The “Either / Or Paradox”
I have been watching the last few weeks / months with great interest. Election season is everywhere it seems. Where I live, we have just finished a provincial election, a municipal election is coming next week, there has been threats of a federal election and of course, there is the US election next week. I am not sure how Fox News and CNN intend to appear on the US ballot but they are surely trying 🤷♂️.
All those elections have rightfully dominated news, social media feeds, water cooler chats and of course, discussions with my colleagues, friends and even my kids. I am fascinated by politics. Not the stuff that makes all of us shake our heads, but rather the process to make change and bring policies forward that address the challenges we have today in our city, our province, our country and our world. I get to chat regularly with those elected to various political offices and I have asked several of them if they have a “take a friend to work day” and if so, I’d sign up right away. I’d love to see the inner workings of the process to create ideas, debate their merits and then turn the best of them into regulation, policy and laws. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I love to debate and at times, get very carried away with passionately exploring ideas. To be clear, that is the only interest I have in politics. The other parts of politics, I could do without, but I digress.
Watching the exchange of ideas lately has me wondering how we became such an “either / or” collection of humans, incapable of listening and exploring the ideas of others. When did it become such an (a) or (b) discussion? Did I miss a memo?!? I started to think about places where the “either or” discussion has allowed us to be less accountable to each other to work together, to learn and to solve real issues or exploit real opportunities. Here’s a few on my mind:
Climate Change -Clearly, the changing nature of our planet is something we all need to address. I had a chat with a young finance executive on Friday. We had good discussion about both the opportunity for financial institutions to participate more fully in the change but also the practical economic challenges for all of us to produce less emissions. It was an interesting discussion in which I felt like my own thinking evolved a bit while at the same time, I felt like I was able to share some views in different ways which he hadn’t considered. Watching this debate around the world, it has been reduced to a discussion about whether the world would survive the with only fossil fuels or how we should completely shut down any source of energy that produces emissions.
Gender Equity – I have written previously about my personal biases towards creating more gender balance in finance and business. I shared how my personal biases have created some interesting discussions with both men and women as I have lived these choices. I have also heard comments like “burn the patriarchy” communicated by some to highlight how frustrated and angry they are about the issue. I don’t pretend for a minute to argue validity of the frustration and emotion, but I do wonder how that emotion will get translated into a better tomorrow. I spoke in the blog above about a conversation with a male colleague and my regret at the missed opportunity to enrol him as an advocate for change. I believe the eventual outcome does lie in enrolling more advocates (both women and men) into this discussion and finding a better path forward.
Racism / Black Lives Matter – I watch the media reports and see demonstrations on both sides of this issue. The demonstrations can be violent and hurtful. I am reminded of Charlottesville and feel like I am watching the ugliest part of humanity. Conversely, when I attended the large BLM rally in my community earlier this year, I was moved by the optimism and by how much the conversation had changed to a “we” discussion from an “us/them” discussion. An “and” discussion versus an “either or”. I was more optimistic leaving that event than I ever had been as it relates to BLM and BIPOC.
Why have the debates / discussions become so unproductive and how do we create a better forum for engaged discussions, learning and solutions? What has been the catalyst for taking such complex discussions and reducing them to “either or” statements meant to incite emotion? Is it just the stress of 2020? Is the now 280 characters that social media forces us to make our arguments within? Is it that our frenetic, busy lives have caused us to “fire our statement out there” and then just as quickly move on and not listen or engage with anyone else in a really curious way? The challenge with this kind of emotionally charged “zinger” is that it creates less accountability in others to listen, like really listen, to your thoughts. They are easily able to dismiss them or argue back with a similar level of emotion. We just yell at each other. In essence, aren’t we letting them off the hock for having to really think about your view, to consider it against their own perspective and then to thoughtfully engage with you. Aren’t we just lowering the level of accountability to critically think about your view and give it the thought it deserves? Maybe you aren’t looking to debate your thoughts but then at the same time, don’t expect anyone else to do anything with it other than dismiss it completely as being different than their own.
HBR published an article a few years ago that highlighted the challenge for business leaders in managing paradoxes. Here were a few of the questions:
- Are we managing for today or tomorrow?
- Do we adhere to boundaries or cross them?
- Do we focus on creating value for our shareholders and investors or for a broader set of stakeholders
Isn’t the answer to all of these clearly “both”?
The article goes on to talk about how leaders must create a dynamic equilibrium in their minds to hold multiple ideas in their head while exploring each of them. A recent book I read, Loonshots, talks about loving the artists (the innovators) and the soldiers (the current do’ers) in the company equally. The book goes on to ensure that leaders are focused on watching for the P-type loonshots (there’s no way that could ever work – and then it does) and the S-type loonshots (there’s no way that could ever make money – and then it does) even though they are probably predisposed to one kind or the other.
Could you frame those social challenges above as absolute paradoxes in the same way?
- Are we reducing emissions or supporting current jobs?
- Are we advocating for female leaders or male leaders?
- Are we exploring our own privilege or reducing the systemic biases apparent for others?
Clearly the answer to these questions is again…..both, and….
The next time I am engaged in a discussion with a colleague about complex problems like this, I am going to try very hard to listen well, to hold space for their idea while I consider their views and compare it to my own before responding. As a leader, I get it…..it’s hard. Like really hard. I know that better than most and have failed miserably in trying to do this well all of the time. I would rate myself as a 6 out of 10 on doing this consistently well. My coach would tell me that the goal is to try and be a 6.5 next week and go from there. All of the circumstances (lack of time, high stress, social media, etc.) are true and hard to ignore but at the same time, the solutions of the future, will demand a much more curious exploration of ideas and new solutions that we haven’t found yet today.
For the business leaders reading this blog, good luck in raising the bar, if only a little, in managing the paradox and equilibrium that next week will bring.
For those elected and re-elected to office this election season, share your ideas broadly, listen closely and fully consider the ideas of others. Do what you can to thoughtfully explore the ideas different from your own that might help move us forward and solve complex problems. We are behind you following your lead.