The Pressure to ‘Figure Everything Out’

Tom GibbonsLeadership, Organization Development4 Comments

The more I work with organizations the more I see people in pain, stress, angst and shame over not being able to ‘figure out’ what’s going on in their roles, their work relationships and their organizations.  Adding to this is the constant messaging that we should be able to figure everything out if we are smart and determined enough. We are supposed to be able to definitively understand the problems and issues we face in order to avoid or correct them and create and execute on plans for a better future.  As hard as we work at this, the stress, pain, angst and shame just continue to grow.

This post is not about another new and better way to figure things out.  It’s about re-thinking this process.

Norbert Elias, one of the brilliant and least accessed sociologists of our time provides us a good and logical reason to re-think our efforts to figure everything out.  In his book The Society of Individuals* he makes a very critical point that pertains to this topic.  Basically he says that things in society change through the interaction between people and that these dynamics create change at a pace that moves faster than our intellectual capacity to understand it.  As hard as we might try, and no matter how brilliant we may be, we will always intellectually lag behind in our ability to understand the present our interactions create.

To me this makes so much sense and describes very well the real experience of being in organizations.  In no way does this mean that we should abandon trying to understand what is going on around us.  It does mean we should re-think the stress, pain and pressure that these efforts currently create.  It also means we should seriously question the messaging that espouses we should be able to figure everything out.  We make things so much more difficult by trying to make our experience of being in an organization something it will never be. 

The pressure to ‘figure things out’ distorts and even replaces the more valuable work of understanding and meaning making between people.  It distances us from the work of ‘trying things out’.  Focusing so much on figuring things out separates us from our actual real experience and usually prevents us from actively noticing and learning from that real experience.  And, once we think we have figured things out and decide to move forward and things turn out differently, we spend more time and energy on blame, guilt and more stress.  If we simply stopped spending so much time analyzing and looking for the perfect, right way and just moved forward with the intent of learning as we go, we could focus on the whole experience better – what’s working, what’s not, what we’re learning, what do we do next.

It seems however that the pressure to figure things out also means there is a lot of unlearning to do.

When the ideas above are put in front of people they will very often assume very polarized perspectives.  I will hear things like:

  • “If we don’t figure out how to move forward how will we know where we’re going?”
  • “So you mean looking at the past to try and figure out what happened is useless?” 

These types of comments or questions come up in various ways.  There is a common theme so let’s take a little closer look at them:

  • The first comment has a built in assumption that there is a ‘right’ way to move forward, and that right way needs to, and can be figured out.  This is simply not the case.  There are always alternatives and plan ‘B’s’, most of which change and depend on the current context and interactions between the people involved.  Chris Mowles’ blog post on the Science of Uncertainty – – does an excellent job of pointing this out.
  • The second point contains another assumption; that focusing on the past, i.e. reflection, should produce an answer, a right answer.  I’m not suggesting here that we stop reflecting on what happened and what has been learned. However, reflection may not, likely will not, produce a right answer in isolation.  Reflection will help us understand the patterns of interaction from the past, help us make meaning of these patterns and will inform our thinking and actions moving forward.  This is a very valuable practice.  This practice is compromised if the intent of reflection is to find a right answer and move forward from this answer.

The common theme in these responses reflects this pressure to figure everything out as well as the assumption that if we are smart enough, thorough enough, good enough – we should be able to create the predictable future of our choosing.  Ironically, we all know how inaccurate this assumption is, our experience of being in our organizations proves its inaccuracy almost daily.  Yet that assumption drives a great deal of organizational activity.  As Elias points out so well, where interaction between people take place, trying to figure everything out will not work.  Too often it gets in the way of actually doing something of value with the people involved.

If we simply let go of the need to figure everything out we can do what comes naturally which is move forward together into the known unknown and get on with things.  We can leave much of the blame, guilt, shame and stress to those that refuse to let go of an inaccurate perspective of what really happens in our organizations.

This may well be one of the primary leadership accountabilities of our time.  To seriously re-think how we view our organizations.  To let go of the assumption that it can all be figured out, reduce the pain, guilt and shame this assumption necessarily creates and move forward together with the people in our organizations into an unpredictable future.

* Elias, Norbert.  The Society of Individuals.  New York, London: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001.  ISBN – 0-8264-1372-2

Author – Tom

4 Comments on “The Pressure to ‘Figure Everything Out’”

  1. Thank you for the introduction to Elias” work. A very timely piece, with a great title. We are all seeing the effects of too many organizations caught up in thinking they need to find “the” answer… which is causing tremendous paralysis and a predispositon toward risk averse decisions.

    This need to “figure things out” happens when we allow the “little” voice of fear to take over and define our world. It takes courage to step into the unknown and learn as we go.

    Another author who has addressed this issue is Ron Heifetz, who talks about adaptive capacity, which he defines as the ability to respond to “…a situation that demands a response outside your current toolkit or repertoire; it consists of a gap between aspirations and operational capacity that cannot be closed by the expertise and procedures currently in place.” His book “The Practice of Adaptive Challenge” addresses this in detail.

    Working effectively with our fast paced, complex, interdependent global climate requires a maturity and complexity of mind that we haven’t cultivated in our current leaders any great extent, at least up to this point It requires an ability to become more attached to a Vision that is “greater than ourselves” than we are to protecting our own identities / egos. Such maturity / development is critical to our success in moving forward as organizations, communities, nations, and just plain humans sharing the same planet.

    1. Thanks very much for the response Peggy and for the information on Ron Heifetz. I’ve also visited your web site and it looks like you do some very good work.

      I would agree that fear is an important and problematic feature of the process of trying to figure things out but I’m not so sure it is a cause; more a result that gets positioned as a cause. I think most of the time we actually are stepping into the unknown, courageous or not. And we’ve created this very complex set of assumptions to try and prop up a worldview that is not accurate. I think perhaps the real courage would come in casting aside this dominant worldview since you experience a fair degree of scorn and criticism when you do. But you also can cast aside a lot of stress and guilt so I think it’s worth the trade off…. 🙂

      I noted from your web site that you have studied psychology and your comments about identity and ego seem to capture that focus. I have worked quite a lot with the concepts of Freud and Jung and am reading a book right now called The Brain That Changes Itself – – that brings in a component of recent brain research that I think adds significantly to what is happening in the brain when reflection (analysis) is undertaken. You may find this interesting as I think it has relevance to the coaching world which typically takes a psychotherapeutic approach.


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