Opening to the Opposite

December 1, 2015

By: Jennifer Evans

I had a volunteer job at the hospital last winter offering patients the opportunity to switch the art hanging on their walls. I did it with a partner, one of us to push the “art-cart” and do the recording tasks, and one to chat with each patient. We took turns. Sounds fun, which it was, and easy which it wasn’t—actually it was a very stressful experience! My partner was a very step-by-step, do-it-by-the-book type of person, I am a try it this way, try it that way, depending on how circumstances are presenting themselves and how it feels type. It was a rough road for us both.

Competing Values Framework
Last year I learned of the Competing Values Framework (CVF) during an MBA orientation at the Ross School of Business. It’s a model that describes four value orientations identified with four colors. Simply put, the four can be characterized as compete/purpose-blue, control/values-red, collaborate/empathy-yellow, and create/improve-green. I watched students quickly choose the orientation with which they identified and easily and with humor express their “what is the problem with” and reactions to the three others. They also began to see why all four of the values whether elicited from within or expressed by another are important to any productive effort.

This model really caught my fancy. I find it to be a dynamic springboard that focuses my strengths, clarifies my reactions, and offers both a generous stance from which to consider others’ approaches and a light hearted mutual language that eases collaboration.

Green with red
My inclination is towards green. I tend to look for alternatives, improvements, ideas, and what ifs. And when I am in a green way of being, which is generally always, I can feel irritated, slowed down, and frustrated by the systematic and rule-bound approach of the red. In a green frame of mind I am not in the moment interested in how things should be or why things can’t be.

Constrict or open?
Though I often feel my energy constrict when red begins to speak their piece, I’m learning to value rather than react to red’s need for me to slow down and conform. I try to stay open and to allow the red to offer its gift. It may take a few more steps and a bit more clarification than my impatience prefers, but when I cooperate with the gift of the red the outcome can be more stable and lasting. And I appreciate when the red can restrain from immediately expressing procedural constraints and structural limitations and join me for a minute in my imaginings of new possibilities.

Back to the art cart
Sometimes logistics were such that I would suggest a shift to our plan and routine thinking as it would benefit our service to the patients. This totally freaked my “don’t change it” partner out and she would express a big reaction. Then I would feel reactive to her insistence on sticking to our established procedure.

What helped me to put my reactions in the back seat was my CVF lens through which I recognized her intense red-ness and my intense green-ness. And as I connected with my purpose (blue-ness) which was to cooperate with her and serve the patients (yellow-ness) it informed my action. I decided to stop trying to improve things and keep to the plan. That helped but it was not easy for me—or fun.

Two sides to every color
The art cart job required a very systematic approach—art in, art out, when and where data keeping. While I have a talent for connecting with people—yellow, and finding work arounds—green, I found it surprisingly challenging to remember the data keeping process—embarrassing but true. And my red partner though not talented at going with the flow or inclined to ideas to improve our service, was great at the record keeping. It was interesting to see the two sides to her red-ability display themselves.

Opening to feedback
After this art-cart experience I created a CVF workshop for staff at the university and I used my art-cart story to explain the tension that can surface between red and green types. In the workshop evaluation someone wrote “it is clear that the instructor doesn’t like reds.” When I saw the comment I was initially defensive and explained it away as just an animated example I had given. But then I took myself around the CVF wheel. I felt defensive and closed to the feedback (red-ness) but then I recalled my purpose (blue) which is to serve and share with others (yellow) and this helped me open to the feedback (green). I realized the way I told the story did reveal my frustration and I saw how she, who was likely of a red inclination, could take that personally. I’ve since changed my example.

A gift of structure
I lived with an artist for a period of time and one day as I was declaring my discomfort with structure she sat me down to set me straight. She told me that when artists make a painting they choose a limited palate, perhaps three colors and she assured me that the opportunity to be creative comes from within the limitation. As I consider her lesson I realize that I have had many experiences of limitation intensifying the need for innovation and resourcefulness. My energy soars as I think about times I’ve engaged that part of myself and I recall my experiences as a special education teacher. I loved facing ten empty minutes, assessing the capabilities of my preschool aged kids, gathering a few this’s and that’s, and cooking up some therapeutic fun.

Appreciating red
While red is neither my strength nor my value, and while I can be impatient with the step-by-step follow the rules-ness, I appreciate how those with red colored glasses contribute to the world going round consistently and dependably. The stability supports my need to create and invent and reach for new.

I asked a friend of mine to read this and she replied, “From a red perspective it could seem that green is chaotic and unstructured, and not good at all.” Well yes, that is such a great example of the point. “Not good at all” is how red can feel about green, and green about red, same with yellow and blue. She asked me to explain the value of green. Well, being of the green persuasion I think green is just great and I love being with green types whose nature is to imagine, improve, invent, and innovate. But the real hope is in recognizing and valuing the value in each of our orientations. Don’t you think?