Where Interpersonal Mush Comes From and What it Does to Organizations
The content may be different, but the process in the story below goes on in organizations every day, all over the world. It seems to be a process beyond culture, something that is true of all human beings. In this book I call it sense-making. Sense-making is making up a story about other people’s experience (what they are thinking, feeling and/or wanting) to fill in the gaps of our knowledge. Read the following scenario and see if it is at all familiar to you. Bill, the General Manager, is widely considered one of the most collaborative executives in this organization, and he has a team that by all conventional measures works well together.
Bill, the General Manager for the Eastern Division, entered the room where his direct reports had been waiting ten minutes for their weekly meeting to begin. They knew he had been on the phone to headquarters on the West Coast and paid close attention to how he appeared as he entered. Rumors had been circulating about impending budget cuts, and given the losses over the past three quarters, none in the room would be surprised if it happened. Bill briskly apologized for being late and launched into the first item on the agenda, a report on a project in one of the departments. The meeting went on following the agenda, and once all items were finished Bill immediately left the room and returned to his office.
After the meeting people met in pairs and trios, sometimes including others who had not been in the meeting, to compare perceptions. Shirley thought Bill seemed flushed and angry when he entered the room. Jason didn’t notice the anger but agreed that Bill did seem a little more curt than usual and seemed eager to leave the meeting and get back to something. They discussed how unusual it was for Bill to leave so quickly and not stick around to chat a little. They agreed the phone call from the West Coast must have been bad news and wondered why Bill wasn’t willing to share it with them. Shirley said, “It’s just not like Bill to leave us all up in the air like that.”
Meanwhile Roger and Fernando were gathered around Kimberly’s cubicle, where she was telling them she had heard from a colleague on the West Coast that another division had gotten a sizable cut in their operating budget. Fernando and Roger agreed that Bill wasn’t “acting normal” in the meeting and figured that he had been told they would be facing cuts as well. They wondered why he didn’t say anything about it in the meeting, and all three tossed around theories ranging from the idea that he had been told not to say anything until there was a companywide announcement to the thought that he was going to be firing someone in the room and wanted to wait until that person was told privately before announcing it. Roger mentioned that he was already prepared for taking 20 percent out of his department’s budget and Fernando said he’d better start planning for that as well. They parted agreeing to let each other know if they heard anything new. In another part of the building, Jennifer was telling Margaret about the last time she had seen Bill “so upset,” in a previous job when Bill’s boss had closed down a project that Bill felt was close to success and hadn’t been given the opportunity to prove itself. “But you know,” Jennifer went on, “Bill is a company man and he closed it down without ever publicly grumbling about it; at least I never heard him say anything about it.” Margaret agreed that Bill never lost his cool; it was something they admired about him.
Do you recognize the process in this story? We are all sense-making beings; that is, we will work at trying to make sense of people that are important to us until we are satisfied. We are all detectives in the interpersonal mush, building hypotheses and theories, looking for clues, fitting the pieces together until we have a satisfactory answer to the mystery of why someone did or said what they did. Then we stop until the next mystery comes along that needs to be solved. It appears that we don’t just do it in trying to make sense of others. We even do it to ourselves. There is evidence to show that we make up stories about ourselves to make sense of what we see ourselves doing, but in this book I’ll only focus on how we do that with each other.
In the preceding vignette Bill’s direct reports are trying to make sense of his behavior at the meeting. Notice a few common characteristics of sense-making processes. One is that Bill’s actions are being placed in a larger context: the knowledge that the division has been losing money and the rumor of impending budget cuts. In order for us to make sense of something, it has to fit with what we already believe to be true, the bigger picture. Another characteristic is that what Bill doesn’t say or do is given just as much scrutiny as what he does say and do. Nonverbal actions are given meaning. Notice that people are making up fantasies about his experience, about what is going on in his head. One thinks he’s angry, another thinks he was eager to leave the room. Also, people are trying to understand him within the general picture they have of him (“he’s a company man”). For us to be satisfied with our sense-making, current stories have to fit with past sense-making. A third characteristic is that people are talking to others to try and make sense of Bill. We rarely go to the person we are trying to make sense of to check our stories out—we seek out third parties. That is especially true when we don’t feel good about the behavior we are trying to make sense of and that is what fuels much of the interpersonal mush in organizations. When the event we are trying to understand is new or different it’s as though some part of us knows that we are on thin ice in trying to make sense of others, so we seek out someone else to help us. Sometimes this isn’t even others in the organization—a spouse or close friend will do.
The sense-making process is over when we have a story that we now treat as “the truth.” We no longer treat the story as a possible scenario but as what happened, and we align our future perceptions and actions based on these “facts” unless new information surfaces that forces us to revise our story. If the new information is vague and ambiguous, however, it can easily be ignored or distorted to fit.
Are you curious about what was going on with Bill in the story above?
As it turns out, Bill had received an important phone call from his boss that he was preoccupied with. The Senior VP had just told him that he agreed with the argument Bill had been making for months that divisional losses were due to his division being under-resourced, especially in sales and marketing. Because of cuts going on in other parts of the company Bill’s boss could not see how their budget could be increased at this time, but he was prepared to fight to ensure that the division did not get a cut in budget if Bill could put together a convincing business plan and find a way to transfer budget he already had into sales. If there was improvement in revenues he would work to increase the budget in the future. He also advised Bill not to say anything about it because it was far from a sure thing and, with cuts going on elsewhere in the company, others might try to work against them if rumors started circulating.
In this case people were way off in the stories they were making up, but whether our stories are near or far from accurate doesn’t matter—what matters is recognizing that this process is endemic to human relations. It cannot be stopped. So in work relationships we have two choices: tell them what is going on in us or let people make up stories about what is going on in us. If you don’t tell them, they make it up. Those are your only options.
What could Bill do, having been told not to mention the substance of the phone call? Well, what did Bill do? Like most people he thought if he said nothing then people wouldn’t think there was anything going on. WRONG. People who work closely together day in and day out are picking up all kinds of cues all the time (and making them up). Those with authority are the most closely watched for clues about “what is really going on.” Bill had no idea of the impact he was having on the people in the meeting. At work, people will notice any incongruity in the boss and use it as fodder for new rounds of in-depth sense-making. Bill had a number of choices for how to influence the sense-making that was bound to follow after such an important phone call, but these were pretty much out of his awareness. In this book I will argue that the best strategy is almost always to be a Descriptive Self; that is, to tell the truth of your in-the-moment experience. Let me give you an example of what he could have said:
I just had an important call from my boss. I am not at liberty to tell you what it was about and that troubles me, because I’d like us all to be honest and up front with each other, but I also understand his concern and agreed to stay silent. There may or may not be some good news for us in the near future. I want you to know the call was not bad news. I’m excited and a little distracted but I think that is all I can say and it’s important right now that we don’t start any rumors, so, please, just hang on and let’s continue with our meeting as planned.
If Bill had said something like this, he would be letting the people he works with see what was going on in him at that moment without violating any agreement with his boss. He would be describing his here-and-now experience, so people would not be forced to make it up. Any stories they now made up would likely be more accurate, making the interpersonal climate less mushy and more clear.
Would saying this stop people from sense-making? Probably not. They might still meet in small groups after the meeting to fantasize what the good news was about. But it would stop a rush of negative, fearful fantasies that had managers spending their time thinking about how to chop 20 percent of their budget, and all the fallout that would come from that passed on down through the division. More important, however, is the effect of being a Descriptive Self day in and day out. It’s not about the one-time hit of telling the truth of your experience, but the long-term impact on an organization where people tell the truth of their experience. I call this building a culture of clarity. If Bill had built a culture of clarity, his subordinates would feel comfortable asking him directly what was going on and talking about their fears so that they would have Bill’s direct input into the stories they settled on as “the truth.” Any one of them would have felt comfortable saying something like, “Bill, I know you were on a call to headquarters and you seem a little distracted. Naturally I’m wondering if that was bad news about our budget.” But such an inquiry doesn’t often happen in an organization characterized by interpersonal mush. People don’t ask each other directly what is going on, so a lot of energy goes into sense-making. In a climate of interpersonal clarity instead of mush, people are more willing to suspend their sense-making, believing that they will get a satisfactory explanation from Bill as soon as possible, because they have in the past.
Do people have to know what is going on in the bosses head? No, not if the boss just wants people to do what they’re told. Working at gaining and maintaining interpersonal clarity isn’t necessary if you just want people to follow instructions or just deliver on whatever has been negotiated and agreed to. But it is essential to partnership – to relationships where people are working together, all taking responsibility for the success of what they are working on. Collaboration and partnership require people to be internally committed and that requires a certain level of equality and give and take. The easiest move in the world for any subordinate is to give responsibility for success to the boss and sit back and just do what he’s told. That move is so easy that any boss who wants to be in partnership with the people who work for him has to struggle against it, to consistently be working at spreading responsibility throughout the system.
Telling the truth of our experience is really quite simple, but so rare in organizations that some business people at first react to my message as if I were coming from Mars. To them, interpersonal mush is a normal way of life and anything else is a utopian dream. So let’s pause for a moment and consider why most relationships at work exist in interpersonal mush.
Why We Live in Interpersonal Mush
First, a technical definition: interpersonal mush is a description of an interaction between two or more people that’s based on stories they have made up about each other and not checked out. You generally don’t find out if your sense-making is accurate unless you ask. Most people do not describe what is going on in themselves unless they are asked. It doesn’t seem like a natural thing to do. This tendency does not necessarily come from malicious intentions, fear, distrust, or any other negative reason. It is just that we haven’t been taught to do so. Some people are even taught not to do so; they’ve been told that describing their experience makes them seem too self-centered. Most of us have never even thought that it might be useful or important to describe our experience to others. We have few role models of Descriptive Selves, and even when we are around those who do use clear leadership skills successfully, it’s not immediately obvious what they are doing. I remember one very bright woman engineer in my Executive MBA class who, at first, said I was nuts to tell her to be a Descriptive Self at work. Then one week she came to class flushed with the realization that during a regular meeting at work she had finally noticed that the three most influential engineers in her organization were also the most Descriptive Selves at work.
We learn most about how to act around other people in the first group we belong to, our family of origin. In our families we were children and our parents were adults. As such there was a huge imbalance in experience, knowledge, and power. There are lots of things that might go on in adults’ lives that they would not want to describe to the children (e.g., spousal problems, work fears). The problem with saying nothing is that the children will make up a story about what is going on, and why they are excluded.
As the children get older they develop their own reasons not to tell their parents everything that is going on in their lives, so the parents make up stories about their children’s lives. In most families parents and children come, to some extent, to make up what is going on in each other’s minds. Even in the least dysfunctional family, there still develops a level of interpersonal mush that children learn is the normal way to interact with others.
Then we hit adolescence, where normal developmental processes make us desperately want to fit in and belong. Most of us learn that it is not OK to have a different experience from our peers—that we are expected to have similar thoughts, feelings, and wants in order to fit in. Then there is the double whammy of sexual relations, where there is so much vulnerability. We learn to look for clues, get information from third parties, but never ever approach the object of our interest head-on—too scary. High school is a perfect breeding ground for living in interpersonal mush, where we learn how to keep up appearances and repress renegade thoughts, feelings, and wants. We learn how to operate in a world where it really isn’t safe to be fully open and different, and we don’t expect others to be open and different with us either. The successful ones have learned how to operate effectively in interpersonal mush, even how to use it to their advantage in their normal, well-intentioned attempts to do well, be liked, and achieve in the world.
Hierarchy and Authority
In organizations a third force makes interpersonal mush so prevalent: hierarchy. Having a hierarchy means that some people have authority over others. There is a difference between too much authority and just the right amount. In order to organize a group of people effectively, we need to create the right amount of authority, that is, clarity about who is responsible for what and who has final decision-making power over what. One problem with a lot of large organizations is that the structure of hierarchy is haphazard, poorly designed, and more of a barrier to effective organizing than a support. It would take us too far afield to go into this topic, which is covered well elsewhere. But even where hierarchy in a system is well designed it creates interpersonal mush because of the reactions to authority most of us develop in our family, school, and religious institutions. Basically, most of us learn to duck and cover around authority. We learn to try and figure out what the authority wants us to say or do and then say or do that when they are around. We learn to keep to ourselves the thoughts and feelings that we believe might make authority angry, upset, or less than pleased with us. The effect is that interpersonal mush is greatest in situations of unequal power, especially where one person or group feels dominated or oppressed by another.
A basic rule of thumb—and any manager who doesn’t realize this is wandering around in the dark—is that information distorts on the way up in hierarchies. Less and less of the real story makes its way up the hierarchy as people put positive spins on things, censure unpopular views, hide less-than-favorable results, and so on. A funny description of this process, using coarse but common language, has been passed on to me by different students over the years. It’s called “The Plan” (see the box). I don’t know who originally wrote it. It may have been passed on to you. To me it is not only a description of how hierarchy creates interpersonal mush, but a template of the kind of story people lower down in hierarchies tend to create about people higher up in hierarchies. No one knows if a process like this really takes place, but for many workers and middle managers, it is a story they are too likely to believe.
In the beginning was the plan
and then came the assumptions
and the assumptions were without form
and the plan was completely without substance
and darkness fell upon the faces of the workers.
And they spake unto their Supervisors, saying:
“The plan is a crock of shit and it stinketh.”
And the Supervisors went unto their Department Heads, and said:
“It is a pail of dung, and none may abide the odor thereof.”
And the Department Heads went unto their Group Managers, and
said unto them: “It is a container of excrement, and it is very strong,
such that none may abide it.”
And the Group Managers went unto their General Manager, and said unto him: “It is a vessel of fertilizer, and none may abide its strength.”
And the General Manager went before the Vice-Presidents, and said:
“It promoteth growth and it is very powerful.”
And the Vice-Presidents went to the CEO and said unto him:
“This powerful new plan will actively promote the growth of this
company and all its business units.”
And the CEO looked upon the plan, and saw that it was good,
and the plan became policy.
People who have authority have power over us. The more power we perceive them to have, the more our survival and prosperity appear to depend on them. What they do, think, feel, and want affects us. So they are the most likely targets of our sense-making and the people we are least likely to go to when we are tying to figure out why they said or did something. We don’t bother trying to make sense of people and actions that we don’t attach any significance to. But our boss, our boss’s boss, the president—these people can do things that do matter to us. So we talk to others to make sense of what we see and hear. A lot of the stories that are made up in organizations are attempts to make sense of what authorities are up to. Authorities are the object of a full and rich fantasy life amongst organizational participants. That cannot be stopped. If there weren’t a lot of fantasies going on about them it would mean they were insignificant.
Even in a world of good intentions it’s easy to create interpersonal mush. In fact, it is often good intentions that create the mush in the first place. Abe doesn’t want to hurt June’s feelings so he doesn’t tell her some of his truth. Sheryl doesn’t want to cause unnecessary concern so she doesn’t tell her truth. Rhana doesn’t want to disrupt the meeting so she doesn’t ask a question to get clear about Jack. Of course, when we seek to protect others we are also often protecting ourselves, but that doesn’t diminish the irony that one of the most debilitating realities of human association does not come from dysfunctional people or bad intentions—just from normal folks muddling through life doing what they learned to do in their family of origin and schools. It is also true that there are some unsafe social situations, work environments, and business relations where it is not a good idea to be a Descriptive Self, but these are not prevalent and do not account for the pervasiveness of interpersonal mush.
Why Is Interpersonal Mush “One of the Most Debilitating Realities of Human Association”?
Interpersonal mush is the cause of most of the “people” messes we find ourselves in. If you watch situation or romantic comedies on TV or in the movies, you will notice that they usually involve people getting into some kind of interpersonal mix-up based on misperceptions. If you follow the story line these are always based on some critical moment when someone did not tell the truth of their experience. If they had, there would have been no mess or mix-up to try and resolve. TV and movie sit-coms are not that serious, but our work lives and our family lives are. They are our lives, and when the interactions in these lives are based on misperceptions, inaccuracies, and mix-ups the results can be a lot less than funny. Our sense-making has long-term consequences and when our stories are inaccurate we end up living in a make-believe world. And as I’ll explain below, our make-believe worlds are usually not rose-colored: they are often less pretty than the real one.
We See What We Believe
Part of what makes a new story satisfactory is that it fits with what we already believe to be the truth, that is, our past acts of sense-making. This has two effects. One is that we tend to make up explanations and rationales for others’ actions that fit with ones we’ve made up in the past. You can see that happening with Bill’s subordinates in the story at the beginning of this chapter.
The second effect is that we tend to see and hear things that fit with our previous stories and miss things that don’t fit. Our beliefs distort our perceptions. Most people recognize that this happens but don’t notice when they themselves are doing it. As a consequence we live in a world of our own construction, fairly unaware of what is accurate and what’s inaccurate. Both effects make it hard to see what is not already in our sense-making repertoire.
Because we have to make sense of those we are trying to collaborate with, it is inevitable that we will be put in positions where we have gaps in what we know about what is going on in them. It is inevitable that we will be sense-making about them and if we don’t check that out, we’ll be operating in interpersonal mush. Sense-making in an environment of interpersonal mush might be neutral if we were as likely to err toward the positive as the negative side of things. I mean, isn’t it possible that the story I make up about you has you being more courageous, more concerned, more honest, more trustworthy than you really are? Couldn’t my story be inaccurate that way? Well, it could and it can. Sometimes we do make up stories that “put people on a pedestal.” But that isn’t normally what happens, especially in organizations.
Our Stories Tend to Be More Negative Than Positive
It is an unfortunate truth that the stories we make up, and the stories that get made up about us, tend to be more unfavorable than the reality. In a vacuum of information, people tend to assume the worst, and this is particularly true in work organizations. The result of interpersonal mush is that what we believe about the organizations we work in, and the people we work with, is often worse than the reality. Executives are seen as more heartless and cruel than they really are. Organizations are seen as more political and unbending than they are. Co-workers are seen as more insensitive and uncaring than they are. Subordinates are seen as lazier and more careless than they are.
I would go as far as saying that the greater the interpersonal mush, the more negative the stories that go around. A vicious cycle is created where I become less willing to tell the truth of my experience because it is too dangerous, thus increasing the interpersonal mush, which is what makes it seem dangerous in the first place. Interpersonal mush drives out our ability to see the basic humanity in each other—the loving, caring people who are just trying their best to do what they feel is rightfully expected of them by others.
One reason we fantasize the worst is the natural impulse to be cautious in the face of uncertainty. It’s a way of preparing ourselves for the worst-case scenario. This defensive stance is amplified when a person is feeling insecure. Interpersonal mush teaches us that being negative is more “realistic,” so we take that belief with us into ambiguous situations. Environments of interpersonal mush feed off our fears and increase our sense of threat. But these are not what start the mush in the first place. There are a couple of reasons for this normal, human way of sense-making, which psychologists have uncovered over the 20th century. Let me describe them to you.
The Fundamental Attribution Error
One of the things psychologists have found is that when we make up a story about another person’s behavior the first thing most of us do is look for external causes or “sufficient justification” for the behavior. For example, if I see you standing by a car at the side of the road with the hood up I will probably assume that you are having car problems. You may be standing there for a totally different reason; it may not even be your car. But seeing you beside a car with its hood up gives me sufficient justification to believe that your behavior (standing by the road) was caused by car problems. I have created a story that satisfies me and my sense-making ends. Now, if I can’t find an external reason for your behavior, then I will assume that the cause is internal (e.g., your character, values, motivation, personality). The fundamental attribution error is the common tendency to assume that the cause of someone’s behavior is internal when it is really external.
A typical way in which this plays out in partnerships is as follows. When I mess up (such as missing a deadline), I can almost always show you how it was caused by the situation I am in. When I see you mess up, however, I assume it is because you have some kind of defect (you have no sense of time, you’re over-emotional, you lack some skill or knowledge, and so on). Just about everything we do is shaped to some extent by the situation we perceive ourselves to be in. Research has shown that situational factors are far better predictors of behavior than any personality or other internal factors. But when we make up stories, we only work with the facts that we have. If we don’t understand the situation the other person is in, then it can’t get included in our stories. To create a satisfactory story with sufficient justification, we make up internal justification.
It is even more complex than that, because what really counts is not the objective situation the person is in, but the situation they perceive themselves to be in. Remember, ten people in the same “objective”` situation will be having 10 different experiences and therefore their experiences will actually be of 10 different situations.
Another reason why the stories we make up are often more unfavorable than the reality has to do with where the raw material for our stories comes from. Projection is a psychological theory used to explain some things that have been observed about perception. Basically, it means that we see outside of ourselves what is inside of ourselves. To some extent, we are projecting ourselves onto the world around us all the time. For example, when I’m happy, the world seems like a happier place. When I’m depressed, the world seems like a more miserable place.
One of the reasons we are projecting all the time is that it is almost impossible to perceive things that we don’t have inside ourselves. Most of us know what it is like to learn a new word that we had never seen before, and then see it all over the place. What has happened is that until we learn that something exists, it is almost impossible for us to see it (I’ll see it when I believe it). In Chapter 5 I describe what I call mental maps, products of past learning that shape what we experience in the future. When it comes to interacting with people, we tend to see what is on our maps and miss what isn’t. This is why being able to work well with people requires a deep knowledge of ourselves; the more we can understand all the different parts of ourselves, the more complicated our maps become, and the more we can see in other people while at the same time recognizing the difference between what is us and what is them.
One type of projection, defensive projection, can be used to defend ourselves from becoming aware of parts of ourselves we don’t want to be aware of. All cultures socialize people by telling them that certain qualities are good, positive, and acceptable, and other traits are bad, negative, and unacceptable. We learn and are encouraged to deny and repress these “bad” qualities, but they exist within us nonetheless. Numerous studies show that people who are most “psychologically healthy” in the sense of feeling happy, being optimistic, having a desire to achieve and accomplish in the world, and so on, have an inflated, overly positive and illusory view of themselves and the world. People who are successful and confident tend to forget their failures and exaggerate, in their memories, their successes; to ignore their negative actions and focus on their positive social values. It appears that people who have the most “accurate and realistic” view of themselves can also be depressed and fatalistic. So it is not at all unusual for people to be repressing and denying parts of themselves they see as small, bad, inferior, or weak. The people who succeed in business and organizations are the most likely to do this. So what happens to these repressed parts? They become the raw material that gets used in stories to explain other people’s failures and less-than-perfect actions.
The theory is that part of me wants me to see all of me, the bad as well as the good, but another part defends me from seeing it. When I am pushing myself to see something about myself I can avoid it through a kind of mental jujitsu where I let the image slip past myself and land on you. By using split-off material in my sense-making I get to kill two birds with one stone: create a satisfying story about you and defend myself from dealing with parts of me I don’t like. In organizations people make up judgments about other people by taking their own negative motivations and projecting them onto others. Here’s a hypothetical example:
Say you are my colleague and I notice that you’re shirking your work – you are sitting at your desk surfing the web or buying something personal online. I see the behavior and label it shirking and now I have a story about you, one that is going to reduce my desire to be in partnership with you. Anyone could plainly see that you are shirking your work and who wants to be in partnership with a shirker? But what I wouldn’t know is that you have been staying up very late for the last three nights to meet a deadline and you have met it and now you are catching up on some personal business. Of course I didn’t know that so I had to fill in the gaps of your experience to make sense of what I saw, but why did I choose “shirking” to do so? It’s probably because when I’m surfing the web on company time that’s what I’m doing - but I would never label myself a shirker. Heck no, I’m a hard working, committed, team player. To help me not see the part of me that shirks I see it on you. I don’t want to see my own procrastination so I see you as a procrastinator. To avoid confronting my own competitiveness I use it to make up a story about you where you act the way you do because you are a competitive person. I’ll come back to this problem of projection in the chapter on the Curious Self.
To use the skills of clear leadership effectively you have to acknowledge these normal tendencies of human sense-making, to acknowledge that you are likely to be projecting and making attribution errors. You need to be constantly open to the possibility that your stories are inaccurate. You can’t stop yourself from sense-making, you have to do it. So your only other option is to get people to tell you the truth of their experience. The Curious Self tries to understand how the world looks from the perspective of other people, getting clear about the other person’s experience and not make up what is going on in their head. Managers build a culture of clarity by helping other people get clear about each other. Most importantly, leaders who want to build collaborative work systems tell others what is going on in themselves so that there are fewer attribution errors and less projection being placed on them. By doing this, they lead by going first: modeling how to create a culture of interpersonal clarity and making it safer for others to be clear as well.
It is true that there are personal characteristics that also contribute to the amount of interpersonal mush going on. It’s not just a product of socialization at home and in the family. Clear leadership requires clear psychological boundaries, and a lack of these boundaries, in managers, makes it almost impossible to get rid of interpersonal mush and create interpersonal clarity in organizations. But that is an issue that takes us away from focusing on sense-making, interpersonal mush, and interpersonal clarity in organizations, so we’ll save that for a later chapter.
What Is the Effect of Interpersonal Mush on Organizations?
Interpersonal mush is sustained by an organizational culture that does not expect or support people in being Descriptive Selves and by managers who do not work at creating interpersonal clarity in the workplace. Interpersonal mush is endemic to most organizations, large and small. As a result, many organizations are much less than they could be and collaboration cannot take firm root. We assume teams and committees will be time-wasting and laborious, that bureaucracy will put up barriers to innovations, that people are unmotivated and will resist change. That’s just the way it is, isn’t it?
I know it doesn’t have to be that way, because I’ve seen many instances where things are different—work groups, departments, divisions, and whole companies where the mediocrity we call “normal organization” is far surpassed by an environment of high motivation, real synergy, rapid innovation, and mastery of change. I have come to the conclusion that the one common factor in every instance I have seen is the lack of interpersonal mush and presence of leaders who are learners and can lead learning. Remember the story of Lynette in the book’s introduction? The moment when she brought up the lack of support she was experiencing from others was the crucial moment for her boss to switch from leading performing to leading learning. He needed to engage everyone in that room, including himself, in a process of describing the truth of their experience so they could learn from their collective experience and change the pattern that was getting in the way of their success. It’s not the structure, technology, market, product, or service that makes the difference. It’s interpersonal clarity. Before I talk about how people create interpersonal clarity, I want to make sure you are convinced that interpersonal mush is at the core of so much organizational dysfunction, and I’d like you to imagine what an environment might be like if instead of hiding our experience from each other, we told each other the truth of it. Let’s start with the more obvious consequences and then move on to the more subtle issues.
Fragmentation Increases and Subcultures Form
In an environment of interpersonal mush people seek out others they can sense-make with. These are the people they seek out when they are confused, share stories with, talk about what they really think and feel about the actions of others. They tend to form into fairly stable cliques that develop a common set of perceptions about others. The team, division, or organization becomes fragmented into these subcultures. It is difficult to get real collaboration about anything because people in the different subcultures are operating out of different sets of assumptions. The people in each subculture reinforce each other’s perceptions, so it becomes difficult to get any of them to see a different point of view. This pattern can escalate to a situation where the members of each subgroup think they have truth and goodness on their side and other groups are wrong-headed or evil. Inter-group conflict increases the fragmentation, the isolation, and, therefore, the amount of inaccurate fantasy in each group’s stories about the other groups. There are real, reasonable reasons for people and groups to have conflicts in organizations—I would even say that is healthy. What is unhealthy is when conflicts are based on misperceptions and inaccurate stories that groups are making up about each other.
An Environment of Distrust and Failed Expectations Develops
In an environment of interpersonal mush, we aren’t clear on what others are experiencing, why they are doing or saying what they do. This ambiguity and uncertainty creates a certain amount of anxiety. It’s not safe, though we can’t be exactly sure why (yet when pushed we can make up some good stories for why it’s not safe). In a lot of organizations, especially smaller and younger ones, there is a kind of benign interpersonal mush where I don’t distrust people, I just try to be “sensitive” to people’s feelings and cautious about what I say. For many, this is as good as it gets at work. I don’t expect my co-workers or leaders to do anything malicious, but I would feel vulnerable if I told them how I really think or what I really want. I keep parts of my experience to myself and don’t expect anyone else to tell me the whole truth of their experience.
Then there is the less benign form of interpersonal mush, where I am unhappy about my work relationships and don’t trust them. Unfortunately, the normal human tendencies described earlier inevitably lead environments of benign interpersonal mush, over time, to become less benign. The stories that get made up are more and more negative. This is what causes partnerships to fall apart. No matter how excited or hopeful we were when we started the partnership, unless we regularly clear out the mush over time it grows and becomes more and more toxic until the partnership falls apart. In my clinical research I estimate that about 4 out of 5 conflicts in organizations are entirely due to the interpersonal mush. Clear out the mush and the conflict goes away. Let me give you an example.
I had worked with the executive team of Far North Enterprises for about two years when I landed at the airport in this small, Alaskan community for a couple of days of team building and strategic planning. The isolation and size of the community meant that these executives not only worked together but were neighbors, had many friends in common and were highly visible in the community. I enjoyed their easy camaraderie and had developed personal relationships with most of them. I had not been back for 6 months and the day before the 2-day retreat I met with each of them separately to talk about how they were and what they wanted from the 2 days. I was shocked by what I heard. The VP of HR was in tears describing months of broken promises, increasing distrust and deep sadness at interactions taking place between her and three other members of the executive team. The CFO was angry and hurt by things he was sure were taking place behind his back and was actively looking for a new job ‘down south’. The COO was sad that people were being so emotional about things and that the quality of relationships had decreased substantially but didn’t see what could be done about it, attributing the problems to personality characteristics of different people. The CEO was aware something wasn’t right but had no idea how bad things were and everyone who spoke to me about their anger or sadness explicitly forbade me from raising any of this during the retreat, certain that it would only makes things worse.
The first day of the retreat was flat and uninspiring and in desperation I gave them an assignment overnight to think of all the things they appreciated about each of the other members of the team and that we would discuss that first thing the next day. First thing next morning the VP of HR blurted out “I can’t do this! I was up all night thinking about how much I DON’T appreciate any of you!” What happened next was the team spent two hours fessing up and checking out a long series of inaccurate stories they had made up about each other, and things they had done as a result of those stories. It all started months earlier when the VP of HR had been mista ken ly left off a list of invitees to an important event. After two hours the sense of relief was palpable and the group began laughing at itself over what had ta ken place. Partnership had been restored.
When interpersonal mush is rampant, people get more and more cynical as they attribute worse and worse motives to the actions of leaders and co-workers. Organizations become places of distrust. People assume that the causes of the problems they experience are the other people, not their own stories, so it doesn’t seem like there is anything they can do and talking about it will just make it worse. Interpersonal mush can create a spiral of distrust and actions based on that distrust that further fuel the distrust, creating the reality that, initially, was just a story someone made up to explain someone else’s behavior.
People, Especially Leaders, Can’t See the Consequences of Their Own Actions
Here’s another tendency of human thinking that psychologists have unearthed. When I judge myself, I do so based on the intentions I have. I decide whether my motivations are good or bad before I decide whether what I did was good or bad. But when I judge you, I do it on the basis of the effect you have on me. Unless I ask, I don’t know what your intentions were. In a relationship of interpersonal mush, I don’t ask. I make it up, and I do so based on how your actions landed on me.
In an environment of interpersonal mush, I’m not likely to even tell you the effect you are having on me. In the world of interpersonal mush, victory goes to those who keep a cool and calm appearance, who never seem ruffled or anxious. You could be making me irritated, confused, or hurt, but I’m unlikely to want to let you see that, especially if you have authority over me. As a consequence you may not have a clue what effect you are having on me. And, of course, the story I will make up about you will not be a pleasant one.
Let me tell you a story from one of my undergraduate classes.
In this course, student teams had a series of tasks that earned them points which eventually made up part of each member’s grade for the course. One of the early tasks was for each team to make a class presentation on a topic, with points for the quality of the presentation itself. One group selected a young man from China who had been in North America less than a year and whose English was almost unintelligible to present their results. I gave this group a very low mark, trying to make the point that teams need to utilize their resources effectively. Making this person do the presentation was poor resource utilization. Many students in the class were embarrassed for the poor guy and angry at me for this decision. Outside of class, students began to discuss my “racist” decision. Someone had heard that I was involved in a men’s support group, and in the interpersonal mush this was quickly turned into a “white supremacist men’s group.” Soon, there were concerns that I was sexually harassing women in the class. For weeks the atmosphere in the class degraded while an active fantasy life amongst the students was built on and embellished. As the authority I heard about none of this until one student cautiously approached me to ask if I really was a member of a white supremacist group. Fortunately, I could and did bring this out into the open and it provided a great learning experience for the students in what happens in interpersonal mush (though I’m sure some students weren’t totally convinced of my innocence).
In this case, the structure and content of the class made working the issues very appropriate. Few leaders, especially in work organizations, have this luxury. Instead, negative reactions and perceptions can spiral into a poisonous work environment that has no basis in reality. From the point of organizational effectiveness, perhaps the most damaging result is that those with authority and responsibility for making good decisions get the least accurate feedback. If there is a negative culture toward authority in the organization, they become isolated and cannot get good information about the effect they are having on the people they lead. As a result, they become unable to lead in any meaningful way.
An Active “Organizational Unconscious” Is Created
In organizations characterized by interpersonal mush, two separate worlds develop. Imagine organizations for a moment using the metaphor of the human mind. In our minds we talk to ourselves and there can be many different voices—or perspectives—saying things, making judgments, urging different courses of action, offering opinions. Some of this we are very aware of. We call that the conscious mind. It tends to be the rational, logical part of the mind, the part we focus our awareness on. Just below that are parts of the mind we are less aware of. It is the level of daydreams, where we talk to ourselves and make up stories that we can’t quite remember a few minutes later. At this level of mind other less rational parts urge us to do one thing over another, interpret things one way instead of another, suggest certain courses of action and ignore others. Psychologists talk about this subconscious mind as a very powerful determinant of what we do. Contained here are what psychologists call scripts and schemas, and some therapies, like neuro-linguistic programming and rational-emotive therapy, operate mainly on this subconscious level of the mind. The idea is that we are talking to ourselves all the time; we have an inner dialogue but we don’t pay attention to all of it. Some is outside our awareness, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect us. In fact, the effects can be very powerful because we’re not aware of them.
It’s the difference between the rational, logical part of me (I call it the New Year’s resolution part of me) that says “Gotta lose 10 pounds. Gotta get to the gym more”. Meanwhile, at the breakfast meeting the inner dialogue is saying “Don’t the donuts look good”. In the tug of war between the rational mind and the inner dialogue who wins? Usually the donuts.
In organizations full of interpersonal mush the same thing happens—there is a conscious, rational part of the organization and there is an unconscious inner dialogue that has powerful effects on the organization. The conscious, rational part is the things that are said between people in official forums of organizational business—events like committee meetings, departmental meetings, workshops and offsite retreats, and strategic planning sessions. What is said here is discussable by all employees who are in attendance, and in that sense the organization as an entity is consciously aware of it.
Before and after these events, however, are things people talk about in smaller groups or in confidential conversations. I call this the organization’s inner dialogue. These conversations are full of interpretations, judgments, feelings, and preferences about the discussions and decisions made in official forums, which people are not comfortable to say in the larger group. To the extent that these perceptions, interpretations, and judgments are not discussable in any official forum of organizational business, they are out of the organization’s awareness. They are like the inner dialogue of the human mind that operates at a subconscious level, and they have a powerful effect on organizational actions.
Since the organizational inner dialogue is about things that people don’t feel comfortable saying out loud except to a small circle of intimates it indicates that people don’t fully agree or support what is going on in the conscious part of the organization. Yet it is here that people are making sense of what is going on. The stories they create, the “truth” that they then operate on, is not being created in the conscious, rational part of the organization but in the subconscious, inner-dialogue part! Because it is not discussable in official forums of organizational business, it can’t really be dealt with in the normal operation of the business. In effect, interpersonal mush creates an unconscious part of the organizational mind that powerfully affects how people experience the organization and therefore act at work. And this unconscious part tends to be at odds with the conscious part—that’s why it exists in the first place.
Poor Implementation and Follow-Through Result
The presence of this inner dialogue explains why some apparently good, well-supported plans and actions are not followed through on or are poorly implemented. I stumbled across this idea when I started wondering how come all the great plans and ideas that came out of the workshops and retreats I facilitated were poorly implemented, if implemented at all. What about all those strategic plans that get forgotten within a few months? I am still amazed at how willing people are to appear to be supporting managerial decisions or actions that they really have grave misgivings about. In interpersonal mush there are rules or norms that people have to follow if they want to belong. Generally these involve certain thoughts that are OK and those that aren’t, certain feelings that are OK and those that aren’t, and certain intentions or wants that are OK and others that aren’t. Successful managers learn that they have to couch their plans and actions according to the thoughts, feelings, and wants that are OK. One result can be that groups agree to things that no one individual actually wants. The effect on follow-through is obvious. I’m aware of one managerial group that planned layoffs for seven months without actually following through on them. The discrepancy between their words and actions was becoming so great that they were starting to really fall apart. With the help of a consultant they finally told the truth of their experience to each other and discovered that everyone hated the decision they had made. All of them felt unhappy about what they were proposing to do, particularly the way in which they had planned to go about making the layoffs. They did not like how they would feel about themselves—but that had not been OK to talk about in this group. In this organization, decisions were supposed to be impersonal, based on the organization’s needs and not personal needs. It is not that uncommon for organizations to make the personal needs of managers and employees undiscussable or only discussable in the service of the organization. Of course all that does is increase the interpersonal mush and ensure spotty implementation of poorly supported decisions. In this case, once the managers told each other their real experience, they were able to make plans and decisions they were willing and able to act on decisively. So one rule of thumb I’ve developed over the years is that if the inner dialogue of an organization does not support the plans and decisions of the organization’s rational processes, they don’t get implemented well.
People Are Unable to Learn from Experience Together
Under conditions of interpersonal mush people can’t learn from their experience together because they are not describing their experience. People are not getting accurate information about the effect they are having on others. Different subgroups have no idea what stories are being made up about them by other subgroups. Important thoughts, feelings, and intentions are not talked about openly so people make up fantasies about each other. Without real information, learning cannot take place.
This is a book about organizational learning, and leading learning in organizations, so let me be clear what I mean by it. Organizational learning is a term that has come into popular usage and, as typically happens with every new management fad, the meaning of it becomes watered down and it comes to mean just about anything. Since organizational learning is a concept, you cannot prove that one model is more valid than another. Rather, you can ask which model is more useful, provides a new and more powerful lens, and leads to insight and action. I believe that the approach to organizational learning in this book is a practical and doable method for increasing organizational effectiveness and renewal. I believe it is essential for sustaining partnerships and collaborative work systems.
What is an organization? An organization is not its tasks or goals; an organization has tasks and goals. An organization is not its people; an organization has people that come and go. An organization is not its products, markets, or technologies. Rather, an organization is found in its processes of organizing—in the repetitious patterns of how people relate to each other, gather and interpret information, solve problems, make decisions, manage conflict, and implement change while accomplishing the organization’s purpose. Another way to say this is that organizations exist in the patterns of relationships among people. These relationships take place in the context of particular goal and task demands, though the relationships have a meaning and life beyond the formal tasks and goals of the organization. An organization is found in the patterns of organizing that get formed and are repeated over time.
I define learning as the outcome of an inquiry that produces knowledge and leads to change. All three components (inquiry, knowledge, and change) have to be present for an episode of organizational learning to take place. Knowledge that doesn’t come from inquiry is revelation, not learning. Knowledge that does not lead to change might be called conceptual learning, but without practical results it’s not organizational learning.
Organizational learning takes place within the relationships that make up the organization. From this point of view, learning is a social, not an individual, phenomenon. Organizational learning happens when two or more people inquire into their patterns of organizing (how they work together) and produce knowledge that leads to a change in their patterns of interaction. It is the change in patterned relations that makes learning organizational and not simply individual.
You can have technological learning, where the organization implements new technologies. You can have skill development, where people learn new techniques. But organizational learning means that a change in the organization, that is, in the patterns of organizing, has ta ken place. The patterns of organizing are “how things really get done around here.” It’s the way your department typically interacts with other departments. It’s the way you typically deal with that fellow in purchasing. It’s how you and your boss deal with new tasks. All the typical ways in which you and others in the organization interact while doing the business of the organization are what I mean by “patterns of organizing” or “patterns of interaction.” Unless these change, the organization doesn’t really change. Perhaps you have gone through a major restructuring where, after the dust settled, people said “nothing really changed.” Nothing really changed because the patterns of interaction didn’t change.
Under conditions of interpersonal mush, organizational learning simply isn’t possible. There isn’t any inquiry into our various experiences, and, at best, learning is about things—like technology or markets or products. It is useful learning, but it’s not organizational learning.
The Same Problem Patterns Never Go Away
With interpersonal mush the patterns of organizing don’t change unless something happens in the group’s or organization’s environment that forces a change. The problem patterns, the typical interactions that make us less effective, de-motivate us, and reduce our capacity to understand the real issues, never go away. The same boring meetings go on and on. The same petty conflicts never get resolved. The same round of mindless budget cuts happen each fall. The same lackluster performance becomes not only tolerated but expected.
Attempts to change these problem patterns through such methods as team building workshops, survey feedback, managerial training, strategic planning, and process reengineering have little or no effect on the problem patterns if they do not create more interpersonal clarity. Rational discussions where people make lists of good intentions, create organizational visions, and write values statements soon disappear, chewed up in the interpersonal mush.
People need to make sense of problem patterns as much as anything else. Because interpersonal mush seems normal, it doesn’t get blamed for these problems. Sometimes people make up stories about how it’s “the system” that needs to change. More often we make sense of problem patterns by blaming individuals—the fundamental attribution error. In most problem patterns it is clear to me how it’s the other person who is the problem. It’s because they have bad intentions, are incompetent, don’t listen, are on a power trip, whatever. So we figure nothing can be done about it except get rid of the person, or work around them. The last thing we’d think of doing is to talk about our here-and-now experience with that person. But as it turns out, that is the only real solution, because the problem pattern is as much a function of the interpersonal mush as of anything else.
This is one of the reasons that the ideas in this book are simple and powerful. They’re simple because it doesn’t matter what is getting in the way of collaborative work relationships, there is one solution that almost always makes it better: increase the interpersonal clarity. That won’t solve technical, product, or market problems but it will lead to solutions to organizational problems. They’re powerful because every time two or more people inquire into their in-the-moment experience of a problem pattern they develop new knowledge about the pattern that leads to a change in the pattern. The only way this result will not happen is if they stop short of following through on the inquiry before everyone is totally clear.
Interpersonal Mush Makes Us Victims, Not Masters, of Change
An organization in interpersonal mush has fragmented subgroups with different stories about each other, leaders who can’t see the consequences of their actions on those they are leading, an inner dialogue that is in opposition to the plans and decisions that are announced and apparently agreed to, poor implementation and follow-through, and an inability to learn together from experience. No wonder we seem to be unable to sustain collaboration even when people want to. And no wonder change seems so hard to plan and implement. Resistance to change seems endemic to organizational life and real changes in problem patterns seem to occur only in a crisis—only when the environment of the group or organization has changed so much that its current patterns of organizing can no longer sustain it.
Many of the transformational changes seen in organizations in the past two decades were forced on the organization by the environment. People don’t feel they are in control of what is happening, and that includes the people at the very top. So many of the changes they make seem forced on them by the market and competitors and so few of the change programs that companies spend millions of dollars on seem to return much change at all. I know of one large progressive company where no executive is willing to champion any change program because every one of the change programs of the past two decades, from quality circles to process reengineering, is remembered as a failure. Yet, at the same time, this company has totally transformed from a sleepy, bureaucratic, inward-focused firm to an innovative, dynamic, market-focused global competitor. But the people in this company feel like victims, not masters, of change, and fear of the future is greater than at any time in the past 20 years.
Even the new collaborative organizing processes that have made clear leadership indispensable (e.g., breaking down tall hierarchies, using teams, breaking down functional departments, reducing centralized control and allowing more local autonomy, de-bureaucratizing, getting rid of rules and making people interact and negotiate, focusing on results and not procedures) have been forced on organizations. Little of this was actually planned by any company. Piecemeal adaptations to threats from competitors, new technology, new products, and new processes have accumulated over time, willy-nilly, in most of today’s organizations. Only in retrospect, when talking to journalists, can companies point to triumphs of planned change. Unless a company has a healthy dose of interpersonal clarity, the problems of interpersonal mush doom any large-scale planned change efforts that requires collaboration by employees from the start.
People Get Stress Disorders
Most of the focus to this point has been on the negative impact of interpersonal mush on organizational effectiveness, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the negative impact it has on people in the workplace. Over the past 25 years the numbers of employees on sick leave in Western companies for various kinds of stress and emotional disorders, ranging from depression to chronic fatigue syndrome, has increased dramatically. It is almost an epidemic. I think a contributing cause is the negative interpersonal mush people live day in and day out at work. Sure, there are other causes, such as too much work with too few resources, reduced job security, and incessant competition, but interpersonal mush makes it all that much worse. When my daily experience is of secrecy and gossip, where it isn’t safe to tell the truth of my experience, when I am constantly having to hunt for clues to fuel my sense-making, after a while I burn out. If I’m lucky, I get out and do something else. But if I feel trapped by mortgage payments and the children’s education and a myriad of other obligations and responsibilities, that is a hard place to be.
Why is this situation having such an impact now? Because the destructuring and reengineering that has been going on in Western organizations for the past two decades has created environments where interpersonal mush is more toxic. One of the great advantages to bureaucratic organization is that there is a rule for everything, and a center of responsibility for everything. If you and I have a conflict, there is someone else who can resolve it for us. If you want something from me, we only have to look in the rule book to see if you should get it. It may not be effective, it may create great barriers to innovation, but it does create a work environment where things move more slowly and with less uncertainty. When you take the rules away, and tell employees to figure out the best way to do things locally, there is now a great deal more uncertainty. I no longer have the rule book to put between me and you. I have to deal with you not just as a role, but as a real human being. In the world of interpersonal mush, this is a very stressful development.
Let me give a concrete example. In the good old bureaucracy, if an employee asked to leave work early to watch a child’s sporting competition, his supervisor simply had to find out what the policy was and enforce it. There was nothing personal about it. The supervisor and the employee’s interaction were completely bound by their respective roles. The supervisor didn’t really have to think about it—just enforce company policy. If the supervisor said “no,” the employee might not have liked it, might even have made up a story about the supervisor, but in the bigger picture everyone understood that this interaction was embedded in a larger, impersonal system.
Now take the same request in a partnership based organization where the hierarchy has been flattened and the rule book thrown out. It is a whole different experience. The supervisor has to make the decision, and the employee is bound to experience it as personal. The supervisor has to trade off a whole host of issues—this employee’s morale, the needs of the organization, what is happening on that particular day, the precedent this will set for other employees, and on and on. It is much more stressful for the supervisor. In an environment of interpersonal mush, these stresses are not talked about. The supervisor is unlikely to ask for more information to gauge how important this request is. The employee might not think his personal life is any of the supervisor’s business anyway. The supervisor is likely to give her decision without describing to the employee what her experience in making that decision is or finding out what the impact on the employee is. Feeling awkward about saying no, she might just send a curt email. The employee gets to fantasize all sorts of things from this email. Maybe he makes up a story about the supervisor being cold and uncaring. Maybe he makes up a story that he is out of favor and on the way out. Who knows? What I do know is that the daily grind of interpersonal mush in supposedly “empowered” organizations, where people need to, but are not willing to, describe and discuss their patterns of organizing, drives just about everyone crazy.
We are sense-making beings. Nothing you or I can do will change that. As sense-making beings we are compelled to make sense of people and events that are important in our lives. We do this by making up a story about what is going on inside of them, to fill in the gaps of what we think we know. Those stories then become our reality and future sense-making is based on them. When we don’t check out those stories, our interactions become filled by interpersonal mush. Over time the mush becomes toxic, as the stories get worse and worse. If we don’t have to rely on the quality of our relationships to get work done organizations can continue to operate in the mush. But if we are hoping to be in partnership with others, where we are mutually committed to the success of what we are doing together, the mush becomes a major impediment and the partnership breaks down.
Sense-making doesn’t just occur around big decisions or events, or when people are acting mysteriously or not saying much. Most of us are sense-making in every interaction and conversation we have. As Jennifer listens to her co-worker discuss the new product plan, she makes up a story about how much he really knows about what he is saying, what his purpose in talking is, how he feels about the plan, and what he wants from her. She does this without even noticing that she is doing it—it is as natural as breathing. We can’t really stop ourselves from doing this; the best we can do is notice when we are doing it and assume that our stories are usually wrong in some way and check them out before we act as if they are real.
Because of normal human tendencies of sense-making, the stories we make up about each other and the organizations we work in tend to become more negative than positive. And because future acts of sense-making are based on past acts of sense-making, negative spirals are created that lead to organizations full of cynicism and distrust. People are afraid to tell their managers what they really think, so managers get less and less accurate feedback and ultimately can’t see the effects of their actions on others. An organizational inner dialogue is created where people’s real thoughts, feelings, and wants are discussed in ways that make them unmanageable. As a result, decisions that people appear to agree to are poorly implemented, and resistance to change seems endemic. With the increasing breakdown of impersonal, bureaucratic rules and regulations, within which people didn’t really have to deal with each other as people but as roles, the necessity of negotiating agreements and managing conflict between peers makes interpersonal mush a highly stressful environment to work in.
The antidote to interpersonal mush is interpersonal clarity. Gaining interpersonal clarity requires a very different kind of conversation than most of us are used to having, so let’s turn now to take a look at the kinds of conversations that allow people to learn from their collective experience, clear out the mush and sustain partnership.
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