Grasp the nettle

Grasp the nettle

Grasp the nettle

You know your business must change. But how do you make difficult decisions and see them through?

Jonathan Yudelowitz

That the figure of speech – grasp the nettle – exists is proof enough of the human truth underlying it. We all from time to time come face-to-face with prickly situations. Dealing with them will not be pleasant. They will in all likelihood sting us and the sting will linger. Our instincts, then, are to approach with trepidation, or to delay the confrontation, or even to avoid it completely.

But the time-honoured wisdom – around since Aesop’s Fables at least – is clear. Deal with the situation boldly. With resolve and rapidity. If you approach a nettle timorously, it won’t go well.

Here is what the fable has to say. “A little Boy, playing in the fields, chanced to be stung by a Nettle, and came crying to his father. He told him that he did but just touch it, as lightly as possible, when he was so severely stung. “Child,” said his father, “your touching it so gently and timidly is the very reason of its hurting you. A Nettle may be handled safely if you do it with courage and resolution; if you seize it boldly and gripe it fast, be assured it will never sting you; and you will meet with many sorts of persons, as well as things, in the world which ought to be treated in the very same manner.” [1]

There it is in the last two lines, the wisdom as relevant as ever to business today: “You will meet with many sorts of persons, as well as things, in the world which ought to be treated in the very same manner.”

Release the energy

There is more to grasping the nettle than being afraid of the sting. Avoiding prickly issues in the workplace – indeed, in any place – consumes energy. Covering something up, pretending it is not there, staving it off because it is “not the right time, not right now…” all of these behaviours consume our energies.

In contrast, as soon as a matter has been acknowledged, as soon as it is “no longer a secret,” energy is released. That energy can be put to good use in dealing with the challenge at hand. But how does one grasp the nettle? What procedures should one follow?

1. Heed the warning signs

Let’s imagine a scenario. A number of years ago your business made some far-reaching decisions about the way forward. These decisions may have been based on the realities of doing business at that time but now the context has changed. They have been based on what now feels like a poor understanding of the realities. Or they may even have been based on what are now quite clearly questionable principles and motivations.

In short, there’s a new reality. The decisions that once felt both desirable and achievable now feel wrong. It feels like mistakes were made. It feels like things need to be addressed and corrected. The impact on the business now disturbs you.

Are you going to ignore your feelings and hope the moment passes? Heed the warning signs. When something is wrong, your discomfort – uneasiness or a heightened or low energy – are valuable warning signs. They start to flash before your conscious thoughts have had the chance to line up. They indicate there is something that you don’t know about the situation – and need to find out.

Somewhere a prickly reality lurks – a nettle that must be grasped.

Your challenge is not an intellectual one. Engaging your skills as a scenario planner will be of no use to you. But naming and respecting your feelings will help clarify what is at stake. You will formulate the right questions for the right context. You will anticipate what to do should something unpleasant arise.

Of course, it takes courage to take a good hard look at what you fear. Unlike being heroic – which is about denying fear and risk – courage is about being 49% scared, doubtful or unsure and 51% confident in your ability to channel your self-doubt and anxiety appropriately. And you must – there are proper challenges ahead.

2. Prepare thoroughly

You don’t simply wade into the thick of things when tackling a prickly situation. That will be potentially disastrous. Spend time and thought to prepare thoroughly.

  • What are the risks associated with the situation?
  • When, where and how exactly do you intend to confront the situation?
  • How many facts can you assemble about your context?
  • How many minutiae can you assemble about the time and place?
  • What is your understanding of how other people will be affected? How do they feel about the important issues?

In other words, observe, read and research, so that you know exactly what you’re up against. What’s really going on? If you give in to pressure and make assumptions, your assumptions are the ‘remembered present’ – based on what happened elsewhere, in the past – and can easily lead you astray.

3. Engage with the fundamentals of the business

Someone needs to present a fundamental view of your business reality. Someone who will not be clouded by emotion and sentiment. The decisions you took; the habits you have enjoyed for years – what are they costing you? You’re facing a dilemma. Solicit countervailing opinions. Listen to what “the other side” has to say. Make sure the decision you’re about to take is not taken on a whim. It must be informed. It must have depth.

4. The difficult decision

There are the practicalities of your decision. But there is sentiment too. How your business has operated in the past means a great deal to everyone. It has defined who you all are. Changing things – grasping the nettle – is an emotionally difficult decision. This needs to be acknowledged.

5. Minute your decision

You can be absolutely sure that someone, at some time in the future, as the consequences of your decision make themselves felt, will question the wisdom of your decision. They will even question whether the decision was made at all. That’s when you will pull out the minutes and show them. Here’s the reasoned decision. Here’s why we took it. Here’s how it adds value.

Expect hiccups along the way. Selective amnesia, for instance, about what was debated. And moments when you too will wonder why you are putting yourself through all this. Seizing the nettle “boldly and gripping it fast” as the Father advised his Son, you may well need to remind yourself why you are holding on through the pain.

6. Keep at it

How will you get to the point when the nettle stings no more? How will you get to enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done?

Keep at it. Persevere until the new order is established.

There are no case studies for dilemmas like this, no well-trodden paths to follow. Just you and the courage of your convictions.