A couple of weeks back, I had a heated argument with a good friend of mine on the idea of popularizing “work-from-home” options. I’ve always believed that “work-from-home” is the future of work. And my reasons are pretty much inline with what’s been trotted out ad-nauseam by the votaries of “work-life-balance”. Besides, there’s only so much that our urban infrastructure can cope with, isn't it?
Well my friend isn't exactly a diehard workaholic or a tyrannical manager! Just that he believes that face-to-face contact is absolutely must for teams to be effective. He’s also had unpleasant experiences on some occasions when work-from-home didn't exactly yield the promised results. He had to give in to the constant pressure from his HR department at that time to pilot it with a few of his staff. Sufficiently chastened by that “expected let-down”, he is wary of any talk about work-life-balance these days.
We found ourselves ranged against each other with our respective arguments, facts, insights and plenty of rhetoric! After an hour, we had to cut-short our discussion and agree to disagree, as neither of us was willing to budge! We felt drained out by the end of it. As an afterthought, I’ve convinced myself that the discussion was on very civil lines. Well, almost I’d say!
As I reached home that evening, I was thinking about the entire experience. How did a not-so-contentious topic like this lead to such an animated and spirited discussion? We weren't discussing some ultra-controversial political or religious topic. So, what was it that made the discussion so extraordinarily intense? Certainly, there were some strong beliefs that were driving our arguments and positions. Strong enough to activate our emotional brains too! Of course we managed well, and didn't allow the emotional centers to take over! Anyways, I spent the better part of the following Sunday afternoon jotting down some points and thoughts. And that brings me to this article on understanding and working with our beliefs.
How beliefs impact us:
Your beliefs have a great sway over your attitudes, behaviors, actions and thereby the outcomes you create in your life. We’d discussed this earlier in my article on Systems Thinking and the Iceberg Model. Experiences and perceptions significantly impact the process of belief formation. Repeated occurrence of events or patterns of events may also reinforce some of your beliefs.
Typically, many of our auto-responses to situations and triggers in life are driven strongly by our underlying beliefs and also values. As it becomes part of your “nature”, most of this happens unconsciously. Of course it simplifies your life to a great extent. Imagine having to check with your belief system before making every single decision in day-to-day life. Do you believe medium bristles are best for your toothbrush? For every day, or only twice a week? It might be late afternoon by the time some of us get to breakfast on a not-so-busy day!
Step out of your immediate life situations, and you’ll see almost every conflict in the world is driven by competing beliefs, ideas and at times irreconcilable positions. We’ve gone to wars galore and inflicted untold misery on each other for the sake of our beliefs. The important question is, “Do we sufficiently appreciate the impact that our beliefs have on us?”. Do we even recognize our important beliefs? Especially the plain vanilla ones that aren't so noticeable!
Neuroscience research has highlighted that when we perceive a significant threat to our core beliefs, our brain may even experience an amygdala hijack. It may trigger the fight or flight response as a reaction to a situation that is perceived to likely go out-of-hand. Of course our brains have this amazing power to keep us safe from a speeding truck or a mad man running amok with a shovel. Potential threats to some of our strongly held beliefs can also trigger the same part of our brain. Giving a chance to the rational center of the brain to help us neatly think through the situation may not be such a high priority always.
Now, look at our modern lives where Twitter and Facebook have ensured that we’re instantly told about tsunami warnings, labour unrest, stock market fluctuations, murderous conflicts and so much more on a 24X7, nay, nanosecond basis. We’re all talking and sharing information, and often feverishly arguing like a bunch of rambunctious kids in kindergarten! Imagine the hyperactivity that our brains are experiencing non-stop!
It is of course good to have beliefs that drive you to take well thought out action, to chase your goals with single-minded focus. But it’s true that some beliefs may have less-than-salutary effects on our decision making capabilities. Heard of fanatical obsession? More on that later! Now that we have scratched the surface, let’s go further.
In this article, I’m presenting a model that we can use to recognize, understand, validate and even challenge our beliefs.
There is something that makes you feel very strongly about. It could be a particular change management process, a crucial decision or strategy. You believe you have the answers clearly sorted in your mind. However, others aren't buying your ideas yet! That’s frustrating. And you see no reason to budge. You'd like to get a better perspective. This is a good time to check out what beliefs are driving some of these views, perspectives, attitudes and behaviours. You may want to do this for yourself, and also for others. Helps with improving relationships, as you’ll figure out.
To begin, answer this question:
What exactly makes you think that you are right?
I believe this is the right way to go about solving this, because_______________________
I believe that wont work, because ________________________________
Write down all your associated beliefs (or at least 3-4) that make you feel very strongly about this. Don’t limit yourself to this template. Jot down all the keywords, points and factors that come to your mind. Make a note of any associated feelings/emotions that you experience when these beliefs and points occupy your mind-space. In fact watching out for strong emotions can help you uncover some of your strongest beliefs. When do you think such strong emotions get aroused? Usually when these beliefs are likely to be violated, challenged or disproved. We aren't gonna let that pass, just like that! Stop and feel those emotions, and ask yourself what’s the underlying belief!
You’ll soon realize that your beliefs are rarely going to fit into black-and-white simplistic formats. There are nuanced layers that reveal themselves like the layers of an onion! Fret not! At this stage, if you’ve managed to draw even a simple mindmap with your beliefs and some of the keywords, that’s great. How frequently do we even get this far?
Examine the Beliefs:
Next, let’s go one layer deeper, or maybe even further! It is time to get a clearer picture of what’s behind these beliefs. Experts in the field of Neurolinguistic Programming(NLP), often talk about the “Model of the World” that is unique to each human being. In simple words, it is how we have “figured out” the world around us and our relationship with the same. It is influenced by our experiences, perceptions and understanding about everything around us. How we dress, communicate, eat, work, interact with others, and live our lives. All of these and more are colored by our Model of the World. In turn these experiences impact the model as well. What’s important to note at this stage is that many of our beliefs are a function of our model of the world.
For instance, you may believe that people from a certain country speak or behave in a certain way when meeting unmarried mothers. Maybe only part of that is true. It may even be totally erroneous. But somewhere, you have used information gathered via hearsay or anecdotes or real experience or research (or in a zillion other ways!) to “figure out & mentally place” people from this country. Every time you meet them or even think about these folks, this construct pops up in your mind. Up until now, things are still fairly in control. But, consciously and often unconsciously this belief starts impacting some of your thoughts and actions. And that’s where the problem starts. Because now, the belief is no longer remaining as a theoretical entity in your mind.
So, it is important to be aware of how this model of the world can get corrupted. I’m listing down a few points here, and wont go into all the details for now.
- Altered Reality based on our own biases, prejudices and stereotypes. These may come from several sources. But they do exist. Good to admit this secretly to yourself at least!
- Fears and Insecurities: Maybe it is the potential loss of certainty and control as we venture out into the unknown. It could be fear of change, failure or even what success entails.
- Outlier Experiences: Something has gone wrong terribly and unusually so. We ignore the “unusual”, focus on the “terrible” part and arrive at generalized perspectives. We may discount some of the positives, exaggerate the negatives and pretty much create a whole new narrative in our heads! Yes, the Model of the World is all in our heads, often unexamined and left to fester! You can of course do the same with extremely positive experiences too. Maybe create a fantasy world of utopian heightened expectations sans proportion, based on one or two good outcomes. Perhaps me and my friend may have used a few positive and negative experiences of “work-from-home” to arrive at exaggerated notions and beliefs of success and disaster!
- The “RAGGING” principle: Now this is something I’ve noticed a lot in some leaders and managers. Remember in college seniors would rag their juniors because that’s what they went through as freshers? Similarly, some of our leaders believe that time has frozen around certain milestones in their lives. When you think you are the center of the universe such delusions aren't unusual. So it’s okay to believe that the “blockbuster formula” that worked in “our olden golden days” are timeless masterpieces that are applicable in every damn situation and context! Did you just say that the angel of ego must’ve played a part too? Not bad, you’re getting there!
So far, we’ve identified, explored and examined our beliefs to some extent. At this stage, there could be significant clarity and some confusion too! After all, the mind does get a bit rattled when some of the simplistic reductionist mental maps are challenged. It’s important that you stay strong at this point! Even though it can be oh-so-tempting to revert to the old patterns of thinking.
Enriched Outcome Orientation & Action
Remember, we spoke about beliefs impacting our decisions? Now that we have examined and explored the underlying beliefs to an extent, let us use this awareness in formulating better decisions. The operative phrase I’d use here is “enriched outcome”. My friend and me were both looking at on-time and good quality deliverables as an obvious expectation whether people work from home or from office. How about enriching that outcome description with a few additional aspects like “upbeat work ethos”, “creative thinking”, “stress resilience”? Not every situation may need such enrichment. But certainly many do! And we know it only too well, don’t we?
Enriched Outcome = Expected Outcome + Things that make this a truly Exciting & Worthwhile experience
Great leaders have a natural feel for enriched outcomes. Because they know that the enriched outcome in the very least can act as a bulwark against brutal uncertainties.
Paint an exciting picture of the enriched outcome. Make a collage of bright pictures and vibrant images. Rich mind-maps are also great to have! Describe the outcome in sufficient detail with powerful words. You can even add in your metrics now. It’ll just blend in rather than stick out like a sore thumb!
Now, it’s time to again take a look at your beliefs that have been demystified a wee bit in the previous section. Go back to the beliefs and identify those that are naturally aligning with your enriched outcome. Don't yet discard the others. Ask yourself what is required to address the underlying concerns that will remain if this belief isn't incorporated? What support systems, processes and approaches can help you address and factor in these too into your plan for the enriched outcome? Pay close attention to some of the ways in which the model of the world may have got corrupted. Again, isn't that a great input for you now? Maybe a few additional governance procedures? Why not? After all, you really want the enriched outcome, don't you?
As you can see here, what’s most exciting at this stage is that conflicting beliefs and their underlying assumptions can all be looked at in a mature non-threatening manner. That’s the power of this level of self awareness. More so, when you’ve already anchored yourself to the enriched outcome. It’s no longer about you and your obsessive compulsions. At stake is the vibrant imagery that you painted and the exciting outcome you just fell in love with!
Want to know a few secret tips?
Check out the culture and ethos that you’re promoting. To what extent are you encouraging people to embrace risk appetite? Is there an environment that fosters open communication, healthy dissent and divergence. At the same time, are there ground rules in place that prevent chaos and free-for-all? For more ideas you can read my article on Risk Appetite
As an aside, take a look at the following diagram that illustrates a typical map of moving from problems to solutions.
As you look at the problem, do you see P1, P2 or P3? When you formulate the outcome what do you see there? O1, O2 or O3? Will the solution S1 necessarily get you to O1? Or would you rather do it differently?
Think about it. And while you are at it, maybe it’s a good idea to examine the assumptions, and beliefs that maybe making P3 look like P1. When you look at the model of the world, are there some hints worth pursuing? Were you likely to settle for O2, when O3 was well within your reach, if only you’d wanted it? Go ahead and demystify your beliefs. Many possibilities will open up! All the Best!