How Mindfulness Promotes Business Success

Many factors contribute to whether an organization can achieve success. I define success as an upward trajectory in responsible profitability, productivity, innovation, and competitiveness. Some of the things that determine whether an organization will succeed or not are simply out of our control. And those things that are under our control can be elusive and difficult to understand.

Every minute of every day each and every one of us is emotionally and mentally managing three related but distinct variables: change, complexity, and ambiguity. Often our processing of change, complexity, and ambiguity occurs at a level below our immediate consciousness and requires little mental and emotional energy. Driving, biking, or walking to work is a good example of where change, complexity, and ambiguity are highly present, but usually within the margins of that with which we are mentally and emotionally able to cope. Cars changing lanes, stop-and-go traffic, an accident on the road, people passing you, you passing people, horns honking, or bells ringing, someone swerving into your lane, etc. While our morning or evening commute can take a toll on us mentally and emotionally—especially if it's long and there is a lot of traffic—this routine that billions of people undertake daily generally falls within the margins of what our brains can handle without becoming compromised.

Sticking with the commute analogy, imagine if your work destination changed every week. Add to that the fact that you need to follow entirely new directions, and navigate totally unfamiliar roads, and encounter numerous unexpected obstacles. Oh, and add to that that your mode of transportation changes too (i.e., different car, bike, shoes, etc.). Now you can begin to approximate a scenario in which the change, complexity, and ambiguity associated with the task of commuting to and from work start to take a mental and emotional toll that compromises the brain's ability to function. More precisely, the part of the brain that is responsible for rational thought starts to wane—the prefrontal cortex. Evolutionarily, the prefrontal cortex is the newest part of the brain. The prefrontal cortex also takes a lot of wattage to run. The prefrontal cortex does its best work in the morning after a good night of sleep, and it helps to suppress irrational signals of danger from another part of our brain that plays a key and important role in the fear response—the amygdala.

Keeping a balance between the rational thinking of the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala is important. On the one hand, the ability of the prefrontal cortex to maintain calm in the amygdala is essential to living a life not paralyzed by fear. For example, the amygdala might be sending signals not to get on a plane because it might crash. The prefrontal cortex is usually able to override these fears with rationale about how few people die flying, despite the fact that it is still a risk, albeit small. When the prefrontal cortex is unable to override the fear signaling of the amygdala distress manifests and we can develop phobias (e.g. a fear of flying). On the other hand, living a life free from fear is likely to result in our swift demise. To this end, sometimes an outburst from the amygdala, as manifest via the fight/flight/freeze response, can be involuntary and lifesaving. Swerving to avoid an oncoming vehicle, freezing if you come across a snake ready to strike on a hiking trail, or running from a would-be assailant are all examples of how rational fear and the involuntary fear response are hardwired into our genetic coding to keep us safe.

So what does the fear response have to do with how organizations operate? Let’s return to the earlier example of commuting to work. If you were forced to overuse your prefrontal cortex on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis to navigate new roads, new signage, new obstacles, and a new means of transportation to arrive at work, this task would erode your ability to deal with change complexity, and ambiguity in other areas of your life. And it would make you more susceptible to signals from your amygdala of danger. In the Information Age, of many organizations operate like the scenario I described above. The pace and change of life driven by technology create an environment filled with change, complexity, and ambiguity. These factors put weight on the prefrontal cortex and arouse the amygdala, leading to a state of distress. Sometimes this distress can be masked by the euphoria of doing something novel and exciting, especially if the organization is having success. But that euphoria soon wears off. To be clear, every organization, no matter how large or small, no matter how old or new, deals with change, complexity, and ambiguity. 

The distress that change, complexity, and ambiguity can cause is inversely proportional to the amount of perceived power an individual has in an organization. In other words, while the CEO, COO, or President of an organization may feel the stress associated with making the organization a success, their position of power is a mitigating factor, because it is balanced by a real or imagined sense of control. The less power a person has, the likelier they are to experience distress from change, complexity, and ambiguity.

As the change, complexity, and ambiguity of work life lead to a state of personal distress, a chain of events is set in motion that can quite literally be the death of an organization, as I have personally witnessed from the inside and the outside on multiple occasions. The pattern is predictable, consistent, potentially fatal to the organization and, most importantly, preventable. Distress leads to low morale. Low morale leads to cynicism. Cynicism leads to disengagement. And disengagement leads to departure. Each and every stage from distress to departure take a toll on the organization's ability to succeed.

And this is where leaders in organizations can take their two, also predictable, actions that all but guarantee failure. First, they might attribute the signals of low morale, cynicism, disengagement, and departure to personal weakness on the part of employees (sometimes privately and sometimes publicly). And second, they might attempt to exercise control to reduce or remove change, complexity, and ambiguity.

The instinct to deflect responsibility by blaming others for their distress is a natural defensive mechanism with the goal of self-preservation—quite understandable, but nonetheless damaging. The instinct to control in the face of change, complexity, and ambiguity is also quite natural—if there’s a fire, douse it with water! The problem is that the fire you’re dealing with here is a grease fire, which water significantly exacerbates. In other words, the first instincts to blame and control in response to low morale, cynicism, disengagement, and departure, only serve to worsen the problem.

There is no antidote per se to this phenomenon of change, complexity, and ambiguity leading to low morale, cynicism, disengagement, and departure. But there is an effective treatment of sorts. The treatment I have in mind is something that has been practiced for centuries in Eastern culture and often comes framed as a spiritual tradition. It goes by many names, but the name most commonly associated with this practice today in the West is mindfulness.

The brain operates on three levels: the subconscious, conscious, and meta-conscious. The subconscious can influence how we feel and what we think about things to a significant degree but is mostly invisible to us. The subconscious is where many of our automatic fear responses reside in response to the external stimuli of change, complexity, and ambiguity. Our conscious mind processes rational thought. It can respond to itself (introspection). And it helps us to make sense of the data we take in. Meta-consciousness is that part of our mind that is aware of the conscious self and can bring to the fore the subconscious. Mindfulness is the act of exercising and building awareness of subconsciousness and consciousness with the purpose of learning to accept the present moment as it unfolds. An example from my personal life can clarify the relationship among the subconscious, conscious, and meta-conscious.

I’ve experienced night-time panic attacks for the past 20 years. For those who have not personally experienced a panic attack or are otherwise unfamiliar with a panic attack, it occurs when an individual either involuntarily or through fear-based cognition creates an extreme state of anxiety that manifests physically and physiologically as the hormone and neurotransmitter epinephrine and norepinephrine are released into the body and brain. Onset is rapid. And the experience is universally unpleasant. Common symptoms include a rapid heart rate, uncontrollable shaking, profuse sweating, an urge to evacuate bowels, an impulse to flee, rapid breathing, mental confusion, and even passing out. 

A panic attack is a five-alarm fear response that is usually out of proportion to the real or imagined threat, making it all the more distressing. As epinephrine and norepinephrine are exhausted, the individual often returns to a state of calm, but the mental distress and anguish can have lasting adverse effects. By my mid-20s, I became used to having nocturnal panic attacks. That I was used to the panic attacks didn’t make them any less distressing; I just knew they were going to happen.

One night I was jolted from my sleep with the common manifestations of a panic attack. Usually, I would pace around the house for 30 to 45 minutes until my body had relaxed. I would often remain on edge for several days after that. But one night, for reasons still unclear to me, I was able to engage my meta-consciousness. In other words, I was able to be in the present moment—which was a panic attack outside of my control—and observe it with acceptance. This observant acceptance was not something I could do though subconscious or conscious thought. It was the ability to create a buffer by observing myself from the outside in that enabled me to experience my panic without suffering. This ability is a critical point. The panic still caused discomfort, and it still does. But learning to be accepting of what is unfolding in the present moment is what eliminated distress. Distress occurs when there is a space between what we want to be experiencing and what we are experiencing and resist or reject that space. Mathematically, is could be expressed like this: reality + (aversion x resistance) = distress.

How does this all figure into personal wellbeing and operating a successful organization? The first two lessons are for leaders and are crucial to long-term success. First, access your compassionate side when people express verbal or nonverbal distress because of the change, complexity, and ambiguity inherent in the workplace. Many people don’t have the language or introspection to understand why change, complexity, and ambiguity are causing them to feel distressed and leading to their low morale, cynicism, and disengagement. Getting rid of the “weak” from the organization will do irreparable harm. Second, face the illusion of control. In reality, we control almost nothing. When leaders feel that subordinates perceive them as lacking control, the instinct of self-preservation can kick in, often manifesting as top-down policies, procedures, systems, and structures to give the impression of control. The paradox is that the reaction often results in less control if and when individuals choose to ignore passively, dismiss, or act contrary to policies, procedures, systems, and structures, which people will do when they’re feeling squeezed from the top. This dynamic undermines your authority. I do not mean to say that policies, procedures, systems, and structures are in and of themselves bad. But be aware of your mindset when the instinct kicks in to make new policies, procedures, systems, and structures. Are you coming from a place of fear or are you coming from a place of growth?

The most important lesson is to cultivate cultures of mindfulness. But be careful of how you go about this. There is an important distinction between other activities meant to improve mental and physical wellbeing—such as exercise and healthy eating—and practicing mindfulness. I can go on a diet and eat nothing but 1000 calories of unappetizing food for a month, resist and complain every second of the way, and yet I will still gain the benefit of a loss in weight. I can run five miles on a treadmill every day for a month to lose weight, hate every second of it and not mentally give into the process, and still gain the benefit of a loss in weight. In other words, there are things you can do for your health that you mentally resist and still benefit. You cannot do this with mindfulness practices. Each must be mentally and emotionally committed to the practice of mindfulness. Resistance is the antithesis to the acceptance that mindfulness practice cultivates. All this is to say that ordering individuals to be mindful or spend 30 minutes a day meditating won’t work.

So if you can’t force people to be mindful, how do you start? You start with an invitation and let the willing lead the way, and then you create a space culturally for the practice of mindfulness to take root. Some will always resist, but a critical mass of individuals within an organization that practice mindfulness can be a powerful counterweight to low morale, cynicism, disengagement, and departure.

In practicing mindfulness, people develop the capacity to co-exist with change, complexity, and ambiguity. The brain perceives change, complexity, and ambiguity by default as threatening states. This constant arousal of the limbic system via the amygdala leads to distress and suffering, in turn leading to low morale, cynicism, disengagement, and departure. Low morale, cynicism, disengagement, and departure result in low-performing organizations. Some leaders think it is their job to extinguish change, complexity, and ambiguity. Or worse yet, some believe it is their job to banish those who exhibit distress in the face of change, complexity, and ambiguity. How liberating to know that as a leader you don’t have to anticipate every change. How freeing to know that not everything always has to be crystal clear. How emancipating to know that some things aren’t simple and don’t need to be made so. How unfettering to be able to say that, around here, in our organization, when it comes to dealing with change, complexity, and ambiguity, we accept that they exist and are free from the fog of distress so we can see collaborative and wise solutions.

Mindfulness is a practice that calms the brain, reduces distress and suffering, and opens the mind the see clearly the possible, instead of getting mired in trying to tackle the impossible. There are many ways to practice mindfulness. A common form of mindfulness practice is meditation. There are also many ways to meditate. However, meditation alone is not the only way to build mindfulness. And to be clear, that is the goal. Mindfulness isn’t a switch that can just be turned on because you want to be mindful; it’s a mental muscle that requires exercise, or else our natural mental hardwiring will dominate.

To develop a state of mindfulness, I believe it is important to focus first on being mindful at the personal level. Mindfulness practices applied at this level create an environment in which people can mindfully approach dialogue, meetings, conflict, group work, teamwork, and all the other types of work and communication that take place in an organization.

Attention to breathing awareness (also known are awareness of breathing meditation), is a powerful personal practice of mindfulness that can serve as the foundation for all its other manifestations. Attention to breath awareness is something that can be practiced in groups, individually, in solitude, and even in chaos. You don’t need to strike a particular pose. You don’t even need to close your eyes. It seems simple. But that’s the rub—it is deceptively simple. It is not easy. All you have to do is pay attention to your breath. You don’t need to change your breathing. You don’t need a mantra. You don’t need to do anything but pay attention to wherever you notice your breath in your body, be it in your nostrils, abdomen, or chest. Then you simply keep your attention on your breath. What you’ll notice right away is that the brain will resist. Within in a matter seconds, your thoughts will wander from focusing on your breath to something else. When you notice that your thoughts have wandered, return them to your breath. You're likely to find that your thoughts wonder every few seconds and require redirection to your breath. This redirection is where the second part of attention to breath awareness comes into play—compassion. Rather than getting upset with the fact that your thoughts wonder, have self-compassion. It is entirely natural for thoughts to wonder when you attempt to focus them.

Practicing this mindfulness technique daily, even for just five minutes, will profoundly change your state of mind from one of reliving the past and anticipating the future to being present in the current moment. The other effect of practicing mindfulness is growing our ability to accept whatever the present moment holds. Being in the moment by accepting awareness of whatever the unfolding moment holds brings calm, clarity, joy, and peace to our lives that serve us personally and professionally

The Boy and the Waterfall: A Mindfulness Allegory

In a forest hidden from the rest of the world sat a large firm rock in a vast and empty basin. High above the rock was a cliff. One day a tiny boy emerged from the rock and a gentle stream of water began to flow onto him from the cliff above. As the water passed over the boy, it slowly started to fill the empty basin below. As time passed, the boy became aware of the water flowing over him and into the basin. The water's flow did not bother the boy, but he noticed that while the flow was constant, the condition of the water was always changing. Sometimes the water would rush. At other times the water would become hot. Still, at other times the water would slow to a trickle or become cold. The boy did not always like the way the water felt, so he would often look up toward the top of the cliff to see if he could tell what the falling water would feel like once it reached him. The boy also discovered that he could dip his hands and feet into the basin of the water below to remind himself of what the water was like that had already passed over him. 

As the boy grew, he spent more and more time gazing at the cliff above and into the pool below. While the boy could still feel the water pouring over him, he became so preoccupied with the water at the top of the cliff and the water in the pool below that the feeling of the water as it ran over his body became but a distant sensation. 

Eventually, while gazing at the cliff above, the boy realized that he could swat at the water falling over him, that he could splash it away, and shield his head from the water with his hands and arms. The boy became preoccupied with splashing the water, batting it to and fro, and contorting his body to change his experience of the water as it flowed over him. After many moons of doing this, the boy fooled himself into thinking he was the master of the water. But one day, the water suddenly became so hot that it burned his skin. The boy tried all his tricks—swatting the water, splashing it away, and huddling in a ball trying to hide from it. Unable to escape the painful burning sensation, the boy experienced suffering. He dipped his hands and feet into the pool below to remind himself of times when the water was cooler and more pleasant, and he gazed at the cliff above in hopes of glimpsing and end to the hot water. Soon, the water returned to a comfortable temperature, and the boy was relieved. He returned to his old habits of splashing the water, swatting at it, and twisting his body, all to change the experience of how the water felt as it flowed over him. As water continued to fill the pool below, the boy also spent more time dipping his hands and feet in it. 

One day, as the boy stood gazing at the cliff above, a storm unleashed a torrent of rain, causing the flow of water to rush heavily over his body. Almost pinned to the rock by the force of the water, the boy tried in desperation to break free. None of his tricks that gave him the illusion of mastery over the water worked. The boy felt pain as the water hit heavily upon his body. The boy suffered as he realized he could not escape the raging water. But, because the water was ever changing and because even an unpleasant period would eventually end, the water returned to a calmer flow. This time, the boy sat for a few moments to enjoy the calm water as it poured over him before he returned to his usual gazing above, splashing, swatting, and staring into the pool below, finally becoming oblivious to the sensation of the water as it flowed over him. 

On another occasion, as the boy sat staring into the water below, he was shocked by the sharp sensation of icy cold water piercing his awareness. At first, the boy splashed, swatted, crouched, gazed above at the cliff, and dipped his hands and feet in the pool below as he tried to escape his experience. The boy was in pain. The boy suffered. Shivering and exhausted, the boy went limp. Lying on the rock, the boy continued to feel the discomfort of the freezing water as it poured over him, but he did not fight it. Instead, he just felt it. 

In due time, the water returned to a comfortable temperature. But as it did, rather than being distracted by the cliff above or the pool below, or trying to manipulate water, the boy gave his attention to the water as it flowed over him. As he did this, he began to notice and feel things that he never had before—how the water rippled down his back, how it flowed between his fingers and toes, how it caressed his hair. Sometimes the water would cause pain again, but during these times the boy sat and observed the feeling of the water, just as he did when it was comfortable. When the water became uncomfortable, the boy still felt pain, but he did not suffer. The boy learned to spend less time gazing into the pool below or staring up at the cliff above, and instead experienced the sensations of the water, whatever they may be, with gratitude as it flowed over him.

An Achilles Heel for Leaders in Tech Startups

Jack of None Master of One

Most people perform at least one thing well. Some people are good at many things. Few people perform exceptionally at many things. No one is exceptional at everything. Whichever of these categories we fall into has to do with the diligence we have applied in learning skills and the depth of knowledge required in order to master a given skill.

When I think about the various degrees of mastery people have over certain skills, my youngest daughter comes to mind. When she was about eight-weeks old, a pediatrician detected a faint heart murmur. After being referred to a pediatric cardiologist, it was discovered that she had a number of large holes in her heart that would require surgery in order to repair. As my wife and I nervously awaited the day that our infant child would undergo an open-heart operation, we met with the surgeon. The surgeon was a calm man who exuded confidence. He explained that during the operation, my daughter’s heart would be stopped temporarily and she would be placed on a heart-lung machine that would provide the necessary oxygen to her blood. He then told us that after patching her heart, he would remove her from the heart-lung machine and return the flow of blood to her heart, at which point her heart would begin to beat on its own again. I was in awe of this man’s abilities. The surgeon assured us that our daughter would be fine, and indeed she was.

The surgeon, who was probably in his 50s, had performed hundreds of surgeries during his career and was clearly exceptionally good at his job. One of the lessons I took from that experience was that for all the years this competent surgeon had spent honing his skills and perfecting his craft, had my daughter been afflicted with perhaps an injury to her brain, he would have been incompetent to perform brain surgery on her. In other words, even very minor degrees of variance in terms of the skills required for a task can render an otherwise exceptionally skilled person at best mostly incompetent, and at worst totally useless.

The Humility Factor

Since at least the Age of Enlightenment, the amount of knowledge available has continued to grow exponentially. The ever-increasing amount of knowledge has necessitated that individuals spend many years studying and practicing some skills in order to be proficient at them. For example, while they certainly share some common knowledge, a chemical engineer and a mechanical engineer could likely not do each other’s jobs. There is nothing especially revelatory about this. What is important, however, is how this factor plays out in organizations where a multitude of different skills are required at an exceptional level of expertise in order to produce products and services. This is especially salient for tech startups.

Having worked in five different startup organizations over 14 years, I’ve observed firsthand how this need to have different people exceptionally skilled across a number of fields has the potential to play out for good and bad in the context of decisions made by leaders. A leader cannot be expected to be an expert in all fields over which he/she has responsibility. So how can leaders in tech startups be effective when they maybe know little or nothing about all the skills of those whom they lead? Mercifully, the answer is not complicated and is something that a leader can develop­–humility. The cultural narrative in the West tells us that leaders are strong, decisive, knowledgeable people. The concept of humility seems, on its face, to be incompatible with the above-described shape of a leader. And yet, in order for leaders to be effective, especially in tech startups, I submit that humility is an absolute prerequisite. Humility is often interpreted as being analogous to inferiority and weakness. But in my experience, if properly practiced, humility is often perceived as a strength.

Finding the Sweet Spot

I once worked in an organization with a leader for whom I have deep affection. Never before and never since have I met such a kind and humble man. But his kindness and humility manifest as indecisiveness that made him appear weak and opened him up to being manipulated. To be fair, this man never asked to be in a leadership position and it was more or less thrust upon him. But the point remains that his constant wavering with every bit of new information did not serve to help him make better decisions, which undermined his authority, and he was perceived as weak.

On the other end of the spectrum, I later worked in a tech startup with exceptionally skilled people in a variety of fields, where the leadership­–who did not have the depth of technical acumen of their subordinates—were totally impervious to input from the individuals with technical expertise about the products and services the organization was producing. The leadership made decisions in a bubble, and their behavior was perceived as arrogant. Of the two scenarios—i.e. the weak leader and the group of arrogant leaders—the latter was far more corrosive to the organization. I do understand the group of seemingly arrogant leaders; they were leading people who were extraordinarily intelligent, skilled, and experienced. These individuals likely calculated that in leading such a group of people, they would need to be the prototype of the Western leader—strong, omniscient, and decisive. This fear-based response was the worst thing they could have done.

Their arrogant behavior left in its wake a deep disrespect for them and their decisions, low morale, cynicism, attrition—things that startups cannot easily absorb—and the ultimate demise of the organization. To be sure, these leaders were not bad people. Good people can be very bad leaders. They were simply listening to their fear that if they did not appear smarter, wiser, and more capable, that they would be disrespected, when paradoxically the opposite was true.

So where is the sweet spot between behaving in a way that causes you to be disrespected because you overly vacillate and capitulate and being disrespected because you puff yourself up with pride and behave as omniscient beings? The answer lies in the simple concept of authentic curiosity. Why authentic? It’s not about being curious for the sake of being curious, and it’s not about feigning curiosity. It’s about coming to terms with the simple fact that even a heart surgeon, with years of training and practice, and decades of experience, need only take one slight step to the left or right of his highly refined skills to find himself incompetent. I don’t mean incompetent in a pejorative way. I simply mean that he would lack the competency to perform tasks even marginally outside of his skillset.

Conclusion

Ultimately, genuine curiosity is about self-knowing—having an accurate confidence in what you know, an acceptance of what you don’t, and a willingness to be vulnerable by being constantly curious about the things you don’t know that should factor into the decisions you make as a leader. Being authentically curious does not mean punting on hard decisions; it means opening your mind to the knowledge and wisdom of those whom you lead so that you can use your judgement to make informed decisions.

This mindset of genuine curiosity is essential in leading today’s workforce of exceptionally skilled individuals across myriad disciplines. Leaders who display genuine curiosity will find themselves respected and followed, despite the little voice inside their heads that insists omniscience is the path to respect. As leaders, seek first to understand. To put yourself in a frame of mind to do this, be humble and let that humility manifest as authentic curiosity, so that your decisions will lead your organizations to higher levels of profitability, productivity, innovation, and competitiveness.

Leaning into Humanistic Workplace Practices

As the worldwide workforce continues to mature toward the higher reaches of Maslow’s hierarchy, the status quo is no longer sufficient to provide the functional paradigm upon which individuals and organizations can achieve successful organizational change and performance.

My recent experience has been in the “lean” movement. As more and more organizations adopt the lean philosophy in the military, and the private and public sectors, I believe it is important to explore what happens at the nexus of lean practices and human motivation. Perhaps there are examples of organic symbiosis. I have, however, observed that organic symbiosis between lean paradigms and individual self-actualization and self-transcendence is not a given. In other words, I have observed that it is still possible for individuals operating in a lean construct to be treated like cogs, which I believe has the potential to undermine the durability and health of organizations and people.

I remain optimistic that with the right skills, organizations new and old alike can learn how to develop the skills necessary and change their cultures to remain competitive, while at the same time creating workplaces where people feel satisfied in their work and confident in their leadership. However, given the complexity of the world we live in, I believe it will take experts in both lean philosophy and humanistic practices in order for organizations to reach their full potential. In subsequent posts, I will explore these practices, and share articles and posts from others that address the humanistic side of work. I look forward to hearing your thoughts as well! 

Trust is a Must for STEM Employees

As a new employee at CrowdStrike, I have had the opportunity to juxtapose my experience with my new employer against that of my former employers. The most interesting observation that I have made is that, in my opinion, the key element missing from some former employers is trust. I believe that when there is a lack of trust, and the autonomy that comes with it, individuals in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields will seek employment elsewhere.

In my view, when organizations become hyper-hierarchical, their environment is no longer favorable to innovation. This is often due to the need to receive “stakeholder buy-in” at many levels. This type of system creates organizational friction, thus reducing agility, effectiveness, and morale. Obtaining buy-in from so many stakeholders reduces the organization’s ability to deal with uncertainty, and is a direct byproduct of the absence of trust. Technology changes and advances at such a rapid pace, that an organization dependent on technology must be agile and built on trust in order to adapt to the constant uncertainty that the challenges and opportunities of technology brings with it.

As more and more organizations deal with an influx of technology-savvy millennials, it is becoming increasingly important to view how an organization operates from the point of view of brain functioning. For leaders interested in ensuring their organizations are people-centered--which I believe will have a byproduct of trust, effectiveness, and organizational sustainability, while reducing organizational friction--it is important to work with, and not against the brain. For starters, I suggest a book by David Rock, called Your Brain at Work. Rock explains how the brain region called the basal ganglia take on routine tasks and foundational knowledge. If you think of an organization functioning like the brain, certain basic questions must be answered in such a way that they become imbedded into the basil ganglia, thus becoming a part of the organization’s passive identity. This passive identity is made up of answers to questions about the why and what of an organization.

In addition to the why and what, the how of an organization's identity must also be answered. The how of an organization's identity requires more frequent visitation. Given the dynamism of technology, how things get done is likely something that is going to remain top of mind for front-line employees, and preoccupy their higher-order thought process in the prefrontal cortex. It therefore stands to reason that enabling individuals throughout the organization to have a grater say in the how space will reduce organizational friction, increase effectiveness, and improve morale by allowing people to have a stake in how things get done.

I've observed many a manager craft beautiful Visio workflows of how process X or Y is supposed to be executed, only to have the workflow moot the very next day. Sometimes processes can remain static for years. However, when technology is the centerpiece of a process, chances are the process is going to remain somewhat fluid. Enter trust. The how space is where stakeholders have a chance to allow things to develop organically, and this requires personal and interpersonal trust. Without this trust, the individuals who execute the how will remain perpetually disconnected from the process, resulting in the telltale signs of organizational dysfunction: cynicism, high attrition, and low morale. All the while, the organization will constantly be playing catch-up, while losing their best talent to organizations that genuinely value people first as manifest by way of trust in the how space.

As a student of organizational development and brain science, I believe it behooves organizational leaders to pay close attention to the immutable brain functioning that drives human and organizational behavior, in order to adopt practices that will ensure people thrive at every level of an organization. It should come as no surprise that when people thrive, so do the organizations they work for.

So what is trust? Stay tuned for my following article where I'll explore trust in greater depth.

The Irony of Innovation

There is a famous scene in a classic 1975 Soviet movie called The Irony of Fate. In the opening scene, animation is used to show how an architect's sketch of an elaborate apartment building is reduced, through the bureaucratic process, from a beautiful structure to the quintessentially Soviet "dom"—an unadorned and soulless building that is virtually indistinguishable from its neighbors. This not-so-subtle jab at the Soviet authorities poked fun at how bureaucracy can stifle innovation, sometimes with unfortunate consequences. Not to kick bureaucracy while it's down, but bureaucracy and innovation can have a sometimes-uneasy relationship. Bureaucracy can unwittingly deprive innovation of the resources it needs to thrive. So what can be done to ensure innovation is allowed to flourish in our work organizations?

Innovation: Novelty at the Edges

One way of defining innovation is novelty at the edges. In other words, innovation is often about introducing new elements to things that already exist, but doing it just where the light meets the dark. Take a car. There are millions of places to make small additions and improvements to the basic elements of the technology that makes up a car. Occasionally, revolutionary changes take place, such as the creation of reasonably priced mass-market electric cars (thank you, Mr. Musk), but most improvements are likelier to be in the realm of improving gas mileage of the internal combustion engine. So why does this matter? There are at least two reasons.

The first reason is that paradigm shifts and revolutionary changes are rare, and thank goodness. Most of us have a hard enough time keeping up with incremental changes, let alone daily, weekly, or monthly revolutions in technology. This should, therefore frame how we value incrementalism in the arena of innovation.

The second reason why appreciating novelty at the edges is important is the phenomenon of missing the mark. Many of us have been indoctrinated from a young age to believe that we must "shoot for the stars." This frame of mind can actually have some unexpectedly counterproductive outcomes by favoring expensive reinvention over cheaper refinement, thus leaving products and projects in a perpetual state of immaturity.

The fact is that almost none of us are capable of knowing and doing everything required to make a product or project the best it can be. By creating a much larger space for individuals to participate in the process of refinement, we also take fuller advantage of the innovative power of a workforce. The more people there are plugged into the engine of innovation, the more and better ideas will be generated. There is a time and a place for the brand new. But the time and place for refinement is much larger.

Challenging Truisms

So, back to the original question: What can be done to ensure innovation is allowed to flourish in our places of work? The answer is actually grounded in our brain's hardwiring, and requires a change in how we sometimes approach innovation.

At the outset of many projects, we feel a compulsion to be efficient. This drive for efficiency causes us to scope, by asking questions in advance about what the outcomes of work should be, what successful outcomes will look like, and what can be done to avoid waste by ensuring outcomes are unique. Asking these questions leads to neurological tunnel vision through subconscious relational thinking. This type of relational thinking isn't surprising. However, what is surprising is the way this type of relational thinking can actually stifle innovation by preventing novel thoughts from taking place. So, if the way innovation is going to take place and how we define a successful outcome are overly defined in advance, the brain essentially gets hijacked into relational thinking, making it sometimes impossible to see beyond what's been predefined.

So what can be done to mitigate against this tunnel vision? First, resist defining how. Resist defining success. And be tolerant of ideas that appear, on their face, to be duplicative. I can just imagine some of you reading this thinking to yourselves "But you've got to plan! If you fail to plan, you plan to fail!" Yes, planning is important...sometimes. Planning is important to lay a foundation for relational thinking. To use the example I cited in the opening paragraph of this article, planning isn't as important for the architect who designed the building as it is for the people who will be building it. In this example, the architect's mind must be free in order to be innovative by being novel at the edges. The builders, on the other hand, will need prescribed and detailed plans in order to ensure their building is structurally sound and completed on schedule.

Duplication of Effort

"But what about duplication? We shouldn't be wasteful." Yes, about duplication. When lots of people dwell in the same innovative space, there's bound to be duplication, or at least something that looks like duplication. In reality, very little of what happens in the innovation space is actually duplication. It is highly unlikely that two or more people will have the exact same idea and execute it in the exact same way. People may have similar ideas, and they may even execute them in similar ways. However, the great thing about allowing innovative incrementalism to occur is that a surplus of ideas will be generated to solve a problem or improve upon something, and the best solution will usually win out, if it's allowed to. However, this requires that many ideas be generated. Many ideas being generated to solve the same problem is not duplication—it’s a wise use of collective mental resources.

And to those who still think this is wasteful, isn't it more wasteful to accept a mediocre solution to a problem due to a dearth of options, only to have to come back later to fix it? Generating lots of ideas up front, knowing that most won't materialize, is much cheaper than limiting the innovation space under the guise of efficiency, thus back-loading the costs by having to deal with the consequences of ineffective solutions after the fact. Front-loading the cost by allowing for a rich, and sometimes duplicative, innovation space is almost always the cheaper option.

Conclusion

The best way to ensure that novelty occurs is to allow for flexibility and ambiguity, in order to give our brains the best chance of coming up with mostly incremental additions and improvements in large numbers to existing ideas by avoiding mental tunnel vision. Paradoxical though it may seem, resisting traditional truisms about planning, waste, and success gives innovation the oxygen it needs to flourish.

The Collective Brain: How Group Consciousness Shapes Organizational Identity

Perhaps what follows can best be summed up in the words of an unnamed Japanese industrialist shortly following World War II: "We are going to win and the industrial West is going to lose, and there is nothing they can do about it because the seeds of their failure lie in the way they think. They think that it is the nature of things that people at the top do all the important thinking and the rest wield the screwdrivers. Our concept is that leadership is the art of mobilizing and energizing the creative resources of all people at all levels of the organization."

Driving and Thinking at the Same Time

Imagine a time when you were driving a car under entirely unfamiliar circumstances. Maybe you were driving on the opposite side of the road in a foreign country. Maybe you were driving a manual when you usually drive an automatic. No doubt all drivers have experienced something like this. Now imagine yourself in one of these situations while simultaneously trying to be deeply engaged in a stimulating conversation with a passenger in your car. You will likely conclude that diving a car under unfamiliar circumstances while attempting to do something else that requires your attention to be very difficult indeed. And yet, if you're driving to work or home, for example, on a road you've traveled maybe hundreds of time, you probably would find it quite easy to have a conversation, listen to a good radio program, or take in a stimulating audiobook. The reason for this is both surprisingly simple and has to do with something mostly out of our control- the involuntary functioning of the brain. Three parts of the brain, in particular, play key roles in how we behave individually and as groups:

  1. The prefrontal cortex: the thinking self
  2.  The basal ganglia: the doing self
  3. The limbic system: the feeling self

These sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementary parts of the brain provide great opportunity, and also great hazard. When the winds are harnessed in the sails of our minds, as individuals and organizations, we can navigate the seas at will. But, if the winds are blowing to and fro, or not blowing at all, we will find ourselves drifting or stranded.

So why is it then that behind the wheel of a car in unfamiliar circumstances it's hard to multitask, but it' s easy to do more than one thing when you're on a familiar road in your own car? When doing something new, the prefrontal cortex takes center stage. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for executive functions. When you find yourself driving in very familiar circumstances, the basal ganglia take over—the part of the brain where routine, memory, and habit—freeing up the prefrontal cortex to think about other things. This is both involuntary and good. The prefrontal cortex is energy-hungry and tires relatively quickly, and we need the basal ganglia to take over routine tasks so our prefrontal cortex is not unnecessarily burdened. Sometimes the basal ganglia even play tricks on you. Were you ever supposed to go somewhere besides home after work, only to find yourself at your house? The well-worn patterns of behavior and memory in the basal ganglia can easily take over if the prefrontal cortex is preoccupied.

The Organizational Brain

So, now that we've taken care of some basic neuroscience, how can we apply this understanding to organizations? An organization works much the same way the brain works. Think of the way an organization operates like a single brain that is the aggregate of organizational members' brains. Just like driving to a new work location the first few times will require a lot of attention in the form of prefrontal cortex processing, as an organization develops, most collective tasks will require focused attention. However, eventually these tasks become imbedded in the collective brain's basal ganglia. Here's where many new organizations make their first (and sometimes last) mistake. The first few times you drive to a new work location, you may take different routes, attempting to find the best route and establish alternate routes. However, what if you were forced to take a new route to work every day? The task would never become routine, and eventually you would become exhausted from using your prefrontal cortex every day just to get to work. Organizations work in the same way. At first, it's necessary to ask questions about what makes up the core of an organization's identity. There are three questions that make up the core of an organization's identity, and it's important that they be addressed in order, as the answer from one flows to the next:

  1. Why do we exist?
  2. What do we do?
  3. How do we do it? (Note: I shared my thoughts on the how in an article here. While the why and what require very clear and consistent answers, being too prescriptive about the how can actually be counterproductive.)

If an organization perpetually struggles with even one of these questions for a protracted period, the collective prefrontal cortex becomes exhausted. As the prefrontal cortex's executive functioning starts to flag, the limbic system begins to overheat. The exhaustion of the prefrontal cortex and amped up limbic system manifests itself in the telltale signs of an unhealthy organization: low morale, cynicism, frustration, ineffectiveness, and eventually, attrition. It cannot be overstated how important it is for an organization to establish early on the answers to its core questions. To allow uncertainly to surround these questions will eventually lead to an organization lapsing into an irreversible state of fatigue. My observation is that a great many organizations struggle to clearly and consistently answer their core questions in a way that manifests as a deeply imbedded sense of organizational identity. This state of organizational maturity is only reached when the answers to the core questions become imbedded in the organization's collective basal ganglia. This creates a necessary sense of certainty within the organization.

Crouching Tigers

Very often individuals in positions of authority feel like they've answered and re-answered questions regarding the core of an organization's identity. And yet, the same symptoms of an unhealthy organization persist. The reason behind this problem lies in the paradigm of a hierarchical organizational.

Most, but not all, organizations are layered, with the smallest layer on top being the organization's senior leaders, followed by a larger layer of mid-level leaders, and finally a base layer of frontline personnel. Due to an arrogance of optimism, senior and mid-level leaders can feel like questions of an organization's identity have been answered, but confusion about organizational identity persists within the base layer of the organization, sometimes invisible to senior and even mid-level leaders. The response from senior and mid-level leaders is often resistance to the notion that not all is well within the organization, or an effort re-answer the questions of core organizational identity...at the senior and mid-levels of leadership. To paraphrase a Russian saying "the well-fed cannot understand the hungry”. Unless senior and mid-level leaders make an effort understand the base layer's concerns, the troubles within the base layer will seem trivial to them.

There's nothing wrong with hierarchical organizations per se; however, they do tend to struggle when ideas are planted only at the top, as the roots of these ideas often don't make their way down to the base layer. Nevertheless, there is a solution to this problem, and it has to do with a deep and abiding need for status and safety within an organization.

Because of how it evolved, the emotional limbic system puts things into two basic categories: safe and dangerous. Our instincts are to run away from, or fight things, we see as dangerous, and to seek out things that are perceived as safe. Natural selection favored this trait in the very precarious world of our primitive ancestors. This elemental aspect of being human plays an important role in how we behave organizationally. By default, uncertainty, change, and lack of perceived control are viewed by the brain as states of danger. While this state of danger might not result in us running out of the office in terror, it will create a general resistance (fight state) against whatever is causing in the uncertainty, change, or lack of perceived control. The very best, and perhaps the only way, to circumvent this primeval instinct is to create a sense of safety within the organization that is shared by individuals at the top, middle, and base layers.

A sense of safety is established by creating opportunities for involvement in answering questions concerning the core of an organization's identity. In other words, leaders at the top and in the middle, if they want a healthy organization, will involve individuals in the base layer to have a say in why the organization exists, what the organization does, and especially, how the organization does it. This sets a tone of safety, and therefore acceptance, for the brain.

You may be wondering about what happens when new individuals enter an organization. Is it practical for every new person to have a say in why the organization exists, what the organization does, and how the organization does it? No. Although, sometimes new individuals do have great ideas! The reason why new additions to an organization don't necessarily have to go through the same process is because if they're entering a healthy organization (i.e. one in which the why, what, and how have been deeply imbedded into the organizational basal ganglia), they are by default entering a safe zone, and not one perceived as dangerous. But, until an organization is healthy, most every new person that enters the organization will feel at least a vague sense of threat and danger.

The Trellis and the Rosebush

While certainty in the form of answers to the why, what and how form the core of an organization's identity, the remainder of an organization's identity develops organically, and does not require the same level of attention as the core questions require. Think of this like a trellis and rosebush. The why, what and how of an organization's identity form the trellis; the remainder is the rosebush. Build a sturdy trellis, but beware fussing too much over the rosebush, or else its growth will be stifled and it will wither.

Roses, like people, are subject to natural and invisible forces. The rose can be encouraged to grow on the trellis. But a rose cannot be forced blossom by will or on command. Individuals crave both certainty and autonomy. Looking at this from Maslow's hierarchy of needs, individuals want to self-actualize, and this requires that they be given clear answers to the core questions of organizational identity, but then given space and actualize the answers to those questions. 

So how can leaders ensure that they provide the best chance for the rosebush and the trellis to marry? The best way to ensure the rosebush takes to the trellis is to give the rosebush a say in how the trellis is constructed. In other words, the more input frontline personnel have in answering the core questions of organizational identity, the greater the chances are that the answers to those questions will become imbedded in the organization's collective basal ganglia.

Conclusion

Many organizations are ill. Signs and symptoms abound. Fortunately, the field of organizational development has taken the leading of organizations from an art to more of a science; there are actions that result in predictable behaviors within organizations that have to do with how our brains function, and these actions can be learned and applied.

First, recognize that organizations are people, and as people we have certain brain needs that, when unmet, can cause havoc. We need some certainty about the why, what, and how that make up an organization's identity. The process of developing this deep sense of organizational identity depends upon senior and mid-level leaders creating an environment that feels safe to individuals throughout the organization, by removing the sense of danger around uncertainty, opaque change, and lack of perceived control. And, once the organization has worked together to build its trellis of identity, leaders must allow the rosebush to naturally grow and blossom. The rosebush will require some occasional pruning and pest control; but most of all, it needs rich soil, bright sun, and fresh water. And the rosebush needs the nourishing soil, sun, and water far more than it needs to be repotted, clipped at, or doused with pesticides.

Final Thought

Before taking the crucial step of establishing (or reestablishing) an organization's identity, its leaders must acknowledge that they might not fully grasp the complexities of establishing and running a healthy an effective organization. To be a good leader does not require a full mastery of the skills associated with organizational development. If leaders seek first to understand and approach with curiosity and humility difficult issues like building and sustaining healthy and effective organizations, their chances of success greatly increase. 

Moving Beyond Performance Measurement Systems: The Case for Experiential Leadership

In the Beginning There Was Russian

Fifteen years ago, I began studying Russian. I was in a small class of eight students who were all in their late teens or early twenties. As young adults, we were coming into our own, but still impressionable. As our studies commenced, we soon became acquainted with the Russian method of instruction. In our case, its vessel was a woman we affectionately came to call the Red Dragon. In her late 60s at the time, the Red Dragon was a stout woman who wore her hair in a bright orange bouffant. Her hair was obviously dyed, but she was so meticulous, I never once saw grey roots. Adding to her red theme, she wore rouge blush on her pale cheeks, and often donned a burgundy leather jacket that was at least two sizes too small. The Red Dragon would take loud, quick, and deliberate steps on the wood deck outside of our classroom to signal her coming. She would enter the room, ruler in hand, as if she were stepping onto a stage, and utter in Russian, “All right, everyone, let’s begin.” Then she would curl her hands into fists, place them knuckle down on her desk, her body hunched over, and begin to conduct drills in rapid-fire fashion, her ruler sharply cutting the air as she pointed to one student and then the next. God forbid you got a question wrong. If you did, she would lower her gaze, give you a scowl and pronounce upon you a Russian “net” (no). Then she would train her eyes on you while you breathlessly tried again and again to get it right. When it came to written assignments, we toiled for hours to get the right answers. Alas, the Red Dragon would hand our work back literally yelling at us about how disappointing our efforts were, as if the sheets of paper stained up and down with red ink weren’t proof enough. Even though we loved the Red Dragon, we feared her. In sum, the Russian method of instruction goes something like this: 1) cultivate students’ affection; 2) work students like dogs; 3) make students feel that they will never be able to satisfy you; 4) withhold praise; and 5) never ever let students think that they have done enough. Our learning was motivated by fear, and our long-term dedication and desire to study and master Russian was not serviced by this fear. Fear is a very ineffective and harmful motivator, even if it sometimes garners short-term results. And it does nothing to develop commitment to purpose and intrinsic motivation.

Some years after my tutelage under the Red Dragon, I myself became a teacher of Russian. I did not have the temperament to pull off the Russian method of instruction. But I was sure to spill plenty of red ink, grade harshly, and reserve praise. In total, I spent five years teaching Russian full time, first for the National Security Agency and later for the University of Texas at Austin. In that time, I developed a very strong opinion about how students should be treated and evaluated, influenced heavily by my experiences studying Russian. I came to believe that the teacher is the holder of all wisdom and knowledge, that wisdom and knowledge flow from the teacher to the students, that students are subordinate, that students will error, and that students must be shown their errors in stark and painful relief.

School for Thought

Fast forward five years to when my daughter was about to start kindergarten. My wife suggested that we put my daughter in a lottery for area charter schools. My daughter got a spot at a very reputable school. However, upon researching it, I learned that students in the school did not get grades, they did not take tests (except for the state-mandated ones), students did not have desks, but communal tables, they did not even have walls to separate classrooms, and all learning was participatory. And as if all that weren’t enough, students also addressed teachers by their first name. I was horrified, and my mind could not conceive how on earth this approach to teaching could be effective. I was adamant that my daughter not attend that school. Thank goodness my wife’s opinion prevailed. The next several months that would be my daughter’s first of her formal education, were every bit as educational for me. My daughter loved to go to school. She loved to learn. She was thriving socially and academically. But how could we know whether she was mastering the material? And more importantly, how could the teacher know whether she was learning? All of my fears were gently put to rest upon our first meeting with my daughter’s teacher. I was amazed at how well my daughter’s teacher knew her. Her assessments of my daughter were not based on test scores or homework grades (tests were not a part of the curriculum for the entire school, and there was no homework to speak of for kindergarteners). The teacher’s in-depth knowledge of my daughter came from doing three things that grades, scores, and student stratification could not replace: observing her, interacting with her, and communicating with her. The relationship that my daughter’s teacher developed with her engendered in my daughter a dedication to cause of learning, and an intrinsic motivation to learn.

My experience as a teacher conditioned me to falsely assume that the best way to evaluate students, and by extension employees, was through alpha or numeric shorthand. However, I submit that this is a false construct that has been woven into our cultural narrative about education and employment. For employees, this shorthand has become a mainstay of organizational life in the form of performance measurement systems. And despite its ubiquitous acceptance as a token of mature organizations, readers have probably invariably experienced an inevitability associated with these systems: they eventually fail to work due to inflation. System inflation leads to one of two outcomes: 1) either the system is scrapped in place of a new one, and later another; or 2) the system continues to exist and eventually becomes a transparent sham that induces cynicism and low morale for all who are subject to its menacing and unforgiving demands.

Two Laws

So why do these systems continue to fail people and organizations? One explanation is based on a law of economics articulated by Charles Goodhart. Goodhart’s Law states that when you target something, the thing you are targeting is no longer a good measure. While this law is usually applied to economic indicators, the principle behind it holds true for performance measurement systems in the workplace as well. Simply put, once a target is set, people eventually figure out how to game the system to meet the target. In the case of performance measurement systems, the indicator for performance is usually reduced to a numeric score or descriptor (e.g. 10 = outstanding performance). Once the target is reduced to a simple indicator, the game is on. In a very short period of time, inflation starts to creep in. If a 7 was good last year, that does not mean it will be good this year. After all, the really good employees are getting 8s this year. So the supervisor and employees target ever higher scores. Eventually the numbers become meaningless. Yes, there are often attempts to beat back the inflation, and there are usually innocent casualties of such crusades. But in the end, all such efforts are in vain, no matter how well-intentioned they are. Per Goodhart, once you start to target something (e.g. a simple numeric score), the metric will be gamed and lose all meaning.

If Goodhart’s Law weren’t enough to explain why performance evaluation systems are doomed to fail, there’s another very good reason. As the workforce becomes increasingly knowledge-based, it is more and more difficult to quantify people’s performance. It is easy to measure the number of tangible widgets made in a day, all other things being equal. However, it is impractical, and I would argue impossible, to quantify the productivity of most knowledge workers. Take for example a software developer, Stacy. You can measure the amount of code Stacy writes. You can measure how many hours Stacy works. You can measure how many projects Stacy has contributed to. However, in the final sum, do all those measurements really represent Stacy’s net contribution? Of course not. There are simply too many variables to consider, and some of those variables are not measurable. Thus, in the case of Stacy, her supervisor will have to rely on a subjective analysis of her work to quantify her performance. I am not arguing that subjectivity is inherently bad. I am, however, suggesting that attempting to quantify performance by reducing it through subjective analysis is at best misleading, and at worst willfully deceptive.

There is a truism that underlies our instinct to have performance evaluations: you cannot measure what you do not track. Therefore, you must track things that are important measures of organizational health, such as employee performance. The logic seems sound. The problem is that performance evaluations are almost always cosmetic and inaccurate representations of performance, and therefore are false and misleading measures. Again, the primary reasons for this are Goodhart’s law and what I call the law of reductive subjectivity, which basically states that the reduction of unquantifiable data to quantified metrics is inherently subjective and leads to unreliable metrics.

So, if Goodhart’s law and the law of reductive subjectivity render unreliable performance evaluations, how can performance be measured? To answer that question, we first need to answer a more important question: what is the point of measuring performance? I can think of myriad reasons why people might want to measure performance:

  • To reward high-performance individuals
  • To help people to know whether they are meeting expectations
  • To identify under-performing individuals so they can be given a chance to correct course
  • To create an incentive for people to perform consistent with expectations
  • To ensure decision-makers and stakeholders know the status of an organization’s level of performance
  • To provide opportunities for people to grow
  • To provide transparency to all parties about how people are being managed, growing, and contributing

This list could go on and on. Regardless of the many good reasons to have performance evaluations, it is important to ask whether there are any reasons to have performance evaluations that cannot be satisfied by some other more effective means. I personally cannot think of one good reason to have personnel performance evaluations that cannot be satisfied by experiential leadership, whereby leaders interact with, observe, and communicate with people in a way that reveals everything that a leader needs to know in order to effectively know and understand people's contributions, needs, wants, strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for growth. Performance measurement systems actually work against experiential leadership, by giving a false impression that observation, interaction, and communication are happening when they are not. Furthermore, performance measurements systems do nothing to develop the most important attributes in employees: a dedication to the purpose of the organization and an intrinsic motivation to contribute to that purpose. In fact, performance measurement undermines both of these things by creating extrinsic systems of motivation.

A New Approach: Experiential Leadership

While I do not want to be too formulaic, the key to replacing performance evaluation systems and getting real dedication and motivation from people lies in the trifecta of experiential leadership behaviors:

  • Non-judgmental observation: the act of passively gathering information based upon verbal and non-verbal behaviors that is based on facts
  • Authentic interaction: the act of engaging with people in activities and conversation in ways where all parties can participate in the give-and-take of meaningful ideas and actions
  • Open communication: the act of having dialogue where all participants feel safe to express information based upon facts, test conclusions, ask questions, and share opinions with care and respect

At its core, the above behaviors basically make up the foundation of all healthy personal relationships. To say it another way, the key to more effectively answering any question that a performance evaluation system can attempt to answer is by having healthy relationships with those whom you lead. There is no replacement for genuine personal relationships when it comes to knowing someone. Some might feel uncomfortable with the notion of having personal relationships with those whom they lead. Allow me to clarify. I am not suggesting intimacy. Relationships can remain professional in their breadth while being personal in their depth. The scope of a personal relationship with a spouse or partner is going to be both wide and deep, whereas the scope of a relationship with a coworker or subordinate can be narrow (i.e. related only to things having to do with work), but deep in the areas of trust, understanding, communication, care, and respect. Developing healthy professional relationships on the basis of trust, understanding, communication, care, and respect requires an investment of time. If you do not believe you have the time to cultivate such relationships, then you do not have the time to be a leader. If you do not want to cultivate such relationships, then you do not want to be a leader.   

Chaos vs. Control

One additional reason why some might resist experiential leadership and personal relationships of depth in lieu of performance evaluation systems has to do with the process of establishing performance objectives. There is a legitimate case to be made that while having a relationship on the basis of non-judgmental observation, authentic interaction, and open communication can enable leaders to provide accurate assessments of people, it does nothing to address the setting of performance objectives for individuals. Fair enough. But in order to discuss setting objectives, we must return to the question first asked when discussing measuring performance: what is the purpose? What is the purpose of setting objectives? As with measuring performance, there are many reasons to set objectives. But, I think at the heart of every possible answer lies one reason: objectives provide a space for clear direction (i.e. what people should be doing). Here I would make the somewhat unorthodox argument that if objectives need to be established in order for someone to know what she should be doing, you have already failed. The whole premise of setting objectives presupposes that someone is not sufficiently in touch with the purpose of the organization and their role therein that it must be spelled out in bullet points. While I grant that someone brand new to an organization may require more guidance early on, I submit that if the organization’s collective brain is healthy (i.e. the why, the what, and the how that make up an organization’s identity), then it will be self-evident how someone can use their skills to contribute in a way that is consistent with his role in the organization.

The notion of giving up performance evaluations and objectives is bound to cause some angst. After all, they have been a part of organizational life for decades. I know the angst. I thought there was no way my daughter could get a good education unless she was given grades, and papers covered in red ink. But I only thought that because of the story I had told myself based upon my years of experience in education. There is a normal human instinct to believe that without control there will be chaos, and that those who lead are the source of that control. But this is a false dichotomy. Performance evaluations and objectives are two important means of control. However, performance evaluations and objectives are cosmetic, misleading, and give a false sense of control. What a heavy burden to think that all that stands between you and chaos is the control you wield. Without your mechanisms of control, anarchy will prevail, investors will lose money, products and services will not be delivered, people will stop coming in to work, and on and on. Counterintuitive though it may seem, the opposite is true. When you relinquish your mechanisms of control, you free yourself to engage in non-judgmental observation, authentic interaction, and open communication, and ultimately develop the crucial and deep personal relationships with people that engender genuine commitment to purpose and intrinsic motivation.

Mindfulness at Work: Three Practices That Will Transform Your Relationships with Colleagues

Mindfulness Over Panic

The summer of 2009 in Austin, Texas was filled with the sounds of a constant hum from air conditioning units running almost nonstop, during a span of three months when there were 100 days over 100 degrees. In the swelter of those summer nights, it is hard to imagine the cold chills that shocked me from my sleep one night. However, there was nothing new about this shock, and no amount of heat could keep those chills from visiting themselves upon me.

For many years, I had been beset by panic attacks. Always occurring in the night, I would awake to my body being flooded with adrenaline, my limbs rattling, my palms perspiring, my heart pounding, and my thoughts swirling with an overwhelming desire to flee. During the many previous episodes of nocturnal panic, I would fling the blanket from my body, leap from the bed, and rush to the most open space in the house, where I would then pace for 30 to 90 minutes until my stores of adrenaline depleted, after which I would return to bed, feeling emotionally battered, and uncomfortably drift back to sleep. However, this hot Texas night would be different, and it would bring me to a mental place that I had previously never visited.

As the panic washed over me that night, instead of rocketing from the bed, a sudden inner stillness appeared like a dim light at the end of a tunnel. The stillness spoke to me, and it told me not to fight, but to give the panic permission to happen, to acknowledge the physical and emotional sensations, and to recognize them not as a threat but as a physiological experience that would soon end. I focused on my breathing, taking in and letting out slow deep breaths. My body continued to shake furiously. However, almost as soon as the panic started, it was over. And this time, I didn’t feel like my brain had just been through a blender. I calmly returned to sleep and awoke the next morning with a sense of tranquility that I had never felt before. How was I able, in a moment of great terror, to find peace in the raging sea of panic? This was, as best as I can recall, my first experience with mindfulness over panic.

On Mindfulness

There is no one definition of mindfulness. However, there are many very good definitions. The description of mindfulness that most resonates with me is a simple one: focused mental awareness on now in the service of acceptance. In my case that night in 2009, I allowed my awareness to observe what was happening to my body, and was able to accept it by identifying it as an uninvited but harmless burst of adrenaline. My acknowledgement and acceptance of the emotional and physical feelings I was having that night did not make them suddenly disappear—I still had the panic attack. However, my acknowledgement and acceptance of the panic reduced its power over me, as I was able to distance myself from the emotional and physical feelings. While I have continued to experience panic from time to time, and have sometimes even failed to be fully accepting of it, the lesson I learned that night has abided with and served me ever since.

Mindfulness has many applications—it is a useful tool for dealing with mental health issues, raising children, and, as is the subject of this article, developing healthy relationships with our colleagues in the workplace. In order to explore the role mindfulness can play with colleagues in the workplace, I would like to offer that there are three important spaces in which mindfulness can be cultivated: the personal, the interpersonal, and the group. In each of these spaces, there are potent techniques that, when practiced, can literally transform workplace relationships and, by extension, the workplace itself. To be sure, mindfulness is an internal experience. However, mindful behaviors can manifest differently in the context of the personal, interpersonal, and groups spaces. 

Much of what makes mindfulness such a powerful tool is its ability to cultivate within ourselves, between ourselves, and among ourselves a sense of psychological safety. One of the most significant findings on the topic of psychological safety in the workplace comes from a 2009 study, in which Google conducted research into what makes teams effective. Researchers at Google concluded that teams without psychological safety—even teams with the brightest of the bright on them—did not perform as well against their objectives as other teams that had high levels of psychological safety. When psychological safety is low and fear is high, workplace relationships are bound to be fraught. Fear is a primitive emotion because it is a survival emotion, and therefore plays a core role in our lives, both for good and bad.

When fear manifests in the workplace, people can retreat to silence on one end of the spectrum or to passive aggressiveness and even full-blown shouting and yelling on the other end of the spectrum (I've been in both places). The good news is that these feelings of fear that manifest as everything from silence to screaming are a natural part of the human experience, so we can have some compassion for ourselves and others who experience these manifestations of fear. The even better news is that there are specific things we can do to mitigate these manifestations by increasing psychological safety through mindfulness practices.

Below is a simple matrix that outlines the three practices discussed in this article, and the contexts in which they are described:

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Labeling & ReframingIn order to increase a sense of psychological safety at the personal level, one of the specific things we can do is what author and leadership consultant, Dr. David Rock, calls “labeling” and “reframing”, in his book, Your Brain at Work. Labeling is a very simple mindfulness practice that helps to reduce the power our thoughts and feelings can have over us. The process of labeling is done by simply identifying by name, non-judgmentally and with self-compassion, the thoughts and feelings we’re experiencing, and recognizing that they do not make up the whole of who we are. In my first experience with mindfulness over panic, I was having intense emotional and physical sensations. However, I was able to reduce the power of those sensations over me by labeling them as an uninvited release of adrenaline, which made it feel much less like a life-threatening experience.

Labeling can also be useful when dealing with responses to external stimuli. An example of this may be if someone were to say something you found offensive. You might feel a rush of anger or fear. In this case, you can say to yourself “I am feeling anger”. The use of the word feeling is important, because, as opposed to “I am angry”, adding feeling is an acknowledgement of the fact that you are more than your feelings. Labeling helps to increase the space between thoughts and actions by reminding us that we are indeed safe from our thoughts and feelings, because they do not own us and do not make up the whole of who we are as people. You might still choose to productively engage the offender. However, rather than coming from a place of anger, where your first thought might be “I am offended and I am going to cut this guy down to size”, after which you launch into him, you might offer a calm observation that you felt offended and offer the offender the opportunity to apologize, explain, or clarify without making him feel the need to go into flight mode in order to protect himself.

By labeling your feeling of anger, you buy yourself literal milliseconds, which is all you need to change your choice of response. Only you can know how to respond. The key is that labeling gives you distance between what you are feeling, by acknowledging that feelings are natural and sometimes instinctive responses that do not need to be the sole determining factor in how we choose to respond. There is a truism that emotional control is a hallmark of emotional intelligence. However, I would argue not that we should seek to control our emotions, but to be more mindful of how we respond to our emotions. This, I would argue, is a true sign of emotional intelligence.

Depending on the nature of the situation, sometimes labeling will not be sufficient to provide the calm internal space we need to make a wiser choice. In these cases, Rock recommends using a tool called “reframing”. Reframing is similar to labeling, but goes a step further by looking at a situation from a different point of view. This technique can be very potent in terms of how we choose to respond to situations. Perhaps an example from my own life would be useful to help illustrate how reframing could have helped me in a particular situation.

A few years ago, I had intense stomach pains one night. The following morning, while I was still in a great deal of pain, my wife suggested that I stay home. However, I insisted on going to work. As the day progressed, I became sicker and sicker. A close friend suggested that there might be something more seriously wrong with me, like appendicitis, but I dismissed his observation. Several hours later, after I could take the pain no longer, I finally left work. By the time I reached home, I literally collapsed through the door and passed out briefly. As my wife rushed me to the hospital, she was white hot with anger at me for not taking my health situation more seriously. I became enraged that she took issue with how I had behaved. Instead, I could have attempted to reframe the situation by looking at it from my wife’s point of view. As far as my wife knew, I was very ill the night before, I went into work against her better judgment, I came home in worse shape than when I left, and she had to rush me to the hospital. Did she have good reason to question the choices I made? Yes. And, as it turns out, I did have appendicitis and had to have emergency surgery. By not prioritizing my health, I literally put my life at risk, which could have had significant and far-reaching consequences for my wife and two young daughters.

A little while after I was discharged from the hospital, my wife and I talked about the situation and I was better able to understand her perspective. However, had I the ability to reframe when the anger escalated between my wife and me over my neglect of my health, I might have been able to express that I understood her point of view, offer and apology, acknowledge that she was right to have been concerned, and accept responsibility for my unwise choices. This probably would have deescalated the situation. Some might ask why my wife could not have reframed the situation to avoid becoming upset with the choices I made. This is a fair point. However, I am not responsible for the choices my wife makes in terms of how she responds to situations; I am responsible for myself alone. And this is an important rule to keep in mind. When dealing with colleagues in any situation, you might be tempted to ask “Why can she not just reframe the situation and give me the benefit of the doubt?” or “Why can he not reframe to see things from my point of view instead of getting upset at me?”. When it comes to using these and other mindfulness techniques, each of us is responsible for our own responses, and reciprocity is not a prerequisite for our own mindfulness.

Since I gave an example of when I was not at my best when it comes to being mindful and using labeling or reframing, perhaps it is fair to give an example of when I did a better job. Not long ago, I received a piece of mail that was very important, but contained some inaccurate information. There was a telephone number in the letter and a person’s name to contact with questions, Charlie Johnson. Hoping to resolve the situation, I called the number and asked for Charlie Johnson. The woman who answered the phone, Barbara, snapped back, “Charlie Johnson does NOT work here!”. I was surprised at Barbara’s response, so I enquired further. It turned out that Charlie Johnson worked for the same company as Barbara, but at a different location. Charlie Johnson’s new contact information had not been updated in the letter, and poor Barbara had been getting calls non-stop for days asking for Charlie Johnson. I obviously had no idea that the number I dialed no longer belonged to Charlie Johnson.

Fortunately for Barbara and me, I was able to create some space between the shock and anger I first felt after Barbara answered the phone, and my response to Barbara. I could have gotten mad. After all, how was I to know Charlie Johnson had a new number? But, I also understood why Barbara felt frustrated and why she responded the way she did, which gave me the space I needed to choose a different response from the one my initial emotions suggested. In summary, my instinctual response to Barbara was anger, creating a desire to defend myself. However, the small space reframing created (i.e. I might be upset if I were receiving calls for the wrong person for days on end too), helped me to understand Barbara’s response and not feel threatened, thus creating the psychological space that enabled me to choose my response out of wisdom, and not anger. Again, some might argue that it is Barbara who should have been more mindful. But, I was not response-able for Barbara’s actions; I was response-able for myself only. 

Pure Inquiry

When working at the interpersonal level, we step outside our own internal dialogue to engage with others in mindful ways. One highly useful way of mindfully engaging others is through what the expert in organizational culture, Dr. Edgar H. Schein, calls “pure inquiry” in his book, Helping. In the same vein as labeling and reframing, pure inquiry is a potent technique for mindful engagement, because it encourages psychological safety. Pure inquiry is a form of asking questions and eliciting responses without judgmental or loaded feedback. Pure inquiry requires that the person asking the questions keep her attention on the answers being provided, without getting caught up in how she wants to respond. Keeping this sort of attention can be difficult at first. However, by being mindful of your thoughts, you can gently and non-judgmentally draw your attention back to the person being questioned.

Pure inquiry results in pure information being generated, that is not polluted by the questioner’s interjections, suggestions, vocalized judgements, etc. That type of feedback has a place, but not in pure inquiry. In pure inquiry, questions should not be loaded with judgements, but should be invitations to share information. An example of pure inquiry might be “Tell me what’s on your mind.” A loaded form of this question might look like “I see that you are upset. What is wrong?” In the second question, the observation that someone is “upset” is a judgement that is going to have an influence on the type of response you get. Another example of pure inquiry is the question “Can you tell me more about what it is you want from me?” A loaded version of this question might be, “It seems like you really want a lot from me. Why is that?” Again, there is a judgement superimposed in the second question.

While pure inquiry only makes up some (perhaps a very small part) of the interactions we have with our colleagues, my observation is that it is a type of engagement that is absent from the workplace at an epidemic level. So much of our communication is loaded down with judgements, with attempts to predict what someone else is going to say, to outwit others, to manipulate, to talk over someone, or to simply be letting our thoughts wander when someone is talking to us. Pure inquiry is a way of creating a space of psychological safety for others through mindful engagement that is a manifestation of the axiom “seek first to understand”.

When people are mindfully engaged in pure inquiry, they will share their best ideas, learn about themselves and others through expression, develop bonds of trust, and reduce their stress by lessening their negative emotional load that builds up without the chance to engage in the companion to pure inquiry—pure expression. The compassion, empathy, sympathy, and understanding that comes from pure inquiry and pure expression will reduce barriers among people in the workplace and create the atmosphere for collaboration that is a precursor to innovation, high morale, and a sense of collective purpose.

Mindful Arrival

Where mindfulness in groups is concerned, the practice of mindful arrival is key. Mindful arrival is any activity that is practiced with the goal of focusing a group’s mental awareness in the service of acceptance. Meetings and the beginning of the workday are excellent opportunities to practice mindful arrival. One example of mindful arrival is guided meditation at the beginning of a meeting. This guided meditation can take as few as three minutes, but it can have profound effects. Hands-on experience is the best place to learn guided meditation. However, I can offer a description of what mindful arrival through guided meditation might look like, and how it can affect group dynamics.

When we walk through the door and into work, we are often carrying an emotional load with us that can influence in negative ways how we interact with others. Perhaps we had a spat with one of our children. Perhaps there was heavy traffic on the way to work. Perhaps we did not sleep well. This emotional load is nontrivial in terms of our workplace relationships. Mindful arrival through guided meditation creates a physical and mental calm that opens up psychological safety in the group by creating distance from and reducing our emotional load.

In its simplest form, mindful arrival through meditation can be someone guiding the group through an exercise of deep breathing where participants focus their attention on their breath, be it in their stomach, nose, mouth, or lungs. As attention is focused on the breathing, participants are gently verbally encouraged to return their attention to their breathing if their thoughts wander, which thoughts are want to do. Participants can be asked to focus attention on parts of the body where stress and pain are often carried, such as the neck, shoulders, back and feet. As participants focus on these body parts, they can be invited to label whatever feelings they are experiencing, such as pain in the hip, or throbbing in the ankle. This acknowledgment of pain and discomfort through labeling in the context of meditation can create a space between the sensations and our reactions to the sensations, just as I was able to do with my panic.

At first, the practice of mindfulness through guided meditation might seem uncomfortable or even strange. But as someone who felt both uncomfortable and strange about guided mindfulness through meditation, I can make a promise that consistent and genuine practice, even for a few days, can yield meaningful results. And as the practice continues, the fruits of mindfulness will pay in dividends.

Conclusion

I know there are those who are skeptical of mindfulness. Some see mindfulness as a present-day manifestation of New Age practices from the 1970s. To the skeptics, I would offer that the mental structures for mindfulness are already in each of us. Practicing mindfulness is not about taking something outside of yourself and bringing it in; it is about cultivating and growing a part of yourself that is already there. I would also offer that we all practice mindfulness, regardless of how we feel about it. When feeling stressed, we take deep breaths to soothe ourselves. Taking a moment to focus our thoughts when we’re feeling overwhelmed is a practice of mindfulness. Even prayer and exercise can be forms of mindfulness. Cultivating mindfulness does not mean you have to take on negative associations with mindfulness, whatever those negative perceptions happen to be. Mindfulness is already in you; it is just a matter of how much you want to grow it to your benefit.

The renowned historian, Arnold J. Toynbee, taught that history can be reduced to the simple formula: challenge --> response. When the challenge changes, the response often lags, making it inadequate. Taken as a whole, the current status of the workplace is in a lag state regarding its response to the challenges that face the workforce in the 21st century. The three mindfulness techniques described in this article are not alone a sufficient new response to the needs of workers in this new century. However, they are a good place to start, and an acknowledgment of the fact that people require physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual nourishment in the workplace in order to be healthy. While employers can eschew providing nourishment at all of these levels, to do so will result in a failure to create sustainable environments for productivity. I believe that as employers dedicate themselves to the art of mobilizing and energizing the creative resources of all people at all levels of their organizations, they will come to understand that mindfulness practices in the workplace are key to realizing that goal.

Minimum Critical Specifications: The Liberating Factor

Leading in a Bubble

Early on in my career as a civil servant, I was given the opportunity to form a small team consisting of several junior-grade enlisted airmen. While it was not my first time leading a team, it was the first instance in which I led a group of people who had no practical experience. To be sure, these were smart and devoted young men; they were just brand new to their field.

As we set about building our team, my instincts compelled me to create processes that were very specific according to task and person. I assumed that by removing ambiguity from the equation at a micro level, I would create a sense of certainty in people, because they would know exactly what role they were to play in the context of the team and our objectives. In actuality, creating these systems gave me a sense of certainty that I had done what I needed to as the leader to establish clear lanes of responsibility for everyone. Much to my dismay, my team did not behave consistent with the elaborate flowcharts and org charts that I had created. In response, I doubled down, refining the charts and Visio diagrams and pushing them out to my team, assuming that the clearer the roles and responsibilities were, the likelier people would be to comply with them.

I soon found myself in a bubble, where I was creating systems designed to guide behavior, but the behavior of the team was guided by other forces. Fortunately, the team all got along with each other, so my attempt to control behavior didn’t put too much of a strain on our relationships. In fact, we were all lighthearted enough that my seemingly endless parade of flowcharts became a running joke. The team was actually very productive and effective. However, the team’s productivity and effectiveness was in spite of me, not because of me.

Back then, I had a very specific view of the function of leadership. I believed that successful leaders set a vision, communicated that vision, and then created processes that supported the execution of that vision. It all seemed so simple to me. In the abstract, this autocratic approach to leadership seems practical. However, I found out that it did not translate well when you added the X factor into the equation: people.

As a novice leader, I assumed that I would be able to control people’s behavior as simply as I was able to describe the behavior I wanted. Any failure in compliance would be either due to inadequate communication on my part or insubordination on the part of the team members. In the case of the former, I would simply need to re-communicate my desires. In the case of the latter, appropriate doses of persuasion and later discipline would bring people around to conformity. Indeed, the measure of success I set for myself as the leader was the level of conformity I was able to generate from my team. What I observed is that as the team matured, and as individuals came to better understand how to perform, organic processes began to develop. Based upon this, and subsequent experiences, I came to understand how minimum critical specifications could play a productive role in organizations.

On Minimum Critical Specifications and Organizational Behavioral Domains

In order to understand minimum critical specifications in the context of organizational functioning, it is important to know the two domains of behavior within an organization, how people relate to those domains of behavior, and how leaders can operate relative to those domains in productive ways. Organizational behavior is divided into the micro domain and the macro domain. People relate to these domains of behavior in very different ways. In the micro-behavioral domain dwell the norms that govern how things get done (i.e. processes). In the macro-behavioral domain dwell the norms that govern why things get done (i.e. values and purpose).

There is an inverse relationship that exists between the micro-behavioral and macro-behavioral domains. The macro-behavioral domain is large when values in an organization are shared and well-aligned to the organization’s purpose. When this is the case, the degree to which processes need to be elaborated in the micro-behavioral domain decreases. However, when values are not aligned across an organization and/or poorly mapped to the organization’s purpose, the micro-behavioral domain compensates by growing in size, where the emphasis is on processes. It is important to note that this inverse relationship is governed by natural laws. In other words, the relationship between the micro-behavioral and macro-behavioral domains of an organization cannot be manipulated. If the attention is on the micro-behavioral domain, and processes are the focal point of leadership, the macro-behavioral domain will naturally get smaller. Or, to put it more precisely, if the attention is on the micro-behavioral domain, and processes are the focal point of leadership, people’s behavior will naturally follow a pattern whereby the micro-behavioral domain will grow in significance relative to the macro-behavioral domain.

The reason for the inverse relationship behind the micro-behavioral and macro-behavioral domains is largely a byproduct of the natural functioning of the brain. There are two important regions of the brain that play a crucial role in how people behave: the prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia. The prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain where cognition takes place. While the prefrontal cortex is a masterpiece of evolution, it is quite limited. For example, the prefrontal cortex tires quickly and can only focus well on one thing at a time. While the prefrontal cortex is effective, it is not in itself efficient…yet.

What Your Brain Knows that You Don't

Fortunately, the brain has complementary regions that help it to be an overall efficient organ. One such complementary region is the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia store information about routine behavior, so that we can perform routine tasks without having to use the prefrontal cortex. This frees us up to do things like take a shower while simultaneously contemplating the mysteries of the universe. The basal ganglia make it possible for you to remember to wash your hair while at the same time think about all the things you need to pack for an upcoming business trip. A shorthand for this is front-loaded information vs. back-loaded information. Front-loaded information is information that occupies the prefrontal cortex. Back-loaded information is that which occupies the basal ganglia.

So, the question then is what information do you want to be front-loaded for people in an organization: information about processes (i.e. the micro-behavioral domain), or information about values and mission (i.e. the macro-behavioral domain)? Though it may seem paradoxical, an organization will function better when values and mission are back-loaded and processes are front-loaded. The reason for this has to do with dynamism vs. stasis. Back-loaded information (i.e. information stored in the basal ganglia) is static, which is why it can reside in the basal ganglia as routines and repeated behaviors. Once the behavior changes, it is no longer static and the prefrontal cortex takes over.

An example of the above-mentioned dynamic is starting a new semester at school. On the first few days, students are often late to class as they wind their way around campus and corridors trying to find their assigned classrooms. However, in a very short period of time, the students no longer need to think about how to traverse from one class to the next; it becomes automatic and routine, and they can focus more on learning, rather than how to get from point A to point B.

Living Your Organizational Values: The Key to Making Minimum Critical Specifications Work

So, what information do you want to be static in the collective brain of an organization? Values and purpose, or processes? I submit that values and purpose should be static, and processes dynamic. This allows for values and purpose to carry a small but meaningful mental load for the organization, and make up a larger domain in terms of how people behave. To this end, it follows that the values and purpose of an organization should be the focal point for leaders. But therein lies the rub. It has almost become an article of faith that mission and values statements are the core of an organization’s soul. Plaques and banners adorn the hallways from the C-suite all the way down to the factory floor. The problem arises when people observe a disconnect between the way leaders behave and the stated values and mission of the organization. In order for information to remain in the basal ganglia and guide behavior, it must be consistent. Once that consistency is violated, this dissonance reengages the prefrontal cortex with questions about the purpose (i.e. values and purpose) of the organization. Therefore, the single most important thing a leader can do is to behave in a way that is consistent with the values and mission of the organization. But because values and mission statements are often cosmetic and do not actually represent the true values and purpose of the organization, behavioral disconnects are sometimes all but inevitable. The lesson here is simple: walk the talk. Failure to do so will lead to cultural rot in the organization.

Once the values and purpose have been established, aligned, and become a part of the organization’s cultural fabric, the opportunity space is created in which the systems and structures can have a larger footprint and take on a heavier mental load for the organization. You might be wondering why anyone would want systems and structures to take on a bigger footprint in an organization. Why would you want to front-load the micro-behavioral domain? The micro-behavioral domain essentially makes up the what and how of an organization’s identity. When space is freed up in the prefrontal cortex to think about the whats and the hows, you create an environment in which dynamism can flourish. This dynamism, facilitated by the prefrontal cortex, allows for processes to remain fluid and adaptable instead of rigid and stagnant. Because the environments in which we now operate are so dynamic, it stands to reason that the processes responding to that environment be equally dynamic. This is where the concept of minimum critical specifications plays a crucial role. 

Minimum Critical Specifications at the Crossroads

In order to explain minimum critical specifications, I will lean on an example from the work of a famed Dutch traffic engineer, Hans Monderman. Now deceased, Monderman believed in the concept of making roads feel dangerous in order to be safe. Monderman gained worldwide attention for redesigning a dangerous intersection in the Dutch town of Drachten.

Before Monderman got his hands on the perilous crossroads, accidents among cars, cyclists, and pedestrians were commonplace, often with deadly consequences. In response, local authorities kept adding signs to the juncture in hopes it would reduce the hazard. But it didn’t. When Monderman was charged with redesigning the intersection, he did something counterintuitive by removing signs, taking out lights, eliminating curbs, and putting in a roundabout. And lo and behold, the number of accidents was reduced to practically zero.

Behold the beauty of Monderman's roadway:

The reason behind Monderman’s success was that he created an environment in which minimum critical specifications compelled people to interact with each other in real-time and on an interpersonal level, totally dependent on the unique situation that presented itself at any given time. In other words, this minimalist road design allowed for maximum dynamism. People were forced to stop outsourcing their judgement to signs and lights, and instead step outside of their basal ganglia and into their prefrontal cortexes to literally think about how best to navigate the present situation, without being distracted by the “rules”. As behavior becomes rote it becomes static. When it becomes static, it moves to the basal ganglia. When it moves to the basal ganglia, people literally stop thinking.

Let Why be Your Guide

Whenever I encounter an organization laden with elaborately-described processes, I ask why the processes are so complicated and rigid. The answer is usually that without such static and structured processes, people would not know what to do or how to do it. But people questioning how to navigate situations is precisely the recipe for collaboration and innovation. Leaving open the question of how (i.e. being ambiguous about processes) opens the mind. But again, this is only possible when the mind is not preoccupied with an organization’s values and mission. Perhaps an anecdote from my personal work experience will bring this concept into clearer focus.

At one time I worked in an organization whose mission it was to create collaborative teams from three separate unique pools of specialists. Projects would come in and teams of experts from the three disciplines were meant to bring to bear unique solutions by looking at the problem from different points of view. Both collaboration and innovation were required for this process to work. After three years of personally working in this organization, and after almost five years since its inception, the level of collaboration and innovation required to solve the difficult problems given to us was almost entirely absent, with only a few glimmers of success.

People did not fully understand the unique purpose of the organization (i.e. they didn’t know the why). While values had been articulated, leadership did not reinforce how much they valued the values through their behavior. These two factors created a significant mental load for the organization and the why remained front-loaded in the prefrontal cortex, degrading morale and creating deep cynicism. In response to the perceived lack of collaboration and innovation, the organizational leadership created processes designed to force collaborative and innovative behavior. Even if the processes were effective in theory, it still would have been hard for people to engage with them, given the mental load each person was dealing with in terms of the organization’s mission and values. By creating top-down autocratic processes, the leadership did the exact opposite of what they should have done.

The organization would have been much better served if the leadership had focused on creating a values-based culture with a clearly articulated purpose, and then living by those values, thus back-loading the macro-behavioral domain, and giving space in the collective prefrontal cortex for the process executors, allowing them to develop nimble and dynamic processes that would have served the organization’s purpose. Unfortunately, this condition is all too common. Leaders sometimes have concrete ideas about their purpose and values, but simply fail to inculcate the culture with those values and purpose, either through duplicity or indifference to the purpose and values. People, being highly perceptive as they are, easily pick up on this disconnect and the macro-behavioral domain becomes front-loaded. Subsequently, productivity drops and leadership responds autocratically with top-down dictates about process, which, much like a command economy, never quite seems to fit the need.

The Sailboat and the Island

People often confuse minimum critical specifications with a willfully deficient lack of direction. Not so. The best analogy I can use to describe minimum critical specifications is what I call the sailboat and the island. Imagine that as a leader, you identify an island to which you want your people to sail. Together, you come up with values that will guide people on their journey to the island (e.g. prioritize the health of everyone on the boat above everything else, ensure that food and water are distributed equitably, make it safe for people to share mistakes and concerns, etc.). Once the destination has been set and the values are established, everyone gets on the boat and sets sail for the island. This is where your leadership will be put to the test. As a leader in this scenario, you provide no instructions on how the people in the boat are to sail from the shore to the distant island. The sea is dynamic: there will be storms, swells, currents, and winds that are impossible to predict in advance. Attempting to micro-dictate how to traverse to the island will not be necessary, so long as the people in the boat are competent, and have their guiding values and destination. The leader’s job in this scenario is to clearly define the destination, and to help establish values, and then to live by the values and purpose, while trusting the people in the boat to get to the island in a way that is both consistent with their shared values, the destination, and their skills. If the people in the boat observe the leaders lounging on a completely different island from the stated destination, if they see leaders behaving inconsistent with the specified values, they are likely going to drift and be caught up in the many hazards on the open sea. Likewise, if leaders dictate from ivory towers how to navigate the storms, swells, currents, and winds, the ship is likely going to be lost or make it to the destination late and in bad shape.

Conclusion

It is important for leaders to leave an opportunity space for people to navigate the waters of their jobs based upon the values and purpose of the mission, without suffocating collaboration and innovation with static and/or out-of-touch processes. Leaders can and should be open and deliberate about this (e.g., “We’re going to leave some of the day-to-day processes up to you to determine”). Minimum critical specifications unleashes the prefrontal cortex to create effective synergies among people, dynamic systems, and innovative solutions. Just like the intersection in Drachten, people are capable and better able to navigate, on their own, highly complex situations without the distraction of warning signs, flashing lights, and steal barriers, so long as they know their purpose and the values of the environment that guide their behaviors. Let your values be static and your processes dynamic.