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.”

Nourish the Unexpected: Facilitating Emergence

It’s not quite enough to stop controlling in order for the people in your organization to do self-managed, unprecedented work. Facilitating their work is also critically important.

Facilitation nourishes and encourages people in several ways. It feeds the part of us that wants independence and mastery because a more experienced manager/co-worker is helping us with a goal instead of exercising command over it. It feeds the part of us that wants social validation: if someone is helping us accomplish a goal, it tells us the goal is worth accomplishing. It even feeds the part of us that’s lazy–that is, the part that wants to accomplish our goals while using the smallest amount of energy possible.

Think of your organization as a computer:

Algorithmic Containmentphoto credit: Algorithmic Contaminations via photopin (license)

A computer is highly structured, functional, and hierarchical, but in order to continue running the latest software, it has to be continually upgraded and redesigned. A computer doesn’t grow on its own. This is the traditional organizational model.

Now think of your organization as a garden, growing all kinds of plants:

English gardensphoto credit: Gardens at Canons Ashby via photopin (license)

You can select the kinds of plants to grow, you can fertilize and water them to help them grow faster (but not too much or it will choke them), and you can trellis them to help them grow in a certain way, and you can prune them when they grow in ways that aren’t fruitful. Plants in a garden grow on their own, but left untended, weeds will sprout up and diseases will take hold and some plants won’t receive enough nutrients.

(Doesn’t this second metaphor sound like your organization already? Why do we so often feel like we need the additional layer of inorganic structure, except that we want an illusion of control that we don’t actually have?)

Facilitation is the art of pruning, trellising, weeding, hedging, fertilizing, and helping your organization grow. You don’t order a pear tree to blossom, you don’t command bees to pollinate, you don’t provide tomatoes with minimum production quotas. You also don’t give them these initiatives and then go back inside your house and expect everything to work unless you’re told otherwise.

A similar approach can be used to grow your organization.

Consider an example of a great gardener: Brian Grazer, movie and television producer and co-founder of Imagine Entertainment. Grazer’s preference to ask questions and make requests rather than give orders helps gain buy-in, makes people feel respected, and allows him room to doubt his knowledge without being hands-off. As a leader, he uses questions and requests as a form of trellising, guiding people to grow in a certain direction rather than commanding them to do so.

The kind of gardener you become is up to the specifics of your situation. So long as you’re seeking to grow your people and your organization, you will treat them with care and make sure they have the resources, support, and guidance they need to grow in the way that’s best for them. Being neglectful and being overattentive both have their hazards.

Have you ever worked with a good “gardener?” What have you learned from these people who dedicate themselves to growing their people, their organizations, and even their strategies?

How Emergence Works in Organizations

Emergence isn’t about collecting a bunch of fine people and letting them do what they want with no structure of any kind. In fact, emergence needs structure–just not the same kind of structure traditional organizations use.

Functionally speaking, the traditional top-down structure is a method of augmenting one person’s ideas with the minds and bodies of others–like a human Voltron.

Voltron with an overlay of an org chart

This is familiar to our way of thinking–a reflection of Industrial Age ideals of order, rationality, and efficiency. But Voltron is ultimately a machine, and as we enter the Second Machine Age, organizational structures that mimic machines are going to fall by the wayside: they are less efficient than actual machines, and less adaptive (in an evolutionary sense) than organic communities.

Consider the example of Microsoft’s .NET versus the open-source Ruby On Rails: the closed, controlled, heavily planned product has consistently lost market share for years, while the decentralized, agile developer community has turned out a consistently more popular and more useful product. In terms of external incentives and long-term planning, Microsoft should have the better product. Instead, Microsoft is planning to make .NET open-source because of the spectacular failure to keep up. The organic community has unequivocally trumped the traditional model.

Let’s take another stab at that organization chart. Take the person at the top and place her instead in the middle. Connect her to all her sources of information, her co-workers, the people who report to her, the people to whom she reports. Do the same for each of those people to whom she’s connected, outward until everyone in the organization is accounted for, and connect each of them with their points of contact to the outside world. What you have now much more resembles a neural network:

Map of the neural network of a mouse

This isn’t an aspirational image, it’s a reflection of reality–a reality that the former image attempts to control and confine into a linear hierarchy. For comparison, here is a map of Twitter employees using the platform:

Network map of Twitter employees

Seeing an organization in this way–as it organizes itself, and not as the linear design into which we try to squeeze it–reminds us of the first principle of emergent structure: the number and quality of connections improves emergent behavior.

This isn’t a call to increase the number of networking events at your business. Human beings will create connections on their own if given the right environment.

Consider Google’s practice of mixing functional groups on the floor. While this would be anathema to a linear hierarchy–I would have to walk to another part of the building to talk to a co-worker–at Google, the people around you may become your co-workers. Some businesses have replicated the design without taking into account the hierarchy and culture, resulting in marginal improvements at best, and often employee frustration. (Even at Google the practice is not without its drawbacks, but it is an intentional culture play.)

The quality of the connections is likewise based on trust; the traditional organizational structure makes trust unnecessary, and by making it unnecessary, undermines it. This leads to a second principle of emergent structure: where traditional organizations depend on chain of command, emergent structure depends on social contracts.

A social contract is, at its most basic, an agreement held in common between any number of people, either written or implied. Top-down structures choose policies and impose them. Leaders of adaptive organizations make a case that a policy is in the best interest of the organization, and modify it based on the needs and applicability to a particular population. We all agree that we need to follow a certain regulation or we will face prosecution, therefore we promise to follow that regulation and hold one another to it.

In this way, instead of imposing a rule that employees follow like the speed limit (seven miles per hour over isn’t really speeding, you know), employees are accountable to one another for their actions. We all know we have made the promise with one another; when I violate the promise, I have broken my promise with everyone in the organization.

Social contract underpins the entire structure of a culture. When I expect that I have ownership over my work and it won’t be taken away from me and given to someone else, that is an implied social contract. When I expect that I can do my work every day without fear of sexual harassment, that is (usually) a written social contract.

Social contract also defines the leadership of an organization. A person can be an owner if he has enough money, and he can be a manager if he has enough connections, but he can only be a leader if he has people willing to follow him.

Finally, in addition to good connections and social contracts, emergent structure requires process. This may seem to contradict what I’ve said so far, except that human processes are approximate–they are always applied using judgment and a “feel” for the particular situation.

Human process is an interesting phenomenon. Machine processes can be made to take variables into account, but machines don’t make judgments. And machines don’t vary processes in ways they haven’t been explicitly programmed to learn, i.e., they don’t introduce personal experience or personal interpretation. Emergent behavior in an organization depends upon human experience and variability, working against an established process, to produce unexpected outcomes. Only processes that are documented and followed can be improved. Everything else is folk knowledge, which is improved by rare individuals and passed piecemeal to others.

This kind of adherence to and improvement of process depends wholly upon social contracts and quality connections: I must know that I am not documenting my changes to the process on behalf of some uncaring management four levels above me, I’m keeping rigid documentation on behalf of people like myself in the organization who are doing their best to cover for one another and keep things moving.

This is why I encourage you to abolish the idea that there is a “top” or “bottom” to your organization. The goal is to have a structure where everyone finds the most appropriate place for as long as that place is appropriate, not a structure where everyone struggles to climb as high as they can. In order for this to work, we also need to rethink the role of leadership in such an organization–because it is still critically important–and what that leadership is attempting to do.

I’m eager to get your thoughts on all this. Did any of this sound like an organization where you’ve worked, either under the traditional model or under a more adaptive approach? Have you seen leaders embrace the “neural network” of organization and truly try to engage all their members in uniquely meaningful ways?

Hiring for a Unique Culture

Culture is an emergent phenomenon. It exists between the people who make up that particular culture, and evolves based on their interactions–the mythology, folk knowledge, and traditional practices they create and pass between themselves. If you hire based on skill alone, your internal culture will look pretty much like the rest of your industry, because it will be populated with the same kinds of people.

Unlike the Industrial Age, hiring today isn’t picking up a part to put into an already-designed machine to make the machine run. Hiring into an emergent environment only happens when the candidate fits both the current culture and the future culture. Emergent strategy depends on the people within the organization working with and off of one another to yield unplanned results.

Here are a few tweaks to your hiring practices that may yield better results:

  1. Don’t appeal to everybody. Many organizations just want to be liked by everyone. They want to be the place where any individual out there would love to work. Don’t do that. Your organization is unique, and you want people who fit that collective vision and identity. Netflix asserts very clearly that its culture isn’t for everyone, but that is precisely what makes its culture all the more appealing to those who do fit. Figure out now why people wouldn’t want to work in your organization, and you’re on the way to creating a unique and powerful culture.
  2. Fill blind spots, not roles. Roles are a collection of responsibilities and skills that fit a pretty standard definition. Blind spots require a more complete understanding of your team and organization. Simply put, a blind spot is something you need that you don’t have, at the broadest definition that is required (e.g., do you really need someone with three years of Trello experience or do you just need someone who’s comfortable with agile project management?). A blind spot may be a specific competency, like a specific piece of technology, or it may be a tweak to the chemistry of the current team–for example, a more outgoing individual that will facilitate communication between the more introverted members of a remote team. It strips away the expectations that come with hiring someone into a particular role, allowing the new hire to integrate more organically with what’s already going on in your team for the first few months until they have a rhythm going.
  3. Advertise your vision, not your requirements. Anyone who isn’t excited by your specific vision doesn’t belong to your culture. And don’t just advertise the vision of your company. If possible, state succinctly but with enthusiasm what your vision is for the team and even for the specific role. A less-skilled candidate who is energized by the collective vision will be twice as valuable as a more skilled candidate who just wants a new job. And bear in mind that a long list of qualifications belies a search for an interchangeable part. If you want your candidates to get excited about a position, pare it down to your vision and the key blind spots you’re trying to fill. Leave room for the candidate to surprise you.
  4. Interview thoroughly. The hiring process I’ve seen averages two interviews. Google suggests no more than five–and then actually goes on to interview candidates five times, looking for factors including raw skill, problem solving ability, and cultural fit. In an adaptive organization, you’re going to want to take advantage of four or five interviews in order to thoroughly vet the skills, the personality, and the chemistry with the current environment.
  5. Weigh potential. Today the pace of change in technology and the economy means being able to learn what’s needed for the future is more important than having what’s needed in the present. Your people will not only need to adapt as things change, but they will need to create change themselves. And then they will need to live into that change. If the candidate doesn’t have what’s needed to adapt to whatever his role will be in three years, he may not be the best fit.
  6. When in doubt, leave them out. Don’t hire a candidate unless they leave you no other choice–by which I mean, she is such an excellent fit for your organization that you couldn’t bear to let her take another job. Turn away business before hiring someone who doesn’t add to your culture. Adaptive organizations thrive based on the number and quality of connections between employees. Hiring someone who isn’t going to improve your internal network is poison to your long-term goals.
  7. Enlist your recruit’s help. Zappos offers a $2,000 bonus for new hires to quit. The idea is that a new hire will take the money if they don’t feel that they are a good fit for the culture or they don’t believe in the long-term potential of working with the company. In the long run, the occasional $2,000 quitting bonus saves the company a lot of money on people that might otherwise be a drag on the culture. A new-hire quitting bonus might not work for you, but you should still look for ways you can work with a new hire to ensure he’s the right person, and part ways amicably if he’s not.

Filling your organization with effective people who fit with the people around them and are excited about a common vision is the basis of any good culture, not just in an adaptive organization. But because of the importance of emergence in adaptive organizations, getting the mix of people right for your culture is a crucial requirement for success.

EDIT: Reader Brian Gorman offers two additional points to consider: “Having spent more than four decades living in the world of organizational change, I would add two more to his list. 1. Hire for the culture that you want, not the culture that you have. 2. Hire for resilience; you need people who can learn new skills, and shift their mindsets, as your organization continues to change.” I would add a caveat to the first that anyone you hire needs to be able to work in the culture you have today, or she’ll be out the door as soon as she can–which makes finding adaptable people all the more important during a period of change.

Which of these points do you find is most important or illuminating? Are there any important points about hiring for culture that I’ve missed? Do you disagree with my points? I look forward to discussing it with you in the comments.

Do This, Not That: Market Versus Social Norms

Dan Ariely makes a distinction between market norms and social norms in the fourth chapter of Predictably Irrational. He touches briefly upon the way that employers mix their messages, dangerously breaking social contracts and making things about money when they are attempting to lead a socially-driven organization.

As the book documents, operating on market norms (i.e., thinking about the money I’m getting in return for the activity I’m doing) can damage productivity even when compensation is considered adequate. But worst of all, it can damage relationships when we assumed we were operating on higher terms–social norms like trust, reciprocity, and friendship. And we can’t mix the two: once we perceive that our efforts are being valued according to market norms, that’s the mindset we use for the entire interaction.

The next era of commerce will not be kind to organizations that depend on market norms, except as perhaps a back end, business-to-business protocol. For the most part, those things that are driven by competition, price, and data can be outsourced to computers and become a secondary function of people-facing businesses, businesses that use humans for those things humans are uniquely capable of accomplishing.

If you’re still using market norms to run your business, it’s best to start weeding them out now, before they relieve you of all your self-motivated people and leave you with half-hearted key-punchers.

Here are a few “do this, not that” guidelines for common business practices:

  1. Pay healthy salaries, don’t track hours. Some businesses require hour tracking, but to the extent that it’s possible your people shouldn’t identify the time they put in with dollar amounts. Doing so puts them in a market mindset: Am I getting enough money to be worth what I’m doing? Paying healthy salaries instead removes market questions from their minds, and has the potential to make the rare transformation of money into a social contract: the business is a community that takes care of your needs, rather than an employer compensating you for your activity. This is the genius behind Netflix’s policy to pay employees as much as they would pay to keep them: there’s no need for employees to ever negotiate salary or think about how much their work is worth, so they operate on a basis of trust and social contract rather than constantly competing with the employer for a fair wage. Even better if employees have direct deposit, where the money simply appears in their accounts as if by magic.
  2. Appeal to social contract, don’t talk about money. It should go without saying that you should never bring up the fact that you’re paying an employee, or use money as a bargaining chip for a change in behavior. They’re already aware that a threat to their position in the community is a threat to their livelihood. Focus on the social contract rather than the monetary transaction. Are they letting down their co-workers? Are they hurting their ability to make a difference in the organization? Talk about those things. If you have to mention money, it’s already a lost cause. (If they’re the ones bringing money into it, you might as well address their concerns–they’re already thinking in market terms. Take it as a form of feedback on your ability to keep market norms out of your business, and consider whether the issues raised might affect other people as well.)
  3. Make your people financially secure, don’t cut costs at their expense. If your employees have to be worried about paying the rent, covering bills, and eating, then they are already thinking about their jobs in terms of market norms. If you’re going to employ someone, make sure you’re ready to pay enough that they don’t have to be concerned about the basics of life. That includes health care, child care, and retirement. Ariely and James Heyman report that people who perceived themselves as paid inadequately lost as much as a third of their productivity at a very simple mechanical task (forget creative problem solving), and that’s without factoring in any worries about feeding their children. And if Costco is any indication, paying a living wage is a clear path to sustainable business.
  4. Share successes, don’t pay bonuses. This is a tricky one: Traditionally, bonuses are the way you share successes. But paying bonuses can create a clear line between the actions of an employee and the money, turning the action into market-regulated action rather than social-regulated action. There are different ways of accomplishing essentially the same thing. One is to reframe the concept of compensation entirely, as with my post on taxation. If employees interpret the amount they earn not as a payment from you but as something they are accomplishing with you, it may be possible to avoid activating market norms. Another way is to award the bonus as an in-kind gift–but this is fraught with pitfalls. Having the employee choose the gift causes the employee to think about the monetary value; choosing the gift for the employee puts one in danger of choosing something the employee doesn’t want or need; and having co-workers choose may invite comparison and market-norm thinking among the co-workers.
  5. Show loyalty, don’t dig moats. There are already a lot of financial obstacles to leaving a job. Creating new ones causes your people to think about the job in terms of their financial need instead of thinking about the social contract. Instead, you should make it as easy as possible for them to leave–and challenge yourself to convince them they shouldn’t. To the extent your people feel that they are with you by choice and not by necessity, they will be more likely to act on social norms instead of market norms.

It can be difficult to manage the financial needs of the business while operating on social norms, but undermining the social norms can quickly undo all the effort you’ve placed into creating them. If you start by thinking of your organization as a community, a family, or a nation, you will be on more solid ground. And when in doubt, leave the money out of it.

Who Is the Mother of Invention?

You’ve heard that “necessity is the mother of invention.” It’s a proverb that’s likely over 500 years old. But what does it mean?

The saying might recall Captain Kirk calling down to Scotty in engineering, and Scotty iconically replying, “She canna take much more, Cap’n!” Fans of the show 24 similarly joke about Jack Bauer telling Chloe to “just do it!” as the push she needs to make the impossible happen. And let’s not forget the ingenious agent Macgyver. Our culture is rife with the myth of the skilled but uncertain innovator solving an impossible problem in an unrealistic time frame simply because it was necessary. This kind of resourcefulness is a cornerstone of Americans’ beliefs about economics and the world.

But the question is: How true is it? Not the one-in-a-million stories we pluck from the biographies of rags-to-riches businessmen, but the kind of everyday invention and innovation that drives our economy forward. Does desperation drive invention? Or is it something else?

The answer, as with many things, is dependent on the specific definition and context. Desperation as a sense of urgency to meet a particular deadline may spur certain kinds of innovation. But desperation as a state of being–that is, the lack of security around one’s position, as with financial poverty or the ongoing threat of being fired–tends to lock us into survival mode. Desperate people grasp at proven solutions that promise to get them what they need, rather than inventing solutions that may not be sufficient.

That’s not to say these solutions are without risk. But consider someone who agrees to transport bulk drugs: The activity is risky, but the payoff is assured. Innovation requires room to be uncertain about the outcome: Will there even be a payoff? Will it be big enough? You can see this play out at companies that are in danger of bankruptcy: Rather than innovating out of the problem, for the most part they cut down to the basics and try to replicate past success. For every individual that becomes more innovative under that kind of pressure, thousands lose the ability to innovate at all.

If not desperation, then, what drives innovation?

The first parent may surprise you: Laziness. We innovate because the way things are being done is just too much work. This is part of the reason for a disconnect between hours worked and productivity: An innovator can work half as much as someone who doesn’t innovate, and still accomplish more. Laziness gets a bad rap simply because there are so many who misuse it. One of my own innovations early in my working life was a matter of saving myself the tedium of several weeks of repetitive tasks. That innovation was ultimately spread to offices around the country and saved hundreds of hours.

The other is often thought to be exactly the opposite: Enthusiasm. We also innovate because we want something new and better for the future. Our ability to anticipate the future is one of the things that distinguishes human evolution from natural evolution: we can evolve not just for the present circumstances but for the circumstances we anticipate.

Together, laziness and enthusiasm are the push and the pull of an engine. Laziness, better described, is a dissatisfaction with or disinterest in things as they are; enthusiasm is a deep interest in the possibility of things to come. Spitting out what is and sucking in what’s coming is the process that drives innovation forward. Without enthusiasm, laziness becomes pessimistic and defeatist. Without laziness, enthusiasm becomes toothless; if the present isn’t so bad, it’s better to just let that future come on its own.

Necessity may be a parent of invention in at least one sense: We invent things that are useful to us. If we didn’t need it, why would we invent it? This reveals a critical problem with the way innovation is handled in many organizations. Some businesses try to institute an “innovation department.” But isolating the innovators from the problems is self-defeating. An innovation department has to go the extra mile just to understand what problems need to be solved, and may often end up solving problems that don’t exist or aren’t high-priority. The power for innovation is always best placed in the hands of those who experience the need on a daily basis.

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.

Finding Your Motivation: A Lesson from Theater

There’s a taboo in business, that when you’re not motivated you should just fake it. Just get the work done and don’t talk about the fact that you’re not interested in doing it. It’s my opinion that this is a dangerous practice.

When I’m directing an actor, I can give her a thousand individual movements, inflections, background details, and so on. (As a manager, I can give a thousand instructions, contextual details, orientation materials, etc.) But what finally connects with the actor to make something magical is when she realizes what “she” (in her role) wants. Give someone a reason to do something and she will do it well.

The reason (or “motivation”) is individual and specific: it applies to this person performing this action, and not in any other time and place. For the most part, it’s up to the actor to discover these motivations, but a director–a leader–has to be ready to help find them.

Good actors know when their actions aren’t properly motivated. It’s an intuition: I don’t understand what I’m doing in the context of my reasons for doing it. And when a good actor can tell her action isn’t properly motivated, she goes to her director to work it out.

When was the last time one of your people came to you asking why? Why don’t I feel motivated about what I’m doing? There are things we just have to do, but if someone is spending a full day or more working on something he doesn’t see as important, you’re looking at a critical disconnect–a point of feedback that might tell you something important about what you’re doing and whether it will be successful.

I would like to challenge you to spend a trial period focusing on reasons (“motivations”) instead of instructions, particularly with your more experienced people who already know how to do things, but even with newer people who may have to discover or ask you about the how. You may be surprised how connecting your players with motivations to act will lead to better outcomes, even if the instructions you give them are less specific. Instructions keep people in the world of the routine. Motivation puts people on a path to create stories.

And once you’ve positioned your team’s motivations, watch for places where the motivation doesn’t connect: this is a disguise for problems with your assumptions, your division of labor, and other ways you can make improvements.

Motivating by Story: A Lesson from Theater

When you go to see a play, you may sit down with some assumptions about the people you see on stage. Among them may be an assumption that all those people want to be there.

A stage or a film set isn’t substantively different from the environment on a work team–the egos may be a little bigger, but if you’ve spent any time leading people, you’ve probably seen some big egos already.

One of the difficulties you might not expect lies in getting the cast on the same page. A director’s ability to interpret a script (which is tantamount to meeting the requirements of a project) depends on each actor individually working with that interpretation.

The irony is that for everyone to be on the same page, everyone has to be on a different page. Having a big-picture understanding of Hamlet finding out about and then exacting revenge for the murder of his father is a great perspective to have, but it’s not necessarily the story each actor is playing. Each person in the cast has to have a unique story in order to effectively and convincingly fulfill his duties.

To Laertes, Hamlet is a story about revenge–against his sister’s boyfriend for driving her to insanity and suicide. To Claudius, it’s a story about the ambition of a man who wouldn’t accept the cards dealt to him and worked to improve his station.

Similarly, one of the most important motivators in a team is not to see the big picture, but to see the small one–to see my story. It’s too easy to clock in and check out when I see what I’m doing as serving someone else’s story, and I’m just selling a bit of my life for a paycheck. To live fully within the work I’m doing, I have to understand: what am I doing right now to live my values?

Do you know the stories your people are telling? Do you know not only their value, but their values? Every level of organization has separate values: a nation, a business, a team, an individual. If you know their values, it will be easy to help them see their own stories in the larger story you’re telling together.

“Sure,” you might say, “I can show a key player how his individual story weaves into the big picture. But there are some people–interns, new hires, people from other departments or other companies–who tend to see their roles as small and interchangeable. And they are,” you may even say, “because they don’t have the specialization or depth of involvement to create unique value.”

There are two roles in Hamlet that are so famously insignificant and interchangeable that Tom Stoppard wrote a play about how insignificant and interchangeable they are: Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

These two characters have no distinguishing features and serve only to move the plot forward. The actors could easily clock in and check out. But a good director doesn’t ignore even the smallest part, particularly if she already has star players locking down the major roles. The flavor of the end product can be disproportionately affected by these seemingly insignificant roles.

Ultimately it comes down to the same objective: Even these small, interchangeable players have to see what they do as the integral, project-defining work that it is. Losing even the least significant roles confuses and degrades the end product.

Could you have a successful product without it? Of course–it happens all the time. I’ve seen successful projects with much more significant roles that were poorly executed. But attention to the least of your team members, and the ability to integrate their stories seamlessly into the final product, is what separates a passable director from a great leader. Learning the individual stories of each of your players, and weaving each of them into the whole, can take a project that is unlikely to even be finished and turn it into an incredible success.

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.