The Marriage Retreat

My childhood memories of my parents are mostly of them arguing. They each had their own stresses - not enough money, too much work, unfulfilled dreams - and it often erupted in disagreements and downright meanness to each other. 

Then, when my sister, brother, and I were a bit older, they went to a marriage retreat. 

The Happy Couple

The retreat was, quite literally, an escape from their day-to-day stresses. Guided by skilled, encouraging professionals, they had a chance to learn and experience a better way of relating to each other. When they came home, they were like a different couple. Sweet words. Small kindnesses. The anxiety we often felt was replaced with warmth and love. It was like magic.

In less than a week, though, the first argument appeared, then another, and soon things became “normal” again. 

I hadn’t thought about the retreat for more than thirty years. But over the next 6 weeks I’m participating in a string of events and conferences and meet-ups. Like the retreat, they’re uplifting and they often leave participants inspired and full of hope. But then everyone goes home. The music and the memories fade. Without a next step - the hard work of deliberate practice over time - the effects are short-lived. Our habits and our environments are almost always too powerful to be changed by a one-off event.

We each have our own version of a retreat in work and life. They can be important and restorative. And yet it’s the steps you’ll take after the retreat that make a sustainable difference possible. That’s where the real magic happens. 

Who approved this?!

When my new bosses arrived in New York, one from Frankfurt and one from London, I was on a list of people they wanted to see. I didn’t know what to expect.

It was after yet another reorganization in the bank’s IT department, in which my team and I had been dispatched to Communications. In our meeting, I described what we did - driving adoption of modern collaboration tools - and how we built the largest internal social network in financial services. I shared some of the many stories of value and employee engagement.

After a few minutes, the expressions on their faces went from friendly to neutral to incredulous. “Anyone can post something?” they asked, making clear the recklessness of what we had done. “Who approved this?!”

In that moment, I knew my career in Communications would be short-lived. The managers across the table did not seem to know or care about innovations in communications. What mattered more to them was maintaining monopoly control over the information employees received and how they received it. 

But how could this be? After all, one of our cultural values was “innovation.” There was a Communications campaign with posters to remind us. The company had innovation hubs in Berlin and Palo Alto and there were annual pilgrimages to Silicon Valley. We were repeatedly told we needed to be more agile and entrepreneurial. Why wasn’t our innovation celebrated?

Years later, I now realize the problem wasn’t with my new managers but with the culture. At my company and at almost every corporation I work with, employees are treated like young children or worse: Do as you’re told. Always ask permission. Speak when spoken to. 

The people I meet across companies and countries - well-educated, responsible adults - tell me how they are subject to the whims and moods of their manager. How they have to account for each hour. How they have to speak only to the appropriate level or risk being scolded. Despite all the sound and fury regarding the need for innovation and failure and continuous learning. etc, etc. there remains a sea of managers desperate for control and a sense of self-worth, waiting to ask: “Who approved this?”

I could have quit my job, or I could have quit trying. Instead, I spent my time in the Communications Department purposefully building a network of people inside and outside the company who found value in what I did. That gave me power my bosses couldn’t take away. It also gave me options and helped me feel better each day.

What is it you need approval for at work? What will you do when you don’t get it?

Treated like a child at work (or worse)

Treated like a child at work (or worse)


If your digital transformation looks like this, you’re doing it wrong

There are four of this German manufacturer’s products in my New York City apartment. The engineering quality is excellent, and they are beautiful to look at. The oven, a square of black glass and stainless steel, heats quickly and evenly. The dishwasher is whisper-quiet. Though this company’s products cost twice as much as other brands I’ve used, I did not hesitate to order their washer & dryer when our old ones had to be replaced. 

The company does so many hard things well, yet they continue to miss something obvious and important.

“Please make it stop!”

When we first moved into our apartment, the building was new and each of the 265 units came with a high-end dishwasher. After our first dinner there, I loaded it with dirty dishes, turned it on, and went to sleep.

Soon after, my wife and I woke up to an insistent beeping. Half-awake, we wondered what it was. A smoke detector? Some other alarm? After stumbling in the dark, we discovered it was the dishwasher. I turned it off and went back to bed.

The next day I mentioned it to two neighbors and learned they were also woken up by their dishwashers, and they couldn’t figure out how to make it stop. Not the woman with a Ph.D. from Stanford. Not the partner in a corporate law firm. They had resigned themselves to organizing their lives around the beep. 

I searched the Internet and discovered numerous complaints, and also a solution that only a mad scientist could expect consumers to find and follow. (It took me four attempts.) Why would such a quality manufacturer force customers to do something like this?

  1. Turn off the dishwasher.

  2. Press the Program Select option and, while holding it down, switch the machine back on. 

  3. Keep the Program Select and power buttons down until the bottom right indicator light comes on.

  4. Press Program Select four times. The Inlet/Drain light should now be flashing.

  5. Hold the Program Select button down again until the Inlet/Drain indicator stays on continuously.

  6. Release the Program Select button and the press it again once quickly.  This should toggle the buzzer activation to off.

  7. Turn off the dishwasher.

How would you turn off the beep?

Cursing in the laundry room

Now it’s ten years later, and almost every company is offering “smart” products. The washer and dryer I purchased is highly-rated and they come with Internet connectivity and an app. The machines notify me, for example, when the laundry is done, and also report (oddly) the precise temperature of the water and the revolutions per minute of the interior drum.

The day the new equipment arrived there were piles of laundry to do, and I was eager to get started. But the small display instructed me that I must first follow setup instructions and connect the machine to my network, which it could not find. I read the manual. I repeat all the steps. No connection. 

I downloaded the app and re-read the manual. I try again - and it works! But still I cannot do laundry. I must now “calibrate” the machine (a 2-hour process!) before setup is complete. Failing to do this step forces me to start from the very beginning. I do this twice. 

Half a day later, I load dirty clothes into the machine, cursing the engineers responsible for this experience. “Didn’t anyone at this company try their own product?!?” 

The missing piece in most transformation programs

I purposefully did not mention the company’s name because they are not the exception but the rule. Almost every company has a digital transformation program of some kind, but they all tend to focus on the technology and forget about the people. 

  • Did they ever observe a real customer trying to use their product?

  • Were employees invited to share their feedback and offer ideas for a better experience?

  • What if, instead of reporting the RPM of the motor, the “smart” appliances noticed how long setup was taking and pointed me to help? Or noticed that I am consistently using only one of the 20+ programs (“Normal”) and gave me useful tips for how to make the most of the machines?

Despite all their technology, the manufacturer has created a connected product that leaves me completely disconnected from them. As a result, they have no insight into my experience, and miss out on valuable information they need to improve. Until companies include empathy and human connection as part of their transformations, the promise of digital will remain unfulfilled, and customers and employees will remain unsatisfied. 

The Mainentance (sic) program on my new washing machine.

What’s the opposite of a zombie?

I still remember where I was when he used the word to describe many of our colleagues. We were leaving the office after a meeting, and the regional head of our division was talking about what he saw in the lobby at work each day.

“You look around,” he said, “and there’s no spark. They’re like zombies.” 

He wasn’t saying they were untalented or weren’t good people. Just that he noticed a palpable lack of energy. They were going through the motions of work but exhibited a kind of lifelessness.

What would the opposite of that be, and how might you help more people feel like that instead?

In Alive at Work, Professor or Organizational Behavior Dan Cable described his research on the topic, including an experiment involving the on-boarding of new employees at a Wipro call center in India. (The experiment was also popularized in The Culture Code by Dan Coyle, and replicated in other environments.)

New hires were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group went through the traditional Wipro orientation, which focused on skills training. The second went through an orientation in which a senior leader talked about the company, asked newcomers to reflect on why they might be proud to work at Wipro, and gave them a Wipro-branded sweatshirt. In the third condition, the new employees were asked about “times they used their best characteristics” and then ask to share their personal stories with other new employees in the group. At the end of the session, they were given a sweatshirt with their name on it. 

Six months later, the researchers found that the employees in the third condition had significantly higher customer satisfaction ratings, and employee retention in the group was better by 32%.

Dan Cable calls the approach and the feelings it engenders “activating your best self.” The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, calls the feeling “zest, a positive trait reflecting a person’s approach to life with anticipation, energy, and excitement.” In Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, David Whyte describes it as a feeling of vitality.

Companies need the contributing vitality of all the individuals who work for them in order to stay alive in the sea of changeability in which they find themselves. They must find a real way of asking people to bring these hidden heartfelt qualities to the workplace. A way that doesn’t make them feel manipulated or the subject of some 5 year plan. 

What the on-boarding research shows is that even small efforts which individuate employees and humanize a company can lead to measurable business benefits.  (“But in all my years of working with companies,” Dan Cable writes, “I have not seen a company use this approach.”)

One of my goals in spreading Working Out Loud is to show we don’t need to be limited to research experiments or to a few techniques in the first days at a company. We can help employees activate their best selves on their own, throughout their career, so instead of zombies at work we have more people feeling fully alive.

Disengaged at work.jpg


Acknowledged, Ignored, or Shredded

The experiments described in The Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization research paper are both quite simple. Yet they capture fundamental truths about how we relate to the work we do.

Imagine you’re one of the MIT students who volunteered for the experiments described below. What would you do?

Experiment #1

In the first experiment, you’re handed a sheet of paper filled with typed letters and paid 55 cents for finding ten instances of two consecutive ones. You’ll be paid 50 cents for analyzing a second page, 45 cents for a third page, and so on. Participants perform the task under one of three conditions. (Subjects didn’t know about the other conditions or their labels.) 

In the Acknowledged condition, the subjects were asked to write their name on each sheet prior to starting the task. The instructions explained that after completing the task, they would hand the sheet over to the experimenter who would examine it and file it away in a folder. 

In the Ignored condition, the subjects were not instructed to write their name on the sheets, and in fact none did so. Moreover, the instructions explained that, after the subject completed the task, the experimenter would place the sheet on a high stack of papers. The experimenter in fact did so without examining the completed sheets. 

The Shredded condition was the same as the Ignored condition except that the instructions explained that the completed sheets would be immediately put through a paper shredder. As the subjects turned in the sheets, the experimenter shredded them without a glance.

Under which condition would you perform more work?

Experiment #2 

In the second experiment, you are asked to build a kind of Lego figure called a Bionicle. You’re paid $2 for the first one you build, eleven cents less for the next one, and so on down to 2 cents for the twentieth Bionicle and beyond. In this experiment, there are two conditions.

In the Meaningful condition, after the subject would build each Bionicle, he would place it on the desk in front of him, and the experimenter would give him a new box with new Bionicle pieces. Hence, as the session progressed, the completed Bionicles would accumulate on the desk. 

In the Sisyphus condition, there were only two boxes. After the subject completed the first Bionicle and began working on the second, the experimenter would disassemble the first Bionicle into pieces and place the pieces back into the box. Hence, the Bionicles could not accumulate; after the second Bionicle, the subject was always rebuilding previously assembled pieces that had been taken apart by the experimenter.

Under which condition would you perform more work?

Results

You can readily guess that the MIT students did more work if they were in the Acknowledged or Meaningful conditions. What most people can’t guess is just how much more work. “Almost half of the subjects in the Acknowledged condition were willing to work until the wage dropped all the way to zero,” far out-pacing the other students. Subjects in the Meaningful condition built 40% more Bionicles, and also built them faster. The small signals of recognition and purpose made a significant difference. 

One of the researchers, Dan Ariely, describes the results in a popular TED talk titled “What makes us feel good about our work?” Recognition and purpose needn’t be lofty ideals, he said. They can be as simple as someone acknowledging your work and making it possible for you to see that you contribute, even tangentially, to some objective. 

Perhaps, like me, you’ve had bosses who have done the equivalent of ignoring or shredding your work. What do you do when that happens? Do you hope they’ll change, or pray for a new boss? How do you feel?

Whenever I found myself working in the “pointless” condition, I would be miserable. Then I learned how to make my work visible so others could see it and use it. That made it possible for me to gain a feeling of recognition and purpose from anywhere, from anyone. It made my work better and made me happier.

“Identity, pride, and meaning are all left out from standard models of labor supply,” the researchers said, “but ignoring the dimension of meaning may be quite expensive, for employer and for society.”

What conditions are you working in? What will you do about it?

Acknowledged, Ignored, or Shredded.jpg

Drip, drip, drip

There seem to be more and more storefront signs like these in New York City. (And perhaps everywhere?) The kind with the hand-drawn witty saying or motivational quote designed to grab your attention. 

This one worked.

On the way to Yoga Vida in Tribeca

On the way to Yoga Vida in Tribeca

It’s truly ancient wisdom, as Ovid wrote it (in Latin) well over two thousand years ago. “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force, but through persistence.”

I passed it as I was going to a yoga class with my wife, something I never imagined participating in when we first met. Now, though, the class is one of my favorite things to do together and a highlight of my week. As I passed the sign, I reflected on how many drops it took to wear down my resistance and form a new habit, at how long it took for me to change.

Ovid’s wisdom applies to work, too. Yesterday, a WOL Circle shared a photo from their final meeting. In the picture were five strangers from Yemen, Romania, Germany, and Switzerland who came together for 12 weeks, forging connections and sharing beautiful smiles. I never imagined how such a thing might be possible, never mind that I could be part of making it happen. 

Drip, drip, drip. 

Of course, there are other ways to “hollow out a stone”. Yet the other methods I’ve tried tend to feel more stressful and less sustainable. Whether I want to change myself or change the world, I prefer to follow Ovid’s advice. 

Drip by drip, step by step, Circle by Circle, we each need to keep going till a path emerges and we find a way to make a difference. 

***

Note: I’ll be on holiday in Japan for the rest of August, using the time to be with family, explore a country I love, and work on several new WOL methods. See you in September… 

Yemen 🇾🇪, Switzerland 🇨🇭, Romania 🇷🇴, Germany 🇩🇪 … Amazing.

The WOL CircleFinder

If you wanted to try a WOL Circle, how would you find other people to join you?

A little over a year ago on a rainy weekend in July, Leonid Lezner created a tool to make it easier, and he called it the CircleFinder. Since then over 1000 people have used it to form over 150 Circles .

Today it’s an official part of workingoutloud.com, and it’s a first step for matching people in a wide variety of ways and helping them have a better Circle experience.

Click on the image to see the new CircleFinder

Click on the image to see the new CircleFinder

The birth of the CircleFinder

When I approached Leonid about the CircleFinder recently, I asked him why he volunteered to build it in the first place and what he expected from it.

I was really impressed by how the circles are matched at Bosch. People simply have to enter their name in a spreadsheet and highly motivated colleagues would take their request and match them with a circle. Nothing similar existed for circles outside companies, so I got the idea that the WOL community urgently needs a simple tool to match circles and to automate the process.

I wasn’t expecting that it would be used at all. But after a few months, I noticed that more and more people were signing up and creating circles and recommending it on Twitter and Facebook. 

The best thing for me is when people contact me to thank me. They tell me about their Working Out Loud experience and that the CircleFinder was the enabler to start or join a circle. For me it means I’m an active participant in the WOL movement and can give something back to the community.

What’s next?

Then I asked Leonid what his plans were. I knew he has a full-time job and also produces an excellent podcast (in German) that is becoming more and more popular. Did he want to keep working on the CircleFinder?

After almost one year now I have to admit that the development and operation of such a platform is a time-consuming hobby. Family, work and my podcasts are already bringing me to my limits. When John asked me about the future of the CircleFinder and said he would like to take it over as a part of the official WorkingOutLoud website, I was really excited.

We exchanged ideas about what WOL software might look like in the future, including rebuilding the CircleFinder from scratch to include a wide range of functionality, from forming Circles in new ways (at events, inside companies, based on profiles) to helping Circle members throughout the 12 weeks.

The WOL CircleFinder is a fantastic start, and I am extremely grateful to Leonid for what he created and for his willingness and effort to migrate it.

If you would like to form a Circle or help others do so, please consider using the CircleFinder at circlefinder.workingoutloud.com. If you have an idea for how the CircleFinder can be improved, please contact me.

Thank you, Leonid and thank you, WOL Community!


Results of the WOL: Self-Care experiment

Exactly a year ago, I wrote that I was working on a new practice called WOL: Self-Care (or WOL: SC), and a few months later we began a pilot with one hundred people. Just this past month I compiled survey results.

Here’s what happened.

WOL-SC.png

The Why & How of WOL: SC

My intention was to create a new practice that people could join after their WOL Circle ended. It would be comprised of five different kinds of mindfulness practices spread over six months. You would still be part of a peer support group, but with some important differences.

You will do daily exercises on your own each month, and your meetings will be for you to share what happened and to prepare for a different practice the next month.

Also, unlike a WOL Circle, there is no goal or relationship list. The practices are largely focused on yourself. The only goals are to develop greater self-awareness and mindfulness. These are the keys to realizing more of your potential as well as a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. 

Whereas Working Out Loud improves how you relate to others, WOL-SC helps you improve how you relate to yourself.

The survey results

Whether or not the experiment was a success depends on your perspective. Fewer than half of the WOL:SC groups finished, which is disappointing. And yet there were clear themes about how to improve the practice, so I learned a lot:

  • Change the timing of the meetings to be closer together

  • Include more interaction between members

  • Make the material more engaging, perhaps with videos and/or a journal

Regarding the exercises, most liked them and a few even called them “life-changing.” But a significant percentage felt they were too personal, too similar to things they’ve already done, or not suitable for WOL or the workplace. 

What’s next

The last question I asked in the survey was, “If you were me, would you keep working on WOL: Self-Care?” 

The responses were (mostly) positive and encouraging, and yet even if they weren’t I would keep working on WOL: SC. As I wrote about a year ago, the needs for putting these ideas into practice are greater than ever, and we have a tremendous opportunity because of how WOL has spread.

Hundreds of companies are spreading Working Out Loud Circles, proving that they are willing to create a safe, confidential space for employees to develop themselves. What if we could build on that, and use Circles to enhance employees' focus, self-control, and stress management while helping them be kinder and happier? How many people would benefit if all those wellness programs had a new method that was easy to implement and spread? 

As a next step, I will redesign WOL: Self-Care, employing a different structure, different media, and different exercises. I will also create alternative practices so those who finish WOL Circles have multiple options for continuing their development.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the pilot as well as those who offered ideas and opinions along the way. I greatly appreciate your support and contributions.

Who would you tell?

When you’re anxious about not being good enough, or you have a goal you don’t dare to share, or you’re unhappy with your job and want to explore options…

Who would you tell? 

At work, the last person I would talk to about my weaknesses would be my boss or Human Resources. A colleague once described our management team as “a wolf pack.” Given the focus on performance ratings and curves, any vulnerability made it easier for you to be sacrificed.

Telling your partner can also be challenging. How do you say that the job your family depends on isn’t fulfilling? Or that you may not be the person they expected you to be?

One place where you can share such things is a WOL Circle. A group in India, for example, just completed their 12 weeks and described the “sharing of experiences, dreams, and aspirations without fear or inhibition.” One person said, “I soon realized it was my ‘safe space.’”

That feeling of psychological safety made it possible for them to share what was difficult to share elsewhere. and know they had been heard. Better still, week by week they took actions that helped them make progress and build their confidence. More than just support, the Circle offered empowerment.

It’s extremely rare to have a safe space at work, or anywhere for that matter. Where’s yours?

Source: http://sailornattie.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/lightingfour.jpg

Source: http://sailornattie.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/lightingfour.jpg

The world changed here

It was a short movie, only about 6 minutes long, but the title and the story of transformation reminded me of people in the WOL Community.

I saw “The World Changed Here” at Niagara Falls State Park, where I visited last week with family and friends. In the mid-1800s, the land surrounding the Falls was privately owned, mostly by companies using the fast-flowing water to power their mills. Public access was limited, and it looked like this.

Source: Image from “Review of reviews and world’s work” (1890) p. 451.

A landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted (perhaps best known for designing Central Park in New York City), began to advocate for the preservation of the Falls in the 1860s. Others joined him, and in time there were publicity campaigns using the social media of the time: newspapers and parades. Word spread, and a movement formed that gained the attention of the government. In 1883, Niagara Falls State Park became the first state park in the US. 

Today, the falls are breathtakingly beautiful. It’s home to 300 species of birds, and more 30 million people connect with nature there each year. There’s still commerce, but it’s in concert with the natural beauty and wonder of the Falls, and now it looks like this.

Niagara Falls - 2019

There are now more than 10,000 state parks in the US, all made possible by a few people who cared, inspired others, and banded together to make a difference. That’s the connection I made to people in the WOL Community, people like Ulrike Poppe. 

Ulrike enjoyed her WOL Circle and wanted to spread more of them. (She is the first-ever person to buy the Video Guides & Circle Journal.) So she decided to approach Human Resources. Nervous about the presentation, she reached out to the WOL community for help, and proudly announced when she got the company support she sought. 

I have the good fortune to connect with more and more people who dare to make work and life better. Some of them are just taking a first step, some are organizing meet-ups and other events, and and others are trying to expand their movement from dozens to hundreds to thousands.

Not all of them will lead a transformational change, of course. But there is beauty and power in the attempt, and I am inspired by all who have the courage to act. It is because of people like them we can say, “The world changed here.”