Instruments of Change

I feel like I’ve stum­bled out of the for­est to find an incred­i­ble new meet­ing ground filled with many won­der­ful peo­ple and defined by so many excep­tion­al per­son­al reflections.

Recent­ly, the begin­nings of new con­ver­sa­tion hap­pened here, start­ing from my post on feed­back. Nan­cy White sum­ma­rizes the thread, includ­ing the great com­ments offered by Rosan­na Tar­siero in Italy and Bev­er­ly
in Por­tu­gal. These per­spec­tives, includ­ing Nan­cy’s own words at the end of her post about the impor­tance of the ques­tions being asked, are such valu­able mir­rors. Read­ing these com­ments, I had to ask myself: Is my writ­ing so local? Am I writ­ing only for Amer­i­cans (and real­ly only a sub­set of major­i­ty cul­ture Amer­i­cans at that!) How can I bridge to a dif­fer­ent van­tage point? How can I bet­ter see my own assump­tion sets? For a few moments, try­ing to drink from this fire hose, I felt over­whelmed — and then very grate­ful for the water.

I know I will do a lot more think­ing about the com­ments by Rosan­na and Bev, and I see it is very true that I write from the per­spec­tive of an Amer­i­can and from the per­spec­tive of “self,” so let me say a lit­tle more about each of these points. And to do that, of course, I have to share a lit­tle more of my story.

My per­spec­tive work­ing with orga­ni­za­tions orig­i­nates from many aspects of expe­ri­ence, but in the begin­ning a great deal came from work I did with my col­leagues Kath­leen Ryan and George Orr. Our books, par­tic­u­lar­ly Dri­ving Fear Out of the Work­place (see the side­bar), were explic­it attempts to under­stand the dynam­ics of Amer­i­can orga­ni­za­tions around speak­ing up behav­ior. We talked to many Amer­i­can work­ers in many orga­ni­za­tions to learn more about these pat­terns. Although this work was pri­mar­i­ly done in the late eight­ies and ear­ly nineties, I do not see that these pat­terns have changed very much — some, but cer­tain­ly not the kind of evo­lu­tion I had once hoped for. The books came at the height of what was known as the “qual­i­ty move­ment” in Amer­i­ca, led pre-emi­nent­ly by W. Edwards Dem­ing. In fact the title line about dri­ving out fear comes from his advice for the trans­for­ma­tion of Amer­i­can man­age­ment. That was an ide­al­is­tic time when many peo­ple ardent­ly hoped for work­places that were more open and appre­cia­tive of peo­ple, where blame would be stopped, and where we could all get on with solv­ing the real prob­lems of the work — which had to do with bad process, lack of knowl­edge, and insen­si­tiv­i­ty to cus­tomers, both exter­nal and inter­nal to orga­ni­za­tions. What I learned both through the research that went into the books and my con­sult­ing work was that there are very con­sis­tent cul­tur­al habits of silence about sen­si­tive top­ics in Amer­i­can orga­ni­za­tions. For exam­ple, I could go into vir­tu­al­ly any kind of orga­ni­za­tion — from hos­pi­tals to fac­to­ries, uni­ver­si­ties to account­ing firms — and find syn­dromes of “undis­cuss­abil­i­ty,” mean­ing the ret­i­cence of peo­ple to share cer­tain ideas, ques­tions, dreams, or feed­back for fear it would either affect their future or would not do any good. I learned about how fear of reper­cus­sions, espe­cial­ly the loss of rep­u­ta­tion and cred­i­bil­i­ty, might sub­tly affect feel­ings about the orga­ni­za­tion, per­son­al lev­els of com­mit­ment, and the capac­i­ty of the orga­ni­za­tion to improve. When orga­ni­za­tion­al cul­tures include back­ground sys­tems of emo­tion­al con­trol and mis­trust around words like “trou­ble-mak­er” or “whin­er” (or oth­ers), good peo­ple with great ideas can begin to wor­ry about what will hap­pen if they point out prob­lems — whether these prob­lems are per­ceived or real. I learned about the dual aspect of Amer­i­can orga­ni­za­tions — the offi­cial world of what is said dur­ing the meet­ing in the con­fer­ence room and the unof­fi­cial world of what is said in the hall or park­ing lot lat­er. Does one of these worlds hold all the answers? No, not in my opin­ion, but where there is ten­sion between the two we may have work to do with our rela­tion­ships and com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Not because it feels bet­ter — it often does not — but because as human com­mu­ni­ties and enter­pris­es we are capa­ble of so much more in terms of serv­ing and con­tribut­ing to the world — and we ought to be tak­ing a look at any­thing that gets in the way of that. Are these dynam­ics true of all peo­ple in all Amer­i­can orga­ni­za­tions? Of course not. There are many work­places where there is a fine free­dom to speak up, where peo­ple are not cat­e­go­rized. And is open­ness always the answer? No, that’s not true for me either. By there’s an irony that in Amer­i­ca, a democ­ra­cy with pret­ty clear­ly stat­ed norms expressed in the Bill of Rights, the under­ly­ing val­ues and free­doms don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly trans­late once you go to work.

It is an entire­ly dif­fer­ent ques­tion, of course, whether these dynam­ics apply to oth­er coun­tries and cul­tures. I sup­pose some aspects may and oth­ers do not. That’s the beau­ty to me of a tru­ly glob­al com­mu­ni­ty — explor­ing and engag­ing around these dif­fer­ences. I have heard through anec­dotes that Amer­i­can work­places feel more dan­ger­ous than work­places in oth­er parts of the world — mean­ing there is more implic­it threat around loss of one’s job. I have no idea if that is actu­al­ly the case. What is clear is that there can be enor­mous dif­fer­ences of expec­ta­tion and expe­ri­ence across cul­tur­al divides. Edward T. Hal­l’s dis­tinc­tion between high and low con­text cul­tur­al styles, may be one place to open a door. I would love to get more feed­back around any of the dynam­ics men­tioned here, so please share your points of view!

So much of what I’ve seen and read late­ly on the net, such as Jed Miller and Rob Stu­ar­t’s ele­gant dis­ser­ta­tion, Net­work-Cen­tric Think­ing: The Inter­net’s Chal­lenge to Ego-Cen­tric Insti­tu­tions, (that I found on Rosan­na’s site) sug­gest that the ener­gy is build­ing in brand new ways to cre­ate pos­i­tive change. But even there I see some old pat­terns per­sist­ing in the lan­guage itself, still a vir­tu­ous “us” who “gets it” and a dinosaur-like, ego-dri­ven “them” who are on the way out — cre­at­ing one more bat­tle­ground. In my expe­ri­ence, the neg­a­tive stereo­typ­ing just leads to mis­trust and resis­tance, and so we inad­ver­tent­ly col­lude in cre­at­ing the world we say we don’t want.

Years ago (in 1960), Dou­glas McGre­gor drew a dis­tinc­tion in The Human Side of Enter­prise between two types of man­agers: The­o­ry X, which makes neg­a­tive assump­tions about the capac­i­ties of peo­ple — lead­ing to auto­crat­ic, pow­er-based lead­er­ship styles and The­o­ry Y, which makes pos­i­tive assump­tions about peo­ple, and leads to more pos­i­tive and open meth­ods. To me this dis­tinc­tion is less impor­tant than an insight offered by Mar­vin Weis­bord, writ­ing about his own con­sult­ing work:

After 100 projects in every kind of work­place the only thing I know for sure that I have changed is my own mind about The­o­ries X and Y. They do not describe peo­ple with oppos­ing man­age­ment styles. They describe an inner dia­logue with­in me — and with­in you. This X/Y dia­logue ener­gizes our dark­er as well as our more enlight­ened selves, mak­ing the search for pro­duc­tive work­places a risky voy­age into the hid­den reach­es of our own psy­ches. Chang­ing the work­place is inevitably bound up with chang­ing ourselves.

I have long ago giv­en up wor­ry­ing very much about how “pro­duc­tive” work­places are. I now focus almost entire­ly on the nature of the con­tri­bu­tion. But Weis­bord and many oth­er sources had begun to con­vince me that the most mean­ing­ful oppor­tu­ni­ties for change are with­in the self — the self of any­one who wants to use their poten­tials to make a con­tri­bu­tion to a bet­ter world. And this may be a pure­ly Amer­i­can motif, but for me it also res­onat­ed with big­ger themes, and I heard the motif in oth­er voic­es, such as that of J. Krish­na­mur­ti, the famous teacher born in India, in a life-chang­ing col­lec­tion of con­ver­sa­tions called Free­dom from the Known.

In one of these con­ver­sa­tions, Krish­na­mur­ti said this:

We human beings are what we have been for mil­lions of years–colossally greedy, envi­ous, aggres­sive, jeal­ous, anx­ious and despair­ing, with occa­sion­al flash­es of joy and affec­tion. We are a strange mix­ture of hate, fear, and gen­tle­ness; we are both vio­lence and peace. There has been out­ward progress from the bul­lock cart to the jet plane but psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly the indi­vid­ual has not changed at all, and the struc­ture of soci­ety through­out the world has been cre­at­ed by indi­vid­u­als. The out­ward social struc­ture is the result of the inward psy­cho­log­i­cal struc­ture of our human relationships.…The whole his­to­ry of man[kind] is writ­ten in ourselves.

Krish­na­mur­ti’s com­ments might well move us to despair. It is a tough start­ing point for reflec­tion. Over time I have found incred­i­ble light and beau­ty in his work and it has become one of the sources that most inspires my own. And so my ques­tions have most nat­u­ral­ly become: How can any of us lead toward that con­scious, pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tion with­out a “them” and an “us”? How can I bet­ter use myself as an instru­ment of pos­i­tive change? How can I heal the pain in me so that I don’t project it onto oth­ers, trig­ger­ing old cul­tur­al pat­terns? You notice in this view that I am not dis­card­ing self. I am sug­gest­ing instead that we deal with self-devel­op­ment and trans­for­ma­tion on the way to mak­ing that con­tri­bu­tion. Not every­one would prob­a­bly agree with this approach. I cer­tain­ly have received feed­back from time to time that I am sim­ply advo­cat­ing anoth­er ver­sion of Amer­i­can indi­vid­u­al­is­tic tra­di­tions around “pulling one­self up by his/her own boot­straps.” Noth­ing, from my per­spec­tive, could be fur­ther from the truth. The social real­i­ties of oppres­sion must be dealt with — but they must be dealt with with­in as well as with­out, with our own con­di­tion­ing, our own uncon­scious par­tic­i­pa­tion in the pain of the world. I have one goal only, to inter­rupt the flow of blame, divi­sion, and mis­un­der­stand­ing. And I believe that requires a will­ing­ness to explore the very self that is afraid of this work, that is cyn­i­cal, that despairs, that “numbs out” its own inter­nal wounds, and that projects its uncon­scious dilem­mas out­ward onto oth­ers. The only real “them” in this equa­tion is us.

What hap­pens then to the process­es of social change? Do we just ignore them? And again my answer is “of course not.” But I also believe change can come from a form of influ­ence that needs no ene­mies in order to hold ten­sion around the pos­si­bil­i­ties for a bet­ter future. The call for con­ver­sa­tion that is so clear­ly man­i­fest right here right now on the net is a won­der­ful exam­ple. My mod­el these days for this type of extra­or­di­nary change work — and under most chal­leng­ing cir­cum­stances — is Aung San Suu Kyi in Myan­mar (what used to be known as Bur­ma). This is NOT about hon­or­ing her lead­er­ship from the stand­point of some cult of per­son­al­i­ty. In fact, her work defines what it tru­ly means to leave that behind. But I will save fur­ther com­ments about her for anoth­er post (this one has already grown too long).

In the mean­time, here is my phi­los­o­phy in a nutshell:

    What is the prob­lem? self.
    What is the answer? Self.


  • Great ques­tions, so very very much here to digest. Anoth­er great role mod­el for me is Arund­hati Roy.

    Do you know this sto­ry ? I gleaned it from the Levy’s book “Liv­ing in Balance”.

    Once upon a time … there was an old­er man, a very well-known psy­chol­gist-philoso­pher, who had what we refer to as an answer­ing machine con­nect­ed to his phone. On the answer­ing machine was the fol­low­ing mes­sage which callers heard when he was not avail­able to pick up the phone.

    Hel­lo, you’ve reached (name here). This is not an anwer­ing machine, this is a ques­tion­ing machine. And the two ques­tions are … who are you, and what do you want? And before you respond, please con­sid­er that these are the two ques­tions that have pre­oc­cu­pied philoso­phers and sages for a very long time.”

  • I love it, Jon! Thanks!

  • Whether the clash is cul­tur­al or oth­er­wise, it does make for inter­est­ing work as we try to apply what we know works in a new envi­ron­ment. I grew up in cor­po­rate world in the eight­ies and nineties and absorbed lots of The­o­ry X and Y man­age­ment, lots of excel­lent tech­nique on how to manage–no inspire–people. And then I moved to a dif­fer­ent envi­ron­ment and found that it is tougher to imple­ment those con­cepts when few oth­ers have seen the impact they can have. Wall Street to rur­al Vermont…are the tech­niques real­ly dif­fer­ent? No, not real­ly, but I find I have to sell hard­er to get peo­ple to buy into a hap­pi­er, more pro­duc­tive work­place. Once they see that it works, they are all over the concepts…but that lay­er of ini­tial cau­tion can be daunting. 

    I have recent­ly been work­ing with new staff mem­bers (both over the age of sev­en­ty but anx­ious to learn and to con­tribute) and I would die before damp­en­ing their enthu­si­asm. Yet.…certain things are not working…and it has been a chal­lenge to change their mind­set from “You’re the boss, you tell us what to do” to “We are all part of the team, how can we help you get the entire office work­ing smoothly.” 

    The great news is that we are mak­ing progress, and I attribute it entire­ly to an intu­itive stum­bling over this dia­log­ic lis­ten­ing. I keep saying…let’s not try to solve the prob­lem before we real­ly under­stand what the prob­lem is. What’s work­ing? What’s not work­ing? And I have come to real­ize that the most impor­tant thing I can do is to keep those ques­tions open. 

    Thanks for the dia­log­ic lis­ten­ing ref­er­ence as a val­i­da­tion of my shot in the dark!

  • And yes, Dan, isn’t this blog phe­nom­e­non amaz­ing? Three months ago, I was very lone­ly from the view­point of lack­ing intel­lec­tu­al company…no more.

  • Anonymous wrote:

    Very well writ­ten Dan.

    Regard­ing your com­ments on “us” vs. “them”: My per­son­al expe­ri­ence and under­stand­ing of Bud­dhist phi­los­o­phy has def­i­nite­ly giv­en me a greater appre­ci­a­tion for nat­ur­al dual­i­ties. In this sense, I’m not real­ly sure the issue is “us” vs. “them” or The­o­ry X and The­o­ry Y … I mean the answer prob­a­bly isn’t in the con­sol­i­da­tion or rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of the two. We’ll nev­er get rid of them and us.

    It’s just like this: You can’t have light with­out dark­ness. You can’t have moun­tains with­out val­leys. The two are one and the same. They are part of the same whole. In the same man­ner, you can’t have us with­out hav­ing them. I think you intrin­si­cal­ly know this, though, as you said, “What is the answer? Self.”

    Once, dur­ing a con­sult­ing ses­sion, a client expressed his desire to get rid of all the low points that they were hav­ing dur­ing the year so that the orga­ni­za­tion would only expe­ri­ence per­for­mance peaks. Of course, this is impos­si­ble because you would­n’t have peaks if you got rid of the low points — what you’d get is a very flat and bor­ing line. We need to appre­ci­ate and learn from both peaks and valleys.

    And so, what we need and should strive for is a greater under­stand­ing and appre­ci­a­tion of “them” by “us” and “us” by “them.” Acknowl­edg­ing dif­fer­ences and pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tions by both sides. Like you men­tioned about the meet­ing room and the park­ing lot — nei­ther side has the whole sto­ry, but both con­tain nuggets of Truth. Of course, acknowl­edg­ing dif­fer­ences and pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tions is a very, very dif­fi­cult thing to do I think when any­body comes from ego.

    Ego makes it us VERSUS them instead of us AND them. An inter­est­ing dis­tinc­tion. We under­stand that 1 and 1 makes 2, but do we real­ly under­stand “and?”

    - Sean

  • Such won­der­ful, rich com­ments. I feel so warmed by the shared “camp­fire” of this dis­course. Thank you, friends, thank you. And let’s keep going…

  • Rosanna Tarsiero wrote:

    So many things to say and share!!! I’ll try to sum­ma­rize, should I be unsuc­cess­ful, for­give me.

    I feel that I, too, am stum­bling in a lot of very inter­est­ing folks late­ly. And I find it to be excit­ing, cause inter­est­ing peo­ple are rare in my book.

    No, your writ­ing is not “so Amer­i­can”. The prob­lem, if any, is not whether your (or my) writ­ing is “so Amer­i­can” or “so Ital­ian”. The prob­lem might be about being aware of how our cul­tures impact our writings. 

    For exam­ple, just a month ago, a review­er wrote me back, point­ing out that I did­n’t con­sid­er dif­fer­ent cul­tures in what I wrote for a pub­li­ca­tion. Part of it ware inter­cul­tur­al thing the review­er did­n’t know about, but part of it was pure truth. If I were aware of how my cul­ture was con­di­tion­ing me, I would have react­ed in a whole oth­er way. It’s a prob­lem of aware­ness, I believe, in that we all are con­di­tioned in some way.

    Bridg­ing the “gap” between two (or more) cul­tures is a fas­ci­nat­ing expe­ri­ence, I agree. It makes you look at your own cul­tures in a dif­fer­ent way. You might still end up think­ing your cul­ture is the best, but you real­ize that to be true for you, rather than for the whole world. And when you realise it, you also realise how the best way not to be biased too much (and too often) is to sup­pose to be biased by default and search for evi­dences con­tra­dict­ing your hypoth­e­sis (as Pop­per would suggest).

    One of the thing I enjoy doing is the Vol­un­teer Man­ag­er. That is, a real man­ag­er, even if such role is not very well known. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, there are vol­un­teer man­agers that are fond of the old man­age­r­i­al Amer­i­can role and write: “I do not see my job as try­ing to make oth­ers feel good about who they are and to be joy­ful in vol­un­teer­ing. I am not aim­ing for warm fuzzy feel­ings all around. Instead, I see my job as involv­ing vol­un­teers in the most effec­tive way pos­si­ble to sup­port the mis­sion of my orga­ni­za­tion.” (Cravens, 2004). That is, the old idea that an orga­ni­za­tion, a thing, comes before a per­son, which I find appalling, even more so in the non­prof­it world. Asian Human Resource Man­agers are way ahead in chang­ing the old rigid man­age­ment style.

    Speak­ing of fear of reper­cus­sions, I have wit­nessed an exchange about a sto­ry that sup­pos­ed­ly was about how to react to anger. The sto­ry was about a man mak­ing a mis­take because of a col­league, a man­ag­er see­ing only the man that made a mis­take and the lat­ter being scold­ed heav­i­ly for the mis­take and get­ting mad because of the unfair scold­ing. A pop­u­la­tion of pro­fes­sion­als, most­ly Amer­i­cans, sug­gest­ed the man “not to get angry” and “show his supe­ri­or­i­ty” by apol­o­giz­ingfor a mis­take he did­n’t make. In Italy a per­son behav­ing like that would be called either a stu­pid (for apol­o­giz­ing) or a cow­ard (for not telling the truth). So I infer from such behav­iour that the fear on the work­place IS a prob­lem over there.

    But the fact that work­ing on ten­sions does­n’t feel bet­ter, yes, IS American 😉

    The thing about Amer­i­can and free­dom is weird, I noticed that too. It’s a para­dox, cause over there it can hap­pen to accept to be silenced by a law in the name of keep­ing free­dom of speech alive. In Europe we the­o­ret­i­cal­ly accept to have our free­dom lim­it­ed in spe­cial cas­es, but in prac­ti­cal cir­cum­stances, anti-ter­ror­ism laws are over­turned after few months. I guess it is a dou­ble paradox 🙂

    Engag­ing in vir­tu­al dis­cus­sions, in fact, is beau­ti­ful and enrich­ing. I’ve dis­cov­ered online that, prob­a­bly because of my cul­ture, I am will­ing to tol­er­ate cen­sor­ship if it helps in pre­vent­ing peo­ple like nazis (or oth­er folks vio­lat­ing human rights) from speak­ing. I did­n’t realise it about me, and about Europe.

    Cre­at­ing an “us” as opposed to “them” (and vice ver­sa) is a trick to put per­sons against per­sons. But we don’t have to delete, erase dif­fer­ence just so not to be one against the oth­er. It is the judge­ment on peo­ple’s opin­ions that put one against the oth­er, not opin­ions per se.

    Anoth­er thing Dan, you can’t change what oth­ers think, or how they behave, nei­ther can I. So all you can do is choos­ing not to judge and there­by not to divide the world around you in two black-or-white parts. What oth­ers do is beyond your con­trol (or mine, or Nan­cy’s, or Jay’s..) and you should­n’t wor­ry about it cause since you can’t do any­thing about it, wor­ry­ing will only frus­trate you uselessly.

    I too get all p*ssed at peo­ple that use dis­agree­ments to con­flict with oth­ers but you know what? They DO exist and they WILL go on exist­ing whether we like them or not. The only thing we can do is going on the way we are and stop try­ing to change them. If they want to change, they’ll come around. If they don’t come around, they aren’t will­ing to try this method, so even try­ing is use­less (and there­fore frustrating).

    How can we dis­agree with­out con­flict­ing? Fol­low­ing Hegel’s dialec­tic: Thesis/Antithesis/Synthesis, that’s how I do it. And that’s also why I use dia­log­ic lis­ten­ing a whole deal.

    To inter­rupt the flow of blame we need, I believe, to stop judg­ing our­selves and then we could use our weak­ness­es as strength as well as see the per­ils of our strength that can become weak­ness­es at times.

    Geee I wrote a lot.

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