The Authencity Paradox – 5 steps to holding contradictory views

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I’m talking with a group of senior sales leaders of a company. We are discussing their roles as leaders in the organization setting an example for their teams by taking initiatives and demonstrating positive thinking. Their attention quickly turns to top management, and I hear them say: „They want us to be proactive, while they never communicate in a straightforward manner!.” Yes, these guys are questioning the authenticity of the messages they receive from the top management – and they may well be right. Does this sound familiar?

 But what does authenticity mean? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, ‘authenticity’ is the quality of being worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact. I think when most of us think of authenticity, consistency comes to mind..  For me, consistency conjures up the image of a charismatic person consistently pursuing their goals with a stable set of values and a moral compass. The above story with the sales guys speaks to this point – if you are perceived inconsistent and you don’t walk the talk, people will question the authenticity of the company’s business initiatives.

So, on one hand, consistency is great.  On the other hand, the 21 century leader has to embrace the extremely volatile nature of the external environment. We need to lead effectively in ever-changing circumstances. We need to constantly evolve and change. How can you stay consistent when change is inevitable? Once during a coaching session with the CEO of a middle-sized company, we had the following conversation:

Me: John, you promised your team you would start holding regular townhalls.

Him: I don’t think they would benefit from it too much.   We haven’t been able to make any decisions, so discussing that would end up causing more confusion.

Me: This isn’t consistent leadership. No news is still news – you’ve got to keep the conversation going.

Him: Consistency is the hallmark of the unimaginative.

I still believe I was right, he should have stayed consistent and stuck to what he’d promised previously. His tak e on it, however,  was that if he wasn’t going to be able to deliver any clear messages, then he would just add to the confusion..

Regardless who you believe was right, in these volatile times a key competence in leadership is to be able hold multiple truths at the same time.  Do you like meaningful, logical and easy to relate to ideas like “what gets measured gets done,” or are you a believer of “motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do while making them feel it’s their choice”? And have you heard  “It’s better to be safe than sorry,” versus “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

These contradictory ideas can all be true at the same time in different circumstances. Being able to hold them and to favor one over the other at different times doesn’t necessarily make you inconsistent. In fact, holding opposing views is crucial to be able to react to the world in all its complexity.

Although we all desire consistency, we need to get confortable with the notion that it’s necessary to embrace  paradoxes. The world is complex, and limiting ideas, observations or feedback to be consistent with a single rationale unnecessarily closes down problem-solving options that will hinder efficiency. 

So, no matter how much you believe something to be true, ask whether the opposite may also have some validity. Perhaps the real truth is beyond both. Here is my simple recipe for holding multiple truths at the same time to make better decisions:

1.     Summarize your truth in a few key points. Identify with your truth, observe and make a note of what you feel in your body as you hold this viewpoint. Notice any images or thought patterns that emerge as you identify with your truth/conviction. In the above example: Be the CEO and say,” I will not hold a meeting. I have no news to share. It will just make things worse if I talk to them.”

2.     Put yourself in the other party’s shoes.. What’s their truth?  Again, observe and remember any feelings, images, and thoughts that come up as you relate to their position. Now you are the people on the CEO’s team who say: “He is holding back information, he is not treating us like we are on the same team.” Notice the feelings and thoughts that come with feeling this truth in your body.

3.     Dissociate from both positions. Be an observer to both viewpoints – and for a moment, imagine that neither of them is true. They are just viewpoints.  See what happens to your thoughts and feelings as you regard those two as “just two ways of limiting beliefs”. Neither is true, right? The CEO is not right about a conversation confusing people, since talking to people will actually help the situation.  The team isn’t  right either, the CEO isn’t purposely withholding anything to exclude them, in fact, he is trying to protect them in his own way.

4.     Now step into the role of a “good old owl”. Imagine that you are sitting on a tree branch,  looking down as you observe those truths. Notice they are both true.  Notice how it feels to recognize those two things being true at the same time. They are both right. Unclear messages can confuse people further, and avoiding communication is a way of not treating people as members of the same team.

5.     Finally, embrace the paradox that “it’s impossible to not communicate”. Integrate the first 4 steps into  a new truth. What have you learned? What else is possible, having experienced those first four steps? How will you have a conversation with your team about not knowing?

mickey feher