You are talented enough

As a manager, I used to place people into 9-box grids with axes labeled “potential” and “performance.” It was ludicrous, of course, as we had few if any objective measures of either. But the process required it, and we went about our farcical task with all the seriousness of self-important men. We approached our search for “talent” within our organizations as if we were looking for ripe strawberries. Worse still, we chose to develop only those few we picked.

I wish I had been smart enough and brave enough back then to ask, “Potential for what?” “Performance of what?”

Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, makes the point that it’s not innate talent that matters so much as “passion and perseverance.” She quotes William James, the eminent psychologist in the early 1900s:

“The human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimism.”
‘Of course there are limits,’ James acknowledged. ‘The trees don’t grow into the sky.’ But these outer boundaries of where we will, eventually, stop improving are simply irrelevant for the vast majority of us. ‘The plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.’”

Nietzsche viewed our fixation with “talent” as an excuse: “If we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking.”

“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness…They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman.”

When I worked in big companies, our ill-conceived search for a talented few led us to largely ignore the potential of the great majority of employees. Now, I know it isn’t some rare, innate trait that’s required to do great work and live a meaningful life. It’s passion and persistence. It’s curiosity and a willingness to experiment. It’s years of small steps, deliberate practice, and resilience in the face of setbacks. 

You are talented enough. Now what? Will you wait to be picked, or will you start the long, serious work to pick yourself? 

The missing piece in most quality programs

I fell in love with W. Edwards Deming over twenty-five years ago. He was already in his 90s by then, but his philosophy of work and management was only gradually spreading. I felt like I had discovered A Fundamental Truth. But like other Truths, it was inconvenient to people in power, and was ignored or purposefully misinterpreted.

So when I saw a recent article titled “Deming, Finally!” I was curious. When I noticed it was co-authored by Celine Schillinger, I made a point to read it carefully, since I greatly respect her work driving change at the pharmaceutical company, Sanofi.

“Today, everyone in the manufacturing quality world has read, heard, spoken about Deming. His vision for quality and “14 points of management” as well as the “System of Profound Knowledge” in particular are inescapable reference points.
However, Pharma may have got this all wrong for the last 30 years. By focusing on processes, control and exhortations, manufacturers have missed the essence of Deming’s message.
Deming advised us to actually put the Human at the center of quality and to focus on how the system works.”

The missing piece in most quality programs is the human being. Deming understood that and most of the elements of “the Future of Work” decades ago, but he wasn’t really heard.

Deming would have benefited from better communications & behavior change methods, and I think Working Out Loud Circles can help with both - whether it’s work in an office or in manufacturing plants, in hospitals or schools. I’ll offer some specific suggestions in an upcoming post. In the meantime, read Celine’s article if you can, and let me know what you think about the topic. 

How would you make quality and continuous improvement more human?

When you’re looking for your purpose, “Build your way forward”

Even if you’re fortunate, it’s a common pattern. You begin with a sense that you’re meant to do something purposeful, that you’re special. With the passing of time and with each job, however, that sense of specialness fades. It’s replaced by a nagging disappointment or, worse, resignation. I guess that’s all there is. 

That certainly was my own experience. When I was young, I had high hopes but I also had no idea of what I wanted to do. So I simply reacted to whatever presented itself. As I got older, I relied on my experience in my first jobs to advance and make more money. Doing anything different seemed increasingly impossible. How could I start over?

Recently though, I’ve observed a different pattern. It’s one that gives me hope, and is something anyone can implement on their own. The pattern has three stages: Interest, Practice, and Purpose.

1. Interest

The best description I’ve found of how to explore your interests is in Designing Your Life, based on a course taught by two professors at Stanford. They refer to it as “wayfinding.”

“Wayfinding is the ancient art of figuring out where you are going when you don’t actually know your destination. For wayfinding, you need a compass and you need a direction. Not a map - a direction… Since there’s no one destination in life, you can’t put your goal into your GPS and get the turn-by-turn directions for how to get there. What you can do is pay attention to the clues in front of you and make your best way forward.”

Maybe you have an inkling of what you’re interested in. Maybe you took a test and it pointed you in a direction. Then what? What would you do next, and how might you explore other interests that might be even better for you?

“Try reframing the challenge as an exploration of possibilities (instead of trying to solve your problem in one miraculous leap)…The way forward is to reduce the risk (and the fear) of failure by designing a series of small prototypes to test the waters….one of the principles of design thinking is that you want to ‘fail fast and fail forward’ into your next step.”

The book is filled with many examples of such prototypes, and the simplest and easiest one is a conversation with someone doing something related to your interest or goal. If you’re interested in real estate, talk to people already working in different real estate businesses. If you have a hobby you love, seek out and connect with people who’ve developed that into something more. 

2. Practice

Now comes the part most people miss: deliberate practice. The goal of prototyping and experimenting isn’t to get to some finish line. It’s to get you to the next experiment, to help you explore possibilities while you learn and develop new skills. It’s the combination of doing, interacting, and getting feedback that enables you to advance in the direction you’re interested in. 

For example, I’ve always had an interest in writing, yet for decades I didn’t do anything about it. I started by simply reading more, which sparked my curiosity. My first experiment was to write a blog post on my company’s intranet. I was in my 40s. Then I talked with a journalist who encouraged me and gave me constructive criticism and advice. In the first year, I only wrote 6 posts. I struggled, got more feedback, and learned. I began writing once a month, and later wrote my first public post. Writing became a habit, leading to hundreds of blog posts and a book. The skills I developed along the way - and the relationships I developed as I did it - enabled me to discover a new career in my 50s.

“Deliberate practice” isn’t just for one particular skill, it’s for life.

3. Purpose

Angela Duckworth describes the three phases - interest, practice, and purpose - in her bestselling book, Grit. Her research brought her into contact with thousands of accomplished people and she found few “naturally talented” people. 

“The more common sequence is to start out with a relatively self-oriented interest, then learn self-disciplined practice, and, finally, integrate that work with an other-centered purpose.”

It’s that third stage that is perhaps most surprising to me, and I’m only now starting to understand it. It feels like an awakening of some sort. A psychologist interviewed for Grit described the third stage as when “the larger purpose and meaning of work finally becomes apparent.”

Your next step

The way to design your life is to “build your way forward," using a series of prototypes and interactions to enable you to make it through the three stages. For me, Working Out Loud is what helped me explore my interests, and my WOL Circles have helped me to keep practicing, to continue experimenting and connecting and learning until a purpose emerges.

If you’ve ever felt there is a gap between what you do and something that would be more meaningful, the way to bridge that gap is not with a daring leap but with hundreds or even thousands of small steps. Purpose isn’t something you discover or are born with as much as something that emerges from your passion and perseverance. 

It can be as easy as this

Peter was at a work event, and needed information on a topic that was unfamiliar to him. He had done some research online, and now he was looking for advice.

If you were Peter, what would you do next?

Giving & receiving

You might keep on searching and reading. That’s not a bad strategy. Or you might ask some people at the event or send a few emails to people you think might know something. Instead, Peter posted a simple question on a community site related to the topic. The topic was Working Out Loud. 

“At this very moment I am facilitating a networking event around #NewWork at Deutsche Bahn. One specific session just strived to understand #WOL. Any help or advise is highly appreciated. We have the rest of today plus tomorrow and would love to get started in that timeframe. What immediate first steps would you recommend?”

Within a few minutes he had responses from people in three different cities and companies. Within a few hours, people from Deutsche Bank, Bosch, and BMW as well as independent consultants all offered suggestions and asked questions. As the world turned, more people joined from five different countries. Many more people viewed and reacted to the post.

One of the commenters actually drove to the event to bring Peter a copy of Working Out Loud.

Peter started the discussion by simply offering his attention and vulnerability - “We’re working on this and interested in what you do. Could you help us?” - and the community responded with specific, constructive advice, encouragement, and even a sense of humor.

Maybe it ends there, with a nice discussion. Or maybe Peter tapped into a valuable practice he can spread inside his company and a global network that can help him - all with a simple contribution. It can be as easy as this.

Simon Terry, consultant and leader of Change Agents Worldwide, summed up what many of us in the discussion were thinking.

“Would you recommend this method to your network?”

I can already anticipate my wife’s response when I share this statistic with her. “Darling,” I’ll say, “99% of the people in WOL Circles at Bosch said they would recommend them.”

There will be a pause, then a deadpan stare. “Darling,” she’ll say, “that’s not credible.” 

As usual, she’ll be right. It is hard to believe. Yet the team at Daimler had similar results in their survey.  How can that be?

First, a few disclaimers. The surveys are still small. The one at Bosch included 107 respondents out of the 500+ people who experienced a WOL Circle there, and the Daimler survey wasn’t any bigger. Also, I know that not all Circles are successful. People sometimes drop out because they’re too busy, or just not ready for whatever reason. For sure, we need to collect much more data.

Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable result for a change method inside a large corporation, and I think I know why these two institutions got such great results: It’s the way they introduced and spread WOL Circles.

The best write-up to date is a detailed article from Katharina Krentz at Bosch, where she outlined what they did, how they did it, and provided yet more survey results. 

Katha emphasized the importance of a “co-creation team,” something Daimler has also formed. It’s a group of almost all volunteers who oversee the spread of WOL. They serve as the linchpins within the company, ensuring each Circle gets the support they need and overseeing the spread of the method across the company. They’re the ones who work with me, and who engage HR, Communications, and other divisions for events and integrating Circles into existing processes and programs like employee on-boarding.

This structure helps, and even more important is their approach. They frame WOL Circles as simply a personal development method that’s good for the individual and for the company. It’s described as “a guided mastery program for collaboration and networking.” (One manager at Bosch said he liked the method because “it’s simple, structured, and human.”) As they get more positive feedback, they spread the word while opportunistically looking for ways to spread the method. 

These two co-creation teams are indeed excellent. The people are smart, creative, and kind, and they have an extraordinary ability to get things done. And because they Work Out Loud - offering what they did, how they did it, and what they learned - you can achieve similar results in your organization. 

***

Note: I was wondering about the one percent at Bosch who did not recommend the practice. (Human nature dictates that I focus on the negative 1% instead of the positive 99%!) After I shared the statistic on the WOL Facebook Page, Katharina explained it:

“Fun fact: the 1% comes from someone who skipped this answer - so it was a mistake, not a real “no.”" 

When they do things I could not do

I remember how hard it was when I worked in a big company. Trying to get budget or even attention was like running some Dilbert-ian gauntlet. Trying to make an actual difference was harder still, and I often wanted to give up. 

So when I see people working in large corporations doing what I could not do, I look at them with genuine admiration. How did they do it? Why? Today I want to celebrate some of these people. The list below is by no means complete, and that makes it all the more amazing.

Janine Kirchhof works in HR at Daimler. She felt her WOL Circle helped her tap into a sense of purpose, so she proposed combining Circles into Daimler’s on-boarding process. She secured the support she needed and kicked off the first pilot last week. Going forward, each month she'll be helping new joiners become more productive and connected more quickly.

Katharina Krentz is a pioneer in spreading WOL at Bosch, and she’s the only person (besides me) whose full-time job is spreading the practice of Working Out Loud. She formed a co-creation team that built a movement within the company that has already reached over 500 people, organized the first-ever WOL Conference, piloted WOL for Teams and WOL for Leaders, and now partnered with HR to integrate WOL into their on-boarding program. She even worked with Communications to share what Bosch has done in this wonderful 2 1/2-minute video and this incredibly useful post on LinkedIn.

Three people at BMW - Jasper-John Schaefer, Ilona Libal, and Andreas Schorn - started their WOL efforts from different divisions. Things developed slowly at first, but through a combination of creativity and persistence they got the attention of top management of the company. They now have the support to create their own movement there, and the potential to go further and faster than others who started before them.

I’ve written about the Daimler team before, where Lukas Fütterer and Melanie Rassloff astound me with their creativity, generosity, and the sheer range of what they do. They too have formed a fantastic co-creation team that is spreading Circles and leveraging talent throughout the company to institutionalize WOL as a skill everyone should have.

Bernd Zimmerman is at Siemens, where he’s introduced new methods for developing “senior leadership excellence.” He saw how WOL could be adapted and applied to innovation, fostering a sense of experimentation and prototyping in the company, and helping individuals bring their ideas to life. The first pilot he led quickly turned into several more, and he’s only just begun.

Athanasia Price and Emma Boddington-Stubbs work at Rio Tinto in Australia. Athanasia wrote and spoke about how WOL helped her find "clarity on my purpose at work" and decided to try and spread the practice. Though she was seven months pregnant, she collaborated with HR and worked with Emma to create the first-ever pilot of WOL Circles as part of a graduate training program as well as a digital culture program.

These people are all busy, with full lives and demanding full-time jobs. And yet they crafted their roles so they could help more people, so they could make work even more fulfilling. They all lead by example, inspiring other to do more inside their own companies. 

When I worked in a big company, I could not do what they have done. But now I can contribute in other ways, and the persistence of these people and their ability to execute inspires me to do more, to be more.

I thought work wasn’t supposed to be like this

I still remember a response to one of my earliest posts, one about finding meaning and fulfillment at work. “You’re nuts,” she wrote. “People go to work for money. They go home for meaning and fulfillment.”

I’ve thought about that for years. What if she was right, and I was encouraging people to try anddiscover something that work simply wasn’t designed to offer? How cruel that would be.

Fast forward several years. I’m laying on a yoga mat in an office in a large manufacturing company in Germany. A group of us had worked together for the last three days, and much of it was quite intense. Before my trip, I happened to know that one of them was a yoga instructor. (We were connected on Instagram and other channels, even those of us who barely knew each other.) I half-kiddingly suggested that we have a class after work on Friday. Others responded, and there we were, in a wide array of yoga attire, on our mats among the chairs and flip charts. The class was beautiful, almost spiritual. Afterwards, we hugged each other goodbye.

This kind of connection happened throughout the week. Instead of just small talk in between meetings, we talked about personal aspirations and life experiences. We discovered shared interests as well as new possibilities for how we might collaborate and innovate. By deepening relationships, we changed the very nature of the work we were doing as well as what we might do together in the future.

Oh, and we ate together and laughed. A lot. 

It's true that these particular people are extraordinary. And yet I’ve had similar experiences with other people in other cities in other companies. I’ve observed tremendous generosity and vulnerability, creativity and intelligence, in their work with me as well as with their colleagues. It's those behaviors that lead to meaning and fulfillment.

Once we shed the facade of cool professionalism, we were able to develop a sense of relatedness that opened up all sorts of wonderful possibilities. 

It wasn't just work or just personal. It was human - and it was beautiful.

A different kind of graduation present

It's graduation season now. Young people all over the world are leaving university and embarking on their next adventure. Many of them will be joining new companies and will take their place in a graduate training program.

What would be the best thing you could give them? Money? Nice things? What if you gave them a skill they could use now and forever? One that could make their work and life better?

When I left college, there were just a small number of well-worn career paths. Now it seems there’s an infinite number of trails in ever-changing terrain. The wonderful book Designing Your Life makes the point that we no longer have a map for our career (if we ever did) but just a general direction, and we have to “build our way forward.” The way to do that is by building relationships with people and learning from them, leveraging their experience to refine our own sense of what we like and what’s possible.

The first pilot of WOL Circles for a graduate training program is starting in a few weeks, enabling each of the participants to have a global network inside and outside the company in just 12 weeks. The company that sponsored it wanted to give their new employees something besides a job. They wanted to give them control over their career and access to more possibilities, more chances for meaning and fulfillment.

That’s a wonderful gift. 

“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.