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The Blindness of Civility

Have I mentioned it’s dangerous to commission an Explorer?

Explorers aren’t often burdened with being socially correct or politically expedient. They’re not worried about making friends or influencing people. Instead they’re dodging foes, battling elements and bushwacking trails. They’re busy expanding territories and forging frontiers. Exploration remains a dangerous activity, and its pursuit must sometimes tread on delicate civilities.

I realized this again yesterday during a conversation with one of our Commissioners (clients). We were pushing them to challenge their acceptance of a status quo position. Change is always hard, and the internal pressure to keep things the same often acts like a paralyzing reverse inertia.

Receiving an outside perspective is hard for most people. And it’s especially hard for organizations. Seeing today differently in the hopes of making tomorrow better is like barbecuing today’s sacred cows for tomorrow’s lunch. It can feel almost uncivilized. In the day-to-day of our lives, whether it's sitting with the same coworkers each day or visiting the same checkout clerk at the grocery store, we truly want to be kind and we want to be helpful. This is good. This civility is what allows people to work together and create beautiful, chaos-free organizations, neighborhoods or communities.

But in all that civility we can become blind. When we see the same things every day we get used to them. They become familiar and they become comfortable. We tend to be creatures of habit. Change is not what most people do by nature. Consequently we get used to the status quo. And whether it's something that's working well, or maybe more importantly, something that is not working well, it’s often easier to look at the situation and say, “It's good enough.”

When Explorers walk into an organization they’re always looking with a fresh set of eyes. And in this fresh view there is the dangerous Explorer asking what I call the dangerous questions. The questions are dangerous, in one sense, because they’re often “the stupid questions.” But in the bigger sense, the dangerous questions are the questions to which everybody in the organization thinks they already know the answer. In reality, they may know yesterday’s answer. Or they have the wrong answer. Or worse, they have no answer at all and don’t realize it. The dangerous questions put the status quo under review by allowing the situation to be evaluated and considered in a new way, creating the potential for change.

In my conversation yesterday, the phrase, "Well, you know..." was invoked by the Commissioner as a matter-of-fact justification for something that wasn't working. It was a fallacy, and my dangerous questions exposed this, albeit uncomfortably. I kept charging, knowing that there was a better way and that the current system was broken. Their comfortable insider perspectives couldn’t perceive the problem because they were stuck in the status quo, believing a weak solution was better than no solution.

Hiring an Explorer is dangerous, especially if your preference is for things to not change. But then again, how dangerous is it to allow the status quo to rule by default? Are you blind to dangerous things in your organization which civility may be blindly protecting?

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