Thursday, August 25, 2016

Perspective and Respect

I recently attended a seminar of professionals. An audience member interjected during a program and added to the conversation. The presenter's reaction was unenthusiastic, condescending, and rude. And in the break that followed, speaker and attendee engage further.

The presenter expressed disdain for the attendees comments. The presenter contended that those comments and perspective were born of ignorance, or lack of study. Because the presenter had his own perspective, the conclusion was clear that any alternative perspective was "wrong."

I was reminded of an experience many eons ago when I played in a high school band. No, not the cool kind with the base, a lead, and a drum set. Instead, the old-fashioned kind of made up of and amazingly diverse amalgamation of high school students. 

I played in middle school, a band made up primarily of all of the usual suspects, the traditional trumpets, trombones, flutes, and clarinets. But when I transitioned to the high school band, I was surprised to find that some of my compatriots had abandoned their "normal" (what we were all familiar with) instruments from middle school and ventured into the beyond.

I recall a clarinet player who had taken on the oboe. There was a saxophone player that had graduated to the bassoon. And two of the flute players had taken up a peculiarly small instrument called the piccolo. The transformation was not limited to the woodwinds section, a trombone player from middle school had become a French horn player. And one of the trumpet players had adopted an odd instrument, which looked like a small tuba, called a baritone. The evolution of the percussion section was likewise profound; the high school simply brought access access to a wider variety of objects that the percussionists could strike with sticks.

In fairness, I must admit that I never found the sound of the bassoon soothing. Likewise, there were times when the piccolo players trilling was annoying. As section after section was called upon by the director to play their parts, there were some sections which simply did not appeal to my ear.

But when we all played together, the effect was quite pleasing. There was a combination of various parts, for various instruments, none of which was particularly pleasing played alone (though some of the melody parts were more appealing than others). But played together, the resulting symphonic effect was simply phenomenal. Only more so because it was produced by this ragtag bunch of high-schoolers.

And this morning, as I thought of the disrespect and disdain showed towards the seminar attendees opinions and views by this so-called "expert." I thought of the high school band. Admittedly in the discussion of topics like Worker's Compensation, there are going to be divergent approaches and perspectives. There will be perspectives that are alien to our own. It is also entirely possible that one of us will hit a sour note periodically. Some of us will have more time to practice (study) and because of our background and perspective (sheet music) we will all perhaps be at least somewhat different.

Although I perhaps do not wish to listen to a bassoon or piccolo solo, anymore than I wish to listen to a kettle drum solo, each of these contributes to the symphonic effect. Similarly, every perspective in our worker's compensation world contributes to the symphonic effect of our collective voice.

To appreciate the contribution of the bassoon, we need not necessarily love the bassoon in particular. Nor do we need to enjoy extended solo contributions of the bassoon. But likewise, we cannot bar the bassoon from the symphony. Each instrument has its place in the symbiotic presentation or result. And likewise each voice in worker's compensation has a place in the symphonic presentation of a system in collective balance.

The result of our individual preferences, cannot be to silence a particular instrument, or group. We must respect one another, and strive to grasp the perspectives that each bring to the conversation. There must be listening and contemplation. If our reaction to the view of others is a conclusion that they are ignorant or unstudied, we will lose. We must persevere to respect one another, and recognize that whether we agree or disagree with perspective, that is not an appropriate singular test of whether that perspective contributes.

I used to volunteer with a gentleman who consistently stressed that leadership is learned. He used to tell people "you can learn as much from a bad leader as you can from a good one." In that spirit, I would suggest that perhaps we can learn as much from "bad" (or unrealistic, unattainable, etc) ideas as we can from good ones. Maybe those ideas that are not acceptable still lead us to introspection and intellectual testing of our own ideas and beliefs. As we test and think, perhaps even a "bad" idea leads the conversation forward and in that way alone, serving as a "bad example," perhaps is is beneficial? 

I would suggest that the appropriate task of contribution should be (number one) whether the contributor sincerely believes the perspective being espoused. And two, whether the contributor can successfully support that perspective or contentions with data or science or evidence. And if so, perhaps it adds to the conversation. 

Many years ago, there was an excellent piece written by the chief executive of General Electric, and published in the Wall Street Journal. It was titled "everyone is a snob about something." Here it is, from another website, italics are direct quote. 

Some people know so much about one thing they look down on those who aren’t so knowledgeable. They are snobs. There are wine snobs, literary, fashion, food, even money snobs. "I can change the world,” the politician boasts. “But he can’t even change a tire,” the garage mechanic sneers. Both are snobs because they look down on those who don’t share their special interests. If you’re sure you know more about haute cuisine than your dinner partner, remember she may know about 19th century architecture. Don’t let you knowledge turn you into a snob. Find out what the other guy knows, before you show off what you know.

We must guard against becoming (or remaining) snobs. We must guard against an evolution through which we become so enamored with own knowledge and perspective, that we discount the perspective of others because it is inconsistent with our own. If we are to succeed in the formation and management of this grand compromise, we as its leaders must in these days of great challenge, not become (or remain) snobs. I say "remain" because the exchange I witnessed assures me some of us have become snobs. The presenter's disdain was piteous, weak, and disrespectful. 

We must respect other perspectives, even when we disagree, or simply cannot understand them. By no means am I suggesting that we must concede to the belief of others, nor that we blindly adopt their perspective. I'm suggesting merely that we must respect their contribution to the conversation.

I have met and known a great many doctors in my life. But I have never been a doctor. I have met and known a great many engineers, but I have not been one. The same is true for rehabilitation providers, physical therapist, actuaries, accountants, risk managers, insurance expert's, and the list goes on. There are a multitude of shoes in which I have never stood, much less walked. 

I hope that I try to understand what those people have experienced. I hope I strive to understand the trials they have faced in reaching their professional positions. I hope that I struggle to accept their efforts and experiences, and to thereby appreciate how they have become who they are. And from that amalgamation of who they are, they have perspectives, beliefs, and knowledge. They can contribute. 

But I can only test their contribution, personally, based on who I am, at this stage of my journey. They no more recognize how I got here than I comprehend how they did. In the end perhaps it would be simple for me to discount their opinions, knowing what I think I know about the path that they have traveled. From my Pius and lofty perch, perhaps I could (or should) just be a snob and look down upon them? I could just discount their perspectives, feeling that I know more about the path they have traveled than they could possibly know about the path from whence I came? 

But such a perspective would be pompous, conceited, and foolish. I cannot know the path that you have traveled. And by the same token you cannot know mine. What we can know is that we are all here today, dealing with a system that holds tremendous responsibility. This system affects lives each and every day. This system has tremendous financial costs and obligations. It touches every American, every day, and it does so profoundly. The success or failure of entire economies ride on the success of this system. And as a result, the success or failure of the system will mean the success or failure of individuals, businesses, and frankly economies. 

The burden we have taken on it's not light. The burden we have taken on it's only more difficult because the vast majority of people around us neither grasp the significance of workers' compensation, nor care. And against that backdrop, we must, collectively, as a community, respect one another. We must listen to ideas and perspectives. We must be willing to consider what is brought to the table, without ridicule or condescension. I regret not interceding in the recent exchange I described. I should have told the presenter that he was being a snob and perhaps some other well chosen words of guidance. With luck, he may read this and think about his name calling. 

And if we listen to and respect each others views, I believe that we cannot fail. In Southern Cross, Crosby Stills and Nash gave us a great lyric "And we never failed to fail it was the easiest thing to do." Ain't that the truth? Failure is easy. So, I suggest that we not take the easy way out, let's succeed instead. Together, symphonically.

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