Rigidity can be described as holding the attitude: “My way or the highway.” It can also be disguised in such sayings as: “That’s just the way it is,” or “Those are the rules, ma'am,” or “That’ll never work.” Do those kinds of sayings ever come from your mouth? Those statements are indicative of a kind of mental paralysis. No new information is being allowed in.
Rigidity can be cloaked in a variety of ways that appear attractive, on the surface. You may value the fact that you are a high achiever, a perfectionist, and a take-charge or no-nonsense person. You should take pride in your accomplishments. However, an inflexible, rigid attitude can get in the way of even greater accomplishments and a larger sphere of influence. Maybe you pride yourself on being cautious; you do not like to leap before you look carefully. That is fine, except when your caution turns into an aversion to taking any risks at all.
Maybe you believe that you know the best way to get from Point A to Point B, or the best way to make a chili barbecue, or the best way to solve the recycling problems in your community. Everyone wants you on their committee — except when it turns out that “the best way” is the only way you know how to do that particular thing, and you are not willing to learn anything new about it.
One of the things we can say with certainty about life is that everything changes. It is a task for all of us to keep figuring out where we need to hold the line on what we know and where we need to let go of the rigidity that keeps us from learning new things.
The fact is, that at least since the beginning of the decade, there has been a greater emphasis on the value of collaboration, cooperation and interdependent networks of people. Who would have ever thought that arch-rivals IBM and Apple Computer would collaborate? But they have! Remember the high-tech commercials during the Super Bowls in the mid 1980’s? Everyone watched to see what new outrageous ad Apple had come up with to sling at IBM. They were not rivals, they were enemies. Then, they began to see the value of collaboration. At least to the point of being able to work on joint projects.
More and more companies are seeing the value of breaking up departments that used to compete against each other. Instead, they are putting people into teams with shared leadership and a mandate to cooperate with each other. As those companies move from a hierarchical structure to one that is team-based, you hear the same lament over and over: “Some of the people who have been around here for a while cannot seem to make the transition. They are too ‘set in their ways,’ they have too much of the old ‘command and control’ style in their veins.”
If you suspect that you may have an underlying layer of rigidity in your personality that prevents you from being flexible where flexibility would be an asset, here are some tips. First and foremost, concentrate on listening to what others have to say. Not just passive listening, that is, hearing the words. But learn what is known as “active listening” where you do more than simply pay attention. Active listening means you suspend your judgments about what the other person is saying while you listen. Active listening means that you are so clear about what the other person is saying that you could paraphrase it back to them in a way they would agree that is what they said.
Being willing to listen without making judgments takes work. You can tell you are NOT doing it when little thoughts like, “that is crazy,” or, “she does not know what she is talking about,” pop up in your head as you listen. However, if you are able to achieve the ability to listen first, and then decide how you feel about something, much more information and new insight will filter into your brain. That is because the rigid guard at the door of your mind has been asked to take a break.
Another way to combat rigidity is to admit a mistake when you have made one. That is so easy to say, and so hard to do! Start by admitting it to yourself. “Darn it, I made a mistake!” That is the first step. Some rigid people cannot even do that much. The next step is to say it out loud to someone who is affected by that mistake. “Sorry, but it looks like I have made a mistake here.”
One more tip: remember that in many things, the process is as important as the goal. HOW you arrive at a result in a work project, or on a community committee, or in your family affects everyone involved. And the process has a direct impact on the success of the next undertaking. Your ability to be flexible, to let go of rigid expectations, to allow for disagreements, are all measures of your maturity in those situations.