As the clock turns from 11:59:59 PM to 12:00:00 AM, we pass from one date to another. Two sides of midnight, as I like to say. The two times have different spaces on a calendar, but they are almost precisely the same time.
I’ve been thinking a lot about two sides of the same thing as I listen to the debate around impeachment and share notes with my friend Jonathan Barry, a brilliant Republican. He regularly has a different reaction than my own to an op-ed column about impeachment. “Uneducated,” “hypnotized by Fox News,” “ignorant,” and other words Democrats use to dismiss Republicans cannot be used with Jonathan (or many other Republican friends and colleagues).
Both the GOP and the Democrats have said in public, “The facts speak for themselves.” Yet both sides have reached very different conclusions. How do our political leaders and voters derive such different meanings?
After all, there are facts – truths. But there are also our own assumptions as well as our selective collection of facts.
I am reminded of a lesson I teach leaders. (The source is Peter Senge.) Imagine you are a new manager and when you enter your new office, you see Stu sitting at his very messy desk.
What might you assume looking at Stu’s desk? Consider two options:
- Stu must very lazy – he can’t get his work done.
- Stu must be essential, as so much work has been given to him.
There is only one truth about Stu. Stu is highly unlikely to be both lazy and so vital that he gets an overload of work.
What’s essential in the exercise is what you do next. What do you conclude from a split-second assumption made from a single observation, a mental leap that is usually unconscious?
If you assume Stu is lazy and conclude he is a bad worker, you’ll start looking for other examples of Stu’s poor performance and not give Stu anything significant to complete. An observant Stu may feel left out and think about finding a new job. With less attachment, Stu will work less hard and appear even lazier.
If, however, your snap assumption is that people rely on Stu, you might conclude you need to rely on Stu to succeed in your new role. You will embrace Stu, seek out his opinions, and offer him choice assignments. What a jolt for motivation! Stu works harder and rises (if he was lazy) to your expectations.
One lesson here is that assumptions can be self-fulfilling. Another is that our context drives the assumptions we make, usually unconsciously. A distrustful person is far more likely to see Stu as lazy. A brand new manager trying to figure out whom to rely upon may be on the lookout for top-tier staff members.
A final lesson from my Stu example is that great bosses avoid making any assumption about Stu. Perhaps he was just out for a week on sick leave following surgery. Only after all the facts are in and viewed from a neutral context can a correct conclusion about Stu’s work and his tidiness or messiness be reached.
Different prior contexts are driving a deep chasm between different sides of the impeachment debate. The different contexts are even leading to varying views of what the US Constitution demands, with one side saying the impeachment hearings are mandatory and the other saying the Constitution requires no such thing. That difference of opinion is why Congress will hear from US Constitutional law professors this week.
Different contexts are also leading GOP leaders to view these events as a witch-hunt while Democrats argue it is anything but that. Democrats view ambassadors as truthful professional civil servants, while some Republicans see them as the “deep, untrustworthy state.”
Democrats claim the GOP is consciously lying to the public to protect Trump; the GOP feels Democrats are purposely jury-rigging a case, as they never accepted Trump’s presidency. There is so much distrust between the two sides that each side has assumed motivations about the opposing side that supports its own point of view. Surely neither side is right about the motivations of all the “others.”
In the weeks ahead, let’s all remember the Stu lesson and let the final weight of evidence, not our prior assumptions, shape our conclusions. At a minimum, we should pause to think about whether what we decide is a “factual conclusion” may only be an assumed one based on untested assumptions we have made and the facts to which we chose to pay attention.
My best advice is to learn more about unconscious bias, and how it affects what we observe and our interpretations of observations. Also, listen to or read both liberal and conservative media. Doing so is the new requirement of being a good citizen of our cherished democracy.