“We sense we’ve reached the end of something.”
Lynne McTaggart, author, The Bond
In Part 1 of this article I explored some of the forces that have shaped our vision of workplace relationships. There’s an increasing amount of rhetoric in business conversations today about the importance of optimizing people to maximize their strengths and nurture passion and creativity. Hey, I’m all for it, but a part of me cringes as I imagine the proverbial pig with lipstick, to use a charming American colloquialism.
Changing the nature of relationships at work will require more than a new business strategy. Organizations are always looking for magic bullets. Change initiative programs alone will not transform individuals – and certainly not cultures. Transforming the nature of workplace relationships will require a sea change in the mindsets that shape organizational life. Governed by task orientation and subject to hierarchical structures, most work relationships today are still organized around competition.
The “norms” that shape individual perceptions, expectations and interactions within work settings are systemically driven. Obviously the obstacles and challenges to changing these norms are enormous. The first step has to be the wholesale examination of the thinking that governs an organization’s understanding of its purpose in concert with the dynamics of human relationships within that system.
Words are important, but words alone aren’t going to cut it anymore. Most people are fed up with facades and deception. “Disengagement” levels are at an all-time high for a reason. People are tired and weary but they are also a lot savvier than they were even a decade ago. The immediacy of social and 24/7 global media has brought the world to us and life will never be the same again.
Although mental tribalism still threatens our connectivity, it’s getting harder to keep our eyes closed to the need to work together. In her book, The Bond, author Lynne McTaggart writes, “For more than three hundred years our worldview has been shaped by a story that describes isolated beings competing for survival on a lonely planet in an indifferent universe. A multitude of influences – religious, political, economic, scientific and philosophical – writes the story that we live by.”
It’s time to write new stories. Given the global and local challenges we face, we’re going to have to write a lot of new stories. But the story begins within.
According to McTaggart, “The leitmotif of our present story is the hero up against it. We take it for granted that our life’s journey is meant to be a struggle. Consequently, we remain constantly vigilant, poised to wrestle with every behemoth – at home, at work, even among acquaintances and friends that stray across our path. No matter how pleasant our lives, the vast majority of us maintain a stance of operating contra mundi, with every encounter some sort of battle to be fought.”
We Can’t Change the Story Unless We Fully Understand It
If we are going to change the story of how we live – and work together – we’re going to have to have a very good idea of the stories we tell ourselves now that propel our feelings into actions.
Because the Big Story we’ve been told about people and how the world works (called reality) keeps us spinning in isolation, we’re going to have to rewrite our personal stories – day by day – encounter by encounter. We have to re-imagine the world from that place, not exclusively from the past – or from someone else’s story. Our analysis of the motivations within human dynamics must become far more sophisticated in our design of the new human workplace. Since the advent of the modern workplace, people have been fitted into work systems, which continue to take a terrible toll on “productivity” and employee well-being. We must now rethink and redesign those systems around people, not abstract theories, processes and economic bottom-lines.
In her book, It’s Always Personal, Anne Kreamer offers an example from Sigal Barsade, an expert on emotions within organizations from the Wharton School of Business, “People don’t come to work tabula rasa. Rather they have a prior life and work history that can influence their thoughts and behaviors on the job. Traditionally, organizational behavior has only examined things people could easily see or report. But I think we’ve missed an entire level of analysis, which is unconscious.”
We’ve gotten by so far with a stagnant view of human nature. We’ve “designed” work processes based on a rudimentary view of human dynamics. Opposite of embracing an understanding of the depth of human relationships, the “business” model has often been hostile to it. “Rationality” is still king in our beliefs about human behavior in business. And it’s not only the “system” which reinforces fallacies and ignorance about how we humans function – individual beliefs play a major role in maintaining the status quo.
An example from Professor Barsade illustrates the point, If a man is cut off in traffic on his way to work and then has to make a strategic decision in a 9 a.m. meeting, if I were to ask him if the anger he felt during the traffic encounter in any way influenced his later decision, he’d answer “absolutely not,” when we have concrete evidence that it would. We are unaware of how diffuse our moods are, and this lack of awareness can be insidious.”
What We Can No Longer Ignore – the Brain is Social
Turns out – the brain is a WE, not just a ME. Neuroscience research continues to reinforce that it’s the power of being with others that shapes our brains – and relationships provide the primary context for that development. According to the RSA.org “For the last two decades the model of the rational individual has been consistently undermined by social psychology, behavioral economics and neuroscience. The rational individual construct was not based on naivety, but on the belief that this was the best model to help us plan our economies and organize our societies. Above all it fails to grasp that social context is not an afterthought , a variable to be controlled, but the defining feature of how we think, learn and behave.”
If we are, as the RSA says, creatures that are “largely habitual; embedded in complex social networks; highly sensitive to social and cultural norms and more “rationalizing” than rational,” what are the implications for the future of workplace relationships if we embrace this knowledge and apply it? Our need to understand, connect and engage with others is fundamental to our existence. Yet, how much of modern work processes are structured to accommodate this scientific fact? Louis Cozolino, Ph.D writes in his book, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, “A fundamental characteristic of Western science and philosophy has been the conception of the thinker as alone rather than embedded within a human community. Scientists have had to expand their thinking to grasp this idea: the individual neuron or a single human brain does not exist in nature. The brain requires knowledge of the healthy living brain embedded within a community of other brains: relationships are our natural habitat.”
If “management’s job is to optimize the whole system,” as W. Edwards Deming prescribed, then what must the organization of the 21st century do to maximize opportunities for people to work in safe (minimizing fear) trusting (maximizing understanding ) collaborative (power-sharing) relation to each other?
Every belief we have influences our thinking about business, about work and about people within the workplace. These beliefs keep things tethered to the past or open to new experiences.
Recently I came across an article in Inc. Magazine that listed the “8 Core Beliefs of Extraordinary Bosses.” While it will take far more than “extraordinary bosses” to transform the way we work together, genuinely practicing any one of them would have a salubrious impact on a work culture. Embedded within each one are dozens of policies and practices that guide the ways that we structure work.
We are learning a great deal about concepts like chaos and complexity these days – a historic moment, some might say. For a long time, those words were big and scary. We still cling to the idea of certainty, striving for that safe, predictable place.
But just as we sense we are at the end of something – many sense something “new” is emerging. We can’t get our arms around it yet, this new thing – perhaps an easing into a new form of trust. Maybe its what’s being defined as “resiliency. Not the tough, dense idea of resiliency, but a strength that’s anchored in flexibility. This kind of resiliency requires and inspires letting go and trusting.
In Creating Resiliency by Following Nature’s Lead, author Erin Leitch writes, “We have a lot to learn about resilience from observing the natural world. We can build resilience into our businesses using nature as a model. It’s important to remember that resilience is an emergent property. All too often, we begin discussing resilience during or immediately after a disturbance, such as a natural disaster. Resilient systems emerge when strategies are embedded prior to a disturbance so that the rules of the system can take over and allow the system to maintain its function both during the disturbance and in the period afterwards.” Re-imagining a workplace from this place feels very different to me. It feels open and spacious. Creative and generative. Empathetic and supportive. Healthy and inspiring. Maybe even fun! It’s exciting, even thrilling to imagine, isn’t it?
Thanks for reading,
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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