There is a well-known Greek myth that goes something like this: The gods, being characteristically devious, gave a beautiful container to Pandora, one of the first humans. They told her she could have the box but was never to open it. Of course, human curiosity led her to disobey the order. When she opened the box, all of the chaos and hardships of the world were released into our lives. This is where we get the term “Pandora’s box.”
Myths like these were tools for the Greeks to better understand what it means to be human. The myth of Pandora’s box neither causes nor stops the chaos from happening, but it does remind us that, in some ways, our ancestors thousands of years ago were wrestling with the same predicament: Life can be chaotic.
In my organizational work, I use the term “Pandora’s box” to describe complex situations where unresolved, divisive points of view inflame interpersonal tensions. Basically, it describes those times when no one can agree on anything, nothing gets done and competition leads to political infighting — team chaos.
Usually, when I first sit down with a team that’s in Pandora’s box, I see a lot of frustrated faces — and an expectation or hope that I’ll be the one who fixes it. I’ll hear equally convincing and sometimes conflicting perspectives about the right way forward. Everyone is sure they’re right.
Unfortunately for them, there isn’t always a simple fix. The challenge can lie in how they’re approaching the situation in the first place.
The first step we take on is helping the team see that they’re in Pandora’s box.
In the spirit of myths, there is a famous leadership parable where six blind men touch different parts of an elephant. They then each describe the elephant’s body based on what they feel, convinced that their description is more accurate than anyone else’s. All of them are accurately describing the elephant — but just a part of it. Argument ensues.
The parable is meant to symbolize a team where people are attached to their own points of view. (And their point of view is absolutely justifiable from their perspective.) In order to get out of Pandora’s box, teams often need to be able to see the elephant for what it is, not just from their own perspective.
They also may need to see that the nature of their challenge is sometimes an adaptive problem, with no one technical fix. The ability to expand perspectives to include more becomes their work as adaptive leaders.
“Technical problems, while often challenging, can be solved applying existing know-how and the organization’s current problem-solving processes,” advise Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky in “A Survival Guide For Leaders” published in the Harvard Business Review. “Adaptive problems resist these kinds of solutions because they require individuals throughout the organization to alter their ways; as the people themselves are the problem, the solution lies with them.” (I wrote previously about the difference between adaptive and technical leadership problems.)
A team stuck in Pandora’s box is a team with an adaptive challenge: The people themselves are likely the problem; their fixed points of views are leading to the conflicts. To solve adaptive problems, Heifetz and Linsky recommend “getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony.” Basically, you may need to take a look, collectively, at the big picture. And then be willing to change how you work together with what you see.
How? It’s not always easy, but here are the pieces I work to instill in teams to help get them out of Pandora’s box:
1. A commitment to listening: This usually needs to be learned. Often, people think they’re listening when they’re really just waiting to talk. Everyone in a Pandora’s box situation may need to make, to the best of their ability, a commitment to put aside their own perspective and hear the validity of other points of view.
2. A willingness to admit that it’s not clear what the problem really is: I recommend taking a flip chart and spending some time writing out everyone’s concerns and compiling them into one clear list. This should be exhaustive, to the point where everyone can agree that there’s nothing left to say. Now you’re starting to look at the problem objectively, and it’s probably a lot more complex than anyone realized.
3. The freedom to speak openly and honestly: Speaking of elephants, how often does a meeting end with the elephant in the room still not mentioned? Name the elephant. If people aren’t willing to say the truth, they perpetuate Pandora’s box.
4. Adaptation: Adaptation has sustained the survival of our speciesfor millennia. We’re quite good at it — when we’re willing to do it. This sometimes means giving up our points of view and finding new ways of working together. It’s easier said than done, I know.
I highly recommend using facilitators to help navigate your team or organization’s Pandora’s box. Even the most self-aware and objective leaders can still be inside the box. A nonattached perspective can be invaluable when objectivity is hard to find.
When looking for a facilitator, look for someone outside of your team who can offer an objective perspective. Whether this person is inside or outside of your organization, find someone who is comfortable with discomfort, has the ability to hold multiple points of view at once and is a great teacher.