A little disruption is good for the soul

In Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle In Time, she shares the story of the Murry family – specifically Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and their quest to find their missing scientist father.  I won’t recount the entire plot here (if you need a summary, here it is.  Seriously, just go read the book!), but there are two important things I want to point out – Meg struggles to fit in, and Meg is challenged to save her brother from the powerful IT…whose one power is the ability to make EVERYONE fit in.

In the story, Meg, her friend Calvin, and Charles Wallace travel to the planet Camazotz, a picture of conformity:

Below them the town was laid out in harsh angular patterns.  The houses in the outskirts were all exactly alike, small square boxes painted gray….In front of all the houses children were playing….As the skipping rope hit the pavement, so did the ball.  As the rope curved over the head of the jumping child, the child with the ball caught the ball. Down came the ropes.  Down came the balls. Over and over again. Up. Down. All in rhythm. All identical.  Like the houses. Like the paths. Like the flowers.

Not to get all dramatic about it, but the truth is that many companies are like Camazotz.  The denizens of Corporate America are all too happy to allow someone else “to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burdens of thought and decisions.”  Unsurprisingly, Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace are unnerved by all the sameness.  To them, it’s creepy and unnatural. Why?  Because if everything is the SAME, how would you know if something is good or bad? 

That which moves us forward requires a lack of conformity.  Progress, by its very nature, is disruptive.  It interrupts the status quo.  It challenges us to bounce the ball to a different rhythm from everyone else.  Without disruption, we would be drones.

It’s hard to embrace our inner disruptor, though.  We are surrounded by people who will defend their right to a boring, thought-free, risk-free existence.  And, like IT, these people are often in leadership roles. Why? Because the more you have, the harder you will work to defend it.evolution-change

At one point, Meg and Charles Wallace see a little boy who bounces his ball out of rhythm – you know, as a little boy would play with a ball.  Rather than this being seen as a natural thing, it’s considered an Aberration:

The door of his house opened and out ran one of the mother figures.  She looked wildly up and down the street, saw the children and put her hand to her mouth as though to stifle a scream.

When you have chosen to trade your free will to avoid responsibility, it would appear you have also chosen to live in fear.

I don’t know about you, but I struggle to work with people whose default setting is “don’t rock the boat.”  That doesn’t mean I’m an anarchist – it means I value individuality, risk taking, and looking forward.  I believe that what got us here won’t get us to the next level.  Gosh darn it, I’m a disruptor.

To further disruption in your environment, keep the following in mind:

  • Know your currency: Charles Wallace, intuitive genius that he is, is eventually seduced by the power of IT – not because he doesn’t want responsibility but because IT flatters his intelligence.  Many of us have trigger points or other elements that we hold dear and will defend to the (metaphorical) death. Be aware of yours and establish your personal boundaries so you don’t automatically go into defensive mode when you should be embracing a challenge.
  • Use frustration to your advantage: In the book, Meg says, “When I’m mad I don’t have room to be scared.” She uses one strong emotion to give herself courage to ignore her fear.  We all run into frustrations at work.  We get angry.  Would you rather sit and stew? Wouldn’t it be better to use that anger and frustration to give yourself the courage to try something new?
  • Understand WHY disruption is needed:  Meg saves Charles Wallace because she knows IT doesn’t understand love – her motive was purse, her cause just, her disruption a necessity.Change for change’s sake isn’t necessarily a good thing.  It should be intentional.  WHY do you disrupt?  Is it to encourage new thinking and behaviors?  Or are you just being a contrarian? True disruptors use their powers for good, not evil.
  • Keep trying: Disruptors understand that success doesn’t always happen on the first try.  It takes persistence, adaptability, influence, charm, support, help, failure, learnings, repetition, new leadership…all of it.  But it’s worth it.

We keep talking about the importance of authenticity, letting your freak flag fly, being yourself at work.  If you believe in that, be open to a little disruption now and then.  It’s good for you.

“Maybe I don’t like being different,” Meg said, “but I don’t want to be like everybody else, either.”
– Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

Think disruption sounds cool? Want to explore your inner disruptor? If you are in the Denver area, join us for DisruptHR Denver – a FREE event on April 9, 2014, exploring new was to think about people and talent.  Visit www.disrupthr.co/denver for more information and to RSVP!

Everything rustles… (how fear drives your people)

The impact of fear on the workplace typically comes from allegations of a hostile work environment, inappropriate manager behavior, too much stick and not enough carrot, etc. And yes, fear DOES impact the workplace in all those ways. What I want to talk about is the everyday impact fear has on the actions and decisions of managers and employees alike. It’s like death by a thousand cuts – one doesn’t take you down, but a whole lot of them over time is bound to beat you.

The title of this post comes from a quote from Sophocles (seems like a smart guy, so I am okay quoting him):

To him who is in fear everything rustles.

Think about all the rustling going on in your company. There’s a closed door meeting (rustle). The boss isn’t returning my calls (rustle). That person is getting more attention in the staff meeting (rustle). All of this fear is destroying your culture and creating behaviors driven by the wrong thing.  I’ve worked in environments where fear was a seen as a  “motivator” that should be used, and I’ve seen the impact it has on the company – from turnover, to recruiting, to business results, to culture.  It ain’t pretty.

afraidWhen actions are driven by fear rather than thought, you end up with dysfunction.  It’s easier to question motives and suspect a hidden agenda.  A leader’s primary purpose (to make the company successful) is discarded, replaced by a “cover my ass” mentality.  We’ve all seen it – hell, we’ve all probably fallen prey to it at one time or another.  Recognizing fear can be easy – overcoming it is the tricky part.

In his excellent book Your Brain At Work, David Rock uses the SCARF model to help illustrate what drives people either toward or away from a situation, and I like to use it to show how fear becomes the driver in all 5 areas:

  • S stands for status, your relative importance to others.  
    Fear of losing status can cause incredibly awful decision-making, like covering up mistakes, failing to develop their people (they might be better than I am!), forming inappropriate “alliances” amongst their peers, or worse – burying corporate malfeasance.
  • C  stands for certainty, the ability to predict the future.
    This is the reason people tend to run away from change – the fear of the unknown.  Fear driven by a need for certainty is what drives a lot of the gossip and “story-telling” seen in organizations, because people combat lack of certainty by creating a reality that they think they know.  Worse still is when decisions are based on the new reality (and you know it happens every day).
  • A stands for autonomy, which provides a sense of control over events.
    Fear in this area manifests in passive-aggressive behavior – people are afraid they don’t have control so they find a way to get it back, typically by NOT doing something you’ve asked them to do.  Occasionally fear causes people to act first, collaborate second because they fear that their choice in the matter will be taken away from them.
  • R stands for relatedness, or a sense of safety with others (think friend or foe).  
    Trust (or lack thereof) is a major cause of fearful behavior in business – I’m afraid I can’t trust you, so I don’t dare speak up/collaborate/engage in healthy debate/be authentic/you name it.  People are also afraid that they won’t be part of the “in crowd”, that they’ll be on the outside looking in.  This can drive inauthentic relationships, and cause people to act “fake” for the sake of fitting in.
  • F stands for fairness, which (no surprise) relates to the perception of fair exchanges between people.
    Leaders loooooove it when people talk about fairness (darn it, where’s that sarcasm font???).  As it relates to fear, though – a perceived lack of fairness in a situation causes people to fear that they’re in trouble, or they aren’t valued.  This can lead to active disengagement, undermining the success of others, or justifying lying/stealing because “the company owes me”.  They are afraid they aren’t getting “what’s fair.”

So start paying attention to what you’re seeing in your organization and see if fear is driving behaviors you don’t like.  And if fear is the “preferred” method of leadership, use SCARF to help address the issues.  Quiet the rustling in your world.

One last geek quote (but it’s a good one from Dune):

 Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

What examples of fear have you seen in your organization?  Share below!