidence that this is why humans mirror each other, so I figured maybe I was doing it by accident. Mirroring might explain something like the programming incident, where someone expresses an opinion in conversation and I agree with it. But it doesn’t explain the decision to change what I was doing and work out. And it especially doesn’t explain the sandwich incident, because I didn’t even know the guy who gave the first sandwich, and I’m quite sure that guy left long before I gave the second one.

Modern entrepreneurial wisdom advises that we are the average of the 5 people that we spend the most time with. I figure that, if this is true for most people, then it’s probably true for me too. I can believe that if I accept cues from the people around me to decide how to act, then I will get the most cues from the people I see the most, and they will affect my behavior the most. So, maybe I (or anyone) could take a big step toward being who I want to be by spending time with people who are (or also want to be) that way. That sounds a lot easier than making a big, structured plan to develop habits that work around a schedule and a social life.

But what about influences that go in the “bad” direction? I wonder if there are ways to avoid the programming situation. After all, that happened after one fifteen-minute conversation. Sarah Mei, an extremely accomplished developer, mentioned in a public discussion the other day that “Even a great team is often only one management change or bad hire away from being toxic.” Well, if a single individual can unintentionally, if temporarily, pass on their habits to someone else in a matter of minutes, then I can see where Sarah is coming from. But I don’t want it to be true.

In fact, I desperately don’t want it to be true. Because as a team gets bigger (and maybe this is especially true in tech), at some point a jerk is going to get hired. There are just too many jerks in the world for it to not happen, eventually, to any team. And if that decision automatically dooms that team to “toxic,” then every team in existence is therefore doomed to be “toxic.” I don’t want to believe that this is the case. I want to believe that jerks can be un-jerked, and I also want to believe that there’s a way to vaccinate a team dynamic against even a chronic jerk.

Does that mean that I need to learn to block negative influence on my actions from other people? I’d certainly like to. I confess, though, that I don’t know how. I also don’t know if that’s even possible. I feel like the unconscious mind plays a role in determining how I act in the moment, and it has a solid 30,000 years of conditioning on conscious me. I might be able to notice specific influences and guard against them, but across the board? It seems unrealistic to expect myself to completely eliminate this.

So maybe have to trust that, on a great team, a jerk will respond to the behavioral influences of teammates to become less of a jerk. And maybe I need to seek out those teams that don’t contain jerks, so I can avoid their insidious influence on my jerkiness.

But what about people who are only jerks sometimes? What about people who are only jerks when they’re in a bad mood, or when they’re cold, or when they’re being influenced by another jerk? What about people like…me? Isn’t everybody sometimes a good influence, and sometimes a bad one?

I genuinely don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but I was genuinely surprised to notice just how much other people’s behavior influences mine.

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