A client of mine is struggling to remain competitive in an industry where smaller, more agile competitors are nibbling away at their market share. They believe that their organizational culture needs to change in order to be successful. In a recent phone call with the company’s top leaders I asked who was responsible for creating the organization’s culture. Crickets. Finally, the head of strategy said, “To be honest, we feel more like custodians of the culture than the creators.” Someone else on the call piped in, “Actually, we are more culture complainers than culture creators!” That didn’t sound good.
Have you ever gotten in your car, driven to work, found a parking spot, sat at your desk, and wondered: How did I get here? If you ever experienced this, you were probably on automatic pilot, unconscious of what you were doing because you do it so often. Now let’s say you got in your car, started to drive, and suddenly a detour took you far out of your way. What happened then? Perhaps you began to worry about missing an important morning meeting. Probably, you drove with heightened awareness, your grip tightening on the steering wheel. And maybe you arrived at the office grouchy, immediately complaining to your co-workers about those so-and-sos who messed up traffic during rush hour.
I feel like I’m losing my mind from the mega-buzz surrounding mindfulness lately. Many companies, including Google and Target, are investing in mindfulness training for their employees. The National Institute of Health is pouring millions to research the effect of mindfulness on depression, obesity, and even the common cold. Even the journal American Psychologist devoted its most recent special issue to the emergence of mindfulness in psychological science. The few of us uninitiated souls may wonder what this is all about, and even wonder what mindfulness is. Well here it is: Mindfulness is any practice used to focus on an object, such as one’s breath or a point in space, and then become aware when one’s mind has wandered, and then bring awareness back to the object. In other words: meditation.
Everybody believed Paul was the problem. His teammates complained in anonymous interviews that he was overly critical and negative. They said he dominated conversations, and became aggressive when someone disagreed with him. Despite acknowledging his deep technical knowledge, Paul’s teammates said that if he left the team they would be more effective. Ouch. But Paul wasn’t their only complaint. They also grumbled about not having influence with the senior executives who sponsored their work. And they criticized Mary, the team leader, for not confronting Paul or their senior leaders. I had been hired by Mary to facilitate the development of her team. Part of my agreement with Mary was to provide the team with the anonymous input from my interviews. I commonly use this approach (called action research), but I had never heard such a hairball of negativity from a team before.
I boarded a plane recently (what’s new?) to an announcement that the city we were flying to was blistering in 95-degree heat. I groaned in complaint. Overhearing me, the man in the next seat started in about the weather, describing in detail the record setting heat wave. We then discussed the house he was selling, our roots in the northeast, and our families. By the time we landed he knew more about me than some of my friends! And it all started with the weather. Why does it always start with the weather? It doesn’t, really, but if you observe how people connect, you will find a universal phenomenon: we build relationships based on CPR: Common Points of Reference. In work settings, new acquaintances often use CPR without even knowing it: “Do you know Bill?” “Sure, great guy.” “Yeah, great guy,” and they’re off to the races.
A dear colleague and I were talking at lunch about the usual subjects – our work, our families, the miserable state of the world. We commiserated about our aging parents growing more frail. I said, “It is what it is,” and my friend replied, “No it isn’t.” I repeated, “Yes, it is what it is,” and she repeated, “No it isn’t.” After a few more rounds of this craziness, I said that though it may be cliché, the phrase indicates acceptance of a particular situation. She countered that this might be true in some cases, but that I should listen more carefully.
Last week I learned a lesson about leading change that I won’t soon forget. And it came from… an invoice… For 17 years I’ve used the same process after finishing a project: I staple expense receipts to pieces of paper, open a Word document that summarizes fees and expenses, place them in an envelope and mail it. I always pay extra for breast cancer stamps, as a small way to honor my mother who died from the disease at an early age. I never fail to attach those stamps. This process has been flawless. And I was convinced that my clients appreciated my down-to-earth, low-tech approach, which I feel mirrors my personality.
Twenty-six participants from twelve different countries! That’s what David and I found awaited us when we landed recently in Frankfurt (Germany, not Kentucky) to teach a leadership workshop. We fretted: Would we be seen as ‘super-power’ imperialists imposing American leadership principles on them? Would we be accused of cultural insensitivity, not realizing that real football is played with your feet? Would we even understand their accents? What we discovered was earthshaking in its obviousness. While our participants came from Lebanon, Russia, Portugal, Ireland, and many other countries, each one happened to be a member of the human race. Further, each was a member of a subspecies of that race – they were middle managers from a complex global corporation.
When clients proclaim, ‘we’ve got to hold people more accountable’ I can’t help but smile. Why? Because the declaration, itself, displays such a lack of accountability. ‘We’ve got to’ diffuses any responsibility for taking action. But imagine if the speaker said, “I’ve got to hold people more accountable.” Then we’d be getting someplace. The first step to holding others accountable is to hold oneself accountable, and most of us believe we do so. But even the most powerful leaders among us often take on the mindset of victim, the enemy of accountability.