I sit at my table, working on my computer and occasionally looking out the window. My dog moans. My partner, also working at the table, notices something she feels is worth sharing with me. I halfheartedly listen to her, all the while continuing to look at the words and images on my screen. At one point, she asks, “So, do you think that’s a good idea? Any other thoughts about how we can get that done?”
While this particular example is placed in my apartment, where we now work remotely in the age of COVID-19, it could have easily occurred at my office, or it could have been around home issues, rather than work issues. All too often, we fail to give our full attention to one another, resulting in inefficient communication regarding the questions and challenges that consume so many hours of our lives. It isn’t that we lack the skill to listen, or even the broader intention to do so. It is that we often fail to cultivate genuine empathy and curiosity, and as a result, we cannot call upon it reliably at times when it is required.
We are definitely in a time of transition. Such times are some of the most challenging, stretching our abilities to listen to one another. As such, they offer unique opportunities to cultivate that capacity… try the following exercise.
(1) Each morning (or whenever you begin your work day), take five minutes to close your door (or otherwise gain some privacy) to practice your Intention to be Curious. Breathe deeply, and with each breath center your body and ground yourself. Such mindful practice is easy to do, causes minimal disruption to others, and prepares you to listen.
(2) Before concluding the breathing, remind yourself, “I seek to be fully present to listen, to be genuinely curious about what others are sharing, and to try and understand how they are experiencing their lives without judgment.”
(3) Give yourself a simple Talisman that you can use to fulfill your Intention. This may be a physical reminder (such as a small stone you can place on your desk) or a visible reminder (such as a picture or photo) of your Intention. By touching or seeing this Talisman, you will readily return to your Intention when called upon to do so.
(4) When someone comes into your space, or when you enter someone else’s space, take a deep breath and use the Talisman to focus and listen with openness, curiosity, and empathy. Do this as frequently as possible throughout the day.
(5) At the end of the work day, before transitioning to the next phase of your day, take five minutes to journal your experience and learning: Did you listen in accordance with your Intention? What worked well? What was challenging? What did you learn that you can bring to the next day?
If you repeat this exercise each day for a week, you will find that it becomes much more natural. You will also likely notice that you appreciate certain interactions and conversations much more fully than before, and that there is greater depth to some of these discussions. All told, you may also discover that there is greater clarity regarding What Matters as a result.
Please excuse this promotional announcement… The eBook version ofWhat Matters at Work will be on a special sale on the Amazon site for the coming week. It started at $ .99 yesterday, May 11th, then increases to $3.99 and $5.99 through the next seven days before returning to its usual $9.99 price (still an excellent deal) on May 18th. If you’ve been waiting for an eBook version — or if you have friends and coworkers who might appreciate such a gift — this is your opportunity!
For Trekkies, the question I am raising here is obvious. But for most of us who have watched the various incarnations of Star Trek through the past 50+ years, the premise of the program is something we may not have recognized is crucial to the current state of world affairs. It is well understood that Gene Roddenberry envisioned a civilization of greater social justice, racial tolerance, and collaborative governmental efforts. His stories were intended to be moral tales that could allow viewers to contemplate both the dangers of adventure (“to go where none have gone before”) and ethical dilemmas that resulted; the values of the desired society were tested in the behaviors of the characters facing overwhelming adversity through such stories. In many ways, Star Trek is more mythology than science fiction.
But how did we ever get to a time in the 23rd Century where “The Federation” existed? What series of events transpired to facilitate this vision? Here is an excellent summary from New York Vulture in 2017:
To understand the allure of Star Trek, it’s necessary to understand the ways its creator Gene Roddenberry and later writers conceived of humanity’s future. While Earth is, for all intents and purposes, a utopia during the time of the various Star Trek series, it took a long, bloody road to get there. 21st-century Earth was embroiled in many conflicts, including what would become known as World War III (2024–2053), which was sparked by a litany of issues, including anger over genetic manipulation and the Eugenics Wars. Governments fell. Major cities were destroyed. The loss of life hovered around 600 million. Ten years after the end of the war, First Contact was made with the Vulcans (a rigid, highly logical species that count fan-favorite character Spock as a member), thanks to humanity building the first warp drive that allowed for space travel faster than the speed of light (this event is dramatized in the 1996 film Star Trek: First Contact). The discovery of intelligent alien races forced humanity to get its act together. After further chaos and attempts to establish order, eventually the United Earth Government was established in 2150. By the early 22nd century, humanity was able to eliminate most, if not all, of the poverty, disease, hunger, and cruelty that has plagued us since our beginnings. Racism, sexism, and even money was a thing of the past. Humanity’s drive became a philosophy of betterment and exploration.
We currently live at the front edge of this critical time in the history of humanity, the “Star Trek Moment.” It has been ushered into our collective consciousness by the COVID-19 pandemic, as this global threat has exposed the rifts and fissures of our economic, political, and social systems where threats to climate change, the global refugee crisis, previous disease outbreaks, and other vast problems have only scratched the surface. As competition for scarce resources to address this threat intensifies, it exposes deep questions that must now, inevitably, be confronted:
What future do we now seek? What are we learning today that may help us navigate tomorrow?
Will we go through a multi-year conflict where much of the Earth is decimated and tens of millions die? Or will the “better angels of our nature” emerge to provide leadership and wisdom that brings forth our greatest instincts as human beings: to care for one another, to be compassionate in the face of fear and loneliness, to collaborate to find treatments, vaccines, and other life-saving remedies that benefit us all?
And might this be the time when we become capable of recognizing the “tragedy of the horizon” of climate change, and reinvent our economies to be sustainable and protective of this fragile planet?
In his 2006 book, A Brief History of the Future, economist Jacques Attali speculates regarding whether such capacity is already present. After reviewing economic history and the gradual movement of power centers over time, he shifts gears and focuses on the future. He articulates the dystopian expectation that there will be a total economic and political collapse of the US Empire around 2035 (some speculate this is occurring right now), followed by “hyper-empire” in which nation states collapse and chaos dominates. But this is followed by an optimistic period of “hyper-democracy,” led by resources that are already expressing themselves in our present day: NGO’s, collective intelligence, and leadership by “transhumans” who are empathetic, inclusive, leaders that take Earth beyond its abyss into a hopeful future. They establish businesses that are dedicated to the “triple bottom line” of economic, environmental, and social returns on investment.
Attali’s sense that all will fall apart in the second quarter of the 21st Century is similar to Roddenberry’s Star Trek premise, but whereas Star Trek sees the discovery of Vulcan culture as a key catalyst for transformation, Attali recognizes that humanity already possesses many of the required resources and attributes. Indeed, around 10% of world GDP (according to Attali) is already produced by these socially responsible businesses, and they can serve as a critical foundation to understand the present moment of the pandemic.
In What Matters At Work, I briefly wrote about Frederic LaLoux’s important book, Reinventing Organizations (2014). LaLoux outlines characteristics of “next level organizations” and provides practical illustrations of their approaches across industries and scale. These are powerful examples of organizations that represent worldviews and perspectives that may summon forth our greatest capacities in service to the complex challenges now facing us. We are also witnessing, in our own communities, other such examples as companies rise to the occasion of transforming their operations to provide critical supplies and protective gear to essential workers.
“Next level” companies, non-profits, B-Corps, and similar organizations also recognize the intrinsic value of internalizing the externalities of the current economic system. Rather than viewing environmental and social costs as being “external,” in the usual capitalist economic model, they “internalize” these costs as part of the cost of doing business. As such, a carbon footprint is internalized into the replacement cost of producing energy or any given product, social displacement is internalized into the cost of urban renewal and gentrification planning, and the transportation costs of delivering food and supplies from across the globe are internalized into calculations around a given supply chain. These are real costs borne by the planet and by society if we recognize the “Long Game” of complexity and systems thinking, and the post-COVID economy will need to grapple with such realities.
I am skeptical, to be sure. I witness the many ways that the largest actors in the current system — the US, China, Russia, many other self-centered states and mega-corporations — continue to pretend that their self-interests are proscribed by their borders and shareholders. But I am also hopeful that there are many “transhumans” out there who recognize What Matters and can provide leverage influence at critical places and moments as we navigate this challenge.
During these times of “sheltering at home” and working remotely, there is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of work and the career choices we make for ourselves. Perhaps this is a chance to consider our True Calling in a new (and exciting!) way, as the time spent away from the “usual grind” has allowed us to better understand those aspects of our jobs that we truly value.
The post-COVID economy will be significantly changed from the one we took for granted until last month. While much may be lost, there will be new ways of working that will make sense to conform with our emerging societal requirements and social norms. This excerpt from my book, What Matters at Work, is intended to facilitate such reflection.
In his influential book, Good to Great (2001), author Jim Collins shared extensive research regarding what really made the difference in facilitating the development of some companies from being merely “good” and profitable to being “great,” vastly exceeding success metrics. He adapted the Ancient Greek Hedgehog Concept, where we focus on greatness in a specific area, and achieve it by focusing on three intersecting circles of activity:
What are you Deeply Passionate about?
What can you be The Best in the World at?
What Drives your Economic Engine?
These three questions are essential to uncovering our True Calling, where Passion, Talent, and Economic Sustainability conspire to breathe life into our efforts. Without such clarity, our organization will fall short of its true possibilities and we, as leaders and members of such companies, will be unable to sustain the energy required to live fulfilling, satisfying, engaging work lives. So, how do we do it?
Exercise: True Calling
WHY: To clarify specific ways your work on What Matters connect to the things you feel “called” to do, with a sense of higher purpose and commitment.
HOW: This activity has two stages, each of which benefits from both personal reflection and partnering with a colleague for a peer coaching conversation:
Step 1: Draw your own “Hedgehog Diagram” using the three questions identified above. Individually, brainstorm a number of responses to each question. Be patient here – try to look at the question without being limited by your current role, situation, or career path… the Passion you have may relate to a field that is only beginning to emerge. (On a personal level, I have fundamentally shifted career paths a few times, with satisfying results.)
Step 2: Then engage in a conversation with a Partner to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the possible responses, finally settling on one answer that is worth testing out for its potential value (a prototype).
Step 3: Using this one answer, where your responses to the three questions intersect (a Hedgehog Response), engage in the second stage of the exercise.
The second activity involves another tool, the GROW Diagram. GROW is a peer coaching tool utilized in many organizations around the world where the acronym means GOAL —> REALITY —> OPPORTUNITIES/OPTIONS —> WILL.
Step 4: Complete the GROW Diagram and then discuss it with your Partner, where that person coaches you to consider how the Reality must be navigated to create Opportunities and Options to achieve your Goal, and ultimately to see where you have Will, or the energy to pursue a given Option. Ideally, you both complete the exercise and take turns coaching one another.
I have utilized these tools many times, in varied settings and contexts. I continue to be impressed by their capacity to inspire learners to be daring, to stretch beyond our usual expectations. Instead of thinking, “What can I do to get by?” consider, “What am I passionate about doing that can have significant meaning in the world?” With sustained commitment and the accountability of the peer coaching relationship, finding our True Calling can be one of the most important elements of the Wellness Journey.
I am also repeatedly impressed by the value of peer partners in such activities: Although our peers may lack any special expertise, or even have familiarity with the specific issues we are discussing, they often provide valuable guidance, clarity, and support as we wrestle with overwhelming challenges that have puzzled us. To have such colleagues and friends along this Journey can be immeasurably worthwhile, so choose wisely and be sure to thank them.
The following excerpt from my book, What Matters at Work, seems timely for us to review this week… I hope it helps as we consider how to express leadership in these uncertain times.– Harry
A lovely little book, The Art of Possibility, by Benjamin Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander (2000) always inspires me. Among the gems included is the idea of “leading from every chair,” where Benjamin Zander recounts stories from the youth orchestra he conducted for many years and relates them to his philosophy of leadership. The lesson for us all is a simple one: Consider your position to be one with boundless potential to provide leadership in service to the greater aspirations and challenges before your group, wherever you may sit on the hierarchy and perceived power structure.
The practical questions are, “How do we offer Leadership in a way that is sustainable, healthy for us and nourishing of others, while also expending necessary energy towards the challenge before us?” And “How do we lead from everywhere in the organization, regardless of positional power or status?”
Exercise: Refocusing to Offer Leadership
WHY: The routine practice of centering techniques allows us to return to a place of rest and focus again on those core Intentions whenever they are needed. This activity helps us remain focused on What Matters, to be sure. But it also relieves stress, allows positivity to engage our minds, and physically enables us to access resources in our brains that can ultimately be applied to solving the pressing challenges we face. Finally, it allows us to be prepared to listen empathically and non-judgmentally to those with whom we need to engage, from which we may discover the key ideas and feelings that we must understand and negotiate through our workdays.
Step 1: In his book, ACT Made Simple (2009), Russ Harris offers a straight-forward format for constructing mindfulness exercises:
Let go of your thoughts.
Let your feelings be.
Using this approach:
Take a moment to notice your surroundings;
Focus on what you are noticing, and let go of other thoughts; and
Feel whatever you are feeling, and be aware of these feelings in the moment.
With practice, this simple exercise can bring you back from distractions, whether they are worries, feelings of apprehension, or feelings of being overwhelmed in the moment. Once achieved, you may return to the task at hand, or otherwise reframe your problem-solving efforts.
Step 2: In a quiet place (though perhaps with some background sounds to muffle outside noises):
Focus on your Intention. Get grounded physically so you are relaxed and open to sensing what is important to perceive at this time, with distractions reduced as much as possible;
Recall two or three key Values that guide you. As you notice them, remember that you are a capable individual who offers your skills and talents in service to others and consistent with these Values.
Take 2-3 minutes to calmly breathe, relax, and focus in this manner. Then: Notice the question we posed above, “How do we offer Leadership in a way that is sustainable, healthy for us and nourishing of others, while also expending necessary energy towards the challenge before us?” Take several minutes to contemplate this question in an open and non-judgmental manner.
Journal your emerging responses to the question. This may be your conclusion for now, or you may now proceed to the next step.
Step 3: Meet with a trusted colleague, preferably someone who has already been a partner on this Journey with you before. Discuss what is now emerging for you. Identify specific action steps and resources available for you to offer these responses in a constructive, healthy, and sustainable manner.
On a personal level, to “lead from everywhere” has become one of my most important challenges in this work. It has taught me that whenever I feel stuck, overwhelmed, or powerless to create the change I seek in the world, I can rediscover my focus. I am reminded of those things that I am passionate about, reducing the “noise” that distracts me inside my head or the toxic relationships that may undermine my resolve. If I regularly engage in this activity, it becomes so normal to me that I scarcely have to summon any special energy to do it. And because I am engaging in this effort in partnership with others, I find that it not only energizes me, but contagiously engages others to rededicate their efforts to follow their Intentions and Values in service to their Core Story.