April 14, 2020

In Praise of the Winding Road (2)

Written by Zafer AchiZafer Achi

In this series, I am exploring the idea that distance ­– understood metaphorically as a detour intentionally taken away from the shortest, fastest, least costly path from A to B – might hold promise in a post-Covid-19 world as we reset the norms of our lives, nested as they are in multiple systems.

More specifically, I offered a range of parameters that account for such detours – e.g. pauses, delays, safety margins, inefficiencies, digressions, imperfections, oblique approaches, variations, redundancies, and more.  In the first blog of this series, I looked at the intrapersonal level – i.e. my relationship to the “system of me.”

In this blog, I consider the next systemic level in which our lives play out – that of our interpersonal relationships.

2. The interpersonal level: Elasticity of relationships

Relationships are often brittle: we care so much about them that we keep them confined to a narrow thread (e.g. role to role) for fear that broadening them or deepening them exposes us to needless inefficiency or worse – to embarrassment and judgment. We tend to feel compelled to show up as cheerful and heroic. We default to agreeing, or at least to papering over our disagreements. When conflict is unavoidable, we see no choice but to step out of the relationship. So, we snap either all the way in to protect the relationship, or all the way out to protect some part of our identity.

The holy grail of experiencing relationships in this way is “Alignment”: we (in our respective roles) are all united behind a vision, a mission, a goal. But the pursuit of this holy grail casts debilitating shadows such as groupthink, veiled mistrust, passive aggression, and polarization.

The winding road in the interpersonal realm is the elastic quality of our relationships: the redundant threads that we weave to hold us together; their resilience to heat and to icy cold; the looping back to the personal before we transact; the idle chats and the vulnerable sharing; and the extent to which our ideas and perspectives can be in tension or even in outright conflict without the relationship snapping all the way in, or all the way out.

When we allow each other to witness our humanity more fully, in its light and in its shadow, we foster the openness and acceptance that breed trust.  When we can balance our relationships on the knife’s edge of conflict, we create space for diversity of thinking. We invite a multitude of perspectives that allow us to see more of the data and the patterns that surround us – a crucially important advantage at the boundary of complexity and chaos. We cultivate the collective courage to act decisively in the face of incomplete information.

Whereas brittle relationships turn collaborative efforts into meek exercises in averaging down to the least common denominator, collaborations founded on elastic relationships are likely to produce breakthroughs.

Consider Dana, the founder and CEO of a consumer business. A couple of years ago, she decided that she wanted to see her team take more ownership of the organization’s performance and health. Starting with herself, she cultivated and propagated the kind of elasticity described above in every single one of the 40 or so individual relationships that held her team of ten executives together. Through a series of team offsites, they took the winding road and learned to grow comfortable with vulnerability (life stories, dropping the shields); accountability (making agreements, giving and receiving feedback); and conflict (disagreement and dissent). In the benign business environment of 2018 and 2019, the investment helped them build a lead over domestic competition and make inroads regionally. However, in the Covid-19 world, the team is soaring as it responds to the ambient chaos:  making decisive moves to reassure employees and customers, creating optionality, setting the tone for the entire sector, emerging as thought partners for the regulator, and most importantly cashing on the internal and external goodwill built in the last 3 years through ripples of trust emanating from the top.

So, what might you do to get going now?

  • Hone your perspective taking capacity: experiment with fully taking in the perspective of others while holding on to yours. Holding opposing views without feeling the urge to resolve them is the mark of perspective-taking. It takes a combination of deep listening and courageous authenticity.
  • Stand in the fire: try being vulnerable and imperfect, express disagreement, voice a dissenting opinion and see if these behaviors weaken or deepen your sense of belonging to the team.
  • If you lead a team, try starting your meetings with a check-in process. Avoid asking superficial questions and questions that lend themselves to heroic self-portrayals. What you want is to invite vulnerability, surprise, not-knowing, admitting mistakes and the like. I bet that you will soon notice that the time ‘wasted’ checking-in will more than pay for itself back in the quality of the conversations you will have and the decisions you will make.

In the next blog, I will turn to the merit of the winding road in the organizational domain.

One thought on “In Praise of the Winding Road (2)”

  1. Avatar Eman says:

    Thank you, Zafer. You’ve invited me to reflect on the elasticity of my own relationships and how much space they leave for disagreement and multiple perspectives.

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