Rethinking Engagement: Why Our Current Approach is Back To Front

Human beings seek to “know” how a particular thing works in one of two ways:

  • By looking at the thing “in and of itself”; or
  • With reference to the things’ particular context, and how changing context causes the thing to react.

Why is this important? Well, today’s approaches to employee engagement focus on the impact of the environment on the employee to determine what is or what is not engaging, rather than focusing on what we know about how humans are wired to be in the world and designing for that. That is, we are going ‘outside in’ to develop an approach to engagement, rather than ‘inside out’; we’re coming up with frameworks to control context based on our engagement experiments, rather than frameworks that reflect a deep comprehension of humanity “in and of itself”.  

Engagement is, first and foremost, a psychological issue: it is literally the degree of connectedness that a ‘self’ feels to something outside of its self. A deep understanding of the human psyche is necessary to reliably design organisations, systems and processes that will engage people.

This article focuses on an "inside out" approach, by looking at what we do know about the human psyche, and how that should inform our approaches to creating environments where employees experience real engagement. 

We can understand many things about the wiring of human beings by looking at their behaviour, which, of course, is driven by their biology: 

1. Human beings are biologically wired to make social connections: we literally develop (physically and psychologically) through connection with others. This wiring also makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: we’re more likely to survive if we’re in packs. Organisations are simply groups of people working together in a configuration that is designed to produce a particular outcome. The most significant part of that sentence is “people” and “working together”. That is, relationships- what humans psychologically need to connect, how they relate, how they experience safety in relationships etc - have an enormous impact on organisational outcomes.

2. Human beings are biologically wired to make sense of their environment, so that they can reliably meet their needs, so that they can stay alive. There have been multiple models proposed for characterising human needs, which I don’t propose to go into. At their simplest, however, we note that humans have: 

  • needs which contribute directly to their survival (physical connection with other humans, food, water, shelter, air etc);
  • needs that contribute indirectly to their survival (intimacy, love, play etc); and 
  • needs that contribute to psychological thriving (self-actualisation, creativity etc). 

3. Once our direct and indirect survival needs are reliably meet for a period of time, human beings are wired to start thinking more broadly about their ‘self’ and their existence - that is, human beings move from sense-making to meaning-making. Sense-making is how we make sense of our environment; meaning-making is what we make everything that happens to us mean. This is when start thinking about “Why am I here?” and “What’s my purpose?” It’s when we start longing to express our authentic selves even though it might mean rejection from others; it's when we feel the urge to create. Whether or not you believe that life has any innate meaning, the reality is that the odds of your existence are so small as to be miraculous, and the odds of the variables that have gone in to shaping you and making up your life are similarly incredible. The outcome is that you are a completely unique being, with a completely unique contribution to make, and there is a part of you that absolutely wants to make your unique contribution. 

So, engaging environments are those that meet our needs for: 

  1. Connection with others;
  2. Certainty about how the environment works; and 
  3. Making our individual Contribution.

Knowing this, we might start to ask ourselves of each design decision that we make:

  • Do we think it’s likely that doing this thing will positively contribute to people’s sense of connection with others? Will it cause collaboration or competition? Does it encourage cross-functional approaches, or reward silo's? Does it create opportunities for people to form new relationships?
  • Do we think it’s likely that doing this thing will positively contribute to people’s sense of certainty? Have we been clear as we can about how this is meant to work, or will we leave people frustrated and confused? Have we explained where people can find the information they might need? Have we clearly explained the rules of the game for people? Are we creating an environment that our employee population feels safe in? Do we walk our talk? 
  • Do we think it’s likely that doing this thing will positively contribute to people’s sense of contribution? Are we honouring the individual, here, or are we treating our employees like untrustworthy children or unimportant robots? Are we giving people the opportunity to grow? The opportunity to create? Are people empowered to be authentically themselves in this workplace?

10 Ways An Organisation Can Strategically Facilitate Dissent

Toward the end of last year I wrote an article about The Power of Intentional Dissent in Organisations, which advocated that, because dissent forces progress, organisations that can strategically facilitate dissent from their employees will end up with a competitive advantage. But how, practically, might an organisation strategically facilitate dissent? As with any behaviour that you want from your employees, you must firstly make it safe, and then make it valuable, to engage in.

To make dissent safe, it must be: 

  1. safe to give - that is, there is no retribution for expressing a dissenting opinion; and 
  2. safely given- that is, dissent is delivered in a way which is respectful and enquiring, so that the people who receive it are not damaged in the process. 

These are behavioural norms that would need to be established within the culture of the organisation.

To make dissent valuable, it must be: 

  1. incentivised,as all human behaviour is a response to an incentive; and 
  2. engaged with in a meaningful way. That is, dissent must result in some form of clear response from the environment. No employee will keep giving their feedback if it is never acted upon, or if the action doesn’t respond to their feedback in a way that feels appropriate. 

Bearing in mind these requirements for safety and value, here are 10 ways to make it more likely that your employees will tell you what they really think:

  1. Train employees in how to deliver dissent respectfully, succinctly and compellingly. This is particularly important if the dissent is in relation to the efficacy of a management or leadership style. 
  2. Train managers in how to facilitate, and appropriately respond to, dissent. Help them to understand their individual reservations to facilitating dissent, so they are not tripped up by them.
  3. Create a code word that someone can blurt out to indicate that they need to dissent, and to remind everyone else that the rules for dissent need to be remembered in the interaction that is about to happen. I like the phrase “By George!” (in reference to George Bernard Shaw, who said that all progress in life depends on the unreasonable man) or the word “Emperor!” (for the Emperor Has No Clothes). 
  4. End each meeting with an invitation to dissent - something along the lines of “Who can offer a dissenting view?”, “How do we make this better?” or “What am I missing?” are all sufficiently positive and open-ended. 
  5. Make it fun - celebrate the courage of those who do dissent, until it becomes normal to do so. What if you handed out a Lion Award (in reference to the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz, who went to the Wizard for courage) each team meeting, to the person who had offered up the most useful, or thoughtful, dissenting view in the previous period? 
  6. If you genuinely want to incentivise behaviour, it must have a carrot or a stick attached to it. You could reward really helpful dissent with some form of compensation or recognition, or you could make dissenting a certain number of times a KPI that each manager and senior leader needed to hit.
  7. Use technology to poll your employee population whenever a large change is imminent, so you can understand how they think and feel about it. Politicians poll their constituents to gauge sentiment, so why don’t organisations do the same? If we cared more about the opinions of our employee population, I posit that we would end up with much better engagement scores than those that currently exist. 
  8. Stop telling your employee population what you’re going to do with the results of engagement surveys, and let them tell you what they want you to do about it. If you've asked for their input about areas for improvement, the least you can do is also ask them how they would like to see these areas addressed.
  9. Build float into projects to accomodate changes that need to happen as a result of information or ideas that have come about through dissent.
  10. Keep a register of dissents, so that you can see how many are or are not resulting in actual change. This will give you an idea about whether or not you are engaging with dissent in a meaningful way, or if it’s all just lip service. 

What do you think? How else, practically, could organisations facilitate dissent?

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Why Managers Need Stellar Contextual Thinking Skills

I often meet managers who think that the sum of being good at their job means delivering whatever results their boss has told them should be delivered. If I'm lucky, this manager might also realise the importance of engaging their team in these efforts. But I think we're missing out on the potential impact of managers, which is far greater than one happy boss or one happy team: it's a happy, healthy organisation. But, how? Well, it starts with contextual thinking skills.

Contextual thinking skills are the ability to accurately comprehend one’s context. Why is this important? Because literally nothing can be understood in and of itself: everything is a product of the way that its inherent nature responds to the context that it is in. 

Consider the blobfish, for example: it lives off the coast of Australia at depths of 600 metres to 1200 metres, where the pressure is 60 to 120 times as great as at sea level. As a result of its’ usual environment, blobfish do not develop the muscles that you’d find in a fish that lives closer to sea level. Thus, when a blobfish is removed from its usual environment and brought to the surface, they look like a pile of gelatinous pink goo. For a long time, no one understood what they were looking at. No one had seen a pile of gelatinous pink goo swimming around at sea level and fulfilling whatever biological imperatives it has. It wasn’t until scientists figured out that the blobfish they were looking at was, in fact, a deep sea fish that had suffered decompression damage, that everything became clear. That is, it wasn’t until they accurately comprehended the context of the blobfish, that they were able to decipher what it actually was.

The dominant Organisations As Machines paradigm I talked about last week leads us to believe that organisations are a series of parts (like the parts in a machine) that get put together to produce an outcome, rather than an inextricably linked series of subsystems (like the organs of a body, or the members of a tribe) that cannot be understood independently of each other. This paradigm prevents us from really perceiving the impact of external and internal context on organisational outcomes, and, because of this paradigm:

  1.  Leaders (and, as a result, managers) do not take the time to provide valuable context to the employees working in the organisation, because they undervalue the impact of the bigger picture on the operation of our organisations’ organs. That is, we don’t see how providing lots of information about the context that the organisation is operating in, and the way the organization is pieced together to create a particular outcome, as immensely valuable to the people working in the organisation. Whereas, for example, in our bodies, the brain is constantly feeding information to every single part of our bodies about the environment we are in, and the effect of that environment on other parts of the body. This enables each part of the body to adapt, and to support each other well.
  2. Managers are incentivized to optimize performance in their function, rather than incentivized to optimize cross-functional performance. This creates competition rather than collaboration. Again, you won't see your body cannibalizing itself by prioritizing the function of certain parts of the body over the function of others, unless you’re in extreme environments that forces that kind of behaviour in order to survive. 

Continuing with the body analogy, we might see leaders as the brain of the organisation, but managers are the major organs. If managers are not able to work well together, then the body will fail. But, in order to work well together, managers must first be able to appreciate how their functions have been designed to interface with and support each other. 

This is where contextual thinking skills come into management, and the potential for a happy, healthy organisation exists.

When a group of managers can each comprehend: 

  1. That their function doesn't operate in a vacuum (that is, they're each seeing the whole internal context of how the organisation is put together to produce a particular outcome); 
  2. Where the strategic objectives should take the organisation (that is, they're accurately comprehending the external context they're moving into); and
  3. That they, as a result of their role, have the potential to have a positive impact on more people than just their team (by prioritising cross-functional collaboration), 

then they will start to see (and be able to sell to their team): 

  1. the vital role that each function plays in the achievement of the organisational objectives (in an ideal world, this would prevent people in revenue-making functions and those in cost-control functions from being perpetually at odds with each other, for example); 
  2. how the needs of other functions might call for adjustments in their own function; and
  3. where new strategic objectives (that is, where a move into a new external context) might cause issues within the organisation, and how they might adapt and support others.

If you're anything like me, you might have times where your active mind leads you to feeling quite disconnected from your body... and yet, your body keeps on surviving even when you're not paying it much attention, taking care of itself as best it can despite whatever harebrained schemes your brain might lead it into. And I think organisations could be like this, if we had management teams that were full of people who could accurately perceive both the internal and external context they were operating in. They would knit together to create a safety net for leaders, and, simultaneously, an umbrella for employees. They would do a great deal for keeping an organisation alive and mostly well, even when dysfunctional leadership might be present.

Contextual thinking skills can be taught, and should be taught, if we want our managers to create great organisations.

The Effect Of Paradigm On Performance: Why We Should View Organisations As Tribes, Not Machines

I think a lot about the good and the bad of organisations - of what makes them wonderful, meaningful, purposeful places for us to spend our time, and of what makes them live up to every awful cliche that we might hear about on the news. One piece of this puzzle is the paradigm that we have about what an organisation actually is, which, I'd posit, hasn't been updated since the Industrial Age. 

In the Industrial Age, we began to make and use machines. This enabled tremendous leaps in productivity, which then enabled tremendous leaps in income for those lucky enough to be owning those machines. For those who could not afford to own a machine, or have access to a machine to use in ones' own enterprise, you would, instead, be arranged in a machine-like pattern in a factory, to produce these machines. And, somewhere along the way, we began to see these collections of human beings working in factories as their own type of machine, because we overvalued (then, and still do, now) what was produced, rather than who was producing it. 

There's something very intoxicating about the notion of the organisation as a machine. It enables us to: 

  1. say with certainty that this is how something works. Human beings love certainty, because the illusion of knowledge gives us the illusion of control, which makes our ego feel a bit safer. So, we like thinking that we understand how things get done in an organisation, because then we can control it, and change it. But you've all been in organisations where there is a certain person who gets to skip a certain process, or where the relationship between two people means that certain work (not yours) gets prioritised as a result. We have constant examples that organisations are not what they're reduced to in an annual report or in a business process map. 
  2. treat people (which are the component parts of the organisation) as machines, themselves. That is, we dehumanise people, and we do that in multiple ways: by limiting their contribution to their job description (or only valuing that contribution and not, say, something less quantifiable like how much good energy or optimism they bring to the team), by reducing their worth to what they produce rather than acknowledging that their worth is inherent (so, for example, when they quit, we might treat them as if they were already dead to us), by restructuring constantly and saying that redundancy isn't personal (it is to the person who is losing their job, and to their colleagues who have formed bonds with them), and by only investing money in things that will make employees more productive (as opposed to, say, a more whole human being). 
  3. abdicate responsibility for the impact of our decision making. The Milgram Experiment (Google it!) found that 65 percent of experiment participants would deliver a 450-volt electric shock to another experiment participant simply because they were told to do so. When human beings are arranged in hierarchical lines and 'given orders', it turns out that the majority's conscience takes a back seat. 

Jung once said, "It all depends on how we looks at things, and not how they are in themselves." So, what if we changed how we looked at organisations? What if we reverted a few Ages back in our history (or came full circle, however you'd like to view it) and changed the dominant paradigm of 'Organisations as Machines' to one that focused on the human beings in them? If we came to see 'Organisations as Tribes', we would likely do the following things differently:

  1. hire people for passion, values and strengths fit, rather than previous experience, and have a cultural induction for new starters;
  2. provide more ‘human’ roles in the organisation, like having wise elders (very senior people whose sole job it was to impart wisdom), healers (who could help people with the more existential concerns that humans have), and seers (whose job it was to discern trends and 'predict' the future);
  3. consider the wellbeing of everyone, equally, and incentivise leaders to maximise engagement (which, paradoxically, maximises productivity); and
  4. have far more transparent, and downwardly-accountable, leadership. 

As a result of making such an adjustment, we would see huge shifts in engagement, in people's experience of connectedness and purpose, and in accountability. What are your thoughts? 

Does Authenticity Mean 'Giving Less F*cks' About Others?

We hear a lot about authenticity these days - about being authentically ourselves, and about creating workplaces where we can ‘be who we are’. We also happen to exist in a society that is full of examples of narcissistic leadership, increasingly polarised view points, and this dominant narrative of ‘giving less f*cks’. Lest anyone make the mistake of thinking that their ‘being authentic’ means they can treat others inconsiderately, I figured it was time for a more in-depth look into what authenticity actually is and isn't, and where it comes from.

What is authenticity?

Google asserts that authenticity means: “the quality of being authentic”. It then defines ‘authentic’ as: 

  • “of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine” and 
  • “in existentialist philosophy, relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life.”

These definitions tell us that authenticity has two prerequisites: consciousness, and intention. One cannot be truly genuine, or living an “emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive and responsible… human life” if they are also unconscious about who they really are. Coming to consciousness requires intention (the intention to become aware); what you do with yourself after you get conscious also requires intention (repress, deny, accept etc). 

So, where does authenticity actually come from?

Authenticity is generated by our ongoing choice to look inwards, to see ourselves as we actually are, and to accept what we see without judgement. For ease of reference for the rest of this article, I’m going to call this the “Authenticity Process”.

Model - Where authenticity comes from.jpg

The Authenticity Process generates authenticity in two ways:

  1. By helping us to find our genuine self: We cannot genuinely be ourselves if we do not genuinely knowourselves. Most people do not genuinely know themselves because so much of who we understand our ‘self’ to be has been inherited from others, and from society, at a time in our life when we couldn’t make conscious choices about whether or not it was a good fit with us (that is, we inherited it in childhood). But, over time, the act of looking inwards and seeing ourselves as we are, builds up a bank of self-awareness. We are then able to see what is ‘genuinely us’ and what about us has been unconsciously adopted from others. 
  2. By removing the fear of living in alignment with our genuine self: As we give our self the acceptance that we deeply crave, three things happen: 
  • Paradoxically, our own transformation becomes possible when we stop fighting our self into a ‘should be’ and just allow our self ‘to be’; 
  • We start to create a deeply respectful, loving and caring relationship with our self. As such, we start to hear from our self more and more clearly, because we are no longer living in constant repression or denial or distraction; and
  • Our desire to hide who we are (for fear of what others might think, say or do) diminishes in the face of our own self-acceptance, and thus, a natural ‘being yourself’ arises.

The Authenticity Process also has these side-effects:

  1. Our new-found self-awareness means that we can start to say with some confidence who we are, what is true for us, and what we need in order to be our best self; 
  2. Because we now accept ourselves (at least, in increasing doses), we will start advocating for what we need, and we will stop staying in situations that do not support who we authentically are;
  3. We will develop a deep empathy for the way that others are in the world, because we have had to develop that empathy for ourself, first, in order to accept what we’ve learnt about ourselves; and
  4. We get far more tolerant and curious about the world because we realise that what is ‘true’ for us is so specific to our personality and our life experiences. We stop expecting that other people will see the world in the way that we do, because we start to comprehend how truly unique we all are. 

What authenticity isn’t

I see too many people brand their own particular expressions of narcissism and lack of empathy as ‘authenticity’: a “This is what I believe, you can like it or lump it, I give no f*cks for your opinion about me”. That would be fine if you lived in a vacuum, but you don’t: you live on a finite earth with seven and a half billion other people, and if we’re going to survive as a species, then we have to care about the impact that we have on each other and the planet. 

Genuine authenticity arises from a very conscious, intentional place. It doesn't come to you without a commensurate rise in empathy and curiosity. As such, genuine authenticity is not divisive - it's accepting, and kind, and thoughtful. It's about taking up space in yourself, not about taking over space from others. It's about being able to say "This is me, in all my glory and madness, creating room for myself and others to be, to be accommodated, to question, and to evolve."

New Manager? 11 Approaches To Help You Succeed.

I was the grand old age of 24 when I was first made a manager, and - no bones about it - I was genuinely bad. Having come from a family where sarcasm was banned, not only did I take myself far too seriously, I actually couldn't tell a joke from an insult. As a result, I spent half of my time feeling insecure, and the other half feeling offended. I was also a bit of a tyrant: because so much of my self worth was tied up in what I produced, rather than who I was as a person, that came through in my management style.

Thankfully for me (and for everyone who has ever worked for me since then), the school of hard knocks delivered me a couple of roundhouses to the heart, and I found my empathy, which, you know, is kind of essential for leading people. Since then, being a manager has been an ongoing lesson in humanity - both my own and others - and humility (or, humiliation, depending on the day) as I continue to learn new things.

Want to kick butt as a manager? Adopt the following approaches:

1. Be confident about what you do and don’t know, while staying across “who knows what” in your team.

Organisations are structured so that different roles are across different levels of detail. That means that you don’t need to know the finer points of everything that’s going on in your department, but you do need to know who you can find out more about it from. 

It’s a screaming indicator of insecurity when a manager lives down in the detail of their staff’s work. Your staff might not be as blunt as me, but rest assured, they hate that approach. You’re getting them off side, while neglecting your actual job. No one is winning, here.

Check out my article “New Manager? Mistakes you’ll be tempted to make right away,” to find out how you can respond when you’re asked about a level of detail that you’re not across.

2. Perfectionism will paralyze output, so be pragmatic instead. 

“Near enough” really is “good enough” most of the time (unless you’re giving legal advice or doing brain surgery. Near enough is not good enough then). If you keep aiming for perfection or something close to it, you’re going to take far too long to get things done, and that will annoy everyone far more. 

3. You need to let people do their jobs, while enabling them to do their jobs, while holding them accountable for doing their jobs.

Let: Don’t dip down or re-do their work. Your staff should have clear areas of responsibility that they actually get to take full responsibility for.

Enable: As a manager, your job is to remove the obstacles that prevent your staff from getting things done. 

Hold accountable: People will take you seriously when you take them seriously. If they say that they’re going to do something by a certain date and to a certain standard, you’re entitled to take them at their word. And if it is not delivered, you’re entitled to ask why and express that the non-delivery (or the non-communication about the non-delivery) isn’t acceptable.

4. You are human. You have flaws that will impact other people. Be strategic about mitigating the effects of these flaws.

Repeat after me: I am human. As such, you need to know that you have both strong and underdeveloped ways of doing things that impact other people. 

You should:

  1. Find out what your strengths and weaknesses are (take a CliftonStrengths assessment);
  2. Invite feedback on what other people notice your strengths and weaknesses to be; 
  3. Accept yourself, and be self-forgiving rather than self-flagellating; and
  4. Do whatever you reasonably can to mitigate the impact of your weaknesses on other people

For example, I find administrative tasks particularly burdensome (don’t even get me started on how I feel about filling in forms), so I avoid them like the plague... Which would be a real issue for everyone that I work with if I didn’t mitigate that quirk by finding someone in my team who likes administrative tasks, and who is happy to take them on so that things keep moving. 

I once gave a team of mine “The Guide to Hacking Anna” so they knew precisely what they could and couldn’t expect from me, and how to get what they needed. 

5. You do not have the monopoly on good ideas. So, don't act like you do.

People will love you and give you enormous amounts of respect if you’re able to facilitate their great ideas. That doesn’t mean that all of their great ideas will get to come to fruition just yet, but if you have to say no to someone’s idea, then give them an explanation as to why. As a manager, you’ll have (or should have!) far more context about organisational strategy than your staff will, and it’s important that whatever they’re suggesting is sense-checked by you against what you know about that organisational strategy. 

6. Do not agree to deliver additional outcomes without receiving additional resources or renegotiating previously agreed priorities. 

If you’ve got a great idea that needs additional resources or additional budget in order to be delivered, and someone approves the idea but not the resources or the budget, then say that you can not deliver it or negotiate something else that can be left by the wayside. 

A finite amount of time and money and brains can only produce a finite number of outcomes. Do not let yourself become the schmuck working all hours of the night because you didn’t know how to set realistic expectations. Do not be the schmuck who thinks that he’s going to be rewarded for all of this unnecessary effort. We are given the respect that we give to ourselves, so respect yourself enough to advocate for what you need.

7. Expect to fail from time to time, and get over it when you do. Apologise unselfconsciously (but sincerely) and move on.

I’ve had some epic failures in my time - things that lacked any form of sober-minded judgement, and which, in hindsight, I would not do again. However! I’m human, and what’s done is done. I apologised, I learnt the lesson, I got back up, and I kept going. What more could anyone else ask of us? We’re human and failure is inevitable, so do what you can with it.

8. Do what you say you will do. And if you can’t do that, then, as soon as possible, renegotiate what you’ve said that you will do. 

People will forgive you renegotiating a deadline, but not if you attempt to do that just before it is due. Have the courtesy to forecast ahead, and, depending on the size of the task, give an appropriate amount of notice. 

9. Apologise when you inconvenience the people working for you.

Inconveniencing your team is one of the inevitabilities of being a manager. If you apologise, and don’t make a habit out of it, people will forgive you. If you apologise, and then keep doing it, you will quickly lose any respect you may have already gathered because your apology is (apparently) insincere. 

To be completely clear: do not be the manager that constantly reschedules meetings with his staff. You’re communicating that they are not important. That makes you look like a jerk, which I’m sure you’re actually not. 

10. Create space for people to be utterly genuine, but know what you can and can’t provide.

You’re working with people, not robots (okay, you might also be working with robots, but you’re managing people). Routinely ask your team members how they feel, really. And create space to hear the answer, while knowing that you don’t need to fix it. Some of it you may be able to fix. But it’s actually often just in the fact that we were sincerely asked and made space for, that we experience care and respect.

11. End every meeting with a staff member by asking, “Do you need anything from me?”

This approach became a game changer in my role as a manager. Once I started doing this, several things happened:

  1. My team knew I was serious in my expressed care for them, which made it a lot easier for them to care about me. Our relationships became very reciprocal;
  2. I started getting genuine, and extraordinarily useful, feedback; and
  3. I started hearing about interpersonal issues before they escalated into conflict.

This question also provided a platform for me to express what I needed from my staff, in a way that didn’t feel threatening or conflictual (because what I need isn’t about them or their performance - it’s about me). 

New Manager? Mistakes You're Going To Be Tempted To Make Right Away.

Getting a promotion - or any kind of change that leads to increased responsibility - is nerve-wracking for a lot of people. Eager to prove ourselves right away, we leap into a frenzy of doing, before we really take the time required to orient ourselves to where we are, and to deeply understand where we should be going. 

Before you give in to the urge to look like you’re doing important things! slow down, read this list, and don’t make these rookie mistakes right off the bat:

1. Don’t prioritise doing work-work over the other things that are far more important to get right first

When you’re a specialist, your job is to do work-work - you know, write that memo, review that drawing, analyse that data. When you’re in charge of a department, you have a new list of to-do’s, and it isn’t immediately leaping in to help your staff with their work-work.

The most important thing that you need to do first, before anything, is to start building relationships with the people who can make your life so much better or so much worse:

Get a mentor, stat: Find someone who has been a successful manager before, and who has an incredibly good reputation. You know, the kind of person everyone wants to work for. You’ll want to catch up with them very regularly, so you are able to get an ‘as you go’ sense-check from someone who knows. 

Get to know your boss, and their priorities: You should get yourself extraordinarily clear about who your boss is as a person, what they value, what their priorities are, and their perception of what needs to happen in your function. You may ultimately end up with a different view to your boss about what’s important for your department after working in it for a while, but getting their view upfront will be a really important context-set and, more importantly, an opportunity to start building a productive relationship. 

Get to know your staff, and who they are as human beings: You’re probably walking into a patch that already exists - that is, some part (or all) of what you’re expected to do is already getting done, in some measure. So, at least in the short term, you need the people who are doing that work to keep on doing it. Change is unsettling for the majority of people, and getting a new boss is a big change. This means that there may be a period of time when your staff are feeling wobbly about their roles and how they’re going to work with you - so put them out of their misery and spend some quality time with them as soon as you possibly can. In order to get the best out of people, you genuinely need to know who they are and what’s important to them.

Let your staff tell you what they’re doing, before you try and tell them what they should be doing: Part of your initial catch up with each staff member should involve you asking them to paint you a high level picture - from their perspective - about what they do. Don’t judge what they say. No one intentionally does meaningless work, so if something sounds unusual, don’t dismiss it. Instead, ask why that work gets done and what it links to (that is, you’re actually asking what would break if that work didn’t get done).

Which leads to the next point…

2. Don’t immediately start making changes

This bears repeating: Do not walk in and immediately start making changes. Have the humility to get to understand what’s genuinely going on first, and who’s who in the zoo, before you start burning the zoo to the ground. For want of a better analogy, the animals will stampede at the first sign of you wielding a fire brand… that is, until they know that you’re a trustworthy sort. That’s going to take a bit of time and some intentional relationship-building.

This advice holds true even if someone else (like your boss) has told you that the department is a wreck and immediate changes need to be made. All too often people (who are not down in the detail) make these sweeping statements about the performance of things, and never really seek to understand why something is happening. There are normally pretty good reasons for why something is happening, and you should find those reasons out before you make any moves.

3. Don’t try to know everything that’s going on in your department

You have misunderstood the rules of the game if you think that you need to know everything that is going on in your department. You can’t possibly be across all of that information, unless you’re doing everyone else’s job. Attempting to do your direct report’s job will deeply demoralise and disengage them (which will then make them far less productive), so restrain yourself. Instead, accept that the organisation has been structured for each role to be across a particular level of detail. If you are asked a question about a level of detail that is below you, then don’t be anxious about that - just say that you’ll find out and get back to the person asking. 

Practice confidently delivering these responses to the question, “What’s happening with [insert thing you don’t know enough about yet]?”: 

  • “Let me ask [insert name of responsible staff member]/ the team. I’ll be able to get back to you on that one soon.”
  • “Let me double check that. I’ll get back to you on that point by the end of the day.”
  • “[insert name of responsible staff member] is across that - I’ll have her send through a status update.”

Over the course of your job, people will frequently ask you questions about things that are simply not important. However, if it is an important person who is asking you, then it is often tempting to immediately start treating the thing as if it were important. Don’t do that. If you sound like you’re calm and comfortable with the question and with not having the response immediately to hand, that attitude is normally enough to keep everyone else calm while you go and find out the answer.

Underpinning all of this is what you believe about the competence and performance of your staff. The reality is that you either trust your staff to know what is going on and be doing a good job and providing you with a reasonable level of reporting, or you don’t trust them to be doing those things. And if you don’t trust them to be doing those things, then hire new people who you do trust, or fix whatever issue is causing your distrust.

4. Don’t try to prove your worth in areas that you shouldn’t

The areas that you should be proving your worth are set out in the venn diagram in this document, and these should be reflected in your job description. Don’t have a job description? Get one written immediately. And then stay within its’ confines until you’re killing it at your job, at which point you can start branching out again into other areas. 

While you’re at it, make sure that you have a one-year development plan that specifically sets out what you’re going to be focusing on. 

Until your job description and your development plan are written down, you have no way of knowing if you’re actually doing the job that your boss wants you to do. And your boss would have no idea what areas of responsibility might be falling through the cracks until that level of clarity is in place. So, it provides you both with valuable information.

5. Don’t play at a level that they haven’t hired you to play at

Very often people are promoted because they were good at their previous job. Except, a promotion doesn’t mean that you get to keep doing what you were good at - you’re actually expected to add value at a higher level, now. You need to learn how to do new things, like engaging and influencing people, and thinking strategically. Learning new things can feel really challenging to our sense of competence (and, for some, to their sense of self-worth), so we often revert to doing the things we feel comfortable to do. Please don’t do this. You’re not adding value to anyone by playing at a level below you, and you will really, really annoy your team. Sit with the discomfort and learn some new skills, instead.

Which ties into the next point…

6. Don’t do the work yourself because it’s easier than training your team to do it the way that you want it done

It can be hard to know how to communicate that you need work to be redone. There is an art to it, but it’s immensely learnable. 

Before we get to that, though, you need to ask yourself whether you were clear enough in expressing what you expected to see, and when you expected to see it. 

If you were very clear, and the work isn’t up to snuff, you’ll probably feel tempted to avoid having a conversation about that (or tempted to mitigate the fact that the timeline will now be a bit screwed up as a result of the re-do) by doing the work yourself. Acknowledge those feelings and don’t give in to them. You have the opportunity to help someone grow right now, as well as the opportunity to reduce the likelihood of receiving poor work again from this person. You will destroy trust if you redo the work yourself, because you’re implicitly communicating that something was wrong but you’re not having the conversation about it (which looks weak and or dishonest) and you’re not giving them a chance to fix it (which is unfair).

Try the following phrasing: “Thanks for sending that through. I’ve gone through it, and I’m going to need you to adjust it a bit. [list out which bit, list out what outcome you would need the revised bit to achieve]. Can you have this done by [insert time frame that you think it is now reasonable to have it done by]. Let me know if you have any queries along the way.”

Why We Pay Experts To Tell Us Things Our Employees Already Know

I’m sure we’ve all been there: banging our head against a brick wall as we repeat a message that just isn’t being received by our colleagues or leaders, only to have some guru hired in at exorbitant rates for your annual leadership conference, or to run some workshop, or to transform some process, who says exactly the same thing that you’ve been harping on about for ages but without all the business-specific knowledge you yourself could have also brought to the table.

Why does this happen? Why does this happen with such alarming frequency?

Jesus encapsulated this uniquely human phenomenon rather perfectly: having performed a bucket load of miracles he then returned to his hometown, only to find that they didn’t think he was All That, and he remarked to his disciples, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home."

So, what makes it difficult for us to see, hear and receive the genius that is within our own people? Why are our organisational prophets so often without honour? And why is paying someone outside of the organisation to tell us what we could actually find within it, such a palatable alternative?

  1. We want our prophets to be gods, not people: We live in a culture that is prone to making idols out of people, and then, when they turn out to be human (like the rest of us) by committing some uniquely human but socially unacceptable act, we tear them to shreds. We throw them off the pedestal, and we burn their entire lives to the ground with what we say about them. I suspect that the truth of the matter is that we aren’t comfortable with the ways that we are flawed, so we don't feel comfortable when we realise the ways that our heroes are flawed, too. We tend to only let exceptional, admirable people (as we might individually define 'exceptional' and ‘admirable’) teach us things. With an outside expert, we haven't spent enough time with them to get to know how they, like us, are limited, and so we can subconsciously believe that they aren't. And for a lot of people, it is this belief that makes it possible for them to remain open to learning something.
  2. We want to keep employees in the box of their role description: There are several reasons why we might want to keep employees in the box of their role description - either because we're used to seeing them in a particular way, and that's comfortable for us, or because the patch that the person might like to move into is one that we think is ours or that we want to be ours alone. I remember being told by someone in human resources that she was the expert in that field and so I should take what she said without question... and yet I knew myself to be someone with an enormous amount of value to add in that space. We need to see past someone’s role description to what they’re capable of and or passionate about, and this will only happen if we create the space in our minds - and the opportunities in real life - for our employees to continually evolve.
  3. We don’t have the humility necessary to let our peers take a teaching role: When we know that our peers are just like us - a combination of strengths and weaknesses - it takes a lot of humility to see beyond that ordinary person to whatever message of value that they might be delivering. We also get jealous of other people being honoured in ways that we would like to be. But this isn't a zero sum game: that is, more honour for one person doesn't have to mean less honour for someone else. What if we were able to institute humble learning cultures, where we genuinely considered the merits of the message, rather than the merits of the messenger? What if teaching was a part of everyone’s role?
  4. When we spend a large amount of money on something, we’re biased to see it as good: "Surely, it must be good! I've just spent $100,000 on this speaker! He’s the best! Everyone loved what he had to say! HE CLIMBED EVEREST!" The reality is that it is hard for us to consider that we might have just wasted a decent amount of money being told something we already knew or could have easily found out for ourselves, and so we convince ourselves that we haven't. This is where deep thinking up front, and candid reflecting post event, would help us. Unfortunately, both require time, and one requires a lot of emotional maturity, to do really well... and neither are things that the average organisation is known for having a lot of. It’s a little different with employees, even though we’re also paying for them. What we end up doing is subconsciously assuming that the value an employee can provide is somehow linked to the salary that we pay them or their position on the org chart. This is wrong: people at all levels of the organisation can provide value that far exceeds their salary or position, if we create the space for them to do that.
  5. We want to be able to blame something 'out there' (the expert) if things go wrong, rather than looking 'in here' (ourselves, our business, our employees, our culture): External experts give us a scapegoat, someone to project onto if the outcomes aren't great. Again, it requires a lot of integrity and humility to take responsibility for the state of things in your organisation, to let learning spring from within, and to realise that there is no magic bullet that is going to transform whatever organisational issue you are beset with.
  6. We’re lazy (often disguised as 'too busy'): It requires far less from us as leaders to pay one person to give us the answer, than it does for us to facilitate those learnings from a diverse group of people. But, by taking that route, we miss out on a diversity of perspectives, specific business knowledge applied to the problem, and the benefits of the employee engagement that that kind of collaborative problem solving work often creates.

Familiarity might often breed contempt, but it doesn’t have to. Familiarity could, instead, breed a profound respect for the reality of human beings: for the ways that someone is both whole and limited, for their latent genius and their latent madness. But in order to receive that genius we must bear with each other, and being in relationship is naturally uncomfortable. This is because being deeply present to another human forces us to grow and change. External guru’s don’t have to do this - they don’t have to get in the trenches with people over the long haul and endure through the illogical, emotional and messy reactions that human beings have to things. They don't have to invest, particularly not in the ways and to the depths that your employees do.

The next time you’re considering bringing in an external expert to assist with something in your organisation, cast the net about instead to see if there is someone (or several people) for whom this could be a passion project. If you give them the same level of support and consideration that you would give to an external expert doing the same thing, then you will likely be positively surprised by what comes out of it.

The Power of Intentional Dissent In Organisations

“Always ask why, Annie,” Dad said one night to a fifteen year old me, as we were washing the dishes together. “Never take anything at face value.” I’m pretty sure Dad later came to regret that advice when I took it to heart and applied it to everything he had ever told me (“Clean your room.” ... “Why?”), but the life lesson had been delivered and accepted: there is profound merit in asking “Why?” with the intent to understand, and then, if the explanation doesn’t sound quite right, asking “Why?” with the intent to dissent. 

Dissent, according to a quick “define dissent” Google search, is: the holding or expression of opinions at variance with those commonly or officially held.

Organisations are full of commonly or officially held opinions. We have elaborate narratives about who the company is in the market place, the service we provide, the need we fulfil, the types of people we employ, the culture we have, the place that our strategy will deliver us to, the efficacy of the leadership that we exist under, and who we are as managers. 

And, as always, amongst our employee population there will be those who:

  1. Accept the narrative;
  2. See the holes in the narrative, but go with the flow; or
  3. See the holes in the narrative, and say so, like the child crying from the sidelines of the parade, “The emperor has no clothes!”

Dissent isn’t something that is routinely encouraged in organisations. In fact, if you’re one to challenge the ‘company line’ then, depending on the appetite for challenge in your company, you could quite quickly become the social pariah for it. Cue the un-evolved response of: “Bob just isn’t on board with where we’re going. He’s so negative. He puts people offside.” 

The majority resist dissent because it demands change - whether it’s a change in narrative to a more truthful but less palatable one (e.g. “we care more about cashflow than we do about people”), a change in opinion, or a change in approach or direction. And change is hard, even for those who think they’re well seasoned in it: we don’t keep changing for change’s sake, and we can become quite attached to narratives that we have accepted or the plans that we have formed. As the mighty Errol Boffey (my eighty seven year old grandfather) once said from the soapbox within his lunchbox, in describing the Law of Inertia: “Things like to keep doing what they’re already doing”. And that includes us: most human beings like to keep thinking in the way we have become accustomed to. 

So when we meet dissent, our instinctive response is to dismiss it (“it’s not true”), discount it (“it’s not really true in this situation”) or to dehumanise the person saying it (“I’m not entertaining the notion that this might be true because I don’t like Bob, who said it”). We do this rather than acknowledging: “This makes me feel uncomfortable, but I’m going to quietly sit in that feeling until I remember that dissenting views help us to create more realistic and robust answers. And once I remember that, I’m going to calmly open my mouth and say, “Oh yeah? Tell me more about that.” ”

Why dissent is brilliant for organisations

  1. Dissenting views given upfront and out loud are a sign of engagement. People want to contribute, and, at this point, they’ve just communicated that they still care enough to do so. You need to facilitate that desire to contribute if you want to ongoingly get the best out of your employees.
  2. When you facilitate dissent, it enables progress. As George Bernard Shaw stated: “All progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Who is the unreasonable man? The one with a dissenting opinion. Everything we take for granted - the fact that women can vote, the fact that we routinely put people in space, the fact that we have discrimination laws that are enacted and upheld - was all a profound unlikelihood at the time it was first raised, and it came from a dissenting view. And the dissenting view held firmly over time ultimately forced progress. Although people are typically (and strongly) incentivised by organisations to be compliant rather than dissenting, organisations will be better off if they make room for employees to force progress through dissent. 

Beliefs that prevent us from facilitating dissent

We won’t facilitate dissent if we believe:

  1. We don’t have the time to do anything about it. It takes time to hear these views and respond to them (either by querying, actioning, or providing reasons for why action won’t occur). And this time might not look like the kind of action that we're so routinely rewarded for.
  2. There is no appetite for change in the organisation. If too many people think, “What’s the point? It’ll never change. That’s just the way things are done around here,” then that view becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. 
  3. It’s too controversial. If you feel too scared to support a view that you see as controversial, then you won’t put your neck on the line for it. 
  4. Dissent is wrong. A lot of people have grown up in situations that have taught them that dissent is dangerous to their well being (command and control parents) or morally wrong (certain religions believe that all authorities are instituted by God and are not to be resisted) or culturally wrong (certain cultures have face-saving drivers that strongly discourage dissent). Those are hard beliefs to combat, so you’d need to institutionalise safe ways to dissent, and normalise that as a behaviour, in order to combat those beliefs. 
  5. That we don’t, personally, have the ability to handle a dissenting person’s opinion. There might be a number of reasons that someone could feel like this. If you have a conflict avoidant personality or are high on the strengths of Harmony or Consistency, then you’re probably going to freaking hate the situations where you come face to face with (as you think of her) Negative Nancy. Actually, she’s just Dissenting Debbie, and your response is an instinctive one, not a fair one. It is, as the colloquial saying goes, “your shit, not her shit.” 

Ideas that help us make room for dissent

  1. Dissent gives us a more complete, more truthful picture. Picture a group of objects on a table in the middle of the room, surrounded on all sides by people with sketchpads. Everyone is going to draw a different picture of exactly the same group of objects, based on where they are sitting - that is, based on their perspective. Whenever we approach a situation at work, this exact same thing is happening - we will all see different possibilities based on our perspective. If we facilitate the input of everyone, we will get a much more complete picture than if we don’t. We need to remember that there is always more than one way of seeing the world, and so, while convenient, individual ideas about “right and wrong” are rarely helpful and definitely never complete. As the cliche goes: no one has the monopoly on good ideas.
  2. Dissent is not a personal attack. Even if you’re the person who came up with the thing that someone else is saying “I don’t think we should be doing that,” we need to remember that that is not the same thing as saying “[insert your name here] is an idiot for thinking that we should do that.” Sometimes dissent might look like a personal attack when we challenge a narrative that we have surrounding a person - say, a leader or a manager - but this can be mitigated if we set up safe environments to express dissent about leadership or management styles respectfully. 
  3. Dissent is indicative of courage, not a character flaw, on the part of the person delivering it. Dissent requires courage. At its most unconscious and instinctive, the mental process for the majority of human beings will go along the following lines: “If I challenge this person/situation/issue then I might ultimately lose my job, and thus lose my means of meeting the various needs that I and my family have. Dissent = bad.” Most people don’t bother to open their mouth, and either put up with whatever issues the organisation is currently beset with, or they vote with their feet instead by leaving. 
  4. Dissent can be done in incredibly respectful, enriching ways, that leave everyone better off for it. It doesn’t have to be rude or blunt or traumatic. It does require time, a safe space and attentiveness, though. It does require a willingness to suspend what you think you know, in order to create room for something new to penetrate your realm of possibility. 

What happens in organisations that do not facilitate dissent 

Dissent can be an incredibly powerful tool when harnessed and approached in strategic ways. If you do not harness it, and instead dismiss it, you can expect to:

  1. Create a culture of Yes Men. The resulting homogeneity of views will stifle innovation that most organisations require to stay alive;
  2. Disengage people with dissenting views, thus leading to their lower productivity and possible turnover (both of which have bottom line impacts); and or
  3. Create division within the company when the dissenting person simply starts dissenting in private to their peers. There’s a real potential for toxicity (and widespread disengagement, with all of its negative side effects) when this occurs.

There are multiple ways that organisations can strategically facilitate dissent, but that’s an essay for another day. 

Meaning and Purpose At Work

My earliest existential crisis occurred at age ten, when I started seriously staring down the barrel of my own mortality in the face of Jesus’ imminent return. It was the early 90’s, and the protestants were laughing-crying-falling-over through their rapturous revivals, convinced that we were all shortly to cast off our mortal shells in favour of glory, and that was the family context that I grew up in. I remember hoping that Jesus would hold off long enough for me to get a bra, so I could, at least, experience some semblance of womanhood before I was transformed into a gender-neutral heavenly being (or something like that… my ten year old self wasn’t quite sure what was meant to happen next).

The vague sense of my impending death never really went away, even when Jesus didn’t turn up as predicted, and Y2K didn’t spell the end of the world, or when the Mayan apocalypse that I heard about in my year ten social studies class didn’t occur on 21 December 2012 as slated. I remember the day after that one, realising that I hadn’t banked on life past age 27… all of the five year plans I had created since that social studies class (they were my attempts to maximise the output of my inevitably short life) had stopped there. There was a brief high on realising that I wasn’t going to prematurely die, followed by multiple years spent undoing all of the conditioning that got me there in the first place.

Needless to say, over my time I’ve thought a lot about the meaning of life, or, as I think about it these days, how to create a meaningful life. I’m sure it goes without saying that while there may be broad similarities between what feels meaningful for people, we should assume that each person will have a completely individualised response to what a meaningful life would be for them. But I think all people care about questions of meaning, even if they don’t spend too much time thinking explicitly about it. No one wants to feel like their life doesn’t - or, didn’t - matter. No one wants to get to the end and regret what was.

So, what does this have to do with work? Well, unless you’re one of the very few people who don’t need to earn a living, work is the thing that we all share. It characterises our adult lives. It is the vehicle that we get from twenty to sixty-five (thereabouts) through. Our most stunning strengths, and our worst weaknesses, can be expressed through it. Some of us experience it as an unavoidable reality that we don’t care too much about, and, at the other extreme, others of us give it 110% and have a lot of our self-worth wrapped up in it. Regardless of how we relate to it, it’s taking up a huge portion of our lives, and thus is a significant factor in our wellness, our life’s story and legacy, and our sense of how meaningful - or otherwise - our life is.  

I personally believe that work can be a deeply meaningful exercise through which people can find self-knowledge and experience purpose beyond a pay cheque. That said, it can also be the exact opposite, and we see that too often: work and workplaces that demotivate, demoralize, and destroy people’s sense of connection and contribution and purpose. What we also see is the difference in productivity and output that a human being who really enjoys their work and workplace has, in comparison to a human being that doesn’t enjoy their work or who is running the gauntlet of a dysfunctional workplace.

The corporate search for profit and man’s search for meaning can be highly synergistic, and should be leveraged. A smart organisation recognises that there will be a direct, positive impact on its bottom line when it invests resources into creating a workplace where people can experience meaning and purpose in their work. 

That said, let’s be very clear: this isn’t as easy as giving people a wellness app and a few company-sponsored yoga sessions. This isn’t about beanbags and pie. This isn’t about a rebrand or a new set of values plastered on the wall. The image that keeps springing to mind is the oft-quoted (but apparently fictitious) instance of Marie Antoinette, in response to the starving, rioting masses, saying ‘let them eat cake’. But the people were hungry for so much more than food, and, in our organisations, people are hungry for so much more than perks. They’re hungry for a good life. They’re hungry for a sense of belonging. They’re hungry for integrity, and purpose and connection and the opportunity to genuinely contribute. They’re hungry for meaning.

So how does an organisation go about creating an environment where people can experience meaningful work? This is a huge topic, obviously... but here are a few (by no means exhaustive) thoughts from me:

  1. Organisations are, firstly and fundamentally, collections of human beings working together in a particular configuration and with particular tools, for the achievement of a particular purpose. As such, the framework of the organisation needs to be designed on a profound understanding of, and acceptance of, human nature. Too many organisations are built as if they had predictable machines working in them, rather than the wild art that is humanity. You need a structure that can flex, to accommodate the genius that people will bring to their work if you let them.
  2. You need a psychologically high-functioning leader (like, seriousEQ) with a radical commitment to creating a psychologically safe environment. But that leader can’t just be great at the human stuff - they also need the ability to marry what they know about human nature and needs, with what they know about running high performing businesses. That's a unique individual.
  3. The organisation needs to be designed to continuously but purposefully adapt - to evolve in sync with the world it operates in and with the humans that are operating within it. Too often I see companies undertaking revolutions - that is, drastic change and transformation programs - to keep up with change in the market, rather than having a way of continuously evolving. The problem with revolutions is that you’re almost immediately out of date (as soon as the program is complete), and they’re also highly disruptive (people will get change fatigue).
  4. A strengths-based approach gets awesome outcomes. Don't put people into roles that they don't have the strengths for, because they - and everyone around them - will be made miserable. Check out Gallup or Via Character Strengths for two different approaches to this.
  5. Prioritise clarity (see this article for what I think that looks like).
  6. Prioritise connection. Human beings are social animals, and are wired to bond. Create ways for people to do that authentically and safely.

I'd love to hear your thoughts! What do you think an organisation could do or provide that would enhance people's experience of meaningfulness?

The Organisation Of The Future: 5 Roles We Need Now

My mum has a photo that she pulls out from time to time, shot in the early 90's, from when she looked out a window into our front yard and saw a six year old me lying in a cardboard box, apple in hand, gazing vacantly off into the sky. I was born navel gazing - I literally love to think. I also love organisations (well, systems generally), but am frequently surprised by how little time and how little investment is given to deep thinking in organisations.

Here are the five new thinking roles that I’m convinced that the highest performing organisations of the future will have:

The Philosopher

Once a human being’s base level needs are consistently met and he’s not fighting for his survival, his mind turns to existential questions: “Why am I here? What should I be doing with my life? What is genuinely meaningful?” Now, there are no easy answers to these questions, so most people either avoid answering them by distracting themselves (The Bachelorette, anyone?) or numbing out (too much food, alcohol, work, exercise, shopping etc), or they give themselves a ready-made solution that they don’t have to think too hard about (religion as opposed to well considered faith, for example). Man’s desire to live a meaningful life is innate, however, and the organisation of the future recognises that people wrestle with these questions, and that work can be a deeply meaningful experience for people if it is set up well. The Philosopher helps leaders (and the Remora Fish - see below) to construct an organisation that contributes to people’s search for meaning and purpose. 

The Futurist

The Futurist is the person who is looking more than 5 years down the track, seeing ‘the future’. She can perceive trends (not just in the market that she’s engaged in, but across economies, demographics, governance etc), is up to date with cutting edge thinking and STEM advancements, and is able to position the organisation well in advance to take advantage of where things are going.

The reason many organisations don’t yet have this role is because you can’t see the return on the Futurist in the short term, and also because we (unrealistically) expect senior managers to perform this role. The day to day reality for most senior managers is fire fighting and people conundrums and politics. The Futurist has a very particular way of seeing the world that is not common - there is a level of conceptual comprehension that a normal senior manager is unlikely to have, let alone also have the time to devote to positioning the organisation to take advantage of it.

The Remora Fish (AKA the Systems Thinker)

For those of you who don’t know, the remora fish is a fish that survives by attaching itself to another big fish, like a shark. It eats off the shark’s dead skin and, by doing so, keeps the shark clean and healthy. It also eats a whole load of the shark’s waste, which feels fitting, because the Remora Fish in an organisation is a systems thinker who floats between departments (the sub systems), exploring their interfaces and solving cross functional issues and dealing with a whole heap of crap. This is the person focused ‘on’ the business - how the whole is designed, how the whole is performing, where adjustment is required. The Remora Fish keeps the system well and on track.

The reason many organisations don’t yet have a role like this is because people get precious about their patch. They don’t want someone else coming in and ‘improving’ it, because it’s in our human nature to assume that:

  1. someone else saying that something of ours could be improved upon is an indictment on our performance, or, heaven forbid, our very self; or
  2. we think that we know the most about whatever it is that we’ve been put in charge of. (Note: We don’t).

Our patch sits within a whole, and the Remora Fish is focused on the performance of the whole. We can’t genuinely ‘know’ anything, without first accurately comprehending the context that it exists within, and the Remora Fish is the person with the context.

The Dissenter

The literature has been telling us for years that task conflict is healthy and necessary… and yet, it’s in most people’s nature to avoid conflict and take the path of least resistance. If you’re an especially strong personality, it’s not that you’re right all the time, it’s just that other people let you have your way because it’s easier than the alternative. The Dissenter is an organisation-sanctioned challenger. Someone who says, “Why?”, “But what about?” or “Have you considered?” They help make your thinking and planning robust, by subjecting it to critical thinking. Action gives us the illusion of progress, and organisations routinely prioritise ill-considered action over taking a small amount of time to deeply think about things. The Dissenter is the momentary handbrake that makes your thinking better, and your action more powerful. The Dissenter is the antidote to yes-men and alphas and untouchables; they make what’s really happening explicit. They’re not normally very popular, but, by jove, they really should be because of the value that they add.

The Therapist

I have a lot of theories about the impact that someone’s level of psychological functioning has on everyone around them, but it is most notable in organisations: the higher up the ladder you go, the greater the impact of your unresolved wounding on the performance of the organisation. A conflict-avoidant CEO creates a conflict-avoidant organisation, and a conflict-avoidant organisation will always be underperforming. A manager with a high need for control will (generally unwittingly, but sometimes not) stifle creativity and original thinking in the people that work for them, thus killing innovation and market-relevance. I once worked for an organisation where I speculated a lot about the retentive type of person that the CEO might be, on the basis that I wasn’t allowed to eat at my desk or hang a jacket off the back of my chair...I remember that, on hearing that edict, I wailed “I’m not a robot, or a preschooler!” before starting an earnest conversation with my colleagues about the healthy effect of civil disobedience on societal progress.

Organisations are collections of human beings, and human beings exist somewhere on a spectrum of low psychological functioning to high psychological functioning. We should be realistic about the fact that everyone’s a bit screwed up, and this will have an impact on the people in our lives, including other people at work. Personal development should be a mandatory part of every leader’s job description: self-awareness cannot be optional when you’re leading people, because of the unnecessary harm that one un-self-aware human being can do to another. The Therapist exists to counsel the CEO, executive team, and any other people managers.

The In-house Think Tank

Summing up:

  • the Philosopher is focused up, on questions of meaning and purpose;
  • the Futurist is focused far out into the future, to see where we could be going;
  • the Remora Fish is focused on the business (marrying the macro and the micro) to ensure that it is performing as optimally as it can in the current moment;
  • the Dissenter is focused at things, critically analysing them, to ensure that all of our action is as intentional as it should be and as powerful as it could be; and
  • the Therapist is focused inwards, helping us to reconcile who we are on our insides with the way we operate in the world.

Again, we’re often quite naive about what can be achieved by leaders in organisations - we either expect all of this kind of thinking to be done by them and then actioned by them, or we ignore the need for this kind of thinking entirely. But powerful thinking requires time and space and, often, quiet… for me, it also is facilitated by being almost horizontal on a couch or in a beanbag, which aren't yet usual positions to find your colleagues in, in most workplaces. It requires expertise in analysis and comprehension and application, which aren’t typical skill sets. It requires a long termism that is often at odds with the short termism of your one year development plan or annual reporting to shareholders.

I think the organisation of the future has an in-house think tank. They would be deeply embedded in the business, be trusted advisors to the senior leadership team, and share thinking that could help the business make sound decisions. Imagine getting to be the Galileo of Google or the DaVinci of Deloitte… to someone like me, that would be bliss!

Go forth and think deeply.

The Link Between Clarity And High Performance

I remember once bemoaning the state of an organisation that I worked for, to one of my favourite wise old men (well, he’s not that old, but he’s pretty wise), who happened to be my boss at the time: “It’s so broken! This isn’t working, and that person is incompetent, and so-and-so never follows the process! No one’s held accountable for anything that matters, there’s no strategy to speak of, and the lack of leadership is laughable!”

And Yoda sagely destroyed my naive idealism with a blunt response: “This isn’t unusual. Every organisation struggles with some combination of people not doing their job, defunct process, crap technology, or dirty data.”

It took me a while to swallow that pill of truth, mostly because - to someone as idealistic and self-righteous as millennial me - it felt like one of those horrendous golf-ball-sized echinacea monstrosities that causes you to gag before you manage to drown it down your digestive system with a good swig of water (or wine, if it’s a little later in the day). 

But once it was down into my metaphorical gut as an unavoidable reality, I started to think a lot about whyit was true - why is it that every organisation wrestles with some form of under-performance?

I think we forget sometimes that organisations are collections of human beings, and, as such, all under-performance can be traced back to decisions driven by distinctly human concerns. It’s easy to blame our tools (that is, our systems and processes and data) and the outputs of our tools, but they exist in the state that they’re in, producing the outcomes that they do, as a result of decisions made by people.

This is the first in a series of articles that explores the question: what is it, precisely, that humans need to receive from organisations, in order to be high performing? 

But first, a little bit of relevant Human Nature 101:

  1. Human beings are wired to seek certainty. Right down at our core we recognise the truth of our own smallness in an infinitely vast universe, and that doesn’t make us feel very safe. So, we squish down the potential for existential angst by reducing the size of our world to the scenarios that we understand and, we hope, can control. At its simplest: the illusion of certainty gives us the illusion of control, and the illusion of control makes us feel safe(r).

  2. Human beings make substandard decisions when they feel uncertain about the environment they’re operating in. When human beings are operating in an uncertain environment, they’re typically alert to potential danger, sub-conciously waiting for the T-Rex to come charging out of the bushes to eat them. That’s not the kind of head-space to make great decisions from. You can’t focus on analysing your data well or having a healthy performance review, if you’re wrestling with an instinctive flight, fight or freeze response that says “I’M NOT SAFE!”. The science says that, in that moment, certain parts of your brain functioning is reduced because your body is getting ready to spring into action.
  3. Human beings are pack animals. Like all mammals, we are hardwired to care for our young, so we have all of these “connection feels good!” responses built into our bodies. Conversely, disconnection feels very bad - there’s a reason why solitary confinement is a punishment for human beings, and that’s it. As pack animals, we know we would likely die if we got ousted from the tribe, and you see a lot of unconscious instinctive responses that still operate in us to prevent that (for example, that’s why it feels so awful when you get publicly shamed).

When a human being joins an organisation (that is, he joins his new tribe in a new location), he wants to know certain things, namely:

  • Where am I?
  • Where are we going?
  • What’s my role in that?
  • Who are all these other people?
  • What do they do?
  • How does this particular tribe of people behave?
  • What’s considered important, here?

That is, he’s trying to make sense of his context - of the environment that he’s operating in. Because work is going to meet some of his base level needs (a pay cheque provides food, shelter, clothing, and perhaps more, for example), he cares about the rules of the game and playing it well. Unless you’re seriously disenchanted with the fact that you were born into an industrialised society that forces you in the hamster wheel of work as opposed to foraging in the forest (most of us unconsciously and graciously accept it as an unavoidable, albeit often annoying, reality), you don’t turn up to a new job thinking, “Yep! I’m going to be seriously average at this. I’m going to do just enough to avoid being fired.” On the contrary, you want to understand where you’ve landed, what your role in the tribe is, and how to be successful in it.

When we feel more certain about the environment that we are operating in, then it becomes possible to direct all of our brain power to the task at hand. So much non-value-adding behaviour that I see from human beings stems from a lack of clarity provided by the organisation, which means that it’s a struggle, then, for people to create certainty.

There are a couple of disclaimers to what I’m talking about:

  1. I am not saying that people can’t handle any ambiguity. To the contrary, people can handle a great deal of ambiguity as long as their immediate context is clear. For example, you may be working in an extremely volatile market. That won’t matter to the people who work for you, if the company has a clear and credible strategy, that people know how they fit into. Metaphorically, people just need to know that they’re on a stable boat with a competent captain, not what the ocean will do next.
  2. The benefit of clarity has a tipping point: when things are documented down to the enth degree - to the point that human creativity and ownership is stifled - then it has gone too far. We’ve all probably worked for a huge company where you become convinced that a monkey could do your job because of how little room you have to move. No one wants to feel like a monkey.

So, how can organisations provide us with the clarity that we need to create certainty? By providing us with the answers to each of those earlier questions, typically in the form of documents that are easily accessible:

  1. Where am I? There should be a clear, one-to-few pager on the company, its history, where it’s going, and how it’s structured at a high level. This gets updated at regular intervals.
  2. Where are we going? There should be a clearly documented strategy, that has flowed down into clearly documented business unit plans.
  3. What’s my role in that? The clearly documented business unit plans should have flowed down into clearly documented role descriptions.
  4. Who are all these other people? There should be an organisation chart! Don’t laugh (or weep, as I felt tempted to do when I first came across this), it’s surprising how many businesses do not make one of these available to its employees.
  5. What do they do? There should be a role description for each person, which should be accessible to every other employee. See my earlier article on Dipping Down, if you’re interested on a longer statement about the benefits of doing this.
  6. How does this particular tribe of people behave? There should be a statement of the company’s values… but, as we know, there’s often a disconnect between the espoused values and the reality, so this is typically something I ask about at interviews. “How does this particular tribe of people behave, really, as opposed to what’s written on the wall?”
  7. What’s considered important, here? You will be able to tell what’s really important by what shows up in the performance review metrics, or by what the short term bonus scheme is based on: that is, on what people are incentivised to prioritise. If you are responsible for these documents in a company, then, please, either get them to align with the company’s espoused values or change those values to own what the company is genuinely about. People can sniff out hypocrisy and misalignment a mile away, and it will make them feel uncertain about their environment.

In addition to providing these documents, internal communications as a discipline is something that I see so many companies under prioritise and, as a result, do badly. If we accept that human beings need clarity in order to create certainty in order to feel safe in order to bring all of their brains to the task at hand (*deep breath!*), then we have to accept that there needs to be structured, strategic communication in the event of change. People aren’t stupid - they can see things changing and if you do not provide them with a credible narrative, then they will create their own and it likely won’t inspire them with confidence about the company.

The highest performing teams that I have worked with knew what their role was, what our function’s role was, and how that all fit into where the company was going. The highest performing companies that I have worked with prioritised keeping their staff genuinely informed. It isn’t hard to get the best out of people, but it does take some time devoted to meeting those more human concerns, such as the need for clarity.

The Drawbacks of 'Dipping Down'

I’ve met a lot of senior managers over the years, and I’m still surprised by how frequently I see people not adding value at the level where they’re paid to add value. That is (and to adopt a colloquialism), they’re frequently ‘dipping down’ to a point that is well and truly below their pay-grade. Like the CEO who is overly invested in the design details of the new furniture to grace a satellite office, or the General Manager who spends too much time in the department where she came from while learning very little about, and providing no leadership to, other departments in her remit. Like any people manager (and we’ve all been this person at some point) who, when receiving a piece of work from their staff that isn’t up to snuff, redoes it themselves, rather than taking the time to coach or manage the staff member through doing it to the required standard.

And, we’ve probably all been on the receiving end of this, too. You’ve consulted all the relevant people, done all the thinking, and are happily going about your project when wham! Suddenly someone more senior (with far less knowledge of the relevant details) has interjected themselves into what you’re doing, and starts sending it down a different path. *Cue much annoyance and let’s-get-a-meeting-room ranting with your work spouse*

So, why does this happen at all? I speculate there are a number of reasons, including:

  1. The comfort of competence: Very often people are promoted because they’re good at what they do. Except, a promotion doesn’t mean that you get to keepdoing what you’re good at - you’re actually expected to add value at a higher level, now. You need to learn how to do new things, like lead people or write business plans or think strategically, and learning new things often feels really challenging to our sense of competence (and, for some, to their sense of self-worth). Also, organisations often just don't provide any training in the more esoteric stuff that you need to know as you ascend the ladder, like systems thinking or strategic thinking or how to grow bucket loads of emotional intelligence in yourself and others. We over-prioritise ‘doing’, at the expense of ‘learning how to do well’. So, we revert to doing what we already know or like doing as a means of comforting ourselves.

  2. Fear of exposure: We still have this pretty obvious (and extraordinarily limited) societally-mandated version of success which sees many people blindly accepting promotions because they come with more money and perceived prestige, even though they are roles which the person will not be able to do well and which will make them feel self-conscious and miserable (and which will make everyone who works for them feel miserable, too). Like, for example, the kind of scenario that comes about when you put a ‘project person’ in a ‘business as usual’ role, or a technically competent but not people-oriented person in charge of a department. These situations are where we see the phrase ‘promoted to his level of incompetence’ lived out - one simply cannot (due to strengths, personality and or interests) do the role as well as it needs to be done. Once you know you’re not all that good at something, it becomes really hard to say that and to accept the consequences of it, such as a demotion… it might look like failure (rather than an unavoidable reality that requires no judgement), so you tend to try to hide it instead. The person in this situation will frequently find reasons to dip down or across as a means of trying to hide that poor role fit.

  3. Personal interest: When we’re in senior roles, we are often afforded the privilege of our opinion carrying more weight than those in less senior roles. That being so, and, being human, we let our preferences come to the fore on topics that matter to us personally but which have no relation to our role. Like, we’ll get really vocal about where the new office is located, or what colour the walls get painted, or how short term bonuses are calculated. These items are all part of someone else’sactual job description… you’re not paid to care about them (even though you might wish that you were).  

  4. Unmet expectations: People often dip down when they’re not getting the thing that they expected to get from someone. There can be multiple reasons why they’re not getting that expected thing, of course, including their own failure to communicate their expectations clearly, something in the process or a system being broken, or a staff member not being up to the required level of competence, etc. But how someone responds to that scenario is critically important - do you take the time to have the conversation and seek to understand why something occurred, or do you just bandaid the situation (thereby guaranteeing that it will occur again) by doing it yourself?

  5. Habit: This comes up a lot in really reactive environments that celebrate ‘fire fighting’ rather than the planned execution of the business’ priorities. There’s a sense of reward that comes from kicking things off the to do list, even if they’re not things that add real value. If you’ve gotten into a habit of fire fighting, it can be really hard to stop…. Most likely, you will have trained everyone else into involving you in those (so called) ‘urgent!’ things, and then feel as if you can’t escape doing them, or you’ll come to believe that you were always meant to be doing them.

The only person that dipping down isn’t painful for is the person doing the dipping. Everyone else involved is cringing or whinging about the intrusion, and you can see why: the ‘Dipee’, intentionally or otherwise, is essentially communicating to everyone involved:

  1. “I don’t trust you to do your job”; or

  2. “Something went wrong but I'm not having the conversation with you about what that thing was, so you can't fix it”; or

  3. “I don’t think I can (or, I don’t want to) do myjob”; or

  4. “I’m using my position to advance my self-interest”; or

  5. “I don’t have anything better to do”.

None of those things are particularly pleasant, or confidence inspiring, for anyone else to be faced with. In fact, they’re pretty demoralising options to consider. And when human beings get demoralised, disengagement (and the productivity loss that goes with it) is a short skip away.

No one consciously wants to demoralise or disengage people, so how do we prevent dipping down from happening?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Have a clear role description for everyrole in the organisation, that everyone can see: When roles are incompletely, or, not all, defined, then we can’t be held accountable for not meeting the requirements of them and we can’t be held accountable for our jaunts into other people’s role territory. Many people feel very adverse to the notion of their role description being made public, precisely for this reason - accountability for performance becomes a real thing. But! There are so many benefits to having role descriptions done completely and made available to everyone, including the following:

    1. Everyone is clear on what they’re meant to be doing, which means that they can actually do it;

    2. It becomes a lot easier to prevent under-performance, because the criteria for performance is actually articulated;

    3. You can see what is falling in between the gaps of certain roles or certain departments, and you either deem it Out Of Scope for the organisation or make express provision for how it will be dealt with going forward;

    4. The organisation is clear on how it fits together, which means it can then assess whether it is in the best configuration possible. And, in the event of a restructure, it becomes a lot easier to reconfigure, because the scope of the work that is being done is already articulated;

    5. Staff can find out who they need to talk to, quickly and easily, rather than wasting time trying to find the right person;

    6. It sets an amazing example of transparency and accountability, from the top down.

  2. Institute ‘safe words’ for calling out ‘dipping down’ behaviour: We have to remember that people’s intentions are generally good, and offensive behaviour is generally not intended… thus a gentle way of calling out that behaviour is required, which is where agreed ‘safe words’ are often excellent. I was once navigating a long distance relationship, and we realised that conversations about difficult topics only got more difficult when we attempted to have them over the phone, rather than waiting until we were together next. And thus, ‘Unicorn Party Time!’ was born as our go-to way for indicating “this conversation is getting too serious, and we need to revert to something light”. It was so ridiculous that it normally provoked a chuckle, and therefore it was able to achieve exactly what it was intended to achieve. For dipping down behaviour, I like the thought of “Dip It! Dip It Good!” (rather than “Whip It Good!”) as a safe word... (though this is probably because I could also execute a dance move with it).

  3. Help people to become self-aware: Seriously, greater self-awareness is a win for not only the person who has obtained it, but everyone else they then come into contact with. Give your staff access to strengths based testing, personality testing, learning style testing, communications style testing, what-they’re-motivated-by testing… all of this information helps people to understand the way they approach the world - their preferences, strengths and interests - which means they can make more sound decisions for themselves and be a lot clearer about where they will add the most value (and where they won’t).
  4. Train senior managers in the ‘soft’ or conceptual skills that the dream ‘super experienced’ candidate for the role would have: Very few people are born knowing how to get the best out of others. Very few people are born with a latent talent for understanding how things are connected and how they impact on each other - like how the work one department does will impact on another department, or how movement in the market is going to impact on the organisation as a whole. Many leaders were once specialists in a particular field, and they haven't been taught the skills of someone who needs to look at the whole (and not just part) of a business. Each level in the organisation should have a mandatory prescribed learning list that attaches to the job description, depending on that roles’ objective and span of influence in the organisation.

  5. Make ‘acting in’ positions normal: Stop doling out promotions as rewards for good performance, and give them to people who will be a genuinely good fit for the role. How could you know whether or not someone will be a good fit for a role? Well, in addition to the results of any self-awareness testing, by giving them a 1 year long opportunity to act in the role. If both parties already know that someone won’t be a good fit in a more senior role, then enable the seniority of the person to be recognised in their current role in other ways, without making them responsible for things that they won’t be able to, or will hate, doing. I remember when law firms brought in the ability for someone to become a special counsel, rather than a partner: adopting a special counsel role meant that lawyers who really loved the law could avoid the people management and business development obligations that came with partnership, while having their seniority recognised.

Any other thoughts on approaches to dipping down?

It takes a lot of discipline to stay in the space where you’re paid to add value, and to say no to getting involved in things that are meant to be handled by others. But the rewards are there - you free other people up to develop their skills and fully inhabit their roles, while you do the same in yours. As my friend Tim said rather recently, “At the end of the day, it’s down to leadership (as it so often is)”... and that's very true. May your leadership in this area be ongoingly strong.

'Professionalism' versus 'Authentic Self-Expression'

I started my career in a law firm, where, as is often the case for impressionable graduates in high powered places, I was quickly moulded into the corporate killing machine I needed to be in order to ‘earn my keep’ (and earn the equity partners’ keep, too). I even, eventually, ironed out my exuberant mane of curls and adopted a chemically induced Uma-Thurman-In-Pulp-Fiction black bob, to go along with my new persona of “I have all of my shit together. Try best me at your peril.” Which is quite something for a 24 year old.

It was there that I learnt what it meant to be professional. There are all of the usual things - 'know your stuff', 'be on time', 'drive your matters', 'don’t say shit to the clients' - and then there were all the other things that were, perhaps, less obvious but definitely there, like ‘always look fantastic’, ‘don’t complain when you receive the privilege of a 16 hour work day for weeks at a time’, and ‘for godssake, no crying, and if you have to, do that in the toilets where no one can see you’ … in other words, professional also became synonymous with ‘have no human moments’.

Fast forward a few years, and I found myself in an entirely different situation: I was sans husband, home or career, studying art therapy with a bunch of (mostly) middle-aged hippies and housewives. This was a subject that required you to operate from the heart, not the head; one that specifically by-passes the cognitive in favour of the unconscious mind. In short: your truest you has nowhere to hide. In extra short: shit got real.

I joke about it, but I couldn’t have asked for a better life-twist for myself than all of those horrifically human moments that made me end up there, learning how to be a genuine person. Learning how to make space for other people to be genuine people. Learning how to not be ashamed for being so human, and not as machine as I thought I needed to be in order to succeed in my work.         

Fast forward a few years more, and I found myself back in the corporate environment, unable to undo all of the self-acceptance that I had painstakingly won… and, I admit, there were a few awkward months of frequent oversharing (I blame therapy - it’s taught me that the things I have to say are interesting and worth taking seriously) before I found my new groove of being authentically - and (mostly) appropriately - myself in the workplace.

So, let’s get back to the word ‘professional’, and its place at work.

We’ve been hearing for years that we’re moving into a ‘knowledge worker’ age - we’re past the industrial age, and the assembly line style of work, and we acknowledge that human beings Have Feelings and Want Things (and not just beanbags and pie, Simon Sinek, though I will take both).

Except, we’re still utterly ill equipped to deal with human beings behaving more like, well, human beingsin the workplace. We don’t like passionate people when they’re toopassionate. We don’t like the steady, reliable sorts when they’re toochange resistant. We don’t like the naysayers when they do exactly what it says on the box, and tell us how things are broken. We don’t know what to do when the person struggling with their home life gets less productive or more volatile. We don’t know how to care about people - “Can I care? Where’s the line? How much is too much? Am I getting to close? Will I still be taken seriously by my staff if I care about them?” For heaven’s sake, we still haven’t figured out how to have the “You need to do something about your body odour,” conversation well.

I’d posit (and I do posit, because that’s what ex-lawyers are wont to do) that:

  1. We are human beings, first and foremost, and workers, second.

  2. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that people can adequately suspend who they are for eight hours or more a day, just so everyone else doesn’t have to feel uncomfortable. We are not machines.

  3. On that basis, and if we want to get the best out of people: We absolutely have to get competent at having real, respectful and realistic discussions  about the human side of things - about the impact of ‘someone as a person’ on ‘me as a person’ or ‘the team as people’; conversations where we own our own values and our own limited paradigms and our own flawed natures, rather than seeing someone else's approach as the sole issue.

  4. We need to split out someone’s ability to perform the requirements of the role (that is, their professionalism) and someone’s persona. I still see too many popularity contests turning up in organisations around performance review time. 

  5. We need to stop celebrating (implicitly or otherwise) the traditional 'not human' human that we wanted people to be at work, and create space for a diversity of styles to emerge… that is, create space where someone can produce great work in the way and style that's authentic to them, rather than saying that it’s only great work if they fit within xyz box of ‘professional' behaviour along the way.

I noticed fairly early in my career that, if someone was particularly good at their job, they could get away with many things, including bullying and eccentricity. That is (and putting aside the bullying bit and focusing on the eccentricity bit), they could get away with being themselves- with wearing the things they really wanted to wear, with expressing the way they’re born to express, or even, perhaps, with swearing a bit too much (me. Still me.). One of my highlights was seeing an extraordinarily competent sixty-year-old female partner wear a sheer fuschia blouse over a black bra to work one day - she absolutely rocked it, and she knew it, too.

But I’d like to think that, actually, that luxury could exist separate to one’s job performance: that You The Human was allowed to turn up at work in all your glory, and not spend most of your energy trying to fit into a narrowly confined box of ‘acceptable behaviour’ or 'acceptable conversation', and only ending up with some energy left over to do your work. I'm not suggesting that all standards go out the window, of course, only that we move a little further along the spectrum of what 'normal at work' could be on the basis of how humans actually operate... For example, perhaps it could become normal to ask for a hug if you needed one, and normal for someone to say yes or no as felt right to them. Perhaps it could become normal to appoint a Chief Dissenter to every team rather than hating the person who naturally assumes that role, so that we all got the benefit of being challenged more frequently. Perhaps it could become normal to have conversations about how fulfilled or otherwise someone felt in their life, and the role that work played in their sense of purpose.

I think that all of this comes back down to accepting that people are different (radically different, even) to you, but being intentional about creating a space where they can be themselves anyway, because - somewhere past your instinctive experience of discomfort in the face of diversity - you yourself want to feel accepted for who you are, and your best self wants that for others, too. And you know that when you feel free to be yourself, some of your greatest contributions spring forth.

If you had it all your way, what would become more normal in your workplace? Or, who would you be, if you felt like it would be okay to be that person? For the record, my favourite work environment was cool with hugs, high fives, and the (not so) occasional costume.  I believe play is essential to productivity, but that's a soap box for another day.