Operating in Permanent Shades of Gray
Do you often feel like your world is constantly unsettled and changing direction by the minute? Does the experience liken itself to chasing a mound of jello—every time you touch it or try to grasp on to it, it wiggles, moves, and changes forms?
These laments are expressed daily by the leaders I talk to about their work lives. Others report this experience as a constant state in their lives outside of work as well.
One person summed it up pretty well regarding his work life:
“Nothing seems permanent anymore. I used to know what I am supposed to do, or at least was able to figure it out. Now it seems that just when you think you know the rules of the game, they change, and so do the players. It is as if we are riding a roller coaster without security bars and are always surprised and unsure about the next turn.”
Do his comments resonate?
So what gives?
In the late 90’s I began coursework for a PhD program in adult development, where one of my professors exposed me to Robert Kegan, a developmental psychologist and professor at Harvard, and his then new and insightful book entitled “In Over Our Heads”. In a nutshell, Kegan asserts that the complexity and demands the pace of the modern world is making upon us is in essence, “over our heads”. In other words, most of us have not yet developed the internal operating systems, much like a computer that needs updating, to handle the complexity of the multiple demands (or programs) coming at us.
So if Kegan is right, what are we to do as we continue to develop as humans but also try to simultaneously adapt in this environment, knowing that we are indeed “over our heads”? Also with the knowledge that change is a given constant and that the either “this or that” secure positions we want to gravitate towards are really not black and white at all but actually shades of gray?
Here are some habits of mind that can help us shift our thinking and begin to adapt and operate more effectively in permanent shades of gray:
1. Rise to the mountain and look down at yourself
When we are attached to something, whether it is an idea, our title and position, a way of doing something, our beliefs or assumptions, or anything we have built or created, it is essentially part of us. It is subjective, because the attachment we have to it has a hold over us, giving us a self-created sense of security and grounding. To be able to see and embrace other ways of doing things or recognize perspectives different from our own, we must detach from that sense of security. We must be able to stand back and look at ourselves from the outside in. This is hard to do, because even when we think we are being objective, our mindsets and belief systems inform the way we look at things.
When you are faced with a difficult situation, pause, stand back, and rise above it as if you weren’t actually in it. Look down at yourself and all of the players as if you were watching a play. Ask yourself what assumptions each of the players are making. What beliefs do they have and what perspectives are they looking at it from? How are the assumptions guiding the script? What actions would constitute a win-win for all parties? From this detached state, you can attempt to look down at yourself and the situation more objectively and plan your next best action.
2. Approach situations from a place of curiosity rather than control
When we are attached to an outcome, we become fixed in a position. Things are either right or wrong. They are black or white. We want to control and steer the direction. Practice letting go of the wheel, and instead, observe what is happening with a child-like curiosity. Approach the situation with questions rather than from a fixed position or opinion.
What is driving the situation?
What’s important here?
What are you noticing?
As a questioning observer you are actually more able to help steer the direction to a new place.
3. Expect impermanence
If we take a cue from the bigger cycle of life, we know that nothing is permanent. Life begins and ends, seasons come and go, and civilizations rise and fall. Our desire to hold on to things brings us much of the angst we experience as things change and flow. When we expect change and detach from the notion of stability, we realize that we have an opportunity to create the future rather than preserve the past or present. There is tremendous power in that knowing. Ask yourself what you are holding onto so tightly. What are you afraid of losing? What are you attached to and protecting? What do you need to let go of? And finally, what can you create?
If we are indeed “over our heads” dealing with the complexity, demands, and change we face, we can at least begin to acknowledge our common plight and cultivate habits that allow us to float and rise rather than drown.
We can learn to swim in the shades of gray.