Small, safe thinking will doom us

President* Trump,

Most people I know like to figure out solutions to problems and then get down and fix things – it feels good to get clear what an issue is, come up with something constructive to do about it, and then enact the fix. It’s easy to conjure the image of someone standing up a little taller as they do the self-satisfied vertical hand wipe (wipe, wipe) signaling “job well done” – right? Even just imagining getting to do that gives me a boost.

Of course some among us (you) prefer breaking and messing things up, whether to theatrically swoop in and “save the day” from themselves or out of malice (see Catherine Rampell’s WP editorial about how you’re salting the earth behind you since you know you’re going to lose). But generally, problem-solving of the real sort is a highly reinforcing, highly satisfying deal for most of us.

We also all know people who are hard to be around because they’re negative whiners who are unwilling (perhaps unable) to do anything constructive about the issues they perpetually find so offensive. Those folks are draining and they try the patience of even the most saintly among us.

Thus, problem-solvers are highly prized and so it isn’t surprising that we get messages from leadership (not you) that any dummy can point out problems ‘til the cows come home, but it’s those who identify problems and immediately offer solutions who are valued and who will be successful. And I’ll tell you, hearing this makes my stomach churn and my heart drop. Again, I love, love, love figuring out how to address problems and enact solutions. Truly. But when leaders tell “their people” that they only want them to bring forward problems that they’ve got ready solutions for, this is problematic on several levels.

First, people with little power and little experience in whatever system they’re in may sense or see problems that they know they can’t begin to address or have no idea how to address. There may be a simple fix for the problem, but if they’re essentially told not to bring up problems they don’t have solutions for, they aren’t going to find out from others what the simple fixes might be. Not good.

Second, when only problems that someone can offer solutions for are tolerated, it naturally limits the kinds of problems that are fair game to raise. Basically, it means challenging problems that need multifaceted solutions generated by groups of people aren’t cool for individuals in those problem/solution settings to bring up. This also means there can be a lot of busyness focused on fixing surface shit while the real issues go unspoken and untended because people are shut down or punished for bringing up things they can’t list five handy solutions for. Again, not good.

Third, this type of “don’t bother me with anything you can’t figure out yourself” leadership encourages individual problem-solving rather than getting a group to hash something out, essentially short circuiting the problem-solving and risking coming up with short sighted and/or off the mark solutions. It also means that the mini-me’s who figure out the game and drop neat solutions at their masters’ feet get all the bennies while everyone else gets the message that they aren’t as smart, aren’t as deserving, aren’t as worthy as Sonny here who’s making leadership look good. Way not good. Disgusting, really.

I touched on this in #2 above, but the worst thing about this lazy leadership messaging is that most real problems aren’t simple and don’t lend themselves to solutions that an individual can come up with on their own and we have serious, big ass problems that need to be addressed for real. We can’t address the systemic inequities that poison our workplaces and communities or the existential threats we face collectively with Sonny-on-the-spot solutions and if we keep reinforcing small thinking, we are doomed.

May we be safe from small, safe thinking.
May we be willing to push past simple problems and deal with real issues.
May we have the strength to trust ourselves and one another to get creative with big problems.
May we accept that the time for small thinking is over.

Sincerely,
Tracy Simpson

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