I could start with some sub-Confucian nonsense about how we’re all living in a time of change. I could, but I would be typing with a vision of my wonderfully straight-talking maternal grandmother about to clip me round the ear for writing cobblers while reminding me in no uncertain terms that everybody always has. Dot was a woman for whom bushes were to be grown or pruned, not beaten around. She was also a woman who didn’t shy from a challenge: her opinions – and actions – on pensioners’ rights and the bra-burning end of feminism have already received an honorary mention here.
And she had a penchant for action: while the polite option in offering resistance to Oswald Moseley might have been to write to The Telegraph, her preference was to be one of those repurposing the contents of a chamberpot in The Battle of Cable Street. Sometimes actions really do speak louder than words, and a chamberpot delivers more than a quiet word in someone’s ear. For Dot, a bête noire was a creature that had not yet received enough of a talking to or a sufficiently effective handbagging, and one of her favourite targets was ‘conventional wisdom’.
Were she still with us, I get the feeling she’d have liked the following definition of the subject, originally posted at Mark’s Daily Apple:
In most cases, CW is a lumbering beast: slow to move, but difficult to alter course once its big bullish head is set on moving in a certain direction. It’s the pigheaded, stubborn curmudgeon yelling at those darn kids to get off his lawn. It’s loud, pervasive, and impossible to ignore – and avoid. Oftentimes, entire careers are staked on maintaining its veracity. When that veracity is challenged, either by critics or by experiment, the challenger is often silenced.”
As one of the things that this blog explores is the nature and impact of our relationships, both with each other and with more abstract entities (‘the organisation’, ‘the strategy’ and so on), I was surprised when I searched for one particular word, and found only five references. The word was empathy – the ability to understand the world from someone else’s point of view. (And empathy is about understanding, not pity or admiration: empathy is about comprehension, not comparison.)
Being inquisitive, I googled the usual quotation sources, and came up similarly short-handed. (If you have a great quote about empathy, please share them with us.) As the web isn’t the only source of wisdom, I tried a few books – and found that the Oxford Dictionary of 20th Century Quotations doesn’t list it in the index at all. Reminding myself that understanding is something that sometimes needs to unearthed, I kept digging. And was subsequently relieved – if only as a human being – to find that some of the most respected minds (and mouths) in business and management theory had actually something to say on the subject:
- The number one practical competency for success in life and work is empathy
- When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air. And after that vital need is met, you can then focus on influencing or problem solving. This need for psychological air impacts communication in every area of life
(Steven Covey) Continue reading
When your grandmother – or any other adult demonstrating their infinitely superior wisdom for a moment – told you with an air of conspiring, “Doesn’t ask doesn’t get”, they had a good point. Apart from making a positive change from “Mustn’t grumble”, four well-chosen words communicated more than many a longer screed. Or, more accurately, a nebulous, windy cloud of a question.
There’s a fascinating post at Mark Gould’s Enlightened Tradition blog, Asking better questions, getting better insight, that ponders knowledge as something subject to push and pull. We’ve got quite good at push, albeit in an unfocused sort of way. If we live in an attention economy, it’s least partly because the need to pay attention and to pick your way through tidal waves of ‘information’ is becoming a modern survival technique. And export knowledge abounds, fizzing between the ears of the knowledge workers around us and the whirring on the hard-drives and the cloud stores of our latest gizmos.
But somehow this abundance of know-how manages to co-exist with equally cloudy stores of ignorance. As Mark Gould puts it:
Frequently, however, I see people asking quite open-ended questions in the hope that something useful will pop up. I suspect that what actually happens is that those with the knowledge to assist don’t answer precisely because the question is too vague.” Continue reading
For an intelligent species, we’re not always terribly bright at reflecting accurately on what is shaping our lives. Considering its popularity as a childhood game, you’d think we’d be better at playing Consequences by now, wouldn’t you? Dan Pink highlighted a quote from George Orwell yesterday which put it neatly:
People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome.”
I’d thought something similar watching the BBC’s wonderful The Secret Life of the National Grid, as vintage footage showed a black and white version of a golden couple, clad in the designer swimwear of the day and strolling hand in hand along a beach. They were representing a vintage version of the future, where electricity had automated and sped up so much of the world around us that the age of leisure had arrived and their most pressing problem was how to spend all those sun-kissed hours. Victims of their own tendency to project the future based on the recent past – the ‘current trends indicate’ school of thinking’ – the biggest threats they would face would actually turn out to be a) dismissal for poor workplace attendance, b) hypothermia, and c) ridicule from the fashion police.
Our dreams and longings often have a nasty tendency to produce unintended consequences; on closer inspection – and sharpened by the crystal-clear focus of hindsight – wishful thinking can turn out to have placed far too much emphasis on the wishing and far too little on the thinking. The tendency to crave our own Utopia is understandable – I’d imagine one reason for the widespread popularity of alcohol is the widespread intermittent dislike of reality.
Dave Ulrich is, without question, an HR guru: as with any guru, it’s difficult to know whether to approach them on bended knee or with a degree of trepidation. Having read “The Why of Work”, the best approach is with an open mind, a small pinch of salt – and with sufficient time to take on board what Ulrich (writing with his wife, Wendy, a psychologist) has to say. There is much of immense value here, and much that has the potential to enable leaders and organisations to generate immense value in more than one sense for themselves (and, importantly, both their customers and their shareholders). Like many of the best books in the ‘how to manage business better’ arena, my biggest qualm is that those who stand to gain most from reading it are those least likely to read it.
In challenging times, retreat is a natural human response. Rightly or not (and sadly usually not), we tend to perceive some earlier time when things where ‘right’ and – at some level, conscious or otherwise – look for ways of returning to this blissful state. As Carole King sang, in a song whose lyric merits a less casual interpretation:
I think I’m going back/to the things I learned so well in my youth;
I think I’m returning to/the days when I was young enough to know the truth”.