Bureaucratic Mirroring

I was interviewed by someone this week who was desperate to find a conspiracy theory. There isn’t one. But she was frustrated. After the interview I described to her the theory of ‘Bureaucratic Mirroring’.

This is the institutional pathology that, even though rationally, people know it’s madness, they can’t escape the subconscious belief that their adversary has the same organisation and structures as they do.

Allegedly a feature of the Cold War, spoofed by Dr Strangelove, the Americans have also been accused of it post 9/11, gearing up for Al Qaeda as though Osama bin Laden had a situation room and Central Command in a bunker under Tora Bora. Bureaucratic Mirroring means you can’t imagine your enemy as other than yourself.

And this came up in conversation over lunch today. We all carry a world-view, a cultural frame of reference and our own personal form of ‘Bureaucratic Mirroring’, assuming others are as we are.

Cosmopolitanism says it ain’t so, we’re all different. Which means letting go of our prejudices and assumptions – as much of any of us can – is vital to escaping our own bunker.

Redrawing Lines

Learning to listen and learning to care for people hasn’t always been my forte. I’ve always read the data: the expressions, the fleeting emotion crossing someone’s face, the tic which tells all. But for much of my life I tended to routinely discard it. At work, for well over a decade, I pretty much thought emotions were to be ignored or surpressed – in favour of a pseudo-objective norm of ‘professional workplace behaviour’.

In the private sector this was a good protection mechanism against loss, and having to do bad things to people. People all around me were regularly ‘fed to the huskies’ in round after round of redundancies in in the late 1990s and I had to do some of it. Later in the Civil Service, you were always one honest comment away from a newspaper headline or a grievance procedure, so wise to stick to the party line.

Latterly, helped by a bit more more experience, some professional advice and two lovely children, I’ve learnt that my emotions and feelings – and my assumptions about those of others – condition nearly everything that happens to and around me. Best start using that data then.

So now I very much do. And through practice and a certain amount of inner calm, I can read and help people with their problems. It used to take me a huge mental effort – a short ’emoting’ session would leave me shattered. I’ve got better at it now. A few techniques help. But also tuning in to my own emotions, rather than using my head to respond, gets a far better result for much less effort.

The problem is I’ve become so good at it, that I’m now in demand. A steady stream of people regularly check in with me to unburden themselves, complain of injustices or moan about the world going to the dogs. Of course it’s nice to help. It’s also flattering to think I can. But sometimes I give too much. And sometimes to the wrong people.

This week a friend and I discussed emotional intelligence and a penny dropped – it’s time to redraw some boundaries with people I work with. I’m at work to get a job done and my emotional energy is the most precious resource I have. Sometimes helping people emotionally doesn’t help get the job done. And it takes it out of me. I need to spend my emotional energy more wisely at work and use it sparingly where it is most needed – to make a difference. 

But more importantly I need to save more of it for me – to invest it where it pays the richest return – in my friends and family. And that means redrawing some lines.

The Fridge Door

I read a top neuroscientist’s suggestion last night that our capacity to understand how the human brain works may ultimately be limited by the capacity of our nervous system. This reminds me of a thought I had when studying philosophy of mind at Oxford: if our brain was simple enough to understand we’d probably be too simple to understand it.

One thing I do believe is that the brain is probabilistic and Bayesian. So I was interested to read what Dorothy Rowe, an Australian psychologist had to say about it in a recent article in the New Scientist:

Over the last 20 years or so, neuroscientists have shown that our brain functions in such a way that we cannot see “reality” directly. All we can ever know are the guesses or interpretations our mind creates about what is going on. To create these guesses, we can only draw on basic human neuroanatomy and on our past experience. Since no two people ever have exactly the same neuroanatomy or experience, no two people ever interpret anything in exactly the same way.

I’m increasingly sure this is right and is part of our everyday experience. But as the world becomes more cosmopolitan, we are more and more likely to encounter people with very similar neuroanatomy, but incredibly different experiences. I’ve read before that humans are very poor judges both of probability and coincidence. When we bump into someone we work with on holiday or a friend we’ve not seen in years in an airport we assume fate, a guiding hand or incredible coincidence.

On holidays this year I bumped into a person from work at a village festival in France, the former Chairman of my organisation on a cliff in Devon and crossed within 6 feet of UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, each of us barefoot in shorts on a beach in Cornwall. Incredible. But in fact not. Our brains are tuned for the humdrum of a hamlet, village, smallholding or savanna plain not the incredibly interconnected world of 21st century media, Facebook friends, social networks and ubiquitous travel.

Even if we are from the same physical place, we live on tremendously varied diets of interests, TV and work. The massing moments of the 19th and 20th century: factory gates, church, football, movies and network TV, which gave many people common experiences and outlooks, are no more. What chance then you’ll spontaneously see things the same way as the next man or women at work – almost none.

As Dorothy Rowe writes: This is frightening. It means that each of us lives alone, in our own world of meaning. Moreover, if everything we know is a guess, an approximation, events can, and often will, invalidate our ideas.

I have seen a number of very experienced senior people apply for fewer jobs than there are of them this week. I have spoken at length to several of them. Although trying to hide it, each was frightened, alone and in their own world of meaning. They knew to some degree that future events can and probably will invalidate their ideas of themselves, but each of them was to some extent caught in a solipsistic, self-referencing nightmare of wanting to be in control of their destiny and feeling utterly powerless in the face of their perceptions of the views others held of them – the deciders, their peers, their loved ones, the court of organisational opinion.

As new age writer Don Miguel Ruiz writes: “All the sadness and drama you have lived in your life was rooted in making assumptions and taking things personally. The whole world of control between humans is based on that”. Or as the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus said “it is not things in themselves that trouble us, but our opinions of things”.

So: we cannot see reality directly, we are poor judges of probability and coincidence and we are always guessing at what is happening based on snatched perceptions and an experience set which is always different – and sometimes very different – from those we find ourselves working with. As a result we are perpetually making self-limiting assumptions and taking things personally. Thus we are often alone, fearful and perturbed.

Stoicism is one answer. Endure, expect little and shrug off life’s indignities. Being a hermit is another. But if I seek the fulfilment of a public life of Aristotelian virtue – lit by bright flashes of ‘doing the right thing’ with the courage of Achilles – neither of those is enough.

Given the wrapper of how people ‘interpret’ things is all important, this week I’ve tried several times to remember the advice of a friend I spoke to a couple of weeks ago. He has an autistic, teenage stepson. Tricky. He sometimes tries to correct his behaviour and gets a lively reaction. His wife though has a way which works. Instead of saying “you left the fridge door open” she simply says “the fridge door is open”. Nine times out of ten it gets closed without any drama.

Simply saying how things are or how I see them has worked better for me in a very emotionally charged week than assuming, cajoling, second-guessing or taking things too personally.

Simply saying “the fridge door is open” gets it closed more often than not.