Overcoming the porcupine dilemma: Dare to get close, get warm, support each other.

Andrea Schüller on May 9, 2016

So here I am, thinking about what Arthur Schopenhauer’s porcupine dilemma has to do with creating environments where colleagues trust and respect one another enough to become effective peer coaches … after all, this is what I’m doing a lot of in my professional life.

Before you get too impressed with how well read I’m on my German philosophers: I just spent half the night listening to my daughter rehearsing a school presentation on this very topic, finishing with the side remark: “This is really relevant for what you do at Toguna, isn’t it?”

Well, she might have a point: Just to remind all of you, who don’t have a daughter in IB mode: in his parable from 1851 Schopenhauer describes, how the porcupines are shivering on a cold winter’s day and are determined to benefit from each other’s warmth. Seeking intimacy for fairly egoistical reasons, rather than to get to know and appreciate one another. But once they are close, the respective spikes get in the way. So they retreat. Soon enough, they advance again, as it is just so cold … and on and on this goes, until they finally find a good, safe, middle distance to settle at. It’s a polite distance. Nobody gets hurt, nobody freezes to death.

Schopenhauer, ever the pessimist and no doubt taking one long hard look at his own lifestyle preferences as a virtual hermit, did however not advocate this literally lukewarm middle ground as the ideal. Instead, he suggested in a different text that those possessing a ‘finer soul’ and the necessary ‘genius’ would want to stay away from their fellow human beings altogether – for their own good. Being lucky enough to have a mind that could create its own warmth, they did not need anybody. And, the cherry on top: this way they were safe from all the evil and disappointment lurking when you trust and get close.

Fair enough – for Schopenhauer. And: that’s how a lot of people in business live their lives. Especially in firms, where competition for senior positions is sometimes not pretty. Where, if you expose your soft underbelly, others might take advantage, just because they can. Better safe than sorry? Better brilliant alone than potentially weak? Better off by yourself in the cold? Hm.

All research points to one established fact: environments where people thrive and grow are the polar opposite of that.

In settings where people can and do grow and mature fast, there is no assumption that letting your guard down, sharing the wicked problems you really face openly, will hurt your image and ultimately limit your chances to advance. Instead, there is justified trust that others will respect you enough – as a person and seasoned, gifted professional – to really engage with your dilemma. To not brush it off and belittle it by offering a ‘quick fix’ solution from their own arsenal of ‘tricks’ – half-heartedly dished out in passing.

Schopenhauer believes human beings to act egotistically at all times. That’s not what I see on my leadership development programmes. The support participants give to one another across departments and reporting lines isn’t self-serving, it’s not even necessarily reciprocal. If we start with the question “what can I take away from this”, we lose an opportunity. If we start by asking “how do I need to show up, so that we all grow – together” we’re on to something. It takes only one act of courage to set the tone. One person to disregard their fear of being stung and trusting that the others will well make up for that in warmth, i.e. reflection and helpful challenge. Allowing others to get this close means allowing them to truly see you – which is the first step to real connection.

If you knew that even when all your struggles were exposed, people would see and respect you and would want to invest in you growing into yourself, how would you show up?

After all: “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself” (Anna Quindlen).

Dare to get close, get warm, support each other.