Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 44;   November 3, 2021:

Way Over Their Heads


For organizations in crisis, some but not all their people understand the situation. Toxic conflict can erupt between those who grasp the problem's severity and those who don't. Trying to resolve the conflict by educating one's opponents rarely works. There are alternatives.
Ecotourists visit an iceberg off Greenland

Ecotourists visit an iceberg off Greenland. The crisis of climate change provides an example of the kind of stalemate we discuss here, where one set of folks sees a problem that must be solved for the good of all, while another set does not.

When we say that something is "way over their heads," we mean that the people referenced lack the ability to understand the issue at hand. That conclusion is usually based on observations of their behavior. We observe that explaining it to them is futile. We observe that persuading them of the importance of grasping it is futile. And we observe that providing them information that could form the basis of understanding the issue is futile. We use these observations to conclude that the issue itself is way over their heads.

The observations might be valid. But often the conclusion is not. The people who "don't get it" are not stupid. But for some reason they don't see things as others do.

In such cases, what we're observing is each person's response to change. Understanding the issue at hand — the "something" that seems to be "way over their heads" — requires more than just new information, or training in logical thinking. It requires a change in perspective that has implications for how people make sense of the world. Changes like that are extraordinarily difficult. For us all.

From the To make progress in resolving a
crisis, everyone must make changes
perspective of the people who do understand the issue at hand (by a coin flip I'll call them the Blues), dealing with those who do not (the Greens) can be extraordinarily frustrating. It can tear asunder long-standing productive relationships, whole teams, or even entire organizations. In the most severe cases, Blue and Green must collaborate for the good of the organization, and in some instances, Blue and Green must collaborate for the very survival of the organization. When the Blues can't secure the Greens' assistance or support no matter what they try, frustration can erupt into toxic conflict.

Natural questions then arise. If the issue is important and urgent, how can the stalemate persist? In some cases, the stalemate is stable not because the Greens don't understand the problem, but because the Greens and Blues have different perspectives. To make progress, both Blues and Greens must make changes.

[Reminder: the Blues are the folks who understand the problem and who are ready to address it; the Greens are the folks who don't see a need to address the problem.]

Breaking the stalemate requires two changes on the part of the Blues.

Blues must understand what's sticky about the Old Status Quo
The Old Status Quo is the current way of understanding the world — the Greens' perspective. Greens want to continue to see the world in this way. They do so because the Old Status Quo provides them with something they value.
What they value need not be money or property, though it can be. It might be something as abstract as security or familiarity or social identity or social status. Whatever it is that Greens value, the Blues must appreciate that the change they're proposing might seem to the Greens to threaten that thing that the Greens value. Until the Blues can devise a means of making the New Status Quo more attractive than the Old Status Quo, the Greens are unlikely to welcome the perspective of the Blues.
The required change might be similar to past experiences Greens lament
Just as the Blues must find a way to attract Greens from the Old Status Quo to the New Status Quo, they must also find a way to reduce any perceived threats Greens associate with the New Status Quo. The difficulty in accomplishing this is that Blues might be unaware of any threats Greens perceive. For example, the required change might be similar to some unpleasant past events, either in this organization, or in other organizations Greens might imagine, remember, or otherwise know about.
Blues can try to guess what those unpleasant events might be, but a better method involves listening. Listening is more effective because what worries Greens might not be in the public record. Asking a Green might be the only way to learn what the Greens' concerns actually are.

What makes the stalemate stable is the Blues' assumption that changing the Greens' perspective about the issue is the only way to make progress. In most cases, that isn't a good starting place for change. The place to start is changing Blues' perspective about what Greens want and don't want. Go to top Top  Next issue: Should We Do This?  Next Issue

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