The Two Questions

“Crisis Doesn’t Develop Character, it Reveals It”

There are many discussions of the desirable attributes of outstanding employees that are readily available through leadership literature, and I have also posted my thoughts beginning here.

One of these attributes is Attitude, and although a number of people counsel that trying to pay too much attention to changing another’s attitude is inefficient and ineffective (both because a person’s attitude is deeply rooted and it is theirs to choose), I would counsel that paying attention to what an employee’s attitude is, is very important.

This comes from Fundamental Principle 14:

Attitudes become Behaviors by Choice.

While we perhaps should not spend inordinate time trying to change an employee’s attitude(s), we certainly can provide positive feedback when their performance (which tracks with their Practiced Behaviors, which arise from their Attitudes and Values), adds value in supporting the organization’s mission, objectives, and values. We can also inform them if this alignment is not observed, and gently move them out of the organization (say, to a competitor) if they are unwilling to change or adapt themselves. It might be nice if we could better discern imbedded attitudes, values and potential behavior during the hiring process, but that has proved problematic.

We are thus left with ongoing observation. By observing Practiced Behaviors, as opposed to just Professed Behaviors, we can get insight into true underlying Attitudes and Values.

Under most circumstances, such as planned or anticipated tasks, most of us have no difficulty in having our Practiced Behaviors align with our Professed Behaviors – the intent will be there although occasionally we all have been known to not follow through on promises or commitments in the timeliest manner.

It is under unusual and unexpected circumstances (for example, adversity in the form of sudden threats, challenges, or crises) where discrepancies between Professed and Practiced Behaviors are likely to be observed.

It is here where we will find the missing and/or underappreciated attribute I alluded to in the previous post. It is hidden in the Fundamental Principle above, but it is neither Attitude nor Behaviors. It is buried in “become,” how the Choice is made. To reveal this, we have to look at

The Two Questions

We all have built-in survival instincts, or at least we should. Many times these can lead to confused thinking, unexpected behavior, and possibly panic reactions. Consider ocean Life Guard training, which I once endured many years ago. When one approaches a swimmer in trouble in deep water, you approach them from their back. This is not because it is more “Politically Correct” or the most efficient way to get them air, but because when you approach them from the front, in their panic for air they see you not as a Life Guard, but as a solid inanimate floating object upon which to hoist themselves up. When they go up, you go under, and we have two drowning people.

Panic for survival results in knee-jerk responses.

When we are confronted with adversity, an unexpected and possibly threatening situation, our inherited, gut, evolutionary reaction is defensive, for survival.

More support for this comes from a recent study on the effects of stress and anxiety. Apparently, Americans, or some of us, are the most anxious people in the world (World Health Organization, cited in the study), and this can lead to making more unethical decisions in the workplace. To quote one of the authors of the study, “If there’s a threat in the environment, you’re more likely to feel that your position is insecure, and this causes you to want to guard your resources, to defend yourself, and try to accumulate more resources, even if that’s possible by being unethical.” This apparently contributes to why we steal paper clips from the office, among other things.

In stressful situations, we immediately ask ourselves the First Question,

“Who Did This To Me?”

It’s instinctive. Everyone asks it. It is an internal question, how we think, that is the first response to the unexpected threat, challenge, or crisis.

What happens next is crucial, because I think it is connected to the Missing/Underappreciated Attribute: How will we respond or react? What will we do?

Quite often our built-in response is the defensive reaction of Fix the Blame. This can take the form of a physical response, as above, or more often, a verbal one. It can lead to useless conspiracy theories. This is retrenching, digging in, amassing resources and energy to survive the unexpected threat. It is ingrained in all of us.

We can see it in toddlers playing together and arguing over who had the toy, in family disputes, in marital arguments, and in clan, tribal, cultural and national wars. History shows us that nations and governments are rarely prepared to deal with catastrophes or crises, and typically take the path described above (e.g. North Korea, Russia and the Crimea). This behavior has been around a long time.

However, over the long, slow course of civilization’s development, upon occasion, someone comes up with a different way of looking at a situation. It’s forward looking rather than defensive. And since it doesn’t quite fit with the way everyone else looks at things, it gets stifled.* The culture tries to apply Coercion to their Cultural Mean so it will go away. But it might endure and eventually, if valued by a sufficient part of the culture, it can become acceptable, then possibly admirable and esteemed, and then encouraged. It might someday actually become a Cultural Mean itself. It then becomes culturally developed and reinforced.

This way of thinking looks at adversity differently, and leads to The Other Question,

“What Can We Make of this Opportunity?”

This thinking drives a completely different response to the unexpected threat, challenge, or crisis. It is more Fix the Problem. Or perhaps better expressed as

How Does One Respond to Adversity?

The Missing/Underappreciated Attribute then is the “glue,” an “Attitude Field” much like a magnetic attraction, that pulls Professed Behavior and Practiced Behavior together to be identical, even in adversity. One can’t “see” the attribute, but one can see its results in action.

Some might refer to this Attribute as Character, but Character is more the broader category that has many separate aspects (see posts beginning here). A much closer Attribute would be Integrity (see posts beginning here), but there’s an issue here with our understanding of the word. We typically consider a person as having integrity when they adhere to our (common) values, presuming these also to be their values. I would suggest that in its simplest form integrity is when a person can be counted upon to adhere to their values (which might not all be in common with ours – see Sleeper Values). In this case, while we and the rest of the world hold Russia and Vladimir Putin in low esteem for their actions, they are actually acting with high integrity because they are behaving exactly according to their professed values. And while we might hold ourselves up with high integrity as Americans, the rest of the world does not due to the inconsistent behaviors they experience from our leadership (are we out of Gitmo yet? what was promised during the Iran nuclear negotiations? And Congress?).  (See relevant post here).

The Missing/Underappreciated Attribute, this Response to Adversity, then is the unity of properly aligned Values with the Integrity to act on them, to make Professed Behaviors and Practiced Behaviors indistinguishable.

It is often remarked that in the Chinese language the character for “Crisis” is actually the composite of two separate characters (true): the character for “Danger” (true) together with the character for “Opportunity” (not quite. The second character is separately paired with another for the word “Opportunity,” so there is a weak connection. But apparently it is good enough for English-speaking leaders to have used this motivational bon mot for decades). In any case, this dual way of thinking is indeed embedded into the Chinese language, and thus into their culture, and contributes to their success whenever they emigrate to other cultures.

This Response to Adversity is what I was observing when stranded a few weeks ago in the Las Vegas airport: how did airline personnel respond when unexpected events disrupted their normal operations (and caused a crisis for travelers who had three plane flights cancelled out from under them).

Some passengers responded from the first question: Who Did This to Me? followed by What Are You Going to Do About It? Others responded from the second question: What Can We (all) Make of this Opportunity?

Airline personnel uniformly responded with What Can We Make of this Opportunity? It is their Culture.

For most people, this isn’t an inborn response. It must be culturally and intentionally trained in, becoming a new Cultural Mean, an attribute of Organizational Character.

After all, Crisis Doesn’t Develop Character, it Reveals It.

Next: The $100 Question

*Note: In other words, they kill him or her, and then years later remark, “Hey, that wasn’t such a bad idea.”

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About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, 09: Doing, 10: Integrity, 12: Character, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Two Questions

  1. “What Can We Make of this Opportunity?” This blog reminds me of something about myself that I observed during my brief opportunity as an administrator in Christian higher education. My default mode in the midst of difficulty caused me to “make the most of things” — playing with the cards dealt to me. Looking back, I wish that I could have taken a more aggressive posture and fought back with greater intensity. It seems to me that good administrators avoid this kind of passive management and, instead, negotiate with passion (and wisdom). Obviously, the situation at hand should dictate the level of one’s reaction.

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