Enthusiasm has inherent appeal. It is synonymous with energy and action. Many of us involved in environmental sustainability are passionate about achieving positive change. We approach our work with an abundance of enthusiasm.
However, enthusiasm distorts our judgement and prevents us from rationally generating, evaluating, and explaining ideas. It stops us from anticipating arguments against sustainable solutions. Blinkered by sustainability zeal, we don’t give space to other potential solutions. We limit innovation by viewing only a small set of explanations based around preconceived ideas. We fall in love with our own stories. We give into limiting bias, including:
- Confirmation bias, ignoring evidence that contradicts our preconceived ideas;
- Anchoring bias, by weighing one piece of information too heavily in making decisions; and/or
- Loss aversion, becoming too cautious.
A recent McKinsey study of more than 1,000 business investments is telling. When organisations worked at reducing the effect of bias in their decision-making processes, they achieved returns up to seven percentage points higher. In a field as complex as sustainability, eliminating bias may expand solutions and reduce unintended consequences.
Tunnel vision also ignores the dynamism of the systems in which we operate. It creates intractable mental fortresses when we’re surrounded by on-going change. By cementing our thinking, we avoid evolutionary learning needed to develop new solutions.
As Aldous Huxley once said: “Single-mindedness is all very well in cows or baboons. In an animal claiming to belong to the same species as Shakespeare, it’s simply disgraceful.”
Unbridled enthusiasm is by nature detached. The strength of belief in a particular position is alienating to others who have a different view.
Johnson’s Dictionary, the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, defines enthusiasm as “a vain belief of private revelation.” “Enthusiasm” was seen as synonymous for extremism. It was viewed as a cause of the civil war in 1688 and used as a four-letter word in Britain afterwards for the public advocacy of any political or religious cause.
Too much enthusiasm is indeed both vain and private. It crowds out the space for alternate views and excludes full participation and true co-operation.
The scale of change needed towards a sustainable future, is massive. We need to harness multiple stakeholders driven by different, and often, contradictory agendas. Change derives from co-operation of people with diverse ideas. Including voices of dissent leads to more robust and long term solutions.
We need to step away from our preconceived notions – drop our blinkers and tinted spectacles and make room to understand other views. We can do this in a number of ways.
The first is to engage dissenters. Contrary opinions increase the chances of holistic solutions.
The second is to use techniques that test our thinking:
- The six-hats method, pioneered by Edward De Bono, forces people to consider any viewpoint from 6 different positions: factual, emotional, optimistic, judgemental, creative and process oriented. (http://www.debonogroup.com/six_thinking_hats.php)
- The use of checklists, promoted by Atul Gawande ensures a systemic and complete evaluation of a situation or solution. (http://gawande.com/the-checklist-manifesto)
- A systematic review process, (such as that developed by McKinsey), identifies bias and reduces intuitive responses in decision-making. (http://hbr.org/2011/06/the-big-idea-before-you-make-that-big-decision/ar/1)
Enthusiasm certainly has a place. As Emerson said: “Passion rebuilds the world for the youth. It makes all things alive and significant.” However, we need to understand how passions affect the quality of our solutions. For sure, we should be driven by a passion for sustainability. But — in the words of Benjamin Franklin — we need reason to hold the reins.
Absolutely, the idea of engaging with dissenters resonates with the book I’m reading at present (‘Buy-in: Saving your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down’, by J. Kotter and L. Whitehead).
The authors advocate that including potential and likely opponents in the presentation of your idea can help to galvanise the attention of other members of the audience. By voicing their disagreement with your proposal, they generate ‘drama and sparks’. ‘A virtue of drama and sparks is that they attract attention’. And attention is clearly vital if others are to fully engage with and support your idea.