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
Trayner 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.