Gervase Bushe, in Clear Leadership: Sustaining Real Collaboration and Partnership at Work lays out such a convincing image of the interpersonal mush that derails most organizations that I just want to shout it out to the world.  So let me start by saying that you can buy the newly revised edition of this most excellent book here.   I am not in any way affiliated with Bushe or his organization, by the way.  I just think he’s a really smart guy and we all ought to read him.

Interpersonal mush is created by two natural human tendencies, Bushe says:

  • We each create our own experience, although we tend to think that others create it for us
  • We are sense-making beings, and we create stories to explain that experience.  These stories fill in the gaps whenever information is missing.

Since it’s considered inappropriate in most organizations to explain our experience of things to others, we make up an awful lot of stories to explain what our colleagues are doing and why.  Thus we are all swimming around in interpersonal mush, which is a term Bushe uses to describe an interaction that’s based on stories people have made up about each other but have not checked out.

Interpersonal mush gets worse and worse, for a number of reasons.  One is that we tend to “see” things that fit with our stories and discard things that don’t (Chris Argyris’ ladder of inference comes to mind here), so over time our experience becomes increasingly distorted.  Another is that in a vacuum of information, we tend to assume the worst.  So our stories about the organization, our leaders and our co-workers tend to be worse than reality.  We think the stern look and gruff tone of voice we got from our CEO this morning means we’re about to go through a round of layoffs, when what it really means is that the CEO stayed up all night working on a report and is now tired and grumpy.

Such a simple concept, you would think we could all go out and read the book and go back to our organizations and cut right through that interpersonal mush.  But it’s not so easy, because as children we are not taught to describe the way we experience things.  In fact, Bushe points out that many of us are afraid we would be perceived as self-centered if we did so.  Many of us also work in organizations where it is not “cool” to talk about emotions or the interpersonal nuances of relationships and interactions at work; our emotional and personal needs are “undiscussable” topics.  We mean business here.  We focus on plans, actions and concrete results.  None of that smooshy stuff here.  Get back to work.

This is ultimately important, Bushe says, because we cannot be a learning organization if we can’t create a culture of clarity.  Learning organizations are defined as those in which real partnership can exist because we can learn about each other’s experience, and thus are able to change and improve our patterns of communication, conflict resolution, problem solving, customer service and management.  If we don’t have these kinds of learning conversations, we remain stuck in a stagnant stew of interpersonal mush.

I think about an organization I work with in which everyone is “sense-making” about one person in particular at the moment.  Our story about him is that he’s a “control freak”–he needs to keep control of the information and the processes which move us forward on a number of projects.  He is not the type to talk about himself and explain his reasoning and intent, and no one asks him about it either.  But I caught a glimpse recently, when he described a particular experience of handling an emergency that some of us thought should have been handled by someone else.  He didn’t perceive it as something he had taken control of.  He thought it had been dumped in his lap, and he had taken care of it.

What to do about all this, as a leader?  Make the undiscussable into the discussable by setting the example.  Explain your reasoning and intent whenever possible, and encourage others to do the same.  Don’t leave people to make up stories about what you’re doing and why.  When misunderstandings arise, describe your experience to others and ask them to do so also.  I don’t believe anyone really gets out of bed in the morning and says, “I think I’ll do as many annoying and self-serving things as I can today, and see how many of my colleagues I can frustrate.”  Our colleagues are doing what make senses to them, given the way they view their situations.  Get them to explain it.

Have you had an experience in which you learned that your story wasn’t true, and was holding a partnership back?  I’d love to hear it.

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