Managing to engage with not knowing

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Bion’s Search for Truth

The Symingtons (1996) have suggested that Bion made only one assumption, that ‘the mind grows through exposure to truth’ (p. 3), or, as Bion put it, ‘truth seems to be essential for psychic growth’ (1962, p. 56; see also Grotstein, 2004). The value of his insight for organisational work is that real learning and change occur at the edge of knowledge, when we do not yet know the truth of the situation. Throughout Bion’s writings we find the notion that clinging to the illusion of knowing can be a defence against the emotional experience of encountering truth at the edge of ignorance. (See French and Simpson, 2001, for a more developed discussion of this point.) Although being at the edge can be exciting and invigorating, the unsettling anxiety that also accompanies the experience often frightens us off at the very moment when we might catch a glimpse of the truth and when something new might be learned.

It is, however, unfashionable to talk about ‘the search for truth’. The post-modern deconstruction of ‘grand narratives’ problematised all essentialist notions of ‘Truth’: ‘men are…’, ‘women are…’, ‘organisations are…’, ‘leadership is…’. What may have been lost, however, in the deconstruction of oppressive or controlling notions of ‘truth’, is the creativity and energy that can be mobilised by the search. There can be an unexpected broadening of imagination when one is somehow in touch with or touched by the truth of this moment and context, limited and provisional though it inevitably is. This does not have to be a search for some ‘grand’ truth: it is enough that it is relevant to the demands of the moment. Indeed, the pursuit of some generalised notion of truth can even be a way of denying or avoiding a present situation that is uncomfortable or confusing, whereas addressing the truth of this moment can be exactly what is needed to keep the organisation ‘on task’.
We liken Bion’s pursuit of truth to the leader’s desire to keep the organisation ‘on task’, recognising that this sometimes requires the leader to work at the edge between knowledge and ignorance. For example, Nicholas found himself on a very steep learning curve when leading a multi-billion pound negotiation with senior Chinese and Russian officials. In the early months Nicholas was confronted in several ways by the inadequacy of his knowledge. At first it seemed to him that it was the Chinese and Russian members of the negotiation who were ignorant, negative and resistant. However, as Nicholas gradually learned to let go of his preconceptions he underwent a series of transformations in the way that he and his team took up their roles. He learned to suspend what he thought he knew and began to engage more effectively with the reality of the situation as it was, rather than as he thought it should be.
The differences that we noted above between Harry and Bill were also evident in this case in the contrast between Nicholas’ response and that of a key member of his negotiating team. In other ways extremely competent, this individual was unable to make the same transformation in his style of interacting and approach to thinking. As a result he persistently allowed himself to be drawn into destructive confrontations and Nicholas had to remove him from the project. His technical ‘knowing’ was an obstacle to making progress, merely aggravating the complex political sensitivities of the situation.
This view of thoughtfulness emphasises the idea that effective leadership involves seeing moment, day by day, what is actually going on, in contrast with what was planned for or has worked in the past. In order to assess the impact of events, and to adapt as necessary, leaders may have to put their knowledge and familiar ways of thinking to one side, in order to allow their minds be changed by ‘truth-in-the-moment’ (French and Simpson, 1999). Thoughtful leadership may even require the capacity to downplay what at first sight appear to be more task-focused styles of thinking. The heart of the paradox is that it may only be by changing and re-visioning the organisation’s reality as it evolves that a leader can preserve a focus on the task.

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