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.

Poetry Out Loud

When I first saw the phrase “Poetry Out Loud,” I didn’t pay much attention. After all, you can live, love, write, dance, exercise, and even work out loud

But one day I was working in the fabulous Poets House (“a national poetry library and literary center”), and I noticed some poems on display. They were by children, and the first one I read was by Allan, a fourth-order at PS1. 

Lady
If I leave New York, 
I’ll bring Lady Liberty
Cameras clicking,
Children yelling
I’ll bring it in my suitcase, remembrance.

I enjoyed it, so I read another one by Janice, comparing NYC to a grizzly bear, and one by Leah who wrote about immigrants and called her poem “Welcome New Americans! (“Welcome Immigrants! You are imported good!”)

I took photos and shared Allan’s poem on Instagram with a comment:

“Ever notice how most children proudly make their work visible and most adults don’t?"

A friend responded:

“Because they don’t have the fear of rejection yet.”

“She’s right,” I thought, and yet… “Out Loud” doesn’t have to be about acceptance and rejection, or about megaphones and self-promotion. It can be about the pure offering of a gift, one without the expectation of applause.

I tried this.

I made this.

I learned this. 

I enjoyed this.

I hope you like it or find it useful.

When I use the phrase “working out loud,” I think of the times I listened to someone read a short story, or when I read a book to my young son. “Out Loud” can be the basis for a connection, something that brings people closer, something that makes the work come alive.

Photo credit: Wild Edge Poetry Reading in San Francisco

Photo credit: Wild Edge Poetry Reading in San Francisco

New! WOL Circle Guides v4.0 available

If you’re considering forming a Working Out Loud Circle, or just interested in Working Out Loud yourself, a new set of the free WOL Circle Guides are now available. (Scroll down till you see v4.0.)

These are the clearest and most complete guides ever. I improved the flow, completely reworked some of the later weeks, and included more exercises and resources. But I almost didn’t publish them.

WOL on WOL

I was failing to take my own medicine. As much as I encourage people to make their work visible, I was struggling to finish the new guides. I came up with the usual excuses, and months went by.

They’re not good enough yet. 

What if people don’t like them?

I should wait until…

The key to progress was asking for help from the WOL Community on Facebook. That led to an event yesterday where a few dozen people from around the world walked through the material. The event forced me to publish the drafts, and the comments on the call will make the final version even better.

What’s next?

Though the new version isn’t final, it’s ready to use now and I recommend it if you’re about to start a WOL Circle or are in the early stages of one. I’ll incorporate any feedback you have into a new update in early April. Going forward, I anticipate a major upgrade each year and minor changes throughout the year.

The new 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 suggestions.)

I hope the new guides, workbooks, and videos can help even more people. Though there isn’t any marketing of WOL Circles, they’re in over 20 countries and a wide range of organizations. That’s solely because of people like you who read this blog and spread the word, or who “put the cape on” and decided to try something different in their company.

Thank you.

The best medicine

Did you know that you're 30 times more likely to laugh if you're with somebody else than if you're alone? Why is that?

Yesterday, I came across an example of how laughter spreads. It’s a video my German friends might be familiar with, as it was taken by an improv group on the Berlin Metro in 2011. It starts when a few actors look at their phone and begin laughing. Then several passengers start to smile. Within minutes, laughter has spread to people throughout the entire car. 

I couldn't help but laugh when I watched it. Since it was uploaded, over 7 million people have seen it , and there were numerous articles about it in the press.

“The popularity of the video may help to dispel the belief that Germany is a humorless nation. In a poll conducted earlier this year, More than 30,000 people in 15 European countries were asked to rank the nations with the worst sense of humor and Germany came out on top.”

There’s an old expression that “laughter is the best medicine.” Now we know that positive actions and emotions aren’t just good for you alone, but can be a prescription for helping others, too. A staggering array of behaviors spread through social networks, and the relatively new fields of social neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology are helping us understand how this works. 

Maybe, as one commenter wrote, you want to “bring a sense of openness and kindness to the working life.” Or maybe you want to do something to change "the current climate of meanness and separation from our common humanity.”

What behavior will you choose to spread? 

 

The manager who works out loud

Whenever I talk to organizations about open, connected ways of working, this question inevitably comes up: “How do you get leaders to do it?” 

It’s a problem. Most often, managers simply don’t have the time to learn a different way of leading. Or their habits are so deeply-ingrained that doing something different is too difficult. Sometimes the challenge is digital, in that they’re unfamiliar with communication and collaboration tools besides email. 

But there are absolutely managers who are working differently - who are leading in a more effective, engaging way. Those that do experience a wide range of benefits.

 

Explaining decisions, building trust

In one IT department, the security team abruptly cut off access to Github, a a valuable online tool used by thousands of developers at the company. Employees were shocked and angry. To them, it was a sign that management had no idea how work got done and was completely out of touch. People complained on the enterprise social network, and someone posted a question, asking the executive if they could “shed some light” on the decision.

The executive responded. He started by recognizing the importance of the issue to developers. Then he explained his reasoning in clear, logical terms, while presenting a near-term compromise that was already being worked on. He also invited others to the discussion, and what followed was a set of artifacts, proposals, and conversations that involved hundreds of people. 

Instead of simply publishing a policy statement, the executive listened and engaged. Instead of ignoring the widespread sentiment that management were idiots, he built trust and confidence.

Management By Wandering Around (MBWA)

Wherever I've worked, it was taken for granted that senior managers would travel to different offices to visit with staff there. It was seen as a necessary way to stay in touch with how things were going in a given location. Usually, the manager would deliver a town hall presentation, meet with local managers, have dinner with his team, and be off to the next city. Staff generally appreciated the attention, but the trip could easily involve a week or more, including a lot of time in transit.

There are merits to “management by wandering around,” and it became especially popular in the 1970s and 1980s. For managers used to new communications tools, it’s now easier than ever to do it. These managers don’t wait for the annual trip. As part of their routine, they “wander” around their social intranet throughout the week. In a few minutes, they can come into contact with people, ideas, and issues from around their organization and their company. They can discover the answer to “How’s it going?” at a scale never imagined when MBWA was first taught in business schools.

“Digital Leadership”

When trying to communicate something - a new strategy, say, or the latest culture program - managers traditionally had to rely on “cascading the message.” They would assemble their leadership team, impart their messages, and instruct the group to go forth and spread what was said to their respective teams. And so on. What typically happened, of course, resembled “Chinese Whispers” or “Telephone,” the game that shows “how easily information can become corrupted by indirect communication.” 

One benefit of digital leadership - using modern tools to influence and engage an organization - is that you can eliminate the cascades and reach people directly. Even better, the channels work both ways. For example, an employee at one company had an idea that he believed would make the organization more innovative and collaborative. So he posted it online, and mentioned several executives. Much to his surprise, the executive posted a comment. That led to an exchange and then a series of meetings and proposals. 

With that one comment, the executive signaled to hundreds of people (and perhaps eventually thousands), that he was paying attention, was interested in innovation, and actively supported people who came up with ideas. That’s a more powerful message than any bullet point on any slide cascaded throughout teams, and helped strengthen engagement and rapport.

One more benefit

Some particularly open and curious managers have experimented with Working Out Loud Circles to develop new skills, and I was struck by some of their comments:

“I am overwhelmed by the feedback I got throughout the journey…Our WOL Group is fantastic and our meetings are always one hour of inspiration to move forward. This approach really can change the way you interact with people." 
“I have experienced a completely different way of working on and solving tasks… My circle was both peer pressure and "self-help group" for me, providing motivation and really changing things.”

The more a manager works out loud, the more their view of the organization changes from acronyms, budgets, and processes to human beings connected by shared purpose, shared interests, and shared struggles.

It took me a long time to realize this. For most of my career, I simply did what I saw all the other managers doing. I spent my time in back-to-back meetings, barely knew the hundreds of people in my organization, and felt like I was supposed to have all the answers. It was not a recipe for enjoying work.

If there's a manager you care about, send them this post, and help them work out loud by serving as a reverse mentor or inviting them to join a WOL Circle. Help them take a step towards a better way of working, one that's better for them as well as the people who work with them.

The permission you’ve been waiting for

Earlier this week I wrote about our lack of control at work and asked, “When you have to ask for permission at work for the simplest of things, how does that make you feel?” You might relate to some of the responses:

“I feel powerless, unappreciated. Like I'm a child asking for a second helping.”
“Like a fool.”
“It undermines trust and confidence.”

I described how the very companies striving to be more innovative and agile are often the ones that systematically rob employees of control. I told a story of how I was upbraided for not seeking permission, and how I felt humiliated.

And yet there’s someone at work who places more limits on you than your boss, or any policy or process.

It’s you.

The truth is that you have much more authority over your work and how you do it than you might care to admit. Every day you have some control over who you interact with and what you do. And every day you have complete control over how you interact with others and how you approach the work you need to do.

It took me decades to realize this. And I’m still learning that when you react to negativity with negativity, for example, you’re making a choice. When you say yes to pointless meetings, complain about how busy you are, and never schedule an hour for your own development, you’re making a choice.

I remember reading a post titled, “Do you need a permit?” by Seth Godin. It was in 2010.

“Where, precisely, do you go in order to get permission to make a dent in the universe?
The accepted state is to be a cog. The preferred career is to follow the well-worn path, to read the instructions, to do what we're told. It's safer that way. Less responsibility. More people to blame.
If you think there's a chance you can make a dent, GO. 
Now. Hurry. You have my permission. Not that you needed it.”

It inspired me to be more ambitious, to try and make a bigger contribution without having to be told to do so. But you don’t need to wait for inspiration or a new job to make a difference. In The Art of Happiness at Work, the Dalai Lama said, 

“Somebody may work on an assembly line with little variation in how to do their tasks, but they still have other kinds of choices in terms of their attitudes, how they interact with their co-workers, whether they utilize certain inner qualities or spiritual strengths to change their attitude at work.”

Starting right now, you can choose to be a kinder, more generous person at work. You can choose to learn and explore more, to actively look for the purpose and meaning in what you do. You can be a leader in one of the most important ways possible - through your example.

Every email, every meeting, even every ride in the elevator is a chance to make work better for yourself and those around you. Will you give yourself permission?

Your permission slip.jpg

Asking for permission

It may seem odd, but I enjoy working with big companies. More precisely, I enjoy helping the people who work there. Having been an employee in large corporations for decades, I can relate to what employees experience. I know the many slings and arrows they have to face in the workplace, and how they can affect you over time.

One of those things is having to ask for permission.

No good deed…

Not all companies are the same, of course. But there seems to be a mania about control, about the manager having to know and approve of what each of his direct reports (ah, the military language!) is doing.

Sometimes it’s about money. Can I buy pizza for my team to celebrate our milestone? Sometimes it’s about time. I’ve been invited to a free conference to learn from other companies. May I go? Sometimes, it’s just about control.

One time I was invited to give a talk related to my project at another location in my company. My division had announced a travel freeze, so I told the host she would have to pay expenses, which she did. The morning of my talk, though, I received frantic calls and emails from my boss at 7am. It turns out his boss (who, ironically, was traveling) wanted to know why I was in another city. When I explained how the event related to our goals and that there were no expenses involved, the objection they raised was that I hadn’t asked for permission - and that it should never happen again. 

The new normal

At the time, I thought perhaps this was about me or about a dysfunctional organization. But now that I’m working with a wide range of companies, I see that it’s quite normal. 

I see how the very same companies who want more innovative, agile cultures are the ones that systematically rob people of control, either through their policies or through the caprice of managers trying to validate their position in the hierarchy. I see how experienced, talented employees who desperately want to do good work are forced to ask permission for even the simplest of things.

What choice do you have? 

You probably know some exceptions, the kinds of people who would rather ask for forgiveness than permission. I’m thinking of notable examples like Celine Schillinger at Sanofi, Harald Schirmer at Continental, and Katharina Krentz at Bosch. I know that each of them has faced resistance in the pursuit of doing meaningful, important work. Yet they’ve all found a way to do it and lead change. Over time, by working in an open, connected way, they’ve become fantastic ambassadors for their companies.

They are indeed exceptional. But what about everyone else?

If you’re a manager, you might start by asking yourself a question the next time you feel the need for control: Is this necessary? Rules and policies are fine, but stifling creativity and engagement hurts everyone, including managers. 

If you’re an employee trying to do good work despite the constraints, look to people who are already finding a way to do it. Their openness and consistent contributions over time are what provide them with some level of career insurance. After all, it’s harder to punish someone whose contributions are publicly validated by others. Also, their larger personal networks give them options, and thus more control of their own careers.

Several companies I work with are genuinely trying to create corporate cultures that are more innovative, that encourage more experimentation and a bias to action. To achieve that, we’ll need a different kind of permission, the kind that says, “I trust you to do what you think is right. Please go ahead.”

The Happiness Jar & The Curse Cup

They sit on the window ledge in my living room. I’m looking at them now: The Happiness Jar and the Curse Cup. They’re visible reminders of the choices I get to make throughout each day.

The Happiness Jar came first. The idea, attributed to Elizabeth Gilbert (or at least it was on her Facebook page that I had first seen it) is simple. Each day, you reflect on something that made you happy, write it down on a small piece of paper along with the date, and put it in a jar. Then at the end of the year, you open the jar and randomly read through all those happy moments. (You can find instructions and variations here and here.)

It has same benefits as keeping a gratitude journal. The act of reflecting on positive things and writing them down each day (or even anticipating that process) makes you more mindful of the happiness you experience each day. It could be something your child or friend or spouse did to make you feel loved or appreciated. Or the fulfillment you got from doing good work or exercise. Or simply the way the sun felt or the food tasted.

Like writing in a journal, it takes a while for it to become part of your routine. Though capturing a happy moment only takes a few seconds each day, my first attempt at a Happiness Jar wound up languishing on my bookshelf. It was only when I put the jar in a visible place along with some post-its and a pen, and put it on my progress chart, that depositing something in the jar became a habit.

The Curse Cup came later, and it's also simple: every time you curse, you deposit some money in the cup. While I’m not offended by cursing, I didn’t like that it had become an unthinking habit. Between growing up in The Bronx and working on trading floors, cursing seemed like a natural part of my self-expression. But when my children commented on my “bad words” and a few readers pointed them out in my writing, I decided there’s enough cursing in the world that I didn’t need to add to it. 

I said the kids could split whatever money was in the cup at the end of the year. So now I have an eager peer support group at home, waiting to assist me by pointing out whenever I curse and demanding I deposit a dollar for each offense.

These are trivial changes to my environment and to my day, and yet they’ve shifted my thinking. They've made me more mindful of a choice I get to make: I can focus on the good things in my life and be actively on the lookout for more, or I can add to already-too-much negativity and anger in the world.

The Happiness Jar and The Curse Cup. Which one will I contribute to today? 

If your innovation program isn’t producing much innovation

Your company almost certainly has an innovation program. They may call it something else, or include it in a culture change or digital transformation effort. But no matter the name, companies are all looking to create a more innovative culture, one where individuals contribute more ideas and, importantly, collaborate to bring those ideas to life.

If you have such a program, it probably isn’t producing the kind of change you want. Why not? Because despite the tools you bought and the events you held and even the exhortations of management, most people simply aren’t sure what to do and how to do it.

Some companies I’m working with are about to try something different.

Is your current innovation program a bad idea?.jpg

Where Good Ideas Come From

Most companies think of their innovation program as a big suggestion box. Sometimes they'll offer a prize in an effort to get more people to deposit their Powerpoint slides into the box, and organize a committee of managers to select the best ones. Unfortunately, this tends to breed competition and hiding of information instead of collaboration, and produces little actual work beyond the slides. Sometimes, companies even set up a special Innovation Group, a creative silo of its own that’s apart from everyday work and forever struggles to be relevant or make an impact.

For a better understanding of how innovation actually happens, Steven Johnson’s oft-cited book, Where Good Ideas Come From, is an excellent primer. Analyzing a wide range examples from over centuries, he showed that innovation isn’t the results of a hidden genius and The One Big Idea, but from the exchange and interaction of many ideas.

“New ideas do not thrive on archipelagos,” he wrote. What he meant was that new ideas typically don’t come from people working in isolation. They come from bits and parts contributed by different people who recombine and reconfigure them till the result is an innovation of a kind.

Barriers to innovation

We know this is true, and there is example after example after example of people working in an open, connected way. to accelerate the pace of innovation. Yet we rarely see it at work. Why? 

After watching yet another TED talk describing how a group made their work visible, connected with other experts, and went on to create something new, I wrote about the barriers I saw most often in the workplace:

"I don’t know how." Despite the large number of examples on the web, the vast majority of people have simply never experienced sharing their work online and collaborating with others as a result. And some may not have a convenient facility for publishing content at work.
"I don’t know if it will be useful." For the minority of people that know what to do and have a way to do it, there’s often an uncertainty as to whether their contributions would be valuable. They also struggle with how to get the attention of relevant people.
"I won’t get credit." A more insidious barrier is when people feel their contributions won’t be recognized. Particularly in a management system of competitive ratings and bonuses, there is a heightened sense of internal competition. Feeling like you’re fighting for your share of a finite pie will grossly inhibit your willingness to contribute and collaborate.

A different approach to innovation

The companies I’m working with now are trying to address these barriers in a novel way. They still have the tools, the events, and the management exhortations. But they are also providing employees with help. 

Together, we’re adapting Working Out Loud Circles to give employees hands-on, practical experience. The peer support groups, using Circle Guides tailored for experimentation, begin with smalls steps such as making an idea visible and searching for individuals and groups related to their idea both inside and outside the company. Over a period of weeks, participants practice outreach and ways to deepen relationships that lead to collaboration while learning how to make more of their thinking, learning, and other work visible in a way that’s useful to others. Throughout the process, managers are paying attention to what’s happening online, providing recognition and support, asking questions, and offering their own contributions

Each individual that participates shapes their reputation while they develop their personal network. As Circles spread, so does a culture of innovation, of “putting more parts on the table” (as Steven Johnson says), and reshaping and recombining them.

Instead of a funnel of ideas leading to a committee, or a beauty contest to see who has the best slides, resources can be allocated based on who has taken an idea, built a tribe around it, prototyped it, and gathered support and evidence.

Innovation isn’t just about an idea or a program, it’s about a practice. 

Looking in the mirror

“When a man of my age shaves his face in the morning,
Who is it that stares back and greets him?”

When I heard those lyrics for the first time, I stopped and paid attention. Who do I see when I look in the mirror?

“The ghost of his father long dead all these years?
Or the boy that he was, still wet in the ears?
Or the terrible sum of all of his fears,
In the eyes of this stranger who meets him?”

The truth is that I rarely consider the question, rarely look deeply.

“So his glance rarely strays from his chin or his jawline,
To face up to the truth of his soul,
It's the eyes he avoids so afraid to acknowledge,
Something strange, unexpected, out of control.”

For most of us, it’s easier to turn away than face the “truth of your soul.” And yet…

“There are times when a man needs to brave his reflection,
And face what he sees without fear,
It takes a man to accept his mortality,
Or be surprised by the presence of a tear.” 

When I look now, I still see the young boy, and the sum of my fears. I see the flaws and mistakes. I also see hope, and persistence. It’s only recently that I can look deeply and accept what I see.

Try it if you can. Quiet your mind, silencing the critics and the fans, and look in the mirror when no one else is watching. What do you see?

***

The lyrics are by Sting, from his original musical, “The Last Ship,” and he tells the story of writing it in his TED talk. He had battled for years with being unable to write songs, and it was only when he returned to where he was born, near a shipyard on the northeast coast of England, that things changed.

“It's ironic that the landscape I'd worked so hard to escape from, and the community that I'd more or less abandoned and exiled myself from should be the very landscape, the very community I would have to return to to find my missing muse.
And as soon as I did that, as soon as I decided to honor the community I came from and tell their story, that the songs started to come thick and fast.”

Here’s a recording of a live performance of the music. I listen to it often.

A better approach to mentoring at work

I had two kinds of mentors when I worked in big organizations. One was assigned to me as part of a mentoring program. He was a direct report of the head of our division, and his secretary would occasionally arrange a lunch appointment for us. Because of his position, I was cautious about what I said to him.

My other mentors weren’t part of any program. They were people I chose, either because they excelled at what they did or because they cared enough about me to listen and provide objective feedback.

Who do you think I learned more from?

Most companies I speak with fully understand the value of good mentoring relationships, yet they’re stuck with traditional programs. Here are two ways they can do better.

Peer mentoring

Part of what makes for a successful mentoring relationship is choice. Preserving both parties’ perception of control will directly increase their motivation. Another part is psychological safety. Even with the presumption of confidentiality, it’s hard to be vulnerable when you’re talking to someone who's directly responsible for your compensation or promotion (or is closely connected to someone who is).

Peer mentoring can help with these issues, especially if it’s a group of peers, and their aggregated knowledge, networks, and experience can be considerable. A Lean In Circle is a good example of such a group. 

Another example is a Working Out Loud Circle. Instead of offering just general support, each person takes specific steps towards a goal they care about, and develops relationship-building skills as they do. Simple guides for each meeting provide structure, and ensure that each person has both something to gain and something to offer. More than a conversation each week, it's a shared experience, one that individuals can repeat with each new goal they pursue.

Reverse mentors

Reverse mentor programs flip the traditional model, with a (generally) younger person providing some kind of coaching or support to a more senior manager. The programs are opt-in, which preserves autonomy on both sides. The topics are usually centered around things younger people would naturally know more about (technology, perhaps, or “what millenials want”). That preserves psychological safety. 

Such a program can provide a safe place for executives to learn about something new, and for the reverse mentor to become more familiar with what managers do and how they do it. But most programs lack the structure to provide meaningful exchanges or experiences, and waste the opportunity. It can become, like the lunches with my mentor, just a series of periodic chats. Nice, but insubstantial.

To solve that problem, there’s a version of Working Out Loud Guides specifically developed for such a program. (You could also use them with executive assistants acting as reverse mentors.) Each week, the guides specify preparation the reverse mentor does before the meeting. Then they offer the manager simple steps for using digital tools to reach and engage people. Through deliberate practice in each session, the executive learns how to search and listen online, to connect with people, and to reinforce desired behaviors. 

An experiment you can try in your organization

Though simple, these lightweight mentoring programs can solve some longstanding problems. 

Take, for example, the use of digital tools by executives. Organizations spend millions on new tools for communicating and collaborating, and yet most of their executives don’t take advantage of them. When I mentioned that to a group of HR professionals this week, the audience responded with a lot of head nodding and nervous laughter. “We have a lot of work to do,” they said. But they also agreed they could easily find ten managers who would participate in a “Digital Leaders” reverse mentoring program. Those ten managers, working in a more visible way, could then inspire the next twenty, and so on.

Another problem I wrote about recently is the on-boarding of employees. Companies put a lot of effort into orientation events that, over a few intense days, may well inspire people. But what happens after that? Those enthusiastic new joiners are left with little or no support for navigating their new organization. As an experiment, you could pick one orientation group and offer them the chance to form Working Out Loud Circles. Then use feedback from that first wave to validate that they’re indeed more productive and connected more quickly.

You know you can do better than the traditional programs. Take a small step and see for yourself.

Alexander's Story: "A complete change of my mindset"

Alexander Weinhard works in a software company in Esslingen, Germany. I didn't know him or his company until I came across a post he wrote. It appeared a few weeks ago on a site that connects "businesses and individuals dedicated in some way to helping people become happier at work.It was his first public blog post

I enjoyed reading about his experience so much that I wanted to share his post here in its entirety. If you're in a Working Out Loud Circle, maybe you can relate to what he wrote. If you haven't joined one yet, maybe this will inspire you to take a step.

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MY PERSONAL WORKING OUT LOUD CIRCLE STORY

“Working Out Loud starts with making your work visible in such a way that it might help others. When you do that — when you work in a more open, connected way — you can build a purposeful network that makes you more effective and provides access to more opportunities.”
John Stepper: The five elements of Working Out Loud

When I read this statement for the first time, I thought: “Higher efficiency in my work and more opportunities? That is exactly what I need!” I am a software engineer at the more than 18,000-person Festo, and I am used to supporting my colleagues with their IT problems in our collaboration environment. 

I thought, “Support is a form of reactive knowledge sharing, so why not proactively share my knowledge? It totally makes sense!”

I was so naïve…

After publishing some Tales from the SharePoint Forest, a collection of learnings I had made in my job packed into fable-style stories, which were very positively received from the audience in our company internal social media, I quickly discovered that sharing knowledge alone is not enough. I needed to learn more about how I could make connections with people, how to address people better and how to be more systematic in my sharing.

When I heard that our knowledge management department was planning to organize a Working Out Loud Circle and was searching for volunteers to participate, I was immediately hooked.

WHAT IS A WORKING OUT LOUD CIRCLE?


Working Out Loud Circles are in essence peer support groups which meet regularly to learn more about Working Out Loud. The participants try to answer the following three questions:

  • What am I trying to do?
  • Who is related to my goal?
  • How can I contribute to them to deepen our relationships?

The original approach plans a 12-week cycle with weekly one-hour meetings. At Festo we have reduced it to a ten-week cycle but stick to the weekly one-hour online meetings. Each weekly Circle meeting has a different subject with one or two corresponding exercises illustrated below.

Our Working Out Loud team consists of five of us, from different departments, functions and locations. The host and two of the participants are from our knowledge management HR team based in Germany. One participant is a local IT guy from one of our branch offices in the UK and I introduced myself already. We do all the meetings online.

The goal of the UK colleague is about his personal Balanced Scorecard. The host’s goal is about how to organize a Working Out Loud Circle. One HR colleague’s goal is to learn more about knowledge management because he is new to the subject, and the other HR colleague’s goal is to improve her trainer skills.

That’s the cool thing about a Working Out Loud Circle — all participants can have their own goals. The Circle is more about general methodology, not about a specific subject. Still, we can each help the others, if goals are not too specific.

I have had knowledge management as a main course during my master studies, so I can provide material for the colleague who wants to learn more about knowledge management. I have implemented our IT’s Balanced Scorecard, hence I can connect the UK colleague with the responsible persons for an exchange. We each bring our varied experiences to the table to help each other out.

HOW DID THE WORKING OUT LOUD CIRCLE MAKE A CHANGE FOR ME?

At the moment I am writing this blog post, the Working Out Loud Circle is still going on. So far, we have held seven out of the ten Circle meetings. But nevertheless I already experience a big change:

The goal I set for myself was to learn more about management. Before the Circle started, I was a nerd technical specialist who thought that management in general was something evil. Now I am a nerd technical specialist that thinks that I can change his whole work environment through the practices I’ve learned so far, potentially making a real difference for my colleagues (and myself). Ultimately, I am rethinking my personal goals and don’t think I’d fundamentally turn down the idea of going into management anymore. Our Circle has really kicked off a complete change of my mindset and I am just getting started!

Probably I was a bit lucky too, because at the same time I started to participate in the Working Out Loud Circle, I started reading #Workout by Jurgen Appelo (now published under the title Managing for Happiness.). Through the Working Out Loud Circle exercise in Week Three, I started using Twitter and followed Jurgen. That’s how I learned about the Happy Melly network and immediately joined it. I have published my experiences from the Working Out Loud Circle as experiments I’m running, got a lot of great feedback from the Happy Melly members and finally one thing lead to another… Now I am sitting in front of my computer, writing a blog post for Happy Melly, sharing my experience from the Working Out Loud Circle to an audience I could not have imagined a few weeks ago!

WHAT EXPERIENCES HAVE I MADE PARTICIPATING IN THE WORKING OUT LOUD CIRCLE?

For me, the Working Out Loud Circle at Festo is an institution I wouldn’t want to miss any minute of. I even turned down an appointment with my CEO to be able to join the kick-off!

In my first report on Happy Melly about my experiences in the Working Out Loud Circle, I wrote:

“Finally I have found a channel where I can let my thoughts run wild, where I can exchange with like-minded people. It feels like an escape from the everyday routine.” And guess what? Nothing has changed since then.

Many of the exercises we put into practice during the Circle meetings already found their way into my daily habits, e.g. into the way I write emails or post on our company internal social media. And the feedback which I receive from recipients or readers is exceptionally positive.

In addition, the number of public posts I write in our company social media has increased tremendously because, due to the Circle I found the confidence to be more public. Before the Circle started, I most often just answered questions, provided support and assistance. Now I post about my ideas, experiments, outcomes, achievements. I post kudos and recognition and sometimes also just post my thoughts and opinions. I hope my colleagues will not consider me a spammer in the near future…

To get a more detailed insight in the experiences I have made while participating in the Working Out Loud Circle, you can check my Happy Melly profile, where you find reports about all the experiments I execute at work.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?

I already incorporated with a couple of colleagues from different countries and different business departments to launch a new community with the target to overcome the organizational barriers between software development and affiliated departments in our company. I will share my development knowledge as well as my management learnings there too, thus bringing my Working Out Loud contributions to a whole new level, and, who knows, maybe we might also form some new Working Out Loud Circles inside this community.

I am already looking forward to the next Working Out Loud Circle meetings and want to gain more insight into the subject. I will definitely go on sharing my experiences from the Circle at Happy Melly to spread word to a wider audience. I am also highly motivated to go on using the practices I have learned from the Circle in my next projects, with my remote developer team and with the new community. And when our knowledge management department starts more Working Out Loud Circles, guess who will try to join…

The Ripple Effect at Work

“Contagion will seep through almost any coordinated collection of people.”

When I first came upon that sentence, I had to stop and read it again. It’s from Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, a book about the neuroscience underpinning our social interactions. As evidence for his statement, he cited “simulations done in a now-classic study at Yale University.”

I had never heard of the study, so I looked it up. 

The Ripple Effect Study

The full title is “The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and Its Influence on Group Behavior.” The study was done by Sigal Barsade, and published in the Administrative Science Quarterly in 2002.

Participants were put in a room and told to act as managers on a salary committee that would allocate a pool of bonus money to their employees. There was no single leader in the group, but rather each person was representing a candidate from their division. They were give two “mixed-motive goals”:

  1. to obtain as large a bonus as possible for their candidate and 
  2. to aid the committee to make the best use of the available funds and maximize the benefit to the company as a whole.

What no one knew was that there was a seasoned actor in each group whose assignment was to be confrontational and downbeat in some groups and helpful and upbeat in others. The question was: how would the mood and energy of one participant affect the other members? How would it affect the process and the outcomes?

The results

I have been in exactly this situation, sitting in a room with colleagues allocating a bonus pool or deciding on promotions. It was supposed to be a systematic process based on each individual candidate’s merit. But in reality it was always a complex human calculus based on social capital (who had more influence) and aggression. My own experience was that these meetings could quickly become contentious and unproductive.

“This study showed that emotional contagion does occur in groups and inasmuch as emotional contagion changes people’s moods and serves as affective information, people are “walking mood inductors,” continuously influencing the moods and then the judgments and behaviors of others.”

Importantly, the contagion wasn’t limited to negative feelings. The study showed that “positive contagion” improved not only how the participant’s felt but also affected their process and their performance.

“There was a significant influence of emotional contagion on individual-level attitudes and group processes. As predicted, the positive emotional contagion group members experienced improved cooperation, decreased conflict, and increased perceived task performance.”

Daniel Goleman summarized it this way: 

“The feelings that pass through a group can bias how all the group members process information and hence the decisions they make.”

Like a pebble in a pond

The subtitle of Social Intelligence is “The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships.” The field of social neuroscience is providing evidence for what you may have already understood intuitively: how we approach work can influence how the people around us work and feel.

How might you apply this new science in your next meeting? How might you spread ripples of positive behavior at work, at home, and throughout your life?

What happens after 400 days of meditation

Meditation, like Fight Club, is one of those things you’re not supposed to talk about. If you’re doing it to bolster your ego - Look at me! I’m enlightened! - it goes against the entire process. Still, when I noticed on my “Insight Timer” that I had sat down and meditated 400 times, it surprised me. What started as a challenge has become one of my most valuable habits. 

I’m not enlightened by any means, but several things have changed for me. I hope that by sharing it, some of you may consider making meditation a habit too, or may be more confident in developing other habits you care about.

It began with a challenge

A few years ago, I had begun doing small experiments on my own habits and happiness. After one post about “30 days without alcohol” that included a reference to Stoic philosophy, a reader made an interesting comment: 

“There is too much “learning through punishment” with the Stoics – which is why I hold my reservations about their philosophy.
But I am full of admiration for what you are trying to achieve here. I would challenge you to do/add something every day for 31 days that you find challenging.”

Instead of abstaining or subtracting from my life, what could I do or add that would make life better? I instantly thought of meditation, as references to its benefits kept appearing throughout my reading and research. So I started by trying to do it for ten minutes a day for thirty days. That was almost two years ago.

The progress chart I kept for my meditation "challenge"

Simply difficult

Meditation is at the same time ridiculously easy and ridiculously difficult. There are many variations. The kind I practice, based on How to Meditate by Pema Chödrön, is especially simple.

  • Sit down with your back straight, legs crossed on a cushion or sitting on a chair.
  • Keep your eyes open, focused on a spot on the floor about 4 to 6 feet in front of you.
  • Focus on your breath.
  • When your mind wanders from your breath (it will), simply let the thoughts pass, or label them “thinking,” and focus again on your breath.

That’s it. I do this for 15 minutes each day, usually first thing in the morning, before the kids wake up and after I’ve turned the coffeemaker on.

“You’re not as angry.” 

The first thing I noticed, and what seems to be a universal experience, is that it’s impossible to stay focused for more than a few seconds. You think about that thing you need to do later. You shift your position. You become irritated that you’re such a bad meditator. The phrase commonly used to describe this is“monkey mind” and your inability to control it is frustrating. 

It’s why Pema Chödrön says, “Our mental habits are ancient and take a while to unwind. So we need to practice with patience, intelligence, and gentleness.” She teaches you to think of your thoughts as clouds passing by. Instead of clinging to them, notice them as a detached observer, without judgment, without berating yourself. It can help to simply label thoughts as “thinking,” a gentle trigger to focus on your breath again. 

Over the following months, I never experienced a major insight or epiphany. One day though, over dinner, my 9-year-old daughter said to me, “You’re not as angry.” I was a bit stunned. I looked across the table at my wife who said, “It’s true.” I reflected on it later, and felt that I had indeed become calmer and happier.

Calm, Compassion, Clarity, Confidence

With more research, particularly reading the work of Dr. Dan Siegel, I’ve come to think of meditation as a simple process for training your mind, for learning how to make the most of it. What makes a difference for me isn't the idea of a serene experience each morning. It’s the tens of thousands of times I've practiced calmly focusing my attention on the present moment. 

The more you do it, the more you develop a kind of “meta-awareness” - an awareness of what you’re thinking as you’re thinking it. I don’t claim to have perfected such an ability, but I’ve experienced glimpses of how powerful it can be. The benefits include what I think of as “the 4 Cs.”

Calm - I’m more aware of the triggers that cause me to react as they happen, and that awareness allows me to pause and proceed more mindfully.

Compassion - I’m more aware of my judgments about others, including my own inner critic’s voice. Being aware makes me more thoughtful - Is that really true? - and softens my attitude towards myself and others. 

Clarity - The less reactive and judgmental I am, the more purposeful and open I become. It’s like putting on glasses that let me see through the noise and drama.

Confidence - This isn’t about ego or arrogance, but more like walking on solid ground. Instead of doing something unthinkingly, I’m more mindful of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

Meditation and getting a glimpse of the four Cs is like learning to ride a bike with training wheels. Sometimes you lean heavily left or right, or teeter side to side. But there are those moments when you get it. I’m riding on two wheels! In that moment, you’re fully alive, and you can feel the sun and the wind and the joy. The next thing you know you’re relying on training wheels again, and you’re eager to keep practicing. 

I may never be like Pema Chödrön, but I can be a better me. The more I get a glimpse of calm, compassion, clarity, and confidence, the more motivated I am to practice. 

“The mind is very wild. The human experience is full of unpredictability and paradox, joys and sorrows, successes and failures. We can’t escape and of these experiences in the vast terrain of our existence. It it part of what makes life grand - and it is also why our minds take us on such a crazy ride. If we can train ourselves through meditation to be more open and more accepting onward the wild of our experience, if we can lean into the difficulties of life and the ride of our minds, we can become more settled and relaxed amid whatever life brings us.”
- Pema Chödrön, How to Meditate

A responsibility corporations never imagined they would have

When I saw a video of Simon Sinek keep appearing in my Facebook feed, I refused to click on it. One headline, “This is EXACTLY what’s wrong with this generation!” was enough to put me off.

When my wife recommended it, I watched it.

It’s a fifteen-minute excerpt from a longer interview, and the focus is on millenials (people born after 1984 or so) in the workplace. He describes, for example, how technology and impatience are shaping this generation, making them less happy and less effective at work. 

“Everything you want - instant gratification! 
EXCEPT job satisfaction & strength of relationships - there ain’t no app for that. They are slow, meandering, uncomfortable, messy processes.”

Then, at 10:23, he said something that surprised me: it’s a company’s responsibility to help people develop those relationships, to give them the skills to do so.

“We are putting them in corporate environments that aren’t helping them build their confidence, that aren’t helping them learn the skills of cooperation, that aren’t helping them overcome the challenges of a digital world…”
I hate to say it…It’s the company’s responsibility…we have to work extra hard to find ways to teach them the social skills they’re missing out on.
Trust doesn’t form in a day…It’s the slow steady consistency…We have to create mechanisms where we allow those…interactions to happen.”

You might think teaching “people skills” is the responsibility of parents or schools, or that individuals should just develop them on their own. But if, for whatever reasons, new joiners don’t have these skills - how to build trust and rapport, how to cooperate and collaborate - would’t it benefit the company to help employees develop them?

What do you think? Should organizations be teaching people how to relate to each other?

Update - Feb 1, 2017: Shortly after I posted this, several people pointed out that Simon Sinek recorded a follow-up video (in his kitchen, no less) to respond to some of the strong reactions, both positive and negative, to the things he said in the interview. It's excellent, and clarifies several key points, including the one about corporate responsibility for improving how employees relate to each other.

The Dishwasher Test

This is a test I take several times a week. Perhaps you have a similar test in your home.

It starts when I open the dishwasher and see that my wife has, once again, put the small bowls in the top rack. She does it every time, and every time I’m surprised. Clearly (in my mind) these dishes belong in the bottom, where all the other dishes go. Besides, they’re taking up valuable space needed for the glasses and cups. Yet, there they are. 

What would you do?

a) Leave them there. Who cares where the dishes go?

b) Move the dishes to the bottom rack.

c) Become irritated. Then instruct your partner (again!) on proper dish placement.

d) Become angry. This is a symbol of a bigger issue.

The dishwasher at work

If this was just about dishwashers, it might not matter much. But the truth is that you’re taking a kind of Dishwasher Test every day throughout the day.

Think for a moment about what irritates you at work. It might be a recent email from a colleague, or how someone acted in a meeting. Perhaps it's even how a person dresses or speaks.

It’s routine to turn someone’s contrary position or belief (or even a simple action) into a much bigger and often more personal issue. “He didn’t even reply! He’s such a ****!”

What’s your dishwasher?

When I’ve taken the Dishwasher Test, I admit to being embarrassed about my results. Often, for example, and without a trace of irony, I would mentally accuse my wife of being stubborn as I clung desperately to my own righteous point of view.

Over time though, and with a lot of effort, I’ve shifted from over-reacting to silently moving the dishes without judgment. Sometimes, in fleeting moments of enlightenment, I’ll even leave the small bowls where they are, and remain open to the possibility that her way might actually be as good or better.

Whenever I see the bowls now, I use it as a chance to practice a simple process. I view it as training myself to respond to things in a more mindful way. 

  1. Notice the trigger - the bowls in the top rack, the terse email, etc.
  2. Observe your reaction - Judgment, Irritation, increased heart rate, etc
  3. Pause. (A few slow breaths will do.)
  4. Ask “Is it true? Does it matter?”

The pause gives you time to engage the more evolved parts of your brain, enough time so you don’t respond in an unthinking (or, more precisely, subconscious or automatic) way. The questions help you gain perspective and clarity.

The next time you face your own version of the Dishwasher Test, try this simple process. I’ve found that, with practice, it can make you a better partner and a better colleague. It can make you a lot happier, too.

When the employee survey results aren’t good

“The results were abysmal,” she said, referring to a recent survey her organization conducted. They had asked employees how they felt about their career development and happiness at work. Now she was looking for some way to turn things around.

It's a common problem at many organizations. Maybe the cost-cutting and reorganizations hurt morale. Maybe the culture is autocratic and stifling. Whatever the reasons, when people don’t feel good about what they do at work, the choice they typically make is to step back and care less. You tell yourself, “It’s just a job.”

Today, I want to go deeper into the idea of job crafting that I referred in my last post. Instead of waiting for the CEO to change the culture and have that trickle down, job crafting can help anyone improve those survey results themselves.

What is job crafting?

“Job crafting” is the idea that you can actively shape what you do, who you do it with, and how you think about it. Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski, is one of the researchers who coined the termed, and she described it this way:

“…it’s what employees do to redesign their own jobs from the bottom up in a way that fosters their engagement at work, their satisfaction with their work, their resilience, and their thriving."

There are three components, or different ways you can change your job. 

Tasks: You can change the boundaries of your job by taking on more or fewer tasks, expanding or diminishing their scope, or changing how they are performed. hey took small steps to alter the tasks they did each day, to form and deepen relationships, to find a greater purpose in what they did.
Relationships: You can change the nature or extent of your interactions with other people. A managing director, for example, might create mentoring relationships with young associates as a way to connect with and teach those who represent the future of the firm.
Perceptions: You can change how you think about the purpose of certain aspects of your job; or you can reframe the job as a whole…the leader of an R&D unit might come to see her work as a way of advancing the science in her field rather than simply managing projects.”

Better for you. Better for the organization.

That excerpt is from a Harvard Business review article titled, “Managing Yourself: Turn the Job You Have into the Job You Want.” Dr. Wrzesniewski expanded on her ideas in a talk featured on Google’s re:Work channel. Both are excellent.

In her talk, she makes an important point that what may seem like small changes can reframe work in meaningful ways. 

“So first of all, it matters because it's not just a trick of the mind. So this is not just doing the same kind of work but thinking about it differently. It actually actively influences what it is people are doing on the job, how it is they're doing it, when they're doing it, with whom the work is done. It changes the job description in ways that I think are pretty serious.”

Then she asks the question that comes to every manager’s mind.

“But is this actually good for the organization?”

The short answer is “yes.” It changes how people relate to their work and to each other, and also how they do their work.

“Job crafting is associated with more satisfaction in work. It's also associated with more commitment to the job. And it's more associated with attachment to the job and to the organization.”

If your survey results showed this kind of improvement, that would be reason enough for celebration. Yet what I found even more striking was that the researchers also surveyed co-workers and managers of job crafters. (It was a blind test, so they were unaware of who was job crafting and who wasn’t.) The results showed that not only did the job crafters feel better about work, but the people around them thought they were happier and performed better.

“Their performance in the job, their mobility to new roles within the organization - [job crafting] seems to facilitate moving around in ways that help to optimize what it is that person is doing in their work.”

Where to begin

Working Out Loud is one way to practice crafting your job, by helping you deepen relationships related to your goals, and by giving you greater access to knowledge that makes you more effective.

If you’re one of the unhappy people who filled out the last employee survey, you can form a WOL Circle and begin. (Dr. Wrzesniewski wrote, “Perhaps job crafting’s best feature is that it’s driven by you, not your supervisor.”) 

If you’re one of the people responsible for improving survey results, consider a different kind of change program. When you make it easier and safer for employees to Work Out Loud, you're making it possible for them to feel better and work better. 

Put your cape on

“I think all of us are like eagles who have forgotten that we know how to fly.”

That’s a quote from Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun, author, and teacher. She was referring to the superpowers we all have, the ones most of us aren’t aware of, or aren't comfortable using.

“The teachings are reminding us of who we are and what we can do. They help us notice that we’re in a nest with a lot of old food and old diaries, excrement and stale air. From when we were very young we’ve had this longing to see those mountains in the distance and experience that big sky and the vast ocean, but somehow we got trapped in that nest, just because we forgot that we knew how to fly.”

This isn't about doctrines, but about opening up, becoming more aware of what you have to offer and what others have to offer you. But how do you begin?

Start where you are

What I most appreciate about Pema Chödrön’s work is how accessible and useful it is. We can take that same thinking, that same mindset, and apply it at work and throughout our life.

“Start where you are. This is very important. [The] practice is not about later, when you’ve got it all together and you’re this person you really respect…Just where you are - that’s the place to start.”

She encourages every bit of progress, viewing all the challenges and struggles as opportunities for learning. In Start Where You Are, she describes us as being trapped in a room of our own making.

“To get out of that room, you don’t drive up in a big machine and smash the whole thing to pieces. Rather, at your own speed, starting where you are, you begin to open the door and the windows. It’s a very gentle approach, one that acknowledges that you can gradually begin to open that door. You can also shut it as often as you need to - not with the desire to stay comfortable, but with the intention ultimately to gather more courage, more sense of humor, more basic curiosity about how to open that door, until you just leave it open …”

Put your cape on

For many of us, "starting where you are" means applying this thinking in an office surrounded by people and processes. You might think that's odd place to begin, but there’s some important research by Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski, professor of Organizational Behavior at the Yale School of Management, that shows how we have more control at work than we might think.

As part of her research, she interviewed people in a wide variety of jobs. She found that the individuals who were viewed by colleagues as both more effective and happier were those who "crafted" their jobs.  They took small steps to alter the tasks they did each day, to form and deepen relationships, to find a greater purpose in what they did. Even in mundane jobs like hospital maintenance, mopping floors and cleaning trash bins, some people found ways to do meaningful, even beautiful, things within their context of their work. They chose to do small acts of kindness, to relate to patients and their families, and to view their jobs as making it easier for people to recover.

The researchers asked one woman why she did these things that weren’t a part of her job description. “It’s not part of my job,” she said, “but it’s part of me.” That's tapping into your superpower. As Pema Chödrön described it, “You allow something in you to be nurtured.”

For the decades I worked in in big companies, I had a “longing to see those mountains in the distance and experience that big sky and the vast ocean.” But I stayed “trapped in that nest,” too afraid to venture far from what others did.

Now I know you have choices when it comes to how you do what you do. It may feel strange at first, to think about generosity and empathy at work, about deepening relationships, about fulfillment and meaning. Start where you are. Acknowledge that you have a superpower within you, and put your cape on. When you do, when you permit yourself to make choices that open your world, it can change how you relate to yourself, to people around you, and to the work that you do. It can change everything.

Julia’s story: “Payback is unpredictable and so is the currency.”

Julia Flug works in a large company, where she cares about her career and getting better at it. She also has talents, interests, and aspirations that go well beyond her job. 

She first came across Working Out Loud because of simple curiosity. It eventually led to translating the Circle Guides into German, a new role on an important project, and a set of skills and habits she’s continuing to practice in her work and life. None of that was planned, but as she writes about her contributions to others: "Payback is unpredictable and so is the currency."

Here, in her own words, is her WOL story.

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By Julia Flug

I had been away from work for a while and on my first day back I was browsing through our Enterprise Social Network (ESN), curious to see what was new. And there it was: A community called “Working Out Loud.” Even though I only had a vague idea what might be in it, I was struck right away by the name and I took a deep dive into it. There was the book, the guidelines and even a list where to sign up to build a circle, all with the goal to follow you passion, making it visible and getting connected with others around the same field of interest.

That sounded so great and I started reading the book right away. It felt like one big revelation: A method how to connect with others without having to come up with ingenious small talk. To become visible without selling yourself. A method to learn and to be okay with not having to know it all. A powerful tool of how to start a movement. Keep the change small - that was what I needed, where I had failed so often before! And for the huge fan of tools and methods inside of me the systematic approach was the icing on the cake.

My twitter account was orphaned for more than a year when I decided to send my first tweet. Not “knowing” anybody on Twitter, I was very, very happy to have someone who had already promised to tweet back and thus make me feel more comfortable.

This is how I met John, sending some tweets back and forth. I liked his open and funny writing style and felt somehow connected only by reading the book. Vegetarian? Same over here. 10 years of self help books? Wanna have a look at my shelves? Offering to translate the WOL Circle Guides felt so natural.  

Once I had them ready and sent them to John I was scared to become visible. What would happen once they were published - would people criticize my translations? What would they think about me?

The day John announced in a blog post the new translated guides were online made me cringe. Being all of a sudden visible I expected something (negative, of course) to happen.

But it just didn’t. :)

Does that mean the translations are perfect? Probably not. Would they be different if I had to translate them right now? Yes, most probably. Am I still scared of becoming (more) visible? Yes, but the next time it will be easier to deal with it.

When I started my circle, I defined two topics I wanted to learning about and connect with people with the same interest. I expected the internet and social media would be better sources - rather than the ESN.

Even though my focus was outside, I applied many of the things learned in the exercises at work as well without following a defined goal. Results still came. “Hello, the website says you’re responsible for topic x. Is that true?” That’s what an email in my inbox said. It made me feel disrespected, angry and lucky as it helped me to practice empathy. I sent back a nice email. When she answered, her email style hadn’t changed much. I decided to call her. She was distant and I did my best to stay firm on my intention to be empathic.

A few weeks later, I sent out another email to a group of people including her. She didn’t answer first, but immediately called me after I sent out a reminder. It felt like talking to a different person. She had a melodic, cordial voice. Telling me not only about the personal reason why she wouldn’t be able to join an event but also asking about me for how long I had been with the company, at my current job, if I enjoyed the city we’re living in. She was still straightforward but I knew she was sincere.

Maybe it was stress that made her sound so harsh. In the past I might have answered in a similar style, making me feel stressed too. Practicing empathy allows me to keep those negative feelings away and I would probably even call right after receiving such an email.

Apart from that, many other small things happened. In a certain way it surprises me as I planned to try WOL outside the company, but as the steps felt so natural and brought back some habits I already practiced in the past, I just applied them. The difference now is that I feel better prepared, more secure in how to do so. I offered to collaborate with people and didn’t think I had to know better than them, and received great inputs. I could feel our relationships deepen immediately. I also met new people and felt an immediate connection - just because we cared for the same topic. 

I like to think we all have an imaginary karma account where you can pay in with good deeds, not only through commenting, collaborating, and connecting but by picking up that glove that has fallen unseen to the floor, offering your seat in the subway. The same way you should sell for free, you should fill your karma account for free. Payback is unpredictable and so is the currency.

Even though I intentionally wanted to explore my goal outside the company, one payback came from inside as an offer for a project lead on an important project. I also established several promising connections, both inside and outside and I am curious to find out what other paybacks I might have if I keep paying in.

Looking back to my past six months with WOL - would I do it again? The answer can only be yes. I am happy to feel so much better prepared to establish connections, to be part of certain communities, and to have learned about my topics in a way I had never expected. Yet I am still far away from mastering the art of WOL. Given that it is so easy (and fun) and brings marvelous results I will keep practicing in another circle in 2017.