CareersCogent Communicator

Cogent Communicator: The Secrets of Human Behavior

By Susan de la Vergne

A couple of months ago in this column, I suggested that reading great books can help you become a better writer. By greatïooks, I mean exceptionally written works of fiction that have endured the test of time. Great books model writing efficiency, accurate word choice, and the power of expression.

They also do something else  they bring us inside others’ thoughts and feelings in a way nothing else can, providing insights into human behavior that no other medium does nearly as well.

Why do we need insights into others’ actions? How does that help us on the job? Because people at work bug us. Not all the time, certainly, but often enough. They’re confused by things we think they should get. They confide in us when we wish they wouldn’t. They hesitate when we think they should get on with it. They get mad. They get even. And then we get frustrated all  of which is bad for teamwork, collaboration and working together to meet aggressive challenges.

If only we understood them better. At least we wouldn’t be surprised, and maybe we’d be better able to manage them, or manage ourselves when we’re dealing with them.

No Magic Here

There’s no magic method for getting to the bottom of why people do what they do. But in the pages of great works of fiction, you discover a lot about what drives people. What the characters in celebrated novels do when faced with unusual situations, or even ordinary circumstances, offers us one lesson after another about human behavior. Novels bring us inside someone else’s thoughts and feelings in a way no other form of art or science can. And yes, sure, it’s fiction. That just means it’s not fact. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The reason great fiction endures is because it rings true. It’s why we remember it. It’s why the characters stay with us.

So how does that help on the job? When we get to know characters found in the pages of novels, we’ll be less surprised by the people we work with. When we follow fictional characters in action, when we get in on their private thoughts, we learn about what drives human behavior the impulses, ambitions, quirks, and even the underlying motives.


One Dubious Character

Here’s an example and a favorite of mine: Frank Cowperwood, from the pages of The Financier by Theodore Dreiser. Frank first exhibits a talent for turning a profit when he’s a young teen, an ability he puts to use again and again. It’s Chicago in the early part of the 20th century. Frank invests in the city rail system and makes a killing. He’s a pushy, yet amoral, seeker of whatever he desires who, early in his career in banking, pockets money that isn’t his to keep. That’s the start of his impressive rise and fall. But there’s more to Frank than his profit-making.  I satisfy myself is his motto, the driving force behind his every action, from his relationships with women to his betrayal of friends.

I know Frank Cowperwood better than I know my colleagues and most of my friends, actually because the author brings me close to Frank. I’m not just a camera attached to his forehead sharing his tactical experiences, though I’m that, too. But I’m also in on his decisions. I know his doubts and aspirations, and I see other people in the story the way that Frank sees them.

Imagine actually knowing someone that well  that’s what I mean about gaining insight into others.

Because I know Frank from The Financier, I recognize that I satisfy myself approach to decision-making and ethical choices when I see it. It doesn’t mean I like it, but I’m less surprised by it. I’m better able to see what drives people who think like Frank, and who make decisions I disagree with. I’m not as quick to react, retaliate, or argue, and I’m better able to manage the disagreement and have the conversation.

Lessons for Leaders

Any leader who listens to complaints, resolves arguments, and tries to get work done with and through other people can use some practical insights about human behavior. But learning from leaders directly, especially high-profile leaders, can be problematic.

Serious fiction brings us closer to leaders than we’ll ever get in real life. Most of us who watch leaders in action see them from afar. We don’t know what makes them tick. We rarely get close enough to witness their true character. But we can get a lot closer to leaders in novels.


In his book Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature, Joseph Badaracco takes us through leadership challenges as revealed in works of serious fiction. They’re the kinds of challenges leaders in engineering organizations face: setting a vision, being committed, taking ownership, balancing principle and practicality, and handling success. Badaracco points out that the most difficult tests for leaders challenge their characters as much as their skills, and that leaders,grappling with questions of character can gain a deeper understanding of themselves and of ways to lead more effectively.

You don’t get answers to the kind of leadership challenges he’s talking about in a quickie skills-training course.

Mr. Badaracco suggests several leadership themes and examples in literature where you can find them. One of the questions he poses is, How can leaders and aspiring leaders know if they actually care enough to make their dreams real?  Then he takes us into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, where we watch driven executive Monroe Stahr, pay a steep price to live and work on his own terms. Stahr is an executive devoted to his work  not in the anxious, unable-to-detach way of a dysfunctional power monger, but in a way that reveals his genuine passion for the job. It’s both painful to watch and refreshing to see. We’re inside Stahr’s thoughts and heart, and we come to know him as a leader in a way we’d be hard-pressed to come by otherwise.

Where to Start

I’m just going to recommend a few authors and leave out the lavish analyses of what you’ll find in the pages, tempting though that is. I should also add that I’m no literary scholar, just an avid reader who spent 20-plus years in I.T. management, very grateful for the insights I got about human behavior from serious fiction.

Authors I’ve learned from: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Harper Lee, Theodore Dreiser, Carson McCullers (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, Maya Angelou, Upton Sinclair (Oil), Pearl S. Buck, Flannery O’Connor. They’re all American writers, but if British fiction sounds more interesting, let me add Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, and Charlotte Bronte.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, just some of my favorites.

Enjoy It

Whether you’re a team lead/project lead, a manager, a project manager, or just someone who’d like to have better relationships with your colleagues and teammates, try looking for answers about human behavior in the pages of fiction. And take a close, unhurried read. This isn’t a quick fix, but it’s not a tedious one,  either, because while you’re at it, you can enjoy the story. These are rich, engaging, enduring books. (That’s why they’re great.)

Susan de la Vergne

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals.

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