Changing Course

Changing Course

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on a bench overlooking Roebuck Bay in Broome. It was warm with a light breeze creating the odd whitecap on the water. On the water’s edge a man was attempting to start a two-stroke outboard motor on the back of a 14ft runabout. He was about thigh deep in the water and a woman, also in her fifties, sat patiently in the boat. I was involved in a phone coaching session, so didn’t pay a lot of attention until I finished the call about 45-minutes later. The man was still pulling the cord of the motor, now with the help of a passer-by. They had the cowling off the motor and occasionally looked inquisitively at the wires and other working parts of the stubborn beast.

Then, all of a sudden, the motor started amidst a huge pall of blue smoke that could easily have been mistaken for an explosion. The cowling was quickly replaced, the man climbed, rather awkwardly aboard (his legs were probably water logged) and the boat headed out to sea at a high rate of knots and out of sight.

Now, I tend to be something of an optimist and have found, generally, that it has helped me navigate life quite well. In this situation, faced with an outboard motor that takes that amount of time to start, I would have switched to a more pessimistic mode. The research does, in fact, suggest that people who are pessimistic may well be more realistic than optimists. So, with my realistic hat on I would probably have assumed that it would not be a great thing to be several kilometres or even several hundred metres off shore with an outboard that decided not to do what it is supposed to do. And, the evidence at the beach was that there is a high probability that something was amiss.

I’ve seen people do this at boat ramps before and it has always seemed to me to be an odd decision, if not reckless.

But it strikes me that this behaviour is common in everyday life. We carry on regardless with a behaviour when it clearly is not working or when there might even be negative consequences. A simple example is arguing with someone when we or they are angry. Another is continuing a habit that is doing us demonstrable harm. Continuing relationships that have become toxic, or where we are doing all the heavy lifting and the other person is not committed, are also common examples of the ‘carry on regardless of the consequences’ mentality.

From a leadership perspective I’ve seen this phenomenon in action in organisations.

Attempting to give a staff member some negative feedback without having prepared beforehand. Making decisions without all the data or without the right people being involved in the process. Holding the same old dysfunctional meetings. Not dealing with negative behaviour of a team member. Staying in an organisation that is making you unhappy. Working later and later, at weekends, and into the night and saying yes to more and more requests.

You can probably make your own list of times when we should take time to reflect rather than charge ahead anyway. Sometimes we need to put our immediate objective on hold and change course, at least temporarily. In sailing terms, we can’t sail into a headwind-we can only keep tacking to get to where we want to be.

It’s obvious that the guy with the boat in Broome should have taken note that something was wrong, thought about the possible consequences and changed the plan. Take the boat out of the water would have come first and second would have sought some advice or take the motor back to the workshop and work out what is wrong. Then fix it before venturing out on the water.