Originally published here.
Adapted from Senge:
Thinking, a stream of context on which the leave our thoughts, float independently. Until we enter into dialogue, allowing us to examine our thoughts and others in the context of the whole stream.
I believe everyone comes from an intention to do good and everyone is flawed and will at some point experience failure. With these things in mind we must actively and overtly create environments where this is not only permissioned but where we pick each other up, learn and move forward. But often our perceptions of others intent gets in the way of creating an environment where everyone can be successful in their experience of failure.
I am often asked for my advice or opinion particularly by young women in technical roles and often on the topic of perception. I was particularly struck in a recent teleconference by how bewildered one young woman was and how well she articulated her own bewilderment. This is a woman with multiple university degrees, the recipient of awards and if you were to meet her one of the loveliest people you could meet. And yet her question was and I quote “I often find myself not knowing how to act, what is expected of me or leave a meeting worried that people will think I am too opinionated, too forthright”. For context she works in a male dominated team in the engineering industry, although like me she enjoys the company of and feels she is well respected by her colleagues. She does not report being harassed or demeaned. So why is she so worried, I would say even preoccupied by, trying to figure out how to behave?
I wanted to relate an example of how perception has impacted me in my professional and personal life and then I will come back to the preoccupation of the young woman I spoke to.
For me perception and unconscious bias are closely related. People hold perception, always will and they will always be different to our true intention because firstly, they do not know us and never can and secondly, they view our actions, words, expressions through their own unique combination of bias lenses. In my mind I visualise these as a semi physical thing much like wearing multiple pairs of glasses.
I was perceived as being overly aggressive by my hierarchical peers in a 360 degree assessment. I believe with hindsight, only possible by removing myself from the environment, that this assessment was the product of perception and my reaction to it. Firstly my reaction was to attempt to fit in and conform to the environment around me, I felt strongly that I needed to stand up for myself and my team.
For all attempts I had made to understand my optimum work style I had overlooked that I thrive, like most people, in environments where dialogue is respectful and valued and thus try to create this space. Unfortunately that was not where I found myself when the assessment was undertaken and nor was I conscious that this was at play. So why was the dialogue lacking and why were my attempts perceived as aggression.
Bohm articulately describes dialogue as “participation in a pool of common meaning, capable of constant development and change”. But Senge highlights the two conditions deemed necessary for this to occur: the suspension of assumptions and the treatment of each other as colleagues. For more see the reference below. But Senge also notes that the presence of hierarchy is the antithetical to dialogue and the hierarchy between roles within the technical decision making framework as well as the management structure were certainly strongly present for me.
So with my combined need to feel I had to defend myself and the presence of a strong heriarachy, my attempts to create dialogue by challenging the thoughts of those I perceived as my peers in an attempt to reach ‘better’ more creative outcomes, were perceived as aggressive. It won’t be the last time I am perceived to question unfairly or too aggressively but next time I will better understand what could be going on in the exchange and be better able to articulate my intent to those around me.
Back to my colleague who is unsure of how to behave. It’s both wonderful and terrible to be aware of this in the moment because I believe there are few people who can truly adapt in that moment. Unfortunately most of us will not have the language, hindsight or ability to distance ourselves sufficiently. So what else can we do but be authentic, embrace failure if it occurs, celebrate success, observe the perception we create and try again with a little hindsight.
Senge, P. 2006, ‘Dialogue and discussion’, in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, 2nd edn., Random House, London, pp. 221-232.