Nothing Good Ever Happens At Zero

In the television series adaptation of the novel The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, a major character says, “Nothing good ever happens at zero.” She’s referring to a countdown clock that only certain individuals can see. She is right. In the story, nothing good ever happens when the clock runs down to zero.

The book is about the encounter between humans on earth and an advanced species on their way to earth. It begins with the soon to be visitors answering a signal sent from earth and develops into an exploration of the Contact Paradox which states that contact between a more advanced life form and a less advanced one results in the destruction, domination, or enslavement of the latter.

While it is fun to speculate about aliens and other forms of life out in the galaxy somewhere, we have examples of the Contact Paradox much closer to home. The Contact Paradox parallels examples from human history where more technologically advanced societies have conquered, colonized, or otherwise exploited societies they deemed less advanced.

What is really being explored here is the imbalance of power and what typically happens when someone with more interacts with someone who has less. While this applies to societies and even species, it can also be seen in the context of interpersonal dynamics in our organizations and communities.

Power imbalance is an inevitable dynamic. Regardless of the system, someone must make the final decision. Lest you believe this is not the case in democratic structures, I would be happy to point out many times in history where a majority used their power to harm a minority. There will always be a power imbalance. The question is, how will you use the power you have?

The underlying issue in all cases of the Contact Paradox that end badly is intrinsic value. It is much easier to harm another person (or people) if you can convince yourself that they are less valuable than you are. Unfortunately for leaders, we are often encouraged to believe this. Our “press” would have us believe we are irreplaceable, more important, and therefore more valuable than others in our community. The perks and privileges only further this delusion.

If we want to have healthy interactions between leaders and the people they lead, we must be intentional about creating ways to level the ground for those exchanges to take place. The responsibility lies with the person with power to make it safe for others.

We often hear leaders say they have an “open door” policy. This is a good thing, but it isn’t enough. The power imbalance often prevents people from approaching leadership. Leaders must use their open door to get out of their office and interact with their people. Trust is developed as we get to know each other, so how much people will trust a leader is directly related to how well they feel they know them.

The way a leader responds to problems will teach the organization whether it is safe to approach them or not. Leaders who react poorly, won’t listen, and respond harshly will teach their people to hide their mistakes and cover up problems. Leaders who slow down, listen to all sides of a story, and respond with grace will show their people they can be trusted.

It is also important for people to have a safe way to say they are uncomfortable with their leader. In a perfect community, people would be willing and able to let anyone in the group know that something is making them feel unsafe or devalued, but there are no perfect communities. Leaders must make up for this by creating options for people to voice their concerns in a way they feel safe.

We have all heard (or been) the parent counting down to warn a child they are about to be in trouble, but this does not carry the same impact at work. Leaders cannot afford the loss of relationship and trust that comes from using our positional power when we can (with more effort) develop our relational influence. Nothing good happens if we reach zero, so maybe we shouldn’t start counting in the first place. Creating a safe place where the necessary imbalance of power isn’t used to harm anyone leads to a healthy and productive community and the Bison Way.