If there is an Us and Them in your organization

Like it or not, there is certainly an Us and Them in your organization. Indeed, there are many, as employees identify with different divisions, locations, and teams. Human beings desperately seek group affiliations and have evolved to quickly identify who’s in our group and who isn’t. Even infants do it.

The reason we developed this deeply-ingrained tendency most likely started with genetics. The forces of group-level natural selection led to prosocial behaviors within a group and competition between groups. That helped related members pass on their genes. But now it goes way beyond that. 

The Trolley Experiments

A classic thought experiment used in ethics can tell us a lot about our innate tribalism and how the brain works. It’s called “The Trolley Problem.” 

“You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a level that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two choices:
1. Do nothing and also the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.”

In Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Prof. Richard Sapolsky describes experiments involving variations of this problem. What if one of the people were related to you? Or were of the same ethnicity? Or wore the jersey of your favorite team? 

Would that affect your choice? Of course it would. “According to one astonishing survey, 46% of women would save their own dog rather than a foreign tourist if both were menaced by a runaway bus. The evolutionary explanation is that they feel more ‘kinship’ with the dog.”

The Trolley Problem.png

The part of you that decides

In another version of this experiment, instead of pulling a lever, you have to push a person onto the tracks to save the other five. Experimenters gave subjects both versions while neuro-imaging their brains. They found that those pushing a person activated “emotion-related regions that respond to aversive stimuli.” Those pulling a lever did not activate those regions. For them, it was “as purely cerebral a decision as choosing which wrench to use to fix a widget.”

Remove the human element from mistreating someone, and it literally changes how you think about it. 

What to do?

Sapolsky offered no easy answers. Human behavior is complicated, the research is often contradictory, and the best you can do is point to rough probabilities.

“From massive, breathtaking barbarity to countless pinpricks of microaggression, Us versus Them has produced oceans of pain. Yet our generic goal is not to cure us of Us/Them dichotomizing. It can’t be done…"

Instead, in the final pages he had advice for how to at least mitigate our ingrained tribal tendencies and tap into more prosocial behaviors. “Focus on the larger shared, goals. Practice perspective taking. Individuate, individuate, individuate.” Seeing the other person as someone you can relate to engages other parts of your brain, allowing you to feel empathy and compassion.

Perhaps you have two divisions that don’t get along, or the merger of two organizations still hasn’t resulted in one culture, or there’s friction between headquarters and the branch locations. Consider purposefully forming WOL Circles with people from the different groups. Over the twelve weeks, they’ll relate to each other as individuals who have much in common, and those human connections can serve as bridges between the groups. 

When you go beyond the labels and categories, go beyond “Them,” it can change everything.

“We have to take care of our own first.”

A friend of mine went back to his old neighborhood and was talking with friends he hadn’t seen in a long time. At one point, the conversation turned to politics, and the topic of immigration came up. One of his friends made it clear where he stood.

“We have to take care of our own first.”

I immediately wondered who “our own” might actually include. Would it be all Americans or just people in his part of the country? Would it include the many millions on welfare? Those who can’t afford health insurance? People who were otherwise different from him in terms of religion, race, or sexual orientation?

It’s a primal instinct to want to take care of our own. The field of evolutionary biology describes how the bonds formed by many species who live in groups lead to pro-social behaviors that help the group succeed and pass on its genes.

Yet humans have taken this to odd extremes. Our definition of “our own” can change from moment to moment based on the context we’re in. Research has shown, for example, that even 11-year old boys on different teams at summer camp quickly form into us and them, and good and bad behaviors stem from those arbitrary boundaries. The same pattern plays out in large organizations, where no matter how we draw the lines, the infighting remains. 

The suffering that results, in the workplace and around the planet, is incalculable. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We’re no longer in small hunter-gather groups struggling to pass on our genes, and we don’t need to be victims of our biology.

To improve how we treat each other requires us to be aware of our natural tendencies to divide and diminish so we can extend our sense of relatedness - our sense of “our own” - to a much bigger group.

It requires an open mind to see that the other side is actually not a side at all, but human beings remarkably like us if we give ourselves the space to imagine it. 

It requires practice. Small steps, over time, with feedback and peer support, can help us gradually develop the compassion and empathy we need to make us all happier. 

This is the work we can and must do.

Man rescued from Houston floodwaters by human chain. Picture: Storyful

Man rescued from Houston floodwaters by human chain. Picture: Storyful

Taking off the mask

Imagine you’re in a large room full of people you don’t know. You feel slightly awkward, unsure where to start, as you continue to look for familiar faces. Then, amidst an attempt to make small talk with someone, you discover you have something in common, and you grab onto it like a rope connecting the two of you.

Maybe you shared a small thing, like where you were born or went to school or that you have children of the same age. Or maybe it’s something you experienced, like losing someone to a disease, or suffering from one yourself. That exchange, that bond, can fundamentally change how you relate to each other. 

Now imagine that room is actually your company, full of thousands of people from across the world. 

The mask we wear

“The fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets.” wrote Haruki Murakami. But at work, most of us feel compelled to hide behind a mask of cool professionalism. As a result, our “greatest asset” is reduced to an impersonal sameness, and the chances for human connection are greatly reduced.

You needn’t wear all your personal information on your sleeve or announce it in every meeting. You just have to be your whole self, willing and open to offer what makes you you. When you feel you can do that, you experience what neuroscientists might call an “internal resonance” or “coherence.” producing a sense of confidence and clarity.

You've almost certainly felt the negative effects of "putting on a good face" at work, despite what was happening around you and inside you.

A simple example at work

I wrote recently about a workshop with 550 engineers. We formed them into 110 groups of five people, and this time we tried something different: we started by asking them to list 10 facts about themselves. I offered my own example.

“Your facts can include things that describe you. For example, I live in New York City. I have five children. My wife is Japanese. I’m a vegetarian. My grandparents emigrated from Italy.
They can also be things you’ve experienced, both pleasant and unpleasant. I had a wonderful holiday in Provence. I was laid off. My mother was a diabetic.
List ten things that make you you.”

After a short period of reflection and list-making, we asked them to share some of their facts within their small groups, looking for connections and things they found remarkable. The energy in the room changed. It was no longer 550 engineers with specific titles in a big company. It was 550 human beings, each with their own story. The trust and interaction flowed more freely, more naturally.

There’s a longer version of this exercise in Week 5 of a Working Out Loud Circle. It’s called “So much to offer!” It’s there to help people experience that it’s okay to be yourself at work, that sharing who you are can be a kind of contribution, and the basis of a meaningful connection with someone.

We don’t need to shed our individuality when we come to the office. “People are our greatest asset” only if we let them be real people, only if we let ourselves be our true selves.

"Mask" by Henry Moore

"Mask" by Henry Moore

I thought work wasn’t supposed to be like this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The homeless problem”

I live in New York City, and “the homeless problem” is a phrase I’ve heard a lot in my life. When I was growing up, you could pass the homeless practically anywhere throughout your day. As the city experienced a kind of renaissance, it seemed they almost disappeared. Now it’s a problem again. When you think about “the homeless problem,” what comes to mind?

A short experiment

Here’s a thought exercise to make it a bit more real. Imagine you’re walking in a beautiful park in your neighborhood early one morning. The sun is out. The grass is bright green and freshly cut. There are neatly landscaped areas full of flowers. You’re happy just to be walking in such a nice place.

Then you notice someone sleeping on the lawn. You’ve seen that person before, in the same brown sweatshirt and pants. You notice another person you’ve seen before too, laying their head on overstuffed bags. You realize they’re homeless, and they’ve slept overnight in the park.

What are you feeling? What are your next thoughts?

IMG_8233

My walk in the park

This is more than a mental exercise for me. It’s something I do almost every morning as I take a walk around Battery Park City.

My own, almost instinctive reaction is irritation, as if their presence and unfortunate circumstances are ruining my view. (“They shouldn’t be here. They should be in a shelter or something.”) Though the park is public, these particular people are somehow infringing on my space.

Other feelings include disgust (“She wears those same clothes every day!") and powerlessness (“I wish there was a better system.”) and even shame (“I’ve never done anything to help.”)

Every day that I walk by the park and feel those feelings, I am disappointed in myself.

When the homeless problem comes up in conversation with friends, the most common reaction is to blame our mayor. Certainly, we see more homeless people on the streets than we did under the previous mayor. One of us may say something about how “the shelters should be better.” But the truth is I have no idea about the state of the shelters. Nor do I know about this mayor’s policies or how they might affect those who are homeless.

In fact, it usually doesn’t feel like we’re talking about people at all. It’s more like the sanitation department’s budget has been cut and we’re upset the streets aren’t as clean as they used to be. We’re looking for someone to blame.

A starting point

Recently, I read something that might help me change my habits and give me a way out of my daily discomfort and disappointment.

In Taking the Leap, Pema Chödrön writes about how our desire to avoid certain feelings can lead us to shut down, and how in shielding ourselves we lose the chance to be open to new possibilities, to grow. One of the examples she used was particularly familiar.

“There are panhandlers that we rush by because their predicament makes us uncomfortable…

Our usual process is…an internal conversation about how another person is the source of our discomfort…all because we don’t want to go near the unpleasantness of what we’re feeling. This is a very ancient habit. It’s allows our natural warmth to be so obscured that people like you and me who have the capacity for empathy and understanding that we can harm each other. When we hate those who activate our fears or insecurities, those who bring up unwanted feelings, and see them as the sole cause of our discomfort, then we dehumanize them, belittle them, and abuse them.”

That’s how a person I’m walking by isn’t a person, but a problem.

In Comfortable with Uncertainty, she writes that a place to start is to practice developing compassion. Not to feel sorry for someone, but simply at first to pause. To recognize their suffering. To let yourself feel what you're feeling and be open to what they might be feeling. To acknowledge just how easily your positions might have been reversed. Compassion is “a relationship between equals...Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity."

You start by being mindful of your almost instinctive urge to shut down.

“Right at this point we can recognize that we are closing, allow a gap, and leave room for change to happen…It can become daily practice to humanize the people that we pass on the street.”

I don’t know what I can do to solve “the problem” or to make a difference. But I know I can change my thinking, that I can relate to these people as people. Maybe that’s what makes the next step possible. Maybe that changes everything.

A different kind of moonshot

I happened to listen to these two TED talks one after the other. Maybe that’s why it struck me that we need a different approach. Or at least a different emphasis. 

A certain kind of vision

The first talk was from the head of Google X, whose mission is to identify huge problems in the world, propose radical solutions, and attempt to build technology for those solutions. They refer to where they work as a “moonshot factory.”

“We use the word "moonshots" to remind us to keep our visions big -- to keep dreaming. And we use the word "factory" to remind ourselves that we want to have concrete visions -- concrete plans to make them real.”

The sheer range of ideas was mind-blowing, from autonomous vehicles to balloons providing Internet access to remote regions to a “lighter-than-air, variable-buoyancy cargo ship.” They could make the planet safer, more connected, and more efficient. 

The second talk was from the author of How We’ll Live on Mars. He talked about a wide array of technologies to provide food and breathable air. Towards the end, he went much further

“So that leads to the next big -- really big step -- in living the good life on Mars. And that's terraforming the planet: making it more like Earth, reengineering an entire planet.”

Heating up the polar ice caps, he said, could create “a runaway greenhouse effect,” increasing the overall temperature and making Mars more readily livable for humans. “Then we get some real magic.”

Both of the talks were remarkable for their sheer ambition, their visions for how technology could transform our experience and our future.

And yet…

As impressive as the engineering was, though, I couldn’t help but think: what about the people

Our extraordinary technical advances are in stark contrast with the lack of progress in relating to each other. Think of your daily interactions with others in your office, in your community, or even in your social media feed. We can live on Mars, but it’s hard to hold a civil conversation, or to have empathy for those not like us.

I’m not suggesting we have to choose between technical and social issues. I’m saying the latter set of problems are grossly underserved. 

A different kind of moonshot

So I would like to go in a different direction. The moonshot I want to work on is about a workplace - and a world - that’s more human and empathetic, more open and generous. I want to do more than just hope that it comes about, but to have concrete plans and actions to bring it about.

Recently, a friend sent me an email after watching a presidential town hall featuring the topic of race and policing.

“There is a lot of discussion around improved communication between groups that have different opinions and don't usually speak well with each other.
How could your ‘working out loud’ play its part in fostering this conversation?  If it could, it would make a serious difference.”

He made me think. How indeed? Right now, we’re applying the five elements of Working Out Loud inside businesses to improve collaboration, to make work more effective and fulfilling. Such organizations provide us with the chance to see what works and doesn’t work, to keep experimenting and adapting. My intention is to use what we collectively learn to help other organizations too: non-profits, communities, and social movements.

When it comes to relating to each other, there are huge problems in the world. Now more than ever, we need to make a serious difference.

Equipping people to make the world a better place

WOL for the planet

WOL for the planet

The first email was from someone in Sierra Leone, and I wondered if it was a mistake. Then a follow-up message came from Tanzania, and now it was clear they had the right guy.

They were interested in working out loud to make the world a better place. And they got my attention.

The notes were from young professionals in a management program at a leading humanitarian organization. It’s a highly selective program, with members located in countries around the world. They work on projects like “confronting the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone” and “defending children’s rights everywhere.” The expectations are high and the stakes are even higher. But it’s difficult work, and they can struggle to find the people and knowledge they need to be effective.

“We have to deliver across our teams at a country level and build networks at a global level…we need to share information, lessons learnt, best practices and communicate across the board — we need to work out loud.“

They need this for their projects as well as for their own careers. “As individuals, these are also skills that we need to master.” So they asked if I would talk with them.

“I am actually hoping that this could be the beginning of a discussion with our organization globally on the WOL concept and its potential for our work.”

I’m hoping for that too, so I said yes right away and sent them electronic copies of the book.

The simple practice of working out loud can help individuals and companies. The greatest benefit would be to equip people in organizations like the one that contacted me, organizations “that have the potential to change the lives of millions,” to help them make the kind of difference they’re aspiring to make.

The Faces Project

Faces at work

Faces at work

Two years ago, I wrote about some ideas for creating a more humane workplace. Last month, I met a group of amateur photographers who are doing something about it at our firm. Their story illustrates the variety of ways in which people can make a contribution, expand their network of relationships, and realize a wide range of beneifts.

A more humane workplace

In my original post, I cited an artist, iO Tillett Wright, who was using photography to change how people view members of the LGBT community. In her selfevidentproject, she decided “to photograph anyone who is not 100% straight” and created 1000s of simple, beautiful portraits that defy labels.

“My goal is to show the humanity that exists in every one of us through the simplicity of a face….I challenge you to look into the faces of these people and tell them they deserve less than any other human being.”

I wondered, Could we do something like this for everyone at our firm?

Some steps, some failures

My goal was simple. There are still too many blank faces in our systems and too many labels in our conversations. Instead of “those people in IT!” or “those people in India!”  could we make their names and faces more readily visible and take a step toward improving how people treat each other?

I knew we already had the people who could pull it off. There's an online community of photographers at work and every month I see people from around the world contributing stunning shots as part of a photo challenge. So I wrote a post called “The Faces Project” soliciting photographers in different cities to organize local meet ups and take head shots people would be happy to upload.

It seemed like a good idea. But the logistics were more complicated than I anticipated. Then, when someone organized a session in Germany a few months later, they ran into technical issues. The woman who organized the session wrote up the lessons learned, but the project stalled.

Gifts and the rewards

Late last year, though, a group of photographers in London decided to try again. They found the lessons learned from the previous attempt and organized new sessions online.

So far, they’ve photographed more than 60 people across six different divisions. As I kept seeing people sign up online, my enthusiasm grew again. So when I was in London, I signed up too. It was fun and supplied me with a new photo that I use today. It was also a lot of work for the photographers who, after hours, lugged their equipment to another building just for me.

They made other contributions too, like setting up a JustGiving page people could donate to a good cause if they liked their photo. And they keep updating the lessons learned so other photographers can build on what they’re doing.

Why would they do all this?

It turns out they get a range of benefits that are consistent with working out loud.

  • They meet people from across the firm while growing their online networks.
  • They get better at something they love doing. “We have definitely learned more in the past two months than we would have learned if we took private tuition photography courses.” (Some updated their online presence. You can see more of their photos online presence on Flickr here, here, and here.)
  • They learn how to organize, connect, and engage online - skills good for them and for the firm.

Where will this lead? The most important benefit is that they’ve found a way to enjoy their current job more while building a network that gives them access to more possibilities. While I was there, for example, I learned that a business division asked them to organize a photo shoot just for them.

Making your own luck while improving your every day is the essence of working out loud.

The worst performance review I ever had

The bad egg detector: How do they know?  

Even before I opened the email, I knew it was bad news. Subject: year-end review.

“He needs to speak with you,” his assistant wrote. Though the deadline for reviews had passed months before, she seemed almost frantic, trying to schedule a call before the end of the week. He was in another city, and it was after 10pm there when he spoke to me on my mobile.

This is a true story. I write it not to solicit sympathy or embarrass anyone. Instead, my purpose is to show how management processes, however well-intended, have devolved into lotteries of a kind. Some win, most lose.

It was only years later that I learned I could change the game.

The set-up

In every firm I’ve worked in, there’s a similar process. You agree on objectives with your manager, review progress in the middle of the year, and get a formal review at the end of the year. To ensure the firm pays top performers and gets rid of low performers, the year-end ratings have to fit a curve. On the surface, it all seems reasonable, systematic, and fair.

In practice, though, behind all the spreadsheets and numbers, there's an intensely human calculus. I’ve had years where I performed poorly but had powerful sponsors and got good reviews. It’s when your connection to your manager is weak, or the network you have isn’t powerful, that you’re at risk.

A friend compared this style of management to a wolf-pack, with leaders picking on the weak, allowing the other wolves to keep going, happy it wasn’t them who was sacrificed.

The conversation

I happened to be the weak one that year. The person I had been reporting to had left earlier in the year and our team’s fate was now uncertain. We used the word “exposed.” One colleague resigned right away. Referring to rats leaving a sinking ship, he told me “This rat can swim.” Others, like me, stayed on board.

The reason for the late-night review via telephone was that the next day was when our compensation would be announced. I presume someone needed to tick a box, perhaps afraid of a lawsuit. I imagine a person in HR exhorting managers “Did you communicate to all your poor performers?” I imagine she kept a list.

The conversation didn’t last long. He was earnest, saying he wanted me to succeed. But what was success? Was he even aware of what I did? How did my work compare to others? Why single me out this year and not others?

I never asked those questions. I never asked him about the objectives I was ostensibly being rated against. I knew it was pointless.

It was years ago, but I still remember hating the firm and the system. I remember feeling ashamed.

The lesson

Ironically, not many years after my bad review, it was my boss’ turn to be the weak one after he got a new manager. I wonder if he had a similar conversation, if he felt it was unfair.

It’s only now that I see the futility of taking it all so personally. My boss, my colleagues, and I were all trapped by processes that promoted internal competition, politicized the environment, and systematically propagated mediocrity and unfairness. It’s why PwC, a major consultancy regarding HR practices in large organizations wrote:

“There’s a growing school of thought that our traditional tools for managing employee performance are outdated and in need of a radical reboot.”

You could wait for firms to change their practices. Or you could work in such a way that you build a better network now, one that gives you access to people and possibilities without having to ask for permission from your boss.

If I get a poor review in the future, I won’t be angry and I certainly won’t be ashamed. I’ll acknowledge the setback, reach out to my network, and keep going. Never again will I cede the power over my career and my happiness to someone else. You don’t have to either.

The worst performance review I ever had

The bad egg detector: How do they know?  

Even before I opened the email, I knew it was bad news. Subject: year-end review.

“He needs to speak with you,” his assistant wrote. Though the deadline for reviews had passed months before, she seemed almost frantic, trying to schedule a call before the end of the week. He was in another city, and it was after 10pm there when he spoke to me on my mobile.

This is a true story. I write it not to solicit sympathy or embarrass anyone. Instead, my purpose is to show how management processes, however well-intended, have devolved into lotteries of a kind. Some win, most lose.

It was only years later that I learned I could change the game.

The set-up

In every firm I’ve worked in, there’s a similar process. You agree on objectives with your manager, review progress in the middle of the year, and get a formal review at the end of the year. To ensure the firm pays top performers and gets rid of low performers, the year-end ratings have to fit a curve. On the surface, it all seems reasonable, systematic, and fair.

In practice, though, behind all the spreadsheets and numbers, there's an intensely human calculus. I’ve had years where I performed poorly but had powerful sponsors and got good reviews. It’s when your connection to your manager is weak, or the network you have isn’t powerful, that you’re at risk.

A friend compared this style of management to a wolf-pack, with leaders picking on the weak, allowing the other wolves to keep going, happy it wasn’t them who was sacrificed.

The conversation

I happened to be the weak one that year. The person I had been reporting to had left earlier in the year and our team’s fate was now uncertain. We used the word “exposed.” One colleague resigned right away. Referring to rats leaving a sinking ship, he told me “This rat can swim.” Others, like me, stayed on board.

The reason for the late-night review via telephone was that the next day was when our compensation would be announced. I presume someone needed to tick a box, perhaps afraid of a lawsuit. I imagine a person in HR exhorting managers “Did you communicate to all your poor performers?” I imagine she kept a list.

The conversation didn’t last long. He was earnest, saying he wanted me to succeed. But what was success? Was he even aware of what I did? How did my work compare to others? Why single me out this year and not others?

I never asked those questions. I never asked him about the objectives I was ostensibly being rated against. I knew it was pointless.

It was years ago, but I still remember hating the firm and the system. I remember feeling ashamed.

The lesson

Ironically, not many years after my bad review, it was my boss’ turn to be the weak one after he got a new manager. I wonder if he had a similar conversation, if he felt it was unfair.

It’s only now that I see the futility of taking it all so personally. My boss, my colleagues, and I were all trapped by processes that promoted internal competition, politicized the environment, and systematically propagated mediocrity and unfairness. It’s why PwC, a major consultancy regarding HR practices in large organizations wrote:

“There’s a growing school of thought that our traditional tools for managing employee performance are outdated and in need of a radical reboot.”

You could wait for firms to change their practices. Or you could work in such a way that you build a better network now, one that gives you access to people and possibilities without having to ask for permission from your boss.

If I get a poor review in the future, I won’t be angry and I certainly won’t be ashamed. I’ll acknowledge the setback, reach out to my network, and keep going. Never again will I cede the power over my career and my happiness to someone else. You don’t have to either.