The other day I watched a Q & A with a newly hired leader. The thing I noticed was that his answers all had the same recurring themes. He was speaking to the crowd, and he clearly had a message he wanted to get across. There was a projected agenda to the things he was saying. And in that setting, I don’t really think there is anything wrong with this—in fact, as a leader it made sense for him to predictably set forth clear expectations.
However, that same thing can happen in our day-to-day relationships and can leave us flummoxed. It is frustrating when someone is doing this because at the core of it, the thing that matters most is their own agenda. They are willing to manipulate information, twist truth, and do anything to get the last word because theirs is the only word that matters—at least to them it is. Life, for them, becomes a Q & A in which they have ALL THE ANSWERS.
What is worse than someone having a projected agenda is when we don’t pick up on the projected agenda, and are then therefore hoodwinked into making concessions or decisions we never intended to make—we look around and don’t recognize the world in which we’ve landed. So here are a few ways to spot projected agendas in your workmates, your spouse, your teenagers, and, if we are really honest, perhaps this will help us find when we ourselves have some agenda and are fighting to be “right” rather than fighting for what is right.
When someone has a projected agenda, they cannot let conversation happen—they have to keep it bridled and white-knuckle the reins. This plays out through interrupting. If someone else begins gaining momentum, say in a meeting, with others beginning to like this new train of ideas, the person with the agenda will interrupt (even clear progress) in order to be heard. That person will repeat information or bring some new facet of the old plan to the table, and regain control. When you are absolutely right about everything it is hard to stomach any sort of wrongness. So you interrupt. And interrupt again, if necessary. It is conversational attrition and eventually you will wear your enemies down to agreement! And, pretty much, this is terrible. It is terrible when it happens to you, but perhaps even worse when we bring it upon another. I’ve caught myself doing this before, and when I catch it, the first thing I need to do is chase the “Why’s” down and figure out what in me “needs” to be right this badly? What is driving my selfishness? Is it pride? Is it insecurity? Likely, it is both and perspective needs to be sought before I can move forward and be a team player.
When someone has a projected agenda, they will lead with excuses—excuses for what happened last time, excuses for possible future pitfalls, excuses for every failure (typically excuses that preclude them of any responsibility), excuses for any- and every-thing. If one points to enough external distraction, one might just be able to win the day and sneak their item in. It this basic deception of distraction that is the stuff of cartoon shenanigans, “Hey, look over there!” When someone is leading with excuses, look for the “ask” behind the excuse, it will not only reveal that there is an agenda at play, it will uncover precisely what said agenda is. Imagine the teenager, rifling off apologies about her messy room. She is sorry, she just forgot, she was busy with homework and volleyball practice, her ankle was hurting, she will be sure to get it finished though . . . also, a bunch of people are going over to Tina’s place for a couple hours later and I was just wondering if I might be able to borrow the car and some cash to go too? Yep, she leads with excuses in hopes of softening her opponent, then pounces with agenda. Of course, this is easy to spot when it comes from hormonal teens. It can be tougher sometimes in the workplace or with peers. But honestly the ploy isn’t much different. The difference is in our expectations of others (especially others we see as “equals” in terms of life experience), however it is important to remember at all points, people are people (yes, even teens). And, of course, that means I am a person too, and so I am susceptible to the same subtle, bossy manipulation that I need to be on the lookout for. If all I can do is eradicate it in myself, well, the world will at least be a smidgeon better for it.
When someone has a projected agenda, they will misquote all over the place. They’ll half-quote, “paraphrase,” manipulate words, emphasize others. The appeal to authority is an especially potent logical fallacy, so when we quote authority—even wrongly—it can be a powerful way to push our agendas. So when I quote someone I need to keep in mind two things: 1) Is that really what he or she said? and 2) Am I truly representing what I think his or her intent really was? These aren’t bad questions to consider when you may have an agenda that you are projecting, but they are also apt to ask of a person who may be foisting an agenda on you. Hesitation, waffling, or excuses tend to come when either #1 or #2 isn’t completely true.
- Verbose Answers
When someone has a projected agenda, they will talk and talk and talk. A simple yes-no question will turn into a Shakespearean soliloquy. You’ll ask for Hemingway and get Joyce in return. The famous quote from Macbeth on life plays here: “”It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” When a projected hidden agenda is at play, answers will follow suit . . . lot of words and not much substance. A person will be passionate, sure . . . for who isn’t passionate about what he wants—we are selfish beings, after all. Again, the example with a teenager plays well here. I recall, as a college student, asking my 14 year-old sister who she had been talking to on the phone in her room. Full of teenage angst she wouldn’t just say “Zach”—and we all knew it was Zach!—but instead she would say “Lucy” and go into great detail about Lucy and Lucy’s sick cat and how Lucy had just had a break-up to go along with her recently diagnosed gout (in her foot, not the cat) and how Lucy’s mom had lost her job and that Lucy may go shopping later, if her, um, foot is feeling up to it and . . . on and on it went. Her answer was an ever-running river and its complexity hid a totally simplistic agenda: “Don’t let my family know the boy I like—they’ll ruin everything.” Consider the answers of others—especially the length and directness of said answers. And, also consider your own. When you wax philosophical on a simple question there is a good chance an agenda is afoot.
- Passive Aggressive Offense
When someone has a projected agenda, they will go on the offense using passive-aggressive jabs and hooks. They’ll throw out other ideas dismissively as part of the big reveal of their own idea. They’ll slander those who offer (or may offer) competing ideas just to get a leg up in the competition. And that is just the thing, there is no competition! Why do we live life and make decisions and fight for ideas like our identity is at stake? For me, it is because it is. I stake my identity to the most minuscule pursuits: fame, prestige, money. And based on these factors, I play to win. And I may. The big idea may be mine, and I’ll gain some measure of notoriety and maybe even get a raise, but I lose at life. I break relationships. I don’t look out for what is good and I’m far from what is best. I look for the big “get” and I enjoy said gains alone and unhappy. Therein lies the heart of my agendas. I am passive-aggressive because I am playing the wrong game for the wrong things, and my prize, selfishly gained, is lonesomely consumed.
Projected agendas individualize the collective, and in so doing, settle for goodness where greatness may have been possible. And I am guilty of this. I bet you are too. Sniffing out hidden, projected agendas will help us make wise decisions based not on offered gimmicks, but on best results. Finding these practices in ourselves, well, that will change the fabric of who we are and change that which we value. It will infuse our relationships—at home and at work—with purpose and poise, and it will create an aura of trustworthiness in all we do.