I’m sure I’ve told the story before but it bears repeating.
Years ago, I was invited to speak at a national company conference and it was stunningly different from other conferences I’d attended. Instead of sit-down meals where attendees were served, food was available all the time — you just had to get it for yourself. There was no big binder with all the session hand-outs. If you wanted hand-outs you were advised to speak directly to the presenters who may or may not have them. Instead of a packed agenda where people were supposed to learn the gospels of the experts, there were long breaks after every major speaker so that people had a chance to discuss and critique what they’d heard. In addition to break-out sessions where teams discussed their recent innovations, there were ongoing “open space” groups forming constantly in the foyer of the conference hall, based on the interests of participants. Everywhere I turned, there was an emphasis on innovation and participants being responsible for their own experience rather than being passively “fed.” The energy was totally different: everyone was enjoying, engaging, exchanging — experiencing a positive sense of community they had created for themselves. The place was radiant with noise, laughter, animated conversation, people scribbling on flip charts, sharing ideas and tossing out possibilities.
I was so excited about the structure of the conference and the emphasis on participant autonomy, choice and exchange that I sought out the organizer, a staff professional who had been with the company for many years. I asked her, “How on earth did you think up these differences in conference design?” — for, in fact, they were all her ideas. I was stunned by what she told me about herself.
“A few years ago,” she said, “I woke up in the middle of the night and realized I was living with a sociopathic husband. I got up, silently packed and got out of the house through a window. I never went back to that house. After I left, I went to work to heal.”
And it was exactly this healing process, of which designing and leading conferences was a small part, that had changed her own life and affected the lives of those her work touched throughout the company.
These days we tend to think of workplaces as the source of work problems and stresses from which we must heal, not the other way around. In the last two posts, here and here, I’ve explored the negative impacts of shame, personal and organizational. Today it may be hard to conceive of workplaces where people do find a way to overcome personal fear or shame through the experience of trust, love, and community. Yet, the conference organizer is a memorable example of exactly that.
Perhaps it is altogether too far out even to suggest that organizations have a role in the healing of people. But a good leader (maybe a great one) would:
Follow and be proud of his or her own unique path, staying away from useless comparisons with others
Encourage and help others find their unique paths, too.
Listen selflessly and reflectively to others
Listen intuitively to him/herself
Turn to others when in need (including emotional need) rather than seeking isolation
Look for others who might be feeling isolated and bring them into community
Repair, learn from and let go of personal mistakes
Let others repair, learn from and let go of their personal mistakes
Open up to personal fears, insecurities and all the places where shame might show up
Bring people together to build together a common vision for the business and marshal their energies to create it together
Use systems, such as recruitment and selection and promotion as a way to include and affirm as many good people as possible
Make opportunities for open discussion, team development and individual growth in lieu of formal appraisals
Make sure that compensation is not a black box for people or a tool for favoritism to individuals or groups, but is understandable and equitable
Offer positive, grateful feedback to others, and also invite feedback, too
I realize it is more fashionable to focus on individual accountabilities, as if people don’t have an intrinsic desire for that, as if that’s the workplace’s biggest, oldest problem. We have to be tough, right? But look what the conference organizer did and how she did it. She honored people by giving them choices and opportunities, by actively trusting them to learn rather than requiring them to learn via some process of passive control, phoney privilege and force feeding. She gave them their own chance and choice to heal, if only in a little way.
It seems to me much of the current system, with its internal competitions and isolating silos is a factory for anxiety, pressure, shame and dependency more than for anything like innovation and human empowerment.
If you can’t see this, it’s no wonder and no one is to blame. Collectively you could say the design of our organizations and traditional leadership thinking include an unintended sociopathic impulse, and when you are in bed with a sociopath, it can take quite a lot to wake up, pack up, open the window and just get out.
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