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Invisibleism

Are You an Invisibleist?

Not too long ago, I was asked to sit on a diversity and inclusion panel at a conference to offer my thoughts on these topics in front of a few hundred people. My colleagues on the panel represented a vibrant rainbow of the human spectrum: Black, Latino, Woman, Disabled, Veteran, Gay, Asian, and more.

Why was I, a white male executive, on a diversity and inclusion panel? Read on, friends.

The group of us had prepared in the days prior to be asked questions by a moderator, and we had planned to speak in turn according to a loosely-defined script. We were each miked-up, headed out onto stage in front of our audience, and we were individually introduced by our moderator with a brief professional biography.

From there, things didn’t quite work out as we had planned. This was, for the most part, perfectly OK. The panel hit a passionate groove; the dialog was dynamic and interesting; but topics got covered in an organic manner, rather than in the manner in which we had planned. Discussion ranged from racism to sexism to classism to sexual orientation discrimination, and all of the sort of stuff that you expect in a diversity and inclusion discussion. Forty-five minutes in, most everyone on the panel had talked.

Except for me.

Inside, I had developed an unexpected uneasiness about people who were left out of this discussion, and I, too, began to feel a desire to go off-script.

I opened my mouth and started to talk, but it sounded to me like my microphone was no longer working. I humbly asked:

Is my microphone working?

And something quite unexpected happened. Three hundred people laughed. Laughed!

It took me but a second to figure out why: it was clear from the room dynamic that most people thought I was not there to speak as a person of diversity, but rather as a token white male executive, and that my comment about my microphone was a moment of irony. But you see, my biography did not include the fact that I was gay.

How it looked from the audience. Yours truly, blue suit, center.

In that moment, I chose not to focus on that. Instead, I offered an observation that I want to offer you now, about what I consider a common and unwitting form of discrimination that I have come to call invisibleism.

Most of the panel — and the audience in the room that day, for that matter — had been focused on a discussion about discrimination against things that are relatively easy to discern, such as race, gender, age, and sometimes class. Gender identity and sexual orientation are always part of these discussions too, but at events like this, there is a general proclivity against discussing them because they aren’t so corporeal as the others, and people don’t like to have lengthy public discussions about things that involve a potential lack of clarity. These topics are called “delicate” for a reason!

Because of my background, I have developed a sensitivity to willful ignorance of people’s invisible traits, and I asked the audience to consider not just what they see, but what they do not see.

When you look at a person, you may instinctively be able to discern their race, their age, and even their gender (the latter having become something less clear as times have progressed, of course).Your reactions to these characteristics are what will classify you as a racist, ageist, or sexist.

But what about your reaction to characteristics like these?

  • Psychological conditions (Depression; Borderline Personality Disorder; Bipolar Disorder; ADHD ; Anxiety; Panic; Postpartum depression; PTSD; Insomnia; Dementia; Sleep disorders; Narcissism; Autism spectrum; Asperger’s; OCD)
  • Addictions (Alcohol; Narcotics; Gambling; Eating; etc.)
  • Introversion/Extroversion
  • Personal biases (which themselves are invisible) (Sexism; Racism; Ageism)
  • Illness (Cancer, etc.)
  • Life changes (Loss of loved one; New child; Newly married; New job; Fearful of losing job; Recent terminal diagnosis; Recent recovery)
  • Pressures (Children; Marital stress; Financial stress; Doctor appointments)
  • Family situation (Married; Divorced; Children; No children; Widowed)
  • Self-confidence level (High/willing to be wrong); Average; Low/pretends to know everything)
  • Relationship with boss (Good; Mixed; Bad; Is the boss)
  • Happiness with occupation (Loves it; Ambivalent; Hates it; Loves it too much)

These all take quite a bit more work to discern. How do we discern them at all? I can assure you that if you practice the foundational values we discuss on these pages, you will improve your ability to do this:

  • Vulnerability & Humility: We show our own weaknesses and make it clear that we understand our role as humble creatures in a large universe; others are more likely to open up to us.
  • Empathy: We take the time to look deeply at people and consider the variety of reasons they respond to the world and our interactions with them; we develop an ability to more accurately read between the lines to see what might be going on in their world.
  • Patience: This takes multiple conversations over time!
  • Compassion: We develop trust by going out of our way to help even when it might be an interruption.
  • Curiosity: We invest the effort to care to find out what’s really going on with a person.
  • Commitment: We don’t give up on all the above.
  • Willingness: Most importantly, we are willing to do all of the above because we know this will help us better serve that person’s needs.

How often do you do all of the above in order to better understand a person?

If you are eliciting requirements — and as I stated in my third post here, all jobs involve eliciting requirements to one degree or another — and you do not do these things, I suggest that you might be an invisibleist. This is as deep and harmful a form of discrimination as any other, and it has arguably caused much unaccounted damage to humanity over the centuries.

The next time you find yourself angry when a person disregards your idea, declines a meeting with you, or uses a cell phone during a meeting, how will you take inventory of what might really be going on?

Let’s play out a scenario:

Imagine that you are on a Scrum team presenting in a Sprint demo, and your Product Owner is distracted, texting on his cell phone.

How would you handle this?

Would you:

  1. Ask him to stop using his cell phone.
  2. Pause the demo to wait for him to finish texting.
  3. Take him aside afterward and respectfully ask him if he could avoid that in the future.

Those are the most common answers I hear in regard to this scenario. Which one would you choose?

I will share with you that I once served as Scrum Master for a team where this happened. What if I told you that none of these responses would have been remotely appropriate or helpful for the situation at hand?

What if I told you that your Product Owner had a son who was in the process of contemplating suicide?

You didn’t expect that, eh?

This is invisibleism at play.

It is possible to cultivate a workplace where invisibleism is addressed with the same vigor we apply to racism and other forms of discrimination. Study the culture at companies like Auticon, a company that specializes in hiring and cultivating autistic talent in a powerful way to provide top-tier software quality assurance services, for starters.But most importantly, apply our eight foundational values, and always — always — look deeper for what you are not seeing. Do not settle only for what you can see.

There is a power in every position that a human being can have along a multitude of spectrums. Will you commit to slowing down and searching for it?

And the next time you see a white male executive sitting in a diversity panel, what will you think?

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3o-iZ_GfTTs.

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Categories
Compassion Empathy Invisibleism Love

What Makes the World Go ’Round?

When you sit down with people at work and ask them about the problems that they are having — the problems that you are there to solve — How often do you think about the following?

  • Is the person recently married?
  • Is he going through a divorce?
  • Is she having a child?
  • Is he having an affair?
  • Is her mother ill?
  • Is his father dying?
  • Does her son have cancer?
  • Is his daughter going through a divorce?
  • Was her best friend hurt by her boyfriend?
  • Is he spending enough time with his children and wife for them all to be fulfilled?
  • Is her husband fighting in a war overseas?
  • If you are speaking with a man, what role does his gender play in how he considers his relationship with you?
  • If you are speaking with a woman, what role does her gender play in how she considers her relationship with you?
  • What about your own gender? What about your sexuality? Do these have an impact on the way that you work with others?

Are any of these things less important than the work at hand?

There’s a phrase you’ll sometimes hear at work: “Leave your personal life at the door.” Good leaders will do their best to do that, but not everyone can be expected to be so skilled. If you expect everyone to be able to let go of the most important things in life when they walk into the office, you are fooling yourself. Remember, as universal and important as work is in our culture — and while it provides a wage that allows us to live in our commercial world — you can, in fact, live well enough without work, as many people on this planet do, and have done, for eons. You cannot, however, live well without love.

When you are in the business of solving problems — which is, in fact, what people in software engineering and information technology get paid to do — you will not succeed without taking people’s psychological state into account. Love — whether romantic, familial, or otherwise — is arguably the most primal component of our psychological well-being.

Not too long ago, I was asked to speak to two groups of project managers for a professional development conference. At the top of each presentation, I asked the audience to identify the top three and bottom three skills for project managers. The list contained six skills. Five of these skills were uniformly found in ten different lists of top ten skills for project managers that I found online. These five skills were:

  • Communication
  • Leadership
  • Negotiation
  • Risk Management
  • Scheduling

Keep in mind that ten different people or organizations agreed that these five skills were of utmost important to project managers. None of them could actually be considered unimportant in any way, shape, or form. This was a trick question!

The sixth skill, which I selected for inclusion in this little survey, was not on a single top ten list that I could find. That skill?

  • Psychology

The survey was administered to two groups of 32 project managers. There were strikingly similar results in each group:

Group 1 results
Group 2 results

Both groups of project managers uniformly picked Communication, Leadership, and Negotiation as the top three skills for project managers.

But the bottom three skills? Psychology, Risk Management, and Scheduling.

Remember, Risk Management and Scheduling can be routinely found in many top ten lists of skills for project managers. Credit is due the respondents for including Psychology in the middle of the pack, even though it merely made the top of the bottom three skills. I could be a cynic and interpret these results as implying that Psychology is the number one unimportant skill, but a fair number of each group put Psychology in the number three position, implying otherwise.

Nonetheless, there was agreement among the bulk of these respondents that Communication, Leadership, and Negotiation were more important than Psychology.

Is that a surprise?

For any of you out there who don’t think that Psychology is the most important skill that a project manager — or, frankly, most anybody in a role to solve other people’s problems — can have, please take a moment to ask yourself:

  • How can you communicate if you don’t understand what your audience is going through?
  • How can you lead if you don’t understand the people you are leading?
  • How can you negotiate effectively if you don’t understand the unique perspectives and current mindsets of the involved parties?
  • How can you manage risks if you don’t understand the mindset of the people who can bring about change?
  • How can you schedule with great effectiveness if you don’t understand what your resources are going through?

As I pointed out in my third post here, there has been almost too much written about empathy. If you have gone through good leadership training, you have, no doubt, been taught of its importance. But as we apply empathy, do we always go as deeply as we should to consider the psychological — or, the love — condition of the humans we serve?

If you yourself know that love is the most important thing in your life, why might it be so easy for you to carve that out of your view of others? I suggest that this is a frequent sign of invisibleism. Reflect on the cell phone scenario of our August 27, 2020 post for a moment. Doesn’t that have everything to do with love?

The problem is that love is such a deeply personal thing, and we are not often privy to its details outside of our own purview. On your journey, keep in mind how private you keep your own love matters. It’s safe to assume that others are doing the same. But if you assume — correctly — that love is the single biggest driving force in people’s lives, you will begin to find indicators.

  • Someone not interested in talking to you for several days?
  • Someone need to leave work unexpectedly and postpone a meeting?
  • Someone generally unhappy?
  • Someone incredibly happy and distracted from work?
  • Someone doesn’t care to learn the new software you wrote or deployed?
  • Someone refusing to take the time to read your training materials about phishing?

In situations like this, how might love be involved? You may not be entitled to details, but you are entitled to consider what’s behind these behaviors. The empathic and compassionate are more likely to be able to figure out what’s going on, and that information just might provide the insight needed to approach work situations more effectively.

If you empathize about only one aspect of people’s lives, make it love. You’ll be sure to get something valuable back for your investment.

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dhkx6CAEXfU.

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Categories
Antipatterns Compassion Invisibleism Vulnerability

Revisiting Patrick Lencioni’s First Team: It’s a Fractal!

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not an avid reader of business nonfiction bestsellers. Books that have been foundational to my thinking have been at least somewhat academic (and unfortunately esoteric) in nature, like Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Kenneth Burke’s Language as Symbolic Action. If you’ve been following me on these pages, though, you know that I delight in citing two books that are straightforward yet uncommonly seen in offices around the world. There is, however, a third approachable book that I am fond of, which you might have read before, since it is comparatively well-known. That book, nearing its 20th birthday, is Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

As with all things popular, critiques of Five Dysfunctions are in no short supply. The book’s Wikipedia entry does its job on this, citing some thoughtful summary criticism, noting that the “book is explicitly a work of fiction; it is not based on research and its practical recommendations lack empirical support.” There is truth to that, but if you have been following me on these pages, you will remember that I have a firm belief that truth is best derived from considering multiple perspectives over time. The many sorts of responses to Five Dysfunctions that have been penned over the years have brought helpful real-world framing to the book’s core concepts, adding value through a globally-shared dialog.

Here is yet another response, albeit one that I hope you find to be new and refreshing.


Like seemingly everything else from Five Dysfunctions, the “First Team” concept has been through the point-counterpoint wringer over the past two decades. If the “First Team” concept is unfamiliar to you, then let’s listen to Patrick Lencioni himself introduce it:

I’d like to suggest that, rather than eschewing ideas (such as this one!) that might not be strictly empirical, we consider them, at the very least, to be valuable thought exercises.

I am fond of the “First Team” thought exercise. Why? Well, I have been part of no fewer than five senior management teams in my career, and each one of those teams was at its weakest when we were not attendant to one another, and when we spent the majority of our time in our vertical silos. We were not as strategic, and our teams were not as tightly focused on the company’s mission, when we were more attendant to our departments than to senior teams. Anecdotal? Perhaps. But at the very least, I have developed an opinion that the “First Team” is worth talking about from time to time, wherever you may work.

A “First Team” Thought Exercise Extension, in Two Parts

Part The First

Whether we like it or not, our jobs are at least somewhat framed by our titles, whose primary purpose is, more or less, to denote our roles. These titles, apart from “President” and “CEO,” always connote some form of swim lane that we work within.

New-age management philosophies like Teal and Holacracy aim to reduce the significance of titles in an effort to encourage an organization’s members to better appreciate (and contribute to solving) the many challenges that exist across its functions. However, these management styles present their own challenges. First off, they are wholly unfamiliar to the majority of the working population. More notably, however, in accordance with the valiant mission to decentralize power and decision making, they sometimes confuse people who feel uncomfortable making certain types of decisions, and who would better serve an organization when given at least some amount of explicit direction. Human beings are animals (which we too often forget), and animals are conditioned to exist within a power structure, whether we like that or not.

This is not to say that Holacracy or Teal are unworthy of further work and refinement; they most certainly are. What’s more effective to say is: work is not what we want to do in comparison to the better parts of life (if it were, we wouldn’t get paid for it), and doing what we can to help it be less of a drag will vastly increase the likelihood that our employees will stay with us to solve the problems we are paid to solve. One thing that seems to resonate with all workers is when power structures are absent enough to allow people to breathe and bring their own values to the table, yet present enough to provide clear direction when needed.

All of this is to suggest that there is a desirable balance between power presence and power absence, and that power absence is something that needs focus, since it is not as natural as power presence. The “First Team” thought exercise is most useful, in my opinion, in helping organizations find that better balance. That’s because, when we encourage a First Team mentality, we have to work hard ensure that the teams of people who report into the First Team have healthy team dynamics of their own. More on that in a bit.

I think teams struggle to identify when it’s time to engage further with the “First Team” thought exercise, to calibrate their work toward its prescribed dynamic. Here are six questions that will help you know:

  1. Are the team members aware of each other’s professional issues, and are they willing to spend the time to contribute to each other’s success in overcoming those issues?
  2. Are the team members aware of each other’s personal issues, to the extent necessary to help others empathize with their challenges meeting professional expectations?
  3. In the spirit of invisibleism, are all team members paying attention not only to what they see, but what they do not see?
  4. Do the team members have a rapport that allows for vulnerability on a routine basis, wherein a team member can openly share a personal deficiency or fear without reprisal, and with compassion?
  5. Does any member of the team feel that it’s a “drag” to spend time with their “First Team” when compared to spending time with the team who reports into them, or with their customers/stakeholders?
  6. Are there “factions” within the team that draw a subset of the team together more powerfully than the entire team is drawn to itself?

If you can answer yes to any of these six questions, it’s time to recalibrate your First Team dynamic.

It’s entirely possible for the First Team concept to go too far. That is easier to identify through these two anti-patterns:

  1. When the team too often feels like an “escape” from the difficult work any of its members have to do, and First Team members abandon their responsibilities to their Second Teams.
  2. When (you are lucky enough to hear grumblings that) the team is a “clique” who merely likes to enjoy lunching and drinking together, and is inaccessible to outsiders.

Remember, this is all about balance.

Part The Second

Sometimes the best way to see where you are is through triangulation.

In this case, let’s consider what all of the above means to the team of people who report into you, who students of Lencioni might call your “Second Team.”

As a leader for your Second Team, you would do well to encourage them to be a First Team unto themselves (and I do mean that they, without you, comprise this First Team). Despite all that has been written about Patrick Lencioni and his work over the years, this is not a conclusion that most people seem to draw, yet I suggest that this is, in fact, your most important responsibility as your Second Team’s leader.

In other words, don’t limit the “First Team” thought exercise to your executive team. Understand that it is fractal in nature, and you would do well to encourage it wherever you find leadership groups in your organization. Wherever a First Team exists, the Second Team will need to be able to better self-manage when their leader needs to tend to his or her First Team needs, and the First Team thought exercise will be especially valuable to prepare that Second Team for those moments.

Are you creating an environment where your Second Team can answer “yes” to the six questions above, while avoiding the two anti-patterns?

If so, then congratulations.

If both your First Team and Second Team are exhibiting the optimum balance, then hats off to you: it’s time for a well-deserved, relaxing vacation.

But we are imperfect creatures, living in an imperfect world. Most of the time, we will find ourselves working on maintaining the right balance between nurturing our First Team while helping our Second Team nurture its own First Team dynamic.

Remember: what we are looking to achieve, in the end, is an appropriate balance at any given moment between power presence and power absence for the people who are looking to us for leadership. If your Second Team is able to be its own First Team, then step away and work on your First Team. If your First Team and Second Team are both having problems, do not focus on your Second Team at the expense of your First Team, but don’t walk away from them, either. Seek to help your Second Team regain its balance while you remind them that your First Team needs balancing, too. Make the balance part of the conversations you have with both of your teams.

But keep a close eye on anti-pattern #1. None of the above is to suggest that your Second Team should ever feel like they have been abandoned by you. They deserve your leadership. Power abhors a vacuum, and our animalistic conditioning for leadership structures will ensure that your unofficial replacement is eventually found. That would be a tragedy for your team.

The “First Team” is a handy tool. It is a fulcrum for introspection, and it can help you achieve the some of the best elements of Teal and Holacracy without completely reinventing your organization. Keep it in a front pocket, use it often, and don’t neglect your duty to pay it forward to the teams you lead. It’s good for them today, and should you depart — whether through attrition, retirement, or otherwise — it will condition your organization for smoother succession tomorrow.

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSUD7WHzFTw.

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Categories
Empathy Invisibleism

Introducing The Invisibleism Grids

What might happen if we could see inside someone’s head, and gain a better understanding of what makes that person tick?

We’ve all had it happen. You kick off a new project, and you’re working hard, meeting with all sorts of people to understand what’s required. You schedule a meeting with a key person. But on the day of the meeting, he’s completely disengaged. No worries! You reschedule. The new meeting day arrives, but he cancels. What could be happening?

Or, you may have a meeting with someone you’ve worked with a for a long time. But on the day you meet, she’s “off.” Everybody has a bad day, so you reschedule. When you finally meet, you notice that your dear colleague just…seems…different these days.

What do you do? Do you get visibly frustrated? Do you complain to the person, or to someone else?

Or do you sit back and think, what could I be missing?

How do we better engage the disengaged, or the people who are acting in ways we don’t quite understand?


I introduced readers to the idea of Invisibleism in August of 2020. Since that time, that article has become one of the most-read blog posts on The Progressive CIO, and it is something that has sparked more than a few conversations with my own business colleagues.

The natural challenge in overcoming invisibleism is allowing yourself ample time to consider the things you don’t see in the person or people at hand.

Over the last several years, I have groomed a collection of questions that I ask myself when I realize that I am at risk of being an invisibleist. In this post, I share with you, at long last, “The Invisibleism Grids.” (Link will open in a new tab or window.)

When to use the grids

The Invisibleism Grids are most useful when you are having an issue engaging with someone in the context of solving a business problem (which includes eliciting requirements, service and product development, process engineering, and other similar activities.) The grids are not a complete list of human conditions by any means; they are merely a reflection of my own 30+ years in the workplace, representing the spectrum of personal situations that I have experienced with others. More pertinently, these are all characteristics or conditions that, if you are armed with a little knowledge, you can accommodate or work through to achieve a business goal.

The grids are useful when you wish to develop a more meaningful relationship with anyone, whether in a business or personal setting. But that is not their primary purpose.

How to use the grids

When you have an issue engaging with someone in the context of solving a business problem, scan through the grids, which are divided into the following core categories of human conditions:

  • Psychological Considerations
  • Comparative/Positional/Relational Considerations
  • Considerations of Self
  • Situational/Environmental Considerations
  • Personality Considerations
  • Ability Considerations
  • Addiction Considerations

Think about each item and whether it might be at play. There are more than 60 things to consider in these grids, none of which I would say are uncommon.

The first grid, Psychological Issues, is special, and different from the grids that follow. It includes 38 indicators that will guide you to consider whether a psychological condition might be at play.

The 38 indicators are not an exhaustive collection of symptoms for the conditions at hand; they are merely the indicators that are easiest for a person like you or me to observe.

I am resolutely not a psychologist, and you might be in the same boat, but we are all entitled consider the implications of these conditions in the lives of people with whom we interact. The key difference between us, the mere amateurs, and those with a Ph.D or M.D. is that we can merely surmise, while the doctors can diagnose.

Have a look at the conditions, and think about the possibility that the person in question might be experiencing one or more of them. I have provided a pair of links for each overarching condition — one from an authoritative nonprofit that contributes to the understanding of the condition by the general public, and a second from an authoritative medical source like the NIH — that will help you gain a better understanding if you think you are onto something.

The Addictions grid is decidedly non-exhaustive. I’ve listed four key sorts of addictions I have managed through in my career, with a handy link from the Mayo Clinic that will help you identify personality traits that surround all manner of addictions. If you think you are dealing with a person who has an addiction, there are numerous resources at your disposal through a Google search.

The remaining grids (Comparative/Positional/Relational, Self, Situational/Environmental, Personality, and Abilities) are broken down into subcategories, with many things to consider in each. Where I have been able to find an authoritative or useful article online to help you develop a better understanding of how that human condition might relate to your work at hand, I have linked to one. Where it makes sense, I provide an illustrative spectrum of 3-4 levels of these conditions, and how those levels may be manifest.

As with the Psychological Issues and Addictions grids, there are portions of these grids that are not exhaustive. For example, the “Abilities” grid lists merely two “invisible” things; but these two things are, in my experience, most likely to have an impact on your day to day business work with someone else.

If you take the time to consider the 60+ conditions and the 38 psychological indicators, you will have considered nearly 100 different things that might be going on in a person’s life, all which are generally much more difficult to discern than race, gender, age, and (sometimes) class. As you work through the aspects of the grids, you will reduce your odds of becoming an Invisibleist in the situation at hand.

Two critical considerations

Please do not use the Invisibleism Grids without considering these two points:

  • First, never forget that your own behaviors will affect how others respond to you. To best use the grids, we would do well to exercise a great deal of situational self-awareness, to understand how our own personal traits affect others and the conversations we have with them. Think about aspects of the grids that describe you, and spend time to increase your understanding of how those things may affect your own interactions.
  • Second, there is no doubt that aspects of both your human condition and mine can be unearthed via the Invisibleism Grids. You and I are as subject to the discrimination that comes from invisibleism as anyone else. If your goal in using the Invisibleism Grids is to better discern what might be causing difficulty in your interactions, remember that personal vulnerability goes a long way. If you are comfortable enough to share the invisible aspects of your world, you will increase the odds that your interlocutors will feel comfortable making the invisible visible to you, easing your understanding, and enhancing your relationships.

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfUzs4NDa64.

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