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  • Writer's pictureMarc Roudebush

The Soul of SOL

My favorite moment of the workshop led by Peter Senge and Robert Hanig last Spring (“Foundations of Leadership,” presented by the Society for Organizational Learning, or SoL) was when Peter demonstrated through a simple exercise how futile--and yet very tempting--it is to manipulate others so that they will say “yes” to us; and conversely, how effective it is to simply be congruent and “let the chips fall where they may.” Ironically, we sometimes find it easier to be contrived than to be ourselves.

(The exercise was conducted in pairs, with each “principal” speaking about a genuine aspiration and each counterpart pretending to be a potentially helpful “expert”). Imagine describing an element of your vision to an expert and asking for their help. (For example you want to raise a second round of investment and are talking to a Venture Capital expert.) Now imagine the expert replies, simply and definitively, “no.” How do you feel? As you can imagine, people reported “angry, disappointed, betrayed, indignant, entitled, embarrassed, numb”, and the like.

Next, we ran the same scenario again, but with the expert saying “yes.” Of course this time participants reported “happy, thankful, inspired, connected, validated,” and the like. My own partner commented that my face lit up with a big smile. The reactions seemed almost involuntary.

Senge commented that the “data” (our reactions) showed that one of the forces at play when we talk with others about things we care about is a strong preference for acceptance and agreement. It’s automatic and pulls at us like an outgoing wave on the shore. The temptation to minimize our vision, hide our vulnerability, exaggerate our independence, and diminish what we ask for (or worse, not ask at all) can be very strong--even overwhelming. And it is when we succumb to this temptation that we find ourselves subtly manipulating others. Erroneously, we believe they hold the key to our emotional satisfaction, and that we have to get them to say “yes” in order to feel OK.

In his typically non-confrontational way, Peter insisted that “manipulation is a technical term,” meaning that it was not meant as an accusation or judgment but simply an observation about how humans, in our natural, defensive moments, tend to objectify and “use” others in order to get our own needs met. We all know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of this sort of manipulation: yuck!!

This was my favorite moment of the program because it opened a clear and distinct gap for most of the participants. None of us thought of ourselves as manipulators, as “bad used car salesmen”, and yet all of us could see how sometimes we could have this impact on other people. Even when our “espoused” values were to be honest and respectful, we were liable to have difficulty “walking the talk” in these situations.

So what is a regular guy (or gal) to do? The next exercise offered an antidote: Think for a moment about something you really enjoy doing and describe it to your partner. (In my case, it was dancing to funk music in the kitchen with my kids). To what extent did you concern yourself about what your partner would think? (Answer: none at all...). How did the partner feel when listening to this? (Answer: drawn in, engaged, connected, delighted.... one participant reported “I wanted to join his family holiday”).

Adopting an almost folksy tone, Peter summarized the “keys to enrollment” as follows:

-Be enrolled yourself

-Be on the level (meaning don't manipulate)

-Let the chips fall where they may !

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