Leading and coaching for connection: The ‘five percenters’ fallacy

Am I imagining it, or in organisations and in life is it harder and harder for people to find agreement? It’s Brexit – or stuff it.  It’s coal – or you are out in the cold; It’s Me Too – or too bad; it’s Black Lives Matter – or what’s it matter? Increasing complexity and a plethora of pressures seem to be attracting us to ideas and people at the extremes (the ’five percenters’ at either end) to find answers to seemingly intractable problems – or we just tune out.

This kind of polarisation doesn’t seem to be bearing much fruit.
The shift to extremes results in a rigid grouping of people and ideas at the edges and not much meeting in the middle. Social psychology tells us that on most things we distribute ourselves on the ‘normal’ curve. That is, we group in the middle. Five percent either end of that curve is set aside for ‘outliers’.  What seems to be going on is that the normal curve is being distorted.  We hover around our chosen five percenters, and swing between pity and anger towards those who don’t. Talk is cheap and nasty, and dialogue is rare.

In the middle, there is the potential for constructive debate – if we come with energy, curiosity and open minds. Come with energy and openness to possibilities. Moving to the middle is not about adopting a ‘soft’ position, or being a perennial fence sitter. Bring our ideas with passion, and at the same time be willing to believe that positions at the extreme (including our pet ones) are highly unlikely to have all the answers. If we come to the middle without both energy and an empathic interest in the views of others, then we are just making up the numbers. Lean towards the spikes of the different, and help sustain a safe space so we don’t bleed out!

If we think all (or no) bankers are evil; if we think that all (or no) priests support paedophiles, if we think miners are earth rapists (or not), if we think Islam is divisive (or not), if we think feminists are engaged in a global anti-male conspiracy (or vice versa) – good on us – as long as we are thinking!

Be open to the possibility that there are other truths around – held with just as much passion and claimed-rationally as the ones we hold.

The coaching approach I favour – whether done by executive coaches or leaders – is to tease and play with opposites so they can exist in comfortable discomfort. When an executive is frustrated with others on the other side who ‘just don’t get it’ (whatever ‘it’ is, and whatever the ‘sides’), I might ask, ‘What do they think you don’t get?’  Creativity lives in spaces where tension safely resides. The American philosopher and educationalist John Dewey proposed the paradoxical approach of ‘serious play’ around a topic as being the ideal mental condition. How about we move with assertive tentativeness, or tentative assertiveness, with some sceptical optimism? Let’s be ok about being absolutely sure that we not sure.

None of this is an excuse for lack of action.
Throwing up our hands with an exasperated cry of ‘everything is complex’ is a cop out. Engagement is the pathway to understanding and progress. Neither is this a call for nihilistic relativism. There is evil in the world and we have to confront it. Discerning what is ‘evil’ and what is ‘someone disagreeing with me’ requires careful reflection and a solid values foundation. A humanist values foundation with care at its core is essential – including a commitment to connect and collaborate with diverse others.

Ursula LeGuin wrote in The Left Hand of Darkness, ‘The only thing that makes life possible is a permanent intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next’. Maybe we could centre on a shared understanding that no one has an accurate crystal ball – and all contribute to shaping the future.  Value what we know, revere what we don’t, and collaborate with care to see what’s possible. The five percenters at the extremes have a role, though maybe we should follow their tunes with caution. The Pied Piper cleared Hamelin of rats, but also of children when the town didn’t meet his price.

A coaching approach
A coaching approach which plays with creative tension, supports strong values, sustains safe places in the middle, and contemplates what’s possible, might help us find progress in the face of significant real world problems.

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Geoff is a Corporate Educator in Corporate Education within QUT’s Faculty of Business. Geoff has particular expertise in International Business and Executive Coaching as a practitioner, trainer, researcher, and author. He spent three years coaching with multinational companies and conducting research in Central America. Geoff’s executive experience is with the Special Broadcasting Service where he managed corporate planning. His research interests include leadership, teams, cross-cultural management, organisational values, international business and executive coaching.

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