NQ17 Provoke: How to Poke the Bear

You’ve heard the saying “Don’t poke the bear.” Perhaps today we should say “Don’t tweet the bear.” Regardless of what medium is used, it is safe to say that we live in an age of unending bear-poking, and the bears are increasingly sensitive.

When we are the bear, the poke (any external event outside our influence or control) inherently makes us reactive. Organizations are provoked by their competitors’ new product and move to emulate. Finance is provoked by Marketing’s spend and makes irrational budget cuts. Senior leaders are provoked by the boardroom behavior of c-suite peers and the staplers start flying!

In an attempt to avoid this kind of provocation, we hide. Many of us avoid situations where we will experience difference. We dodge difficult colleagues. We find information that reinforces our own world view. But as Jon Haidt says in his most recent best seller The Coddling of the American Mind, “[a] culture that allows the concept of ‘safety’ to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.”

Hiding from the discomfort of being provoked is more than fruitless. Being provoked is inevitable, and as Haidt points out, not learning how to respond is self-destructive. How we respond to our provocations is the driving question.

Every provocation is accompanied by choices. When it’s personal, you can choose what to focus on and let go of worrying about things over which you have no influence… or you can get on social media and rant as a way to vent and expand the echo chamber of “your side.” When your organization is provoked by a customer’s new product roll out, you can stay the course and believe in your own customer data and product vision… or you can set widespread mayhem and panic in motion across your organization. You could respond to your team member’s curt answers with the cold-shoulder and try to change their behavior with feedback about how they’re being rude… or you can be an encouraging colleague and inquire about their brevity. Being provoked says nothing about how you must respond. What if we could see provocation not as something negative to avoid, but as something calling us to new and different behavior? 

On the other side of the analogy, there is the “bear-poker.” In a world of echo chambers, false news, social media intended to manipulatively incite rage to drive page views, and the convergence of social and economic challenges we’ve never seen, we might conclude that provoking is just the latest form of emotional intelligence. It’s inevitable, and done well, has the potential for great good. But most of the examples we see of being provocative are negative and painful. So, since it really is “the new normal,” how do we learn to do it well? How do we poke without doing damage?

As provocateurs, the choice happens in advance of provoking (or at least it should). A quick browse through a person’s social media platform makes you wonder how much real thought went into some of those “provocations.” What outcome did they want? What are they really trying to accomplish? Is being right and offensive more important than starting conversation and inviting curiosity? (And do we understand the difference?)

If you desire to have positive influence in the world, you are, by definition, a provocateur. If you desire to learn, grow, and explore the world around you, by definition, you are now a target of provocation. We hope that this NQ17 provokes you. We hope it brings out something good in you that allows you to provoke, and be provoked, in the service of your own greatness and that of some great bears.

–      By Jarrod Shappell, January 24th 2019