Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
A good education teaches us to hold contradictions reflectively rather than reactively. Parker Palmer Healing the Heart of Democracy.
Earlier today, in a dialogue with @shawnccpr, spurred by that Parker Palmer quote, we speculated as to the root cause of our inability to countenance contradiction in the Other or in ourselves. @shawnccpr suggested that it might stem from an “overly self-centered society.” I agreed that the root is a fear but fear of what? The fear of being labeled intolerant, @shawnccpr suggested.
I don’t think so. I think the hobgoblin is a fear of indecisiveness, the fear of uncertainty.
In my work with clients, this fear—this wish to know with certainty—rears up most often in dealing with colleagues. I’m thinking, for example, of the CEO who calls me convinced that they have to fire the COO they just hired.
“The situation at the plant,” he says, “is so toxic and he’s not doing anything about it. I know it’s only been a month but I have to get rid of him.”
Wait, I say. Let’s pull this apart. “Tell me the facts,” I ask, and he starts to tell me his interpretation. I try again, “Okay, tell me a story. You went to the plant and then what happened?”
Pulled aside by some of the staff, the CEO was given a litany of everything that the new COO is doing wrong. “And meetings!” he says with drama and a bit of exasperation, “he’s having too many meetings.”
I remember when I was an active board member. I remember getting calls like this all the time from the CEO. The VP of finance talks too much. The VP of Sales disappears every Friday. The VP of Engineering, a co-founder no less, sits in the meetings and says nothing. Should I fire them, the CEO would ask. And more often than not, I’d say yes.
But I’m older now. I’ve come to realize that understanding the best course of action takes a little more work. You have to learn to separate facts from feelings, seeing how both contribute to data, which only then morphs into information. And information then becomes knowledge and eventually wisdom.
For example, it’s a fact that you asked for the report before the VP of finance went home on Friday. It’s a fact that you need that report for the meetings with the Series B investors on Monday. But it’s a feeling that the reason this happened is because the VP isn’t suitable for a startup.
Those two things—the fact and the feeling—are simply data. To decide what to do requires separating fact from feeling, triangulating data, and searching for patterns over time. Pattern recognition is the only way to turn data into information. Then, if you’re dealing with a decision about whether or not someone should be fired, you’ve got to present the observation of the pattern to the colleague.
And out of that dialogue comes knowledge. Their response, for example, is more information; vital information needed before you decide and certainly before you act.
The problem is we all want to rush the steps. Compelled by our feelings, compelled by our fears–or those of others in the workplace–we feel we have to act or all will be lost.
I understand and admire the wisdom of the “fire fast” mentality but that wisdom is no substitute for the real work of leadership: figuring out the right people for various roles. Often when I help a client unpack their feelings while they are in the throes of a decision about whether or not to terminate someone, what is revealed are contradictory facts and ambivalent feelings. And too often, our discomfort with our contradictory feelings, our ambivalence, leads us to rush to judgement, destabilizing and antagonizing the entire organization.
But if we wait, if we can pause and bear the discomfort of uncertainty, then we have a shot at getting to the heart of the problem manifested in all those facts. Then we have a shot at creating the kinds of organizations that not only succeed, but embody the best of our values, the best of our aspirations.