Don't Box Me In

Raise your hand if there is one person, party, faith group, or social movement that perfectly captures your views and beliefs. Anyone? Anyone?  

That’s what I thought.  

I think I can safely say that if you’re reading this, you subscribe to a mashup of world views and belief systems—no matter how closely you align to a certain group’s tenets—and that position is always shifting based on your life experiences. Yet social media would suggest you are either in or out, and there’s no in-between. Why do we so desperately want to box people in?

The answer to that question is complex, but as someone who helps clients navigate the nuances of human beings at work, it’s one I want to wrestle with.

Observation 1: We Worship Speed + Simplicity

Americans devoutly worship the gods of speed and simplicity. Just look at our prized technology. It’s fast and intuitive–little time and effort required. A major consequence? We have lost patience for anything that makes us slow down, think harder, or analyze something. We have apps for that.

Observation 2: Our Brains Take Shortcuts

Our brains, too, are hardwired for efficiency and try to reserve energy for moments of intense focus and higher-level thinking. Our brains form habits and heuristics that enable auto-pilot. They scan our environment and make quick assessments and categorizations–Is this a friend or foe? Is this person like me or not? Having a brain that works this way is part of being human, and it’s neither good nor bad–until it turns into prejudice or bias that holds others back.

The Temptation: Over-Simplify People

Given these two realities, it’s not surprising that we want to take the complex and confusing aspects of working with people and make them simple and easy. After all, we do it with everything else.

So I see clients pay a lot of money for shiny, trademarked models and assessments. These tools neatly organize their people and problems into boxes, and they come with streamlined, [sometimes] easy-to-use instruction manuals for what to do with each personality type/color/letter/spirit animal/etc.

The problem? Many employees and leaders have come to rely too heavily on them for a solve that doesn’t exist: If I know you’re blue and I’m red, we’ll finally understand each other and know exactly how to work together! We don’t have to changethis will be easy!

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good assessment and have taken many to build my own self-awareness and inform my personal development. But each one examines only one aspect of human nature, and that can only take you so far as an employee or as a leader.*

The Real Solve: Embrace the Nuance of People

People don’t fit into a box, and the situations you face with them can’t always be solved by a 2x2 framework.

To build the inclusive, high-performing team you want, you’ll have to slow down, think harder, and understand their hopes and fears. To tap into each employee’s fullest potential, you’ll have to take the time to build a relationship with them and look at the whole person. And as people change and the seasons of their life ebb and flow, you’ll have to do this again and again. That takes emotional intelligence, time, and a lot of heart. And as much as you wish there was, there’s no app–or assessment–for that.

*I’m not the only one taking some beef with assessments. Check out this recent post from Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant:

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