Say “Yes to the Mess”

There’s More to the Sweet Spot than Candor and Courage Balanced with Curiosity and Humility.

As I reflect on people who have built their conversational capacity and used it to inspire constructive change in their teams, organizations, and communities, I realize that there’s more to the “sweet spot” than just balancing candor and courage with curiosity and humility. There’s a larger suite of counter-balancing traits by which they strive to operate.

One characteristic rides high above all the others: an affirmative bias—a willingness to focus on what can be done as opposed to what can’t; to see the opportunities in a challenging situation not just the limitations; to adopt an optimistic approach to a messy predicament rather than a pessimistic one.

An affirmative bias is not just shallow positive thinking. It’s more than just faking a smile while discounting or denying the ugly aspects of the situation we’re facing. With an affirmative bias our eyes are wide open. We’re keenly aware of the unwelcome nature of the predicament we’re dealing with yet confident in our ability to do something about it. Even with a no-nonsense view of the hard realities we’re up against we still adopt a mindset that says, “It’s possible I can do something constructive here.” We’re passionate, affirmative, and ready to take action. When problems arise we say to ourselves and to others, “Let’s roll up our sleeves and work hard to improve this screwed-up situation—and while we’re at it let’s learn something along the way.”

We adopt an attitude that says “yes” to the mess.

I’m borrowing this phrase from my good friend and colleague Frank Barrett, author of Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz. “Jazz players assume that no matter how incoherent or unpredictable the current situation appears, they’ll find some positive pathway out, some creative possibility to uncover and explore,” says Frank. “Without such a mindset (a bias toward positivity), they would have trouble performing at all because, by the very nature of the art form, they find themselves in the middle of messes all the time. Jazz musicians can’t stop in the middle of a number to problem solve or put situations in order, or to say to other players ‘I don’t like those notes you played. They didn’t match with what I had in mind, so let’s go back and do it over.’ . . . Jazz musicians succeed because they have faith that whatever is happening has potential to lead in innovative directions.”

This affirmative yet realistic mindset is akin to a concept Jim Collins made popular in his best-selling book Good to Great: “the Stockdale Paradox.” This paradox is named after Vice Admiral James Stockdale, a former prisoner of war who described the seemingly incongruous frame of mind needed to sustain ourselves through intense difficulty: “Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties,” he said, “and at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.”

What’s needed is an affirmative belief that a solution exists and that something positive will emerge.
– Frank Barrett

There are two reasons realistic yet positive mindset is so essential: First, it determines our focus by setting the filter we’re using to make sense of the world around us. With an Eeyore mindset we focus on what’s impossible, on all the reasons things will fail. Our mind scans a situation looking for excuses, and they’re always easy to find. As Richard Bach put it, “argue for your limitations and sure enough, they’re yours.” But with an affirmative bias we intentionally dial into what’s possible. We hold the view that something useful can be done and that we can make a difference. Our mind scans the situation looking for opportunity. This is a radical and transformative filter by which to operate in life.

The second reason an affirmative bias is such a powerful aspect of the mindset: without it we fail before we start, or worse still, we fail because we never start. “You don’t always win when you try,” says the musician Alex Lifeson, “but you always fail when you don’t.” Awareness and skill don’t matter much if we’re convinced the situation is hopeless. 

You don’t always win when you try but you always fail when you don’t
– Alex Lifeson

If we’re going to exercise leadership and make a constructive difference, adopting an affirmative bias is essential. “Optimistic people play a disproportionate role in shaping our lives,” says psychologist Daniel Kahneman. “Their decisions make a difference; they are inventors, entrepreneurs, political and military leaders—not average people. They got to where they are by seeking challenges and taking risks.” But to be effective, optimism needs to be grounded in a pragmatic, no-nonsense view of the circumstances we’re up against. Without a positive attitude we won’t incur the risk of speaking up and taking action; but without a realistic view of the situation we won’t put the appropriate effort into preparing for it.

By holding a belief that a problem is solvable while simultaneously accepting the hard facts of the predicament we’re trying to improve, we exemplify the “yes to the mess” mindset and we’re far more likely to approach the challenge in a clear and competent way.

(Adapted from Influence In Action: How To Build Your Conversational Capacity, Do Meaningful Work, and Make a Powerful Difference (McGraw-Hill, 2019).

Originally published on LinkedIn:

Craig Weber

Known for his impactful work and his engaging delivery, Craig Weber is a sought after speaker, author, and consultant. His pioneering ideas about conversational capacity and adaptive learning are outlined in his bestselling book, Conversational Capacity: The Key To Building Successful Teams That Perform When The Pressure Is On (McGraw-Hill, 2013), his new book Influence in Action: How to Build Your Conversational Capacity, Do Meaningful Work, and Make a Powerful Difference (McGraw-Hill, 2019), and his popular Conversational Capacity eCourse.