Sunday, September 21, 2008

Beware of polically-induced "spells" as they can mess with your reasoning

What’s the difference between a campaign of ‘hard questions’ about momentous issues and a carnival of lies? Lipstick.

---David Olive (September 20, 2008). Toronto Star

As some people like to say, “There’s a reason for everything”. Maybe Sarah Palin showed up in our lives because we needed a little more levity in a generally somber political environment. Fear, violence, climate upheaval and too much suffering around the world are taking their toll on our collective middle class psyches. Sarah has certainly been a distraction and a reminder that politicians play chess with our minds because that’s the way the game is played. A few little “truthies” and corn ball metaphors here and there are needed to camouflage all problems. Do you blame them?

On both sides of the border, the campaign adage is to repeat something often enough until it becomes real even if it isn’t. Image and persuasion trump the facts because apparently that’s what we respond to.

Politicians of all stripes and philosophies have learned that to reach us they must appeal to our primal emotional instincts. Largely unconscious, our automatic “inner theatre” was formed long ago when we were kids under the “spell” of our parents, teachers, friends and the cultures in which we grew up. Our reactions are typically either positive or negative and we gravitate or move away accordingly and evaluate the policy offerings within those frameworks. Critical thinking takes a back seat to whether we like a person or not.

To override our automatic “from the past” responses is extremely difficult in the high pressure environments in which we live and lead. Sorting out fact from fiction takes time and energy. So, we resort to falling under “spells” again and hope for the best. Put another way, we search for someone who will best feed our emotions, not necessarily our reason.

A fundamental tenet of great leadership is to be on the alert to “think about your thinking”. Called the “fourth dimension”, it can save the day when chaos and complexity reign and no simple answers suffice. It can also be the tool for breaking ‘spells”.

With time, people tire of the messages of hope, the hoopla, the negative ads and the grand communication schemes. This has been demonstrated over and over again in organizations where a “white knight” from the outside has been brought in with great flourish to fix things up. Many heads roll, many promises are made and then the reality of implementation without deep expertise, without consultation and without the benefit of the facts sets in. The honeymoon quickly fades but the cost to rectify the damage is enormous.

We do wake up naturally but it takes time. The trick is to accelerate the process while we have time to avoid serious damage. It means using time-honoured leadership lessons to ensure we’re not just caught up in our emotions. Besides asking a lot of questions and gathering smart contrarians around you, look for the facts, as demonstrated by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenburg Public Policy Center though

In Canada, more so than the United States, ideological fatigue has set it, according to Frank Graves, President of Ekos Research Associates. We’re becoming more pragmatic and eclectic and certainly less attached to left-right arguments. We’re looking for “what works”.

That’s the bottom line: look for what works. That’s how nature does it.

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