Why do I say this?
This weekend I was meeting a friend of a friend who had heard what I do for a living but wanted to know more; so I explained briefly what knowledge management is. My new acquaintance asked me, “Do you enjoy what you do?” and I replied, “I love it.” He asked me why and so I said, “Because what I do brings me directly into contact with the human condition.”
His frown showed I needed to explain what I meant and he seemed interested enough to hear my take on what.
“Because basically, no matter what we do for a living, where we live or how old we are…we’re pretty much all the same. We want to be respected, to feel like we make a difference. We want to be rewarded and we want security, as far as possible. Most of us prefer to be popular than unpopular and we don’t like hurting other people, or even merely embarrassing them. We want people to think well of us and most of us avoid conflict whenever possible.”
He nodded along and then said, “So?” So I continued, “So, when faced with a situation that we fear will put these things at risk, we all do the same thing. We minimise embarrassment for ourselves and others; we avoid awkwardness and far prefer choppy waters to be smoothed than stirred up even more. We mostly tell people what we think they want to hear or, at the very least, will pull our punches so as not to make things any worse. In short, we won’t tell anyone what we really think or how we really feel unless we feel 100% safe and secure and whoever feels like that at work?”
Again, he asked, “So?” “So…if we are ever going to improve anything, if we are ever going to learn from the past and make the future better, we need to know all that there is to know about whatever problem we face. We need people to be honest, which means we need to let them feel it’s okay to be honest, which means they mustn’t fear demotion or the sack if they tell the truth, or even just embarrassment for offering a different point of view. That takes time and effort and real, brace leadership from those at the top. They need to show by what they do and say that they value integrity and honesty and moral courage because otherwise all they’ll get, indeed all that most organisations get is defensiveness, dishonesty and fear.”
I pulled out a pen and piece of paper and drew this picture of 2 stick-men with ‘speech bubbles’ representing their conversation and ‘thought clouds’ above each man’s head. “Most problems in the world are down to poor communication, with people either unable, or downright refusing, to express what they think and feel. This is because they’re unsure what they think or feel or because they know all too well what they think or feel but are uncomfortable with sharing that with others. Now, we tell each other the things in the speech bubbles and yet everything we do is shaped by what is in the thought clouds. Getting people to share those inner thoughts and feelings is at the heart of what knowledge management and organisational learning is all about. It’s incredibly difficult and, quite frankly, a thankless task but, when it works, if only briefly, it’s very rewarding.”
He smiled and bought me a pint.
To be continued….