»Business beyond the Binary«

  • 10.07.2019
  • von Gastautor*in
A beautiful article by Dr. Francesca Mega about dancing with diversity, complexity and Rilke ...
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“We will talk, we will debate, we may argue; but more than ever, we will go IN DEPTH. Because things are complicated. Things are complex. Things need to be thought through, discussed and looked at from different angles. This is why we are dedicating the next re:publica to the long read, the small print, the footnotes; to the power of research, the power of controversy and the urgency not to simplify the issues that divide (or unite!) us.”

This was the mission statement of this year’s re:publica festival in Berlin, printed on various surfaces, from booklets, to tote bags, to giant screens. When I first saw the statement, it caught my attention right away, as these sentiments are so much in line with the vision that drives my work. I feel that in this practice of holding the tension of complexity and not-knowing lies the potential to move beyond the dividing lines of fear that are becoming more prevalent in our society — whether it be due digitalization, globalization or the environmental crisis.  

If we are to build organizations that serve to shape a positive future, both for people and planet, we cannot underestimate how the way our minds and attitudes are shaped affect those organizations. As Simon Berkler recently put it in a brilliant piece in the Journal of Beautiful Business: 

„The concept of multiple intelligences and of subtle, intangible qualities applies not only to individuals, but to groups of people like organizations and companies. In our era, the gestalt of traditional power hierarchies no longer provides the stability it did in a time of slower technological and social change. The “predict and control” paradigm that worked well in stable circumstances has proven ineffective in our current highly complex environment.“

Simon Berkler, Seeing the Soul of Organizations

What does this have to do with business and binaries, you might be wondering? Good question.

Organizations are built by people, shaped by people and inhabited by people. By humans. As humans, we have a tendency to categorize and judge. More often than not, by dividing things into either-or: good / bad, right / wrong, rational / irrational, male / female. The list goes on.

We value one option higher than the other. Patriarchal structures value the ‘male’ category higher than the female. The good/bad binary is used as moral compass. The rational/irrational binary is often used to decide whether an action or behavior is to be taken seriously (rational), or dismissed (irrational). Within a business context, this notion of ‘rationality’ is an interesting and pervasive one. A simplified notion, which has its own history, context and problematic. For now, suffice it to say that much effort has been expended in trying to make sure that people behave “rationally” (whatever that may mean). Often to the detriment of what is considered the lesser counterpart: emotions. 

Similarly, out-of-the box thinking is highly valued, especially in business contexts, but in practice often penalized. Think about all of the innovative business models that have turned out successfully but began their lifespan by being laughed off as ‘crazy’ (such as Twitter, AirBnB or Facebook, to name just a few). If the practices we have in business keep us constantly within confined spaces of thought and action, how do we expect to unleash real creativity and innovation? 

The binary categories can not only be used to elevate one above the other and therefore create a hierarchy (e.g. good over bad, rational over irrational, etc.), but everything in-between becomes invisible.

We excel at creating spaces filled with voices that mirror our own thoughts and opinions. But we are uncomfortable with embracing differences. 

“In philosophy, “you’re either with us or against us” is considered a false dichotomy or a false dilemma. It’s a move to force people to take sides. If other alternatives exist (and they almost always do), then that statement is factually wrong. It’s turning an emotion-driven approach into weaponized belonging. And it always benefits the person throwing down the gauntlet and brandishing those forced, false choices.” Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone

What’s more, with every generalization, every stereotypical categorization we make, we fall prey to losing out on the nuances. The quieter tones. But just because a voice is less loud doesn’t mean that the words it is saying are any less valid or worth hearing. Your introverted colleague has equally brilliant ideas as your extroverted boss, but they may not be heard as easily. Or think about the dismissal of opinions from younger or from female team members. 

If we want to come up with new solutions we need to lean in to the differences and divergences. We need to listen to those that disagree with us, rather than shaming them for being different or getting into (online or offline) screaming matches. 

Thankfully, there is a way out. A different perspective. One that allows for seeing things – including ourselves – as they are, rather than preemptively passing judgment. It requires us to hold space for complexity. 

Complexity means that things are complicated. That there might not be an easy answer. And that is something we are increasingly being faced with — both as individuals as well as organizations (which are made up of individuals). We have a hard time dealing with complexity, because it ultimately requires us to embrace uncertainty and not-knowing — something we rarely have a chance to practice.

So how do we get there? How can we practice embracing uncertainty? 

The first step would be to normalize not knowing and failing as part of the learning process. To allow the not-knowing, the wondering, the uncertainty.

Which can be challenging. And frightening. But we do ourselves a disservice, if we constantly try to simplify. Because we tend to forget that we have done so. We tend to equate the simplified, generalized, the essentialized, with the underlying truth. Like equating the map with the landscape. But while a map is useful in solving the task of orienting ourselves, it can never fully capture the feeling of  the wind in the trees, the rolling hills or chopped sea waters crashing against the jagged cliffside. We miss out on the nuances. Creating the impression that reality is much more bland and similar and simple, than it really is.

We need the outside view and marginalized voices. The liminal spaces and ideas on the fringes of consciousness. More often than not, these are the ones driving change and innovation. After all, innovation by definition requires us to reach beyond what we know and are used to. Hence the (perhaps overused) phrase “magic happens outside the comfort zone”.

And we do ourselves a disservice, because we become unused to the tensions between complex categories. The intersections and margins. We risk training our minds to see an individual not as individual but as category exemplar. Seeing the stereotypes we believe about people as representing the people. Such as the stereotypes towards women in positions of power, or feminine presenting men, or ‘blue collar’ workers. Creating the feeling that our impression of the world is equal to the state of the world. But it isn’t. It’s shaped by our attitudes and beliefs. By our upbringing, our cultural and social background. If we don’t work on challenging the essentialized categories, we continue the path towards a polarization of society. Because that’s what essentialism and binaries do. They divide. They mark fault lines. 

Categorization is a first step towards curation, systematization and organization. It introduces the potential for inclusion/exclusion and the building of hierarchies, effectively creating means to restrict access to power, visibility and what is deemed ‘normal’ or ‘different’.

So what do we do? 

  • Make an effort to leave your echo chamber

How can we combat this reflex to categorize and make sure we don’t “simplify the issues that divide (or unite) us”? A first step in order to make space for difference, for divergence from the norm, is to make an effort to leave the echo chamber — the previously mentioned spaces filled with voices that mirror our own thoughts and opinions — every once in a while. Because the cognitive processes behind making judgments (good/bad, right/wrong, positive/negative) can be trained. They are influenced by the choices we make as well as the mental models we adopt. 

Our brains are constantly running through so-called action-perception loops. Ultimately, our mental capacities are designed to prepare us for action. Therefore how and what we perceive gets analyzed and integrated incredibly quickly, in order to then make a reasonable prediction as to what action to take. 

If we don’t intervene in the way of putting a little bit of space between perception and action (or stimulus and response, if you will), we run the risk of our brains running amok with stereotypes and biases we have acquired throughout our lifetime. The work of Lisa Feldmann-Barrett shows this impressively. Based on social neuroscience, Feldmann-Barrett has contributed a large body of research on stereotyping, for example shining a light on the way that law enforcement officers in the United States are more likely to identify and object held by a person of color as ‘gun’ as they are if the person holding the object is white.

In a similar vein, some of my own research has shown that our personal context and experience influences how we perceive other people’s gender and sexual identity — with people who self-identify as queer being more deliberate, analytical and varied in their judgments than people who self-identify as heterosexual.

Just as stones are assembled by people into a house, facts are assembled into knowledge by people. This assembling of facts is susceptible to the introduction of personal beliefs and biases into the process by the people doing the assembling.

“We’re going to need to intentionally be with people who are different than us. We’re going to have to sign up, join, and take a seat at the table. We’re going to have to learn how to listen, have hard conversations, look for joy, share pain, and be more curious than defensive, all while seeking moments of togetherness.” ― Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone

We need to hold off on the reflex of passing judgment and rather make space for compassion and understanding. This is a process. And a practice. Not something that happens overnight, but a mental shift that needs to be cultivated by repetition and driven by intrinsic motivation.

As diversity and inclusion are increasingly becoming recognized as driving motors of well-functioning organizations and societies, this motivation will only increase. That leaves the practice part to be taken care of. And that is something each of us can decide to focus on. Right now. As individual in your private life as well as a part of the organizations and spaces you move through. To collectively create businesses in which true diversity is not just lip service but a core value. 

  • Practicing compassion

As our world shifts into challenges of enormous proportions, we will need all the help we can get. That includes the help of all of our mental faculties, as well as acknowledging the potential within every single human being – regardless of the essentialized categories we may have been socialized to sort them into.

One very simple but beautifully effective exercise to combat this reflex of essentializing and ‘othering’ comes from contemplative practices and is called ‘Just like me’. In this exercise, one imagines the myriad ways in which a person – perhaps a person whose views or practices are divergent to one’s own – is like oneself. The visceral reaction one has to realizing how much of this experience of our humanity we actually share with each other holds surprising effects. I encourage you, to give it a try!

  • Loving the questions themselves

“I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” RM Rilke, Letters to a young poet

Another way there begins by “loving the questions themselves”, as Rilke said, rather than reflexively reaching for the (seemingly) simple answer to the complexity we have before us. Here are some questions, I would like to leave you with:

Can you make an effort to perceive the variations of our humanness and hold them in your awareness? As well as our unifying features?

Can you honor the manifold expressions of our shared humanity as valuable and worthy?

I am passionate about catalyzing transformation, clarifying intentions and connecting people – to themselves, each other & the world.
I understand my work as being in service of revolutionizing the way we work together, by shifting how we think about and relate to ourselves and each other.
I do this by facilitating trainings, consulting, speaking and writing. I used to research what is known as „gut feelings“ and embodied cognition. Today I teach people how to use them. I call this „embodied intuition“.

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