Garfield Minus Garfield: Or, Why Context Matters

Sometimes while in conversation with my colleagues, I find myself wondering what we would sound like to the casual passerby. Overheard phrases such as “do you think humility balances courage?” and “is ‘excellence’ an outcome or a value?” would surely sound like nonsense without context. However, these phrases represent some of the most meaningful and inspiring work I do as a member of LRN’s Governance, Culture, and Leadership Advisory practice: helping organizations discover and articulate their core purpose and values.

As a team member and advisor to LRN’s partner organizations–heck, as a wife, friend, citizen of this world–I regularly witness the confusion or even real pain and discontent that a lack of context can manifest. A subtle mindset shift, raising of awareness, can go a long way.

But first, a comic strip metaphor.

Context in Comedy

Garfield Minus Garfield is a brilliant site curated by Dan Walsh that is “dedicated to removing Garfield from the Garfield comic strips in order to reveal the existential angst of a certain young Mr. Jon Arbuckle.” Without Garfield, Jon appears lonely, depressed, and perhaps even a bit delusional.

With Garfield, or, in this metaphor, context, one sees Jon as the cat-loving, slightly less lonely man that he really is.


Context at Work

To provide a real world example, consider the following scenario: a colleague more senior to you requests a team meeting, but doesn’t disclose what the meeting is about. How would you react? Perhaps you wouldn’t think twice, or maybe your mind would start spinning in anticipation.

When this happened on my team, the reaction from colleagues was mixed: one shared that context was, to her, a manifestation of respect and asked that the meeting request include the meeting’s purpose. Another colleague pointed out that the lack of context could lead some to assume that certain people’s requests are more or less important than others. And still another messaged me directly to ask if I knew what was going on. A philosophical debate ensued: if context equals respect, then was this colleague being disrespectful? Or, if we trusted that our colleague’s request came from a place of good intent, were we the ones being disrespectful for demanding an explanation beforehand? All of the conversation, debate, and side-bar speculation created unnecessary noise that ate up an inordinate amount of time on our small team.

To share another example, I was leading a series of focus groups for a California-based partner of LRN’s. In recent years, the company had gone through just about every organizational change: growth, international expansion, new CEO, 15% reduction in force, and their largest-ever acquisition. Employees had any number of things about which to complain or be hopeful in these focus groups, and yet all they could talk about was the water.

See, they used to have fancy reverse osmosis water filtration systems in all the break rooms. Then one day, they were gone without warning or explanation, replaced by filters on the sink faucets. Although I later learned that the company was concerned about the water waste inherent in reverse osmosis systems – a move that would surely have been met with support in drought-stricken California – it became a symbol of how employees felt they were treated by the organization, overshadowing the aspirational exercise in which we were trying to engage.

Context Pays Off

A lack of sufficient context impacts organizations’ bottom lines: reduced productivity and churn from misinterpreted directives, time wasted on unproductive conversations, disgruntled or disengaged employees. Often, these negative outcomes can be easily avoided. In my workplace example, the person could have said, “I’d like to call a team meeting. The issue is sensitive so I’d prefer to share details when we’re together in person.” In my water example, the company could have let employees know they were switching to a new water filtration system that better aligns with their commitment to being good stewards of the local environment and community. By focusing on the outcome, the “what”, the people involved in both of these examples forgot how important it is to share the “why”.

Context begets a virtuous cycle: if people are trusted with the truth, however mundane, they are more likely to support or accept that truth. Even if they don’t agree with it, at least they understand it. Sharing the context, or rationale, behind decisions is also an opportunity for organizations to reinforce their purpose and values by highlighting how a decision was informed by, or is in alignment with, their core ethos. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the whole truth should be shared with everyone, all of the time. One must be thoughtful when communicating information; confidentiality must be protected, and timing is important, too. But in sharing context, you:

  • allow others to participate more fully and effectively
  • avoid the tendency for others to insert their own explanations
  • reduce rumor mills that spread false or incomplete information
  • increase the likelihood of a decision/policy/idea/etc. being accepted
  • demonstrate trust and respect

And, in case you were wondering, ‘excellence’ is an outcome, not a value.