There Are No “Good People”

A lot of people are surprised when they discover that I don’t believe in “bad people.” I don’t believe there is such a thing as an irredeemable, fundamentally broken individual who just needs to exit the human race as quickly as possible.

“Not even Hitler?” the hypothetical objector exclaims, appealing to Godwin’s Law right out of the gate.

“No, hypothetical person,” I reply. “Not even Hitler.”

I’m raising this point in the midst of sexual assault scandals rocking everyone’s world as if we should be surprised that a culture that scarcely thirty years ago didn’t widely recognize sexual harassment, that to this day continues to ask victims of rape what they were wearing and whether they should have gone into the room with him, conditions its men to respect their own sexual urges over the self-sovereignty and safety of others.

“But I’m a good man,” cries Louis C.K., Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Al Franken, George Takei, or whatever respected man is currently under discussion as having forced himself sexually against others.

Well that right there is your problem. The flip side of the notion that “bad people” don’t exist is that “good people” don’t exist either. There are just “people,” with all the mess of bias, emotions, desires, and other irrationalities.

I don’t mean to excuse any of the horrible things done by these or any other people. But whenever I give an apology with the claim, “I’m a good person”–or anytime I defend someone saying, “He’s a good person”–I’m implying there are “bad people” out there who are the ones who do these things, and the bad thing I did isn’t part of who I am. But clearly it is part of who I am. Because I’m the person who did it.

Of course, there are also people who think they’re the “bad people.” These people go home and love their spouses, children, or pets with complete selflessness. They give to poor people or help others avoid the mistakes they themselves made, often with the reasoning that “just because I’m a bad person doesn’t mean everybody else has to suffer.”

In a way, both these narratives exist because they save us energy. If I’m a “good person,” I don’t have to stop and think about what I’m doing, because by virtue of “being good,” I won’t ever do anything bad on purpose. If I’m a “bad person,” I don’t have to stop and think about what I’m doing either, because even if I try to do something good it will inevitably be corrupted by my “bad” nature.

The most terrible people in the world have almost always been “good people” by their own reckonings. Tyrants, slave traders, and genocidal maniacs have all reasoned that because they were essentially “good,” the actions they were taking must be justified.

It’s this kind of “goodness” that prevents us from making progress against racism, sexism, classism, and all the other dysfunctional “-isms” that plague our culture and keep crushing human lives under their weight. Your mom spouts vitriol about the Vietnamese family who moved in next door, but she’s a good person. Your buddy touches women inappropriately all the time but hey, he’s a good guy. Your boss would rather vacation in ever more remote tropical islands than lift a finger to help people less fortunate, but he’s always nice to you at work, so he’s a good person too.

Do you consider yourself a “good person?” If so, I recommend seeking treatment immediately before the condition worsens. Talk to a therapist or religious leader, and if they in any way imply it’s a simple thing to do, get a second, third, or fourth opinion as needed. Read Thich Nhat Hanh or Thomas Merton, follow the fantastic On Being podcast and blog, look in whatever texts you consider sacred for the words that are spoken to you and not the words that are spoken to others.

Give up being a “good person” or a “bad person” and work on becoming “good at being a person”–someone who has learned to accept his irrationalities and idiosyncrasies and limitations, who always acts with empathy, who considers the people affected by his actions before taking action. To quote Kendrick Lamar, “Be humble.”

I struggle to this day with the belief that I’m a good person. Sometimes I have to catch myself when I think that the things I believe or the lifestyle I embody mean that I’m a good person, incapable of doing wrong because it’s simply not in my nature. There are also times when I’ve been shaken to my core to think that I not be a good person–that I’m not capable of doing anything right, that I’m useless as a human being. It took me years of growth and practice to recognize and ingrain in myself that I was neither good nor bad. And as I began to leave behind rightness and wrongness (to allude to the Islamic mystic Rumi’s famous poem), I also began to find I was calmer, more focused, more energized by the change I could help to create in the world and less burdened by self-doubt.

This isn’t a quick process–it means dedicating yourself to learning how to be human the way you might dedicate yourself to learning guitar or glass blowing; and it means you have to keep practicing instead of depending on your inherent “goodness.” But it’s the one skill literally everyone needs. It’s the one skill that matters most to our collective future. And you can’t be an effective leader of your home, your business, or your country without it.

If you’re looking for help with this, please post in the comments below and I’ll try to provide some more resources.

Be What You Intend to Be

Much of what goes on in a traditional organization is unintentional. That is to say, it isn’t an action that someone has decided to take in order to contribute to the well-being of that organization and its stakeholders. It’s operating on default.

Ironically, unintentional behavior can often be the result of trying to clamp down on unintentional behavior. On the other hand, it can just as easily be the result of leaving people isolated and expecting them to do their best work without any assistance or support.

The road to a more intentional organization is one described ideologically by business greats from Warren Buffett to Richard Branson. Here is the idea as verbalized by Steve Jobs:

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this idea is counter to the operation of a traditional organization. Traditionally, decisions get made and orders pushed down the chain of command; results come back up and get pieced into something like the final result that the person at the top of the chain wanted.

Counter-intuitively, the result of the traditional approach is that much of what happens in the organization is unintentional. People who wait for orders don’t make the best use of their own time; and the people above them, who don’t have the perspective of each individual’s point of view, don’t make the best use of their time either. People fulfill their immediate expectations without a view of what’s good for the whole. What’s more, managers often don’t communicate all their expectations, and the results reflect the holes in each subordinate’s understanding of the tasks assigned to him.

Becoming intentional means, at least in part, understanding myself, acknowledging and accepting what I am, and developing upon my strengths. As in the Cherokee proverb of the two wolves, I become better by feeding what is good within me. It’s not a choice I make when I’m faced with a hard question, it’s a choice I make by the way I condition myself to face the hundreds of little choices throughout the day.

The same is true of an organization: I have to feed what is best in my organization and what is best in the individuals within it.

This is one reason organizations that focus on facilitation can be much more effective than traditional organizations. Instead of “managing” in the traditional sense, leaders help people to do and become their best, guiding their individual work toward the ultimate good of the organization as a whole and helping to connect it to the work of others.

What this means for a leader is that I am first of all responsible to my people rather than for them. (Responsibility for my people is still important, though it’s mostly externally-facing: followers want leaders to have their backs.)

Whereas a traditional organization is merely, as Emerson put it, “the lengthened shadow of one man,” an organization of facilitation is an attempt to leverage the power of community toward a common goal. That makes the intent of each individual important to the whole. Each level is intentional about its own goals and behaviors, and each subsequent level is there to help the previous level attain its goals and bind efforts together.

Here are a few risk factors for unintended behavior, and what you can do about them:

  • Fear. When people are afraid of something, they tend to either destroy it or hide it. I have never seen either of these behaviors yield positive results in an organization. If the people working with you act fearfully, address it head-on. Learn what they are afraid of. Dig into the root cause, too–few people are afraid of disappointing a customer so much as they’re afraid of what might happen to them. If you start to notice a lot of people having similar problems, you have a systemic fear on your hands–usually one that has to do with trust within the organization–that requires a change.
  • Inconsistent culture. People are more willing to take personal risks if they feel anchored and supported. That has partly to do with knowing that the people around them have their back–even people who may be on a different team, or come from a very different background. Your hiring practices and cultural guidelines need to be spelled out so that the people you hire are people you’d choose to weather a crisis, not just people who would have fun together at happy hour. More than that, everyone in your organization needs to be telling the same story and believe in the same destiny.
  • Too much process. Process can be a good thing if done correctly–if the process represents a best practice, serves the people, and is capable of evolving. But if you need a process to mitigate risk, that means you already have unintended behaviors–and adding a process could make the issue worse, as people attempt to short-cut or circumvent the process in order to get their work done. (Ask yourself: Is the process an invention or a control?) Pare down or eliminate any processes that get in the way of doing good work, and instead focus on gaining buy-in from your ostensibly reliable (you did hire them, right?) employees as to how to avoid putting your community at unnecessary risk.
  • Over-management. If responsibility for my efforts always goes up to my manager, my natural human response is to fight against that control mechanism. I might give up on doing anything that isn’t assigned to me, I might deliberately procrastinate or slack off, or I might start looking for other jobs. (The top cause of burnout isn’t over-working, it’s lacking control over or engagement with your work.)1 A quote from a study in the Indian Journal of Industrial Relations: “Burnout can be minimized/avoided if individuals develop a high level of involvement in their jobs and they are able to identify themselves psychologically with their jobs.” Adding controls and oversight to prevent me from doing anything but the work I’m supposed to be doing will provoke a desire to rebel against them. Try cutting out levels of management and finding ways to prevent micromanagement, or better yet, train your “hierarchy” to be a facilitating structure instead of a managing structure. If you have good people, you won’t need to control them; and if you stop controlling them, you’ll find out pretty quickly who’s good and who isn’t.

The only way you’re going to get more than a handful of people to be fully engaged in accomplishing a goal is to get them to buy into that goal and work toward it on their own motivation. In other words, hire good people and let them tell you what to do. Think of it this way: As long as I hold the power to fire my leader, what do I lose by being a servant?

What reservations do you have about making this kind of change? Did I miss something? I’m looking forward to getting your reactions in the comments.

References   [ + ]

1.  A quote from a study in the Indian Journal of Industrial Relations: “Burnout can be minimized/avoided if individuals develop a high level of involvement in their jobs and they are able to identify themselves psychologically with their jobs.”

Finding Yourself: Acting Like a Leader

In my life, I have to play many roles. For most of my casual life, I can play roles that suit the way I typically act–roles that are consistent with the way I usually tell my story, and modes of being that I’m comfortable slipping into. But often in business and in leadership, I have to take on roles I’m less comfortable playing.

When I’m communicating with multiple stakeholders, for example, I have to take on a different role with each one. With IT, I have to be someone who cares about process, rules, requirements, risks, ROI. With the knowledge management team, I’m a person who is concerned with lowering the barriers to documenting and sharing knowledge. With executives, I am someone who cares about strategic initiatives. In each instance I play a different role.

The famed acting teacher Uta Hagen wrote in A Challenge For The Actor about her struggle to “lose herself” in her roles when she first studied acting. The expectation is often that we have to leave ourselves in some room, and assume the posture, the voice, the gestures, and the attitude of an entirely different person. We have to become so engaged in this other person that we forget who we are and transform completely into the fictional role.

I’ve seen it happen often where colleagues felt they had to drop who they were in order to play a particular “role” in a business context. They had to pretend to be leaders, to pretend to be presenters, to pretend to be experts. They had to wear different clothes and censor thoughts and act like they cared about things. And in some cases, they pulled it off. If you’re making a sale, you can pretend for a couple of hours. But if you’re leading a team or an organization, pretending won’t get you very far.

Hagen’s revelation that finally allowed her to act well was that “losing herself” was not just a red herring but an impossible task. We can never abandon ourselves, and even if we could we would be empty, a complete blank without human features or relations. (Perhaps you’ve met such “empty” people–often they are diagnosed with narcissism or sociopathy, and have to work much harder to be authentic if authenticity is something they desire.) Instead of “losing herself,” Hagen realized she had to find herself in the role.

A great actor doesn’t connect with us because of his excellent display of mannerisms and vocalizations. Compare Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean with Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Each features an acclaimed actor in an over-the-top role. But although Jack Sparrow is entertaining, there is an edge to Priestly that makes us bleed: she is in the end a human being like we are, despite her conniving and condescension.

Any role I assume–a leader, an advisor, a seller, a buyer, a mentor–is not something I can piece together from a set of ideas about what that kind of person should be, stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster and given life by sheer force of will. In order to inhabit each role, I must find the version of myself that is the role I’m assuming–the version that really cares about the same things as his audience, and doesn’t just pretend so that he can manipulate that audience.

To that end, Uta Hagen laid out nine questions to understand a role. Actors would lay these out and understand them in detail, but as a professional, it’s better to work out a way of thinking for different groups of stakeholders.

  1. Who am I? Consider your own background, your strengths and particularly the differences in your perspective that could be valuable to your audience. Your influence begins with truths about who you are–not necessarily the truths you are used to playing, but truths nonetheless.
  2. What time is it? Consider the circumstances in the world: What are the current movements in your audience’s industry and professional field? What are they dealing with on a day to day basis? How does that affect the version of yourself that relates to them? What time of day is it? How does that affect you? How does it affect your audience?
  3. Where am I? Physical context is very important to our psychology. Are you in an executive boardroom? A cubicle? Have you flown in from far away? Has your audience?
  4. What surrounds me? Notice the physical features of the reality around you. These are part of the context of your audience and so they are a part of you as well.
  5. What are the given (immediate) circumstances? What do all the present parties have on their minds? Where has your audience come from just before the present moment, and where are they going afterward? Are people under pressure to meet a deadline? Are they dealing with the fallout of a controversy? Are things slow and a lot of people on vacation? Consider how these things affect your audience and, consequently, your role in relation to them.
  6. What is my relationship? Why do you know these people? Who do they think you are? What kind of influence do you have on them? (You always have some kind of influence–be specific.) What other relationships are important to the situation, e.g., does your audience see you as a protege, representative, or advisor to someone they respect?
  7. What do I want? Remember that this desire is specific to your role: that is, the role that is interacting with this specific audience. You want something in relation to them: either from them, for them, or better yet, with them. If you want too many things, or what you want is not specific, your role will be unclear and your presentation will be confusing.
  8. What is in my way? The obstacles you face will usually relate to your audience, e.g., getting their buy-in. If it isn’t, you are wasting their time and yours. Be specific about these obstacles: Is it a matter of investment level? Risks? Timeline? Priorities?
  9. What do I do to get what I want? These questions are about you and your role. Don’t get ahead of yourself by solving your audience’s problems for them. What are you doing right now that will achieve the goal of the current interaction? How can you alleviate your audience’s concerns and help them see the opportunity you see?

In the end, you aren’t aiming for a deception, but a version of yourself–found in your personal truths–that relates to and operates with your audience. Understanding how you create those roles, and how you can better refine them, is ultimately a process of becoming more authentic in each of those roles. Rather than putting them on like masks, you will become more yourself in each of them, and consequently a better leader in all of them.

Control Is the Enemy of Engagement

“Engagement” has become a management buzzword. Companies want to increase employee engagement to enhance efficiency and work output while reducing et cetera, et cetera, et cetera… And as is common, such management speak attempts to increase engagement as a variable, one of many variables that, if you can get them just right, will give your company the push it needs to succeed.

But this approach to engagement is self-defeating because it succumbs to the desire for control. It’s ultimately a way that leaders are attempting to control their subordinates. And control is the enemy of engagement.

Let’s unpack this assertion a bit.

“Engagement” is a pseudo-psychological term that management-speakers use to isolate the idea that employees care about what they’re doing. It’s a term that cuts out individuality from both the subject and object to make it into something one-dimensional that can be increased or decreased. But you can’t isolate the concept of “caring” from either the subject that is doing the caring, or the object about which the subject cares. So instead of “engagement,” let’s use the more everyday “care.”

The term “control” is also an overly specific term that suggests micromanaging. But the idea is much broader, something that we often think of negatively as “power.” Consider the villains in The Lord of the Rings, or dictators like Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong-un. Are such characters content to oversee, to promote, to protect, to encourage? Or do people who consolidate power want to control?

So I will amend my assertion: from the sterile “control is the enemy of engagement” to: “Consolidating power prevents people from caring.”

A lot of leaders aren’t going to like where this is going. You may be the kind that wants to create the experience of “engagement” so that you can have more control over your organization–so that you can better consolidate power and make the organization do what you want.

But if you are seeking to increase engagement–if you want your people to care–then you are going to have to give up control. That doesn’t mean abandoning your position as a leader, but it does mean letting your organization lead you as much as you lead it.

You will lead your organization with purpose, not with strategy. Strategy is a specific outline for what you’re going to do–the “what” and the “how.” For pretty much everyone outside the executive level, strategy doesn’t matter; it just means I should anticipate some annoying changes to the work I have to do. Purpose, on the other hand, is a belief in who we are and who we want to be. It’s the “why” that drives what we do and how we do it. Most importantly, it’s something in which everyone can participate, and in which people choose to participate. You can order people to follow a strategy, but you have to convince them to be part of a purpose. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” You need to articulate your vision simply and succinctly and intuitively, and then you need to teach the people following you to want that vision.

Your organization will lead you in terms of strategy and structure. Rather than doing analysis and picking up the latest business books to determine what your organization needs to do, let your organization tell you what it needs. Just like your body will tell you what to eat and how hard to exercise once you’ve learned to listen to it, your organization will offer its aches and its needs once you’ve learned to hear. If your organization is operating in service of the purpose you’ve articulated, you will need to make yourself a servant in turn to your organization’s needs.

I’ve given an expansive version of the process over the past few paragraphs, but all of this should come together as something instinctive. It should pour out of you: “I’m excited to do [vision] with you because [purpose]! What can I do to help you achieve it?” This kind of enthusiasm, humility, and service-mindset from a leader is infectious. If your people are part of the organization because they want to be, and they believe in what your organization is doing and your vision for its future, they will have a tendency to pick up on your enthusiasm and your service attitude. And the more people are serving one another to accomplish something they care about together, rather than trying to control one another over competing visions, the more successful your organization will be.

That’s the essence of the dichotomy of “engagement”–caring about what you’re doing–versus “control”–struggling for power.

Your Organization Is a Nation

Your organization is a nation.

It isn’t like a nation. It doesn’t have the properties of a nation. It is a nation.

Your organization starts with territory. For countries, the territory is geographical: the southern boundary of much of Canada is the 49th Parallel, and Mayalsia is bounded in part by the Golok River. For most businesses, the territory is intellectual: Amazon’s territory is its online retail site, Johnson & Johnson’s territory is its products, etc. The territory may have physical properties–offices, factories, warehouses, etc.–but it is intellectual in nature.

Your organization has sovereignty within its intellectual territory, which means it can conduct its business more or less the way it wants. Your organization has governance, a.k.a. “government,” to guide and regulate the actions within its territory. And of course, your organization has its own culture, with its own language, beliefs, and customs.

Because your organization is its own nation, there are a number of lessons to be derived from public policy and economics. It also faces dangers similar to those faced by world governments, even if it’s at a much smaller scale and the results look different: a revolt may look like an internal power struggle, but it may also be a mass exodus. And if your organization is large enough, it has its own subcultures that have to work with one another.

This week, I’ll be discussing some of the practical ramifications of this idea that your organization is a nation.

Writing Your Founding Myth

Yesterday we examined the existing story of your organization. Today we’re going to explore how we can nudge that story into place to create a founding myth–the story that underlies the identity of any company, nation, team, or collective.

As much as Americans may disagree about the particulars, most of us have a shared respect for our founders and place emphasis on the values of liberty and equality. Today, this story includes the long fight to end slavery and grant equal rights to minorities. This is our founding myth: a particular telling of our history, with emphasis on the values that form our identity and the heroes who championed those values.

A large chunk of the Hebrew Bible contains what could be called Davidic mythology: from foretelling David’s kingship long before his birth, to calling upon his bloodline well after his death. The patron, YHWH, brought the people out of Egypt and into a new land, established the identity and values of the culture, and provided a model and hero in the form of King David. This myth sustained the identity of Israel and the Jewish people through multiple exiles, through Greek and then Roman occupations.

As you can tell from my short telling of these two stories, founding myths have important characteristics that help to shape a community:

  1. Shared origins. Your shared origins might stretch back to the founding of the organization, particularly if it was founded last week or last year. Or it might only stretch back to a particular turn in the organization’s history. I began working at KPMG in 2005, shortly after a tax-shelter scandal that resulted in a deferred prosecution agreement with the government. The narrative at the time hinged on that event: we were going to become the firm with the most integrity and the highest-quality work. Sure, we could have traced our origins to the 1800s and the four partners that make up the letters of the name, but that wasn’t the story we were telling; that wasn’t the firm we were trying to be. Our story was of a new beginning, of a murky past and a better future.
  2. Shared values. It’s no coincidence that the greatest philosophers, scholars, and scientists of ancient Greece lived and worked in Athens, the city of Athena. Out of all possible patron gods, its founders chose the goddess of wisdom–not the god of war to have a powerful military, the goddess of fertility to have abundant farmland, or the god of the forge to have unparalleled industry. The story of Athens defined the city’s key value, and elevated that value above many other perfectly good values. If you lead an organization, I urge you to pick one value above all others that is of special importance to this group of people. Then make sure it is embodied in your founding myth.
  3. Shared destiny. It’s never enough to simply share a past. In order to build a community, people have to believe in a shared future that follows from that past. Your shared destiny is the natural result of the values that call you out of your origins; the message is that all that is needed for you to go from where you were to this bright future is to embody your values. Often this destiny is something you know can be achieved because in your founding myth it has been achieved before: George Washington’s presidency, David’s kingship, Steve Jobs’ release of the iPhone. But if your organization is too new to have past successes, or if you’re overseeing a major shift in culture and values, focus on the promise of the future you are trying to achieve.

Through all of these, the operative word is “shared.” You can’t dictate a new future from on high; it has to be something that each person in your organization can believe, a destiny and a set of values that each individual wants to execute. Be aware that this may also be a way to cull your membership; those who aren’t interested in being a part of your shared story may not belong in your community.

Of course, the one thing this story is missing is a character. The character is a champion. The story isn’t about the champion–not really–but the champion breathes life into the ideas. She emerges from the shared past (like everyone else), embodies the shared values (like everyone can), and creates a shared destiny (by virtue of her embodiment of those values).

George Washington was a simple land owner who embodied the values of liberty and equality, led the military forces of rebellion, and eventually became the first President of the United States. David was a humble shepherd who embodied the values of piety and wisdom, overcame both the Philistines and the forces of Saul, and became the first in a long line of kings. Neither of these men were perfect even in the myths–in fact, being an ordinary, flawed human being is important. But because they embodied the shared values, they brought about a bright destiny for all their people.

You might in fact be the champion of your organization’s founding myth, like Jack Welch was at GE. But the myth isn’t about you, it’s about the collective identity.

Once you’ve laid out what you want your founding myth to be, you will need people to buy into it. But recognize that your founding myth is what the people in your organization believe it is. It’s the story they tell, not the story you tell. The closer your myth is to the story people are already telling, the better you will be able to convince them. But remain open to the possibility that your story will need to go through several revisions before everyone’s on the same page.

Discovering Your Current Story

It’s imprudent to write a completely new story for your organization without first discovering what your current story is.

“Wait,” you say. “My organization already has a story?”

Yes, O dear reader! Everyone in your organization, whether it’s two people or twenty thousand, is telling a story about it.

I’m not going to get into methodology. You could survey the members of your organization, you could bring them in and ask them, you could start a discussion thread. You might ask your clients or customers, or you might keep it within your business. But the questions you will need to answer are generally the same.

  1. What do people believe are the most important values of my organization? (Not just the words in our on-boarding materials, but the values they are expected to play out on a daily basis in every interaction.)
  2. What does my org value that distinguishes it from any similar organization? Why does it hold that value as important?
  3. Do my org’s people know why and how they are expected to embody those values? Can they tell the story of a hero or champion of my org’s values?
  4. Where do my org’s people expect the company to be in five or ten years? How does that image reflect the distinguishing values of my org?
  5. What role do they see themselves playing in the evolution of the org?
  6. Where do my people expect to be in five to ten years? What does that say about their individual values?
  7. What role do they see the org playing in their personal evolution?

At its core, these questions seek to get to the “why” of your organization and identify the story your people are telling themselves about it.

Once you have answered these questions, start to piece together the puzzle:

  • Where do my people believe my organization is coming from? In other words, what is the relevant historical context?
  • What values are calling my organization toward a different future? How are those values shaping the organization as it is today? (Remember values don’t always have positive effects–cost-efficiency may result in fear and territorialism, while innovativeness may result in inefficiency. What are the benefits and the costs, not just to the organization as a whole but to my people?)
  • Who is the champion of these values, the example my people think of when they are trying to decide how to execute the values of the organization?
  • What kind of future is this leading us into? Is the path leading upward, downward, or on the same level? What specifics can I glean about the future my people are working toward?

With these elements in place, you will have the most basic outline of your founding myth. The next step will be to reforge that myth into something better.