In frustrated whispers we’ve all heard these truthful asides:
“I work in a goat rodeo.” “He simply cannot do the work.” “The grantees have so few skills…” “This place is in such disarray.”
The facts are many people navigate multiple, parallel realities at work. It’s the reason Dilbert’s cartoons are so popular. So often, they’re accurate. And too often, the social dynamics of inter-personal relationships limit the potential of both individual satisfaction and organizational performance.
The foibles and follies of dealing with people and their behavioral inconsistencies make our work lives interesting and difficult. In Robert Kurzban’s new book, Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite, he explains why hypocrisy is the natural state of the human mind. As an evolutionary psychologist, he writes that people have “modular minds,” specialized units in the brain have been designed through natural selection. These units are focused on one outcome: survival.
Parallel Realities and Image
Behavior examples of modularity include strategic ignorance, self-deception and hypocrisy. Strategic ignorance, like the other behaviors, can create big problems at work (and in your personal life). At work everyone faces many decisions all day long. These are choices that often translate to who will you hurt or help. Too often, people intentionally avoid moral decisions about fairness. The upfront cost of avoidance is less, very often, than the cost of creating opposition. Through side-stepping, or passive inaction, people prefer to “act” as though they “hear no evil and see no evil.”
Despite the moral implications and however irresponsible — these behaviors can be explained as obviously practical options. Unfortunately, these choices model behavior that gets replicated. It’s how we generate unhealthy culture which enables dysfunction in teams and organizations. Denial of this context just perpetuates it. With tragic consequences, the “Emperor (who) has no clothes” can live a very long life.
Bigger Than Self
Sociality is a vital part of human life. Because of this, competition inside organizations needs discrete attention. It also means reframing the challenges and opportunities for your team and your organization is central to collective impact. Finding common understandings, assumptions and shared goals are critical. Establishing expectations for values like transparency, candor, authenticity, urgency and distributed knowledge is part of the recipe. In the end, modeling these values matters most. If people and organizations persist simply with the multiple realities provided by our modular minds the inevitable focus is self-survival. However, high performance requires a different, collective intention.
Recognize and Reconcile
What specific actions can a manager take with this common challenge?
First: Ask many more questions. Set a target for yourself. Make it a goal – every day – to ask three more questions in each meeting or exchange with staff. Commit to discovery. This will help you uncover perspectives, see common themes and identify prevailing realities. Seek counter-points and ask opinions from those who are willing to share more than the proverbial company line. Recognizing how others view their work and the situation is an important step in your reality.
Second: Work toward reconciliation of multiple perspectives. Commit to dialogue that airs a range of opinion. Act as a convener. Aim for the imperative – how it should be. Help others see their assumptions and biases. Actively build bridges and find points of coordination so others see the value of alignment and integration. Make it acceptable and safe to speak truthfully. Demonstrate trust by lauding people who are willing to offer constructive critique.
Renowned organization effectiveness expert and author Jim Collins echoes this perspective: “Level 5 leaders are ambitious first and foremost for the cause, the organization, the work – not themselves – and they have a fierce resolve to do whatever it takes to make good on that ambition.” It is possible to build a vibrant culture that aggressively serves a mission (or margin). Eventually the whispers will wane.
-Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See : www.pwkinc.com