A friend, mentor, and manager of mine once relayed a conversation that he had with the HR manager at our company. The HR manager said that you couldn’t change the stripes on a tiger but – in a sense – this was exactly what my friend was trying to do. He wasn’t content with people where they were. He wanted people to grow and change and become the best possible versions of themselves, even if it was painful, as it often was. He was ahead of his time in trying to carve out his corner of the larger organization and make it deliberately developmental for every team member.
Nancy Dixon and I began a conversation years ago at a KMWorld event. Since then, there has been the passage of time and only a few powerful conversations. When she heard some of the work that I was doing in teaching people how to listen better and how to resolve conflict, she encouraged me to read An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. As I suspected, it was a good book. It helped to bring into focus some of the things that I had been working with clients to create in their organizations.
Too Many Ideas So Little Time
I’ve been making a concerted effort to be more judicious with what I cover in my book reviews. I recognize that reading a 7,000-word post is like reading a half a chapter of a book – so I’ve been breaking them down. This one got broken into a series of posts that have already made it to the blog. The triggering moment for five posts came from An Everyone Culture.
- Organizations for Humans
- Comfortably Uncomfortable
- A New Way to Manage: Up, Down, and Around
- Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism
- Why and How 12-Step Programs Work
That isn’t to say that all the content in these posts came from An Everyone Culture. It sparked the thoughts and the need for me to capture and relate my experience in a way that others could capture as well.
Weakness Is Strength
There’s an interesting paradox in our weakness. It’s our weakness that gives us strength. It’s our weakness that demonstrates our perceived safety and our ability to grow.
When we were growing up in the proverbial school yard, exposing our weakness was sure to result in being called out for that weakness at some point. We were powerless to avoid harm when the words hurt us as much as the sticks and stones. We learned not to be weak for fear of being harmed.
However, there’s another framework from which we can expose our weaknesses. If we know that, no matter what happens, we’ll not be harmed, there’s no reason to hide our weakness. It’s not really hiding our weaknesses that is our goal. Instead, our goal is to avoid hurt. If you can’t get hurt by someone by them knowing your weakness, why hide it?
Consider for a moment the power of a 12-step group like Alcoholics Anonymous. The greatest addictive weakness is known to everyone in the group. The check-in practice all but requires it. Simply showing up is a relatively clear indication. Yet this greatest weakness is safe with the rest of the group, because they share the same weakness and therefore can’t harm you with the knowledge. (Though this is not technically true, it feels this way.) The reason that it’s an anonymous group is so that people can’t take the information to people outside the group who might harm you with it. (See Why and How 12-Step Programs Work for more on this powerful tool that addicts – and non-addicts – use to elevate their lives.)
To be able to expose your weaknesses with a broad audience makes you powerful, because it means that your weakness can’t be used to hurt you – or at least it’s hard to use them to hurt you and requires malicious intent, which fortunately most people don’t possess. To get to this point, you must feel safe with the knowledge of sharing.
Safety is an illusion. We believe that flying in a plane isn’t safe. It’s scary. We believe that driving or riding in cars is safe. The problem is that we have these precisely backwards. Cars kill many more people than airplane accidents, but airplane accidents make the news, and car accidents rarely do. We rely on the What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI) and assess that planes are less safe than cars when the opposite is true. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on WYSIATI.)
Consider a move to a perfectly middle-class neighborhood. In this fictitious place of Normalville, everything is at the statistical mean – schools, crime, everything. Whether you consider this place a safe place to raise your family will be assessed against your current situation. Is your current neighborhood a high-safety place or a low-safety place? If you’re used to a gated community with a Barney Fife-type security guard driving around the neighborhood, you’ll find the transition to Normalville very unsafe. Conversely, if your last neighbors were a drug dealer and a pimp, both of whose clientele had a propensity for random and non-random shootings, your move would add amazing perceived safety.
Cultivating the perceived safety in our work environments comes from the development of trust. Trust that our coworkers have our best interests at heart. Trust that we can rely on them when we need help.
For me, when it comes down to how do you change and grow – whether as a child or as an adult – it all comes down to trust. Do you trust the folks who are trying to help you through the growth and change (even if this is just you)? If you do, there’s a chance for success, and if not, there may be better ways to spend your time. I’ve written extensively about trust, particularly in Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy.
Changing ourselves is possible. It’s possible to grow and change. Dweck’s work shows that a growth mindset is better than a fixed mindset (see Mindset). Knowing that we can change and trusting that the people around us are the ones to help us make that change aren’t the same thing. Organizations that want to be deliberately developmental must focus on trust as a critical ingredient for that growth, without it a great deal of energy will be spent without much in the way of results.
Burnout has been a lifelong companion of mine. Sometimes I’m able to push it away for a week, a month, or a year, but eventually burnout comes back to catch up and remind me it’s there. Burnout is not, however, what most people believe it is. Burnout isn’t overwork. Burnout isn’t trying too hard. Burnout is the result of not feeling like you’re changing anything. You don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. Burnout tells you that nothing ever changes. (Del Amitri has a song that I always hear when I write about burnout titled “Nothing Ever Happens”.)
Burnout can surface in our personal lives – we’re never going to find that perfect person or our children are never going to learn those important lessons. Burnout can happen in our career – endless job opportunities appear to other people but not to us. Burnout can happen in our personal development – we’re making the same poor choices and getting the same poor results in our diets, our exercise routine, and our ability to control our anger and communicate our feelings to others.
The first feelings of burnout show as we start to put forth less energy into the things that we are – or at least were – passionate about. This initial appearance of burnout tentatively tries to take hold of your future – to cause you to change your direction.
Getting out of burnout isn’t always easy, but there are simple exercises – like exercise – that can help make it better. Physical activity is one way to help, as the physiological response is sometimes enough to help us escape a rut. For those, like myself, for whom exercise isn’t a pleasurable experience, there are other approaches as well.
The things that you focus on get bigger. If you focus on where you’re blocked in your growth, those blocks will seem bigger. Conversely, if you’re able to focus some thought on how things may be getting better – even if only slightly – you can help yourself out of the pit of burnout. (See Hardwiring Happiness for some more tips here about instilling happiness which helps relieve burnout.)
If you want to transform your organization into an organization that rejects burnout, perhaps you need to read An Everyone Culture.