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.”

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?

Listen to the Opinion, Speak to the Experience Part 2

“For acquired knowledge cannot be divorced from the existence in which it is acquired.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It’s been pointed out to me that my previous post is a bit confusing. Granted, it’s a topic that’s probably worth writing several books, and a skill that can take years of personal development. But I want to drill down to a core that’s useful even in the short-term.

There is no such thing as objectivity among humans. (As software people are fond of saying, “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.”) In collaboration with one another, we represent a wide array of experiences and we have each filtered out what we have found to be the salient points that we apply as broad rules of the world. This is a cognitive belief, or what we call an “opinion.”

But behind the opinion is the semi-instinctual gut feeling that is our initial filter. This is an emotional belief: a reaction, derived from our experience, that we first feel and then attempt to understand through logic and words. (I say “semi-instinctual” because highly developed, balanced individuals can actually inform and change their emotional beliefs.)

So, when we are dealing with people–whether it’s working toward consensus at a meeting, motivating a co-worker, or addressing a client’s concerns–we are dealing with a complex of emotional beliefs, masquerading as opinions.

Particularly in business, we’ve been taught to act as though the world is a rational place–or at least, that it can be made rational. And so when we encounter conflicts in opinions, we take all the facts and information from those opinions and try to reconcile them. When we can’t, we start throwing out those that don’t agree with our views until we come up with a patchwork of ideas that meshes together. Or worse, we split the difference between competing opinions and call it “compromise” just to get people on board.

The message of this process is that not every experience is valuable. If I’ve contributed my opinion and it’s been thrown out, it means that I am wrong and my perspective is useless (according to whoever is throwing it out).

But there are reasons for every opinion that are relevant to each solution. If I have a difference of opinion from everyone else in the room, it means I have an important experience to contribute–even if my opinion, the product of that experience, doesn’t bear with reality.

So much of our focus in management (and even leadership) is on getting the facts, the efforts, the opinions to fit together into a whole. And so we may often end up with solutions that are like an exquisite corpse: a too-elaborate tacking-together of mismatched parts that could never be functional.

What if, instead of trying to mesh together a patchwork of opinions, we instead undercut the opinions and worked to form an understanding of the human experience underlying the problem? What if there were no relevant experiences that didn’t matter? What if an opinion, which we often use as a way of rationalizing our emotional beliefs, is actually a lens we can look through to find the experiences that are most important to what we’re doing? Could we find a way to address the whole reality of our human experience of a problem, instead of presuming that our years of experience or our level of mastery elevate us toward perfection?

I’m not sure of the answer, but I do know that developing my own emotional maturity and my own ability to see through the eyes of others is one of the skills I value most in my business experience. This post is my own opinion: the way that I make sense of my experience. I look forward to being informed by yours.

Listen to the Opinion, Speak to the Experience

We each have at least two sets of beliefs: cognitive beliefs and emotional beliefs. Which one do you believe controls you?

You’re likely to say your cognitive beliefs–because it’s your cognitive self that is analyzing the question, and that part of yourself wants to believe it is dominant. That it has the power to bully your emotional self into agreeing with it.

But if we were all governed by our rational selves, we would look at the same facts, see the same things, and form the same opinions. There would be no public debate, and we certainly wouldn’t have the incessant raving of rabid pundits on every form of media.

My emotional beliefs determine which facts are more important than others, which virtues are more significant than others, which vices are more destructive than others. They are the substance of all my conflicts with my lover, my mother, my best friend, my boss.

But my cognitive self wants to believe it’s in control. And so it formulates cognitive beliefs–what we call “opinions.” These opinions form a shield around our emotional beliefs, which is why we hold onto opinions so dearly. To expose our emotional beliefs would leave them open to invalidation.

To measure and count and address the opinions of people is to be a representative, not a leader. A leader isn’t concerned with opinions, she is concerned with experiences.

Consider the myriad experiences in the debates over immigration: legal immigrants with illegal-immigrant friends and family who risked their lives to cross the border; legal immigrants who struggled through a complex system; immigrants whose legal status is threatened or has slipped; union workers put out of work by immigrants; refugees from physical and economic violence; citizens who live close to violent border towns; illegal parents of legal children; kids who grew up with immigrant parents or grandparents. Every one of these people (and more) has his own experience that informs his opinions about immigration.

Phenomenology, the study of experiences, adjoins the fields of philosophy and anthropology. It’s a field that has gained some notoriety lately through books such as The Moment of Clarity, which describes case studies using anthropological techniques to inform business decisions at companies like LEGO and Intel. It also helps to turn this inquiry inward, to observe not just the experiences of customers but the experiences of the people within my own organization.

When I shout an opinion at you, what I’m saying is, “This is the best way I can see to reconcile my own experience with what I know about the world.” If you attempt to address my opinion, you are saying, “You just don’t know enough about the world.” When you attempt to address my experience, however, you are asking, “How can your experience inform what we know about the problem?” Doing so not only moves a team toward consensus, but promises a better solution.

Of course, it’s not wise to ask, “What experience do you think is driving your opinion?” Nobody wants to turn a business meeting into a therapy session. Instead, try to live like an anthropologist among those you would seek to lead. Watch how they work and observe their environment. Hear the patterns of their complaints and identify their core beliefs. Consider their incentives and responsibilities. Try to become one of them (without taking it overboard and acting like you can do what they do). Always, always ask, “Why?”

Over time, and with practice, you will start to hear the experiences. And as you do, it will become possible to address problems in a real, substantial way, rather than simply speaking to the opinions.

If you agree or disagree, please share your own experience in the comments so that we can all learn from it.

Better Business Through Storytelling

When you tell a story, you’re not always writing it in a narrative format. With a business plan, financial statement, or presentation, you’re often presenting facts that don’t look like a narrative.

But people understand facts by placing them in the context of a narrative. So even if you’re not deliberately structuring a narrative, your audience is always constructing a narrative around the facts that you present.

This leaves you with a problem: Are they constructing the narrative you want?

It’s easy to confuse the facts with our interpretation of the facts, or to assume our story is the only one that can be derived from the facts. It can be helpful to present the facts without trying to load a story into them, if you are presenting to a safe audience that can give you a different perspective on the story.

But when you assume that the story you’re telling yourself is the one your audience will see, you may:

  • leave out key facts
  • fail to contextualize the facts
  • fail to adequately explain causes and effects
  • over-emphasize less-important points
  • fail to present a coherent picture

Another part of the problem is control, or presenting the facts in such a way that they tell the story you intend. If you’ve ever been confused by what was supposed to be a straight-forward movie, then you’ve experienced a storyteller who lacked control. It’s a skill that can take years to master.

But you can improve your skills with everyday storytelling, and as a result improve your impact both in your organization and in your everyday life. Here are some questions I tend to ask, intuitively as a storyteller, when I’m presenting to an audience.

  1. Do these facts present a beginning, middle, and end? For example, do they represent what we expected, the facts and methodology that changed our expectations, and the new direction we find ourselves taking?
  2. How do these facts draw us out of the ordinary day-to-day of life, i.e., the assumptions and routines that form the way we operate in our eight hours a day?
  3. Who is the hero of this story? In other words, whose action is most important to the outcome? Am I asking someone to help me, or am I trying to help someone else? (Whoever is being helped to achieve something is usually the hero–but be careful, you may be asking someone to help you help them.)
  4. If I am the hero of this story, what role is my audience playing? What intrinsic motivations and extrinsic rewards can I reference to encourage their involvement?
  5. If my audience is the hero of this story, why am I involved? What do I have to contribute to the hero’s quest, and why do I care so much about it?
  6. If a third party is the hero of this story, why is the story so important? What is our motivation to collaborate and elevate the third party? And why isn’t that third party involved in the telling you’re doing now?
  7. What are the obstacles ahead? What enemies must be defeated, what challenges must be overcome, what dangers have to be endured? How can we prepare the hero to surpass these obstacles?
  8. What is the future if the hero manages to overcome the obstacles? Is it worth the risk and the investment, not just for the hero, but for everyone in the story? (Remember not to appeal to extrinsic rewards except where intrinsic motivations aren’t enough to spur action.)
  9. Why? A story illuminates the reasons (or lack of reason) behind everything. So for every fact and every statement, ask the question, “Why?”

The more you practice looking for the story and contextualizing your facts, the more intuitive these ideas will become, and the better you will become at controlling the story others are seeing.

Once again, it’s not always a good idea to control the story. With a safe audience, it can be better to present straight facts to check whether the story they see is the same as the story you have in your head. We don’t always have the best or most accurate story. However, it’s also dangerous to present facts to an unsafe audience without knowing what story you’re telling and whether you’re telling it well.

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.

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.