veryone’s been very grumpy this week. Is it the rain?
A strategy session this week with a particularly delightful and smart team got into grumpy territory. The team got stuck on not being smart enough, on not having been quick enough to spot something that had been going on in the business.
Strange, because it wasn’t true.
We unraveled a most fantastic chain of thinking.
It all started with one person reporting a feeling familiar to so many of us after a tough meeting. You know that mental ‘slap’ you feel as you think of exactly the right response? That excellent response thought that arrives approximately 7 minutes after you have left the room?
The French call it ‘ l’esprit d’escalier’ (my team called it ‘wit delayed’) describing how the perfect response (mot juste?) occurs as you leave by the stairs.
I think this disguises what has actually happened.
I don’t think it’s slow thinking or delayed wit.
I think it’s the fact that another meaning beneath what has been said to you has had to be weighed alongside the apparent surface message. I think this ‘esprit d’escalier’ happens when a seriously forked tongue conversation has been going on. Who wouldn’t need a few minutes to reconcile the un-reconcilable? Who wouldn’t need a few minutes to excavate the unreasonableness beneath the apparent reason?
It would be easy to blame the inexorable increase of general obfuscation in business speak. (Why say ‘how does this look to others?’ when you can ask ‘what are the optics here’? (!))
But an article about evolutionary science that I happened to have read offered us another lens with which to view what might have been going on. And seemed to help the team get to a less self-flagellating conclusion.
EO Wilson is the world authority on ‘eusociality’. He knows everything, as in everything, about ants. And natural selection. He and Richard Dawkins fell out spectacularly over the validity of the selfish gene theory to explain post Darwin thinking.
Unhampered by any relevant expertise I’m going to back the venerable Mr Wilson.
He notes two conflicting forces working for survival in all of us, at two levels. The individual level and the group level; the altruistic force and the selfish force. He tells us that a selfish force trumps an altruistic force within a group, but that an altruistic force trumps a selfish force amongst groups. The tension is constant – if we move too far along a selfish line individually, our ability to survive as a group will dissolve – yet if we move too far along an altruistic line as a group, we will all be eaten by another group.
Doesn’t this constant and alternating tension between group and individual survival sound as if it could be operating at an organizational level? So many ‘forked tongue’ conversations are essentially about this interplay. Might that be why sometimes unreasonableness seems to lie beneath reasonableness in tough business conversations – the tension between the selfish and the altruistic, the group level and the individual level? Perhaps that perfect response on the stairs appears delayed because it is a response to a genuinely complicated exchange, involving the identification of these opposing forces.
The team concluded that they were as smart as can be.
“Within groups, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals but in the selection of other traits of individuals that are interactive with other individuals – social traits – then groups of altruists defeat groups of selfish individuals,” Wilson explains. “In a nutshell, individual selection favours what we call sin and group selection favours virtue.”
From ants to organisations?