Archive for the ‘News’ Category
Starting a new book is a little like the first few months of pregnancy. (Gentlemen, you’re going to have to find your own analogy; I’m sure there is one.)
You’re excited and a little nervous (less so of both if it’s not your first book or baby). Even though you understand the process, it still seems like a bit of a miracle that at the end of it you’ll have this whole brand new thing. And even though, especially at the beginning, nobody can tell you’re expecting – you think about your condition a lot, and find that it affects you on a daily, maybe even hourly basis.
So: no, I’m definitely not pregnant. But I am starting a new book.
The working title is Changing, and the for-now sub-title is Rewiring Ourselves and Our Organizations for Continuous Change. The core premise is that change is no longer a one-and-done thing, where you just pick the organization up, move it, set it back down again and leave it there. Change really is continuous – personally, socially, organizationally – and this is a huge challenge – because most of us are strongly wired to prefer stability.
The book, and our Proteus approach to change, reflects this reality: when working with clients to support them through major change, we help them to acquire mindsets, skills and ways of operating that will help them make this transition – and all the transitions yet to come. In other words, instead of just helping them make a change, we show them how to re-wire themselves and their organizations – per the subtitle – to be able to succeed and even thrive through the continuous change that is certainly ahead for them and for their companies.
I’m excited and nervous. It seems amazing that in a year or so, I’ll have a brand new bouncing baby book.
Since this is the fifth time I’ve done this, I’m pretty confident it will work out OK – but there are differences; I find that every book, as every pregnancy and every baby, is unique. This book is in some ways the most complex of any I’ve written: I need to communicate not only how change is different now – faster, more ubiquitous – and how and why that conflicts more deeply with our “stability wiring,” but also how our response to change now needs to be different. We need to think about and target our change efforts on three different levels – leaders, individuals and the organization itself – in order to be effective at dealing with rapid ever-present change and our wired-in resistance to it. Then there’s the fact that changing successfully (not just once but over and over) requires a shift in mindset, and also learning new behaviors and creating new systems and approaches. And finally, the fact that organizations today are much more complex, with the parts and people being much more interdependent, means that in making significant change, you have to think about all the implications of that change, decide which are the most critical and address those as part of the overall change.
But I have faith in the soundness of our approach (I’m seeing it work for clients daily). And I also have faith in my particular super-power, which is to create order out of chaos; I’m good at cracking codes, in a way that allows others to benefit from the decoding. And, I’m getting tremendous support – both conceptually and practically – especially from my partner Laird McLean, who has broad and deep experience helping clients through all kinds of changes.
So, here we go…wish me luck.
And if you’re so inclined, I’d very much like to hear your experiences of going through organizational change: what happened, what worked, and what didn’t. I’m trying to gather as much real-world context as possible, to incorporate practical examples. Feel free to comment here or to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks in advance!
As my husband and I were driving to our local #marchforourlives rally last Saturday, we were talking about the Parkland Florida survivors, and how their passion, courage, clarity and grit have been giving us hope for the future. Then we started wondering about the name of their school. Who was Marjory Stoneman Douglas? Why is their school named after her? And why do they so often refer to it by its full name, rather than the much easier MSD acronym?
As it turns out, Marjory Stoneman Douglas would probably be right there on the front lines with these kids if she were still alive. She spent her whole life fighting for causes in which she believed passionately, often in the face of extreme pressure and open ridicule.
She was born in 1890, and graduated with honors from Wellesley college in 1912, when less than 1% of American women had a college education. She then became a reporter for the Miami Herald, which was owned by her father. Initially hired as a society reporter assigned to report on parties, engagements and weddings, she was soon given responsibility for the editorial page and, a few years later, was made assistant editor of the paper. She began writing about the social and political issues that would become her focus throughout her life: women’s suffrage, civil rights, and – her abiding passion – the saving of the Everglades.
In the early 1920s, Stoneman Douglas left the Herald to become a freelance writer (her career for the remainder of her long life), and at the same time became interested in the Florida Everglades and saving this critical natural resource from over-development. In 1947, her book The Everglades: River of Grass, became a bestseller and catalyzed the protection of this area, which has since become a a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Importance, and a specially protected area under the Cartagena Treaty.
Stoneman Douglas lived to be 108 and fought for the causes she cared about – saving the Everglades, assuring the rights of women, people of color and the poor – until shortly before her death. In 1993, at the age of 103, she received the Congressional Medal of Freedom for her lifetime work. Though physically tiny (she was just over five feet tall and weighed less than 100 pounds), she was tireless, brilliant and articulate; a fellow reporter said of her “She had a tongue like a switchblade and the moral authority to embarrass bureaucrats and politicians and make things happen.”
That description reminds me of Emma Gonzalez and Naomi Wadler.
As my husband and I joined more than 7,000 of our neighbors and friends on the Walkway Over the Hudson at Poughkeepsie in the #marchforourlives, I was thrilled to see how many of my fellow marchers were kids and teenagers. I honor Emma, her fellow students, and all the other young people from around the world who have been galvanized to take action on the issue of gun violence. They are continuing to blaze Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ trail in speaking out and acting to counter the forces of greed and selfishness in our country. I’m grateful to her and to this new generation of activists, for not only believing the world can be a better place, but for doing something to make it so.
Nelson Mandela is a hero to me. He embodied core qualities of a beautifully, fully-lived life: courage, hope, compassion, and clarity. And I’ve often thought that the essence of his power as a human being lay in his ability to be totally present: to take each day, each moment, as something new to be experienced, to be fully understood and turned to best advantage. In other words, Mandela was a great learner. Then, recently, I read a quote of his:
“I never lose. I win or learn.”
– Nelson Mandela
Such simple, universal advice. Let yourself reflect on this for a moment. Think about the last time you “lost.” That you didn’t win something professional you really wanted, like a promotion or a new job. Or something personal – a sports competition or someone’s agreement or support.
To be able to learn rather than lose in these situations is real learning, learning that can change your life. Too often, when we talk about learning, we mean something pale and insubstantial: “I read lots of articles,” “I took a class that was interesting.” But real learning is muscular and vital – it comes right up to your inability, your mistake, or your failure and looks it in the face and says: What did I not know here? Why didn’t that work? How do I need to change? Real learning is courageous and hopeful. Real learning requires being compassionate toward yourself and clear about both your strengths and weaknesses.
When we lose something we really want, at work or at play, our immediate tendency is to look away – to avoid really seeing our “defeat,” because we think it will be too demoralizing or embarrassing. I learned this 40 years ago from Tim Gallwey of Inner Game fame: when most people hit a bad shot in tennis, they don’t stay focused on what actually happened, so they can correct it next time. They literally look away, and either start making mental excuses for themselves (“my racket needs restringing,” “the sun was in my eyes”) or mentally beating themselves up (“I’m an idiot to have missed that shot,” “I’ll never be any good”).
This is losing vs. learning.
So. Next time something doesn’t go well for you: a client declines your proposal; your best friend thinks your new idea is crazy; you don’t get that job you really wanted…
Instead of looking away and losing, be courageous and clear. Look at the situation, look at yourself. Ask, What could I have done differently? or What can I learn to do differently going forward? And be compassionate and hopeful, too – don’t berate yourself, don’t predict permanent failure. Really try to understand what you can take away from this situation that will help you succeed the next time a similar situation arises. And then figure out how to make those changes in your behavior or your mindset, or both.
I’m shocked to be having to say this in the United States in 2017. But sadly, this statement now seems to be in question, most disturbingly from the White House.
Racism is evil. And just to be completely clear, I use the word evil as it’s defined in Merriam-Webster: “profoundly immoral and malevolent.” Hating people, inciting violence toward people, committing violence against people because of the color of their skin, because of their religion, because of their place of origin, is completely evil and unjustifiable. It has no place in the America I believe we can be. No place in the hearts and actions of good and moral people.
I am profoundly ashamed that the person speaking to all of us as the president does not acknowledge the difference between those who incite and commit violence in support of their beliefs that America should be a “white nation,” and those who resist and reject those beliefs. That he doesn’t acknowledge a difference between Robert E. Lee and George Washington. That he believes white men who march with lit torches – long a symbol of black oppression of the most horrific kind – shouting “Blood and Soil,” “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us” are, or could be, “very fine people.”
We must fight against the darkness, and we must not be darkened by it. If we hate racism, we must offer an alternative to it in how we live every day, and we must call out when those who govern us condone or support it. In the words of Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
To support you in your personal stand against racist hatred, here from the Southern Poverty Law Center is Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide.
And here’s an excellent article from The Nation about what you can do to fight against hatred.
And always, feel and share as much joy, hope, clarity and love as you possibly can.
Ever since 1934, when the Social Security administration established 65 as the “official” national retirement age, most of us have assumed that at somewhere around 65, we’d stop doing paid work. And even though the average 65-year-old these days has both a considerably greater life expectancy and much improved health compared to his or her 1934 counterpart, our association with 65 as the age of retirement remains. And that’s true even though we baby boomers aren’t adhering to it: only 1 in 4 boomers are fully retiring from paid work by 65. As has often been the case with us as a generation, we’re trying to figure out a different way to do things.
When I turned 65 recently, I didn’t expect it would have much impact on me, since I generally don’t think of myself as being any particular age. So I was surprised to find myself thinking a lot about working and not working, and how I intended to approach the next phase of my life. Even though I knew I didn’t want to stop working any time soon, I noticed that I also didn’t want to keep working at the same pace I’d been working for the last 45 years. I had already decided to work somewhat less starting this year – I had told people that I was “cutting back to full time.” They’d laugh, but it was pretty accurate: I’m experimenting with working around 40-45 hours a week, rather than 50-60 hours a week.
But I could feel there was some deeper issue not being addressed by that decision, and I wasn’t sure what it was. I called Lorie, a wonderful therapist and all-around wise person who has helped me enormously through times of major change over the past ten years, and told her what I was feeling and thinking. In a series of conversations, she helped me see that I was wanting to carve a new path for myself: that I felt constrained by what I saw as the limited and limiting expectations for women at 65 relative to work. I believe that society expects that women, if they do keep working after 65, will do it in a kind of invisible and genteel old-ladyish way: part-time, in a situation that doesn’t require or afford a lot of responsibility or power. (As an example, when I told a 30-something friend that I was struggling to figure out my work path for the next decade, she suggested that perhaps I could teach classes at our local library.) And the general expectation for us as retirees is that we will focus on taking care of our families, on our old-lady hobbies, or on doing good works.
Neither of those paths appealed to me. In my conversations with Lorie, I realized that I needed to “go off road,” to carve out a personal post-65 career path that works for me and those I love, and that may not fulfill any of those expectations.
And, as it turns out, what works for me is a life that includes the best of both worlds. In the world of work, I’ve realized that I’m doing the best work of my life, and I want to keep doing that. I’m braver, wiser, clearer, more experienced, and at the same time more flexible, compassionate and patient than ever before, and I intend for my clients and my colleagues to get the benefit of that. And in the world of retirement, I find I’m cherishing time with my husband, children, grandchildren, and other loved ones in a new and deeper way, knowing that my remaining time on earth is less than the time already passed. At the same time, I find that I need more time for reflection and recuperation in order to be at my best – and that I’m able to appreciate those resting periods more than I ever have before.
So I’m working and retiring simultaneously. When I’m working, it’s full-on, all-in: offering the best of who I am in deep and powerful partnership with my clients and colleagues. When I’m retiring, it’s full-on, all-in: 100% luxuriating in play, rest, travel, the love of those I love. I suspect the proportions of the two will continue to shift as I age: more time retired, less time working. But the depth of commitment to each will remain. That sense of doing whatever I’m doing with full joy and commitment is what resonates for me.
If you find yourself asking these kinds of questions – as I assume you might be, having read this far – my advice to you is not to adopt my solution or anyone else’s, but to find your own. Your life is precious, and it’s a great gift to have arrived in your 60s with your health and spirit intact. Be conscious in deciding how to take advantage of this gift you’ve been given, so that at the end of your days you feel satisfied that you’ve lived the life you most wanted to live.
You know those TV ads that feature rugged guys and pretty women exploring the wilderness in their shiny new Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner, or Subaru Outback?
Back here in the real world, I suspect that the vast majority of people who buy those vehicles never take them off-road. It’s just that the idea of heading out on our own, beyond where the pavement stops, is so appealing to most of us that automakers have been milking those fantasies for years in hopes of driving more car sales. They believe people will watch those ads and think, If only I drove a ___________, then I’d have the freedom to live life on my own terms, not following society’s rules.
The off-road fantasy resonates because most of us often feel hemmed in by our responsibilities, by others’ expectations of us, by the rules and constraints of society. Buying a heavy-duty car and day-dreaming about driving it right off the edge of the highway provides us an illusion of freedom with a soupcón of ballsiness.
The ironic thing, though, is that even though most of us will never go off-road physically, more of us are having to go off-road psychologically and emotionally than ever before. Think of our internal “highway” as the assumptions we make about what our role in society “should” be – those assumptions are fraying and falling apart in a way they never have before. And, more and more, we’re having to find our own path through this 21st century cultural landscape.
For example, sixty years ago, if I were a married woman of 65 with grown children and grandchildren (as I am), my “highway” would be pretty clear. I would be expected to be retired from whatever job I might have had (most likely as a teacher, nurse, clerk, factory or office worker). Though I might have gone back to work after my kids were out of the house, in my 60s I would be expected to stop working and spend my time taking care of the house, my husband, and perhaps the grandkids; to do age-appropriate activities (crafts, gardening, church or charity work); and perhaps – if we had some savings – to travel.
Today that very defined “road” is still being followed by many women in their sixties – but a big percentage of us are truly going “off-road” and hacking very different lives out of the wilderness: continuing to work while re-thinking the idea of retirement; using the expertise gained throughout our careers to start new businesses, either for-profit or not-for-profit; beginning new relationships; doing bucket-list things our moms and grandmas would never have considered. And some of us are even doing traditional things in new ways. I just read about a company called Rent A Grandma – basically, a service that matches “grandmas” (mature women with a love of children and lots of experience raising kids and running a household) with families who need them, since their own grandmas might be off doing something else and not available to them.
And all these possibilities for mental and cultural off-roading don’t just exist for people my age. Another example: sixty years ago, a young man of 22 would probably already be doing the job that he’d have for the rest of his working life (only about 1 in 10 men had college degrees in the US in 1957), saving money to get married, and preparing to be the sole – or at least major – support of his wife and children. His path was laid out.
Now, that young man can take any of a variety of paths – or make up his own. He could go to college, get a job, join a commune, travel the world with a backpack tending bar. He could get married (though most 22-year-olds don’t, these days), or he could live alone, with roommates or a girlfriend (or boyfriend) – or at home with his parents. He might use his twenties to decide what career path to follow, and that path could be something that didn’t exist before he started doing it.
So what does this imply, this new ability to blaze our own trail through life? First, it means we’re all going to have to get much better at learning and doing new things. If you’re interested in that topic and new to this blog, I wrote a book last year, Be Bad First, that’s all about how to be great at being a novice. Which, if you’re mentally off-roading, inventing your life as you go, is a critical capability.
The other thing, I’m finding, is that mental off-roading requires tremendous independence and courage. I feel as though I’ve definitely driven off the regular highway and am now officially in uncharted territory; my life at 65 certainly doesn’t look like my mom’s life did at this age, or my dad’s. It’s different in many ways from the lives most of my friends have created, or those my sister and brothers are living. I’m still working, building the business I started almost thirty years ago – but my role is changing in the company, as is the kind of work I want to do. I find myself more politically active than I’ve ever been. My marriage is amazing – and doesn’t feel anything like what I expected would be happening at this point in my life. My relationships with my kids and grandkids are rich and fun for all of us – but not what I think of as grandmotherly. Every day I find myself thinking some version of, Is this OK? I don’t see others my age doing/feeling/thinking this. OR Wow, this is very different from how my life was just a few years ago…what’s happening? And then I just have to check in with whether “this”, whatever it is, seems to be supporting me in creating the kind of life, relationships and results I want. And if so, I just have to take a deep breath and…keep driving.
I’d love to hear about your adventures in mental off-roading, too….
“For more than a century, from 1900 to 2006, campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts in achieving their stated goals. By attracting impressive support from citizens, whose activism takes the form of protests, boycotts, civil disobedience, and other forms of nonviolent noncooperation, these efforts help separate regimes from their main sources of power and produce remarkable results…”
– Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. Columbia University Press
I am not a fan of the new administration; I now deeply fear for our civil liberties, our human rights, and the fate of the planet. Like millions of people around the US and even around the world, I’m asking, “What can I do to protect the rights and freedoms that are most important to me, and to the US?”
And I’m finding answers; good practical answers that work for me, and that leverage the time-honored positive power of civil resistance. I’m experiencing the power of matching words to actions. Here are the two places I’m focused on putting my energy right now:
The Indivisible Guide is a handbook put together by former Congressional staffers, billed as “best practices for making congress listen.” The guide itself is practical and tested; the authors based it on the approach used by the Tea Party to (successfully) push back against Obama’s agenda. Even more exciting, it has spawned hundreds of local groups that are implementing its approaches at this moment. In fact, this morning my husband and I joined about a dozen other people from the indivisibleulster chapter to agree on a single issue (we chose the ACA) and walk to Rep. Faso’s Kingston, NY office to share our point of view. While there, we spoke with staff members and arranged to meet with his legislative staffer, who can set up face-to-face meetings for us with Faso. When we came back outside, we encountered a small demonstration – also Indivisible-based, and also focused on the ACA.
When we were speaking with Faso’s staff, a few members of our group noted that they had repeatedly called or emailed the congressman’s office and had received no reply. The staffer responded, “It’s just been so busy for the past month – I’m sure it will calm down soon.” A few of us smiled and said, “No. It won’t.”
The second place I’m focusing my energy is with my own existing network. Thus, this post. I’m also using twitter and facebook to share real information (as opposed to “alternative facts”) about what the administration is doing, and to encourage non-violent action to resist racism, authoritarianism, corruption and violations of our constitution.
I am a relentlessly optimistic person. Generally, I see that as a strength, but sometimes it has been a weakness. I am hopeful (optimistic?) that, in this situation, it will be a strength. Because I do see a silver lining in our current situation. Whenever I look at all the – to me – terrifying and saddening events of the past few months, I also see the response: the political awakening of literally millions of people who have never in their lives felt strongly enough about any political issue to act upon their convictions. They – we – are marching, calling, speaking up, offering time, money, expertise, knowledge.
“Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
A few months ago, I wrote a post about finishing a sweater my mom had begun knitting for me twenty years ago. Completing her work became a reflection on all the ways in which her influence shaped who I am today – and in fact all the ways in which we are all influenced by those who came before us.
Now that it’s done, it brings an entirely new set of reflections. When I look at it, I think of all the things in this world that we re-purpose for new generations. For example, I love it when old buildings find new life serving a modern function. Apple recently received the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Chairman award for its placement of Apple stores in four historic buildings in New York. In giving the award, the Conservancy noted that, “Apple is being honored for their contribution to preserving, restoring, and repurposing notable historic structures in New York City. The company has placed four stores in historic buildings – marrying high tech and distinguished architecture.”
Looking at all four Apple projects, you realize that in many ways it would have been easier just to tear down the original buildings and start from scratch. For instance, their Soho store, housed in a 1920’s Beaux Art Post Office building, showcases the original exterior while inserting a new interior that includes a glass tread staircase and a huge central skylight. Even though it clearly required more time, resource, and care to re-create the building for the intended use than to build something spanking new from the ground up, Apple chose to give new life to something beautiful by building upon it for the present and the future.
We can do that with ideas, as well. I look at core beliefs that my grandparents passed to my parents, and that they passed on to me: that men and women are equal; that the color of a person’s skin or their religion doesn’t affect their worth; that our free and fair elections are a deeply valuable thing. These ideals are beautiful, and worth preserving.
A personal plea: please vote in this upcoming election if you are a US citizen. And please consider carefully: do you want to tear down what we’ve built, giving in to the destructive power of hatred, prejudice and violence? Or do you want to continue to build on those precious values of openness, tolerance and inclusion that we have fought so hard to establish in this country, and that are even more important as we face the future?
Think about the world we are continually re-creating for our children, and for our children’s children, when you go to the polls on November 8th, and make sure the person you choose to be our president is someone you believe has the clarity, focus and intention to build upon our democratic ideals.
I know I’m dating myself by using that title. It became known as the signature line of Sgt. Joe Friday, the hero in a cop show called Dragnet that was popular when I was a kid. Whenever Joe was questioning witnesses, and they would start wandering off into how they felt, and what they feared, and sharing their biases and prejudices, Joe would stop them and say, “All we want are the facts, ma’am (or sir). ”
As we’re all living through this endless and somewhat depressing election season, I find myself in complete sympathy with Sergeant Friday. My craving for facts is completely justified, given that, according to Politifact, only 30% of what Donald Trump says publicly is even partly true, with 19% of his untruths being of the “pants on fire” variety (“not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim,” according to Politifact) and even Hillary, the most truthful of all the current politicians, only tells the truth 72% of the time. Fortunately, only 2% of her statement are “pants on fire” lies – but still, that’s too much. (I’ll out myself now; I’m a Clinton fan, and think she’ll make a very good president.)
What’s even more frustrating to me is that Americans believe Trump and Hillary are equally dishonest and untrustworthy – even though, on a factual basis, Trump lies about 2.5 times as much as she does. And it doesn’t stop with the candidates themselves, unfortunately. Shortly after the Republican convention, I listened to a Trump supporter, a former soap actor named Anthony Sabato, Jr., say that he believes President Obama is “…on the other side. Oh, the Middle East. He’s with the bad guys. He’s not with us. He’s not with this country.” And when asked to back up his assertion with facts, he responded, “I believe it.”
The most disturbing thing about this whole mess, for me, is the contention that believing something is true, or feeling that it’s true, is just as valid as having the facts about whether or not it’s true. It’s why too many people think that someone “believing”or “feeling” that Obama is in league with terrorists is just as valid as 7+ years of daily evidence to the contrary.
It’s why national figures can say “global warming is a hoax,” or “Obama founded ISIS,” or “immigrants destroy our economy” — and those things are repeated as truth, even though there is no evidence to support their validity, and – in fact – mountains of factual evidence to disprove them.
I believe the best we can do, in these crazy times, is try to be guardians of the truth in our own thinking. Whenever someone asserts that something is true – especially something important to our well-being or our future – I suggest that, rather than either immediately believing or disbelieving it, you do your best to find out the facts. I’d suggest you apply the scientific method: take what you hear as a hypothesis (“Is global warming a hoax?”) then gather the available data about the hypothesis without assuming that it’s true or false. (As opposed to cherry-picking the data to support your existing bias, which is what we too often do.) Finally, decide the validity of the hypothesis based on the data you’ve collected.
If we all did that, we would come to better, more reasoned decisions, and be less susceptible to the lies and half-truths of those in positions of power.
And here’s what Joe Friday thinks about all this (from episode 60: “Internal Affairs DR-20”):
“Show me how to wipe out prejudice. I’ll settle for the prejudices you have inside yourselves. Show me how to get rid of the unlimited capacity for human beings to make themselves believe they’re somehow right–and justified–in stealing from somebody, or hurting somebody…and you’ll just about put this place here out of business!”
I’m with Joe.
My husband and I play a word game that consists of figuring out the negative names and the positive names for things. Here’s what I mean:
- For large properties owned by a single person or entity: “estate”=good; “compound”= bad
- For someone who behaves in unpredictable ways: “eccentric”=good; “crazy” = bad
- For people whose job is to execute someone else’s directives: “staff”=good; “minions”=bad
- For a newly formed religious group: “sect” = good; “cult” = bad
We’ve found that there can be a world of difference in the implications of using one word vs. another to describe something. The two of us play this game because we find it fascinating, but it also makes me think about how often we can reveal our unconscious prejudices and assumptions about people and situations through our word choices.
And when you’re a leader, the power of that is magnified. Let’s say you’re a manager, and you’re talking to someone about a guy that works for you who has lots of ideas and enjoys talking about them. If you describe his behaviors as “enthusiastic” or “passionate,” your colleague will have a very different sense of him than if you describe him as “loud” or “pushy.” Sometimes, sadly, people do this kind of subtle character assassination on purpose – when they want someone to be seen badly. But too often, we do it without conscious malice, simply based on unrecognized negative assumptions we have about someone…and don’t realize the negative impact it can have on them.
I was coaching someone once who had three direct reports. When she spoke about two of them, Emma and Joe, she nearly always used “good” words. In her description, they were forward-looking, inspiring, big thinkers, and risk-takers. These were qualities that she saw and liked in herself and in them. The third report, Damon, was very different from the three of them, and she would describe him as old-school, slow, formal, and sensitive. When I pointed out to her how these words might come across to others, she responded that they weren’t negative words, and that she thought they were accurate. So then I asked her what impression her boss had of the three, based on her descriptors. She thought for a moment, and then responded (I gave her high marks for honesty), “He probably sees Emma and Joe as big assets to the organization, and Damon as OK but not great.”
“Is that how you see him?” I asked.
“Not at all,” she acknowledged. “He’s really valuable. He reins us in and keeps us from making impulsive decisions. We need him.”
Once she had seen that, it was easy for her to see how the words she used to describe him arose out of her feeling less comfortable with him and of unconsciously wanting him to be more like Emma and Joe. And how those descriptors might lead others to see him in a less-than-positive way. I asked her to think of alternative, yet still accurate ways of describing him that would let others see the value she saw. Instead of old-school, slow, formal, and sensitive, she began to talk about him as being professional, thoughtful, measured, and considerate.
And not only did her altered description begin to change her boss’ perception of him, I noticed that she, Emma and Joe all started to treat him differently: to make better use of his complimentary strengths, and to more often acknowledge his contributions.
I encourage you to think about how you’re describing situations or people in a way that might subtly (or not so subtly) devalue them in your mind or to others. How could you describe them differently to create more openness and appreciation?