Disrupt the Status Quo of Problems

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This is a repost from Linked In’s Pulse:

Have you heard the term cog in a wheel?

Have you heard the expression — drop your emotions at the door?

Think about what these expressions reveal. Might they be evidence that we see people like machines?

I’ll start with a story about Christine. She works in a large company and has led a team of people who had been working happily together for a long while. Over the last 18 months, however, a few people quit and she was unable to find other teammates due to the specialized skills required. The workload was piling up; everyone started working faster and multi-tasking more, inadvertently generating errors that were soon noticed by clients, who started to complain. While the team sat in a beautiful open space designed specifically for open communication, nobody talked to each other. Instead, they emailed each other in order to prove, in writing, that they weren’t at fault regarding errors. The email trails got so long that nobody could understand the real issues. Frustration grew and the team morale got worse.

At the same time, Christine had metrics to meet, so she would push her staff more and more, regardless of the staff shortage. After a while, they complained saying, “We’re not machines! We can’t produce the same quality of work with a double and triple workload!” Christine got worried about losing more people. As she became increasingly frustrated and anxious, she started to worry about her own job.

Can’t you relate?

Our current organizations are like this, aren’t they? We hire people to do specific jobs and if they don’t do as expected in the way we like, sooner or later, they’re replaced; they’re seen as replaceable parts in a system. They’re also considered bad apples. We get rid of the bad ones and keep the good ones (called the bad apple theory), which creates more problems because it doesn’t work. The bad apple theory has been debunked by social psychologists who have proven that context affects behavior. It’s the context, not the people. For example, let’s say you and I join a company where people treat us like replaceable parts in a system and expected to meet specific metrics regardless of what happens. Our behavior and results will be affected even when nothing changes about our intelligence or capacity to create value. In Christine’s case, nothing was wrong with her or her team — they’re smart and capable people, yet their behavior and outcomes changed as worked piled up and frustration grew.

The thing is…being treated like a cog in a wheel generates specific emotionsand it’s easy to feel disrespected, frustrated and anxious about making mistakes, being judged or blamed or even fired. These emotions generate predictable behavior that make us focus on proving our worth with visible achievements, avoiding mistakes or failure, containing our emotions (which requires lots of energy) and doing what’s needed to protect our jobs at all cost. These behaviors undermine doing what we know is best for our organizations.

You recognize what I’m describing, don’t you?

People behave this way for self-preservation, not because they’re bad apples. Yet, there’s no space for thriving. It keeps everyone at a survival level, where they avoid rocking the boat vs doing what’s best for the business — such as solving a small problem that nobody notices, yet it makes a difference. Or coming up with an innovation that changes the trajectory of the entire company such as the digital camera has done. Or investing in a new service, that might seem frivolous at first, yet changes the entire economy as internet search has done.

How did we get into this situation?

We’re caught in a system designed 250 years ago during the Industrial Revolution when people could function as a cog in a wheel. When working on assembly lines of the time, not much thinking was needed. But this doesn’t work today when thinking, creating and collaborating are essential to team and organizational success. Yet, we believe we’ve moved on from the legacy industrial model — into the Technology or Information Age; yet we still use the same mentality or assumption, without even realizing it.

Why don’t we realize it?

We don’t realize it because we’ve learned how to think this way over many years and through repetition at school, so it’s become engrained at the sub-conscious level. The thing is…subconscious assumptions stay in place until they’re questioned consciously.

So, we have this subconscious mentality and don’t realize it and that is the rootof the problems we face in organizations today — low engagement, low innovation, conflict, resistance to change and retention. We solve these problems when we change the mentality.

The change has already started:

First with the workforce consciousness shift: more people want purpose and passion; to contribute to something big. There’s been an awakening to the internal human world of inner needs, emotions, inherent value and the unlimited potential of the human experience. Fewer people want to plod along in a meaningless job just to make a living, so they quit. This is why retention is such a hot issue for companies around the world.

Second, the economy has shifted from primarily manufacturing to primarily services, where people’s unique talents are one with company success. When I provide services to your team, for instance, my entire self is part of those services and when you partake in those services, your entire self is included and it becomes more about relationships than process. That’s why there’s so much attention to humanizing organizations now — because we need to tap everyone’s best to generate innovative products and services that take our companies into the emerging future.

The change is already happening! The question is — do you want to chase it or do you want to lead it?

If you want to lead it, you can use Human-Centric Leading (HCL) at a tool. It disrupts the status quo of problems.

How?

It shifts our mentality from seeing people as cogs in a wheel to seeing people as people in our entirety — with our good ideas, skills, experience, knowledge, as well as any fears, concerns, health issues or emotional triggers. It’s a foundational tool because it works at the root level, so it boosts any initiative you already have in your team or organization.

HCL focuses us on context — team culture, by resetting the rules of engagement.

Imagine this: you and I are hired to work in a company where we’re treated with respect and dignity in every situation that arises at work. How will we feel? Happy to wake up and go to work, appreciated, respected, engaged — safe enough to be authentic and bring our best selves to work every day.

Wouldn’t you love to feel this way at work, every day?

Feeling good generates specific, predictable behavior, so we’d focus on sharing our most creative ideas, collaborate to get things done and all in all, do what’s best for the team and company.

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone behaved this way at work every day?

So, how to use HCL in practice? 

With three easy tools that are distilled to short questions that change team culture, one interaction, one meeting at a time. They’re simple yet powerful because they help everyone  focus on what’s needed to feel good and face issues that arise at work without reactive fear:

  • Awareness: what’s my contribution?
  • Emotions as data: what are my emotions telling me?
  • Needs: what do I need to feel good and work at my best?
  • Perspective: what would a wise person do?

In order to affect change, we first need to be aware of what we contribute to problems and solutions. Let’s say we worked on a team and had a problem. We’d ask ourselves what we were contributing to that problem — what we were assuming about the situation or people involved? What we were doing to make the problem worse or usher in a solution? What were we feeling and what were those emotions telling us when we see them as data? If a few colleagues on our team expressed anxiety, for example, saying, “I’m scared the project is going to fail,” we’d speak to those emotions to glean their value. We’d inquire about what our colleagues noticed or the evidence they had that we’d fail. All along, using the emotion of fear to have an intelligent conversation around success and failure and what was needed to ensure that we were on the right path. All the while, we’d be expressing the emotions, feeling heard, feeling better and focusing on what was needed to overcome challenges and do our best work. Whenever we needed a new perspective, we’d ask ourselves what a wise person would do and tap into other vantage points and ideas. Over time, we’d notice that blame, judgments and destructive criticism fall away, leaving room for an open, judgement-free team culture in which everyone thrives.

Let’s go back to Christine’s case and see how she and her team applied HCL to solve their error rates and improve team morale :

I’ll describe Maria’s perspective because she was the lever for transformation (and her boss, Christine, knew this). Maria was an old-timer; the most experienced, knowledgeable and influential person on the team and people looked to her for guidance. When Maria felt good, everyone felt good. When Maria felt badly, the entire team felt ambiguous. Over time, Maria changed from being happy, helpful and positive to being angry, resentful and bitter — and this affected the entire team.

When working with the questions, Maria realized that she was contributingher anger and frustration, yet she didn’t know what to do about that. She also contributed some unhelpful behavior: she blamed Christine for everything and criticized people in other teams. She was also sending out harsh emails, although she didn’t intend to, but was sending them from a rushed and frustrated state of being.

When she wondered what her emotions were telling her, she realized that she was very angry and anger means that something unfair has happened. She remembers that it started when felt humiliated by Christine in front of the entire team… six months prior! She had been holding on to that anger for so long, without knowing what to do.

When she wondered what she needed to feel good and work at her best, she needed to feel respected and appreciated for all the work she did, plus her mentoring of the entire team. She needed to release her anger and frustration, so she wouldn’t keep bringing those feelings to work. She needed to stop blaming and criticizing and sending emails when she was stressed. She needed to start focusing on what she could control and do to make things better.

When she asked herself what a wise person would do, she knew exactly what to do — clear the air with Christine among a few other things.

After doing some exercises to release her anger and frustration, Maria felt lighter. She then met with Christine to clear the air (which required a lot of courage), yet the first meeting didn’t go well because they ended up blaming each other. A couple of days later, however, they met again and let their guards down. They shared their perspectives and that’s when Maria learned that Christine had no intention of humiliating her, quite the contrary — she considered Maria a lever for transformation! They both felt relieved to have hashed things out. Maria emerged from that meeting feeling respected, appreciated and in control — she saw how she could affect her workplace experience by questioning her contributions and using her emotions as data. When Maria felt better, the entire team felt better and the morale shifted 180 degrees.

Do you know what happened next? The improved morale generated specific, measurable outcomes: everyone stopped emailing each other and talked about the challenges face-to-face. They collaborated to solve the error rates and found new ways to rebuild trust with their clients. They even initiated monthly “Happy and Effective” team meetings to ensure the positive team culture stayed alive and prevent themselves from slipping into unhelpful habits. They have taken ownership of their team culture and are still going strong two years later!

Here’s a challenge for you — use HCL to solve a conflict you have with someone at work.

See yourself and the others involved as people with good ideas and intentions, hopes to feel better and collaborate, yet also possibly anxious and reactive with emotional triggers. Then ask yourself what you contribute to the conflict — what are you assuming about yourself, the others, the situation? What are you doing to make the conflict worse or create a solution? What are you feeling and what would you learn if you saw your emotions as useful data offering insight into the solution. Consider what you need to feel good, solve the conflict and foster a positive relationships with the others. And when you need some added perspective, ask yourself what a wise person would do.

And please let me know how it goes!

This is a 15-minute speech on human-centric leading presented at the WorkHuman Conference, May 2016.