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.