Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Maybe a Good Idea (and maybe not)

I read a book a while ago called the Five Dysfunctions of a Team. My sister-in-law gave it to me because she found it useful as president of her synagogue; she’s faced with the standard problems of leadership and is, like me, a herder of cats. A cat is the correct analogy for a person. Cats are different from one another, they know exactly who they are, and they are very quick to disagree. What’s more they have a hard time seeing things your way. They’re much more healthy people than dogs.

The book, by Patrick Lencioni, lays out a convincing model for teamwork -- first in an intriguing fictional narrative and then in a summary final chapter. The logic is fairly simple: team members must trust one another enough to admit weaknesses and expose vulnerabilities. Only then can they engage in the sort of meaningful conflict which is necessary if even the minority opinion is to buy in to the final decision. If one has been heard, respected, and considered, he/she is more able to go along with the final result; consensus is not always possible, and is not necessary. Once a unified team goal is set, team members can hold one another accountable for progress toward that goal. If the goal is kept in clear focus, it becomes a valuable and objective measure of success.

Me saying that will not convince you of the brilliance of these steps and stages; read the book yourself -- it'll be an afternoon well spent. It might even become a game plan for those in a multi-level leadership position. The scenarios which unfold in the novel narrative are realistic, and the responses of the effective, fictitious, CEO, are difficult to predict. In retrospect you must admire her decisiveness, simplicity, and effectiveness.

I’ve been thinking about conflict and adversary more broadly, and the value of it. Strife, as terrible as it actually is, is also an extraordinary thing. It has overthrown scientific paradigms, it has uprooted many entrenched Bad Ideas. The Earth is flat. We’re at the center of the universe. The continents are fixed. Species are immutable. God is real. It’s really very wonderful (though sometimes painful) to doubt what you believe to be true. Someone’s disputing opinion can often help you do that.

A lot of people don’t like this sort of conflict and do their best to avoid it. But to do that you have to also avoid a lot of other things – like whole realms of experience (e.g., “we don’t talk about politics”) or people who we think are not very much like us. That’s a loss, a pity and a shame. According to the book, the problem in communication is often that there is no underlying layer of trust. The trust is built when people admit their own weaknesses and fallibilitys, both to themselves and to others. The idea is that once universal imperfection of humans has been established, it becomes safe for an imperfect person to float an imperfect idea which some other imperfect person might disagree with. Let them disagree; let the ideas themselves play out. This is positive conflict. It’s truely marvelous to witness a civil clash of ideas when one's own ego is not muddying things up.

But the book doesn’t say much about the type of conflict that does not have the underlying civility. An insult, say – or a perceived injustice, a sudden sideswipe, a put-down or when one player is simply, objectively, wrong. What happens when there is no soft bedding of trust, nurtured from shared vulnerability. What if someone is simply bullheaded about their position, has a hidden agenda, is mean, or paranoid, or hateful, or plainly and objectively a stupid moron idiot.  And they think everything you have to offer is either obvious, worthless, or wrong.

I suspect that some of the more civil lessons still exist in that hostile environment, even if they are more difficult to access.  The impulse --I understand! -- is to flee (withdrawal, collapse, capitulate, ignore them, or give in) or fight (counterattack, dig in, become indignant, angry, derisive or abusive).

But, as my grandmother used to say, there’s no profit in that. If one can avoid those reflexes and actually listen to the challenge -- just give it a moment of thought – I suspect it may make a big difference. The gap one opens in his defenses is not a weak spot. It does not mean defeat or agreement, it's not an admission of wrongdoing or bad thinking. It is not even a show of respect or deference. It simply admits fallibility, the possibility of error. That was the first step in the Lencioni book -- accepting of your own imperfection. 

But maybe, I'm suggesting, it can be applied when things aren't predictable or civil --  in the heat of it.  Maybe with effort, maybe with practice.

This is the key to growth, maybe. In challenging situations, just a tempering moment of real reflection, that is all. Nothing may come of it, and perhaps usually nothing should.    But there may be a situation where I'll see something, in that gracious moment.  Something that I really should see.

And-- big picture --  the Good Ideas, playing against the Bad ones will – I expect, I hope -- persevere.

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