Unjust Deserts?

When I started traveling for work, I resented the airlines for creating social hierarchies favoring those who pay more or fly more. Something about the overt unequal treatment of people rubbed me the wrong way. In those days, I would proclaim to my friends and colleagues that if I ever I qualified for a first class seat I would refuse it out of principle. Instead, I would offer it to someone infirmed or perhaps to a parent traveling with an infant. I would gallantly swap my seat for whatever seat the less fortunate traveler had been assigned. I would not become a pawn in the airline’s twisted plot to create addicts of their frequent fliers.

Fast-forward thirty years. I now qualify for American Airline’s top tier status. I get upgraded to first class about 75% of the time. I’m treated deferentially. The more onerous travel becomes for the occasional flier, the more my status distinguishes me. By the way, I have never once given up my first class seat. What’s worse, the resentment I once reserved for the airline sometimes manifests as impatience with people who board too slowly like the infirmed or parents traveling with infants. I’m not proud of abandoning my earlier principled stance. I am, on the other hand astonished by how quickly I got used to the blatant preferential treatment.

I qualify for special treatment by the airline because of my job. A few of us on every commercial flight have an advantage over the planeload of other passengers even though everyone onboard needs to get from point A to point B. Some passengers in first class have paid extra for the comfy seat, free food and deferential treatment. Many of the passengers in first class are road warriors whose company or clients pay about the same fare as everyone else on the plane.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the advantages I enjoy and often take for granted; I’ve been thinking about whether or not I’ve earned all those advantages. For example, I’m just over six feet tall, white and male. It would be impossible to list all the advantages I’ve enjoyed in my lifetime because society favors certain of my traits.

There is a dynamic relationship between “access” and “advantage.” My unearned advantages have made it easier for me to access earned advantages like a good education and promotions at work. Earned advantages afford me preferential treatment when competing with others for access to even more limited and valuable advantages and opportunities. For others, the virtuous cycle becomes a vicious cycle when a lack of advantage prevents access, which in turn puts opportunity for acquiring advantages out of reach.

I got inspired to turn my attention to the topic of earned and unearned advantage after reading an anecdote in Eugenia Cheng’s excellent new book, The Art of Logic in an Illogical World. Early in the book, Cheng shares a story about commuter reactions to the new green markings painted on the platforms of the London Underground. The markings let waiting passengers know where the train doors will open so they won’t stand in the way of people exiting the train. Cheng noted, “Apparently some people were upset that these markings spoilt the ‘competitive edge’ they had gained through years of commuting and studying train doors to learn where they would open.” This story led Cheng to an insight about affirmative action, “…If we give particular help to some previously disadvantaged people, then some of the people who don’t get this help are likely to feel hard done by.”

Helping those who have been previously disadvantaged has been in the news recently owing to a high-profile lawsuit against Harvard University based on their affirmative action practices in admitting students. Putting the politics of affirmative action aside, I tried applying the Unstuck Minds Method to the questions we ask about affirmative action. The Unstuck Minds Method helps people identify thinking traps that prevent them from discovering new options. We generally pose questions about our dilemmas and then focus our energy and attention on generating and debating solutions. The Unstuck Minds Method helps us determine the extent to which a misleading or incomplete question might be responsible for our inability to find a solution.

The practice of affirmative action attempts to correct for a long history of systemic and institutional bias against minority groups and women who seek equal access to limited opportunities. Our questions about affirmative action focus on improving things for those who have been disadvantaged by discrimination. When devising affirmative action practices, we generally ask some version of, “How do we level the playing field for the disadvantaged?” The question is clear and evocative, but it also misses an important aspect of the problem.

While we work to remove barriers that unfairly target minorities and women, we also need to ask some uncomfortable questions about our relationship to our unearned advantages. American Airlines is making an economic decision by establishing tiers of service and rewarding frequent fliers. As a consequence of their system, I become habituated to better treatment. After a few years I start to believe I deserve better treatment. When I start to identify with the treatment I’m getting; that’s when I fall prey to a thinking trap.

When I conflate my unearned advantages with who I am, “leveling the playing field” starts to feel like an existential threat.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we give up on removing institutional discrimination. I am suggesting that until the conversation feels personal, we may not get enough of the people who have the power to enact change to engage in the conversation in any meaningful way. It’s not unlike getting people motivated to work on climate change. We need regulations and we need personal commitment to change our daily habits.

Here is a question I would like to include in our public conversations about affirmative action: How might increased awareness of our unearned advantages spur a call to action?

Question your Answers

There is an important difference between getting unstuck and finding the answer.

Remember when you were solving word problems in high school algebra? Do you remember that feeling of being stuck? Going to the back of the textbook for the answer did not help you get unstuck. The goal of getting unstuck is to reorient your relationship to the problem, which makes it possible to find an answer.

Getting unstuck liberates us from our thinking traps and restores momentum. Fundamentally, getting unstuck means learning something new.

To get unstuck, we need one or more of the following

  • New data,
  • New perspectives
  • New insights.

The Unstuck Minds Compass reorients your relationship to your most persistent challenges by equipping you with four strategies for recognizing potential thinking traps and loosening their grip. Taken together, the four strategies provide data, perspectives and insights that change the way you define the problem. A single question headlines each strategy of the Unstuck Minds Compass. Let’s use each question to work an example.

Imagine that you are part of an employee engagement task force sponsored by your organization’s Human Resources (HR) department. The team has concluded that one key to greater employee engagement is frequent, ongoing coaching conversations between direct reports and their managers. The task force has implemented several initiatives to encourage coaching conversations. After each program or training course, employee focus groups report sporadic improvement, but the improvements peter out within weeks. Meanwhile, the employee engagement scores haven’t improved. The task force has defined the problem as an inability to get managers to conduct regular coaching conversations with their employees. The team feels stuck.

The Four Questions of the Unstuck Minds Compass

  1. What is the bigger picture?

Contextual Inquiry encourages us to zoom out and consider what is changing in the environment that we haven’t paid enough attention to. Let’s say that by asking about the bigger picture, we learn that…

  • Lower unemployment rates and aggressive recruiting are making it harder to retain our most talented employees
  • The increasing importance of learning how to adapt to a volatile and complex business environment might mean that mastering tried-and-true practices has become a lower priority for leadership development
  1. What is causing our dissatisfaction with the current situation?

Critical Inquiry directs our attention toward the underlying and hidden systemic issues that might be responsible for the situation we want to change. Let’s say that by asking about the causes of our dissatisfaction, we learn that…

  • Coaching in our organization is perceived as punitive rather than a way to build trust, rapport and capability
  • Our managers don’t care as much about the employee engagement surveys as the leaders of our HR department do
  1. What needs and perspectives are we missing?

Collaborative Inquiry asks us to consider the influences of social networks and diverse life experiences on our challenge. Let’s say that by uncovering needs and seeking out diverse perspectives, we learn that…

  • Millennials and their managers have misaligned priorities and values when it comes to performance expectations and career planning
  • We discover that our highest potential, early career employees view their current role as the place they’ll learn the skills they need for their next role
  1. How else might we define our challenge?

Creative Inquiry challenges us to question our assumptions and consider alternative ways to frame our problems given the data, perspectives and insights we’ve gathered by responding to the first three questions.

Perhaps we have come to realize that focusing on changing the behavior of our managers may be part of the problem. We originally defined our challenge as, “How do we get our managers to conduct regular coaching conversations with their employees?” Maybe we should consider defining our challenge as, “How might we help our employees realize their potential?”

A Thought Experiment for Getting Reacquainted

Last week I was in Southern California. I had volunteered to drive my daughter’s car from our home in Dallas to Los Angeles so she would have it for commuting to and from school. She is getting a physical therapy degree and had been on a clinical rotation in Dallas for the summer. She didn’t have time between the end of the rotation and start of school to drive back. Since I had client work in Los Angeles, I agreed to drive west with the car and fly home after my work. The client work got rescheduled to October, but I already had my flight and the time blocked, so I turned my parental good deed into a road trip and rewarded myself with a day off in Santa Monica.

A week before my road trip, Rochelle, a friend that I hadn’t seen in over 30 years sent me a message through Facebook. After a few e-mail exchanges, I discovered that she lived near the hotel in Santa Monica where I’d be staying and we made plans to meet for breakfast before my flight back to Dallas.

I had several days and about 1,400 miles to try and remember when I last saw Rochelle and to think about what I most wanted to know about her life since then. Apart from class reunions, we rarely get a chance to skip ahead on a relationship to see what you still recognize about one another. It’s like finding yourself in front of a current episode of a TV series you stopped watching after season one. What will be surprising and what will be familiar? “You don’t go backpacking anymore?” she might wonder aloud. “You still eat too fast I see.”

Amidst all this over-thinking, I came to an insight. I know it counts as an insight because it revealed something that both surprised me and became obvious the moment I recognized what I had previously failed to notice. I’ll share the insight with you, but first the experiment.

Step 1: Think about someone from your past that knew you well. Someone from a different era of your life. Perhaps someone from a time when you imagined your life turning out differently than it has.

Step 2: Imagine that you only get to ask them one question. The purpose of the question is to re-establish the rapport you once shared. You are not trying to get caught up on the activities and events you’ve missed; that’s what Facebook is for. You want a question that when answered honestly will disclose how your friend feels about their current situation and perhaps about the future. A provocative question that your friend will want to answer truthfully and completely and in so doing may come to realize something that they have not been paying attention to.

Don’t go to step 3 until you have a question in mind

 

Step 3: Now, imagine your friend posing that question to you.

Here’s the question I imagined that I would ask Rochelle, “What are the most satisfying aspects of your life these days and what needs remain unfulfilled?” I didn’t actually pose this question; I’m not a complete social nitwit. I wanted to reminisce, not conduct research or therapy. Most of our conversation was about our kids and our spouses, and most of the questions started with, “Do you remember…?”

In a moment of clarity that came to me somewhere between Albuquerque and Flagstaff, I realized that I was projecting my inner critic onto the Rochelle I anticipated meeting. When you imagine seeing someone you haven’t been in contact with for over 30 years, you are also imagining the earlier version of that person encountering the current version of you. The question I had crafted was designed for me, not for her. My 60-year-old self wanted to get reacquainted with my 25-year-old self. My 60-year-old self wanted to be reassured and refocused.

What was it like when I asked you to imagine posing to yourself the question you designed for a long lost friend?

 

 

What would you accept as evidence that you’re wrong?

Virtual instructor led training will never replace in-person classroom training.

When I facilitate a discussion about the challenges of leading organizational change, I often use a personal example. I mention that Interaction Associates, the training and consulting firm where I work, has been developing modules of instruction that can be delivered through web conferencing platforms. Our clients want virtual training and we are responding.

To emphasize the challenges of organizational change, I bluntly describe my aversion to participating in webinars, which is exceeded only by my aversion to leading webinars. I then ask participants to imagine that they are my bosses and that they would rather help me adapt than replace me.

By the way, if you are one of my clients and I’m scheduled to lead a virtual learning session for you, don’t worry… keep reading. The point of this blog post is to share what I’ve learned about making it easier for people to be wrong so that they can avoid getting stuck. Spoiler alert: I have turned the corner on my resistance by better understanding its source.

We have learned from the work of Kahneman and Tversky that when people consider options and outcomes, “Losses loom larger than gains.” From William Bridges work on “Managing Transitions” we understand that people experiencing change will first consider what they are losing before they can accept a new beginning. Ron Heifetz warns us not to ignore the adaptive aspects of change (aspects that require us to transform our repertoires) by only focusing on the technical aspects of a change (aspects that we have the expertise to deal with). The more a change threatens something a person considers core to their identity, the greater the resistance.

For those of us with a more analytical bent, our resistance often masquerades as well-reasoned conclusions. We experience the fear associated with the threat of loss, but we’re more comfortable with rationale than raw emotion and by the way, so are our organizations. We build theories to justify our opinions, and then we interpret the inevitable missteps that accompany any large-scale change as evidence that we were right all along.

In 1959, the philosopher Karl Popper introduced the concept of “falsifiability” as a way to distinguish a legitimate scientific claim from a pseudo-scientific claim. For Popper, an empirical scientific system is one that can be refuted by evidence. Borrowing the concept of falsifiability can be useful when people raise reasonable sounding objections to hide their fear of loss.

Ask someone who argues in support of the status quo two questions:

  1. What should we accept as evidence that we’re wrong about making this change?
  2. What would you accept as evidence that you’re wrong about preserving the status quo?

If we want to have a conversation about the emotional impact of change, then it’s best not to argue about whose theory of emerging trends is more accurate. Simply give people the time and space to express and empathize with each other’s reaction. If we want to have a conversation about the most reasonable course of action given our hypotheses, we should be prepared to look for falsifying evidence, not just confirmatory evidence. If I can’t imagine discovering evidence that I’m wrong about one of my theories, then it’s not a theory; it’s something I take on faith.

If you’re a leader or manager and you’re dealing with a pain-in-the-ass employee like me, consider allowing your employee to pontificate, and then acknowledge that they may have a point. If the employee has a reputation as an alarmist, they’re unlikely to sway others. If the employee is respected and trusted, he or she will come around or opt out because that’s what people with integrity do.

Sometimes being stuck is like recognizing that we’ve stepped into quicksand and we struggle unproductively to free ourselves. Sometimes being stuck is like standing still while the ground beneath us turns to quicksand. At first we feel comfortable and settled. We scoff at the frenetic activity around us. We’re content to stay put. What we need is a better question to wake us up to the sinking feeling that we may be left behind.

When is a Question not a Question?

I run for exercise. I don’t go fast and I don’t go far. I just like the way I feel after 30-40 minutes of exertion, and running is a convenient exercise if you travel a lot. I’ve reached an age where my doctor sees running as a risk rather than a benefit. When I complain about aches, pains or swelling, my doctor says, “get a bicycle.”

I notice that when I’m plodding along my running path and another runner passes me, I imperceptibly pick up my pace. I’m not aware of some intention to keep up or compete; it just seems to happen. As I watch the person open up distance ahead of me, my first thought is usually, “that person is much younger than me.” Or, if the person looks to be about my age I might think, “that person trained when they were younger and has probably run competitively.” These unflattering thoughts and behaviors last for at most 20 seconds and then my body returns to a comfortable stride and my brain returns to whatever I was thinking about before someone passed me.

I’m exercising to maintain health and reduce stress, but under certain conditions, my brain and my body seem wired for a different task.

The Social Psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term “Social Comparison Theory” in 1954 to describe research into what he concluded was our inner drive to evaluate ourselves. According to Festinger, when we don’t have an objective non-social standard against which to evaluate ourselves (e.g. Did I complete today’s run faster than yesterday’s?) we make our evaluations by comparing ourselves to others.

One related and more recent research study investigated the relative happiness of Olympic medalists based on which medal they won during the 1992 Barcelona games. You might expect that gold medalists would be happier than silver medalists and that silver medalists would be happier than bronze medalists.

The researchers gathered video clips of athlete reactions at the moment they learned of their results and when they received their medals on the podium. Research participants reviewed the video clips and assigned a rating to the emotional reactions of the athletes on a 10-point scale. The study concluded that bronze medalists were noticeably happier than silver medalists when hearing the results of the competition and when receiving their medals.

The researchers viewed their study as an extension of the concept of counterfactual thinking. In counterfactual thinking, people entertain thoughts of “what might have been.” In the study of Olympic medalists, the silver medal winners compared their result to the gold medalists. The bronze medalists on the other hand compared their result to the remaining athletes who did not medal. In other words, it’s not necessarily the objective value of what we have that matters. What matters is how we feel about what we have when we evaluate what those whom we compare ourselves against have.

So, what’s all this stuff about social comparison theory have to do with the recent Congressional committee hearings to investigate the actions of Deputy Assistant FBI Director, Peter Strzok?

One of the four strategies of the Unstuck Minds Compass is Collaborative Inquiry. Collaborative inquiry makes it easier for people to take concerted action. Theoretically, an investigative hearing is called in order to explore an important issue, to learn about critical incidents so that appropriate actions can be taken.

If we want to understand the thinking and behaviors of individuals in order to align on meaningful change, we have to keep our drive for social comparison in check when we choose our questions.

Social comparisons contaminate our interactions when the need to be right, the need to win and the need to look good become more important than the need to learn.

I’m not so naïve as to be shocked that Congressional investigations are not actually conducted for the purpose of investigating. Nor is one party more or less likely to use televised hearings to ask rhetorical questions masquerading as curiosity. The word, “inquiry” and the word, “Inquisition” may share the same etymology, but they couldn’t be farther apart in practice.

In case you missed it, have a look at the clip below and marvel at the litany of masterful questions designed to learn nothing.

 

The Most Useful Question to Ask if You Expect People to Take Action on a Meeting Agreement, Hint: It’s not, “So… are we agreed?”

Organizations fall into meeting patterns. Leaders often set up and conduct meetings the same way irrespective of the meeting purpose. Getting ready for a status update meeting may not require a lot of forethought. Getting ready for an alignment building meeting on the other hand, requires careful consideration of process, stakeholders and decision-making roles. If you want an agreement, you’ll need to think through how to conclude the meeting in a way that increases the chances people will turn meeting agreements into action.

There are actually two challenges related to a group reaching agreement during a meeting. The first and most obvious challenge has to do with building consensus when people have different perspectives and needs. The second and subtler challenge has to do with interpreting what people mean when they indicate agreement by verbalizing, nodding or not raising an objection. The question referenced in the title of this blog post helps with the second challenge.

Imagine that you have reached the end of a meeting you are leading. You’ve managed to facilitate a productive discussion that has led to alignment on a solution to a problem. You want to confirm that the group has reached an agreement that will result in concerted action. What will you say or ask?

You might be tempted to ask, “Are we agreed?” It seems like a simple way to confirm the group’s conclusion. The most common answer to a meeting leader who asks a group, “Are we agreed?” is silence. Extroverted members of the group may nod or say, “yes,” but you are very unlikely to hear from everyone. For starters, unless the answer is, “no,” no individual can actually answer the question, “Are we agreed?” No individual knows whether or not “we” are in agreement.

Because silence typically greets the question, “Are we agreed?” many teams and organizations have adopted the informal practice of equating silence with agreement; if no one raises an objection, we must be in agreement. Interpreting silence as agreement has always been risky. It can work for some teams and in some cultures. It’s a particularly risky strategy in a virtual meeting setting.

It turns out that the “silence procedure” or “tacit acceptance” procedure has a long history and plays an accepted role in matters of international diplomacy. There is even a Latin phrase for the formal practice of equating silence with agreement: Qui tacet consentire videtur, he who is silent is taken to agree. Both NATO and the European Union use Qui tacet consentire videtur for gaining member acceptance of joint statements and procedural documents.

Asking the group, “Does anyone disagree?” represents an improvement over “Are we agreed?” At least, individual meeting participants can answer the question, “Does anyone disagree?” Interaction Associates uses the term, “Negative Poll” to describe a question framed as an invitation to speak up if you don’t yet agree. Whether or not an individual who disagrees will accept the invitation of a negative poll has a lot to do with the trust and rapport the leader has created.

Whether you use the positive or negative framing of the question, you still have a problem. Let’s say you manage to hear from every person in the meeting. Furthermore you now know that everyone agrees with the proposal or plan under consideration. Here’s what you still don’t know: What does each meeting participant mean when they say, “I agree?”

“Yes, I agree” versus “No, I don’t agree” seems like an unambiguous, black-and-white distinction. When everyone is in the “Yes” column, we should be able to declare victory on the meeting. Consider however, the shades-of-grey intentions that may accompany someone’s assent. A person could indicate that he or she “agrees” and be entertaining any one of the following thoughts:

  • I’ll go along with the majority. I think we are making a mistake, but it’s not that important to me. I hope they’ll remember my warnings when we start running into obstacles and resistance.
  • I think there are better approaches, but this seems workable. I’ll cooperate when we start acting on this agreement, but I won’t volunteer to lead anything.
  • We reached the right conclusion and I’m eager to begin lining up resources and getting people excited. Let’s start assigning next steps.

When you think about it, leaders don’t really need to know whether people are in agreement with a proposal or a plan of action. Leaders need to know whether or not they can count on people taking action or changing behaviors consistent with the conclusion the group reached in the meeting. It’s nice to know you agree, it’s essential to know what action I can count on that will turn the agreement into progress.

Stop asking groups of people whether or not they agree. Start asking each member of the group: “Given the conclusion we’ve reached today, what do you plan to do?” 

 

For a more comprehensive treatment of how to discern what people mean when indicating agreement, have a look at the Interaction Associate’s article, “How Much Yes Do You Need?”

The Unstuck Minds Compass: How to recognize and avoid thinking traps

Imagine you have a persistent and mysterious stomachache. Your family physician is stumped. Now imagine that you could convene a dream team of health professionals to sit together like a panel of experts and ask you questions about your condition. Maybe you would select a gastroenterologist, a psychologist, a nutritionist and a mind-body healer. Each expert takes turns posing questions about your condition. As you would expect, each of them asks questions based on their training and worldview. You will be drawn to some questions and you will reject others.

In the same way, the Unstuck Minds Compass comes at your most persistent dilemmas from different directions. Four different thinking systems ensure a comprehensive approach to understanding the nature of your dilemma. The four strategies of the compass don’t supply answers; they introduce questions you haven’t been thinking about. You will be drawn to some questions and you will reject others.

Critical Inquiry

CriticalIcon

Critical inquiry helps us get unstuck by ensuring we don’t take problems at face value. For example, we can take medicine to relieve a headache. The medicine makes us feel better, but we are left wondering why we periodically get headaches. If we take action to resolve a problem and the problem returns, then we start looking for patterns. Critical inquiry helps us recognize patterns in our persistent problems and helps us explain why the patterns exist.

Critical inquiry helps us avoid solving the wrong problem.

Contextual Inquiry

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Contextual inquiry helps us get unstuck by encouraging us to look at the big picture. Sometimes we follow our comfortable routines without ever questioning whether the routines still make sense. For example, improving the durability of a video cassette is a waste of time if people stop buying video cassette recorders. Contextual inquiry helps us notice changes in the environment that alert us to what’s coming. Contextual inquiry allows us to reevaluate how we prioritize our attention and resources.

Contextual inquiry reduces the risk of missing something important.

Collaborative Inquiry

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Collaborative inquiry helps us get unstuck by drawing our attention to the networks of people and groups that might play a role in improving our situation. When ideas and feedback feel unwelcome or when sharing them feels unsafe, the organization can only recycle familiar opinions. Even a high quality strategy or solution won’t improve things if people are committed to maintaining the status quo. Collaborative inquiry reminds us of the power of social networks and the value of hearing what people are thinking and feeling.

Collaborative inquiry makes it easier for people to take concerted action.

Creative Inquiry

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Creative inquiry helps us get unstuck by provoking insights and surfacing hidden needs. Sometimes we get stuck because we insist on a business case for new ideas rather than encouraging experimentation and learning from failure. If the only ideas we are interested in are the ones that feel like a sure thing, we will only hear about ways of improving the status quo. Creative inquiry encourages us to question our assumptions about what people need and about our self-imposed limitations.

Creative inquiry increases the novelty of our options.

Using the compass helps you think differently about your dilemma while simultaneously teaching you how to deal more effectively with complexity and uncertainty. When people use the compass together they not only develop their thinking skills, they develop an appreciation for how others in the organization think and feel about the situation you want to improve.