Earlier this month I took a flight to Boston for a conference. I travel quite a bit so I knew heading out that morning there were a myriad of challenges I could face once I entered the terminal doors. On this particular day, what I met wasn’t really a challenge but it stupefied me none the less.
When I arrived at my gate to board my plane, the flight attendant announced for all passengers in line to board to first consolidate all their items so that no one person had any more than two personal items. One item could be a carry-on bag and the second item could be a laptop bag or hand bag.
The passengers started to board and very quickly the attendant stopped and scolded a women carrying on a carry-on bag, hand bag and neck pillow. “Miss”, he said over the intercom, “Only two personal items allowed per travel.”
She was confused and likely a little embarrassed. She held up her neck pillow and defending herself said “But it’s a neck pillow.”
“Sorry, it constitutes a personal item. Please step aside to consolidate while others board,” the attendant said.
I looked at women next to me who took this as a signal to do the same. She put her hand bag in her laptop bag because she also possessed a carry-on bag which of course was considered 3 personal items and against the rules. I was holding my book and had a laptop bag and carry on. I thought it might be prudent to pack away my book so I didn’t find myself called out publicly for having broken the two personal item rule.
Within minutes of the attendant’s announcement to consolidate all personal items, the same attendant got back on the intercom system and provided additional direction. He announced that in effort to speed up boarding, it would be a good idea if all passengers removed their personal items from their bags now to ensure a smooth flow during boarding. He further explained that it was disruptive for people to stop in the aisle to remove their personal item while they were loading the plane so doing it now was a good idea. I stood totally perplexed. Did that mean I should or should not have my book unpacked before boarding the plane? I’m a rule follower. I have to know these things. Just then, the women with the three items who had consolidated pulled out her hand bag, now carrying three personal items on board. She noticed I was watching her so she leaned over and said, “At this point, I’m going to just do what I want to do.” And she moved on through the line with her boarding pass in hand and three items securely trailing behind her on wheels.
It seems so simple really, following instructions, but it isn’t necessarily when we find we are receiving contradicting messages. David Rock, a pioneer in the work of Neuroleadership describes in his SCARF model how contradictory messages can create a biological response. The “C” in his model stands for Certainty. Without it we go to fight, flight or freeze. When messages are unclear and we lack clarity we feel threatened and we are likely to do one of three things; fight back (do our own thing our way) shut down (accommodate whatever we feel we can and conceal our frustration and disappointment) or freeze (stand there clueless as I did waiting for more clear cues from others).
Like many teams, one team I’ve worked with is struggling with the lack of certainty in the messages they are receiving from their leadership. They have been asked by their leader to work more collaboratively and share information readily and yet at the same time the leader will often provide a team member direction and then ask them not to let anyone else know they are working on this particular project because it is sensitive. As a result, the team is left unclear about whether collaboration or sensitivity to confidentiality is the priority.
So what is the solution? First, it’s a false choice to assume that we can’t expect both contradicting messages of our people. We can but we need to provide more clarity to increase certainty. What is the leader’s intent? What is the purpose for having what may seem like contradicting request? What is the goal or purpose of each request? By providing this level of insight others can begin to align with your vision and purpose and see more clearly how what may seem opposing really is working toward the same goal.
For this particular leader, the intent is to protect sensitive information while also sharing information readily when needed .This seems reasonable right? So how do we make it clearer? Start by defining situations in which it is important to protect sensitive information as well as define situations in which it is important to readily share information. By proving more specifics we set people up for success by providing them guidepost along the way where they may otherwise get lost. This does not mean every situation will be black and white which is why it is also important to encourage and support good judgment.
Encourage and support good judgment
To do this means that when a team member makes a mistake because they used good judgment and decided to collaborate instead of keeping something confidential be careful not reprimand them publicly for doing what they thought was the right direction. Instead use it as a coaching opportunity to provide further clarification so your team member can continue to build their own sense of good judgment.
As human beings we are amazingly complex. We are capable of holding multiple messages at once even if they are contradicting. But we are also sensitive to being vulnerable and need certainty to combat our insecurity. Therefore, leaders have a unique opportunity to make complexity simple and make meaning available.
I did carry my book on board. I ducked my head low as I passed by the attendant and wouldn’t you know it? He asked me to consolidate my belongings. I took a deep breathe, packed my book away and smiled back. Who needs a good book on a long flight anyway?