In today’s Sensemaker, we’re reviewing a concept foundational to our work at Talentism: Confusion. Understanding confusion is vital because it determines whether new experiences are converted into learning or increased fragility. This split, in turn, determines how businesses and individuals unleash (or block) their own potential.
There is a mindset shift here that is important: conventional wisdom around unleashing potential nearly always diagnoses problems back to character. In other words, if someone fails, it’s because they lack judgement, knowledge or discipline (what we call “bad, stupid, lazy” narratives). Following this line of thinking, if you wanted to manage your business to success, you would find and fire the underperformers and use a combination of skill-training, compensation incentives and threats to get everyone else to be more productive.
This approach doesn’t account for what we now know about how our brains work. It’s especially unsuited to a world that is changing as fast as ours, where speed of learning is the main driver of success. Below, you’ll find a high level introduction to confusion, a glimpse into what it can devolve into, and an overview of why recognizing it is critical to success as an individual, manager, and executive.
Confusion is a conscious or unconscious reaction to an unexpected experience
ie. Reality doesn’t match our expectations
When an outcome doesn’t meet our expectations, we become confused. Our brains are prediction machines, and when something doesn’t work the way we expect it to, we are designed to physically feel uncomfortable. This is necessary for us to function — you don’t notice every inch of sidewalk when you’re walking, but when you step in a muddy puddle that looked like pavement a second ago, suddenly you’re paying attention. When we expect something and don’t get it, or aren’t clear on what to expect at all in a given situation, our nervous system and brain are flooded with chemicals signaling “I don’t know how to make sense of this and that’s uncomfortable.” We call this state “confusion.”
At work, this can take the form of:
- People expected to do things they didn’t realize they were expected to do
- People expected to do things they don’t understand
- People holding different understandings of what to do (but thinking they’re on the same page)
- People behaving differently than what others expected or thought had been agreed to
- Projects not succeeding as expected
- Market conditions not behaving as predicted
Confusion is typically threatening
For most of our evolutionary history, something we didn’t expect was usually a sign of danger. Your ancestors were a lot more likely to live by assuming logs were crocodiles, than by assuming crocodiles were logs. Most of the time, our response to confusion is subconscious, automatic and aimed at survival; in other words the classic reactions of “fight, flight or freeze.” While the physical effects are the same as being confronted with a physical threat, most people have learned to work with more subtle ways of exhibiting their distress. Either way, when we’re in threat, we become more focused on protecting ourselves than finding creative ways to achieve our intentional goals.
This can look like:
- (Fight) Arguing non-essential points
- (Fight) Looking for excuses / deflecting blame
- (Flight) Saying yes and moving on, or otherwise trying to move the conversation to more comfortable territory
- (Flight) Jumping to conclusions / taking kneejerk actions
- (Freeze) Stalling / talking without thinking
- (Freeze) Not talking / responding at all
To resolve the discomfort of confusion, we tend to seek certainty
When we can’t productively make sense of our confusion, we seek relief in certainty. We stop trying to update our mental model to incorporate the new reality, and instead lock down to a set of judgements that make us feel better. When things don’t make sense to us, it’s easy to tell ourselves stories to help us feel like we understand it, which, in turn helps reduce the immediate sense of threat. This often includes focusing only on facts that support our narratives, or putting the blame on others — “if only those jerks in marketing would get us sales copy earlier we wouldn’t be in this mess” — or on ourselves — “if I wasn’t wasting so much time I know I could get this done.” This is what happens in a business context when confusion — ”I expected something from marketing and didn’t get it”— turns into threat — “my job could be in danger if I don’t get this done on time” — to certainty — “I should let everyone know how irresponsible the people in marketing are so people know it’s not my fault.” These common types of certainties are all around us as “BSL” narratives — convictions that others (or ourselves) are irrevocably “bad, stupid or lazy.” Unfortunately, these kinds of diagnoses are rarely correct, and even when they are, the emotional threat involved makes them difficult to productively resolve. The core problem with certainty is that it shuts down the ability to learn and stay in sync with others. Over time, this kills companies.
You can read more about certainty here
Why resolving confusion is key to business success
Fundamentally, business is about groups of people coming together to accomplish complex goals over and over again. Accomplishing complex goals over time requires accurate assessments of what is in the way, and coordination with others to overcome these obstacles. These three essential pieces — accuracy, creative long-term problem solving, and coordination — are what our brains shut down when in a confusion response dealing with immediate threats. This means that groups of people who face consistent confusion, and have no mechanisms for clarifying the situation, will: 1) misread signals from each other and the market, 2) easily fall out of sync on what everyone needs to do, and 3) spend a lot of time protecting themselves from all the perceived threats around them instead of working together towards the organization’s shared goals. This is especially pernicious for a leader because it leads to confusion loops: a confused leader confuses those around them, who in turn go into threat and make poor decisions, which lead to bad outcomes that in turn confuse the leader even more, often leading to unproductive certainty all around (“I’m surrounded by by people who don’t get it!”).
At its base, business success requires people to create more value than they cost to be supported. When people end up spending more of their time and energy having to make sense of their environment, job, and coworkers than on the actual work needed to achieve a shared set of goals, costs go up while output goes down. Over time, this degradation in productivity, in addition to poor judgement calls, can kill a business.
In our next Sensemaker, we’ll explore how you can more effectively respond to confusion by moving toward clarity instead.
Think of a recent negative experience where reality didn’t match your expectations.
- How did it feel?
- How did you make sense of it?
- Did you find yourself going to “bad / stupid / lazy” narratives about yourself or others?
- For the next week, keep a “confusion journal.” Every time you have a strong emotional reaction to a situation, see if you can decompose it into “what happened versus what you were expecting.” Keep in mind for this exercise that expectations are often subconscious.
- Try browsing the news source of a political group you despise (you can test it here at https://www.theblaze.com/ or https://occupydemocrats.com/) and track how you feel and categorize the information you see.
- With the above confusion lens in mind, check out this article on why the coronavirus in particular is so confusing.