The Mad Hatter Principle

The Mad Hatter Principle 150 150 Dr. Rachel MK Headley

Hatter: “Have I gone mad?”
Alice: “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

The Hatter in Alice in Wonderland was never actually named the “Mad” Hatter – but, it was assumed he was mad due to his behavior. Hatters were known to act strangely because they often had mercury poisoning, which was used in the felting of hats.

Does it mean that hatters are terrible people? Because of their strange behavior? Of course not.

In situations where someone is behaving unexpectedly in business, we use a leadership strategy that we call the “Mad Hatter Principle.” In essence, it’s an approach that enables you to trust people first, be empathetic, and assume the best. It allows you to take the egos out of potential conflict. Utilizing the Mad Hatter Principle will get you to your goals faster and produce better results.

Ultimately the point of the Principle is that people are not bad actors. Most people do not set out to do things intentionally that someone is going to want to yell at them about. It is more likely a misunderstanding, an interpretation issue, or perhaps you are missing some of the facts.

Here are a few rules of the Principle:

If there are two ways to interpret a situation, then assume the best.

  1. Trust is a big theme around leadership these days. The Mad Hatter Principle pushes trust one more level – to the point where you trust people first, until they don’t deserve it.
  2. This does not mean that you don’t have boundaries around poor behavior, but it allows for a logical conversation instead of letting emotions lead.

As an easy example, let’s say that a colleague is late for a meeting.

You can assume that she got hung up at the office or had something personal come up. And then when she finally arrived you might ask – is everything okay?

Or, you could assume that she really had no regard for you and didn’t really care about the meeting or what you had to say. Then you might be angry or embarrassed and confrontational when they arrived.

But, for most of us, we would probably trust that they were late for a reason that had nothing to do with us.

A LinkedIn colleague, Bud Torcom, demonstrated another example of the Mad Hatter Principle beautifully just this week. He decided that he wanted less cortisol in his life and more oxytocin. One day, he was following a slow-moving car up to the ski slopes, and instead of getting frustrated and angry all the way up the mountain, he pulled over to help the person put on tire chains.

Bud decided that he could not control the actions of people around him anyway, so why not give them and himself a break on the stressful reaction?

Do you see how it can serve you to be gracious and empathetic? Your energy is more mellow and positive, and you get to avoid being upset at someone with no real reason. It takes the drama out of your reaction and allows you to be much more logical and approachable.

Remember, this doesn’t mean that you let people take advantage of your chill behavior. Keep fierce boundaries. If someone is chronically late, because that is the way they are – you have to decide how to work with that person. Plan for her late arrival, insist on timeliness, or refuse to work with her – but the first time, apply the Mad Hatter Principle. (A note of caution – never trust people to pay you without a contract – this is a misapplication of the Mad Hatter Principle.)

The take away for the Mad Hatter Principle is that the human brain can assume the worst, first. We may think that people don’t respect us, that we aren’t the expert we claim, or that others are out to get us (these clearly arise from our own insecurity). The reality is that these things simple aren’t true most of the time. By using the concepts in the Mad Hatter Principle we create an opportunity to operate in an environment of trust and positive thinking. And by doing that we encourage those around us to do the same. Increased communication and leads to quicker results, better outcomes, and healthier relationships.