Meg Wheatley on Sane Leadership in an Insane World

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What if you went to work every day knowing that your boss was devoted to helping you and everyone in the organization become more generous, creative, and kind?

That she made sure that the team met quarterly to sit around and think together about problems and opportunities? And that she valued creating a sense of community and contribution in your organization as much as meeting the demanding corporate measures and metrics?

Despite the crazy, destructive world we live in, a work environment that believes in our essential goodness and potential just might make life more bearable. Maybe even joyful on many days.

In an insane world, we need this kind of saner leadership,  explained Margaret “Meg” Wheatley in a webinar hosted yesterday by the Institute of Coaching. Meg is a teacher, co-founder of The Berkana Institute, and author of many books including the most recent “Who Do We Choose to Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity.” 

(Full disclosure: I have been a Meg Wheatley fan for years; she’s brilliant, kind, generous and oh so creative and prescient about emerging trends and their implications on work.)

Rediscovering generosity, creativity, kindness

“We need leaders who have an unshakeable belief that people can be generous, creative and kind, and who will create the conditions to help people rediscover the basic human qualities of generosity, creativity, community and kindness,” she said. “This is leadership sanity.”

Without this belief, organizations default to bureaucracy, which kills the human spirit and causes us to retreat into self-serving behaviors.

To be able to help others rediscover their capabilities, Meg believes that leaders* today need a spiritual practice to take themselves out of themselves and become more aware of a greater reality. This might be a contemplative practice, meditation or absorption in making art, playing music, participating in sports. Anything that takes us into a zone of life on a grander scale than us and our work.

She also suggests leaders reflect on their own experiences where the best of the human spirit was alive and well. What conditions existed that made that possible?

(*And we’re all leaders if we so choose.)

 

Other highlights from Meg’s talk:

 For others: Putting service over self and working on behalf of others is the only true fulfillment. The relevant question today is not “What is my purpose or passion?” but rather “How do I serve others based on what the world needs?” Focus on others, not ourselves.

 Time tragedy: The greatest tragedy at work is that we’ve lost the time to think. We act from reactivity, not intelligence. Restoring thinking at work is a revolutionary act.

 Thinking together: People love having an opportunity to think together.  We feel motivated – and less anxious and fearful -- when we rediscover what thinking and working in community can add to our lives. Leaders need to build in regular time for people to sit around and think together.

 Hope addicts: We are a culture addicted to hope. When you bring in hope, you bring in fear because they come from the same source of energy. Organizations are full of fear and anxiety, which generate self-protective behavior, anger, and conflict.  

 Expectations: Clarity is the other side of hope and fear. There is often serenity and joy when we clearly see the work that needs to be done and step in to do it without any expectations of failure or success.  It’s work worth doing no matter how it turns out.

 Joyfulness: There is a sense of joyfulness when people come together to do work worth doing and have time to think and develop meaningful relationships.

It’s our turn

And I leave you with this from Meg’s book “Turning To One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future”:

“Several years ago, I read of a Buddhist teacher who encouraged people filled with despair over the state of the world. His advice was simple and wise: ‘It’s our turn to help the world.’

“Because a leader is anyone willing to help, we can celebrate the fact that the world is abundantly rich in leaders. Some people ask, ‘Where have all the leaders gone?’  But if we worry that there is a shortage of leaders, we’re just looking in the wrong place, usually at the top of some hierarchy.

“Instead we need to look around us, to look locally. And we need to look at ourselves.”

The commmitments: self-compassion, wild packs, finding the good

 Choose your wild self by @LoisKelly

Choose your wild self by @LoisKelly

“The most insightful conversations about leadership are not coming from leadership conferences,” I tweeted after reading some uninspiring Tweets about the leadership presentations at the Global Drucker Forum in Vienna.

The irony wasn’t lost on me that I had just wrapped up facilitating a leadership retreat for women executives.  Not a conference. No experts. No thought leaders. (Geez, I hate that term; it’s so 1990s. Just like a lot of assumptions about leadership that we Rebels at Work detest.)

Instead, it was a time for these CEOs, CFOs, and COOs to reflect, have honest conversations with one another, quietly consider what they might want to let go of, and frankly and often boisterously wonder what they might want to do very differently.

I suspect that perspectives shifted because these women had the courage to go deep into themselves and not simply assess their “performance” from the safe context of titles, labels, board assumptions and financial measures. (Another aside: performance seems like another outdated work word. How about contributions instead?)

I’ve led this type of retreat many times this year, in many parts of the world, for people in many kinds of professional fields and industries. Every individual comes away with different priorities. But three practices especially resonated this year.

More self-compassion

The first is the need for greater self-compassion.

“I am so, so tough on myself” is a recurring theme. (Especially among women and those who self-identify as Rebels at Work.) Our drive and ambition often become internal demons. These nasty demons hold our brains hostage, blinding our ability to see clearly and sucking away our positive energy.  We become too self-critical and judgmental.

When we practice self-compassion the demons go away – or at least get quieter --  leaving us with more positive energy and a clearer view of our work, according to Professor Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.

Self-compassion is not self-absorption, self-pity or being selfish. It is simply treating ourselves kindly, as we would treat a good friend.  An interesting research finding I like to share with skeptics: self-critics are less likely to achieve their goals.

 Find the good stuff

The second theme is appreciating what IS working well.

In Positive Psychology there is a practice called “hunting the good stuff,” where you write down three things – however small -- that went well in the day, rather than defaulting to what went wrong. This daily practice of noticing positive experiences builds gratitude and optimism.  We begin noticing the good more than all the problems that need to be solved. (Side note: The U.S. Army uses this practice as part of its Army Resilience Training.)

In addition to doing this as a personal practice, I suggest teams do this at the end of the week. Everyone simply shares the three good things about her/his work week in your online community or via email. As the week wraps, you see what you collectively have accomplished, which is always more than you realize.

Run with your wild pack

The third practice most leaders commit to is their wild packs.  (Thanks to branding consultant Jeffrey Davis for introducing this phrase to me.)

While most of us have supportive friends in our lives, it’s harder to find those who challenge our thinking and assumptions, inspire us to take risks, urge us to take creative leaps outside our comfort zones. These are the people who stretch us because they care about us. We don’t necessarily get “atta girls” from them, but we get intellectually and creatively challenged. They stir us up in good ways.

Wharton professor Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, says that disagreeable givers are some of our most valuable colleagues at work.  And, I would suggest, as friends.

"Disagreeable givers are the people who, on the surface, are rough and tough, but ultimately have others' best interests at heart," Grant says. "They are the people who are willing to give you the critical feedback that you don't want to hear--but you need to hear. They play devil's advocate. They challenge the status quo. They ask tough questions.”

The 2019 big commitments: self-compassion, looking for the good every day, and finding more time for people who bring out our wild and wondrous selves.

Wiser, wilder, more joyful

As for me, I’m committing to practices – and people – to help me become wiser, wilder, and more joyful. The more joyful part seems especially rebellious for me because it seems almost too pat or superficial. But then I remember the research that says positivity and joy open up our pre-frontal cortex to better see possibilities.

I’m also committing to helping people break the cycle of old-boy, alpha leadership so that more people can work in togetherness cultures. Where every voice is heard and valued, and where we respect intent and contribution more than titles and status.

Wishing you a season of joy -- and the courage to commit to one practice that will make you a more brave-hearted, compassionate Rebel at Work.

Lois

 

 

Stay in the swamp

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People are fleeing the swamp of synthesis – that terrible, magical, challenging place where we birth new ideas.  It is a swamp filled with discomfort where we look at our research and the hundreds of Post-It notes on the wall and search for patterns and insights that lead us to the “aha” solution.

In IDEO’s project “mood map” this is the synthesis phase. And as depicted in the map, it is where our spirits are the lowest. This is the hard, hard work of design and problem solving.

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And because it is so difficult, many of us rush through it. We want to get out of the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty – and the feeling that we may never get it right.

Is this why we “fail fast”?

When we rush this phase and the initiative turns our mediocre or a bust, we have logical reasons to justify the “fail.” Not enough budget for research. Unrealistic deadlines. Customers aren’t ready for that much innovation.

The most popular and ridiculous excuse is putting on the badge of honor of “failing fast.”

I speak at conferences around the world and this year it seems as though every speaker is urging people to fail fast.  Aside from this meme starting to sound trite, I have a hunch that a lot of the fast failing is because we spend too little time in the swamp of synthesis.

The beloved Buddhist monk, teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh has famously written that “suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.”

Similarly, suffering through the synthesis phase of ideation is necessary to grow our ideas. There can be no innovative ideas without wading through the mud in the synthesis swamp.

How long to slog, when to get out?

But how do you stay in the swamp long enough, despite the discomfort, and how do you know when it’s time to get out?  I have no definitive answers here, only observations from facilitating creative teams and doing my own creative work.

First, it’s important that leaders understand the importance of the synthesis swamp and that they need to allow time for this phase. Most are too impatient.

 A CEO once said her company hired me for “creativity on demand.” At first, I was honored by the compliment, but then I realized why the company’s people were so frustrated and exhausted. Creativity on demand is not sustainable, nor is it sufficient for complex problem solving.

Perhaps we need to educate executives on what to expect. Maybe it’s a 30/40/30 model: 30 percent research, 40 percent in the swamp, and 30 percent testing.

My personal challenge when I’m lost in the swamp is beating myself up. “I’m not creative enough. I take on projects that are impossible. Maybe I’m just getting too old for work this intense.”  You get the gist.

Borrowing advice from Jill Bolte Taylor, author of My Stroke of Insight, I speak to my brain as though it’s a group of children, and tell them, “Stop it. You’re making a racket and not being helpful at all. Whining solves nothing.” A little self-compassion and shutting down the “whining children brain” helps me think clearly.

With that clarity, I ask questions like:

·      Are we trying to solve the right problem?

·      Asking the right questions?

·      Looking at the right research? (Often there’s too much.)

·      Have the right people in the swamp with us? (Groupthink often blinds our ability to fully see.)

Call your wild pack

I also call people in my wild pack, those friends and colleagues who are what Adam Grant calls “the disagreeable givers.”  They interrogate my thinking, challenge my assumptions and ask difficult questions that jolt me out of my critical thinking and creative rut.

Like the synthesis swamp, these wild pack friends make me uncomfortable.  And they are invaluable because the stretch my thinking, point out sloppy work, and dare us to take different approaches.  

Most of us have plenty of colleagues in our support pack -- people with compassion and kindness urging us on – and not enough in our wild pack.

When I was writing my first book I asked a well-known author and brilliant and cantankerous consultant to read the first draft. I was in the swamp and knew something was off. He told me that the first two chapters were so boring and ridiculous that he frankly couldn’t stomach reading any more.

I was crushed. And he had done me such a favor. The book eventually won awards, but it could have been a disaster if I had rushed the manuscript to completion.

Document your time in the swamp

My final observation is to write about your time in the swamp after you’ve once again emerged from wading through the mud, self-doubt and frustration, and developed an excellent new idea.

What helped you stay in it? Who and what helped you get through it? How and when did the “aha” s emerge?  Keep these notes so you can refer to them the next time you’re in that synthesis phase.

And when you’re really stuck, try to extend the deadline, turn everything off, go for long walks, and have your support pack give you a little TLC.

No mud, no lotus.

Trust is a Muscle!!

“How do I know when I can trust a Rebel at Work?”

 We often get asked this question. A manager or team leader hears Lois or I present, agrees with our message that the people who work for him often have solutions for the team’s problems or can identify new opportunities, but double clutches at the point of empowerment. Can I trust her?

In this instance, the manager is using the word trust to mean: Can I rely upon her to execute successfully? Can I be completely confident? Admittedly that is one of the dictionary meanings of the word. But there’s another sense of trust that is more relevant to the manager/rebel relationship. To quote from a short paper prepared about ten years ago for the Canadian Department of Defense by Dr. Barbara Adams:

A trust judgement…is characterized by a specific lack of information, and by the need to take a “leap of faith” from what is known to what is unknown.

(Here’s a link to her short monograph which is well worth your time. Isn’t the internet wonderful?)

Trust, according to Dr. Adams, is only operational in situations with risk. But when managers want to know when they can TRUST rebels at work, what they really want to know is how can they make sure that their empowerment of a rebel is risk-free.

Which is the wrong expectation!! Fundamentally, trust is a judgment call. The leader is making a decision even in the absence of some data—such as previous experience with an individual in a similar circumstance. But the leader can reason that the risk is justified by the potential gain. And that potential gain is not just measured by whether the idea works or not. When a leader trusts an employee with a new initiative, they not only send a signal to that individual but to the rest of the team that it’s not just experience that matters; new ideas have value too.

In fact, it’s kind of circular.

The only way to determine whether you can trust a Rebel at Work is by trusting one. Trust is a muscle. It benefits from being used. The first time you provide space for team members to work on their new ideas you can’t be sure how it will turn out. But by doing so you gain experience that will inform your next trust moment and the expectations of your team.

At some point, particularly if you rarely use your trust muscles, one of your decisions will misfire. (No pain, no gain!) And you will have learned something important about the individuals involved, including yourself. As Dr. Adams notes, “a trust decision typically involves the formation of an impression about another person rather than merely making an estimate with respect to a discrete and specific task.” Trust is an investment in your team and an engagement with them as individuals.

The only way to strengthen it is by using it!

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The Rebel Gardener

 I didn’t come easily to gardening. In fact, until I was about 55 years old (and that was almost 9 years ago) I paid gardening no mind at all. Zilch.

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All I could see in gardening was way too much physical labor, almost all of it during hot Washington D.C. summers. Just a lot of sweat.

But somewhere in my body lurked the gardening gene just waiting to express itself. Geneticists have determined that for some genes, expression is indeed a function of age. And clearly that was the case for my gardening gene. In the spring of 2010, it began to stick out its tendril-covered head. I began modestly with a few tomato plants. But in just a couple of years, I was starting most of my plants as seedlings and slowly reclaiming the ivy-infested parts of my lawn. It’s an ongoing project.

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I wish someone had told me sooner that gardening was a learning activity. Only by paying attention to how the plants behave under different conditions can you improve your gardening success rate. If you get into it, gardening is a deeply analytic activity. 

And, of course or I wouldn’t be writing about it here, gardening offers a series of lessons for Rebels at Work. Being a Rebel at Work calls upon your analytic talents. And the more experience you have as a Rebel, the smarter you will be about advocating for change in organizations. But beyond that…

Failure is an essential component of gardening and of being a Rebel at Work. It’s only been in the past year that, as a gardener, I’ve become comfortable in ripping out plants that didn’t work out where I put them. I used to think such bad outcomes were an indictment of my underdeveloped gardening skills. Now I understand that only through experimentation can I learn what works and what doesn’t. Now Rebels at Work probably can’t afford too many bad ideas, but if you can master the art of tiny pivots—small experiments that can test some aspect of a proposal, you can learn to leverage “failure.” Before gardeners invest real money in a new flower bed, they should first test just a plant here or there to see what works in the soil and light.

The shady spots are never as shady as you think and the sunny spots are never as sunny. This partly explains why failure is an essential component of gardening. Just a few feet of separation can produce significant changes in light. I once planted two rose bushes within three feet of each other on the southeast exposure of my lawn. One prospered but the other faltered because of the dappled sunlight that reached it through overhanging trees. When I moved the laggard to what I had previously thought of as the too-shady side of my lawn, it doubled in size. Rebels can sometimes make facile assumptions about what parts of the organization would be most receptive to change. The team you think is ideal for your prototype because the leader is so friendly may actually harbor bamboo spikes underneath its surface. Go beyond superficial appearances.

Some things just take time. Plants have to settle into their new environments. Weather varies year to year. My transplanted rose bush only gave one weak flower the first year in its new location. But now it’s a reliable producer, if still not as robust as its sun-blessed twin. And so it is with organizational change. Expecting immediate results should be a rookie mistake, and yet we see it everywhere. I often think the most successful change efforts are the ones that people don’t quite realize are happening. Tiny pivots accumulate and without sturm und drang the organization finds itself in a better place. Rebels who want instant ego gratification normally aren’t willing to take the tortoise approach. And so their garden doesn’t grow.

Do the work. I’ve always had a problem with routine tasks. I’m just downright lazy about them. But gardening has knocked some sense into me on this front. Unless I do the work, nothing good happens. Failing to do the work is lethal to gardeners and Rebels. The Rebel who enjoys talking about her vision but doesn’t come up with a viable implementation plan is failing to do the work. If the Rebel isn’t into details, then she needs to ally herself with someone who is. 

Someone has to sweat the details!

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Dream Teams: Diversity Isn't Enough

 One of the most valuable roles of Rebels is shaking up thinking by challenging group think, accepted assumptions and "business as usual."

One of the most valuable roles of Rebels is shaking up thinking by challenging group think, accepted assumptions and "business as usual."

Teams with diverse viewpoints, approaches to problem solving and life experiences outperform groups of the “best and brightest,” as researchers like University of Michigan’s Scott Page have long shown.

BUT diversity isn’t enough. In fact, diversity can contribute to organizational silence, where people hold back from speaking up and offering their ideas.

Consider the studies by David Maxwell that found 90% of nurses unwilling to speak up to physicians even though they knew a patient might be at risk. Or the 93% of people who said they don’t speak up when they know there’s a risk of an accident of work.

How could they not speak up? Being different is uncomfortable and when we’re uncomfortable we tend to hold back. Especially in cultures that allow abrasive behavior and abusive bosses (and physicians). It’s not safe to dissent, so people don’t.

Diversity also increases conflict, which people abhor. Every time Carmen and I speak and ask people about their greatest challenges when introducing new ideas, conflict tops the list.

“If organizations embrace diversity, they risk workplace conflict,” says Dr. Nigel Bassett-Jones of Oxford-Brookes University. “And if they avoid diversity, they risk loss of competitiveness.”

Add to that the research from Harvard, Berkeley and University of Minnesota that found most corporate diversity programs have “no positive effects in the average workplace” because when employees become scared that they might offend someone, they disengage, which contributes to more organizational silence.

The reality is that our brains are hardwired to want to be with people like ourselves – and naturally fear strangers or the unfamiliar. (Google “xenophobia” and “amygdala.”) That’s why so many of us naturally gravitate to groups, neighborhoods, and work teams with people like ourselves – and avoid the different.

So how DO you create Dream Teams?

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So how do you create Dream Teams where different people come together, overcome the tension of their differences, and work in open, direct ways that keep you in the magical “Zone of Possibility?”

That’s what Shane Snow explores in his excellent new book, “Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart.”  Shane is a great storyteller and weaves together fascinating research and stories from music, business, police forces , sports, and the gaming world to provide ways to embrace cognitive friction.

Some of my favorite takeaways:

Cast your teams: “Routine problems don’t require much (or often, any) cognitive diversity, while novel problems benefit from it greatly. Based on that do a casting session for who you need on the team. When  you take this approach we start to think of our differences as gifts.” (HT to Keith Yamashita.)

Bring in more rebels: Having a naysayer in a group shakes up thinking in valuable ways.  “Dissenting views by a minority of individuals stimulate the kinds of thought processes that lead to better decisions, better problem solving and more originality,” per Dr. Charlan Nement of UC Berkeley. The presence of a minority viewpoint helps groups look at issues “on all sides.” In other words, you need people to provoke group think and kick you out of inertia.

Play more: “Neuroscientists have demonstrated that play and laughter can actually change our brains to be less fearful…Playing can physically help the brain to get braver…and make us less afraid of cognitive friction.”

Don’t value your values too much: Shared values make us more likely to think the same, stop searching for better solutions once we have solutions that work, and add to organizational silence. “Seven out of ten American employees in companies with strong values hush up when their opinions are at odds with those of their superiors,” according to research by Warren Bennis at the University of Southern California.

Cultivate intellectual humility “Intellectual humility makes one more correctly judge when it is time to change” and is a predictor for openness to changing important opinions, curiosity, tolerance for ambiguity, ability to detect the validity of persuasive arguments. In other words, a more open-minded culture needs people with intellectual humility.

Activate oxytocin and empathy with stories: “When our brains release oxytocin for a person who is not in our in-group, the bias we have for them disappears. And one of the key ways we can do that is through sharing good stories.” This is why it’s so helpful for teams to share their personal stories, from hardships growing up to who in their life helped them achieve a dream.

Read more novels: “People who read a book or more per month, the data shows, are significantly more likely to have high intellectual humility than those who rarely read.” Stories cultivate empathy.

I highly recommend Shane’s book. And don’t miss the footnotes.

Do You Have a MAC?

Do You Have a MAC?

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No, this isn’t another installment in the PC/MAC wars. What we want to know is whether you, the plucky change agent at work, know your Minimum Acceptable Change, that first step—or perhaps just a half-step—that you believe will put your organization on the path to progress. I was introduced to this idea just a few weeks ago at a leadership seminar for civil servants in the Federal Government.

We put considerable emphasis on the tactics Rebels at Work need to use in meetings to be successful. For example, rebels should be parsimonious in the time they take to lay out their change ideas, and generous in the time they allot to discussion. The primary purpose of the meeting is not for the rebel to hear himself talk but rather for the rebel to listen to what others have to say. And that’s why obsessing over a “perfect” presentation may not be such a good idea; less perfect presentations provide more openings through which others can contribute. The worst aspect of wonky presentations is how closed they are to other people’s suggestions. When confronted with a slide chock full of bullet points, you have a hard time justifying adding one more.

By the way, on the topic of slide decks, have you all caught the clever commercial where a “Bond villain” tortures his prisoner with a slide presentation on his plans for world domination?

 

But I digress.

Another excellent preparatory step you can take before you present your change ideas is to have in mind your Minimum Acceptable Change. The MAC is that action, or series of actions, that you believe moves your group in the direction of improvement, toward goodness. The MAC will be different for each organization. In a sclerotic bureaucracy, the MAC may simply be an agreement to present your idea to the next bureaucratic layer. Because often in bureaucracies, climbing the hierarchy is a type of progress.

Knowing your MAC is useful in a couple of ways. First, it forces you to be realistic in considering what type of change your organization is likely to accept. It is rare indeed for a Rebel at Work to part the waters at her first meeting. But often that’s the only contingency she’s planned for so when the audience is not blinded by her brilliance, she has no alternative to offer. With a MAC in her back pocket, the Rebel at Work has a better chance of directing the discussion toward a viable interim step. A rebel I talked to last year told me that she’s all about Tiny Pivots, one quarter-step after another that eventually add up to change

Also, having a MAC allows you to avoid unsatisfying compromises. Indeed, your Minimum Acceptable Change can be quite different from a compromise. In passive-aggressive organizations, compromise is often a type of off-ramp—a way to get the rebel off the road where he can do less harm. So, for example, the clever bureaucratic black belt in the meeting might suggest that you go talk to the Talent staff about your idea, calculating that it will be months before he’ll hear from you again. But if you’ve thought about your MAC, you might be ready instead to suggest a small change in HR practices that could test your new idea.

The MAC strategy works best when everyone can agree that “We need to do something!” Often, we can all see that the status quo is unsatisfactory, but we can’t agree on how to fix it. A MAC proposal should have several characteristics:

·       The change advocate should believe it would be a useful first step.

·       At least one or two individuals who oppose dramatic change should be willing to support it. (This requires some discussions and prework before the meeting.)

·       It should not require significant changes in regulations or large amounts of new funding.

·       Its potential impact should be apparent early on, and the Rebel at Work should have an idea for how to observe/measure it.

During my CIA career, I pushed for the Agency to embrace digital publication methods and move away from the once-a-day “newspaper” format. But that was not my MAC. My initial starting point was a database that we populated with intelligence articles as soon as they were deemed ready. A small number of individuals had access to the database, but they soon testified to its utility. An unanticipated but essential benefit of the MAC was that it revealed many of the other issues that would need resolving before we could embrace digital media.

So before your next meeting, decide for yourself what the best small step forward looks likes. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up someplace else!

Rebels at Work Revolt at Nike

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The breaking news of women at Nike revolting and forcing change is a case history in how good Rebels at Work succeed.

First some backstory.

When women at Nike brought their concerns to managers who they were supposed to be able to trust, they were ignored. When they went through formal HR processes to report harassment and unethical behavior by male colleagues, HR also ignored them. While many executives were aware of the problems, they "looked the other way."

So the toxic work environment continued and women were repeatedly passed over for promotions by less qualified men, publicly demeaned and called things like "a stupid bitch," sexually harassed, and excluded from being part of an inner circle of male decision makers. 

But a couple of months a go a small group of women banded together and revolted. Six top executives have resigned in the last month, the brand's reputation is tarnished, and the CEO is under pressure. 

Using "good rebel" practices to revolt

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While our "good rebel/bad rebel" chart is not definitive, it has helped us spread the word over the past eight years on how to make change in large organizations even if you don't have positional authority. Here's a look on how Nike women put some of these practices to use.

Attract support, do it together:  The first rule of all effective change is to not go it alone. But rather create your own Rebel Alliance, just as the women at Nike did.  There is power in numbers.

Overcome reluctance: Like most Rebels, these Nike women revolted reluctantly. They loved Nike enough to tackle an ugly, pervasive problem and a group of powerful men. But there was fear about retribution from male executives and hurting their reputations. Few of us gleefully want to rebel. Rather, it's a duty.

FOR vs. just against: According to Amanda Schebiel, a former Nike employee, "No one went to just complain. We went to make it better." Rebels don't just complain. They want to create solutions to problems that are effecting the success of their organizations and team mates.

Get evidence: to get attention, Rebels find data and proof to back up their claims. The Nike women covertly surveyed their peers about whether they had been the victim of discrimination or harassment. Once the CEO received that survey data, several top executives "resigned." Numbers count. Demonstrating the magnitude of an issue with data helps make the issue real in ways that are more difficult for executives to discount.

Change the rules vs. break the rules: The Nike Rebels didn't want to break any rules. They wanted to create new rules, oversight and diversity commitments that would allow everyone to flourish at Nike, not just the cabal. They wanted Nike to live up to its mission and values.

Rebels forcing companies to address problems

We recommend reading the excellent investigative reporting on the Nike revolt by New York Times writers Julie Creswell, Kevin Draper and Rachel Abrams.

It's a story all too familiar to many Rebels at Work.

And it is a story that reminds us of the power of people who love their company enough to band together, get the data, persevere and be heard.

The kind of sweeping overhaul that is occurring at Nike is rare in the corporate world, and illustrates how internal pressure from employees is forcing even huge companies to quickly address workplace problems.
— "Women at Nike Revolt, Forcing Change At Last," The New York Times, April 29, 2018
 
 

 

 

Make dodgeball an Olympic sport (outside of work)

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Many are calling for dodgeball to be made an Olympic sport. In fact, the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) granted observer status to this non-traditional sport last fall.

But to become part of the games there needs to be proof that dodgeball is a widespread sport.

Dodgeball organizations need to include proof that the sport is practiced in more than a certain number of countries on multiple continents by both sexes, and they have to be compliant with the regulations of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
— Global Association of International Sports Federations

No problem! These are so easy to prove for dodgeball, unlike say, pole dancing, which has also been granted observer status.

Dodgeball is the unofficial Olympic sport of workplaces around the world, with tens of millions of people playing every day, sometimes all day. 

From my observation, women and men are equally skilled and excel with only mild stimulants like bad coffee, looming budget cuts, or a bad financial quarter.

The bigger, more bureaucratic and hierarchical the organization, the more likely you are to find people who could easily qualify to be part of a gold medal team. They’ve been training on the job for most of their working lives. They are so outstanding at playing at work that I doubt there will be too many problems with doping. Then again, the Russians might have another view considering their bureaucratic mastery.

Dodgeball rules and the 5D’s

For those of you who didn’t grow up playing dodgeball in PE class or on the street as I did in Boston, it’s a simple game: two teams try to throw balls at each other while avoiding being hit themselves. The objective is to eliminate everyone on the opposing team by hitting them with balls or catching a ball thrown by someone on the other team.

The balls are usually foam or rubber, so you don’t get physically hurt. Lots of running around and a simple strategy: don’t get hit and hit as many on the other team as possible.

It’s like a lot of meetings you’ve been in, right? Or when you’re trying to get more budget for your department. Or meet any performance metric that means someone has to lose for someone else to win.  (One CEO of a $70 billion company calls it “competitive collaboration.” Oy.)

Proficiency in dodgeball is all about mastering the 5D’s: dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge. Again, people at work excel in all five.  Every day you find people at work:

1. Dodging the elephants in the room.

2. Ducking uncomfortable conversations.

3. Dipping under the radar to avoid being asked to change how they work or to replace old systems and processes.

4. Diving for cover when a courageous team mate speaks up to the boss and you would rather seek cover than to be associated with your Rebel friend.

5. Dodging giving – and hearing -- honest and helpful feedback.

A dodgeball disadvantage for Rebels at Work?

While Rebels at Work are proficient in dodgeball – how could you not be if you’re employed and work with people -- Carmen and I find Rebels are better at playing offense, throwing the ball to get their change resistant colleagues and bosses out.

Dodging and ducking, not so much. We call out what no longer works and try not to duck difficult conversations and the general discomfort of change, as difficult as that may be.

While we’re always trying to support and promote Rebels at Work, I’m afraid we and our friends may not make the cut for the dodgeball Olympic qualifying teams.

But I like to fantasize about how much real change we could get done while our stuck-in-the-mud colleagues are off playing at the Olympics.

A straightforward mission

While it may take a while for dodgeball to become an Olympic sport, the 2018 Dodgeball World Cup competition will be held this year in one of the great office and bureaucracy capitals of the world: New York City.

The mission, per The World Dodgeball Association, “We want to achieve something straightforward.”

Don't we all.

 

Nothing Gets Approved Without This

Angered Progress.jpg

There’s a bad habit pervasive at work: not knowing what’s important to your boss and/or other people involved in approving your projects.

You keep sending project updates, adding more data to your PowerPoint presentations, researching additional industry best practices, writing emails warning that you need approvals now so as not to incur greater costs or fall behind deadlines.

And you hear nothing from your boss or client.

You complain to your team mates and become more and more frustrated. It’s like spitting in the wind.


spit in the wind.jpeg

 

I’ve heard this story over and over again in advising project teams and self-identified Rebels at Work.

‘Do you know what’s most important to your boss? Is your project or proposal addressing what’s most important to her,’ I ask.

SILENCE.

And then a quick, "Wait, what?" and recognition of something so obvious people can't believe they have forgotten to do it.

They don’t know what’s most important to their boss. (As an aside: there’s often a disconnect between stated goals and what’s most important.)

This is why so many good ideas and projects get stalled. Bosses focus on what’s most important and ignore ideas that they don’t see as relevant.

Some suggestions:

  1. Ask your boss (or clients or others with whom you need cooperation) what’s most important to them and why.
  2. Show people how your idea supports what’s important.
  3. When seeking feedback, ask how important on a scale of 1-10 the proposed idea is to them. If it’s six or below, realize you're probably not going to make much progress. It’s not a priority. Put your energy somewhere else.
  4. Ask what would move the idea from a six to an eight or nine.
  5. During a meeting when people start talking why an idea won’t work stop the negativity quickly by asking, “How important on a scale of 1-10 is this idea to us?”  If it’s not important, move on to a different topic. If it IS important, reframe the conversation to “this idea will work IF we…” vs. “this won’t work because…”

Lastly, remember that bosses love learning what the organization can STOP doing. When you have a clear understanding of what’s important, earn credibility and trust by recommending what to stop.

It’s disappointing to learn that a great idea or new approach isn’t important. But the sooner you know, the sooner you can focus on what does matter.

ps – For all you bosses out there, be proactive and explain what is most important on a regular basis. You have no idea how much work and wasted energy goes on by bright people on your team.

The Lazy Manager

When I was but a pup, still going to graduate school, a professor came to me and said:

"Carmen I can tell that you're going to be a manager some day." {This came as quite a shock to me!} "And I have only one piece of advice for you?"

"What's that, Dr. Stearman?" {His name was William Stearman and Wikipedia tells me he is still alive. I always considered him a pro's pro in the national security realm.}

"Be lazy!"

Well that wasn't what I was expecting to hear and it took me years, if not decades, to understand what he was getting at. But as my own work style developed, I found that I -- and more importantly others -- had more success when I delegated, perhaps you might even say abdicated, and just let others do what they did well. Not fake delegation when you ask someone to handle a task and then hover around pressing them to get it done at your pace, not theirs. That's not delegating; instead it's a type of manipulation that comes second nature to many. 

Nope, when a manager is effectively delegating and appropriately lazy, she begins to entertain doubts as to whether she's needed at all on a work team. That's the indicator that you're lazy enough.

I reflected back on Dr. Stearman's advice recently upon reading this article about how procrastination is an effective management technique. The author contends that managers who are over-eager to answer employee questions and help them solve problems are getting in the way of their development. The author urges managers to procrastinate more, delay in being helpful. Dr. Stearman would have gotten right to the point: Be Lazy!

This discussion also gives me an opportunity to share a clip from my favorite movie about teams and management, Galaxy Quest. Ah yes, you may only know this movie as a humorous send-up of the Star Trek/Wars genre. But I have long wanted to organize a leadership seminar around the lessons of Galaxy Quest. In the movie, a group of aliens intercepts the transmissions of the Planet Earth television show Galaxy Quest and are so inspired by the brave crew that they successfully replicate the TV show's technology. Mayhem ensues when the aliens, unable to deploy the technology effectively against their evil enemies, "kidnap" the crew--now unemployed actors doing the "trekkie" convention circuit--to come help them fight the war. 

The lessons in the movie for organizations are many. Tim Allen plays the egotistical Captain Kirk character, and his fellow actors hate him. They only begin to succeed when they start operating as a team by respecting each other's contributions. We also learn about the importance of emotional resonance and how "being corny" can be an effective quality for leaders.

The clip below illustrates the value of procrastination/laziness by a manager. Tech Sergeant Chen, played by Tony Shalhoub, has been asked by the aliens to troubleshoot a problem with their reactor. Of course, Chen don't know nothing about beryllium reactors, but, by asking open-ended questions, he prompts the crew to solve the problem themselves. (If you Galaxy Quest devotees aren't familiar with this scene, that's because it didn't make the final cut of the movie. But it should have!)

 

In Defense of Meetings

Many years ago a leadership team I was part of took a personality test that evaluated our styles against four attributes:

  • ·       Motivated by Big Ideas
  • ·       Motivated by Human Relations
  • ·       Motivated by Completing Tasks
  • ·       Motivated by Analytics and Method

In the day-long feedback session, we sat with our fellow style peers—the Big Idea people all sat together, those who loved to get things done were all at one table, and so forth. I was sitting with the human relaters—we really liked people. After a few minutes of conversation, each group reported out what they most liked to do in the office and what they hated.

My people-lover group was stunned when the “Get Er Done” folks reported that the aspect of organization life they hated most was meetings. Us touchy-feely types had all agreed that we actually enjoyed meetings.

I remember that day every time someone disparages having to attend meetings. I most recently heard a young friend of mine do so. His work is technical and scientific and he briefed it recently to a group of colleagues in nonscientific support roles. He described the meeting as a waste of time so I asked him what he believed to be the purpose of providing the briefing to support staff. He thought about it for a second and said

“Well, they’re not going to provide me with any substantive suggestions.”

“Correct.” I said “so the purpose of the meeting is to…”

“Let them know what I do so they understand better the support they can give me.” He finished. With that context, he realized he described the meeting as a waste of time because he misunderstood its real purpose – the meeting was not about him as much as it was about them.

So meetings often get a bad rap because participants are confused about their purpose and/or because several of those attending had different agendas. My friend the scientist was used to sharing with his peers to gather their substantive feedback. But with the support group, it wasn’t about substance; it was more about camaraderie and creating bonds of trust and respect. Once he understood that goal, he realized he could be more lighthearted in his approach, sharing fun stories and even bloopers. (Although us people-people think story-telling is always a good communications strategy.)

Some common sense lessons I’ve learned about having better meetings – perhaps some readers may even grow to like meetings – or at least tolerate them better.

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Be clear about the purpose of the meeting—not the written agenda but what’s really going on. In general, you should have face-to-face meetings when there’s an important human dimension to the issue at hand. And us human-relater types think there almost always are important human dimensions – so that’s a real blind spot we have. But most other personalities in the workforce tend to think things like “the facts speak for themselves” or, much worse, “I already have the answers” and so they devalue the utility of meetings. (And by the way they also overestimate their own brilliance!) And when they do agree to a meeting, they conduct it like a standardized test or a fire drill. (a little more on that later!)

Don’t hold lengthy meetings just to update people or gather specific comments. Of course, updates are necessary but I’m sure you’ve been in work situations where the weekly update meeting is held even when there is nothing to update. It’s better to provide updates, according to business consultant Paul Axtell, as a sidebar to a meeting where some substantive issues are being discussed. And one of the worse types of meetings, I think, are what we called in the Intelligence Community “coordination meetings.” Ten people need to sign off on some type of content so they’re force-marched into a room where they wait their turn for their five minutes of air time. AAARGH! Often the person who came to the meeting with not much to say ends up droning on in some type of perverse payback for being forced to listen to everyone else. There are of course many occasions when a group discussion of a topic is useful—the topic is particularly controversial, for example, so everyone on the team needs to hear all perspectives. But determine that beforehand—ask your collaborators if they think it’s necessary to coordinate as a team before you put it on the schedule.

Recognize the socializing importance of meetings. I know this is the aspect of meetings that drove my more “efficient” colleagues crazy, but the small talk, the banter that occurs at the start or end of meetings is not trivial. It’s when colleagues catch up with each other as humans, when we share some funny story, when we perhaps reveal what’s really on our minds. Humans don’t establish trust by following orders or reporting out the latest numbers – they learn to trust by getting to know each other. That’s what happens during banter and small talk in the work place. One more point – the conversations that occur as meetings end can be quite revealing. We advise Rebels at Work to pay attention to those conversations—that’s when some people may finally mutter what they really think and when introverts who haven’t spoken up during the meeting might be more willing to share their thoughts.

Many of the meeting haters and efficiency experts have over the years recommended the ten-minute and/or standup meeting as a way to stop wasting time. I’ll concede there are scenarios where such fire-drill approaches are called for—in a hectic environment where every minute really is precious. But my suspicion is that they’re used more by managers who haven’t thought through the message they’re sending. When you tell your staff that you only have ten minutes to meet with them, you’re also telling them that you don’t have time for their ideas. It better be a life or death matter for a team member to bring up an issue, and it better be something that can be resolved in a minute or two. What complex, important issue can be resolved in 120 seconds? Not many I know of. We put standup meetings in the same category as “open-door policies” and “no problems without solutions”—management best practices that aren’t!

 

Grief and Growth at Work

 Appalachian trail: photo by ian Matta

Appalachian trail: photo by ian Matta

All change involves loss and some degree of grief, but we rarely help people – or ourselves -- process loss at work. Never mind learn ways to recover and become stronger. 

Losing a job. Losing work mates from downsizing. Losing the respect of executives because we challenged their beliefs -- beliefs that we know will soon cause problems. Losing the confidence in our employer because they sacrificed beloved organizational values to gain another two percent growth.

We deny our sadness and say things like, “It’s just a job, not brain cancer.”

We suffer. Beat ourselves up.  Become bitter. Curse our bosses and the rigid, hierarchical bureaucracies posing as progressive organizations. We get riled up and think, “Somebody should sue the bastards, for God’s sake.” 

Or we can choose to find meaning and learn from what happened, which not only eases suffering, but can potentially transform our careers.

Post traumatic growth

Admiral Jim Stockdale was repeatedly tortured for eight years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. He didn't have much reason to believe he’d ever make it home. He said he survived by framing the experience as something that would define the rest of his life. 

Rather than denying reality or taking on a victim mindset, Admiral Stockdale lived each day in prison trying to help the morale of his fellow prisoners. The overly-optimistic POWs without this mindset, however, didn’t fare so well.

Stockdale came out of the war experiencing post-traumatic growth, which is a positive psychological change resulting from adversity. (As opposed to the more commonly known syndrome of post-traumatic stress disorder.)

People who experience post-traumatic growth find a new appreciation for life, new perspectives on work paths, and a renewed sense of meaning.

In fact, some psychological research shows that finding benefits from a trauma can lead to personal transformation, according to University of California/Riverside professor Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness.

“Focusing on the lessons you can learn from the ordeal will help soften its blow,” says Lyubomirsky. “The lessons those realities impart could be patience, perseverance, loyalty or courage. Or perhaps you’re learning open-mindedness, forgiveness, generosity or self-control. Research shows that with post-traumatic growth you not only can you survive and recover, you can flourish.”

Social support, meaning and self-compassion

Three proven practices to experience post traumatic growth are social support, finding meaning, and self-compassion.

Carmen and I have always said that having a trusted tribe of friends is essential for all who identify as Rebels at Work. While your Rebel Alliance can help make your ideas better and move them through the bureaucracy, these friends can also help you recover from setbacks.

“Social support is pretty incredible, a strategy of almost magical proportions,” says Dr. Lyubomirsky.  “Talking to others about a traumatic experience helps you cope and see the event with a new perspective.”

A second strategy for coping is to find meaning and new perspectives by writing about the experience. 

Expressive writing forces us to organize our jumble of thoughts and feelings and construct a new narrative.  Dr. James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, who has been studying the benefits of writing for 30 years, found that it is a far more powerful tool for healing than anyone had imagined.

Writing for just 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days can produce lasting results in health, happiness and outlook. His recommended approach and writing prompts can be found here.

The trick, he says, is to not keep writing about the negative incident in the same way.

“If you catch yourself telling the same story over and over to get past your distress, rethink your strategy. Try writing or talking about your trauma in a completely different way,” Dr. Pennebaker advises in The Secret Life of Pronouns.  “How would a more detached narrator describe what happened? What other ways of explaining the event might exist? “

The third strategy is self-compassion, accepting that you’re human, acknowledging failures and frustrations and not dwelling on mistakes.

“Rather than relentlessly condemning ourselves when we fall, even if our fall is a spectacular one, we do have another option,” says Dr. Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.

 “We can recognize that everyone has times when they blow it, and treat ourselves kindly. Maybe we weren't able to put our best foot forward, but we tried, and falling flat on one’s face is an inevitable part of life. An honorable part, in fact.”

If we’re really pushing the envelope to do great work, we will fall.

Friends, self-compassion and finding meaning from what happened can help us rise up and push even further.

Even more faith

evenmorefaithby Jeanie Tomanek.jpg

Thanks to artist Jeanie Tomanek for letting us share her painting, "Even More Faith."  We think it captures the Winter Solstice and the soul of tenacious, optimistic Rebels at Work.

Carmen has often said that "Optimism is the greatest act of rebellion."

Optimism is a decision.

To look at setbacks as particular to a single problem, temporary circumstances or person.


To consider what needs to be learned or done differently to solve a problem or advance an idea.


To act versus sit on the wishful sidelines.


To keep going.


To support and help kindred spirits.


To remember when you have been successful to know that you will be successful again.

Pessimists blame, eschew responsibility, and give up. Research shows that they also do worse at their jobs and are eight times more likely to get depressed when things go wrong.

All emotions are contagious.

But positive emotions -- faith,  optimism, appreciation and joy -- attract support and inject a spirit of being able to achieve more and go farther than seems possible.

Here's to choosing more optimism and more faith in possibilities in 2018.

They are the emotions that carry new ideas forward.