Once we have a sense of shared responsibility, open communication, conversational norms, a clear mission and a thoughtfully designed environment, we ask:
- How do we go about producing the best work or reaching goals related to the mission? Do we just show up and pursue our own projects, meet deadlines, say the right things at meetings to get them over with, and occasionally praise a colleague to keep up the appearance of collegiality or commitment?
- Isn’t it enough for us to follow the policies and rules and to practice the norms we’ve come up with without getting too personal and too involved?
But even in an organization where people pursue individual excellence and separate projects, there will always be moments of interaction with others in the organization, and there will always be those moments when we feel defeated, frustrated, stuck, and overwhelmed and need the help of others.
The ability to work with one another to get things done depends on the quality of interactions we have in particular moments. Even if we choose to maintain professional or personal distance from colleagues to ensure our own sense of safety and comfort, it is difficult to avoid the personal element of relationships and the inevitability of encounters, interactions, and the occasional confrontation.
So how do we navigate the ambiguities and discomforts of working relationships while striving to do the best work? While there is no easy answer, organizations must have an ethos of cooperation if they hope to build positive relationships to support their mission. This ethos can only come from the top.
What cooperation looks like
Leaders who care generally show consideration, humility, and the willingness to engage others on equal ground. So they spend their time modeling and promoting the value of genuine cooperation. Three features are visible in genuine cooperation:
1. Active consideration
In the same way that a culture of architects is characterized by agency and designing an environment is characterized by intentionality, genuine cooperation is characterized by flexibility. Consideration is about our willingness to consider others’ perspectives and experiences while in the process of determining what words to say and actions to take. This attitude can help us to remain open to alternatives and to new ways of doing and seeing things. It can also help our professional relationships because our colleagues experience us as concerned about their well-being, perspectives, and working conditions.
We learn to be considerate by taking others into account when we say or do something at an early age. Over time, this value appears to lose its active nature in our lives and is frequently regarded as a moral imperative to be kind to others without much thought to what kindness to others might entail. Consideration is not the same as relying on a default moral attitude of simply being nice to people. Genuine consideration needs to be active.
Merriam-Webster defines consideration as an engagement in “continuous and careful thought” and “thoughtful and sympathetic regard.” Consider means “to think about carefully… especially with regard to taking some action” and “to regard or treat in an attentive or kindly way.” So consideration implies an active, attentive, and sympathetic regard for others.
Genuine consideration needs to be active.
Active consideration begins with the question: who am I leaving out? To see another’s reality, we must look at language, perspective, and personal experience:
Language is a powerful tool that can cause greater understanding or greater harm, depending on how conscious we are in our use of it. Language creates reality.
- Words mean different things to different people. In her book “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work,” linguist Suzanne Elgin explains that words have rhetorical features and specific emotional and intellectual meanings for different individuals depending on their unique experiences and points of reference.In a public school, for instance, the word “reform” has negative connotations for teachers. It is not that teachers do not wish to see positive change. Far from it. Most educators would prefer to be fulfilled from having made a difference. The problem with the word “reform” is that it has come to connote a way of making change that involves the judgment and punishment of those required to implement the change. It involves the imposition of reform rather than an invitation to awaken the spirit of reform in the implementers. An educator who is the recipient of this form of treatment cannot help but to perceive reform as an act of violence since reform is often predicated on a limited evaluation of their circumstances, an evaluation often accompanied by the claim that they do not work hard enough. Educators generally see a lack of understanding among these reformers since there are many other elements at play in the case of a “failing school.” Ignoring these elements in the name of reform understandably turns educators off from the very idea. The rhetorical features of the word reform evokes in educators a cringing response, one they associate with punishment, shame, and anger.Conversely, the rhetorical features of “reform” for those doing the imposing are quite positive. For them, reform brings to mind the prospects of improvement, accountability, progress, and even liberation of students from lower socio-economic conditions from the degradation of “status quo” education in underfunded schools. If a person outside the education profession spent a week with a professional educator and used the word “improvement” during discussions with the educator rather than“reform,” there is a good chance that both would discover they are on the same page.
- The careful selection of words can keep people “at the table.” If a conflict arises in organizational life and things get heated, all parties need to be given an “out.” Assertions of absolute truth about a situation or disagreement can easily come across as an accusation, so it’s always good to reframe “facts” as possibilities through the use of helping verbs and adverbs that express conditionality, e.g. might, may, possibly, could, perhaps, and maybe. Compare these examples:
Your design of last year’s top-selling product caused the sales to drop.
It’s possible that the current market no longer supports last year’s product line, though it’s also possible that the design may have needed some re-vamping, too.
Perspective and personal experience
The active consideration of others’ perspectives can help to build relationships and trust and increase productivity. We can remain conscious of these questions: whose perspective am I leaving out? Whose experience is impacted by my choices? Our goal is to be more ethical and not cause harm to others through such means as:
- Scanning our immediate surroundings in the moment
- Engaging in a “mental scan” of the different people in a particular situation who might be directly affected by a choice we make individually or collectively. Doing so means to “act politically” and represents what is commonly referred to as “positive politics.”
Politics is a neutral word defined as the negotiation between two or more people over the ways and means to distribute resources, including money, time, attention, and human capital. But politics often succumbs to the ego-driven impulse to “get what’s mine.” All too often, the negotiation breaks down and turns into a covert game of one-upmanship, deception, and even psychological violence (not to mention physical violence, which has played out on the larger scales of national and international politics).
To be humane and considerate is far more efficient than to take the technical approach to decision-making.
For example, a manager cuts a customer service representative’s hours by a third without her knowledge. Imagine what Teresa might feel when she sees the drastic change in her schedule without having been informed. Behind the scenes, management may have had to make hard decisions about cutting hours due to slow business and may even have tried spreading the cuts across the whole department. But choosing not to communicate directly with Teresa is an example of not being considerate to her personal experience. She will make 33 percent less money. However long she stays on the job, she is not likely to be cooperative and may even actively seek to undermine the work itself. At the least, the decision to not communicate deeply impacts her morale and her trust in the organization.
Maybe it seems okay that one person is unhappy. Hard decisions were made, and that is that. But, others who have witnessed this may now have to recalibrate their own relationship to management. A toxic environment could easily spread, causing people to look out for themselves and possibly scheme against each other. Their perspectives have changed, and their trust in the organization has been compromised.
To be humane and considerate is far more efficient than to take the technical approach to decision-making. In all organizations, money, time, attention, and human capital matter.
To consider any perspective other than our own would require us to let go of our own perspective at least some of the time. If we hope to find solutions in our work, it will be helpful for us to question our assumptions, to crack the rigidity of our perspectives, to learn to allow our impressions and thoughts to flow a little bit, and to be fluid enough to experiment. Some of our greatest solutions often come to us after a period in which we have hovered around a viewpoint long enough to resist landing on it. If we can learn to experiment with “not landing” and hang out in that uncomfortable, uncertain space, we might gain more insight about a problem, ourselves, or a colleague.
To the degree that our ideas about others, our situations, and ourselves are fluid, we are able to go with the flow. This may perhaps sound similar to Buddhist epistemology and other Eastern concepts, but there is a rich tradition of Western philosophy in which thinkers have posited a similar approach to viewing others and ourselves. Hegel comes to mind with his belief that truth cannot be found until we have committed ourselves to phenomenological destruction, the commitment to “destroy” or to let go of the absoluteness of our beliefs about particular phenomena, including ourselves and other people.
To the degree that our ideas about others, our situations, and ourselves are fluid, we are able to go with the flow.
Put in the simplest possible terms, to be uncertain is to be open to people, other situations, and ourselves as they naturally are without the cartoon we make them out to be. The authors of “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World” caution us to question the stories we might tell ourselves and to re-frame our claims to “truth” as assumptions. This key insight is shared by many scholars and authors in the fields of organizational theory and leadership studies, as this practice helps us to remain open to differing points of view. All too often, clinging to a rigid point of view about a person or situation can lead to what Heifitz refers to as “unproductive interpretations.” How else can we expect to “get things done?”
Uncertainty can be viewed as a practice or it can be viewed as an attitude. Some theorists and writers in the fields of transpersonal psychology and spirituality believe that we can learn to live from the space of uncertainty most if not all of the time. This is not my present experience, so I cannot say one way or the other. But I do see it as extraordinarily useful in living my life and in sustaining long-term collegial relationships.
Building consensus and trust is no easy task. With the assistance of a democratic process, including structures for participation, a norm for open communication, and a sense of shared responsibility, you will hear these voices. With the intentional support of a clear mission, the thoughtful design of physical spaces, and the promotion of productive norms for communicating, these voices may be calm and courteous enough to tolerate differences and make adequate decisions. With the practiced behavior of actively considering the language and perspectives and personal experiences of colleagues, those decisions can be re-visited and possibly even changed.
But none of these supports, norms, behaviors, or attitudes can be fully realized without the transformative qualities of remaining openminded. Whether we call it conceptual flexibility, uncertainty, emptiness, humility, or openness, it is a quality that is necessary for all other elements to come into play. And it is a quality that is necessary for innovation and productivity.
Uncertainty plays a pivotal role in the development of genuine cooperation because it actively interferes with any claim we might have to know another person.
People are complex beings interacting in a complex world. We may never fully know the extent to which a colleague is an ally or adversary. It is possible that those whom we have designated as “friends” may sometimes have competing loyalties and may not always be there for us. It’s also possible that those whom we have designated as “adversaries” have a richer inner life than we imagined, including unseen private sufferings and a tapestry of benevolent feelings they have for some people in their personal lives.
Our courageous embrace of uncertainty is the practice of non-violence. Our willingness to set aside the caricature we have in our minds of another person (friend or foe) is non-violent because we allow them to be the fullness of who they are. What’s more: we allow the possibility of their complete humanity.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton sums up uncertainty in a deeply human way:
A test of our sincerity in the practice of non-violence is this: are we willing to learn something from the adversary? If a new truth is made known to us by him or through him, will we accept it? Are we willing to admit that he is not totally inhumane, wrong, unreasonable, and cruel, etc.? This is important…. Our readiness to see some good in him and to agree with some of his ideas… actually gives us power: the power of sincerity and of truth. On the other hand, if we are obviously unwilling to accept any truth that we have not first discovered and declared ourselves, we show by that very fact that we are interested not in the truth so much as in “being right.”… Non-violence has great power, provided that it really witnesses to truth and not just to self-righteousness.
The dread of being open to the ideas of others generally comes from our hidden insecurity about our own convictions …. On the other hand, if we are mature and objective in our open-mindedness, we may find that in viewing things from a basically different perspective – that of our adversary [or a friend who has temporarily abandoned us] – we discover our own truth in a new light and are able to understand our own ideal more realistically.
From that place of uncertainty, our consideration for others emerges out of a commitment to question all of our assumptions and to remain open to alternative realities. But the alternative reality that is most transformative of all is the one that emerges in our creative exchanges with others.
The combination of consideration and uncertainty can change the quality of the experience of each to such an extent that they become indistinguishable.
Think about it. The more actively we consider or contemplate the more complete reality of other human beings, the more naturally we are curious about what they are thinking or feeling. The more we are curious to know about what they are thinking and feeling, the more open we become to whatever manifests in them. But which is which? The openness to whatever manifests in ourselves or in another implies an “act” of anticipation, a kind of magical waiting, like a child on Christmas morning. There is a thoughtful kind of seeking, an active energy of gently reaching out. A reaching out for “what could be” and a simultaneous befriending of “what is.”
But what is being actively considered from the place of uncertainty is the conversational space itself, the rich flow of ideas and insights that are possible when the polarity of you and me has become relaxed.
In this exchange, we can learn to truly respect one another. As author William Isaacs reminds us in “Dialogue and the Art of Thinking,” respect means to “look again.” Consideration, uncertainty, and exchange is about looking again and again, with an open mind – whether we are looking at ourselves, other people, or a particular problem requiring a solution.
What is being actively considered from the place of uncertainty is the conversational space itself, the rich flow of ideas and insights that are possible when the polarity of you and me has become relaxed.
When this exchange takes place, it can feel like an electrical current, generating feelings of mutual respect, trust, and even playfulness, allowing for all kinds of insights, all types of solutions, and all sorts of answers. We feel the current sometimes as an undulating wave and sometimes as a charge. We know we feel it and suspect that others feel it but cannot locate the actual source because the source is the exchange itself, made possible by our genuine commitment to engage with each other and to learn together.
Genuine cooperation acts as a support for a community by the creation of a culture in which active consideration and the embrace of uncertainty can be observed as visible problem-solving behaviors that occur through all levels of a community’s work. The result is a culture of exchange in which human beings gain more insight into their working relationships and collaborate towards the discovery of innovative solutions to the inevitable challenges.
This post is part 3 in a three-part series about creating a workplace that is more likely to yield the best results for your mission. Step 1 is “How to build a culture of architects.” Step 2 is “How to design a healthy work environment.”
The key to successful organizations is the intentional creation of structures and norms that bring out the best in people – their highest capacity for empathy and appreciation for others’ experiences and perspectives. Any style of leadership that excludes this capacity will be ineffective at best and destructive at worst. Support Your Mission puts forth the Three Supports model for guiding leaders toward creating a workplace that is more likely to yield the best results for their missions. “If you want your project, organization, community, or group endeavor to succeed, you have to believe in and care about people. In every way possible, you have to create opportunities to build a sense of agency in those you are working with (or who are working for you),” says the website. Simply put: empathy for workers impacts the bottom line. The goal is to organize ideas and patterns in a way that is easy for others to recognize. Patterns must be repeated enough to be reliable and predictable in determining the way forward.