Friday, July 27, 2012

Lying with emotion?

After reading Susan Cain's observations on a Tony Robbins rally for confidence, I read about her trip to the Harvard Business School.  Much like my wife experienced in graduate school 20 years ago, the HBS students do everything in teams.  She follows a Chinese-American student a bit and finds:

His day begins early in the morning, when he meets for an hour and a half with his "Learning Team"— a pre-assigned study group in which participation is mandatory (students at HBS practically go to the bathroom in teams).

Cain, Susan (2012-01-24). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (Kindle Locations 894-896). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

I got to thinking that the curriculum, the atmosphere and the aims were all to produce extroverts, or people who could fake extroversion.  That seemed dishonest to me.  Cain states:

The essence of the HBS education is that leaders have to act confidently and make decisions in the face of incomplete information. The teaching method plays with an age-old question: If you don't have all the facts— and often you won't— should you wait to act until you've collected as much data as possible? Or, by hesitating, do you risk losing others' trust and your own momentum? The answer isn't obvious. If you speak firmly on the basis of bad information, you can lead your people into disaster. But if you exude uncertainty, then morale suffers, funders won't invest, and your organization can collapse.

I can certainly understand a leader's impulse to take a positive slant, regardless of his/her actual estimate of the odds of success.  I think of Churchill's famous "We shall fight them on the beaches" speech as many believed a German invasion of Britain was imminent.  Read closely, one can see his determination to do his utmost to inspire and to create a lasting resistance, successful or not.  

I guess it is not lying if the leader says "we can do it" or "we must do it".  It does seem to me that unending cheer, enthusiasm, if not a form of lying, is certainly poor communication.  Information theory says that information conveyed is related to uncertainty, which means that if the leader always says "Yes, we can", we don't need to hear what the leader has to say.  We know beforehand that he always says the same thing -- he conveys nothing new.

At the age of 34, I was selected to head a group of 40 students, 33 of whom were women, on a trip of months in Britain and a tour of Western Europe.  I had no experience in administration and sought advice.  I read this in "On Becoming a Person" by Carl Rogers:

I might start off these several statements of significant learnings with a negative item. In my relationships with persons I have found that it does not help, in the long run, to act as though I were something that I am not. It does not help to act calm and pleasant when actually I am angry and critical. It does not help to act as though I know the answers when I do not. It does not help to act as though I were a loving person if actually, at the moment, I am hostile. It does not help for me to act as though I were full of assurance, if actually I am frightened and unsure. Even on a very simple level I have found that this statement seems to hold. It does not help for me to act as though I were well when I feel ill.

Rogers, Carl R. (2011-07-20). On Becoming a Person (Kindle Locations 425-430). Constable Robinson. Kindle Edition.

Carl Rogers was not an inspirational leader with a microphone and a giant screen, trying to empower people to walk barefoot on hot coals.  He was not trying to inspire a frightened nation to gird its loins and defend itself.  But his call for the utmost basic honesty has helped me very much and I recommend it.

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