Often when I’m brought into new systems, clients say a variation on a theme: “We need someone neutral to help us figure this out.”
I get it. Chances are you’re dealing with a big, hairy, thorny issue and what you are looking for is someone to help smooth out communication, find a compromise, or be in charge of keeping the temperature of the room so that no one burns to a crisp. While I can do all of that, I have a secret to share.
I’m never actually neutral.
Here’s a specific example: I was talking to a manager who was having a hard time talking with their newly unionized work force. Things had gotten very contentious while negotiating the contract and he was seeking out someone to be his assistant to delegate the duties of handling their schedules and working within their contract.
“I need someone neutral,” he said. “Someone who isn’t too attached to the workers or me. They need to be able to see both sides and help find a resolution. The problem is, everyone who has applied for the job is either attached to the workers somehow or isn’t qualified. What do I do?”
That’s when I broke the big news to him, “What you’re asking for is impossible. No one can be truly neutral. All of us have biases that great created within fractions of a second, so what you’re asking for is literally impossible.”
“Then how can people be mediators? How can you claim to do your job?” he shot back.
“I can’t speak to how professional mediators do it, but for me, I spend a lot of time managing my biases. Most of my training is around finding and managing my biases. Sometimes they are too big for me to manage and I have to basically recuse myself from something. But I never purport to be neutral.”
“So why should I hire you?” he asked.
“I would hire me because I can get a close to neutral as possible and be effective. I know how to manage my biases, when to step out, and when to voice them. Also, I know your workers and you. At this point rather than asking me to remain a tabula rasa, I’m full of information regarding intimate trigger points and experiences you have. As a result, I know what words, phrases, inflections, and body languages will cause reactions in you and your workers that have nothing to do with the topic at hand. And, having had these intimate conversations, you and your workers trust me to have your best interest at heart. So, unlike a pseudo-neutral party, I can’t be accused of being overly sympathetic because both sides feel seen by me.”
Ok, I only boomed in my head, but felt like a bit of a mic drop.
A lot of my work is in the arts industry, an industry I worked in for 10 years before becoming a consultant. The work often required long hours, emotionally stressful situations, and problem solving with little to no resources. All of this provides the perfect circumstances for developing deep, meaningful friendships. (And sometimes more. I did meet my husband in a theatre, after all.)
Because of these relationships when I’m being hired, there is almost always a question of my neutrality, my bias, my ability to stay emotionally clean from the task at hand. I would argue that you actually don’t want a clinical, sterile approach to your problem and your workers. Whatever you’re managing is not a tumor to be cut out, it has to do with people and all their messy, weird stuff because we have that damn prefrontal cortex.
Think about who you feel comfortable disclosing your deepest fears and desires to. Chances are they are people who have developed a deep, emotional relationship with you. Even your therapist, should you have one (you should), doesn’t possess an ability to stay “unbiased.” They are in your corner, likely providing you feedback and ideas that only someone who knows you intimately has the permission to do.
So, let’s stop with all this neutral bullshit. If you are a person seeking a “neutral” party, you are wasting your time and only deluding yourself. Look for someone who can manage their bias better than anyone else. Someone who has reviews and testimonials say that their clients felt held, cared for, loved, heard, or understood. This someone likely will also wade into a tricky, relationship-riddled system with a buddy. I hire an assistant to help me with these systems; someone whose sole job is to tag me out when I get hooked.
Someone who can remain neutral is likely missing a few key internal connections. And if you insist on it in your interactions or new hires, I guarantee you’ll be missing key nuances that are what make humans and relationships so worthwhile.