I have always been fascinated by the contradiction between the commonly held belief that our business decisions should be rational and the weight of evidence which seems to indicate that this is far from the truth. From what I understand, we reach decisions before we are even aware that we have reached a decision and then we invest effort in being able to post-rationalise that decision through logic. No doubt as a layman I have over-simplified the explanation but my personal experience does seem to bear this out.
One noticeable personal example from the last year was the occasion when we (all nine of us in Relume) sat around discussing our intention to introduce a performance review process for ourselves. As an aside, if you are asking yourself why we don’t have a performance review process already, or alternatively, why we want to introduce one at all, then you are in for a disappointment as neither of those points are addressed in this blog. Anyway, during the discussion I found myself arguing strongly against the notion, feeling increasingly hot, activated and isolated, drawing on logic which even as I voiced it felt somewhat weak and unconvincing. I did not miss the irony that for someone who works in the field of change my resistance to a new idea could be so strong. Even the notion of experimenting with a performance review process met with the level of self-righteous anger I normally reserve for misplaced passes at Vicarage Road.
Something that my colleague Claire said at the meeting lodged in my brain and some time later, when I was far enough away from the incident to develop some curiosity about it, I began to ask myself what had really been going on. What she said was that as the original founder of the business, she found it very difficult to imagine going through a performance review process given that it was inevitably going to be conducted by someone with less experience of the business and the work than she had. Yet she had agreed to try it out. If she could cope with the idea then as a relative newcomer why couldn’t I?
It eventually struck me that the big question which lurked behind the performance review process was actually whether it felt safe to me? The stories and pictures I had instantly conjured up of how bad this was going to be were dramatic and vivid. Scenes of exposure and public humiliation, the discovery that my work fell below our expectations … my body reacted to the stories my mind created, the shame and embarrassment became real embodied sensations and my mind did what minds do, it picked up on my bodily response, interpreted it as ‘ready for danger’ and further reinforced the vicious circle of fear. Yes, ridiculous I know with hindsight. However, I’m sure it’s not unusual and I bet the unexpressed confusion between the suggestion we do something new and the engrained belief that it will be dangerous is not unique to me. Our ancient brains are still optimised for survival on the savannah, poised to respond instantly to a contemporary problem through outdated freeze, fight or flight impulses. To make it worse our social norms do not encourage us to express the preposterous notion that we might be scared of something as small as a performance review process… or perhaps I am speaking only for myself.
Had I been able to resist for long enough, and force a gap between my bodily reaction and my verbal response it might have been very helpful both to me and my colleagues; I might well have avoided the tangled mess of spluttering objection that I presented during the meeting.
Perhaps that chasm between what is really going on inside us and what we are able to express lies at the heart of most of the dysfunctionality we experience. If we each exhibit some of this dysfuntionality it is no wonder that when we get together in teams the difficulties are amplified. If we could develop the awareness of what we are fundamentally wrestling with and then find a way of talking about it then we might stand a chance of wasting less of our own time and that of the people around us. I suspect it is a life’s work to master this seemingly simple task.
I would imagine that at this point you are asking yourself what can be done about this and indeed I’m asking myself the very same question. The glib answer is that I need to be able to distinguish between real danger and the uncertainty of doing something new. The notion of safe-uncertainty is well established and I feel a little embarrassed to admit that I talk about it often with clients. However, this theoretical knowledge had done nothing to actually change what my response was in the heat of the moment.
Something entirely different is needed. I think it starts with awareness that I can’t necessarily trust what my body is telling me. That in itself is a significant blow to me as someone who has been trying to develop the capacity to do exactly the opposite for the last 5 years. Perhaps the next step is to pause long enough to ask myself whether the thing I am really struggling with is whether this situation is safe or not. All the time that I am unaware that I am acting from mistaken fear rather than much more acceptable logic then it’s highly unlikely that I will feel any congruence within myself and the disconnect will continue to cause me difficulties.
Then there is a third step. If I’m committed to the idea of experimentation (which I am) and if I don’t want to stay stuck in the same routine way of doing things (which I don’t) then I need to find a way to take the next step whatever that might be whether I feel safe or not.
When I read what I have written it all sounds perfectly reasonable and logical advice, but I wait to see whether it will actually result in different behaviour, I’m not naïve enough to believe that the 2 million year survival system that has served our species so well will be overcome easily.
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