[ICYMI] Moving Around Deck Chairs on the Titanic

The corollary question to, “Does any of this stuff really work?” is “Does anybody really change?”

The writer and marketer Seth Godin, in his most recent audio production, Leap First, talked about how people often need to hear assurances. Assurances that everything is going to be alright in spite of organizational layoffs or familial changes, or assurances that the future (of work, life, the economy, etc.) is going to be just the same as the past, but slightly better.

He stated that the reason people need to hear assurances is that the human lizard brain turns on a jabbering, sabotaging, klaxon of alarm bells when assurances are not wrapped around threatening information. This is a defense mechanism, long developed and honed to a point that sabotages needed changes in organizations.

In relation to conflict, we see evidence of such a need in the training and teaching that we do. In the mediations that we no longer do, we used to see that clients needed assurances that there would be safety, autonomy and self-determination at the mediation table; before they even sat down to do the scary work of confronting their former partners, husbands or wives.

In the effort to educate people in how to approach conflicts, difficulties and even confrontation in better ways in their organizations, we have struggled with the practical fact of having to provides assurances to “grease the runway”—while also having to provide challenging information that will encourage audience members and clients to stretch past their comfort zones.

Comfort zones are the geographic location where the “expert” lives (whether in a person’s head or a person’s organization). The “expert” employs the whispers of the lizard brain, assuring us, even as we are stretched by new knowledge that “only minor changes need to be made,” or “that’ll never happen here, the organization is too big,” or “we’ve always done it one way. Don’t worry. That guy will be gone tomorrow and you can get back to doing what you were doing the way that you were doing it.”

The phrase “moving around deck chairs on the Titanic” indicates a person (or organization) choosing to act in a futile manner to solve a minor problem (the arrangement of the deck chairs) while a major problem (the looming iceberg) goes unaddressed.

Does anybody really change? We don’t know.

We hope (and yes, we know that “hope” is not a scalable strategy–we measure and assess outcomes as well) that every person who attends a workshop, a seminar, a corporate training, or a keynote chooses to exit their comfort zones in some small way to do the work that matters around conflict, confrontation and difficulty in their organizations.

But moving deck chairs around is the mental, emotional and spiritual activity of an organization deep in their comfort zone, being soothed with assurances, which lap upon the sides of the organizational body, even as changes loom in the distance.

Originally published on April 24, 2015.

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