Having lived in different countries I hesitate to broadcast conditions as absolute because what seems like absolute fact in one country is often absolute heresy in another.

Understanding how our habitual lens causes problems:

We all have strong egos but we have different forms of manifesting them (eg dominant ego, compliant ego, inquisitive ego, avoidance ego).  Often times egos also manifest in reaction to the surrounding environment (eg how can a person be compliant at home and intransigent at work? Their adaptive response varies based on the level of comfort and safety they are experiencing – we become reactive when we feel threatened and compliant when we feel secure). Threats may not be obvious. Anything that pushes us out of our comfort zone (natural state) or our habitual zone (what we’ve developed routinized coping mechanisms for) is a threat because it forces us into the zone of holy terror (the unknown, the untried, the unreliable).

Following is a depiction of the above statement:

Problem Solving Coaching tool - Framework Diagram

Problem Solving Coaching tool - Framework Zones
Two frequent blame games in modern parlance are: “not supportive” and “not accountable”. These are extremely destructive precepts because, while easy to use as red flags, they never create solutions. Both are symptoms of the same thing: goal and expectation incongruence (there are differing perspectives on goals and expectations that need to be reconciled). A psychological contract has either been broken or has not yet been created.

Psychological contracts cannot be reduced to writing because (a) nobody has that much time, and, (b) they are filled with tenuous norms that are generational, group oriented and situational (also known as hidden rules). Failing to recognize this leads to implications of malice where malice does not exist and is not intended. I will take the “African” example (Africa is a continent with 53 countries that are as different from each other as the US and Bolivia but for some reason we get treated as “a country” which must mean there is more social cohesiveness than we are given credit for).

During colonial times, if a colonial person refused to sign a contract it was a matter of honor and integrity. If an African refused to sign a contract the African was a liar and a cheat. If a colonial brought forth hidden rules they were to be treated as superior and adhered to (or Africans would be killed for non-compliance even though this was one’s own land/home and the rules being imposed were foreign). If an African brought forth hidden rules these were vulgar and backward and needed to be converted to “civilization.” Yes Africans practiced warfare but in every African culture I have come across are rules for what is now called “deliberative democracy.” This “discovery” is an integral part of tribal traditions previously labeled backwards and childish.  Ironically, elders would say naturally, these discarded and belittled systems are now proving more effective resolution and deliberative mechanisms than the imposed Western “civilities.”  Here are two examples of deliberation and dispute resolution in a traditional context.

Presented with cheating written contracts imposed by brute force, the only way to win was to change the social norms of interaction. Hence, the one thing all entities were professing must be avoided: deceit, emerged as a survival trait with each side trying to out do the other “for security reasons.” Colonials were blanketly branded by Africans as lying abominations.  Africans were blanketly branded by colonials as lying savages.  The red flags raised over centuries: “not supportive” and “not accountable.”  No room was made for a reconciliation of the unknown, i.e. the hidden rules and psychological contracts that governed (and continue to govern) the behavior of each.  Somehow we are not any closer to “supportive” and “accountable” which is a state both sides very much want to reach. The “solution” talk about failed leaders, failed systems…  Yes, the failure is evident so why keep directing energy towards failure when the same time and words can be redirected to talking about and studying successive accomplishments? Many little accomplishments lead to big success in the same way many little inconsistencies lead to catastrophic failure. If failure is not what we want, why spend more time examining it than we spend examining success? The result speaks for itself and analyzing failure persistently is an avoidance mechanism. Easier to ruminate in what went wrong and pontificate about what should be done (instead of discussing what is getting done) than to overhaul oneself in a direction that is different from what one is used to.

Moving from Blame to Acceptance:

When it comes to pontification, I am not The Holy See nor A Holy See. This is not to doubt or deny Holy gifts. I just know that Holy illumination is not mine and I’m perfectly happy with the gifts I do have. So, I leave pontification for pontifs. I am oppositionally defiant when challenged (brutally so when challenged forcefully) but that does not mean I am unwilling to learn. Over 43yrs I have learned that 90% of conflict I’ve experienced in my life is rooted in psychological contract discrepancies.

There are two types:

1. Species differences – Africans talk in terms of nature and I will do the same. Lions are not ants so you cannot expect them to behave the same way even if the ant we’re to look like a lion. In Puerto Rico we talk in terms of flaura and fauna: don’t ask the oak tree for pears.  In Western parlance things need to be put into tests and statistical systems so the one I’ve found that is closest to what I grew up with is the Path Elements Profile (PEP)™.  You can’t ask the Wind to behave like the Earth. Yes there are other tools that give you more resolution:

  • moderate resolution on personality, high on learning and work styles DISC and Prism;
  • high resolution on personality and social behavior, moderate on learning and work styles: Myers Briggs and Essentials.

In general I look for tools that stay away from personality archetypes AND nothing beats talking to a person face-to-face to find out what a person is truly like.  Can I force you to accept this as immutable? No, and it’s not meant to be; limited knowledge provides insight not absolute fact and, since I’m not omniscient, I use what I have while knowing its limitations. Will I spend any time developing “change” systems to get people to behave differently from what they innately are? No. Are there those who will? Yes. Do I interact with them? No. In my opinion they waste energy and I need every single drop of mine so I run from them like I would the bubonic plague. This is quite natural (prey flees from predators because getting caught by one means death in this case, psychological and emotional death).

2. Norms differences – these are NOT rational, they are habitual. For those of us who have grown up in mixed cultures or lived extensively outside our culture of origin you know the accusation: you are not TRUE xyz! Well biologically I am (rational) so what is your real (irrational) argument based on? Well you don’t behave like one.  Ahhh! Well, sorry, I can’t! Behavior is an adaptive response to environmental stimuli and I’ve been in a different environment from you. This is true even for identical twins.

Those in Eastern Europe and Eurasia laugh that they have lived in 5 different countries without ever leaving their house. As a person, I’ve experienced something equivalent. The same me and behavior is heralded as the epitome of success and model in one group but chastised as troublesome and incoherent in another (for the record, I’m referring to work and instructional environments where whites are dominant and there is a mix of disciplines and location, as defined by geographic region, is the same; thus many factors that could lead to differing cultural interpretations are controlled for).  Hence when I see “not supportive” or “not accountable” labels now I just laugh. My internal reaction: quit your BS and put your hidden agenda on the table so we can debate it (vociferously if needed). However, I’ve also learned that stating this leads to more conflict with the very types of people I’m trying to avoid conflict with. So, I’ve learned that demanding transparency threatens others (not everyone because there are many who say, oh Thank God, I was praying I could have a real talk with you!) and is met with vehement oppositional force even when it is the solution to the avoidance trap.

For those of us eager to openly negotiate hidden agendas, here’s the other piece I’ve learned.  We cannot control (including reach consensus on) what we don’t understand. As exhausting as the process is, keep asking questions that deepen mutual respect and understanding until the consensus emerges on its own. The challenge: there is no set time frame for this (it could take 5min to 50yrs!). This is the African method of negotiation and why meetings seem to be unproductive.  From my Puerto Rican side I’ve learned that, whether we like to admit it or not, everyone has a need to give “a show.” Some are operatic. Others are mimes. Some comedic. Some use science projects. We need others to see how we are interpreting and understanding them as things are unfolding. This is where Africans tend to differ from other cultures I’ve experienced. They reflect in silence or in group seclusion and only come back for “show” when things are ready. I been reamed for this by some teachers and some bosses. You must show me your work as you are working on it! How else will I know you are not cheating or that you understand? Well, 1. If you did a good job of teaching/giving instructions I must understand so if you’re in secure about what you did that’s your problem not mine (see how easy the blame game is!). 2. I learn best by talking to others so I have been consulting with peers and other experts to figure out how to best integrate what you expect with how I approach things.  3. Showing piecemeal results is a double edged sword. One can show a result and get 1,001 additional instructions/corrections on something that will turn out perfectly fine without them.

I remember one instructor who went to war with me years ago because I refused to use outlines for my paper. Other instructors became a buffer between the two of us because communication was degrading rapidly.  One instructor in the buffer group told me: we need some pointers that your research is headed in the right direction. My reply: why can’t I just give you drafts? The consensus became: don’t write more than 2 pages without our review and input. The process was painfully slow for all involved BUT still got done on time AND the end result was something good that none of us (including myself, least of all the instructor who was adamant about outlines) expected.

The lesson: there is no ONE right way. What is best varies by situation and individual. I had peers who outlined every part of their paper before they wrote it (e.g. every 2 pages were preceded by an outline). They would submit both for review.  We got the same distinguished paper merits. The wisdom of the buffer instructors was the ability to see the virtues and merits of both approaches and re-design a process so it accommodated both needs.  This is the secret in getting to “supportive” and “accountable.”

I have long been looking for this type of buffer in the professional world. It is emerging in the title of Scrum Master. I’ve also seen it in organizations as Process Owners.  On the battlefield this is similar to the role of Quartermaster (similar because it’s not exactly the same but Quartermasters ensure that everyone has what they need in order to accomplish the mission).

These are people with a gift for developing processes and who love to use that gift to be the glue that holds things together. In  close to 20yrs of management consulting, every time I see heightened conflict or process failure, this role is missing (just like I would have never finished my paper without the buffer instructors).  We know that machines need technicians to keep them properly calibrated and functioning at maximum productivity. People need technicians who can do the same.

One wouldn’t use a jack hammer to open a can of beans. If jack hammers had emotions, they would be irate at being used to open an 15oz can when they are designed to break concrete. Nobody would think of blaming the jack hammer for not being a good tool to open a can of beans. However, we think nothing of forcing people into situations that are not aligned with their natural talents and affinity.  When they react we accuse them and call them bad employees, bad managers, bad leaders. Causing rage by blaming others has become “the norm.” The goal is to “help others grow by being controversial.”

The reality: effectively managing the complexity of interests, motivations, skills and aspirations AND keeping everyone happy/feeling fulfilled is the root cause challenge (the problem is also the solution). It doesn’t matter if the group is 5 or a multi-national of 30,000.  The issue isn’t competition. The issue is fear of loss: how do I give everyone what they want without losing what I want?   This is what triggers the “not supportive” and “not accountable” red flag.

Resetting the Dialog:

Question: how does one give everyone what they want without losing what one wants?

NOTE: you don’t is NOT an option and accepting you don’t is NOT a solution. Never thinking leads to never fixing.

Recommendation: study and share effective methods/processes for  managing the complexity of interests, motivations, skills and aspirations AND keeping everyone truly happy/feeling fulfilled.

Aspiration Management is one body of research that can help with this endeavor.

Collaborative cultures are becoming the imperative (note the article distinguishes between collaboration and teamwork).

Statoil has publicly shared its method for managing people, their aspirations and company needs.