Thriving in Complexity with Jennifer Berger

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Jennifer Berger

Mark Bidwell  [7:18]  

So Jennifer, wonderful to have you on the show. Let’s start perhaps by a comment that you made in your latest book around the fact that you’d written two previous books, which had the word “complexity” in them, but you’d had feedback from some very smart people who said that they didn’t understand what the books were about. What is your latest book about and how does complexity fit into the story?

Jennifer Berger  [7:44]  

Thanks, Mark. Yeah, I had been trying and believing that I was making complexity accessible to people and bringing really difficult theories into the world, and connecting them to people’s lives in my first two books. And there are some people who will tell you that I had done that, but not enough people, I think. So the thing that I was going for in my most recent book, I get these questions from business leaders all the time, who say “now you’ve written books about this stuff and you know a lot about complexity. I don’t have time to read the books, and I don’t have time to know a lot about complexity, and complexity is making me insane, and it’s sort of ruining my life. So could you just tell me like super fast, what I could do differently or think about differently, that would be most helpful to me?” And that mindtrap IS that book, it’s a book that springs from theory, but is not in any way theoretical. It’s meant to be a really practical, short, accessible guide to how do we need to think and be different in a world that’s different than the world our bodies and our brains were designed for.

Mark Bidwell  [9:02]  

Right. And you’ve been working with executives to help them increase their performance in the field of leadership development for 30 years. I’m curious what’s different today about these conversations you’re having with execs? Complexity has always been around, but what is unique about complexity today that your clients are experiencing?

Jennifer Berger  [9:26]  

I think we’ve built a lot of organizational structures to shield us from complexity. And for quite a lot of our history that’s been effective, and the organizational structures, the market structures, the silos and organizations, the product specialization, those things have been quite useful and shielding people from the complexity, that otherwise is actually always happening around us. And now that’s not working so well. Now, markets are getting more complex, they’re more intertwined. Globalization is pulling in people in different ways, silos are breaking down and matrix organizations are much more common these days. Organizational frenemies, where you’re both collaborating with and competing against people in or across, or in adjacent markets, all these things have meant that the complexity that the organizations used to be able to shelter people from, is now everywhere. It’s everywhere, and it’s being pushed farther and farther through organizations. Jobs that used to have remarkably little complexity, now, at the customer face, have all kinds of specialization and customization that mean that complexity just drives all the way through organizations these days.

Mark Bidwell  [10:54]  

Interesting, because my previous CEO at Syngenta used to say that our ability to manage complexity was source of competitive advantage. I guess before, as you say, we were shielded and today you can’t hide from it. And that’s right, you’ve got to go into battle with it, and you’ve got to overcome it. Otherwise, the alternative is you’re out of business.

Jennifer Berger  [11:18]  

I think about it as not overcoming it, I think of it as complexity as a force. We can try to protect ourselves from that force the way people try to protect ocean front land from the waves that crash and eat away at the sand. Or you can figure out how can I harness the force. How can I use the force to my advantage? So I actually believe in teaching leaders not just to control, because you can’t, or shield yourself from complexity, but how do you actually use it? How do you become friends with it to such an extent that it becomes your competitive advantage, because you’re using the power inside the complexity in order to succeed?

Mark Bidwell  [12:01]  

And of course, we betray ourselves with our language! My language was more around conflict. But what you’re talking about is more of the martial arts kind of redirecting the energy and using it in service of what you’re trying to achieve.

Jennifer Berger  [12:18]  

That’s exactly right. 

Mark Bidwell  [12:20]  

Super. So the new book, as you mentioned Jennifer, is around mindtraps and ways out of them. Can you just give us a definition of what do you mean by a mindtrap?

Jennifer Berger  [12:34]  

As I’ve been working with these leaders and senior teams for so long, I’ve watched that there are kind of patterns that they persist in, even when those patterns are deeply unhelpful. And I read across, as I’m sure you do, psychology, and behavioral economics, and sociology, and you see these patterns actually deeply inside humans that it’s hard for us to get out of, whether you call them cognitive bias or you call them particular ways, neuroscience is telling us how our mind and our brain works. But in any case, there are ways that we are patterned to behave, and to resist learning, that are unhelpful. So that for me is the essence of a trap. A trap is the thing that catches us. And when we try to get out of it, we actually get more caught in it. So these mindtraps I found as I was doing my research, they kind of clumped in five main areas. I’m sure there are a billion mindtraps really that we’re facing with, but these five ones are particularly dangerous when you’re facing complexity. And they’re about how we’re trapped by our need to tell, hear and understand simple stories. We’re trapped by our experience that we’re right most of the time, we’re trapped by our need for agreement and collective approaches, or for polarization. We’re trapped by our need to control things. Particularly leaders, particularly in complexity get very twisted by their desire to control, to put their hands on and make outcomes happen. And we’re trapped by our egos, by the way. We are trying to defend and protect the person we have been, as we are needing to change and grow into the person we could be next.

Mark Bidwell  [14:40]  

Okay. So maybe we can start by the first trap which you articulated around simple stories, both about how we interpret the past, and how we think about the future. Can you just talk through what that actually looks like, maybe with an example from an anonymized client?

Jennifer Berger  [15:24]  

Sure. We are wired for understanding things in a narrative shape, with a beginning, middle and an end. And we’re wired to populating that understanding with relatively simplistic characters, that we create out of very little data, and then we reinforce. And because our brain is actually a prediction machine in many ways, and we’re investing quite a lot of our energy in predicting what’s next, we’re wired to the belief that the future is going to be like the past. And all of that conspires to get us into simple stories that are easy to tell, they’re easy to understand, but they’re simplistic. They trap us by preventing us from seeing alternatives and making a different set of choices, letting a new data.

Mark Bidwell  [16:24]  

This is an interesting one, because everyone talks about the importance of story, and the importance of engaging people in your own personal story. And clearly there will be a level of simplicity about them, or simplistickness if that’s a word. How do you balance the importance of storytelling as a leadership competency with making things so simplistic that you get blinded, you’re beginning to make bad decisions?

Jennifer Berger  [16:54]  

Yeah, it’s a question I get all the time, because storytelling is such a thing that people are urging leaders to do, and making stories simple so that people will pick them up and carry them is so important. But it is in that, that you have the danger. The stories I’m talking about are not the stories we craft on purpose. They’re the stories our brain makes, that we then believe are the whole story. So it can be April 3rd, and me talk to you from London, without me talking about one of the great simple stories of our time, which is Brexit. And this whole world, I had a friend who was talking to her cousin about why her cousin voted to leave the European Union, why she was a Brexiteer, and her cousin said the EU regulates everything, and we have got to get them to stop controlling us. We can’t have the EU regulating the shape of our bananas. So that story, about how we didn’t have regulation before the EU, now we have ridiculous regulation, the regulation is held forward by being made by a particular set of characters, and looking like regulating the shape of my bananas, which is absurd. And the answer, the end, is we leave and live happily ever after. That’s the way a brain frames a complex topic as though it’s an actual really simple topic. And then she can just say, like, look at the bananas. And then that’s the shorthand for her, that contains whether we should as a country leave the European Union or not. It’s not that she decided “oh I’m going to craft a really helpful communication device,” it’s that she took pieces of data and they formed themselves into a story that now has her living inside that story, and any evidence just contributes to that story. She can’t get out of it.

Mark Bidwell  [19:06]  

Yeah, yeah. And I don’t know whether it’s built on heuristics, but the brain is wired to reduce complexity to simple things as much as possible anyway. So there’s neurology happening behind the scenes as well, I would imagine.

Jennifer Berger  [19:24]  

Oh, that’s exactly right. One of the brain’s great functions is to reduce complexity for us. And for most of human history, that was an incredible gift. Because if you’re being chased by a tiger, you do not want to be distracted by other thoughts. But right now, if you’re really stressed out in a meeting, and you’ve got your eye on this particular competitor and this move that they’re making, and you direct all of your attention to that thing, you could be missing so many things that are going to take you down before that competitor gets close, right? So it is absolutely adaptive, it is absolutely hardwired into us. And we have to notice it and find our way out.

Mark Bidwell  [20:06]  

All the listeners will recognize, if they are self-aware, that this is a trap that they’re likely to fall into. So once awareness is there, what are the next steps that people can take to overcome or exit this trap?

Jennifer Berger  [20:30]  

I think once we’re aware that we’re telling ourselves simple stories, the trick is to not believe in them. And so the trick then is to tell ourselves multiple stories, and to develop a “oh wow, so I’m looking at Brexit from that position.” What are three other stories I could tell myself about this, that would take the same data, but it would change the boundaries of when did it begin, or change the features about who’s a hero and who’s a villain? So how could I take exactly what I’ve got, take the data I’ve got but shift the story I’m putting around the data, shift some of the characters? How do I take that guy who’s really annoying me and seems to be getting in the way, and understand him as the hero in his story, as opposed to the villain in my story? And what is the story he tells himself about what he’s doing when he goes to work in the morning? He doesn’t go to work in the morning deciding to piss me off and be a blocker to my work. Nobody gets up in the morning and says “geez, I’m gonna really get in Jennifer’s way today.” They’re actually on about something else entirely. What is that thing? And how could I get my head around it? And then how could I get curious and have a conversation with him about it?

Mark Bidwell  [21:45]  

I think you mentioned in the book, this is almost like scenario planning. It’s quite a lot of work involved, but ultimately it yields multiple options, versus one quite simplistic and static option that you’ve created as a result of wedding yourself to your story.

Jennifer Berger  [22:03]  

Yeah, it’s like a micro version of scenario planning, right, that you would take with you and that you would find yourself in. I do it on the tube… 

Jennifer Berger  [0:26]  

I do it on the tube, I’ll be riding the tube, and I’ll look at somebody who’s standing there in a suit and reading a journal. And I’ll think that guy’s a banker. And I’ll think that’s a simple story. What other stories could I tell? So it’s not even like that makes any difference in my life, it’s just a habit to get into, stretching of the mind habit to notice am I telling a simple story, and can I get myself out of it?

Mark Bidwell  [0:54]  

Interesting. So the second one which I’d love to get into is around excessive confidence. We trap ourselves by rightness, error blindness. And I think you say, like death, we believe that being wrong only happens to others. What was going on here?

Jennifer Berger  [1:13]  

That’s a Kathryn Schultz quote, she wrote a great book called “Adventures in Margins of Error.” A couple of things are going on here that I find totally fascinating. It makes lots of sense for us as a species to not be second-guessing ourselves most of the time. And again, it’s part of the simplification that our brain is gifting us all the time. But there’s a neurologist named Robert Burton who wrote a great book called “On Being Certain.” And the thing that he’s devoted his career to figuring out is what is certainty exactly like, where does it live in the brain? And he’s discovered that certainty, the feeling of knowing and believing that you’re right is actually an emotion. It’s an emotion like happiness, or annoyance, or irritation. All of these are emotional responses that we then backfill a story on to, but it turns out certainty is the same. It’s an emotional response that we backfill a story onto, and we don’t notice that we’ve done it. And there’s actually no correlation between our emotional experience of rightness, and whether we are, in fact, right. I think we’ve been telling ourselves quite a simple story, that when we feel certain about something, and we can have evidence for it, then that means that we must be right. In fact, I was teaching this a few weeks ago, and one of the guys said “Jennifer, I just want you to know that that might be true for other people, but for me, I really, really reason, and I really think about things, and that’s not the way it works for me.” And others in the room were like “oh, yeah, I’m like that, too, I’m like him, too.” And the point is, we all think we’re like that, right? That’s the trick. That’s why it’s a trap, because the emotion comes and then we backfill a story so quickly. But researchers have shown in study after study that mostly what we do is we feel a thing, and then we find the data that supports our emotional experience of rightness. And we close ourselves off to other data, which is a problem in lots of the world, but it’s just totally death-defyingly troubling in complexity.

Mark Bidwell  [3:44]  

Can you just explain why it’s so important to avoid this in a complex world?

Jennifer Berger  [3:56]  

In a complex world there’s basically no such thing as right and wrong. So what you want is a world that’s filled with options and directions that you’re moving from here to there, and you want flexibility and agility. And as soon as you’ve decided this is right, and that’s wrong, then you’ve just lost some degrees of motion, and the more you fall… Now, of course, there are some things that are right, and there are some things that are wrong, and there are some things that are simple. But in complexity, actually, it’s very troubling to believe that you’re right and to be only collecting data that confirms your sense of rightness.

Mark Bidwell  [4:37]  

Yeah, it’s called confirmation bias on steroids.

Jennifer Berger  [4:40]  

That’s exactly right.

Mark Bidwell  [4:41]  

And again, this is something that we’re all guilty of, I’m sure the listeners will be feeling the same way. So how do you help them, what’s the answer here?

Jennifer Berger  [4:54]  

I love the question “how could I be wrong?” I love just carrying that question. My clients ask themselves that question all the time, I ask myself that question all the time. Sometimes with my clients, we learn how to recognize even the physical sensation that I feel certain. If it’s a feeling, if it’s an emotion, then it has a series of physical sensations. How do you recognize the physical feeling of certainty, and then stop believing in it so much. Notice it as a sensation, but not as the truth. 

Mark Bidwell  [5:30]  

And how does certainty show up with you, emotionally or physiologically?

Jennifer Berger  [5:37]  

Physiologically for me, I talk faster, and I lean forward, I tend to lean in with my body. Sometimes if I’m feeling really certain about something and I’m feeling like people aren’t listening to me, my palms will sweat, my heart rate increases just a little bit. So it has a kind of forward emotion, which is quite an enjoyable feeling by the way. I quite like the way it feels, I just need to mistrust it a little bit.

Mark Bidwell  [6:09]  

And also, you’re in that process, I imagine you are transferring enthusiasm to the person you’re speaking to, they probably feel reassured that you know what you’re talking about as well. So I guess you’re into a cycle there as well.

Jennifer Berger  [6:25]  

I think that’s just right. And then of course, we surround ourselves with people who believe what we believe, and other people are agreeing with me, and that confirms my bias. And the thing happens, which is why one of the deep antidotes for this over time is to find people with whom we disagree and to listen deeply to them. So listen, not to convince them that we’re right, not to fix their errors, but listen to deeply learn from and understand them. I think that’s one of the most powerful antidotes we have to the sense of rightness.

Mark Bidwell  [7:06]  

And I loved some of the other material you talk about. Are we listening to reload, versus to learn? And then there’s also the other piece, you quoted someone talking about taking the longest walk in the world, which is to someone else’s perspective.

Jennifer Berger  [7:25]  

Yeah, my mentor Jim Walford used to say that and I think it’s fantastic, particularly somebody whose perspective we don’t agree with. There’s plenty of space for that in the world today.  Find somebody whose perspective we think is just simply wrong, simply wrong-headed, impossible. And can we take the longest walk in the world from our perspective to theirs, lay ours down for a minute and simply seek to understand another human being because there’s a coherence? And there are some things that are clearly true inside that other perspective. Might not be all true, we might not fully agree with any of it. But can we make room in ourselves for a bigger perspective than the perspective we have today?

Mark Bidwell  [8:07]  

And how do you do this, Jennifer? What does your practice look like around this, because this is tough, isn’t it? Particularly if you’ve been working in an area for a number of years, and have established yourself. How do you overcome this personally?

Jennifer Berger  [8:22]  

Oh, man, it’s a practice, right? It’s the sort of thing that when you least feel like doing it, that’s when you most need to do it. With the world, with the political world, with the people I sit next to on airplanes, with my kids, the more certain I feel about something, the more that is a warning sign that I need to listen to people who think something different.

Mark Bidwell  [8:49]  

It’s fascinating. I heard someone describe the other day the internet as a giant confirmation bias machine. We live in our bubbles, whether it’s in a corner office, whether it’s just surrounding ourselves with people who agree with us, and the stories that we tell reconfirm that. It’s so hard, it’s probably never been harder, but it’s probably never been more important, either.

Jennifer Berger  [9:12]  

I totally agree with you. And we see what that’s doing to our societies. We see the level of simplistic thinking on all sides is really creating impossible governmental situations and organizational situations. We have to cross boundaries in order to be able to forge new solutions. We just have to do it.

Mark Bidwell  [9:36]  

Yeah, and going back, I never mentioned politics, but you know, the idea of someone crossing the political divide, which the media was all about today, is just such an extraordinary expression in the context of what we just talked about.

Jennifer Berger  [9:53]  

Indeed, and whether that’s even allowable, I mean, that’s been extraordinary, whether that’s even a possible thing, or whether that’s in itself a betrayal, that this question, how often do we hold each other to account that says, if you even think about a perspective that’s different than mine, that’s a betrayal of our relationship. Again, in complexity we just can’t have that. Because we will be tossed aside by the complex situations we find ourselves in, and we will become irrelevant. And our simplistic solutions will become more and more deeply damaging.

Mark Bidwell  [10:37]  

Yeah, just another anachronism. So I think we got time for one more trap, which you refer to as being trapped by agreement.

Jennifer Berger  [10:51]  

I love the way humans are designed to create great groups, right? It’s a core piece of who we are, it’s a core piece of our success. If you read a book like “Sapiens”, that book will tell you that our ability to form groups, often around simple stories by the way, has been the core piece of what has helped humanity build cities, religions, societies, nations, organizations. And that comes from earlier in our evolution, being clawless, fangless, flightless weaklings. We needed to band together in order to survive and to be kicked out of a tribe was to die. So we have all kinds of neurological, and physiological, and psychological requirements about being with our tribe. That’s awesome, except in a complex world, who’s in my tribe and who’s not in my tribe becomes much more contested. And if I deal with some of these old evolutionary ideas that are quite simple about who’s in and who’s out, then I’m really not fit for a complex world, because I’ll tribe up with my tribe, and I won’t disagree with them, I won’t bring in conflict, I won’t use my seeing the world differently which is necessary in complexity for us to get all of that diversity of opinion out, and I will find another tribe to be against me, right? I’ll find an enemy tribe, because that’s what we do, we polarize. And I will increase the sense of distance between me and that enemy tribe. And again, in a complex world, having friends you can’t disagree with, and enemies you can’t agree with is ruinous.

Mark Bidwell  [12:48]  

So this one is for people who don’t like conflict, and there are many people out there, and I probably put myself in that basket, but also people who are nonetheless recognizing they are living in this complex world. This goes against every sinew in their body, right?

Jennifer Berger  [13:05]  

Oh, absolutely. This one is particularly trappy for me. And I think there are lots of us. One of the antidotes to this trap is about how do I learn to disagree better? How do I learn to have conflict in a way that deepens relationships, instead of hurting them? How do we use disagreement in our teams to grow our perspective, and to grow our set of choices, instead of to limit it? So how do we actually mobilize our disagreement in some helpful way? And then, how do I decrease polarization when I start to tribe up with some other group? And yeah, I think it has, like all the other ones, a very physiological nature. And we have to be noticing our physiology, and not be trapped by it.

Mark Bidwell  [13:59]  

And as you disclosed, this is trappy for you. You’re a leader of a business and an organization, I would imagine you come across this feeling occasionally, and not in client work, I’m thinking less about that Jennifer, more about your internal organization. How do you lean into this? And this is probably not the right expression, but how do you overcome the trappiness associated with this one?

Jennifer Berger  [14:27]  

It’s the thing I’m working on most right now as a leader, myself. When we had our closing circle at our all-hands meeting, I am a leader of an organization of about 50 people, and I said “the thing I need to get better at doing is to develop disagreeing, and creating and leaning into conflict more in order to deepen and grow.” That is my growing edge. I do it by first of all noticing it, and then I teach leaders how to enter into conflict in ways that are life-giving instead of life-sucking. So it really is here, taking my own medicine, having those conversations that are hard, even though they make my palms sweat, and they make my voice sort of crack. I need to have them because actually, I know that with the right skills and the right approach, conflict deepens our possibilities, and it helps us grow.

Mark Bidwell  [15:24]  

So in 30 seconds, if you were coaching me, what would you be saying I should do differently? What kind of language for instance, or what kind of mental model should I have, that would enable me to do this better?

Jennifer Berger  [15:40]  

I think it’s about understanding that in conversations where I have feedback to give to somebody, we both should be learning. So I should go in to learn, but also to say what’s going on for me. We all know, I mean anybody who’s read a book about leadership knows that we should remove the judgment from our languages as much as we can, and get as close to the data and to our experience as we possibly can. Sometimes that’s really hard to do, because we just feel pissed off, and we’re not even sure why we just feel wronged or betrayed in some way. But we need to be able to have those conversations, but have them in a way that both shares what’s going on for us, and also deeply cares about what’s going on for the other person. We’re not going in to say “could you just fix this way you’re broken?” We’re going in to say “wow, this thing happened, and it’s really not working for me in that way, and I need to understand why you’re doing it.” Because that’s useful information as well.

Mark Bidwell  [16:39]  

Interesting. This is not easy of course.

Jennifer Berger  [16:44]  

I think none of these things are easy. They’re incredibly rewarding. So what I tried to do is write a book and a lot of the early reviews say “yeah, this is really simple, but it’s not easy.” Simple to understand, simple to talk about, simple to begin to look for practices, but not easy. It’s a series of practices we need to continue to do, and as we do them, they grow us.

Mark Bidwell  [17:09]  

There are two others which we touched on before, around ego, and the fifth one is control. I’m not sure we have time for those, but I’m just curious. What are the ones that you are finding hard? Well, two questions. The first one, which of these mindtraps are actually enablers of progress in a complex world, if any of them?

Jennifer Berger  [17:57]  

What an interesting question. I think all of these mindtraps are enablers of progress in a simple world. I think all of them get in our way in a complex world, and some of them are more seductive, or more trappy for some people, and others are more trappy for other people. I truly believe that they are physiological, that they’re hardwired into us. So I believe that we all get trapped by all of them. But some of them are our personal thing to work on more than others.

Mark Bidwell  [18:34]  

And if I look across all five of them, I see two or three things that run across all of them. Firstly is awareness, awareness of self, awareness of others, situational awareness. The second is the importance of having more than binary options. And the more options you have in this complex world, the better suited you are for navigating it, or working with the energy within complexity. And then the third is around the importance of questions, either that you ask yourself, or that you ask others, to kind of interrupt these patterns and break the habit. Is that a fair assessment?

Jennifer Berger  [19:15]  

Yeah, I think self-awareness, and what I would think of as kind of multiple perspectives, or option taking, or openness in some way, curiosity, these are absolutely the human traits and tools we need to be leaning more into, even though complexity often makes us anxious. And that anxiety pushes us into closing down our self-awareness, closing down our curiosity, closing down our options. I think that we can use these incredibly powerful forces. I think the other forces that really matter here are compassion, connection, love, a sense that we’re all in this together, that it’s a bigger game, that there’s something bigger than me, bigger than even my little tribe. All these things, I think, are also incredibly powerful, incredibly human responses. But they’re not the responses that tend to get activated in complexity. So it’s our smallness that tends to get activated, and makes us simplistic, whereas I think the thing that we need to be going towards is how can we have complexity fuel our development and the possibilities for what’s next for us, instead of fueling our retreat and over-simplification?

Mark Bidwell  [20:50]  

It reminds me of a conversation I was having with my wife at the beginning of the week. Many people complain when they got all these problems, elderly parents, children not do what you expect, work, and on and on, but in actual fact, problems are a sign of life, the only time you don’t have problems is when you’re no longer living. And I think it’s that mindset, not necessarily going after problems, but of recognizing that and almost being grateful for problems because they are a sign of life, is a hard sell for me. It’s not easy, but it is quite a useful way of looking at it.

Jennifer Berger  [21:27]  

My mentor Bob Kegan used to talk about, there are problems we solve and problems that solve us. And there’s the idea that there’s a curriculum, we go to school, we hire people to teach us leadership development ideas or whatever, we pay a lot of money for people to give us the right kind of problems that are going to stretch us and help us grow, and help us master something else. And I think what we mostly don’t know, it’s what my first book is about, we mostly don’t notice that actually life does that for us all the time, every single day. A conversation with your kids, a conversation with your elderly parents as you say, a frustrating connection with a colleague, each of those is a curriculum for our improvement. But we don’t tend to treat it that way.

Mark Bidwell  [22:16]  

Yes. The way I like to think about it is our life doesn’t happen to us, it happens for us. But again, when you’re in the moment, it’s not always easy to see. This is fantastic. One final question before we get to the three things that I sent to you. Which of these five do you think does the heaviest lifting? So if a listener was to say “I can relate to all these, I’m riddled with these mindtraps, I’m going to go after one,” which would you say? Obviously, it’s situation specific, but which one do you think makes the biggest difference, where is a Pareto principle working here?

Jennifer Berger  [22:58]  

The one we didn’t talk about very much was the ego trap, this idea that we are protecting and defending the person that we have been, at the potential loss of the person we’re becoming. I think in many ways that’s the meta-trap, right? If I’m trying to protect my story, my rightness, my control, my tribe, myself, if I’m trying to protect that in a complex world, then actually I’m just walling it off from the future. So how do we see ourselves as evolving, growing, changing, agile beings with agile relationships, agile ways of problem solving, agile ways of having organizations that change and grow over time? I think that’s the complexity challenge, and I think we can grow to meet that challenge. I’ve just seen it happen again and again. These things are not natural, but they are growable.

Mark Bidwell  [24:10]  

We haven’t talked about it, but if I was to try and summarize it, in the early years, we rely on outside perspectives to tell us how we are doing, what’s right and wrong, what’s important. Our minds are socialized by our tribe and our family. Then we get into this self-authored form of mind. And I think what you’re saying is that being able to recognize that you’re in that, but also, that you might need to move to the next stage, and it’s obviously not as simple as that, which is more around what you talked about as the self-transforming form of mind. Is that a fair summary of the ego trap?

Jennifer Berger  [24:51]  

Yes, absolutely. And it’s also just about every time we are trying to confirm, or make ourselves seem like the person we have always been, and looking for confirmation, you know, I like to be seen as really open and curious, how am I doing? Every time we do that, we are risking the person we could be growing into next. And risking using our own internal contradictions and the contradictions of the world actually grow us, which the world is always ready to do.

Mark Bidwell  [25:27]  

I’m glad because this is the lovely segue into the first question I sent to you, which is what have you changed your mind about recently? Because the person who’s overcoming the ego trap is really embracing, you know, looking for the next thing to challenge their belief system. And that’s what this question is designed to get underneath. How do you answer that question, Jennifer, what have you changed your mind about recently?

Jennifer Berger  [25:59]  

What haven’t I changed my mind about recently would be an easier, a shorter question. One of the practices I’m having right now really, is inside this Brexit space, really trying to understand the many perspectives that people bring into it, and see the legitimacy across these different sets of perspectives. I’m an American living in London, I come to these ideas with a relatively clear point of view. And so my view has gotten much greyer as I’ve been listening and learning. And then there are things like, we’re about to offer one of our workshops virtually, that I had said a million times I will just never offer this virtually. This is an in person experience, we are never, ever going to make this virtual. The idea that the world is changing, and that new things are possible when people aren’t in a room together, that’s a thing I’m trying on to. We could talk about a conversation I had with my 21 year old daughter the other day. There are so many places where I notice the ways I am certain and need to push against them.

Mark Bidwell  [27:28]  

Wonderful. Then the second question, where do you go to get, to access fresh, diverse perspectives, particularly when you’re faced with a complex situation or decision you need to make?

Jennifer Berger  [27:44]  

I’m always looking to figure out how to build more of that into my life. I have colleagues I go to with all kinds of different perspectives. I try to read a lot, I go to novels, to philosophy, to science. I try to read in very diverse ways, I try to have a diverse set of colleagues and I’m also aware that I am continually reinforcing my own bubble, that there are some things I can’t listen to or watch, because it makes me too angry, and so that’s also a continual practice about what am I closing myself off to in the world.

Mark Bidwell  [28:29]  

Interesting. Well, that certainly resonates. And final question, what’s been your biggest sort of low point or failure, how did you recover from it, and what have you learned? 

Jennifer Berger  [28:41]  

Phew! Like last week? I feel like I’m constantly pushing ideas forward, seeing how they work, seeing how they don’t work, pushing practices forward and seeing how they work, how they don’t work. It doesn’t feel at all good to learn from failure, even when you say “I’m trying to do this thing and be edgy,” and then people don’t like it, and you think “oh, I really, really, really wanted you to like it”. Even though I said it was experimental, what I meant was it’s experimental and I’m desperate for it to be successful. So one of the things I’ve been really learning lately, is to get the right kind of balance between pushing, doing things I know will be successful in the moment, and pushing into new terrain, and really being brave, and trying things out and doing things that scare me. And I think the thing that’s most important for me that I’m learning there, is how to be gentle with myself when I’ve done a thing that scares me, and it doesn’t go well. And the client says “well, maybe we won’t do that again,” and I think “oh, I should never have done that.” But of course, that’s not the point. The point is we learn by trying and we learn by failing, and we have to allow ourselves the room to try and fail, or else we get stuck in doing what we used to do. 

Mark Bidwell  [30:18]  

Yep, yep, resonates with me, particularly given some of my recent failures as well. Where can people get in touch with you?

Jennifer Berger  [30:26]  

You can check me on LinkedIn or Twitter where I post blogs and things. I have a website , and the email address there. I have these three books, although I probably have scared you off with the first two. But the point I’m on about these days is trying to figure out how can we use our complexity and use our humanity to build a bigger world, and confront some of the unbelievably complex challenges we have?

Mark Bidwell  [31:00]  

Yeah, I will include all of those links in the show notes here. Jennifer, this has been a fascinating conversation, I really do appreciate your time, very pleased to meet you virtually, and hopefully we can meet in person one of these days.

Jennifer Berger  [31:14]  

I look forward to that very much. Thank you so much for your great questions. 

Mark Bidwell  [31:16]  

Great, have a good day. Thanks!  


My guest in this episode is Jennifer Berger, the CEO of Cultivating Leadership, an organization that helps leaders use complexity as the key that unlocks new possibilities for a better future.

Jennifer has worked with senior leaders in companies like Google, KPMG, Lion, Microsoft and Wikimedia. She is the author of three books, the latest one being Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity which we talk about in this interview. 

She speaks at leadership and coaching conferences, and offers occasional courses for coaches at Harvard University, the University of Sydney, and Oxford Brookes University.

Read the full article HERE.


What was covered:  

  • What is unique about complexity today that many leaders are experiencing in their world  
  • Five key mindtraps to recognize and avoid in dealing with complexity: the desire for simple stories, the sense of rightness, the need for agreement, the need for control, and protecting our egos 
  • Useful practices to engage with, and questions to ask, in order to overcome these mindtraps  

Key Takeaways and Learnings:  

  • Harnessing complexity as a force and a competitive advantage in todays world 
  • The rewards of looking at situations from multiple perspectives and learning to disagree better 
  • Everyone is subjected to mind traps – the more you feel certain about something, the more likely you are falling into a mind trap  

Links and Resources Mentioned in This Episode:

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Mark Bidwell

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