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Five Observations For Surviving The Modern Workplace

Rambo and survivalThis post might serve as some indication as to the type of week I’ve had. One where the veil has been pulled aside to further clarify some observations that I’ve noticed in my long and winding career journey.

1. Our organization is not our family.
This very notion that my organization is a family has always made me cringe. Unless we’re related by blood or marriage or some other legal compact, there’s not one shred of truth to this. Further, it feels cultish, like I’ve joined up with the Sunshine Carpet Cleaners.

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, goes so far as to say that its one of the worst lies a company can tell its employees. It’s misguided at best and deceptive at its worst.

In a Harvard Business Review article, he elaborated:

In a real family, parents can’t fire their children. Try to imagine disowning your child for poor performance: ‘We’re sorry Susie, but your mom and I have decided you’re just not a good fit. Your table-setting effort has been deteriorating for the past 6 months, and your obsession with ponies just isn’t adding any value. We’re going to have to let you go. But don’t take it the wrong way; it’s just family.’

2. Our organization is not responsible for our happiness.
On the face of it, this feels stupidly obvious. But how many times have we felt pissed off, frustrated, and ultimately unhappy only then to blame our organization for it. Take a moment and reflect on your recent experience. Go ahead…I’ll wait. Hey, I did it just this week. It’s all too easy to feel we’re owed happiness at work by the very organization that feels it’s owed our loyalty in return for a signed paycheck.

However, who gets to determine our happiness? We do, of course.

3. Our boss is not our friend. And conversely, our employee is not our friend.
This isn’t to suggest that the boss-employee dynamic shouldn’t be friendly. But do not mistake that dynamic for a true friendship. The boss still holds the upper hand in the power structure. Don’t believe me? The next time you have the chance to do what you want versus what your boss wants, go your own way. Where your friend may be irritated, your boss is likely going to see it as a direct challenge to their authority. Do it too many times and you’re going to find yourself taken behind the woodshed for a professional whipping.

And god forbid that you work for a friend or hire a friend. The times when this works out for everyone is vastly outnumbered by the times when it ends in tragedy.

4. Our job does not define our identity.
I am an entrepreneur. I am a dentist. I am a diner waitress. I am an assistant to the traveling secretary of the New York Yankees. Or for me, I am a digital nonprofit fundraiser.

Yes, these can all be true statements…and untrue if we believe our job is our sole defining role. The times when I’ve identified myself as primarily a marketer, an entrepreneur, or a fundraiser are the times when I have been a shitty husband, father, and friend. These are also the times when I forget that I am a writer, a hiker, an amateur naturalist, a Steelers fan, and several other things that I enjoy in my life.

5. Our work is not our life.
There’s a thin line between being invested in our work (which is good) and being over-invested (which can lead to the type of obsessive behavior that robs us of strong relationships and our well-being). Over-investing in work can also lead to a type of vicious anxiety where the work isn’t just part of our life…it can feel like it’s life or death.

One mistake can cancel out several superb accomplishments. Then, fear of committing another mistake can prompt job insecurity and a paralyzing fear that just one more mistake can lead to a pink slip. And then we’re marked by the stigma of the Scarlet Letter F – for Fired AKA Failure-at-Life.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. But wait.

If you’re still with me so far, hang on. I’m about to take this whole line of thinking for a U-turn because maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe this is my cynical persona taking me for a ride.

Instead, if I listen to the quiet voice of inner wisdom that whispers in the space where my ego screams, it reminds me that all is One and Life is interconnected. And our Work is a testament to our love not just for our self but a gift to this fractured world.

As someone who has experienced career success as well as career hell, here’s where I openly admit that I struggle with two concepts: realism and idealism. The real provides a protective fence for my ego. By avowing that my organization is not my family, it allows me to keep the group at arm’s length so I can’t be hurt. By acknowledging that my employee is not my friend, I can more easily make the decision to cut him loose with a parting comment that it’s “just business.” Maybe this protective fence is what keeps me from fully living life, fully sharing my talents with others, fully being human (and therefore vulnerable) with each person I encounter in my daily journey.

Perhaps these five “cynical” concepts I’ve described above have the opportunity to be turned around and transformed into something more spiritually rewarding, and therefore more radical in society and our modern workplace. What if organizations can be more human spaces where respect wins over condescension, courage over fear, service over power, and vulnerability over arrogance?

I wonder what our organizations would look like?

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The War On Play

Why is there a war being fought against play?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself for a while.

I hear it when I talk to friends about the near-constant stresses of their work. The fear of taking time off only to see the mountain of work upon their return. The endless cycle of meetings where conversation tends to focus on the tactical, on the execution, on the pressure to get shit done NOW. If I would ask, “But did you get to actually play today?” they would look at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. And for good reason…we’ve pretty much separated the ideas of work and play in our current economy.

I truly believe we can and must reconnect work and play if our organizations are going to succeed.

Yes, it’s an uphill battle and the latest employee engagement statistics don’t offer much reason for optimism. And we’re not exactly helping our kids see the connection, either. I witness this every day when my children bring piles of homework from school. Just this past weekend, my daughter probably had four or five hours of personal time. The other remaining hours were devoted to projects, studying, and various other work. She, and so many other children, are suffering a deficit of play.

It’s almost as if our educational system is saying, “Get used to it kids. We’re preparing you for the real world where work is first. Life is just that thing that fills in the odd spaces.”

Why do we believe this is okay? Why have we decided that we need far less time to play, create, and wonder? Why do we regard learning as this intensely serious undertaking instead of the playful possibility it can be? Is this a reason we see so many more instances of depression and anxiety among adults and teens today?

Maybe it’s because as much as we like to believe we value creativity, we really don’t know how to handle it…in our businesses and in our schools.

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Commit Random Acts Of Heresy

Back in ye olden times, any person who actively preached and acted against accepted dogma was branded a heretic. Unfortunately for these courageous characters it often meant a date with a stake and torches. The penalties for committing acts of heresy were enough to keep most folks in line. They figured out pretty quickly that it was far more preferable to do what everyone else was doing and conform to the norms of the community.

Funny how things don’t really change. In our businesses, we still adhere to the teachings of the cult of best practices. We easily swallow conventional wisdom. We seek out comparison points in order to know if our own mediocrity matches up to that of others. In short, we’re scared shitless to take the risk of going against dogma.

Except now, dogma has taken on a much wider definition.

The dogma of success. The dogma of perfection. The dogma of looking like we’ve always got our shit together. The dogma of needing that new Lexus. The dogma of being an easygoing, likable, agreeable employee. We all have some sort of dogma getting in our way. Well, that needs to end. Now.

It’s time for a lot more heretical thinking and doing.

What does being a heretic mean?
It means giving up best practices.
It means asking “Why?”…a lot.
It means going out on a limb and staying there.
It means having the guts to creatively destroy anything that’s old and busted.

What’s in it for us? Why not just stay easygoing, likable, and agreeable? Why not just keep playing it safe? Because safe is an illusion. Worse, safe is a trap that keeps us from fully igniting the fire of our imaginations and chasing new ideas that can truly change the world. Don’t know about you but I’m sick to death of playing it all so damn safe. I’m ready to commit random acts of heresy.

So…what dogma are you willing to give the finger to today?

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Don’t Blame The Office – Let’s Recreate Our Workplace

To open his opinion piece on CNN called Why the office is the worst place to work, Jason Fried writes,

Companies spend billions on rent, offices, and office equipment so their employees will have a great place to work. However, when you ask people where they go when they really need to get something done, you’ll rarely hear them say it’s the office.

Further, he writes,

I don’t blame people for not wanting to be at the office. I blame the office. The modern office has become an interruption factory. You can’t get work done at work anymore.

Sorry Jason but you completely wimped out in this article. “The office” is an inanimate object and an easy target for scorn. Why not call out your peers in the executive suite for their apparent lack of interest and commitment in making the workplace better? Why not at least start to address the real reasons for why many offices don’t work right now? Maybe that’s not fair to ask considering that CNN probably asked for a typical fluff piece.

The “office” is just a container for all the human interactions and emotions that take place within it. If the office is seen as nothing more than a place for constant interruptions, for unproductive meetings, and for pointless interactions, is that really the fault of a place…or the fault of those individuals who inhabit it?

Here’s another thought: instead of just dumping on the workplace experience, let’s be more adventurous in how we try to fix it.

1. Let’s stop with the idiotic band-aids. Electing to skip a meeting, spend a day not talking to anyone, and collaborating solely through IM isn’t going to solve anything – short- or long-term. Actually, it just makes a mockery of the real issues that keep business from functioning full throttle.

2. Let’s realize what the workplace actually is. From the C-Level down, there must be a renewal in how we think about the value of employee interactions in business. What we’ve come to know as the “workplace” is an organic community, not a machine that can be engineered, where employees are just simple cogs. But that’s what most execs and managers have been trained to believe through decades of traditional organizational thought.

3. Let’s start dealing with the real problem. Improving the workplace isn’t merely a matter of action, it involves a change in thinking. But if we ignore the problems of poor communications, ineffectual relationships, and meaningless work, they’ll continue to persist. So what do we want to see more of in our workplaces? It’s time to stop putting on the band-aids, folks. Are you with me?

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Faith And The Bankrupt Leader

As a leader, do you expect faith from those who follow you? Do you reward that faith by continuously fulfilling the promise of things you say you’ll do? Or do you constantly expect your people to believe in you without doing the hard work of following through on commitments? Think hard about this because it’s your integrity and effectiveness that’s on the line.

It always amazes me when I see individuals in positions of leadership assume that their position affords them a never-ending surplus of good will and trust from their people. They get caught in the trap of thinking that their position bestows on them an ordained authority. It’s the same authority that drives the mentality of “I’m the boss, now respect me and do as you’re told.” In this form, the rights of leadership are not earned but always taken. All of which is really just another form of arrogance that creeps into the workplace.

I’ve always liked Covey’s metaphor of the bank account. New leaders coming into a team, department, division, and company are given a starting balance. It’s then up to the leader to manage their bank account of trust, faith, and follower commitment effectively. Yet, too many leaders quickly put themselves into the negative side of the balance sheet (for which – if we were truly talking about their ability to manage P&L in such a way – they’d be tossed into the street).

If you’re unsure of where you stand with the folks you lead, carefully observe the looks on their faces. Do they appear ready to follow or do they doubt you? Listen carefully to your own words. Do you find you have to say “Trust me” or “Be open-minded” when talking about initiatives? If you find commitment from others around you waning or already at the bottom, don’t be arrogant and believe that the problem is “out there” with them. Take a good long look inside and see that you’re a bankrupt leader. Remember, when you lead with no followers, you’re merely walking somewhere alone.

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The Monodimension Of Absolutes

Here are a few phrases that I’ve heard thrown about lately:
Billy is an absolute ass…he’s always out for himself.
Stan never does his job right…I’m always having to pick up the slack for him.
I can’t stand Beth…every time I need something she’s too busy to help.

Note some of the common language used here – always, every, never. These are the kind of absolutes that get in the way of an open perspective and honest dialogue. They position our own thinking about people toward an extreme edge that most folks rarely occupy. Do we really believe that those around us are so one dimensional, so monochromatic? It certainly makes it easier to pin labels on them and make snap judgments.

Since people rarely exist at these extreme fringes, we need to stop trying to force them there. Whenever we think of a person in a very limited way – he’s just this way or she’s just that way – it’s time to think in a more extra-dimensional way. We can’t let laziness or a perceived lack of time get in the way of how we perceive other folks. If we commit to building a more well-rounded, and therefore more human, story about individuals around us we’ll immediately see that they have a rich personality that isn’t so easily pegged by one limiting label.

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Giving A Bad Relationship A Fresh Start

Thom Singer wrote a thoughtful post on how to revive a relationship that’s gone sour. He writes:

Sometimes it is easy when you have a large circle of friends and professional contacts to place the blame on the other person. Obviously the issue cannot be you, as there are many examples of folks who adore you….so the problem must rest with the other person. I disagree, as to have a positive relationship takes the effort of both people. Besides, taking responsibility to fix a bad connection is not the same as admitting guilt. Instead it shows you really care about your networking and are willing to give folks a second chance.

What I really like is the part where he says, “…taking responsibility to fix a bad connection is not the same as admitting guilt.” I think this is where we get hung up so many times. We hold on to the notion that in order to salvage a relationship, we always need to have an intense dialogue where we confess our past sins and then hope the other party does the same. In some cases, this course of action is unavoidable but I’d argue that its only for the most exceptional cases where feelings have been deeply hurt. For most of our relationships – particularly professional relationships – asking for a clean slate offers some strong advantages. Here’s how Thom cleans the slate:

I take a moment to let them know where I was disappointed in the past, but also own the fact that I cannot really know their situation, and that I do not need an explanation or apology, but instead I would just like to start over.

The greatest advantage of this path is that we’re way more likely to engage in this type of dialogue than we are if we choose to go into full confessional mode whenever a conflict arises in a relationship. Not only is the latter time consuming, it’s painful…and most of us want to avoid painful interpersonal encounters.

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Build A Learning Culture With Learning Circles

Most organizations are chronically deficient at learning and it’s easy to see why. Learning takes time, patience, and healthy dose of curiosity – all qualities that are in short supply at probably 95% of all companies and non-profit institutions. When there is learning, it’s cloaked with best intentions in workshops and other professional development events. Don’t get me wrong…these ought to be a part of one’s plan to build a learning organization, but they are simply not enough. Without building the capacity to learn into an organization’s DNA, these events will barely penetrate the surface of how your people approach their work. What to do if you’re a manager or charged with leading your organization’s learning operations?

One action is to start a learning circle. Google learning circle and you’ll get a slew of resources. However, drill down a little further and you’ll find there are relatively few that address learning circles within an organization…particularly a for-profit company. Don’t let that stop you, though. If you recognize the importance of developing a learning culture in your workplace, here’s a framework to experiment with:

Rules? We Don’t Need No Stinking Rules!
Well, that’s only partly true. There should be no hard rules to the circle. It should be free to evolve as the needs of the group evolve. However, don’t take the “no rules” mantra as an invitation to anarchy. A successful circle needs a basic structure that provides a purpose for the group to exist.

Pack a Problem and a Yippee!
Each person in the circle must be prepared to bring two items to each meeting. The first is a problem. Even better than a problem is a mistake, but this takes some comfort with the group so don’t expect this at the outset. The second item is a Yippee!, which is an example of something that went well. It’s important that learning be a balanced process where both good and bad are reviewed and then celebrated.

Play 20 Questions.
Most people will want to instantly solve problems often without bothering to dig deeper into the actual issues behind the problems. Don’t let the natural tendency to problem-solve get in the way of the actual learning. Instead, put a question threshold into place. Insist that no less than 20 questions get asked before a statement can be made. This will spark curiosity and instill an investigative mindset that – done consistently – will begin to form a habit.

Spread the Learning Love.
Encourage the group to constantly share their learning outside the circle. Give them the tools and resources to create a wiki and a blog. By further emphasizing the importance of knowledge sharing to the whole organization, the circle will be more likely to build the discipline for recording what it knows (which can be so easily forgotten) and disseminating it to a broader audience of colleagues.

Cloning for Success.
While there may be a temptation to immediately initiate several circles throughout your organization, I’d encourage you to start small. Start with one group of four to five individuals and allow it to evolve for a few months. Then when the time is right, charge each pilot group member with starting another learning group with new individuals. This replicating strategy ensures that subsequent groups have a firm understanding of the circle’s purpose and get a jumpstart on the process.

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Creating Great Ands – Your Opposable Mind At Work

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Chocolate and Peanut Butter

Moe, Larry and Curly

And so on, and so on…

Each of these are fine on their own. However, when one is added to another, a great alchemical melding occurs. It’s the integration of unique things into something quite different.

Too many times we limit ourselves and our choices by placing an ‘or’ between our options. Why not choose an ‘and’ instead? Because it’s just not that easy to do, particularly in the world of management and business. We like our options to be neat, our decisions to be orderly, our outcomes to be quick and well-defined. Yet this more logical and rational preference costs us more than we realize. It cheats us of our potential. Do you think Moe would be half as hilarious if Curly wasn’t there? And while chocolate is very good, the addition of peanut butter takes it to a whole other level (okay, that may just be for me).

I used to be an ‘or’ kind of guy. If someone gave me a choice between chocolate or vanilla ice cream, I’d make a rational choice between the two options. Then my dear wife entered my life and introduced the power of ‘and.’ When presented the same choices, she’d always reply, “Both.” The first few times she did it, I would say, “Wait, you have to make a decision.” Her response? “Why should I? I like both and they taste better together.” Guess what? She’s right. And by choosing an integrative solution she’s modeling a process that is essential in today’s business world.

One of the most influential articles I’ve read in Harvard Business Review was titled How Successful Leaders Think by Roger Martin. The article is a prelude to his book, Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking. His primary argument is built around the idea of an opposable mind. Like the genetic advantages we gain through our opposable thumbs (like holding a pencil, lifting large stone blocks, and catching a ride with strangers), we have an immense capacity to create new options through an opposable mind. Yet, we often veer toward the shallow compromises of an ‘or’ decision because of the mirage of comfort it yields. Martin writes:

We often don’t know what to do with fundamentally opposing and seemingly incommensurable models. Our first impulse is usually to determine which of the two models is “right” and, by the process of elimination, which is “wrong.” We may even take sides and try to prove that our chosen model is better than the other one. But in rejecting one model out of hand, we miss out on all the value that we could have realized by considering the opposing two at the same time and finding in the tension clues to a superior model. By forcing a choice between the two, we disengage the opposable mind before it can seek a creative resolution.

The next time you’re presented with two or more options, don’t be too quick in choosing one over all the others. Take a bit more time to play with the healthy tension between the ideas and follow the steps that Martin offers:

  1. Start by acknowledging that everything is relevant at the beginning. Rather than quickly dismissing what seems trivial or unnecessary, welcome the complexity of the situation. It’s from this place that the best answers will emerge.
  2. Consider how things are connected. Instead of choosing a path and immediately racing in one direction, take a step back and look at the whole situation. Find relationships, question assumptions, get curious about other possibilities.
  3. Take a systemic approach to making a decision. Martin suggests that we see “the entire architecture of the problem – how the various parts of it fit together, how one decision will affect another…The order in which you make these decisions will affect the outcome.”
  4. Achieve resolution by refusing the simple and segmented “either/or” model which only leads to compromised trade-offs and conventional options. Appreciate the natural tensions between conflicting ideas and seek a solution that creatively assembles the best of each option.

Yes, this might appear to be more difficult and more time-consuming. But if you truly want to differentiate yourself, your team, or your organization, then do something that few others are willing to do. When a problem arises today, get curious and wonder, “Wow! what would it be like if we put these different things together?” Don’t be surprised if it leads to some interesting solutions.

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If Leadership Was A Punctuation Mark, What Would It Be?

Ever work for someone who thought leadership was defined by an exclamation point? Ever get confused by your own leadership style and whether you should get folks to follow you through a series of statements ending with periods? Is there a reason I’m beginning this post using only question marks? Hmmm?

We can get caught up in the notion that a leader has to be commanding…commanding in a sense where you’re slinging around words, phrases, and sentences ending with an exclamation point (my daughter likes to call them “shoutty marks”). It might sound something like this:

“Bailey! Come here! And explain to me why Johnson is pissed off!!!”

Or perhaps, more often, we simply issue those commands with a bit more subtlety. Something like:

“Chris. Please come to my office and tell me what’s going on with Johnson.”

Another option? Yep. How about using that wonderful creation, the question mark?

“Chris? What happened to make Johnson so angry? And what’s your plan for making this right?

The first option isn’t going to win you any leader-of-the-year awards while the second might get you an honorable mention. The third one, though, leads to the gold medal round. The key is to get curious, which isn’t always easy or even the first thing we think of doing when something important is on the line.

Ask: is there something to learn here? And not just for you, but the folks you lead. By asking questions, you’re helping them learn from their own experiences. What may seem like an initial failure can turn into new opportunities. Use open questions (those that don’t lead directly to a “yes” or “no” answer).

Finally, all of this isn’t to say there are not times when every leader must emphasize their words with an exclamation point or nudge folks with a period. It’s just important to remember that questions are an essential part of a leader’s repertoire.

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