We Need New Models for Workplace Relationships Part 2

“We sense we’ve reached the end of something.”

Lynne McTaggart, author, The Bond

In Part 1 of this article I explored some of the forces that  have shaped our vision of workplace relationships.    There’s an increasing amount of rhetoric in business conversations today about the importance of optimizing people to maximize their strengths and  nurture  passion and creativity.  Hey, I’m all for it, but a part of me cringes as I imagine the proverbial pig with lipstick, to use a charming American colloquialism.
Changing the nature of relationships at work will require more than a new business strategy.  Organizations are always looking for magic bullets. Change initiative  programs alone will not transform individuals – and certainly not cultures.  Transforming the nature of workplace relationships will require a sea change in the mindsets that shape organizational life.  Governed by task orientation and subject to hierarchical structures, most work relationships today are still organized around competition.
The “norms” that shape individual perceptions, expectations and interactions within work settings are systemically driven.  Obviously the obstacles and challenges to changing these norms are enormous. The first step has to be the wholesale examination of the thinking that governs an organization’s understanding of its purpose in concert with the dynamics of human relationships within that system.
Words are important, but words alone aren’t going to cut it anymore. Most people are fed up with facades and deception.  “Disengagement” levels are at an all-time high for a reason. People are tired and weary but they are also a lot savvier than they were even a decade ago.  The immediacy of social and 24/7 global media has brought the world to us and life will never be the same again.
Although mental tribalism still threatens our connectivity, it’s getting harder to keep our eyes closed to the need to work together.  In her book, The Bond, author Lynne McTaggart writes, “For more than three hundred years our worldview has been shaped by a story that describes isolated beings competing for survival on a lonely planet in an indifferent universe.  A multitude of influences – religious, political, economic, scientific and philosophical – writes the story that we live by.”

It’s time to write new stories. Given the global and local challenges we face, we’re going to have to write a lot of new stories.  But the story begins within.

According to McTaggart, “The leitmotif of our present story is the hero up against it. We take it for granted that our life’s journey is meant to be a struggle. Consequently, we remain constantly vigilant, poised to wrestle with every behemoth – at home, at work, even among acquaintances and friends that stray across our path. No matter how pleasant our lives, the vast majority of us maintain a stance of operating contra mundi, with every encounter some sort of battle to be fought.”

We Can’t Change the Story Unless We Fully Understand It

If we are going to change the story of how we live – and work together – we’re going to have to have a very good idea of the stories we tell ourselves now that propel our feelings into actions.
Because the Big  Story we’ve been told about people and how the world works (called reality) keeps us spinning in isolation, we’re going to have to rewrite our personal stories  – day by day – encounter by encounter.  We have to re-imagine the world from that place, not exclusively from the past – or from someone else’s story.  Our analysis of the motivations within human dynamics must become far more sophisticated in our design of the new human workplace.  Since the advent of the modern workplace, people have been fitted into work systems, which continue to take a terrible toll on “productivity” and employee well-being.  We must now rethink and redesign those systems around people, not abstract theories, processes and economic bottom-lines.

In her book, It’s Always Personal, Anne Kreamer offers an example from Sigal Barsade, an expert on emotions within organizations from the Wharton School of Business, “People don’t come to work tabula rasa. Rather they have a prior life and work history that can influence their thoughts and behaviors on the job. Traditionally, organizational behavior has only examined things people could easily see or report. But I think we’ve missed an entire level of analysis, which is unconscious.
We’ve gotten by so far with a stagnant view of human nature. We’ve “designed” work processes based on a rudimentary view of human dynamics. Opposite of embracing an understanding of the depth of human relationships, the “business” model has often been hostile to it.  “Rationality” is still king in our beliefs about human behavior in business. And it’s not only the “system” which reinforces fallacies and ignorance about how we humans function – individual beliefs play a major role in maintaining the status quo.
An example from Professor Barsade illustrates the point,  If a man is cut off in traffic on his way to work and then has to make a strategic decision in a 9 a.m. meeting, if I were to ask him if the anger he felt during the traffic encounter in any way influenced his later decision, he’d answer “absolutely not,” when we have concrete evidence that it would. We are unaware of how diffuse our moods are, and this lack of awareness can be insidious.”

What We Can No Longer Ignore –  the Brain is Social

Turns out – the brain is a WE, not just a ME.  Neuroscience research continues to reinforce that it’s the power of being with others that shapes our brains – and relationships provide the primary context for that development. According to the RSA.org  “For the last two decades the model of the rational individual has been consistently undermined by social psychology, behavioral economics and neuroscience. The rational individual construct was not based on naivety, but on the belief that this was the best model to help us plan our economies and organize our societies. Above all it fails to grasp that social context is not an afterthought , a variable to be controlled, but the defining feature of how we think, learn and behave.”

If we are, as the RSA says, creatures that are “largely habitual; embedded in complex social networks; highly sensitive to social and cultural norms and more “rationalizing” than rational,” what are the implications for the future of workplace relationships if we embrace this knowledge and apply it?  Our need to understand, connect and engage with others is fundamental to our existence.  Yet, how much of modern work processes are structured to accommodate this scientific fact?  Louis Cozolino, Ph.D writes in his book, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, “A fundamental characteristic of Western science and philosophy has been the conception of the thinker as alone rather than embedded within a human community. Scientists have had to expand their thinking to grasp this idea: the individual neuron or a single human brain does not exist in nature. The brain requires knowledge of the healthy living brain embedded within a community of other brains: relationships are our natural habitat.”

If “management’s job is to optimize the whole system,” as W. Edwards Deming prescribed, then what must the organization of the 21st century do to maximize opportunities for people to work in safe (minimizing fear) trusting (maximizing understanding ) collaborative (power-sharing)  relation to each other?

Every belief we have influences our thinking about business, about work and about people within the workplace. These beliefs keep things tethered to the past or open to new experiences.
Recently I came across an article in Inc. Magazine that listed the “8 Core Beliefs of Extraordinary Bosses.” While it will take far more than “extraordinary bosses” to transform the way we work together,  genuinely practicing any one of them would have a salubrious impact on a work culture.  Embedded within each one are dozens of policies and practices that guide the ways that we structure work.

  1. Business is an ecosystem, not a battlefield.
  2. A company is a community, not a machine.
  3. Management is service, not control.
  4. Employees are my peers, not my children.
  5. Motivation comes from vision, not from fear.
  6. Change equates growth, not pain.
  7. Technology offers empowerment, not automation.
  8. Work should be fun, not just toil.

We are learning a great deal about concepts like chaos and complexity these days – a historic moment, some might say. For a long time, those words were big and scary. We still cling to the idea of certainty, striving for that safe, predictable place.
But just as we sense we are at the end of something – many sense something “new” is emerging.  We can’t get our arms around it yet, this new thing – perhaps an easing into a new form of trust.  Maybe its what’s being defined as “resiliency. Not the tough, dense idea of resiliency, but a strength that’s anchored in flexibility. This kind of resiliency requires and inspires letting go and trusting.

In Creating Resiliency by Following Nature’s Lead, author Erin Leitch writes, “We have a lot to learn about resilience from observing the natural world. We can build resilience into our businesses using nature as a model. It’s important to remember that resilience is an emergent property. All too often, we begin discussing resilience during or immediately after a disturbance, such as a natural disaster. Resilient systems emerge when strategies are embedded prior to a disturbance so that the rules of the system can take over and allow the system to maintain its function both during the disturbance and in the period afterwards.”  Re-imagining a workplace from this place feels very different to me. It feels open and spacious.  Creative and generative.  Empathetic and supportive. Healthy and inspiring. Maybe even fun! It’s exciting, even thrilling to imagine, isn’t it?

Thanks for reading,
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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  1. Gurmeet Singh Pawar says:

    This is a great follow up to your earlier post with same title, little complex maybe for a layman like me, but definitely worth putting time. You tried to say lot many things in one post, which maybe requires individual attention by us all. Few points which appealed to me were as below:
    1) Pig with lipstick, 2) Need of sea change in mindsets, 3) Mental tribalism, 4) Your definition of Culture of Safe, Trust and collaboration, 5) 8 Core Beliefs, 6) Resilience as an emergent property, and last but not the least, 7) Thought about, ‘End of something and emergence of New’.
    Few points I am still contemplating on are:
    1. Write New stories: I am an avid viewer of movies and have seen them in many languages & genres. What I have noticed is that beginning from silent types to current technically sophisticated ones, irrespective of language, culture or genre; stories have changed and changed a lot. They have moved from Charlie Chaplin to latest complex ones like Matrix or ones like Avatar. But even after such massive changes in the stories, the underlying message or point in the movies have always remained same i.e. There is a Hero(man/animal/nature/situation, etc) who is challenged by larger than life villain(man/animal/alien/nature/systems etc.), they fight it out and eventually hero wins(almost every time). Now this theme (I call it hope) has always been there, but stories have changed with times. Even though I know that every time I go to watch a movie, theme is not going to change, I go there to watch new story.
    When I relate this to History and Life, a thought always ticks somewhere that everything I am looking at is just another story. The entire evolution starting from Big Bang to Information Age is nothing but another story and somewhere down, there lies a theme or message, which gets lost because I always go out to watch and sometimes create new story.
    So I always have this feeling (not sure if correct), “Is there something Beyond Stories”.
    2. How do we understand the concept of ‘Me & We’: This question still fascinates me a lot?
    3. People centered systems: I understand and appreciate that today we are feeling to give rightful importance to ‘WE’ and talking about People Centered systems, and maybe that is progress or maybe a new story. But a question comes to mind, is that because what is appropriate or just because information age has shifted power from ME to WE?
    Thank you for this wonderful article, which is a great food for thought for me. I also checked few other post in your blog of interest, would comment on them later.

    • Gurmeet,
      Thanks so much for taking the time for such a thorough read and comment. I’ll do my best to respond to your points:
      First, I had to laugh at your notice of the term a “a pig with lipstick.” Actually, it’s a term I rarely used (it was “popularized” during the contentious 2008 U.S. Presidential election when it was used by VP candidate Sarah Palin. Funny how it came to mind when I thought about “campaigns” within organizations to send messages to the culture. This is exactly what won’t work because as I wrote changing the nature of relationships within a culture requires changing the culture.
      I am also glad you picked up on the point about mental tribalism I’d like to write more about that idea. I believe as cultures change dramatically (and we are clearly in that era) people who are not curious, open, flexible take hard sides on issues. It seems their entire belief system becomes fortified against any incoming information or experience that would threaten their positions.
      When I speak about writing new stories, I refer to the mental narratives that we construct in our minds about how things work, One could argue that much of the interpretation of history is a mental construct – the way it is and the way it will always be. All cultures are enriched by ritual and stories but unless we understand the way in which these narratives shape our life NOW, we are, as I mentioned – tethered to the past.
      To my mind, the something beyond the stories is our “felt” experience and sense, which is quite distinct from our mental narratives. That’s the beauty and power of emotional intelligence as I understand it. It’s the ability to balance the mind with feelings to more deeply intuit our truth.
      I think we are just at the very beginning of the WE story. As we look around the world, life is still too tribal and disconnected – but our sense of connectedness and interdependence is growing – the signs are everywhere. And not until organizations truly place PEOPLE first (the well-being of workers not only in their employ but at every level of the reach of that organizations) and not just a means to another end (usually primarily profit) things will move very slowly.
      Thanks again for adding in your welcome comments,

  2. Gurmeet Singh Pawar says:

    Thank you so much Louise for your kind response. I do agree with all that you stated. Few quick points that came to my mind;
    1. About Mental tribalism: You see I have come to a conclusion (obviously always debatable), that every thought or action or motion is deep down driven by two forces. Its difficult for me to quote appropriate words to them, but the closest I could relate was => FEAR & HOPE. These are the two drivers of everything in the universe. And putting yourself into understanding this concept gets you to immense possibilities.
    2. About Mental Narratives: Somehow I have a thought that the ‘structure of Loop’ is very crucial in understanding everything. When I referred to stories I have a sense that we are all moving in a loop and somehow this desire of humans to reach “Finality or Truth” is not correct. As how so much you try you will keep revolving in the loop, as there is neither end nor beginning to it. Therefore if that could be the case, then what the purpose of existence is. And I think deep down somewhere there lays a message (which is spread out on entirety) which is beyond stories, which I always miss to catch somehow.
    Thank you again, it was Pleasure conversing with you.

  3. Gary Winters says:

    Terrific two articles. I feel both hope and wariness in reading them. While I agree with the concept in theory, in reality “re-imagining” the world from our own story, not others, still leads little to change the nature of a business environment focused only on profits and productivity.
    “If ‘Management’s job is to optimize the whole system,’ as W. Edwards Deming prescribed, then what must the organization of the 21st century do to maximize opportunities for people to work in safe (minimizing fear) trusting (maximizing understanding ) collaborative (power-sharing) relation to each other? Every belief we have influences our thinking about business, about work and about people within the workplace. These beliefs keep things tethered to the past or open to new experiences.”
    The theory here is that optimizing the system means creating safe, trusting and collaborative environments. If management believes this is important, then there is hope for change, especially if they do create a “WE” atmosphere. WE are in this together, each with talents that contribute to a successful outcome, rather than YOU (person I granted a job to) must perform for ME (who alone represents the corporation). A cycle of cynicism seems to persist on both ends. What a difference it would make in a workplace if both managers and employees decided to trust each other.

    • Gary,
      Thanks very much for your comment – pleased you like the posts.
      I don’t know how else people change unless they start within themselves. I can’t change you or business unless the change starts with me. We mindsets stem from me mindsets that are healthy, whole and see the need and value of collaboration and trust. I can’t “Do” trust unless I have a strong sense of my own needs, feelings and behaviors in relation to others. Too many people walk around without understanding the needs that motivate them – or how to satisfy them.
      I believe that one of the biggest forces that keeps people separate from each other (and perpetuates a ME workplace) is fear. Now most workplace systems are unconsciously (and purposefully) “motivating” and intimidating people through fear. It is is laziest management “tool” in business. But one reason it stays in place is because people believe in it. This is very early development learned behavior. But because many managers and organizational leaders are clueless about psychology and human dynamics they don’t do as Deming suggested – Drive Fear out of the Workplace.
      It starts with Me to understand what I believe about the We, then to understand how I interact with and encourage the We. Takes both a high degree in intrapersonal and interpersonal skill.

      • Gary Winters says:

        “I believe that one of the biggest forces that keeps people separate from each other (and perpetuates a ME workplace) is fear. Now most workplace systems are unconsciously (and purposefully) “motivating” and intimidating people through fear. It is is laziest management “tool” in business.”
        Yes! Completely agree. Thanks again for very thought-provoking words.

  4. John Wenger says:

    Louise, this is such a rich article and I hope it is read by many people. This kind of visioning is what we need in our societies while we are in this transition from the old to the new. Entropy is being felt more keenly as we accelerate towards chaos and randomness. There are folks, like you, who have anchored yourself in the new world and will help to coalesce the structures and mindsets that the new age will demand of us. I look forward to your book one day!

    • Hi John
      Always happy to see you pop up in these pages.
      I love the term “anchored in the new world” wonderful…you should consider writing (ha ha)
      Often (like the other day watching the U.S. Senate Committee on Defense – a completely moribund institution (the whole Senate that is) holding hearings over the appointment of the new Secretary of Defense.
      The entire spectacle was a testimony to the old order dying in front of one’s eyes. Locked in past revisionism, defending the lies (which the majority of people understand as lies) and offering complete resistance to any consideration that change is needed (or happening, whether they want it or not).
      I think we see these camps – for and against the changes that are inevitable – arrayed on all sides. “We” sounds like a good idea but how to “we” do it? I think its important for those who have already encamped in the “new world” to help ferry people across as gently as we can to the other side.
      I really enjoy the work you have been doing – and also hope more and more readers discover your wonderful work.
      PS thx also for the book encouragement. Can you email me once a day with that?

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