I was wrong
I know that it’s not good practice to use the same headline twice, as I have just done. But I think that this is one of the few that are justifiable because it’s a very important phrase, especially amongst those who either give advice or lead people.
I am referring to two wrongs in my last blog in which,
a) I referred to General Haig, rather than Lord Kitchener, as the man whose country needs you. As a history student I learned that General Haig, the commander of the British Army from 1916, was the man in the poster and having learnt it, wrongly, I failed to unlearn it; and
b) I referred to brave men in a way that could be seen as calling them stupid. It would have been kinder, and more accurate, to say that some of their actions could be seen as stupid. I don’t wish to be seen as inaccurate, since it damages my credibility, and whilst a dig at unpopular figures cheers readers and encourages them to read the next blog, taking a cheap shot at sympathetic figures is at least one step too far.
So there it is, my apology. I hope it works for you and we are friends again.
But somehow I doubt it. You may know that the word apology comes from the Greek word for defence and what I think I have done is set out a defence of my actions rather than surrendered myself to you and asked you to forgive me. I did this because defensive reasoning such as this is, I believe, a problem that we frequently encounter when we try to grow organisations by altering the behaviors of the people in them.
When we try to achieve change, in ourselves as well as others, we are met with defences that, according to a great article in the Harvard Business Review (Teaching Smart People How to Learn by Chris Argyris), are driven by one or more of 4 human needs. These are:
- To remain in unilateral control;
- To maximise winning and minimize losing;
- To suppress negative feelings;and
- To be as rational as possible.
I think that discussions that are aimed at changing behaviors frequently conclude with statements, from both sides, that can be reduced to one or more of these 4, e.g. “I think the issue here is not my work but the fact that the client just isn’t capable of understanding me” (which I think hits the first two) or “if we’re going to grow we need to ignore our recent losses, remain positive and never give up” (which I would say hits the last two; but I may be wrong!). This “closed loop reasoning” avoids embarrassment or appearing incompetent but stops short of acknowledging our own weaknesses and fears and so we don’t grow, either personally or corporately.
The answer? In essence it’s to have a conversation about the conversation: instead of having a discussion which you “know” will end up with these responses, write down how it would go and look at what is going on underneath. Then discuss this with the others in the conversation: examine the implicit assumptions of all parties, accepting criticism when it’s supported by facts, until everyone has gained sufficient understanding so as to be able to alter their assumptions and reduce their defensive behaviors.
Doing that can produce significant improvements in everyone’s performance. But it takes courage, albeit it not half as much as an officer on the front line in WW1 needed.
I was wrong