A lifeboat in a sea of change

At the beginning of this year, I got a note from a woman whose department was undergoing a “transformation.” It’s a word I come across in every company I visit. While most people I meet may recognize the need for some kind of change, almost no one likes the process, or the uncertainty that comes with it. 

She wrote to say that she was in Week 6 of a Working Out Loud Circle, and that her “WOL family gave her stability." Despite anxiety related to the transformation, she was getting new energy from her network each day while she made progress toward her goal.

I wrote back:

“There are many times when I worked in a big company when my network was like "a lifeboat in a sea of change" (a good title for a blog post :-)) 
At first it was just a relief to interact with nice people at the firm amidst the fear and defensiveness that came along with "transformation." Over time, it came to be a source of ideas and ultimately a new career.”

A Circle offers you a safe, confidential space where you can work on your goals and your development without worrying about judgment or competition. For me, the relationships I developed turned out to be a source of strength in addition to a source of ideas and feedback. They gave me the perspective to see things clearly, and the confidence and encouragement to take action.

If you’re facing a change in your work or life, do you have a lifeboat? Who’s in it?

A lifeboat in a sea of change.jpg

“Perhaps if I liked my job more…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The permission you’ve been waiting for

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

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

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

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

It’s you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your permission slip.jpg

Asking for permission

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

One of those things is having to ask for permission.

No good deed…

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

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

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

The new normal

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

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

What choice do you have? 

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

They are indeed exceptional. But what about everyone else?

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

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

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

The Clock Test

You walk into a conference room at work that you use often, look up, and notice that the clock has the wrong time. It’s working, but it's off by more than 20 minutes. A week later, you’re in the same room and notice that the time is still wrong. What do you do?

  1. Nothing.
  2. Complain that the time is wrong.
  3. Notify someone that the clock needs to be fixed.
  4. Try and change the time yourself.

IMG_8963

Now imagine the clock in your kitchen has the wrong time. Would you answer differently?

My own results

If you’re like me, you would fix the time in your home right away. But at work, your answer would be different.

I was able to take a version of this test quite recently when I was in the gym in my building and noticed the time was wrong. I was slightly annoyed, and wished that someone would fix it. I thought of telling the handyman, but it was too much effort for such a small issue.

A week later, the time was still wrong, and the same thoughts ran through my head. Then it hit me: I could fix it myself. So I walked up to the clock, lifted it off the wall (it was just hanging on a screw as many clocks do), and set the time.

This one trivial act made me feel a bit more empowered. It also made me wonder why I hadn’t done it sooner.

Control and motivation

It's a small example of the link between control and motivation that Charles Duhigg (author of The Power of Habit) wrote about in his latest book, Smarter, Faster, Better.

“Motivation is triggered by making choices that demonstrate to ourselves that we are in control. The specific choice we make matters less than the assertion of control. It’s this feeling of self-determination that gets us going."

Certain environments systematically rob people of their motivation by removing the opportunities to make even simple choices.

“In some workplaces, for example, control is embedded in a process and even the smallest actions require approval from someone else. Or, possibly worse, there’s ambiguity about who can decide what, and decision-making is negatively reinforced as people ask “Who gave you authority to do that?”

A feeling of learned helplessness spreads throughout the organization. People start to believe their “locus of control” is external instead of internal, It’s “they” and “them” who are responsible for decisions, and never “I” or “me.””

At home, it’s clear that I can make certain decisions and take actions. But at work? More than ever, we need people who will “Fix the clock” but we create corporate environments that tell us otherwise.

Did you give different answers to The Clock Test depending on where the clock was located? What made you decide to take action in one environment but not the other? What would it take for that to change?

Arbitrary power

Around the year 1721, Ben Franklin was indentured to his older brother in a printing business. Though Franklin was to be a printer himself later in life, he hated working for his brother who often beat him and gave him only tedious work. A footnote in his autobiography caught my attention:

“I fancy his harsh & tyrannical Treatment of me, might be a means impressing me with that Aversion to arbitrary Power that has stuck to me thro’ my whole life.”

“Arbitrary power,” I thought. That’s what’s been motivating me too.

Bullies

I also had an older brother with a volatile temper, and as I was growing up in the Bronx, I noticed that the people with power were the ones who were violent or threatened violence. They were uneducated bullies, and I hated that they were the ones in control of things.

Teachers

I was in the 8th grade when I saw that bullies come in other forms too. I still remember my math teacher from that year. She was, to my 13-year-old self, the meanest person I had ever met. The kind of person who wore a permanent scowl and was contemptuous of the people in her charge.

One day, for example, when a lovely hearing-impaired student didn’t respond quickly enough, the teacher yelled: “Is your hearing aid on?!”  She made it clear she was in control and could humiliate any of us.

Once it was my turn. Thinking she had caught me talking and not paying attention, she berated me in front of the class, made me stand up, and asked me the answer to a question. I usually backed down in the face of such aggression, but I managed to give the correct response, much to her chagrin.

I was shaken, and remember crying in the hallway until another, kinder teacher came by to console me.

“Why,” I thought, “is this woman teaching?”

Bosses

Since then, I’ve seen arbitrary power in the form of bosses at work across the many different jobs I’ve had. Most were administrators more than managers or leaders. Some simply didn’t know what to do or know how to relate to people. A few were downright mean-spirited and dysfunctional.

In these cases, too, I bitterly asked myself, “Why are these people in a position of authority over me?”

Arbitrary power at work

“More power to you”

Over time, though, I’ve learned that the universe isn’t fair, at least not in the short-term. There will continue to be bullies, mean teachers, and bad bosses. I’ve also learned that, now knowing each of their individual stories, I needn’t judge them. My anger and resentment wasn’t helping anyone, certainly not me.

What you can do instead is take some control for yourself both by controlling your reactions and by expanding your network. It’s a big world, with more smart, creative, wonderful people and more opportunities for you to make a difference than you could possibly know. You can discover those people, access those opportunities, and shape your life.

As I write this I’m reminded of a phrase my mother would use if you did something good through your own effort: “More power to you.”

I didn’t think about it then, but now I understand that you can interpret that literally. Instead of being a victim of arbitrary power, you can take control yourself. For each of the bullies and bad bosses in your life, you can channel that negative energy into deepening relationships with people who make life better somehow.

When you do that, “more power to you.”