Book Review-Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life

Sometimes the people I speak with look at me funny. They tilt their head just a bit and wonder how I’m looking at problems. I know that I see things differently, but it’s normal to me. Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life seeks to help everyone see things a bit differently. Instead of blaming people for the problems we encounter, the goal is to expose that many of the problems we see are natural outcomes of the systems we create.

Thinking in Systems

One of the reasons I see things differently than others is because I see things in systems. It’s stocks and flows. It’s things that happen as a natural result of other places in the system. It’s also seeing bottlenecks and areas where the system itself can’t adapt. It’s less about the answer today, and it’s more about the process that led to the answer, so I can see if the answer will be the same tomorrow.

When you learn to think in (or see) systems, you learn to wonder what’s next. You begin to look for the situations where the results you’re seeing no longer apply. While it’s doubtful you’ll ever be able to predict every outcome because the systems are too complex, you can often begin to see what might come next – and ways that you can break the chain and cause the system to stop behaving in a bad way. (See Thinking in Systems for much more about systems thinking.)

Good or Bad

We tend to think about both people and systems as being good or bad. However, it’s more about whether the system is a good fit for the need or not. A battleship is a great solution to a sea-to-sea conflict but poor at a sea-to-land attack. Battleships are big ships, and they can’t get close enough to the shore to attack targets that are inland. Aircraft carriers and the planes they support are good for sea-to-land attacks (through the intermediary step of air-to-land) but are vulnerable due to their size and inability to protect themselves from attack at sea. It’s not that one is better than the other, it’s that one is more suited to the task than another.

We need to step away from the idea that something is good or bad and instead look for fit and interactions. Systems – including organizations – can be good for society, good for customers, and good for employees – or good at only some of these.

As a quick aside, Nassim Taleb argues in The Black Swan and Antifragile that we optimize redundancy out of systems so we can enhance our gains but leave ourselves susceptible to naturally occurring forces that can take the system out of balance. It’s important to realize that short-term productivity of a system isn’t the only measure we should be watching. Resilience and the ability to cope with stress is important too. (See Collaborative Intelligence for more on different kinds of measures of productivity.)

The Blame Game

It’s natural. We have a natural bias – called the fundamental attribution error – to see negative outcomes as the result of people rather than as a natural result of the system they’re in. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on fundamental attribution error.) Kurt Lewin said that all behavior is a function of both person and environment. When we’re speaking of our own poor behaviors, we attribute them to the environment. When we’re speaking of others’, we tend to attribute them to their character. While this is natural, that doesn’t make it desirable.

When we’re trapped in corporate systems, we tend to blame others for our chronic frustrations. Instead of looking at the system and seeing the situation as a natural outcome, we perceive that someone must be doing something wrong. Consider walking into an emergency room and finding out that the wait to see a doctor is four hours. You might, quite naturally, be frustrated because of the wait – particularly when you’re feeling bad enough that you’ve decided to go to the emergency room. The problem is that this is – occasionally – the natural result of the system that seeks to optimize the utilization of resources, including doctors and nurses.

In an unconstrained system, there would be a doctor available immediately for every need. However, this is entirely impractical. In an ideal situation, there would be room for everyone to stay in a city for the big game. But to build such capacity would require that it’s unused most of the time, and that would not be financially viable. The point is that every system has a set of constraints that allow it to continue to operate – even if those constraints are occasionally personally painful.

We blame the power-hungry CEOs who don’t allow enough capacity while simultaneously investing in healthcare stocks and demanding an above average return. The truth is that the CEO may be power-hungry, but it doesn’t mean there wouldn’t still be a four-hour wait if they weren’t. We can, if we choose, attribute the negative circumstances in a system to a person, but often there’s no person who should receive the blame.

The Blind Reflex

Giving in to our natural biases and failing to recognize that the system we’re operating in leads us to bad results is our blind reflex. It’s the default settings for us as humans. When we’re faced with a situation that has us feeling misunderstood and with a lack of control, we’ll feel as if the management is out to get us. The view from the CEO’s desk is one of failures and non-compliance rather than an understanding of the complexity of the system and the inevitability of details and challenges.

To be able to change the system, to make the outcomes better, we need to be able to see the systems we’re operating in and how those systems don’t always work the way we want them to work. In short, we need to find a way to stand outside of the system long enough to see what’s happening inside the system.

Standing Outside the System

It sure would be easier to see the forest if there weren’t so many trees in the way. When you stand too close to a problem, you simply can’t become detached or take a step back far enough to see the bigger picture. That’s the fundamental problem with most organizations. We can’t get enough distance or safety to really evaluate it. (See The Fearless Organization for more about the role of safety in organizations.)

In the workshops that Barry Oshry and those certified through his company Power and Systems runs, this distance is explicitly created for everyone through “time out of time” portions of the program (called “toots”). This when everyone is encouraged to share their experience of the workshop, particularly their role in the fictious organization they’re a part of. This is purposeful reflection that is designed to give the members of the system the space they need to see what’s happening.

In fact, the workshop itself is designed to be a microcosm of what happens in a real organization, and therefore make the patterns more observable, just like we would run a small-scale experiment to confirm something we think we’re seeing in the world at large. When the workshops are run at full scale, there are ethnographers. They’re people whose role it is to document what happens and the background behind each decision. While ethnography is most commonly associated with anthropology and the understanding of different societies, it’s strangely appropriate to the micro-society that’s created in the small organization. (See The Ethnographic Interview for more about the ethnographic process.)

The ethnography serves to provide the context and history across the organization. Ethnographers are silent while the system is running but provide a method of storytelling during the after-action review that helps to understand why and how the system became so dysfunctional. (All systems become dysfunctional.)

Predictable Outcomes

It’s entirely predictable. The C-suite is going to feel burdened and overwhelmed. The middle managers (including VPs, directors, managers, and supervisors) are going to feel torn. They feel powerless to influence the C-suite or protect their workers. The workers are going to feel oppressed. Why? Because that’s the pressure the system puts on them.

The workers can not see the reason behind the rules. They don’t understand what value others are adding – particularly when they are doing all the work. (See The E Myth: Revisited if you’d like to see the natural outcome for bottom level workers who aren’t risk adverse.)

Managers feel like the C-suite doesn’t understand the work being done or the needs of the workers, nor do they feel the workers understand their plight. The C-suite wonders why people just can’t do what they ask. If everyone would just do what the C-suite says, then everything would be good. Instead, they feel like they’re spending all their time dealing with the problems when workers or managers aren’t doing their job.

The Amazing Unpredictable

Of course, the best possible answer is to move past these predictable responses to more enlightened responses, which accept individualization and integration (see How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more about acceptance). Instead of seeing one extreme or the other as the only approach, the enlightened view is to see that it’s a continuum, and both extremes are needed at different times and in different amounts. It’s a perspective of wholeness that acknowledges all is needed – not just some.

Amazing things happen when people accept responsibility for their role in a system and either amplify or dampen the natural effects. The system reaches dynamic stability or harmony more easily when the culture encourages personal responsibility. It’s easier for humans to forgive when the other humans in the system apologize. When, instead, people dig into their position of righteousness, the system destabilizes and creates pain more quickly.

To get to the amazing, unpredictable result, we must be able to step beyond the invisible walls that confine us to our preconceived roles and behaviors. It’s hard to step out in courage into new spaces, to adapt the system to be a better fit to the conditions and reduce the suffering of everyone in the system, but it’s worth it.

If we get really good at Seeing Systems, we don’t need the workshops to find our path to the amazing, unpredictable future.

Book Review-HR On Purpose: Developing Deliberate People Passion

Why do professionals decide to go into human resources? For most, it isn’t a lifelong dream. I’ve met plenty of children who have said they wanted to be firemen or astronauts. I’ve never met someone who, at five, said they wanted to be a human resources manager. Somewhere along the line, people just ended up there – or they recognized their potential to help everyone become more effective. HR On Purpose is a book that can help you find your passion for people, whether HR was the destination or just where you ended up.

It’s All About the People

It’s easy to get confused. There are so many regulations and requirements. It’s easy to believe that the joy is about the implementation of policies and procedures. It’s easy to be deluded into thinking that it’s about the regulations and requirements. However, the job of human resources has always been – and always will be – about the people. Professionals can’t ignore the paperwork or the legal bodies; however, it’s not the point of the job. It’s like saying the freedom of driving a car is about the rules for getting the title.

If you can’t find a way to make the people the most important part, then you’re in the wrong spot. If people aren’t the most important thing, then you may need to look for other opportunities for yourself – inside or outside of the organization.

Dumping Grounds or Counselor

Counselors are paid to listen to other people’s problems. (There’s a myth that they’re paid to solve them as well – the reality is they’re paid to help people learn to solve them themselves.) It’s well known that bartenders and hairdressers often serve as informal counselors. Many churches have lay ministers that serve as counselors too. However, when they’re at work, employees are likely to come spill their problems at the door of the human resources professional.

Listening to other people’s problems all day is exhausting. That’s why psychologists and psychiatrists work so carefully to ensure that they’re doing the kind of self-care they need. That works well for them when their pay is higher and their only job is to listen. When the human resources professional is done listening to an employee vent, they’ve got to get back to that job requisition, health benefits plan, or one of the thousand other tasks that they have. The result is that, too often, human resources professionals don’t take the time to do the self-care they need to keep sane.

Sometimes, the result is, instead of feeling as if they can support the load of employee problems, they feel dumped on. It is possible to learn from counselors and their detachment from problems to ease the load. (See Creativity, Resilient, Burnout: The Cost of Caring, and The Happiness Hypothesis for conversations about detachment.) Whether or not we can find a way to detach from employees’ problems, we need to find ways to bear the load of them.

Confidentiality

If you’re alone in your position in HR – as most practitioners are – finding a way to seek input and maintain employee confidentiality is difficult. In addiction circles, they say, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” Unfortunately, there are some jobs – HR being one of them – in which you must keep secrets. The good news is that they’re not secrets about you. Still, the need to maintain confidentiality can be a heavy load to bear. It’s coupled with the necessary uncertainty about whether you’re doing the right thing or giving the right advice.

Employees Are Not the Enemy

Sometimes corporate executives develop the perspective that employees are the problem. They’re defiant. If the employees would just do what they’re told, everything would be good. The plans that the corporation makes would work if only the employees would follow through. This perspective is not correct. While some organizations have some employees that are actively working against the organization, most employees want the organization to succeed and are doing their best to fulfil their roles.

How successful would it be to ask your five-year-old child to drive you to another state? Ignoring the legality of this question, there are numerous gaps that make such a request impossible. There’s the obvious fact that they can’t reach the pedals and the steering wheel and look over the dash at the same time. There’s the fact that they don’t know how to shift into gear. However, more than that, there’s the fact that they’ve never navigated before. They don’t understand maps. They can’t plan for gas. There are numerous reasons why such a plan might fail.

We sometimes do this to employees and then wonder why they fail. We ask them to drive and provide them with the blocks to be able to reach the pedals and the wheel but fail to realize all the other gaps in knowledge and capability that they have. In the end, rather than blaming ourselves for failing to support the employees properly, we blame the employees for failing to accomplish our request.

It’s natural. Calling it fundamental attribution error, as Kahneman does in Thinking, Fast and Slow, doesn’t change the fact that it happens, and it’s natural for executives and HR professionals. It’s our job, as HR professionals, to fight our natural urges and to continue to support management in understanding that a failure to follow doesn’t necessarily mean defiance. It can mean a lack of understanding or a lack of skill.

Communicating

Communication may be our greatest advance as a human society. It’s also one of our greatest challenges. Our ability to share our thinking allows us to work together in ways that even our closest primate cousins cannot. Despite this, we find ways to obscure our thinking and communicate in ways that make us feel superior, but we do so to the detriment of those that we are there to support.

We’re all familiar with legalese. We know it when we hear it – generally lower and faster at the end of the commercial. We see it in contracts. It’s a way that attorneys sometimes hide their true intention from one another in writing contracts. If you’ve ever had attorney friends, and you’ve asked them what something means, only to have them say, “I don’t know,” you’ve seen this in action.

When we communicate in corporate or HR speak, we’re intentionally making it more difficult for someone to understand us – and employees are necessarily suspicious. You are, too, when people adopt overly formal communication approaches with you. While the lexicon of a profession is important to use with other professionals, it’s not useful in communicating with non-professionals. (Lexicon is the specific vocabulary used by a profession to convey precise meaning.) When communicating, our goal should be to communicate, not demonstrate how smart we are.

Seat at the Table

In many organizations, HR isn’t strategic. There isn’t a seat at the executive table for the HR professional. Most HR professionals presume that this is because of their organization. Browne gently challenges the HR professional to start behaving in the right way and the seat will come. Rather than lamenting that you can’t be strategic or a part of the executive conversations, simply behave in a way that’s intentionally strategic and, eventually, the organization will notice.

In my experience, HR professionals are so caught up with the tactical execution that they fail to insist on the development and execution of a strategic plan. One of my technology clients in the long-term care industry has 120% turnover in their front-line workers every year. Admittedly, it’s a relatively thankless job, and the industry’s turnover rate is somewhere between 60-80% per year depending on which numbers you want to believe. Rather than working on the reasons why their turnover is so much higher than average, the professionals are focused on optimizing the onboarding process.

Optimizing the onboarding (and offboarding) process is important, but it’s not strategic. It’s operational excellence rather than strategic insight. Operational excellence doesn’t get you a seat at the executive table. Strategic insight to what must be done to stop the high turnover rate can.

The risk in sharing this is that someone will think strategically and perhaps even work on an execution plan for a few days or weeks and will wonder why the seat at the table isn’t coming. The problem is that the seat at the table isn’t a reward – it’s a natural outcome. When you’ve demonstrated strategic thinking for long enough, the executive team will want you at the table not to reward your efforts but because your perspective can help the team make better collective decisions.

Management by Wandering Around

Tom Peters in In Search of Excellence advocates management by wandering (or walking) around (MBWA). The idea is that, if you really want to know what is happening, you should go to the floor. If you really want to have a connection with people, you have to be willing to spend time to get to know them. Browne shares stories where his commitment to support the employees got him in trouble with the people in the office who felt his time was better spent doing other things.

At the heart of MBWA is a desire to “be with” people and to meet them where they are. That applies to the normal situations not just the crisis. It applies to how people want to be recognized for years of service. It applies to every aspect of working with people. Meeting them where they are at is an important aspect of demonstrating caring and one that few people overlook.

Self-Development

In my technology world, I heard a startling quote decades ago. Steve McConnell was speaking about the state of the industry and said that few developers had even a single book on their craft. I glanced over to my bookshelf and realized that I, thankfully, wasn’t in that category. While books may no longer be the only way to demonstrate that you’re staying up on your profession, they are still a way.

HR professionals rarely spend time investing in their personal development to get better at their craft. Too few professionals are certified. Those who are certified have continuing education requirements to help ensure that they continue to develop. Those who aren’t certified may – or, more often, may not – work towards ensuring that they’re developing as a professional.

The saying that sticks with me – perhaps because I travel too much – is “put your own mask on first before assisting others.” It’s a standard part of the safety briefing for a commercial airline flight. It’s an acknowledgement that, if you’re passed out due to the lack of oxygen, you can’t help others. If you’re always clear about ensuring that your needs are met, you’ll be able to give to others. If you don’t, you may find yourself burned out and unable to do anything to help the people you’re there to support. (See ExtinguishBurnout.com for more on how to protect yourself from burnout.)

Busy

We’re all busy. We’ve all filled our lives with stuff. It’s hard to find someone who couldn’t describe themselves as busy. Even retired friends report themselves as busy. In fact, many of them wonder how they had time to do a job given how busy they are in retirement. We must accept that we’re always going to be busy. The question isn’t busy or not busy. The question is whether our life is filled with the right or the wrong things.

If busy is getting in the way of your self-development, what can you do to remove things to give you space? There are some people for whom there is no margin left. They literally can’t take on one more thing. However, for most of us there are things that we do to waste time or enjoy ourselves that could be refocused on self-development or on more powerful opportunities to connect with our fellow human beings.

You may feel like you’re too busy to take something else on, but I’d encourage you to find space to do HR on Purpose.

Book Review-The JoyPowered™ Team

Sometimes, I get to know some truly amazing people. I get to spend time with other speakers and authors who have messages to share with the world. One of the people I’m privileged to know is JoDee Curtis and her team at Purple Ink. The latest book that she and her team wrote is The JoyPowered™ Team. Like the heroes of The Justice League, the team works best together – in this case, as they shared the work of writing the book.

A Team’s Personality

Everyone has a personality – obviously. What is less obvious, perhaps, is that a team has a personality. Surely, the organization it fits in has a personality, too. The team personality is formed not just through the individuals that make up the team but also in the way that the team members interact with one another and how they set their goals and fundamental values. Teams, it turns out, can have as rich of a personality as a person.

The amorphous nature of the team means that, invariably, new people will join, and a few people will leave. These changes will cause the personality of the team to shift – but, in most cases, not radically change. Perhaps the most iconic example of how a team can change and remain the same is found in the experience of the band Van Halen. A band is a team by every definition imaginable. (See Collaborative Intelligence for more on defining teams.)

Van Halen, over its very successful career, has had three different lead vocalists and three bassists. Despite this, the band is fundamentally the same band. Eddie Van Halen, who plays lead guitar and sometimes performs vocals, as well as the drummer, Alex Van Halen (Eddie’s brother), held the group together even as some members changed. This allowed fans to know (mostly) what they would get.

Knowing What You’re Getting Into

Everyone has had the experience of wondering what they’re getting themselves into. Every employer is looking for a good candidate, and every candidate is looking for a good employer. While employers look at candidate resumes and call references, candidates check out the company website and sites like GlassDoor.com. Even with all the information that candidates have available today, it’s sometimes hard to understand what the personality of the team is from the outside. The company itself can be fundamentally sound, but the team the candidate is joining may be led by a poor manager.

A truism of human resources is that candidates join companies and employees leave bosses. That’s even more reason for candidates to interview their new potential boss to understand how they work. It’s also why managers who want to excel in their career need to study how to develop employees. No one wants to be the manager that no one wants to work for, because eventually that will be discovered, and it may be enough reason to encourage them to find opportunities outside the organization.

Not all the reasons why managers and employees don’t get along can be chalked up to poor management. There’s also the issue of fit. Does the candidate have the right skills and temperament to be effective at the role they’re being asked to fulfil? In some cases, job descriptions are just placeholders. They’re something that HR requires – rather than a fully thought-out plan for how someone new can plug in and make a difference to the organization.

Healthy Conflict

I believe strongly in healthy conflict. Conflict isn’t good or bad. How conflict is handled can be good or bad. I’ve been a troublemaker my entire career. I’m conflict apathetic, and so the conflict avoidant personalities are concerned about me. I’m also capable of holding my own in a disagreement, so the conflict initiators are wary of me, because they’re not sure whether I’ll engage or not. It’s because I’m so open and apathetic to conflict that I rarely decide to keep thoughts to myself rather than finding a healthy way to express them.

However, many team members will have reasons to be fearful and that fear will prevent them from speaking up when they need to – for their sake and for the sake of the organization. (See The Fearless Organization.) It’s about getting into it – not about getting over it. We need to make it safe for people to express themselves in disagreements where possible, because it’s critical that we hear every voice.

Diversity

Diversity and inclusion are very important today. It should have been very important before now, because we’ve known that diversity can greatly improve the kinds of solutions that teams come up with. (See The Difference for more.) Erin Brothers makes a statement, “One person can’t be ‘diverse!'” But I disagree. Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes).”

I think the rub is in the word “diversity.” Whitman is speaking of diversity of thought, and Brothers seems to be discussing diversity in the sense of race, religion, sexual preferences, etc. The creativity and innovation that organizations seek comes from diversity of thought not diversity of skin color.

In my post “Diversity and Inclusion Start with Acceptance and Appreciation,” I explain how I view the challenge of diversity and inclusion today. I explain how I’m rather pathologically incapable of seeing most differences – and I’m grateful for it.

I can’t leave the topic of diversity without repeating the quote from Verna Myers: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” We need different points of view fueled by different experiences. However, we need to find ways to engage and test those different points of view. It’s one thing to hear the crazy ideas. It’s quite another to do something to test them.

Strategy, Brand, and Culture

Jenn Lim, the CEO of Delivering Happiness says, “Strategy is the thinking, brand is the talking, and culture is the doing.” These are three important components to a successful organization. We need strategy like we need a rudder on a ship to steer us to the right port. We need a brand that communicates a core message about our value or our values. It’s what we print on the sail of the ship to inspire us and communicate our value. It’s in our culture that we make the decision to set sail and go somewhere.

The best strategy with the most articulate branding can fall short if the culture of the organization is unwilling or unable to go where these two lead.

Making of a Team

Teams are fundamentally built on trust. We must trust one another to be effective. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited for more on trust.) Our incentives must be aligned so that the teams aren’t rewarded individually but are instead rewarded collectively. When we goal people, individually no matter how much desire they have to be a team, they’ll invariably revert to their individual goals over the team.

The rebel that I am is the exception. I was led a team of developers many years ago, and I had a personal utilization goal – I was within a whisper of reaching the goal. I had two members on my team that were close as well and that we made better margin on. I gave work to them that I could have easily done myself to get my bonus. Instead, they both got their utilization bonuses, and, as a team, we exceeded our profitability goals. The organization didn’t pay me my bonus, but that was OK.

Managing Expectations

Managing expectations in a team can be hard. You want to do everything and at some level realize that “everything” just isn’t realistic. In Extinguish Burnout, we speak about the gap between productivity and expectations and how this can drive burnout. Managing expectations on a team comes in two parts. The first part is an aspirational goal that everyone wants to hit. The second part is the minimum goal that must be hit. These two goals are powerful because they allow for expansion to the greatest capacity of the team and simultaneously protect the team from feeling like they are never able to meet their goals.

If you can’t meet your goals as a team even if you’re focused on strengths, it may be difficult to find your way to becoming The JoyPowered™ Team.

Book Review-12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

“Freud had a point. He was, after all, a genius. You can tell that because people still hate him.” That’s what brought me to 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I’m a part of a list where folks discuss various aspects of positive psychology. A 20-page, academically written paper was sent to the group criticizing Jordan Peterson’s work 12 Rules for Life. Ultimately, as I skimmed through the paper, I felt like it sounded like sour grapes (see the fable). Peterson had sold two million copies of the book and been on the talk show speaking circuit. It felt like the people criticizing his work were frustrated that he wasn’t clear enough in his message (he was “opaque”) or that he was seemingly contradictory. That was enough to cause me to read it. Anyone who can create enough of a stir to get someone to write and cite for 20 pages was interesting to me.

The Backstory

In order to understand the context of the book, we need to understand that it started from a Quora post. Quora is a website where people can post questions and answers. Peterson answered a question “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” with a mixture of dead serious and tongue-in-cheek answers that the readers of the site loved.

As I was pondering the 20-page paper, I began to realize that, if you read the entire list with the dead-pan seriousness of an academic, it would be very confusing. Sarcasm is very hard to pull off in writing. Often, humor is attempted, and it’s lost on the audience. If you’re literal, you’ll miss the subtlety of how the structure is nonsensical. It’s like handing a builder one of Escher’s drawings and telling them to get to work building it. It can’t be done. So, I donned my humor cap, kept my sarcasm wand handy, and dove into the 12 Rules for Life.

The Chaos Within

The world is a messy place. It seems to define chaos, as everything that we attempt to control wiggles its way out of our control and eventually goes sideways. From Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daiichi to the explosion of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia to more mundane bridge failures, we cannot escape the fact that there is a chaos of our world that is hard to control. However, each of these disasters – and many more – are born not of external chaos but the chaos inside the hearts and minds of the people involved with the projects. This chaos – the chaos inside – is challenging to address and all too often overlooked.

The chaos comes from the ways that our images aren’t fully integrated. The ways that we see ourselves is fragmented and disjointed. We’re afraid of many things – most of which aren’t real. Hitler killed millions for fear that the Jews would somehow overpower his Aryan race. (See The Holocaust.) One can frame the event as a power move or as Hitler’s desire to make the world a better place. I see it as fear that, if he didn’t do something, the Jewish people would take over. That was apparently only one aspect of the chaos within him.

Iconoclasts believe they can make the world better. However, often they find themselves conflicted, confused, and disjointed. They cannot see the world as it is because they cannot see themselves as they are.

Take Responsibility First

Before you can set upon the journey of enlightenment, you must carry the burden of responsibility. You are responsible for yourself. You are not defined as a victim though you may have been victimized. You are responsible for your own healing just as you’re responsible for the results you receive. We can’t move forward if we’re spending all our time looking back at others to blame them for our misfortune.

The fact of the matter is that we’re all privileged. If we can read, we’re privileged. We’re privileged both that we have the skill and also that we have the time to exercise the skill. Too many people are burdened with the needs of basic survival and have no use for such frivolities as reading. Though Socrates wasn’t a fan of writing (and therefore reading), he did believe that leisure was a time for studying. Where leisure for us may be something totally trivial and useless, to the ancient Greeks, it was an opportunity to be more learned. (See Finding Flow for more.) It was something they aspired to be.

It’s not that there aren’t going to be uncontrollable things that negatively impact us and our world. It’s that no matter what they are, we must take responsibility for our part of the situation and commit to the process of healing ourselves whether there are others there to help us or not.

Chaos Within Order

Everything in life is made in layers. Our forests are made of trees, and our trees of leaves. There are patterns everywhere if we’re willing to look. Our seasons come and go, but, ultimately, they are just a cycle. Leaves are each different, but, together on a tree, they appear orderly as a part of the tree. So, too do trees seem orderly when viewed from the context of a forest.

Order or chaos often is a result of our perception – not an objective reality. David Bohm in On Dialogue explains that an acorn is not an oak tree. It’s the aperture through which an oak tree emerges. Chaos emerges from order – and order from chaos. We perceive only a small slice of what reality really is – one example is that we only perceive a moment in time.

Fear and the Lack of It

If we can delude ourselves into believing in order and our ability to control, then we can believe in our capacity to shelter our children from the realities of life. (See Compelled to Control for more on the illusion – or delusion – of control.) The problem with this delusion is that, when something happens outside our control, we’re ill prepared for it. While the high anxiety of low income and the instability of it isn’t good for us, neither is feeling too safe and too orderly. We can’t learn to cope with the real evils of life if we’re unwilling to confront the reality that we live in.

Those who live without any fear in their life are bound to find a time when fear asserts itself. Without any skills for coping with fear, it can crush the uninitiated. Chicks that are “helped” out of their shell are likely to die, because they didn’t learn to struggle. (See The Psychology of Recognizing and Rewarding Children.) So, too. can children die a psychological death if they’re helped to avoid real conflict and fighting and are suddenly thrust into a frightening situation. It turns out that the absolute absence of fear isn’t good for us. So, parents, would you prefer to make your child safe – or strong?

Strong Partnership

When we move from our childhood relationships and the reverse when we’re parents ourselves and instead focus on the relationships of peers, we’re confronted with the realization that partnerships work best when both parties are strong. A team of oxen will pull at twice the effort of the weaker ox. Yoked together, the stronger must stay in lockstep with the weaker, and therefore can’t take on more load than the weaker ox.

Our relationships are like that. We can’t carry the other person in a relationship of peers. We’ve got to find ways to be strong together.

Faulty Tools

Standing at the firing line trying to hit a target 20 feet down range, it seems like there’s no way to hit the bullseye. All the bullets are going in low and right of the target. Even fully supported on a gun rest, the shots are going low and right. No matter how still the gun is or how many attempts are made with the sights pointed right at the bullseye, the problem persists. Faulty tools will result in a faulty outcome. In this case, the sights can be adjusted to bring the bullets closer to the bullseye, but that’s not always the case.

Sometimes, when we’re looking to improve ourselves and our situation, we use the wrong tool – like trying to use a hammer to drive in a screw. Using the wrong tool won’t give us the right results. If you’ve been around tools for long enough, you’re bound to break one or two. Whether it’s a wrench that splits in half in your hand or a carabiner that snaps while you’re pulling a stump, faulty (or improperly used) tools fail to deliver the results. Once you’ve failed with the faulty tool, you’ll have to find one that works.

Delinquency Spreads

It seems to make sense on the surface. Bring in ex-convicts, who know what it’s like to get convicted of a drug-related crime, to talk to students about the horrors of drugs and how they can mess up your life. The result should be that the students should want to avoid drugs, right? Drug Avoidance and Resistance Education (DARE) thought so. However, the results said differently. In many cases, DARE students turned out to be more likely to use drugs. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more.) So much for the idea of scaring kids straight.

Delinquency tends to spread more than stability. If you don’t believe me just ask the Kelloggs, who found that their adopted chimpanzee was teaching their son to bite the walls. Delinquency even spreads across species (see The Nurture Assumption for more).

Children Are Damaged

They’re damaged when the people who are supposed to care for them are unable to correct them for fear of alienating their friendship. Instead of being focused primarily on their responsibility to instruct, guide, and raise up, some parents seek a friend in their children.

Peterson continues beyond just saying that children are damaged by this parental failure. He says that discipline is a responsibility. It is not anger nor revenge, it’s a careful combination of mercy and long-term judgement. Failure to hold children accountable dooms them to having to learn important lessons of responsibility and consequences later in life, when they will be much more costly. (See The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable for more on this.)

The Growth of Resentment

Mass shootings are a tragedy. Any shooting is a tragedy, but mass shootings seem to have a sense of pointlessness to them. By June of 2016, there had been over one thousand mass shootings in the United States. It’s far more than just Columbine. How these events happen isn’t a mystery. They happen as resentment grows until hatred spreads to everyone instead of just the people who have “wronged” the attacker.

Just as the Dalai Lama recommends exercises to bring about more compassion (see My Spiritual Journey and Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism), so, too, do the attackers replay their perceived victimization and rehearse their feelings of resentment until those thoughts expand beyond the anger with few people and encompass all of humanity.

Bargaining with the Future

Mischel did a simple test of delayed gratification with preschoolers. A single marshmallow now, or two in a few minutes. His simple test had ripples down the lives of the preschoolers. Those who could delay gratification ended up more successful in life. (See The Marshmallow Test for more.) Peterson agrees that the successful among us bargain with the future. That is, we’re willing to make sacrifices today for rewards tomorrow.

This can’t happen until the environment comes stable enough that the investments we make for the future can pay off. In a world filled with uncertainty and chaos, there’s no point in investing in the future, because there may not be one. Stress is evolution’s ultimate solution to the problem of short-term needs and making debts into the future. Stress allows us to consume more resources quickly to avoid the lion but at the expense of our immune system, digestive system, and others. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.)

Self-Trust

Veterans sometimes come home from war with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Peterson explains that most PTSD comes not from what was veterans saw but instead from what they did. The break, it seems, doesn’t come from the stress outside of the veteran but instead from the lack of self-trust that comes from realizing they did something that they now find morally reprehensible. Certainly, this isn’t what happens in every case, but it seems to be happening in some.

How can you trust that you’ll do the right thing if you find that your best thinking led you to doing something that you now deeply regret? There may be an answer in Milgram’s work. He showed that most people would issue what they believed to be potentially lethal electrical shocks with very little manipulation. Perhaps when they’re able to see that they’re not alone in their capacity to do evil things, they’ll realize that they should accept they’re not perfect. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and The Lucifer Effect for more on Milgram’s work and How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.)

Willful Blindness

Sometimes we don’t want to see. Sometimes seeing is uncomfortable and disconcerting. It disrupts our view of the world and in doing so makes us question everything – or at least many things. Rather than moving forward into the darkness, we turn back into the safety of what we know or what we believe we know. The problem is that this willful blindness distorts our perception of reality, and it dooms us to be held in a prison of our own making.

The early Christian church believed that everything revolved around humans. God created the heavens and the Earth, and his crowning achievement was mankind. It goes to reason, then, that we were placed in the center of the universe, and everything else orbited around us. Galileo was shamed, imprisoned, and punished for what we know now is the truth, that the Earth orbits the Sun – not the other way around. The beliefs of the church made them willfully blind to the reality of the observations that were being made. In contrast, the Buddha said that we must accept fact. If our belief contradicts facts and observations, then our beliefs must change, not the facts.

The prison happens when we refuse to go past the edge of the light of what we already know. If we refuse to explore into the darkness for fear that we might learn something that will change our beliefs, we’re necessarily trapped with a more incomplete view of the universe. Only with willingness to go forth in courage and learn can we begin to apprehend the universe. Nietzsche said that a man’s worth was determined by how much truth he could tolerate – and that means letting go of willful blindness.

The Past is Alive

Have you ever been reminiscing with old friends or your family and come across an event that you remember one way and they remember another? Maybe it’s what car you were in. It could be that you thought you were at the lake instead of stuck at home. It could be the people who were there at the event. Whatever the discrepancy, have you been surprised to find out that your perception was wrong? Maybe there’s photographic evidence. Maybe there’s a record of what happened. But in a moment, you realize that your perception of the past isn’t objective reality.

Our memories are not, unfortunately, dispassionate observers recording all the details like a video camera. Our memories are reconstructed and ephemeral. They don’t really exist for more than the moment. Each time we access a memory, we either impart new emotional residue to it or we take some away. Because of this, the past isn’t a fixed point that we can reference in our journey through life. Our past is a drifting dreamland, where what seems solid reveals itself to be nothing but smoke.

It’s not just our past and memories that change. What we know and what we knew are changing. Ancient cities are discovered that were thought to be made only of story and legend instead of clay and stone. The victors write the history books, and they can write them from their slanted point of view – whether that accurately conveys the real situation or not. Our views in the present about the evils of racism, slavery, nuclear power, and greenhouse gases influence our perception of the past.

Many elderly people look upon their youth with fondness and yearn for simpler times when things were better. Rewind the clock 100 years, and you increase suffering, death, and struggle. However, somehow, these objective realities are no match for the way that the person perceives the past. They can hold onto the best parts of the past – and maintain the best parts of today. The problem with this is that it can’t possibly be that we’d have advanced medicine of today back then and the simple, less-hectic life. You can’t have one without the other.

Risk Optimization

Have you ever done something just to feel alive? Did you take a measured risk because you were tired of the relative safety of your life? Maybe it would help if I provided some ways that people seek the appearance of danger. Maybe you got on a roller coaster at your favorite amusement park. Intellectually, you know it’s safe, but your vestibular system is screaming to the rest of your brain that this isn’t normal and therefore can’t be safe.

What about that corner that you rounded at twice the recommended speed just to see what would happen? Or the fight you picked with the bully at school, because you knew the teachers were standing close by?

The fact of the matter is we don’t seek to eliminate risk. Many would say that we cannot eliminate risk, that it’s a fool’s errand. (See The Black Swan for more about risk.) If we can’t eliminate it, we must seek to optimize it. We seek enough risk to motivate us – and not so much that we find ourselves overwhelmed by its presence. As we look at our life, we must realize that we’re not looking to totally eliminate risk, we’re looking to optimize the amount of risk we take into a comfortable range. (See Who Am I? for more about the motivator of savings – which is how we mitigate risk.)

Oedipal Mother

Peter Pan is an idealistic character, whose story of never growing up has enchanted many. However, the story behind the story is tragic. James Barrie’s story starts when he was six, and his mother’s favorite son, his brother, David, dies in a skating accident at thirteen. James becomes his mother’s confidant and supporter, entangling his view of himself with his mother’s views. His mother’s mental illness trapped David at the age of thirteen while James aged. Ultimately, this caused James to desire to remain at thirteen as well and gave rise to the story of Peter Pan. (See The Globalization of Addiction for more on this story.)

This is but one tragedy of many where a parent refuses to allow their children to grow up. They believe they live only for their child, and therefore their child’s appropriate attempts to distance themselves threatens the very existence of the parent. The bargain that is made is that the parent will do anything for the child, and, in return, the child will never leave the parent. The result is that nothing is ever the child’s fault. Everything wrong is because someone other than the child made a mistake. It’s a very dangerous bargain.

It’s at the heart of why I wrote The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable. I didn’t want to see more children damaged by unhealthy relationships with their parent, which choke the children like an emotional boa constrictor.

Meaning

Philosophers have debated the meaning of life for millennia. There is no found or agreed upon answer to the grand question. However, finding the meaning of our lives is an important part of learning to cope with the challenging nature of life. It’s how Simon Sinek explains to motivate people in Start with Why. Peterson explains that a person who has a “why” can endure any “how.” Why we’re doing things at a global level, at a work level, and at a personal level makes all the difference to our willingness to persist when things get difficult. (See Grit for more on persistence.)

Perhaps if you’ll find your “why,” your meaning, in 12 Rules for Life.

Book Review-Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.

Leadership isn’t easy. It’s difficult, because leadership requires a great deal of strength. I don’t mean lift-a-car-off-a-child sort of strength. I mean the kind of strength to both understand who you are and be who you are. Brené Brown’s latest book, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts., brings her work on shame and vulnerability directly into the path of leadership today.

A Brief History of the World

Because I’m familiar with Brown’s work and leadership in general, it feels like I’ll need to put some pieces together to make this review a bit more readable. To that end, Brown’s written several books – all of which I’ve read. The books she’s written are:

The evolution of her work becomes apparent when you look at the list of books in chronological order. The work expands from an individual becoming more whole to how that growth impacts others. She moves from how we must show up individually towards how we must show up with others. Dare to Lead is about how leaders must become more whole to be able to support and lead others.

The themes of Brown’s work are shame, vulnerability, courage, connection, empathy, and what she calls “wholeheartedness” – something that fits somewhere between the ways that I describe courage, integrated self-image, and stable core. (See my review of Braving the Wilderness for more about this.)

One of the key topics that Brown returns to in her work in general and in Dare to Lead is the topic of vulnerability.

Vulnerability

Brown defines six myths of vulnerability:

  1. Vulnerability is weakness – Though many of us were taught this lesson in childhood, the truth is that vulnerability is strength. The choice to be vulnerable comes with the understanding that, even if the other person betrays our trust, we’ll be OK.
  2. I don’t do vulnerability – “You can do vulnerability, or it can do you.” None of us are invincible. Even Superman was vulnerable to kryptonite. You don’t get to opt out of this part of life, and trying to is just going to make life hard.
  3. I can go it alone – We have this idea that the West was won by rugged cowboys riding into the sunset. It was really won by wagon trains that literally circled together to protect each other. No one can go it alone (and survive).
  4. You can engineer the uncertainty and discomfort out of vulnerability – Just like you can’t remove fear from courage, you can’t remove discomfort from vulnerability. You can mediate it – but not eliminate it.
  5. Trust comes before vulnerability – Here, Brown and I sort of disagree. I’d say that trust and vulnerability grow with each other. Brown is clear that trust is earned in the small moments. I’ve clarified my thoughts and why I think this is critically important in Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited. (I’d highly encourage reading this post if you have not.)
  6. Vulnerability is disclosure – Vulnerability can be disclosure, but it doesn’t need to be. Disclosure isn’t necessarily vulnerability. Vulnerability is deciding to trust. Word-vomiting your deepest thoughts and secrets isn’t necessarily vulnerability.

Defining Leadership

There have been many attempts to define leadership, including Burn’s simply titled Leadership, Rost’s Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership, Goleman et al.’s Primal Leadership, The Arbinger Institute’s Leadership and Self-Deception, Lowney’s Heroic Leadership, etc. Brown’s definition of a leader is “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.” This perspective matches that of Wiseman’s in Multipliers as well as many of the titles above. At its core, most scholars and authors view leadership as a service to those that are being led.

Courage

One of the funny things about courage is that the people most proficient at it don’t think about it as courage or abnormal. Courage is defined as the ability to proceed in the face of – or despite – fear. From the outside looking in, the people with the greatest courage display no fear – but the fear is still there.

A definition of courage is useful to be sure. However, the definition only allows to people to speak about something and understand each other. It doesn’t help them learn how to get more of it. Understanding that courage is moving despite fear doesn’t cause you to identify specific, key behaviors that allow you to recognize it in others.

If those who are being courageous don’t even expose the key condition – fear – what chance do we have for identifying courage in the workplace and in our lives? Perhaps that’s why “just over 80 percent of leaders, including those who believed that courage is behavioral, couldn’t identify the specific skills.”

Brown’s call for courage makes sense, particularly in the context of Amy Edmonson’s work on creating organizations with high degrees of psychological safety as discussed in The Fearless Organization. While Edmondson focuses on increasing the safety, I explain in my review that the positive organizational effects may have more to do with courage than being psychologically safe.

Psychological safety reduces the size of the fear and makes it easier to be courageous. But, ultimately, there are so many non-work factors that influence our perceptions of safety that it is incomplete to focus only on psychological safety inside of the organization.

In this, however, is the truth that, the lower you make the fear bar, the easier it is for people to have the courage to step over it. If we want to increase courage in ourselves and those that we work with. then perhaps the best solution is to increase the perception of safety. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited for more on the role of perceived safety.)

External factors may change the perception of safety in specific circumstances, but, ultimately, to change the basic tenor of trust, you must change the way that people trust themselves. You can influence this by changing the way you give feedback. Your feedback can reinforce the perception that they should trust themselves.

Perfectionism and Performance-Based Love

It’s good to expect excellence from yourself and those around you, but excellence can sometimes turn into perfectionism. That can set us up for a misunderstanding of our value and the value of others around us. Excellence keeps us striving for the best. Perfectionism expects nothing but the best.

The subtle distinction between being on the journey towards perfection and expecting that we’re already there is a big difference. In my review of Changes That Heal, I explained how, during a trip to Mt. Rushmore, I encountered setbacks but accepted the journey was a good one. By focusing on the journey, I could enjoy what I was getting – rather than being frustrated with what was missing. I sought the perfect trip – instead, all I got was a great one.

It was The Paradox of Choice that made me aware of Herbert Simon’s work on the difference between maximizing – looking for the absolute best – and satisficing – looking to meet standards and then stopping. The key here is that this is done on a decision-by-decision basis. However, what you get when you convert maximization to a personality trait is perfectionism. The good news is that maximizers tend to make more money and objectively have a better life. However, the bad news is that they’re less happy. That’s a problem. Something about maximizing – or perfectionism – primes you for regret and makes you less happy.

We catch perfectionism like a virus. Our parents, in their drive to help us be the absolute best, frame our thinking around maximization – and then, overall, about perfectionism. The problem is this also drives a sense that, when we’re not performing, we’re not worthy of love. This performance-based love pervades our thinking, and it makes us feel like we’re not enough, or we’re not worthy when we’re not being successful.

This is a barrier to fully living, because it prevents us from taking chances and failing. Instead of taking risks, we spend all our time playing it safe. As a result, we’re not vulnerable, and we’re not the employees and leaders that we can be.

Gloom and Doom

We all want to be Tigger, but we’re designed to be Eeyore. Things can be going great. We can have everything in the world to celebrate, but we’re worried about when the other shoe is going to drop. Certainly, there’s got to be something wrong somewhere. It stops us from fully celebrating our successes.

Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow explains that we experience negatives more strongly than we experience positives. It seems that evolution has made us wary. Evolutionary theorists believe this was because those who had more caution tended to survive longer to spread their genes. So, basically, we’re all descended from the Eeyores of the world, and we’re trying to behave like Tigger.

Gratitude Is More Than Attitude

There’s a pithy cliché that says, “Gratitude is the attitude.” However, it shouldn’t stop there. Gratitude without action is like joining a gym and not going. You may feel better for a while, but things ultimately aren’t objectively getting better.

Certainly, the starting point is to get an attitude of gratitude. It’s hard to be empathetic and compassionate for others until you have become grateful for your circumstances. However, having gratitude and not acting on it is like having empathy for someone’s condition but stopping short of a compassionate response.

Compassion includes a desire to alleviate another person’s suffering. You can’t have compassion without the actions that move forward to alleviate that suffering. Gratitude may first be an attitude, but how does it inform how you respond to the world. How is it that you choose to behave because of your gratitude?

Numbing Emotion

I’m not a fan of antidepressants. Not because I don’t believe that they can’t help some people sometimes. It’s because I know they’re overused and their efficacy is questionable. (See Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health for more.) There’s another problem with most antidepressants. The problem is that they tend to flatten out moods more than they lift them. That is, people on SSRIs and other antidepressants tend to not enjoy the highs as much as they did. It’s true that they may not sink as low, but they don’t soar as high either.

It’s not just antidepressants that have this effect. No matter what the drug or behavior is that’s being used to numb painful emotions – even suppressed, painful emotions – it tends to take the peak experiences away, too. The alcoholic may be able to forget the tragedies they’ve seen or done, but the consequence of this is the persistent fear of being discovered or the memories flooding back. That means that even alcohol robs the alcoholic of the joy in their lives because they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Based on everything we know about how the brain and emotions work, there’s no way to selectively disable the emotions that relate to pain, anguish, and struggle. (If you’re interested more about how emotions work, see How Emotions are Made.)

Accountability

No one really likes to be held accountable. I mean, let’s face it: it’s criticism when we don’t do what we said we were going to do, and no one likes to be criticized. One response is to just not hold people accountable. However, this sets off a series of events that leads to people not valuing each other or honoring commitments. It’s a sort of cancer that eats its way through the trust of the organization and, ultimately, can bring the organization down.

While no one likes to be held accountable when they fall short, to not do so creates a set of long-term consequences that lead to organizations no one wants to be a part of.

Trusting Others, Trusting Ourselves

One of the truisms about trust is that we view others like we view ourselves. If we’re generally trustworthy, we’ll assume others are as well. Learning to trust ourselves gives us the possibility of trusting others more. In trusting others more, we enrich not just our own lives but theirs as well. If you trust yourself enough, you can learn how to Dare to Lead.

Book Review-Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone

When Brené Brown speaks of the wilderness in Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, she’s not speaking of a place on a map. The wilderness isn’t “out there.” The wilderness is “in here.” It’s learning how to be who we are meant to be. It’s through understanding and accepting our own wilderness that we’ll find true belonging – and the courage to stand alone when needed.

Integrated Self Image and Stable Core

The language I use is different, but the concepts are the same. I speak about the need to develop an integrated self-image. It’s an image of oneself that recognizes all the aspects. It accepts the bad with the good. It recognizes that no one can be defined by a label. No one group that we are in defines us. The result that Brown encourages everyone to find by braving the wilderness is that person inside. Having an integrated self-image is so important that it comes up over and over again in my writing, including in my reviews of Happiness, The Trauma of Everyday Life, Schools without Failure, Compelled to Control, Beyond Boundaries, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, and Brown’s previous work Rising Strong. Braving the wilderness is the process that Brown recommends for finding an integrated self-image.

However, there’s another aspect to the way that I speak to this. It’s having a stable core. It’s the result of the integrated self-image where you know who you are, what you stand for, and what’s important in a way that stabilizes you from the temporary winds that seek to blow you off course. This concept, too, finds its home in multiple places – Dialogue, How to Be Yourself, The Power of Other, and Resilient – in addition to many of the places where integrated self-image appeared. Having a stable core makes us, in general, much less reactive to other people and to the situations we find ourselves in. However, even with a stable core, people and situations will sometimes trigger us into a place of fear that we’ll have to fight our way out of.

The Person We Once Were

Everyone has hurts from their childhood that they still carry with them. Maybe it’s being chosen last for a game of dodgeball. Maybe it’s being embarrassed by the hand-me-down and therefore out-of-style clothes. The larger the area of hurt that we experienced as a child, the more likely we’ve had to deal with it somehow in our journey to adulthood. However, often there are little, narrow cracks of pain that we don’t confront in our journey to adulthood.

These end up either being a dull pain that we can’t seem to find – and we make seemingly irrational decisions because of – or a sharp, quick pain that catches us out of nowhere.

Braving the wilderness is appropriately comforting the little child that still lives inside of us in a way that tries to soothe the pain so that it doesn’t come back again. We must be careful to not make our attempt to soothe our pain cause someone else pain. (One of the most frequent ways that this happens is when parents try to live out their lives through their children, as I describe in Are Your Children Living Their Lives – or Yours?) However, done effectively, healing the hurts of the person we once were can lead us to a more integrated self-image and a more sable core.

Belonging

Sometimes, I feel like I belong in the Island of Misfit Toys (from the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special). In Straddling Multiple Worlds, I explained part of the experience of living between worlds and how difficult it can be. In my review for The Search for Significance, I pulled together Diffusion of Innovations author Everett Rogers’ recognition that innovators and early adopters often feel as if they don’t belong to a community and the reduction in recidivism when released prisoners feel like a community from Change or Die. I even acknowledge that our society discourages belonging like it used to, as explained by Bowling Alone. The central core of Alone Together is that, though we need more connection, belonging, and intimacy, our world today doesn’t offer us that – it only offers the illusion of it.

While belonging is a basic human need, our world is growing ever more specialized, and we’re losing our patience for those who don’t exactly match the profile of interests and activities we have. We connect in a trivial way with others and for shorter periods of time as our interests fade or are replaced with the latest distraction.

In the end, we must accept that we belong to ourselves. We must get comfortable with ourselves and, paradoxically, sometimes accept that belonging happens even when we’re alone. Our unique self won’t always intersect and connect with others in ways that look like belonging, but if we accept who we are, we can accept the levels of belonging that other groups offer. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more on belonging and its power.)

Lack of Control

Control is an illusion, but it’s an illusion that we cling to. It’s the safety blanket of youth that we’ve not shed. We told ourselves that one day we’d grow up and make all the rules. In short, we’d be in control. The problem is that we don’t have control of our world any more than our parents had control of theirs. We only have influence on our world.

The first step into the wilderness is surrendering the idea that we’ve got control, because inside the wilderness, there is no such thing as control. Inside the wilderness, we’re vulnerable. When we go searching into the depths of our soul, we don’t know what we’ll find – and we certainly can’t control what we find.

Our illusion of control is like a rope that we hold on to. As long as we hold on to the illusion, we can’t enter the wilderness and learn about our true selves.

Trust

At the heart of the wilderness is learning trust. It’s not about learning to trust other people. It’s about learning to trust yourself. When I wrote Why and How Twelve Step Groups Work, I missed an aspect of their power. I missed their capacity to help you regain the trust in yourself that you’ve lost. They stop the cycle of shame that prevents people from conquering their addictions, but they work on the other side of the coin as well.

The other side of the shame coin is learning to accept and trust yourself. Acceptance is a prerequisite, because everyone will fail – at something at some point. Acceptance is a part of developing the integrated self-image where you realize that there are parts of you that aren’t perfect. Once the prerequisite of acceptance has been addressed, it’s possible to move forward into relearning to trust yourself. (For more on acceptance, see How to Be an Adult in Relationships.)

Most people have developed some level of distrust for themselves. Whether it’s the statement that they “can’t” resist a chocolate cake or the knowledge they “can’t” pass a stray animal without taking it home, each of us has places where we don’t believe our willpower will hold up to the test. (See Willpower for more.) By focusing on these limitations or accepting them as unchangeable, we begin to trust ourselves less. (See Mindset for fixed mindsets that imprison us in our own thinking.)

Learning to trust ourselves is, of course, about the basics of being reliable to the commitments we make to ourselves. However, it is also about being reasonable with the commitments we make. Many folks make New Year’s Resolutions only to fall off the bandwagon within weeks. Our rational rider makes commitments to ourselves that our emotional elephant isn’t willing to go along with in the long term. (See Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis for more on the Elephant-Rider-Path model.)

Sure, we need to learn to trust other people. We need to figure out whom and when it’s appropriate to trust, but, at its core, most problems of trust start with ourselves. (See The Power of the Other for more on learning when to trust others, and Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for a more comprehensive view of why trust is critical.)

BRAVING

Brown has a checklist for evaluating perspectives and behavior that makes the convenient acronym “BRAVING.” The components are as follows:

  • Boundaries – Was I clear about my boundaries, and did I respect them?
  • Reliability – Was there congruence between my values, my actions, and my words?
  • Accountability – Did I own my mistakes, apologize, and make amends?
  • Vault – Did I keep the confidence of others, sharing only what was mine to share?
  • Integrity – Did I choose courage over comfort?
  • Nonjudgement – Was I able to ask for what I needed? Did I allow others to ask for what they needed without judgement?
  • Generosity – Did I interpret the actions, intentions, and words of others in the most generous (positive) way possible?

Whenever we want to evaluate how we did in a situation, this list provides a framework for evaluating whether we’re living true to our values and in a way that helps build up not only us but others as well.

What is Loneliness?

Loneliness can be quickly defined as “perceived social isolation.” However, that simple statement takes a bit to unpack – in fact, John Cacioppo wrote a whole book titled Loneliness. We’ve all felt lonely. In fact, when we feel like we don’t belong, we can feel that sense of loneliness. Loneliness is a serious concern, because it’s often invisible to the outside world. (See The Fearless Organization for more on invisible acts.) It’s dangerous, because isolation “is as significant to mortality rates as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and lack of physical exercise.” (See Emotional Intelligence for this quote from this 1987 article in Science.) Cacioppo and Brown both echo this concern.

The key the 1987 article missed is that it’s the perceived isolation that matters. You can be in a room full of people and be lonely but not alone. In fact, feeling alone in a room full of people is perhaps the loneliest feeling possible.

I get to speak at a lot of conferences. Some are conference where I feel right at home. Some of the places I speak at I’ve spoken at for years. It’s sort of like a family reunion when I show up. There are speakers that you know and love but don’t get to spend much time with. There’s the set of speakers who are odd enough that you sit and quietly smirk at their antics. The attendees are people you’ve seen year after year.

Other places, I walk in and feel no connection whatsoever. They talk a different language. They care about different things. They aren’t familiar in any sense of the word. I’ve literally been in a room with 500 people, and I can’t tell you a time that I’ve felt more alone. For me, it’s OK. It’s a short-term thing, and I get to come back to a home where I’m anything but lonely. However, I can’t imagine living in a world where you only ever felt separate and alone.

If Nothing Changes, Are You OK?

Most people believe that they’d be OK if something else changes. If I got a promotion at work. If I got a new car. If my son gets into the college that he wants. There’s always something outside of us that can make us happy or at least OK. The problem with this thinking is that we don’t have control of the things outside of us. (See Stumbling on Happiness for more.) The key to happiness isn’t in our ability to change external circumstances. The key to happiness is in being able to accept our circumstances.

On the road to happiness, the first stop is acceptance. We must accept the reality of our circumstances and be OK with them. Once we’ve come to accept that we can’t change our circumstances, we can be happy with them.

I understand that the first response to the preceding is “hogwash.” We believe that we can change our circumstances – and we can. However, we don’t have “positive control” of them. We have influence over our future circumstances. We can shift them, but we don’t know exactly how things will turn out. More importantly, we’re changing the future version of our circumstances, not the circumstances of today. As a strongly-biased “future” person, I’m all for pushing to change tomorrow’s circumstances. (See The Time Paradox for more on future-focused people.)

The problem is that happiness is lived in the now. It’s in the today. It’s in the present moment. In that context, what matters is my acceptance of the reality of now. Not that I can’t or shouldn’t want to change things tomorrow to be better – that’s great – but I can’t change things in the now.

I Like Persons, Not People

I’m an introvert. I’m charged up by time spent reading, researching, and writing. It’s the way I find my core. I love one-on-one conversations about deep topics. I find that, individually, a person can be amazing. However, people – as a group – aren’t my favorite. Please don’t get me wrong. I love presenting to a group and watching the lights come on as I explain a difficult topic. I love the moment of confusion right before the revelation. I love the ability to help people. However, fundamentally, I’m not a people person. I’m a “person” person.

I can’t form connections with people. I form connections with persons. I learn about their struggles and their triumphs. I learn about their passions and their sorrows. It’s a precious gift that I try to graciously accept. The beauty of persons is that I can accept them as they are individually. I don’t have to see a sanitized, stripped-down version of who they are. That always feels empty and hollow to me.

Change Ourselves, Not Others

The journey into the wilderness isn’t for other people. It’s for us. We can’t tell others to go into the darkness for us. We must go for ourselves. We need the vulnerability of the journey to teach and guide us. We need to know that we can be vulnerable and survive. We need to learn the truth of nature is that all growth is vulnerability. The time when bacterium is the most susceptible to being killed is immediately after replication. It must become vulnerable to grow. So, too, we must become vulnerable to thrive.

We can’t do our work hoping other people will change. We must do our work hoping that we will change. We must trust that the process will change us in the same way that heat changes iron to steel. Native American Indians used to send boys into the woods for a trial. The trial ended with the boy returning from the wilderness as no longer a boy but a man. It’s time for all of us to go Braving the Wilderness, so that we can come back out changed for the better.

Book Review-The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth

What would it be like to have an organization that you could bring your whole self to? What would it be like to be comfortable in sharing all your thoughts in your organization? That’s what Amy Edmondson is trying to find and develop in The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.

Sources of Fear

What places strike fear in your heart? It is walking into a graveyard – even during the day? Perhaps there’s a sense of foreboding as you drive past a place where you saw a horrendous wreck. Maybe you get the heebie-jeebies when you walk into the principal’s office to talk about your child, because you remember getting called into the principal’s office as a child. Should any of these places make you feel uncomfortable or fearful? Maybe not, but it doesn’t change the feeling.

This is the fundamental problem with creating a psychologically-safe environment in your organization. While it is possible to create an objectively safe environment, both physically and psychologically, that doesn’t mean everyone will feel like the environment is safe. How they feel about it is more important than reality.

In my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, I explain that trust is a gift. It’s not a matter of being trustworthy – it’s a matter of someone deciding that trusting is the right thing to do. They’ve accepted a level of vulnerability on the chance that it will work out better for them. There are no guarantees, only hope that trusting will create better results.

We can – and should – make it easier for folks to trust by being worthy of trust. But, at the same time, we must recognize that fear comes from deep within, and sometimes it bears little resemblance to the actual facts of the situation.

Fear Beyond the Walls

In many cases, the fear that exists in the mind of employees doesn’t even originate inside the walls of the organization. It may be something they “caught” from their family of origin from their dad being laid off, turning their world upside down. It might be from the judgmental voices they expect to hear if they once spoke up and were fired because of it. In America’s Generations, Chuck Underwood speaks to the differing views that generations have to things like job stability and how our parents may have been more – or less – fearful for their jobs.

Too many people today live paycheck to paycheck. If they lose their job, it is a serious financial hardship that can have devastating effects. It’s easy to not be afraid when you’re secure – if you don’t need the job so it doesn’t matter. It’s quite a different thing if your family won’t eat in a week if you don’t keep the job. The fear level rises, and it’s outside of whatever may be happening in the organization.

Too many of us have heard us or our colleagues say “I have kids in college” when asked why they’re not speaking up. On the surface, this makes no sense. Kids in college has nothing to do with making a suggestion in a meeting. However, at a deeper, fear-based level, it makes perfect sense. They’re supporting their children through an expensive time, and if they lose their job, they won’t be able to do that. The fear extends beyond financial to their ability to provide for their children and even their identity. It’s a truth that pierces the very essence of their situation.

Fear of losing a job is present even when it makes no rational sense. The average tenure of the organization can be measured in decades (as it is for one of my clients). It’s possible that no one in the history of the organization has been fired – or at least fired for bringing up controversial ideas. However, that reality doesn’t matter. There’s still a part of the person who worries whether their idea or comment or suggestion will be the reason the organization breaks the trend.

Fear Inside the Walls

It’s been a stressful day. The news is there are new regulations that will hurt the business, and everyone’s jumpy. Jane makes an innocent mistake that costs the company a few thousand dollars. Under normal circumstances, it’s not even enough to raise an eyebrow. While mistakes aren’t desired, they’re understood. However, today isn’t an ordinary day. Sam berates Jane only for a moment before catching himself. The entire room stares at him in disbelief. He’s made a scene. He’s made a mark.

The problem with creating an organization full of psychological safety is that psychological safety is, fundamentally, trust – and the trust has been broken. Trust itself is a funny thing. It’s built over a lifetime and crushed in a second. Sam’s outburst will have far-ranging impacts on the perceived safety in the organization for years to come. Even if others can’t articulate it, they’ll feel a bit less likely to speak up the next time they have an idea. They’ll be a little less willing to take a risk, and the company will suffer for it.

The real problem is you can’t truly prevent every possible way that trust and safety will be violated. You can – and should – work towards lower levels of incidence, but, at some level, mistakes – including those made by managers – are to be expected. Instead of trying to prevent all failures, you’ve got to switch to a strategy that works on resilience and recovery rather than planning and prevention.

Courage

Fear is a natural part of life, whether we like it or not. It takes courage to overcome our fears and move forward. Courage is, in fact, that idea. Courage is not the absence of fear but rather moving forward in the presence of fear. (For more on courage, see Find Your Courage.) While Edmonson focuses on psychological safety, there’s a truth that nothing is completely safe, and therefore courage is required. There will always be some fear lurking around in the dark recesses of our mind, and courage helps us get past them.

It’s not that creating a workplace of psychological safety isn’t a good, noble, and necessary goal. It’s that it’s insufficient. What you do by creating a place of psychological safety is reduce the need for courage, not eliminate it. On the one hand, the idea is to increase safety and therefore reduce fear. On the other hand, we must accept that even objective safety can’t quell the need for courage to overcome whatever fear remains.

Learning

The role of safety in learning is multi-layered. There’s plenty of research on children who struggle to learn in school because the conditions of their home life are challenging. Programs like free and reduced lunches, before school breakfast programs, and a host of others are designed to mitigate the impacts of these extra-school challenges to learning. However, they’re not able to eliminate the factors. One of the biggest factors that these programs have a hard time mitigating is the fear that is felt by students. They know they’ll be fed at school, so there’s some level of knowing that they will have some food, but they don’t know whether they’ll have a place to live or whether there will be a life-threatening fight that night.

Most employees won’t face this level of fear in their organization, but fear still depresses some capacity for learning. Edmonson makes the distinction between learning activities that are done alone and those that are group learning. The learning activities that are done alone are relatively undisturbed by the lack of psychological safety, where those which require group interaction are substantially more depressed – presumably because the increase in interpersonal risk and the fear associated with it.

Invisible Acts

Learning is an invisible act. You can’t see it happening. It’s difficult to measure, as the measurement interferes with the learning process itself. While learning is a positive invisible act, there are many invisible acts that aren’t positive. Every time someone fails to speak up, it’s invisible, and quite often it means less value for the organization.

We can become fooled by the idea that we’re not facing negative news so everything must be just fine. The problem isn’t that there are no negative things happening in the organization, the problem is that we’re not seeing the negative things that are happening.

The unfortunate reality of organizations with low psychological safety isn’t that they report more problems than their comparison organizations – they often report much fewer. The problem is that the act of not saying what you think, not reporting a problem, and not taking a risk is invisible. While failure is seen, not trying is hard to find.

Failure Is Inevitable If You Try

Many years ago, a friend of mine told me that she admired me, because everything I did just worked. From her point of view, I had no failures. From my point of view, I’ve got all sorts of them. For instance, there’s my $2,000 mistake ordering lights from China. I make mistakes every day. I’ve got a long list of failures. My only secret, if there is one, is that I keep my failures from becoming fatal.

It’s not that I like failures or that I look for them. I am not “pro failure,” I’m “pro learning” and even “pro trying.” I’d rather try and fail than not try. That’s a fundamental shift. Some folks are so afraid of failure that they’re unwilling to risk it. However, I’m so afraid of not trying that I can’t imagine not risking it. In the long run, I know that taking risks will yield better rewards, assuming I can survive and keep taking reasonable risks.

Fear and Stress

In the end, psychological safety in any organization is minimizing the fear people have, so it’s easier to be courageous. The reduced stress means that they’ll live better lives, and we’ll get better results. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for stress’ impact on the person, and Drive for its impact on the organization.)

If you’re interested in better lives and better organization performance, maybe the starting point is creating The Fearless Organization.

Book Review-Leadership

The title is simple. The book is long. However, Leadership is a comprehensive look at political leadership that James MacGregor Burns executes well. I’m not personally much of a fan of political books. However, as I read Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, it became clear that Rost derived a great deal of his thinking from Burns’ work, and thus it was important that I read it to understand more clearly Rost’s thinking.

Leadership, Power, and Relationships

In rapid succession, Burns explains that leadership is a special form of power, and power is a special form of relationship. Power is the ability to influence others. Burns explains that leadership is a non-coercive form of power. That is, there are no consequences for people to follow the leader. They desire to follow the leader, because they perceive it is in their best interests. Coercive leadership relies instead on the follower’s desire to avoid consequences.

Rewards and Punishments

For a long time, it was believed that rewards and punishments were processed as two different directions by the same part of our brains. However, the latest neurology indicates that happiness and pain aren’t processed the same way at all – and, as a result, rewards and punishments may not be processed the same way either. In 1985, Watson and Tellegen produced a model that maps emotions on a two-factor structure of affect. One definition of affect is “touch the feelings of (someone); move emotionally.” They separated the positive affect from the negative affect and created a diagram that showed the resulting emotions as various degrees of each. (See Emotion and Adaptation for more on the two separate systems that process positive and negative perspectives.)

Daniel Pink in Drive explains how subtle changes like time pressure dramatically change (reduce) performance on creative tasks. Burns seems to intuitively know that the results you get from a positive approach and the results you get through instilling fear might be radically different.

Authority

In generations past, things were harder – but also simpler. It was a simple matter of survival. You obeyed the leader, whether that was a lord or a monarch. The power of the leader was almost limitless. On a whim, they could exile you from the community, almost certainly dooming you to death. You accepted your place, as you toiled just to survive and for the survival of your family. Everyone worked because they needed to. The line between life and death was razor-thin and always too close for comfort. (See The Evolution of Leadership for more.)

Authority, then, was necessary to hold back the chaos and allow a single leader to direct the group. This was an organizing principle that allowed humans to work together and to slowly grab hold of control of the planet. Authority was power, and power could sustain the society. Everyone knew their place in the community, and little concern was given for upward mobility, as too much was focused on what it takes just to survive.

The complexity of our interactions has enhanced our expectations. Total authority like monarchs and lords isn’t possible any longer.

Reactivity

How people respond to rewards and punishments isn’t consistent. To some, pain is a nuisance; to others, it’s a critical issue to be addressed. Criticism bounces off some people like rain on a duck’s back, while for others it cuts deep into their core. Reactivity to coercion isn’t the same either.

In my career, I’ve been, at times, called difficult to manage. Looking back on this in the context of Burns’ work, it seems like I have a very low reactivity to coercion. I wasn’t afraid of losing my job, and, as a result, the coercive, veiled threats didn’t work on me. I do remember stunning a project manager by telling him I’d quit before doing what he asked – and I would have.

Coercive techniques lose their efficacy when people don’t react to them. Fewer people feel as if they’re at a precipice, therefore fewer people react in fear. The same factors that made me difficult to manage makes younger generations difficult to manage as well. They believe they can always return to their parents’ home, where previous generations may not have felt that way – at least not in such great numbers and with such surety.

Previous generations warned of the potentially dire consequences of quitting one job before having the next lined up, but, in some cases with younger adults, this seems about as normal as washing your bed sheets. That is not to say that they change jobs more frequently than we did – the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t bear that out. However, they feel much less fear about those changes.

The good news is that lower reactivity means that there’s a greater opportunity for healthy conflict.

The Role of Conflict

In our world, whether shaped by history or not, we generally perceive conflict to be bad. We think that nothing good can come from conflict. However, the truth is that most good things come from conflict. Conflict itself is neutral. How you respond to conflict makes all the difference.

The Christian Bible says that “iron sharpens iron,” revealing that we’ve known conflict and bumping into one another has the capacity to make us better. A more contemporary example might be the results that Pixar gets through conflict in their movie-making process, as Ed Catmull explains in Creativity, Inc.. Sometimes the sentiment of conflict is carried below the surface of our consciousness. We see examples of people who maintain inner conflict between their current capacity and their desire, resulting both in flow (see Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman) and peak performance in a field (see Peak).

Despite conflict’s obscure value, there are times when conflict, disagreement, and dialogue aren’t called for. (For more on how to dialogue, see Dialogue.) Sometimes, leadership calls for decisiveness. The mark of a good leader is realizing when this is and isn’t necessary. Every move toward decisiveness necessarily cuts off others’ opinions. They’ll have to trust that this is the special case – not the norm – to continue to want to bring their whole selves to the organization.

Self Esteem

There’s a delicate walk that good leaders take. On the one hand, they provide sometimes critical feedback that allows those they lead to grow. On the other, they build those they lead up in ways that allow them to have enough self-esteem and perceived self-efficacy that they can continue to function. Good leadership is mindful of the need for people to save face, no matter which culture they’re in. After all, The Ego and Its Defenses is clear that the ego is well-armed to protect itself should that become necessary. It’s up to the leader to not call the ego to arms.

When leaders can support the self-esteem of those they lead, they expose the capacity for them to hold others in high esteem and open the door to their learning.

Capacity to Learn and Be Taught

A long time ago as I was learning to lead, a brilliant leader and friend of mine explained that there are coachable – and non-coachable – behaviors. That is, sometimes, the things that get in folks’ way aren’t things that they are willing or able to confront yet, and, as a result, they aren’t open to coaching on that topic.

There’s a perennial debate about whether you should hire for experience or enthusiasm. Is it better to have the benefit of experience or the exuberance of youth? Should be you be focused on finding someone who has done it before or who is willing to run headlong into a problem and overcome it in a potentially new way? This focus hides the real question that’s burning inside the brains of hiring managers everywhere. Will this person be teachable – and teachable in ways that matter to our organization?

We want experience. It makes things quicker and easier. However, we don’t want bad experience, nor do we want to have to provide experience for someone who isn’t willing to learn. We see in the youthful enthusiasm a willingness to be taught, and sometimes that outweighs the hard-earned experience that the wiser members of the talent pool have.

Leaders need to find – and hire – the followers that can help to sustain them. Intellectual leaders are particularly in need of followers and patrons to keep them going.

Intellectual Leaders

Leadership isn’t often thought of as a state of internal conflict, but that can be the case for intellectual leaders who struggle between the pure approach and the practical one. They struggle with careful correction and encouragement. They walk the line between having the analytical data and the courage to proceed with their gut.

All this conflict takes a very large toll on the leader. They need followers who can help them sustain their resolve in the mission and the objectives to be met. They need patrons who are willing to support them while they’re working on the mission when it isn’t working yet. Without this company, we may find that the leaders fold under the weight of the task they’re undertaking and their own conflict.

Pressure and Relief

Internal pressure in the leader isn’t the only pressure in society. Whether it’s oppression of women and their right to vote or oppressive organizations that are choked by the poor quality of their leadership, not everything is right in the world. We find that, wherever pressure can build, it will be relieved. The relief is sometimes accomplished in peaceful ways, which help the oppressed accomplish their goals of more equitable treatment. But, sometimes, that isn’t the case, and entire societies are rocked by the explosive force as the system is blown apart.

In the Egyptian revolution of 2011, citizens used Twitter to organize and began a revolution on January 25th that caused President Mubarak to resign. It was a part of the Arab Spring that occurred in late 2010 and into 2011. The series of protests had profound effects on the region, and they demonstrated that the velocity and ferocity of people united in their struggle could be amplified and accelerated easily through the use of social media in ways that are difficult if not impossible to prevent.

Political leaders in non-democratic states were caught off guard by the ability for the populace to organize and activate their power. Organizations everywhere realized that authoritative leadership isn’t working like it used to.

Leaders and Followers

In the way that democratic leaders function, there’s an interesting question about who is really leading whom. As an elected representative, the politician is supposed to be working for the good of the constituents that elected them and the government at large. To fulfill this role, they must be constantly monitoring the needs of the people and then following the direction that they’re headed. This opens the problem of figuring out where the majority of the people are heading – and how to balance waiting for their clear direction and the expectation that you’re out in front leading them.

While Rost in Leadership for the Twenty-First Century discourages the use of “follower” and “leader” as paired terms (because there’s no such thing as followership), Burns accepts that there are times when people are leading, and there are times when leaders are catching up to their followers – or adjusting their course based on the needs of their followers.

Burns also defines leadership as a special form of power and power as a relationship between people. Just like super-massive planets can tug on the stars they orbit and cause them to wobble, so, too, can followers shape the path of leaders.

The Need for Belonging

It’s lonely at the top. Pick up any leadership book, and you’re likely to find that quote or at least that sentiment somewhere in its pages. Humans – you and I – were designed for connection. Without that connection, we’ll find that we’re missing part of what it means to be human.

Leaders need other leaders who can support and build them up and followers who can strengthen their resolve. Without powerful followers, leaders eventually succumb to the pressures of the world and give up their quest.

If you’re looking for how to strengthen your leadership and find others to build you up, perhaps the first step is reading Leadership.

Skunk Works Leadership

I finished writing my review of Skunk Works and I realized that beyond the amazing aircraft that they created, they developed a culture that managed to side-step the government bureaucracy and get things done. Somehow during the mountain of paperwork, they managed to be as agile as a gazelle. This is something that large organizations aspire to today. They feel the pressure to be more competitive, adaptive, and agile because of the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world that we find ourselves in.

The hope here is to find a few nuggets of how the Skunk Works was successful, so that other organizations trying to mimic the results have a blueprint they can use.

No Blueprints

The irony of trying to build a blueprint is that, often, the blueprints came after the part was made at the Skunk Works. There were many times when designers would work with machinists and assembly personnel to figure out how to make something work. They’d mock something up on cardboard, the machinist would make it, and then return the cardboard or part to the designer to get it drawn up.

From most perspectives, this is backwards. However, at Skunk Works, that’s just how things worked. The team worked together to address the need or solve the problem, and then they’d make sure that their individual commitments to the rest of the organization were met. Agile software development would take a page out of this book decades later in deciding that ceremony wasn’t important, people and interactions were important.

You Can’t Contract Your Way Out of Conflict

Own your own business for a while, and you’ll make friends with an attorney or two. It happens because they’ll save your bacon at some point – and because you’re going to be talking to a lot of them. A wise friend of mine explained that contracts are funny things. You write a contract, so it’s clear what should happen when things go wrong – and then you hope nothing goes wrong. You write a contract so you can trust what the other party will do – and you know that you can’t write a contract with someone you don’t trust. It just won’t ever work.

The point of this is that, at Skunk Works, the relationships people had mattered. It wasn’t position, power, or prestige. If you weren’t working together to solve the problem, you weren’t working.

Clear and Present Danger

The Soviets at the time Skunk Works was created represented a clear and present danger to the United States. What we didn’t know was the degree or aspects of the danger. That’s what Skunk Works would eventually end up solving for the US. They’d level the playing field with advanced jet fighters and reconnaissance aircraft that provided the best understanding about what was really happening inside the Iron Curtain.

Skunk Works always had clear targets. At the largest level, it was to be able to protect the United States’ interests. At the micro level, the targets for the aircraft could be specific. The SR-71 Blackbird project was targeted to fly at over 80,000 feet and Mach 3. (For more see, The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird.) They achieved these goals, in part, because they were specific. They had something that the team could shoot for and desire to be a part of.

Secret Handshakes

Being a part of Skunk Works was something special. It was something that few people could say – and to some degree, it was something that even the people inside couldn’t say except to each other. It created a special sense of community inside that circus tent. This was the crack team. They were going to save the US from foreign interests. Everything was riding on them.

There may not have been any secret handshakes, but the secrecy of their projects bonded everyone together in a way that not every organization can accomplish. There was something to being a part of the group – it meant something. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more.)

The Fewer the Better

While they weren’t many people, they were handpicked to be the best at their jobs. What was assembled became a testimony to Margaret Mead’s quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The model that the Skunk Works operated under didn’t require more people. In fact, Johnson recognized early on that Skunk Works raises and promotions had to be different, because there wouldn’t be as many people for them to lead. The group wouldn’t require leadership in the same way that the rest of the organization thought about it.

Rather than focusing on empire-building by collecting the most people working for them, Skunk Works managers would focus on output and results. Instead of worrying about competing with others, they’d be focused on how to collaborate with their peers – and compete with the enemy. (This is a lesson that Richard Hackman would drive home in Collaborative Intelligence years later.)

Lessons for Today

It’s great that Johnson and Rich were able to build and maintain a culture at Skunk Works with such amazing characteristics. But how do the leaders of today leverage this wisdom to create a culture of their own that’s capable of incredible results? Here’s a few ways.

Start with Why

Simon Sinek explains, in Start with Why, that people need a shared purpose. While most organizations today don’t have an enemy the size of Russia to target, they can target a change they want to see in the world. This change provides a central theme for everything that the organization does. Organizing principles make it easier to work together towards the common good.

Clear, Compelling Goals

It may start with “why,” but it doesn’t end there. It ends with the specific goals that individuals and teams need to accomplish to allow the organization’s mission to be successful. The specific goals – sometimes very difficult goals – drove the engine forward. The SR-71 Blackbird was only 84% efficient at burning fuel, leaked like a sieve on the ground, and had a horrible habit of the jet engines “unstarting” during flight. Because the goals were clear, these “annoyances” were acceptable. When you’re building something that’s generations ahead of anything anyone else can do, there are going to be drawbacks.

In your organization, clear goals allow you to focus on the requirements, the “must haves,” and allow some of the other things to land wherever they need to.

Compete Outside, Collaborate Inside

Too many organizations have managers pitted against each other in a struggle for resources and power. The real enemy should always be outside the organization. Hackman’s Collaborative Intelligence makes it clear that internal competition doesn’t create well-performing teams. Of all the things that we can learn from Skunk Works, I feel like this is the one we forget most often.

Results

Skunk Works wasn’t easy. It was hard, demanding work, and people didn’t “pussyfoot around” when there was a problem. Results – the ability to get things done – was always at the forefront of mind.

Communicate

In Johnson’s rules for Skunk Works, he made a point that evaluations (budget reporting) had to be timely – and problems needed to be disclosed as quickly as possible. Knowing bad news late does you no good. You need to know bad news as soon as possible, so you can mitigate the risks caused by it. If there was one thing about Skunk Works, it was communication – for better and for worse.

Collocate

For the first time, the people who needed to work together to get things done actually worked in the same space. Instead of designers lobbing designs over the wall and machinists handing them off to assembly, everyone worked together because they were close together. Agile software development learned the value of the product owner and the software development team being close together. It improves the measurable communication – and it builds bonds of trust that allow you to transcend the normal rules for working together.

Trust

Too few people in organizations trust each other or the organization. At Skunk Works, everyone knew that if you did your job to the best of your ability – even if you failed – Johnson (and then Rich) would have your back. You trusted the people you worked for and with. That makes all the difference. (See Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more.)

Failure

It seems odd that failure should be a part of success. However, it is perhaps the most important part of success. Without the ability to fail safely, you won’t know about failures until too late, and the organization won’t be able to learn from the failures. So, paradoxically, failure allows you to succeed – when you’re willing to accept and acknowledge it.

Back to Skunk Works

According to the current literature few organizations have matched Skunk Works’ level of functioning. Books like An Everyone Culture and Reinventing Organizations make it clear that our organizations are falling far short of their aspirations. Perhaps if we’re willing to take a look back to the Skunk Works, we can see just some of the ways that we can make our organizations more powerful.

The Evolution of Leadership

It’s impossible to really understand what things were like a generation ago. We apply our perspective from today and come up with a distorted version of the past. We can’t imagine how leadership worked at the turn of the last century, with authoritative leaders creating a group of employees only slightly removed from slavery. We look at a new generation of workers and wonder why they behave differently than us when we were starting our careers – and fail to recognize that this is both true and untrue at the same time.

It’s time we hopped a ride in the way-back machine to get a better picture of what things used to be like, so we can understand the changes that are happening – and what it means to us.

Safety and Fear

The common thread that we’ll find as we walk through the changes in society, and therefore leadership, is the prevalence of safety and its relationship to fear, both physical and psychological. Human behavior is shaped by fear and safety in large and small ways. When looking from the leadership lens we see that we need to lead in ways that are more aspirational and less authoritarian. Why is that case? As it turns out, there’s a reason that drives this change in leadership styles.

Physical Safety

Our ancestors primarily considered their physical safety. Given their mortality and the struggle for water, food, and shelter, they didn’t have much room to consider how they felt. The introduction of “the pursuit of happiness” to the Declaration of Independence was, at the time, a foreign concept. Most people were locked in the struggle for mere survival, and happiness wasn’t a concept that was worthy of consideration for all but a select few.

The driver when it came to safety was our physical well-being and the well-being of our families – because they were a part of our safety net.

Driving Safety

It’s 1926, and Route 66 is becoming the experience of a lifetime for many travelers. It’s a call to adventure and an opportunity to explore the country in ways that hadn’t been possible before. The road was a continuous stretch from Chicago to California – but it was just that: a stretch. Automobiles had been made practical through Ford’s innovations of mass production, and since 1908, they were an affordable way to travel. Ironically, Ford shut down manufacture of the Model T shortly after Route 66 was completed. (Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Model_T.)

Reliability of the automobile isn’t what it is today. The first Indianapolis 500 in 1911 wasn’t initially a race as much as it was an endurance test. Getting automobiles that could travel 500 miles without breaking down was a challenge. Sure, there was a winner, and the goal was to cross the line with the highest average speed; but of the initial field of 40 cars, only 12 finished. Another 14 still had engines running, but flagged out when they were disqualified – the remaining 14 cars weren’t functional by the end of the race. (Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1911_Indianapolis_500.)

These were the top automobiles of their time, and fewer than a third finished 500 miles. Route 66 was roughly 2,500 miles. Breakdown wasn’t so much of a possibility as a probability. If you did break down, you had a toolbox on board to try to resolve the problems yourself, because, in this world, there weren’t cell phones, and the service stations weren’t close together. You’d also expect to have food and a tent in case you needed to camp out along the route. (Source https://www.historic66.com/.)

It is difficult for us to conceive of a time when traveling was so hazardous and error-prone. Today, we punch in an address in our GPS receiver and wait for turn-by-turn directions to our location. Just a generation ago, we taught map skills to children because it was important to understand how to route ourselves. We expect that cellular signals will reach mobile phones so that, even in the rare case of a problem with our car, we can call someone to help us with a repair, a meal, a room, or directions.

We feel safer in many different directions. We believe that problems happen much less frequently, with lower severity, and we believe that we’re able to recover more rapidly. Few of us keep stable food in our cars today, much less camping equipment or tools in case we need to plan on camping out or repairing the car ourselves.

Food Costs

The truth is that we were able to take risks like traveling the “mother road” of Route 66, because our discretionary income was increasing. Sure, the 1930s were marred by the Great Depression, but there were other factors that were moving towards greater affluence. Consider that, in 1900, the average American family spent approximately 40% of their income on food. By 1950, that number was down to 30%. Today, our cost for food is less than 15% of our income (on average). (Source: https://www.bls.gov/opub/100-years-of-u-s-consumer-spending.pdf.) In the space of 100 years, we freed up 25% of our income.

Reducing the cost of food means that fewer people were at risk of starvation. That isn’t to say that there aren’t still families struggling today to keep enough food available, but the number of families for which this is a problem is substantially lower than it was a century ago. The problem of food safety (enough food) is still an important social issue, but the prevalence of families for whom this is a consistent struggle is decreasing.

House Sizes

Many families took their new-found discretionary income and poured it into their houses. In 1950, the average home size was less than 1,000 feet. By 1973, the size ballooned to about 1,500 square feet. (Source: https://www.daveramsey.com/blog/housing-trends.) From 1973 to 2015, the average size of homes ballooned another 1,000 feet, while the number of people living in each home went down. The net effect was a near doubling of space per person in the space of about 40 years. (Source: http://www.aei.org/publication/new-us-homes-today-are-1000-square-feet-larger-than-in-1973-and-living-space-per-person-has-nearly-doubled/.)

The perceived financial safety transferred to Americans making larger investments in their houses. In 1950, the average house price was $7,354. The average home price today is $236,400. Even adjusted for inflation, the cost of a 1950s home would only be $44,600. That’s nearly a 5-fold increase in the last 70 years. We’re feeling safer about our financial futures and we’re turning homes into castles – almost literally.

Mortality

It may be frustrating to not get to our destination, but it’s more challenging to realize that we’re not going to live to see our grandchildren. In the 1800s, the average life expectancy was 35 years. Today, the life expectancy is around 70 years. In the last 200 years, we’ve doubled the life expectancy of humans across the planet. (Source: https://slides.ourworldindata.org/global-health/#/title-slide.) Measured differently, in 1900, about 2,500 people of every 100,000 would perish each year. Today, that number is approximately 750 people – roughly one-quarter. (Source: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data-visualization/mortality-trends/index.htm.) Our fear of death is real – but it is waning because we know that the average lifespan keeps climbing.

Instead of a persistent fear of death and injury, we’ve quelled our hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis.

Hyperactive Fear

The landmark study on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) taught us that a tumultuous childhood has long-range impacts. (See a wealth of resources about the ACE study at https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy/index.html.) The primary stress response system is the HPA, and activating it too much causes a predisposition of continued activation. That is, once you create a high degree of fear in a child (or an adult), you’re likely to see them be sensitive to fear in the future. They’ll respond with fear more readily than someone who hasn’t been similarly primed. (See How Children Succeed for more on the impact of the ACE study on children.) It turns out that the clock winds back even into the womb, as David Barker discovered in his research around the fetal origins of adult disease (FOAD). Some adult diseases can be predicted based on the stressors to the mother during pregnancy. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on ACE, HPA, and FOAD.)

In short, the impacts of stress on children – even before they’re born – have long-term consequences for their ability to control themselves and their long-term health. Walter Mischel and his colleagues showed that the ability to delay gratification has substantial long-term impacts for a child’s life through their “marshmallow test.” (See The Marshmallow Test.) When we reduce the fear that children feel and the stresses placed on them in utero, we can place them in a position of being more able to regulate their own emotions and quiet their fears and desires. As the societal stressors are reduced one by one, we’re literally changing the wiring of our brains and making them more thoughtful and less fear-based.

Psychological Safety

Amy Edmonson is responsible for crystalizing the term “psychological safety” as a representation of how safe members of a team feel about the team itself. In some teams, there is a real belief that they can be themselves – their whole selves – and in other teams there exists a perception that you must only do what is expected of you, and you shouldn’t share your all.

Bodies and Minds

It used to be that people hired the bodies, and the minds were just along for the ride. However, with today’s more taxing requirements for creativity and innovation, it could be said that we hire the minds, and it’s just the body that transports the mind to work – even if that’s just across the hall to the home office.

It’s hard to understand that, before the extreme automation that we’ve developed today, we really did need people performing backbreaking work. It was necessary for people to do many of the jobs that today are handled by robots or other kinds of automation. Today, not everyone even sweeps their floors any longer. A robotic vacuum does scheduled cleanings, makes a map of the places it’s cleaned, and notifies you when it needs its bin emptied or if it’s gotten stuck. It’s no surprise then that the physical aspects of work are no longer key. Today when we lead, we need to do more than just command other people’s bodies where to be. We must inspire them to think in ways that are useful.

Minds Aren’t Easy to Manage

We all love to believe we’re in rational control of our faculties. It’s a convenient lie to believe that we can command ourselves to do things. However, few New Year’s Resolutions are kept: dieters, on average, gain back 107% of the weight they’ve lost. Clearly, our conscious decisions don’t always work.

Drive shares how a small amount of stress – time pressure – can change the degree to which people can be creative about their solutions. Getting the best work out of the people you work with is something that takes a Multiplier, but that guidance isn’t particularly clear about how you lead every day by getting the most out of others.

Making of Managers and Not Leaders

Until the last two decades or so, it was enough to lead by directing, or managing, people. However, this is no longer the case. Today, we must find ways to inspire the hearts and minds of people. This is substantially more challenging than just bossing them around. However, that’s how leadership has evolved.