Things You Don’t Know . . . Broadening your View . . . and Listening . . . to Understand
Things I Know I Don’t Know
There’s a lot I don’t really understand. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that but I think in our complex world it is true for everyone. Take geysers for example. I can listen to an explanation (which I did several times at recent “Ranger talks” at Yellowstone National Park and understand the basic principles of geyser “mechanics” . . . but really understand it? No, not really. But then again, even the Rangers note that the experts have trouble predicting most geyser activity and not understanding some elements of the phenomenon . . . so I feel—slightly—better.
Side note: In 1973, my maternal grandmother, from Valdosta, Georgia, traveled to Nebraska and accompanied us to Yellowstone for vacation. Since then, I have returned to the National Park twice, with the last time being this summer. Yellowstone, if you have not visited, is a world-class attraction. Visitors come from all over the globe, in fact this last time I heard more languages and dialects in two days there then I have experienced in any other single place—even while traveling Europe. Being around people—just like your own family—who have markedly different cultural expectations for personal space, social mannerisms, communication patterns, among others, makes for an interesting study of the effects of your own culture and your own personal assumptions. But, that’s another post, now back to things I don’t understand . . .
Managers are Tasked with Understanding People—Do they really get it?
There are also other things, more understandable, that I don’t really fully comprehend. For example . . . protecting yourself from a bear attack. Yellowstone literature, signage, and it’s staff were replete with information . . .
If you spot a bear, keep 100 yards away; If closer, back away, slowly. Don’t run! If the bear approaches, use your bear spray. If the bear charges, fight back. If the bear stocks you, play dead—but only if the bear is a grizzly never play dead with a black bear. (Oh, BTW not all grizzly’s a tawny colored and not all black bears are black!). If the bear continues to approach you, fight back. And this last one gave me pause . . . If the bear attacks you in your tent, fight back. What? No backing away slowly? Really fight back? What other option is there? Probably didn’t help my sarcastic attitude that we were sleeping in a tent and I didn’t like the implication.
In Nebraska, almost no one—except perhaps in the far northwest corner—thinks about or would ever own bear spray. We in this state also are woefully lax in thinking about hurricane preparedness, forest fire prevention, or building for earth quakes. Most of us colluding identify a “circle hook” or have ever seen the halibut it is designed to catch. Yet each and every one of these things is critical somewhere to someone.
in my opinion, as an “aside,” this one good reason to encourage travel—and a reason I promote it for my children—becoming aware of what you don’t know including the predispositions that your local culture has hard wired into your own way of thinking and behaving. Why do we stand 3-6 feet away from others? Talk in financial terms about the choice of having children? ”We can’t afford it right now.” Or expect ourselves and others to ask if we are working “hard enough” rather than working “too much?” Culture.
But People are Different!
But, “People are people!” right? Well, if we mean that their are basic commonalities among all humans . . . basic needs like eating, companionship, etc. Then, sure, People are people. But people are shaped by their experiences, the age in which they live, and a host of other things that make each one unique—just like each geyser or bear “encounter” is unique. In a way, every person is a culture of One. Things shared and not shared with others.
But what is “culture?” I would suggest that it is the product of real experiences at specific times and places in history that develop patterns of thought, behavior, and customs. Functional or dysfunctional on a larger world stage . . . it has come about due to something real.
We happened to stop by my brother-in-law/sister-in-law’s home in another part of Wyoming on our way back home. While there, they collected the memory cards from their “trail cams” on their property and we reviewed its content . . . it included pictures of a couple mountain lions, a black bear, and a moose among others. They have had a black bear on there deck and found muddy paw marks on their sliding glass door downstairs. They talked about monitoring lighting storms and finding, reporting, and helping extinguish a first fire. Living with these threats, having lived only in the midwest and south, is also something I don’t understand.
Case in point, I have never felt the need to either a) buy bear spray or b) own a hand gun. However, I know from residents of Wyoming that these are often common items carried on trips in the wilderness. I get it. A story i saw on our return from Yellowstone about a “good samaritan” that saved a family from a wolf attack in Canada by kicking the wolf drives the point home. Is “kicking” a viable defense? The next day, there was this story about a hunter getting attacked by a Mountain Lion not far from where we traveled. He drove off the mountain lion with a pocket knife but lamented that if he had brought his pistol he could have shot it in the air and perhaps avoided harming the lion. In both cases, these people were lucky. The wolf gave up and the mountain lion retreated.
(Speaking of broadening your view, listening, and understanding . . . I know some people will take offense at my mention of a gun—even though the hunter thought the gun could have prevented the attack and eventual destruction of the mountain lion. This, I think illustrates the point. Too often, we don’t want to listen. No, I don’t have a need for bear spray or a “pistol” in Nebraska—but I don’t face wolves or mountain lions! Listening doesn’t mean agreeing—perhaps there are other ways to avoid these encounters—but it does mean “wanting to understand” and not just pre-judge other’s views based on your own preconceptions. Something quite the opposite to our current political climate. Judging other’s actions based on your own presuppositions is easy. Understanding another’s experience and viewpoint—before passing judgement—requires work.)
Things They Don’t Know
On our last night in the park, we were down on the shore of Yellowstone Lake, and as we came back up to the road, a family with Mother, Father and two children—possibly middle eastern from their accent—met my son, “Did you see the coyote cross the road?” the Father asked. “No. I didn’t,” my son answered—probably wondering what the big deal was (we have coyotes in Nebraska). I followed. The Father inquired, again, of me, “Did you see the coyote"?” “No, I didn’t.” I replied. “Well, I didn’t have that” . . . he said, pointing to the bear spray on my belt . . . “so I picked up some rocks,” he stated, showing me the items in his hands. I suddenly realized that I had never thought of coyotes as a threat. Certainly not one needing the protection of bear spray or rocks!
Back home in Nebraska, we go out on late winter nights to listen to the lovely sounds of the coyotes and their new litters. We don’t take anything for “protection” and we don’t feel any risk. If you spot a coyote, they tend to “skitter away” . . . and their diminutive and normally ragged appearance is hardly threatening.
I didn’t try to explain all this to my new found “friend” at Yellowstone. In reply to his bravado—in picking up the rocks to face this unexpected threat—and bravely continuing on their path to the lake with his family, I simply said, “It’s probably a good idea.” I figured this to be true—for the family’s peace of mind even if not necessary for protection from the canid. But, perhaps his “coyote” was our “wolf?” So I did remind myself how the bear spray worked once again.
Leaders and Things they Don’t Know
The best Leaders have a good grasp on what they know, their own presuppositions due to their own experiences, and a desire to understand other’s experiences in an effort to lead the team or organization to it’s optimal performance. This is one reason that any effort on a leader’s part to better understand themselves is a good exercise! Because for the leader, their actions, their behavior and choices are the key tool of managing others.
Leaders need to remember that employee’s lie—mostly to themselves—and leaders also are at risk of believing lies about their own roles. Managing the “difficult people” is key to a manager’s success. Deciding if the employee has value or is not a right fit is a difficult, but necessary function for leaders.
The problem is . . . all these decisions are commingled with the leader’s own personality, experiences, and coping strategies. For example, one leader, who had very good insight, stated that their organization was struggling because they were trying to integrate a new team into an old one and the old team mates had all been picked for the same basic personality types—aggressive, rationale, fast decision makers—the new team had different strengths and the two groups were struggling to mesh. This leader understood that the strengths they are developed in the old group were now a barrier to integrating new team members. But many leaders could have fallen to the temptation to blame the new employees for failing to join this productive team. She didn’t, and the result was a better, more well-rounded, and even more productive team.
Often this journey to understanding can begin through an honest evaluation of who it is that the leader does not understand—those employees that most frustrate the leader. Or, another way of saying it is, “Who pushes your buttons?” This attempt at understanding is not a pass for weakness, managing by fear, or to enable the continuing of any unproductive behavior; instead, it is to help the leader determine what motivates this particular employee, analyze their relative strengths and weaknesses, determine if they can support continued growth in that employee . . . and if that employee can be a productive part of the organizational culture.
As a leader, here are some things I struggle to understand or traits that “push my buttons:” Employees or people who . . .
are not self-motivated
fearful avoidance that results in self-fulfilling failures
any behavior that seems disrespectful of others
acting in a dominant way and interpersonal tasks as a win-loss
lying and “selling” their integrity to rather than admitting a weakness or failure
What are your “hot buttons? How do these “issues” invite you to prejudge team members that may be different? Have you taken the time to understand their viewpoint before making a judgement about their motivation, commitment, or value to the team? Can you set aside your fear, temporarily, in order to listen and inform your decisions so as to minimize impulsive actions and steer a steady and predictable course to success.
No, this doesn’t mean to be slow to act, procrastinate on dealing with issues, or any extremes (that are just as destructive to a team), it simply means taking a moment to check your own assumptions, engage with the employee, listen well, re-check your assumptions, and then, act.