By Glenda Eoyang, Ph.D.
Special to the Las Vegas Tribune
We talk about being free in the U.S., but are we really free? Do you
feel free? Do you see freedom exhibited among our most powerful and
privileged? Do you think our ultra-partisan legislators are free? Do
you think our addicted and self-indulgent sports heroes are free? When
a Gallup poll tells us that almost 50 percent of people in the U.S.
are not engaged in their jobs, are we free? I submit that most of us
enslave ourselves and don’t even realize we are doing it.
People complain that our freedoms are disappearing. In the business
world, in healthcare, and in education we constantly hear grumbles
that the government and/or the bad economy places constraints and
limitations on us. Since we just past the holiday, when Americans
celebrate our nation’s independence, perhaps we should pause and
consider how we ourselves — independent from outside entities — limit
our own individual and collective freedom. We live in a nation with
extraordinary wealth and opportunity, yet we make “choices that limit
our choices” every day. It is easy to point the finger elsewhere and
blame others for enslaving us, but that only exaggerates our
dissatisfaction. It makes us feel even more helpless and hopeless —
victims of our own expectations.
The truth — paradoxical as it might seem — is this: Having fewer
options can open a wellspring of innovation and creativity as we seek
to explore those that are available to us (instead of focusing on
those that aren’t). Think about how much easier it is to shop for
clothing in small boutiques than in big stores, for example. Too many
choices overwhelm and frustrate you. Too much freedom makes you
sluggish and complacent. Limits, on the other hand, get you focused.
When you have the right attitude and the right tools, constraints can
bring the gift of innovation and action.
Here is our choice: We can engage with each other and with our
environments in ways that generate creative options for action. We can
choose to focus on possibility and to adapt to the world as it is,
rather than whining about the way we wish it could be. We can stand in
inquiry and create a world that is full of hope and energy. How? We
can engage in Adaptive Action and follow three very simple rules.
Adaptive Action is a three-question practice that puts you in control,
even in the most uncertain situations. What? helps you notice what is
happening in the world around you, so you see openings you might have
missed. So what? breaks through habits and assumptions so you can
explore opportunities you never would have imagined. Now what? moves
you out of helplessness and into action. As you act, the patterns
around you shift, and you begin your freeing cycle of inquiry again.
What? So what? Now what?Even the best Adaptive Action can derail when
judgment, defensiveness, or conflict cloud perceptions. If my answer
to What? focuses on the worst in others, defending myself, or
reinforcing conflict, then Adaptive Action merely strengthens patterns
that enslave me. To avoid these traps, I can follow three very simple
Rule 1: Turn judgment into curiosity. Judgment, even when it is true,
blocks choice. It locks me into anger or bias. At the same time, it
limits the amount of freedom I am willing to give to the other. When I
assume my coworker is competing with me, that he isn’t working as hard
as I am, that he wants my job, I’m stuck in a negative world of my own
creation. If, on the other hand, I am curious about his motivations
and ask about his expectations, then I open my choices and his to
explore opportunities for shared understanding or action. As a boss,
curiosity creates employee engagement. As a parent, it opens honest
affection. As a citizen, it supports civil discourse. As a world
neighbor, it dissolves xenophobia. Curiosity breeds freedom.
Rule 2: Turn defensiveness into self-reflection. Roosevelt told us
that the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fear leads me to
retreat, dig in, avoid engagement, and focus on building or
maintaining boundaries to defend myself. Those boundaries hold me
hostage because they restrain the very freedom they were designed to
create. Everything I invest to defend myself from economic, social,
personal, political, and physical threats builds walls that constrain
my choices over time. While I need to be safe, I also can explore
other, more freeing ways to meet basic needs. I practice ultimate
freedom when I challenge myself. I expand my horizons when I reflect
on my own capacity to grow in new ways and to see and act differently.
Self-reflection breeds freedom.
Rule 3: Turn conflict into shared inquiry. When I choose
conflict—especially conflict that is prolonged and profound—I choose
slavery. Whatever I invest in anger and offensive action, I am
stealing from positive passion and possibility. Even when my enemy is
not immediately willing to share in inquiry, I can increase my own
freedom by opening opportunities for dialogue. I ask myself, What is a
question that we can pursue together? So what options for action might
serve us both? Now what path will lead us forward together? Shared
inquiry frees us from ties of history and frustration. Shared inquiry
You may call me Pollyanna and retreat to the familiar safety of your
self-designed constraints. There’s nothing my Adaptive Action can do
about that. But now, as we think about and are thankful for, as you
are thankful for the freedom granted by our forefathers centuries ago,
I invite you to think about the freedom you can create every day for
yourself and others. Can Adaptive Action, curiosity, self-reflection,
and shared inquiry help us discover a path toward freedom that does
not depend on the choices of others? Are you willing to give it a try?
Let us know what such freedom tastes like for you, please. Share your
Dr. Glenda Eoyang, Ph.D., is the coauthor along with Royce Holladay of
Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization (Stanford
University Press, 2013) and the executive director of Human Systems
By Glenda Eoyang, Ph.D.