I wrote about how cooperation can be difficult. I posted a wonderful TED talk by Margaret Heffernan where she discusses how our unwillingness to disagree with others can lead to lost potential, particularly in organizations where creativity is necessary for both stability and growth. I’m still thinking about her talk because she raised a lot of other issues that deserve attention.
After she described the extraordinary relationship between Dr. Alice Stewart, the medical researcher, and George Kneale, the statistician Stewart worked with, Heffernan went on to describe a phenomenon that we all recognize, “the elephant in the room.” That’s an idiom we use in Canada (and I’m sure in other countries) to describe the discomfort we feel when the downside of a situation is glaringly obvious, but no one has the nerve to talk about it.
The example that Heffernan used was this: Dr. Stewart found a correlation between childhood cancers and prenatal x-rays. She worked with Kneale to verify her facts. What’s interesting is that Stewart thought she needed to hurry her research so her theory could be proven. Why hurry? She obviously thought her information – that x-rays were risky for pregnant women — would be acted upon swiftly, before she could collect the necessary data.
What she didn’t anticipate was that systemic inertia that cocoons powerful theories even when those theories are wrong; the one in this case being the belief that x-rays were useful and safe and that all medical devices worked on a sliding scale of safety – nothing was all good or all bad. As I’ve already mentioned, it took the medical establishments of many countries 25 years to stop x-raying pregnant women. During that time, Heffernan reports, a child a week was dying of cancer. That’s a lot of lives that could have been saved, a lot of families that could have been spared that terrible grief.
Why else is this cautionary tale so important? It’s because the data supporting Stewart’s theory was “open and freely available.” This of course leads to Heffernan’s pithy observation that openness alone is not enough to drive change. She’s right. As someone who has routinely stated the obvious, I’ve had to deal with a lot of annoyed or frightened people in my life. But just because people are annoyed or frightened doesn’t mean things will change. For example, people who are annoyed by others will take the position, not surprisingly, that others are annoying and don’t need to be taken seriously. People who are afraid? Well, they just run for the hills.
So there have been times, especially recently, when I have felt like Cassandra, that character from Greek mythology. She was given the gift of prophecy with the agonizing caveat that she would never be believed. While my mother’s health declined obviously and needlessly – in the hospital, where she should have been safe – I also fought to be believed. I like the following description of Cassandra because it is quite fitting: “She is a figure both of the epic tradition and of tragedy where her combination of deep understanding and powerlessness exemplify the ironic condition of humankind.” Recognizing a precondition for trouble need not be ironic, however; far from it: having the courage to act on potential problems is a gift.
And that leads me to another one of Heffernan’s points. She briefly mentions the study of epidemiology. Epidemiology is the study of patterns, particularly as they relate to physical illness:
Epidemiology is the study of the distribution and patterns of health-events, health-characteristics and their causes or influences in well-defined populations. It is the cornerstone method of public health research and practice, and helps inform policy decisions and evidence based medicine by identifying risk factors for disease and targets for preventative medicine and public policies. Epidemiologists are involved in the design of studies, collection and statistical analysis of data, and interpretation and dissemination of results and occasional systematic review. Epidemiology has significantly contributed to the methodology used in clinical research, public health studies and, to a lesser extent, basic research in the biological sciences.
A rough-hewn version of these ideas might go like this: past behaviour is usually a good predictor of future behaviour. So if a particular virus behaves a certain way with 30 individuals, we can assume it will behave the same way with 300. Epidemiologists identify these patterns and give their findings to people who develop medicines, preventative protocols and health policies across the board.
So how can we use the model of epidemiology, that study of pathological patterns, in a social setting?
Well, another interesting fact reported by Heffernan is that 85% of executives, surveyed in Europe and the States, said there were issues and concerns in their working environments they were too afraid to report. Why? Because they felt they were bound to lose the ensuing arguments. So what have been some of the consequences of this socially mandated silence, particularly in corporate and organizational life? Could the Bhopals and the Chernobyls of this world have been averted if individuals in the know had had the courage to speak?The experience of seeing my mother through her health crisis has forced me to re-orient myself to the world. And one of the reasons I like so many of the TED talks is that I hear aspects of my struggle in them. They help me make sense of all the tumult and upheaval, that sense that I’m no longer walking around with a safety net under me. It’s also why I like the ideas my 12-stepping friends have, like the one that says we must examine our lives with “rigorous honesty” if we are to live in reality and not be victims of wishful thinking. That means I have to look at my responsibilities directly. I have to acknowledge that in many situations not speaking up can be worse. I have to know that not acknowledging the elephant in the room means I may have to live with it for a long time.
So what is my cautionary tale?
I’ve recently had the difficult experiences of having to disappoint two people. Both involved business deals where I had to reverse a decision and take back something I had initially agreed to give. What is important, in the context of this discussion, is that when I saw trouble coming, I also had the choice of doing nothing at all. I could have quieted my conscience in both instances and let the natural flow of my indecision determine the outcomes.
Why did I speak up instead? Both these people did something I found very trying. I had ongoing deliberations with them that seemed to be ongoing on my side alone. In other words, I had correspondences that seemed very one-sided when I needed them to be more two-sided. In the first instance, I needed to finalize a lease for a property after agreeing to rent it to an executive. However, after I accepted his proposal, I had a lot of trouble pinning him down. He disregarded many of my emails, leaving me feeling a bit off balance about our impending deal.
On the way to our final meeting, I got several text messages from him stating he’d be three hours late. He gave no explanation. This was inconvenient since I was already on my way and the journey required several hours of driving, a fact he knew. My intention had been to sign the papers, hand him the keys and go home. So when I got to the property and that magic fairy Serendipity turned up – with a better prospective tenant in tow – I made my own executive decision: I decided to back out. When this man did turn up, I had him, his girlfriend, and crying teenage daughter to contend with. If you’d been eavesdropping, you would have heard raised voices, a loud f–k you, and then a call to a glazier. When he left, this very angry man slammed a door so hard he cracked its glass.
Needless to say, I’m not surprised 85% of executives don’t want to start arguments they feel they will lose. That meeting, in vulgar terms, sucked. The executive made it clear he’d been counting on renting the property, but my problem, from an epidemiological point of view, is that his behaviour in that regard did not stack up: the pattern of his actions didn’t fit the pattern of his words. For example, he apologized for the three hour delay, but then admitted it was because he and his girlfriend had had a leisurely breakfast together. This after I’d battled my way through gasket-blowing traffic in Toronto.
So when I held this ungainly fact up against his past behaviour — of ignoring my messages — it seemed to me these combined actions carried a message of their own, a message I was not happy to get. However, it was one thing for me to be unhappy; it was another to act on it. But the voice that spoke, just as I was about to cave and rent him the property anyway, said this: You are making a bad business decision. Be bold. And so I was. I spoke. I said no.
The second incident was very similar. A pattern of sporadic communication, coming from a speaker I had booked for an event, carried a message too. When the ongoing difficulty became obvious to the other organizers, they changed their minds about having him and handed me the task of delivering the news. It was difficult because this is someone whose work I really admire, but my conscience wouldn’t let me lie. Other talented speakers we’d booked were being way easier to deal with and I knew it. So I stood back, reminded myself that I preferred rewarding good rather than bad behaviour, and let the situation unfold naturally.
In both cases I evaluated behaviour and not words. It’s a trick I picked up in my mother’s acute-care hospital when I had doubts about the information I was getting. After a few weeks, I started tuning out the sound and focused on people’s actions instead. It’s a useful strategy and one that often yields surprising results: when I compare people’s words with their actions, it’s very rare that these two aspects of their behaviour fit.
It’s not all bad news, however. I think many of us want to be liked and we make what mistakenly feels like an unselfish choice: that very silly and dishonest one of being pleasing at all costs.