The benefits & limits of attention & evidence

These seemingly contradictory, yet complementary insights may be of value –

  1. Pay no attention to what people say; but pay close attention to what people say.
  2. Focus on evidence; but don’t let evidence narrow your focus.

Attention

Pay no attention to what people say (when it contradicts what they do)

It’s easy to say – I am honest, I am good, I have values. In fact, it’s easy to say anything – just open your mouth. Doing so is a different ballgame but if you want to know who someone is, take a look.

For example –

  1. You can’t say you are loyal but have affairs, unless you have an explicit agreement with your partner that ‘loyalty’ includes having sex with other people. You can’t redefine what sex (or commitment or partnership or marriage for that matter) means for the purpose of squeezing yourself back into the loyal box. A one-night stand is still sex. An intermittent but ongoing romp with an old friend is still sex. Orchestrating a weekend away with a colleague even if both parties are married just for sex, is sex. Sex as a transaction is sex. If there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing in your mind, tell your partner so that they have information and can make an adult choice about whether they’re happy with that in their mind too. Otherwise call it what it is. Is it loyal? No it is disloyal. You can apply this to any quality you ascribe to yourself or others.
  2. You can’t claim to be trustworthy if on Monday you’re lobbying for better treatment of women but on Tuesday diminish working women as selfish and self-centred, argue human rights Wednesday but whip up the troops around anti-Semitism (add in any issue you like here) the next. Who is this person? No one knows. We can change our minds about what we believe over time but that’s not what chameleons are about. What else do they say that has no bearing on the way they live? Look at what you say and ask yourself – do you live by it? If not, why say it at all?

It may seem overly obvious to say these things but it is the primary human instinct to trust other people. Most of us believe what people say about who they are and it’s hard to shake early impressions, positive or negative. This is what makes political leanings or emotional beliefs about the existence of loaded beliefs like climate change so difficult to shift.

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‘I don’t know’. Uncertainty as a platform for growth.

When leadership is confused with the need to know everything it can lead to cultures of bluff where people feel it’s more important to give a response (including a wrong one) than acknowledge doubt.

Instead, these three simple words from a leader can establish a very different context: I don’t know.

“I don’t know” puts the focus on rigour and says many things including:

  1. Let’s not assume;
  2. We need data not anecdotes;
  3. Let’s find out.

Then why is saying it so difficult?

For one, we like to believe that certainty is possible.

This is despite knowing that many of the things we once through to be true we now know to be false (that the earth is flat or that ulcers are caused by stress, for example) and that this will most likely happen again in the future.

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