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.

A cross-company WOL event in Shanghai on June 28, 2018

It all started with a phone call from Connie Wu. After her experience in the first WOL Circle in China, she wanted to spread Working Out Loud to more companies there. So she reached out to the dean of the business school she had attended, connected the three of us on WeChat, and together we came up with an idea.

Though we’re still in the planning stages, we're committed to the project. By sharing what we intend to do we hope to include more people and make the plans even better.

The main idea

Originally, I thought a simple event for multiple companies would be a good way to introduce WOL and launch WOL Circles. For global companies already spreading WOL, the event would give them a way to expand the movement in China. For others, it would give them an easy way to experiment with it.

It was Prof. William Hua Wang, the dean of the EM Lyon business school in Shanghai, who suggested we turn it into a kind of case study. We would still aim to launch Circles, but the business school would collect data before, during, and afterwards to measure effectiveness. I would also offer coaching webinars at several points throughout the 12 weeks.

Some details

This isn’t a marketing event, it's a learning event. We want to discover how and why WOL could help individuals and organizations in China. Over the course of a full, interactive day, there will be talks and workshops from a range of practitioners to help people understand and experience WOL, and to decide if they’d like to participate in a Circle and in the case study.

The date is Thursday, June 28th. We expect several large companies to join, and perhaps 100 or so attendees. In anticipation of the event, we’ll translate the guides into Mandarin and adapt them so they refer to more relevant tools and examples.

The case study data should help us understand whether cultural differences affect the adoption of the practice, and how we might handle those differences. For example, in Chinese culture there’s the concept of guanxi (关系) - social networks built on “implicit mutual obligations, reciprocity, and trust.” Would Working Out Loud complement or conflict with this idea? Besides translating guides into Mandarin, what other adjustments would we need to make?

If you or your colleagues are near Shanghai on June 28th…

I’m fascinated by the prospects for WOL in China. After all, more and more companies have employees, customers, partners, and suppliers there. And even if only 1% of the people in China Work Out Loud, that’s more than 13 million people. Learning how to better collaborate in and with China - how to develop a deeper sense of relatedness - is both interesting and valuable. 

If you or your organization is interested in attending the event, or would like to be part of the planning, please contact me at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com. I hope to see you there.

謝謝 (Thank you.)

 

Working Out Loud: How will it scale?

“Are you ready for this?” she asked us. We were talking with two people from HR who were planning to accelerate the spread of Working Out Loud. They had been involved in an important culture change program for their company, and saw WOL as a way to help employees experience the new way of working while developing key skills.

The question of “How will it scale?” will be asked more often as WOL appears on corporate press releases and becomes a standard development method in more organizations.

Here are four ways to answer that question. If you want more information or have feedback about any of these, please leave a comment on this post or send me email

Internal network of WOL Mentors

WOL Circles are often introduced into a company by a single person. Over time, as Circles spread, people emerge who want to do more, and a “co-creation team” of six to twelve people forms. They help organize events, create materials, and offer lightweight support for Circles who have questions or challenges. 

To scale this across locations and divisions, it helps to augment that co-creation team with a network of employees who receive extra training on how to support and spread WOL Circles. This is a familiar “train the trainer” approach, and fits neatly into existing programs that may already have ambassadors or champions or advocates of some kind. WOL is simply another skill they develop.

First group of certified WOL Mentors at Daimler & Bosch

First group of certified WOL Mentors at Daimler & Bosch

Licensed WOL Partners

Over the past year, I’ve traveled to many companies to help them launch Circles with an event and workshop. To see people embrace WOL and then take steps to put it into practice is one of the most fulfilling things I do. But relying on one person to do this makes me a bottleneck. Besides, what if they want the event in another language, or in a place I can’t travel to? 

I am happy to announce the first two licensed partners: Sabine Kluge of Kluge Consulting in Berlin, and Mara Tolja of Workwell Consulting in Auckland. They’re long-time WOL practitioners, and I’ve worked side-by-side on WOL programs with both of them. (Mara formed the first WOL Circle in London. Sabine and I delivered a training program together for WOL Mentors just last week.) Sabine and Mara are trusted friends as well as highly-skilled, creative individuals. I’ve learned a lot from them and enjoy working with them - a wonderful combination. 

Sabine Kluge & Mara Tolja

Sabine Kluge & Mara Tolja

Products that make it easier to practice independently

Another way to scale the WOL movement is to keep making it easier to form a WOL Circle and have a good and useful experience. There’s a pipeline of products under development that should help, including a video coaching series, a Circle Journal, Circle Guides in more languages, and a 2nd edition of the book.

WOL adaptations

The first three ways to scale are focused on making it easier to spread and support WOL Circles. But there are some employees for whom Circles might not be an appropriate development environment. That could include executives who find the idea of a Circle to be threatening instead of a safe and confidential space, or who simply can’t make the time for it. It might include employees who work in an environment that doesn’t lend itself to the current WOL Circle format (e.g., a factory, a hospital).

To reach those people and enable them to experience (at least some of) the benefits of WOL will require an adaptation of the method. WOL for Leaders, for example, is a new program that’s now in three companies. WOL for Manufacturing is something I’m looking to pilot later this year. 

To be continued…

The aspiration of the WOL movement, our collective mission, is to improve how people relate to themselves, to each other, and to the work they do. So far, we’ve reached thousands of people in almost 50 countries, and that’s amazing. It inspires me to wonder how we can reach a few million people and still keep the practice consistent and coherent. We have a long way to go, and these four ways to scale are steps in that direction.

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.