top of page

Why is it so hard to get people to do what we want?(Part 2)

Part 2: The roots of reason are profoundly emotional

Why would anyone believe in a new plan, without getting comfortable with it, without understanding and trusting all the interactions necessary to make it happen down the line in advance? For many, the first thought, when hoping to accomplish a new goal, might be to call a meeting to explain it to key personnel. But that’s unlikely to get things moving.

What’s wrong with meetings? Well, if we can get people to come to the meeting at all, we may try to manufacture a collaboration. A would-be leader then presents a fait accomplit — the ultimate solution to the problem. Powerpoint! Diagrams! Gant charts! Ritualistic symbols and meeting protocols are all in play to describe a rational plan (often with step-by-step flowcharts) to accomplish someone’s intended goal. Irrefutable logic! Just do as I say. Look how easy I made it for you! You don’t even need to think for yourselves!

Finally, someone emits a rousing cry of “Off we go then!” And we hope that’s all there is to it — but, this rarely succeeds. Potential collaborators may be left confused or even angry with the imposition of such plans. Why weren’t we consulted, why should we trust your judgement? This feels more like an attack than a collaboration! This is especially true when teams become tribes with their own emergent leadership and an external boss walks in out of nowhere without bonding with them first, hoping to be accepted as the alpha, without a showdown.

Trust your feelings, Luke!

In part 1 of this series, I suggested a model in which we can think of trust as an exercise in bonding, one that has to pass through roughly four key layers of interaction. Promise Theory tells us that impositions — imposing ideas (actually anything) — are likely to be ineffective unless there is already overwhelming trust, indeed unquestioning acceptance between parties. But that kind of trust takes time and effort to build. We have to build trust, by rehearsal, usually beforepresenting plans if we’re hoping to create a resonance, and the way we start that is by gradually inviting cooperation. It’s not something we can normally do head on by fiat — rather, we start with the foundations of acceptance and build up through the four layers.

Curiously, we tend to trust our feelings more than we trust others’ facts or rational arguments, because — although our primitive feelings may “compute” in mysterious ways — we’re used to all them, and therefore we trust them more on some level than the unknown. Those mysterious emotions reliably cut through the complexities of rational reasoning. Daniel Kahneman called this interplay between emotion and reason the "system 1 and system 2" of thinking “fast and slow”.

In part 1 of this series, I sketched out how winning trust and influence, for cooperation, can be thought of a multi-layered process that builds up from our emotional interactions to more machine-like processes for step by step implementation. In this part, I want to discuss how the relevant promises actually begin on that raw emotional level of personality.

Isn’t Law simply The Answer? The desire to secure cooperation in law, to nail down certainty and provide all possible guarantees from harm, is one of the more contrary developments in modern business thinking. Using the law as an end-run probably reduces trust at the outset. Contracts often attempt to lock down behaviour, rights, and even misappropriate intellectual property (including that which has no reasonable connection to the business). This throws down a glove that cries out “I don’t trust you”, either submit to complete ownership or walk away! It's the opposite of an invitation between peers. I won’t try to offer an answer to this here, it’s something for everyone to think about! Why would anyone sign such a contract? How much certainty do you think you can honestly have?

Manufacturing trust for collective action

Trust is the currency of time-saving. If you can’t trust, you have to verify — and verifying is expensive. So we verify until we feel either satisfied or merely exhausted. Our assessments depend on our interior state of mind, building on on all that we’ve learnt and experienced. Trust is learning.

Reasoning is expressed relatively slowly, by telling long stories. Stories are the supply chains that lead to answers, each leg answering the doubts of the previous legs — if you trust them! Feelings are a way to quickly truncate those logical supply chain doubts with quick summary judgements. Evolution has thus given us “Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow”, as Daniel Kahneman put it. Even the longest trains of reasoning are usually ended by a simple sense of satisfaction.

The four levels of promises–each building on trust from the one below — are:

  1. The landscape of personalities.

  2. The space of conversations.

  3. The world of themes and ideas.

  4. The factory of step by step plans.

We’re looking at the first of these here. When building cooperation, first impressions rely on our most fundamental emotional assessments (in 21st century culture we speak of “emotional safety"), because that underpins everything else. It makes sense that emotions would be an efficient, if blunt, instrument for decision-making. That reptilian-animal brain was at work in nature long before we evolved a capability for reasoned storylines. Also, we’re far too staunchly proud of our higher reasoning, and (ironically) that emotionalpride leads us to overestimate the power of reason to convince us!

Examples of pride overcoming reason can be seen everywhere in the news during the COVID pandemic. People are feeling vulnerable, and feel their autonomy is being compromised by rallying cries for the greater good. The response for many is then to reject cooperation out of hand. But this is not unique to the pandemic. It's all around us, when we feel violated.

According to Promise Theory, we should be able to represent all interactions in terms of the overlap of external capabilities that we call “promises” on some level — something that's offered and how much is accepted. Don’t get too hung up on the term "promise": it’s just a convenient abstraction that could represent any kind of attribute or capability that we offer or accept between agents. A promise might refer to a process outcome or the shape of someone’s nose. More important is why we may choose to offer or accept the offers presented by others.

Don’t confuse promises with contracts. Contracts are much more complicated, and are built from many levels of promises.

Getting to the promise of collaboration boils down to these questions:

  • Are people willing to listen?

  • Will they hear what we’re offering, or only what they want to hear?

  • Are people willing to be led or be guided (by a person, by rules, etc)?

Each of us is limited by our particular skills and gifts. We are autonomous in our capabilities, our habits, and ultimately in our choices. To corral and align those implicit and standalone promises into a concerted action, it takes many rounds of learning, in which trust is built. We need to feel comfortable (not threatened), then we can start to listen. The experience of a relationship is the training course we tend to forget about. Every new thing has to be eased into, lest it slip back into the pattern of doing the old thing. Back to square one.

The promises of personal bonds

The term “culture” is a popular contemporary way to represent the patterns of interaction in a collective. A culture is a kind of descriptive "brand" for habitual behaviour, but both god and the devil lie in the details of what that means. If we include machines and humans in the same picture, culture can include procedures, algorithms, data, and design “code”. We shouldn’t assume that human behaviours are too special.

In the application of Promise Theory to Engineering Cooperation, I framed eight patterns, based on the Open Leadership Network's patterns, in a way that’s independent of human or machine identity. The patterns use Promise Theory to describe the dynamics and the protocols that distinguish a number of key phenomena in the human sphere. I won’t go into the details here, as these are described in the books, videos, and online classes–but we can summarize the outcomes.

How can an emotion be thought of as a promise? Think quite generally. It’s something that comes from within us, as an intrinsic property, and anything that reliably originates from a source, can be considered to be a kind of promise. It’s just a word that captures a lot of phenomena in which something is offered and we may voluntarily take it or leave it. It’s the opposite of an obligation or a coercion.

For emotions and personalities, individual characteristics and patterns shape our responses and assessments. Based on such assessments, we may make, keep, or even break promises higher up the chain–because promises are intimately linked to trust.

The eight patterns for trust building —here they are, quickly applied to the emotional layer:

* Acceptance and agreement — offering and accepting promises to form stable understanding and the roles of agents to one another. A plan offered can only be carried out if someone is listening. Individual characteristics may lead to us into hearing only what we want to hear. Commonalities may reinforce between two agents, resonating to build a long lasting and reliable collaboration circuit — or the opposite, an endless feud. Promising to accept something offered is the prerequisite for listening. Emotional contentment and positive feelings may usher along this cooperation, but fear, pride and anger get in the way, and therefore trust is never built out of anger or pride. Emotional acceptance may involve empathizing with a counterpart — do we accept their state of mind without prejudice?

* Common knowledge (shared commons) — informed or misinformed, we need to have access to common information to have alignment. That follows the acceptance by all. The commons is a calibrator. We also have to share access to promised resources. If more than two parties are involved, it quickly leads to a shared space. We feel threatened when we don’t have the full picture, and this brews pride, fear, blame, even attack. We often respond to negative emotions by trying to force, blame, or impose on others–further undermining trust. Deception will undermine trust, openness will tend to build it. If we can’t get past this first layer of sharing, how shall we hold a meaningful conversation about something bigger?

* Service — What do we do for each other? What useful function do we fulfil in each others' lives? The service pattern tells us that there are two kinds of service arrangement made from promises: i) service on demand, and ii) self-service. The key difference is who goes first. Do we i) impose (demand) an outcome like a boss, i.e. make a request and expect or hope for a response, or ii) do we offer something potentially beneficial unconditionally — like a supermarket, with a selection of ready-made outcomes off the shelf— and hope it will entice? When sharing our current state of thinking, do we begin with generosity of spirit or begrudging expectation? Will we lead the way, or impose on others to go first? Who will shoulder the risk of failure?

* Responsibility for outcomes: the promise theoretical Downstream Principle says that the more downstream we are (closer to downstream client than the upstream server, in the supply chain), the more responsibility we have for ensuring the outcome we need from a service. Ultimate responsibility falls on the recipient benefactor. If they haven’t promised any contingencies, like redundant backups for failures upstream etc, then anger often leads them to lash out and try to blame something or someone else for the lack of promised planning. Promise Theory describes the mechanics of these patterns for risk mitigation.

* Rights and privileges granted: rights are not things we can demand, they’re favours granted by the custodians or owners of the resources we seek. Agents are always at the mercy of the custodians of a resource. Concepts like universal and basic human rights are tricky to argue for, because they have to navigate differences in agents’ individual values. Who are you to demand how I treat you? The ability to persuade and negotiate rights also depends on a trusted connection. A right is offered when a custodian or owner promises to offer the desired behaviour or resource as a virtual “service”. That service can be withdrawn if it’s not perceived as beneficial to the custodian. We can’t impose or demand the rights we desire from someone or something that doesn’t voluntarily intend to cooperate. Persuasion requires trust building to make headway.

* Authority and power: Authority is a catch-all term for the conditional right to provide something as a service (usually advice or knowledge). How does the right emerge? Promise Theory explains it. Any such service is useless if no one accepts it, so acting as an authority depends on a prior willingness to accept it (a promise to accept). We may signal acceptance of an authority role by voting, or with body language, and so on. What could emotional authority mean? It looks like charisma, i.e. the extent to which we trust the “sense” of a person and what they signal: are we being misled, manipulated, or is there an honest even beneficial intent? If our assessments pan out over repeated interactions, it can form the basis for trusted authoritative conversations.

* Invitation: the unconditional generosity of the self-service pattern can go a step further. A first mover, who shoulders some risk, signals a readiness to deal, to play, or to negotiate. An act of good faith is an opening gambit that generally builds trust, whereas demands and requests (impositions) tend to dismantle trust over time. Promising something unconditionally is a rare act of generosity, and if we mishandle such opportunities, they might not be repeated. Invitation is one expression of that. What is emotional invitation? It could mean starting with happy or a sad face, a positive or a negative tone, suggesting unconditional support — sympathy. If one starts a conversation, filled with pride and resentment, it will quickly taint any further relationship.

* Leadership: putting all the patterns together we have a picture of leadership as the right to provide advice as a service, where the ultimate responsibility for following the leader lies with the followers. In order to be authoritative, there has to be alignment between leader and follower. In terms of emotional leadership, we might speak of culture representing a pattern.

If all this sounds trivial, then perhaps it is. But practising is harder than preaching. If it’s so obvious, then why do we get it wrong so often? The sense of a hierarchy of importance or privilege feeds into this. Promise Theory explains that through rights too.

Summary: Come back, over?


bottom of page