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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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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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Five Things That A Playground Can Teach Us About Relationships

This weekend, I took Katie and Leah to one of the many local parks here in Austin. The brilliant thing about our city parks are the really neat playgrounds…and on weekends, there are always a gaggle of kids enjoying the freedom of playing. As I watched, it occurred to me that there is a lot we can learn about relationships – and in many cases relearn – from observing how kids interact with each other.

1. Lack of judgment
Watch kids play and first thing you notice is that there is a lack of personal judgment taking place. When a new boy or girl enters the scene, they don’t fret and wonder how this fellow player is going to add to their social circle. They don’t worry if hanging around with them is going to build or kill their cred as someone cool or hip. They don’t get hung up in a bunch of the social tangles that we create everyday. The only question they have is whether they want to have fun and play.

2. Sometimes you need a buddy
While kids can go off and play by themselves, they know that the teeter-totter doesn’t work very well with just one rider. And the merry-go-round works way better when someone else helps push. Listen for the laughter on a playground and you’ll likely see a group of kids enjoying the heck out of themselves – together

3. Free to begin, free to leave
There’s no planning, no exchange of business cards, no tearful goodbyes (well, only when you have to actually leave the playground). Kids live In the moment. They’re single-mindedly focused on swinging higher, sliding faster, climbing farther. When a friend leaves, another friend may enter.

4. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow
Notice that there’s never one person ordering others to go push them on the swings or spin them on the merry-go-round. There’s just a mutual sense of helping. And if someone’s hogging all the fun, they get left behind pretty quickly. That built-in sense of fairness means that there’s always a fluid agreement of leadership and followership.

5. It’s all about sharing the experience
For kids, it’s the fun of being together and enjoying the companionship and fellowship of others. There’s an acknowledgement that discovery is better when you can share it with someone else.

If all of this is true, what happened? Unfortunately, we went through that crazy mixed up time called adolescence. We were bombarded by all sorts of messages about what’s cool and hip and dorky and childish. Most of us figured out that some pretty good defensive armor was necessary to survive the hallways of middle and high school. Then, as adults we never stopped to check whether these things we learned during these tough times still work. If we did, we’d recognize that they don’t.

No worries. The cool thing is that as adults, we now have the maturity and insight to come back around to the lessons we intuitively knew on the playground. So, next time you find a playground inhabited by some fun-loving kids, sit down and just observe. And think about how you can bring some of these lessons that may be locked inside of you back out into your work and life.

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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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What’s Your Ministry?

I’m doing some reorganizing in my home office and I found a stack of Fast Company magazines. I started looking through them and and discovered that I read only the first half of the May issue. Toward the end of the issue is an article called God and Mammon at Harvard and discusses how the Divinity School is producing some top level business leaders.

What struck me was the story of Tom Chappell, CEO of Tom’s of Maine, and his soulful path:

[Chappell] had come to the divinity school at age 43, after an aggressive growth period in his company that had left him emotionally and spiritually drained. The business was thriving, but he was finding more emptiness than fulfillment in success, he says. Many entrepreneurs would argue that when you reach that point, it’s time to flip the business, buy a sailboat, and travel the world. But Chappell was haunted by a comment from his pastor’s wife: “What makes you think Tom’s of Maine isn’t your ministry?” she asked.

We can read ministry in any number of ways (personally, I don’t think the ministry has to be religious), but I think Chappell was being challenged to reconsider and transform himself and his purpose. I thought about that line a lot today. Some interesting and perplexing issues surfaced at work today that might have caused me to feel discontented and disillusioned with my job role. And yet, I was equally haunted by the notion that my work in my current organization is my own ministry. I believe that my work is to encourage a joy-full attitude, cultivate a positive organizational culture, inspire new leadership qualities in my colleagues, and strengthen the organization so that it can achieve its core mission.

Do you have a ministry?

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Watch Your Language

We all know what language we can and can’t use in civilized society. For instance, most of us know that it’s unacceptable to pepper our department reports with profanities at the staff meeting and to tell an unforgiving or pushy customer to go #$&@! themselves when they get abusive. It’s generally recognized that it’s simply not how things are done in business. Yet, this language is relatively mild compared to other words that we tend to use loosely and without thought on a daily basis.

So while George Carlin has his infamous seven dirty words, Bill Werst at Growth Associates has his ten dirty words that interfere with successful communication, motivation, and personal success:

  1. TRY
  2. CAN’T
  3. IF
  4. FAIR
  5. THEY
  6. WHY
  7. SHOULD (OUGHT)
  8. UNDERSTAND
  9. BUT (HOWEVER)
  10. RIGHT

Not so dirty, but we do tend to use them innocently enough in our daily communication. Bill offers more detailed explanations for each word and its misuse and then some more powerful alternatives.

Anyone who knows me quickly learns that I have a major problem with #9 – But (However). Nothing peeves me more than having someone tell me how interesting, resourceful, fantastic, etc. an idea is only to completely negate everything with a BUT. The problem is that we’re taught to start criticism with a positive before we get into errors or other stuff that really should have been done (which is #7 on the list – see, these words can be compounded for maximum ineffectiveness).

This week, watch your language. Just as you won’t tell an employee that they really f’ed up this time, don’t tell them that they should be a more responsible worker. And help your staff mind their words as well. It could be the difference between okay customer service and WOW-inspiring customer service.

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The Path To Our Goals Can Be Irregular And Uneven

We had a pretty nasty storm here last evening: hail, high wind, blinding rain, thunder, and  plenty of lightning. While my daughters are not big fans of noisy storms, I love them. I’m one of those dopey people who gets close to the window to watch nature’s light show. This morning, I visited Doug Thompson’s Blue Ridge Muse blog (I guarantee that five minutes at Doug’s blog will make you want to visit this area of the United States) and he had a fantastic picture of the storm as it hit the southern part of Virginia.

It got me wondering about a very elementary question: why does lightning travel in a jagged line rather than a direct line to the ground? I had an idea, but wanted to check it out. A google search took me to a webpage produced by WV Lightning. Using a simple experiment that would work great for teaching children, the explanation is that the bolt takes the path of least resistance to its destination.

The lightning knows where it needs to go. It doesn’t struggle through the small stuff in its way. It doesn’t complain about the twists and turns it needs to take as it moves. It understands its environment completely and works with it. The path to the ground may be irregular and uneven and yet it finds a way to its goal.

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