Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there. — Rumi
When I first ran across the Retrospective Prime Directive, I was excited. It gave me hope that there were folks who’d found a way to do business without relying on blame. In my experience, blame gets in the way of creativity, of learning and growing, so I’m delighted to discover people who, like me, want to build a productive work life without it.
In case you aren’t familiar, the RPD is intended to create a safe space for a retrospective, where we look at the past to decide how we can best move forward. It goes like this:
Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.
I’m noticing, though, that the phrase “did the best job they could” gets under some people’s skin. If I look at it just right, it gets under mine, too. What does it mean to “believe” that? If everyone’s doing their best all the time, what does that mean? There’s no not-best to compare it with, right?
The best they could?
Esther Derby’s post, Are You Doing Your Best? talks about the ways we can see someone as doing the best they could given the circumstances. She covers circumstances that we might overlook (like whether they have an ergonomic chair). Remembering those things can help me stay out of a mental blame-space, but they don’t cover all the problems with “the best.”
One person may think the phrase means that everyone’s always at their peak (which can’t be true). Another says this talk of “doing their best” is naive and insulting. Someone else points out that they know they don’t always do their best, so why would they assume other people do?
A coach writes that she doesn’t actually believe that folks aren’t to blame, but she agrees to suspend disbelief, or pretend, for the purposes of retrospection. Lastly, someone told me that what the RPD means is that this is not an occasion for blaming or judging. We set those things aside for now.
But there’s a problem with the pretending idea. People know when you’re pretending.
Why does the prime directive and our assumptions about people matter?
The psychologist Carl Rogers described three things someone needs from another person in order to experience growth. First, they need their coach (that is, the person in the helping role) to be real with them, congruent, not covering up what they are experiencing. Second, they need empathy from that person. That is, they need to be seen, heard, and understood. And finally, they need something Rogers called unconditional positive regard.
That last is a doozy. What it means is that your influence over someone, your ability to help them develop, depends on your liking them. Or, as the Arbinger Institute puts it:
“… no matter what we’re doing on the outside, people respond primarily to how we’re feeling about them on the inside.”
It may seem impossible to meet all of Rogers’ criteria. To be completely honest, to see and hear a person’s experience, and to still see them in a positive light might seem to be more than any human can accomplish. I don’t believe it is. In fact, in my experience, it’s possible to be completely honest about what happened (including noticing who caused what, and how) without blame or judgment, and to move forward with solutions that work.
Part 2 is about how that’s possible, and about screwing up, dealing with anger & frustration, how we improve if we’re already doing our best. Oh, and also unconditional love. (Stay tuned.)