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?”

Organizational Quicksand, Part 2: Getting Unstuck

Last week’s blog post introduced differences in the way organizations turn thinking into action. I organized the distinctions by contrasting two attributes of an organization’s culture: The organization’s tolerance for ambiguity and the organization’s preferred influence style. In this post, I want to flesh out the distinctions a bit more and then consider how becoming attentive to your preferred mode of turning thinking into action can help you get unstuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by a low tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by persuasion, I call “operate” mode. Operate mode moves to action quickly and discussions often feel like competitive sales pitches. Operate mode eschews process and structure. Rule following is seen as time consuming. Operate mode has a bias for trusting the judgment of a passionate, forceful leader who will bend the future to his or her will. Operate mode sees little value in taking the time to build consensus through processes that tap into the organization’s collective wisdom. When in operate mode, introducing nuanced distinctions among options will be judged as unproductive “navel gazing.”

Operate mode serves an organization well when it produces something customer’s value. As long as there is a market for an operate mode organization’s products and services, moving fast and selling hard works. When the value proposition changes because customers’ needs have evolved, operate mode can get an organization stuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by a low tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by alignment, I call “regulate” mode. Regulate mode is methodical and consistent. Discussions in regulate mode feel formal and predictable. Regulate mode places a high premium on years of experience in the company. If a process or methodology doesn’t dictate how best to handle a situation, the organization will follow a leader who has dealt with the situation in the past. In regulate mode, people want information before they act. In regulate mode, influence takes the form of presentations with a lot of detail about what is happening and how it will happen. New ideas don’t get surfaced casually when in regulate mode. One needs to prepare carefully before suggesting something new, provide evidence that the idea is workable and a business case that demonstrates the idea is worthwhile.

Regulate mode serves an organization well when the customer value proposition includes risk mitigation. As long as a regulate mode business is seen as a trustworthy option, customers will pay a premium for its products and services. When innovations provide customers with faster or cheaper yet equally good alternatives, regulate mode can get an organization stuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by a high tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by persuasion, I call “debate” mode. In debate mode, skill, expertise and intellect are highly valued. Discussions in debate mode feel stimulating to those who want a rigorous exploration of a topic. Taking action in debate mode feels less important than considering every angle. Authority in debate mode is correlated with expertise. Debate mode embraces ambiguity because it allows every situation to be analyzed and litigated anew.

Debate mode serves an organization well when the customer value proposition is based on superior product quality or service excellence. As long as minor adjustments or extensions to existing products and services continue to be seen as valuable, there will be customers for debate mode businesses. When new market needs require agile responses, debate mode can get an organization stuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by high tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by alignment, I call “relate” mode. In relate mode, collaboration is highly valued. Discussions are characterized by a desire for shared understanding; leaders seek alternative points of view and include people with diverse backgrounds and beliefs. Opportunities to act emerge when something looks interesting. In relate mode, people put their trust in their colleagues’ ability to marshal resources to get the job done. Because relate mode requires empathy and curiosity, relate mode organizations have long standing affiliations with customers, clients and other strategic partners along their supply chain.

Relate mode serves an organization well when customer loyalty is paramount. As long as customers and business partners value their relationship with the organization, the relate mode business will be presented with new opportunities. When customers and business partners retire, change jobs or otherwise reorient their priorities, relate mode can get an organization stuck.

When your thinking to action mode becomes a trap

Like many overused skills, your organization’s default thinking to action mode can turn counterproductive when you fail to notice that the usual response to challenging situations fails to make things better. For example, if you prefer to work in operate mode and your customers have become disenchanted with your offer, thinking up new ways to persuade your customer to make a purchase signifies being caught in a thinking to action trap.

The Unstuck Minds Compass™ is comprised of four strategies for changing the way you think with others about persistent problem or daunting opportunities. The strategies introduce questions about your situation that you may neglect to ask if you have been trapped by your preferred mode.

  1. Contextual inquiry helps a stuck team zoom out by introducing questions about what is changing in the environment.
  2. Critical inquiry helps a stuck team zoom in by introducing questions about interrelationships within an organizational system.
  3. Collaborative inquiry helps a stuck team by directing their attention to informal social networks and the thoughts and feelings of diverse stakeholders.
  4. Creative inquiry helps a stuck team by questioning assumptions and focusing attention on insights about unmet needs.

Each strategy provides a helping hand when you notice that the usual mode of turning thinking into action has started to feel like being mired in quicksand.

For organizations stuck in operate mode, collaborative inquiry comes to the rescue by providing missing perspectives. To get unstuck, operate mode leaders will have to learn how to be influenced by what they hear when talking with stakeholders and they will need to develop the capacity to remain open to additional input even if it means postponing action.

For organizations stuck in regulate mode, creative inquiry comes to the rescue by providing novel options. To get unstuck, regulate mode leaders will have to get comfortable letting go of the need to see a business case for every idea someone wants to raise. Regulate mode teams will need to spend time openly questioning the assumptions behind existing routines and methods.

For organizations stuck in debate mode, contextual inquiry comes to the rescue by providing a way to prioritize the big picture over getting all the details right. To get unstuck, debate mode stakeholders will have to learn how to question whether settling a point of contention or getting additional input will make a meaningful difference in terms of choosing a course of action.

For organizations stuck in relate mode, critical inquiry comes to the rescue by providing a way to set standards for objectively evaluating opportunities. To get unstuck, relate mode teams will have to learn how to say, “no” even when something looks interesting. To get unstuck, relate mode leaders need to analyze options to determine what makes the most sense for the future and then invest in executing on the strategy better than anyone else.

Organizational Quicksand: Four modes of thinking together they may be holding you back

Getting stuck in the way we are thinking is like finding ourselves in quicksand; applying our habits and routines just makes things worse.

I want to describe four categories of organizational quicksand. Each category represents a routine mode of translating thinking into action. The four modes emerge from comparing and contrasting two dimensions of an organization’s decision-making culture: An organization’s tolerance for ambiguity and an organization’s influence style.

The first dimension describes the organization’s tolerance for ambiguity. An organization has a low tolerance for ambiguity when it sees ambiguous situations as threatening or stressful. An organization with high tolerance for ambiguity prefers situations with multiple and sometimes contradictory interpretations. A low tolerance for ambiguity culture seeks a concrete answer and sticks to it. In a high tolerance for ambiguity culture one often hears people say, “it depends.”

The second dimension describes the organization’s preferred influence style. The influence style dimensions represent a continuum of receptivity to the opinions of others. I refer to low receptivity to the opinions of others as a “persuasive” style. I refer to high receptivity to the opinion of others as an “alignment” style. Exchanges of strongly held viewpoints characterize persuasive cultures. Listening, questions and high involvement characterize alignment cultures.

For the last several years, I have been paying attention to how ambiguity tolerance and influence style characterize the way people in organizations think together. I want to describe four of my client organizations, each one emblematic of one of the four categories. Like many habits that have become traps in times of change, it’s easy to see how the modes of translating thinking into action served each organization well. Now, the modes of thinking have become a type of quicksand making it hard for each organization to adapt.

Org Quicksand Traps

Operate Mode

The “Operate” mode influences by persuasion and has a low tolerance for ambiguity. The operate style describes well a global technology company that I have been working with for over ten years. The company prides itself on having an entrepreneurial culture despite its size and scope. Leaders in the company think fast and act fast; weighing alternatives just slows things down. Leaders in this company don’t engage in dialogue about ideas, they “pitch” ideas to each other and make deals in order to move things forward. The operate mode turns to quicksand when leaders need to question their assumptions and collaborate in new ways with their employees and customers.

Regulate Mode

The “Regulate” mode influences by alignment and has a low tolerance for ambiguity. The regulate style aligns through systems, rules, regulations and procedures. I have a long-standing relationship with a multi-national engineering and construction company. Leaders in this company tend to have backgrounds in civil, mechanical and chemical engineering. There are clearly delineated ways of doing things, which has made the company reliable and a safe bet for customers who are making big investments in complicated projects. The regulate mode turns to quicksand when leaders resist experimenting with innovative ideas.

Relate Mode

The “Relate” mode influences by alignment and has a high tolerance for ambiguity. The relate style values inclusion and involvement, diversity is seen as strength and success often emerges organically by leveraging opportunities. I work with a global retailer that has a distinctive buying model, which mirrors its distinctive culture. Leaders in this company listen to each other and to their customers and suppliers. They avoid codifying procedures preferring to stay attentive to opportunity. The lack of routine makes it hard for relate-mode organizations to develop key talent. The relate mode turns to quicksand when becoming distracted by new possibilities competes with a need for strategic focus.

Debate Mode

The “Debate” mode influences by persuasion and has a high tolerance for ambiguity. Spending time in a debate mode culture often feels like being at an academic conference. I work with a materials science company that manufactures a variety of products, which feature various applications of their proprietary materials. The organization values expertise while rejecting authority as a basis for decision making. The most compelling point-of-view supported by the best logic and data wins the day. The debate mode turns to quicksand when circumstances require a rapid response without making time to consider everyone’s opinion.

Each of these organizations has been successful because of their respective cultures. Today, each of these organizations senses the need to adapt to changing market conditions and an unfamiliar competitive landscape. Applying comfortable modes of translating thinking to action can be counterproductive when the ground that once provided a firm foundation for decision making starts to shift under our feet.

Uncovering Your Client’s Requirements: Four questions for connecting services and solutions to wants and needs

Changing the way we refer to things says a lot about our changing mindsets. For example, our organizations used to “train” people, now we “develop talent” through “blended learning experiences.” Companies that once employed “salespeople” responsible for closing deals, now have “business development teams” that form relationships with customers and clients.

Our changing descriptions of organizational roles and functions signify more than a gentrification of the way we talk about business. In the case of the interactions formerly known as “sales” and “training,” the change in language represents a shift from thinking in terms of transactions to thinking in terms of connections.

Once, we asked for coffee, received it and paid for it. Now we interact with a skilled and knowledgeable barista who assesses how much conversation will be required to meet our coffee needs, including the needs we didn’t realize we had: We can make your cappuccino frothier. Next time order it “dry.”

We no longer transact business. We connect services and solutions to wants and needs.

Our internal and external clients and customers no longer want our prefabricated widgets, our generic training programs, or our one-size-fits-all professional service methodologies. Even health care systems have started personalizing treatment plans to meet individual patient needs.

Sometimes, I have a very specific coffee order and I’m not interested in exploring my options. Similarly, sometimes, a client or customer simply wants to transact business with you. They know what they want and they’re looking for the best value. Before your scoping conversation, ask yourself (or even better, ask the client) about the importance of what Unstuck Minds calls, “The Four Imperatives.”

Find out the extent to which your client needs to…

  • Reduce the risk of missing something important

  • Avoid solving the wrong problem

  • Make it easier for people to take concerted action

  • Increase the novelty of their options

If the imperatives matter, you’ll want to walk into the scoping conversation with better questions. There are four primary questions that will change any scoping conversation from a business transaction into a conversation that connects services and solutions to needs:

What is changing? Start your scoping conversation with a question that demonstrates the importance of context. By the time you have been invited into a scoping conversation, your client has already decided that something needs to change or improve. To avoid being trapped by a discussion of the features and functions of your solutions, find out what has changed in the internal and external environment that triggered the scoping conversation. By asking. “What is changing?” you reduce the risk of missing something important.

What does it mean? After hearing about what is changing, find out how your client has interpreted the changes. Consider other explanations for the identified changes. Why has the client’s current interpretation of the changes become a priority? By finding out what the change means to your client you avoid solving the wrong problem.

How do others see it? You have heard one perspective on the context and rationale for the client’s stated need, now it’s time to find out about the thoughts and feelings of others in the organization. Be suspicious of a client who describes strong alignment on a consistent set of needs. The scoping conversation should include a discussion of what people may end up losing when the client’s needs are met, not just what people stand to gain. Finding out how others think and feel helps make it easier for people to take concerted action to meet the client’s requirements.

How else might we define the challenge? The client engaged you in a scoping conversation by framing a request. If you’ve had a productive dialogue prompted by the first three questions, it’s likely that new information and perhaps some new insights have emerged. In asking the fourth question, you are adding value to the conversation by broadening the solution set. You may even uncover needs that set the stage for future scoping conversations.

Leadership versus Heroism

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns

Driven time and again off course, once he had plundered

the hallowed heights of Troy.1

 

The Trump presidency has raised some difficult questions for some of us who study and teach leadership. Most of my colleagues share values and beliefs that derive from a tradition of humanism, a belief that people have inherent value, goodness and dignity. For the humanist, people have needs and potential, therefore the job of leadership is to uncover needs and help people reach their potential. Consultants and organizational development professionals who operate in the humanist tradition conduct research on collaboration and transformative learning. We write books and teach workshops with names like, Servant Leadership and Facilitative Leadership. We keep encouraging leaders to listen, to learn and to model humility.

There are other schools of thought about leadership. You can find plenty of material on how to be a charismatic leader or an authoritarian leader. I suppose the lowest common denominator of leadership philosophies is that leaders have followers. Trump has followers, and not just on Twitter.

Speaking of twitter, I woke up recently with a nagging fear that my clients would start asking me to lead brainstorming sessions to come up with insulting epithets for competitors in 140 characters or less.

I’ve gotten so confused about what it means to be a leader I decide that I needed to follow my own advice and keep an open mind. I even purchased a copy of Trump’s The Art of the Deal. I should say I downloaded the book to my Kindle. I don’t want to be on the receiving end of side-eyes from my seat-mates on airplanes. By the way, in the section of the book about the importance of gaining leverage during a negotiation, Trump wrote, “My leverage came from confirming an impression they were already predisposed to believe.” Maybe the new workshop should be called, “Leadership as Theater.”

I admit that I’m allowing myself to take elitist potshots at Trump. Perhaps it’s a reaction to having my leadership convictions unmoored by what I’m witnessing. Just because Trump is not my kind of leader, does that mean he’s not an effective leader?

Was Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore an act of leadership?

After watching the Hollywood style movie trailer produced by the White House a distinction popped into my head that helped me square my beliefs about leadership with what I witnessed last week. I’m of the opinion that Trump doesn’t want to be a leader; Trump wants to be a hero.

I think it is a particularly American notion to mix up heroism and leadership. In some cases the attributes coexist, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela come to mind. Heroes are defined by their struggles and achievements. Leaders are defined by their ability to ennoble and inspire others to reach their potential. Heroes have adoring fans. Leaders produce a new generation of leaders.

Contrasting leadership and heroism brought Odysseus to mind. Homer’s epic poem is the story of Odysseus’ kleos. Kleos is a Greek term for “glory” or “renown.” Since it is related to the word “to hear,” kleos translates as, “the great deeds others hear about you.” We don’t yet know whether we should compare Trump’s presidency to the voyage of Odysseus or the voyage of the S.S. Minnow, but there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that, if you’ll excuse the expression, kleos trumps leadership for our president.

Homer makes Odysseus out to be a hero, but even the Muse could not embellish his questionable leadership capabilities. Recall that Odysseus led a disobedient crew of questionable intelligence who were all eaten, turned into swine and/or (spoiler alert) drowned by an angry Zeus at the end of the journey.

Slide1

And then there’s the bit about Odysseus wanting to hear the song of the Sirens. The Sirens’ song was reputed to be so enchanting that sailors passing close enough to hear the song would be drawn to the Sirens and end up shipwrecked on the coast of their island. Odysseus had his crew lash him to the mast of his ship and then ordered the crew to put beeswax in their ears so they would not hear the singing.

There is one thing Trump has in common with leaders I admire. He forces me to recognize and question my assumptions.

 

 

¹Opening lines of Homer’s The Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles (1996)

Love Encounters Suffering: Questions for being with

The shocking deaths by suicide this week (two celebrities among the estimated 860 deaths by suicide every week in the U.S.) bring to mind Martin Buber’s powerful distinction between “experiencing” the world (the mode of I-it) and “encountering” the world (the mode of I-Thou). In the “I-it” mode, we are separate from what we experience, we operate in the realm of analyzing and judging. As a result, we inadvertently establish boundaries that separate ourselves from others. From an “I-it” frame of reference, we unconsciously presume that there is always a ‘thinker’ independent from the ‘thought of.’

 In the mode of “I-Thou,” we encounter the world by entering into relationship. We recognize the illusion of separateness; the word “other” loses its meaning. I, and that which I encounter, each become transformed through participation and relationship.

 The purpose of Unstuck Minds is to help people ask better questions so things can change. What I am learning this week, is the strength of my bias for asking questions that parse and separate. One can recognize and avoid thinking traps through questions that create useful distinctions. One can also recognize and avoid thinking traps by asking questions that remove the distinctions, which isolate and divide us.

 My daughter Bekah has spent several years learning, writing and speaking out about social anxiety, depression and suicide. I’ve invited Bekah to share her thoughts and questions. Questions that help us listen in the I-Thou mode. Ways of listening that help us understand the alchemy when love encounters suffering.

Seeing people around us suffering brings a response of uncertainty. Often, we choose to stay silent to avoid saying the wrong thing or making matters worse, but asking simple questions can foster meaningful connection in our relationships and within our communities. The power of asking questions and listening is often under-appreciated, but it is what I believe will create real change in our world.

Everyone you encounter is different, every situation is different and every story is different, but I would like to share the power of some general questions one can use to send the message of love and care.

  • How are you *really* doing? We ask people every day how they are doing, but unfortunately it has become a longer way to just say “hello.” Taking this question back to its original meaning to stop and allow someone to honestly answer is powerful.
  • What can I do to best support you? Another open ended question. This question gives insight to whether or not your goals are aligned with the person you are talking to. It is also a way for people to communicate their needs with you.
  • Have you ever felt this way? (With the follow up, what has seemed to help you in the past when things feel this way? This question gives empowerment and focuses on strength allowing someone to be reminded of all of the pain they have gotten through in the past while giving them the power to think of their own ideas.
  • You haven’t been yourself lately (give specific observations, you’ve been quieter than usual, you haven’t been eating as much, you’ve been sleeping a lot, etc.) How are you? Giving someone those observations shows that you see them, you’re paying attention and you care. Again, asking them how they are opens the door for an honest conversation.
  • Sometimes when people are feeling this way they have thoughts of ending their life. Are you having thoughts of suicide? This question can be daunting to ask, but it is so powerful. It allows you to understand their current crisis further while also sharing the message that you are comfortable talking about suicide. Asking this question does not put the idea in someone’s head and it can be life saving.

Reaching out to someone can be terrifying, but the most important thing is to show that you care and are willing to sit in that pain with them and listen. Follow their lead and allow them to drive the car. Our job is to simply be in the car with them helping to guide the way because we all need a passenger in our car sometimes.

For more information about how to help or to find support check out The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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Bekah Cone is a Biopsychology, Cognition and Neuroscience major at the University of Michigan and a counselor with the Crisis Text Line. She is currently on sabbatical from her Second City Improv Troupe, A Bunch of Ringos.

Question Authority

Thanks in part to Steve Bannon and my fondness for double entendres, the slogan of my youth has become my new job title: Jay Gordon Cone, Question Authority. For the purpose of my job title, “question” is a noun.

I had been resisting business cards for my new venture, Unstuck Minds. I never know what to do with the business cards I receive. The whole idea of business cards seems outdated to me. After all, Unstuck Minds is a company devoted to helping people recognize and avoid thinking traps by asking better questions. Traditional business cards represent a kind of conformity to standard organizational structures that can sometimes be a source of thinking traps.

However, I recently had an opportunity to team up with colleagues to facilitate a practicum session on Unstuck Minds at the 2018 Conscious Capitalism Conference in Dallas. People I respect urged me to have business cards printed so I could hand them out to conference attendees. I relented and got in touch with Jonathan, my talented graphic designer. We quickly agreed on a very simple design for the front of the card. We decided that each card should feature a different question on the back taken from the Unstuck Minds conversation card deck, a minor twist that satisfied my need to be unconventional. Now that we had the design of the card, Jonathan wanted to know what title I wanted under my name. The question touched a nerve and I told him that I would get back to him with an answer. Given the printing deadline, I settled for, “Founder.” I’ve had the cards for almost a month and I’m still not happy with the title, “Founder.”

Last night I watched Fareed Zakaria interview Steve Bannon on CNN. Apart from the substance of the discussion, I was intrigued by the mismatch in communication styles between Zakaria and Bannon. Zakaria wanted to understand and explore. Bannon wanted to confront and persuade. When one person in a conversation seeks the truth and one person in a conversation feels they know the truth, you get a one-sided conversation. Whatever you may think of Steve Bannon or the opinions he holds, he speaks with authority.

Lately, I’ve been paying attention to the role of authority in today’s political discourse. Arguments about the appropriate role of authority have been with us since the time humans formed societies. The philosophical tension between faith in evidence and faith in authority came to a head in the Age of Enlightenment. More recently, the topic of “authority” has been studied from the perspectives of cognitive and social psychology. After watching the CNN interview with Bannon, two research programs that shed light on our relationship to authority came to mind.

George Lakoff, the former Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, writes extensively about the central metaphors that distinguish conservative and liberal thought. Lakoff refers to the origins of conservative thought as, “Strict Father Morality.” In strict father morality, the world is a dangerous place; obedience to strict rules is required and the exercise of authority is not just prudent, it’s moral. From the perspective of “Strict Father Morality,” we can begin to understand the rationale for disregarding facts. If the world is threatening, we’re better off putting our faith in those who speak with comforting authority than putting our faith in a world that keeps changing the rules on us.

Arie W. Kruglanski, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland touches on the role of authority through his extensive research on the psychology of closed mindedness. Kruglanski and his colleagues have repeatedly demonstrated that specific traits and specific conditions can heighten our need for closure. Kruglanski defines our need for closure (on topics that don’t have a specific resolution) as a “desire for a definite answer to a question, any firm answer, rather than uncertainty, confusion, or ambiguity” (Kruglanski, 1989). Conditions that create stress or psychological traits that dispose people to feel threatened by too much confusion or ambiguity increase the desire for an answer; again, under certain conditions or for some people authority is comforting.

I’m not interested in passing judgment on people’s relationship to authority. I am interested in how our relationship to authority influences the way we recognize and avoid thinking traps in service of getting unstuck. The next time someone is simplifying a complex problem by framing the situation as a binary choice between opposing views, ask them, “What if we did both, or neither?” The next time someone appeals to authority or states an opinion as the truth, ask them “How did you reach that conclusion?”

How do I know I’m right about this? You can trust me, I’m a question authority.

 

Kruglanski, A. W. (1989). Lay epistemics and human knowledge: Cognitive and motivational bases. New York: Plenum
Lakoff, G. (1996). Moral politics: How liberals and conservatives think. Chicago: University of Chicago Press