January 18, 2018

Most of us need a kick up the…

Two businesspeople in slightly tense conversationNo, not that.

Most of us need a kick up the assumptions—our assumptions about what’s possible, about how things might happen, and especially about other people and our relationships with them.

We tend not to see how the assumptions we unconsciously make affect the outcome in any situation. We tend to get what we expect to get because much of what happens is really our own creation. The little actions we take tend to prompt responses that reinforce what we believe.

Often we’re reluctant to declare what our assumptions are and then allow them to be examined. The consequences might be embarrassing: It might become apparent that the premises we believe to be true and have acted upon aren’t true at all. And then more things might fall away—like all the work we’ve been focused on for the last while.

And so we keep our assumptions close. We hide them. But that’s a bad idea. We might go seriously off track without the feedback we need to stay connected to what’s real.

Then we might get a real kick up the…

First step is realising we are making assumptions.

Then we need to identify what they are and whether they really are justified.

They might not be. And then we can make progress.

Welcoming feedback?

Four business people in a discussionWe know we need feedback: We need other people to let us know how we are doing; to challenge our ideas; and to shake our assumptions (especially if they are out of date). That doesn’t mean we necessarily enjoy the process, of course. Often it’s distinctly uncomfortable, or has the potential to be so.

How do you receive feedback?

Calmly and attentively?

It helps to realise that we react badly to feedback when we let it land in our ego; when we let it question our sense of identity.

It probably isn’t intended to do that—not usually.

With strength and presence, we can take a more objective view and be a kind of observer on the exchange. We can separate the learning from our sense of self—not always easy in the moment, of course, especially when feedback arrives unannounced, unexpected, and uninvited.

How do you handle feedback—welcome it, even—making sure you get the input you need without hurting too much in the process?

What’s the difference between espoused theories and theories in use?

Group in discussion at computerThe short answer is ego.

Organisations, teams, and individuals (including ourselves) have a habit of claiming to operate according to a set of theories that apply to our work. With the best of intentions, we set out to do our business based on a set of assumptions we would like to be true.

In fact, observation of what actually happens will usually reveal something different. In a perspective first articulated by Chris Argyris, we operate according to a rather different set of assumptions—our “theories in use.” It’s these theories-in-use that govern what is really done.

For example, espoused theories might be around customer service. In some organisations, unfortunately, the theories in use might have more to do with profit maximisation. The result is a debilitating disconnection between what management claims to be about and what it’s really about.

When challenged on this, leaders will typically resist admitting what drives them isn’t what they would like it to be. Their ego won’t let them.

Unaddressed, ego will maintain the discrepancy between espoused theories and theories in use, preventing the organisation (or the person) from really understanding itself, in turn preventing it from adapting and changing and growing.

An important role of leaders is to overcome this tendency, both in themselves and in others.

How closely aligned are your theories in use and your espoused theories? Can you see any gap between how you say you operate and how you really operate?

Another way this manifests can be summarised by “we judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions.”

Time to reflect on our actions perhaps.

Suspending your assumptions: Are you willing?

Senior businesswoman thinkingWe all have assumptions—beliefs about the world. We hold them pretty tight usually. We act in accordance with these beliefs, often rather unaware we’re doing so. Indeed, they tend to become part of who we are.

The result is our sense of identity gets tied up with our assumptions.

And so…

We don’t like to have them tested, much less found to be untrue. That feels personal.

And yet…

If our assumptions are wrong, our decisions are wrong, and we’re heading for a fall, or problems with other people.

Strangely perhaps, many people and organizations are quite unwilling to examine their own assumptions. Like much else, it’s an ego thing—too much indignity involved.

If we’re brave—with a strong sense of self—we can choose to “suspend” our assumptions, figuratively hanging them up for all to see. We can declare what we are assuming and put that to the test.

Not many are willing and brave enough to do this. Not many are secure enough in themselves. Not many are willing to not know, or even to be wrong.

Are you?

Better decisions beckon.

The difference between dialogue and discussion

Group discussing plansReading David Bohm’s book “On Dialogue,” which, not surprisingly, has a particularly helpful exposition of the difference between dialogue and discussion…

(David Bohm was a renowned physicist of the twentieth century who also made great contributions to wider philosophical questions.)

“Dialogue,” Bohm says, comes from the greek “dialogos.” Logos means “the word,” or in this case, “the meaning of the word,” and “dia” means “through – it doesn’t mean “two.” He goes on: “A dialogue can be among any number of people, not just two. Even one person can have a sense of dialogue with himself.” Bohm says dialogue “will make possible a flow of meaning…out of which may emerge some new understanding…which may not have been in the starting point at all.”

“Discussion,” Bohm says, has the same root as “percussion” and “concussion” and “really means to break things up.” Discussion, therefore, is a process of analysing and breaking up and “will not get us far beyond our various points of view.” Rather, “the object of the game is to win or gain points for yourself.”

Dialogue, of course, makes more demands of our ability to participate effectively in a game in which the aim is for everyone to win together. In particular, we must be prepared to question our assumptions and make them explicit, which takes effort when many of them, including the most powerful among them, are held unconsciously.

Being properly clear on the difference between dialogue and discussion is a good start.