If You See a Bathroom Use it!
It’s a remarkable thing to have a grown up child, especially if you have reached an adult-to-adult relationship. My daughter and I were having a conversation recently about life lessons learned in school. She mentioned a particularly fine teacher who transmitted two important principles. The first was “life is not always fair” which is self-explanatory. The second was very insightful: “Do what I mean, not what I say.” This is an important principle that acknowledges the fact that much of our language is misspoken so if you recognize this and adjust your behavior you will be a better communicator and colleague. The principle also sends the message that literal interpretation of the spoken word will be viewed as either passive aggressive or smart-a----.
I was surprised and delighted to learn that she also remembered some lessons from her father. One was “If you see a bathroom use it.” This of course is not just about foreign travel, or later life, but is rather a metaphor about perception and action. Discussing and reflecting on this quip it occurred to me that most of the successful people I have known and worked with have these two propensities in abundance.
“Seeing the bathroom” is optimism or what some might call the “silver lining phenomenon.” There is research showing that people who have realistic optimism tend to have higher quality lives than those with a pessimistic outlook. This distinction holds up across a rather wide range of outcomes. However, our concern in this column is with managers.
The Chinese have a wonderfully telegraphic pair of ideograms (if you read Chinese) that eloquently capture this idea. The symbols mean “time is propitious” and a Chinese-English dictionary states “this is the critical point of crisis and opportunity which connotes the conditions under which change is likely to occur, and the conditions whereby some opportune moments distinguish themselves from the countless undistinguished moments of history.”
When I started my business in 1984 it was my intention to use these ideograms as a business logo. At the time we had a Chinese neighbor who was a university professor and so I showed him the symbols. He was bemused and noted that the meaning of the symbols was “hurry up, go fast.” He quickly showed me the correct ideograms and offered to paint them. That evening he came over to our home, mixed the ink then proceeded to use a lovely long brush to scribe the symbols. Watching him carry out this ritual was an experience that my wife and I will long remember. He then offered the dictionary definition that appears above. This is certainly more elegant that “if you see a bathroom…”
It seems to me that there is more here than realistic optimism. There is the use of connotation rather than denotation, the important distinction between the subtle and subjective rather than the literal. Seeing the opportunity requires the use of complex tacit information that may not be resident in our easy awareness.
“Opportune moments” tells us that timing is important, that there may be a right moment when an idea, concept or action will succeed and that the ability to comprehend that moment is a powerful cognitive skill. Effective managers understand the importance of context and how a conversation can have dramatically different effects depending on when, where and how it is enacted.
“Use it!” refers to another key characteristic of effective people. I often challenge clients to consider the hypothesis that “in any situation doing something is better than doing nothing.” This usually leads to a spirited round of conversation and reflection. Although this bias for action may not be appropriate in every situation it is a quality that has immediate and long-term effects if you are a manager. First, it puts you in control of the situation. One of my dearest colleagues often notes that if you come to a meeting with a plan and no one else does you own the meeting.
I once worked with an executive who was leading a difficult public sector turn-around. His take on this was he could call meetings, make people come and talk with each other and use his planning abilities to begin to rehabilitate the organization – and it worked. Archimedes: “If I have a lever long enough I can move the Earth,” effective meetings were his lever.
The second effect of “Use it” is that when you take action it changes the situation and opens up new options. As a consultant I have been in many situations where the client and I didn’t know the right thing to do but we did something and this altered the situation just enough to begin the change process. Sometimes organizational change has a trial and error characteristic to it, but a controlled trial and error characteristic.
Time is propitious – food for thought.