We’re Peers, Not Rivals

Have you ever wished you could go back to a previous job or workplace situation and do things over again using the knowledge and skill you’ve acquired since that time? I can think of several circumstances that I am much more prepared for now than I was in the moment. There are conversations I would have guided differently, concepts I would have used to solve a challenge, and attitudes that have evolved over the years that would have been much more beneficial.

Do-Over

Focusing on interpersonal do-overs, I imagine a few things come to mind. For me, there are 2-3 significant situations that I wish I could go back and re-do: a rivalry with a coworker when I was in sales; a time when I became so entrenched in a position that I couldn’t hear others; and a missed opportunity to confidently present my idea to someone I allowed to intimidate me.

The study of emotional intelligence reminds us of the importance of knowing our own motivations & emotional triggers, and how to become more intentional about how we engage with those around us. Our attitude towards something drives our actions, so we have to use the right attitude and words if we are to optimize a situation.

Winston Churchill is credited with saying, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” Choosing the right attitude can change the outcome of a situation, and when it comes to those we spend so much time with in our workplaces, it’s critical that we give thought to the best attitude that will move us toward positive results for ourselves and others.

Getting on the Same Side of the Stream

So, how do you view your coworkers as a whole? Certainly there are some you would call friends and others you would call rivals, even enemies. If you’re competitive by nature, perhaps you would consider most of your coworkers “friendly rivals.”

I am a word-nerd, meaning that I really enjoy studying word origins and meanings. Language and word choice are important, so I seek to understand how a word evolved and what that means to how it is used to communicate an idea. Rivalry (a person or thing competing with another for the same objective or for superiority in the same field of activity) is a deficit-based attitude that believes that resources are limited and only a few can win.

Rivalry comes from the Latin word for stream (rivus): rivalis means “a person using the same stream as another” or “on opposite sides of the stream.” As neighbors vied for use of the limited resource of the water supply, the territorial arguments could become heated and may last for generations. In our contemporary workplaces we fight for budgetary support, strategic placement, favor from the boss, and any number of tangible and intangible resources.

But what if instead of rivals we take on the attitude of peers? A peer is an equal, someone of the same status, someone who is on the same side of the stream as we are, working side-by-side with us to achieve a common purpose.

I know it seems like a simplistic, utopian position to take. It sounds like “be nice, be positive, and you’ll win.” But there is more to it than that. The field of Positive Organizational Scholarship, which applies the concepts of positive psychology (what’s working vs. what’s broken), led by the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations, provides some compelling research about attitudes and behaviors that lead to thriving organizations.

Toward Positive Organizations

In their article “Prosocial Motivation at Work: When, Why, and How Making a Difference Makes a Difference,” Adam Grant and Justin Berg  define prosocial motivation as “an employee’s tendency to care about benefiting other.” When we view our colleagues as peers, we are motivated to help them achieve their own success. Research shows that as we help others, our own productivity rises and we are more engaged in the collective success of our peers (or at least a chosen few).

The research from the Center for Positive Organizations is slowly making its way into mainstream business dialogue. For those more academically inclined, and who don’t mind carrying around a book that’s 3-4 inches thick, the Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship is an excellent resource. There are also many articles and more “pop-business” books on various aspects of positive organizations.

Our workplaces are complex social structures, with multifaceted layers of social and relational dynamics making it difficult to navigate. The sense of urgency within mot organizations leads toward an expeditious (decide now, justify and think through the details later) culture. This alone can foster rivalry between colleagues and business units.

Choosing to see coworkers as peers rather than rivals creates a mindset that leads to cooperation, creativity, and collaboration. The synergies and partnerships that are formed through a peer-based mindset take energy that would normally go to competitiveness and territory-protecting behaviors and funnels it into something much more positive.

Evaluate Work Relationships

Make a list of the people you interact with most in your organization. Make a column for “rival” and another for “peer.” As you go down the list and check which of those relationships are peer-based and which ones are rivalry-based, think about what drives the competition in your rivalries. Jealousy? Limited resources? Personality?

How could you see your rivals as peers? What attitude adjustment would create a more collegial mindset and foster a “same side of the stream” approach to working with those people?

     

Four Keys to Influencing Up the Org Chart

(Getting the boss’s attention when you know something you wish they did too)

I led a training session recently for a group of production and operations supervisors from a mid-size global firm. Our topic for the day was teams and trust, and our focus was on optimal functioning for work teams that they managed. They described, however, a scenario that is all too familiar: their new leader (less than a year) was clueless about how to run the operation. Hired for his lean manufacturing experience, he suggested skipping over some critical aspects of the operation to save time. Based on these “efficiencies” he suggested the product would be defective, even unsafe, and would require hours of rework.

For nearly a year these supervisors, with an average tenure of 15 years, had tried to explain the process to their boss. He took notes, smiled and nodded as though he was in agreement, then went away and disregarded not just their advice and experience, but the scientific facts of the process.

We had a long discussion about how they could influence the boss to do the right thing, to listen to them and heed their warnings. They were frustrated and disillusioned. Some of their peers had already left the organization, taking with them decades of experience. We needed to figure out a way to stop the exodus of talent and have a meaningful impact up the organizational chart.

Whether we want to share a new idea or fix a broken process, influencing up the organization chart is an important skill for everyone in the chain of command.

The best managers, of course, want to hear from people – they welcome new ideas, challenges to the process, and suggestions for adopting technology to make work easier, cheaper, or faster. But not all bosses are open to others’ ideas.

I’m reading Henry Cloud’s book Necessary Endings. He describes three kinds of people that we encounter in life:

  • Wise
  • Foolish
  • Evil

If you’ve ever read the Old Testament book of Proverbs, these designations will be pretty familiar to you. For instance, Proverbs 3:35 says, “The wise inherit honor, but fools get only shame.” Proverbs 6 talks about the evil person who “plots evil with deceit in his heart—he always stirs up conflict.”

Influencing a wise boss is easy, because they are open to feedback, want to learn, and don’t get defensive when you challenge their ideas. The wise person has understanding and discernment, an ability to take in information and objectively and skillfully accept the facts without feeling challenged.

A foolish boss listens, but takes not action. They nod and smile, but lack the motivation, resolve, or interest to make things better. They may be prideful or lacking in judgment. The foolish person is often insecure, which leads them to hoard information and shut down any ideas that did not originate with them.

The evil person covets control and power, acting like a puppet-master to direct the outcomes that put them at an advantage over others. They are untrustworthy, deceptive and, often, disagreeable. They may tell you what you want to hear, but will use the information to put you in your place later. Though rare, bosses like this exist – I know from experience!

Whether you want to upward-influence a wise, foolish, or evil boss, there are some keys to help you succeed:

Know Your Stuff. The best way to influence others is to be seen as an expert. Subject-matter expertise opens many doors and allows you to be an internal consultant. Don’t settle on past knowledge – actively pursue professional development and educate yourself on new technologies and trends in your field.

The wise manager will readily accept your insights and suggestions because they trust your experience and know-how. Do your homework, though, since a really wise person may probe to get the full picture.

The foolish manager will require some careful planning. Since they resist influence due to their self-protective nature, you will need a heavy dose of humility to sell the idea as theirs. They may feel threatened by your expertise, so you have to be careful that your know-how doesn’t come across as know-it-all.

Learn to read people. Emotional intelligence is extremely important in trying to upward-influence. Learn to read social cues and understand personalities and what motivates the person you want to influence. You don’t have to give someone a formal assessment to get insight into what makes them tick. Knowing motivations is perhaps the most useful awareness when it comes to influencing.

Take a look at their work space and listen to what they talk about. Is it all work and know play? Is it centered on family, friends and relationships? How do they learn best – reading, hearing, or hands-on?

We sometimes use our own preferences when we’re trying to influence others, which is not very effective. Get to know the person you want to influence and you’ll be seen as credible and trustworthy. Your wise boss will appreciate your insights, the foolish boss will probably be surprised you understand them so well, and the evil manager may watch you a little more closely to see if you have ulterior motives.

Choose your words carefully. Once you’re able to read people you can much more easily decide how to talk with them. Words are important, as is the way you deliver them.

Our attitude impacts the words we use and the way we say them. If we are angry, we’ll sound it. If we’re fearful of how the other person will react, we’ll sound timid and unsure.

If you have done your homework to become a subject matter expert, and have some insights into what motivates the person you want to influence, you can come across as confident and smart. Make a case for your idea or suggestion, always keeping in mind the point of view of the other person. Use terms that make sense to them, speak to what is important to them (quality, the bottom line, customer service, etc.). Clearly show how your idea will help achieve their goals. Make your pitch compelling, interesting, factual, and wise. Don’t make it an information dump, but do give some materials and bullet points that they can refer back to later.

Be patient and persistent. This last key is the hardest one to apply. When we have an idea or suggestion, especially when we see an urgent need to change the current course, we find it hard to wait patiently for the boss to weigh the merits of your case. They may not have the same level of pain or concern as you.

Give them time to consider, realizing that they probably have greater insight into the big picture and may need to do their own upward-influencing to get the ear (and budget) of their boss.

Don’t dump and run! Follow up within a week after the initial conversation, possibly adding some additional information, answering questions, and asking when they think a decision will be made. Don’t be a pest, and accept their decision graciously.

What if They Don’t Change Their Mind?

You may do a great job of presenting your case but still not influence your boss to adopt your suggestion or change their mind. Ask them for some feedback so that you can understand their thinking and decision-making process. They may or may not have a good reason for saying no, but their response may give you insights that will help you in the future.

You have a choice whether to accept their decision and move on, determine to try again with a different tactic, or decide to move on because of the critical consequences you see for not changing the current course. Just as a salesperson has to make a lot of presentations before they get a buyer, someone who wants to influence upwardly must be OK with a little rejection.

Influence is the primary task of leadership, and when we are able to influence up the organizational chart we show that leadership can happen at any level and go in any direction. It takes skill to influence others, since we are breaking them out of a particular way of thinking. Our minds are not easily changed, but when we show our expertise, tap into the other person’s interests, frame our case well, and are persistent and patient, we greatly improve the odds of winning someone over to our way of thinking.

An Endless Supply of Blessings

The cornucopia is a symbol we break out at Thanksgiving to remind us of the overflowing abudnance we enjoy. It’s often a centerpiece on the Thanksgiving table filled with plastic fruit and vegetables that spill out of the wicker, horn-shaped basket across the tablecloth.

In classical mythology the horn of plenty is said to have come from the goat Amalthaea and provided an endless supply of food or drink. If you think about it, a horn-shaped basket isn’t the most practical device for carrying things, but as you try to fill it with the fruits of your labor, you are quickly reminded that you have much to be thankful for.

Thankfulness is a virtue that I am still trying to master. It’s not that I am ungrateful for the blessings in my life, but I have struggled to be satisfied with what I have before me. A quick list of things that I am grateful for include:

  • my wife, who is best friend, advisor, cheerleader, and spiritual mentor
  • my daughter, in whom I delight for her wit, determination, and overall sweetness
  • a multitude of other relatives and friends who inspire, entertain, and bless me
  • colleagues, business partners and students who keep me on my toes and propel me to continuous improvement
  • meaningful work that allows me to use my knowledge, skills, and abilities in new and innovative ways
  • education and the ability to learn new things – shelter and transportation that makes my life comfortable and mobile
  • health, sight, hearing, and the rest of the senses we take for granted

My struggle has been with staying mindful of these blessings and opportunities while also keeping an eye toward the horizon. I have missed the contentment and peace that comes with simmering in the stew of today because I wanted to jump into tomorrow’s pot. (Weird metaphor, I know!)

The gospel of Matthew records Jesus’ instruction to his disciples about worry. He said,

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)

The opposite of worry is contentment; the idea that our desires are bound by what we already have. At the same time we have an innate desire to improve, advance, and acquire more.

Ambition is seen as a high virtue in our culture. But to what end? Greed, stress, an unending race toward bigger, better, faster?

I have written before on this dichotomy of ambition and contentment. And my solution now as it was before is a change in attitude and motivation from ambition to investment.

Investing in ideas, in relationships, in causes allows us an eye to the future without the negative consequences of blind ambition. Our mindset allows us to bless others and invest in their dreams and needs without the selfishness that often accompanies ambition.

When we rest in the satisfaction of what we have, using our gifts and resources to advance others either as individuals or communities, we can experience a new kind of thankfulness. It’s a deeper level of gratefulness that inspires us to give abundantly of our time, talents, and money.

So this Thanksgiving I am choosing to consider myself blessed. I will not compare my blessings to others, I will not worry about areas of lack, I will not be ambitious for my own gain. I will count my blessings one by one. I will give thanks for the people, provisions, and opportunities in my life.

Tai Chi, Aikido and the Art of Managing Change

A Woman does tai chi.

A Woman does tai chi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the Temple of Heaven as our backdrop and surrounded by tourists and locals filing by on their way to the ancient attractions, our group learned a Tai Chi routine in the middle of a walkway with the buzz of the vast city around us. It was a surreal experience.

I was traveling with a group of university students who were in the China for a month to learn about Chinese business practices. The contrast between the chaotic setting of noisy, polluted and over-crowded Beijing and the tranquility of tai chi provides a fitting metaphor for organizational life.

If you’re not familiar with Tai Chi, the focus is on calmness and is a good way to manage stress. The Japanese version of Tai Chi is Aikido, which emphasizes redirecting of energy rather than attack. Aikido also adds in elements of Judo. The principles of Aikido include acknowledging what is coming toward you, accepting the current reality, and redirecting the energy away from bodily harm.  The benefits of both of these martial arts forms can be realized without the religious attachments associated with them.

I was certainly not a quick learner of Tai Chi, but appreciate the mental focus and athletic control it takes to master this beautiful art form. And I appreciate the metaphor that helps me better understand the possibility of peace in the midst of chaos, the ability to turn off the noise around me to focus on what I can do to manage my situation – to redirect my energy toward something useful.

The three principles of Aikido provide a positive framework from which to manage change, whether personal, organizational or cultural.

Acknowledge: We cannot live in denial. Change is all around us and often comes when it is least convenient, causing disruption to our current state. It is important to acknowledge that change is inevitable and to acknowledge that we seldom have much say in the changes that come at us.

Accept: We accept that the change is upon us. This is where choice comes into play. We can put up our defenses, bury our heads in the sand, or start swinging. We don’t accept the outcome of the change, but we accept that the change is taking place and that we have to decide our response. We accept responsibility for how we react. It is in these moments of choice that our character is shaped.

Redirect: In Aikido, the energy that is coming toward the attacked person is redirected, not resisted. As change comes toward us, we can either try to block it, or take it and redirect our thinking, our posture, and our practices toward something useful and positive. Redirecting doesn’t mean we stand by passively.  Instead, we look for ways to adjust, and by choosing this course we set a constructive tone for ourselves and those we influence.

Recommended Reading:

HBR's 10 Must Reads on Change Management (including featured article 'Leading Change,' by John P. Kotter)

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World Revised

In the Midwest? Join the Omaha Organization Development Network on Sept. 26th for a conference featuring Meg Wheatley. For more information, visit the Omaha OD Network site.

Developing Your Generosity Muscle

The word Generosity comes from the Latin generositas, which speaks to nobility, excellence, and magnanimity. The origins hark to the nobility, who were expected to be unselfish in sharing their plentiful resources with others.

In Today We Are Rich, Tim Sanders tells the story of his great-grandfather, Tommie. A successful farmer with a heart of service, Tommie was sought-out for his advice not just in farming, but also in financial matters and life’s dilemmas. Sanders says that Tommie “learned the value of giving the invisible: wisdom, connections, and reputation.”

Generosity does not come naturally to most of us. I wish I could say that I always give without any consideration for what I will get back. The hunger for recognition and a desire to make sure others know what I have contributed has caused senseless distraction in my life. I long to be like Tommie and other leaders who give for the sake of giving. Sanders quoted his great-grandfather as telling a critic, “I did it for the same reason a dog sleeps all day – because I like to do it, and because I can!”

How do I become a person who likes to be generous, expecting no thank-you, no plaque, no accolades of any kind? Strength-training in generosity begins in the mind. A mindset of generosity is developed when I learn to hold my possessions, talents, knowledge and connections loosely in my hands. I cannot believe that there are limited resources and that my role is to claim as much as possible from the reservoir.

Generous people are stewards of what has been entrusted to them – talents, wisdom, possessions –  so when someone else is in need they willingly and freely share what they have without expecting anything in return.

When I started my consulting practice I met with dozens of individuals trying to learn from them the keys to their success. I am so thankful for the way they shared their challenges, lessons learned, and secrets to success they learned along the way. It made my transition easier, and I am eager to share those insights, along with my own, with anyone wanting to start their own business.

Almost every person I talked with was extremely liberal with their time, talent and insights.  They were not meeting with me to see what I could offer them, but genuinely wanted to pass along to me from their experience. They gained a sense of fulfillment and pleasure from being able to help.

My idealistic nature can’t help but wonder what would happen if more people began exercising their generosity muscle in their workplaces, homes and communities. I have identified four things that I can do to proactively strengthen my generosity muscle:

  1. Give holistically. Look for people to give to from all areas of my life: at work, at church, and especially in my own family.
  2. Give personally. Take time to actually connect with others, don’t simply “bestow and be gone.”
  3. Give sacrificially. I need to give even if it makes me uncomfortable, gives the other an advantage, or wipes me out.
  4. Give freely. Jesus said, “freely you have received, freely give.” Although his was a spiritual context, I believe it applies to the larger sense of generosity.

When I strengthen my generosity muscle in this way I become healthier and bring healing, restoration and prosperity to those around me.

I would love to hear your stories of generosity – have you been the recipient of someone’s magnanimity? Have you been blessed to generously share with others? Post your reply as a comment.

Why Would You Want to Be the Devil’s Advocate?

Imagine you’ve just pitched a great idea to your colleagues and boss. You’ve made great points, showed data to back up your recommendations, and are sure you’ve wowed the group with your amazing solution to the problem du jour. Then inevitably the colleague you knew would oppose whatever you present raises his hand and says, “I just want to be the devil’s advocate here. What about…?” You let out a controlled sigh and concentrate to hold your eyeballs in place so no one will see the eye roll you’re imagining in your mind.

So what’s the deal with this guy? Why always the devil’s advocate role for him? Does the devil really need an advocate? Maybe a more honest statement would be, “Now I’m going to criticize your idea because I don’t like it.” The devil’s advocate isn’t looking for ways to implement your idea; they’re looking for ways to prove why it doesn’t work.

When we take on this role, and we’ve all worn the badge in some meeting along the way, we shut down any meaningful dialogue and create sides. What motivates us to squash someone else’s idea? Fear of change? Envy and resentment because it wasn’t your idea?

Those who are naturally critical may think they’re doing the group a favor by challenging every suggestion, no matter how well thought out and viable. This cat-and-mouse game is seen as sport, but in reality more harm is done than good. The mouse rarely survives the claws of the cat.

What would happen if the devil’s advocate role was banned from our conference rooms? What if instead we started saying “yes, and…” when we hear a new idea.  With an attitude that says, “how can we make this work?” we can change the dialogue to something more productive and affirming. Instead of people being put on the defensive, fighting against the devil, we would encourage idea generation and look for ways to perfect the proposal or clarify points.

Does this sound too altruistic? Too soft? Are you wondering who is going to challenge all of the half-baked ideas pitched in meetings? Maybe your worry and need to challenge others’ ideas is an opportunity to evaluate your own motives.

Throwing away ideas too soon is like opening a package of flower seeds and then throwing them away because they’re not pretty.

Use the same energy you put into being the devil’s advocate into advocating the ideas of your colleagues. The positive transformation will empower you and others to make things possible, to uncover potential, and to co-create the future.

Whose Job Is It To Make Me Happy?

Who is responsible for making sure I’m happy at work? Many managers will assume the answer is supposed to be them. With engagement surveys, pressures to reduce turnover, and assumptions from employees, the finger seems to point to leaders to make sure everyone is happy in their jobs, right? I’m not so sure.

Happiness is elusive and workplace happiness appears to be hard to come by for many workers. Well-intentioned organizations design workplace cultures intended to promote greater satisfaction on the job. SAS, Google, Qualcomm, Edward Jones and W.L. Gore all seem to be getting things right.

The Gallup Organization has found that

Happy employees are better equipped to handle workplace relationships, stress, and change. Companies that understand this, and help employees improve their wellbeing, can boost their productivity.

So it’s the company’s job to make employees happy? While an organization can provide meaningful work, opportunities to grow and develop, and programs to help manage “work-life balance” I wonder how much an organization can ultimately influence happiness and wellbeing in its employees.

I think the answer has to be that it’s the job of every employee to make themselves happy. Happiness is a choice, and each individual has to make the decision to be happy despite (or perhaps in spite of) circumstances. Shawn Achor writes about this choice in The Happiness Advantage, stating that it is possible to change our mindsets and adopt a happier outlook. Achor says

The most successful people adopt a mindset that not only makes their workdays more bearable, but also helps them work longer, harder, and faster than their negative mindset peers.

Achor describes how we can change our mindsets, including thinking about tedious tasks differently. We lose out on joy when every task becomes something we “have” to do instead of something we “get” to do. The good news is that we really can rewire our brains to see menial tasks and even dreaded meetings as positive events by changing the way we think about them!

When we get work assignments that don’t thrill us, when we are asked to do one thing when we think something else would be more useful, and when we find our work dull to the point of painful, we have a choice.

  1. We can suffer through, grudgingly getting our work done but aware of how much its sucking the life out of us each minute.
  2. We can decide to start looking for a new job that provides more satisfaction. There’s nothing wrong with seeking a better fit for our skills and aspirations.
  3. We can choose to change the way we think about the work. It means creating new habits that replace our default perspectives and attitudes with more useful ones.

Robert Louis Stevenson said

The habit of being happy enables one to be freed, or largely freed, from the domination of outward conditions.

Creating happiness is not about a mystical “I think happy thoughts so I am happy” new-age mindset. Not that there aren’t spiritual components to being happy, which are very important. For instance, the Apostle Paul did not have any easy life as he faced hardships and persecution on his missionary journeys. In his letter to the Philippian church, however, he says,

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

Paul’s secret to happiness was his perspective based on his faith. “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” So maybe the key to happiness is a combination of faith-based positivity (aka hope) and the science of creating new maps for our minds that give us perspective beyond the moment and connect us to a larger purpose.

It is important for organizations to develop an engaging culture where individuals are assigned meaningful work that gives them the opportunity to do what they do best every day. Leaders should care about creating an environment that promotes satisfaction and minimizes frustrations. These types of initiatives will set the tone for happiness. But it really comes down to the individual making choices to be happy no matter the circumstances.

Tommy Newberry, a life coach and author, writes in The 4:8 Principle:

When you focus on the good, you not only notice more good but you actually create more good. Focusing on positive things causes you to search for more that’s positive. As a result, you perceive and appreciate more good, which sets the stage for even more positive circumstances. Eventually, you will have more joy, more enthusiasm, and more gratitude. This outlook draws the best out of other people and situations, creating a virtuous cycle (rather than a vicious cycle) in which you continually find and multiply what you’re looking for.

Nobody else can do that for us. So it’s my job to make myself happy by continuously choosing to think positively about my circumstances, even when my boss may be driving me crazy, I can’t seem to get certain things off my to-do list, and I’m still a work in progress.