Archive for January, 2010

January 29, 2010

The past, a prologue

Change could be a healthy experience for organizations and groups of people; although I was drawn to the field because in some ways my life for a long time was a story of unhealthy changes.  It becomes a large unwieldy knot of dirty twine and untangling the stories to make sense of where things could have been put on a different path is as frustrating.

In those unwieldy work-change-knots, I didn’t know all of the stressors on the systems or how decisions impacted other areas of the organizations. I worked in several organizations that were dealing with big changes and broad economic uncertainty,  and to be fair I don’ think that my experience was unique. However, across the board, change was messy, uneven, and lacked transparency. The leaders started sounding like used car salesmen and nobody was buying it.

I felt as if my work was unappreciated, as coworkers disappeared in rounds of layoffs.  In one job, leaders talked up our product with ridiculous enthusiasm and we got more and more angry. We knew the work was shaky before we lost people, and afterwards, we could no longer believe in the quality of what we produced.  In a scramble to make money, our deadlines were even shorter, product became a joke; the depression that set in each time I turned the alarm clock off in the morning was a physical sensation, heavy and sharp.

I can still recall these emotions as strongly as I do when I think of a loved one passing.  I still have friends from this job and we can barely talk about specifics without re-living the trauma.  It seems dramatic to speak of things in this way, but I hear these same feelings echoed in overhearing strangers’ conversations on the subway, talking to acquaintances who tell me their stories when I ask, “How’s work?”

If the sadness, depression, and rage are still a part of organizational change then I suppose I’m in the right field.  It’s a shame, though, and the deep pain I see in other people saddens me. Sometimes I worry that getting into this line of work is an attempt to right the wrongs of my own organizational past. Much like dating the same type of people over and over again to deal with some mommy or daddy issues.

Acknowledging that there is a pattern to everyone’s organizational life, even the ‘experts’ who are trying to fix things, will probably be one of the sharpest tools in my kit.  There’s something poetic and mathematical about a pattern, much like social-organizational psychology. I feel so lucky to have been able to get my Masters degree in this field. And there’s still so much to learn about putting it into practice, it scares me at the same time as having me on the edge of my seat.

January 28, 2010

The State of the Union

I’ve been re-reading “Primal Leadership,” and it seems timely in light of tonight’s State of the Union address.  The speech was so wonderfully crafted to represent a leadership model espoused by Goleman, et al.,  an emotionally-intelligent, values-based leadership. I heard a little Stephen R. Covey in there also,  as President Obama seemed to want to convey that he ‘sought first to understand, then to be understood.’

While the President was speaking, I couldn’t help but grab the laptop and start taking notes. Some of the moves were elegant, like chess, others were a bit Hollywood in the appeal to baser emotions.  Overwhelmingly, the style he spoke with was exciting to watch and I think upon further analysis I can learn a lot.

The outline I made while listening is as follows:

1. Celebrate past triumphs over the daunting and uncertain, stressing that, at the time, nobody knew if the struggle would end in triumph.

2. Acknowledge that real emotions are being felt and that there is pain in the struggle, right here and now.

3. Set a broad goal that speaks to hope and faith, still owning that improvement needs to occur.( ‘government that matches American peoples’ decency’)

4. Owned difficult unpopular decisions, made a case for what worked and what didn’t. Used humor to release tension in room. (bank bailout was ‘about as popular as a root canal,’ lightly teased Republicans for not standing when he spoke about tax cuts)

5. Again acknowledged that there is real emotional loss and that change is imperfect but crucial.

6. Laid out plans, both specific and general, using examples, for how to proceed with recovery.

7. Made the case for change;  created burning platform using emotionally charged language. (‘time to act is now’… comparing US to foreign competition, posing image of US in second place as untenable)

8. Laid out more plans, more specific, told more stories.

9. Spoke of a lack of trust and faith in the followers, challenged leaders to rise to the occasion. (‘we have a deficit of trust,’ ‘we need to close the credibility gap,’ give the people the government the deserve’)

10. Acknowledged challenges in moving forward, differences of opinion and diversity that make the leadership strong. Gave examples of how faith was lost in bits over time. Added specific areas that need work in order to regain faith. (don’t ask, don’t tell, equal pay laws for women, broken immigration system)

11. Closed with an argument for the values that drive the leaders and followers,  spoke to the resilience of the followers through hardest times, raised a call for people to gather together as future heroes.

I am a supporter of the President’s change initiatives, but I worry about the long-term value of some of the tactics he’s using.  In goading people to fight together, it may be triggering a fight-or-flight response and those who do not agree or need some time to get swung, will go straight for the flight.  Finding a common enemy outside the US might work to unite us on a shallow level, but in the end it is with acknowledging our differences and embracing our common values we shall be truly joined in struggle. I can see how he used both of these messages, but I am unsure if there is potency in the latter when trust is an issue.

This brings up some important questions of leadership that I’m trying to wrestle with in regards to mourning organizational loss, regaining trust, and building confidence in systems. I’m going to have to chew over this a little (and maybe crack a few more books) but I’m going to use this State of the Union address to launch from. It’s as good a place as any…

January 26, 2010

Turn and face the strain…

I’ve been meditating on how to start this blog for months now, knowing that I need to put these thoughts together but the push to start has been elusive. If there’s nothing else I can contribute to the conversation about change I would like to add my experience of changing and being changed.

Whether it was in a tech company that rode the bubble of the mid-90’s and summarily burst in 2001, the field of education, hash-slinging, or light construction, all of my work experiences have echoed similar insights into human-organizational behavior.  To be truthful, I haven’t seen anyone manage change successfully, if an attempt is made at all.

It may be that managing change is not the correct way to go about dealing with change. Since change is the only constant in our world, perhaps the Buddhists have the right idea in just letting it be “what is” and going with the flow. As our culture is not predisposed to flowing maybe the most one can do is to breed flexibility in people and systems. This does not, however, speak easily to the real task of leadership. However one sees the leaders of their organization, they are human, and within that limitation are the same anxieties that breed in us all.

Sometimes when I think about it, I get a sense of defeatism, as it’s hard to believe that nothing short of a complete cultural makeover will cure these ills. Other times I feel like it has already started and adding my voice to the call would be doing something real, and of value.

So welcome to this part of my world, and let the games begin…