Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What’s Keeping You Stuck in Your Dung Pile?

I love the Buddhist stories because there always seem to hold a truth that I can relate to. I recently found this wonderful little story about two monks who lived together in a monastery for many years; they were great friends. They died within a few months of one another. One of them was reborn in the heaven realms and the other monk was reborn as a worm in a dung pile. The one up in the heaven realms was having a wonderful time, enjoying all the heavenly pleasures. But he started thinking about his friend: "I wonder where my old mate has gone?" So, he scanned all of the heaven realms but could not find a trace of his friend. Then he scanned the realm of human beings but could not see any trace of his friend there, so he looked in the realm of animals and then of insects. Finally he found him, reborn as a worm in a dung pile... Wow! He thought: "I am going to help my friend. I am going to go down there to that dung pile and take him up to the heavenly realm so he too can enjoy the heavenly pleasures and bliss of living in these wonderful realms."

So he went down to the dung pile and called his mate. And the little worm wriggled out and said: "Who are you?"  "I am your friend. We used to be monks together in a past life, and I have come up to take you to the heaven realms where life is wonderful and blissful." But the worm said: "Go away, get lost!" "But I am your friend, and I live in the heaven realms," and he described the heaven realms to the worm. But the worm said: "No thank you, I am quite happy here in my dung pile. Please go away." Then the heavenly being thought: "Well if I could only just grab hold of him and take him up to the heaven realms, he could see for himself." So he grabbed hold of the worm and started tugging at him; and the harder he tugged, the harder that worm clung to his pile of dung.

This story very poignantly reminded me that all of us can fall victim to being comfortable in our own “dung pile.”  And not only are we comfortable… we actually resist or reject the notion that we might be happier if we left the pile. The worm actually believed he was happy in the dung. As humans, our dung pile can be our beliefs.

Research has shown that 90 percent of one’s belief system is formed by age 12 and it undergoes a “final lock” at age 20. I would imagine you can add or subtract a couple of years on either side of this belief continuum formation but the point is, most of us have an intact belief system by the time we reach adulthood. These beliefs are the result of our unique experiences during the first twenty or so years of our life along with how we have been socialized based on our gender, ethnicity, religion, etc. Our belief system then results in unconscious but predictable adult behavior patterns which usually have been reinforced by what got us rewarded or punished. These well entrenched beliefs are changed only by some significant personal life event such as death of a loved one, birth of a child, marriage, loss of a job, not getting a promotion, or a not so personal events such as 9/11, the civil rights movement, or the recession we have just gone through or maybe we have a sudden realization (usually with the help of significant feedback) that some of our behaviors resulting from our belief system are actually self-defeating or have a negative impact on others.

Certain types of stressors or maybe a friend or coach certainly help motivate us to change. However, we often rush to change without examining our current beliefs that may be competing with our desire to change….competing to the point that we are more committed to staying in the dung pile then actually changing. We may need to stop and examine how our beliefs or assumptions are keeping us in our dung pile. This is not easy especially if these competing commitments are unconscious.  What have you done lately to examine the competing commitments that may be getting in the way of you being able to sustain a change in your life?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Minding the Gap

While in London and riding the “tube”, I became intrigued with the signs posted around the stations warning patrons to “mind the gap”. I even took pictures because it so reminded me of what I do for a living. I help people to “mind the gap.” It has become my consulting and coaching signature….even my living motto. I believe and like many of you, have observed that most organizations, groups, and individuals have two sets of values….the “espoused values” and the “values in action.”  Sometimes the gap does not impact or hurt anyone and at other times, it is absolutely mystifying and scary (glaring example being the recent Petraeus “gap” or the notorious Enron “gap”). Many unresolvable conflicts occur because one group thinks “the espoused values” are alive and well even while another group sees a glaring gap between values and behavior. I think that “minding the gap” is one of the hardest challenges that organizations, groups, and individuals face since ignoring that a gap exists can easily corrupt trust building as well as delay or prevent adaptation to a new reality.

I became aware of “the gap” when I first read Chris Argyris’ classic article, “Teaching Smart People to Learn.” Argyris points out that “everyone develops a theory of action—a set of rules that individuals use to design and implement their own behavior as well as to understand the behavior of others. Usually, these theories of actions become so taken for granted that people don’t even realize they are using them.” However, if we were to question individuals about their behavior, they would provide us with an espoused theory of action or what I call espoused values driving their actions. This is because we are not even aware of the defensive reasoning we use to explain our behavior especially when encountering a threatening or embarrassing situation where we may perceive ourselves as vulnerable. Uncovering our competing commitment to not look foolish, stupid, incompetent….the list of negatives goes  on… a way to more adeptly align our valuesin action with our espoused values especially when our actions are based on flawed assumptions.

I believe this is a personal journey and we often need support to examine our thinking and question the assumptions we have about ourselves. This is hard work and not for those who lack courage.

 I recently had a client who was courageous enough to examine his own thinking about himself after his 360 feedback revealed a significant gap between how he saw himself and how his supervisor, peers, and direct reports saw him. His raters saw him as a very competent, positively influencing, and adaptable leader but the individual saw himself in a totally differently light....just the opposite. Consequently, he often turned down roles that he assumed might make him look incompetent or not very able. He used controlling strategies that he thought would not allow him to be vulnerable to mistakes and criticism. Once we investigated his defensive reasoning and the competing commitments contributing to this reasoning, he was able to begin to explore how he could take this new feedback to become an even better change leader.

"Minding the gap” is the hero’s journey re-told over and over again in our myths and stories. It is an ongoing developmental experience…a life-long learning that helps us to become our more authentic selves and better support any group or organization where we work, volunteer, or play. However, we must be open to feedback, willing to challenge ourselves to change behaviors that are getting in the way, and have the support that is needed to sustain our change in behavior. What is the gap between your espoused values and values in action? Are you willing to “mind this gap” and if so, how?



Friday, November 9, 2012

Self-Government: Just Added to My Vocabulary

It has now been couple of days since the re-election of President Obama and I have been listening intently to the many pundits sharing their theories and opinions about why Governor Romney did not win. I resonate with some of the rationalizations because they are accompanied with an intentional inquiry about the learnings they are trying to gleam from this election.  Others are merely revealing their cognitive bias about why they should have won…..we were better! But what have l learned? Well…a new word….self-government. This word might prove to be powerful if taken to heart by both the winners and losers of the many elections held around the country.
I always say that everyone listens to same radio station…WIIFM… “What is in for me?” However, in his election night speech, Obama reminded us that “we are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions.”  He went on to say that “America's never been about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government.” I noticed that he also used the word “self-government” in his earlier speech at the Democratic convention.
So what is self-government? Self-government is defined as “the rule of a state, community or other group by its members.”  So, why self-government and why would President Obama feel the need to remind us?
I would suggest that President Obama was re-issuing an invitation to each of us (regardless of party affiliation) to take our responsibility as citizens seriously. He may be the re-elected president but was not given a magic wand. We also live in this country and have responsibilities. I used to think we sometimes take for granted the rights and privileges that come along with citizenship. However, as I watched citizens around the country stand in line for long hours waiting to vote, I realized that we are indeed “a sum greater than our individual ambitions” and most of us do take the rights and privileges of citizenship seriously. But, our responsibility goes beyond standing in line to vote!
It is our continuing to work for what we have voted for….continuing to let our voice be heard that will make self-government a reality regardless of how frustrating or maddening it may become to pursue what is right and just not a few of us but for  all of us. And remember that although most of the attention has been on the national election, almost all politics are local! Therefore, we are also responsible for getting involved. Are you satisfied with the quality education in your community? Are you satisfied with the quality of healthcare delivered in your community? Are you satisfied with the quality of safety and security in your community?
In this age of increasing anxiety associated with real and perceived threats, unrelenting change and unpredictability, and increasing polarization, we need to think about what it means to be a responsible citizen….in our community, in our workplace, in our society. Along with the rights and privileges of citizenship, what are our obligations to make sure that this communities not only survives but thrives? 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Letting Go

Recently, I was studying forgiveness in a spiritual development program I am enrolled in and this story was shared. Park rangers in Africa have devised an incredibly unique way of catching monkeys. Tagging and administering medicine to monkeys are routine tasks of rangers. In an effort not to harm the monkeys with guns and darts as they capture them, the rangers have come up with something they call "the banana method."  It’s simple but effective trick. You take a fairly large and heavy Plexiglas box and drill a small hole in the side of it, a hole just big enough for the monkey to squeeze its hand through. Inside the box you place a banana. Inevitably, the monkey will see the banana through the Plexiglas and come down from the tree to get it. By straightening out its fingers, the monkey can easily get its hand in and grab hold of the banana, but once the monkey makes a fist with the banana in it, there is no way for it to pull its hand back out. It's stuck, that is as long as it refuses to let go of the banana. And for some reason having to do with complex issues of adaptation and instinct, monkeys - virtually every single one of them - have a terrible time letting go.

Freedom is right there for the taking if only they let loose their grip. But, you see, they don't. A part of them holds on for dear life. A part of them remains stuck. And it's important to remember that it's not their whole being stuck in the cage, only their fist, only one small part of them. But that one small part, because it is unable to let go, becomes a great weight to the monkey, holding its entire life hostage.

So, you are probably thinking…what has the monkeys not letting go of the banana got to do with forgiveness? They are just monkeys who do not know any better! Well, I probably would not make an association between these monkeys and forgiveness either before thinking seriously about forgiveness.  I had not really thought too much about forgiveness since I tend to be one of those individuals who may think about a transgression for a little while but then I let it go. As a matter of fact, I think of forgiveness as a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge and that is exactly what I do…make the decision to forgive. It does not mean that I will forget or that I do not believe that individuals should not be held responsible for the cruelties, abuse, and injustices they have inflicted on others. No…I do believe in justice! However, there are many individuals who are walking around in significant pain and anguish because they are still holding on to something that someone did to them. This “something” could be minor like someone taking a parking space even though you were there first and had your blinker on…or… your boss embarrassing in front of your peers. Or, it can be much more traumatic like someone hurting or even murdering a loved one…or even a whole community. The list can go on and on and unfortunately, one “unforgiveness” can pile onto another to the point where you become stuck in your own victimhood...stuck like the monkey. The question is…how long are you willing to stay stuck?
Research findings suggest that failure to forgive may, over a lifetime, boost a person's risk for heart disease, mental illness and other ills -- and, conversely, that forgiving others may improve health.  So, are you like the monkey who cannot let go of the banana and as a result, is stuck and even wallowing in the role of victim? Or, have you made the decision to let go and get your life back? Think about it! Remember, all who wander are not lost!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Examining Our Habits of Thinking

This morning I had the most wonderful treat…my monthly Thai massage! I lay on a mat for ninety minutes while my masseuse used her hands, her feet, her body, and herbal balls to loosen my muscles and release stress pent up in different parts of my body. It was absolutely blissful!!! And to think that I almost talked myself out of trying this type of massage!

While in Prague a couple of years ago, my friend Karyn and I happen to walk past a Thai massage parlor. Karyn became very excited about the prospect of getting a Thai massage and proposed that we make an appointment. I vividly remember my reaction. I took a deep breath and said resolutely that I did not think I wanted someone “walking all over my body.” When she asked me if I had ever had a Thai massage, I had to embarrassingly admit that I had never been in a Thai massage parlor.

I realize now that my response had been fueled by my own imagination of what I thought a Thai massage was. I have no idea how I made this inferential leap that the masseuse would be “walking all over my body” but obviously I had some data and experiences in the recesses of my subconscious mind that very swiftly surfaced to lead me to this bizarre conclusion. Thank goodness I have a very patient friend who shared her experiences and suggested I give it try. I finally acquiesced and of course, I have been hooked on Thai massages ever since. But, I haven’t forgotten how the limitations of my own thinking, primarily untested assumptions, contributed to me making a decision that led to me avoiding this type of massage for years.

How many times have you made such an inferential leap and come to a conclusion that did not make much sense to some of the people around you? You may have even had difficulty explaining how you arrived at your conclusion and instead of opening yourself to others’ perspectives to enlarge your view, you quietly dug your heels in to defend your Truth (notice the capital T?). In the Fifth Discipline Field book, Rick Ross points out that our ability to achieve the results we truly desire can be eroded by our thinking that:

· Our beliefs are the Truth

· TheTruth is obvious

· Our beliefs are based on real data

· That data we select are the real data

The problem is…we usually don’t have all the data or we have selected the data that conveniently reinforces our stance or belief. AND, sometimes we have constructed our own reality that only makes sense to us. In the case of the massage, my somewhat distorted Truth only impacted me and delayed my gratification. No big deal! However, in an organizational setting, the limitations in our thinking can limit our ability to perceive reality which in turn hampers our ability to identify and address the real issues. Consequently, organizational effectiveness is suboptimized.

In today’s world of complex issues and unprecedented challenges, the ability to either challenge our own assumptions or allow our assumptions to be challenged by others is an often overlooked leadership competence but perhaps the one significant competitive advantage organizations possess. Examining, understanding, and perhaps, changing our habits of thinking to increase our ability to see more complexity in the world should be part of any leadership development process. In her book, Changing on the Job, Berger points out that “from a developmental perspective, real growth requires some qualitative shift, not just in knowledge, but in perspective or way of thinking.” So, how can we support the development of critical thinking skills in organizational leaders?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Choices We Make

One of the holiday traditions I have maintained since I was a child was to watch some version of the Christmas Carol. As a matter of fact, I think I have seen all of them. When I was younger, I was intrigued (and a little frighten) about the ghosts visitation and how they helped Scrooge to become a better person. Interesting, each time I watch the story, I come away with a little bit more enlightenment. This year the enlightenment was my own proneness to linear thinking.
I think most of us assume that Scrooge turned out be a rather crotchety and dishearten individual because of his relationship with his father. In other words, Scrooge’s father was the cause of Scrooge being an unhappy and stingy person especially during what should be one of the most joyous and generous times of the year. However, this year it occurred to me that Scrooge’s predicament was a classic example of multicausality.  
The notion of multicausality stems from our realization that there are many influences that impact us. Although we may have a negative experience, we choose how we respond to it. Individuals with very similar backgrounds or personal histories may exhibit very different attitudes and behaviors because of the choices they make. Our personal history is made up many bifurcations….the choices we make (sometimes without much thought), and the consequences we experience.
Scrooge became the person he was because of one of the choices he made….namely, his relationship with money. He chose money-making as a priority. The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present provided him with a glimpse on how his choice-making (somewhat unconscious) had resulted in his being a rather unhappy person. The Ghost of Christmas Future showed him what would possibly happen if he did not change his ways. The choice was his to make again!!!
Many of us notoriously start the New Year with resolutions because we see this as an opportunity to make a better and more intentional choice. However, we may not have a good appreciation for how we got to where we are and unfortunately, there are no ghosts to help us more fully understand ourselves and what we really need to do differently. This may be one reason that most of us abdicate our resolutions by March and fall back into our default behaviors. Sometime we need help to examine our past choices and to make better choices to get a different outcome.
I would suggest engaging a coach to help you sort out what you need to change based on the choices you have made in the past that are interfering with where you really want to be in your present and future life. You have the opportunity to not only choose but to design how you want to be. It is never too late to change as so dramatically demonstrated by our friend Scrooge. Remember, all who wander are not lost! 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"Power is the Ability to Achieve Purpose"

Here in the Nation's capital, there will be a gathering on the downtown Mall this coming Sunday to celebrate the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue. As we all know, Dr. King was an eloquent speaker whose many wise quotes are often repeated in speeches, sermons, power point slides...well, he is well quoted! One of his quotes that especially resonates with me is about power and how he framed it. My pastor observes (and I definitely agree with her!) that most of us recoil when we hear the word power because we have sometimes witnessed the wielding of it in less than admirable ways. However, Martin Luther King Jr. viewed power in a very different way. He believed that "power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose." As individuals, groups, or even organizations, we often forget to consider the purpose aspect of why we are doing what we are doing.

I was recently in Baltimore and observed a group of protesters across the street from my hotel. These groups have sprung up all over the United States and seem to be in it for the long haul. However, as I watched them from my hotel window, I wondered if their power was being diluted because of a lack of purpose other than to demonstrate their anger about the economy, or the lack of jobs, or maybe it's that government is too big, or that government is not see how confused I am about their purpose for protesting. They will probably align around a purpose sooner or later and then they may be able begin to mobilize others to help them achieve the social change they desire because others will understand the change chat. Otherwise, these groups may not be able to do little more than gain the occasional attention from the media when some of the groups' members become defiant and are put into jail.

In organizations, do we ask people to make a change without having identified the purpose? Or, as middle managers, do we fail to fully understand and appreciate the purpose because we had no say in the forthcoming change? And then shrug our shoulders and claim ignorance of purpose when asked by our staff, "why the change?"  Even if the impetus for the change comes from a higher level in the organization, it is our responsibility as managers to not only understand the purpose of the change but to facilitate it at our level and lower. This is where we stop being managers and start wearing our leader hats!

It has been my experience that many middle managers are often unaware of their power during an organizational change because they have not fully grasped the purpose of the change....all of the external political, social, and economic forces contributing to the change and the complex organizational cultural forces contributing to the resistance to the change...middle management being but one. As a matter of fact, middle managers can sometimes be the most significant bottleneck during organizational change because of their lack of ability to achieve purpose. Said another way, their lack of capability to assume power contributes to many change efforts going awry. So, if this is the case, what might organizations do ensure to "empower" their middle managers to lead during organizational change?