Making a decision like a tribe

This Fast Company article from 1995 describes how a native American wisdom council gets taken into the corporate world. Interesting stuff. I read it with some anxiety as I fear the real wisdom behind the practice could easily be lost by corporations co-opting the ritual.

So the best bit for me were the principles underlying the process described at the end. I’ll highlight a couple of them. The first is:

Good decisions begin with listening. The Western give-and-take meeting emphasizes talking rather than listening. Businesspeople come into a meeting prepared to give their presentations — not to listen to the contributions of others. And the debate format encourages people to begin formulating their responses while the other side is speaking rather than listening and reserving judgment. The first element of a council ceremony, on the other hand, is careful listening.

When I’ve worked with “no interruption” rules, I’m often amazed at the difference this simple intervention makes. Something special can happen about the way people give attention – a quality that I think is evoked, not taught by “active listening” courses. By stopping interruption, I think we help participants to develop the capacity to suspend judgement and enquire more deeply.

The second principle I wanted to pick up is this:

A slower process yields better decisions. Rather than looking for the fastest answer to a pressing problem, the council process accepts the need for careful, in-depth reflection. With the understanding that implementation is faster, easier, and more successful if it comes after all implications of an issue have been thrashed out, the process doesn’t address the question of action until the latter stages of the discussion. “By the time you get around to talking about action,” notes Eric Vogt, “the whole council has had a chance to speak and feels engaged in the results.”

I’ve written a lot in the past about the danger of “action theatre” and about the power games that get played out about demanding action. If we force action on a group we risk shallow commitment, passive aggression and end up with little real engagement. Taking time to reflect offers the chance of something more substantial. Chris Corrigan calls it “wise action” which is a succinct way of putting it.

Hat tip: Jack Martin Leith

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