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Promoting and Poisoning Change

Posted by Ken Klaus on February 6, 2011


And now, at last, we come to the final post in this series.  Thanks for sticking with me.  We’ve already covered the necessity of choice as well as the catalysts and essential elements that ignite and fuel the transformation process.  Previously we also noted that there were agents that amplify and weaken the transformation process.  These agents are called promoters and poisons; and what is true in chemistry is also true in our personal and vocational lives.  There are attitudes, ideas, and people that can strengthen and support our efforts or can resist, even spoil our endeavors.  Though these agents will differ depending on our objectives and personal circumstances, I do think there are some that will always be present.

Let’s start with the agents that poison the transformation process.  Chief among them, I think, is cynicism.  A cynic is distrustful of someone else’s ideas or motives; but cynicism does not necessarily need to be directed outwardly, toward others; it can also be aimed inwardly, at our own thoughts and intentions.  Now questioning our ideas and motives is certainly a part of the decision making process; but cynicism is not the same as honest reflection.  Cynicism becomes an end in itself.  It is designed to obstruct and incapacitate.  A cynic, including our own inner pessimist, is only concerned with why something cannot be done, and does care to offer ideas on how to reach our goal. Cynicism is static.  It stands still, frozen in time, incapable of action.  Whereas idealism moves us forward.  It chooses to act and embraces change.

Another agent that is toxic to change is perfectionism.  Perfectionism poisons our efforts in two ways.  The first sounds something like this: “You’ll never get everything sorted out the way you want it, so why bother trying.”  There’s a truth hidden in this lie that makes it hard to dispute, which is why we so often accept it at face value.  The truth being that we will never get everything sorted out.  Life is complicated and messy and there are too many components to account for all the possibilities; but the lie comes in the assertion that we shouldn’t try.  Human history has shown that progress is dependent on the attempt, even if that effort ends in failure the first, second, tenth or hundredth time.  Success is built on failure.  If we don’t try we can’t fail. If we don’t fail we will never succeed.

The other way perfectionism poisons our efforts sounds something like this: “You’re doing it all wrong?”  Second-guessing every decision, critiquing every step you make, brooding over the other choices, the ones you “should” have made, becomes a drag, a literal weight, on the transformation process.  We lose momentum and, more importantly, we lose focus.  We spend our time drifting among the “what-ifs” and the path forward turns into a maze of endless possibilities.  A choice is a choice and once we make it we need to move forward, whether it leads to failure or to success.  When we choose to move to a new location, then we must leave our old homes behind.  When we choose to start a new career, then we must leave our old jobs behind.  When we choose to follow our own dreams, then we must give up the dreams that others have for us.   In the end we can either risk a change, and move forward with our lives, or we can play it safe and remain where we are; but if we choose the latter then we surrender all hope of ever finding any real meaning or purpose in life.

Which brings us finally to the agents, which facilitate, enhance and strengthen our efforts to change and perhaps also those things, which give meaning and purpose to our lives: optimism and connectionOptimism is so much more than “positive-thinking.”  Optimism is rooted in honesty and action.  We cannot simply hope that things will work out for the best; we must act and we must do so honestly.  When we fail – and we will – we must choose to persist, to move forward, and not simply fall back into the old routines.  We pause, re-evaluate, and adjust our course; driven not by perfectionism, but from an honest awareness that our first instinct may not always be the right way to go.  We all have a blindside when it comes to making decisions because we tend to overvalue our intuition.  We trust our gut more than is reasonable or rational.  Dan Ariely proves this point over and over again in his books Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality.  In the decision making process we are rarely (if ever) rational.  This means we need others to help broaden our viewpoint, to challenge our assumptions, and to support our choices.  Not cynics, but honest, invested, objective individuals who can help inform our decisions without undue influence or hidden motives.

Here is where connection becomes an essential agent in helping to promote and sustain meaningful change.  Having others – friends, family, and colleagues – who can offer honest, objective insight is critical.  Our natural – meaning irrational – decision making process is nearly impossible to overcome, even when we know we are being unreasonable.  We have only to look at our histories, the patterns in our lives that repeat over and over again to see this is true.  Though the final decision must be ours, having others in our lives who are willing to debate, disagree, and suggest other possibilities seriously ups our chances for success.  In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brene Brown makes this point clear.

Connection [is] the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.  One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on “going it alone.”  Somehow we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone.  Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves.  It’s as if we’ve divided the world into “those who offer help” and “those who need help.”  The truth is we are both.

Change – meaningful, sustained transformation – will likely prove to be the hardest and the most rewarding venture we can embark upon; and reclaiming our lives and our vocations and our dreams may require a significant and fundamental transformation in how we think about ourselves and our place and purpose in this world.  But the risk, by comparison, is small.  Because if our lives and vocations and dreams are not already our own, then what can we loose by choosing to leave them behind in search of a more authentic and meaningful life?

4 Responses to “Promoting and Poisoning Change”

  1. Meg Bear said

    Of course, the asking for help reminder is such a great one. It is amazing how easy it is to forget that asking for help gives benefit to both the giver and receiver. I’ve needed to be reminded of this recently.

    • Ken Klaus said

      Meg, I struggle in this area as well and I think it may have something to do with the transition from adolescence to adulthood as we move from dependence to being self-sufficient. Fortunately, I also think our willingness / ability to ask for help is only latent and can easily be relearned – at least that’s my hope. =)

  2. I like and agree with the overall premise of your article, however I find your descriptions of both cynicism and perfectionism and the impact they have to be quite simplistic, to be honest. Cynicism is not simply distrust of someone’s ideas or motives but instead is a philosophical outlook built upon selfish motivations and the distrust of other people’s professed motivations. When used properly, you can harness a cynic’s attitude and motivation in order to meet their own personal standards and motivators. Someone who drives themselves to a goal based upon selfish motives can quite often outpace a more altruistic person who is content to settle for “good enough”.

    It is often useful to cast a cynical eye on a project when these projects are far too optimistic and when properly used can ground a project and make it far more manageable. Like anything, the key is to use and harness it appropriately and not dismiss it out of hand.

    Likewise, perfectionism can be a powerful driver to constantly improving a project when used properly (such as during Kaizen). Yes, it can weigh you down (figuratively, not literally) and cause a project to drag, but also again that’s the responsibility of a good manager… to make sure it gets harnessed properly to turn it into something positive instead of negative.

    • Ken Klaus said

      Gary, thanks so much for your comment. I agree that both cynicism and perfectionism can be used to motivate and drive process improvement, though I think there are probably better tools available to managers. My narrow definition in this post was intended to point out those occasions when they become road blocks for change, rather than tools to move us forward. Hope that helps to clarifying things a bit. Cheers, Ken

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