Food for thought!

I was at a Chinese takeaway having some fish and chips, as you do! Sat across me was a young Chinese girl. We were the only two customers in the shop. From her accent, I gathered that she was either a tourist or a student.

When her food was served, she tucked into it, munching and slurping hungrily. The sounds she made were very pronounced indeed.

In Chinese etiquette, making noises and burping at the dinner table is a sign to the host that you are enjoying their food and hospitality. It’s a good thing.

After 30 years in England, I have, for the most part, learnt to eat silently! Although I do lapse from time to time, but my daughter and wife are always really quick to remind me to “mind my manners”. I’ve got the bruised shins to prove it!

Over the years, my wife and I have had numerous debates about when it is appropriate to accept, and indeed, celebrate, cultural differences; and when to “do as in Rome”.

I couldn’t help, however, thinking how this young lady would have been harshly judged if there were other British diners about.

As American author, Anais Nin once said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are”.

It’s instinctive; we make judgments and evaluate situations through our own cultural and moral lens. This comes in two sizes, macro and micro – ie, the mores of our culture – and the specific socialization of our families and personal experiences.

However, while we are products of our history, we do not have to be slaves to it. How else can we learn to embrace and celebrate difference?

The Indian philosopher Krishnamurti was reported to have said, “Observing without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence.”

I can see his point.

Evaluating is an instinct. We all do it. Everything that we observe is evaluated through the lens of our experience and our culturally inculcated sense of morality, order and values.

You could argue the ability to evaluate instinctively is essential. We size up situations in order to ascertain how to go on, especially in the context of danger and survival.

However, being aware of, and reflexive about, how our instinctive judgments and evaluations create our social world, is a sign of maturity and a prerequisite for valuing difference.

A consequence of evaluation is the categorising of others who are different as abnormal, deviant or inferior.

I read somewhere that no child is born racist. Racism is a taught–learnt behaviour. And is a consequence of evaluating difference as inferior.

There are obvious lessons here for Organisation Development.

The quest for coherence, common goals/vision and unity in organisations does not have to result in uniformity.

My take on Krishnamurti’s commentary is… observing without instinctively evaluating and judging is the highest form of human maturity.

We can learn to do this by making it a habit to pause for reflection, even at the most obvious things – particularly if you come from activist organizational cultures. How often have you heard the justifying narrative from cultures that are “driven”… “it’s a no brainer”, “just do it”, “if you snooze you lose”, etc?

The danger of non-reflective cultures is that we inadvertently work against our own values by excluding others and creating competitive or adversarial relationships.

We can avoid this by making it a point to:

  1. pause for reflection.
  2. and deliberately adopting a stance of neutrality and curiosity as we re-evaluate what we see.

From a leadership perspective, its not ‘evaluating’ that’s problematic We know from history that the trajectory of leadership thinking that stems from an egocentric worldview is usually in the direction of intolerance, domination, subjugation and confrontation.IMG_0313

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