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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

Oct 2020

The Paradoxical Theory of Change

What’s the problem? Let’s fix it! Then let’s move onto the next problem! The clock is ticking, we need to DO SOMETHING! What’s the gap? Let’s fill it? What’s the weakness? Let’s mitigate it? Come on come, no time to waste. Chop chop! Pacy pacy! Think fast, think smart. Get it done!

This is what many of my client organisations feel like to work in.

And what is wrong with that? I hear you ask.

There is nothing wrong with this “Fix it!” mentality. In fact we could do with more of it in some realms – the melting of the ice-caps for example. I have been and still am the “Fix it” Queen with lightning quick reactions, an over-ambitious to-do list and a tendency to get busy.

However, I also want to put forward the case for a “Don’t Fix It!” mentality. “Don’t Fix It!” has its place in the cut and thrust of family and organisational life. And strangely, a “Don’t Fix It!” attitude doesn’t lead to things lying around broken. It can lead to things, apparently magically, fixing themselves.

Leaders like to think of themselves as problem-solvers. And they are. But once you’ve got to the level of leading others, your job is largely about helping other people solve problems. This is a shift in perspective that many leaders find hard. After years of attention on problems, it’s hard not to see them and even harder not to solve them. It’s a habit. Dropping that habit and learning to do what’s necessary to help others solve problems is not something many leaders genuinely achieve. Nor are they always rewarded when they do. Boards and shareholders still love a super-hero.

When a direct report comes to you with a problem. The “Fix It!” mentality can be counter-productive, Here’s why:

When a leader has a “Fix It!” mentality, and jumps into problem solving mode, their attention is on the problem itself not on the person’s capacity to solve it. This has a few downsides:

  • The leader inadvertently signals that they believe in their own problem-solving capability over and above their team member’s
  • The leader inadvertently dismisses the wisdom and the learning that is already available about this problem in their team member – even if that wisdom has been gained by ‘failing’
  • The leader inadvertently takes the ownership of the problem away from their team member.

If a leader can switch their attention to the person not the problem, they avoid these pitfalls. What is more, the orientation to the future (‘what’s the next step?‘), misses out valuable information that can be found in the here and now. So if you turn your attention to the person in the present with a real curiously and acceptance of how things are now, the person is more resourceful and more likely to solve their own problem. This can be done with questions like:

  • What have you learned so far about this?
  • Who else is involved?
  • What is it that you are telling yourself about this problem?
  • What does your gut say?

None of which take long to ask.

Paradoxically the more one stays in the present and focused on the person, the more likely that person is to find new awareness, and new ideas.

The Paradoxical Theory of Change (Arnold Beisser) describes how the more a person or team or organisation attempts to be what it is not or rushes to ‘what’s next’, the more it remains the same. Conversely, when individuals, teams organisations identify fully with their current experience, the more energy and resourcefulness there is to move forward.

Leaders who cotton on to this paradox and start to see it in action, can find the belief and confidence to put down the “Fix It!” mentality from time to time. In the cut and thrust of the work day, and yes, even on Zoom, these leaders learn to sit, even just for a few seconds with their people in “Not Fixing It!”. They can sit a little longer in the now, with what is and trust the magic of what emerges next.

p.s. Try it at home too.

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