Uncertain relations

My visibility | behaviour | trust in you

My thanks to Chris Bragg for a line of questioning that prompting these prose; Jason Hier for promoting the dialogue from which I repeat my part in here; and Dinah Turner who generated the original visual prompt. All of which started {here}, a discussion on LinkedIn. My thanks also to Bill Sherman. Another LinkedIn thread {here}, one with a challenge I accepted yesterday, and answer at the end of this blog.

Visibility of what? v | b | t in context

Visibility for my project purposes i.e., Visibility | b | t , is addressing transparency between parties. Directed towards what is known and what remains uncertain. In our projects, how much visibility are we sharing one party (project actor) to the next?

This is how visibility relates behaviour i.e., v | behaviour | t , as transparency by one party to the next. This transparency reveals or hides certain behaviour. That could be our intentions, motivations, or actions. Derived perhaps from something as simple as our hubris or belief that we are surely right. Or something more self-interested or malevolent. From these two variables we can ask if we are affording the right level of trust i.e., v | b | trust , to the exchange. Assessing all three presents an indication of collaborative nature, as it relates to all parties supporting the intended change, as project truth.

How are we safeguarding a project from what we do not know?

This sketch, from Dinah Turner, prompted the wider discussion I refer to above. If the dot was the minimal amount of necessary information, Jason Hier teased us with asking what if it was as little as 1%, then let’s respond with the question as a percentage of what? We need to have more awareness to the reality that somethings are not knowable – but that our processes need to have the adaptability to manage these later realisations.

Image used with permission from Dinah Turner

As a graphic to reflect our limited availability of information, what was prompted here was a discussion around making best use of the little information we have. From my perspective (as related to project knowledge), the diagram also presented a third area of interest. (1) the spot of what is known; (2) the assumed everything there is; (3) a challenge to the assumption we can ever bound everything there is to know – beyond the circle. This is what Gigerenzer (2014) would reflect upon when comparing risk vs. uncertainty. It is the difference between working within a closed system vs one that interrelates to more. Or Engwall‘s “no project is an island” from which we can remove ourselves from closed system thinking in any project situation. Combining these two principles, we always have some uncertainty. I suggest the circle in the above graphic houses “the question we asked”. But outside the circle is “the question we wish we knew to pose”. From here we can hope to critically appraise the manner of any decisions being made, for what purpose, and from an information perspective we can ask “based upon what?“.

Being able to seek clarity on what the 1% represents enables better questions. Anyone who knows me, will know that my most likely answer to a question, is another question. This is because a question directs our attention to a set of assumptions and constraints. Are these parameters intended to facilitate an open dialogue, or are they intended to funnel and dissuade a wider perspective? Is this reflecting behaviour of the person posing the question, that we trust to have this right?

It is at these earliest of moments – in defining both problem and constraints – that we can begin to become unstuck. And why we should all therefore be first challenging the question, to see what visibility, behaviour, and trust, is represented. See other blogs on these areas individually, including for example sensemaking and wider problem solving perspectives.

Projects as time bound intended change

This is a dynamic position, and therefore change. In the modelling idea I have in mind, this is where my attempt to define everything by a project definition comes into play: as time bound intended change. And that any change, even one of enquiry, can be captured by this project definition.

Projects within projects

This also challenges us to consider if our collaborative practices are ever actually aimed at the same project. Or are two project actors working on their own projects and attempting to direct outcomes to their own intended outcome – even if that is at the expense of the other. I have in mind here game theory models that represent zero sum outcomes (winner:loser); or those where lesser outcomes emerge because of failures to cooperate (see prisoner’s dilemma, or tragedy of the commons, as examples).

Other factors are then able to be introduced:

  • direction of influence. Interests directed into the one project, or away from the project and directed instead toward the party with most momentary influence.
  • manner of project control to support the retained inward influence of both the one project aim and protection of all project actors.

These are factors that relate to potential outcomes. The one shared outcome, if we are claiming to be in the one same project. Each factor (visibility, behaviour, trust, influence, and control) the aggregation of contributing factors. So, if a question is asked with a hidden or misguided agenda in mind, the project of enquiry is immediately more likely to fail. Failure because it fails at least one participant, and probably the project overall. Or if the intent was misdirection, there was never a single project with the two parties in mind.

At bigger scale, this is why the inevitable uncertainty that exists is eroding this collaborative endeavour if it is simply defined and offloaded in contract. This is not the same as project outcome control. It is more simply a financial risk transfer with increased likelihood of dispute. Arguably a later revelation that project truth never existed. Only the roughly aligned interests of the two separate projects and outcomes each party was interested in, influencing, and operating with suboptimal visibility, behaviour, and trust.

I would argue this is the default position in construction. As one example where hidden agenda is almost always assumed, even if not shown. Low visibility as data is filtered between commercial boundaries. Malevolent behaviours. No trust. Contracts attempting to replace trust, but therein failing to regain control.

If this observation is accepted, then it offers an rough guide to likelihood of project success. If we see a project with inadequate control of its truth (the totality of visibility, behaviour, and trust) it is a riskier project than it needs to be. It is representing a project at risk of unseen influences, permitting malevolent interests, and abuses of empowerment bestowed. Therein is the prospect of increased potential for dispute, plus missed opportunity to intervene.

Are we one project? My ongoing hypothetical

I am yet to be convinced we can ever truly be one project. It is why this entire blogsite is called Projects | Within Projects. But I do think we can seek to ensure our own projects are more closely aligned. As well as all the other project assessments we undertake, I am suggesting this v | b | t assessment of the many influences, directed at the appropriateness of controls containing them, can be one of those higher level quick indications of the human made threats to success.

This affords a simple question, “why say yes to this project?“. Why as a potential project actor agree to enter this enterprise if the divergent interests are not a central focus of control? Why insure it? Why invest in it? Why be party to it? Why approve it? If one can heuristically identify this increased chance of failure, the questions you ask can all be directed this way.

This is visibility | behaviour | trust as a rule of thumb. A heuristic tool, directed at the overall collaborative interest at a project’s core. A work in progress. One that keeps me returning to first principles, new discourse, and regular revisits to this hypothesis as I go.

Agreed or not agreed – is that my question?

And finally…to the challenge I am responding to.

Can you distil your best ideas down into a simple question?

asks Bill Sherman via LinkedIn

Bill Sherman – a writer of thought leadership, and taking ideas to scale. His post yesterday was quite different. He compared NASA mission statements to those we each set ourselves. He offered contemporary examples of the questions NASA set to define their missions. Each a single question – pithy and capturing the imagination of any five year old or older still living with a sense of wonder. His challenge, which I agreed, is to set my idea into a single question. What is the essence of what this big idea is trying to do?

Bills advises us to be guided by the following:-

What’s your big idea that you’re pursuing?

How are you staying connected to your sense of wonder?

Are you able to explain that wonder to others?

Here’s a quick way to check:

1. Write your big idea in one sentence that evokes joy/wonder.
2. Then, test it out. Ask people what they think.
3. Keep going until people say “wow.”

I will confess to writing this entire blog with this question in mind. So here goes, attempt number one.

Can our modelling of projects be linked, to better guide all scales of intended change?

Version one

Can success or failure be gauged by a simple assessment of external influences and resulting appropriateness of project controls?

Version two

Projects are jeopardised if rogue influence gains control: can we avoid the invitations to fail?

Version three

Earth history, our future

We have choice, we have self-control

A blog addressing self-control. The piece of the environmental puzzle we each own. A contribution to the whole, if we so choose.

As CoP26 gets moving past the administrative tasks of state, I find myself wondering on what it is we all do that makes changes for the common good so hard to follow through.

The piece I think we all lose sight of, is self-control. Behavioural control in its most personal form. There is contemporary debate as to what consciousness is, and whether it is even a thing at all. Whether free will or biology, given the magnitude of the dilemma we all now face together, I am minded to think that the answer to that matters little. This is our moment to make action our goal. That starts at home. With a little reorientation of our self-control

Success requires clarity of purpose and self-control

For every self-made success these two factors seem to me present. There is clarity of purpose. And intent on keeping to this task, and thereby enacting self-control. When people talk in admirable terms of ambition, effectiveness, or being on the ball. When addressing ourselves as being present. In the moment. As one person, as a team, or collaborators in a project. We purposefully take to action and all distraction is kept under control.

v | b | t

The achievement accomplished is appraised based upon what was before, compared to what is now. Or what is now possible, that was not possible before. This achievement required a visibility, a clear directed change by the actor(s). It then took behaviours directed towards this goal. A determination to overcome unforeseen event. And a personal and/or shared trust that this could be seen through.

Managing behaviour is what we do

What makes consciousness interesting here is what is going on within. We are permanently being distracted. Distraction is at the heart of what our competing systems within us do. They present us with choice, or bring to our awareness wider issues, opportunity, or threat, to give option to reprioritise some more.

The privilege of the human condition is the extent to which we have put ourselves at the fulcrum of this distraction. We can act upon distraction with additional strategic inference. We can move our inference to higher levels of perspective. We can move our enquiry to lower levels of insight but higher levels of detail. We can seek more detail or bigger picture or put time to both. We can communicate this enquiry or we can do this from within. We can place ourselves in externally different, better, more challenging, less certain, or more exciting, places to be distracted over and over again.

Choice

That is what I take choice to mean today. These days of global need. We have basic needs as individuals. Our brain and body collude to make us ever aware of that fact. Our social instincts enable that need to be embraced as family concern. Tribal influence. National pride. And now, if we choose, global unity to inform a global act.

Competition

What this also reflects is the fundamentals of our biology. Fundamentals of our chemistry before life was even a thing. There is finite resource and more demand than supply. Nature and chaos find their own delicate equilibrium. We are gifted with the means to make something of that equilibrium. By our action we do some nudging of our own.

Competing towards collaborative ends

But now we compete not for ourselves. Instead we compete for the future versions of us. As our biology today reflects from all before. Whatever happens at CoP26, that all begins right here. In each home. With our manner of self-control. Making choice toward future generations we will not know. Or taking more for ourselves, eating more seeds than we sow.

We are each a project | within this project. This is our project of correction. Of planned redirection. To find the ultimate equilibrium. The platform that can sustain us all. This place on earth remains our ultimate system. We can choose it. Or it can consume us all.

—//—

Supplemental note: Earth History as observed in terms of behaviour

Intended change by us as humans vs the behaviours of chemistry or biology – a reflection on which is which. The latter requires none of the choice decisions we can make, but for all our talking is this road we passively take.

Archean Era to now

~3.5 Billion years of earth history. A few basics of what behaviours came before.

Settled chemistry

Any dynamic system can be said to behave. Predictably, or not. Well, or not. Living, or not. Nor is there anything in life that holds a privileged place in playing a part in change. In geology you can study what happens when the same chemistry plays out in different arenas with different agents of change. Deep within the Earth’s crust, in magma chambers, minerals and crystals can emerge differently from the chemical grabs that are made for the same finite resource. Time, heat, and gravity playing roles in what ingredients sit where. The conditions of what is left, dictating what is next. Some ingredients becoming heavy, others relatively light. Gravity settling occurring through relative viscosity. More pressure from above, or more heat from below can change the rates and settled nature within. There is only temporary stability and rates of change. Add more pressure or more heat, some of the solid masses return to liquid form, and what chemistry had been claimed becomes free to be reclaimed by new crystallising processes once again.

Change is inevitable

There was therefore behaviour before there was life. Chemical reaction and physical change well studied in timespans we humans have geologically categorised. At global scale this reflected atmospheric conditions where greenhouse effects were a positive influence. A young sun with heat held within a primitive atmosphere enabling temperatures that support liquid water to prevail. Pillow lava flows from 3.5 billion years ago evidence of this early water. Spewing into this water, were volcanic vents depositing chemical mixtures with energy and ingredients for life all mixing and settling within. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) settling amidst amino acids and other key components that would eventually make biological cells (cf. Science Direct).

Acting not settling

We are not rocks. Bacteria and archaea made the early headway there. How we define the precise moment that there was life is still not completely clear. At its most basic level however, the sentiment of passive chemical action makes way for biologically active intent. Perhaps. Settling into the chemical glue still brings about reactions, but the objective action may have some process its form is additionally enabling it to do.

Passive to active as regulated behaviour

An autopoiesis is what is now termed to describe these, and all subsequent, emerging first choices made. A regulation of the first defended boundary. A containment within the first cell. An inner influence to the outside chemical glue. Early life. Mobility in water. Gathering, collecting, interacting. Then finding new heat from the sun. Converting wider bandwidths of energy in the form of light.

Therein presenting a growing need for biologically active regulations.

Definition of autopoiesis

…the property of a living system (such as a bacterial cell or a multicellular organism) that allows it to maintain and renew itself by regulating its composition and conserving its boundaries… the mechanisms of self-production are the key to understand both the diversity and the uniqueness of the living.— Francisco J. Varela, in Self-Organizing Systems: An Interdisciplinary Approach, 1981

…the ancient common ancestor which evolved autopoiesis and thus became the first living cell.— Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, What is Life?, 2000

Merriam-Webster

Still several billion years ago, amidst the trillions of chance events, an archaea and a bacteria were conjoined – rather than the one consumed – a Union. A first inkling into the power upgrade available if cooperation can resume. A repeatable fact that ballooned. This is mitochondrial symbiosis, that is still evidencing that chance happening today. Adding advantage of symbiosis, to the advancement and specialisms of two cells not dividing but instead remaining together and acting as one, and diversity of chance exponentially grows.

This is more than just selfish genes. This is life and 2 billion years of it as competing in rates of growth, not rates of evolution to hunt or avoid being the prey.

The predator age is much more recent. The Cambrian period. It begins in earnest 550 million years ago. With such predation the fashion of the age, competition steps up another gear.

Here is where a split of opinion in contemporary science exists. Whether the nature of us all is as savage as some would hold. Or whether a collaborative realism exists borne of that bacterial age. As explained by biochemist Dr. Nick Lane.

This discrepancy is partly responsible for the schism that has opened between Margulis and neo-darwinists like Dawkins. Dawkins’ ideas about selfish genes are equivocal when applied to bacteria (which he does not try to do). For Margulis, however, the whole tapestry of evolution is woven by the collaborations of bacteria, which form not just colonies but the very fabric of individual bodies and minds, responsible even for our consciousness, via the threadlike networks of microtubules in the brain. Indeed, Margulis pictures the entire biosphere as the construct of collaborating bacteria – Gaia, the concept that she pioneered with James Lovelock

Dr. Nick Lane pp10

Not that Dawkins deems the selfish gene to be opposing others.

My first book, The Selfish Gene, could equally have been called The Cooperative Gene without a word of the book itself needing to be changed… Selfishness and cooperation are two sides of a Darwinian coin. Each gene promotes its own selfish welfare, by cooperating with other genes in the sexually stirred gene pool which is the gene’s environment, to build shared bodies

Richard Dawkins “The ancestors tale” cited by Lane pp11-12

From a behavioural perspective, the underlying point is the active role now played. The finite resources now in chemical soups that may be ingested, breathed, absorbed, or converted within, becoming increasingly complexed, and biology finding new ways to play. The passive competition of process of chemical reactions now a regulated phenomena. All now biological actions as determined by a need.

Complex enough to choose

It is only very recently – once the rarity of a brain cortex became sufficiently engorged that chemistry, biology, and the increasing complexity of organisation of process – that the divisions and specialisms of more and complex multi-cellular organisms became a means of influence with an awareness of their all. The mammalian brain, surrounding an emotionally reactive middle, but still influenced by the compulsions of a reptilian spinal column and stem. It is with this growing complexity that the external world, offering a momentary window of stability, that symbology and learning had a chance to stay.

Even now we debate what is real. Not only of this account of a history, but also of what is real by the perceptions of own minds. What the brain translates – from messages as smells, recoding from light-sensitive retinas, vibrations of sound, and an array of felt messaging from our boundary edges coated in skin – are the best guessed of a collective system of cells in the brain (only 10% of which are neurons) is a translation of sensed experience. From this space inside a skull shaped prison, a dark and silent space between our ears and behind our eyes, our brain perceives what is real. Who are we to be so bold as to think what each brain holds true? We can but presume and suppose. Only we.

Even our close cousins see through different eyes. Pay different attention to smell. And as for other possible consciousness such as our octopus cousins – of shared simple worm like grandparents from 350 million years ago – they skulk alone. One per 5 million or so offspring making it to their version of adulthood. Their wits tested in the extreme with plenty of interest in decision-making. Neuronal connections but in a very different home.

Each system of systems we each represents by the boundary layer of our skin, is in competition within. As it is with all complexity of life. Our distractions of our systems are just more complete in their means to make all feel as one.

How do we all win and compete?

Against this shared history of everything, this is the challenge of our time. Our whole chemical-biological-history has been about taking what our own internal systems need. Reward of survival via our selfishness, our greed. Social instinct a more recent win bonus for the biology that is able to collaborate and become more and with greater speed. That is the lesson I think we now all need to take heed.

Socially mobile, individually doomed

That it is our social skills that make us more adaptive to environments than all other living beings we oppose. Our shared ability to abstractly take constraints and limitations, add new perspective, introduce outside chemistry with our mathematics and our physics, our metallurgy, and technology, and become more. Yes, we compete. Neanderthals once vouched for how good we are at that. But we compete best together.

Now we need to compete as nothing has ever competed before. We compete beyond our inner need, and greed. Define better our tasks and our goals. Seek solutions to global problems we all now own.

Whether free will or not our biology gives us choice. What we now choose is with intent. We actively direct our next actions. We find new motivations for shared self-control. Or like rocks, we all passively sink. Let’s not leave it to nature to decide.

The tipping point

The Tipping Point : how little things can make a big difference

Malcolm Gladwell (2000)

This blog is a brief overview of another modern day classic. It is my link to the concepts of power and influence, as central factors in time-bound intended change I have yet to formally introduce.

Three factors of extreme influence to change

Gladwell outlines three factors that can become a moment or aggregation that trigger the shift of an equilibrium, or a “Tipping Point” (TPs) of change. Namely: Law of the few; Stickiness Factor; Power of Context (pp19). The relative significance of the points, he argues, are more profound than the weighted impacts that economics may refer to in generalities, such as the 80:20 rule of relative impact (80%) by a smaller proportion of a set (20%). He advises that this is more extreme with TPs.

Each of these three factors become the individual or combined factors that describe complex and hidden determinants of epidemic change. The remainder of the book (ff pp29) introduces particular examples and what characteristics or traits come to reflect each of the three factors in turn.

Connectors, Mavens, and Persuaders

“in a given process or system some people matter more than others”, he advises. He presents examples of particular habits and traits in people that make their contribution to a change more profound.

Connectors

He outlines the small world problem “six degrees of separation” (pp34) as described by Stanley Milgram. But he points to even smaller numbers of key people through whom the many are linked via a special few he terms “connectors”. These are the transient few with skills in retaining contact to many. Page 54 he references Mark Granovetter, “the strength of weak ties”. Gladwell characterises Connectors. They are word of mouth. Socially gregarious. The centre of events. Collectors of people.

Mavens

pp60, unlike the collectors, our “Mavens” are collectors of information. From the Yiddish meaning accumulation of knowledge. They are traders or brokers or powerful databases of facts (page 69). But active in conveying it too, and for no reason other than to help. Less connected than connectors. But their word is more effective, because it is acutely informed. Nor are they persuaders.

Persuaders

pp70 our Persuaders are sales people,

“in a social epidemic, Mavens are data banks, they provide the message. Connectors are the social glue: they spread it. But there are a select group of people – Salesmen – with skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing, and they are as critical to the tipping point of word-of-mouth epidemics as the other two groups.”

Malcolm Gladwell (2000) “the Tipping Point : How little things can make a big difference” pp70

The characteristics of these persuaders are offered in some detail. I was struck by how nuanced some of them were. Terms like high energy, enthusiasm, passion, and preparedness for the counter-argument seemed intuitively correct. But others (pages 78-79) such as facial cues of the seller, the associated head movements and behavioural cues of the buyer – all reinforcing the influence of message – much less obvious.

To this end, Gladwell’s brief examination of William Condon’s “interactional synchrony” (page 83) from 1966, can be reconsidered twenty years since Gladwell outlined the Tipping Point impacts. This is contemporary research and reflects current areas of enquiry in psychology. If further reading is of interest, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2021, 1–4, Interpersonal Synchrony Special Issue, from February 2021 is presenting a significant body of 21st Century research. Article entitled “Being ‘in sync’—is interactional synchrony the key to understanding the social brain?. Open access link here

The context of Tipping Point in Projects | Within Projects

The notions of power and influence are therefore introduced. The Tipping Point gives a perspective on both that I do not believe Project Management theories fully engage, particularly where risk and the powers and influences are directing project energies toward or away from success. This extends beyond stakeholder engagement, leadership or hierarchy, or command and control. These are the wider powers and more subtle influences that can be market forces, political attitudes, or other socio-economic dynamic shifts in macro-scale. Or the subtle influences and hidden power bases working unchallenged and unseen from within the culture of a project and its actors.

The impacts upon intended (or unintended) change outlined by Gladwell as connectors, mavens, and persuaders, are my first moves towards better examining these nuances alongside visibility | behaviour | trust. In the examination of Project Finance projects in UK PFI, per my 2020 MSc dissertation, the phenomena I hypothesised presents a changing risk profile that arises because of the changing influences (not necessarily power) of differing project actors over time. I argue that the early influence of senior debt lending became less, and the new influences that emerged were differently motivated, and accordingly influenced project energies toward their own goals. One possibility I am intending to revisit is whether Tipping Points can be identified to connect these more macroscale influences upon the complexity of relationships in these projects.

My early efforts to introduce systems dynamics into this idea have been thwarted by a lack of credible and common stock unit that is able to contextually transcend system interfaces. I am therefore considering whether less quantitative dependent metrics of influence may serve to demonstrate a more simple binary direction of attention towards or away from a particular project level and its associated goal.

These may direct attention in two directions, or scales:

First, into bigger organising systems – toward much weightier interactions akin to the Great Financial Crisis (GFC), which can be examined from much wider interacting systems of influence too. Or much as the Lloyds of London LMX spiral of the early 1990s, which I think presented similar examples of the effects of losing touch with exposures. Other macro-scale modelling may also resonate, although with less relevance to intended change. In oceanography for example the Ekman spiral presents surface currents acting in one direction, whilst above and at depth air and water currents are moving the opposite way – the hidden influence of the Coriolis effect demonstrated to nudge layers directionally from one to the next. This becomes part of the multimodal perspective I believe project, risk, and people management all necessarily need to become aligned towards. Each in their way able to be defined in the project vernacular I am developing and the interplays they then reflect. Can some of these resulting identified projects become understood and characterised with similar Tipping Point influences, reflecting directional interest into or away from other projects, and thereby impact risk profile and predict the range of change over time?

Second, into more contained or smaller scale concepts of influence. TPs also offer possible means to introduce another series of comparable and perhaps connected concepts of projects. The projects of mind, and projects of management. Both of which I am separately but ever comparing as modelled in Project Management and Psychology and much else beyond. The influences within.

Gladwell offers more interconnected analysis that gives me reason to keep making such comparison. Here are seven brief quotes from Gladwell (2000) that all give possibilities of directional influences; or constraints to our attentions; or attribute or trait assumed modal confusion; all of which I argue reflect the grey spaces we create through our interfaces of projects | within projects.

pp152 “…essence of the Power of Context is that the same thing is true for certain types of environments – that in ways the we don’t necessarily appreciate, our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances…”

pp158 “when we think only in terms of inherent traits and forget the role of situation we are deceiving ourselves…”

pp160 “Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) is the tendency we all have to overestimate the impact of fundamental character traits and underestimate the impact of situation and context”

pp188 couples use “transactive memory” to share the burden of remembering based upon each other’s skill sets. This extends to family units. Over time efficiency is derived from specialism.

pp191 Keeping below 150 rule give organisational tipping potential to remain across shared memory.

pp257 start by reframing how you see the world…it does not afford to our intuition…

ppp258 the human communication has its own set of very unusual and counterintuitive rules.

Malcolm Gladwell (2000) “the Tipping Point : How little things can make a big difference”

This is therefore a first introduction to ideas and concepts that I will be linking to more. Many of which I am certain I am yet to even know exist. My MSc in Psychology begins on Monday, and already my access to university library resources is revealing just how much is there to be discovered. My mind and my theorising forever influenced and changed from my infinite unknown unknowns.

This one book has offered extensive connection between subjects and concepts. It has interest and knowledge and reason to revisit and rethink. It is well written, compelling in its examples offered, and subtly draws you into its persuasive undertones. Tipping Points abound, and this evening it was well worth another read.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here:

Em-pathetic leadership

Is empathy the first leadership quality to nurture in us all?

In this blog, I argue that both misery and empathy love company. But that does not mean the Company should blindly love more empathy, or assume misery is therein opposed.

This blog is inspired by a response I posted on LinkedIn this weekend. Aimed towards a fabulously thought provoking article advocating more empathy. The premise of which was the celebration of what empathy presents as the most important power tool of leadership.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

Tracey Brower, writing for Forbes, is a Sociologist. She writes terrific pieces – this one included. Sociology is one of those many subject areas our future research in projects’ needs to look at more closely. Look no further than the first people to identify the impending global financial crisis for evidence of that. This article, “Empathy Is The Most Important Leadership Skill According To Research”, gives a series of accounts of what better empathy looks like. And what harm a lack of empathy fosters. It makes a compelling case, but does it apply equally to us all?

My worry is not to those who lack empathy. My worry is to those that rely on its niceties too much. Specifically the imbalance possible when leaning too far into – opposed to not far enough toward – an empathetic perspective.

A second worry occurs to me too. What of the accomplished empathiser with less interest in benevolent cause – what separates the motivator from the master manipulator when it is only empathy that we seek to call?

The King and Queen in us all

Photo by Vlada Karpovich on Pexels.com

This was another chance to explore a little of the King and/or Queen Archetype theorising of the Jungian psychoanalyst, Robert Moore. A little psychology to compliment the sociology – perhaps the two perspectives offer us a little more.

Our inner relationship and the outside world

My experience of management training, in the big corporates that have invested in my training over the years, is a focus on ensuring each of us was able to both understand our own traits better; and crucially, to then understand how different others under your charge may behave or think. Yet despite these sanguine lessons, our blind spots endure, as witnessed at every honest appraisal thereafter performed. We are all human after all.

Much more recently in my learning, this is where I have found the archetypal outlines of Jungian psychology helpful. I am far from convinced this mode of psychology is the pinnacle of this science in modern times. However, this is modelling that can still help explain our relationship to ourselves – the persona we present to the world, plus the active but hidden part we know, or the repressed part within that we may not be aware of at all. The Archetypal traits in their less welcome forms are outlined below as Tyrannical vs Weakling leaders, and used here as an oversimplified but recognisable range of relationship and traits we may knowingly or unwittingly take out into the world.

Self vs Other as a target of more love

There is upside potential to both self and other focus. I present below what good might come of each, and what Jungians would call the shadow archetype sitting at each pole. Applying to our relationship with ourselves, but perhaps also influencing how we engage with others.

Upside when in balance

Downside when imbalanced

Self focus

driven, confident, outcome orientated, present to priority and optimisation of tasks

Tyrant King or Queen

arrogant, self obsessed, divisive, elitist, entitled. Arenas of fear, stress, and oppression. Teams of the silent and compliant, offering only good news and hiding the rest.

Other focus

inclusive, people acuity, present to wider team impacts and playing to strengths

Weakling Prince(ss)

indecisive, reactive, naïve, no discipline or boundaries. Lack of vision or singular aim. Team inefficiency, apathy, tolerance of selfish others, and loss of team morale.

Empathy and misery both love a company

We all know what a tyrannical boss looks like. The self confident, self obsessed. me first, leader. Robert Moore presents this as the tyrant within. It need not be the person we typically see, this could be the momentary burst of rage to an otherwise docile soul. Or it maybe the accepted persona that then interacts this way in a leadership role.

Photo by Yan Krukov on Pexels.com

What I present above is that there is an upside to being self orientated. The driven, focused, outcome orientated, energy that gets us through. We may not like it, but we can look back at successful outcomes and at least see what it was intended for.

We all know what the weakling boss looks like. The other-first carer, who is attendee to everyone’s needs. A good friend, but as the bastion of your career, is that any better than the tyrannical boss?

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The committee decision maker, the indecisive ditherer. The more data please, consensus driven, enemy to none – enemy to none except the clarity of what is to be done.

Moore’s trick up his sleeve

An unsuspecting third may lurk here too. The master manipulator, turning empathy into self-serving need. Robert Moore would argue there are other energies in play here. Other inner archetypes taking a lead. Specifically he presents the learning and calculating part of us he calls the Magician.

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He puts this archetype as opposing the King or Queen. If we have failed to balance this archetype then we have an imbalance of a different type. The needs of this Archetype are less interested in the service of leadership. But learnt empathy offers a means to know how to get more of what it wants.

Regardless of how Jungian we are prepared to relate, my point here is that empathy has more than possible benevolent use. Perhaps we need to think to whom we gift it to. Or how we bring more of those naturally gifted with it, more effectively to the fore.

The uneasy balancing of the two

Accordingly whenever I see a celebration of empathy I am cautious in my cheer. Sure, let’s be better at our knowing how to apply empathy. Especially to those of us who find it necessarily hard. But if empathy comes naturally, do these people so easily get to lead? Do we unwittingly mingle tyrants with sociopaths? Do we encourage benevolent empaths to think more of themselves?

I think we need to give this more attention than simply celebrate a trait. More empathy in the boardroom? Yes please. But perhaps our leadership training needs to bring more empaths towards the self, and less sociopaths above us all. This does not come from just training existing leaders with a retrofitted trait. This comes from careful understanding of the deeper psychology in play. And ensuring our critical control environments can rein in whatever comes our way.

Can projects of mind inform projects of management?

This is another strand of enquiry I am taking back into project thinking. Can the projects of self-improvement and self-development, including our individual developments into leadership, be shown to contribute to the outcomes of the projects this leadership is intended to serve? The modelling of psychology, and neuroscience, and beyond these Jungian ideas that not all agree.

The many and varied focuses on communication and modelling; coordination and collaboration; processes intended to preserve or change; conflict, distract, or renew. How much of this reflects these same organisational and management needs in the bigger projects of cooperation in our everyday lives? How well can one inform the other? And inform the controls and tools to compliment both. Projects | within projects, that define and connect us all.

Subscribe here, if you want to read a little more of this every day. I am currently blogging daily. As I return to university once again, this is part of my attempt to apply learning. And share it as I go. Influence, and be influenced by you.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here: