A shorter version of this article was published in The Scotsman on 2 August 2010.
With renewed discussion about the Borders railway line in southern Scotland and the proposed new bridge to cross the Forth estuary north of Edinburgh, not forgetting what is happening with BA, BP, trams and how to tackle climate change, we see time and again the familiar tendency to draw a line in the sand, to set a bottom line or to proclaim that a certain position is non-negotiable. This is of course familiar territory in many negotiations and business or political strategies. For those with different views or who sit on the other side of an issue, one of the challenges is how to deal with a situation where someone or some group has taken a stance and seems unwilling or unable to move from that.
Traditionally, in such a situation, people engage in increasingly antagonistic argument, often personalised, with accusation and counter-accusation. This is the stuff of much that we see on the surface in politics and industrial relations for example. It is a great spectacle but the hardening of positions is unattractive and usually counter-productive. It makes it near impossible for those involved to move, to make concessions or to adopt a different strategy, for fear of appearing weak, or being seen to “back down” or lose face. How many of our political decisions, industrial actions or project disputes have their origin in such human vulnerability? Many I suspect. And a number of them are problems we are facing today.
What can be done? Primarily, it can be argued that much of the strife we see today stems from a rather unsophisticated, one-dimensional view of problem-solving. People lack the skills, competence, capability and confidence to approach difficult situations in a different way from the defensive, adversarial, positional paradigm which is so familiar. There is a real training or educational need here. Arguably, constructive problem-solving should be a core subject in schools. Certainly, business people, civic leaders and politicians could be helped enormously by being taught to expand their portfolio of skills and their perception of how to deal with tough choices.
What they would learn is that, rather than rubbing their protagonists’ faces in it, seeking to score cheap points, “bigging” themselves up at the expense of others, there are other ways of achieving an outcome. They would learn that, paradoxically, taking a different approach would actually be more effective, help resolve problems earlier, and bring more to the bottom line. It would not offer so many press headlines but then what is the objective? At a time of increasing constraints on resources ,whether financial or natural, do we want more stories about costly mistakes, refusals to change direction or unresolved disputes? Or do we need a more mature approach, keeping our eyes on what actually meets the needs and interests of the public, the consumer, the nation as a whole?
Take the decision to build a new Forth road bridge. Suppose that decision turned out to be incorrect or simply unaffordable? How easy would it be for those who have committed themselves to the new bridge to change their minds, at least in public? We know that once people commit themselves to a particular course of action, they look for reasons to support it and will tend to exclude or ignore information which might suggest a different approach. Our minds act like filters to sift out that which is inconsistent with our view of the world and enable us to see only those facts which confirm our conclusions. This is even more likely to happen if we perceive that counter arguments will be used by our “opponents” to humiliate or undermine us. William Eggers and John O’Leary call this the Tolstoy Trap, the resistance to accepting or trusting information that disproves what we already firmly believe to be true. They cite numerous examples, from the Bay of Pigs invasion to price controls for fighting inflation to the Challenger shuttle disaster and more. Highly rational people are blind to information that contradicts a course of action they have already decided to pursue. It would be interesting to apply this thinking to other current problems: BA, BP, trams, tackling climate change.
Other research tells us that many decisions are shaped by emotions. Neuroscience has recently confirmed what we have perhaps always known, that specific parts of the brain are involved in the process of selective response, known in the trade as motivated reasoning. So, when someone has an emotional stake in the outcome, perhaps because they are closely associated with the initial decision or feel vulnerable if things go wrong, or have made political capital from it, that person will have an emotional need to have their existing approach confirmed. Their sense of personal integrity thus becomes wrapped up in strong identification with the position they bring to the negotiating or political table. This of course can lead to an appearance of aggression, intractability or absolute demands.
We need to understand this. Not least because, if we find ourselves arguing a contrary point of view or if we hope for a more rational debate, how we go about it is critical. To take the Forth Bridge example, what strategy would be adopted to help those who have made a decision to review that choice maturely, logically, with open-minds and a willingness to change? Only an understanding of the personal investment and vulnerability of those involved, a willingness not to criticise individuals, a broader common good approach, an ability to explore underlying issues and find creative options, a recognition of the value of separating the people from the problem, rigorous use of objective data to test previous assertions, a graciousness in discourse and a structure to build collaboration, a willingness to forgive the mistakes which people inevitably make, abstention from scoring points at another’s personal expense, and an appreciation perhaps that what goes round comes round.
More than that, though, we need a new kind of leadership, one which recognises the bigger picture and is prepared to subordinate personal aggrandisement to national and global benefit. And which shows a willingness to accept that it could be us, as well as others, who might be wrong from time to time.
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