Navigating Human Psychology
Another key practice challenge in our emerging profession is navigating the complex, subtle landscape of human psychology. We can develop all the foresight we like in our own change-permissive communities of fellow self-described foresighters and futurists. But we also have to help others find their own visions, within their own cultures, which will be different from ours and may be significantly more change-averse, or at least have very different values than ours.
Good foresight practice requires understanding and adjusting for the many predictable and relevant tendencies, shortcomings, biases, goals and values of human psychology, both our own and others. Our human psychology has barely changed over the millennia, even as our science and technology continue to accelerate. So being an intuitive student of psychology in all its forms, normal and abnormal, individual and group, will help you understand what is predictable in that domain. That predictive understanding will help you navigate the myriad political and personal issues that arise when dealing with conflicting and competing values, goals, and world views about the future among your clients and their stakeholders.
For surveys of the rich landscape of human psychology and its predictable aspirations, books of proverbs and maxims on living well, like Baltasar Gracian’s The Art of Worldly Wisdom, 1647, and texts like Walter Mischel’s Introduction to Personality, 2007, and his excellent The Marshmallow Test, 2014, and David Myer’s Psychology, 2011 are great places to start. A healthy understanding and respect for psychology will help you navigate the subtleties of interpersonal and social foresight.
We will say more about managing our own and other’s predictable psychological tendencies and biases in Chapter 9. For now, let’s briefly consider two psychological challenges that seem particularly important to creating great foresight: balancing truthfulness and compassion in our work, and understanding how pessimism and optimism interact to generate our and other’s future worldviews.
Good foresighters must to learn a degree of fearlessness in telling the most truthful and evidence-based stories they can. Inevitably, a truth-based approach will end up costing you business with some of your clients. How much it costs depends on how skillful you are at navigating human psychology, and at timing the telling of your truths, as you see them.
At the same time, you must have great empathy and compassion, being sensitive to the needs and issues of those who will be affected by the futures you and your clients seek to anticipate, create, and manage. Truthfulness, fearlessness, empathy and compassion can be considered the price of admission to serious foresight work, for without these you won’t find the stories that need to be told, and your uncomfortable stories will be rejected or discounted on first hearing, without further consideration.
Here’s one reasonable rule of thumb for balancing fearlessness and compassion in your practice. If you don’t occasionally lose some clients, both individuals and organizations, as a result of your foresight work, and if you don’t occasionally lose some members of your audience as a futurist, you very likely aren’t being truthful enough. You’re instead being the safe, vanilla, evidence-minimized “soothsaying” futurist in Othmar’s The Futurist, 2007, first finding out what your audience wants to hear, and then telling them some version of their own perspective. This strategy may pay your bills, but it will cause no meaningful change.
At the same time, if you don’t have at least a handful of paying clients or advisors in every industry and profession that you tell stories about, you may not be being sufficiently compassionate or accurate with respect to that profession. For example, if your foresight stories paint all big corporations, the defense department, the executive branch, health and human services, criminals, any ethnic or religious group, or anyone else as an enemy, without seeing, championing, and working with the heroes, reformers and innovators within each of these and any other oft-vilified groups, you may be becoming too extreme in your views, and your foresight quality will suffer.
To say this in other words, too much fearfulness and conservatism and too much arrogance and lack of empathy are among the most important psychological issues for foresight professionals and their clients to manage. Either or both are common problems encountered in many large organizations and in any small ones that are autocratically run.
Carroll and Mui’s Billion Dollar Lessons, 2009, explores how groupthink (fear of truthtelling), and arrogance (too much belief in one’s own story) have combined to lead many well-funded star management teams into some of the greatest business failures in history. Think of Kodak, Xerox, BlackBerry, Sears, Kmart, IBM, Enron, Conseco, GM, WorldCom, Lehman Brothers, and many others. Carroll and Mui cover classic high-risk activities associated with failures, and offer practical ways to avoid groupthink. See Janus’s classic, Groupthink, 1982 for older examples.
If you think your client’s workplace is fearbound, with leaders stifling individual contributions, Rieger’s Breaking the Fear Barrier, 2011, a Gallup book, will diagnose fear levels on the team. Have the relevant stakeholders take the test anonymously, and it will tell you how fearful folks are of speaking and acting on their own initiative. Simon’s In Sheep’s Clothing, 2010 explores organizational conditions that allow abusive, manipulative, deceptive, and unfair managers and leaders, the ones that cause the most drama and fear in any team. If a team is unable to diagnose and move their more autocratic and abusive leaders out of direct management positions, or at least restrict their input to strategy, that team will likely remain too fearful and restricted for effective group foresight to emerge.
Insufficient truthtelling in their foresight work is also a common problem in many large management consultancies. It can be less common in boutique consultancies, if they are run leanly, are fiscally conservative (maintaining a surplus for lean times), and if they have the discipline to pick and choose clients they are most likely to be able to help. A good foresighter tells their uncomfortable evidence-based stories as gently as they can, while treading lightly around client fears and arrogances. They do so despite their own reasonable fears of unjust retaliation (“killing the messenger”). They do this in order to best catalyze positive change.
If the foresighter remains empathetic and compassionate, while they may occasionally lose some clients with their truthtelling, they will also gain loyal new allies in others if their foresight is valuable. If you find your consultancy constantly forcing you to cater to faulty, fearful, or arrogant client assumptions and biases, and to greatly water down the truth of what you have to say, it’s probably time for you to change jobs. Just be sure you and your family haven’t gotten dependent on that great salary, and you’ll have the freedom to overcome your own fear of change.
All your work will move, as the late management scholar Stephen Covey said, at the “speed of trust.” Covey’s The Speed of Trust, 2008, offers steps any organization can take to grow group trust and truthtelling. A good book on countering arrogance in leadership is Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership, 2002. Viewing your work as service to and empowerment of others, and your mission as enabling others to become leaders, making you redundant, is a good way to avoid personal arrogance in your own career.