Language, concealment and #Birkman

29 11 2010

Been taking a slow but very thought-provoking wander through Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary (London, 2009), a book largely about the profound differences between the left and right sides of our brains – and what those differences mean for everything from the structure of ourselves to the structure of society. Here is just one snippet:

…language … is the perfect medium for concealing, rather than revealing, meaning.         (2009:106)

This comes in a section arguing that language is not a pre-requisite either of communication (think of all the non-verbal ways both we and animals communicate) nor (perhaps more surprising) of complex thought. (We may choose to think in words about the process of thought, but actual thought is often pictorial, visceral, etc.)

So language lends itself to concealing meaning as much as to revealing it. Why would we want to conceal meaning?

“To deceive, in order to gain unfair advantage”, is one obvious answer. There are others, which help explain why language does get used in precisely this way so much of the time, without any necessarily nefarious intent.

“I am very conscious of your self-esteem and your feelings, so even though there is a pretty black and white issue in which you are at fault, I need to find a way of breaking this to you in a way that preserves your dignity.”

“My expectation of myself is that I should be a team-player, so that even though the demand you have just made of me is totally unreasonable and is definitely not meeting my need for being valued, I will say ‘sure, no problem’ even though, in my heart of hearts, I mean quite the opposite.”

“Although I believe it is very important to take account of how people are feeling, I have a strong need to come up with objective solutions to emotional problems; so although I am saying ‘there, there’ and ‘you poor thing’ I am actually going to really flip out in a moment if we can’t move on from how you feel to what practical steps we can take.”

And those are just three of my own quirks, all described in terms a Birkman user may well recognise (high Esteem Need, low /high Advantage and high/high reversed Empathy). None of those are attempts to deceive for unreasonable advantage; but they are precisely the uses of language to conceal that all of us are surrounded by – and contribute to – every day.





Cherished Core Value? Or Flimsy Excuse?

9 09 2010

I was going to write something about putting sacred cows on the barbeque, but realised this was inappropriate not just because of its potential to offend those for whom “sacred cow” isn’t just a handy metaphor, but also speaking as someone who has lost 23kg in the past 15 months by following a plant-based (and entirely cow-free) diet. (Read The China Study by Colin Campbell and visit John McDougall’s site to find out more).

So I am stuck for a punchy metaphor but here is the thing: I keep running into cherished core values in organisations which have in fact become their excuse for poor performance, failure to change, bizarre structures, failure to confront, etc etc etc.

So – how do you work out when (sorry – can’t help myself) that hitherto cherished core value should actually be tossed on the barbeque?

It is not that hard if you go back to basics. “What is our mission and who do we serve?” When that is clear, simply look at the “core value” in question in the cold light of day and ask yourselves, “how does [core value] help us AS AN ORGANISATION to deliver on our mission to the people we serve?” Arrive at anything less than “this positively and practically helps us to deliver on the mission to the people we serve, far outweighing any downside” (with concrete examples of both the pluses and minuses) and you should be pouring lighter fluid on the charcoal briquettes.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not talking about “our people matter” or similar here. If you have that as a core value – and you act consistently upon it – that will help to deliver any mission you care to name. How you act on that core value does of course matter;  “our people matter so we never confront them or never make any changes to the location of their cheese” is doubletalk that will ultimately doom your people and your organisation!