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Foundational Values Nonviolent Communication Willingness

Do You Gotta Be a Macho?

This is where you and I will take a left turn on our journey together.

You might recognize many — if not all — of the first seven foundational values that I have discussed to date. Many of them have been written about by other people individually or in combination with other values over the years (but not, to my knowledge, in this particular package).

There is one foundational value, however, that you have not seen before, and that is this, our eighth and final value, which is willingness.

Many businesspeople I’ve met over the years are fond of scouring the New York Times and Amazon nonfiction bestseller lists to find the next great management and leadership book. It’s always illuminating to walk into an office and see these perfectly-squared tomes lined up on an executive’s bookcase, perched alongside their children’s photos, both seemingly there to evoke a powerful reminiscence of a moment of self-realization.

I do not cherish many of these books, and I don’t have a long list to recommend. There are just a small handful that I believe are worthwhile. If I had to choose one — and only one — to offer any leader, it would have to be Marshall Rosenberg’s groundbreaking book on Nonviolent Communication.

(For more information on Nonviolent Communication, aka NVC, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonviolent_Communication.)

This is not a book that I have ever seen on any other executive’s bookshelf (well, without my prompting). And I ask myself sometimes: why is that the case? Well, here’s where our left turn comes in.

The world of business is all-too-often a macho culture, filled with macho terms. Every time I go to a conference, there is always at least one keynote speaker — sometimes a famous sports figure — using words like:

  • Courage
  • Fearless
  • Brave
  • Daring
  • Tough
  • Emboldened
  • Power

These terms make me a little sick inside. Why is that? Why should a term like “courage” — lovingly embraced by none other than Brené Brown, one of a handful of people who really appreciate the importance of vulnerability — make me feel like I am coming down with the flu?

They are macho terms, and they are positioned in our brains to displace the notion of weakness to one degree or another, as if weakness were something to be avoided. If you grew up as I did — a nerd, an outcast, a “wuss” — these terms might have been thrown at you as values you should nurture and embrace. And in that sense, these terms would have been a violent affront to your inner world, as they were to mine.

“You’ve got it wrong! You have to be strong! Just have courage! Be fearless! Win it!”

—Some person who didn’t care about my feelings

In my mind, when I would hear things like this, all I could think was, “Ah, sure, I should just go beat them up. Right. That will solve everything… Sure.”

I believe that most people who use macho language do so innocently, but I do not believe that people typically take the time to ponder how dismissive this language can be. When was the last time you heard someone say, “she had balls!”? What did you think when you heard that? Is having “balls” supposed to be a compliment to a woman? Why is that?

I believe that there is a feeling or value that many of these people want to communicate, but I do not think that they have found a non-violent word.

So, I offer willingness.

What is willingness, and how is it different from, say, courage?

With the word willingness, we can have a discussion about doing something to move forward that honors, rather than diminishes, the value of your fear or your lack of courage. Willingness is a quiet value. It is understated. It is not showy, and it does not pretend to diminish the marianismo that is in us.

It’s OK to be afraid. It’s OK to lack courage. It’s OK not to have balls, or to not desire power. There is actually potential value in each of those positions. For example, if you lack courage, it might be because there is a real risk to you in doing something, and by honoring that risk, you stand to broaden your palette of choices in approaching your problem.

Instead of macho language, we can ask ourselves:

Are we willing to change ourselves?
Are we willing to throw out what we have done in favor of a new approach?
Are we willing to have a difficult conversation?
Are we willing to slow down?
Are we willing to stop?
Are we willing to wait?
Are we willing to go?
Are we willing to care about others?
Are we willing to be vulnerable?
Are we willing to admit what we don’t know?
Are we willing to commit?

All of this feels decisively less macho — ultimately, less violent — than we are used to feeling in business culture. I suggest that this approach has great utility, because if we can talk in a way that does not put people on edge about their valid feelings of weakness, we create a vastly larger opportunity to bring about the progress we so often seek.

In the end, it is important to me that the values we discuss in The Progressive CIO are nonviolent.

What macho — what violent — words do you find yourself using from day to day?

Most importantly, are you willing to review how you speak, and to identify friendlier alternatives?

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZ1glxX1BiQ.

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Categories
Commitment Compassion Curiosity Current Events: 2021 Empathy Humility Patience Vulnerability Willingness

Fixing Today’s Workplace Requires Packing Up Our Politics

Taking a look today (December 6th, 2021) at the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction bestseller list, I see:

  1. History (THE 1619 PROJECT)
  2. Biography/Entertainment (WILL)
  3. Biography/Entertainment (THE LYRICS: 1956 TO THE PRESENT)
  4. Biography/Entertainment (THE STORYTELLER)
  5. Holiday (ALL AMERICAN CHRISTMAS)
  6. Entertainment / Food (TASTE)
  7. Personal stories (THESE PRECIOUS DAYS)
  8. Biography/Medicine (THE REAL ANTHONY FAUCI)
  9. History (THE PRESIDENT AND THE FREEDOM FIGHTER)
  10. Biography/Entertainment (THE BEATLES: GET BACK)

Compare that to two years ago at this time:

  1. Politics (A WARNING)
  2. Politics (TRIGGERED)
  3. Entertainment (ME)
  4. Politics (BECOMING)
  5. History (SAM HOUSTON AND THE ALAMO AVENGERS)
  6. Communication (TALKING TO STRANGERS)
  7. Personal stories (FINDING CHIKA)
  8. Personal stories (EDUCATED)
  9. Biology (THE BODY)
  10. Politics (WITH ALL DUE RESPECT)

Those differences are telling. Two years ago, post-election, with our cold civil war a-brewing, politics was our fascination. Today, we are weary for just about anything other than entertainment. Our brains and our souls need a rest and a reset.

Interest in work-related topics is also in an ebb cycle. People are not in the mood to read books, columns, or blogs that consist of generalized advice aimed at improving their work lives. I suspect people realize that questions about what’s truly going on right now in the workforce have no easy answers. What’s truly going on is that our cold civil war has bled into our work life.

The Progressive CIO was borne out of my epiphanies in the wake of COVID-19 — a long and turbulent wake that we are still navigating. My writings have reflected my work and encounters along the way. In recent months, however, I’ve slowed. I have nothing to offer that I think can address our cold civil war, and writing more about the eight foundational values of The Progressive CIO seems tone-deaf at the moment. While those values are — and always will be — important, getting back to considering them will require navigating out of our current wake, which requires addressing politics.

We’re not supposed to have politics in our workplaces, though, right? As it turns out, it’s too late for that. As we attempt to return to offices, COVID has brought politics into the workplace as never before, for a simple reason: the semiotics of the face covering.

I cannot think of any symbol in the workplace — or in everyday life — that has communicated a political stance so overtly in my lifetime as the manner in which face coverings are (or are not) worn. This is not to say that wearing a face covering or not is, unto itself, a form of political expression. As with a tree falling in the forest, it’s the junction of the act and the audience where meaning takes shape.

Take a look at these four different face-covering scenarios, and reflect on what they say to you:

At least one of those will strike a nerve within you, wherever you sit on the political spectrum.

Semiotics are a part of everyday communication and everyday life. Face coverings fall into the non-language communication subset of semiotics, which are distinct from the more-commonly-encountered non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication involves a language; that is to say, a system of communication with a learned form and structure. Music is a language, for instance. Non-language communication, on the other hand, lacks any system or learned form and structure. Lines on our roads are non-verbal communication; a driver swerving around those lines is non-language communication.

Non-language communication isn’t discussed much outside of academic circles. If it were, I suppose we might have a better public dialog about face covering techniques. I suspect, however, that it wouldn’t have an impact on our current cold civil war at work. Whether we like it or not, masks have become a form of wearing one’s politics on one’s face. The bigger issue is that non-language communication, through its very nature, makes verbal analysis more challenging.

At the present, only fully-distributed workforces are in a position to avoid face covering controversies in daily work life. We know, however, that not all workforces can be fully-distributed.

Proposed vaccination and testing rules are about to increase the magnitude of the COVID-19 wake, before the current tide has finished going out. How a company reacts to and addresses these rules puts politics on a company’s face as well.

When we are in a place where we know the solution is: “Take politics out of the workplace” and those politics are now a way of life as a matter of public health, then where does that leave us?

It leaves us doing our jobs and trying not to think about them when we don’t have to. It leaves us tired of politics, even if we are energized by them. (Which leaves me to ponder: If one is energized by politics, then what does that say about that person and their priorities?) It leaves us retreating to our homes, our families, entertainment, and the things that truly matter in life. That’s not all a bad thing. But if our lives require us to work, we’re all in a pickle for the time being.

Back to those eight foundational values of The Progressive CIO: I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to reflect on them, and how they play a role in getting ourselves out of our current situation:

Vulnerability: Are we willing to be honest and open with one another about how our current world is affecting us? This will include senior leaders acknowledging that these vulnerable voices need to be heard.

Humility: Are we willing to recognize that this situation is bigger than all of us, and that it is a comedy of errors, of sorts, if not a true human tragedy? It’s difficult to laugh at, but I believe we have to if we are to collectively solve it.

Empathy: No matter your politics or attitude, will you try as hard as you can to see the validity in the other side’s point of view? This doesn’t mean that you agree that the other side is right; it merely means that you work hard enough to try to understand and not summarily dismiss.

Patience: This might be the hardest thing of all. People were tired of not getting their hair colored one month into the pandemic. Do we have the collective patience to deal with one another to move past where we are today? We don’t have a choice, because it will be a long haul. If we can acknowledge this, we stand a chance to get a clearer understanding of what the path to progress looks like.

Compassion: Do we genuinely care about each other, to the extent we are willing to go out of our way to bring comfort to others?

Curiosity: Are we willing to explore the new and unseen options that we have not yet explored to get us past where we are today?

Commitment: Are we willing to make true commitments to one another, and follow through on those commitments?

Willingness: Do we have genuine willingness to do all of the hard work above?

Given how tired we all remain, who can we expect to initiate this sort of effort on a meaningful scale?

Only those who govern us.

I’m not talking about legislation; I’m talking about leading by example, living those eight values. If that sounds like a tall order, it most certainly is. That’s because there is a chasm between politics and governance. The government I am alluding to does not exist today, and has probably not existed in our lifetimes. Until we can pack up our politics, no governing will happen. Until we can pack up our politics, no leadership will happen. Until we can pack up our politics, our workplaces will not flourish. Until we can pack up our politics, the world will not be the place we want it to be. The good news? Packing up our politics starts, apparently, with the books we buy.

Postscript

A friend shared the following response:

I loved your start – the comparison of the top books is quite telling, and I would not have thought to make that comparison. I am right there with you throughout your article until the end. Who should or will initiate these changes? For me it’s all of us, it’s the workers, it’s the everyday people in the workplace, it’s you and it’s me. I think we can be sure right now our leaders are quite absent, especially those who govern.

One of my favorite quotes I encountered along the way of my doctoral studies comes from Ralph Stacey, “Change can only happen in many, many local interactions.” For me, this means it is in the small conversations that spark other conversations and so on that we begin to change culture, that we begin to change each other. I is in those times of making space and being vulnerable that we listen to others and that we speak our truth. In those moments one or the other or both are truly changed, and that sparks a change in the next conversation that we have. For me, it is in this process that true change happens. Not in the top down, governed-inspired or directed change.

But that’s me, and perhaps I am missing some of what you are concluding or alluding to.

I agree with this in spirit—and I had wanted to end with this sentiment. But after reviewing the how the foundational values might address this, and pondering how realistic this would be, I felt this conclusion would sound trite. There is a realist at work in my brain right now. This sort of change benefits from top-down work of unimaginable magnitude. Imagine the impact our governing bodies could have if they demonstrated these values in their everyday actions!

In the “DVD bonus feature” spirit of allowing you to choose your own ending, I encourage you to do just that with this post. I would love nothing more than for everyday people—rather than government—to achieve this change.

In the end, if this post merely encourages discussion, then it will have served a purpose.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-kA3UtBj4M.

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Categories
Commitment Compassion Empathy Humility Invisibleism Patience Vulnerability Willingness

Look Up

When you get to know someone, do you focus more on what’s wrong with them, or what’s right with them?

Is there a benefit to focusing on one or the other?

How do you feel about your own flaws? Do you admit them, or do you try to hide them or compensate for them?

Why do you think that’s the case?

When I was a young executive, my boss once shared the following pearl of wisdom with me…it’s explicit, but this is the way I learned it:

If you look up someone’s ass, you’re always going to find shit.

—H. Eliot Subin

Every one of us has something that, once discovered, will be off-putting to others. If we look hard for these things, we are certain to eventually find them.

When we find someone else’s poop — knowing that we each have our own — why does that so often surprise us, and make us think differently about them? Perhaps because most people like to like people. When we get to know a person and we like that person, it brings us joy; it makes us feel like the world is a better place. We like the honeymoon period, before we find the poop. We like the Hallmark Channel.

When we discover flaws in people, it’s all too easy to feel let down. But it’s a terrible mistake to dismiss someone else when we discover their poop. How would you feel if the shoe were on the other foot?


If you’ve been in business long enough, you’ve undoubtedly been asked about the leaders who have inspired you on your journey. For me, the most immediate answer has long been George Martin. He’s an admittedly unusual choice. I’m a lifelong Beatles fan, and while I love the Beatles’ music, I find their group dynamic even more intriguing.

The Beatles were four young men who loved music, and who had a deep appreciation for one another. But despite a few friendly and intense years in the early half of their career, they were decidedly not in love with one another. In fact, their creative peak paralleled their social nadir. They had different values in life and in their music. They worked hard to keep themselves together in the way the world expected, and George Martin’s greatest contributions were in providing musical balance to complement their competing ideas. Watching his deft, delicate, minimalist hand at work in Peter Jackson’s recent Get Back documentary series is a powerful illustration of this. As their closest colleague in the studio, he routinely mediated compromise, helping four very different people become something much greater than they were individually.

At this point, it feels appropriate to revisit the quote from Victor Hugo on The Progressive CIO’s home page, which presaged this very post two years ago:

“But who among us is perfect? Even the greatest strategists have their eclipses, and the greatest blunders, like the thickest ropes, are often compounded of a multitude of strands. Take the rope apart, separate it into the small threads that compose it, and you can break them one by one. You think, ‘That is all there was!’ But twist them all together and you have something tremendous.”

—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

If you lead teams of talented and smart people, they will have differences with one another — sometimes significant ones. They will find things to dislike in each other’s philosophies, politics, lifestyles, or approaches. It is your ability to embrace, cultivate, coach through, and complement these differences that paves the road from disaster to brilliance. What does it take for you to develop a deft and delicate hand to manage this?

First: Never forget your own flaws. This requires humility.

Second: Get comfortable talking about those flaws, which will be reassuring to those who you serve and who you lead. This requires vulnerability.

Third: Develop an ability to not be surprised or disappointed when you find flaws in others. In conjunction, develop the ability to lock, arm-in-arm, in your shared humanity, This requires compassion.

Fourth: Understand that what you perceive as a flaw might not be perceived that way by others. Try to look at this perceived flaw from different perspectives, and consider invisibleism along the way. This requires empathy.

Fifth: Learn to take a breath and stay calm when others find flaws and react in unbecoming ways. This requires patience.

Sixth: When walking through these concepts with someone who is struggling with what they have found: stop, smile, and share Eliot’s quote.

Then, explore the dialogue that opens this post. This requires willingness.

Finally: Teach these lessons forward.

Of course, there are limits that, from time to time, you will confront in managing this dynamic. The Tyranny of Competence comes to mind. The best way to address this, should you need to, is through compassion, and not through anger, remembering that we all have our flaws. This will give you the best shot at addressing difficult interpersonal situations before someone simply has to go.

I think many workplaces understand the need to manage differences; what differentiates the best ones is the way they manage the flaws we discover in one another. There will be failures. There will be break-ups. Even George Martin’s work couldn’t keep the Beatles together. But a great team’s finest work comes only with significant attention to managing their reactions to one another’s flaws, however ugly they may be.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5ArpRWcGe0.

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Commitment Willingness

Do Hard Things

I once led a small, incredibly talented innovation team at a healthcare informatics business. We were a company of many firsts. Notably, we were arguably the first company in the United States to use the pubic cloud to host healthcare data, using many thoughtful and proprietary security techniques.

Our software stack was innovative, featuring many capabilities focused on ease of use and speed of operation. We had a relentless focus on security and user experience, which are not easy things to balance.

Like many agile organizations, our team sat together in a collaborative environment, and I enjoyed my first-row seat watching their daily interactions. One day, during negotiations in a sprint planning session, a thoughtful systems engineer described an upcoming feature to our software engineers that would bring significant value to our software’s audience.

“That’s hard,” said one of the software engineers.

What happened next was one of the most memorable and perfect utterances of a single word that I have ever witnessed in my entire life.

“So?” said the systems engineer.

Can you think of a better response than that?


(For those who are curious…of course they did it.)

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