“Sticks and stones” was dead wrong

I can remember complaining to my mother when my brother or a schoolmate said something mean, and hearing her tell me, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can never hurt you.”

Well, it turns out my mom was wrong - and that has consequences both at home and at work. 

How the brain processes social pain

In Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, Matthew Lieberman described the neuroanatomy of pain processing. Though we’ve long understood the mechanisms for how we perceive physical pain, what’s remarkable is that those same mechanisms are involved in processing social pain. One study even showed how taking Tylenol, a common painkiller, “made the brain’s pain network less sensitive to the pain of social rejection.”

Why would this be?

“Mammals, and particularly humans, need to feel social separation as painful. It keeps infants and caregivers close together. That may have been the reason evolution gave us social pain, but now we are stuck with it our entire lives, and it colors almost every social experience we have.”

Not only do names hurt, but their effects are worse. I can put a band-aid on a cut and a cast on a broken bone, but what do I do for bullying? Or feeling like I’m not getting the recognition I deserve at work? We experience social pain every day throughout the day, and we have few remedies.

"Tragic expressions of unmet needs"

One way to lessen social pain is to improve how we communicate. To help, my friend (founder of Fearless inventory) introduced me to Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communications. My first reaction was that it was “too touchy-feely.” Then he told me how Rosenberg used the method in political negotiations in the Middle East and Africa, in resolving gang conflicts in the US, and even counseling married couples. That convinced me.

I read the book and watched one of Rosenberg’s workshops, and he described a process that was both empowering and joyful. His simple methods help you clearly state your observations, feelings, needs, and requests without resorting to judgment, shame, criticism, and worse. 

“All such analyses of other human beings are tragic expressions of our own values and needs. They are tragic because when we express our values and needs in this form, we increase defensiveness and resistance among the very people whose behaviors are of concern to us.”

The examples he used for “violent” communications were uncomfortably familiar. Even if I'm not often overtly mean, I might use forms of judgment intended to get what I want. I saw how I could improve the ways I made a request, offered feedback, or shared what I was feeling.  

“Words contribute to connection or distance,” Rosenberg wrote, and practicing nonviolent communications was a way of “sharing power with others rather than using power over others.”

First, do no harm (“Primum non nocere”)

Earlier this week, I spoke with an educator in Missouri about this topic. We talked about the discouraging state of dialog, not just in politics and our Facebook feeds but in the workplace and everyday life. 

She said she found herself in situations where she was uncomfortable with what was being said but didn’t know what to do. If she didn’t say anything, she’d feel like she was condoning the behavior. Yet if she challenged the person, they would likely just get defensive, and these were people she needed to work with. She needed to relate to them and work with them, not alienate them. 

We talked about nonviolent communications and agreed that, while it’s hard to practice, a good first step would be “don’t make it worse” by judging or shaming. Simply paying more attention to what you’re saying and why you're saying it - ““how words contribute to connection or distance” - is a good first step to improving how we relate to each other.

Why would these manufacturing companies want to Work Out Loud?

This month I began working with three new clients: a mining company, a chemical company, and a steel company. These are not the kind of clients I ever expected to have, and yet there I was, helping each of them spread Working Out Loud Circles

Why would they care?

In the mining company, it’s HR sponsoring the initiative. They’re integrating WOL Circles into a graduate training program and a digital leaders program, and both groups are looking for ways to help employees be connected, effective, and engaged.

The Chief Digital Officer sponsored the kick-off in the chemical company. They have a wide-reaching remit, including expanding the use and impact of the internal social tools, and Circles will help them tap into more intrinsic motivation for using those tools.

The steel company was different. The initial effort was sponsored by the head of internal communications, who wanted to drive adoption of tools and make the culture even more open and collaborative. But HR was also involved, and we quickly began talking about other challenges where WOL could help.

There is no one best way to introduce Working Out Loud into an organization. It depends on the people, the environment, and the culture. Sometimes WOL is another skill you can learn in the corporate training academy, and sometimes it’s integrated into an existing program like one of these:

  • On-boarding
  • Graduate training
  • Digital transformation
  • Career mobility
  • Talent development
  • Leadership development
  • Diversity
  • Innovation
  • Mentoring

To find your own best way, join a Circle yourself or spread the first few at your organization. A mining company, a chemical company, and a steel company are all ready to try something new: scalable, hands-on, social learning to help their people develop new skills and make their organizations better. 

Are you and your organization ready? 

“Did I take my pill today?”

I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s happened more than once. I’ll be holding my bottle of vitamins, staring at it with a puzzled look on my face, wondering if I’ve already taken my pill or was just about to take it.

The first thing I’ll realize is how absent-minded I was being. I was so un-conscious that I could not remember whether I opened the jar and swallowed a pill just a few seconds earlier.

Then I'll think of my mother. She would take medicine daily and would often wonder aloud, “Did I take my pill today?” Instead of offering empathy, my younger self could only react with a mix of irritation and shame. “How could you forget such a simple thing?”

Finally, I'll reflect on the power of nudges. I read recently how simple text messages helped people in Nigeria take their malaria medication. For me, my nudges include putting the vitamins in the same place and taking them at the same time, and checking off a box on my daily progress chart.

Maybe you also have some things you forget, like where you placed your keys. Or maybe it’s something much more important, like telling those around you how much you love and appreciate them.

You’re not thoughtless, you’re human. Each of these moments is a gift, a chance to remember to be mindful, to offer compassion to yourself and others, and to perhaps change your environment a bit so you’ll remember next time.

Neu WOL Circle Leitfaden! (Latest Circle Guides now in German!)

Thanks to the heroic efforts of Katharina Krentz and Monika Struzek at Bosch, the Working Out Loud Circle Guides are now available in German

Many of my German friends pride themselves on being “direct.” So I was particularly pleased when Katha told me “These are the best guides ever! We love them!!!” In this upgrade, I improved the flow, completely reworked some of the later weeks, and included more exercises and resources. They are simpler, clearer, and more complete.

The new WOL Circle Guides will be the basis for a workbook and a video coaching series later this year. If you’re interested in those, subscribe to the blog and you'll be notified of when they’re available. (Or send me email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com if you have ideas or comments.)

Of course, you are the best judge of whether these Circle Guides are effective. Try them, and let me know what you think. What did you like best? What could be improved?

Thank you for using these guides and for any and all comments. And a heartfelt “Vielen Dank” to Katha and Monika. Your contributions and support, and those of the entire co-creation team at Bosch, have inspired me to be and do more. 

An early WOL Circle #selfie. (There are now well over 100 WOL Circles at Bosch.)

An early WOL Circle #selfie. (There are now well over 100 WOL Circles at Bosch.)

Learning how to give

Despite writing (some might say preaching) about the importance of generosity in building relationships, I’m still learning how to give. A recent interview with the Pope made me realize how much more I need to practice. He was talking about giving to the homeless.

“He said the way of giving is as important as the gift. You should not simply drop a bill into a cup and walk away. You must stop, look the person in the eyes, and touch his or her hands. The reason is to preserve dignity, to see another person not as a pathology or a social condition, but as a human, with a life whose value is equal to your own.”

I had written about homelessness before, and about my own need to develop compassion instead of pity, detachment, or whatever else you might feel when you pass someone who is suffering.

A few months later, I was walking home after one of my worst experiences in recent memory. I was in something of a daze, replaying the events in my mind, when I noticed a homeless woman out of the corner of my eye. It was cold. She was sitting on the sidewalk, wrapped in a blanket, surrounded by a shopping cart full of things and several bags. I turned around and walked back towards her. I took a Kind bar (of all things) out of my bag that I normally carry as a snack, and asked, “Would you like this? I like them very much.”

She looked me in the eye and smiled a slow, beautiful smile. “No thank you," she said. "I’m okay.”.

I wished her well, turned, and kept walking. My eyes teared up. How could she be okay? It was cold and she was on the street! How could I not be okay, when I was healthy and returning to my home and family?

That moment taught me that giving doesn’t have to be one-sided. It can be an exchange. For the offer of a bit of food, I got perspective, a lesson in giving without judgment or expectation, and a glimpse of our interconnectedness and shared humanity.

Whenever I have something to give, whether it's a compliment to a colleague or food to someone in need, I think of that woman on the street. And I carry Kind bars with me ever since. 

 

 

 

The broken radio at Duane Reade

I first noticed it a few months ago when I stopped in for some medicine. Something was wrong with the music in the store. It sounded like a staticky radio playing on a blown speaker. How annoying, I thought to myself. (Duane Reade, for those of you who don’t already see one every few blocks in NYC, is a part of a drugstore chain with 400,000 employees and $117 billion in revenue.)

A few weeks later, I was there again, and so was the same radio. Surprised that they hadn’t fixed it already, I asked the cashier if there was something she could do about it.

“I wish I could!” she said. “Isn’t it terrible? Customers complain about it, but there’s nothing we can do.” Another customer chimed in, “Yeah, it’s awful.”

Over the following few weeks, whenever I returned to the store, there were different employees and we had similar discussions about the radio. They were all nice and helpful - and frustrated.

A different approach: Fixing anything, anywhere in NYC

It just so happened that I had very different but related experience in my neighborhood when I noticed a stop sign was missing at an intersection near our local park. 

In this case, there was no helpful cashier to talk to about the problem, but there was something even better: 311. When I noticed the missing stop sign, I opened the app on my phone and reported it, including the exact location and a photo. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I got a reply within three days that the problem had already been investigated.

Service Request #: C1-1-1373798521
Date Submitted: 02/28/17 12:36:48 PM
Request Type: Street Sign - Missing
Details: Stop
The Department of Transportation inspected the condition and opened a repair order. Repairs of this type are corrected within 14 days.

Four days later, I got another mail that the problem was resolved. Still doubtful, I walked outside to see for myself, and there was a shiny new stop sign.

A simple way to fix the radio

My point isn’t to criticize Duane Reade management. They handle complicated supply-chain logistics and pharmaceutical regulations at a scale I can’t even imagine. Yet despite that sophistication, they’ve missed one of the best ways to improve their company and the customer experience: Give employees a voice.

I noticed this all-too-common situation five years ago when I was still working in a big company, and saw how customers often have more of a voice than employees.

“When something doesn’t work at home, you might complain on Twitter or use your smartphone to report the problem. Or you’ll search for a solution on-line and fix the problem yourself.
But what do you do at work? Probably nothing.”

Even back then, a simple solution was available. We let employees post a problem on our new enterprise social network so that anyone could share customer feedback or report an issue, and others employees could respond with related incidents and solutions. That would accelerate improvements, and make visible to management problems they might never be aware of otherwise. It was empowering.

The cashier at Duane Reade suggested I fill out the customer survey that's printed on every receipt, somewhat ironically named drelistens.com. I had seen it many times before, and this time I filled it out.

What about your own organization? If you had the equivalent of a broken radio, what could your employees say or do about it? Do they even have a voice?

 

"Just scary enough"

I saw the phrase in Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, in a chapter on happiness and resilience. He described it as “a delicious mix of being a bit frightened yet knowing it would end up all right.”

Making things “just scary enough” can be the key to changing your behavior and to learning in general. 

“Stress inoculation”

“Some of the most convincing neuroscience data for the benefits of getting just scared enough,” Goleman wrote, “comes from studies of squirrel monkeys.”

In 2004, experimenters at Stanford University took young monkeys from their mother for an hour, once a week for ten weeks, and put them in a different cage with adult monkeys they didn’t know. They were terrified, as evidenced by a range of observations, and when the hour was up they were returned to their mothers. A control group was left with their mothers the entire time.

After the ten weeks, both groups young monkeys were placed alone with their mothers in a new cage filled with treats and places to explore.

“Young monkeys who had earlier been exposed to the stressful cages proved far braver and more curious than others their age…and showed no biological signs of fear arousal…those who had never left the safe haven of their mothers just clung timidly to her.” 

The regular visits to a challenging environment, they concluded, “acted as an inoculation against stress.”

Developing self-efficacy

Forty years earlier, other Stanford researchers made similar observations about humans and found related benefits. Albert Bandura and Nancy Adams treated people with snake phobias by taking them through progressively more challenging steps. The researchers would model the behavior first - e.g., looking at a picture of a snake, peering into a snake’s cage, and ultimately holding one. Gradually, at their own pace, the patient would take these small steps too.

Most patients were cured with this “guided mastery” in an hour or two, and it changed their lives. Overcoming their fear improved their “self-efficacy,” their sense of personal effectiveness and confidence to take on other challenges.

“Those who persist in subjectively threatening activities will eventually eliminate their inhibitions through corrective experience, whereas those who avoid what they fear, or who cease their coping efforts prematurely, will retain their self-debilitating expectations and defensive behavior.”

Goleman described it this way: “If we are exposed to too little stress, nothing will be learned; too much and the wrong lesson might become embedded the neural circuitry for fear.”

When you’re overwhelmed

But what if what you’re trying to do is too daunting or challenging? Pema Chödrön described three strategies in The Places That Scare You. “One way is to train with a less challenging subject, to find a situation we feel that we can handle.” In Working Out Loud Circles, we refer to that as “touching the treadmill.” You break down the change you’re trying to make till it no longer triggers your resistance or flight mechanism. 

The second way is to realize that you’re not alone, that millions of other people are going through something similar, feeling what you’re feeling. Shifting your attention to others in this way can make the experience seem less personally threatening. 

Finally, “if none of these is yet possible, we engender some compassion for our current limitations and go forward.”

Are you trying to make some change in your life? Make your next step “just scary enough.” Each small step you take will develop your confidence, each small failure will build up your resilience, and you'll increase your chances for success.

Who’s Working Out Loud? (Some statistics)

A recent look at Google Analytics gave me a sense for who’s visiting workingoutloud.com. Roughly 45,000 people have spent time on the site, and growth has been accelerating. Some of the numbers were surprising to me, so I figured I would share them.

Gender

The gender split is remarkably even. I would have assumed the percentage of women would be higher, as I personally see more women joining Working Out Loud Circles, but I would have been wrong.

Country

Though I’m based in New York City, I was still surprised to see the US as the location of most visitors. It feels to me like Germany is more active, but again the data doesn’t support that. I do know there are more German companies spreading WOL Circles. Once WOL is spreading inside a company, people tend to get all the WOL resources they need (like the Circle Guides) on their intranet instead of workingoutloud.com.

Age

I often say WOL isn’t just for the young or for people who like social media, and this chart seems to support that, in part at least. It feels reasonably representative of the workforce.  

Computer

More than a third of the people visiting workingoutloud.com do so from from a phone or tablet, and I expect that to increase. The data also shows that people spend less time viewing material on mobile devices.

Other data & a conclusion

There’s one more thing I’d like to know but can’t: How many people have experienced a WOL Circle? 

The reason I can't figure this out is that, as I alluded to earlier, most Circles are inside companies, and most companies put the free guides on their intranet or work with me to create custom versions. So while I can track downloads from workingoutloud.com, it’s a fraction of the total. My guess is that approximately 10,000 people have joined a Circle. 

My takeaway from all this data is that Working Out Loud is gradually spreading, reaching more people in more places. It’s a good start, and yet there’s a lot to do to make the kind of difference we want to make. 

What do you think? What else would you like to know?

What “the religions failed to do” but you can

Part of my work is changing how people relate to each other in the workplace, and that’s led me to do more research on empathy and compassion. That has included work by Christians like Karen Armstrong and Buddhists like Pema Chödrön, and also by neuroscientists like Dr. Dan Siegel.

What’s striking to me is how much overlap there is between them - not just about what compassion is and why it’s important, but what to do next and who should do it.

The Pope’s TED talk

Just this week, the Pope delivered his first TED talk, “Why the only future worth building includes everyone.” Speaking from The Vatican, he referenced our inherent interconnectedness, and the need for us to develop our sense of compassion.

“The future is made of encounters, because life flows through our relations with others. Quite a few years of life have strengthened my conviction that each and everyone's existence is deeply tied to that of others: life is not time merely passing by, life is about interactions…
None of us is an island, an autonomous and independent "I," separated from the other, and we can only build the future by standing together, including everyone. We don’t think about it often, but everything is connected, and we need to restore our connections to a healthy state.”

The Dalai Lama and two kinds of compassion

But how do we develop our sense of compassion and truly embrace our interconnectedness? Despite the timeless wisdom of the Pope’s message, it seems we’ve made little advance in changing how we relate to each other. What should we actually do?

I recently came across some inspiring answers to these questions in a fascinating audio series featuring a neurobiologist and a Buddhist monk. (I’m grateful to my good friend Amir Bakhtiar, founder of Fearless Inventory, for introducing me to this.) Dr. Dan Siegel, author of The Mindful Brain and Mindsight, described a discussion he and three other scientists had with the Dalai Lama about the science of compassion.

“We have a real tough situation here. Because, the human brain has evolved to figure out who is in your in group and who is in your out group. When you’re under threat, these circuits of the brain that determine in-group out-group status are heightened and we know that the people in the out group are treated with more hostility, and the people in the in-group are treated with more kindness.
Can you give us some advice? You’re asking us to make the world a more compassionate place, but we’ve inherited this neurocircuitry that makes these huge populations very likely to kill each other.” 

The Dalai Lama responded:

“There are two kinds of compassion. One is the kind you get from being loved by your mother. When you have a secure attachment, you can love people you’re friends with, you can love your family, you can love people in a maybe slightly extended circle. But love is not enough. 
There’s a second kind of compassion you do not get from being loved by your parents. This kind you only get by mental training that allows you to even love your enemy. Our species is going to require a mental training that allows us to give both kinds of compassion.” 

What “the religions failed to do” but you can

This “mental training” - a systematic practice of mindfulness and compassion training that, literally, changes your brain’s structure and function - can “give you the possibility to rise above your inherited, evolutionarily beneficial fight-flight-freeze responses…that gets you to push away people not like you.”

Then Dr. Siegel described how the Dalai Lama paused, looked at the four scientists, and said something that changed his life. 

“We in the religions have failed to make this a more compassionate world. You in science must find a secular ethic to guide this world to become a more compassionate place.” 

After thousands of years of people preaching for more compassion, we still haven’t made the progress we must make. The Pope, in his talk, encouraged us not to rely solely on institutions for such a change.

“Through the darkness of today's conflicts, each and every one of us can become a bright candle, a reminder that light will overcome darkness, and never the other way around.
A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you. And then there will be another "you," and another "you," and it turns into an "us." And so, does hope begin when we have an "us?" No. Hope began with one "you." When there is an "us," there begins a revolution.”

I want to be a part of that revolution, working to find that “secular ethic” that can enable more of us to rise above our biology and change how we relate to each other. I think we can create a method that helps more practice empathy and compassion in their everyday working lives, and that Working Out Loud Circles are an early attempt at that. 

What do you think? If you have any recommendations for further research, or other ideas or suggestions, please leave a comment or send me email. Thank you.

Two upcoming events

These days, I find myself saying “See you in Berlin” quite often, which in itself is a kind of miracle. I love the city and the people I’ve come to work with there, and on Tuesday, May 9th, I’ll be participating in two special events.

The first is re:publica 2017, “one of the largest and most exciting conferences about digital culture in the world.” Over 8,000 people attended last year, and part of this sprawling event is an HR Festival run by IBM. The theme for 2017 is “Love Out Loud” (great theme :-)). I’m excited to run a workshop: “Working Out Loud: Making work more effective & fulfilling” which is designed to give you the experience of a Working Out Loud Circle in less than an hour. I’m grateful to Sven Semet from IBM for making this possible.

The second event is a Digital Workplace Meetup (#BerlinDWM). There I’ll get the chance to meet Dr. Ursula Schütze-Kreilkamp, who’s responsible for personnel development for more than 300,000 employees worldwide. We’ll be talking with the audience about “how companies can master the challenges of digital transformation through internal networking and open communication.” I’m looking forward to this interactive discussion, and I want to thank the organizers - Alexander Kluge, Luis Suarez, Ole Wintermann, Siegfried Lautenbacher - for creating such a special event.

If you're in Germany, please considering coming to re:publica and the Digital Workplace Meetup, or pass along the information to your German friends. It’s a thrill to be working in such a wonderful place, and meeting some of you there would make it even more special.

“See you in Berlin.” :-)

30 days without added sugar

“Please have some sugar!”  

That was the plea from my wife and daughter when I was midway through my #NoSugarChallenge. They noted I was <ahem> more irritable and unpleasant than usual. Whether that was a lack of sugar or just my personality, we’ll never know.

Nevertheless, I persisted.

What and why

I was inspired by my older son to try this challenge. We debated rules: Does maple syrup count? Agave? What about dextrose? Pretty quickly we settled on avoiding anything that included white or brown sugar, corn syrup or similar derivatives, or artificial sweeteners. We agreed that eating an apple, for example, or granola with real maple syrup, was acceptable. 

For most of my life, my approach to food was simple: if I liked it, I ate it. Over the last ten years, though, I have become more mindful of what I eat. My view of sugar in particular has changed as I saw my mother die of diabetes, and learned how one of every three people in the US will develop this preventable disease

I had tried similar challenges related to meat and alcohol. Now it was time to try a sugar challenge.

The immediate benefits

Starting from the first day, I became increasingly aware of sugar in my diet. I started reading more labels, and was often surprised at how sugar had insinuated itself into so many things. 

For the most part, it turns out, I don’t eat much added sugar. I like baking and enjoy ice cream, but for these 30 days I could easily avoid them. Dark chocolate, though, was a different matter. I have a habit of having a few pieces after dinner, and I really wanted that chocolate. To deal with my craving, I’m sure I drank more wine and had more second helpings than usual.

I also failed twice while I was on a business trip. Once was on purpose. At a nice restaurant with a friend who was looking forward to sharing dessert, I made a conscious decision to participate. The other time was an impulse, when some lovely-looking rice pudding was served for free after an Indian meal. I did not resist.

At the end of the challenge, I opened some chocolate I had purchased specifically for the occasion. I looked at, smelled it, and savored it. Just a few pieces. It was heavenly.

The absolute best part

The biggest benefit actually didn’t have anything to do with sugar, but with the practice itself: I became more confident, with a reinforced sense of self-control. I first experienced this when I became a vegetarian:

“When I stopped eating meat I did more than just change my diet, I gained confidence that I could change anything I wanted.”

That feeling has increased with each challenge and with new habits like writing, meditation, and playing piano. For most of my life, my fear of big changes was matched only by self-criticism for my lack of discipline. Now, in mid-life, small experiments with my habits have changed my life.

The Stoic philosophers, along with modern psychologists, say that self-control is something to be developed, and that doing so makes for a happier life. I think they’re right.

The Wine Test

This test comes from the excellent book, Misbehaving: The making of behavioral economics, by Richard Thaler. He’s an economist who observed that human beings are much messier than the rational, optimizing agents in economics textbooks. As an example of this, he surveyed subscribers to a newsletter on wine auction pricing, called Liquid Assets, and asked them this question:

Suppose you bought a case of good Bordeaux in the futures market for $20 a bottle. The wine now sells at auction for about $75. You have decided to drink a bottle. Which of the following best captures your feeling of the cost to you of drinking the bottle?
a) $0. I already paid for it.
b) $20, what I paid for it.
c) $20 plus interest.
d) $75, what I could get if I sold the bottle.
e) -$55. I get to drink a bottle that is worth $75 that I only paid $20 for so I save money by drinking this bottle.

Take a moment now and choose what you feel the cost would be. (There’s no one correct answer, and I’ll provide how people in the survey responded below.)

The results

You may have already come across behavioral economics in some other excellent books such as Thinking, Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, and Nudge co-authored by Thaler. They all show how people make decisions that can be decidedly against their best interests. 

The Wine Test is more than a party trick. Though the correct answer according to economists would be “d) $75, what I could get if I sold the bottle,” only 20% of respondents made that choice. More than half of the people considered drinking the bottle to be free (30%) or even result in a profit (25%). The rest just considered the original price (18%) or included interest (7%).

Why are our choices so different from what economists would predict? And why are we so different from each other?

$100 bills on the sidewalk

The problem is that we’re not purely rational agents who optimize outcomes. Included in a long list of deviations is that we tend to over-react to losses, to overweight near-term versus long-term benefits, and to base decisions based on how they’re worded or “framed.” 

A striking example of this is how we save for retirement. In a paper titled, “$100 Bills on the Sidewalk: Suboptimal Investment in 401(k) Plans,” researchers showed how people didn’t take advantage of employer-matched funds (literally free money) and consistently paid little attention to contribution rates and how their retirement money would be invested.

Providing education about investments didn’t change much, but something else did: intelligent defaults. Employers automatically enrolled employees in the program and selected contribution rates and investments based on their profile. Employees still had full control to change things, but it was opt-out instead of opt-in.

“Under the opt-in approach, participation rates were 20% after 3 months of employment, and gradually increased to 65% after 36 months. But when automatic enrollment was adopted, enrollment of new employees jumped to 90% immediately and increased to more than 98% within 36 months.”

With a simple change, and without diminishing employee autonomy, behavioral economists were able to improve the retirement prospects of thousands of people.

Changes in your work and life

Whether it’s investing in wine, retirement, or in your own career and personal development, it’s clear we don’t always do what’s best for us. But as Thaler noted, 

“Once you understand a behavioral problem, you can sometimes invent a behavioral solution to it…My mantra is if you want to help people accomplish some goal, make it easy.”

How did you do on The Wine Test? How will you do on making other, more important, decisions?

The more we know about why people do what they do, the better we can design things to make work and life better.

“Don’t expect applause”

I had been waiting for several months for the small box to arrive. Inside was a tiny cardboard stand and a set of 59 cards, a short slogan written on each one. The slogans are from the Lojong teachings, a mind training practice developed over a thousand years ago. They're designed as “a set of antidotes to undesired mental habits that cause suffering.”

I selected the first card and put it on the display. It read: “Don’t expect applause.”

I learned about the slogans from Pema Chödrön’s Start Where You Are, which is about developing compassion, including self-compassion. 

“If we are willing to stand fully in our own shoes and never give up on ourselves, then we will be able to put ourselves in the shoes of others and never give up on them. True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.”

Later in the day, I thought about the card when I did something around the house and was irritated that my wife didn’t say anything. I thought about the card again when I went to the gym and wanted to be noticed, and when I got good news and was eager to share it in anticipation of receiving praise. It all seemed so childish, and I was embarrassed at having such a deeply-ingrained habit. (Thankfully, I remembered that developing self-compassion is also part of the practice.)

The problem isn’t with positive feedback or encouragement, it’s with expectations, and the card helped me pay attention to my intentions. I should do something because it’s right or nice, not because I hope for something in return.

“It’s good to express our gratitude to others. It’s good to express our appreciation of others. But if we do that with the motivation of wanting them to like us, we can remember this slogan. We can thank others, but we should give up all hope of getting thanked back. Simply keep the door open without expectations.”

"Simply keep the door open." With my first card, I clearly understood that expecting something in return is one of the “mental habits that cause suffering.” I also experienced that it takes practice to train your mind and change the habit, to gradually learn how to be happy.

I wonder what the next card will bring. 

If you care about diversity at work

When I worked in a big company, some of the best communities on our social intranet were related to diversity. The people leading them cared deeply about the different topics. Community members were creative and generous, and they brought a welcome sense of shared humanity to our workplace. It was inspiring.

Yet as good as they were, they were missing something.

Two kinds of extraordinary contributions

The focus of these communities tended to be on raising awareness. With their small budgets, they would host events with inspiring speakers followed by wine and networking. It might be a female executive talking about careers and offering advice, or an external speaker talking about their organization and how it makes a difference. A lot of work went into planning these events, and people liked them.

Campaigns were also popular. One of the most successful ones I remember was for Spirit Day in which people wear purple in support of the LGBTQ community. When that day came, I remember looking on our social network and seeing my feed awash in purple. There were photos from offices all over the world, people wearing purple dresses, shirts, ties, scarves, socks. People taking selfies and people formed in large groups, sharing heartfelt comments expressing their support and commitment. I remember how proud I felt that day, proud of my company and of the people in it.

When the music stops

Events and campaigns can be fun and inspiring. But when they end, participants are typically unsure of what to do next except wait for another event. Last week, I talked with people from universities across the U.S. about trying something different. It was a webinar for a Diversity & Inclusion group.

The group is pursuing a wide range of projects, and they sent me a list of them. One from an educator in Missouri jumped out at me.

“Using the Working Out Loud framework by John Stepper to develop improved skills in improving civil discourse in every day life of Extension educators working in their communities.”

Not only was she interested in being more effective herself, she was trying to change how people relate to each other and help them be more effective too. 

Something to try at your next event

At the end of the call with the universities, people signed up to join Working Out Loud Circles. The first step was to experience the benefits themselves, so they could see how best to apply it to their particular community. The next step would be to help their community form their own Circles.

You could do the same thing at your own event in your own company. If you’re in a diversity community, you’ve already discovered a goal you care about. Your relationship list would include people running other programs, potential partners, and those you admire who are making a difference. By Working Out Loud, you would build relationships with them, and get exposed to new ideas, approaches, and collaboration opportunities that would help you make more of a difference.

What you can also do is help your constituents develop those same skills, and apply them towards their own goals. If the systems and polices don’t give people the visibility and access they deserve, you can help them change the odds through the relationships they'll build.

Spreading Working Out Loud Circles is one way to empower yourself and the people you serve. 

“Perhaps if I liked my job more…”

I’ve been thinking about what she wrote since I got her message a few weeks ago. She had stumbled across an old blog post of mine from five years ago about "career insurance."

She had been working at a job she never really loved for a long time, and a recent lay-off left her wanting something more from work, something she could “feel at least a little passionate about.” She was interested in Working Out Loud, but some of the exercises seemed pointless to her given the state of her career. “Perhaps if I liked my job,” she wrote, “I would be more interested in becoming visible.”

I wanted to tell her that even in a job you don’t like, you have more control than you might imagine. Not only can you craft your tasks, relationships, and perceptions at work, but you can use your existing job as a platform for building new skills. She shouldn’t wait till she found a job she loved to Work Out Loud, she should Work Out Loud to find a job she loves.

In a post called, “If you want to discover something wonderful, try this” I described it as “purposeful discovery.”

“One of the major problems with identifying your true calling is that you’re aware of only a tiny fraction of the possibilities, and picking solely from what you already know is grossly limiting...
Fortunately, I found a much better way to guide your decision making that will lead you to more rewarding possibilities. That better way is purposeful discovery, a form of goal-oriented exploration. You start by choosing a goal you care about and then using the different elements of working out loud to build a network of relationships, get feedback, and learn about ways to improve and about other possibilities. The goal orients your activities, and as you get feedback and learn, you adapt your goal accordingly”

I encouraged her to join a Working Out Loud Circle with people from different locations and companies. The peer support would help her take a step in a way that felt safe and confidential. The contributions she would make would help her refine her sense of what she liked and didn’t like. Her growing network of deepening relationships would give her access to new ideas and opportunities.

I know it's hard to take a step when you're not feeling good about what your work, but I hope she does. If you wait for your job to be interesting before you take control of your career, you may wait for a very long time.

The enemy within

It all seemed terribly important at the time. There were factions and disputes, often within the same division or sub-division, at every company I worked in.

When I was in the IT department, for example, the enemy was the infrastructure group. When I was supporting a banking business, the Fixed Income executive threatened to have me fired if I shared anything with the Equities group. Usually, we referred to the enemy by their acronym. I still remember when GIS CM was at odds with GIS CB. 

It’s laughable now, but only from a distance. Up close, the threats - to our group’s status and to my own compensation - seemed very real.  I used to think that internecine warfare was an unavoidable consequence of working inside organizations, or perhaps a problem of how we designed them. Now I see it’s much deeper than that.

When incentives & organization are to blame

A disturbing experiment in 1954 showed how easily people can be divided into arbitrary groups and drawn into conflict with each other. It was called the Robber’s Cave experiment, and it involved 22 eleven-year-old boys in a three-week summer camp.

“The boys were broken up into two groups: the Eagles and the Rattlers. In the first week, the boys in each group bonded by hiking, swimming, cooking and eating together. In the second week, the researchers tried to induce conflict between the groups by holding several competitions. The winning group would get a trophy. 
Over the course of the week, the competition became intense. A loss in a game of baseball resulted in name-calling. A loss in a grueling 48-minute tug-of-war led to the “enemy” camp being raided. After the final competition, at the awarding of the trophy, a fistfight broke out and adults had to step in.”

When management is to blame

The famous Milgram experiments in 1961 showed how quickly we cede our empathy and compassion in the face of authority.

“How many people would continue all the way to the level marked “Danger: Extreme Shock” even in the face of obvious distress they were causing? Milgram polled his colleagues and “psychiatrists predicted that only a pathological fringe of about one in a thousand would administer the highest shock on the board. The actual answer was 600 times that…
‘What the experiment shows is that the person whose authority I consider to be legitimate, that he has a right to tell me what to do and therefore I have obligation to follow his orders, that person could make me, make most people, act contrary to their conscience.’”

When we run out of excuses

For sure, the culture of a place can make bad behavior more or less likely, but that doesn’t absolve the individual from the choices they make. Every email, every meeting, and every conversation in the hallway presents a choice. Pay attention to what you and your colleagues say about other people when they're not around. Is it true? Is it kind? Is it helpful?

I was as quick as anyone to label someone, to criticize them, to assign them motives and agendas when in truth I had little actual understanding. How could I? I never asked, never wanted to know, and it was simpler that way. How limiting that was. 

Five years ago, before I was thinking about Working Out Loud, I started looking for ways to mitigate bad behavior at work, and I was thinking about how technology would help people relationships. 

“Social tools and practices make it easier than ever to fix this. To connect people across organizations. To build relationships based on more than acronyms. To create purposeful social networks focused on company goals instead of on managers in the hierarchy.”

Since then, I’ve learned technology is only one possible part of the solution. I’ve learned that, although new tools may make it easier to change how people relate to each other, and certain kinds of managers and cultures can help, we don’t have to wait for these things. 

Defeating the enemy within requires that we see each other as human beings connected by common interests, concerns, and struggles. That’s a mindset and a set of skills and habits that anyone can develop. It just takes practice. 

“The simplest & easiest form of prototyping is a conversation”

That’s a quote from Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, an excellent book that applies design thinking to life decisions, particularly career choices. Yet the quote could actually apply to any step you want to take.

A process for problem-solving

The book is based on a course the authors taught at Stanford University. Bill Burnett was the head of the Stanford Program in Design, and Dave Evans was teaching at UC Berkeley, including a course called “How to Find Your Vocation.” They combined their interests and experience to use design thinking - “a method for practical, creative resolution of problems and creation of solutions” - to help students design their life after university.

Throughout the book, they advocate the use of prototypes.

“Prototypes should be designed to ask a question and get some data about something you’re interested in. Good prototypes isolate one aspect of a problem and design an experience that allows you to “try out” some version of a potentially interesting future.” 

As an example of what happens when you don’t prototype, they told the story of Elise. 

Don’t do this with your life

After a long career in Human Resources, Elise was ready for something different, and she knew exactly what it would be: an Italian deli and cafe that served “wonderful coffee and authentic Tuscan food.” She had visited Tuscany and loved the food and cafes there, and she dreamed of creating something just like it.

“She had saved enough to get started, collected all the recipes she needed, researched the best place near her home to locate such a business, and did it. She rented a place, totally renovated it, stocked it with the best products, and opened to great fanfare. It was an immense amount of work, and it was a roaring success. Everyone loved it. She was busier than ever. And in no time she was miserable.”

She liked the idea of an Italian deli and cafe, but didn’t know what she didn’t know. She simply never imagined the problems hiring staff, managing inventory, and maintenance of the store. 

Not what, but who!

To help people like Elise avoid making costly mistakes, the authors advocate prototyping instead, trying small experiments that will give you knowledge about your idea before you spend a lot of time and money fully implementing it. “The simplest and easiest form of prototyping,” they wrote, “is a conversation.” They called those conversations “Life Design Interviews.”

“You want to talk to someone who is either doing and living what you’re contemplating, or has real experience and expertise in an area about which you have questions.”

I was struck how this advice relates directly to what people practice in Working Out Loud Circles. In a Circle, people ask themselves three questions:

  1. What am I trying to do?
  2. Who is related to that goal?
  3. How can I contribute to them to deepen the relationship?

I was reading Designing Your Life in Germany, while working with an engineering firm there. We have adapted Circles to help employees develop a prototyping mindset. The company wants more ideas and more efforts to implement them. I’m trying to help them have more conversations and build deeper relationships.

Whether your idea is for a new product, a new process, or a new Italian deli, sometimes the best question isn’t what to do, it’s whom to talk to about it. When you offer your genuine attention and vulnerability in exchange for information, the things you learn can change your idea - and your life.

This group of people from 8 German companies has bold ambitions, and the conversations help them be more effective. (On a bus, no less! Click on the image for the full story.)

This group of people from 8 German companies has bold ambitions, and the conversations help them be more effective. (On a bus, no less! Click on the image for the full story.)

8 companies in Germany

There have been meet-ups before, and even a company conference, but this was different. This was eight companies coming together to advance the practice of Working Out Loud. 

Daimler was our host, thanks to Lukas Fütterer and Melanie Raßloff from their Digital Life Team. They published images and updates from the event:

"With the spring arriving in Stuttgart, 15 practitioners from Audi, BMW, Bosch, Continental, Daimler, Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Telekom and Siemens discussed the status & co-create on the future of Working Out Loud in big corporations together with John Stepper #WOL #DigitalLife"

In front of Daimler's Digital Life bus. (First time "Working Out Loud" is on the side of a bus!)

“Co-create the future of Working Out Loud” is what really made this meeting extraordinary. Each company is already spreading WOL Circles in some way. This meeting was about how to do it better and faster. It was about what we need to improve and create, and how we will work together to do it. By the end of the day we had specific initiatives with different practitioners teaming up to drive them. Bernd Zimmermann, an HR executive and innovator at Siemens, described it in his blog post as “making the New Work work.”

In the TEDx talk last year I said, “If Working Out Loud does become a movement, it will be because of the people in the community.” Today was evidence of that. Combined, these eight companies co-creating the future have over 1.7 million employees. Together, we took another step towards making a difference. 

 

The Dinner Table University

“Felice, what did you learn today?”

“Felice” (fell-EE-chay) is Felice Leonardo "Leo" Buscaglia, a professor at the University of Southern California whose father instilled in him a sense of curiosity and a habit for learning that lasted his entire life. Dr. Buscaglia went on to write books about love and give talks that were broadcast on public television in the 1980s. That’s where I first heard him tell the story of the dinner table university he experienced as a child, and it stuck with me since. 

Leo grew up in a large Italian immigrant family. They were poor, but they were surrounded by people and love, by food and opera. His father, who was taken from school at an early age to work in a factory, was determined that none of his children would be denied an education. 

“Papa believed that the greatest sin was to go to bed at night as ignorant as when we awakened. To ensure that none of his children ever fell into the trap of complacency, Papa insisted that we learn at least one new thing each day. And dinner time seemed the perfect forum for sharing what we had learned that day. Naturally, as children, we thought this was crazy.”

Not having an answer wasn’t an option. So before dinner, the children would scramble to come up with something they could offer. Out of desperation, they might frantically turn to the encyclopedia to find some fact they could use. "The population of Nepal is…"

“Silence. It always amazed me and reinforced my belief that Papa was a little crazy that nothing I ever said was too trivial for him. First, he'd think about what was said as if the salvation of the world depended upon it. "The population of Nepal. Hmmm. Well." He would then look down the table at Mama, who would be ritualistically fixing her favorite fruit in a bit of leftover wine. "Mama, did you know that?” Mama's responses always lightened the otherwise reverential atmosphere. "Nepal?" she'd say. "Not only don't I know the population of Nepal, I don't know where in God's world it is!" Of course, this only played into Papa's hands.
"Felice," he'd say. "Get the atlas so we can show Mama where Nepal is." And the whole family went on a search for Nepal.”

Each child’s contribution was carefully examined and considered no matter how trivial it was. It wasn’t so much the specific bit of knowledge that was important, but the sharing of that knowledge.

“Without being aware of it, our family was growing together, sharing experiences and participating in one another's education. And by looking at us, listening to us, respecting our input, affirming our value, giving us a sense of dignity, Papa was unquestionably our most influential teacher.
‘How long we live is limited,’ he said, "but how much we learn is not. What we learn is what we are." Papa's technique has served me well all my life.” 

Listening to Leo Buscaglia tell the story himself is a special treat. (You can find a longer version in Papa, My Father, and it’s condensed nicely here.) Clicking on the video below will take you directly to it at 45m06s. Watch the whole video if you can, and you’ll get a sense of someone whose passion for life, love, and learning inspired many thousands of people, including me.

Note: I liked this story so much I included it as an exercise in Week 9 of the WOL Circle Guides. It’s meant to help people experience their own Dinner Table University, to practice sharing their learning as a contribution.

 

 

If you want more people to use the intranet at work

For me, it started in 2007. After almost 15 years of working on trading floors, I was close to losing my job and was looking for some other way to add value and stay employed. 

That’s when I started thinking about the intranet.

A list of failed experiments

I was using Gmail and Google Apps at the time, and I thought Why can’t we have something like this at work? So I began researching different options, and that led to the first of many pilots.

2008 - Google at work: We were going to use Gmail and iGoogle (do you remember that?) We conducted a pilot but cancelled it due to inability to pass legal & compliance restrictions.

2009 - Yammer: A business division started to use it first and it began to go viral till Compliance blocked access to it.

2009 - Facebook: We investigated secure integration via software from an Israeli start-up, but never made it to a pilot.

2010 - The Wire: We hosted our own micro-blogging service to avoid compliance issues. There was significant early adoption by IT but it was seen as marginal by most people.

2011 - Jive: We managed to get enough money for 12,000 licenses, and we blew through that within 6 months. Forced to either shut it down or buy more licenses, we secured an enterprise license for several years, giving us time to try and drive adoption.

Do you see a pattern? We were so focused on technology, on trying tool after tool, that we missed the parts about helping people and solving problems.

“This will change everything”

We knew that Jive, a fully-functional enterprise social network, could make a dramatic difference in how people worked. But by 2011, our experiments had taught us that “hoping for viral” wasn’t a good strategy. So our small team launched, evangelized, trained, workshopped, ambassadored, communitied, and tried every other good practice we could find or think of.

It still wasn’t enough. Or rather, change came very slowly. Over the next four years, the number of active users inched upwards, eventually topping 90,000 people, but we faced existential challenges each year: sponsors leaving, budget cuts, re-organizations, IT threatening to change platforms. 

By the time I left the company, most of what we thought of as “the intranet” had moved to the enterprise social network, and more people used it in ways that were open and collaborative. What we were still looking for was how to accelerate these kinds of changes. 

The biggest lesson

In hindsight, the biggest lesson I learned was that while there are many “barriers to adoption” for new technology at work, the biggest one is the set of deeply-ingrained habits people have. Most employees are already busy, distracted, and potentially disengaged. Even if the new intranet is better for them, they won’t pay much attention to it. 

In an article titled, “What We Know About Making Enterprise Social Networks Successful Today,” Dion Hinchcliffe (noted author and digital strategist) summed it up nicely:

“ESNs are about people + digital technology: Focus in that order” 

He provided a wide range of excellent advice, including how he would help people take advantage of the new tools:

“Of all the digital skills that workers should be developing now, perhaps the one that most naturally is an onramp to most of the others and leads to both positive outcomes and compelling emergent results is the act of working out loud (WOL) in digital channels. 
…the push for organizations to create WOL circles to build skills around the technique is probably the best place to start.” 

What I would do now

“Onramp” is a good metaphor. People won’t start using new digital tools because of IT training or because someone told them to. But they will use them if, as in a WOL Circle, they feel it’s related to a goal they care about, that it gives them more control over their career and access to opportunities. 

Bosch is one of the leading companies spreading Circles, and Katharina Krentz talked about it this week at a Digital Business conference in Germany, In her talk, “Working Out Loud as a Change Method,” she shared some of their survey results:

88 % say: “I use Bosch Connect more efficiently now”
97 % say: “The program increases digital capabilities and supports cultural change”

Those numbers are far better than anything else I tried when I ran the intranet. To scale these kinds of changes even further, I would integrate Circles into every existing process or program where people benefit from building better relationships at work.

In short, I’d try to help people experience a better way of working wherever they happen to be, and for long enough that “the new way” becomes a new habit.