500 Days, Sway and a Business Lesson

I recently saw 500 Days of Summer and was particularly impacted by the way one scene was written and shot. At this point in the movie Tom has fallen for Summer and they have now broken up. They run into each other at a wedding, catch up, share a dance and she invites him to a dinner party she’s having the following weekend. When the big day arrives he bounds up the stairs to her apartment as the screen splits with one side labeled Expectations and the other Reality.

What ensues simultaneously are two entirely different scenarios. One side of the screen shows him getting the girl and the other side shows him, well, not getting the girl. Guess which side of the screen had Reality labeled on it.

At the same time I’ve been reading a book called Sway,subtitled “The irresistible pull of irrational behavior.” It’s a deep dive into “hidden psychological forces that derail our logical thinking and sabotage our decision-making.” There are many fascinating examples of the ways we ignore evidence that directly contradicts what we want to believe to be true.

In the instance of Tom, he was so blinded by the potential of getting what he deeply wanted that he ignored the evidence to the contrary, let his expectations get the better of him, and ended up even more heart broken.

We’ve all been there – had an image of how we saw things going only to see them turn out the opposite way. It’s easy to ignore evidence of a reality because we’re so caught up in what we think the reality is or should be. Not only does this apply in love, it also applies in business.

When you’re drinking your own corporate kool-aid every day it’s easy to fall into creating your own expected realities (how you’re perceived by the public, or what your customers love about you) but if you’re ignoring the evidence that’s out there it can lead to poor business decisions.

A section in Sway discusses how one of the problems with making an official diagnosis on something is that “there’s then pressure to make everything fit with that diagnosis (despite new evidence,) so that once that diagnosis has been made, all the behaviors and decisions become confirmatory.”

I’ve worked with companies who have been so convinced of the value they bring to their customers they invested heavily in creating products and collateral and marketing campaigns around their expectations of how the market would react. Rarely though was there a deep dive check-in with customers to confirm that the company’s perceived value matched what the customers believed.

It was no surprise when fancy marketing spiels and created-in-a-vacuum messaging fell flat because it didn’t resonate. It wasn’t speaking the same language as its potential customers. It was based on the company’s expectation of how they thought the customer viewed the company and not from the reality of the customer.

When working in PR agencies I saw the Expectations vs Reality scene play out countless times. Each side had their expectations of how things were going to go and sometimes the versions just did not match.

I’ve seen clients come in the door we knew we shouldn’t have worked with. We knew what they wanted was unrealistic or that they wouldn’t be the partner we needed to be to bring the success we wanted. But we’d want to win the business because it was a big brand account, or we wanted to beat a rival agency, or we thought we could work with them and “change them.”

We’d formed our diagnosis of why it was going to work because we wanted to win, despite the evidence that we should have just walked away. It always ended badly. If we’d been living in reality and and thinking logically maybe we wouldn’t have been swayed away from our better judgment and could have saved ourselves a lot of lost time and unnecessary frustration.

So the next time you’re in a business situation and you feel yourself being swayed away from your logical thinking, check in with yourself and see which movie you’re living in – an expectation you’re creating based on what you want or a reality based on the evidence and what your gut tells you.

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