Immigration: Lessons on National and Organizational Homeostasis

Building and Maintaining Affordable Middle Class Suburbia

The reality is that it is precisely because most or all of the men building houses in my neighborhood are in the U.S. illegally that I could afford to purchase my house and that many of my neighbors could afford to purchase their houses.

My family and I relocated to North Carolina in late 2016. We purchased a house in a new development that had a quaint feel, was filled with the buzz of children happily and safely playing in the neighborhood, and had all the artifacts of a middle-class life, including a community playground and swimming pool. Although the neighborhood was for the most part complete by the time we moved in, there were a few empty lots still waiting for ground to be broken and several houses undergoing construction. Never having lived in a new neighborhood that was still undergoing development, my attention was quickly drawn to the fact that all of the people I observed building the houses were Latino. While I did not interview any of them personally, my guess is that they were overwhelmingly from Mexico and Central America. Vans would pull up to the construction sites at lunchtime each day, and middle-aged Latino women would vend tacos from the back of their vehicles to the laborers. After about 9:00 a.m., the workers would start playing mariachi music as they sawed, nailed, and hammered their way through the day. On a few occasions, I attempted to strike up a conversation with some of the builders, only to be met with “No hablo inglés” or a reluctance to even make eye contact. In the peak of the humid North Carolina summer and with temperatures in the low to mid-90's, these men often worked ten to twelve-hour days Monday through Saturday. While I cannot say for sure whether the men who were building the houses in my neighborhood—including my house—were residing in the U.S. illegally, I suspect that many, if not most or all of them, are undocumented.

The reality is that it is precisely because most or all of the men building houses in my neighborhood are in the U.S. illegally that I could afford to purchase my house and that many of my neighbors could afford to purchase their houses. Due to their illegal status in the country and willingness to accept lower compensation, benefits, and protections than U.S. citizens, Latinos are building houses not just in my neighborhood, but all across the U.S., effectively lowering the cost of purchasing new and renovated houses. And, it is not only housing prices that are affected by low-wage earning laborers who reside in the U.S. illegally; produce, dairy, meat, many other grocery items, hotel rooms, cleaning services, landscaping, etc. are all in effect subsidized by laborers who are earning low wages while residing in the shadows and working in the country against the law. Whether you like it or not, whether you are for amnesty or mass deportation, if you are participating in the U.S. economy, you are benefiting from the labor of immigrants residing in the country against the law.

The subject of immigration in the U.S.—especially illegal immigration—has become a polarizing one. The issue stirs deep emotions within people and has been used by the political establishment on both the left and right as a rallying cry to draw voters to the polls, while very little has been done legislatively about the matter for decades. But personal emotions and political motives aside, the matter of immigrants coming to and working in the U.S. against the law has both positive and negative consequences to which we are often selectively blind due to our predisposition to political dogmatism.

From Slave Labor to Second-Tier Labor: The Phases of Economic Development

When there is a well-developed middle class, through the process of economic osmosis, second-tier labor emerges, which allows the middle class to feed its appetite for goods and services without experiencing unsustainable inflation.

As societies develop, many (not all) experience two phases of labor. In the early stages of a rapidly economically developing society (nowadays, often a nation-state; but in the past, empires and monarchies), there is usually a form of slave labor. This slave labor allows a small number of native members within a society to move rapidly up the ladder of wealth, creating significant amounts of concentrated capital. While the U.S. imported slave labor mostly from Africa, creating massive wealth in agriculture that was a boon to the American economy writ large, other countries have relied on domestic slavery. From its early origins as the Duchy of Moscow to the Tsardom of Russia, and finally, to the Russian Empire, Russian society relied on native serfs for agricultural slave labor. Serfs served the landed gentry until the abolition of the practice in 1861. During the centuries of serfdom, the Russian nobility thrived on the backs of the serfs, creating one of the wealthiest monarchies in history.

Societies cannot depend upon slave labor to build up and sustain their economies in perpetuity; eventually, sufficient social pressure mounts to abolish slavery due to its immorally and inhumanity. But, while slave labor may go away, the desire for affordable goods and services does not, and post-slave labor societies reach a tipping point when the demand for goods and services by the middle and upper classes outpaces the economy’s ability to balance prices with wages. As more people enter the middle class, their demand for goods and services eventually would make many things unaffordable, save for the follow-on phase of slave labor: second-tier labor. By “second class,” I do not mean humanly less than; I merely mean that second-tier laborers have wages, benefits, and protections that are secondary to other workers. In its current incarnation, Russia has grown a modest middle class under the semi-benevolent autocracy of the Putin regime. While serfs are long gone from the agricultural landscape of Russia, the country is importing labor from economically undeveloped nations in Central Asia to build, clean, and otherwise serve as second-tier workers to sustain the consumption habits of the newly-minted Russian middle and upper classes. In the Middle East, second-tier laborers arrive from developing countries in South Asia to build gleaming skylines in the desert. In Germany, Turkish immigrant workers number in the hundreds of thousands to support the country’s vast middle class. In the United Kingdom, Eastern Europeans, among others, act as second-tier labor. And in the U.S., people from mostly Mexico and Central America fill the need for second-tier labor. When there is a well-developed middle class, through the process of economic osmosis, second-tier labor emerges, which allows the middle class to feed its appetite for goods and services without experiencing unsustainable inflation.

Second-tier laborers are almost always a foreign-born workforce that is attracted by wages and working conditions that are superior to those in their economically undeveloped or developing countries of origin. While some countries are better at dealing with the legal status of second-tier immigrant laborers than others, almost universally, states with a large middle class either formally or informally have institutionalized second-tier labor from countries that are economically undeveloped or developing. After all, would someone from Dhaka leave for Dubai if they could make a comparable wage in their home country? Why would someone from Guatemala City risk death sneaking across the harsh Rio Grande Valley to wait in a Home Depot parking lot for work if they had the same economic opportunities in their home country? In sum, developed nations with large middle classes benefit considerably, at least in an economic sense, from second-tier labor.

Examining the Anxieties over Immigration 

...just as economies reach a tipping point where the middle class becomes so large it requires a second-tier labor force to sustain its consumption habits, there is also a cultural tipping point that occurs in societies at which shared norms and values—the foundation of a society’s culture—risk being divergent to the point of collapse.

While there are definite economic advantages to having a second-tier workforce, some who benefit from it are stridently opposed to prolonged, large-scale immigration. For example, the EU referendum in the United Kingdom was voted through, in large part due to concerns about open borders with the EU and unchecked immigration into the country. In the U.S., candidate Trump promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico. While the wall may or may not come to fruition, there is no doubt that a significant portion of the U.S. population is in favor of tighter controls on immigration, especially from Mexico and Central America. But, there are also those who see the inhumanity in having a second-tier workforce and seek to bring relief to those laborers and their families, either legislatively or extra-legislatively. Some hear the calls to build a wall on the Mexican border and the rejection of migrants from Latin America as smallminded at best and racist at worst. In response, some U.S. cities have taken on the mantle of sanctuaries for those who live in the country illegally. Even the lexis associated with the topic has become too hot to handle, with some news outlets banning the use of the phrase “illegal immigrant” in favor of the “undocumented worker.” Protestors at rallies hold signs that read “No human is 'illegal.'”

In the U.S. and other countries, the wrath of those who oppose immigration has been kindled. I was living in the United Kingdom when the EU referendum took place. During the several weeks leading up to the vote, the consensus that it would fail was growing. I recall watching on my iPhone the live projections from the University of East Anglia as I lay in bed in my North Yorkshire home on the night of June 23, 2016. As the votes trickled in, the University of East Anglia projected a 99 percent chance that the referendum would not pass. I refreshed the page frequently for the next four hours, watching the percentage drop every few minutes until 2:00 a.m. when the chance of the referendum not passing dropped below two percent. Five months later, I sat down to watch the returns of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, confident in the projections of all major newspapers and cable and network news outlets that Hillary Clinton would become the 45th president of the United States. And, while she did win the popular vote, tens of millions of people voted for Donald Trump, causing him to win the electoral college. I believe that the victories of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and Trump in the U.S. were, in large part, due to the anxieties that people have about immigration.

So, are the anxieties that some people have about immigration rational or unfounded? After all, without low-wage earning workers in the U.S. who are building houses and picking produce, the costs of these things could become unaffordable for the vast majority of people. Is it not in peoples’ best interest to support immigration? From an economic point of view, opposition to immigration—especially opposition to immigration of low-wage earners—is not in most peoples’ best interest. But, just as economies reach a tipping point where the middle class becomes so large it requires a second-tier labor force to sustain its consumption habits, there is also a cultural tipping point that occurs in societies at which shared norms and values—the foundation of a society’s culture—risk being divergent to the point of collapse. Is it possible that some portion of a population instinctively knows that immigration is occurring at a rate that is unsustainable for the culture? That the values and norms which make up the foundation of any national culture change over time is self-evident. What is less evident is the rate at which those values and norms can change before a cultural collapse occurs.

The Tendency Toward Cultural Homeostasis 

Without negative feedback loops that maintain the homeostasis of body temperature, the body would die. Likewise, without homeostasis within cultures, societies would collapse. The tolerances for the former are well known; however, the tolerances for the latter are not.

Cultures, from the organizational level to the national level, can and do collapse. Cultural collapse occurs when stated values and accepted norms become significantly out of sync with manifest values and norms, which appreciably disrupts cultural homeostasis. Everything from a single cell organism to a developed nation seeks homeostasis. While there are tolerances, when those tolerances are breached, systems are engaged to regain homeostasis for the sake of survival. For example, the human body attempts to maintain a temperature of 98.6° F. If a person’s body temperature goes above or below 98.6° F, negative feedback loops in the body attempt to regain homeostasis. If the body is too cold, blood vessels constrict, and sweat glands do not release fluid until normal body temperature is restored, whereas if the body is too hot, blood vessels dilate, and sweat glands release fluid until normal body temperature is restored. However, if the body gets too hot and cannot regulate its temperature, death occurs (usually at about 108° F). So, as far as heat is concerned, the human body has a tolerance of about 10° F, all things being equal. Without negative feedback loops that maintain the homeostasis of body temperature, the body would die. Likewise, without homeostasis within cultures, societies would collapse. The tolerances for the former are well known; however, the tolerances for the latter are not.

Unsurprisingly, when humans work together in organizations and live together in societies, group dynamics tend to mimic natural phenomena. When there is a sense within the collective organism of society that equilibrium is off, attempts that are sometimes irrational or disproportionate to the perceived threat will be made in order to correct it. One of the side-effects of having such large brains as Homo sapiens is our proclivity to ruminate. Yes, other living creatures experience fear, but our large brains as Homo sapiens give us the ability to engage in metacognition, which leads to frequent overestimation of dangers and risks. When threats are perceived that suggest a disruption to homeostasis within society—regardless of how real they are—some portion of the population will attempt to correct it.

Are there negative feedback loops being engaged in some societies in response to immigration in order to maintain cultural homeostasis? I think the answer is a resounding “yes.” This is not an excuse for hateful and harmful behavior that some exhibit towards immigrants, but rather a possible anthropological explanation. Also, homeostasis is not to be confused with ethnic homogeneity; there are plenty of culturally homeostatic societies that are heterogeneous. I believe resistance to immigration is a manifestation of the desire to forestall a perceived cultural collapse, influenced by societal homeostatic negative feedback loops. This is perhaps why millions of people across the globe from the U.S. to the U.K. to continental Europe are gravitating towards nationalism. It is an attempt to restore a perceived disruption in cultural homeostasis.

The Costs and Benefits of Immigration 

In my neighborhood—yes, the very one where homes were built by the hands of Latino men and some of which are cleaned by the hands of Latino women—we are zoned for a school that the state has rated as needing significant improvement.

While it may be hypocritical to enjoy the cheap fruits of second-tier labor, both literally and figuratively, while protesting immigration of low-wage earners, not all concerns are invalid. In my neighborhood—yes, the very one where homes were built by the hands of Latino men and some of which are cleaned by the hands of Latino women—we are zoned for a school that the state has rated as needing significant improvement. The anecdotal observations from the parents at the school are that the student-teacher ratio is too high and also that so many of the students speak Spanish only and that teachers spend most of their day trying to cope with the needs of those students. I can understand why homeowners, who pay no small amount in state income and property tax, would want their children to be well-schooled. Is that really an unreasonable expectation? I know the retort—parental involvement is a more significant factor in student success than the quality of the school. Perhaps. However, if the state of education in the classroom is such that teachers have minimal time to adequately introduce concepts in English to native speakers of English, then the burden of parental involvement increases significantly. But, then, perhaps, that’s fair. After all, many of the native English-speaking children who attend the school live in nice houses in safe neighborhoods that were built by their Spanish-speaking classmates’ Mexican and Central American fathers. The irony of the situation is not lost to me.

Applying the Lessons of Immigration

...seek and provide information that dispassionately describes both the good and bad associated with potential disruption to cultural homeostasis, be it in an organization or a nation-state.

Behavior patterns around immigration serve as an interesting microcosm of group dynamics that can be applied to both organizations and societies. People can be very selective about what information they chose to take in or ignore—i.e., cognitive bias. This is not news. But what is interesting is how significantly collective cognitive bias can distort reality. The issue of immigration also demonstrates how both individuals and groups seek homeostasis and how the distortion of reality can potentially act as a exagerated feedback loop, causing overcorrection. At the same time, immigration shows that while cultures can adapt, when the foundation of a culture—its values and norms—no longer reflect what the stated and understood values and norms are, the cultural fabric can start to tear.

Illegal immigration, in particular, challenges a culture to prioritize one of two things that are mutually exclusive: the rule of law or mercy. Are we a benevolent and merciful culture that is willing to accept some degree of lawlessness for the greater economic good or are we a culture that expects the laws of the land to be followed and upheld for the sake of legal legitimacy and consistency, even if it means some economic hardship? If you are a bank, like Wells Fargo, are you willing to put shareholders’ profits above customer satisfaction or are you willing to put customers first, even if it means potentially fewer profits for shareholders in the short to midterm? These are important questions that demand an honest and open-minded appraisal of the costs and benefits of each option. The best approach (although by no means a panacea) is to seek and provide information that dispassionately describes both the good and bad associated with potential disruption to cultural homeostasis, be it in an organization or a nation-state.

Closing Thoughts

...be aware of the risks associated with unsustainable cultural change, but beware misleading signals that cultural homeostasis is at risk.

In the case of immigration, there are lots of rewards to which many are blind. But there are also some disadvantages. Trying to wish the disadvantages away as if they do not exist is only going to exacerbate the impulse in some to restore homeostasis. If you are in favor of immigration or amnesty for people residing in the country against the law, be honest with yourself and others both about the good that comes from it and the downsides. If you fear immigration and want a wall or mass deportation, be honest with yourself about how your life has benefited from the labor of immigrants. The sometimes unfounded tendency toward cultural homeostasis and the real potential for cultural collapse due to divergent values and norms are phenomena that need to be considered and are important for the health, sustainability, and prosperity of both societies and organizations: be aware of the risks associated with unsustainable cultural change, but beware misleading signals that cultural homeostasis is at risk.

 

How Fear and Greed Cloud Judgement

To Flee or Not to Flee

As Harvey was closing in on the Gulf Coast, my in-laws made preparations to flee their house if necessary to holed up on the fifth floor of a nearby parking garage, where they had left one of their cars with plenty of supplies to tide them over if they would not be able to return to their home in the near future.

My family and I recently traveled to visit my wife’s father and stepmother to celebrate my father-in-law’s 70th birthday. Their house sits in a low-lying area of East Texas, which was subjected to flooding during Hurricane Harvey. Because Hurricane Harvey was such a slow-moving storm, it dropped significant amounts of precipitation where my in-laws live. The massive bans of rain swept their city over and over. My mother-in-law described how when the rain was heavy, the water would come within inches of reaching their front door. When the storm periodically broke, the water quickly receded. Fortunately for them, the water never entered the main floor of their home, thus sparing their house from flood damage. But during the storm, my father- and mother-in-law had no way of knowing for sure whether their house would eventually flood. My in-laws are nothing if not prepared for a natural disaster. They lived through the devastation of Hurricane Rita in 2005, which caused significant damage to their house. As Harvey was closing in on the Gulf Coast, my in-laws made preparations to flee their house if necessary to holed up on the fifth floor of a nearby parking garage, where they had left one of their cars with plenty of supplies to tide them over if they would not be able to return to their home in the near future. My in-laws were prepared to incur the cost associated with surviving the Hurricane Harvey: being ready and willing to evacuate on their own.

The thought of abandoning one’s home and worldly belongings is not easy to bear. When authorities urge residents to leave their houses due to fire, flooding, or some other natural or human-made disaster, some people hold out and risk their lives. In the abstract and from a distance, it can be easy to judge those who put their own lives and the lives of their family members at risk when they do not heed calls to flee. However, in the concrete, it can be easy to hope against hope that everything will be all right or that authorities are exaggerating the dangers. The reality is that people regularly perish or suffer injury as a result of natural or human-made disasters when their deaths or suffering were knowingly preventable. Nevertheless, people are sometimes unwilling to pay the price for the solution that is called for—which is often evacuation—to avoid death or injury. Even in the most extreme of circumstances, when life and limb are on the line, there is almost always a solution to the problem. As my in-laws' preparation for Harvey shows, the solution to a problem comes at a cost, which in their case would have been abandoning all of their worldly belongings. The real obstacle people have when faced with a problem is performing an objective analysis of the costs associated with the solution. When the cost seems too high, it can be easy to fall into the trap of a false dilemma, in which we believe that the problem has no solution. On the other hand, sometimes the cost is very high, but people are willing to pay it if it does not negatively impact them personally.

Shortcuts, Absolution, and Outsourcing: The Paths of Least Resistance

When organizations face problems, they will often call in consultants from the outside or rely on internal consultants to find solutions to their problems. What I have observed, over and over again, is that when faced with a problem, organizations often want one of several scenarios to take place:

Shortcuts: Sometimes organizations call upon consultants to come up with solutions that rely on thinking that there is a pain-free or low-cost escape route that has simply not yet occurred to the organization’s decision-makers. When this message is conveyed, it is often code for, “We know the answer, but it is too costly, so we are hoping you can magic up a more painless solution.” Solving problems always has a cost associated with it. This cost is usually in the form of making changes to how people behave. More specifically, the changes in behavior are often required in the organization’s leaders most of all. When consultants are called upon to help an organization solve problems, it is the organization’s leaders who must be prepared first and foremost to pay the price to overcome the presenting problems.

When working with one client, my colleagues and I were presented with a situation in which the organization’s human resources department was looking for a solution to a problem. The department was looking to sort out what had become a bone of contention between the human resources and the organization’s staff—the acquisition of living quarters for employees who were assigned to overseas assignments. The client asked for “out of the box” solutions. As my colleagues and I interviewed people from the human resources department and staff members who had previously been assigned to overseas locations, the solution to the problem became clear to us. Employees assigned to overseas assignments wanted more autonomy in selecting their housing. However, for legacy reasons, the human resources department maintained absolute control over the leasing process for reasons that were no longer relevant. The human resources department was struggling to keep up with the demands on its time in dealing with the leasing process, and the staff members assigned overseas were suffering from low morale due to the length of time and red tape associated with acquiring housing. While the client asked for an “out of the box” solution, we did not have to leave the box to see the solution. The solution was straightforward but had a cost associated with it: the human resources department needed to relinquish control of the leasing process to the staff assigned overseas. However, the cost of relinquishing control was too high for the department, and it rebuffed the recommendation. What it really wanted was for us to find a solution that mollified the staff assigned overseas without the human resources department needing to change how it operated. Like a monkey caught in the proverbial monkey trap, all it had to do was let go of the peanut to free its hand from the hole, but that would have meant giving up the peanut, which in this case was control. The department could either hold onto control and have the problem or let go of control and not have the problem. They chose the former. So often the solution is right under our noses if we are willing to pay the price for it. No solution is free, no matter how out of the box the thinking is.

Absolution: I recall once describing to a colleague a consulting engagement I was involved with, which he aptly described as “…them calling in a priest.”  The client was experiencing burdensome growing pains and not dealing with it well. The company asked for my help in identifying and implementing strategies that would improve overall employee morale and reduce friction that was occurring among members of the leadership team. As I listened to their story, I knew that their problems were very surmountable. But the more we talked, the more I realized that they had no intention of changing anything. They were aware of their sins. What they wanted from me was absolution. They wanted me to look at the situation and say, “Yes, what you are doing is all right. It's going to be okay.” They were not asking for me to charm up a pain-free solution as occurs in the shortcut scenario. Instead, they were well aware of the fact that they were making decisions and allowing dynamics to exist that were having a detrimental effect on the organization. However, like the human resources department described in the previous scenario, they did not want to incur the cost to improve their situation and simply wanted a “professional” to tell them that they were healthy and well, despite displaying obvious signs of sickness.

Outsourcing responsibility: A friend recently recounted a story to me of a large company he used to work for that once called in an exorbitantly priced consulting firm to help streamline and improve efficiencies. The increased efficiencies called for downsizing the company. My friend was asked to work with the consulting firm to identify where and how to downsize specific areas. Despite his protests that the deep cuts in personnel would lead to dangerous work conditions, the organization’s leadership more or less already knew what they wanted to do, and his protests fell on deaf ears. The reason they hired the consulting firm was so that they could outsource the responsibility for the downsizing to the consultants, despite the fact that the consultants did little more than put their stamp of approval—both literally and figuratively—on the proposed changes. In this case, the organization was willing to pay a very high price for the changes it wanted: decreased workplace safety for increased revenue. However, the organization was unwilling to put their name to the changes, instead opting for a convenient scapegoat in the form of mercenary consultants.

Calculating the Costs

The warning signs for a shortcut, absolution, or outsourcing scenario, both for consultants and for those being consulted, are irrational resistance to sensible changes on the one extreme and an eagerness to make radical high-cost changes on the other extreme

In all the scenarios mentioned above, each organization was either unwilling to pay the price for change or reluctant to take responsibility for the change. As I already stated, all change comes at a price. The real question is how willing an organization is to pay the cost for the benefit of the change. In many cases, the cost requires giving up some control. In highly bureaucratic organizations, control over certain systems, structures, policies, and procedures acts as a justification for an individual’s job or a department’s existence. In these cases, the cost for changes that represent an existential crisis is almost certainly going to be met with a high amount of resistance, and the organization will either seek a shortcut solution that costs little or nothing, or they will ask for absolution from their sins of mismanagement. On the other hand, when the cost seems low and the benefits high, organizations are often eager to accept the change if they can pass along the blame to a third-party puppet decision-makers who are not incurring high personal costs. The warning signs for a shortcut, absolution, or outsourcing scenario, both for consultants and for those being consulted, are irrational resistance to sensible changes on the one extreme and an eagerness to make radical high-cost changes on the other extreme. Both of these scenarios signal that fear or greed are clouding prudent judgment.

Organizations should ideally be willing to make changes where the cost of the changes has been considered dispassionately. This is precisely where good organizational consultants come in. From the inside, it can be difficult to see the cost of solutions to problems objectively, but the solution is more often than not obvious and straightforward. Consultants—especially those that deal with change—play two critical roles with it comes to addressing and presenting organizational problems. First, skilled and competent consultants can advise on what effective strategies are for implementing the solution to a given presenting problem. Second, skilled and competent consultants, if allowed, can help organizations quantify and qualify the costs of the solution in order so that organizations can make better decisions based on data and not out of fear or greed. I do not mean to condescend to anyone. Fear and greed and natural, if base, emotions that we all experience, especially when the stakes seem high. However, fear and greed almost always lead to poor, irrational judgment calls. An objective consultant can help identify and weigh the costs. Finding the solution is usually not the most significant challenge; the biggest challenges are accurately estimating the cost of the solution and then using effective strategies to implement it.

In the case of my friend, whose organization was significantly downsized and reduced services because of the increased risk, the company needed an accurate assessment of the cost of a solution to streamline and increase profits. A consultant willing to tell the truth might have been able to correct the course of the organization toward a less risky solution. In this case, telling the truth meant telling them that they were avoiding relatively low-cost and straightforward solutions to avoid accountability for the mismanagement of the organization. In the case of the organization that sought a shortcut solution, speaking truth would have meant telling them that while the costs of change were real, their fear of change was stopping them from solving a very solvable problem. No consultant can force change upon a client regardless of whether the client wants a shortcut, absolution, or to outsource responsibility. However, consultants who speak sometimes uncomfortable truths to their clients and do so in a non-threatening way open the door to dialogue and thought that transcends fear and greed.

Fear and Greed: Subtle Emotional Disasters

There are many people whose basic needs for food, water, and shelter are met in overabundance. Yet, these people seem trapped on a treadmill, constantly chasing material things that far exceed their needs. On the other hand, there are people who live their lives deprived of basic needs yet manage to transcend their circumstances, develop esteem for themselves and others, and self-actualize.

So that clients and consultants are putting themselves in the best possible mental and emotional state to solve high- or low-stakes problems, they must come to terms with the emotions of fear and greed. While primitive, fear and greed are potent drivers that have relevance in our daily lives. Through the lens of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, fear and greed are emotions that fall at the very bottom of the pyramid in the "physiological" and "safety" spaces. While the hierarchy of needs is a useful tool, it can give the impression that as people’s needs are met at one level, they move up to the next level, and the emotions at the lower level no longer activate behavior. In reality, human motivation is much more complex than this. There are many people whose basic needs for food, water, and shelter are met in overabundance. Yet, these people seem trapped on a treadmill, constantly chasing material things that far exceed their needs. On the other hand, there are people who live their lives deprived of basic needs yet manage to transcend their circumstances, develop esteem for themselves and others, and self-actualize. In other words, an individual’s growth relative to his or her needs is not necessarily linear. Equally important is that fact that people can dwell in multiple spaces simultaneously where their needs are concerned. This reality accounts for the fact that even when people hold positions of authority, are respected, and have their basic safety and physiological needs met, they can behave in ways that are driven by fear and greed. It is my experience that the vast majority of people are almost always experiencing at least ambient levels of fear and greed that influence their behavior. So sensitive are we to the precariousness of life that our primal and evolutionarily-encoded instincts to survive are almost always present at some level for most of us.

Fear is a defensive emotion that manifests as a fight, flight, or freeze response. Greed is an offensive emotion that shows up as active or passive aggression and consumption. When a problem presents itself, fear can be a driver of behavior when attempting to solve the problem as a means to mitigate perceived harm to oneself. Even if it is not at top of their minds, people can understandably be concerned with how they will be viewed in solving problems and can, thus, attempt to minimize the cost associated with a solution though shortcuts (i.e., low- or zero-cost solutions) or avoiding solving problems by seeking absolution. When greed enters the picture, people are often willing to accept excessive costs at others' expense for personal gain, especially if they have tacit or explicit approval from their superiors. These fear- and greed-based behaviors, in my observation and experience, almost never result in a sustainable and effective solution to a presented problem.

Write it Out

The good news is that feelings of fear and greed are universal to the experience of normally functioning humans. But what can set you apart from most other humans is your willingness to call out the fear and greed that are potentially clouding your judgment or willingness to take reasonable and practical action.

With this in mind, how can we reckon with our primeval emotions of fear and greed in order to put ourselves in a mental state wherein we can both accept and solve problems effectively? The reality is that fear and greed are not maladies of character; most normally functioning humans experience fear and greed and do so to a degree that is often higher than we are consciously aware of. Although it may seem on its face to be counterintuitive, coping with fear and greed in problem-solving is about bringing the emotions to the fore and not suppressing them. The objective is not to vanquish fear and greed but to expose them so they can be fully seen and observed. Only when fear and greed are fully exposed can they be fully dealt with. Not accepting that fear and greed can drive our behavior further obscures their effect on us and can trick us into believing that we are not being influenced by the irrationality that fear and greed can inflict on us. A simple exercise described below can help surface suppressed or inviable fear and greed.

Email has been commonplace ever since I began my professional career. Most people have experienced getting an email that seemed rude or curt and then shooting off a feisty reply, only to unnecessarily escalate the situation. I know I have certainly been guilty of such digital transgressions. At one job, my emails became particularly inflammatory. A mentor suggested that before replying to an email, I should write out my thoughts and feelings, then wait 24 hours to reevaluate what I had written. At first, it was difficult to wait the 24 hours, but I very quickly realized that when I took the time to write out my thoughts and emotions, they became less ambiguous to me. Upon revisiting them a day later, it was almost as if I was viewing them through another person’s eyes. By doing this exercise, I was able to gain clarity on my thoughts and feelings and, the more concrete they became, the easier it was to let them go. This exercise can be applied to many situations where it is helpful to surface thoughts and feelings in the service of being able to put some distance between yourself and certain unproductive thoughts and feelings. As you prepare to enter a solution space for a problem, take some time alone and in silence, with as few distractions as possible, to reflect on the problem by answering some questions. The following questions are a good starting point, but this list is by no means exhaustive:

  1. Why do I think there is a problem?
  2. What do I think the origins of the problem are?
  3. How have I contributed to the problem?
  4. How do I think others are contributing to the problem? 
  5. How would my life change if the problem went away?
  6. What would happen to me if the problem remained?
  7. What is at stake for me, personally, in solving the problem?
  8. What costs am I personally willing to accept for the problem to be solved?
  9. What costs am I not personally willing to accept for the problem to be solved?
  10. What costs am I willing to impose on others and why?
  11. What costs am I not willing to impose on others and why?
  12. How much effort am I willing to exert to solve the problem?
  13. How have I reacted emotionally to solutions that others have already proposed?
  14. Will my reputation among my superiors improve if I solve the problem?
  15. Will my reputation be damaged among my superiors if the problem persists?
  16. Will my career be advanced by solving the problem?
  17. Will my career by stalled if the problem persists?

It is critical in answering these questions that you are prepared to be brutally honest with yourself. Answer the questions as if no one else in the world will ever see your responses (they do not have to) and be prepared to feel some discomfort as you are vulnerable with yourself in exposing your deep motivations driven by fear and greed. The good news is that feelings of fear and greed are universal to the experience of normally functioning humans. But what can set you apart from most other humans is your willingness to call out the fear and greed that are potentially clouding your judgment or willingness to take reasonable and practical action. After you have answered these questions, put them aside for a day and then revisit them. As you reread your answers, be prepared to make changes as perhaps things have become clearer to you upon reflection. If you have made significant changes to your answers and feel that you are getting closer to exposing your fear and greed fully, take another day to let the revised answers settle in and then revisit them again. A good sign that this exercise is having a meaningful impact on you is the level of uneasiness or embarrassment you feel at your answers. As we peel back the layers of our motivations, we often find things that are ugly to us—things that are easy for us to spot in others but that we assume are not present in ourselves. Fear and greed are base human motivations are primal evolutionarily adaptations that came about for our survival. Against the backdrop of our sophisticated modern world, these thoughts and feelings appear unseemly and grotesque. Once you have cycled through the exercise one, two, or even three times, you put yourself in the sweet spot of readiness for change in which you are neither held back by fear from incurring the cost of solving the problem nor blinded by greed and willing to impose excessive costs on others for personal gain.

Closing Thoughts

Instead of being driven to and fro by primitive instincts, self-awareness of your fear and greed allows you to approach problems with a willingness to solve them in ways that both accept the costs involved and with the wisdom to weigh those costs against the overall benefit or risk for all stakeholders.

It has often been said that the people who function most effectively in life can do so because of their high degree of self-awareness. Self-awareness is not just about being in tune with how you feel and what you think in response to others, but also how your actions impact people one, two, and three degrees away from you. Developing self-awareness is indeed a journey and not a destination; it takes persistent observation of self and others and a willingness to be vulnerable inside and out. However, the payoff is enormous. Instead of being driven to and fro by primitive instincts, self-awareness of your fear and greed allows you to approach problems with a willingness to solve them in ways that both accept the costs involved and with the wisdom to weigh those costs against the overall benefit or risk for all stakeholders. Just as my in-laws were willing to be proactive to reduce their risk of fatality or injury from a deadly hurricane, we can prepare ourselves to productively cope with the subtle but still damaging mental hurricanes of fear and greed as we seek to effectively solve problems and continually improve the workplace, thereby advancing the human condition therein.

 

A Simple Hack to Improve Blue Ocean Strategy?

It gives me great pleasure to offer a guest blog post from my friend, Carl Nordgren. Carl is an accomplished author, entrepreneur,  and former instructor at Duke University. At expert in creativity, Carl offers workshops and publications on the subject. Carl's website can be accessed here and the original posting of this article can be found here. Carl can be reached here. Carl's acclaimed book on creativity, Becoming a Creative Genius {Again}, can be purchased here

By Carl Nordgren

Blue Ocean business strategies are directed towards the creation of a new market space that makes competitors irrelevant by creating new or significantly higher levels of value for customers, often while decreasing costs. It was introduced in 2005 by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne in their best-selling book, ‘Blue Ocean Strategy.’

I’ve been lucky. I never had to study Blue Ocean strategy; I got used to it, which is the best way to fully understand a complex and creative subject. Starting with my first employer back in 1966 and then throughout my business career most of the companies I worked for and all the ventures I helped launch were what the authors would call Blue Ocean businesses.

The first was Ball Lake Lodge, a fishing and hunting camp on the English River in the wilderness of Northwest Ontario, accessible by float plane only.  I started guiding there when I was 15—at first an apprentice guide and camp laborer—and I continued working there for four summer seasons. Barney Lamm, the camp owner, realized the advantages he could create and pass on to his guests if he also owned and operated the float plane airline that transported his guests to Ball Lake Lodge from Kenora, the frontier town on Lake of the Woods that outfitted the camps in the region. Ontario Central Airlines (OCA) became the largest float plane operation in Canada, a great business in its own right, and its strategic impact on Ball Lake was enormous, creating advantages the other fishing camp owners couldn’t begin to approach, lifting Ball Lake Lodge into a category all its own.

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Because he owned OCA, Barney enjoyed a radical reduction in his operating costs. All the supplies needed to operate a wilderness fishing camp must be flown in, everything from groceries to capital equipment, and that was very expensive for camp owners who had to pay a float plane operator’s transport charges to do that for them. Barney’s operating costs at Ball Lake were radically reduced because he could carry a large portion of his supplies on his planes that were paid for by his guests—he never transported gas drums or propane tanks with passengers, of course, but the cargo hold of nearly every flight was filled with groceries and liquor and camp store items and other needed supplies. This radical reduction in costs allowed him to provide higher levels of service comfort; he was now able to be extraordinarily generous in each inch and every minute of his guests experience and when your guests are in your care for food and lodging and fishing adventure for 3 or 4 days, there are lots of inches and minutes.

The most striking example of his generosity: every fishing camp I know of stocked rods and reels to sell as replacements if things go wrong for a guest but while those other camps would charge two or three times the ‘city rate’ for a rod, taking advantage of guests under the cover of transport costs, Barney sold such goods at the ‘city rate’ or less. I saw the delight in many a guest over the years when he discovered this was so.

Add to Barney’s determined generosity other features like the awesome Main Lodge with a pool table and a fully stocked bar and Ball Lake Lodge redefined a wilderness adventure experience with enough creature comfort that we attracted guests like John Wayne, a couple of the Getty Oil brothers, James Hoffa (such a regular that our most secluded cabin it was called Jimmy’s Cabin), Natalie Wood (I got to carry her luggage the summer ‘Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice’ was released) and Patrick Hemmingway, Ernest’s international sportsman son.

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And those extra levels of comfort also attracted corporate clients looking to motivate and reward national sales forces or top distributors with a special experience; because Barney owned the only float plane airline with a flotilla a planes—a bunch of Norsemen and Beavers and a couple of Grumman Goose and at least one Beechcraft as I recall—he could provide logistical services for corporate clients that eliminated what would otherwise be a major impediment to a wilderness trip: moving large numbers of their employees safely, effectively, and efficiently. Every corporate group dollar spent on fishing trips in NW Ontario was Ball Lake Lodge revenue.

Ball Lake Lodge was declared the top fishing lodge in Canada by their industry association, Barney was an Ontario Business Man of the Year, and he was made an honorary chief by the Grassy Narrows and White Dog Ojibway, evidence his generous care extended to the men and women who worked for him.

And he loved to teach as he framed our work, and I would hang on his every word. For instance I learned of the importance of capitalizing the word Guests as an indicator, and as a promise, from Barney.

I started and worked for a number Blue Ocean ventures, including a text book publishing start-up, a couple of innovative marketing services agencies, and two pioneering cellular telephone companies. In each case we were successfully discovering new ways to shape the markets’ sense of value and then delivering that value like no one else could, resulting on us creating and owning new markets.

Finding and fishing these Blue Oceans and a half dozen more were immersive experiences for me—as I said, I didn’t learn the foundational ideas and concepts behind Blue Ocean strategy by studying them, I got used to them by living with them, applying them, continually refining them, and later teaching them. And from that perspective I urge you to reconsider the label that Blue Ocean applies to an underlying process. It could be of fundamental importance to your successful application of their methodologies.

As you prepare to lead your company on its journey of discovery of Blue Oceans the authors urge you to develop a Road Map. This is the tool that will guide everyone through certain prescribed steps you’ll follow as you abandon the Red Ocean your organization built itself to serve and journey to the Blue Ocean filled with challenging unknowns.

I believe that what I call something is important. It strongly influences or even defines how I will subsequently think about it. So calling this tool a Road Map, I fear, sets up less flexible, less dynamic, and therefore less effective thinking about the myriad complexities that lie ahead when leading the discovery of the best strategic changes for your enterprise.

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A road map serves me as long as I know where I am and as long as I am following a specific and predetermined route, and only then. But of course the great portion of employees in larger corporations—the folks on the front lines for instance—often are confused about where they are.

They might, as the new week begins or the new project kicks off, have a clear understanding of what they intend on accomplishing over the next few days but then customers call and complain and make immediate demands and vendors let them down and fellow employees don’t deliver on deadline and a manager dumps an unexpected mess and by Tuesday they have been buffeted such that they are knocked off course and disoriented if not lost.

And if you don’t know where you are, a road map won’t be of any use.

There is a navigation device that is always useful, no matter where you are, no matter how confused you are: The compass. A compass always does one basic and simple thing, one powerful thing: it always points north.

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I take a compass when I explore wild places I’ve never been before, not a road map.

I have been teaching what I learned exploring Blue Oceans, that when you have a great strategy to move your company in a new direction you must make clear what success looks like and declare it to be True North. Then provide everyone with the Company Compass that helps them locate True North so no matter where employees are and no matter how surprising an outcome, they can use the Company Compass to align their day in and day out decisions as close to True North as the situation allows.

When you have an organization of folks all leaning, in the inches and minutes of daily organizational life, towards your True North of success, you have a hundred victories every day.

So then what does that Company Compass look like?

I’ve not seen a compass as a multi-step process or an intricate management system that needs to be learned; a compass is so simple, so basic, we are all immediately expert practitioners.

You can say the same about Story as a technology. Story is the simplest and most basic knowledge management technology there is—it informs data and instructions with motivational meaning that guides us—and we have all used story as a tool since we were toddlers.

I view a Company Compass as a particular sort of story; it’s the aspirational story that leadership crafts. And an aspirational story:

  • Is rooted in today’s best and most promising organizational truths that are suggestive of the new Blue Ocean direction you hope to explore.
  • Illustrates what success at True North looks like.
  • Illuminates the behaviors and activities it will take to get there.

And the Company Compass story is continually refreshed through celebrations of those new behaviors as they occur and with each new insight and knowledge the discovery of Blue Ocean reveals.

I’ve not seen a Company Compass as supplanting the important planning and milestone measurements that road maps promise and that every great voyage requires; I find the planning you do that serves the progress you are making discovering Blue Ocean is vital.

Taming Bureaucracy

The Golden Handcuffs of Government Work 

...it was the suffocating bureaucracy that made an otherwise interesting job insufferable. And I was not alone in my suffering; I knew scores of people who were disheartened due to the stifling bureaucracy, many of whom eventually quit over it.

Before my tenure working for the government, I was employed at a small startup company. I had good relationships with all of my superiors in the organization. Even though I was not that high on the totem pole, I felt that my opinions and ideas were heard and that I was respected. I worked hard for the company and enjoyed the work I did. However, having just gone from a dual- to a single-income household after the birth of my first child, my family could no longer afford to live on the salary I was being paid. A government position that was offered to me paid substantially more and had much more generous benefits. It is not that the startup I was working for was stingy. On the contrary, they were very generous with their resources. It was simply a matter of the company having relatively limited resources as a small startup and not being able to compete with the salary and benefits being offered to me by the government.

As my days were winding down with my soon-to-be-former employer, my family and I were preparing to make a move from Austin, Texas, to Anchorage, Alaska, where my first assignment with the government would be. Just days before our belongings and car were scheduled to be packed, picked up, and shipped to Alaska, I had a heart-to-heart talk with my then-supervisor. My supervisor was not only wise, but someone whom I respected; she was highly educated, accomplished, and ambitious. She was also an excellent teacher who knew when it was safe to let me fail and when she needed to step in, as she mentored me during my time working with her. She saw my potential, which led to promotions and additional responsibility. She was a person whose opinion I trusted. Therefore, my heart grew heavy when my supervisor counseled me that working for the government would likely cause me to feel stymied and unfulfilled due to the enormity of the bureaucracy. I did not doubt my supervisor’s warnings, but I was caught between a rock and a hard place; I chose the golden handcuffs of the government over the stress of not being able to make ends meet with my young family. While I do not regret making that decision, the forewarning my supervisor gave me about working for the government was correct—I felt thwarted and unfulfilled most of the time. What’s more, the fact that I felt thwarted and unfulfilled was not because of the work itself. Indeed, much of the work was interesting and satisfying. But again, as my supervisor foretold, it was the suffocating bureaucracy that made an otherwise interesting job insufferable. And I was not alone in my suffering; I knew scores of people who were disheartened due to the stifling bureaucracy, many of whom eventually quit over it. On the other hand, there were plenty of people who thrived in government bureaucracy, as they learned to navigate it and manipulate it to their advantage. And there were some for whom the bureaucracy seemed almost invisible, as they were able to ignore it without consequence.

Genesis of Bureaucracy

Having some codified systems, structures, policies, and procedures is not inherently bad. However, a point of diminishing returns is met when the bureaucracy is no longer responsive to the environment, effective, and consistent with organizational values and mission.

Formal or informal bureaucracy exists in every organization. The larger and older an organization, the more bureaucracy it tends to have. Like the slow and steady formation of stalagmites, bureaucracy is a naturally occurring phenomenon in human systems. Bureaucracy is the codified responses, in the form of systems, structures, policies, and procedures to environmental conditions, which provide organizational predictability, consistency, and effectiveness. Over time, environmental conditions change, but the bureaucracy often does not, creating a disconnect between how an organization is operating and the environmental signals.

Given that the maintenance of bureaucracy requires people who have a vested interest in preserving the status quo and in whom authority is vested to enforce the organizational systems, structures, policies, and procedures, bureaucracy is self-perpetuating and, therefore, difficult to dislodge. Having some codified systems, structures, policies, and procedures is not inherently bad. However, a point of diminishing returns is met when the bureaucracy is no longer responsive to the environment, effective, and consistent with organizational values and mission. This is the paradox of bureaucracy; it is born out of a will to be organizationally predictable, consistent, and effective, but eventually, it has the opposite effect. It is for this reason that organizations must build solvents into their systems, structures, policies, and procedures to periodically decalcify the bureaucracy to keep it at minimally necessary levels so the organization can remain responsive, effective, and congruent. This starts by selecting the right people to oversee the bureaucracy.

Archetypes of Leader

On the one hand, trying to keep an organization informal and without any bureaucracy is unnecessary and will undermine the organization’s ability to learn lessons that can be institutionalized and passed on. On the other hand, bureaucracy tends to beget bureaucracy, making it difficult to keep it from growing out of control.
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Within organizations—especially organizations with a lot of bureaucracy—individuals in whom power is vested (bosses, supervisors, managers, leaders, etc.) tend towards one of four archetypes:

The autocrat: The autocrat is probably the most well-known to people as they are the most prevalent among the ranks of power within organizations. This is no happenstance; autocrats seek power by nature, so it stands to reason that they are going to predominate in positions of power, all things being equal. Autocrats tend to be sticklers for the rules. Not much gets by them. I once had an autocratic supervisor who scolded a colleague of mine for exiting the office and going home during a fire alarm. On the surface, it seems reasonable to expect people to follow the rules during a fire alarm. After all, it is a matter of safety. But in this case, the fire alarm sounded as my co-worker was leaving for the day. He had his coat on and had signed out. What is more, it was near the end of the workday. As the rest of us gathered at our designed rendezvous point, we could see our colleague beyond the gate, driving away. He gave us a playful wave as if to say, “See ya, suckers!” The next day he got a dressing-down from our supervisor for not turning around, coming back into the office, and joining the rest of us. Ironically, had it been a real fire, going back into the building would be the most dangerous thing my colleague could have done. But all of that did not matter to our supervisor. As far as she was concerned, because he was still technically in the building when the alarm sounded, he should have reported to our designated rendezvous point.

While autocrats can be unproductively literal about the rules, they do tend to apply the rules evenly. Autocrats often keep a safe emotional distance from their subordinates to avoid being swayed by their personal feelings, in favor of cold binary calculations. Autocrats can be counted on like no one else to uphold and defend the bureaucracy. However, because they seek power and are guided by a paradigm of control, they can be ruthless and unpleasant. Autocrats, while often consistent, reliable, and pleasing to their bosses, prevent more than anyone else necessary change to systems, structures, policies, and procedures. When an autocrat eventually obtains sufficient power to make changes, the changes are often superficial and unresponsive to the environment.

The pragmatist: Pragmatism is often considered a sign of intellectual maturity. At their best, pragmatists can use sound judgment and wisdom to navigate the complexities, intricacies, and sometimes inconsistencies in systems, structures, policies, and procedures. Unlike the autocrat, the pragmatist is not a slave to the rules but is also not indifferent to them. The pragmatist seeks solutions that are based on deeper principles than superficial codes and expectations. This behavior is usually not done to undermine the bureaucracy per se but to allow for flexibility and reasonableness to prevail. Thus, the pragmatist is not out to take the system down but to allow it to survive by being informally adaptive. However, despite their best efforts, pragmatists can sometimes be viewed as unfair (e.g., “Why did you apply this rule to me but not to her?). While pragmatists are seldom arbitrary in their calculations, the rationale behind their judgments can be opaque to outsiders at times, leading to a perception that they are inconsistent, unpredictable, and unfair. Pragmatists can also fall victim to expediency. Liberated from superficial absolutes, pragmatists can become unmoored and start to pick and choose how to enforce the systems, structures, policies, and procedures in ways that are self-serving and not based on sound judgment and sage wisdom. This is a dangerous and slippery slope for pragmatists and can lead to their downfall. If autocrats are best at holding up bureaucracy even when gravity is pulling it down, pragmatists are best at allowing bureaucracy to withstand a gravitational pull by introducing informal flexibility into systems, structures, policies, and procedures without changing them per se.

The maverick: Mavericks relish in pointing out the inconstancies, imperfections, and inhumanness within systems, structures, policies, and procedures and defying convention. More than anyone else, the maverick can identify and articulate how systems, structures, policies, and procedures can be improved or done away with. Mavericks often eschew the notion of process altogether and end up living by their own rules. Mavericks can get away with this because it is their boldness and effectiveness in skirting the rules that enable them to be high performers and, thus, indispensable, often to the chagrin of the autocrats. When in positions of power, mavericks, driven by a disdain for conformity and restraint, often do not reform the bureaucracy but, instead, ignore it. It is hard for the maverick to see value in trying to improve the systems, structures, policies, and procedures when there is work to be done, after all. Effective work always trumps bureaucracy for the maverick. As leaders, mavericks can be maddening to subordinates who rely on systems, structures, policies, and procedures to make sense of their worlds. The lack of regard for established processes can cause mavericks to be viewed as indifferent and aloof to subordinates. Even if mavericks are not usually reformers themselves, their actions and behaviors can help point the way for those who do want to reform and improve the systems, structures, policies, and procedures.

I once worked with a maverick in a highly bureaucratic and dysfunctional organization. The mission of the organization was to get people to work cross-functionally on challenging problems. However, the systems, structures, policies, and procedures the leadership put in place actively discouraged the serendipitous and spontaneous cross-functional interactions that would have facilitated this mission. My maverick friend pretty much ignored the rules and worked with whom he wanted, on what he wanted, and when he wanted. He was almost never at his desk because he was out and about at other people’s desks working with them. He was so effective and well-liked that it would have been pointless and counterproductive for leadership to attempt to rein him in; he knew it, and they knew it. However, his actions were pointing the way for leadership to reform the systems, structures, policies, and procedures. Unfortunately, leaders within the organization were mostly autocratically-minded; they could not imagine scaling my maverick colleague’s behavior across the organization and institutionalizing it. After he moved on from his three-year assignment in the organization, the leadership put in place new and reinforced existing systems, structures, policies, and procedures that undermined the premise of a cross-functional work environment. Had the leadership taken a cue from the maverick, it could have put in place minimally necessary systems, structures, policies, procedures that would have facilitated cross-functional work rather than discouraging it. The maverick showed the leaders the way, as mavericks often do; they just needed to follow his lead.

The hustler: The hustler is the person who is not blind to systems, structures, policies, procedures but knows them so well that he/she can find the loopholes, manipulate inconsistencies, and maximize their benefit. Sometimes, the hustler does this for personal gain; sometimes, he/she does it for the benefit of others or the whole organization. When in positions of authority, the hustler can be very effective at getting the bureaucracy to be effective despite itself. Because of this, the hustler often does not want to change systems, structures, policies, procedures because he/she relies on the flaws therein to take advantage of them. At the same time, the hustler is the person who knows the systems, structures, policies, procedures so well—often better than the autocrat—that he/she is precisely the person who knows how they can be reformed and improved.

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As mentioned previously, the autocrat, pragmatist, maverick, and hustler are archetypes. In reality, most people do not perfectly conform to any one of these four types, and an individual may exhibit characteristics of each. Nevertheless, one type will tend to predominate in a person. While we all may have certain types of leaders that we prefer or dislike, based on our personalities and experiences, the reality is that each of these types and their paradigms of thought play an essential role in creating minimally necessary and effective systems, structures, policies, and procedures within organizations.

Keeping bureaucracy to the minimum necessary levels is critical to the sustainability of an organization. On the one hand, trying to keep an organization informal and without any bureaucracy is unnecessary and will undermine the organization’s ability to learn lessons that can be institutionalized and passed on. On the other hand, bureaucracy tends to beget bureaucracy, making it difficult to keep it from growing out of control. There needs to be a constant downward pressure on bureaucracy to keep it from growing unnecessarily—bureaucracy will not self-regulate its size. Thus, keeping systems, structures, policies, and procedures effective, responsive, and congruent takes active work, to define both what the systems, structures, policies, and procedures should be and what they should not be, to keep them from reaching diminishing returns. To this end, the autocrat, pragmatist, maverick, and hustler all have a part to play. Furthermore, there is an approach that can be applied based on these archetypes that will keep systems, structures, policies, and procedures responsive to the environment, limited by their relevance, effective and, consistent with organizational values and mission.

Applying the Approach 

The true power of this approach is in having a good diversity of thought and behavior among leaders to keep an organization’s bureaucracy in check.

The afore-referenced approach is relevant to organizations that already have established systems, structures, policies, and procedures and begins by observing how mavericks behave. Because mavericks’ paradigm is based on effectiveness and efficiency, they tend to find the most direct paths with the least resistance when working. For example, my previously-mentioned maverick coworker almost never communicated via email, spent a great deal of time teaching and learning from others, identified individuals who had skills that he could benefit from and who could benefit from his skills when developing ideas and building them into projects, and facilitated weekly informal get-togethers during lunch for people to showcase their skills. All of this helped to create an environment conducive to cross-functional collaboration and innovation. My maverick friend was able to do these things in spite of the existing bureaucracy and not because of it. His actions showed how the organization could encourage norms of productive behavior to become cross-functional at scale.

Once the productive behaviors of mavericks have been identified, an opportunity for dialogue opens up for leaders, during which they can consider how to modify, remove, or add systems, structures, policies, and procedures to improve the congruence between the organization’s behavioral profile and its desired outcomes. Not everything mavericks do can be scaled, and not everything they do is productive. However, observing the behavior of people who ignore convention in favor of effectiveness and efficiency can provide valuable lessons for leaders who are sometimes disadvantaged by their distance from the work that is occurring, which can cause unproductive abstraction in the development of subsequent systems, structures, policies, and procedures that at their best are benign and at their worst act as malignant cancers to the organization. Using the behavior of mavericks to help ground systems, structures, policies, and procedures also does not mean that everyone should be encouraged to act like a maverick. Mavericks are rare, and they have temperaments that most of us do not share. While genuine mavericks should be tolerated in organizations—so long as they are adding value through effectiveness and efficiency, even if they’re shunning convention and conformity—not everyone should be expected to behave like mavericks. However, the productive mavericks should not be marginalized, as they will continue to act as barometers for the organization—i.e., the more out of sync the organization is with how mavericks are behaving, the likelier it is that the organization’s bureaucracy is ineffective, unresponsive, and out of sync with its mission and values.

Once systems, structures, policies, and procedures have been audited against maverick behavior in an organization, the other three types of leaders must also be allowed to play their parts. The role of autocrats in organizations is important. Autocrats help keep organizations on the straight and narrow. While it can be difficult for pragmatists, mavericks, and hustlers to coexist with autocrats, this tension is a good thing. If an organization is going to have formal systems, structures, policies, and procedures, there must be people who care enough about following those systems, structures, policies, and procedures to give them life. The problem with the overwhelming number of organizations is that they have too many autocrats in positions of authority. When autocrats predominate in positions of authority, they prevent change within the organization as they seek to control it. If they do allow change, it is usually based on their perceptions and on their terms, which are often inconsistent with the types of systems, structures, policies, and procedures that are effective, responsive, and congruent.

There are three reasons why autocrats tend to have positions of authority. Firstly, autocrats enjoy control because they often have a low tolerance for ambiguity. This low tolerance for ambiguity causes them to seek out power so they can exercise control and reduce ambiguity for themselves. Secondly, autocrats tend to be very good subordinates. Autocrats follow the rules, do not stir the pot, and seek to please their superiors; compliant subordinates tend to get promoted. Thirdly, autocratic tendencies can be latent in people until they are given some authority, which awakens these tendencies. It is important that people in positions of authority be pragmatists, mavericks, and hustlers as well. No more than a plurality of leaders should be autocratically-minded in an organization. Any more than a plurality of autocrats would make it difficult to keep systems, structures, policies, and procedures at minimally necessary levels. Pragmatists must be allowed to occupy positions of power because they introduce essential flexibility into bureaucracy. Hustlers must be allowed to occupy positions of power because they help to keep things moving in an organization where autocrats, pragmatists, and mavericks cannot because hustlers know the bureaucracy well enough to use it against itself.

In summary, mavericks, through their behavior, help identify minimally necessary systems, structures, policies, and procedures, and all archetypes of leader must be allowed into positions of authority. The true power of this approach is in having a good diversity of thought and behavior among leaders to keep an organization’s bureaucracy in check.

The Fives Whys Technique for Auditing Bureaucracy

...the Five Whys Technique applied to auditing bureaucracy will allow for systems, structures, policies, and procedures to be evaluated for their effectiveness, responsiveness to the environment, and congruence with an organization’s values and mission.

In addition to a diversity of thought and behavior among leaders, it is essential that organizations undertake regular audits of their systems, structures, policies, and procedures. These audits are aided by having autocrats, pragmatists, mavericks, and hustlers involved in the vetting. As I previously stated, bureaucracy begets bureaucracy, even when the above-described formula is applied. Also, it does not take long for an organization’s bureaucracy to move from minimally necessary to hinderingly cumbersome. Autocrats will tend to resist revisions to systems, structures, policies, and procedures that are not done on their exclusive terms, that reduce their power, or that increase ambiguity. This is another significant reason why it is important to prevent autocrats from occupying a majority of positions of power, as they are likely to form a block and overrule attempts to keep bureaucracy in check and, if anything, will attempt to grow it.

One very effective method of conducting audits of systems, structures, policies, and procedures is to use a modified version of the Five Whys Technique. The Five Whys Technique was developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota. The technique is meant to start with a problem statement about which five successive whys are asked, helping to get to the root cause of the problem. The Five Whys Technique is not perfect and is limited by the facts at hand, the number of relevant participants in the activity, and a willingness on the part of participants to be open-minded and honest. These obstacles notwithstanding, the Five Whys Technique can be a powerful tool to produce constructive and productive dialogue. To modify the Five Whys Technique for evaluating elements of bureaucracy, instead of starting the exercise with a problem statement, the exercise is begun with a single system, structure, policy, or procedure. Five whys are then asked successively with the goal of identifying the root purpose of the specific system, structure, policy, or procedure. Sometimes, more or fewer than five whys can be applied to reach the root purpose. Once the root purpose is identified, it can then be audited for effectiveness, responsiveness to the environment, and congruence with the organization’s mission and values.

An example of how to apply the Five Whys Technique to systems, structures, policies, and procedures is as follows:

Policy: Any email that is meant for distribution to the team must be authorized by the team supervisor before being sent out.

1: Why does the policy exist? To prevent too many emails from going out to the team.Why do too many emails need to be prevented from going to the team?  Because the team supervisor does not want the team to be preoccupied with email.

3: Before the creation of the policy, was the team preoccupied with email? The team spent about 60 to 90 minutes a day reading and replying to emails.

4a: Does 60 to 90 minutes a day constitute preoccupation with email? Sixty to 90 minutes is about how much time people on other teams spend on email.

4b: How much time does the team spend now on email? The team still spends 60 to 90 minutes a day reading and writing emails.

5a/b: Has the team raised concerns that they are spending too much time on email? No.

Stated organizational value: “We trust employees to use their time effectively.”

In the above example, which is contrived for effect, the policy was identified as being ineffective as the employees were spending just as much time on email, unresponsive to the environment as the employees did not feel they were spending too much time on email as 60 to 90 minutes a day was standard for the rest of the organization and inconsistent with the organization’s stated value of trusting employees to use their time effectively. After question three, there was an opportunity to ask two whys. Thus question four became two questions, which could be answered in question five. This forking is useful as some questions will have multiple answers that need to be addressed. If forking becomes excessive and there are dozens of questions and answers, the exercise is likely to lose its usefulness. However, allowing forking two to three times adds necessary flexibility to the exercise. The answers to the above questions also imply that information was available to answer each of the whys. The information required to answer the questions above the way they were answered would have required the inclusion of team members and perhaps others from the organization outside of the team.

The Five Whys Technique is not something that can be used in isolation; the exercise becomes meaningless if done by only one person. And there are limitations to the exercise as well. Sometimes, answers will be subjective. Not all of the information will always be available. And power dynamics in the group can influence how individuals choose to answer questions. These drawbacks notwithstanding, at its best, the Five Whys Technique applied to auditing bureaucracy will allow for systems, structures, policies, and procedures to be evaluated for their effectiveness, responsiveness to the environment, and congruence with an organization’s values and mission. Ultimately, those are the three things against which all systems, structures, policies, and procedures should be evaluated: Is it effective? Is it responsive to the environment? Is it in harmony with the mission and values of the organization? A “no” to any one of those questions should call into question the existence of a given system, structure, policy, or procedure.

Closing Thoughts

An organization cannot take on a conscious or subconscious philosophy of form over function and expect to be a sustainably productive, profitable, collaborative, and innovative organization.

An organization’s bureaucracy, with its accompanying systems, structures, policies, and procedures, must be effective, responsive to the environment, and consistent with the organization’s mission and values. An organization cannot take on a conscious or subconscious philosophy of form over function and expect to be a sustainably productive, profitable, collaborative, and innovative organization. Even if an organization thrives for a time under conditions of excess bureaucracy, its chickens will eventually come home to roost as its systems, structures, policies, and procedures cause organizational atrophy and eventually rot. Leading indicators of organizational atrophy and rot are signs of low morale, disengagement, and attrition among employees. A lagging indicator is often slumping profits. Because many organizations are so focused on the bottom line, fatal organizational atrophy and rot may have set in by the time alarm bells start going off for senior leaders. It is precisely for this reason that organizations—especially senior leaders—must have their fingers on the pulse of what’s going on in the organization beyond profit margins. Leadership that is diverse in its paradigms of thought will be better in touch with the organization. Autocrats, pragmatists, mavericks, and hustlers all bring unique points of view to how work should be conducted. It is this diversity of thought that enables organizational leaders to remain aware of and responsive to the internal and external environments to effectuate meaningful and timely change in order to ensure sustainable productivity, profitability, collaboration, and innovation within the organization.

Developing Open-Mindedness

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Growing Up in a Bubble

I had no idea at that time in November 1998 that the destination I was about to utter would set me on an unexpected, sometimes tumultuous, and ultimately life-changing journey—Moscow, Russia.

Growing up in the devoutly Latter-day Saint (LDS) community of Provo, Utah, I did what most 19-year-old young LDS men do—I served a full-time, two-year mission. To serve as a full-time missionary for the LDS Church, young men must be interviewed and endorsed by their ecclesiastical leaders. After receiving the ecclesiastical endorsement and formally applying to serve a mission, young men receive a “mission calling,” usually in the mail in a large manila envelope. It is hard to overstate the anticipation associated with getting a mission calling. Several weeks typically elapse between when an official application is made to serve a mission and the receipt of a mission calling. When that calling arrives, family and friends gather around as the envelope is opened and wait with bated breath for the letter to be read aloud to find out where on the globe the calling is to serve. Members of the LDS Church believe that the people who select where missionaries will serve—usually highly-placed leaders of the church in Salt Lake City, Utah—are given divine inspiration when deciding who will serve where, making the location of the calling all the weightier.

Even though it was many years ago, I remember the day when I opened my mission calling, surrounded by family and friends. I was so nervous, I had to stand while I was opening the envelope. As I slid the paper out, I carefully held it and began to read it aloud as quickly as I could. I had no idea at that time in November 1998 that the destination I was about to utter would set me on an unexpected, sometimes tumultuous, and ultimately life-changing journey—Moscow, Russia.

St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square

St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square

After a crash course in Russian at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, I arrived in Moscow, Russia, in March 1999. After landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport and going through customs with a gaggle of other Russia-bound LDS missionaries, I was greeted by the Moscow Mission President (the person designated by the church to be responsible for the missionaries in the area) and whisked off to the small mission headquarters building in Moscow’s Sokol District, where I met my “companion.” LDS missionaries are always assigned to live and work with a companion who is also serving a full-time mission for the church. My new companion and I quickly made our way in a small taxi van to my first assigned area in the outskirts of Moscow—Zelenograd.

March is usually an ugly time of year in Moscow as the city emerges from months of harsh winter. It is still cold, but not cold enough to freeze the snow, so the streets are covered in a muddy slush. Everything is gray and dirty. It was against this gloomy and dreary backdrop that I arrived at my first apartment. On the way to the entrance to the building was a puddle of vomit that my companion pointed out by saying “Watch out!” and I narrowly escaped it with a quick leap. Entering the stairwell, I was struck by how dark and cold it was, which was topped off with an overwhelming smell of trash. Taking the elevator, which reeked of stale urine, we finally arrived at the sixth floor, where I saw for the first time the place where I would be living for the next several months. Upon entering our apartment, I was shocked by its small size, austere furnishings, and outdated feel. Thus began my two-year experience in Russia.

"Shelving" My Doubts

Anytime I came across a teaching or scripture that caused cognitive dissonance, I did what one friend of mine refers to as “putting it on the shelf.”
The Book of Mormon is considered LDS scripture and is a cornerstone of LDS theology

The Book of Mormon is considered LDS scripture and is a cornerstone of LDS theology

Before departing on my mission, I was an obedient member of the LDS Church but not exceptionally well versed in the scriptures and the church’s teachings—not an uncommon thing for young men of the church in their late teens. However, serving as a missionary, I became familiar with church scriptures and teachings very quickly, although not all of it made sense to me at the time. Nevertheless, I sincerely believed that the LDS Church was Christ’s only true church on earth, and I was a very devoted missionary. Anytime I came across a teaching or scripture that caused cognitive dissonance, I did what one friend of mine refers to as “putting it on the shelf.” In other words, I tried not to let it concern me and filtered the information I was taking in to reinforce what I believed (i.e., there was confirmation bias going on). While I was unaware at the time that I was sometimes experiencing cognitive dissonance and engaging in confirmation bias, the psychological phenomena were nonetheless significantly shaping my worldview. In the late 1990s, Russia was a tough place to live. The country was experiencing its second financial crisis in a decade, and the government at time appeared to be on the brink of collapse. Most people were just hanging on financially and emotionally. For the most part, the country was bleak and unpleasant. It was my faith that I was indeed spreading God’s one true gospel in Russia that sustained me through my time as a missionary, which was further exacerbated by some challenging periods of untreated major depression and anxiety.

After I returned from my mission in 2001, more questions about the LDS Church’s teachings caused doubts for me. Like before, though, I shelved these doubts. It was not until 2003 that I began to take some of these things off the shelf to examine them. The process of examining my doubts and unresolved questions lasted for many years, punctuated by waxing and waning activity in the church before I finally decided to formally leave the LDS Church in 2014 after a lengthy period of not having been an active member. I felt great relief after leaving the LDS Church despite the fact that my membership in the church had, indeed, brought good things into in my life. Even though there is a wealth of factual evidence contradicting the claims on which the LDS Church is built, I neither besmirch members of the church nor do I consider it my obligation to “deprogram” church members in an attempt to get them to leave the church.

Psychodynamic Phenomena Preventing Open-Mindedness

The vast majority of the time, the vast majority of people see the world from their unique and personal points of view while simultaneously believing that their point of view is the most accurate.

My personal history as a missionary and member of the LDS Church has taught me important lessons about the psychodynamics of people’s relationship to truth and reality in the service of developing open-mindedness. Open-mindedness is an oft-venerated personal quality that many claim to possess and wish upon others. But the fact is that most people are not open-minded most of the time. The vast majority of the time, the vast majority of people see the world from their unique and personal points of view while simultaneously believing that their point of view is the most accurate. It is easy to enter into a new area of consciousness with an open mind, but there is a phenomenon of “first in last out” when it comes to information we receive related to a specific topic—i.e., the first piece of information the brain takes is usually given the most weight, and unless the brain already possess knowledge to contradict “first contact” information, it quickly and subconsciously becomes the baseline for truth. After this, a rapid decline in the ability to accept contradictory information takes place while any additional information that confirms the baseline is accepted. This is the process of confirmation bias—i.e., the brain’s tendency to prefer information that confirms what we already hold to be true while unthinkingly rejecting anything that is contradictory until irrefutable information or doubts cause cognitive dissonance to the point where the mind begins to open up again. This psychodynamic phenomenon takes place on a large scale that affects our worldview and important life choices and on a small scale on a daily basis.

Take the example of how this psychodynamic phenomenon plays out in workplaces around the world every day. Imagine there has been a time change to a team meeting that is regularly scheduled to take place at 12:00 pm on Wednesday. However, it is not clear what the new meeting time is. One team member thinks he overhears the team chief saying that the new time is 2:00 pm. This team member then tells a couple of other people on the team that the meeting is now at 2:00 pm. Meanwhile, another team member talks to the deputy team chief, who says she thinks the meeting has been rescheduled to 1:00 pm. This latter team member then walks up to his other teammates to tell them that the meeting is now at 1:00 pm. Even when the stakes are relatively low, the impulse for people is to have a bias for “first-comer information.” “No, we heard the meeting is going to be at 2:00 pm, not 1:00 pm.” Without any factual evidence about when the rescheduled meeting is going to take place, this exchange is likely to be followed with some posturing about the source veracity (i.e., “I overheard the team chief.” vs. “I talked to the deputy team chief.”). Eventually, once factual evidence enters the discourse (e.g., the team chief comes over and tells everyone that the meeting is going to be at 3:00 pm), people will be inclined to rely on first-comer information as their baseline for truth.

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

The above is a trivial example exaggerated for effect. Nevertheless, most of us at some point have fallen prey to relying on first-comer information as accurate based solely on the fact that it came first. This example is a manifestation of a powerful psychodynamic phenomenon played out in a microcosm that has profound implications for our overall worldview and ability to keep an open mind. Even when the stakes are low, without factual evidence, we tend to cling to first-comer information and quickly put up subconscious defensive mechanisms to protect our points of view. This phenomenon reveals a paradigm of thinking that presents a significant obstacle to being open-minded, which is that we often labor under the misapprehension that because we hold something to be true—either because of what we think, feel, or believe—that it is, therefore, true. We tell ourselves that our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are based on objective truths when they rarely are. There is no correlation between what we think, feel, or believe and reality. That is to say, just because we think, feel, or believe something to be true does not mean that it is. This is a subtle but essential distinction. Just as the philosopher René Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” the basis of this mental paradigm can be summed up in the phrase, “I believe it; therefore, it is true.” This point of view represents the false mental paradigm that prevents true open-mindedness.

Galileo Facing the Roman Inquisition, Cristiano Banti 1857

Galileo Facing the Roman Inquisition, Cristiano Banti 1857

To be clear, I mean to disparage no one by pointing out this false mental paradigm. The reality is that all of us know nothing about almost everything. But living in the natural and human-made worlds, we encounter realities that we desire to understand. We naturally seek to fill in our gaps in understanding to help us make sense of the world around us. Without factual evidence, these gaps in knowledge get filled in with myths, assumptions, conjecture, and hypotheses. For example, in ancient antiquity, natural phenomena such as meteorological events and natural disasters were attributed to a pantheon of gods. Another example is the advent of heliocentrism—the theory that the earth revolves around the sun—and the Catholic Church. Nicolaus Copernicus proposed the notion of heliocentrism in his book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, which contradicted the view of the Catholic Church that the earth was stationary. Decades later, Galileo Galilei supported and promoted the theory of heliocentrism, for which he was tried and condemned in 1633 by the Roman Catholic Inquisition. Centuries later, we take for granted our understanding of astronomy. It can be easy to forget that changing the false paradigm of a stationary earth was nontrivial. However, convincing people that the earth revolved around the sun was not only a significant event in the history of science but an example of how people tend to resist new information—even when based on factual evidence—especially when that new information requires displacing other information that was an important part of our worldview.

The lens through which we view the world and all the accompanying myths, assumptions, conjecture, and hypotheses that we use to fill in the voids in our understanding to help us make sense of the world represent a significant part of our identity and can be conflated with our sense of self. I had concluded years before I formally left the LDS Church that it was based on a false premise. But because being a member of the church made up a part of my identity, it was harder to leave. In leaving the church, I was not just giving up things that I had believed in, but I was also letting go of part of my identity. It, therefore, felt like I was giving up part of myself. It was much harder to give up part of my identity than it was to give up my beliefs, and this is true of many of the falsehoods we cling to in our lives. On some level, we can come to terms with our myths, assumptions, conjecture, and hypotheses being false. But when these things make up a part of the fabric of our identity, it can be much more difficult to abandon them. For this reason, we are much likelier to believe things that we perceive to be in our self-interest while eschewing things that represent a threat to our self-interest, all without applying much, if any, scrutiny and examination of the information.

All of this suggests that true open-mindedness is a state that must be developed and maintained and not a default or obtained by virtuous desire alone. An example of how this phenomenon plays out in our daily lives is politics. Political parties, organizations, and movements are usually highly expedient because their primary objective is to seek, obtain, and maintain power. No political party, organization, or movement has a monopoly on truth. And yet, we see politicians in the minority deride the opposition for doing things that they did when they were in the majority and had power. This is the height of expediency and reveals how people are capable of insulating themselves from their blatant hypocrisy when it is in their self-interest to do so.

A Model for Developing an Open Mind 

So far, I have described four psychodynamic phenomena:

  1. A bias toward first-comer information
  2. The desire to make sense of our world by filling in voids in understanding with myths, assumptions, conjectures, and hypotheses
  3. Our myths, assumptions, conjectures, and hypotheses making up important parts of our identity and getting conflated with a sense of self
  4. A tendency to rebuff information that does not fit into our worldview

These things represent four barriers with which we must reckon in order to develop true open-mindedness. Based on this, I propose a three-step model for developing a state of true open-mindedness.

Step One: Developing Awareness of Biases

The brain is very chatty and is always saying something. However, most of what our brain is saying (i.e., our internal dialogue) resides in our ambient consciousness. In other words, our inner dialogue is not entirely outside of our awareness but is like a radio station that is not properly tuned—the words cannot be hard to make out if we are not paying attention.

The first step toward true open-mindedness is developing an awareness of our biases. The mind works such that we are genetically programmed to try and make sense of our world. There is nothing inherently wrong with using myths, assumptions, conjectures, and hypotheses to fill in the voids in our understanding. The key is to develop an awareness that this is occurring and to understand how our worldview biases us toward accepting some information over other information. This requires developing the ability to observe our thoughts from a distance. The brain is very chatty and is always saying something. However, most of what our brain is saying (i.e., our internal dialogue) resides in our ambient consciousness. In other words, our inner dialogue is not entirely outside of our awareness but is like a radio station that is not properly tuned—the words cannot be hard to make out if we are not paying attention. Tuning into our inner dialogue takes practice, but, with a little persistence, it is relatively straightforward to accomplish.

Paradoxically, the best way to tune into your inner dialogue is to ask it to stop. Attention to breath (ATB) awareness meditation is a useful practice to develop an awareness of your inner dialogue. ATB is the practice of paying attention to your breath wherever you feel it in your body, be it in your nose, mouth, chest, stomach, etc. As you pay attention to your breath, you will notice that thoughts start to wander in. As thoughts wander in, you redirect your attention to your breath. It is amazing how loud our inner dialogue becomes when we try to ignore it. The basic practice of ATB for five minutes a day helps you to tune into your inner dialogue. Before long, you will be more in tune not only with the silent conversation you are having with yourself but also with the silent conversation you are having with other people when they are talking. You might catch yourself thinking, “Well, that is a stupid idea he just came up with,” or “I could not disagree more with what she is saying right now because...” You might not say these things aloud, but these are the conversations you are silently having with other people. Our internal dialogue reveals our biases. When we become aware of our biases, we can start to challenge them. Our inner dialogue is extraordinarily powerful. Consider the placebo effect. The brain is capable of convincing itself and the body that it is getting better off of a sugar pill.

Step Two: Prefactual Thought Experiments

When things do not go according to the way you think they should go, it can be easy to catastrophize. Being deliberate about using prefactual thought experiments helps to slow the brain down and leaves open the opportunity to explore non-catastrophic—i.e., the most likely—outcomes.

Once you have begun to tune into your inner dialogue, you can start the next step in developing open-mindedness: playing the devil’s advocate with yourself. Playing the devil’s advocate with yourself can sometimes be an uncomfortable exercise, but it allows you to conduct thought experiments—i.e., exploring the potential consequences of an idea without necessarily acting on the idea. The most useful type of thought experiment for this is called “prefactual.” A prefactual thought experiment is simply asking yourself questions like, “What will happen if X is true?” or “What will happen if Y occurs?” In these cases, X and Y can be replaced by a point of view that is different from your own.

When things do not go according to the way you think they should go, it can be easy to catastrophize. Being deliberate about using prefactual thought experiments helps to slow the brain down and leaves open the opportunity to explore non-catastrophic—i.e., the most likely—outcomes. Catastrophizing can lead to hyper-defensive and unproductive behavior. I once worked in an office where about halfway through my tenure, my supervisor was replaced. I had a very good relationship with my first supervisor in the office, and we trusted each other. When the new supervisor came in, she had a very different style of conducting business from that of her predecessor. Not long after the new supervisor arrived, she proposed several new approaches to doing things. The approaches that my new supervisor proposed ran contrary to my point of view. In response, I protested loudly and mostly unproductively, ultimately to the detriment of my relationship with my supervisor. My protests did not change anything, and in the end, the new approaches my supervisor proposed had a trivial effect both on how we conducted business and the outcomes of our work. Had I been more aware of what my inner dialogue was telling me at that time, and had I arrested my catastrophizing by doing some prefactual thought experiments, it is entirely probable that I could have prevented a falling out with my supervisor and preserved a productive work relationship.

Step Three: Grounding Your Sense of Self

Everyone is going to have a unique worldview, but the key to being truly open-minded is a willingness to take in new information that shapes and expands that worldview through a heightened consciousness, which allows you to see many possibilities and get out of rote patterns of thinking.

The final step toward true open-mindedness has to do with building upon a developed awareness of your inner dialogue and practicing thought experiments: grounding your sense of self. Everyone is going to have a unique worldview, but the key to being truly open-minded is a willingness to take in new information that shapes and expands that worldview through a heightened consciousness, which allows you to see many possibilities and get out of rote patterns of thinking. However, to achieve this level of consciousness, new information—especially information that contradicts your worldview—must not represent an existential threat to you. This is accomplished by grounding your sense of self outside of your myths, assumptions, conjectures, and hypotheses. By doing this, a buffer between your worldview and your sense of self is developed by emotionally and intellectually accepting that almost nothing in your myths, assumptions, conjectures, or hypotheses, if false, represents a true existential threat. This does not mean that new information should not be scrutinized. On the contrary, scrutinizing new information is a healthy habit. Scrutinize and question the hell out of new information. A buffer simply means having enough confidence in your identity to allow the drawbridge into your mind to remain always open—i.e., reduced resistance to new information. As you scrutinize new information, you may choose to accept or reject it. However, outside of the context of an existential threat, you can scrutinize information with a more open aperture of agency through a heightened self-awareness, instead of being a slave to subconscious confirmation bias.

Closing Thoughts

Developing a truly open mind does not happen automatically; it must be worked at. Having an open mind is not only beneficial to your self-development, but it is also a highly useful characteristic to have as a leader. Having an open mind does not mean being tossed to and fro by the winds of each new idea. Having an open mind means maintaining a willingness to hear and scrutinize information that is contrary to your worldview. This means first getting to know your worldview by tuning into your inner dialogue, reducing your resistance to new ideas though prefactual thought experiments, and developing a buffer between your myths, assumptions, conjectures, and hypotheses and your sense of self. Leaders who have open minds can admit when they are wrong, which builds trust. Leaders who have open minds can make better decisions by accepting that they do not have to be omniscient and can rely on and accept input from others without feeling existentially threatened, allowing others to be valued and included. Leaders who have open minds can see more possibilities and opportunities as they break the shackles of rote thinking and confirmation bias. Leaders who have open minds have the confidence to allow for productive conflict by inviting dissenting points of view and allowing people to have their say, which engenders buy-in. People who have open minds are better leaders for themselves, the people they lead, and the organizations they serve. And even if you are not in a leadership position, developing an open mind is one of the most freeing and rewarding gifts you can give yourself.

 

Building New Valleys of Silicon

With the rise of innovation centers across the globe in the mold of Silicon Valley, it can be easy to forget that technology innovation is not new. In fact, it may be said that we are genetically predisposed to innovate. This predisposition to improve, replace, and displace is the creative genius of humankind. However, this proclivity to create does have a downside. With weapons of war, humankind has the distinction of being earth’s only species to have created a means to destroy itself in its entirety through biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, this same creative genius has allowed us to travel beyond this earth to put people on the moon. Improving the human condition through technological advancements is a double-edged sword if ever there was one. As one person I know astutely observed, the current fervor around technological advancement has become a kind of "transhumanist religion."

Worry Not About Artificial Intelligence or Adoption Latency; Instead, Consider Mores & Ethics

...if there is indeed an invisible inflection point out there at which juncture humans can no longer cope with the cognitive load imposed by technology, or artificial intelligence becomes an existential threat to humanity, a point of diminishing returns will be met as our brains reject technological advancements, thus disincentivizing technological adoption, resulting in a downward shift in the trajectory of technological advancements.

While technological innovation is not new, what seems new to many observers is the rate at which technology is advancing. Some high-profile observers are even dismayed by the rate of technological advancement. Author Thomas Friedman recently remarked that humans can no longer keep up with the rate of technological change, but caveated his concern that with education and “smart governance,” people can catch up (Parke, 2017). Also, entrepreneur, engineer, and inventor Elon Musk recently warned that artificial intelligence poses an “existential risk to humanity” (Domonoske, 2017). I must admit that I too wonder sometimes whether the train is going so fast that it will eventually jump the tracks. However, it is important to keep context in mind when considering the so-called snowball effect of technological advancement. Insomuch as technology is developed within the confines of a market-based economy, people will self-throttle. In other words, if there is indeed an invisible inflection point out there at which juncture humans can no longer cope with the cognitive load imposed by technology, or artificial intelligence becomes an existential threat to humanity, a point of diminishing returns will be met as our brains reject technological advancements, thus disincentivizing technological adoption, resulting in a downward shift in the trajectory of technological advancements. While dystopian futures of a technology world gone awry play well on the silver screen, humans have built-in throttling mechanisms in the form of fear in our reptilian brains and the amount of cognitive load and complexity the prefrontal cortex can bear in our neomammalian brains. In other words, we will adapt behaviorally.

While I disagree with Musk and Friedman, I do believe there must be some limiting principles that guide our advancements in technology. As the world—the Western world in particular—hastens toward social secularism, we will need to find a compass of ethics that transcends religious-based morals and focuses on societal mores to prevent the advancement of technology from bringing harm to humanity. Is there a limit to the good that technology can bring to humanity? If so, what personal and social mechanisms can be put in place to prevent the advancement of technology from being blinded by the profit motive to the detriment of humankind? The answers to these questions are beyond the scope of this article, but the point is that the ethics and morals of technology are the real issues we need to be concerned with, and not malevolent artificial intelligence or the inability of humans to keep up with the rate of technological advancements.

The Basic Formula for Creating a Tech Hub

...creating a laboratory of mass ideation—novel concepts that are responses to new challenges in the environment—is a key ingredient...in creating a tech hub
Victor Hugo c. 1876

Victor Hugo c. 1876

In a market-based economy, the formula for moving an idea to a product or service is straightforward: ideas x value + capital investment. However, in order to create an environment that is capable of executing this formula at scale, each of the variables must be understood and treated accordingly. One of the world’s greatest nineteenth-century writers, Victor Hugo, is paraphrased as having said, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come” (Hugo, 1879). So how do we know when an idea’s time has come? We know an idea’s time has come when there has been a change to a challenge in the environment, as British historian Arnold Toynbee points out, and the idea is a response that adequately answers that challenge on time (Toynbee, 1955). There may be many ideas that answer the challenge, and all things being equal, the best idea will win the day. It, therefore, stands to reason that creating a laboratory of mass ideation—novel concepts that are responses to new challenges in the environment—is a key ingredient (perhaps the key ingredient) in creating a tech hub.

Ideation and Bureaucracy

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, ideation abhors bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a codified response to a challenge in the environment that seeks to maintain control through hieratical systems, structures, policies, and procedures that formally define desired behaviors. Ideation is novelty and thus an existential threat to bureaucracy, because bureaucracy is, by definition, calcification—i.e., systems, structures, policies, and procedures frozen in place or modified only in the service of maintaining the status quo—whereas novelty is a solvent that dissolves the old to make way for the new. Bureaucracy and novelty do not coexist well. When the two are forced to attempt coexistence, bureaucracy wins because it is a manifestation of those in power exercising their authority.

The reason why bureaucracy cannot tolerate novelty in the form of ideation is that bureaucracy first describes and then prescribes behavior. This prescription of behavior is carefully guarded by agents who act as managers of the middle and who do not suffer well existential threats. Novelty in the form of ideation demands one key element and two sub-elements. The key element is experimentation, and the two sub-elements are serendipity and spontaneity.

Experimentation and Risk Tolerance

Although it may seem absurd, the first factor that accelerates experimentation and increases its chances of success is chaos.
Sir Alexander Fleming

Sir Alexander Fleming

Experimentation often leads to chance discoveries. Take, for example, the discovery of the world’s first antibiotic, penicillin, which revolutionized pharmacology and the world, for that matter. Upon returning from a holiday in Scotland, Sir Alexander Fleming discovered that some of the Petri dishes in his laboratory had been contaminated with mold. Upon further examination, Fleming found that the mold in the dishes—Penicillium—inhibited the growth of bacteria. Fleming is reported to have said, “When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. However, I guess that was exactly what I did” (Markel, 2013).

Fleming’s was an entirely chance discovery, but it would never have occurred had he not been experimenting. Just as novelty and bureaucracy do not complement one another, neither do experimentation and low-risk tolerance. The primary risk associated with experimentation is failure. Most experiments fail. Failure is a built-in component of experimentation. Thus, an essential ingredient in creating tech hubs is a high tolerance for failure. Espousing a value of high tolerance for failure is easily enough said, but it can be hard to practice, especially for those who have a low tolerance for ambiguity and nebulousness. Dictating an environment of arbitrarily limited experimentation will invariably limit the number of both chance discoveries and successful experiments. Thus, removing arbitrary limitations on experimentation is essential to creating an ecosystem of discovery. Experimentation should be bound by ethical considerations, but not by an authority figure’s low tolerance for failure. The paradox is that the lower tolerance an individual has for failure, the likelier he/she is to experience it.

Resources are limited, and if individuals are working for a state, non-profit, or for-profit organization, unlimited experimentation can seem impractical. However, there are strategies that both accelerate experimentation and increase its chances of success. Although it may seem absurd, the first factor that accelerates experimentation and increases its chances of success is chaos. I do not mean chaos is the sense of anarchy, but rather deliberate disorder. This deliberate disorder is a manifestation of the “collision principle”—i.e., the more variables there are in an ecosystem, the likelier they are to collide. When each collision occurs, it is a manifestation of spontaneity—i.e., something that is unplanned—and opens the door to the great experimentation accelerator: serendipity.

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Spontaneity & Serendipity

Within an innovation ecosystem, serendipity is the variable that takes groups of people from being lesser than the sum of their parts to become greater than the sum of their parts.

So how is spontaneity introduced into an ecosystem of tech hub? The behavior of spontaneity is given space when organizations are as flat as possible. Flat organizations reduce friction in the movement of ideas, and the less friction in the movement of ideas, the likelier ideas are to productively collide. This is achieved by allowing for unfettered communication and collaboration among the technology developers. When technology developers communicate and collaborate, the variable of serendipity begins to emerge. Within an innovation ecosystem, serendipity is the variable that takes groups of people from being lesser than the sum of their parts to become greater than the sum of their parts. The need for this variable within technology innovation ecosystems is becoming more and more imperative.

The reason why serendipity is a critical element within a technology innovation ecosystem has to do with the factor of knowledge depth. As fields of expertise in the area of technology continue to proliferate and as humanity learns more and more about each field, the depth of knowledge an individual must hold to be an expert in a field is growing deeper and deeper. While the depth of knowledge individuals are obtaining through formal and informal education and real-world experience adds value in the form of unipolar expertise within the technology innovation ecosystem, multi-polarity is the variable that creates space in the ecosystem to cross-pollinate. Multi-polarity is achieved when, within the environment of high-frequency idea collision, two or more individuals combine their unipolar depth of knowledge to ideate in a multi-polar manner.

Waterfall Development vs. Serendipitous Ideation

Serendipitous ideation can be deliberately introduced into a technology development ecosystem by creating as much space as possible for the collision of ideas and reducing friction within the system by removing hierarchy and bureaucracy.

To demonstrate the value of multi-polar ideation, compare it to the waterfall model of manufacturing, which has subsequently been applied to software development and all other manner of development. In the waterfall model, most, if not all planning, is done ahead of time. Dependencies, requirements, design, and so on, are all laid out before work begins. There is no iteration, and a single entity is responsible for managing the project. The waterfall model has seven steps:

Waterfall Model

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The model of serendipitous ideation depends on the opportunistic and voluntary participation of individuals resulting in the forking and merging of ideas. People take ideas and add to them to create something that no one person could have done alone and in a way that is open:

Serendipitous Ideation Model

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Model Comparison

In this model of serendipitous ideation, there can be no silos of software engineers, hardware engineers, chemists, biologists, mathematicians, and so forth, who talk only amongst themselves and who answer to a singular entity responsible for the silo. The guiding principles behind serendipitous ideation are absolute freedom of movement, freedom of expression, freedom to question, and freedom to participate. This is the method and attitude toward technology development that is the primary accelerator of ideas that snowball into novel outcomes from collaboration among people, thus producing results that are greater than the sum of the parts.

Serendipitous ideation can be deliberately introduced into a technology development ecosystem by creating as much space as possible for the collision of ideas and reducing friction within the system by removing hierarchy and bureaucracy. In this environment, groups of people working together do not answer to managers but organize themselves and communicate directly with each other. Key decisions are made by the group and not from the top down. The overall mindset is to have as little standard process as possible because as groups organically form and as people voluntarily and opportunistically leave and join groups based upon the value they are in need of and the value they are adding, the members of the group will know what is right for them.

An example of how this process of serendipitous ideation played out in an un-accelerated way is the invention of the television. Who invented the television? The quick and dirty is the American, Philo Farnsworth. However, this answer is not only incomplete, it is misleading. Farnsworth played a significant role in the development of the television, but he was not alone. A television is a complex device and unlikely something a single person could have developed alone. Ideas and devices that eventually culminated in the television were developed over many decades, with some of the early discoveries connected in no way to the idea of broadcasting moving images for entertainment and information distribution. First came the mechanical television, based on the concept of facsimile transmission, with which Farnsworth had nothing to do. The development of the mechanical television occurred over several decades from the late 19th to early 20th centuries and involved both parallel and linear ideation, which included dozens of people and organizations. While the development of the mechanical television was taking place in the late 19th century, others were developing means of displaying cathodes, which eventually culminated in German physicist Ferdinand Braun's developing the first cathode ray tube (CRT) in 1897 (Braun, 1897). Almost a decade later, Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton proposed that a CRT could be used for "distant electric vision" (Swinton, 1908). Fast-forward to September 3, 1928, Farnsworth held a press demonstration to use his image dissector camera tube to transmit a line, which is considered the first electronic television demonstration (S.F. Man's Invention to Revolutionize Television, 1928). Thus, Farnsworth gets credit for being the inventor of the television. This condensed anecdote only scratches the surface of the history of the television’s development. In reality, the television was created over the course of many decades and included dozens of people. Today’s televisions do not even use CRTs. While he was an important figure in the development of the television, to say that Farnsworth invented the television is about as inaccurate as to say that the Wright brothers invented the passenger plane. The development of the television in an example of serendipitous ideation but at a languid pace.

It is inconceivable that the Waterfall Method of development could have resulted in the invention of the television. The television developed as one idea built upon another in a serendipitous, decentralized, and unorganized way to eventually culminate, after almost a century, in a device that revolutionized the world. The concentration of human intellect, an abundance of ideas, and serendipitous, spontaneous, and voluntary participation in technology development are the primary ingredients needed to accelerate the same process that led to the development of the television.

The Toynbee-Hugo Construct

An idea’s time has come when it has adequately answered the environmental challenge in a timely way.

Once ideas start to come to fruition through the accelerated development approach of serendipitous ideation, a determination of value must be made. Value is the second variable in the formula for moving an idea to a product or service—i.e., ideas x value + capital investment. Who decides the value of the product? As difficult as it can sometimes be for creators of technology to accept, it is the market that decides the value. This is a manifestation of the Toynbee-Hugo construct. As the late British historian, Arnold Toynbee, said, all of history can be reduced the simple equation of challenge-response. And as Hugo said, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” An idea’s time has come when it has adequately answered the environmental challenge in a timely way. This is why I do not fret over the acceleration of technology beyond our ability to keep up with it because if we cannot keep up with the advancements in technology, the advancements have exceeded the tolerance of the Toynbee-Hugo construct and will be rejected. This also applies to ideas that are appealing in the abstract but fail to be accepted by users because they are not responsive to environmental challenges in a timely way. The Toynbee-Hugo Construct comprises four quadrants. All things being equal, the market will respond positively to products and services in the top left quadrant:

  1. Responsive/Timely: Product or service answers environmental challenge (responsive) as the challenge is emerging (timely)
  2. Timely/Unresponsive: Product or service is attempting to respond to environmental challenge as it emerges (timely) but does not solve the challenge (unresponsive)
  3. Responsive/Not Timely: Product or service answers environmental challenge (responsive) but enters the market too soon or too late (not timely)
  4. Not Timely/Unresponsive: Product or service is entering the market too soon or too late (not timely) and it does not solve the challenge (unresponsive)

Toynbee-Hugo Construct

A poster child of technology development that was not responsive to environmental challenges is the Segway. While an intriguing idea on paper, the concept of the Segway presupposed that people were in need of a means to travel relatively short distances with speed and minimum effort. It turns out that there are already some responses to this challenge, some of which were gifted to us by nature: feet, legs, bicycles, public transportation (e.g., buses, trains, trams), taxis, cars, and the list goes on. If you need to travel so far that riding a bicycle or walking are impractical, the next easiest thing is to take an existing form of transportation. If the distance needed to travel is short, using a Segway instead of walking or cycling appears just plain lazy. Another example of technology that has yet to come to fruition and does not meet an existing challenge in the environment is flying cars. It seems like several times a year, there is a new prototype for a flying car, but the challenge has already been answered. If you need to travel a long distance and need to do so very quickly, you take a plane. If you need to travel a short, medium, or long distance and time is not a significant factor, a car will do.

Despite the fact that flying cars and the Segway are not responsive to environmental challenges and thus are doomed to fail, people still keep coming up with new versions of flying cars, and the Segway still made it to the market as a fully mature product. To avoid these pitfalls, testing the value of the product or service in the market with minimum viability is essential. The concept of minimum viable products (MVPs) is not new. There is an anecdote that when Apple was working on the first iPod, its developers were loath to release it because of all the room for improvement they thought the product needed before it hit the market. The story goes that Steve Jobs conveyed to the developers that the product did not have to be perfect. The iPod, at least according to Jobs, was minimally viable, and there would be plenty of opportunities to continually improve upon the product in subsequent releases. It turns out Jobs was right, and Apple went to market with an imperfect but wildly successful product that revolutionized the music industry.

Capital Investment and Silicon Valley’s Underbelly

While Silicon Valley is still the most valuable technology development hub in the world, there are factors that are giving technology developers pause when considering a move to the San Francisco Bay Area, where Silicon Valley resides.

The last variable in the formula for successfully moving from idea to creation is capital investment. Capital investment is what sets Silicon Valley apart from all the other hubs in the world of technology development. Silicon Valley is awash in private equity, which is often the deciding factor in whether a product or service makes it to market and how much rope the product or service has to prove its value before it gets cut off or gets additional rounds of funding. The fundamental question about private equity and its little brother, venture capital, is how to attract the people with the money. There are close to one trillion (with a "t") dollars in private equity, driving Silicon Valley tech startups. Proximity is a significant factor in how those billions of dollars are invested. In other words, the closer you are to Silicon Valley, the likelier you are to receive funding. As a general rule, investors want to be close to their investments. It, therefore, stands to reason that in creating a hub of technology development, private equity should be an integral part of the hub’s ecosystem. While Silicon Valley is still the most valuable technology development hub in the world, there are factors that are giving technology developers pause when considering a move to the San Francisco Bay Area, where Silicon Valley resides.

The rolling landscape of the Texas Hill Country near Austin, Texas dubbed the "Silicon Hills"

The rolling landscape of the Texas Hill Country near Austin, Texas dubbed the "Silicon Hills"

According to BenefitsPRO.com—a website “designed to provide benefits brokers, benefits managers and retirement advisors the news, resources and tools they need”—the San Francisco Bay Area is the most expensive housing market in the United States. The median sale price for a home in Q2 of 2016 was $1,085,000. Meanwhile, the median household income in the San Francisco Bay Area is $96,481 (Satter, 2017). According to The Guardian, Facebook employees petitioned Mark Zuckerberg in 2016 for the company to subsidize their rent (Solon, 2017). Many of these employees are engineers who are making six figures and who often have dual-income households sometimes earning close to one million dollars per year, but they are still spending half of their income on undesirable housing (usually small apartments near work). This squeeze is giving rise to the flight of these technology developers and is one contributing factor to the rise of places such as the Silicon Hills, which is what the area of Austin, Texas, has recently been dubbed, as more startups, technology developers, and private equity look beyond the Silicon Valley for an affordable lifestyle and the opportunity to work in technology development. I predict that this flight will continue, and now is the perfect time to attract people who want a high quality of life but also want to be at the forefront of technology development. Now, while the iron is still hot, is the time to strike by incentivizing individuals to come from around the world to a hub of technology development that provides a high quality of life and the opportunity to be a part of a new and vibrant tech hub. There are many highly qualified people looking for these opportunities. The key is that the hub broadcast its intentions worldwide to attract the best talent and be in a location where people want to live.

Closing Thoughts

The tech hubs that will succeed are those that prioritize and posture themselves to tap into human potential by being fanatic about keeping organizations flat, allowing freedom of idea movement, eschewing bureaucracy, and creating environments built on experimentation fueled by spontaneity in idea collision and serendipity in ideation...

Ideas x value + capital investment is the simple equation behind creating a tech hub, but there is no guarantee of success even if this formula is applied. However, there are several factors that will increase the chances for a new tech hub to be successful. The first and foremost factor is creating an environment of experimentation. Within that experimentation ecosystem, there must be a high tolerance for failure. The ecosystem must also be built on a foundation of spontaneous idea collision that allows for the model of serendipitous ideation to take place. The value of ideas must be tested through minimally viable products and services to ensure they are not flying cars or a Segway. Lastly, there must be rainmakers who are willing to take risks by funding the outcomes of serendipitous ideation. While the beautiful landscape of the Texas Hill Country surrounding Austin is quickly turning to silicon, the original Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area is still the largest power broker in the tech world, with close to one trillion dollars in private equity. However, the window of opportunity is gradually opening for other tech hubs to take advantage of the slow but steady brain drain from Silicon Valley due to unaffordability. I do not believe the window will be open for long. Technology developers and those with capital to invest are not nomads; they will find places around the globe in the next several years and begin to build new valleys, hills, plateaus, and mountains of silicon (Silicon Valleys 2.0). The tech hubs that will succeed are those that prioritize and posture themselves to tap into human potential by being fanatic about keeping organizations flat, allowing freedom of idea movement, eschewing bureaucracy, and creating environments built on experimentation fueled by spontaneity in idea collision and serendipity in ideation, bound by ethics and mores, so that technology advancements do not diminish our humanity, but improve it.

References

Braun, F. (1897). Ueber ein Verfahren zur Demonstration und zum Studium des zeitlichen Verlaufes variabler Strome; von Ferdinand Braun. Annalen der Physik und der physikalischen Chemie, 552-560.

Domonoske, C. (2017, July 17). Elon Musk Warns Governors: Artificial Intelligence Poses 'Existential Risk'. Retrieved from NPR.org: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/07/17/537686649/elon-musk-warns-governors-artificial-intelligence-poses-existential-risk

Hugo, V. (1879). History of a Crime (The Testimony of an Eye-Witness).

Markel, D. H. (2013, September 27). The real story behind penicillin. Retrieved from PBS.org: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/the-real-story-behind-the-worlds-first-antibiotic/

Parke, M. (2017, August 2). Thomas Friedman: Technology is accelerating faster than our ability to adapt. We can catch up. Retrieved from Working Nation: https://workingnation.com/thomas-friedman-technology-accelerating-faster-ability-adapt-can-catch/

S.F. Man's Invention to Revolutionize Television. (1928, September 3). San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco, CA, United States of America: San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved from http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist10/philo.html

Satter, M. Y. (2017, September 08). 10 most expensive housing markets. Retrieved from BenefitsPRO.com: http://www.benefitspro.com/2017/09/08/10-most-expensive-housing-markets?slreturn=1506009610&page=6

Solon, O. (2017, February 27). Scraping by on six figures? Tech workers feel poor in Silicon Valley's wealth bubble. Retrieved from theguardian.com: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/feb/27/silicon-aa-cost-of-living-crisis-has-americas-highest-paid-feeling-poor

Swinton, A. A. (1908). Distant Electric Vision. Nature, 151-151.

Toynbee, A. (1955). Challenge and Response. University Review, 33-41.

 

Construire de nouvelles Silicon Valleys

Par Jason Adamson

Click here for English language version. 

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Étant donné l’essor à travers le monde des centres d’innovation sur le modèle de la Silicon Valley, on a tendance à oublier que l’innovation technologique n’est pas un phénomène nouveau. En fait, on pourrait même dire que nous sommes génétiquement prédisposés à innover. Cette prédisposition à améliorer, remplacer et déplacer constitue le génie créatif du genre humain. Cependant, cette propension à créer a un défaut. Avec ses armes de guerre, le genre humain présente la caractéristique d’être la seule espèce sur terre à avoir créé des moyens de se détruire entièrement elle-même en employant des armes biologiques, chimiques et nucléaires. Pourtant, c’est ce même génie créatif qui nous a permis de voyager au-delà de la Terre et d’envoyer des hommes sur la Lune. L’amélioration de la condition humaine grâce aux avancées technologiques est l’arme à double tranchant par excellence. Comme une personne l'a remarqué de façon astucieuse, la ferveur actuelle autour de l'avancement technologique est devenue une sorte de «religion transhumaniste».

Ne vous inquiétez pas au sujet de l’intelligence artificielle ou du délai d’appropriation; pensez plutôt à l’éthique et aux mœurs

Si l’innovation technologique n’est pas un phénomène neuf, ce qui semble nouveau à de nombreux observateurs, c’est la vitesse à laquelle ces technologies progressent. Certains observateurs éminents sont même troublés par le rythme du progrès technique. L’auteur Thomas Friedman a fait récemment la remarque que les hommes n’étaient plus en mesure de suivre le rythme des changements technologiques, avec cette nuance qu’ils pouvaient effectuer un rattrapage technologique grâce à la formation et à une «gouvernance intelligente» (Parke, 2017). L’entrepreneur, ingénieur et inventeur Elon Musk a aussi récemment alerté le monde sur le «risque existentiel pour l’humanité» que posait l’intelligence artificielle (Domonoske, 2017). Je dois avouer que je me demande aussi parfois si le train ne risque pas finalement de dérailler tellement il roule vite. Il est cependant important de garder à l’esprit le contexte, quand on examine ce qu’on appelle l’effet boule de neige des avancées technologiques. Dans la mesure où les technologies se développent dans les limites imposées par une économie de marché, les hommes vont s’auto-réguler. En d’autres termes, s’il y a bien dans l’univers un point d’inflexion invisible au-delà duquel les hommes ne peuvent plus supporter la charge cognitive imposée par la technologie, ou au-delà duquel l’intelligence artificielle devient une menace vis-à-vis de l’existence de l’humanité, on atteindra un point de réaction décroissante au moment où notre cerveau rejettera le progrès technologique, freinant ainsi l’appropriation technologique et entraînant une inflexion vers le bas de la trajectoire du progrès technologique. Même si les fictions catastrophistes d’un univers rendu fou par la technologie rendent bien sur grand écran, les hommes gardent des mécanismes de régulation intégrés sous forme de craintes dans leur cerveau reptilien et sous forme du montant de la charge et de la complexité cognitives que le cortex préfrontal du néocortex peut supporter. En d’autres termes, il y aura de notre part une adaptation comportementale.

Tout en étant en désaccord avec Elon Musk et Thomas Friedman, je pense néanmoins qu’il doit y avoir des principes limitatifs qui guident nos avancées technologiques. À mesure que le monde — et l’Occident en particulier — tendent vers une société plus sécularisée, nous aurons besoin de trouver une boussole morale qui transcende les valeurs fondées sur la religion et se focalise sur les mœurs de la société pour empêcher le progrès technique de porter atteinte au genre humain. Y a-t-il une limite aux bienfaits que la technologie peut apporter à l’humanité ? Et si oui, quels mécanismes personnels et sociétaux peut-on mettre en place pour éviter que le progrès technologique ne soit rendu aveugle par le désir de profit, au détriment de l’humanité ? Les réponses à ces questions sortent du champ de cet article, mais l’idée reste que l’éthique et la morale de la technologie sont les vrais problèmes qui doivent nous préoccuper, et non une intelligence artificielle malveillante ou l’incapacité des hommes à suivre le rythme du progrès technologique.

La formule de base de la création d’une technopole

Victor Hugo c. 1876

Victor Hugo c. 1876

Dans une économie de marché, la formule pour faire évoluer une idée en produit ou service est simple: Idée x Valeur + Investissement en capital. Cependant, pour créer un environnement permettant de réaliser cette formule à grande échelle, chacune des variables doit être comprise et traitée en conséquence. L’un des plus grands écrivains du XIXe siècle du monde, Victor Hugo, a dit, dans «Histoire d’un crime»: «On résiste à l’invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées» (Hugo, 1879). Ce que l’on pourrait paraphraser par: «Rien n’est plus puissant qu’une idée qui arrive au bon moment». Alors comment sait-on que le moment est venu d’accueillir une idée? On s’en rend compte quand un changement survient dans un défi lancé par l’environnement —comme le souligne l’historien Arnold Toynbee—et que cette idée est la réponse qui relève ce défi, à temps et de façon satisfaisante (Toynbee, 1955). Il se peut que les idées soient nombreuses à répondre à ce défi, et toutes choses égales par ailleurs, c’est l’idée la meilleure qui l’emportera. Il est donc évident que la création d’un laboratoire d’idéation de masse — de concepts nouveaux répondant aux défis nouveaux de l’environnement — est un élément clé (peut-être l’élément clé) de la création d’une technopole.

Idéation et bureaucratie

De même que la nature a horreur du vide, l’idéation a horreur de la bureaucratie. La bureaucratie est une réponse codifiée à un défi de l’environnement, cherchant à garder le contrôle à travers des systèmes, structures, politiques et procédures immobilistes qui définissent les comportements désirés de façon formelle. L’idéation, c’est la nouveauté, et donc une menace existentielle pour la bureaucratie, car la bureaucratie c’est, par définition, la calcification — c’est-à-dire les systèmes, structures, politiques et procédures figés sur place ou modifiés uniquement dans le but de maintenir le statu quo — alors que la nouveauté, c’est un solvant qui dissout l’ancien pour faire place à du neuf. La bureaucratie et la nouveauté ne coexistent pas bien. Quand on les force à essayer, c’est la bureaucratie qui gagne car c’est une manifestation de l’exercice de l’autorité par les détenteurs du pouvoir.

La raison pour laquelle la bureaucratie ne peut tolérer la nouveauté sous forme d’idéation, c’est parce que la bureaucratie commence par décrire puis par prescrire le comportement. Les agents qui veillent attentivement sur cette prescription du comportement jouent le rôle de gestionnaires intermédiaires et n’acceptent pas volontiers les menaces existentielles. La nouveauté sous forme d’idéation demande un élément clé et deux sous-éléments. L’élément clé, c’est l’expérimentation, et les deux sous-éléments, la spontanéité et la sérendipité (le fait de découvrir par chance ce que l’on ne cherchait pas).

Expérimentation et tolérance au risque

  Sir Alexander Fleming

 

Sir Alexander Fleming

L’expérimentation conduit souvent à des découvertes fortuites. Prenez par exemple la découverte du premier antibiotique du monde, la pénicilline, qui a révolutionné la pharmacologie, et même le monde. À son retour de vacances en Écosse, Sir Alexander Fleming découvrit que certaines des boîtes de Petri de son laboratoire avaient été contaminées par un champignon. Après examen, Fleming observa que ce champignon trouvé dans les boîtes — le Penicillium — inhibait la croissance des bactéries. Il aurait confié: «Quand je me suis réveillé à l’aube le 28 septembre 1928, je n’avais certainement pas prévu de révolutionner la médecine entière en découvrant le premier antibiotique ou tueur de bactéries, du monde. Cependant, je pense que c’est exactement ce que j’ai fait» (Markel, 2013). 

La découverte de Fleming était entièrement fortuite, mais elle n’aurait jamais eu lieu s’il n’avait pas été en train de faire des expériences. Comme la nouveauté et la bureaucratie, l’expérimentation et la faible tolérance au risque ne s’accordent pas bien. Le principal risque associé à l’expérimentation, c’est l’échec. La plupart des expérimentations échouent. L’échec est inhérent à l’expérimentation. Par conséquent, un ingrédient essentiel dans la création d’une technopole, c’est une forte tolérance à l’échec. Il est facile de dire qu’on adopte des valeurs de forte tolérance à l’échec, mais cela peut être plus difficile à pratiquer, particulièrement pour ceux qui supportent mal l’ambiguïté et le flou. Imposer un environnement où l’expérimentation est arbitrairement limitée limitera invariablement le nombre des découvertes fortuites et des expérimentations réussies. Il est donc essentiel d’éliminer les limites arbitraires imposées à l’expérimentation pour créer un écosystème propice aux découvertes. L’expérimentation devrait être encadrée par des considérations éthiques, et non par la faible tolérance à l’échec d’une figure d’autorité. Le paradoxe étant que plus la tolérance à l’échec d’un individu est faible, plus il/elle a de chances de le rencontrer.

Les ressources étant limitées, si les individus travaillent pour un état, une structure sans but lucratif ou à but lucratif, l’expérimentation sans limites peut sembler irréaliste. Il existe cependant des stratégies qui accélèrent l’expérimentation en même temps qu’elles augmentent ses chances de réussite. Bien que cela puisse paraître absurde, le principal facteur qui accélère l’expérimentation et augmente ses chances de réussite, c’est le chaos. Je n’entends pas par chaos une sorte d’anarchie, mais plutôt un désordre délibéré. Ce désordre délibéré est une manifestation du «principe de collision» — c’est-à-dire que plus il y a de variables dans un écosystème, plus elles ont de chances de rentrer en collision — chaque collision étant une manifestation de spontanéité (c’est-à-dire quelque chose d’imprévu) qui ouvre la porte au grand accélérateur de l’expérimentation qu’est la sérendipité.

Spontanéité et sérendipité

Alors comment introduire la spontanéité dans l’écosystème d’une technopole ? Ce sont dans les organisations les plus horizontales possible que la spontanéité a le plus d’espace pour s’exprimer. Les organisations horizontales diminuent la friction dans le mouvement des idées, et moins il y a de friction dans le mouvement des idées, plus les idées ont de chances de rentrer en collision de manière productive. On y aboutit en permettant une communication et une collaboration sans entraves entre les artisans du développement technologique. Quand ceux-ci communiquent et collaborent, la variable de sérendipité commence à émerger. Dans un écosystème d’innovation, la sérendipité est la variable qui transforme les groupes qui représentaient moins que la somme de leurs parties en groupes qui deviennent plus importants que la somme de leurs parties. On a de plus en plus impérativement besoin de cette variable à l’intérieur des écosystèmes d’innovation technologique.

La raison pour laquelle la sérendipité est un élément crucial d’un écosystème d’innovation technologique est liée au concept de profondeur des connaissances. Alors que les champs d’expertise dans le domaine de la technologie continuent à proliférer, et que l’humanité en apprend de plus en plus dans tous ces secteurs, les connaissances qu’un individu doit maîtriser pour être expert dans un secteur doivent être de plus en plus approfondies. Tandis que la profondeur des connaissances que les individus acquièrent grâce à leur éducation formelle ou informelle et à leur expérience du monde réel ajoutent de la valeur à un écosystème d’innovation technologique sous la forme d’une expertise unipolaire, la multipolarité est la variable qui crée à l’intérieur de l’écosystème un espace pour la pollinisation croisée. La multipolarité se réalise quand, à l’intérieur d’un environnement où les idées rentrent en collision avec une grande fréquence, deux individus ou plus combinent leur profondeur unipolaire de connaissances pour idéer de façon multipolaire.

Le développement en cascade par rapport à l’idéation par sérendipité

Pour prouver l’importance de l’idéation multipolaire, comparez-la au modèle en cascade de l’industrie, qui a été ensuite appliqué au développement des logiciels et à toutes autres sortes de développements. Dans le modèle en cascade, la majeure partie de la planification, si ce n’est toute, est réalisée préalablement. Les liens de dépendances, les exigences, la conception etc. tout est posé avant que le travail ne commence. Il n’y a pas d’itération, et une seule entité est responsable de la gestion du projet. Le modèle en cascade présente sept étapes:

Le modèle en cascade

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Le modèle d’idéation par sérendipité repose sur la participation volontaire et opportuniste des individus qui aboutit à l’arborescence et à la fusion des idées. On prend des idées et on les complète pour aboutir à un résultat auquel personne n’aurait pu arriver tout seul, et ceci, d’une façon ouverte:

Le modèle I’idéation par sérendipité

Dans ce modèle d’idéation par sérendipité, il ne peut pas y avoir de compartimentation des ingénieurs logiciels ou matériel, des chimistes, des biologistes, des mathématiciens, etc., qui ne parleraient qu’entre eux et ne rendraient de comptes qu’à une seule entité responsable du compartiment. Le principe qui sous-tend l’idéation par sérendipité, c’est la liberté absolue de mouvement, d’expression, de questionnement et de participation. Ce sont cette méthode et cette attitude face au développement technologique qui seront les principaux accélérateurs d’idées, aboutissant par effet boule de neige à des conclusions nouvelles, grâce à la collaboration entre les individus, et produisant ainsi des résultats supérieurs à la somme de leurs parties.

L’idéation par sérendipité peut être délibérément introduite dans un écosystème d’innovation technologique, en créant autant d’espace que possible pour que les idées rentrent en collision, et en réduisant la friction dans ce système par l’élimination de la hiérarchie et de la bureaucratie. Dans cet environnement, les groupes de personnes travaillant ensemble ne rendent pas de comptes aux responsables mais s’organisent eux-mêmes et communiquent directement entre eux. Les décisions importantes sont prises par le groupe et non du haut vers le bas. La mentalité générale est d’avoir le moins possible de processus standardisés car, comme les groupes se forment naturellement et que les personnes quittent et rejoignent les groupes volontairement et de façon opportuniste en se basant sur les valeurs dont elles ont besoin et celles qu’elles y ajoutent, les membres du groupe sauront ce qui est bon pour eux.

Un exemple de la façon dont l’idéation par sérendipité s’est déroulée sans accélération, c’est l’invention de la télévision. Qui a inventé la télévision ? Une réponse rapide mais superficielle serait Philo Farnsworth, un Américain. Cette réponse est non seulement incomplète mais aussi fausse. Philo Farnsworth a joué un rôle significatif dans le développement de la télévision, mais il n’était pas le seul. La télévision est un appareil complexe, et il est peu probable qu’une seule personne ait pu la développer toute seule. Les idées et appareils qui ont finalement abouti à la télévision ont été développés durant de nombreuses décennies, certaines des découvertes les plus anciennes n’ayant aucun rapport avec l’idée de diffuser des images en mouvement pour distribuer des informations et des spectacles. C’est la télévision mécanique qui est apparue d’abord, fondée sur le concept de télécopie, avec lequel Philo Farnsworth n’avait rien à voir. Le développement de la télévision mécanique s’est déroulé sur plusieurs décennies, entre la fin du XIXe siècle et le début du XXe, et a demandé à la fois de l’idéation parallèle et linéaire, ce qui impliquait des dizaines de personnes et d’organisations. Tandis que la télévision mécanique se développait à la fin du XIXe siècle, d’autres personnes développaient des moyens d’affichage à cathodes, ce qui a finalement abouti en 1897 au premier tube cathodique du physicien allemand, Ferdinand Braun (Braun, 1897). Presque dix ans plus tard, Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton lançait l’hypothèse qu’on pouvait utiliser un tube cathodique pour la «vision électrique à distance» (Swinton, 1908). Faisons un saut en avant jusqu’au 3 septembre 1928, où Philo Farnsworth fit une démonstration à la presse, durant laquelle il utilisa son tube dissecteur d’image pour transmettre une ligne droite, ce qui est considéré comme la première démonstration de télévision électronique (S.F. Man's Invention to Revolutionize Television, 1928). C’est ainsi que Philo Farnsworth a été reconnu comme l’inventeur de la télévision. Cette anecdote résumée ne fait qu’effleurer la surface de l’histoire du développement de la télévision. En réalité, la création de la télévision a pris de nombreuses décennies et impliqué des dizaines de personnes. La télévision actuelle n’utilise même pas de tubes cathodiques. Bien qu’il ait été une figure importante du développement de la télévision, il est aussi faux de dire que Philo Farnsworth l’a inventée que de prétendre que les frères Wright ont inventé l’avion de ligne. Le développement de la télévision est un exemple d’idéation par sérendipité, mais à un rythme lent.

Il est inconcevable que la méthode de développement en cascade ait pu aboutir un jour à l’invention de la télévision. La télévision s’est développée au fur et à mesure que les idées s’ajoutaient les unes aux autres de façon non-organisée, décentralisée et pleine de sérendipité pour aboutir, après presque un siècle, à un appareil qui a révolutionné le monde. Une forte concentration d’intelligence humaine, l’abondance des idées et la participation volontaire, spontanée et pleine de sérendipité au développement technologique sont les ingrédients principaux nécessaires pour accélérer les mêmes processus que ceux qui ont mené au développement de la télévision.

Le concept de Toynbee-Hugo

Une fois que les idées commencent à porter leurs fruits grâce à l’approche du développement accéléré par l’idéation par sérendipité, on doit en déterminer la valeur. La valeur est la seconde variable de la formule qui fait évoluer une idée vers un produit ou un service — c’est-à-dire : Idées x Valeur + Investissement en capital. Qui décide de la valeur d’un produit ? Aussi difficile à accepter que cela puisse être pour les créateurs d’une technologie, c’est le marché qui décide de la valeur. C’est une manifestation du concept de Toynbee-Hugo. Comme l’a dit le regretté historien britannique, Arnold Toynbee, toute l’histoire peut être résumée à la simple équation défi-réponse. Et pour paraphraser Victor Hugo: «Rien n’est plus puissant qu’une idée dont le temps est venu». Le moment est venu pour une idée quand elle répond à un défi de l’environnement d’une façon opportune. C’est pourquoi je ne m’inquiète pas que le progrès technologique s’accélère au-delà de nos capacités à en suivre le rythme, car si nous n’y arrivons pas, c’est que ses avancées auront dépassé le seuil de tolérance du concept de Toynbee-Hugo, et elles seront rejetées. Ceci s’applique aussi aux idées qui sont séduisantes dans l’absolu mais qui ne réussissent pas à être acceptées par les utilisateurs car elles ne répondent pas aux défis de l’environnement de façon opportune. Le concept de Toynbee-Hugo est représenté par quatre carrés.

Toutes choses étant égales par ailleurs, le marché répondra positivement aux produits et services du carré en haut à gauche :

  1. Réactif/Opportun : le produit ou service répond au défi de l’environnement (réactif) au moment où ce défi émerge (opportun)
  2. Opportun/Non réactif : le produit ou service essaie de répondre au défi de l’environnement au moment où ce défi émerge (opportun) mais ne résout pas le problème (non réactif)
  3. Réactif/Inopportun : le produit ou service répond au défi de l’environnement (réactif) mais arrive sur le marché trop tôt ou trop tard (inopportun)
  4. Inopportun/Non réactif : le produit ou service arrive sur le marché trop tôt ou trop tard (inopportun) et ne résout pas le problème (non réactif)

Concept de Toynbee-Hugo

Le Segway

Le Segway

Le symbole du développement technologique qui n’a pas répondu aux défis de l’environnement, c’est bien le Segway. Bien qu’intéressant sur le papier, le concept du Segway supposait que les gens avaient besoin d’un moyen de transport rapide sur de relativement petites distances avec un minimum d’effort. Il s’est avéré qu’il y avait déjà des réponses à ce défi, certaines nous ayant été données par la nature (nos pieds, nos jambes), le vélo, les transports en commun (bus, train, tram par exemple), le taxi, la voiture et la liste continue. Si on a besoin de se déplacer trop loin pour utiliser commodément le vélo ou la marche, la solution la plus facile est encore de se servir d’un moyen de transport existant. Si la distance à parcourir est faible, recourir au Segway au lieu de marcher ressemble bel et bien à de la paresse. Un autre exemple de technologie qui n’a pas encore abouti et qui ne répond pas à un défi existant dans l’environnement, c’est la voiture volante. Il semble qu’il y ait chaque année plusieurs prototypes nouveaux de voitures volantes, alors qu’on a déjà répondu à ce défi. Si on a besoin de voyager sur une longue distance, très vite, on prend l’avion. Si on a besoin de voyager sur une courte, moyenne ou longue distance et que le temps n’est pas un facteur significatif, la voiture suffira.

Bien que les voitures volantes et le Segway ne répondent pas aux défis de l’environnement et soient donc voués à l’échec, on continue à voir surgir de nouvelles versions de voitures volantes, et le Segway a été jugé suffisamment mûr pour être mis sur le marché. Pour éviter ces écueils, il est essentiel de tester la mise sur le marché d’un produit ou d’un service avec une viabilité minimale. Le concept de produit minimum viable (MVP en anglais) n’est pas nouveau. On dit que quand Apple travaillait sur le premier iPod, ses développeurs ne voulaient pas le sortir à cause de toutes les améliorations possibles dont ils pensaient que le produit avait besoin avant d’être mis sur le marché. L’histoire raconte que Steve Jobs a fait savoir aux développeurs que le produit n’avait pas besoin d’être parfait. L’iPod, du moins selon Steve Jobs, était minimalement viable, et il y aurait de nombreuses opportunités d’amélioration continue du produit au cours des versions suivante. Il s’avéra que Steve Jobs avait raison, et Apple mit sur le marché un produit imparfait mais qui eut beaucoup de succès et révolutionna l’industrie musicale.

Investissement en capital et talon d’Achille de la Silicon Valley

La dernière variable de la formule permettant de réussir à aller de l’idée à la création, c’est l’investissement en capital. L’investissement en capital, c’est ce qui distingue la Silicon Valley de tous les autres pôles de développement technologique du monde. La Silicon Valley regorge de capitaux privés, ce qui est souvent le facteur décisif pour la mise sur le marché d’un produit ou service, ou pour le répit donné à un produit ou service afin de démontrer sa valeur avant qu’on ne lui coupe les vivres ou qu’il ne bénéficie de levées de fonds supplémentaires. La question fondamentale à se poser au sujet du capital privé, et de son petit frère, le capital-risque, c’est comment attirer les gens qui ont de l’argent. Il y a près de mille milliards de dollars en capitaux privés pour financer les startups technologiques de la Silicon Valley. La proximité est un élément important dans la façon dont ces milliards de dollars sont investis. En d’autres termes, plus vous vous rapprochez de la Silicon Valley, plus vous avez de chances de recevoir des financements. En règle générale, les investisseurs veulent être près de leurs investissements. Il est donc logique que lors de la création d’une technopole, les capitaux privés fassent partie intégrante de son écosystème. Bien que la Silicon Valley soit toujours en valeur la technopole la plus importante du monde, certains éléments font réfléchir les développeurs de technologie lorsqu’ils envisagent de déménager dans la région de la baie de San Francisco, où se trouve la Silicon Valley.

Le paysage d'Austin, Texas «Hill Country»

Le paysage d'Austin, Texas «Hill Country»

Selon BenefitsPRO.com—un site internet «conçu pour fournir les informations, ressources et outils nécessaires aux courtiers et gestionnaires d’avantages sociaux ainsi qu’aux conseillers retraite»—la région de la baie de San Francisco représente le marché immobilier du logement le plus cher des États-Unis (Satter, 2017). Le prix moyen de vente pour une maison au 2e trimestre 2016 était de 1 085 000$. Alors que le revenu moyen par foyer dans la région de la baie de San Francisco était de 96 481$. D’après The Guardian, les employés de Facebook ont envoyé en 2016 une pétition à Mark Zuckerberg pour que la société subventionne leurs loyers (Solon, 2017). Beaucoup de ces employés sont des ingénieurs avec des salaires à six chiffres, qui appartiennent souvent à des foyers à double revenu avoisinant parfois le million de dollars par an, mais ils dépensent quand même la moitié de leurs revenus dans des logements peu agréables (en général de petits appartements proches du travail). Cette pénurie commence à faire fuir ces développeurs de technologie, et c’est l’un des facteurs qui contribuent à l’essor d’un lieu comme Silicon Hills, le surnom récent de la région d’Austin au Texas, alors que les startups, les développeurs de technologie et les capitaux privés regardent de plus en plus au-delà de la Silicon Valley pour retrouver un style de vie abordable et l’opportunité de travailler dans le développement technologique. J’estime que cette fuite va continuer et que c’est maintenant le moment idéal pour attirer les personnes qui veulent avoir une qualité de vie élevée mais aussi être à la pointe du développement technologique. Le moment est venu de battre le fer pendant qu’il est chaud en incitant les individus à venir du monde entier dans une technopole qui offre une qualité de vie élevée et l’opportunité de faire partie d’un pôle technologique récent et dynamique. Les personnes hautement qualifiées recherchant ces opportunités sont nombreuses. Il est essentiel que le pôle proclame ses intentions dans le monde entier afin d’attirer les meilleurs talents et qu’il se trouve dans un endroit où les gens aient envie d’aller.

Observations finales

Idées x Valeur + Investissement en capital, c’est l’équation simple derrière la création d’une technopole, mais elle ne garantit pas le succès en cas d’application. Différents facteurs augmentent néanmoins les chances de succès d’une nouvelle technopole. Le facteur numéro un, c’est la création d’un environnement d’expérimentation. Il doit y avoir une tolérance à l’échec élevée au sein de cet écosystème d’expérimentation. Les fondements de cet écosystème doivent aussi être constitués par la collision spontanée des idées qui permet au modèle d’idéation par sérendipité de se réaliser. La valeur des idées doit être testée à travers des produits et services minimum viables pour être sûr qu’il ne s’agit pas de voitures volantes ou de Segway. Enfin, il doit y avoir des financiers visionnaires disposés à prendre des risques en finançant les résultats de l’idéation par sérendipité. Les magnifiques paysages de la Texas Hill Country qui entourent Austin ont beau se transformer rapidement en Silicon Hill, la Silicon Valley d’origine dans la région de la baie de San Francisco est toujours l’éminence grise de la technologie mondiale, avec près de mille milliards de dollars de capitaux privés. On voit cependant des fenêtres d’opportunité s’ouvrir progressivement pour que d’autres technopoles puissent profiter du lent mais régulier exode des cerveaux hors de la Silicon Valley en raison des conditions de vie inabordables. Je ne pense cependant pas que cette fenêtre reste longtemps ouverte. Les développeurs en technologie et les détenteurs de capitaux à investir ne sont pas des nomades ; ils vont trouver dans les prochaines années des endroits à travers le monde pour commencer à y construire de nouveaux Silicon Valleys, collines, plateaux et montagnes (Silicon Valleys 2.0). Les technopoles qui réussiront seront celles qui privilégieront et se mettront en position d’exploiter le potentiel humain en veillant jalousement à garder les organisations horizontales, à laisser la liberté de mouvement aux idées, à fuir la bureaucratie et à créer des environnements bâtis sur une expérimentation nourrie par la collision spontanée des idées et la sérendipité dans l’idéation, et limitée par l’éthique et les mœurs, de telle sorte que le progrès technologique n’affaiblisse pas notre humanité, mais la fortifie.

Bibliographie

Braun, F. (1897). Ueber ein Verfahren zur Demonstration und zum Studium des zeitlichen Verlaufes variabler Strome; von Ferdinand Braun. Annalen der Physik und der physikalischen Chemie, 552-560.

Domonoske, C. (2017, July 17). Elon Musk Warns Governors: Artificial Intelligence Poses 'Existential Risk'. Retrieved from NPR.org: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/07/17/537686649/elon-musk-warns-governors-artificial-intelligence-poses-existential-risk

Hugo, V. (1879). History of a Crime (The Testimony of an Eye-Witness).

Markel, D. H. (2013, September 27). The real story behind penicillin. Retrieved from PBS.org: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/the-real-story-behind-the-worlds-first-antibiotic/

Parke, M. (2017, August 2). Thomas Friedman: Technology is accelerating faster than our ability to adapt. We can catch up. Retrieved from Working Nation: https://workingnation.com/thomas-friedman-technology-accelerating-faster-ability-adapt-can-catch/

S.F. Man's Invention to Revolutionize Television. (1928, September 3). San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco, CA, United States of America: San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved from http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist10/philo.html

Satter, M. Y. (2017, September 08). 10 most expensive housing markets. Retrieved from BenefitsPRO.com: http://www.benefitspro.com/2017/09/08/10-most-expensive-housing-markets?slreturn=1506009610&page=6

Solon, O. (2017, February 27). Scraping by on six figures? Tech workers feel poor in Silicon Valley's wealth bubble. Retrieved from theguardian.com: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/feb/27/silicon-aa-cost-of-living-crisis-has-americas-highest-paid-feeling-poor

Swinton, A. A. (1908). Distant Electric Vision. Nature, 151-151.

Toynbee, A. (1955). Challenge and Response. University Review, 33-41.

Arresting Organizational Entropy: The Case for Investing in the Development of Leaders and Managers

By Jason Adamson

The Rise and Fall of a Golden Child

The direct supervisors I had over the course of eight years during which I was promoted a total of four times for two employees were supportive, trusting, and generous to me. The upward trajectory in my professional life went on for a number of years before a new supervisor was assigned to me in 2016, and she was not impressed by my style or the substance of my skills. And I melted down.

From 2008 to 2016, I worked for two organizations and was promoted multiple times. From 2008 to 2010, I had one job at a startup company where, within 12 months, I went from a being a reluctant employee to the golden child and was promoted twice. I was eventually put in charge of a group of 30 people, almost all of whom had advanced degrees in linguistics and had been with the company longer than I had. I was 28 years old and younger than many of the people in the group when I was promoted to a leading position. I stayed with that company for a little more than two years before moving on to a career in government. When I gave my notice, the company insisted that I stay with them, calling me daily for several weeks, offering verbal bait and monetary incentives to get me to change my mind, even going so far as to offer me a position as the core member of a yet-to-be-formed group of middle managers and leaders answering directly to the cadre of executive vice presidents. While I enjoyed my time at the company and had the utmost respect for my colleagues, I was ready for a change and accepted the position within the government, much to the company’s dismay.

During my career with the government, I was promoted to two high-level grades during the course of four years. I was put in charge of an important mission and developed it from the ground up. I again found myself the golden child, and yet I did not have any formal education in leadership and management, much less an advanced degree at all. The direct supervisors I had over the course of eight years during which I was promoted a total of four times for two employees were supportive, trusting, and generous to me. The upward trajectory in my professional life went on for a number of years before a new supervisor was assigned to me in 2016, and she was not impressed by my style or the substance of my skills. And I melted down. Our relationship grew so acrimonious that I behaved petulantly, often verbally sparring with my supervisor using a wholly inappropriate tone. I was subversive, uncooperative, and just a thorn in the side of my supervisor and her supervisors. This swift detrition in the relationship between my supervisor and me took place over a very short period of time (probably a matter of weeks). This was a hard fall after so long of being the apple of my supervisors’ eyes. While I was not pushed out of my job with the government, it was abundantly clear to me that it would probably take years, if ever, to repair the damage that I had done to my career and reputation literally in the space of a few weeks.

There were several factors that contributed to the rise and fall of my professional career over eight short years. That most important factor that resulted in the death spiral of my government career was that I was simply not equipped to effectively execute the level of duties that had been given to me. There was a mismatch between what I was capable of and the expectations my new supervisor had of me. When my supervisor pushed back against some of my suggestions and strategies—all of which my former supervisors had almost universally endorsed and reinforced—I was totally unprepared for how to respond in a productive way. I felt very threatened and lashed out. After years of ascent, how did my career go belly-up so quickly? The answer to that question lines in the default behavior that I would argue almost all organizations apply when bestowing authority and power to individuals, be it in the form of a promotion or additional responsibilities.

Climbing the Ladder: Ambition + Conscientiousness ≠ Competency to Manage and Lead

The trap that organizations fall into that creates significant incongruity—and, therefore, a significant source of entropy—is the paradigm used to transition people who are conceiving, developing, and producing products, services, and solutions to the cadre of middle management and leadership.

There is a consistent pattern that organizations apply when promoting individuals and giving out power and authority. The application of this organizational behavior is, in my opinion, what leads to a cadre of ill-equipped middle managers and leaders that are a primary source of organizational entropy (i.e., the position I found myself in). Leaders at the top of many organizations are often (although not always) well-educated in management, leadership, and business strategy and spend a great deal of time developing those skills. The individuals within the organization who produce the products and services are also usually well-educated and skilled, be they engineers, physicists, software developers, analysts, or chemists. The trap that organizations fall into that creates significant incongruity—and, therefore, a significant source of entropy—is the paradigm used to transition people who are conceiving, developing, and producing products, services, and solutions to the cadre of middle management and leadership. The two factors, in my personal experience and observation, that organizations apply when promoting individuals and extending power and authority to them—most especially to the class of middle managers and leaders—are ambition and conscientiousness.

Ambition and conscientiousness are characteristics in people that employers love. Ambition is a manifestation of the level of energy and individual is willing to commit, be it for ulterior or benevolent motives. Conscientiousness is the level of compliance, dependability, and carefulness a person exhibits. Conscientiousness is considered one of the “big five” personality characteristics, within the construct of the Five Factor Model (FFM). For almost the last decade, there has been a truism that conscientiousness is the primary predictor of employee success. In Personality and Career Success: Concurrent and Longitudinal Relations—a 2009 paper—the researchers found that conscientiousness was tied to higher income and people’s satisfaction with their jobs (Sutin, Costa, Jr., Miech, & Eaton, 2009). The National Institute of Mental Health found as early as 1982 that men who possessed the characteristic of conscientiousness earned more (Kohn & Schooler, 1982). Research has discovered a clear relationship between how conscientious a person is at work and how valued he/she is. But more importantly, research has found a relationship between conscientiousness and how a person is rewarded at work. Perhaps the most meaningful reward at work is a promotion, with an accompanying pay raise. It, therefore, follows that individuals who exhibit behaviors such as compliance, dependability, and carefulness are the likeliest to be promoted. As an employee who was compliant, dependable, and careful in his work for many years, I was indeed rewarded with increasing levels of power and authority in the form of promotions and pay raises.

Where ambition is concerned, it is not one of the characteristics on the FFM, but nonetheless important. Ambition is not in and of itself a negative characteristic; it is a “switching quality”—i.e., a quality that can manifest in negative and positive behaviors—in contrast to other qualities that are universally negative or positive such as deceit or compassion, respectively. It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate ambition from conscientiousness. For example, people may show up to work an hour early each day because they care so much about the quality and quantity of their work, that they are willing to spend more time doing it. On the other hand, some people may show up to work an hour early because they want to display to their superior and peers that they are cosmetically dedicated and willing to put in extra effort while not necessarily caring much about the work itself, other than as a means to an end. Just as I was a conscientious employee for so many years, I was also ambitious. The only real distinguishing factor between conscientiousness and ambition is that conscientiousness is more of an altruistic characteristic whereas ambition can be self-serving. Studies identifying a relationship between conscientiousness and employee success, to my mind, are akin to studies identifying a correlation between not using condoms and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. In other words, the correlation is sufficiently self-evident that studies are confirming the obvious. And it should come as no surprise why employers reward conscientiousness. 

Why Organizations Reward Ambition and Conscientiousness with Power and Authority: Quid Pro Quo

...it stands to reason that individuals who exhibit characteristics of compliance, dependability, and carefulness would be rewarded for their conscientiousness because it reduces the amount of friction within a system and maintains the organizational status quo.

Of course, it makes sense why employees who are conscientious are likelier to be successful, which may even make up for a lack of competency, in some cases. Inertia may be the most powerful force within an organization. If this is true, then it stands to reason that individuals who exhibit characteristics of compliance, dependability, and carefulness would be rewarded for their conscientiousness because it reduces the amount of friction within a system and maintains the organizational status quo. Boat-rockers are not often welcome people in organizations, even if the organization claims in its espoused values that it wants people who challenge the status quo and question things. An organization is likely to shun individuals who go against the grain by being incompliant, non-conventionally dependable, and not perceived to be careful because their behavior is disruptive to the organizational inertia. Even if the inertia within the organization is leading toward entropy, the organization will tend to reward conscientious people and punish outliers because of the aversion to disruption that so-called non-compliant people introduce, even when that disruption has the potential to reverse entropy.

In order to maintain inertia and avoid disruption, organizations tend to reward ambition and conscientiousness, and that reward often comes in the form of promotions and increases in power, authority, and compensation. Ironically, this is a major contributing factor to the toxicity and bureaucracy within the middle stratum of organizations at a high long-term cost for low short-term gain. This system is self-sustaining; middle managers and leaders and their superiors (i.e., those who are able to offer entry into the middle-manager class) are loathe to introduce disruption into the system, even if it is productive disruption because it undermines the mutually-beneficial relationship of middle managers' conscientiousness that manifests as compliance with and deference to their superiors. The problem with this paradigm is that ambition and conscientiousness are not necessarily characteristics that guarantee good managers and leaders. Therefore, organizations often find themselves in a vicious cycle where they continue to promote individuals who are ambitious and conscientious, and these middle managers and leaders often lack competency in those skills. Mathematically, this equation looks like: ambitions + conscientiousness ≠ competency to manage and lead. Its counter-productiveness notwithstanding, this is the model that the vast majority of organizations use to promote individuals, and this self-perpetuating model is a significant contributing factor (perhaps the most significant factor) preventing organizations from actualizing three crucial behaviors that allow them to be sustainable, productive, and profitable: collaboration, effectiveness, and innovation. While it is possible for organizations—especially larger organizations—to sustain this counterproductive culture for the long-term, it will eventually corrode morale as people who are subordinate to incompetent individuals have their innovation and collaboration stymied as they are blocked by bureaucracy, which prevents long-term profitability as financial resources are sucked up by ineffectiveness and inefficiencies. In sum, there is perhaps no more culturally dangerous yet seemingly innocuous organizational behavior than promoting people based on conscientiousness and ambition alone.

Strategies to Break the Logjam Part I: Reframing Value and Worth

...the tacit narrative many organizations signal to [people] is that their worth to the organization is relative to the amount of power and authority they hold, and this is reinforced when they are promoted for their conscientiousness and ambitious behavior.

It can be very difficult to dislodge a large cadre of middle managers and leaders who got into their positions by virtue of their ambition and conscientiousness and who, for the most part, lack competency in the skills of management and leadership. An abrupt change to an organization’s culture (e.g., making all middle managers and leaders re-compete for their jobs and measure their competency as effective managers and leaders) could be destructively disruptive to the organization. But, there are two strategies that can start to reverse and eventually eliminate this unhealthy behavior.

The first thing that an organization can do to reverse this phenomenon of ambition and conscientiousness being rewarded with power and authority is to decouple prestige from power and authority. For so many people, the accumulation of power and authority is a manifestation of their value and worth, and once they’ve gained it, they simultaneously cling to it while resenting it. This is deeply embedded in the human psyche because the more power and authority a person has, the likelier they are to be safe, which satisfies the most basic of human needs—thus, the clinging—but also, it traps them at the bottom of the needs hierarchy—thus, the resentment. However, as we have evolved intellectually, organizations can now deliberately create a narrative that reinforces the notion that value and worth to an organization are based on the value and worth an individual brings to an organization outside of the scope of power and authority.

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Ironically, it is often the middle managers and leaders who reduce organizational value, not because they are inherently ill-intentioned, but because they are a part of a bureaucracy that codifies systems, structures, policies, and procedures that disrupt and prevent collaboration, effectiveness, and innovation. And it is often the experts beneath the middle managers and leaders (e.g., the engineers, the computer programmers, the salespeople, the scientists, etc.) who are doing the work that is adding the value to the organization. However, the tacit narrative many organizations signal to those same engineers, computer programmers, salespeople, and scientists is that their worth to the organization is relative to the amount of power and authority they hold, and this is reinforced when they are promoted for their conscientiousness and ambitious behavior. To disrupt this paradigm, organizations can do three important things: (1) decouple the accumulation of power and authority from compensation; (2) establish programs that reward and incentivize non-mangers/leaders for their conscientiousness and ambition in executing their jobs well; and (3) remove the implicit expectation that conscientiousness and ambition must needs be a path toward more power and authority by default. In other words, if a chemical engineer wants to remain a chemical engineer without an eventual management or leadership role for the duration of his/her career, there must be rewards to value this individual’s dedication to his or her role as a subject matter expert within the organization. And, perhaps more importantly, the organization should ensure that this person’s voice is sought out, valued, and heard, in spite of the fact that he/she does not hold a formal position of power and authority.

Strategies to Break the Logjam Part II: Developing Competence

There is nothing more valuable to invest in than people, and I don’t mean this in the abstract; I mean this in the most concrete sense. Creating a cadre of world-class mangers and leaders by developing their emotional intelligence and self-awareness, and skills in conflict resolution, team-building, effective communication, and organizational and behavioral theories, will pay in dividends.
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The second thing that an organization can do to reverse the phenomenon of ambition and conscientiousness being rewarded with power and authority is to introduce the variable of competence in management and leadership into the management-leadership track. If an individual finds self-actualization in the capacity of a manager or leader, there is nothing wrong with that per se. However, ambition plus conscientiousness do not equal competency in management and leadership. By the same token, ambition, conscientiousness, and competency in a given skill are a firm foundation for effective managers and leaders, although this is not an absolute. If a person has some of these characteristics, an additional variable must be added, that is, the capacity of the skills associated with management and leadership.

While some people have a proclivity for management and leadership, for far too long organizations have ignored the fact that management and leadership (especially at the mid-level) are skills that must be learned. Investing in people to develop them as managers and leaders often does not look like a worthwhile venture when compared to investing in raw material, equipment, marketing, etc. because it is intangible and can be difficult to quantify a return on the investment. This is a myopic view of the human factor within organizations. There is nothing more valuable to invest in than people, and I don’t mean this in the abstract; I mean this in the most concrete sense. Creating a cadre of world-class mangers and leaders by developing their emotional intelligence and self-awareness, and skills in conflict resolution, team-building, effective communication, and organizational and behavioral theories, will pay in dividends. Organizations will eventually be able to quantify most of these costs, but it may not be as quick and neat as organizations are used to. When an organization acquires a new piece of machinery for an assembly line, for example, it can be much easier to quickly quantify that return on the investment. However, developing managers and leaders is a far more long-term but worthwhile investment, not just from a humanistic point of view but literally for an organization’s financial bottom line, by allowing it to be collaborative, effective, and innovative, thus giving it a competitive advantage. And if that is still not enough, consider that a 2015 Gallup study found that 50 percent of employees quit "to get away from their manager" (Harter & Adkins, 2015). No matter how you slice it, a 50 percent attrition rate is an enormous cost to an organization. How much more competitive and profitable could an organization be if it reduced the attrition rate to ten percent, five percent, or even one percent? Organizations can; it's just a matter of how willing they are to invest in developing a cadre of managers and leaders that are world-class.

When organizations are led by incompetent leaders and things are managed by incompetent managers, the financial cost is high, but often not immediately apparent. I don’t mean to use the word incompetent pejoratively; I mean it in the most literal sense: lacking in qualification or ability. This is not necessarily bad. None of us is competent at everything. In fact, most of us are completely incompetent at almost everything. But, to assume management and leadership grow naturally out of ambition and conscientiousness represents a false premise that deprives people of getting satisfaction out of their work as they labor under sometimes draconian conditions of incompetent managers and leaders who are ruled by insecurity which manifests as a command-and-control paradigm and megalomania. It also prevents organizations from creating an environment that is mutually rewarding for people and the organization when they bring all of themselves to work and give all they have to offer without having to climb the ladder and play politics in order to feel valued and get rewarded.

How often do organizations give lip service to putting people first when they refuse to develop the skills of management and leadership in people? How much collaboration, effectiveness, and innovation is squandered due to, at best, ineffective management and leadership and, at worst, counterproductive management and leadership? From the C-Suite, it can be difficult to recognize the damage done or human potential being wasted due to incompetent management and leadership. And, this is exacerbated by the fact that the middle stratum of leaders and managers have a vested interest in reinforcing false narratives to executive leaders that all is well and any disruptions are due to rogue elements among the employees, which will be dealt with.

Management and leadership are skills that must be taught, learned, and accurately applied. The best and most effective management and leadership skills do not see people as a means to an end but as humans who have many needs and whose unique human potential, when unleashed, represents the most powerful positive force within an organization. This is achieved by bringing people together through cohesion and congruence, helping people to make a positive difference in their organizations without formal power or authority, and serving a greater good in the world through their work. This is not achieved by standing on the shoulders of subordinates. The worst management and leadership practices lead to silos, information hoarding, passive aggressive behaviors, high turnover, burnout, confusion, undue stress, hyper-control, ineffective communication, sabotage, deceit, inauthenticity, resistance to upward feedback, and lack of trust. If you are in the upper echelons of an organization and you think you see signs of unhealthy behavior among middle management and leadership, get out of the C-Suite bubble and dig a little deeper. If you find rot, have the guts to challenge the paradigm from which the organization operates where middle leadership and management are concerned.

The fact is that social scientists have been studying, documenting, and applying effective management and leadership skills for decades, through fields such as organizational development, executive master’s programs in leadership, and organizational psychology. Many MBA programs now—which have, in the past, ignored the human element of work and focused on running profitable organizations at all costs—have begun to introduce into their curriculum the element of humanism, because it is a win-win scenario, in which organizations gain from the unbound potential people bring to work when they are treated as humans, which in turn creates more collaborative, innovative, and profitable organizations. Many of these things are not new, and yet, so many organizations assume that investing in developing a cadre of managers and leaders —especially at the mid-level—is not worth the return on investment. Instead, they put their trust in the false notion that management and leadership are inborn talents that will manifest in people through their ambition and conscientiousness. And, even when an organization accepts the decision to invest in developing their managers and leaders, they must have the right management and leadership skills. A manager or leader not trained in the right skills is no better to an organization than a brain surgeon is to a patient in need of a heart transplant.

Closing Thoughts

Without the right skills that are based on bringing people together through cohesion and congruence, helping people to make a positive and meaningful difference through their work, and serving the greater good at any level of an organization, unhealthy and destructive behaviors will manifest, leaving many an organization aimlessly drifting in the dark waters of low morale, cynicism, disengagement, and attrition, only to eventually run aground...But this need not be the destiny of people or organizations, as we know so much now about how to create and sustain healthy workplaces for the benefit of self and humankind, if only we seek it out.
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Climbing the organizational hierarchy to gain a feeling of worth and value must be expunged from our Western ethos, as it encourages people to join the ranks of managers and leaders who may not be a good fit for those roles; it has the potential to create devastating megalomaniacs in organizations, and it necessitates the creation of uber-bureaucracies to accommodate all of those who feel compelled by tacit expectations to rise up the ranks in order to self-actualize, obtain prestige, power, authority, and earn more money. Yes, leaders and managers are useful to organizations, but at this juncture, I believe that the damage they do is sometimes so great that it completely negates any good they do. This is a troubling condition for the experience of people in the workplace. However, this trend can be reversed, and the organizations that develop managers and leaders who learn how to be of service in releasing human potential will have a competitive advantage now and in the future. If investing in people in order to have an organizational competitive advantage is not considered worthwhile, it may be time for a reexamination of the organization’s priorities and culture.

Not all managers are bad. Not all leaders are bad. Most have good intentions but simply lack competency. My hope and belief are that the vast majority of managers and leaders are good people who simply feel compelled to rise up the ranks of their organizations to satisfy their needs for safety, self-esteem, and relationships. I fell into that trap myself and learned an important lesson while living a painful experience. Without the right skills that are based on bringing people together through cohesion and congruence, helping people to make a positive and meaningful difference through their work, and serving the greater good at any level of an organization, unhealthy and destructive behaviors will manifest, leaving many an organization aimlessly drifting in the dark waters of low morale, cynicism, disengagement, and attrition, only to eventually run aground. But this need not be the destiny of people or organizations, as we know so much now about how to create and sustain healthy workplaces for the benefit of self and humankind, if only we seek it out.

References

Harter, J., & Adkins, A. (2015, 4 8). Business Journal. Retrieved from Gallup: http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/182321/employees-lot-managers.aspx

Kohn, M. L., & Schooler, C. (1982). Job Conditions and Personality: A Longitudinal Assessment of Their Reciprocal Effects. American Journal of Sociology, 1257-1286.

Sutin, A. R., Costa, Jr., P. T., Miech, R., & Eaton, W. W. (2009). Personality and Career Success: Concurrent and Longitudinal Relations. European Journal of Personality, 71-84.

Productive Ambiguity: Unleashing Latent Creativity, Innovation, and Collaboration

This Isn’t at All What I Had in Mind!

After several hours of working on the gazebo, the set designer made his way over to me and delivered his verdict—the gazebo I was constructing didn’t even begin to approximate what he wanted. “This isn’t at all what I had in mind,” he said...

When I was a junior in high school, the theater department put on a production of My Fair Lady. I tried out for the play but was not cast. I still wanted to participate, so I volunteered to help build the set for the production. The high school I attended had a very well-funded theatre department and was known in the community for putting on productions of high quality. The props department had at its disposal literally thousands of wardrobe items, in addition to many tools and construction materials. I thought it would be fun to help create a beautiful set for the production, even if I wasn’t going to be in it.

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As rehearsals for My Fair Lady kicked off, I volunteered to work with the set designer one Saturday to help build the large props and backdrops. A few other students agreed to come as well, but I was the only one to show up that day. After doing some fairly basic tasks like screwing together large planks of wood and painting canvas backdrops in uniform colors, the set designer asked me to construct a large gazebo. Given what little experience in construction I had, the task felt pretty far outside of my comfort zone. However, because so much needed to get done and no one else had shown up to help, I agreed to give it a try. I pressed the set designer on what he expected the gazebo to look like. However, my attempts to get clarification were met with his reassurances that I would be just fine on my own. I nervously set about gathering planks of wood, trellises, and tools to begin work building the gazebo. After several hours of working on the gazebo, the set designer made his way over to me and delivered his verdict—the gazebo I was constructing didn’t even begin to approximate what he wanted. “This isn’t at all what I had in mind,” he said, and then he firmly explained what he wanted the gazebo to look like in a way as if I was supposed to know how he wanted it to look in the first place. I listened to his instructions very carefully and rebuilt the gazebo. After a full day of work, I had nearly completed the gazebo. Much to my relief, the set designer was satisfied with my work. The performances of My Fair Lady went off without a hitch. I was proud of the contributions I made, as the gazebo featured prominently in the play.

The set designer for my high school’s theater department was an extraordinary man who cared deeply for students and enriched their high school experiences with his passion for teaching and theater. However, being a good human being didn’t prevent the set designer from falling into the ambiguity paradox. The ambiguity paradox is a trap people fall into when they assume that a lack of specificity allows for creative freedom when it actually stymies creativity. The paradox is that in leaving things ambiguous without the proper context for the ambiguity, people tend to feel paralyzed by indecision and lack of direction.

Ambiguity: from Color-By-Number to Abstract Art

The more ambiguous the task, the more potential there is for unique outcomes. In other words, there is an inverse relationship between the level of direction given and the uniqueness of the output.

While ambiguity has the potential to cause confusion, it can be productive. The power in productive ambiguity is that a lack of specificity can remove preconceptions, biases, and predispositions that tend to limit people to rote thinking. We have been trained from a very young age that there’s usually one right answer to a question and one right way to get there. By removing this construct of absolutes, we can tap into the reservoirs of creativity to come up with novel and unique things and ideas. The arts are an especially good example of this paradigm of thinking. In fact, it may be said that what distinguishes art is the fact that it is a product of thinking that is unbound from the construct of absolutes.

To demonstrate this point, take the example of color-by-number; this is the very definition of performing a task based on a predefined action with no room for personal interpretation, and the outcome is not art. Taking it a step further, one could be given directions to use water colors on an 8x10 piece of canvas to paint a bowl of fruit sitting on a table that contains one pear, three apples, and two oranges. While there is a bit more room for interpretation with these instructions, the painter is still confined to a fairly narrow set of options. Is the outcome art? Maybe. Now consider a scenario in which a person is given directions to create a depiction of fruit. That’s it. No limitations on the medium. No restrictions on the type of fruit. Nothing. Every person to whom these ambiguous instructions are given will come up with a unique depiction of fruit according to his/her own imagination and creativity. The more ambiguous the task, the more potential there is for unique outcomes. In other words, there is an inverse relationship between the level of direction given and the uniqueness of the output.

So how is this relevant to work? If you are in a position of authority to give directions, it is crucial that you have sufficient self-awareness to know in advance how comfortable you are with an output that might not match exactly what you have in mind. This can sometimes be a challenge for people, and it plays out at work all the time when people are given little direction only to be met with rejection once they have turned in their product (i.e., “This isn’t at all what I had in mind!”). But the fact is that it is sometimes difficult to tap into what it is you want, which can lead to giving little direction and then placing the blame at the feet of the person who was tasked. This is a lose-lose scenario. If you want to maintain control of the output but cannot articulate what you want, do not risk it on the off chance that someone will come back with something that is magically satisfactory to you. I have seen this taken to the extreme when I had occasion to work with an individual who considered it a mark of distinction and maturity in people when she gave them little or even no direction with the expectation that they would intuit exactly what she wanted and provide an according output. If you really feel you need to maintain tight control over the outcome, then let people paint by numbers (i.e., the usually unproductive, unhealthy and unsustainable "shut up and color approach" to work). Don't assume people can read your mind. This dynamic will likely be highly unstimulating for the painters as they are deprived of autonomy, creativity, and trust, but at least, you’ll have moved from a lose-lose to a win-lose.

Getting to a Win-Win: Ends vs. Means

[When] you’ve provided some guidance and a clear objective, the means of completing the objective are left up to those whom you’ve tasked. This is productive ambiguity.

So how do you get to a win-win? As stated above, if you’re in the position of tasking individuals, get in touch with what you really want. I like to use the example of sailing to an island to illustrate how to achieve a win-win that allows people to explore and unleash their imagination and creativity while also satisfying the desired outcome. Imagine you’re standing on a shore and can see dozens of islands across the strait in the distance. From the beach, you can see one of the islands is flush with coconut trees. You want those coconuts harvested. However, in order to get there, a vessel has to be built and navigated across the strait, and the coconuts have to be collected and then brought back. There are hundreds of ways this task can be accomplished. The key is that you’ve articulated what you want: coconuts. Now here is your chance as a leader to unleash the creative and imaginative capital of people and support them. “In the distance, there is an island right there. I want the coconuts from that island.” Then you step back. While you’ve provided some guidance and a clear objective, the means of completing the objective are left up to those whom you’ve tasked. This is productive ambiguity.

Is productive ambiguity always the best way to get the job done? Unequivocally no. The amount of ambiguity associated with a task should be contextual. The higher the stakes, usually the lower the ambiguity, and the lower the stakes, the higher the ambiguity can be. Crisis management is a scenario in which the stakes are very high and call for a command-and-control leadership approach, leaving very little if any room for ambiguity and requiring a high degree of compliance with orders from leadership. As the stakes get lower, there is more space to introduce productive ambiguity. But this often does not happen because of the absence of two things: trust and context.

The Trust Factor

As a leader, you simply cannot sustain absolute real or imagined control without eventually compromising productive outcomes.

Stephen Covey describes trust as being a byproduct of observing and being satisfied with the combination of competency and character that a person exhibits. Patrick Lencioni talks about vulnerability-based trust, which allows people to open up to each other by sharing the less-than-perfect parts of themselves. These are both useful takes on trust, but they are descriptions of how trust manifests and not of trust itself. The root of trust is in faith. Faith has a very religious connotation in English. In Russian, the word "trust" is based on the root word for "faith." Faith means believing in something, and believing in something is to hope for it, so it follows that the root of trust is actually hope—a desire for something to be as you want it to be when you choose not to or cannot force the outcome you desire. This is the antithesis of control, which means that trust is actually a function of relinquishing real or imagined control or the desire for control through hope. 

Relinquishing control does not mean giving up on or abandoning something. Relinquishing control means first coming to terms emotionally with the very limited amount of control you actually have, and second, giving to others some of that little control you do have in the hope not that they will exercise the control in the exact way you would exercise it, but that they will exercise control toward a shared goal or vision. To put it more succinctly, trust is an exercise in hope for action toward a mutually shared goal or vision.

In the case of Steven Covey’s definition, that manifestation of trust looks like hope based on observed behaviors. In Patrick Lencioni’s definition, that manifestation of trust looks like hope that vulnerability will be in the service of a bonding over shared and innate imperfectness as humans, without abusing the information that’s been shared. You may choose to withhold trust until you have observed patterns of behavior that give you hope. You may choose to withdraw trust when your hopes have been violated. However, there is no getting around the fact that in order to be an effective leader, at some point, you are going to have to trust, which means you are going to have to hope, which means you are going to have to relinquish some control. As a leader, you simply cannot sustain absolute real or imagined control without eventually compromising productive outcomes. Subordinates cannot sustain the control you impose on them without compromising their well-being. When trust is given, then, and only then, can productive ambiguity exist.

Context: Make Clear (Often) Your Organization's Foundation and Draw Boundaries

Organizations often have a vague or fuzzy sense of their foundational beliefs, their values, and their core purpose but are extraordinarily specific when it comes to defining their “hows” and “whats,” which then counterproductively get codified as bureaucracy.

The second factor in applying productive ambiguity is putting boundaries around it with context and deliberateness. Boundaries and context may seem antithetical to ambiguity. When you define boundaries and provide context, isn’t that a form of disambiguation? Yes, it is. And this is where the important concept of macro and micro ambiguity comes into play. The macrocosm of an organization must be unambiguous. In fact, the clearer the macrocosm of the organization, the more room there is for micro ambiguity because ambiguity is bound by the larger context. Macrocosmic clarity provides an anchor for people, and there should be no uncertainty about it. The clarity that acts as an anchor for an organization is represented by the beliefs upon which it is built, the values that come out of those beliefs and the organization’s core purpose that is built upon its values. This makes up the “why” element of an organization’s identity. For example, take an organization that is founded on the belief that cybercrime is an existential threat. That belief could lead to a value of employee vigilance, which contributes to the organization’s core purpose of protecting customers from cybercriminals. There should be no ambiguity about the beliefs, values, and core purpose of an organization (i.e., no macrocosmic ambiguity). However, to use the same example, how vigilant behaviors show up in an organization and what people do to be vigilant can have ambiguity around it. Ironically, organizations often do the inverse of this. Organizations often have a vague or fuzzy sense of their foundational beliefs, their values, and their core purpose but are extraordinarily specific when it comes to defining their “hows” and “whats,” which then counterproductively get codified as bureaucracy.

Leaders in organizations waste so much time building sandcastles of strategy that have no foundations in basic beliefs, guiding values, and a core purpose. When an organization’s foundation is firm (i.e., it is unwavering in and unambiguous about its basic beliefs, guiding values, and core purpose) and there is an organizational culture of trust, then that enables organizations to create spaces of microcosmic ambiguity about some of the “hows” and “whats” that people will fill in with creativity, innovation, and collaboration, because it is precisely the lack of specificity about the “hows” and “whats” that create an impetus for creativity, innovation, and collaboration. When all the “whats” and “hows” are scripted, the need for creativity, innovation, and collaboration dissipates.

In order for microcosmic ambiguity to be productive, there needs to be clarity about the fact that the organization has been deliberate about keeping some things ambiguous. In other words, remove the meta-ambiguity by clearly stating that the organization is leaving some things undefined on purpose and that experimentation is all right.

Codification of Lessons Learned from Mistakes: Applying the "Cake Test"

The institutionalization of lessons learned is a primary source of bureaucracy. The temptation can be strong to codify the “hows” and “whats” that come from creativity, innovation, and collaboration.

In addition to being deliberate about keeping some things ambiguous and drawing boundaries, there needs to be a tolerance for mistakes. When mistakes happen, people should feel that revealing the mistakes is actually in the service of learning—a very valuable thing. The learning that comes from trial and error can be institutionalized. However, a word of caution: the institutionalization of lessons learned is a primary source of bureaucracy. The temptation can be strong to codify the “hows” and “whats” that come from creativity, innovation, and collaboration. Sometimes, these lessons learned are softly referred to as “best practices.” An organization must strike a balance between living by the lessons it has learned and codifying that knowledge, and allowing for microcosmic ambiguity to exist. To strike this balance, evaluate whether the lesson is responsive to a high-stakes variable and whether codifying it is worth the loss of creativity, innovation, and collaboration related to the specific variable. If the stakes are high and the loss of creativity, innovation, and collaboration, is worth the cost, codification may be all right. But over-codification can lead to an organization so laden with systems, structures, policies, and procedures that it has calcified and can no longer be creative, innovative, and collaborative. To use a culinary metaphor, take the example of cake. Almost all cake recipes use ingredients or preparation techniques to get the batter to rise. There are relatively few tried and true codified ways to get a cake batter to rise, from yeast to baking powder, to whipping air into the batter, to baking soda, etc. That’s the science of baking. But there is literally an infinite number of ways to flavor and decorate a cake, and those things are a matter of taste. That’s the art of baking. So, apply the “cake test” to things you introduce into your systems, structures, policies, and procedures. Are they elements essential to the rise of the batter or are they the frosting on the cake? If it’s the latter, be stingy in codifying.

The Defeatist Attitude of “That’s Already Been Tried” and “That’s Not How We Do Things Here.”

How many times did people attempt to fly a powered, controlled, heavier-than-air craft? I wonder if anyone ever told the Wright brothers, “That’s already been tried.”
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The last factor required for successful application of productive ambiguity has to do with the two oft-uttered phrases that are the kiss of death to developing a culture of creativity, innovation, and collaboration: “That’s already been tried” and “That’s not how we do things here.” How many times did people attempt to fly a powered, controlled, heavier-than-air craft? I wonder if anyone ever told the Wright brothers, “That’s already been tried.”, or worse yet that the well-funded, highly-regarded, and government-backed Samuel Pierpont Langley was simultaneously attempting to achieve flight with a powered, controlled, heavier-than-air craft. If so, I’m glad they ignored it, because the two barely high-school educated bicycle repairmen beat Langley. I also wonder whether anybody had ever proposed a new way of renting videos to the top brass at Blockbuster before Netflix and Redbox came along, only to be met with some version of “That’s not how we do things here.” Yep, that’s not how you did it, Blockbuster. And now you don’t do it at all.

Closing Thoughts

When an organization is macrocosmically solid...it opens the door for productive ambiguity in the microcosm, which unleashes creativity, innovation, and collaboration among people...
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Back in 11th grade when I was building a gazebo for My Fair Lady, the set designer had in his mind a clear idea of what he wanted the gazebo to look like, but he left it ambiguous, and I ended up building something he didn’t like. If he were willing to give me license to build the gazebo as my own personal creation, his ambiguity would have been fitting. But he had something in mind, and my creation did not meet his expectations. This same dynamic plays out in organizations every day when leaders fail to be clear about what is microcosmic and macrocosmic ambiguity. When an organization is macrocosmically solid (i.e., its basic beliefs, values, and core purpose are clear), it opens the door for productive ambiguity in the microcosm, which unleashes creativity, innovation, and collaboration among people—it taps into and releases people’s full potential. This is the secret ingredient that allows organizations to be nimble and respond to internal and external changes in the environment while also allowing people to self-actualize.

 

Reimagining Change Management

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After almost two decades as a professional working in seven different organizations, my observations and visceral experiences have led me to conclude that the axiom about organizational change being difficult is built upon a false paradigm that in order for change to be effective, it needs to be complex.

Does Change Have to Be Complex to Be Effective?

In the world of change management, there is an axiom that organizational change is difficult and meaningful change can be hard to achieve and sustain. This point of view is not without merit. After all, change managers no doubt encounter and combat resistance from individuals and bureaucracies, and they have battle scars to prove it, myself included. Thomas G. Cummings, Director of the Leadership Institute at the USC Marshall School of Business and Professor of Management and Organization, and Christopher G. Worley, Professor of Organization Theory at Pepperdine University and Senior Research Scientist at USC’s Center for Effective Organizations, have outlined five steps to managing change within organizations, and each step has its own lengthy and complex explanation (Cummings & Worley, 2015, pp. 179-206):

  1. Motivating charge
  2. Creating a vision
  3. Developing political support
  4. Managing the transition
  5. Sustaining momentum

Cummings and Worley are titans in the field of organizational development and effectiveness. Their research has helped shape the field, and I have confidence that they and other scholars and practitioners have rigorously tested the steps listed above. All this notwithstanding, I’m going to challenge the premise upon which this approach to organizational change is carried out. After almost two decades as a professional working in seven different organizations, my observations and visceral experiences have led me to conclude that the axiom about organizational change being difficult is based on a false paradigm that in order for change to be effective, it needs to be complex.

I have participated in and been the object of organizational change initiatives on at least a dozen occasions. Each change effort used some variation of if not the identical five-phase approach that Cummings and Worley outline. My overall takeaway from the experiences I’ve put others through and have been put through is that the change management process is overused and has reached a level of complexity such that diminishing returns have been reached, resulting in countless hours of labor and tremendous costs with little to show for it.

The Paradox of Being Human: The Brain's Potential and Limits

[The prefrontal cortex] allowed Albert Einstein to come up with his theory of special relativity...However, you could have just as easily startled Einstein into a chest-clutching gasp with a well-timed “boo” as anybody else...
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My primary hypothesis is that traditional change management theory leads to self-destructively complex change initiatives. An inverse relationship exists between how complex a change initiative is and how likely it is to succeed. The reason for this is the result of one of evolution's biggest mistakes—the prefrontal lobe, more specifically, the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Humans are the product of nature. With the power of the PFC, we have created a world that is unnatural through technological advance, developing inventions such as planes, indoor ski slopes in the desert, artificial organs, skyscrapers that defy gravity, space travel, and artificial intelligence. The PFC cannot resist complexity. It is a paradox that despite being products of nature, we strive to create artificial artifacts. This incongruence within ourselves is a byproduct of our evolution.

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The neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean proposed the concept of the triune brain in the 1960s. MacLean’s proposed model of the brain suggests that it is made up of three parts that evolved consecutively. The most ancient part of the brain is referred to as the reptilian brain. Following the reptilian brain, the paleomammalian brain developed. After the paleomammalian brain came the newest part of the brain—the neomammalian. The lizard and paleomammalian parts of the brain govern instinct, involuntary behavior, and routine. The neomammalian brain is responsible for high-order thinking such as planning, language, and abstract thought. While this model of the brain has been criticized for being overly simplistic, it still captures the paradoxical essence of the human condition—that the instincts of our lizard and paleomammalian brains are not always consistent with the desires of the neomammalian brain. The neomammalian brain, which contains the PFC, allowed Albert Einstein to come up with his Special Theory of Relativity that paved the way for the development of nuclear weapons capable of wiping out the planet. However, you could have just as easily startled Einstein into a chest-clutching gasp with a well-timed “boo” as anybody else by igniting his limbic system within his lizard brain.

Thanks to the PFC, we have the ability to solve problems. But this so-called rational part of the brain does not totally mute the instincts of the lizard and paleomammalian brains. The instincts and desires of the lizard and paleomammalian brains want to have a say, and they still get a say. But because we use the PFC for problem-solving, we often come up with things that satisfy the PFC like a form of prefrontal narcissism. And these solutions can often compromise the weak PFC and ignite the survival behaviors from the limbic system of the lizard brain.

Because of its relative newness, the PFC has three limiting factors. First, the PFC is the most energy-hungry part of the brain and is therefore susceptible to waning abilities under the strain of even minor sleep deprivation, insufficient caloric intake, or mild dehydration. Second, the PFC tires quickly. The prefrontal cortex is at its most efficient in the morning. Many schools have shifted cognition-heavy subjects such as math and science to the morning in order to maximize the information students can take in. Thirdly, the PFC is not good at doing more than one thing well at a time. In fact, the PFC doesn’t really do more than one thing at a time. What the PFC can do is rapidly switch between tasks, giving the impression that tasks are being carried out simultaneously, when really, it’s just rapidly switching, and, you guessed it, this rapid switching also takes a toll on the PFC’s performance. While we are capable of putting a man on the moon, we cannot read an email and talk to someone on the phone simultaneously, at least not without serious degradation in the tasks being performed.

With this understanding of the brain in mind, what does it have to do with change management? First of all, the brain reacts by default to states of change as threatening. Not all change is perceived as threatening. However, change that is ambiguous—as organizational change often is—lights up the amygdala, which plays a key role in the fight/flight/freeze response, as outlined in Dr. Margaret Wehrenberg and Dr. Steven Prinz’s book, The Anxious Brain (Margaret Wehrenberg & Prinz, M.D., 2007). In a research paper, Interpreting Ambiguous Social Cues in Unpredictable Contexts, the authors found that when they presented subjects with pictures of faces that had unpleasant expressions—such as anxiety or anger—an involuntary fear response in the subjects occurred via arousal of the amygdala (Davis, Maital, Kim, Moran, & Whalen, 2015). The authors also found a lesser but still aroused amygdala response even in benign facial expressions when those facial expressions were unexpected (Davis et al., 2015). The authors concluded from these findings that uncertainty associated with what the subjects expected to see suggests that ambiguous social cues are, by default, perceived negatively and arouse the amygdala, indicating a stress response (Davis et al., 2015). For those who are in positions of authority over change, this stress response is mitigated, if not eliminated altogether, by the ameliorating effect that a real or imagined sense of control has on the stress response. Thus, while the designated change agents are huddled together, coming up with new org charts, titles, policies, procedures, systems, and structures, most everyone else in the organization is experiencing at least ambient levels of stress and subsequent premeditated, if subconscious, resistance. This significantly diminishes the chances that the desired change will actually stick. 

The second important factor regarding the relationship between change management and brain functioning is cognitive load. When change occurs in an organization, people are often tasked with being “champions” or “advocates” for this or that pillar of restructuring. Even for those who are not given ancillary duties, modifying behavior consistent with organizational change takes a toll on the PFC as people get used to new ways of doing things, new structures, new policies, etc. This cognitive load is nontrivial, and the more variables are added to the change process, the higher the cognitive load and the less likely the change is to succeed, especially when there is a co-dependency of actions (i.e., one action must be started or completed before the next can start). If the brain reacts by default to ambiguous change with stress and the PFC is limited in its ability to carry a heavy cognitive load, what are effective change management strategies? There are one test and two rules that form the foundation of effective change management.

The Toynbee Test: Responding to the Real Challenges

Often, organizations don’t change when they need to or attempt change when it’s not necessary because they are out of touch with the challenges the environment is presenting.
Arnold Toynbee

Arnold Toynbee

The first thing to do before even taking on any sort of change management intervention is to perform what I call the “Toynbee test.” The Toynbee test is named for the esteemed 20th-century British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee. Toynbee posited that all of history could be reduced to a simple formula: challenge-response. The premise of Toynbee’s view of history is that the environment presents challenges to which humans respond, and as a challenge changes, so does the response. For example, the challenge of Nazi Germany was something to which continental Europe was not prepared to respond because it was still in a response posture held over from WWI. Eventually, the Allies changed their response to the technologically and strategically advanced threat Nazi Germany presented and prevailed.

Many things stir the desire for change. One is changing for change’s sake, which is a dangerous and often indulged temptation. Another reason is restlessness; it is easy for some to become restless or complacent in their routines. When leaders sense this restlessness or complacency, they sometimes reflexively call in the change police to shake things up. Still another reason for seeking to initiate organizational change is diminishing or poor returns on investments for shareholders. Nothing ignites the proverbial fire under the backsides of CxOs and members of the board of directors like plunging stock prices. Indeed, the failure of an organization to be profitable is a valid call to action for change. Lastly, I have witnessed on many occasions people who have recently taken up a leadership position kicking things off with a grand and elaborate change fest.

Sometimes, the change is warranted. Sometimes, it’s a self-serving way to leave a personal legacy. Sometimes, it’s both. There are just as many good reasons for change as there are bad, but simply because someone has given you the power to change things by virtue of your position of authority does not mean that that power needs to be exercised. There is nothing more useful in a leader than the ability to resist the unnecessary use of his/her power. This is not to say that change should be avoided, but the "why" behind the change must be firmly planted in the fertile soil of necessity that has been scrutinized by the potential cost of the change vs. the benefit it might bring. If the "why" passes this test, it must remain firmly tethered to the plan of action. If the "what" and the "how" become disconnected from the change, which is frequently the case as change efforts tend to gain a life of their own, the incongruence will cause damage to the organization.

Often, organizations don’t change when they need to or attempt change when it’s not necessary because they are out of touch with the challenges the environment is presenting. The best organizations are able to anticipate changes to the challenges in the environment and time their responses to maximize impact, as Netflix has done by going from mail order DVDs to streaming to creating its own content. The worst organizations either ignore the new challenges the environment is presenting, are altogether unaware of them, or try to play catchup after it’s too late. The vast majority of organizations sit somewhere in the middle and attempt change management interventions when the environment does not call for change or take on interventions that are not responsive to the new challenges.

By applying the Toynbee test, organizations stay in touch with the internal and external environments and carry out change interventions as a response to real shifts in challenges or new challenges they can see coming down the pike. Perhaps most importantly, the Toynbee test dictates that the response must fit the challenge. I have often witnessed organizations take on change interventions that are totally and utterly unresponsive to the real challenges before them with catastrophic consequences.

The Monderman Rule: Reduce Cognitive Load by Keeping it Simple

Trust me when I say that even if the faces in the audience look interested as the PowerPoint slides elaborately transition from one to the next, over-stuffed with detailed flowcharts and barely comprehensible paragraphs packed with managementese, the information is running straight through people’s brains like water through a sieve.
Laweiplein Intersection

Laweiplein Intersection

Laweiplein Roundabout

Laweiplein Roundabout

The first rule of change management interventions is in response to the amount of load the PFC can bear. I call it the “Monderman rule,” named for the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman. Monderman was something of a maverick in the world of traffic engineering for his belief in simplifying the design of dangerous roads by removing signs, flashing lights, and other warning devices. Monderman’s pièce de résistance is the Laweiplein Roundabout in the city of Drachten in the Netherlands. Previously called Laweiplein Intersection, it was both dangerous and a mess, with lines all over the roads and street signs and lights galore. Despite their best effort, the authorities could not reduce the number of accidents at Laweiplein Intersection, which cyclists, motorists, and pedestrians frequented. The problem was that the excessive information being conveyed to cyclists, motorists, and pedestrians overwhelmed their PFCs and reduced their ability to navigate the intersection calmly with their attention on each other (where it should have been) instead of the signs, flashing lights, and lines on the road. Monderman removed all of this and installed a sleek and simple roundabout, which allowed individuals to use their prefrontal processing power to navigate the road with their attention on each other instead of all the warning devices.

As I mentioned earlier, as capable as it is, the PFC is very limited in the cognitive load it can bear. With this in mind, it stands to reason that change management interventions should be simple. Simple but meaningful changes can have positive reverberations throughout an organization like a thin stone being gracefully skipped across a pond whereas massive organizational change interventions can plop like a boulder in a lake with almost no splash and no reverberations and sink straight to the bottom. Simple interventions can bring about the most effective organizational change interventions of all because they don’t add excessive cognitive load to the PFC. There is almost nothing worse an organization can do than to kick off a massive change effort with pomp and circumstance. Trust me when I say that even if the faces in the audience look interested as the PowerPoint slides elaborately transition from one to the next, over-stuffed with detailed flowcharts and barely comprehensible paragraphs packed with managementese, the information is running straight through people’s brains like water through a sieve. So instead of implementing a ten-pillar cross-organizational multi-phase global change initiative, start with a small change footprint by introducing perhaps one or two simple changes within one team or group and see if the change meets the Toynbee test. If the change does satisfy the Toynbee test, expand the change footprint and keep it simple. One of the beneficial side effects of this strategy is that if a small change creates a positive result in a group or team, they are likely to support it openly of their own initiative, and their support will add credibility to and reinforce the change.

Simple and well-timed changes will have a much more meaningful and sustained effect on an organization than large-scale ones. Furthermore, simple changes give change managers a much wider berth to withdraw the change gracefully if it’s not working, which is a wonderful way to build credibility and trust by admitting that the change did not have the desired effect and retracting it before it causes irrespirable damage. If you find your organization at a place where massive and immediate change is necessary in order to survive, it’s likely you didn’t properly apply the Toynbee test. 

The Grandin Rule: Reduce Resistance By Allowing Buy-In

One of the most effective ways to reduce resistance to change is to allow people a pathway to buy into the change.
Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin

The second rule in the “Grandin rule,” named for the pioneering professor of animal science, Temple Grandin, who revolutionized the way cattle are handled. Grandin creates and implements systems of cattle handling that are designed to work with cattle’s natural instincts. Grandin’s systems have significantly reduced the injury, mortality, and stress that cattle experience during and after being handled. All things being equal, it follows that the human brain responds to change as a danger by default because of how the brain has evolved and adapted for the survival of the human species. While it may seem crude to compare humans to cattle, there are principles that apply to our behavior that are similar, that is, the stress response. For cattle, things like not being able to see at least two body lengths ahead and significant contrasts in color can cause them to balk, startle, and resist. For humans, ambiguity, complexity, and change can also cause a balking effect. However, there are ways to reduce this resistance.

Grandin reduced resistance from cattle by creating circular chutes and removing confusing visual stimuli, tapping into their natural instincts and encouraging them to go along with the process naturally. The same principle applies to humans. One of the most effective ways to create change that sticks is to reduce resistance by allowing people a pathway to buy into the process naturally. In Patrick Lencioni’s Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ model, he uses the technique of productive conflict as a pathway of buying in, based on the premise that once people have had their voices heard, they are likelier to accept an outcome, even if it’s not the one for which they advocated. Using productive conflict is a potent way to reduce resistance to change. However, its usefulness starts to diminish significantly when more than about eight people are involved in the conversation. When considering changes in a large organization, sometimes, the focus group method is used. But focus groups suffer from low participation when they’re voluntary and create us-and-them dynamics when people are appointed to them.

A novel way to get people to buy in is to introduce subtle and incremental changes over time and observe how people respond. Subtle and incremental changes allow people to buy into the change subconsciously because it's innocuous and doesn’t trigger stress and therefore the resistance response. I am not suggesting convert social engineering; I believe in being transparent about change. But it’s all in how you frame the change. First, it has to pass the smell test. I once worked at an organization where people were free to take an unpaid 30-minute lunch break and work eight and a half hours or forgo the lunch break and work eight hours. Most people worked while eating lunch at their desks and put in eight hours of work. Then, suddenly, a new rule was implemented that everyone had to take a 30-minute lunch break because apparently, a few people out of dozens had been taking 30-minute lunches but had not been working eight and a half hours. What ended up happening is that most people still worked through lunch, eating at their desks, and worked eight and a half hours while only getting paid for eight. Yes, it was a small change. However, it was petty and unnecessary. It did not pass the smell test and caused a lot of consternation among almost everyone. In short, don’t make stupid changes, and don’t punish everyone for the sins of a few.

When introducing small and incidental changes, help people to see what’s in it for them, and temper the language used to describe the change. Instead of “We’ve got some big changes coming that we’re sure you’re going to love!” pivot to a tone of humility by saying something like, “We’re going to give something a try, and we want to see how it works out. We’d like to know how you feel about it now and in the future.” If you’re careful to express that the change is experimental (all changes, in reality, are experimental) and that you’re willing to be wrong and open to feedback, it gives people a sense that there are off-ramps if the change didn’t have the intended effect, thus reducing their level of resistance. You allow yourself to save a lot of face and give yourself room to be wrong when you express that the change is a trial and open to feedback and reversal. When changes are presented with an air of infallibility under the guise of having been decided and designed by a committee of “omniscient strategists”, it results in resistance to the change and locks change agents into the change, making it very hard to back out, undo damage to people’s credibility, and rebuild trust if things go wrong. How freeing is it to know that the decisions don’t have to be infallible and that people don’t have to be omniscient strategists to be good change managers? Most importantly, being genuinely curious about what effect the change is having allows change managers to get out of the echo chamber of their heads and endows them with the knowledge that can inform more positive and meaningful changes.

Summary

When you operate from a paradigm that change is hard, you set yourself up for a complex approach to change that is going to result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, change is hard if you make it hard. However, in staying aware of the environment by listening to signals for when change is indeed necessary, change managers are better positioned to create change that is timely and responsive to the shifting challenges in the environment. By keeping change simple, change managers reduce the cognitive load on the PFC of those affected and increase the chances that change will stick. Lastly, when change managers give people a pathway to buy into the change with visible off-ramps and are genuinely open to feedback, they reduce resistance to change.

References

Cummings, T. G., & Worley, C. G. (2015). Organization Development & Change. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

Davis, F. C., Maital, N., Kim, M., Moran, J., & Whalen, P. J. (2015). Interpreting ambiguous social cues in unpredictable contexts. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 775-784.

Margaret Wehrenberg, P., & Prinz, M.D., S. (2007). The Anxious Brain: The Neurological Basis of Anxiety Disorders and How to Effectively Treat Them. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Megalomania: A Terminal Organizational Disease (P.S. You Might Be Infected)

The Hierarchy of Needs: Maslow's Seminal Contribution to the Social Sciences 

Even among people whose physiological needs remain unmet, the desire to become everything that they are capable of becoming can be present and strong. 
Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow introduced his seminal theory of human motivation in 1943, which is summarized in his hierarchy of needs. For the past 75 odd years, Maslow’s definition of human needs as they relate to motivation has had a significant influence on behavioral science. The hierarchy of needs also provides a theoretical framework for explaining everything from war to religion and continues to be a useful tool in helping individuals to understand better why certain behavioral manifestations occur in themselves and others. While Maslow’s model of human motivation may not be perfect (no model is) and has its detractors, it has been a pillar of the social sciences for almost a century and is academically on socio-behavioral terra firma. 

Hierarchy of needs

Hierarchy of needs

At the very top of Maslow’s hierarchy is the concept of “self-actualization.” Maslow defined self-actualization as "…the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming." The notion of becoming everything that one is capable of becoming can be activated in different ways for different people. Even among people whose physiological needs remain unmet, the desire to become everything that they are capable of becoming can be present and strong. 

Self-Actualization Through Megalomania

Over the course of my professional career...megalomaniacs in positions of authority have caused more damage to individuals and organizations than any other phenomena I have observed.

How a person imagines what he/she is capable of becoming (i.e., self-actualizing) is highly dependent upon his/her cultural values. Imagining becoming a warlord may be a culturally relevant aspiration in Afghanistan, whereas becoming the CEO of a fortune 500 company is a likelier aspiration in the U.S. Nevertheless, be it a warlord or a CEO, I submit that there is a relationship between self-actualization and the desire for authority. This phenomenon is not universal; not everyone aspires to authority to self-actualize, but many do. I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with aspiring to authority; it is how individuals exercise authority once they’ve gained it where the collision points start to occur when they develop megalomania—an obsession with power and authority over others.  

While we are not all predisposed to megalomania, I think many who wield authority come to a fork in the road—be it subconsciously or fully aware—regarding whether they are going to exercise their authority in a megalomaniacal manner or benevolently. And, unfortunately, for reasons I will discuss, many choose the former. 

Over the course of my professional career, which has spanned 16 years, megalomaniacs in positions of authority have caused more damage to individuals and organizations than any other phenomena I have observed. More specifically, it is the diabolical combination of incompetence in the ability to exercise authority and ambition to authority that has caused more consternation, low morale, and cynicism among people within organizations than any other thing I have observed. This state leads to high rates of turnover, which drains organizations of their most valuable asset: intellectual capital in the form of human beings.  

When I have asked (and I have asked many times) whether an individual in a position of authority considers him/herself to be a megalomaniac, the universal response has been “no.” Nevertheless, I have observed dozens of individuals within numerous organizations across several industries exhibit megalomaniacal tendencies and behaviors. Furthermore, these behaviors, in my observation, are independent of age, gender, religion, and race. And, ironically, megalomaniacal behavior, in fact, prevents people from self-actualizing as they become slaves to their obsessions with power, thus blocking their potential to become everything that they are capable of becoming. 

Because there is almost nothing that tastes so good to the brain as power in the form of authority—perhaps because it in some way speaks to all of the needs on Maslow’s hierarchy—it can be difficult for individuals to resist the temptation to maintain and expand their authority through megalomaniacal behaviors. 

Manifestations of Megalomaniacal Behavior

Even when people are fully aware of their behavior, they are likely to tell themselves a nice story that they are doing it for supposedly noble reasons...

We often equate megalomania with overtly aggressive and piggish behaviors. However, the most effective megalomaniacs are very subtle in their behaviors. Megalomania is significantly shaped by the culture of the organization in which an individual finds him/herself. Organizational norms set boundaries for what is considered acceptable, but leave plenty of room for unproductive megalomaniacal behavior. Like water that finds the path of least resistance, megalomaniacal behavior can be very passive if nevertheless every bit as corrosive

A primary driver of megalomania is a desire to maintain and expand existing authority. Passive megalomania often manifests as:

  • providing unwarranted negative feedback to subordinates
  • gaslighting—the highly calculating and passive-aggressive technique of manipulating someone into questioning his/her sanity
  • micromanaging
  • spreading rumors
  • sharing private information
  • making subtle jabs about performance or appearance
  • deliberate exclusion
  • keeping expectations intentionally ambiguous
  • cultivating cliques
  • public and private undeserved dressing-down
  • resistance to constructive feedback

These are all subtle but potent manifestations of megalomania when they are in the service of the authority figure maintaining his/her power. Even when people are fully aware of their behavior, they are likely to tell themselves a nice story that they are doing it for supposedly noble reasons, such as getting results out of people, meeting goals, making the company money, maintaining order and decorum, etc., when in reality all of these reasons are a convenient veneer for self-actualizing through the blind or fully-cognizant abuse of power. And it is this phenomenon—especially when coupled with incompetence—that is the cause of so many ailments that plague organizations as they are stymied by a kind of soft tyranny fueled by individuals’ obsession with and abuse of power as they attempt to self-actualize. 

Moving Beyond Megalomania as Self-Actualization

Succession to the thrones of power—and very especially among the middle ranks of organizational hierarchies—is frequently mistakenly based on tenure, loyalty, conscientiousness, and ambition.

As the Russians have so often asked themselves throughout their history using the semi-rhetorical question, “Что делать?”, (What is to be done?), What indeed is to be done about this pervasive and corrosive phenomenon of megalomania that seems to be built into the DNA of so many organizations?

The first thing is to disrupt the equation by removing the variable of incompetence. This notion presupposes that exercising authority requires some competence, which I submit it unequivocally does. Succession to the thrones of power—and very especially among the middle ranks of organizational hierarchies—is frequently mistakenly based on tenure, loyalty, conscientiousness, and ambition.

Because many national and regional cultures view climbing the ladder of authority to be of inherent value, this perpetuates the narrative that the ambition to authority is an inherently valuable form of self-actualization. After all, if your value increases as you rise up the ranks, you must be reaching your potential and becoming everything you are capable of. This drives loyalty, conscientiousness, and ambition, which organizations reward with increases in authority. If you've been loyal, conscientious, and ambitions, it stands to reason that your next natural step in the evolution of your career is to take on a role of “people management." This logic is flawed. Just because someone has mastered a discrete skill and is loyal, conscientious, and ambitious does not mean he/she is fit to oversee people. And yet, this is regularly the underlying premise of succession planning, without any thought to the discrete skills required to exercise authority. So, in reality, there are two problems. First, there is a cultural narrative that suggests taking on more authority is inherently self-actualizing. Second, there is a false equation that individuals with discrete skills in a given area of expertise plus loyalty, conscientiousness, ambition, and tenure equal competence to exercise authority over others in their own and related skill fields. 

The first problem (i.e., authority as a means of self-actualizing) is difficult to disrupt due to cultural conditioning. An additional variable that makes disrupting this paradigm all the more difficult is the fact that taking on more authority is accompanied by raises in pay, adding an extrinsic incentive. The first thing an organization can do is to start to decouple levels of authority from levels of compensation. Controversial? Very. I would never advocate reducing a person’s pay who is already in a position of authority and whose pay raise was linked to taking on that position of authority; that’s a recipe for revolt, if not lawsuits. At the same time, changing the compensation structure so that more authority does not equal more money will remove at least one variable that perpetuates cultures of megalomaniacal behavior among holders of authority who lack competence in holding and using authority. I can already hear the retort: “But if we don’t pay people more money to take on more authority, fewer people will step up.” If lack of more compensation is preventing people from taking on more authority, I suggest that warrants a hard look at what it means to take on more authority in your organization; it may look like the time-consuming and emotionally-draining task of tending to an aimless flock sheep, instead of the fulfilling activity to helping others be the best they can be. 

A strategy of removing a monetary incentive to take on authority could result in fewer aspirants. However, I would offer that many organizations suffer from a glut of “middle managers” anyway. Swelling ranks of middle management is a symptom of the development of bureaucracies within organizations, as middle managers are vested with authority to serve as the keepers of policies, procedures, systems, and structures to ensure conformity and uniformity within an organization based on “lessons learned” that have been codified. So, fewer people raising their hands for more authority can be leveraged to de-bureaucratize an organization. Furthermore, as I’ve argued in the past, the best way to ensure that people are both reaching their full potential and have the flexibility to innovate—an essential ingredient in sustainable organizational success—is by creating a culture of mentorship and coaching, and not people management. 

The second problem—i.e., the false equation that individuals with discrete skills in a given area of expertise plus loyalty, conscientiousness, and ambition equal competence to exercise authority over others—is easier to address. While the constructs of self-organizing teams and so-called leaderless organizations have been around for decades, it is not in wide use and not universally applicable. While leaderless organizations and self-organizing teams are an intriguing concept, I believe most organizations need not go this far and can be very successful and thrive in their productivity, profitability (if it’s a for-profit organization), collaboration, and innovation using more traditional organizational structures, meaning a cadre of individuals who have limited formal authority over others. But to do this without creating cultures that encourage megalomaniacal behavior, the variable of competence must be reckoned with. Skill in a discrete discipline plus loyalty, conscientiousness, ambition, and tenure form the foundation for excellent authority figures, like flour and sugar for the cake, but do not equal competence in exercising authority. On the other hand, all too often organizations experience the converse problem when they appoint individuals to positions of authority who know nothing of the skills of those whom they oversee. Neither of these scenarios is the right approach. 

Exercising authority requires the ability to make and develop intellectually, emotionally, and intuitively sound judgments and strategies, in addition to having an attitude of service, humility, and inclusivity in decision-making. Growing these capacities helps to close the incompetence gap. People need not be experts in these skills at first. But these skills must be their guiding compass, in place of a frame of mind that promotes megalomaniacal behaviors and self first. This framing requires forethought on the part of organizations to be more deliberate about succession planning through training and development that conditions individuals to frame authority as an opportunity to serve and not be served. And not everyone will want to take on these opportunities to serve in positions of authority or have the aptitude to do so. But that must not mean they are incapable of self-actualizing within or have lesser value to the organization.  

I realize I’m challenging a deep cultural narrative here about the relationship between the amount of authority a person has and his/her value. But if organizations are to move beyond cultures of megalomania and subsequent soft tyranny, with accompanying low levels of productivity, profitability, collaboration, and innovation, career progression must be decoupled from the accumulation of authority and individuals must be valued, even if their path of progression is that of a subject matter expert and not an authority figure.  

Summary

To keep your organization from suffering this terminal disease, prioritize mentoring and coaching over authoritarian watchdogs of bureaucracy, and ensure those who are given authority are operating with a properly calibrated compass, pointing to the true north of personal development of intellectual, emotional, and intuitive intelligence in order to humbly, wisely, and soundly serve others. 

Not everyone who has authority abuses it. But too many do because of a lack of competence in the form of intellectual, emotional, and intuitive intelligence and a desire to be served rather than serve. People’s ambition, tenure, loyalty, and conscientiousness are often rewarded with greater authority. When this occurs as a matter of routine without mechanisms in place to develop additionally required capacities—namely intellectual, emotional, and intuitive intelligence, and an attitude of humble service and inclusivity—the stage is set for a culture of soft tyranny with acceptable levels of megalomania within the organization. When a person operates in their authority with an inadequately calibrated compass in hand that points toward self as true north, then they are not prepared to take on authority over others. And if the organization continues to promote this type of person, it reinforces the perception that nasty behavior is the path to authority and self-actualization, thus guaranteeing a culture entrenched in megalomania. And this culture neither serves the long-term interests of internal and external organizational stakeholders, nor the individuals who exhibit these behaviors. It may take years, but if this is an organization’s culture around authority, it will eventually lead to such toxicity as to paralyze the organization’s ability to be productive, profitable, collaborative, and innovative.

To keep your organization from suffering this terminal disease, prioritize mentoring and coaching over authoritarian watchdogs of bureaucracy, and ensure those who are given authority are operating with a properly calibrated compass, pointing to the true north of personal development of intellectual, emotional, and intuitive intelligence in order to humbly, wisely, and soundly serve others. 

Much in the same way J. R. R. Tolkien examined humans' relationship to power vas-à-vis the One Ring, which tested all who touched it, each who comes into contact with the power of authority must reckon, on some level, with how that authority is going to influence and change him/her, and make a deliberate choice to use authority as a means to serve. And those who do will be pleasantly surprised at just how powerful service is in meeting the need to self-actualize. 

Mindfulness over Poverty: How to Unlock Latent Human Potential

The Mechanic's Son: Growing up Below the Poverty Line

My school had a distribution of students across the income spectrum, from the children of Donny Osmond, Stephen Covey, and stepchildren of Larry King, to students whose parents could not afford shoes to fit their rapidly growing feet. It was against this backdrop that I started to become aware of my family’s poverty.

I grew up in a household that was below the poverty line for the better part of my childhood and adolescence. From the age of about six, my family lived in small apartments or rented houses in mild to moderate states of disrepair. We only ever had one (usually) working car at a time, and it was always old and in a slow death spiral with one mechanical problem rearing its head as another had been fixed. For many years I slept on a mattress on the floor without a proper bed frame. And if my mother sent me to buy food at the grocery store, I often paid in actual paper food stamps.

I was not aware of my family’s poverty because I went to school with kids who were living in similar circumstances, and my family was not in deep poverty. We didn’t miss meals. We went to the doctor if we were sick. And I didn’t wear second-hand clothes or shoes. My father worked long hard hours in an auto body shop, and my homemaker mother kept whatever humble abode we happened to be living in clean and tidy. I offer this glimpse into my life, not to elicit pity but to provide context. And I am well aware that there are others who had and have it much worse than I did.   

I only became aware that I was in the minority of Americans living below the poverty line when I entered high school. The high school I attended was situated in a wealthy part of town. Up until then, I always walked to school. But I had to take the bus to high school because my poorer neighborhood was quite a distance from the hills where mansions were perched, amongst which my high school was situated. My school had a distribution of students across the income spectrum, from the children of Donny Osmond, Stephen Covey, and stepchildren of Larry King, to students whose parents could not afford shoes to fit their rapidly growing feet. It was against this backdrop that I started to become aware of my family’s poverty. I was probably in the tenth percentile when it came to household income among my high school peers. And while I tried to hide it, I felt ashamed to be on the poorer end of the spectrum. 

My Shame

Before asking me my address so his family could pick me up, [my friend] wanted to make sure I didn’t live on the south side of town because his mother didn’t want him to be hanging out with “those kids.”

I think the most shame-inducing experience I had in high school was when I befriended a young man in tenth grade. His family was wealthy. He invited me to go with his family to a college basketball game. Before asking me my address so his family could pick me up, he wanted to make sure I didn’t live on the south side of town because his mother didn’t want him to be hanging out with “those kids.” I did live on the south side, so I lied about my address. I intended to walk to a nicer neighborhood where I would wait for them to pick me up outside of a house that was not mine. But my timing was off. They went to the door of the address that I gave them, but no one answered (I gave them the address of a nice house where the occupants were rarely home because they were traveling the world). They waited for me outside the house. When I didn’t show, they started to drive around the area to see if they could find me thinking maybe they got the wrong address. They happened upon me just as I was walking up the street where my actual house was. They pulled over when they spotted me, and I got in their luxury car. My perplexed friend asked whether I lived on the street where they found walking me and I said “no,” but it was obvious I had been caught in a lie. To my great relief, no one in the car brought it up, but he and I didn’t spend any time together after that. 

Poverty & Crime

Poverty and crime are like comorbid diseases that pass from one generation to the next.

Even if I grew up in a poor household, my neighborhood was at least relatively safe. An occasional stolen bike was the worst that I can recall. For most people in poverty, especially deep poverty, their financial plight is coupled with domestic violence and other violent crime.

Poverty and crime are like comorbid diseases that pass from one generation to the next. Federal and local governments in the U.S. have always been fighting crime, even if there are plenty of debates to be had about how effective, legal or fair these crime-fighting tactics have been. Where poverty is concerned, the federal government started to put sweeping policy prescriptions into place with President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and, more specifically, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Since then, the U.S. Census Bureau has provided annual updates on the national poverty rate every September for the year prior. Between 1975 and 2015, the number of those living below the poverty line in the U.S. has been stable at between eleven and fifteen percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s almost half a century of a relatively steady poverty rate in the U.S. after a very sharp decline from twenty-three percent in 1960 to eleven percent in 1975. 

Where crime is concerned, according to the Pew Research Center, which follows the two official reporting streams on national crime rates—annual reports from the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics—the rate in the U.S. has been in rapid decline for the past twenty-five years. But these statistics on crime are muddied by the fact that if a crime is not reported it’s not recorded. There are some localities where crime is certainly higher than the official statistics indicate because lack of trust in law enforcement or norms of “no snitching” prevent crimes from being reported, thus skewing the data. So while crime has likely been in decline for about the past quarter century, rates of crime in the U.S. are probably higher than the official statistics indicate. 

Where the murder rate in the U.S. is concerned, according to a 2013 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, it has been steady since 1955 at rates between five and ten murders annually per 100,000 inhabitants. As of 2013, the United States was the 94th deadliest country in the world out of 219, with a rate of 4.88 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants annually, right next to Somalia and Kazakhstan. So while crime overall appears to be declining in the U.S., even if the statistics are dubious, the murder rate seems to be fairly steady between five and ten homicides per 100,000 inhabitants for the past 58 years. 

Two Worldviews on Dealing with Poverty and Crime

While I am agnostic, I tend to agree with Jesus that there will always be poor people. But Jesus didn’t say how many poor there would be, so we don’t have to rest on our laurels.

Taken together, the rates of homicide and poverty in the United States have been steady since 1975. Despite the murder and poverty rates remaining mostly constant for the past many decades, I still, fortunately, see signs that people have not become apathetic or indifferent to murder and poverty in the U.S.

My observation is that there are two dominant worldviews on these maladies. First, the “government-helping-hand” philosophy, which advocates for increasing wages for low-skilled laborers (i.e. the working poor—those who are likeliest to experience poverty but still be employed), improving the social safety net by prolonging and increasing unemployment benefits and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka food stamps) for those who find themselves under or unemployed, and providing additional services such as universal daycare, paid maternity leave, and subsidized or socialized healthcare. One rationale behind these policy measures is that the more support the state can provide people, the likelier they are to climb out of poverty, stay out of poverty, and abstain from crime. 

The other worldview is the “bootstraps” philosophy, which suggests people need to take personal accountability and be responsible for their lives by making choices that will prevent or overcome states of poverty and crime. This philosophy implies that almost everyone (except for perhaps the mentally or physically disabled) is capable of making choices commensurate with these desired outcomes. I believe that people who subscribe to the bootstraps philosophy have a higher tolerance for the existence of poverty and believe that there will always be some poor people regardless of what society or government do. After all, according to the Book of Matthew in the New Testament, Jesus is supposed to have said: “For ye have the poor always with you….” While I am agnostic, I tend to agree with Jesus that there will always be poor people. But Jesus didn’t say how many poor there would be, so we don’t have to rest on our laurels. 

I think that the government-helping-hand and bootstraps philosophies both have merits and limits. But with a steady rate of poverty for almost fifty years in the U.S. and accompanying rates of homicide, I believe it is time to examine the limits of both these two worldviews and take a leap forward in how we understand and seek to solve these issues. I would argue that both approaches fail to adequately address the paradigms of thought and subsequent behavior that accompany and perpetuate poverty and crime. Yes, you can offer government assistance, but that assistance is likely only going to help some people out of poverty and crime while creating dependents out of others. And yes there will be some individuals who manage to pull themselves out of poverty and crime, but many lack the ability to do so because of how poverty and crime into which they were born have mentally and behaviorally conditioned them. 

The Role of Agency

...we have to reckon with the fact that we do not all have the same aptitude to make choices that lead to our long-term welfare.

Some people use the term “agency” as if we are all equally endowed with the same aptitude to exercise it—agency being the ability to make choices. While I have no quibble with the notion that the vast majority of individuals have agency (excluding some with certain mental disabilities), we have to reckon with the fact that we do not all have the same aptitude to make choices that lead to our long-term welfare.

In my opinion, the primary barriers to making choices leading to long-term welfare are low levels of emotional intelligence and self-awareness. Neither sermons from the pulpit about taking personal responsibility nor speeches from the podium about government charity address these crucial constructs of emotional intelligence and self-awareness. And I submit that it is the cultivation of emotional intelligence and self-awareness—which open the aperture of agency for individuals to develop self-determination of behavior—that is the intellectual leap forward that we need to take as a society to further reduce both poverty and crime. 

Our Behavioral & Intellectual Evolution 

I believe we are at or nearing a place of intellectual evolution that accepts the notion that we are not all equally equipped with the same aptitude to exercise our agency, and that this aptitude is mostly a byproduct of environmental conditioning and perhaps some genetic predisposition.

There is no disputing that as a species, we evolve behaviorally. This fact was seared into my consciousness when I took a tour in 2012 of the Tower of London’s exhibition on torture that was carried out in the prison fortress centuries ago. I was in utter shock as the guide described the various torture devices to me, the cruelest of which was a large metal clamp that forced a person into a folded position similar to kneeling. The guide said that this rather innocuous looking device was the one that caused the most distress, as pain grew over time while the clamp was left on for hours or even days. This technique was only one of grotesque dozens used in medieval Europe. While torture of this type has not been eradicated from the earth entirely, it’s certainly no longer considered an acceptable or appropriate form of punishment in most societies.

The point is that the behavior of medieval torture practices is no longer acceptable, which suggests that we have evolved behaviorally. And I would argue that behavioral evolution is a byproduct of intellectual evolution. I believe we are at or nearing a place of intellectual evolution that accepts the notion that we are not all equally equipped with the same aptitude to exercise our agency, and that this aptitude is mostly a byproduct of environmental conditioning and perhaps some genetic predisposition. This level of understanding can open up the public discourse to paradigms of thought that transcend the government-helping-hand and bootstraps philosophies.  

The Intellectual Leap: Leveraging Our Intellectual Evolution for a New Approach

This leap in understanding reframes how we view additional approaches to dealing with poverty and crime—namely the advancement of emotional intelligence and self-awareness...

If a person is born into an environment where behaviors such as immediate gratification are displayed and reinforced, he/she is likely to mimic these behaviors, thus reducing his/her ability to disrupt the behavioral manifestations of base desires that do not serve long-term welfare. To say it another way, a person’s level of emotional intelligence and self-awareness is largely a byproduct of their environment and is correlated to their aptitude to exercise agency. Therefore, unless an environment that predisposes people to poverty and crime is disrupted before it can imprint on them, they are likely to display levels of aptitude for exercising agency consistent with their environmental conditioning. And while government assistance programs and people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps have helped many to overcome poverty and crime, the steady rates of poverty and crime for the past 40 plus years in the U.S. strongly suggest that there are still those who languish in those states despite government or personal efforts to pull out of it, indicating that benefit of those approaches has plateaued.  

Enter the intellectual leap. This leap in understanding reframes how we view additional approaches to dealing with poverty and crime—namely the advancement of emotional intelligence and self-awareness to increase individuals’ aptitude to exercise agency and disrupt behaviors that predispose people to and perpetuate poverty and crime by replacing them with behaviors that lead to their long-term welfare. 

The Bile of Cynicism: People Can Change

The most important event that happened to me in my life that convinced me people are capable of change is how I was able to change myself.

The notion that increasing people’s aptitude to exercise their agency for their long-term welfare hinges on the premise that people can change. As the child of an alcoholic father (who is the child of an alcoholic mother), I have had a very cynical view regarding people’s ability to change. This cynicism was further exacerbated by two years that I spent in post-Soviet Russia from 1999 to 2001. Russia is no stranger to alcoholism. The World Health Organization identified Russia as the fourth country in the world by consumption of alcohol per capita in 2015. 

In the late nineties, Russia was a sad and economically depressed place. During my years in Russia, I spent a lot of time working with individuals to help them overcome their addictions to alcohol, with no success. The blight of alcoholism on the country was omnipresent when I lived there, and I often helped drunk people who had passed out on streets or sidewalks to safer places. 

Park in Nizhny Novgorod

Park in Nizhny Novgorod

On one sweltering summer day in 2000 (yes, it does get hot in Russia) in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, a companion of mine and I happened upon a man passed out near the street. The slender but tall man (probably 6’5”) was so drunk that we had to bear almost all his weight on our shoulders as we tried to get him to an apartment complex toward which he was gesturing. We assumed the complex must be where he lived. As we were dragging him through a park with his arms draped around our necks, he suddenly convulsed and threw up on me and my companion, not once but twice. Now covered in toxic vodka vomit and bile, we decided that we had sunk enough cost into our endeavor that we were going to see it through. As we made the corner out of the park and up the street toward the apartment complex, I sprung a bloody nose (I commonly got bloody noses in my late teens and early twenties). As blood ran down my face, we put the drunk man down and leaned him against a tree. My companion rushed into a nearby shop to buy some face tissue while I held my nose and watched over the man. Just then a paddy wagon pulled up as the driver spotted the drunk man collapsed near the tree. As two police officers exited the vehicle and approached me, they asked what had happened. I tried to explain that my companion (who was still in the shop) and I were trying to get the drunk man home. They saw the blood on my face and asked whether he had hit me. I said no, but they didn’t appear to believe me. As my companion exited the shop with tissue for my nose, the police officers were hurling the drunk man into the back of their paddy wagon, but not before they had confiscated his wallet. 

There I stood covered in vodka vomit, bile, and blood with nothing to show for it. It was at that moment that I began to question why even bother trying to help the drunks. I was so overwrought with disgust that I completely gave up on the notion of trying to help people and was sure that no one could change. My father didn’t change, even when keeping his family depended on it, and I never saw one person in Russia in two years go from alcoholism to sobriety.

Almost two decades have passed since then and my cynicism about people’s ability to change slowly waned during that time and then eventually turned to optimism. The most important event that happened to me in my life that convinced me people are capable of change is how I was able to change myself. Having suffered agonizing bouts of anxiety and depression from age eighteen, I finally turned a corner with my mental health when I read a book called Hope and Help for Your Nerves by a now-deceased Australian physician, Dr. Claire Weekes. In her 1969 book, Dr. Weekes teaches the concept of acceptance. I practiced her explanation of acceptance for years, and it brought about significant positive change in my life. When I learned about the practice of mindfulness many years later, I realized that’s what I had been doing the entire time.  

Hope for Our Future: Mindfulness

Mindfulness is not a panacea. There will still be poverty, crime, illness, and suicide. But mindfulness is a bridge to a higher plane of understanding and existence. It is the leap to the next level of our intellectual evolution as a society.

It is against this backdrop of hope that I submit the single most important thing we can do for indigent children and parents, addicts, suffers from disease, criminals and all the like is to teach them the practice of mindfulness. Teach mindfulness in homes. Teach mindfulness in schools. Teach mindfulness in churches. Teach mindfulness at work. Teach mindfulness in prisons. Mindfulness—the ability to be in the present moment, developing an ear for what is going on internally emotionally and mentally, and accepting it without necessarily responding to it—is the surest path to the development of self-awareness and emotional intelligence. It is the practice of mindfulness that develops the aptitude to exercise agency that enables people to make choices in the service of their long-term welfare.

A path out of poverty and crime is a win-win for society. Think of all the latent human capacities that are frozen as individuals are unable to develop their unique skills and gifts for their personal benefit and the benefit of society as they languish in poverty. Think of the over 1.5 million people in prison in the U.S. whose skills and gifts have been squandered as they serve their time and the victims of their crimes. And how many of them will return to crime when they leave prison? Think of the people who aren’t in poverty or prison but suffer from stress-related illnesses that prevent them from working, compromise their ability to bring their full selves to work, and sometimes even lead to suicide. The development of emotional intelligence and self-awareness through the practice of mindfulness can unlock capacities for people to live more productive, healthier, more stable, and happier lives. 

Mindfulness is not a panacea. There will still be poverty, crime, illness, and suicide. But mindfulness is a bridge to a higher plane of understanding and existence. It is the leap to the next level of our intellectual evolution as a society. And it is already within each of us; it’s simply a matter of activating it. 

American society places a high premium on smarts and the intellectual quotient. The ability to think logically, reason, memorize knowledge, and connect disparate data points is of great value. But this type of intelligence does not have to displace or compete with the ability to develop an awareness of our emotions and thoughts, and acceptance-based response mechanisms that enable us to make wise choices so as not to be slaves to our egos, impulses, and unproductive learned behaviors that do not serve our long-term welfare or the long-term welfare of society. These unproductive behaviors can be disrupted by increasing our aptitude to use agency developed through increased emotional intelligence and self-awareness by practicing mindfulness. 

Even though the language around mindfulness is just starting to enter the American lexicon, it is not a fad any more than healthy eating or exercise were fads when notions around those practices began to enter the American cultural psyche. If anything, just like healthy eating and exercise, mindfulness will grow in relevance and scale. 

If you are a citizen, petition your government representatives to advocate for mindfulness programs in schools, prisons, and for the indigent so we can further alleviate poverty and crime. If you’re a parent, learn about mindfulness, practice it, and teach it to your children. And if you’re an employer, I submit that there is no better thing that you can do for your employees than to establish workplace mindfulness programs, even if you can’t readily or easily quantify a return on investment in advance. As a society, let us take collective action to advocate for mindfulness in public and private venues so that we may be healthy, wise, and well as a nation. 


 

How Work and Religion Are Connected: Changing Landscapes of the Western Workforce

The Christian Worldview

...Western society is so oriented toward the Christian worldview that its influence on our personal beliefs, values, and behaviors can often be invisible to us.

It is hard to overstate just how influential the Christian worldview has been in the Western world. Over two millennia since the real or imagined life of Jesus Christ, teachings of both the Old and New Testament influence Western ethics, morals, laws, gender expectations and status, relationships, civil behavior, participation in family and community life, and the understanding one has of his/her place in the universe. Even for those who eschew Christianity and the teachings of Christian scripture, Western society is so oriented toward the Christian worldview that its influence on our personal beliefs, values, and behaviors can often be invisible to us. And even when we are acutely aware of the influence the Christian worldview is having on us, its gravitational pull can be difficult to escape. 

I was reminded of one of the profound effects biblical teachings have had on the worldview of Westerners when I was at a get-together with an acquaintance recently. A group of us were discussing the role of work in life. My colleague remarked how her mother told her that “Work isn’t supposed to be enjoyable. It’s called work for a reason.” When my acquaintance mentioned this, it struck a chord deep within me, bringing up feelings about how work is a sacrament to God for eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden. 

Origins: Genesis 3:19

Whether you believe in this biblical account or not, the premise of work as penance is a belief that is deeply woven into the Western worldview.

According to the Bible, while in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve lived lives free of distress. Adam and Eve ate from trees that produced food: “And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food.” Furthermore, the couple lived in harmony with the “beasts of the field.” However, when Eve and then Adam ate of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Adam was rebuked and punished as recorded in Genesis 3:19: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” 

Whether you believe in this biblical account or not, the premise of work as penance is a belief that is deeply woven into the Western worldview. Genesis 3:19 establishes a paradigm in which men toil in life so that they can appease God for Adam’s sin and then return to the humble ashes from whence they came. While it may not always cause sweat as the scripture suggests, the notion that work is a penance for disobedience can be a powerful motivator for the devout who seek to gain God’s acceptance. As a punishment for Adam’s original sin passed from one generation to the next, it gave people a sense of purpose in their work, framed by a belief that work is payment for sin and not an activity from which one should glean pleasure, purpose, or meaning beyond satisfying God’s will. From a biblical point of view, purpose and meaning are about returning to God, not enjoying work on earth. But certainly countless people during the past millennia have found both enjoyment in their work while also fulfilling God’s penalty to work as a penance for eating of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, so I am not suggesting the two are mutually exclusive–I am suggesting that the origin of work laid out in Genesis 3:19 is a powerful cultural current in Western societies that has framed work as a toil. 

The Protestant Reformation

Whether it be penance for original sin, a sign of predestination, or both, the relationship between work and salvation has profoundly shaped how the West has viewed work.
"Martin Luther" by Lucas Cranach the Elder

"Martin Luther" by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Enter Martin Luther and his Ninety-five Theses in 1517. Martin Luther’s opposition to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church gave rise to Protestantism and shortly after that, Calvinism—a then-major branch of Protestantism. Calvinism taught predestination—a belief that God predetermined a person’s salvation. However, Calvinism also holds that it is not possible to know who is predestined to be saved and who is not. In its early days, practitioners of Calvinism saw a person's work ethic—how much he worked, how well he worked, and how dedicated he was to his work—as a manifestation that he was predestined for salvation. Work thus became not only a form of penance as a result of Adam's original sin but also a sign that God chose a person to be saved. This attitude toward work is broadly referred to as the Protestant or Christian work ethic. While The effects of the Protestant work ethic were predominant in Germanic-speaking countries (including the United States and the British Isles) from the 16th century on, the term Christian work ethic is more inclusive, as the reflects that the movement had effects on most of Christian Europe from the 16th century to the present day.

Whether it be penance for original sin, a sign of predestination, or both, the relationship between it and salvation has profoundly shaped how the West has viewed work. And even for those who are areligious, agnostic, or atheist, Western culture is so rooted in the relationship between Christian beliefs and work as to be inescapable. The Christian work ethic has been a pillar of American and much of European culture for 500 years and has been a driving force behind the wealth that capitalism has generated. I do not claim that capitalism is virtuous or wicked, or that the Christian work ethic has been a force for good or evil. But, in my opinion, there is no denying that both capitalism and the Christian work ethic have been and remain the most powerful, if sometimes invisible, force behind the paradigm that defines people’s relationship to work in Western societies, and has likely bled over to non-Christian cultures as well. 

"Peasants Harvesting Crops" by Pieter Brueghel

"Peasants Harvesting Crops" by Pieter Brueghel

As we mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, I believe we are in the midst of a significant paradigm shift in the relationship between people and work. This change will revolutionize how people relate to work forever. While the kinetic energy of the Calvinist and Adamic paradigm of work will stay in motion for some time, a cultural schism is occurring as fewer people identify with and believe in the underlying premise behind the Calvinist and Adamic paradigms of work—namely Christianity and the Bible as a literal account. 

A Tear in the Religious Fabric

While the 2014 Pew survey indicates a high rate of Americans who still identify with a faith group, this data point alone does not indicate devotion or religiosity.

According to a Gallup poll from May 2017, a record few Americans—24 percent—believe that the Bible is the literal word of God. Gallup’s poll reveals that the number of people who do not believe the Bible to be the literal word of God has doubled since 1984, from 12 to 24 percent. While this is just one data point, it suggests a moderate to rapid drop in religiosity—i.e. a strong belief in a system of faith or worship

In 2014, the Pew Research Center conducted a landmark study of religion in America. The foundational question on the survey has to do with belief in God. From 2007 to 2014, the number of people who were absolutely certain in their belief in God dropped eight points from 71 to 63 percent (see Figure 1). At the same time, the number of people who do not believe in God increased by four points from 5 to 9 percent. The survey results related to belief in God are cross-faith and not exclusive to Christianity. While there are disagreements within the religious community about what faith groups fall under the term “Christianity,” Pew included all Protestant denominations, Evangelicals, Catholics, Latter-day Saints, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Orthodox Christians. Just over 70 percent of Americans identified with one of those faiths. 

While the 2014 Pew survey indicates that a high percentage of Americans still identify with a faith group, this data point alone does not indicate devotion or religiosity. The Pew study, however, provides additional data points that indicate the direction the U.S. is going regarding its religiosity. For example, one key indicator of religiosity is the frequency with which individuals read scriptures. The baby boomer and Generation X cohorts in Pew’s study read scriptures at rates two to three times greater than Millennials (see Figure 2). Another indicator of a downward trend in religiosity is a decreasing belief in heaven. Seventeen percent of younger Millennials believe in heaven compared to Generation X and baby boomers who believe in heaven at rates of 28 and 32 percent respectively (see Figure 3). Pew also measured one of the most important indicators of religiosity—attendance at church services. Generation X and baby boomer cohorts attend church services at rates two to three times higher than Millennials (see Figure 4). Lastly, when asked about the importance of religion, the baby boomers and Generation X cohorts rated the importance of religion two to three times higher than Millennials (see Figure 5). Pew had similar findings regarding attendance at prayer services, the frequency of prayer, and a belief in hell. 

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 5

In sum, there is a significant difference in Millennials’ relationship to the Bible and the practice of religion than there is among Generation X and baby boomers. As a country founded by devout Christians—among whom were many Calvinists and Puritans—I maintain that the American cultural attitude toward work has been oriented around notions of predestination and penance for Adam's original sin. While these attitudes about work are not top of mind for people these days—as is the case with most cultural currents that guide our attitudes and behaviors—they have created a subconscious rationale for work being unpleasant, laborious, unenjoyable, and, perhaps most importantly, not a means of self-actualizing.

Millennials: The New Paradigm

...anecdotal observations and the data from Pew lead me to conclude that there is a stark divide between those who are less influenced by the connection between work and religion and those whose subconscious worldview has been influenced by attitudes about work that is founded in notions of predestination and penance.

Since Millennials began to enter the workforce in the early 2000s, members of Generation X and baby boomers have been their overseers. My anecdotal observations and the data from Pew lead me to conclude that there is a stark divide between those who are less influenced by the connection between work and religion and those whose subconscious worldview has been influenced by attitudes about work that is founded in notions of predestination and penance. I realize that these are broad and sweeping generalizations, but I’m talking about something that is broad and sweeping—Americans’ attitudes about work. Of course, there will be exceptions to these generalizations, but the anecdotal and empirical evidence data point to a paradigm shift occurring in attitudes about work among those who have entered the workforce since 2000, and perhaps even among those who’ve been in the workforce longer, as a younger generation influences their attitudes. 

If it is indeed true that there is a significant shift occurring in attitudes about work as religiosity in the West wanes, how will this manifest in the behaviors and expectations of employees? My observations point to three significant changes:

Self-actualization

People whose worldview is oriented around this new work paradigm will have little tolerance for work that doesn’t feed their need to make a difference and leave a legacy.

Whereas a person’s religion may have served as an outlet for self-actualization in the past, people will more and more see work as their medium for self-actualization. In other words, people will view work as a place where they can use their unique skills and gifts to make a difference in the world and leave a meaningful legacy. 

While work may not be the exclusive means of self-actualization for everyone, it will become a more significant means for most. What this means for employers is not so much that they need to create fun places to work (e.g. ping-pong tables, free snack bars, hammocks, etc.) but workplaces that are intellectually and emotionally stimulating. And perhaps even places that are spiritually inspiring (just because people are becoming less religious does not mean they are becoming less spiritual). Organizations also need to articulate and believe in a clear purpose beyond profit that allows people to see how they are contributing to the greater good of humanity. 

People whose worldview is oriented around this new work paradigm will have little tolerance for work that doesn't feed their need to make a difference and leave a legacy. This point of view is of particular importance when it comes to job assignments. The "you-jump-I-say-how-high" relationship between those giving orders and those receiving them is losing its relevance. First, people don’t want to feel like an appendage of their superiors’ means to satisfy personal agendas. Second, people want to know why they are doing what they’re being asked to do; they are not content simply being cogs in a mindless machine operated by a faceless bureaucracy. 

Skill Mastery

It is far more accurate to say that eventually everyone will have to be replaced and the organization will have to carry on than it is to say that everyone is replaceable.

Besides contributing to a greater good, perhaps one of the most satisfying things in a person's life is a feeling that he/she is a master of a skill or skills. Skill mastery is mutually-beneficial for organizations and individuals. For organizations, people who are skill-masters are an organization’s competitive advantage. The saying goes that everyone is replaceable. Where did this inane idea come from? Sometimes people need to be replaced for any number of reasons. But someone who is a master of his/her skills is truly irreplaceable. If it is indeed a fact that each person has a unique combination of gifts and skills (and I believe this is true), then this unique combination by definition cannot be replaced. It is far more accurate to say that eventually everyone will have to be replaced and the organization will have to carry on than it is to say that everyone is replaceable. For the organization, this means developing an attitude of appreciation and gratitude for the unique gifts and skills people bring to work. If an organization’s underlying belief is that everyone is replaceable with little or no loss to the organization, this will manifest in behaviors toward employees that reinforce the notion that they are cogs in a machine and not that they are individuals with a unique set of skills and gifts that they are voluntarily sharing with the organization.  

When an organization is oriented around developing and appreciating the mastery of unique skills and gifts people bring into the workplace, this should manifest as a complete rethinking of the superior-subordinate paradigm that exists in the vast majority of organizational structures. Rather than people having bosses, managers, superiors, supervisors, etc., they need coaches and mentors. The objective of coaches and mentors is to see and bring out the best in people and to help them become skill-masters. Even if someone enters an organization with a high degree of skill, having a coach or mentor is necessary to help the newcomer become oriented to the organizational culture and understand how to apply his/her skills with the greatest effect

The superior-subordinate construct is a hold-over paradigm from a time when labor required a more command-and-control structure in hierarchical organizations as a means to maintain order and efficiency. As we march forward into the 21st century, creativity, innovation, productivity, and collaboration take precedence over order and efficiency and those organizations that resist this change will lose their competitive edge. People are going to enter the workforce and push back against systems, structures, policies, and procedures that are designed to maintain order and efficiency, which are baser constructs than creativity, innovation, productivity, and collaboration. Simply put, we have intellectually evolved beyond the constructs of order and efficiency. 

There are two additional benefits of changing the superior-subordinate relationship. First, relieving people of the time-consuming burden of managing people allows them to use and develop their unique skills and gifts instead of those gifts and skills atrophying as they write employee reviews, attend management meetings, and attempt to maintain order and execute top-down directives in their positions as superiors. The other benefit of developing skill-masters and doing away with an overabundance of middle-managers is that it reduces and can even eliminate the toxic culture of competing agendas and politics in an organization. There is almost nothing that tastes better to the human brain than power. As individuals are placed into positions of authority, it can become intoxicating, and the power they wield becomes their means of self-actualization. People who are self-actualizing by exercising authority over others are going to have personal agendas that will inevitably conflict with peers’ and superiors’ agendas, causing them to maneuver and politic, which will create points of friction that prevent innovation, productivity, and collaboration from taking place in the organization. Therefore, keeping the number low of individuals whose sole job is to exercise authority over others is key to developing a culture where people obtain satisfaction from bringing the best out in each other through mentoring and coaching. 

Autonomy

Autonomy does not mean people don’t work with others or aren’t incorporated into the organization; it means that they are given space to execute their work by the dictates of their own conscience and not the arbitrary agendas of myriad overseers.

One thing people are craving more and more in the workplace is autonomy. Having autonomy may seem to conflict with a coaching-and-mentoring culture, but the two are not mutually exclusive. First, autonomy is not isolation. Individuals working in isolation is unhealthy for the organization and the individuals. It prevents collegiality, collaboration, and cooperation. Those who seek isolation are likely doing so either because they feel sidelined by the organization or because they are suffering from social anxiety. Either way, people seek isolation as a means of self-protection, and it is important to understand what they are trying to protect themselves from so it can be resolved.

Autonomy does not mean people don’t work with others or aren’t incorporated into the organization; it means that they are given space to execute their work by the dictates of their own conscience and not the arbitrary agendas of myriad overseers. As people are developed and coached so that their skills are honed and they integrate into an organization’s culture, coaches and mentors can remain present but step back to give people space to fail, succeed, and learn on their own. The more that people are given the freedom to work by the dictates of their own conscience, the more intrinsically motivated they will be as they are answering first and foremost to themselves (intrinsic) and not others (extrinsic). Of course, if someone abuses his/her autonomy, he/she first needs more coaching and mentoring. And if the problem persists, he/she may need to be let go.

Summary: The New Dawn 

...it may not be so much that we are genetically predisposed as Homo sapiens to the worship of deity, but that we are predisposed to seek meaning in life.

I am not arguing that religion is going away, and I do not mean to cast aspersions on the religious. I am only looking at the data and the anecdotal evidence before me. Religion usually has taken the form of worshiping and honoring invisible deities through beliefs, rituals, and practices as a means to connect with something bigger than ourselves. We may be genetically predisposed to this as Homo sapiens. What I am suggesting is that as the human race evolves intellectually, people will increasingly seek to find meaning outside of religion, especially in Western societies that are predominantly Christian where belief in God, the Bible as a literal account, the reading of scripture, prayer, and the attendance at church services are all declining among younger generations. In fact, it may not be so much that we are genetically predisposed as Homo sapiens to the worship of deity, but that we are predisposed to seek meaning in life. And I submit that people will use their work more and more as a way to find that meaning and connect with something bigger than themselves, rather than as penance for the original sin or a sign of Calvinist predestination. On the one hand, this will require a complete paradigm shift in the employer-employee relationship. On the other hand, it has the potential to result in work being an exalted part of life where people do not miserably clock in and out but achieve self-actualization by bringing their whole selves to work to create the greatest advancements in humankind that will radically transform how we live our lives for the better. 
 

Creative Self-Destruction: The Organizational Fountain of Youth

Fountain of Youth, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1546

Fountain of Youth, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1546

The Age of Consumerism

Sears revolutionized the way rural Americans shopped by significantly increasing the number of products available to them and at lower prices. Sears maintained an extensive mail order catalog for over 100 years.

When I was in my early teens, my mother took a job working at a call center for the Sears catalog taking mail orders. The year was 1993. During the time my mother worked for Sears, their catalog continued to get smaller and smaller each year until there was no longer a need for the call center. I remember well the day my mother lost her job when they shut down the call center as a result of scaling back the catalog due to decreased sales. 

Excerpt from a Sears catalog

Excerpt from a Sears catalog

Sears did not invent the mail order catalog. However, Sears took the novel idea and tweaked it by targeting underserved rural populations of Americans who had disposable income in the late 19th century. Before the Sears catalog, Americans living in rural areas shopped at general stores, where there were little variety and higher prices. Sears revolutionized the way rural Americans shopped by significantly increasing the number of products available to them and at lower prices. Sears maintained an extensive mail order catalog for over 100 years (at its peak, the catalog contained over 700 pages of goods). In addition to their mail order catalog, Sears also began operating department stores in the early 20th century. Sears did not invent the department store, but executed the concept with great success, even introducing their own lines of high-quality and well-respected brands, such as Kenmore and Craftsman. With its catalog and departments stores, Sears was a major force in the retail industry for nearly a century, going so far as to even offer kit-houses in their catalogs in its early days. At its peak and as a sign of its dominance over the retail sector in America, Sears was headquartered out of the then-tallest building in the world—Sears Tower—in downtown Chicago (the name of the building has since been changed to Willis Tower.)

Willis Tower

Willis Tower

The story of Sears is both a cautionary and instructive tale. On the one hand, while Sears did not invent the mail order catalog or the department store, the company managed to dominate in both areas. On the other hand, when disruption occurred with the advent of online shopping in the Digital Age, Sears failed to adapt and has been in decline ever since. The saga of Sears teaches that you don’t have to be the innovator to take advantage of the innovation; many innovators fail to turn their ideas into successful businesses. The BBC’s Jonathan Glancey points to Harding, Howell & Co’s as the first department store. Ever shopped at a Harding, Howell & Co’s? I didn’t think so–the store went under in 1820. Forbes’ Kelly Phillips Erb cites Montgomery Ward as the first mail order catalog, which debuted in 1872. The Sears mail order catalog didn’t make its first appearance until 16 years later in 1888. But when the Sears catalog did come out, it quickly became the leader in the industry. The bottom-line moral of the Sears story is that being the innovator is not a predictor of business success, but if you fail to respond to disruptions in the marketplace, maintaining the status quo can lead to irreversible decline. 

Bureaucracy: Challenge and Response

There are almost always human keepers of...bureaucracies who protect them and have a vested interest in making sure they remain fixed
Arnold Toynbee

Arnold Toynbee

So why is it that Sears was able to successfully adopt innovations in retail with a mail order catalog and department stores, but was unable to respond to changes in retail brought about by the Digital Age? The answer is surprisingly simple: bureaucracy. The renowned British historian, Arnold Toynbee, said that all of human history could be summed up in one phrase: challenge-and-response. Whenever a person, organization, community, country or the world face a challenge, a response to the challenge is sought until one is found that meets it. Once the response is identified, it is usually codified. This codification provides stability and manifests as systems, structures, policies, and procedures (i.e. bureaucracy). There are almost always human keepers of these bureaucracies who protect them and have a vested interest in making sure they remain fixed. There is value in codifying effective responses to challenges so that lessons don’t have to constantly be re-learned. Being passed from one generation to the next, these codified responses represent growth and development in our collective knowledge, and protecting them is important. But when the dynamics of the challenge change, there is a gap period that occurs during which the old response is tried and fails until a new response is discovered. This gap period can have devastating consequences.

Guerrilla Warfare

The British approach to warfare could not withstand the American revolutionaries’ new response— guerrilla tactics—leading to the birth of a nation.
The Battle of Bunker Hill, by Howard Pyle, 1897

The Battle of Bunker Hill, by Howard Pyle, 1897

A good example of a codified response used during a gap period was how the British fought during the American Revolution. The style of combat the British used against the American rebels had worked very well in the past. Even as ragtag American revolutionaries were humiliating the British military, the British empire was still the largest and most powerful in the world at the time—a sign that its military tactics had been successful. While there were multiple factors that contributed to the British defeat in the Revolutionary War, one of the significant reasons was the British military’s inability to respond to the guerrilla warfare tactics that the American insurgents were using. Centuries of successful British military campaigns created a highly codified approach to warfare. The British approach to warfare could not withstand the American revolutionaries’ new response— guerrilla tactics—leading to the birth of a nation. To be sure, American separatists were not the first to use guerrilla warfare tactics. However, the British military had not adapted its response to meet the challenge of guerrilla warfare, thus the gap. 

Sears in the Digital Age

...if the challenge changes and your response doesn’t, the new challenge will eventually defeat you.

While Sears’ inability to adapt to the Digital Age didn’t have the life-and-death consequences of the American Revolutionary War, the underlying premise is the same: if the challenge changes and your response doesn’t, the new challenge will eventually defeat you. In the early days of its existence, Sears adopted responses to changes in the marketplace and did so with great success. For decades, the consumer market didn’t change much, except for new competitors and products. During those decades, Sears created formal and informal systems, structures, policies, and procedures to ensure they were responding to the challenge of consumer behavior at the time. By the time the Digital Age arrived, these systems, structures, policies, and procedures acted like a monkey trap (i.e. a device with a hole small enough for the monkey to fit its hand in with an object of desire in side [food] that is too big to escape the hole and which the monkey refuses to release, thus trapping it). 

Holding on to the Banana

...bureaucracies act first like shelters and then like prisons, as they are built up over time to protect personal and institutional interests.

I’m confident that there were senior leaders at Sears who wanted to revolutionize their business model by seizing on the advent of e-commerce, but the organization simply could not let go of the banana. The organization would rather die than adapt, like the monkey that gets caught in the trap instead of simply letting go of the banana. The paradox is that the bureaucratic institutions put in place have value to a point, which justifies their existence. However, they only serve the institution until they don’t anymore, at which point so many people have been put into place to protect the bureaucracy and have a vested interest in maintaining it that it is difficult to successfully challenge and change the systems, structures, policies and procedures that make up the bureaucracy. 

In many (perhaps most) cases, individuals are not aware that they are protecting a bureaucracy that is leading to the institution’s demise; they are simply following the rules, ensuring that others follow the rules, and providing rewards for those who conform while punishing those who don’t. In other words, keepers are usually well-intentioned. Good intentions notwithstanding, these bureaucracies act first like shelters and then like prisons, as they are built up over time to protect personal and institutional interests. These prisons trap their hostages as they eventually become inescapable and collapse, resulting in the death not only of the bureaucracy but the organization to which it was attached. 

I will tell you that I have spent a lot of time in organizations that are highly bureaucratic, but that want to innovate, so they pay lip service to innovation and even sometimes establish special organizations that are meant to innovate with the intent that those innovations will be cycled back into the larger organization. I’ve only ever seen this done with token successes that don’t fundamentally influence how the larger organization responds to challenges. The vested interests in maintaining the status quo—especially in large and successful organizations—has an inertia that almost always prevents changes in response to challenges. 

Innovation as Novelty at the Edges

...bureaucracy at Sears allowed for incremental innovation...However, when revolutions occur that fundamentally change the challenge, novelty at the edges will not provide a sufficient response to that challenge.

At this point, some readers may be wondering, “Companies come up with innovate products and ways of doing business all the time.” That’s true. The technology for cars, for example, is constantly changing to the point where they can all but drive themselves these days. This is a type of innovation called “novelty at the edges.” In other words, this is innovation that builds on itself. Some of these innovations will be useful while others will not, but large organizations have wide margins for error that allow for occasional failure. Regarding the products and services an organization offers and the means by which it offers them, the organization should always be open-minded about embracing this type of novelty at the edges. And almost all successful organizations do. For example, the bureaucracy at Sears allowed for incremental innovation in that a Kenmore washing machine built in 1980 is very different from a more advanced one built in 2017. However, when revolutions occur that fundamentally change the challenge (be those changes brought about by industry, consumer behavior, or both), novelty at the edges will not provide a sufficient response to that challenge. Revolutionary changes require revolutionary innovation. The revolution that occurred which allowed Sears to successfully respond to changes in consumerism with a mail order catalog and later departments stores was due to the growth in the middle class and the increase in discretionary income among Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But then came the revolution of the Digital Age, which brought with it a whole new way to shop—online. And just as Sears was able to enter the new era of consumerism in the late 19th century, Amazon has been able to respond to Digital-Age consumerism. In fact, both Sears and Amazon are not so much examples of organizations that adapted to a new challenge as much as they are examples of organizations that came about as a result of changing dynamics in consumer behavior, and then reinforced that behavior with their business models. 

An Antidote?

...if you’re content being an extremely successful organization for decades, all the while building a dam that protects you but will eventually cut off your water supply, then, by all means, codify your systems, structures, policies, and procedures, and put people in place to guard these bureaucracies at all cost.

So is there an antidote to this organizational paralysis by bureaucracy? It depends. By all accounts, the way Sears responded to the market served it well for decades. It could be argued that if Sears preemptively acted by moving to an e-commerce model, it could have spelled the retailer’s demise if the timing was off. As a large multinational corporation, there was simply too much at stake for Sears to throw caution to the wind by radically changing its business model. I think that’s a fair argument to make. So, if you’re content being an extremely successful organization for decades, all the while building a dam that protects you but will eventually cut off your water supply, then, by all means, codify your systems, structures, policies, and procedures, and put people in place to guard these bureaucracies at all cost. Alternatively, your organization can live in a perpetual state of evolution by innovation. But there are risks associated with this as well. Innovation can be expensive because there’s often a high rate of failure. And what happens when you do find something that answers the challenge? Are you going to stick with it and protect it or are you going to risk it being deprived of oxygen by continuing to over-innovate? 

Height Advantage and Wave Theory 

Creative self-destruction is a form of operating in such a way that an organization is prepared to radically change its products and services or the way it delivers its products and services so that it is not only riding the current challenge wave but is prepared to use its height advantage at the peak of the challenge wave to leap to another challenge wave.

So organizations face a dilemma. On the one hand, there is some value in codifying responses and creating bureaucracies, while on the other hand bureaucracy prevents organizations from making revolutionary innovations in response to significant new challenges. Conventional wisdom suggests that companies are born out of successfully meeting a challenge, reach maturity, and eventually fall into decline and die. When an organization can no longer survive due to a lack of revolutionary innovation in response to new challenges, this is a form of creative destruction, which is considered a given in capitalism. This creative destruction leaves devastation in its wake, with employees losing their jobs and investors losing money (unless you were smart enough to short the stock). However, there is an alternative: creative self-destruction. Creative self-destruction is a form of operating in such a way that an organization is prepared to radically change its products and services or the way it delivers its products and services so that it is not only riding the current challenge wave but is prepared to use its height advantage at the peak of the challenge wave to leap to another challenge wave. If the organization waits too long, the wave it’s riding will shrink, and it will lose its height advantage and be unable to make the leap. By the same token, if the organization jumps too quickly, it will fall short of the coming wave and risks being overtaken by it. This method of doing business attempts to avoid gap periods when a new challenge is emerging by staying with or ahead of it. But this is much easier said than done. As I’ve noted, the paradox of bureaucracy is that it has value in that it provides a stable response posture to the present challenge, but also resists change, because change threatens the keepers of bureaucracy and shines a light on their intransigence. 

To be sure, the dynamics of how challenges change vary from industry to industry, and some companies may be able to remain in business for centuries before a new challenge emerges that requires a different response. On the other end of the spectrum are companies that are operating in a space where the challenges are almost always changing. I would argue that Apple is in the latter category and is a possible candidate example of a company that has a culture of creative self-destruction. From a distance, it appears to me that Apple is preparing to jump from the wave of how consumers currently use electronic devices to a wave in which the way people use their devices will constitute a revolution, thus presenting a new challenge, which Apple may be anticipating by readying itself for a leap. 

The Fountain of Youth

Fountain of Youth, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1546

Fountain of Youth, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1546

Minimum Viable Systems, Structures, Policies, and Procedures

For an organization to be a leap organization, it must have minimum viable systems, structures, policies, and procedures; the organization must be minimalist in terms of bureaucracy.

So what does it take for an organization to position itself such that it can ride wave after wave of revolutions in challenges without falling into the gaps (i.e. a leap organization)? The first practice has to do with minimum viability. Many people have become enamored of the idea of minimum viable products, and Apple itself has been a poster child for minimum viable products. For an organization to be a leap organization, it must have minimum viable systems, structures, policies, and procedures; the organization must be minimalist in terms of bureaucracy. This means fewer systems, structure, policies, and procedures, and especially fewer people who have a vested interest in maintaining the bureaucracy and whose value to the organization is wholly dependent on the maintenance of the bureaucracy (i.e. the management cadre). 

Flat Organizations: Serendipity & Spontaneity

Because the complexity of skills people now possess are so deep, innovation often occurs when two or more people collaborate cross-functionally in mutually-beneficial ways...

Second, organizations must be as flat as possible. Hierarchy complicates communication and disrupts two of the most important precursors to innovation: serendipity and spontaneity. Because the complexity of skills people now possess are so deep, innovation often occurs when two or more people collaborate cross-functionally in mutually-beneficial ways, which will happen serendipitously if there is not a management cadre or bureaucracy whose existence is predicated upon maintaining the status quo and quashing any change that threatens it. I do not mean to suggest that there should be no predictability or stability in an organization; it’s alright for there to be a tension between predictability and stability and serendipitous innovation. The key to overcoming this is to ensure that not a single person has a job in an organization with the sole purpose of maintaining the codified response mechanisms of systems, structures, policies, and procedures. The fewer people there are whose livelihood depends on the status quo being maintained, the less likely they are to prevent or sabotage cross-functional and serendipitous innovation, because such innovation is, by definition, a threat to the status quo. 

Third, spontaneity is crucial to innovation because it allows people to maximize the energy that comes from their unpredictable “ah-ha” moments. I can’t imagine a more detrimental practice to innovation than trying to control the unpredictability of innovation by having and “innovation-by-fiat” culture; fiat and innovation are antithetical. Because innovation is often accompanied by a high rate of failure, embrace that failure and reframe it as success (i.e. “This idea didn’t work, and that’s a success because now we can cross it off the list of possibilities.”). 

The Futurists

Futurists often sound like skeptical pessimists because they are peering into the future and are intuiting an incongruence...

Lastly, value the futurists in your organizations. Futurists often sound like skeptical pessimists because they are peering into the future and are intuiting an incongruence among how an organization is currently responding to a challenge, how that challenge will change, and how the organization is not yet prepared to meet the foreseen challenges. While I agree that the constant foreboding prophecies of futurists can be demoralizing, helping them to reframe their mindset away from what’s not being done toward what is possible by spreading the word using encouraging and positive language, can go a long way to getting tremendous value out of these rare individuals without sacrificing morale.  

Conclusion

...through creative self-destruction we can develop leap-organizations that can ride one wave of challenges and leap to the next without falling into the gap and being swallowed.

Many of today’s organizational leaders—especially in business—have a sense that their codified responses to 20th-century challenges are going to be insufficient for 21st-century challenges, and we’re already seeing the early evidence of organizations that are being swallowed by these new challenges. In response, many executives pay lip service to revolutionary innovation and sometimes even go so far as to establish semi-autonomous organizations with the charge to innovate. The problem with these pseudo-independent innovation organizations is that often their revolutionary innovations—which would help an organization become a leap organization—are not refactored into the mother organization, due to all of the above-mentioned dynamics that create organizational cultures resistant to change. A CEO’s or President’s will, desire, and directives alone are insufficient to overcome the deeply embedded systems, structures, policies, and procedures that prevent revolutionary innovation within organizations. Most organizations will be unable to change their responses to new challenges that come from significant shifts in how people behave, and they will fall victim to creative destruction. However, I believe that through creative self-destruction, we can develop leap-organizations that can ride one wave of challenges and leap to the next without falling into the gap and being swallowed. And I believe this can be done by developing cultures that create space for and are not resistant to timely revolutionary innovation.  
 

Simplifying the Constructs of Communication: The Color-Code Method

A Debatable Bad Habit

Because of the positive reinforcement I had received for many years...I developed a bad habit of using an aggressive communication style and could not see alternative approaches.

From my early 20s on, I found kindred spirits in those who enjoyyed sparring with words. I don’t mean rage-filled confrontations of screaming and yelling; I mean lively debates about things such as politics, philosophy, religion, etc. I would often find myself even playing devil’s advocate so I could try on others’ points of view. I frequently had these debates with some of my best friends, sure to divorce the discourse from emotion so as not to hurt one another’s feelings. Not everyone enjoys this type of verbal sport. And these battles of intellect can become even more unpalatable for some when they turn acrimonious.

As I began my professional career in the early 2000s, I often used my debating skills to outmaneuver unwitting opponents at work, sometimes with success and sometimes without, but never with serious consequences. However, several years ago, I attempted to strike up a debate during a meeting with my then-superior among his subordinates. The topic at hand was the revamped mission of our 20-person division, about which I had some concerns. The leadership never sought the division members’ opinions on the new mission direction, so we hadn’t had a chance to weigh in. Because my supervisor and I had a friendly relationship, I jumped to the conclusion that I could air my concerns in the open, have a full-throated debate with him, and perhaps resolve my worries by modifying the division’s mission through my will, intellect, and persistence. In hindsight, for me to presuppose such an outcome was foolish. I began to verbally jab my supervisor as a subtle invitation to debate, but he quickly became very defensive, resistant, and moved on to another topic. In that moment, I took his reluctance to debate the issue as a sign that he was simply unprepared to defend the mission.

My unsuccessful attempt to draw my superior into a debate and his obvious discomfort and resistance made me appear aggressive and intimidating to some of my colleagues. The matter of the division’s mission was never brought up in the group again, and I can’t help but think that it was due in part to the fear that I would try to stir the pot anew were it to be brought up. The sad fact is that there were flaws in the mission and the division never had a chance to have a productive dialogue around the issue, thus making it the elephant in the room every time we met. In short, questions and concerns about the division’s mission were left dangling and unresolved, leaving much confusion and consternation in its wake.

With some distance from this event, it is now easy for me to see how wrongheaded my approach was. Before this incident, I had been tacitly rewarded at work for such aggressive behavior, and it became my default mode of communication when dealing with conflict and when stakes were high. Because of the positive reinforcement I had received for many years before the fateful meeting with my supervisor and our division, I developed a bad habit of using an aggressive communication style and could not see alternative approaches.

While there are a time and place for aggressiveness and debate, I became so used to that style of communication that when the time came for a more mature approach to discussing our division’s mission with my supervisor, I didn’t know how else to proceed. The lesson I learned from this experience is that when selecting a mode of communication, it's critical to always have the end in mind and let that guide your communication. Do you want to win a debate and be perceived as the smartest person in the room, or do you want to reach a level of understanding and clarity in the service of everyone involved?

Reaching Higher: Your Internal Voice and Internal Listening

The ability to hear your emotional signals and make a choice about how you respond to your internal voice is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence.

Taking a step back and accepting and end that is in the service of reaching a higher plane of understanding requires that you develop your internal listening. Most people have well-developed internal voices but often move to actions based upon their internal voices without giving their internal listening a chance to hear and process what they're saying to themselves. The ability to hear your emotional signals and make a choice about how you respond to your internal voice is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. This skill is crucial to becoming a productive communicator because being honest with yourself about what your internal voice is saying and not being a slave to it means having developed a frame of mind in which you can recognize the limits of your knowledge and seek an understanding that transcends your self-interests and current level of comprehension.

In the case of challenging my supervisor over the mission of our division amidst his subordinates, while there may have been a modicum of wanting to achieve a higher understanding in the service of everyone, my real motivation was to feed my very hungry ego, which led to a debate mode of communication. I wanted to display intellectual superiority more than I wanted for the group to gain a greater understanding. And in doing so, I damaged my reputation by coming off as a bully and compromised my supervisor’s authority. Ultimately, because of my actions, the greater understanding that the group obtained was that I was a troublemaker. In the past, I had been a useful troublemaker and rewarded for it. But as a newcomer to this division, my trouble making ways were unexpected and unproductive. To be sure, the leadership did make mistakes in rolling out their new mission, both regarding the substance of the mission and in their approach to developing the mission. I knew this was the case, and frankly, I was looking for an opportunity to make a point and "speak truth to power". But my efforts were counterproductive and self-serving. Speaking truth to power and being self-righteous are not the same thing

Modes of Communication

The ability to be in tune with what your internal voice is telling you together with developed internal listening gives you insight into your motives and can disrupt unproductive behavior.

There are many modes of communication, and people usually shift among them without much thought. These modes of communication run along a continuum. Many factors influence your preferred mode of communication and much of it based on Jungian theories of human behavior, including introversion or extroversion, the desire to reach closure or the desire to keep things open-ended, and whether you approach things more from a thinking or feeling point of view. Under normal circumstances, you tend to select the mode of least resistance on the continuum of communication, based upon your personality type.

Many people often don’t give much thought to where they are on the continuum when they're communicating, because they have not developed their internal listening and do not have a productive end in mind. The ability to be in tune with what your internal voice is telling you together with developed internal listening gives you insight into your motives and can disrupt unproductive behavior. This is a form of mindfulness (i.e. the ability to accept what is happening in the moment without being a slave to it). This lack of mindfulness as it relates to communication is, in my opinion, the leading cause of dysfunction within organizations. Lack of communication, unproductive communication, and disruptive communication all contribute to an organizational culture of confusion, frustration, and disengagement.

Organizations are highly dynamic constructs. For organizations to operate productively and do so in a sustained way, there must be a culture of communication that is predicated upon individuals being mindful about the ends and mode of communication.

The Color-Code Method of Communication

There are many books written on the topic of communication, days-long workshops on the topic, and in-house training seminars that teach productive communication. People even hire personal coaches to help them improve their communication. I am in favor of all of the above, with one caveat. Sometimes techniques for productive communication are presented on a scale of magnitude that leaves one wondering whether achieving productive communication is even doable. I know I have often felt this way after reading books and attending training and seminars on the topic. How could I possibly remember everything explained about communication in this or that 300-page book or after 40 odd hours of workshops and training? The fact is no one is ever going to be 100 percent productive at communicating 100 percent of the time. With the goal of helping to simplify the concept of productive communication, I’ve developed a construct that is aimed at simplifying things by using a color-based shorthand of green, yellow, and red on a continuum of communication.

NOTE: I have deliberately chosen to use the phrase "productive communication" over the more common phrase "effective communication" because the former simply means that the communication in question achieved the desired effect–which may or may not be of value–whereas the latter indicates that the communication has produced something that adds value. 

Green: Green communication is low-stakes and includes everything from friendly chitchat with strangers to conversations with friends and family about issues of relative unimportance. Green communication is critical to building rapport with others, getting to know people, finding out basic information, catching up with loved ones, and passing along necessary data. Green communication is where most people spend the preponderance of their time. While green conversations can be intellectually and emotionally stimulating, they are free of debate and strong disagreements. Green communication is essential to building and maintaining trust and rapport. Green communication is essentially conversation that includes two or more people.

Yellow: Yellow communication can be summed up as dialogue. Dialogue is different from conversation in that the stakes are higher, and there may be disagreements and differing points of view. Yellow communication takes place when people put their egos aside and engage in an exchange of ideas and information in the service of achieving a higher understanding that benefits everyone (i.e. collectively producing something new of value out of communication). Yellow communication requires mindfulness, emotional maturity, and highly tuned internal listening because its goal is not to outwit your co-communicators but to build on each other's ideas, which demands a willingness to set aside some beliefs and let go of personal agendas. If dialogue is to take place, some people will have to acquiesce, and others will have to accept their acquiescence with grace. Dialogue has no individual winners or losers; when dialogue takes place, and a higher plane of understanding is achieved, everyone wins. Dialogue is mindful communication, which means that you are sufficiently in tune with your internal voice and listebing so that you have the agency to choose not to respond to impulses that come from a place of self-defensiveness, arrogance, or fear. When you are aware of the visceral emotional and physical signals of defensiveness, anxiety, or ego at the moment that you are experiencing them, then you can choose to accept those feelings in the present moment and not respond to them by lurching into the red zone on the continuum of communication.

Red: Red communication ranges from debate to argument. The objective of red communication is to defeat your opponent. Red communication tends to be acrimonious and only (sometimes) productive when done in the confines of the legal system, politics, or a debate club. Engaging in red communication can sharpen the intellect and improve the skills of finding logical flaws in opponents’ arguments and making articulate points extemporaneously. Red communication also includes unproductive adrenaline-fueled verbal fights that can cause long-term damage. The objective of red communication is to win, which does not lend itself to achieving a higher level of understanding in the service of everyone. Yellow communication has the potential to achieve higher levels of understanding because it is the collective knowledge and wisdom of the couple or group that results in something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Because red communication is binary in that you either lose or win the argument, collective knowledge and wisdom don't play a role, thus making it unlikely for higher understanding to be achieved as no one person has a monopoly on knowledge and understanding. And often people win debates and arguments not because they're right, but because they're better skilled at debating and arguing.

The place on the continuum where the most productive communication takes place is in the yellow zone, which corresponds to dialogue. Because of environmental conditioning—i.e. competing with others for grades in school, victories in sport, promotions at work, and a cultural bias in many Western societies for politeness—people tend to dwell in the red and green zones on the continuum of communication. People try to remain polite and maintain harmony but are willing to become passive aggressive, openly aggressive, and even nasty if they perceive a threat.

How to Get to Dialogue

When dialogue occurs, information is not only given but received in such a way that it shapes how others see things toward the goal of higher understanding.

Dialogue is predicated upon the premise of seeking first to understand. And since everyone knows nothing about almost everything, there is no shame in seeking to understand. When dialogue occurs, information is not only given but received in such a way that it shapes how others see things toward the goal of higher understanding. Not everyone will always be equals in dialogue—e.g. one person may come into the dialogue with more knowledge. Regardless of who has more knowledge, all parties should be humble both in giving and receiving information. Sometimes shared information will be challenged with contrary information; this is a normal and healthy part of dialogue, so long as it is done mindfully. 

The first step toward productive dialogue is wanting it. If your preferred modus operandi of communication tend toward the red zone and you have no desire to temper that trait, dialogue will be an impossibility. By the same token, if you shy away from any conflict and prefer harmony, you may find receiving information that challenges your assumptions and opinions to be uncomfortable. One of the most productive side effects of yellow communication is that it acts as a safety release valve, especially for those who tend to dwell in green communication and can eventually become passive aggressive when they disagree with someone or something but are unwilling to sacrifice harmony to have dialogue. It also helps people who lean toward red communication to be more constructive about how they air their concerns and opinions, instead of being openly antagonistic and unproductively negative. I know this from firsthand experience.

There are seven things you can do to prepare for and engage in the productive communication mode of dialogue:

  1. Before you engage in yellow communication, check your frame of mind. Yellow communication requires that your frame of mind be on seeking first to understand, and not seeking first to be understood.
  2. State your intentions about wanting to reach a higher level of understanding together before starting the dialogue. 
  3. Write down your thoughts beforehand. Writing down your thoughts helps you to be prepared to better articulate your point of view, know in advance those areas where you lack knowledge, and identify your “hot spots” (i.e. those things that might trigger a leap into the red).
  4. Sometimes a dialogue can get off on the wrong foot or take a bad turn. That’s okay! Don’t be afraid to either try to restart the dialogue or even postpone it. It’s far better to bail out of a dialogue that is turning acrimonious than it is to white-knuckle it. But, if you do this, you must return to the dialogue at some point. To not do so can cause things to fester, setting the stage for an unproductive argument or passive aggressiveness.
  5. Make frequent use of “I” statements and take ownership of your thoughts and feelings, instead of placing the responsibility for what you think and how you feel on others. Accusatory language is likely to be met with a defensive response.
  6. Remember that in dialogue, you and those with whom you are dialoguing are not opponents; you are collaborators in seeking and finding higher understanding through the productive exchange of knowledge and information. 
  7. Be genuinely curious. Being curious will open your mind up to asking non-leading questions and productive exchanges of knowledge and information.

Every color of communication has its place. Most people dwell where they are comfortable, which tends to be in harmony (even if that harmony is false), or aggression. While I freely acknowledge that yellow communication requires being more in tune with your inner voice, developing your inner listening, and putting your ego aside, it is a mode of communication that deserves much more of our time and attention in the workplace than it's currently getting. At first, engaging in dialogue may feel uncomfortable, stilted, or forced. But as you practice this style of communication more and more, it will eventually come to feel natural. Just like most things, you have to practice it to get good at it. You’re never going to be perfect, so a little bit of patience and self-compassion go a long way in helping you to stick with the practice of dialogue to achieve a higher understanding in the service of everyone.

It's Not Business It's Strictly Personal: How to Survive the Emerging Employee Apocalypse

Something Was Wrong–We Just Couldn't Put our Finger On it

More than once she uttered the phrase ‘If you’re not happy here, there’s a line of people waiting to take your job.’

Early on in my career, I had a boss who made a lasting impression on me. I considered her a mentor. She was twice my age and had an advanced degree. She had experience with many companies as a successful executive. She gave of her time generously to me as she shared sage wisdom about how to manage workflows and projects. I have held on to her wisdom and consider it a gift. But, there was another side to her, from which I also learned lessons about how not to manage, particularly where people are concerned. 

I spent several years in this organization with my then-mentor and boss. There was dismal morale on the team where I worked and I don’t think I knew one person who wasn’t actively looking for a job elsewhere. Everyone I spoke with attributed the low morale to our boss. Nevertheless, no one could quite place a finger on what it was that she did or didn’t do that was resulting in such low morale. Everyone just seemed to have a strong sense that our boss was the epicenter of the problem, even if they couldn’t articulate why. 

As the years have passed and as I have grown in my experience, I only recently started to put together the puzzle of why my then-boss and mentor was such a source of distress for my colleagues. Most of my colleagues at the time were in their late 20s or early 30s. Most had advanced degrees. And all of them had many years of work experience. While it may not have been apparent to my boss at the time, the paradigm from which she was operating was one in which employees’ paychecks were considered their reward, employees should be grateful to have their employment, and where fear was used as a motivator. More than once she uttered the phrase “If you’re not happy here, there’s a line of people waiting to take your job.” 

Fear and Homo Economicus 

...as people attempt to satisfy their basic physiological and safety needs, fear can be a powerful and effective long-term motivator, so long as physiological and safety needs remain uncertain

Fear. Fear is perhaps the most powerful and potent motivator. Fear is primal. Fear manifests emotionally, mentally, and physically. And fear is very easy to ply from a position of authority. There was a time when fear was the primary means of motivating employees (and still is in many places). The economic theory of homo economicus (the “economic man”) holds that human economic behavior is motivated primarily by self-interest. I believe this is accurate, to the extent that human behavior is driven by the base needs on Maslow’s hierarchy. Maslow’s theory of human motivation states that our first need is related to physiology (i.e. food, water, shelter). The second need, per Maslow’s hierarchy, is safety. When people’s physiological and safety needs are unmet, I submit that they do behave in ways that are indeed based in self-interest. Furthermore, as people attempt to satisfy their basic physiological and safety needs, fear can be a powerful and effective long-term motivator, so long as physiological and safety needs remain uncertain. 

For the majority of people in the majority of Western countries, their basic physiological and safety needs are met. As labor unions toiled to protect workers’ rights and as governments put in place regulations and social safety nets over the past 100 years, physiological and safety needs have become less motivating for employees. These needs don't go away, but as they are met, previously latent needs emerge:

Shifting Grounds: From Fear to Meaning

Nowadays, fear—while usually an effective short-term motivator—does almost no good in the mid- and long-term and causes severe damage to organizations...

For highly educated and skilled people, their physiological and safety needs are even further assured by the likelihood that their education and experience will secure them another job if they are to lose one. In the 19th and early 20th century, it may have been effective, if cruel, for an employer to use fear as a long-term motivating factor using the paradigm of homo economicus. This fear was like a storm cloud over people's heads that could rain down the loss of employment or punishment at a moment's notice with no safety net to catch them or those whom they supported.

Nowadays, fear—while usually an effective short-term motivator—does almost no good in the mid- and long-term and causes severe damage to organizations that employ educated and skilled knowledge-workers. Essentially, the significant increase in education people have acquired over the past 50 years, combined with 100 plus years of putting in place social safety nets and laws to protect workers' rights, has flipped the paradigm of homo economicus on its head. Fear is no longer an effective tool for most organizations in developed countries. In other words, “Jessica, you better have that proposal on my desk by tomorrow morning or else!” or “Michael, I want that report, and I want it now or there will be hell to pay!” are phrases better left on the trash heap of clichés from the 1980s and are unsuitable communication for the 21st century workplace. 

The guiding principle behind the new paradigm is to develop organizational cultures based on four core values: trust, dialogue, accountability, and autonomy.

So, if the homo-economicus paradigm of motivation–in which fear was used as a long-term, albeit inhumane, means of ensuring effective and efficient production–is no longer viable in the developed world, what does the new paradigm look like? For starters, It does not look like people in positions of authority supplicating their employees to work or baiting them with rewards, as is sometimes the dismissive retort to the argument that employers need to change the motivational paradigm from which they operate. The guiding principle behind the new paradigm is to develop organizational cultures based on four core values: trust, dialogue, accountability, and autonomy. This new paradigm is homo self-actualizicus–i.e. the motive to realize one's full potential based on a whole-person construct (i.e. not a bifurcated personality of a "work self" and a "home self") and toward the highest need on Maslow's hierarchy-self-actualization. 

The Core Values for a Homo Self-Actualizicus Culture

Trust: There are many definitions of trust. The trust I speak of is what the late Dr. Stephen Covey described as a combination of competency and character. In other words, when you observe someone has the skills to perform a task and you believe s/he has the character to execute the task ethically, you trust that person. Trust isn’t built overnight. But as superiors see patterns of behavior in their employees that suggest competency and character, trust should be given quickly, which manifests as a release of control from superiors.  

Trust will still sometimes be violated, and this road goes both ways (i.e. sometimes superiors violate trust, and sometimes their employees violate trust). We are human beings and make mistakes. I cannot speak to each possible scenario in which trust is violated. However, I can offer that generosity, forgiveness, and the opportunity for redemption are practices that will develop deep bonds of mutual commitment and yield better results than draconian and punitive actions. Again, this generosity, forgiveness, and redemption should go both ways. Will there be times when trust has been so violated that there is no room for redemption? Absolutely. But I suspect these instances will be rare, as obtaining and maintaining trust speaks directly to the needs of love, belonging, and esteem. 

Dialogue: Dialogue is neither a conversation nor is it a debate. Dialogue occurs when two or more people express ideas that build on each other in pursuit of wise knowledge. Conversation is an exchange of information. Debate is conflict-oriented communication with the goal of defeating one’s opponent. Dialogue sits right in the middle of conversation and debate on the continuum of communication. Dialogue, conversation, and debate all have their place in work life. But dialogue requires the most self-awareness and emotional intelligence to navigate and should predominate. The reason why dialogue requires self-awareness and emotional intelligence is because dialogue demands that people be willing to let go of their egos and acknowledge better ideas, accept others' acquiescence with grace, and ultimately allow for all participants to equally contribute without the risk of castigation so as to realize ideas that are greater than the sum of the collective wisdom of the participants.  

The use of the word management lingers in today’s workplace lexicon and is often confused with leadership. Leadership and management are different disciplines. However, in organizations where skilled knowledge-workers predominate, management of people is a moot practice...

Accountability: Accountability is the space where it can be easy to revert to authoritarian behaviors (i.e. the homo-economicus work paradigm). But holding others accountable to their commitments is an act that can be carried out with respect and care. There are three essential elements to holding others accountable. First, assume the best of others. When someone has failed to meet a commitment, resist the urge to attribute it to laziness, thoughtlessness, indifference, etc. Most people are not lazy, inconsiderate, or indifferent. Second, be honest and caring. I don’t mean to suggest people need to be treated like they've just lost a loved one and coddled. The simple use of kind language that is based on facts is sufficient. Third, when people have made commitments and are not meeting those commitments, seek first to understand. There are sometimes variables outside of people’s control that prevent them from meeting their commitments, such as illness, other more pressing demands, lack of necessary support, technical difficulties, etc. And even when someone has failed to meet a commitment for reasons such as indifference, inadequate effort, or even passive aggressiveness, seeking to understand the reasons behind his/her behavior can often reveal the motives for resistance, opening up the opportunity for dialogue and finding a potential solution to the resistance leading to personal growth of emotional self-awareness. 

Autonomy: One of the most frequent complaints I hear from people is that they feel like they’re being micromanaged. The first thing I would say about micromanagement and management is that for all intents and purposes, they are the same. The very definition of management is the process of controlling something. Whether a person is being controlled a lot or a little, it's still probably going to feel like micromanagement. So the problem isn’t micromanagement per se; it’s the fact that management is a control-based paradigm. 

As industry became more mechanized during the 20th century, there was a place for the management of people. Low-skilled laborers working on an assembly line or operating heavy machinery required the careful supervision of people with more experience. For the sake of safety and efficiency, this supervision often manifests as control, giving precise directions on what to do and how to do it. The use of the word management lingers in today’s workplace lexicon and is often confused with leadership. Leadership and management are different disciplines. However, in organizations where skilled knowledge-workers predominate, management of people is a moot practice for the most part. And in fact, many employees know more about how to use their skills than their so-called managers. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard managers say they don't know how to do the jobs of their subordinates. There is no requirement that people in positions of authority be omniscient. But if the role of a manager is to control, that implies mastery of the skills over which they have dominion. There may be some place for people-management early on in a person’s tenure, but it should be short-lived. The practice of management is still relevant, but mostly where inanimate things are concerned (e.g. processes, machinery, systems, etc.). 

It is essential for skilled knowledge-workers to have a sense of autonomy—a feeling that they have been given the time and space they need to do their jobs without the harassment and meddling of overseers who themselves may not even have an understanding of the skills required to perform the tasks at hand. This does not mean there cannot be deadlines, standards of quality, etc. It simply means that people be left to manage themselves to meet those deadlines and standards of quality. People who are given autonomy tend to exceed expectations of deadlines and standards of quality, because when they do exceed these milestones, it’s a personal victory, and not because they were poked and prodded into it. Personal victories always feel better than forced ones, because they satisfy the need for self-esteem. 

Values are underpinned by beliefs, and values manifest in behavior. The collective behavior of an organization, which is based upon its values-in-use and the beliefs upon which those values are based, make up an organization’s culture. The culture of successful organizations in the 21st century will be based on the theory of homo self-actualizicus. 

While the motivational paradigm of homo economicus remains in use in undeveloped countries and workplaces with low-skilled labor, it is not a useful paradigm for this century in developed countries where people are more skilled and educated than ever. The paradigm of homo self-actualizicus is the most effective model on which to base an organization’s guiding values: trust, dialogue, accountability, and autonomy. Values are underpinned by beliefs, and values manifest in behavior. The collective behavior of an organization, which is based upon its values-in-use and the beliefs upon which those values are based, make up an organization’s culture. The culture of successful organizations in the 21st century will be based on the theory of self-actualizicus. 

Stepping Up to the New Paradigm

If your organization employs skilled knowledge-workers and is either operating on a paradigm of homo economicus or regressing towards homo economicus, chances are that many people are silently plotting their exit strategy.

In order for organizations that employ skilled knowledge-workers to remain productive, profitable, collaborative, and innovative, it is imperative that they start to move their cultures away from homo-economicus based motivation and towards self-actualizicus. It is important to remember that employees are volunteering themselves, and are increasingly feeling less loyal to their employers. If your organization employs skilled knowledge-workers and is either operating on a paradigm of homo economicus or regressing towards homo economicus, chances are that many people are silently plotting their exit strategy. Gone are the days when people were willing to tolerate a draconian work environment so that they could remain with an employer for five, fifteen, or even thirty years; that employee-employer compact is gone. It’s now commonplace for individuals to work as few as two to three years for an organization before they move on. I believe some of this is because people born after 1980 (i.e. the “m” word) have a higher level of comfort with being transient in where they live and work. These same individuals do not suffer fools lightly, and employers who attempt to maintain a control-based management culture with these people are fools indeed. While these people may only work a few years for your organization, you can maximize the value they add by having a culture of homo self-actualizicus and increase the chances that they'll remain longer. 

Be very careful who you let into the henhouse of authority; the megalomaniac manager...is the gateway to creating a toxic workplace.

To develop and sustain a culture consistent with self-actualizicus, employers must bring into positions of leadership those who value trust, dialogue, accountability, and autonomy, and who behave consistently with those values. Be very careful who you let into the henhouse of authority; the megalomaniac manager that is a holdover from the homo-economicus paradigm—a cliché of the 1980s corporate culture—is the gateway to creating a toxic workplace. Often, tendencies of megalomania are latent in people who have unmet esteem needs. The megalomania is awakened by the bestowal of authority. The antidote to this is developing self-awareness and EQ in people before they are given access to the levers of power. Toxic workplaces have a high rate of turnover that will quickly undermine an organization’s ability to remain productive, profitable, collaborative, and especially innovative, leaving C-suite executives reeling from skyrocketing overhead costs associated with a hiring and onboarding process that is akin to a sieve. 

Of Middle Management and the Movie Rental Industry: The Role of Innovation 

Organizations are going to constantly have to reinvent themselves through innovation to remain competitive. This will take the form of creative self-destruction.

The age of “middle-management” is over. Middle management is an artifact of the homo-economicus paradigm of motivation and labor that presupposed people needed to be controlled for an organization to be successful. Organizations are going to constantly have to reinvent themselves through innovation to remain competitive. This will take the form of creative self-destruction. Take the case of the movie rental industry. Blockbuster ruled the industry for over 20 years. Then disruption began, first with mail-order movies from Netflix starting in 1997, then Redbox in 2002, and now online video rental via iTunes and Amazon (i.e. creative destruction). However, Blockbuster could have self-destructed its business model and remained a viable company by introducing the same innovations as Netflix and Redbox before Netflix and Redbox emerged. But they were too late. 

The single biggest threat to innovation is the construct of middle management.

Innovation is not new. But the rate of innovation is accelerating. It could be said that if you're not innovating, you're decaying. There's not much middle ground. The single biggest threat to innovation is the construct of middle management. The more layers of management, the slower the gears of innovation turn. The slower innovation occurs, the less likely it is to drive market capitalization and for organizations to remain ahead of their competitors until a state of stagnation and eventually entropy is reached. Then you're Sears. Then you're Kmart. Then you're Circuit City. Then you're Blockbuster. The moral of the story is that if you want to remain competitively innovative, live by the values of trust, dialogue, accountability, and autonomy, all of which allow an organization to remain flat and unleash the most powerful force an organization can hope for–creativity, the mother of innovation. Flat organizations are organizations that can rapidly and nimbly innovate by allowing for serendipitous and spontaneous communication to occur and for creativity to flourish. Some organizations will resist this model. Some don’t know how to proceed. The remaining organizations are going to eat their competitors' lunch as they adopt values and behaviors consistent with the paradigm of self-actualizicus. 

Flat organizations are organizations that can rapidly and nimbly innovate by allowing for serendipitous and spontaneous communication to occur and for creativity to flourish.

While it was difficult at the time for people to put their finger on why the morale was so low in the organization I referenced at the beginning of this article, it’s now clear: the organization employed skilled knowledge-workers who were led by an individual operating from a moot motivational paradigm of fear. This left people feeling like they were not trusted, unable to have dialogue, unequipped to navigate issues of accountability, and working under the thumb of an individual who sought to control them. In sum, the culture of the organization where I was working was inconsistent with the needs of the employees, leading to low morale, cynicism, disagreement, and attrition.

So if you're in a position of authority in your organization, the answers to the following questions will help you to diagnose where your culture is and whether you need to take corrective actions: 

  1. Do you trust your employees? 
  2. Do you allow dissent from subordinates and opportunities for dialogue, regardless of status? 
  3. What is the tone of your communication when discussing accountability, such as deliverables? 
  4. Do you feel feared or want to feel feared? 
  5. When stakes are high, how do people communicate? 
  6. Do you consider yourself a manager of people? 
  7. If there is a cadre of middle managers, what value do they add?

How to Predict When an Organization’s Culture is Going to Snap

The Rope Begins to Fray

An organization’s culture is much like a rope–it is made up of hundreds or thousands of threads that when woven together form a strong cord.

Our neighbors recently invited us to go out on their boat with them at a local lake. With four children in tow (two of theirs and two of ours), we set off on the vast reservoir that is the primary source of drinking water for the Raleigh-Durham area. I spent most of the time sitting in the back of the boat enjoying the cool breeze as we zipped around the water. We occasionally stopped to take a quick dip in the lake. However, the majority of the time was spent whipping the children to and fro on a large flotation device called a “hotdog” that looked like a…hotdog. The hotdog holds up to three people and was attached to the boat by a nylon rope. Occasionally the boat captain would take sharp turns and make large wakes that would toss the children off of the hotdog and into the water. We all had a good laugh watching the kids wipe out. While the rope attaching the boat to the hotdog appeared to be brand new, I took notice of the section of the rope looped around a hitch on the boat. This part of the rope was frayed while the rest of the rope was in perfect condition. While I think the rope probably had plenty of life left in it, it occurred to me that as the rope began to fray more and more, it would eventually break, but it would be impossible to predict the precise moment at which the rope would finally give in. All that was visible to me were signs of fracturing (i.e. broken threads in the rope).

An organization’s culture is much like a rope–it is made up of hundreds or thousands of threads that when woven together form a strong cord. But, even the best of ropes fray and little strands eventually break. A few broken threads isn’t a problem. However, there should come a point at which anyone looking at the rope can judge that it could snap at any moment, again without being able to say precisely when it will break. If the rope breaks carrying kids on a hotdog being pulled by a boat, the chances are that no harm will befall them. But when an organization’s culture breaks, the organization can be sent into a tailspin from which recovery is impossible.

Espoused Values Vs. Values-in-Use

Cultural values are like currency—currency only has value if someone is willing to accept it.

Organizational cultures break down as the distance between espoused values and values-in-use grows, and the behavior of individuals no longer reflects espoused values. Cultural values are like currency—currency only has value if someone is willing to accept it. If the values of an organization no longer have currency, there is no incentive to uphold them, and they become just as worthless as a Canadian quarter in an American vending machine.

The people who are most responsible for ensuring that an organization’s culture is healthy are its leaders. And the key for leaders is to pay careful attention to the alignment between why an organization exists, the values that flow from that, and the subsequent behaviors that individuals within the organization manifest based on those values. As I said previously, there are always going to be a few frayed threads on the rope, and likewise, there is always going to be some incongruence among an organization’s purpose, its values, and the behavior of individuals within an organization. A wise leader will neither overreact to the occasional trivial incongruence nor will she sit idly by while the rope rapidly frays.

I have personally had the opportunity to work in an organization when the rope snapped. In the case of the organization where I worked, its leaders neither understood nor could they articulate the unique purpose for the organization’s existence. While there was a very robust attempt to define the organization’s values, this was moot because the values were not bound to the purpose of the organization. An organization’s purpose is like its gravitational pull—without it, things just float away. Without a clear understanding of the organization’s purpose and associated espoused values that aligned with that purpose, people started to lose a sense of how they were supposed to behave in the most literal sense. People actually did not know what their jobs were or what they were expected to do. The rope snapped, sending the organization into a tailspin. In this particular case, the reason the culture suddenly broke was that its leaders were paying attention to the execution space (i.e. how to do things), and had become so preoccupied with it that they took their eyes off the why.

Case in Point: United Airlines

...United’s choice to use the stick instead of the carrot suggests an organization in the throes of a cultural meltdown with no grounding in humane values.

Another organization that appears to be undergoing a very public cultural collapse is United Airlines. One could dismiss the many negative headlines United has generated over the past several months as bad luck. But it’s not bad luck; it’s bad leadership, in my opinion. Simply put, I believe the leadership at United have been so focused on other things (probably profit margins) that they’ve stopped paying attention to the organization’s culture. As espoused values and values-in-use began to drift apart at some point in United's recent history, incidents started to occur as a result of behaviors related to unhealthy values-in-use (again, the greatest value probably being profit margin).

The first public sign something was amiss at United was when Dr. David Dao was forcibly removed from an overbooked United flight in early April. Some have argued that Dr. Dao should have complied with police orders to deplane. I tend to agree that disobeying police orders is usually not going to end in your favor. Nevertheless, that argument misses the point. The problem is that United sold the same exact thing to two people: one seat on the same flight. The rationale for this practice has been explained to me. I understand there are algorithms that can more or less predict how many people will not show up for a flight, allowing airlines to know by how many tickets they can oversell a flight. And I also understand that overselling flights helps to keep fares lower by ensuring that airlines can fill every seat and maximize the profit for a given flight. But the algorithms didn’t predict Dr. Dao resisting or people taking video of the dramatic encounter, resulting in a public relations nightmare for United.

Even though overbooking flights is a common practice for airlines, I believe United still could have handled the situation better. But United’s choice to use the stick instead of the carrot suggests an organization in the throes of a cultural meltdown with no grounding in humane values. The fact of the matter is that people rarely fly these days to gaze at the earth from 30,000 feet above. People usually have somewhere to be. A wedding. A funeral. Work. A family reunion. A vacation. In other words, bumping someone from a flight is not a trivial matter. I don’t know how much United would have had to pay for people to voluntarily give up seats on Dr. Dao’s flight. But I do know that at some point the cost of not being somewhere would have been worth the opportunity of $600, $800, or even $1000. While that’s a lot of money to shell out to get someone off a plane, Mr. Dao and others who have been bumped from flights are not the ones at fault and therefore should not have to accommodate the airlines.

In another example of United’s broken culture, a mother was forced to carry her 27-month-old son on her lap during a long flight. While the mother had purchased a seat for her son for a sum of $1000, United gave the seat to a standby passenger for $80. Never mind that carrying an infant over 24 months on your lap is against FAA regulations. I’m sure United was happy to compensate the passenger for her inconvenience. But that United is suffering from a breakdown in its organizational culture is already painfully obvious and compensating the passenger in question–while the right thing to do–is not going to reverse their meltdown.  

I too had a rather unpleasant encounter with United in mid-June this year. My family and I were supposed to fly from Raleigh to Houston for a family vacation. We miscalculated our travel time to the airport and arrived too late to board the plane. That was our fault, and we did not expect United to compensate us. We decided to book last-minute seats on another carrier. However, upon leaving the gate where we missed our flight, I asked the gate agent if missing this flight would in any way affect our return flight. Without hesitation, the agent looked me in the eyes and said "absolutlty not". Her response seemed to make sense to me. After all, we had paid for roundtrip tickets, so our return fares were included.

When the word of an employee is not sufficient for a customer to rely on and instead the company hides behind 56 pages of legalese to extract dollars from customers who have already paid for something, that organization has a problem.

The day before we were scheduled to return home, I decided to double check our itinerary, only to be met with an error code indicating that the booking reference was invalid. I called United, and it was explained to me that because we missed our outgoing flight, our entire itinerary had been canceled. I was completely taken aback but managed to stay calm as I discussed the issue with a United representative. He explained that the United Contract of Carriage indicates that a missed outgoing flight on a roundtrip booking voids the return flight. He then chastised me for not reading the Contract of Carriage, in which the terms and conditions are clearly spelled out indicating that I was in the wrong. I told him that I had not read the Contract of Carriage but instead relied on the word of a human being—a duly employed representative of United Airlines, whose word I believed. The representative told me that it wasn’t a big deal and that he could rebook the flight, but that we would have to pay change fees of $200 per person. There were four of us, so that would have come to $800, which is roughly $200 shy of what I paid for the entire roundtrip fare to begin with. The representative lamented about how he talked to customers every day who make these kinds of mistakes because they simply didn't read the Contract of Carriage. The United Contract of Carriage is 56 pages long and consists of 37,642 words.

To the representative’s credit, he eventually agreed to waive the change fee after about 45 minutes of a polite if frustrating back-and-forth conversation. The fact is that this representative had within his power to waive the change fee from the moment I explained our situation. Instead, he castigated me for not reading United’s novel on their terms and conditions. When the word of an employee (i.e. the gate agent who assured me our return flights would not be affected) is not sufficient for a customer to rely on and instead the company hides behind 56 pages of legalese to extract dollars from customers who have already paid for something, that organization has a problem. In United’s case, it's a broken cultural compass.

Balancing Profit with Other Needs

...profit must be balanced by other purposes that transcend what is on the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs–survival.

The first line of the “United Customer Commitment” (what I would call the organization’s “constitution of values”) states: “We are committed to providing a level of service to our customers that makes us a leader in the airline industry.” While this rather nebulous statement can be parsed in ways that are not flattering to United, I’m willing to grant them the benefit of the doubt and assume what they mean to say is that they are committed to serving the customer. But apparently, as evidenced in the many public brouhahas United has experienced over the past three months and my own experience, I can only conclude that the espoused value of customer service is completely divorced from United’s values-in-use. My diagnosis is that United’s values-in-use compass, as manifest in the behavior of its employees, is pointing to money first. In other words, it would seem to me that United’s primary purpose for existing is to make money. I do not mean to suggest that there is anything wrong with profit being a core goal of an organization. However, profit must be balanced by other purposes that transcend what is on the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs–survival. Yes, money allows us to survive. But when it becomes the only or even the primary motivator for an organization, the rope will fray and eventually break, and you won’t be able to predict when that moment comes unless you are paying attention to the rope and adjusting appropriately to avoid excessive fraying. And chances are, if your bottom line is the bottom line, you’re not even looking at the rope.

There are myriad examples of organizations who’ve lost their way and broken their cultural compasses either because they had not clearly defined their direction or because their direction by default became making money above all else

There are myriad examples of organizations who’ve lost their way and broken their cultural compasses either because they had not clearly defined their direction or because their direction by default became making money above all else. Take the example of Wells Fargo, where the bank was encouraging the opening of additional accounts in members’ names without their consent. Take Bernie Madoff. Take Enron. Even if you’re working in the finance industry, it is imperative that your organization has a purpose that transcends our basest human needs. Every organization needs a genuine why that has to do with more than the financial bottom line. Otherwise, the vaunted values embossed on large brass plaques (i.e. the espoused values) will not drive employee behavior. Instead, the gap between what leaders etch in marble tablets and do in deed will lead to cynicism within the organization, rot, and an eventual collapse of the organizational culture. It’s a painful thing to experience from the inside and an ugly thing to observe from the outside.

Accountable Leaders Create Accountable Cultures

The good news is that every organization has a choice about building values into its culture that create virtuous cycles of behavior. But these values must be lived by organizational leaders, and the leaders must hold each other accountable to living these values. This is simple, but I admit it’s not always easy. Nevertheless, the laws of nature will always prevail, and an organization that tolerates and encourages vicious cycles of behavior due to base values or the absence of purpose beyond profit will eventually find themselves in the tailspin of cultural collapse. 

So, how do you predict the moment when an organization’s culture is going to snap? You can’t, so keep your eye on how much the rope is fraying...

The Key to Developing Emotional Intelligence

Table Flip...Almost

While I didn’t flip any tables, my displeasure with my colleague and supervisor was evident as I raised my voice, accused them of choosing expediency over doing the “right thing,” and then stormed out of the room.

Two years ago I was sitting around a table with my then-supervisor and a colleague. The topic of discussion was a report that I had written. The report in question was something that I had spent weeks working on, and I had grown attached to it. My colleague, on whose behalf I had written the report, expressed some concerns that if we were to release it, there could be friction with another organization. He made a strong case that the cost of releasing my report was not worth the opportunity. My rebuttal was almost entirely emotional. I perceived his desire to prevent my report from being released as a personal attack and a display of disrespect for the hard work that I had put into what I thought was an excellent product.

After listening to my colleague and me go back and forth for about an hour, my supervisor made the call that we would not be releasing my report. I lashed out in anger. While I didn’t flip any tables, my displeasure with my colleague and supervisor was evident as I raised my voice, accused them of choosing expediency over doing the “right thing,” and then stormed out of the room. How I behaved was not my finest moment. Even if I was right on the merits of the case—and in retrospect, I do not believe I was—I did myself no favors in behaving the way I did. The notion that something I had worked on would be cast aside sent anger signals from my ambient consciousness, igniting my limbic system—subsequently bypassing my cognitive awareness—manifesting as fight behaviors.

Opening the Aperture

Fast forward to June 2017. Now working for a different organization, I had completed another piece of work. Having spent four weeks on this project, I had sunk a lot of personal cost into it. I believed I had done everything right by consulting with my colleagues, taking their advice, and continually refining the product into one of my proudest pieces of work since I started at the organization. Then, while on vacation, I received word that one of the heads of my division didn’t like the product. I managed to keep my cool and spent four hours one evening during my vacation revising the product according to the guidance I had received. When I returned from vacation, I was met with the news that my division would not be publishing my product. The rationale for not releasing my product was sound. Nevertheless, when I received the news, my heart started to pound, my hands became sweaty, and a sensation of anger rushed over me. What I was feeling was the same fight response I experienced the last time a superior decided not move forward with a project on which I had worked hard. However, while I felt the anger and frustration both mentally and physically, this time I did not erupt in rage. My supervisor and I had a productive conversation about the cost vs. the opportunity of releasing my work, and I accepted her rationale. My anger passed, and I moved onto another project with my supervisor’s support.

...in our modern world, the physiology that governs the fight/flight response—the limbic system—often reacts to things with behavior that is disproportionate to the real or imagined threat.

We have all been there. We have all been in situations where we lose our cool and explode in anger or flee in fear. This response to perceived threats was well honed over millennia and is highly tuned. Even minor threats can spark this response to fight or flee. To be sure, we need this fight/flight response to survive. However, in our modern world, the physiology that governs this response—the limbic system—often reacts to things with behavior that is disproportionate to the real or imagined threat. Road rage is a prime example of this. Getting cut off in traffic or being stuck behind someone going 60 mph in the fast lane results in the beeping of horns, the use of profanity, obscene hand gestures and, in worst-case scenarios, violent encounters. But rationally we almost all know and understand that being cut off or going 60 mph when we’d rather be doing 80 (my preferred speed), is simply not a life threatening situation.

The Ambient Consciousness

Like background music in a restaurant, our ambient consciousness sets the tone of our mood and influences our behavior.

So, why in the first instance of my work being rejected and in the event of road rage do people behave in ways that are entirely out of proportion to the threat, sometimes with tragic consequences? The answer lies in the concept of ambient consciousness. I deliberately choose to use the phase ambient consciousness over subconsciousness, because the latter implies that it is permanently hidden from us. But in fact, the mental processing that is going on outside of our immediate consciousness is not hidden from us at all. Like background music in a restaurant, our ambient consciousness sets the tone of our mood and influences our behavior. If you’re in a place with heavy metal playing in the background, you may tend to feel more excited or even agitated. If you’re in a place with soothing classical music, you’re likely to feel calmer; this is the case even if you’re not paying attention to the music per se. Unless you put in ear plugs, your ears are still taking in and processing the background music, which is influencing your mood and behavior. The same applies to colors painted on walls in rooms and other visual stimuli, in addition to odors. Even when you’re not immediately aware of what you’re seeing, smelling, or hearing, these things are all influencing how you feel and behave, often without your prefrontal cortex—the cognitive part of your brain—getting a say in the matter.

In the second case when my supervisor rejected my product, I was in tune with my ambient consciousness; it was sending signals of distress, fear, and anger. However, because I had learned to increase my aperture of self-awareness, I was able to hear the signals and disrupt any manifestations of negative and unproductive behavior. I was able to do this by practicing mindfulness. By learning to be in the present moment and accepting what it holds as it unfolds, my ability to be aware of my ambient consciousness has increased 100 fold, if not more, in the past two years since I've been more dedicated to practicing mindfulness. As my aperture of awareness has increased, my ability to be more conscious about the choices I make has grown in tandem.

When our ambient consciousness is sending signals of fear, distress, anger, rage, defensiveness, etc. these signals often bypass our consciousness and manifest as behavior. By increasing our aperture of self-awareness, we enable ourselves to disrupt negative and unproductive behavior.

Model of behavior being driven by ambient consciences absent cognative disruption


Model of behavior being driven by an open aperture of self-awareness

The Fire Within

Once we are in tune with the signals our ambient consciousness is sending us, the most important step in developing emotional intelligence takes place—opening our aperture of self-awareness.

Even though our ambient consciousness can influence our mood, thoughts, feelings, and ultimately our behaviors, we do not need to be slaves to it. And the key to removing the shackles of millennia of natural selection lies in the simple practice of learning to tune into our ambient consciousness so that we are more aware of the signals it is sending us. Once we are in tune with what our ambient consciousness is sending us, the most important step in developing emotional intelligence takes place—opening our aperture of self-awareness. When our ambient consciousness is sending signals of fear, distress, anger, rage, defensiveness, etc. these signals often bypass our consciousness and manifest as behavior. By increasing our aperture of self-awareness, we enable ourselves to disrupt negative and unproductive behavior. I do not mean to say that these unpleasant feelings will go away. In fact, they probably won’t. But once we become aware of them, we start to build our capacity to make choices in our behavior outside of our ambient consciousness.

Anything that a leader perceives as undermining his/her authority and credibility can easily arouse the fight response as the ambient consciousness sends signals of fear, anger, indignation, etc.

Take the classic example of a leader. When in the wrong and challenged, some leaders assume a defensive mental posture. Behaving this way is understandable because a leader is often expected to have the right answers, make the right calls, and be the infallible authority in Western work cultures. Anything that a leader perceives as undermining his/her authority and credibility can easily arouse the fight response as the ambient consciousness sends signals of fear, anger, indignation, etc. In this case, the leader is faced with two choices: 1) accept that he/she is wrong and perceive a loss of face; or 2) stick to his/her position and run the risks of making a bad decision. A leader with an open aperture of self-awareness gets a third option. As he/she is challenged, and the ambient consciousness sends signals or fear, anger, resentment, etc. the leader can tune into those signals, recognize they are a reaction to a perceived threat and choose to behave contrary to those signals. This frame of mind allows the leader to accept that he/she is in the wrong, acknowledge it with humility, and make space for a better decision to be made. But for this to be possible, the leader must have an open aperture of self-awareness and a willingness to disrupt his/her unproductive and negative behavior before it manifests.

A New Approach

...the time has come to change the paradigm, so we empower people by helping them to open their aperture of self-awareness through practicing mindfulness, which enables them to disrupt the link between ambient consciousness and negative and unproductive behaviors.

We often blame people for their poverty, their addictions, their aggression, their fear, and all the adverse behaviors that negative feelings bring with them. For the poor, as a society, we've decided to give them a bit of money to get by. For the addicted, we decided to imprison them or commit them to rehabilitation programs that have abysmal recovery rates. For the angry, we’ve decided to teach them “coping mechanisms” that don’t address their underlying human condition. As a society, our response to those people being driven to and fro by their unchecked negative emotions and subsequent behaviors is to medicate them, incarcerate them, or recondition them.

Up until now, I believe we’ve done the best we can for those people in behavioral distress (and by the way, we are all "those people,"; it's just a matter of degrees). But the time has come to change the paradigm, so we empower people by helping them to open their aperture of self-awareness through practicing mindfulness, which enables them to disrupt the link between ambient consciousness and negative and unproductive behaviors.

But this isn’t just for those on the extreme ends of the behavioral spectrum. We—all of us—as human beings have been beautifully and carefully selected by nature to survive in a world of danger. As the world becomes less dangerous for some of us living with first-world problems, our brains are still wired the way they were 40,000 years ago when we were on the food chain. Our responses to even trivial slights, misunderstandings, a minor bruising of the ego, or even a bump of the shoulder can result in behavior that comes right out of our ambient consciousness, bypasses our consciousness, and can have devastating consequences.

Our mental hardwiring is incongruent with the world we’ve created for ourselves. Our limbic systems are often overwhelmed by the change, complexity, and uncertainty this world presents us. While we can’t turn off our fight/flight response, we can tune into our ambient consciousness, listen to it, and ultimately grow our agency by opening our aperture of self-awareness for our personal good, for the good of those in the workplace, our homes, our communities, and the good of humanity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Managers Aren't Bad People

Russian “Street Language”

Sitting down to lunch one day with a group of friends in college in 2002, I remember vividly a lively conversation we were having. One of my friends was notorious for her frequent use of profanity. None of us was really in a position to cast stones. But this particular friend’s frequent use of the f-word started to grate on some of us. When we confronted her about her excessive use of the word, she insisted that it didn’t matter and it was just a word. I ironically lacked the vocabulary at the time to express the notion about how words carry a charge with them. If words didn’t carry a charge, they wouldn’t mean anything, and we would lack the ability to communicate verbally as a species.

The words we choose to use conceptually frame how we behave.

I learned this lesson about the charge words carry when I was studying Russian from1999 to 2002. A lot of the Russian I learned came from interacting with young people in informal situations when I lived in Moscow from 1999 to 2001. When I went to school to learn Russian formally in 2002, my instructors disparagingly referred to the Russian I spoke as “street language.” My vocabulary consisted of many lowbrow words and phrases. I recall talking with my native-speaking teachers in Russian and watching them wince when I would use a particularly crude word or phrase. Because Russian was my second language, the obscenities I was accustomed to using didn’t affect me the same way they did my teachers. As native speakers, my teachers’ relationship to certain words was deeply influenced by the cultural connotation of those words—something that I lacked as a non-native speaker. Seeing how my teachers reacted viscerally and involuntarily to the use of harsh Russian profanity served as a good lesson for me about how the words we choose to use conceptually frame how we behave.

The Origin of the Problem

I recently read a 2015 study by Gallup, which found that 50 percent of employees leave their jobs “…to get away from their manager to improve their overall life at some point in their career.” The language used here is, I believe, nontrivial and at the very heart of the problem. The crux of the issue, according to Gallup CEO Jim Clifton, is that companies need to be more prudent about whom they select for management positions. With all due respect to the CEO of Gallup, I believe he’s missing the mark—the problem isn’t that companies aren’t selecting the right managers; the problem is that many businesses are still operating from a paradigm in which they see managers as integral to the control of their organizations.

Manager: “a person responsible for controlling or administering all or part of a company or similar organization.” While this may not be the exact definition you think of when you hear the word manager, I’d hazard a guess that the word manager carries a charge that imparts some notion of control for you. When someone is given the title of manager and accompanying subordinates, it is all but a foregone conclusion that control is a part of his/her frame of mind. This paradigm of management is nothing new in Western work cultures.

The first literary reference to the word manager in the English language showed up in the mid-17th century, and its use peaked in about 1997. The use of the word was relatively static for almost 200 years, until about the time of the Industrial Revolution, and continued to increase rapidly in use throughout the 20th century.

Managers of people are becoming obsolete in an economy dominated by highly skilled knowledge-workers.

A manager as a controller in the years of Western economies dominated by heavy industry coupled with low-skilled labor made some sense. For much of the industrial buildup in the West, people were seen as extensions of machinery. If the aim was to control the machinery for effective and efficient functioning, it only made sense to control the animate appendages of the machinery—human beings. When you give someone the title of manager, the historical and cultural connotation associated with that word implies control, even if at a subconscious level. Simply put, the problem is not that organizations need better managers; the problem is that managers of people are becoming obsolete in an economy dominated by highly skilled knowledge-workers, who often know more about how to do their jobs well than their managers do. However, as I stated in the title of the article, managers are not bad people. Managers are people who are operating on an old paradigm based on the premise of control implied in their titles. 

The New Paradigm

Contrast this paradigm of control with what one Japanese industrialist said about the West in the aftermath of WWII: "We are going to win, and the industrial West is going to lose because the reasons for [their] failure are within [themselves]: for [them], the essence of management is to get the ideas out of the heads of the bosses into the hands of labor."

If you need to attempt to control someone to get work done, you’ve hired the wrong person.

Today’s Western workforce dominated by college-educated knowledge-workers is incompatible with the paradigm of command-and-control management that grew out of the Industrial Revolution. The solution is not better managers; the solution is a new paradigm. If you need to attempt to control someone to get work done, you’ve hired the wrong person. To bridge this great divide that exists between the command-and-control manager that came out of the Industrial Revolution and the current workforce, people need mentors. Mentors are individuals who provide insight from a place of caring and wisdom designed to unleash human potential at every level of an organization. The only catch is that mentors need to be devoted to their roles. Nothing is more demoralizing that having a mentor who doesn’t care about you.

To be sure, there is still a place for managers. In organizations, three essential roles help keep it on a healthy and sustainable course:

Mentors: as mentioned above, mentors are those who take a personal stake in someone’s professional growth by helping to unleash their potential through wisdom and guidance without using the traditional levers of power that command-and-control managers use.

Managers: Mangers are essential. However, the role of a manager is not to control people, but to administer, design, and implement systems. The administration, design, and implementation of systems will indeed touch upon people. However, the objective of a manager is to manipulate an inanimate system, knowing that he/she will not have the power to compel through force the people whom that system touches. If systems are designed well and are inviting, people will gravitate toward them, if for no other reason than self-interest (i.e. “If the system helps me, I’m going to use it.”).

Leaders: Leaders in organizations have two key roles, both of which I believe are equally important and mutually dependent: strategy and organizational health. Leaders are often thought of as strategists, charting the course of an organization to prosperity. Where many leaders fall short is in being aware of and taking responsibility for the health of an organization at the people-level. An organization can be prosperous and unhealthy. However, sustainable prosperity demands a healthy organization for people.

I am not suggesting that different people need to fill each of these roles. A person can be a manager of things and a mentor of individuals. A leader can be a strategist and a manager of systems. The key is not to conflate these roles.

Conclusion

To draw on the wise words of my friend and author, Carl Nordgren, organizations must start to close the gap that exists between the paradigm of command and control that came out of the Industrial Revolution toward a paradigm of organizational climate control in which servant mentors and leaders dedicate themselves to creating environments that unleash human potential and improve the human condition in the workplace.  

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