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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