We all struggle with illusions.
A manager decides her boss does not truly understand the demands being placed on her team. The boss tells her he does see the overload for her and asks that she evaluate the situation carefully; then formally request whatever kind of help she believes is needed. But she perceives this “request” as an insensitive stall on his part. She believes he actually does not need that information at all. In partial, passive-aggressive compliance, she asks for several additional staff but does not supply job descriptions for what they would do. He does stall her request at this point, never inquiring about their relationship or what’s really going on, instead asking only if fulfilling her formal request will actually solve the problems her work unit is facing — and reiterating the need for job descriptions. To her this reply simply proves he has a hidden agenda and is unwilling to be of genuine help. They stop talking about the requests and the needs. Instead she continues to work weekends and nights. Her staff members feel guilty about taking off any time. Communication becomes even more strained, reinforcing her belief that she is a victim, and reinforcing his belief — “logical” of course — that he is the well meaning one while she is recalcitrant and illogical. It’s the old story of any conflict, a snake’s nest of inter-related stories we tell ourselves about others and stories we tell about ourselves.
Illusions run deep. The parties justify their perspectives based on their values. She thinks he does not actually care about people. If he did, he wouldn’t question her — he’d come up with the money for more staff. He thinks she does not actually care about performance. If she did she’d do the analysis he’s asked for. She believes he doesn’t see her sense of responsibility. He believes she doesn’t see his. The cycles of miscommunication draw tighter, like strings tangling into an unworkable mess.
In 1970, the great Scottish psychiatrist, R.D. Laing, named this kind of relationship impasse in his short volume, Knots. In short coded cryptogram-like statements, our knots delineate how we fail to see one another:
Jack: You are a pain in the neck.
To stop you giving me a pain in the neck
I protect my neck by tightening my neck muscles,
which gives me the pain in the neck
Jill: My head aches through trying to stop you
giving me a headache.
Jill does not see something.
Jack does think
Jill sees it
but Jack does not see
Jill does not see.
They are playing a game. They are playing at not
playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.
It’s no coincidence that the origin of the word, illusion, comes from Old French, meaning to mock or to play. As human beings, we layer and hide our certainties about others and about ourselves in complex, interactive ways, and once there it is serious work to untangle the knots.
Actually, the process may not at all be one of untangling them so much as seeing through them, seeing that at bottom we’ve made up our own tragicomedies. To see through our illusions is the eternal quest, the eternal onion peeled one layer at a time.
A trainer I know provided an example of the dynamic when talking about a friend who “inadvertently” shoplifted a small item. The friend felt terribly guilty about it — but didn’t return the item to the merchant. She sees herself as a good person, the trainer commented, the kind of person who doesn’t steal things, and in order to keep believing that consigns herself a great deal of guilt. However, this just covers up that she is, in fact, the sort of person who is perfectly capable of stealing. What she hasn’t done is confront herself with how she is using guilt to maintain her illusions about herself.
This, in turn, is not too different from the manager whose biggest problem is his relationship with a colleague who sees herself as a great communicator, except in his private view, she’s not. But he can’t bring himself to communicate with her about her lack of communication skills, since she’s so clear this is her gift. He protects his self-view that he doesn’t hurt people, but of course he is hurting her by not communicating what he sees. Nor is it different from the boss who abdicates his responsibility by not taking action in a situation where others are clearly abdicating their responsibility. The boss critiques in the background but wants someone else to solve the problem.
Suppose you are a manager. Doesn’t it come down to asking what it is about yourself and others that you believe is true but might not be so? Isn’t it about examining what you believe about your relationships — with your boss or your peers or those who report to you? Isn’t it about what you believe about your company, about the future that may well be dead wrong — and your role in simply going along with what’s going on?
In case you make the assumption that illusions can only cover up bad things about us, consider how many of us in leading roles can be consumed with our illusions about being untalented or inadequate to the real tasks of leadership, and how we keep telling ourselves we have no real courage, no heart. These can be the most destructive illusions. We do in fact have the potential courage but are having trouble reconciling that with inaction. How about the belief that we shouldn’t need each other and must do it all alone, with no trust? Or that we dare not show any weakness or vulnerability? All, all illusions, and everyone of them influencing how we think, see, feel, and all our future outcomes.
Let me suggest for every illusion there is an ego issue, and our job is to see through that issue to where the ego itself is holed up self-protectively, doing its best to make us believe it is the final arbiter of “being smart,” that it is the only thing that can be trusted.
One way to make this point is through drama — in this case, the eight minute opening of the HBO series, The Newsroom, a series about a fictitious news organization. In these opening scenes, the anchor, Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), is answering questions from college students as part of a panel. The situation suddenly requires he move out of hiding to confront the illusions he hears going on in the room — and, in doing so, also face himself. (Please be aware there is some profanity in the clip).
As you watch the video, you can ask yourself what is going on here that has something to do with leadership, values, self-disclosure and risk. Ask yourself what ego dilemmas are embedded in this drama, and what it means to actively confront an illusion that permeates the world around you, one that has become part of your own hiding from reality. What I personally find inspiring here is the powerful sense of urgency, the need finally to stop pretending, the raw person showing up at last. Maybe it’s just for a short time — but enough time — plenty of time to be real.
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