“Scorpion Promises”

One of Aesop’s fables is regarding a scorpion and a frog sitting at the side of the river. The scorpion wants to cross the river, but the river is wide, deep, and fast-moving. So the scorpion asks the frog “Would you give me a ride to the other side of the river on your back?” The frog responds “If I do that, you will sting me while I am swimming and I will be paralyzed and probably die from your sting. Then you will also drown.” The scorpion then says “Why would I do that? It would destroy us both. I promise that I will not sting you as you swim across the river with me on your back.”

The frog reluctantly agrees to carry the scorpion across the river. The scorpion climbs on the frog’s back and the frog starts to swim across the river. As the frog is crossing the middle of the river, which is the deepest and swiftest part, the scorpion stings the frog in the middle of its back. The frog starts to stiffen into paralysis caused by the scorpion’s venom and cries out “Why did you do that? You promised not to! Now we will both die.” The scorpion replies “It is my nature. I am a scorpion. Why are you surprised?”

I find this fable interesting because there is (of course) some deeper description of human nature and behavior present in it that I have personally noticed multiple times in the course of doing IT and analytics work in various organizations.

Some more information on the fable here:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scorpion_and_the_Frog
  2. http://www.allaboutfrogs.org/stories/scorpion.html

Some of the interpretations that I have found of this fable talk about how some people who hurt others can’t resist doing so even when doing so also hurts themselves. Like many fables and parables, there is a surprising amount of depth to a simple story, and I take a bit of an alternate lesson from this – which does not necessarily render the common interpretation incorrect, but rather says that there may be additional valid interpretations.

It is not unusual to have promises or commitments be broken during the course of building analytics platforms and/or software development, or more generally, during any sort of group activity. Promises can be broken for various reasons, including:

  1. Participants making commitments that they genuinely believed at the time of making the commitment, but for which they made a bad assumption or estimation which they perhaps should have taken into account but did not. Another variation on this is a participant overestimating their ability to keep a particular commitment in the face of circumstances. E.g. “I’ll just work harder next week and do the work after hours” when they are already working 10-hour days.
  2. Participants making commitments that they genuinely believed at the time of making the commitment, but for which totally unforeseeable circumstances arose. An “Act of God” in a corporate context, such as someone being fired, the company being acquired, or a product line being discontinued are reasonable examples.
  3. Participants not having fully discussed the terms or details of the agreement, but there having been a misunderstanding about the terms or scope of the agreement. E.g. one participant heard “I will clean up the project-related data in the system in a month regardless of other projects coming up – it will be the highest priority” where what the other participant meant but may or may not have clearly explained was “I will make some level of effort to clean project data up, assuming no other work gets put on my plate”
  4. Participants who dislike confrontation or disagreement and who therefore try to “smooth the waters” by making commitments which they feel internally conflicted about or aren’t sure that they can keep, but who don’t want to have to deal with the issue up-front and are hoping it will go away.
  5. Actual bad faith on the part of the participants. Out-and-out bad faith honestly seems to happen significantly less frequently than the other more murky scenarios previously discussed.
  6. Some mixture of the above. Human beings are complex and real life often has a combination of things feeding into it.

The “scorpion promise” does not neatly fall into any of these categories, and yet it is fascinating because it reflects behavior that we all have likely run into at one time or another. It reflects someone, perhaps us or someone we know well, a) making a commitment that b) they likely at least somewhat and perhaps strongly believe at the time of making the commitment, c) breaking the commitment at a later date, and (most interestingly) d) blaming the other party for not having had the foreknowledge to see that the committing party would break their commitment and perhaps even manifesting anger towards the wronged party for the same. It is common human behavior to redirect our anger and guilt at our broken promises at others, but it is somewhat novel to go further and actually say that others should have known at the moment of the commitment that we ourselves would not keep the commitment and that the others should have pointed this out to us at the moment of the commitment, when pointing that out would likely have generated an equally negative response.

Here are some classic “scorpion promise” responses [side comments in brackets]:

  • (From a busy executive representing the business in an analytics project) “Yes, it is true that I said last month that I would give detailed feedback on the report, but things have been so busy [even though while things may be busy, they aren’t actually any busier than they were at the time of the commitment]. You can’t actually have expected me to have given detailed feedback – you should have known then how busy I am and that that was just a vague statement. What, the report? Yes, I expect you to have moved forward with the analytics and have done the work to iron out the remaining issues in the report even though I have not given feedback. What, you haven’t done it? You’re going to wait for me! Why would you do that? What, my commitment? You should have known that I would be too busy!”
  • (From a potential business partner) “Yes, it is true that the updated contract that we sent over does not conform to the verbal discussion that we previously had discussed. But our legal department had some changes and objections when we reviewed with them later. You should have known that the attorneys always want to make some changes.”
  • (From a spouse) “Yes, I did say that I would take the responsibility for the kids today, but you know how work has been recently! You should have known that it was unlikely to happen.
    • The spouse example is a bit different; of course it’s common to need flexibility in child care in family life. The interesting part of this example was not the change in the commitment; it was blaming the other spouse for pointing out the commitment had been made originally.

Depending on the version of the the original fable, it is not clear whether the scorpion was simply calm and matter-of-fact in its response of “Of course I stung you, I’m a scorpion” or whether it was astonished and defensive that the frog had believed it. I tend to prefer the latter, angry response because it better reflects my experience with myself and others, including my own occasional scorpion promises. These are all circumstances which we have all encountered, and if we are honest with ourselves we have all been on both sides of commitments like this in our lives and work. None of us are perfect.

Are there ways that we can avoid scorpion promises? The only person that we can really control in the world is ourselves. Well, let’s be honest – we don’t even really control ourselves all of the time. However, we can’t control anyone else at all so let’s start with us.

How to avoid making scorpion promises:

  1. Be very, very conscious and aware of when we are making commitments and exactly what we are committing to.
  2. Go out of our way to think about how others may interpret our commitments and/or may want to interpret our commitments even when we know we don’t intend to commit to exactly that. Discuss it proactively.
  3. When we do break commitments, which we will all do, be scrupulous about not blaming others for us breaking our commitments and place the blame where it belongs – squarely with us (unless we think that there is some aspect of the interaction where they are not being upfront or truthful.)

Now, the trickier part – even though the above is already very challenging. How can we deal with scorpion promises arising in others?

  1. Familiarize ourselves with the concept so we can hopefully see it coming rather than be totally blindsided by it when it does happen.
  2. Pay attention to, and analyze, others’ abilities to keep commitments and whether they have a tendency to make scorpion promises. Remember, it’s quite common that a scorpion promise-maker believes their commitment at the time that it was made – this is often not a simple issue of intentional mendacity but a more complicated problem of self-deceit.
  3. When we see a scorpion promise coming, and believe that we are likely to be left “holding the bag” with regards to the impacts of the broken commitment, search for alternatives ahead of time rather than waiting until the moment to be stick.
  4. When the scorpion promise-moment occurs, and we are told “What, you believed me? That’s your fault” – recognize it for what it is, remain calm, and don’t become defensive or take the accusation personally. Calmly respond “Yes, I believed the commitment you previously made. I am confused as to why it is my responsibility to evaluate your ability to keep your commitments? If you knew that you would not be able to make the commitment, why did you make it?”
    1. Of course, this is a direct response. You’ll have to evaluate if there are some situations where it’s better to just avoid the confrontation in the moment, but avoid the person in the future or at least gently push back when they make further commitments.

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