The Gift of Our Ambivalence

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. Ralph Waldo Emerson  “Self-Reliance

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.

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  • Rohan

    I’m beginning to feel these days that the biggest learning I can take away from my ‘a learning a day’ philosophy is patience. 

    In the age of ‘instant’ gratification, ‘real’ time, learning patience seems to be the hardest. 

    We have a problem. We need it solved NOW. 
    We want something done. We want it NOW. Let’s send the nasty email NOW.

    But, it’s the pause, the wait.. that really makes a difference, doesn’t it? 

    Action without patience and thought.. like giving a speech without a pause.. 

    • jerrycolonna

      All I know is that when I act before that pause, I usually make things worse.

  • marc sokol

    I learned about 30 years ago, while at my first company, that the act of active silence while others are speaking, is one of the powerful things that one can do in a meeting. its easy for many of us a-types to instantly react. its much more difficult to bear weight of ongoing discussion before adding comments. i had a partner that i felt was silent to the point of discomfort and he taught me a lot.

    • Scott Barnett

      Marc – this is such a critical tool to have in your toolbox.  I have heard it called (and refer to it) as active listening (rather than silence) – if you are truly listening and ask the right probing questions you can typically get to the root cause of most issues.  As Jerry says, that VP Finance didn’t meet your deadline, but why? If you don’t get to the root cause, then the action taken (or not taken) is not thorough or complete.  If the root cause is not correctable and/or not beneficial for the company, then you fire fast.  Otherwise, you can likely rehabilitate, which is a LOT cheaper than firing and hiring another person.

      • jerrycolonna

        Cheaper AND less disruptive to the organization.

    • jerrycolonna

      LOL. I’ll bet that partner left a few people uncomfortable.

  • Walkerjc1

    The breath before the action, the listening before the response….so important.  Right on!

    • jerrycolonna

      Exactly, The breath before any action, the noticing of the thoughts before speaking, the centering of self before leaning in.

      • Joaquín R. Kierce

        gotta love self awareness

  • Charlie Crystle

    we come to the table with biases. and we judge through the lenses we’ve developed over the years, and apply those biases. But we have to look beyond that. 

    • jerrycolonna

      Always, Charlie. Always. Moreover, just as we think we’ve learned to look past our biases, we develop new ones.

      • Charlie Crystle

        wish there was an app for that

    • Kevin Friedman

      So true. And unfortunately, we aren’t honest with ourselves about our biases. So, perhaps the best solution is to create an environment in which people have the freedom to admit that they ACTUALLY have biases (gasp!) and encourage openness and honesty about the feelings that accompany these biases?

      • Charlie Crystle

        sounds scary :) but yes, great idea–if everyone also comes in with a forgiving ear. 

    • Emily Merkle

      i would slighty reframe,. not playing simple semantics – (more later).
      is it just me or are we under time ocntraintts/?

  • Pingback: Another perspective on the “fire fast” mantra « Yet Another (ex-)VC Blog()

  • Shawn Cohen

    Now that I see where you’re going, I totally agree w/ you, Jerry:) Thanks for the dialogue yesterday, very intriguing!

    To add to your point, several years ago my dad told me that one of his business associates has a “24-hour rule”: he waits an entire day to respond to any info that blindsides him.

    I’ve interpreted that idea to include any situation that is highly emotional and that can wait a day for me to respond. If it’s not urgent, it absolutely has to wait a day. 

    I’ve implemented this rule w/ personnel/relationship issues and I’ve never regretted waiting. I have regretted acting to soon but my 24-hour rule always produces a much more reasoned, logical, and gentle answer that still communicates my feeling on the issue one way or the other.

    • Charlie Crystle

      That’s a great tool. Is it tough to remember it in the moment?

      • Shawn Cohen

        In face to face meetings, nearly impossible. But I do a lot of stuff over email and in those circumstances, it’s easy to remember but still challenging to implement. 

        In those email cases, my only hindrance is my own ego.

        • jerrycolonna

          In my own life, my ego is always the main hindrance.

          • Walkerjc1

            definitely my ego is the issue and not the other’s ego. :)

          • jerrycolonna

            It’s MY ego that’s the problem. YOURS is fine.

  • Kevin Friedman

    I loved “Often when I help a client unpack their feeling…what is
    revealed are contradictory facts and ambivalent feelings.”

    It reminds me of something I’ve observed and that Parker Palmer also mentions: that at the deepest levels of truth (and problems) — rather they be professional or spiritual — lies a paradox. So, if you act quickly or try to apply some “standard formula” (like the Steve Jobs management paradigm mentioned in Joel’s post today), you are likely to “give in” to only one side of the paradox and will fall victim to the other side. It’s these paradoxes that often produce the contradictory feelings that Jerry mentions.

    I think it’s through bearing the “discomfort of the uncertainty” of these paradoxes (and they DO feel uncomfortable) that you are able to unravel both sides of the paradox and come to a real, truer solution.

    I hope that makes some sense… :-)

  • Steven Kane


  • Steven Kane

    I keep a big sign in my office, “Don’t react. Respond.”

    • jerrycolonna

      Reminds me of the Buddhist saying: Don’t just do something; sit there.

  • Emily Merkle

    the timing here is priceless. thank you, everyone.