Embracing confusion

Decision making and confusion go hand in hand. One cannot be accomplished successfully without first addressing the other. As adults, we make hundreds if not thousands of decisions while we’re trying to get through the day. Most of the decisions we make on a regular day are based on our intuitions and are therefore automatic. We wouldn’t stop to think too much of our decisions unless they’re deemed either important or are unfamiliar to us.

Embracing Confusion Cover Art created by me

Recently I got myself into hot water with my employer due to the poor quality of the decisions I’d been making at work. Initially I found it incredibly frustrating every time I ran into such a situation and would usually come to a conclusion that was either self-defeating or irresponsible.

For example, I would blame it on the work environment or the circumstances I was in, instead of trying to figure out the root cause of the mistake. Which in my case happens to be that I make assumptions way too often when it comes to things I’m not certain of. It was a big revelation for me when I first learnt what the real cause of the problem was.

It becomes easier to come up with a solution once you have clarity over the confusion you have of the problem you’re facing. To help us achieve that consistently we can create a system that can be integrated into our daily habits.

“It’s not what we don’t know that gets us in trouble. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

-Mark Twain

Understanding failures

In life, we’re genetically predisposed to fail as we learn to navigate our way to achieve bigger and bigger goals. By and large, we learn the most from our failures. However, our first natural reaction when people fail is to cast blame and assume that it’s the failure of their intelligence, character or the lack of motivation.

In addition, we have these unchallenged beliefs about ourselves that we’re perceiving reality accurately. That our perceptions are not only accurate but valid. If a mistake is obvious to us, then it must be obvious to others. However, all it takes is a moment of reflection to realize that none of that is true.

This sort of behavior is most common with leaders and managers who have years of experience which help them build a reliable mental model and framework to assess any given situations. In a way, it’s unfair to call out an individual on their mistakes without first understanding the logic behind it.

In essence, a mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process and unconscious beliefs on what the world is like and what it should do for us. Therefore, mental models are something that we progressively design and test to help us understand our environment better. It’s our responsibility to update, improve and expand our mental models so that we can go beyond rational explanations of our experiences.

We would all like to have a warning bell that rings loudly whenever we are about to make a serious error, but no such bell available, and cognitive illusions are generally more difficult to recognize than perceptual illusions. The voice of reason may be much fainter than the loud and clear voice of an erroneous intuition, and questioning your intuitions is unpleasant when you face the stress of a big decision. Observers are less cognitively busy and more open to information than actors.1

Embracing confusion

How often do you find yourself in situations in which you’re confused about the action of the other party? More often than not, we fail to make an effort to address our confusion right when we notice it, either due to laziness or fear of confrontation and potential consequence of social awkwardness.

In fact, confusion is indicative of the fact that you’re having an experience that’s different than what you expected. That confusion is necessary to start to make sense of the world, yourself and the connection between the two. So much of what we do when we’re confused is to tell ourselves stories to make ourselves feel better, which is one of the worst things we can do.

Addressing these confusions can be a lot of work. It requires intrinsic motivation and willpower to stop and look at what’s really going on. However, it’s invaluable to understand the confusion for us to work together as a team or create meaningful relationships with people you care about.

There are two aspects of our life such confusion can creep into and create a mess, unless we take action to address it. Here are the reasons why you should!

Personal aspect

One of the best ways to address the confusion is to understand how it arises in the first place. We as human beings have expectations of the people that we interact with, whether we’re aware of it or not. We usually get confused when those expectations are not met.

It’s incredibly important to address the confusion instead of forming internal narratives, which in most cases could be false, to make sense of our own confusion. Most relationships fail due to the lack of clear communication and unwillingness from either party to address the confusion and get clarity.

We’re good at addressing the immediate problem instead of actually addressing the root of the problem which is poor communication. In consequence, it leads to misunderstanding which left unaddressed will further fuel doubts and mistrusts between each other. Therefore, a lack of clarity in communication leads most relationships to fail.

The best way to avoid falling into this trap is first to invest time and effort in building a clear communication channel between each other at the start of a relationship. Be explicit about the expectations you hold of the other person and be willing to address the confusion when they were not met.

When you do address the confusion, be open-minded enough to listen and think about what you could be missing. Most importantly, conduct it in a way that makes the other person feel enlisted in the process because it’s not an accusation, it’s an attempt to discover what’s true for both parties.

Professional aspect

Confusions are prevalent in the workplace just as they are in our personal lives. Aside from addressing the confusions, there are ways you can conduct yourself to achieve the best possible result.

At work, try to design your day like a series of experiments instead of a series of tasks. Try different approaches when it comes to executing the tasks and conducting meetings. By the end of the day, you will have many results some of which will be bad and some good. Then you can reflect on how the bad ones resulted in such a way and make mental notes to come up with a better approach next time.

As previously mentioned, most managers make the mistake of assuming that people make mistakes due to their failure of intelligence, characters, and the lack of motivation. People are not lazy. They have dreams, ambitions, and aspirations. The most important thing as a manager is to focus on clarity, not control. Invest in your clarity before you can try to help others get clarity.

According to Jeff Hunter, here’s what clarity looks like for.

Enterprise Clarity Model

  1. Goals – be explicit about the goal of the organization
  2. Measurements on getting there – have a clear barometer to measure the progress
  3. Diagnostic (Feedback loop) – have a clear statement on what the employees can expect. You can’t improve without a feedback loop. Be more explicit about company culture and acceptable individual behavior.

Feedback vs. Criticism

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of feedback? I believe it’s fairly common for the vast majority of us to mistake criticism as a proper feedback.

There’s a commonly accepted belief that criticism is worth more than compliments. The phrase rings true on a surface level: however, it becomes muddier if we dig a little deeper on the type of criticism we’re talking about.

In general, criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.

The resentment that criticism engenders can demoralize employees, family members and friends, and still not correct the situation that has been condemned.2

So, what’s the alternative to criticism? That would be a feedback loop. So, here’s how you give it and receive it according to Jeff.

When you first notice someone makes a mistake or breaks an agreement that was agreed on earlier, you need to work out your confusion. You need to have an explicit concept of what you think is a good standard to uphold.

Afterwards you need to talk about your experience of the situation, whether it’s good or bad. You need to explain to the other person about your confusion, be as transparent as you can while not assigning any blame. Then you need to figure out what they experience.

Look at the difference between the standard and what actually happened. The gap between those two is the gap of performance and that is the feedback you need to give.

Make an effort to provide feedback whether the situation is positive or negative. You need to address what went right or wrong in a circumstance in an explicit manner, so that the idea of a good standard will stick in the other party’s head.

At a glance, all of this might seem like a great deal of hard work and effort. However, the alternative of not addressing the issue could be too costly. Frustration and hostility would build up between each other, which will eventually lead to a breaking point.

That breaking point would result in two possible scenarios, things will continue on the way they have always been with confusion and frustration in the mix, or you will have to make a decision to end the relationship with the person. None of which is a desirable result. Hence, it’s an invaluable asset to invest in your clarity and try to help others acquire theirs.

With this knowledge in the bag, I hope you will take a step back and address the confusion next time you notice a hint of it growing in a conversation with a friend or a colleague.

Stay safe and stay curious!

***This essay is based on my understanding of an episode of The Knowledge Project podcast in which Shane Parrish and Jeff Hunter discuss the topics of hiring and training new people for a position. I also looked at other books on the topics of human psychology and behavioral science for reference.

I take full responsibility for any mistakes and misrepresentation of facts presented in my essay, the good bits are on Jeff and Shane.

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