Calling All Depolarizers! Part 2: Confident Humility

 

…”So what keeps our inner depolarizer in the closet when it comes to sensitive topics like abortion, immigration, religion, and politics in general? Or in family conflict and workplace politics? I posit that it has, at least partially, to do with two levels of psychological safety: intrinsic and extrinsic.” Let’s talk about the first, which can be thought of as confident humility:

Premise:  I resist/reject/assail challenges to my beliefs and positions because I worry that those challenges will change my beliefs and positions.  If my beliefs are changed, then what does that mean?  Am I weak?  A hypocrite?  Uncommitted?  What will others think of me?  Will I get kicked out of my tribe? Or, maybe I just think I’m right, and I’m simply not open to the possible value of any other perspective? Or I’m afraid that if I’m not right, then I’m just wrong, and that feels too uncomfortable and I don’t want to go there. 

Question:  When does it feel safe to reconsider or challenge some belief I have?   

Answer:  When I don’t have a strong personal investment in my belief—it isn’t material to my identity, tribal membership, or survival, real or perceived.  In his book Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein summarizes eloquently the psychological research suggesting that when we perceive threats to our identity (eg gender, sexuality, sports fandom, family, nationality, political party, or other), our response is primarily emotional.  The existential discomfort (experienced as real limbic threat) causes us to reject the challenge, be it information, policies, or other people, employing confirmation bias, rationalization, and other mental self-preservation tactics. 

So, does this mean that we must dilute or divest our personal identities in order to depolarize? Certainly not. I think it does, however, require some honest reflection on how we define and relate to our various identities. Why do we get emotionally agitated about certain topics and not others? Why do debates about abortion cause some people such agitation, and some people not? Why gun control? Immigration? Transgender and sexuality issues? What is it about any particular topic, and how I identify with it, that triggers me? How does it define my in- and out-groups? And how does this constellation of thought, emotion, and behavior affect my personal well-being, relationships, social standing and security? As a result, how to I contribute to divisions or affiliations in my own social circles, and society at large through my words and actions? How much do I care about that last part?

Intrinsic psychological safety means feeling solidly grounded in my core values and the practices that manifest them—it’s a sense of quiet, confident, unassailability.  To me it means cultivating a growth mindset, confident that I am at the same time rooted down and branching out- embracing and navigating the paradox of personal conviction and intellectual humility and flexibility.  Challenging my beliefs then becomes a personal practice of learning, integrating, and cultivating complexity and depth to my opinions, beliefs, and perspectives.  I stir and knead, exercise and expand my mental elasticity and range.  Rather than diluting my positions, all of this training can actually strengthen my understanding, expression, and agility in defense of them.  It gives me the confidence to seek and welcome challenges, knowing that I have enough internal clarity to maintain my core values and also integrate important nuances that may edify them. It is a product of disciplined self-development.

In confident humility mindset, I understand that my position is not, in fact, the only ‘right’ one; it is simply one of many. “Everybody’s right, and only partially,” was one of my first life coaching lessons back in 2005, and has served me well. This mindset allows us to think of ourselves and our opinions as ‘also right.’ It frees us from the burden of having to prove ourselves or exert power over others to convert them. It opens space and time to find middle paths for creativity, collaboration, and connection.

Wonderful!  Now we know how to depolarize ourselves—how to gracefully (even joyfully) integrate personal conviction and intellectual flexibility, perhaps even to move towards advocacy without alienation.  So what holds us back from practicing these skills outwardly, vocally, especially within our own tribes?  Tune in to Part 3 on Extrinsic Psychological Safety, to consider consequences and rewards of standing up and speaking out. 

Fear, Ego, and Control

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

In this post I will attempt to describe some exciting connections between readings from the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Anthony Suchman and colleagues, and Carol Dweck.

An HBR article landed in my inbox this week, catching my inner Imposter’s attention.  The title, “Ego is the Enemy of Good Leadership,” triggered my ‘Is that me?’ reflex.  Because much of the time, I think I’m a pretty good leader (“I’m awesome”).  But I’m forever fearful that my ego will get the best of me and make me exactly the kind of leader I loathe (“I suck”).  I saved the article to read later.

Meanwhile, I continued to Chapter 3 of Leading Change in Healthcare: Authentic, Affirmative, and Courageous Presence.  Basically this chapter deals with earning and building trust.  Chapter subsections include self-awareness, reflection, emotional self-management, clarifying one’s core beliefs, and accepting oneself and others.  In the part on core beliefs, the authors reference Dr. Suchman’s 2006 paper, “Control and relation: two foundational values and their consequences.”  In it, he differentiates between these two ‘foundational world views’:

Control

The beliefs, thoughts and behaviors of the control paradigm are organized around a single core value: that the ultimate state to which one can aspire is one of perfect willfulness and predictability. What one desires happens, with no surprises; all outcomes are intended. For the clinician, the control paradigm is expressed in the questions, ‘‘What do I want to happen here?’’ and ‘‘What’s wrong and how do I fix it?’’  Personal success or failure is judged by the clinical outcome, the extent to which one’s intended outcome was realized.

Relation

In the relation paradigm, the most valued state to which one aspires is one of connection and belonging. In this state, one has a feeling of being part of a larger whole – a team, a learning group, a dance troupe, a community, even the world itself. One’s individual actions seem spontaneously integrated with those of others to a remarkable degree, contributing to the evolution of a higher order process, i.e. one at a higher system level than that of the individuals of which it is comprised…  One asks the question, ‘‘What’s trying to happen here?’’ and, according to one’s best approximation of an answer, seeks to shape others and the world while also remaining open to being shaped oneself. This balance between control and receptivity puts one in the best possible position to recognize and make use of serendipitous events.

In Leading Change the authors write about control, “…This is a fear-based paradigm in which one trusts oneself more than others and holds tightly to power…  It predisposes leaders toward dominance, distracts them from cultivating relationships and leads them to set unrealistic expectations of control.”  And about relation, “This is a trust-based paradigm, anchored in the belief that the sources of order, goodness and meaning lie beyond one’s own creation…  It predisposes leaders to do their best in partnership with others, to attend to the process of relating and to personal experience (their own and others’) and to remain open to possibility.”

When I finally read the HBR article, the message about ego reflected the control paradigm:

Because our ego craves positive attention… when we’re a victim of our own need to be seen as great, we end up being led into making decisions that may be detrimental to ourselves, our people, and our organization.

When we believe we’re the sole architects of our success, we tend to be ruder, more selfish, and more likely to interrupt others. This is especially true in the face of setbacks and criticism. In this way, an inflated ego prevents us from learning from our mistakes and creates a defensive wall that makes it difficult to appreciate the rich lessons we glean from failure.

The ego always looks for information that confirms what it wants to believe [confirmation bias].  Because of this, we lose perspective and end up in a leadership bubble where we only see and hear what we want to. As a result, we lose touch with the people we lead, the culture we are a part of, and ultimately our clients and stakeholders.

Going to bed last night, I wondered, “Is Fear actually driving when we see Ego in charge?”  I think the answer is undoubtedly yes, but it’s more complex than that.  It’s not a fear that we feel consciously, or that we are even aware of.  It’s not sweaty palm, palpitative, panic attack fear.  Rather it’s a deep, visceral, existential fear—of being found out, of not being enough—akin to imposter syndrome, if not exactly that.  Control, Fear, Ego—they all seem lump-able with/in the Fixed mindset, as described by Carol Dweck.  The simplest example of this mindset is when we tell kids how smart they are, they then develop a need to appear smart, lest they lose their identifying label.  So they stop taking risks, trying new things, risking failure.  Their experiences narrow as they, often inadvertently, learn that control of outcome and outward appearance of competence is the primary objective of any endeavor.

Back in August I listened to Dweck’s book, having heard about it and already embraced its theory in the last few years.  I had already started making the connection between fear and fixed mindset, but this day I saw a sudden, reciprocal relationship between fixed mindset, confirmation bias, and imposter syndrome.  I love when these lightning bolt moments happen—I was in my car on the way to work, and this triad came to me.  As soon as I parked and turned off the engine I tore into my bag for the journal I carry with me everywhere and scrawled the diagram as fast as I could, as if the idea would evaporate if I didn’t get it down in ink.  Later I added the comparison to Growth mindset—holding space for learning, integration, and possibility.  I held it in mind for a while, and then forgot it (which is okay—that’s why I wrote it down!).  Then today, putting together this post in my head, I remembered it with excitement.

8-31 triad update

The point of it all is that we are at our best, both individually and as groups, when we are in right relationship with ourselves and one another.  It all starts with relationship with self.  If I live in fear of being found out as flawed or imperfect, then I project that fear onto others.  I act out in an effort to control how others perceive me—when in reality I have no control over that whatsoever.  The negative perception of my ‘Ego’ by others then provokes myriad responses including fear, insecurity, false deference, resentment, disloyalty, and subversion, and the team falls into disarray.  If, on the other hand, I cultivate self-love and connection with others, I never feel that I am going it alone.  I am an integral member of a high-functioning, mutually respectful team, one in which I can admit my weaknesses and maximize my strengths.  We all feel confident that we can handle whatever adversity comes our way, and we rise to each and every occasion–together.

I’m still putting it all together, working out how it translates into daily behaviors, actions, and decisions.  For now I’m definitely paying closer attention to my feelings, especially in conflict, and taking a lot more deep breaths before speaking or replying to triggering emails.  I ask a lot more clarifying questions.  I try to make the most generous assumptions about people’s intentions, and remember always that we are on the same team—Team Humanity.

More learning happening around the clock, I say!  Hoping to articulate better in the sharing hereafter…

What do you think about all of this, does it make any sense at all??

On Expanding Our Potential

10-growth-mindset-thought-conversionsNaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Patients, Day 20

To Patients Whose Identity is Fixed:

Why not adopt a Growth Mindset?

Have you already read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset?  I first learned about the premise of a growth mindset several years ago, in the context of parenting.  Basically we should praise kids’ efforts more than their attributes: “Way to keep at it!” instead of “Wow, you’re so smart!”  When I think of myself primarily as ‘smart,’ I am less likely to try new things or take risks, for fear of appearing ‘not smart’ and ruining my reputation, or worse, my self-image.  That is what Dweck calls a ‘fixed mindset.’  A growth mindset, in contrast, allows room for experimentation and, well, growth.  I could still think of myself as ‘smart,’ but it means something different—rather than all-knowing, I am smart because I am an avid and effective learner.

Now I see it in broader terms, and it applies to people of all ages, in all phases of life.

From now into January, I have committed to moderate a weekly board review webinar on infectious disease (‘ID’).  I review questions, prepare a slide deck with explanations of correct and incorrect answers, and go online Tuesday nights with a partner to teach fellow practicing internists.  I really enjoy the webinars, but the topics sometimes not so much.  My fixed mindset at the outset this time: “I hate ID.”  Last week’s slide prep session may have been the longest two hours in recent memory.  I answered 6 of 8 questions wrong.  “I hate ID!”

Then I thought of Dweck’s premise.  I started to think of my patients who see themselves decisively as non-exercisers.  Or who hate vegetables.  Or who say they are ‘all or nothing’ folks who simply cannot moderate their eating, alcohol intake, or anything else.  They say, “That’s just who/how I am/it is; nothing I can do.”  Until now I have accepted these self-assessments without question or challenge.

fixed-growth-mindset-2

And now I wonder:  If I allow for a different assessment of my relationship with infectious disease, how much better could I learn the material?  If I open my mind to the possibility that I could actually remember all those (damned) drug names and mechanisms, the myriad tick-born diseases and their cardinal symptoms, and all the rest, could I actually have fun?  And then, how much better could I teach it?

If we all saw in ourselves just a little more possibility, or redefined our attributes to allow for unrestricted growth and evolution, what more could we achieve?  How liberated could we feel to explore diverse aspects of our personalities?  What novel ideas could we exchange with others, to create and innovate around interpersonal, communal, and political life?

From now on I will recite a new mantra for the ID webinars:  “There’s a lot to learn here.  I can get better at this.  Bring it.”  Yup, feels good.  Hmmm, I wonder where else I could grow my mindset?