Unreasonable Reasonableness

by  John E. Smith  |  Leadership Coaching
Unreasonable Reasonableness post image

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”    

George Bernard Shaw

I have heard this saying most of my working life.  I cannot remember where or from whom I first heard it, but I’ll bet it was someone trying to justify their unreasonableness in a situation.

This thought is sometimes used to reframe unreasonable behavior as something more positive than it actually is.  Sometimes we are just trying to make our unreasonableness look better or convince ourselves that being unreasonable is a value in and of itself.

For example, have you ever worked with someone who just will not “play nice with others,” but insists on acting on their perception of how things ought to be? With great pride, they will claim to be trying to achieve progress for the organization, but are actually just pushing their own agenda.

This type of workplace behavior can result in deep divisions within a team, isolation of a potentially valuable employee by others, or when the unreasonable person is the boss, a great deal of wasted time, energy, and resources.

If you have ever said to a coworker anything like “I tried to tell him/her, but he/she just would not listen.” you may have experienced this situation. 

When can unreasonableness be of value?

  • When you attack a problem, and not a person
  • When you teach others what you know, so they change their perception of the problem
  • When you struggle to reach a goal that is inclusive rather than exclusive
  • When you spend minimal time griping about how others do not appreciate your genius
  • When the solution you seek does not benefit you personally, but changes someone else’s world for the better

Adapting to reality is not a negative thing … it is a survival thing.

Our ability to adapt to what we need to is essential for us to continue to live and thrive. Sometimes the reasonable thing to do really IS the most reasonable choice.  Adaptation can set the stage for deeper ultimate change and is essential in times of great uncertainty.  Most businesses that are surviving and thriving understand and practice the art of adaptation.

However, adaptability can be negative when one or more of the following are present:

  • We adapt without true change, outwardly compliant, inwardly entertaining emotions and thoughts which are incongruent with our external appearance and behavior.
  • We allow things to happen which we should face and change, such as inequality or exclusion. Sometimes we need to be unreasonable.
  • We hunker down and only see to our own comforts and survival, without considering our fellow travelers on the planet. While our personal environments are of necessity often foremost in our minds, we live in connection with others in our groups, our communities, and our world. 

Sometimes change only comes by openly confronting what is, to move to what could be …

Let me be clear …

Many battles have been fought, on the field and in the workplace, because someone did not want to accept the status quo and this is indeed a good thing … as long as the battle is being fought for the right reasons.

Progress does depend much on changing things as they are, while most want to keep up those same things or at least change very slowly … inertia is the enemy of true progress. I am not suggesting we never act up and promote change.

My point remains that the impetus for change should be the value of the change, rather than simple validation of one’s eccentricities or personal desires. The trick is to be able to clearly know when your unreasonableness is a positive force and when it’s just an ego trip for you.

When have you been unreasonable for a very good reason?

How do you tell when your unreasonableness is really reasonable?

This post is a revision of a post which was originally published on The Strategic Learner as Being Unreasonable on September 24, 2013.

How has unreasonableness factored into your decision-making? Has it ever been a positive?
Photo Credit: Morguefile.com adapted from image Q5k3EFSC.jpg posted by Breezanemom.

About The Author

Articles By john-smith
I enjoy helping people learn and grow through intentional, strategic, and social interventions. I coach, teach, train, facilitate, organize, write, speak, design, and lead at the intersection of leadership, learning, and human behavior. I am a CCE Board Certified Coach (BCC) with specializations in both Leadership/Business and Life/Personal coaching. My primary blog is The Strategic Learner on Wordpress.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Duncan M.  |  16 Jul 2015  |  Reply

I believe that we all like to see ourselves as reasonable persons, always eager to act the right way. However, there are situations when we have such a good idea (at least this is how it sounds in our head) that we can accept no change to it. This is when the gap between our own interests and the company’s interests occurs. At this point, we need to be able to rely more on the actual facts rather than on our stubbornness to see something implemented.

John E. Smith  |  16 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Duncan – thanks for commenting.

I agree with you … that pesky tendency to think our ideas are The Ideas, which leads us to become forceful advocates for what we believe to be right, has both positive and negative aspects.

Facts are always useful in a situation, as is getting a second or third opinion from trusted sources. Maybe this is one of the reasons why having a coach is seen as such a good thing:)


Mike Henry Sr.  |  16 Jul 2015  |  Reply

John, this is one of my favorite quotes. To me selfishness is the gauge for motive. The fewer people who benefit from the change, the less likely the change is good. But I consider change to be more of a crusade than a single battle. Sometimes I must adapt to reality because the fight isn’t worth the effort. Everyone doesn’t want what I want. However if I can always want to make things better for the most people, eventually, over time, the battles add up and progress is made. I like to be unreasonable over time as much as possible to effect the most positive change possible.

John E. Smith  |  16 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Mike – appreciate your comments.

Great observation about change as a continuing process, rather than a discreet event. I believe that learning which battles to fight and which things to let go of is a very valuable skill for leadership and for most every thing else, for that matter.

Here’s to being unreasonable, most of the time:)


Page Cole  |  18 Jul 2015  |  Reply

One of the things I love about your posts is that you are an “optimistic tire kicker”. You’re the guy that walks all the way around the car 6 or 8 times, kicks every tire, then points out not only the bad stuff, but the good stuff as well. I’ve noticed that you never seem to only see one side of any issue, but rather inspect every facet. I appreciate that in you.

For example, when considering the value of being unreasonable, you say, “Adapting to reality is not a negative thing … it is a survival thing.” It’s so true! Live to fight another day! Look at the long picture!

And yet you point out that there are negative aspects of being unreasonable… I love this quote- “Sometimes change only comes by openly confronting what is, to move to what could be…” LOVE IT! My definition of authentic leadership has always been, “Accepting people where they are, and caring about them enough to lead them to what they can become!”

Thank you sir! Well done!

John E. Smith  |  26 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Page:)

Thanks so much for your kind words – they are truly appreciated.

Love the “tire kicking” image and have done that literally, although I could not tell you why we kick tires on a car before buying it … maybe to see if they are ripe:)?

That ability to see other perspectives on an issue is one I have carefully nurtured over the years -appreciate you noticing. While some feel that one should stake a claim based on a particular viewpoint and defend it vigorously, I have found that more progress is made when the other person realizes you “get it” from their point of view as well as your own.

You lose nothing by acknowledging someone else’s position. I actually believe you are even strengthening your own position by doing so.


Jane Perdue  |  21 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Terrific post, John!

I’m with you in being “all in” when it’s obvious the status quo would benefit from some disrupting. However, this need is neither an invitation nor an excuse for someone to be disagreeably obnoxious and unreasonable in doing or leading the changes. One can still be kind yet have a different, and valuable, viewpoint. From my perspective, that’s where folks drop the ball in being “unreasonable” – seeing it as an opportunity to be ungracious.

John E. Smith  |  26 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Jane:)

Absolutely correct … taking advantage of a situation to just push your own agenda is just wrong and I’ve been on the receiving end of such behavior by bosses in the past. Some folks just seem to think that they can excuse being ignorant and obnoxious – the reality is that good ideas may be damaged beyond repair by boorish behavior.

How we treat each other has to come from wanting the best outcomes for all involved. When we act based solely on our personal agenda, everyone (especially us) loses.


Mary C. Schaefer  |  22 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Hi John. I’m just now getting to this terrific post. Thanks Jane Perdue for sharing it again recently.

I could say “ditto, ditto, ditto” to all that has been said. So, I’m going to respond to one of your concluding questions: When have you been unreasonable for a very good reason?

You know this appeals to me because I can be a bit willful. But this time it was for such a good reason :)

As many of you know I used to be an HR manager. I’m going to have to be cryptic to maintain confidentiality, but you’ll get the gist.

I was asked by another colleague for a piece of personal information about an employee, “for a very good reason.” Well, I didn’t agree that it was for a very good reason. Given his job he needed to check a box on a report, and I wasn’t giving him the information so he could complete his report.

It was a very sensitive piece of personal information. If it had gotten out that I shared it so this colleague could “do his job” and check a box, I would lose all credibility. It was my job to indeed keep employee information confidential and certainly not access it just because I could.

He got his boss involved. He got my boss involved. I still refused. In fact, my boss had recently told me it was my job to keep this information confidential, yet she now asked me if I just couldn’t cooperate with the request. Well. No.

I had said this to him before, but after a month, I said it again. I suggested he contact our Legal department to see if him having this info was really a good idea, just so that he could check that box on the report. He reported back to me that Legal told him to let it go for the same reasons I had been offering. He never acknowledged that.

So what. I did my job, despite that fact that to many I appeared VERY unreasonable. (THANK YOU LEGAL DEPARTMENT for backing me up.)

John E. Smith  |  26 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Mary:)

Thanks for that fascinating and somewhat familiar-sounding story. I’m afraid this type of scenario plays out too often in our workplaces and sadly, your willingness to confront this type of behavior is more rare than I’d like to think.

Some people know that they can do and get things they should not by being aggressive or pushy. This type of behavior often works … but it shouldn’t.

I’m not surprised that this person did not acknowledge you were right in your position – that would not have served his agenda. Guess you’ll have to just bask in our admiration for making the right decision and fighting the good fight, especially when others are pressuring you to “just do it”:)


Mary C. Schaefer  |  27 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Thanks John for your response. I hope readers “get” that I didn’t write it for the admiration. Ultimately I have to face myself in the mirror, and that’s worth everything. I tell this story so others know it CAN be done.

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