People don’t change their minds

I feel like I need to write “People don’t change their minds, they change how they feel,” 100 times on the chalkboard, like Charlie Brown, in the hopes that it will someday fully sink in.

Yes, I’ve heard different versions of this point repeated time and again, by everyone from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind to Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow to storytelling gurus Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard.

The metaphor is: think of the human mind as composed of an elephant and a rider. Elephants are people’s emotional and instinctive reactions, the rider is our rational brain. Guess who wins when they disagree? Per Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard:

Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.  He’s completely overmatched.

The irony is that reading this alone, by definition, won’t make me, or you, believe it. Until your elephant experiences this in a way it understands, it’s just an idea floating out there like any other, one that won’t change your behavior.

Our inability to live this truth plays out in elections (“don’t they understand he’ll make a terrible President?!”), in fundraising pitches (“I’ll show them the facts and they’ll understand how important this is”) and everywhere in between. We think storytelling and emotional connection is a nice way to start and end a pitch, a cute way to open and close, and forget that these moments are the pitch. The connection to people’s emotional and intuitive selves are the things that direct and point the elephant in one direction or another, while the facts and analysis we present are used by our audience to justify a decision they’ve already made.

Let me try it again:

Bonus: the single best piece I’ve read on this topic, Elizabeth Kolbert’s Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds: New discoveries about the human mind show the limitation of reason from February’s New Yorker.

Why we need more and better groups to support social sector leaders

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about leadership development for the social sector, and how best to design programs that create the longest-lasting impact.

The starting question I’ve been asking is: what is it about the kind of leadership required for this kind of work that’s special, different, unique?

One of characteristics of this work is that it is long-term by nature. While it sounds (and is) exciting and motivating to “live a life of purpose,” the secretly difficult part is that when you’re ultimately measuring your success in terms of societal change, it’s easy to feel like you’re not making any real progress. Growing topline revenues is one thing; overcoming systemic bias and exclusion in a national education system is another.  One lends itself to quarterly reports; the other measures progress over decades. 

This is part of the reason that burnout is so common. It’s not because the work can be grueling, though it can be. It’s because the change one is working towards happens at a communal and a societal level, not just at the level of an institution or a company. To counteract the natural sense of alone-ness that this type of work can create, those engaged in social change need to create and embed themselves in strong and supportive cohorts of other change-makers, others who are walking this path with them.

Jonathan Haidt, in Chapter 10 of his book The Righteous Mind, beautifully captures the texture of how groups can transform the experience of individuals. In describing army veterans’ experience in battle, he quotes William McNeil, an army veteran and historian.  “McNeill studied accounts of men in battle and found that men risk their lives not so much for their country or their ideals as for their comrades-in-arms.” McNeill continues:

Many veterans who are honest with themselves will admit, I believe, that the experience of communal effort in battle . . . has been the high point of their lives. . . . Their “I” passes insensibly into a “we,” “my” becomes “our,” and individual fate loses its central importance. . . . I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy. . . . I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.

This observation speaks to a paradox of social change work: we get into it because of a sense of higher purpose, but we need something beyond this high-minded objective to sustain us beyond the first few months or few years. To pull that off – to succeed at recommitting ourselves time and again to our higher purpose – we need to be part of a collective. The right kind of collective (cohort, comrades in arms…the language is less important) helps our ego-driven selves dissolve into the acts of service that further the objectives of the group as a whole.

It strikes me that the notion of the heroic entrepreneurial leader isn’t helping us here. This isn’t a framing that pushes us to create the kinds of infrastructure that help larger numbers of people develop and sustain their commitment to a life of service. Amazing generals don’t materialize fully formed, they emerge from a collective that has a strong sense of norms, identity, and values as well as a well-honed approach to tackle the problems at hand.   In fact, while it’s certainly lonely at the top nearly everywhere, I’d argue that it’s lonelier still at the top of a social purpose organization that has a multi-decades time horizon to make change.

This is not a path one can or should walk alone.

What this means is that one of the biggest and highest-leverage way to invest in this ecosystem may be to facilitate the creation of the sort of deep and lasting bonds needed to sustain a lifetime of commitment to the work of making a difference.

The main reason, also, by the way

I used to think listening to people had to be pretty easy since, I figured, it was their job to say what they meant.

That feels like one of the biggest misconceptions I carried around (for way too long) –  it’s flawed on numerous levels, including but not limited to its American-ness (since culturally we value directness more than just about anyone).  It also willfully ignores how people come to conclusions and how people (especially persuasive people) explain their conclusions.

Put it this way: if Jonathan Haidt is right (and I think he is), we make decisions with our hearts (maybe our gut, or our elephant) and then explain and rationalize them with our heads (the rider).  To me that means that what we say to explain these decisions is necessarily a rational (re)construction of truth, rather than the truth itself: we will construct a story that uses the core truth as a springboard and then assembles the pieces that will be, in our judgment, most persuasive and palatable to the listener.

With this in mind, when someone is explaining something (a plan, a proposal, a decision) to me and he says…:

  • The main reason we should do this is….
  • also it has to do with….
  • and, by the way, there’s this one other small reason….

…it seems to me that the most logical thing to expect is that people’s “main” and “also” reasons are the series of facts/explanations that will be most convincing to me.

This makes the “by the way” a great candidate for what’s really going on.

What’s sacred about you?

Here’s the one thing I can’t stop thinking about after writing yesterday’s post: what’s sacred about me?

Meaning, Jonathan Haidt’s research tells us that to understand people and how they make decisions, you have to understand what they hold sacred.  Around these sacred beliefs, there’s a halo of willful ignorance, one that few facts can penetrate and, if they do, these facts fail to dislodge the core belief.

It must be the case that this applies to self-image, that there are things I fundamentally believe about myself (that you believe about yourself) that blind me (you) to the facts.

The capacity for change comes from the willingness to observe the things that are most dear in my self-image and expose them.  Most obviously, Jonathan challenges me to look at the notion that I’m an open-minded person by asking me how much I understand the perspective of people whose core beliefs differ fundamentally from my own.  More broadly, we all walk around with notions of who we are, namely…

I am:

[   ] good

[   ] bad

at public speaking; writing; analysis; closing a sale; inspiring others; leading a team; coming up with new ideas; getting things over the finish line; fundraising; meeting new people; taking risks.

For example if you’d asked me when I was 23 what job I would never, ever want to or be able to do successfully I would have said “any kind of sales job.”  Whoops.

There are only two ways to break this cycle.  The best way is to decide not to listen to the stories you tell yourself and to start doing things that contradict your most sacred beliefs about who you are and what you’re best and worst at.  Then supercharge your efforts by creating a culture of honest and open feedback (a la Open 360) – a work environment in which people who know you and who deeply care about your success and that of your organization actually sit down and tell you what we’re best at.

I promise, you’re your worst critic.   In the act of trying, buttressed by feedback from invested and caring colleagues, you’ll show this critic who’s boss.

Sacredness and motivated ignorance

I recently had the chance to hear Jonathan Haidt, author of the new best-selling book (#6 on the NYTimes Bestseller list) The Righteous Mind, speak about his work.  Jonathan is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis, he gave a great TED talk in 2008 on moral psychology and a few weeks ago he gave another great TED talk on transcendence.

It’s hard to imagine better timing for the publication of The Righteous Mind.  As chronicled in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, a significant part of the book focuses on why the political left and the political right in the United States don’t understand each other.  Given the unprecedented divides in U.S. politics today and the run-up to the presidential elections, The Righteous Mind is a sort of Rosetta Stone for deciphering everything from the Tea Party to the environmental movement to Occupy Wall Street.

Two of the underpinnings of Jonathan’s work – also explored by other authors – have already changed the way I understand the world.  The first is that reason follows intuition.   This means that we make decisions and form opinions with our intuitive minds, and then use our power to reason to support our intuitive decisions.  In Jonathan’s words, the intuitive (or emotional) dog wags the rational tail.   This is why we find it so incomprehensible that people with different moral outlooks don’t “just respond to the facts.”  We think that people look at facts to make decisions, when in fact they make decisions and then look for facts that support those decisions.

(and “people” isn’t everyone else, it’s you too.  That’s the really important part.)

The second big insight for me is around the notion of sacredness.  Jonathan argues that to begin to really understand people, you have to understand what is sacred to them.  The left and the right in the U.S. (on social issues) hold very different things sacred, and if you, in Jonathan’s words, “follow the sacredness” you’ll have a whole new window into how people process information and form their opinions.  So, as Jonathan described it, the right in the U.S. holds moral order, marriage and faith sacred; the left currently consider the environment and issues around race and social justice sacred.   In both cases, Jonathan argued that sacredness creates “motivated ignorance.”  In Jonathan’s words, “when sacredness conflicts with truth, truth gets thrown under the bus.”

This helps explain to an exasperated liberal why conservatives “just don’t get it” about global warming just as it explains to an exasperated conservative why liberals “just don’t get” having religiously-affiliated hospitals institutions pay for contraceptives for their members is morally abhorrent.

Needless to say, I’m better at seeing one side of this exasperation than the other.  And that’s exactly the point.  A lot of my blogging and my work begins with a deep belief in and respect for others and the power of empathy.  I’d also like to think of myself as an open-minded person.  But Jonathan’s work forces me to ask myself whether I create the space to really understand and appreciate what is sacred to other people whose morality differs fundamentally from my own.

It helps me understand why people won’t look at the same convincing, powerful facts that I will and just change their opinions.

It helps us all understand why we all have so much trouble understanding one another, why this country is so divided and why it seems to be getting worse, not better.

Jonathan’s request of us all in this 2008 TED talk is that we embrace moral humility, that we step out of the “moral matrix” that limits us to seeing and respecting people who share our morality and our values.  It is a challenging notion, and an important one, one that turns my world upside-down…in a good way.