Demons in Gobi desert

[Photo source unidentified.  Please advise if anyone knows.  I will add the source accordingly]

In the ‘Journey to the West’ story(西游记), the Xuanzang’s (玄奘) crew met with lots of demons in the Gobi desert. We met some as well in the Gobi race – a leadership development program.  However, for us, those demons reside in our own minds.

Here is an incident when the demons showed up.   A vivid and embarrassing example on how our unconscious processing prevents us from advancing towards our stated goal…..  even though we have the capability.

We had a new team member, Kenny (pseudonym), who joined us at the end of day 1.    (Without disclosing too much the program design, we were basically ‘forced’ in an evening to exchange an existing team member with a new one from another team.)    When Kenny joined us in that evening, we did not do much except for exchanging names and some brief greeting.    I believe all could imagine how comfortable it was for Kenny.  After all, moving to share a tent with a group of already-connected strangers at short notice without reasonably-warm welcome was awkward.

In the next morning, we launched into the race… without much words with Kenny.   Kenny chose to withdraw from the race in that afternoon.    Apparently, his legs hurt too much and he explicitly said he did not want to be helped i.e. pushed or pulled by others.   We lost a lot of score (for every withdrawal).  We also lost his supreme ability on numbers and direct-ness, which we only discovered after the race.  He could have contributed a lot in managing our pace and break down our ‘politeness’ dynamics.

During our After-Action Review, we first attributed the loss to our inability to integrate new members.  We then realized that it was probably not true as most are experienced managers or coaches.   The problem was that we did not really want to.   We came up with very interesting hypotheses as follows.  Basically, we were protecting ourselves unconsciously.

  • We were angry about the ‘talent exchange’ activity itself – the command to expel a member out. Some were probably even angry (or embarrassed) about themselves saying / not saying something contributing to a member’s departure. Me for sure.  We then projected such anger to the new member;
  • We do not want to get hurt again, and thus we do not want to invest too much in the relationship with the new.  After all, we do not know when another round of ‘talent exchange’ may come again;
  • We do not want to be seen as ‘unfaithful’.   If we were nice to the new, it seems that we did not care about the departed one

I found it so revealing, but also embarrassing – how could I got so caught up by these…. Inner demons / unconscious 心魔 in action!!

On further reflection, the question is how we could possibly overcome such psychological obstacle.   Basically, we need 2 things:

  • Good self-awareness in noticing quickly own feeling of ambivalence to welcome and thus such inner demons
  • A clear and commonly-committed goal in place

Then, the person who is aware of such inner demons can say something like that:

‘Hey, we are probably feeling bad about XXX leaving.  I do.   And we probably are feeling ambivalent about YYY joining.  To be frank, I do.   And I suspect there are some inner demons in action (as mentioned above).    But we have a goal to achieve and it is not fair to YYY.   I thus invite all to see YYY as he is, instead of what we project him to be.    We also need to YYY’s contribution to achieve the goal together.  What do you think?’

Not easy but possible.  If someone can do it, this is truly an act of leadership.

Related previous posts:

‘I know how to ….. but I don’t really want to’

Leadership Development in Gobi desert

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