Encouraging Your Masters

Skill is overrated. Even today on job listings, you will see people list “5-7 years experience” in some specific position or “skilled with” a myriad of tools and techniques.

What is ultimately important within a team, company, or any community is mastery. Skill is something you have; mastery is something you strive for. It may be necessary to screen for certain skills when hiring, but it is just as important to find someone who is seeking mastery.

Of course, even if I’ve hired someone with the correct skills who is seeking mastery, it’s my responsibility to ensure this person is encouraged to mastery. The three most important elements to me in encouraging a master are:

  1. Challenge. Books have been written on this single point, none so important as those by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. In short, human beings get “in the zone” when their limits are stretched, when they have to rise to a challenge that is within the realm of possibility. Research in gamification suggests people are most motivated when they are already 90% of the way to their goal. Constantly stretching that additional 10% is what keeps us engaged and keeps us learning.
  2. Domain. Admit it, it feels good to be the best at something. And it doesn’t feel good when someone else is better than you at your specialty. It’s natural to want a claim to your own territory, and in fact it’s crucial to the success of a small business (or department) that you perform a role that no one else can. Be careful about the danger of devaluing an employee’s domain when you reassign work, make decisions about their domain without their input, or hire new people to do what they see as their own specialty. Respect their domain and they will take better care of it than you ever could. Feeling insecure about their domain will also lead to territorialism, which will sabotage collaboration and innovation.
  3. Uniqueness. I could be a master of many skills that could be mastered equally by others, and can be replaced at a moment’s notice. But true mastery is irreplaceable; it is uniquely mine. This is why encouraging mastery in any technical skill must be a stepping-stone to a unique contribution, building a master’s perspective and not just a skill set. How can you identify the skills that will round out your master’s perspective? By listening. By connecting. By encouraging instead of ordering. Most people, especially those in high-performance workplaces, will seek out challenges that connect with their deeper interests (if they feel safe and encouraged to do so). I’m not saying that, from time to time, you won’t require someone to learn a certain skill just because someone in your team needs to know it. But understanding how the masters under your protection are growing, and not necessarily in the neat little boxes you’ve made for them, is crucial to their development into the truly powerful human force that will change your organization.

Keep in mind that a master isn’t something you construct. You are encouraging a human being to grow, within the context of a community, into a more specialized individual with a unique and ever-increasing ability to contribute to the larger picture.

(This post is part five of a series.)

How to Gather Your Community

I’ve heard people ask how they can create community, cooperation, collaboration.

The secret is that you can’t.

Community is something that grows between a group of people who have a common interest. By “interest,” I mean they are all invested in an outcome. The outcome might be a temporary goal, such as a community theater production, or it might be something abstract and ongoing, like a group of friends who have a particular picture of what they’d like their lives to be.

Another way of saying this is that people in a community see themselves as part of the same story.

In ancient times, people-groups wrote epic poems and creation myths that imbued their cultures with a common identity. There is perhaps no better example than Virgil’s Aeneid, which turned the famed losers from Homer’s Iliad into the victorious founders of the future Rome. This is one of the most impressive turnaround stories in history: the Trojans were an utterly defeated, homeless people, and yet they founded the greatest empire on the earth. This story gave the Roman people a common origin, a set of values that included loyalty to the emperor, and a vision of a bright and glorious destiny–even those who didn’t believe every word.

If you are a leader, no matter your position in an organization, it’s because you’re telling a story that others want to join. If it’s your job to lead, you have to be deliberate with the story you’re telling. Where did your organization come from? Where is it going? And what part does each individual have to play in that common identity and common success?

This is far from the last post you’ll see about story, but for now, consider: Everyone you work with, from your employees to your investors, from your customers to your suppliers, is building a story with every interaction. Is it a story you’re building together?

(This post is part four of a series.)

Supporting the Humanity Around You

Before I can be part of a community, before I can build mastery, before I can earn respect, at the very least I must be treated as human.

The past few decades have been unkind to us in this way. We’ve been treated like interchangeable parts in corporate machines, and we’ve learned to think of each other by our positions or roles instead of by our uniqueness and humanity.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when trying to establish humanity with another person, be it an employee, a customer, or your spouse:

  1. Human beings are unique. I don’t just mean we’re all “special snowflakes.” Every human being has an important individuality of experience. Even if we could say that everything in the world is known, we could never say that everything in the world is known in the same way by everyone. What this means is that even an intern has a unique contribution to make. Instead of focusing on level of experience and rank within your organization, ask yourself what unique contribution each person around you can make, and work to bring that out. Recognizing uniqueness is a key to innovation and growth.
  2. Human beings are social. In the previous point we find our uniqueness, in this point we find our sameness. We have similar experiences, we have similar needs, and we react to one another. When we see somebody else getting something we want, it hurts. When we help somebody else get something they want, it makes us proud. When we see how we contribute to something larger than ourselves, we feel a sense of purpose. Recognizing the social will weed out a lot of problems before they take root.
  3. Human beings are alive. It sounds odd to say, but from time to time you may forget that the people around you are living, breathing organisms and not brains in jars. We grow. We change. We have chemicals in our bodies that are in a constantly shifting balance. Believing not just in the ability for change but in the inevitability of it will prevent you from sabotaging your employee relationships or asking them to neglect themselves, while still remaining flexible to the needs of your business.

There are limitations inherent in any attempt to summarize in a short blog post something that people have been writing books about for over 2,000 years, but if you keep in mind that the people around you–not just in your family but at work, even people whose names you don’t know or whose faces you don’t recognize–are living, unique, social creatures just like yourself, it will make the smallest differences that over a lifetime can shape an entirely new reality.

(This post is part three of a series.)

Start With Trust

At the very core of your nation, your tribe, your company, is the need for trust.

Humans are perhaps surprising in that, on the whole, they reward personal trust. In Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner tell the story of a bagel salesman who operated on an honor-code business model, and generally managed to make a profit. If it had been impossible to trust people, even people he didn’t know, his business would never have been sustainable.

What do you need to make trust work?

  1. Trust must be personal. This means trust is a part of a relationship. It is expressed with object and subject: I trust you. It isn’t a nebulous faith in the goodness of human beings but a specific faith the goodness of that single person. And the consequences of breaking that trust are likewise personal, even before they are professional. Someone you trust doesn’t want to violate that trust out of fear of disappointing the truster and irrevocably damaging the relationship, not out of fear of professional consequences (even though they will also naturally exist).
  2. Trust must be explicit. It must be unequivocally communicated. The trustee understands that trust is being placed in him by the truster. The scope and limitations of the responsibility are understood.
  3. Trust must be unhedged. Hedging your bet on someone isn’t really trust. If your employee knows you have a backup plan or a failsafe specifically planned in case she violates your trust, she knows that your trust isn’t real. This doesn’t mean having no Plan B in case something goes wrong that is beyond your employee’s control, it means specifically preparing for the employee to fail you.
  4. Trust must be reciprocal. Entrusting a task or responsibility to an employee means that they are also entrusting you to remain consistent in your trust. You must take that trust as seriously as you want the employee to take your trust. Subsequently reassigning the responsibility without clear reason and consent, making changes without involving the employee, or otherwise shifting the sands beneath his feet will erode his trust and make it difficult to execute on your trust in him.

Above all, you must first trust yourself. Trust your own knowledge and instincts when hiring people. In fact, choosing good people is the one and only area in which you truly need to trust yourself, and the absolute most important skill for a leader to master. Choosing your people well is what makes trust possible, and trust is what makes good business possible.

(This post is part two of a series.)

Partnering Up: The Four Things People Need

It’s possible to make everyone who works with you a literal partner, with a share of your company and all the commensurate benefits and dangers. But not only does that likely sound unappealing to you, it’s probably not appealing to most of the people who would work with you.

What most people want isn’t literal ownership. Most people don’t care for the risk and the inconsistency. What they want is actually fairly straight-forward.

  1. Trust. When you are working with a partner, you trust her. Yet in so many environments, employees are treated with suspicion. It’s easy to find reasons to worry that your employees are stealing from you, or wasting time you’re paying them for. The sad irony is that treating your employees with suspicion not only undermines your relationship with them, it actually encourages them to do the very things you’re trying to guard against. Start with trust–which is a form of dependence–and you will be rewarded with a healthier business.
  2. Humanity. The average person wants to be treated like a human being, equal in substance to everyone else. The fact that one person is the employer and another the employee isn’t a matter of quality or even of mastery. It’s a matter of role. If you are suited to be a leader, it’s better for you to lead; if you aren’t suited to be a leader, you have something equally valuable to contribute that your leader can’t. Leadership requires the humility and courage to be equal even to interns and entry-level employees, and to hold their investment in your firm as dearly as you hold your own.
  3. Community. I may use this interchangeably with another word: context. But for now I want to emphasize that the community of co-workers, leaders, and in the larger sphere suppliers and customers, is critical to the ability of each individual to work toward the good of the whole. A business is not just a place of employment, it is a clan, a tribe, a nation. You must be bound not just by function but by myth and identity and culture, or you will not hold together.
  4. Mastery. Each person wants to be a part of that community not just in the abstract, but by bringing mastery to it. This means each individual is the best at something, is constantly challenged to expand her ability, and is poised to contribute in a way that no one else in the company–perhaps no one else in the world–is able. Perhaps just as importantly, it means each individual’s contribution and domain is recognized, respected, and rewarded.

Throughout all these, there is a common undercurrent: respect. At each stage, you are establishing and building respect for the people working with you. And they in turn are growing in their respect for you.

It’s not difficult to understand, but it’s more difficult than you might think to accomplish. Fortunately, I’ve put these in a specific order to help you work toward each. Start at the top and work your way down. Once you get to the bottom, start over again. Make it a regular exercise, and let me know if you don’t see improvement.

Get Rid of Your Employees

For the past few hundred years, employees have been a pretty great thing to have. But that’s all over now. Employees just aren’t useful anymore.

You see, during the Industrial Revolution, we developed a massive machine that was capable of making other machines. And all the machines we made were ultimately made of people. They were rough approximations of things that we would do if we had the right kind of machine power. Employees were educated in things like handwriting and arithmetic so that they could be parts of these machines, these massive–what will we call them?–computers!

A couple centuries later, we finally have on the horizon what we really wanted this whole time: Machines that could do all our machine work for us. So we no longer need employees. What we need today is partners.

And that’s why you’re going to get rid of all your employees. Because instead, these people who were once pieces of a machine will become the people who scheme new machines and new businesses and new and better ways of doing things. They will be the ones to introduce new ideas and new perspectives.

This is what our workforce is becoming: a superpower of humanity, unchained from the need to keep up the drudgery of machine work. You will see your former employees bringing value to the table that neither you nor they at one point thought was possible.

This isn’t the distant future. This is happening now. Today. And it entails bigger changes than many people realize. But it is also bright with possibility and the hope of a healthier world.