Wednesday, August 31, 2011

You have to open your own eyes

I'm not here to convince anyone of anything, nor am I here to motivate others. I can't change your mind and I can't motivate you.

Only you can do either.

 We don't resist change - but we do resist being changed, and we can't motivate anyone but ourself.

The best anyone can do is create an environment where others will motivate themselves to change and improve.

This can be incredibly frustrating.

But wait. It gets worse.

In their book Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explain a little thing called confirmation bias:
"So powerful is the need for consonance that when people are forced to look at disconfirming evidence they will find a way to criticize, distort, or dismiss it so that they can maintain or even strengthen their existing belief."
Why is this? Why are we so set on defending what we think we already know to be true even if it means ignoring new evidence that would allow us to improve? Why is it that we are so much more likely to seek out others who will support our current opinions at the expense of those who would challenge us and help us grow?

Why is it that conventional wisdom is shaped by so many urban myths about parenting and educating children?

I believe we have a vision problem -- both literally and metaphorically.

We cannot fix a problem that we refuse to acknowledge. We know that confronting a problem is the only way to resolve it, but any real resolution will disrupt the status quo -- but disturbing the special momentum of the status quo is a great way of being labelled a "troublemaker".

Paradoxically, being a "troublemaker" may be the most effective way of getting fired, but it's also the surest way of differentiating between "doing things right" and "doing the right things".

In her book Wilful Blindness, Margaret Heffernan explains:
In business circles, this is known as the "status quo trap": the preference for everything to stay the same. The gravitational pull of the status quo is strong - it feels easier and less risky, and it requires less mental and emotional energy, to "leave well enough alone." Nobody likes change because the status quo feels safer, it's familiar, we're used to it. Change feels like redirecting the riverbed: effortful and risky. It's so much easier to imagine that what we don't know won't hurt us.
The slippery slope of the status quo is fueled by silence which Heffernan calls the language of inertia. In an ever changing world, inertia won't just keep things the same, rather it will guarantee things get worse. It's like trying to stand on top of a rolling yoga ball; sure, we might find the right balance between left and right, up and down, but if we want to remain on the ball, we're going to need to constantly adjust and readjust.

What works one moment, won't necessarily work the next.

Business guru Jim Collins warns, "If you notice marked decline in the quality of debate and dialogue around your workplace, things are on the decline." This kind of work environment favours compliance at the cost of engagement. It's like nothing is wrong, but everything is wrong. We are snookered into believing that the absence of conflict is the equivalent to happiness and so there may be plenty of polite conversation but nothing meaningful.

It's not unheard of for widespread knowledge and widespread blindness to coexist. There's a reason why some scandals or problems are known by all but no one will admit it. If an entire society, institution or company is built on denial because self preservation, survival or advancement demands blindness to the truth - disaster is imminent.

This is what Heffernan calls the paradox of blindness: We think turning a blind eye to the truth will make us safe even as it puts us in danger. As long as the work or learning environment convinces us that it is safer to say and do nothing, injustices can and will likely continue. There is a real danger in having a fixed view of the world and not being open to evidence that you're wrong until it is too late. Ironically, some of the most educated professionals can end up the most blind because they come to see their expertise as definitive.

So how can we best counter the harmful effects of confirmation bias and willful blindness?

There's no one answer to such a complex question, but the first step might be understanding that we all have blindspots.

No one is exempt.

Like the best drivers, the most successful people navigate through the hustle and bustle of their daily lives knowing that they have blindspots -- things that they just cannot or will not see. Tavris and Aronson explain:
Drivers cannot avoid having blind spots in their field of vision, but good drivers are aware of them; they know they had better be careful backing up and changing lanes if they don't want to crash into fire hydrants and other cars. Our innate biases are, as two legal scholars put it, "like optical illusions in two important respects - they lead us to wrong conclusions from data, and their apparent rightness persists even when we have been shown the trick." We cannot avoid psychological blind spots, but if we are unaware of them we may become unwittingly reckless, crossing ethical lines and making foolish decisions. Introspection alone will not help our vision, because it will simply confirm our self-justifying beliefs that we, personally, cannot be coopted or corrupted, and that our dislikes or hatreds of other groups are not irrational but reasoned and legitimate. Blind spots enhance our pride and activate our prejudices.
We are all better off when we are willing to catch ourselves sacrificing truth in service of self-justification, but to do this we have to stop believing that we are above bias. Because we all have a personal or professional interest in how the things we do turn out, objectivity is a myth.  The most successful people understand that just because they can't see something doesn't mean it doesn't exist which is precisely why the best leaders challenge themselves to never mandate optimism, always openly and actively seek dissent and continually surround themselves with trusted naysayers. All this is in an effort to reduce their authority and disrupt groupthink.

If you aspire to this kind of profound leadership and acute awareness you have to understand that the best anyone can do is tap you on the shoulder. You have to open your own eyes and choose to see.

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