Earlier this month I was lucky enough to spend a week in #Abidjan, Cote d’ivoire – West Africa – conducting my Position | Engage | Influence course for @Caterpillar Inc. Being on the other side of the world and in a completely different culture, I was expecting to see something very different. On the surface things were different, but dig a little below that surface and I saw they were pretty much the same as home.

Chaotic traffic?

At first glance, the traffic in Abidjan appeared to be chaotic. No one stayed in their lane and people were hanging outside of taxies as they drove along the road. At times I was stuck in the middle of intersections in virtual gridlock with cars moving at a snail’s pace while merchants walked between cars selling their merchandise. On more than one occasion I was grateful that I was not driving in this chaotic traffic!

But the traffic wasn’t chaotic – I just didn’t understand it, but the locals did. Each morning my client picked me up at 8 am and told me that we would be in the office by 8:30 – and we were. This means the traffic was predictable, not chaotic as I told myself it was. I didn’t understand the rules so could not read what was going on. The locals knew the patterns that allowed traffic to flow and the unwritten rules that bigger vehicles have the right-of-way.

Traders in Abidjan selling their wares

The ability to get across town in a predictable time is much better in Abidjan than it is in Sydney!

Insight – People adapt to their environment and work within its constraints to do what they need to do. Just because we don’t understand a system doesn’t mean it’s chaotic and doesn’t work.

Delusions of Grandiosity.

In my training, I conduct one-on-one coaching sessions with the participants. In these sessions, I ask people how they feel they went with their presentations. Participants the world over generally tell me that they weren’t good enough, could have been better or stuffed something up. They focus on the negative. What surprises me is that this is the first time they have used my formula for presenting, yet they expect to be experts the first time.

That’s unrealistic.

And it’s not helpful. The desire to be perfect – or even proficient the very first time places an amazing amount of unneeded pressure on us. This is not helpful.

At the base of this is a delusion of grandiosity – the belief that we can be good enough the first time. The reality is that no one is perfect the first time. When we expect to be perfect (or even highly competent) the first time and come up short we miss seeing the growth we have achieved and what our next steps should be. This hurts our ability to grow. I see this all over Australia, and I saw it in West Africa too.

This is what is happening when managers who expect projects to be completed on time and budget every time, managers who expect staff to execute on plans perfectly every time and parents who expect children to be as good as we wished we were at their age.

Insight – we are more harsh on ourselves than we should be. We don’t give ourselves credit for the growth we have achieved, and this hurts our sense of what is possible. When we don’t think we are achieving we tend not to try as hard, and when we do succeed we don’t celebrate our successes as much as we should. So we should lighten up on ourselves!

Watch the quiet ones.

As with any group, there are those who participate by jumping in and contributing, and those who participate by sitting back, watching, listening and observing. I don’t have any official figures on this, but it’s my observation that it is the women who are more sit back and watch and the guys jumping in. This is not 100% hard and fast – probably a 60/40 split. Those who sit back and observe are often the ones that are overlooked in meetings, thought of as being quiet, or not having anything to share.

But what is a bankable rule is that those who sit back and watch are the better presenters. They are well structured, articulate and confident – they surprise everyone. I see this in Australia, in West Africa and have seen it in Asia too. The quiet ones are the ones who perform better than anyone thinks they can. They are the hidden assets that have so much to share.

Main insight. People are the same the world over. The locals I saw in Abidjan hanging out of cars driving along the roads were doing exactly what we do every day. They were going about their day, earning a living so they could provide for their families. The only difference was the way they did it. In Australia, we stick to the lanes and in Abidjan they don’t. It’s not wrong, just different. 

The term to describe this difference is culture – doing the exact same thing, just in different ways.

As always, I’d appreciate your comments here.