Tuesday, August 02, 2011

On failing, learning and ambiguity

Different people I come across or coach have very different relationships with the concepts of failing, learning and ambiguity. It appears there is a relationship between a person's ability to deal with all three. 

On failing: 

  1. The range appears to be from people who in certain situations beat themselves up because they failed or something they were attempting failed. They have a negative emotional reaction to the failure which usually gets them down, for a period at least. This  is the 'failure is a disaster / problem' attitude.
  2. At the other end of the spectrum is the 'failure is important feedback' attitude which we tend to find in successful entrepreneurs for example. This is often a sign of high levels of emotional resilience as long as it is real and not just "I'm saying because thats what I've been told is the value here" rhetoric, found in many organisations. You can tell the difference by the individuals longer term emotional reaction to failure. This end is encapsulated by the Thomas Edison quote “I didn’t fail. I just found ten thousand ways that didn’t work.”.
  3. The position in the middle of the range is the 'sh*t happens' attitude. Whilst this attitude often enables someone to move on, the learning is often minimal.

An individuals reactions are often situational, so a fail in one context or situation can be treated differently to a failure in a different situation (what's known as 'low emotional inertia' - more on this in a later blog), however we do notice trends. So a person who employs a genuine 'failure is feedback' mindset is much more likely to do so in a wider range of situations.

On dealing with ambiguity:

There are is a similar range of reactions to ambiguity and uncertainty (they are not the same thing). Again these can be situational, however people who tend to deal well with ambiguity in one situation will often use similar strategies in other situations, but not always.

  1. At one end of the range we have people who don't even recognise ambiguities and uncertainties and when they do, spend a lot of time trying to make them go away or pretending and hoping they will go away. If the situation can not be escaped from these individuals will become highly stressed and will often have very negative reactions to the situation.
  2. In the middle are a set of reactions which can be summed up by shrugged shoulders and the attitude "well it may be ambiguous but hey what can you do about it?"
  3. At the other end of the spectrum are the individuals who expect ambiguity and uncertainly. Their belief is everything, and I mean everything is uncertain. They tend not to get stressed by ambiguity, in fact prefer to work in ambiguous situations and jobs. It makes them happy. Why because its a licence to experiment, play and learn.
On learning:
Similarly when we look at the range of the ability of people to learn, change their thinking and behaviour (called characterisation - a stable change) from situations we find:
  1. Psychological inertia - where people keep going with the same beliefs, values and behaviour even though the situation strongly suggests that doing something differently would be advantageous. Usually at this end of the spectrum there is a considerable amount of change blindness, where an individual believes things are just the same as before, they don't notice to cues that change has or is occurring.
  2. The middle ground where the change is noticed but this results in little or no change in thinking, beliefs or behaviour. Often referred to as stupidity.
  3. At the other end of the spectrum is a group of individuals who can learn readily, change rapidly in the face of change and adapt their beliefs to the situation, searching out what the reality of the situation is rather than imposing their reality on the situation. This is psychological agility. 
An attitude of the 'excitement of discovery' (the emotion is important) coupled with the intellectual capability to be able to abstract or discern patterns or logical conflicts is the key to learning, dealing with failure, ambiguity and psychological and emotional agility. 

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