Wants Versus Likes

(This article was originally published in Nurse Leader.)

The burgeoning field of positive psychology is shining a light on research that identifies the neural pathways in our brains that distinguish our “wants” from our “likes.” The scientific specifics and wants that become addictions are not the focus of this column, but what is of interest is how the biological and emotional distinctions between “wants” and “likes” play out in our leadership lives. Left unexamined, we can easily confuse these two states, as this story about Nadia illustrates.

Nadia was a vice president in a large metropolitan medical center. She had a broad span of control, and she was quite successful in her role. Just one of her many skill sets was her exceptional ability to plan, organize, and document results. When it came time for Nadia to hire a number two, she opted to complement rather than duplicate her own strengths. On its face, this strategy seemed wise, and as she implemented it, she did not give in to the growing temptation to hire someone whose strengths were similar to her own. Instead, she focused on finding a candidate who was more clinically competent. She reasoned that she received her nursing education long ago, and the work ahead would benefit from someone whose clinical preparation was more current.

After a thorough search, Nadia decided to hire Tracy, an outstanding candidate from another part of the country. Tracy was a well-regarded manager and clinician, and she was highly motivated to do well in her new role. She moved as soon as her circumstances permitted, and as she began her new job, she embraced it with relish.

Once she settled in, Tracy started to excel, particularly with relationship building in the service areas in which her clinical competence was additive. From the beginning, Nadia received consistently positive feedback about Tracy’s contributions. But as time went on, Nadia become concerned about how Tracy was faring with documentation and the other administrative functions of her job.

While Tracy continued to flourish, Nadia became even more troubled. She felt that Tracy focused only on big picture problems, relationship building, and the clinical/technical requirements of her position at the expense of everything else. She also believed that Tracy did not systematically organize her projects, and she worried about her lack of visible preparation for the upcoming budgeting process.

Before we explore what Nadia did to address her concerns, let’s examine some of the dynamics that are occurring in this story:

1. Nadia had legitimate apprehensions about Tracy’s focus on the whole of her job. But in considering how she was approaching her new role, Nadia began to compare Tracy to herself. Even though Nadia specifically wanted someone with a different skill set, she was not satisfied with what she saw Tracy doing once she was on the job.

2. Nadia was unaware of the change in her emotions. She had shifted away from “wanting” someone who was skilled in different areas and toward a state of “disliking” what she was experiencing now that she had it. In other words, she had moved out of the state of anticipating a co-director with a clinical orientation to actually having that co-director.

3. Nadia was frustrated and close to blaming Tracy for her apparent lack of interest in and proficiency with administrative work, even though Nadia did not emphasize that work in her interviews with Tracy.

Nadia has the opportunity to learn something important about wants and likes. We know from our personal experiences that we do not always like what we think we want once we have it. Here’s a simple example: anyone who has ever looked at a box of cookies and eaten them all, only to regret it later, understands how it feels when wanting something does not lead to liking the consequences of having it.

The simple and uncomfortable reality of eating too many cookies shows that wants and likes are not always congruent. But when we anticipate the “before and after” of what we think we want, we can choose to pursue it or let it go. We could, for example, see a desirable box of cookies and deliberately change our focus to how much we like being thin. After doing that, we could decide we want to eat one or two cookies instead of eating them all. When we make this kind of choice, we are consciously aligning our wants with our likes.

Whether cookies appeal to you or not, there are many places in your life where you don’t fully indulge your wants. As Nadia considered her own ways of successfully managing wants and likes in the rest of her life, she saw that she could readily apply this skill to leading, too. Here’s what she did:

1. Nadia didn’t approach Tracy until she sorted out her own role in her disappointment with Tracy’s performance. She concentrated on the successes Tracy was achieving as she thought about how to talk with Tracy about the administrative facets of her job.

2. Once she was clear about the conversation she wanted to have, Nadia sat down with Tracy. She lauded her for her strong start, and she broached the important administrative functions of her position. Tracy admitted that it wasn’t her favorite part of the job, but she was quick to own that she needed to attend to those responsibilities, too. Together, Nadia and Tracy worked out a plan for Nadia to actively guide and mentor Tracy so she could be successful with those aspects of her job, too.

After they met, Nadia thought more about the difference between wants and likes and how it played out in other areas of her leadership life. Although she was glad she had learned about the intellectual distinction, her biggest takeaway was to stay conscious of the difference. She was clear that the next time she “wanted” to make the right choice, she would anticipate what the experience of that choice would be like. She was aware that she would not always be in the position to “like” the leadership choices she “wanted” to make, but she would no longer confuse the two.

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