Why Don’t We Speak Up?


“All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for good men to do nothing”
Edmund Burke

Sadly, the alleged recent scandal at Penn State reminds us of Burke’s words. Amidst the allegations, sterling reputations have been damaged; heroes diminished. We shake our heads and ask: ”How could THAT happen?” Often, we focus about the others in these sad but surprising situations because we think it’s about them. It is, but I will argue it’s about us, too.

Why We Believe What We Believe

These sad surprises come when our beliefs are violated. Perhaps the “other” encouraged our belief in either word or deed, but we chose to believe. Several scholars have published research on why we believe what we believe. As just one resource, see Michael Shermer’s book, The Believing Brain (2011). He describes our brains as “belief machines,” vulnerable to opinions, rituals and superstitions that range from common to bizarre. He describes how we construct our beliefs through a process he names as patternicity, or the propensity to find patterns in data, whether meaningful or not. Through a process called agenticity, we then infuse meaning and intent on our interpretation.

Uncle Sapien’s Legacy

We’ve been wired this way since our ancestors were dragging knuckles in the bush in Africa. An early example might have been when Uncle Sapien was wandering through the valley wearing red feathers when a saber tooth leapt at him. He accelerated to his fastest speed ever and escaped safely back to his cave. Later, he learned that Cousin Bipedal was wandering in the same meadow wearing blue feathers. Cousin Bipedal was not so swift and made a nice lunch for the saber tooth. What conclusion did Uncle Sapien come to? Red feathers saved him. He became a pro red feather guy.

How We Reinforce Beliefs

Once we have beliefs, we look for ways to reinforce them. One of the most powerful fortresses for beliefs is found in sharing among others. Just like our ancestors, we associate with families of origin then expand our tribe to include those we like and can trade with for survival and mutual benefit. Beliefs are strengthened when adopted by the tribe, and passed through as markers of belonging. Generations later, Uncle Sapien’s tribe believed red feathers were the way to go and those blue feather people were just stupid.

Our Tribes of Choice

Today, “communities” are our tribes of choice. We often join communities based on shared beliefs. As Kathyrn Schulz writes in Being Wrong (2011) “We often form our beliefs on the basis of communities, and our communities on the basis of our beliefs.” They act as systems to make shared beliefs powerful and pervasive, and the basis of this community as the right place to be.

Of course, the power of shared beliefs also produces beneficial results. Beliefs such as: ‘Love Thy Neighbor,” “Tell the Truth” and” Be Generous” result in societal good. Like many things, it’s when communities go to the extreme using beliefs as a fortress that leads to trouble.

At the extremes, communities label those who do not share their beliefs as ignorant or evil. They proclaim the red feather people as superior to those misguided blue feather people. And to be a red feather person, you must agree about their “specialness” and protect it.

The Ties that Bind

I argue, with support from Shermer, Schulz and others, that we underestimate the will it takes to challenge a shared belief from within a community. When we challenge, we violate bonds that may have taken generations to build. We question the very people whose love and admiration we seek. We plant doubt about the whole basis of the tribe when we wonder aloud if it was really about the red feathers after all. A weak link is possible; if this belief is wrong, what else might be wrong?

Why are otherwise good people silent when we expect them to speak up? Why don’t leaders take a stand for something different? Often, its because by rejecting a belief, we ask them to reject the very community that supports them, loves them, honors them.  We not only ask them to give up a belief, we may ask them to give up everything, or so it feels to them. So, they stay silent.

What Can Be Different

One way to help others to find the courage to speak up, speak out, to stand up for the blue feather people, is to start with ourselves. Great moments are possible when we:

 Engage in self-reflection about why you believe what you believe. What are your “red feather, blue feather” beliefs? You don’t need to change them, but understand their origins. Do you accept them by your choice, or because others expect it?

Encourage tolerance. Communities are typically stronger with a diversity of views, and certainly stronger when individuals effectively express differences. Be aware that it can be both lonely and scary to be the minority voice in the group. If you can’t agree with the dissenter, acknowledge their courage and right to speak up.

Accept yourself as more than a member of your tribes of choice. You are more than an alumnus, a fan, a political party member or church member. Be cautious about placing so much self-identity in your memberships that you find it difficult to disagree.

Show forgiveness. Schultz writes  “Our capacity to tolerate error depends on our capacity to tolerate emotion.” When we express anger, disappointment or vilify a member of our community who honestly admits an error in judgment, we discourage the very behavior we claim to encourage. Acknowledge the difficulty of admitting error and give the grace we want for ourselves.

Our actions to reflect on origins of our beliefs, encourage tolerance, consider our identities and offer forgiveness will not prevent evil people from doing evil things. But it will create an encouraging climate for more good people to speak up.

For more about how we form and reinforce beliefs, read Michael Shermer’s book: The Believing Brain.

For a thoughtful reflection on why denial is such a powerful force, read Kathyrn Schulz book: Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.

To watch Kathryn Schulz’ Ted Talk  http://www.ted.com/talks/kathryn_schulz_on_being_wrong.html

How Bad Do You Want It?


My respect and admiration go out to the 47,000 runners, walkers and wheel chair athletes who participated in the New York City Marathon today. As a one-time marathoner, I appreciate the dreaming, dedication and diligence it takes to complete every one of those 26 miles. How bad do you have to want to cross that finish line? Real, real bad.

The intensity of desire, dedication to training and sacrifice of time it takes to compete in a marathon reminds me of the characteristics of the 10Xers that Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen (2011) describe in their book Great By Choice. Like everyone who crossed the finish line in New York today, 10Xers win in the same uncertainty, chaos and luck that cause others to stumble or not even start. Collins and Hansen break down their training practices so we can apply them to our daily race.

Who are 10Xers?
According to Collins and Hansen, 10Xers are leaders of companies that beat the rate of return in their industry by at least 10 times from 2002 to the present. Think of it. These leaders dramatically outperformed their peers through the aftermath of 9/11, global disruption of governments and economies, the 2008 collapse and the Great Recession. And they didn’t operate in safe, stodgy sectors, but in airlines, insurance, technology and biotech, where competitors are served up as the proverbial lunch on a regular basis. As Collins and Hansen put it: “They don’t plan to thrive on chaos, but they can thrive in chaos.”

How are 10Xers different?
Collins and Hansen detail numerous characteristics of the 10Xers; I’ll highlight a just a few that could inspire us in the marathon of our careers:

They have an all-consuming passion about something bigger than themselves. 10Xers don’t just have a dream; they have a mission. They aren’t just interested; they are fanatical. They are so consumed with their purpose that we often think they are little nuts. But we’re energized by working with them and inspired by the possibilities.

 They don’t underestimate the difficulty of achieving their dream. 10Xers may dream at 10,000 feet but plan inch by inch. They prepare with intensity all the time, planning for every conceivable situation. They oversupply with resources and are conservative about risks. What looks like a big risk to the rest of us is often the end result of careful baby steps, data crunching and experiments that came before  “overnight success.”

 They follow their own recipe for success. Here’s a story I heard about Sam Walton, as told by one of his former staff members, that illustrates a 10Xer’s deep self knowledge about ingredients to their success.

Wal Mart was going to open a new store in town, so Sam Walton and his brother invited the soon to be manager to check out a competitive general merchandise store before their grand opening. The eager young manager took note of the state of the store. It was dirty and poorly lit. Aisles were crowded and displays unattractive. The front end was poorly staffed with a long line at a single cashier. He left with a full report, confident of the competitive advantages in his new store.

The young manager met with Sam and his brother, and the three of them discussed the competitive store visit. Eager to impress, the store manager laid out a point-by-point briefing on the advantages of the new Wal Mart. Sam and his brother listened then gave their report. They commented on the creativity shown in a display of fishing merchandise up in the early spring. They noticed the price on a few key items was lower than what they planned. They noticed the shopper convenience services, such as front door package pick up. Then it dawned on the young manager. He looked for everything his competitor did wrong. The Walton brothers knew one ingredient for success was a focus on what their competitor did right, because that’s why people shopped there.

Moments of greatness are possible when we:

  • Live our purpose with passion. Whether it’s running a marathon, serving a not for profit, running for public office, starting a dream business, success beyond our wildest dreams means commitment that stretches our capacity. It is all in. Period.
  • Plan for the worst and prepare for the best. Even with the most careful plans, things will go wrong, take longer or cost more. Overestimate your need for resources and underestimate your ability to “wing it.” When the unexpected storm hits, and it will, those with wisdom and resources will not only ride it out, but take others with them.
  • Follow YOUR recipe for success. What are the things you must do to succeed? What are the strengths that make you stand out? It doesn’t matter that you share them with others, it matters that you know and follow them consistently.

To learn more about the characteristics of 10Xers, check out Great By Choice by Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen.

My Scary Day


Last Thursday, I offered a challenge to view Halloween as an opportunity for transformation. The central idea was to use the imagination of season to test our limits. I suggested that we use one day, the day after Halloween, to confront our assumptions about what we’re not good at and experiment with new skills. And, if we couldn’t get to great, to try to get to better in an area we’d normally avoid.

My Challenge

Today, I took up my challenge. Feedback I received last week as part of Team Management Systems training confirmed an asset I overuse and a development area I avoid. The “major role” I love to play on teams is creator/ innovator. I love ideas and hardly ever think there are enough. Energy in work comes from figuring things out and problem solving. Often I see many possibilities to get from here to there. The role I like to avoid is concluder/producer. Must I shut down ideas just because I have to get something done? Do I have to squash the creativity of moving from possibility to possibility by sticking to priorities and deadlines? Of course I do. It’s just not my preference. So, my stretch into this area for today was 1) set goals for things that must be done 2) place energy into priority areas and 3) stay present.

This may seem easy to you, but it was a tall order for me.

My Scary Day

I started this task last night to avoid any morning distractions. First, instead of a list of all the things I wanted to do today, I narrowed it down to three “must do’s” in priority order.  I built in a reward of one hour to do whatever I wanted after the priorities were completed.

When I started on my top task this morning, the insidious pull of other possibilities tugged at me right away.  Waiting for a long document to come off a printer, I thought: I could file some stuff, just while I’m waiting. Nope. Been down that road before. I could see the future. Forty-five minutes later I’d be reading an interesting article, dashing off emails to people whose cards I’d found and looking for new labels.  There would be a pile of paper at the bottom of my printer and no progress. Today I made a different choice: just breathe deep and wait for the printer.

Document in hand, I changed locations to work on my big task. The small ring to notify me of every new email would be too much; the temptation of social networks just a click away too great. I moved to a different room and put myself in full airplane mode: everything with a battery switched to off.

An onslaught of scattered thoughts made a last ditch run at me. Did I charge my phone? What if I need my phone and it’s not charged? Don’t forget to thank Stephanie for the tickets. The play was terrific. I wonder if anyone came to my blog today? Need to find that article on learning moments of need. Instead of “five minutes” to take care of each of these random tasks, I wrote them down on a pad of paper next to me. Something amazing happened. Poof! As fast as they arrived, they disappeared.

After the first five minutes of discharging distracting thoughts, focus came easy. I got into a flow and was able to give my top task complete concentration.  To my surprise, this producing was fun! I completed the work on time with less difficulty than expected.

On a roll, I finished my next two priorities and got to my reward of a free hour. I didn’t expect to arrive at this point with energy. It felt lighter to have my biggest priorities behind me, instead of carrying the don’t forget rocks around all day. What I expected to be a burden of wrapping up a big project turned out to be an unexpected boost to my day.

Staring Down the Monster

I have vivid childhood memories of asking my parents to check for monsters under my bed. (C’mon, I can’t be the only one!) Waves of relief came with their assurances of all clear.  On this day after Halloween, I think my efforts to stretch into places I didn’t want to go is something like that. I’m glad I challenged the monster assumption that I would neither like nor be good at an opposite work preference.  Like the dark empty space under my bed, there was really nothing there.

I’d love to learn your story of how you’ve continued the Halloween opportunity for transformation; to try out new preferences. It’s never too late to scare yourself.

To find out more about Team Management Systems, check out the TMS Americas website at http://www.tms-americas.com.