Your one word

At first I dismissed it as a gimmick. After all, what difference could one word make? 

But several of my friends have been doing it for years, and towards the end of 2018 they posted about their one word. My friend Fiona chose “energy” last year. She described how it helped her make better choices, and how she could build on that this coming year.

Whether privately or professionally, every time I had to take a decision I would ask myself the following question: "Will this decision increase my energy level?"

Having increased my energy level in 2018, I am now ready to work on my roots, my foundations, what makes me who I am and what makes me stand up. 

Anne-Marie Imafidon also wrote about her one word. She was featured in chapter 22 of Working Out Loud, and I’ve continued following her many accomplishments and accolades since then. She described the effects of choosing a word in past years and what’s next for her.

So 2019, for me will be the year of ‘Beyond’. I’m venturing beyond my normal boundaries and spheres of influence. I’m looking beyond the realms of what I’m doing now and what I’m currently capable of.

From reading their posts, I saw that your one word could be a kind of guidepost, something that reminds you of which direction you want to travel. At the end of last year I wrote about intentions and what would make the year great, and your one word can be another way to express what you intend to do and be.

My one word is “discipline.” Like Anne-Marie and Fiona, I feel like I’ve been building up to this word for some time, gradually developing habits - work, physical health, mental health - that make it possible for my one word to be more than just a wish.

For me, “discipline” isn’t about limits or stoic deprivation. Just the opposite. It’s about enabling me to make more mindful choices so I do what I truly intend to do. Whenever I have a choice to make, I remember my word and ask myself, “What would a disciplined person do?” Of course I won’t make the right choice each time, but it has already helped. (Some examples include work on important new projects, losing six pounds, and reducing time on my phone by more than 50% .)

What will your one word be? Where do you want to go?

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Who will you be when your company takes away your ID?

When someone asks what you do, what do you say?

My first full-time job was at Bell Laboratories, famous for inventing the transistor and discovering evidence of the Big Bang, among other things. I worked on more mundane projects that didn’t amount to much. So when people asked me what I did, I instead proudly responded with where I worked.

As my career progressed, titles became important. “Vice President,” “Director,” “Managing Director.” They all seem meaningless now. But at the time my sense of self-worth depended on them. With each step up the ladder, I would rush to order new business cards, eager to hand them out and show off the newly-upgraded me. 

Other people treated me differently too based on what it said on my badge. They didn’t know me or my work. It was the brand and my position in the hierarchy that determined whether I was relevant or interesting.

I learned the hard way that basing your identity on where you work is inherently risky and unstable. When my last company’s successes turned into scandals and fines, my pride turned to shame. When I was laid off, there was no longer a company or title to define who I was. It was just me.

It took me a long time to realize that I had a choice, that I could step out from behind a business card, make my work visible, and shape my own reputation. It took me a long time to accept that being “just me” was enough. I wish I had started sooner.

What about you? When they take away your ID, who will you be?

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When the CEO isn’t enough

I was sitting in the audience as the divisional CEO delivered his talk to over 500 people. He was encouraging them to try new ways of working, to experiment more, connect across silos, and continuously learn. Not only would it be better for them as individuals, he told them, but the company needed this kind of culture and attitude. The enthusiasm was palpable.

Then he opened the floor to questions from the audience, and a hand went up.

“But what do I tell my manager?”

Fear and control

The employee's concern was understandable. Despite exhortations from top management, the new values posted on the walls, the cultural change program, it still didn’t feel safe to do things differently. Too many other people got into trouble doing that, so why take the risk?

Without a sense of psychological safety - "being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career" - most people will wait until a critical mass has changed behavior before making a change themselves.

How many people have to say “yes”?

After the question there was an awkward pause. The CEO replied that it was better in this case not to ask permission. "You should just do it,” he said, explaining that the personal benefits were worth the risk. 

The head of the Works Council was also there, and he pointed out that even in the most stringent environments, employees had times when they could choose for themselves what to do. “If your boss doesn’t like what you’re trying, do it on your lunch hour, or outside of work.” 

The audience didn’t seem satisfied. They wanted to do things differently, but they felt stuck. As happy as they were with visible support from top management, they knew the CEO wouldn’t be there if their boss doled out consequences.

The permission you’ve been waiting for

One way out of this conundrum is for you to take a series of small steps rather than a big leap. There’s plenty of research to show that even small changes to tasks, relationships, and perceptions can make you happier and more effective. (It’s call “job crafting” and you can read more about it here.)

You may have to experience it for yourself before you believe it, like my friend Stefan who, after 12 weeks in a WOL Circle, said this:

"I now realize there are things - tasks and interests - that bring me joy and satisfaction besides my original job but are still in a business context. I guess my next goal will be concerned with job crafting... ;-) " 

Every day you have some control over who you interact with and what you do. Every day you have complete control over how you interact with others and how you approach the work you need to do. 

You can choose to experiment in small ways at work, to learn and explore more, to relate to others with generosity and kindness, to actively look for purpose and meaning in what you do. You can be a leader in one of the most important ways possible - by example.

For that, the only person you’ll need permission from is you. 

 

“People are messy” (and other lessons from self-managing teams)

A friend once shared some pithy wisdom about humanity that I’ve returned to time and time again. “People,” she said, “are messy.” 

As human beings, we’re wired to want control, and self-determination theory describes much of what motivates us. Yet we’ve also evolved a highly sophisticated sense of hierarchy and social status, spending much of our brain activity on calculating how everyone relates to everyone else.

The tension between these innate drives is particularly evident at work, where we desperately strive to find our place in the very hierarchy we don’t want submit to, and where we need to cooperate and collaborate to get things done. It’s even more acute (and interesting) when it comes to self-managing teams. 

Here are some things I’ve learned from observing such teams trying to spread Working Out Loud in their organizations. 

“Who will lead our self-managing team?”

The spread of WOL Circles in an organization usually begins when someone tries one, tells their friends, and Circles organically multiply. As they spread over a few months, a number of individuals emerge who care about WOL and want to do more. Now what? 

This is a critical juncture. If these early adopters don’t coalesce, the movement grows slowly or fizzles out as the early adopters move on. But sometimes the individuals tentatively come together to discuss their motivations and aspirations. They start to coordinate the next steps, and the first few seeds become the beginning of a grassroots movement.

Critically, leadership comes from contribution, not appointment. The people who care more tend to do more - more organizing, more experimenting, more outreach - and a “co-creation team” forms. It can be fragile, though. Conflicts at this stage, whether due to differences in style or substance, can cause the group (and the movement) to split or disintegrate completely. Somewhat ironically, ego can be the bane of self-management.

“The Grass Ceiling” 

As the WOL movement in an organization starts to grow, other possibilities and challenges emerge. The opportunities to integrate with existing programs and to scale to more locations and divisions may well require resources and the shifting of priorities.

This is another critical juncture. If the co-creation team continues to run without a budget and relies solely on volunteers, the grassroots movement hits some hard limits. Over time, the enthusiasm for the original idea is worn down by the slow pace of change and the bureaucratic resistance of the organization. 

Instead of trying to fight the way things are, successful co-creation teams leverage them. They shift from being a completely independent group to partnering with HR & other transformation managers responsible for existing programs. They seek executive sponsors for political cover and for resources.

The team may still be self-organizing, but they attach themselves to the hierarchy in a way that enables them to make a bigger, more sustainable difference.

A different kind of "secure attachment"

A more subtle example of self-management is a WOL Circle itself. Circles are purposefully designed so anyone can start one without budget or permission. The Circle Guides give people some structure, but how and when to do the work is up to the Circle members. They’re self-managing and often (but not always) self-organizing. 

But how do you get them started? What do you do when a Circle needs help? What if they struggle midway through or someone drops out? 

The varying responses to supporting Circles reminds me of attachment theory in parenting. Some organizations are completely hands-off. Others insist co-creation team members attend some Circle meetings or involve themselves in fixing issues a Circle may be facing.

The results are predictable. Without any help at all, some Circles aren’t as effective as they could be. With too much meddling, the Circle members lose their sense of autonomy and accountability, and start to see their helper as the person responsible for their progress (and issues). The co-creation team suffers too, as they struggle under a growing support burden they created.

The best approach is a kind of secure attachment. Circles are left to manage themselves and do the work on their own, but they know they can reach out to someone for support when they really need it. To facilitate this, some organizations are creating networks of certified experts across the company to ensure Circles can readily find trained help if (and only if) they want and need it.

Some remarkable results

Is this revolutionary? No. But it is remarkable that people can drive change using this kind of hybrid approach, combining self-managed initiatives with institutional support. 

As evidence of this are the results of the HR Excellence awards in Berlin late last week. One of the winning submissions was from a group of eight companies - Audi, BMW, Bosch, Continental, Daimler, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, Telekom - who are spreading Working Out Loud. 

The recipients were the self-managing teams who, without budget or permission, introduced and spread a movement inside their respective companies. Even more remarkable, they decided to organize themselves into a cross-company community of practice to share innovations that could help everyone accelerate the growth of those movements. Their companies all celebrated their achievement, and several now have board-level support.

Yes, people are messy. But given enough space to experiment, enough confidence to resist fighting for status, and enough support to keep going, we can make work more effective and fulfilling than it’s ever been.