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.

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I try not to quote Dilbert too often, but…

24 09 2010

Dilbert.com





Social Coping Mechanisms and the Reluctant Manager

13 09 2010

Most of us have had the experience of presenting a brilliant opportunity to a highly-regarded performer (whether manager or technical specialist), only to have them – inexplicably – turn the opportunity down. Often they don’t even pretend to give it consideration. We are left feeling half-witted and possibly inclined to reevaluate their intelligence in the same direction. What is going on?

There are a number of possible drivers for this kind of behaviour, but just to mention one: social coping mechanisms.

Beneath all the professional skill and interpersonal confidence or warmth, other things are going on in all of us. Some people – typically the generally optimistic, glass-half-full kind of people – have plentiful inner resources for coping with difficult situations, novelty and so on. As a result, they tend to be positive about flux in their social networks (not talking specifically about Web2.0 and Facebook here – I mean the people with whom they interact personally on a day to day basis). New people come, old people go – that’s fine. By extension, you can offer them an exciting new opportunity on a different floor, or a different country, and that is fine for them; they will leave one set of relationships behind and form new ones. And all the while they will cope with the stressful aspects of life by means of their inner reserves.

There are other people – the glass is 125ml of unfiltered tap-water type realists who, while not quite as gong ho as the first group, get through life by recognising some of it is tough and they just need to deal with it. They may not embrace change in social setting quite so readily but if a move is the right thing to do, off they go.

Which brings us to the third group, which may include that person who turned you down on the plum assignment without even the courtesy of reflection. Somewhat more inclined to see the half-emptiness of the glass, these are people for whom their immediate social context, including friends, close colleagues and other regular relationships, is the key element in their ability (and unconscious strategy) to cope with stress and the vicissitudes of life. Does this make them less good people or poorer performers? No, not at all; and in the example I suggested at the start of this blog, the whole point is that they are often top performers, ripe for a promotion or other strategic move. So what then?

Simply this: don’t expect that everyone will see a “great opportunity” the way you do. If you recognise that this factor – “if I move I lose my social network and then what happens to me” – may be in play (and it can be measured very accurately if you prefer science to guesswork), then you will have to think creatively if you want to see this person move up or across the organisation. Is there some way they can take their current team (or key peers) with them? Can they do the new role based out of the same location as at present, or even the same office? Endless possibilities.

But don’t compound an error by writing that star performer off.