Misunderstanding Independence


I was at a business meeting recently and a bright, articulate woman kept talking about how independent she was and how difficult it was for others to accept her independence. While I agree that many people struggle to understand those that are very independent, there was something here I was puzzled by.

GavelDespite her claims, she was not really very independent. She had shared a history of numerous failed relationships. She specifically blamed her “independent personality” as a reason for the failures. I would submit that someone that is really that independent would have fewer such relationships and spent more time, well, independent and on their own.

After considering this, I’ve decided she’s confused independence with decisiveness. And that many of her hasty decisions have lead to relationship problems, both by quickly deciding to commit to poor relationships and by the decisions made during the relationships.

I also believe that she has created a self-image of herself as independent and, in turn, uses this as a tool and as an excuse. By blaming others for not agreeing with her decisions, she can assert to herself that they don’t understand “her need” to be independent. That makes the problems their fault, not hers. And if it is not her problem, there is little she can do about it. Emotionally, she’s let herself “off the hook.”

While this is a story of an individual, I think it is a great example of a common business problem. People that make poor decisions in business often blame others. Once the fault is not theirs, they have nothing to correct. Everyone else is now responsible, not them. They empower themselves to make more decisions using the same, often flawed, thinking.

People may see themselves as independent when really they just like to make unpopular or bad decisions, then need an excuse. They may see themselves as helpful and caring while enabling people to take advantage of them. Some leaders may see themselves as very smart when really they have just surrounded themselves with less intelligent people.

Of course, the way people see themselves is far more complex than just this example. While we need labels and categories to understand things and describe people (including ourselves), the danger is when we work to see the world only based on the labels. Focusing on labels limits our view of the world and limits our options for dealing with people and problems.

Learning to see and limit the overuse of labels for people, including the label of “independent,” is an important skill in effective communication. By not restricting our view of people, including ourselves, to a few labels, we can start to see new perspectives about them and ourselves.


Glenn S. Phillips is the author of Nerd-to-English: Your Everyday Guide to Translating Your Business, Your Messages, and Yourself. His website, www.nerdtoenglish.com, will lead you to more information about effective communication training, risk assessments and genuinely helpful tips. You can email Glenn directly at glennsphillips@nerdtoenglish.com.

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About the Author

Glenn S. Phillips works with leaders who want to leverage technology and understand risks within. An author and blogger, Glenn is often quoted in national media, plays a really ugly tuba (it even has a bullet hole) and is a fan of dark chocolate and great puns.