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.

***

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.

“Are you in or are you out?”

She could tell I was uncomfortable. I was sitting across from Kelly Kimball, the respected acting coach and director I've written about before. I had just told her about a video project I wanted to film, unlike anything I created before. She quickly laid out all that might be involved, the preparation I could do, some adjustments I would need to make. It was masterful. 

I must have visibly sunk into my chair. This will be worse than 10 TED talks, I thought. It was too much, and I would never be good enough.

Kelly noticed my apprehension, looked me in the eye, and said, “You’ll be great.” She talked about the work she had seen me do and why she knew I could pull this off. Then she paused. “Just ask yourself, before you start, ‘Am I in or am I out?’” It’s a question she has her acting students ask themselves before they do a scene.

If you’re out, you’re thinking about all that might go wrong. You’re focusing on why it needs to work - for the money or status or both. You’re questioning your ability and your choices. 

If you’re in, you’re thinking about why you wanted to do this kind of work in the first place. You’re focused on who it’s for, and how it can help them. You’re thinking about the contribution you’ll make and the learning you’ll take away no matter what.

I sat up, smiled, and thought, I’m in. I told her that was a question I could ask myself before every talk or workshop, whenever I write, and any time I was about to do something I cared about.

This year, as you take a step, as you attempt something new - to learn, explore, or do anything that stretches you in some way - what mindset will you bring to your work, to your aspirations?

Are you in or are you out?

Photograph by Steve McCurry

Note: For years, I've written every Wednesday and Saturday but on two different sites. Today, I've changed that, and merged everything here, including mailing lists because over time my work and life have blended. I'll continue to publish twice a week, and almost everything will relate to improving how people relate to themselves, to each other, and to the work they do.

Wherever you wish to go next with your career & life, I hope my work can help you in some way.

A look back, a look ahead

This was one of the most notable years in my life. I learned more, met more people around the world, and I am more optimistic about the future than ever. 

So in this last Working Out Loud post for 2016, I thought it was appropriate to reflect on what happened, and to share what I have in mind for 2017.

2016

My first post this year used a beautiful image of a horse breaking free from a carousel, and that turned out to be more apt than I could have imagined. After 30 years of working inside big companies, I had experiences I never thought I would have.

The scariest thing I did was giving a talk at a TEDx event. Part of the fear was about presenting, and part was about sharing my work and aspirations in such a venue. It made me think more deeply about what I was trying to accomplish.

A different kind of fear was leaving the (relative) stability of a big company and going out on my own. Ikigai, LLC is named after the Japanese word for “a reason to get up in the morning.” It's a good name, as my daily work feels more purposeful than ever. 

One of the most thrilling days of the year was in Stuttgart, Germany where the first-ever WOL conference was organized by an extraordinary team at Bosch. I will be forever grateful to that team and that company for all they have done.

The most learning continues to come from working with customers. (I love that word: “customers.”) As much as I enjoy researching and writing, the real learning comes from putting the ideas into practice. Yet it doesn’t feel like work. This video from a recent event at Daimler captures the positive energy, even joy, of working with people who care to make a difference.

Of course, most things did not go nearly this well. The majority of my experiments didn’t turn out the way I hoped, and I made some frustrating mistakes. But those failures shaped my thinking and my aspirations for next year.

2017

My mission is to improve how people relate to each other and the work they do. I aim to do that in a way that’s good for individuals as well as for the organizations they’re a part of. Because if we genuinely make work better, we can use the vast resources of organizations to serve this mission, and people can practice throughout their workday in a way that feels purposeful. Instead of fighting against the corporate machines, I intend to use the best parts of them to change things from the inside.

Here are a few things I’m working on that I think will help.

Customizing Working Out Loud Circles for organizations. I work with customers to tailor the guides specifically for them, incorporating their goals, their collaboration technologies, and real examples from within the organization. That makes it easier for people to practice at work, and helps WOL Circles integrate easily into existing programs for new joiners, leadership development, and more. 

Making the practice more accessible & scalable. I’m developing a set of online coaching resources that will give Circle members help whenever and wherever they need it. That’s an efficient way for organizations to ensure Circles are effective for their people. It will also be a way for individuals to experiment with Circles by themselves, even if they’re not yet ready to join a peer support group.

Publishing a detailed case study. There are many great stories of people using Working Out Loud Circles to change their habits and their mindset. A detailed case study of an organization that includes data on improvements to collaboration and engagement will help accelerate the spread of the practice. 

In addition to these new things, I’ll also keep working on improving the practice. That will include a new edition of the book and upgrades to the free, public Circle Guides. I also intend to publish a set of Advanced Guides. These will help people who have already been through a WOL Circle to deepen their practice even further.

One other small shift

One other small change I’ll make is to this blog. Some of you know I write on johnstepper.com every Saturday, something I started doing well before I was thinking of Working Out Loud. Going forward, I’ll merge the two blogs here. Wednesday posts will be related to organizations, and Saturdays will be for individuals. (That’s my plan at least, or perhaps “aspiration” is again a better word.)

Thank you all for your attention, your support, and your ideas. Wherever you wish to go next with your career & life, I hope you take a step this coming year, and that Working Out Loud can help you in some way.

Please pay attention

“Cool neon sign,” I thought to myself as I walked by it in the hotel lobby. I was there all day for a conference, and it caught my eye each time I passed it.

First I wondered why they hadn't turned it on. Then I wondered what it would look like if it was lit up, imagining the red glow in the hallway. I even pointed it out to someone else and we agreed that we liked it.

It was only at the end of the day that I discovered what the sign really was, and what it might mean.

The signs I pass every day

For most of my day, I’m not paying attention at all. I’ll stare at the bottle of vitamins and forget if I already took one. I’ll walk twenty minutes and not look at the sky once. Much worse, I’ll be in a room with people I love and won’t really see them at all, engrossed instead with my book or laptop.

I’m not special in this regard. In the book Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson writes that while our brains can take in eleven million pieces of information at any given moment, we’re only consciously aware of forty. It’s a dramatic statistic that shows just how precious little attention we have. “Paying attention” requires extra energy and, as the neurologist Daniel Kahneman writes, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

Looking at things differently

Heading out of the hotel, I passed the sign one last time. This time, I stopped and walked up to it. That’s when I noticed a small placard well beneath it to the right.

The “neon sign” wasn’t neon at all, but was made of painted wood. When I examined it closely I could see the small carving marks.

The irony wasn’t lost on me. I had passed a sign with clear instructions - “PLEASE PAY ATTENTION!” - and never took a moment to really see it. I had instantly created a truth, “Cool neon sign,” and was blind to other possibilities until I paused and examined my assumptions more closely.

Giving the gift of attention

It turns out you can train yourself to pay attention, and that the more you train, the more easily you can offer it.

You can practice offering it to yourself by paying attention to what you’re doing in any given moment. Notice the taste and texture of the food you’re eating, or the feel of the water in the shower, or your surroundings as you walk. Practice offering it to others by actively listening to them, and pausing to consider things from their point of view.

Sometimes offering attention is simply being with someone. Each time my son asks, “Want to play Sorry, Dad?” or my daughter tells me a story of what happened with her friends, I wish I had that neon sign reminding me of what I should do.

“Please pay attention.” You and all the people around you deserve it.

***

Note: My next post will be on January 7th, and I’ll be migrating this blog to workingoutloud.com, where I’ll publish an article every Wednesday and Saturday. Have a wonderful holiday.

A better way to welcome people to your organization

Imagine for a moment what it’s like to join a new organization, particularly a large one spread across locations. Don’t worry if it’s been a while since you started a new job. Things haven’t changed that much.

You go through an orientation process, largely about rules, tools, and values. You get access and accounts, a desk. You meet the people on your team and a few others sitting around you. 

Then, over a period of many years, you slowly build your network and learn how to navigate the organization. The more connected you become, the easier it is to find who and what you need to get things done. The richer your network, the more valuable you are to the organization. 

Here’s a way to significantly speed up this process.

Day 1

As part of the orientation process, you form people into Working Out Loud Circles, peer support groups of 4-5 people. They can be in different locations or different divisions, depending on your process and on the kind of connectivity you’d like to develop.

Normally, in your very first meeting, you start by picking a goal and listing people related to that goal. These Circles for new joiners will be even simpler, since each person already has a goal of getting to know people in their new organization. To make it easy for them, you provide a curated list of relationships that would be helpful for them given their particular job. This list will include relevant groups and influencers, as well as management.

Over the coming 12 weeks, each Circle will follow simple steps in the Circle Guides customized to include your organization’s examples and technology. So the exercises each week will refer to specific people and specific channels, making it straightforward to start building meaningful relationships at work.

Day 10

By the second meeting, the Circle members have already bonded as a group. They’re all going through the same process together, helping each other, and they feel it’s safe and confidential. It’s rare that anyone at work has a trusted mentor, so being part of a trusted group of peers can be quite powerful.

Together, they're already making small contributions to people in their relationship lists. It might be as simple as offering recognition by pressing a Follow button on the intranet. Or they might offer appreciation with a comment thanking someone for work they’ve done or a resource they’ve shared. They’re using a range of tools, not for the sake of digital transformation but to build relationships that matter.

After the second meeting, their network is already bigger than it would have been using a traditional on-boarding process. 

Day 100

Week after week, following the steps the Circle process, the group continues to do a wider range of things in the service of building relationships. They’re joining communities, asking questions, helping other new joiners, finding and sharing useful resources. 

While they further expand their network and deepen relationships with the people in it, they are developing a new mindset and new set of habits: working in an open, collaborative way. 

By their last meeting, they're able to Work Out Loud towards any goal. That’s a capability recently described as “perhaps the most fundamental digital workplace skill.” For their next project or problem, whatever it is, they’ll be able to find people that can help them and build relationships so they’re more likely to collaborate.

The results

When you welcome employees this way, you increase engagement and connectivity, and you reduce the time it takes to be productive. Instead of learning from binders in classrooms, new joiners learn by doing and collaborating in peer support groups.

Now imagine if all your new joiners, in their first few months, developed the habit of working in a more agile, visible, networked way. Imagine the positive change in your culture, the improved effectiveness of your people, and the greater return on your technology investments.

When you change how you welcome people to your organization, you have the chance to create sustainable change that feels good. But only if you imagine a better way, and take a step.

Oh, the places you will go

Growing up, my world was small. We didn’t have money for vacations, so we mostly played in the street right outside our house, pausing only for cars that came through. Some days, I would bike for hours, retracing the same routes in our all-Italian neighborhood. A major adventure for me was to head towards Pelham Bay Park, a little over a mile away.

Gradually, my world got a bit bigger. Going to high school in Manhattan, a subway ride away, brought me into contact with other kinds of people, other perspectives and ambitions. I was 22 when I took my first trip out of the country.

Then came work and business travel. It was thrilling in the beginning to go to London or Moscow or Tokyo. But over time, visiting the same offices year after year, I felt a certain sameness, confined by the structure of a big corporation. We all largely thought the same way. Different languages, perhaps, but talking about the same things.

Well into my forties, something changed.

I started to make my work visible - my learning, ideas, projects. Often I simply shared my appreciation for someone or something interesting. Like pebbles in a pond, those small contributions brought me into contact with new people in new places.

Over the years, the ripples kept spreading. In the past few weeks alone, I’ve been collaborating with extraordinarily diverse groups of people. There were students at the University of Eisenstadt in Austria. Employees of a consulting company in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and an energy company in Essen, Germany. Even a large meeting of the Australian Tax Office in Canberra, Adelaide, and other cities. Just yesterday, ripples from my visible work led to connections with people in Tasmania. Then someone in Germany shared a picture of my work being discussed in a public school there.

Joachim Haydecker teaching WOL

This isn’t about commercial success. (None of these involved money.) Rather, it demonstrates the power of purposeful discovery. “Purposeful” in that you make work visible related to your goals and interests. “Discovery” because you’re not sure what will happen, if anything, when you do that.

One thing for sure is that being more open about what you’re doing (and want to do) brings you into contact with people and opportunities you never could have imagined. Each connection can be a link to a new set of possibilities.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I had learned to do this earlier. I can’t change that, but I can help others make their world bigger sooner. 

What about you? Where would you like to go?

***

Oh, the places you'll go!

Changing organizational behavior: top down or bottom up?

I’ve seen the change management movie so many times that I know the script by heart. 

  1. The dramatic descriptions of the burning platform and its dire consequences. 
  2. The overuse of the words “transformation” and “journey.” 
  3. The recognition of the difficulties ahead, and the appeal to everyone to engage despite them. 
  4. The management announcements listing who’s in and who’s out.
  5. The lack of actual change.

Some of the movies were pure farce. During one reorganization of a large IT department, thousands of people were forced to play a board game so we could understand the new operating model. Then there was the firm-wide program to change our culture, complete with new values on posters and mandatory meetings to discuss them. One executive made a video, making clear his impatience with the bad behaviors he had seen, only to be fired himself for those same behaviors. 

“Change management” has become an oxymoron, a caricature of bureaucracy captured in popular cartoons. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Grassroots or “Grass ceiling”?

I was thinking about this during a Knowledge Jam event organized by Cogneon in Nürnberg last week. All the participants were interested in change of some kind, whether it was developing more collaborative cultures and new kinds of leadership or more agile teams and engaged staff. One of the methods discussed was Working Out Loud Circles, and how they helped make change sustainable.

Then came the discussion and debate. “What’s they best way to drive change? Top-down or bottom-up?”

The trade-offs are obvious. If management leads the change effort, then employees know it’s expected as part of their job and is likely to have resources to implement it. If employees lead it, it’s because they believe in it.

As Peter Senge said, “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.” So, appealing to employees’ intrinsic motivations is important. Yet without the support of management, grassroots efforts can be trampled, or spread too slowly, or hit limits - “the grass ceiling” - that prevent them from driving meaningful change.

An emerging pattern

Now that Working Out Loud Circles are spreading in dozens of organizations, there’s a discernible pattern. 

Quite commonly, it starts with a single person deciding to form one or more Circles. They don’t need budget and they don’t ask for permission. They just find a few colleagues who might be open to change, download the free guides, and start. In most cases, the early adopters have such a positive experience that they tell others, a second wave forms, and they begin collecting feedback from people.

Then comes a shift. The people in the first few waves use the feedback they’ve collected to get management support of some kind. This could be in the form of an official event or other activities to encourage the spread of the practice. In some cases, HR will get involved in sponsoring the event or include it in their training offerings. Or they’ll commission customized guides that refer to company goals, examples, and technology. These kinds of things make it easier for more people to feel safe that they can join a Circle without fear of getting into trouble in some way.

Start where you are

When I worked in large corporations, we spent millions on messages and management related to change, but close to nothing on actually empowering people to do things differently.

One way to fix that is to help people help themselves. By equipping and empowering early adopters to drive change, you learn what works and doesn’t work while you collect real stories from real people about the benefits and possibilities. Then, armed with those results, you can leverage the institution to scale and accelerate the change you’ve begun to see. 

The best way to drive behavior change inside your organization isn’t top-down or bottom-up. It’s both. 

Next week, I’ll describe a new kind of on-boarding process that’s a good example of this.

A fire on the 23rd floor

I miss having a fireplace. Stacking the logs just right and inhaling the earthy smoke of the burning wood. Staring at the dance of orange, yellow, and blue as you bask in the flame’s warmth. Listening for the crackles and pops of the overheated sap.

But I live on the 23rd floor of a modern apartment building, and we don’t have a fireplace. So early one cold Fall morning, well before the sun was up, I had an idea:

I would project a video of a fireplace onto the wall.

I remember being pleased with myself immediately. Though I wouldn't have the warmth of the fire, I could enjoy the color and the sounds. Even better, there wouldn’t be any mess or smoke, and the projector could make the flames 9 feet high.

In the dark living room, I found a video of a Yule Log burning, and quietly set everything up. I sat down and luxuriated in the colors and sounds of a huge fire, still smugly reflecting on my own creativity and cleverness.

Until I heard the sirens.

My eyes widened. “No,” I thought. "Couldn't be." I went to the window and watched two fire engines turn off the West Side Highway, race onto our street, and stop short at our building. I quickly turned off the projector, and the room went dark.

Then the phone rang. “Mr. Stepper,” he said, “is there a problem in your apartment?” I hurriedly explained that I had been watching a video and that everything was fine. I sat down, embarrassed at having caused such a fuss so early in the morning, but glad the doorman was able to handle it.

The came the banging at the door. It wasn’t a knock, but more like a battering ram, the kind of sound you hear before the door explodes into the room in splinters. Still in my pajamas, I raced to open it and found myself facing a fireman in full firefighting gear, complete with a large ax.

“Hello,” I whispered, mindful that everyone was still sleeping. “Everything’s fine.”

“We got a call there was a fire,” he said in a loud, booming voice. “No, no,” I continued whispering. “I was just watching a video and someone from another building must have seen it and thought there was a fire. I’m so sorry.”

He looked at me with what I can only describe as a cocktail of disappointment, relief, and disgust. There were no people to save, and no danger to him or his crew. Just some idiot watching a fireplace video in his pajamas.

“A Yule Log video?” he asked, guessing correctly. He slumped away, equipment swinging and jangling. He didn’t even wait for my response.

Later that week, my son asked to watch a dinosaur movie on the projector. My wife looked at me, looked at the window, and looked back at me. She didn’t need to say a word.

We pulled down the shades.

Fire on the 23rd floor
Fire on the 23rd floor

Victim or visible?

The group had been through years of budgets cuts and reorganizations, and they were tired of the continued change and uncertainty. Now, at the annual conference, a newly appointed leader addressed them.

She acknowledged all they had been through, and the reality of the financial challenges. She made it clear how much she understood and valued their work. She said she wasn’t interested in more reorganizations. 

Instead, she asked the people to make a change themselves.

What she had observed in her short tenure was that the people who knew about their work thought it was excellent. But those who weren’t aware of it thought the organization was broken somehow.

The key, she told the audience, was that they needed to be more visible. They needed to share their work - “what you’re doing and why it matters” - so that more people would be aware. Doing so would also give their supporters a chance to make their support visible. That was the best way to take control of the situation they were in.

She recognized this might feel new or even uncomfortable for some people. But without being more visible, the only other option was to be a victim of more changes and more cuts.

“Meet them where they are,” she told them, describing her early efforts using Twitter. She didn’t start because she loved it or because it came naturally. She did it because she wanted to engage people there and spread news of the good work that might be useful to them. 

As she finished her talk, she made it clear that “victim or visible” was a choice they had to make.

The next presentation was on Working Out Loud, and I tried to make that choice even easier, to help the audience take a step.

 

 

“How do I make more of her?”

I was sitting in the hotel lobby, tired after having given a talk and two workshops, when she walked up to me.

“I’ve been looking for you,” she said. I recognized her from one of the tables at the front. She wanted to tell me about the women in one of her educational programs, and how ideas in my talk might help them.

The story she told me has stayed with me all week. I feel like it’s one of those times when the universe is nudging me to do something.

Helping mothers and their children

She works at a university, and has for a long time. She had been running a program to help mothers learn about nutrition for their children. They would talk about what’s in foods that people commonly feed their kids, and what to watch out for. They would introduce them to foods they might not be used to cooking with, like avocado and quinoa.

While many of the women found it helpful, some were particularly enthusiastic. They truly cared about the topic. So when she got funding for a related program and needed to hire people, one of her team members suggested they consider hiring women they were already helping.

apple-avocado-cranberry-walnut-salad

Working with (and around) the system

This wasn’t the normal recruiting process. But the woman running the program had been doing this kind of thing for decades, and she knew how to work with the system. She hired them.

She started reading some of the texts and emails from one of the women. In the program, they would cook meals so they could all try the food themselves and learn how it was prepared. A mother-turned-nutrition educator had been searching for recipes. She was exploring and creating ("What if we tried cranberries with that instead?") and was excited to share her ideas. I could feel the administrator's sense of wonder and hope as she read the exchanges. I could feel the mother's empowerment as she tapped into new ways she could contribute. 

Then she put down her phone, somewhat downcast, and said, “Normally, the system rejects this kind of thing.” In addition to rules about hiring, there were rules about which recipes they were allowed to use, about which communications channels to use. But she said she had followed the rules for too long, and now she cared more about helping people, whatever it took. I could tell she was gratified to have helped one young woman, and also that she felt compelled to do more. That’s when she asked, “How do I make more of her?”

“What if?"

As I listened to what was being shared by email and text, I thought of Jane Bozarth’s book, “Show Your Work: The Payoffs and How-To’s of Working Out Loud,” in which she offered a wide and wonderful range of examples of everyday people making their work visible. I started to ask some "What if?" questions.

What if all of the recipes and other ideas were more visible? Instead of being hidden in emails and texts, the mothers, teachers, and others who cared about the topic could interact, share, and learn in an online community, or even a simple Facebook group.

What if the program administrator wasn’t the one responsible for “making more of her”? The women in the program could use their visible contributions to make their own connections and find people as passionate about the topic as they were. 

What if you didn’t need to ask permission or make it part of the program at all, but empowered the women to set things up for themselves?

This. This is at the core of what I hope to do, to spread this kind of empowerment, one that enables people to take a bit more control over their lives. To enable people of any background or circumstances to learn, connect, and access opportunities they might never have known existed otherwise.

We shook hands as she said goodbye. “I’ll definitely contact you,” she said. I hope she does.

Finally, an FAQ for Working Out Loud

It has been two years since workingoutloud.com went live, and during that entire time it bothered me that there was no single place for frequently asked questions. I would write blog posts or respond on Twitter and Facebook, and so would many other people. But over time, the questions and answers would fade.

I finally took a step towards fixing that today with a new FAQ. It’s only seven questions to start, and I kept the answers short. But I included links to related blogs posts and other resources that offer more in-depth answers.

I hope you like it, and I appreciate any suggestions for improving it.

http://workingoutloud.com/faq/

It’s time to step up

its-time-to-step-up

Things did not turn out the way I hoped they would. What should I do next?

I could be angry, and make my anger visible with a nasty comment on social media.

I could search the internet for extreme examples and share those that validate my fears and beliefs, ignoring my confirmation bias.

I could taunt or confront people who have different opinions, mocking them for their obvious lack of principles and education.

I could defriend the few in my network who disagree with me, thereby repairing the small breeches in a social bubble I have carefully cultivated, one that brings me comfort that I’m surrounded by people who think like me.

I have done all of these things in the past, and it has yielded nothing but unhappiness.

I’m done. I am no longer willing to be part of the problem, to feed the escalation of polarizing, dehumanizing behaviors that seems to be the new normal.

It’s time to step up.

If I want more kindness and compassion, I can be kinder and more compassionate, online and in person, throughout my day.

If I see unkind behavior, I can speak up and offer my support.

If I want more opportunities for people faced with systemic bias, I can do something to give them a voice, to help them gain access they might not have otherwise.

If I want to improve how people relate to each other - to replace hate and fear with empathy and generosity - I can continue to develop and spread a practice that does that. I can make that my life’s work.

I am not angry. I am not depressed.

I am committed.

A source of strength in times of uncertainty

It’s going to happen to you. Maybe your company will cancel your project, or your trusted boss will resign. Maybe an event in your personal life will make you unsure of the future. Maybe your country’s election will leave you numb with disbelief, fear, and anger.

What will you do when it happens?

My own instinct is to react, to disengage completely or to work myself up into a frenzy of anxiety, replaying the issue over and over. But during the last few years, a simple practice has helped me through many challenges. I ask myself these 3 questions.

What am I trying to accomplish? 

Who’s related to that goal?

How can I contribute to them to deepen our relationship?

Focusing on my goals, even small ones, re-centers me. It gives me a sense of purpose, providing some much-needed stability amidst the uncertainty.

Thinking of my goals in terms of other people, and of what might be useful to them, is an act of empathy. It takes me beyond my immediate worries. It makes me mindful that I am part of something bigger than myself.

Making contributions to others, even small actions like offering appreciation, gives me a sense of control. I am doing something. The resulting interactions give me a sense of connection, a sense of relatedness that is comforting.

I’m not suggesting that you ignore the things happening around you. But dividing external events into “good” and “bad” and reacting accordingly is a recipe for unhappiness. When you channel your energy into the 3 questions instead, you tap into your natural intrinsic motivators - your need for control, competence, and connection. That enables you to do something constructive for yourself and others.

Today is the middle of “Working Out Loud Week” or #WOLweek, and there are many excellent posts written by people around the world about the practice. But for me today, I wanted to emphasize that Working Out Loud is about more than activities and tips. It’s about changing how people relate to each other and to the work they do. The practice starts with you. As more people do it, entire organizations can become more open and collaborative, more human.

Your world needn’t be limited by today’s headlines. As you build meaningful connections with other people, you’re weaving your own safety net as well as links to other possibilities. Your network can be a web of resilience that leads you through difficult times. Your relationships can make you stronger, more effective, and hopeful.

 

The old man in seat 8A

I was on a flight heading to Florida to speak at a conference. The plane was full. As I approached my row, I noticed there was an old man already sitting in the seat next to mine. I noticed the newspaper in his hands was shaking slightly. I said hello.

When the stewardess told him she needed to store his cane for takeoff, I assured him I would get it if he needed it. When he dropped his newspaper, I picked it up. When he was struggling to open up his bag of pretzels, or figure out how the folding tray worked, I helped him. He seemed embarrassed, but I told him it was tricky and only looked easy when you knew how.

He was worried about forgetting his cane. He told me that his son had driven him to the airport, and it was only after they had traveled 20 miles that he remembered he left his cane back at the house. “Do you really need it, Dad?” his son asked. They drove back.

“I was just glad he wasn’t mad,” he said. “I felt bad but he didn’t get upset. That was really nice of him.”

I couldn’t help but think of my own parents. Of how I reacted to their infirmities with impatience, to their limited education with visible shame, even disgust. I had more empathy for a total stranger than for the people who made my life possible.

My father died in 1986. My mother in 2003. I wanted to reach back in time and tell them “I’m sorry!” I wanted my younger self to be the kind of son who says “It’s okay, Dad. I’ll help you.”

I sat quietly for a while, silently wishing I had done things differently. Silently committing to doing things differently in the future.

seat-8a