Openness is like a thread of consciousness spanning points that are often totally unconscious.
The head of a manufacturing firm owned by a major national corporation was talking to me about the senior management team that reported to him. He asked me as a consultant, “Why aren’t they more open with me? Why don’t they speak up when they have the chance?” I did my best to explain to him some of the cultural dynamics of mistrust in organizations and how some of his own behaviors, such as his judgments, demands and a sense of his own stature, might be playing into these dynamics. The President expressed incredulity and doubted the idea such dynamics might be operating to prevent communication with him. From his perspective, he felt quite close to his team. The issue from his standpoint was their competence.
But this failure to notice his own style was only one facet of his unconsciousness. Another was related to his behavior “up the system.” As our conversation progressed we slipped into a discussion of his plans to talk to his bosses at the corporate level. Here he sought my advice on how to strategically position himself and the needs of his own firm with them. When I suggested he be quite open with them about how they were and were not supporting his enterprise, he pushed back on me. “Oh, no, I couldn’t approach them that way!” Obviously I was suggesting something too direct for his comfort. He wanted something more strategic and guaranteed. And, in the moment, he certainly wasn’t making the connection about his own behavior being very like the senior managers he had earlier criticized for failing to speak up to him. Shortly thereafter our session ended.
It was only later that night, alone at a Japanese restaurant that I dealt with my own unconsciousness about our conversation. I had missed an opportunity to draw a connection – to help my client use his knowledge of how it feels to speak up the system to gain insight about the dynamics within his own organization. The question I had to ask myself was how could I have missed this? And the answer was clear: I was unconsciously afraid to tell him. I unconsciously feared his getting upset, judging me, getting rid of me as a sounding board and confidante. Which is, of course, what most of his senior managers were also experiencing. So instead I had let him off the hook, behaved as many others had around him, and reinforced to him that his own hesitations to be open were categorically different from the hesitations of others. I confirmed that he and his situation were special.
In the moment, fear triggers our ignorance and self-protective blindnesses. Our responses become political and mollifying. A cocoon of habit and self-justification takes over. The personal wall goes up before the truth can be spoken. I had failed first to be open with myself — then with him.
And what if I had been open with him? Would he have understood? I don’t know and it hardly matters because this story is less about him than it is about how pervasive fear-based unconsciousness is, how easily the threads of consciousness get blown away. It’s about how that day he and I and his team all had something in common.