A Fear of Ambiguity

By Andrew Grant

The Rhetoric Of War

In response to the tragic terrorist attacks (Sept 11 2001) in the world, there has been a lot of talk about war. Many people feel rightly upset and angry about what has happened, and many want to see justice metered out. Enemies are being identified, and a feeling of the need for revenge is taking root.

Now is a good time, though, to step back and really think about what it is we’re fighting against (not whom), and what it is we’re fighting for (again – not whom). Before getting caught up in the wake of strong jargon and rhetoric, let’s consider our language and how that shapes our intent, and let’s ensure these don’t become the driving force.

Unfortunately, the limitations of language too often curb our ability to deal with important issues and solve them creatively. Many people find it difficult to embrace ambiguity, and yet learning to deal with the two sides of the coin will be a key to genuine progress.

Leaders are saying that this is the time for “strong, decisive, clear and immediate decisions”, but while this response may help foster a temporary feeling of security, it may not in fact be the best long-term solution – especially if left undefined.

Before good decisions can be made all options need to be carefully considered. This requires creative lateral thinking, possibly outside of current language norms. Tirian associate and creative consultant Bruce Haddon believes we need to be asking why things are the way they are. This question can link you to the cause, he says, not just the event or outcome. “Causes are fertile fields for creative ideas, because once you discover them it’s easy to imagine what else might have happened from the same cause. Asking ‘why not’ after first asking ‘why’ will give you more ideas, because you are working with the tools of creation, not just the finished creations themselves.”

Destroying Evil Needs The Right Arsenal

The desire to destroy evil is at an all-time high. But working towards solving a problem this complex doesn’t just require clear distinct immediate decisions, but also careful creative thinking. Dualism can be destructive when creative thinking is required.

Until we can identify dualism as one of the major contributing factors in the current situation and in daily life in general, it will be hard to move forward in a healthy direction.

Just before trading opened for the first time after the WTC terrorist attack, a CNN poll asked what people were planning to do with their stocks on Monday morning. They provided boxes for three simple responses: “Buy”, “Sell”, and “Hold”. That just about covered all the possibilities!

In another poll, however, the question was asked, “Should America go to war?” This time there were only provisions made for two simple responses: “Yes” and “No”. The huge range of possibilities was not even alluded to in this oversimplified response to an incredibly complex problem.

There is enormous domestic pressure on the US Government to put a face to the enemy and defeat it, but the last thing we need is to polarize the world through a “good” and “bad”, “for” and “against”, or “us” and “them” mentality. Talk of “war” has saturated media reports, but we need to ask again. Exactly who are we at war with? Is it an ideology? A person? A country? A concept?… or a religion? Pure reactivity is predictably weak: it intensifies conflict, builds resistance and leads to control.

Language : A Great Ally Or Subversive Enemy?

Words direct our attention, our perceptions, and consequently our behaviour. They shape the ways we think and act.

Peter Senge says the greatest liability of management teams is that they can tend to confront complex, dynamic realities with a language designed for simple problems. Many individuals and groups are prone to taking a problem that is multi-faceted and trying to solve it with a linear approach.

Charles Kiefer clearly describes this tendency. “Reality is composed of multiple-simultaneous, interdependent cause-effect relationships,” he explains. “From this reality, normal verbal language extracts simple, linear cause effect chains.”

Black and white thinking is dangerous in any situation. It should not take a world crisis to consider the effects of dualism. Weekly tabloids encourage it in their gossip columns. ”Whose fault was the break up: Tom or Nicole?” As if any relationship break-up can be viewed in such simplistic terms. (As if it’s any of our business, anyway!)

Important Questions Deserve Well Thought Out Answers

Before we jump to answer questions, we need to ask about the validity of the issues being raised. We need to ask whether we are in a position to make a decision at all. And most importantly, we need to see if the questions asked deserve more time and better answers than the limited few choices put in front of us. It’s great to have an opinion, but perhaps we need to start to see boxes marked: “Too complex”, “Insufficient information” OR “Unqualified to answer” – even,”Not my business”!

Many organizations are desperate to have their staff learn to come up with creative problem solving ideas, but as long as we live in a world that encourages dualism it will be hard for individuals and groups to break into new and unlimited creative alternatives. Creative thinking can only happen when people learn to think outside given parameters, when there is a linguistic environment that allows creative ideas to flow.

Boys Will Be Boys

So why are we constantly drawn back to dealing with complex problems through searching for such simple solutions?

Dr Thompson, famous author of the book on the emotional life of boys “Raising Cain”, was concerned to discover that by the age of 12 most boys can only still think and act in terms of two basic concepts: “strong” and “weak”. He says that the biggest insult you can give to a 12-year-old boy is that he is weak, a sissy, or even a “girl”. While girls are able to see a wide range of emotions and solutions to problems, boys tend to polarize everything into 2 categories.

The question that immediately comes to my mind when I consider this finding is, do these boys ever grow up? It doesn’t take much to see the evidence that many haven’t.

Complex questions require complex answers. No, it’s not as easy as ridding the world of aggressive male leaders. But perhaps it is time for individual leaders to make a courageous decision that would require real strength never seen before – to take the time to look at all alternatives, embrace ambiguity, and move forward with a complementary team approach.

The wise leader will need to learn to entertain different ideas and emotions at the same time.

Is it not possible to be both strong and sensitive? To use brains and brawn? To be hard and soft, driven and empathetic… yielding and controlled?

Perhaps many people’s biggest fears at the moment are of ambiguity – the unknown – but it can be a great teacher. Embracing ambiguity is the first step towards being creative. If ever there was a time for individuals, companies and world leaders to be creative it is now. Doing this in the current environment will require real strength, decisiveness and immediate but careful action.

by © Andrew Grant

Andrew Grant is the Managing Director of Tirian. Tirian works throughout Australia and Asia with companies developing people & processes to improve organizational effectiveness www.tirian.com


T-Thoughts articles may be reproduced with written permission and must also be acknowledged with a web link back to the Tirian pages.

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