There is a man I have known for decades. I will call him Kerry. He spent much of his professional life doing technical work. He has a tendency to be strong, factual, blunt, challenging and funny. He made a presentation and in it told a story that I had not heard before.
Kerry said that when he was 27 he left a union job, found a partner and started a business. A few years later it failed because of him. He said he was arrogant but did not know it. He was the owner and he was the expert in the technology. He thought that the customers who complained usually did so because they were fools. He said this outlook eventually destroyed his company.
Kerry then spent many years doing technical work in a government organization. He also started a part-time business on the outside. When he retired from the government, he turned his side business into a full time endeavor. It became quite successful.
Kerry then said that the second business was successful because he had experienced a religious conversion. It changed how he saw and treated customers. I asked for some examples.
He began to rattle them off. He told of receiving a call from a man who was furious over a product he had just purchased. The man used abusive language and made angry threats. Previously Kerry would have responded in kind. Instead he said, “I will be right there.”
When he arrived the customer was still angry. Kerry patiently listened and then asked for a demonstration of the problem. The man showed him what was wrong. He asked the man if he had read the instruction book. Somewhat sheepishly, the man said no. Instead of grinding on this fact, Kerry said, “You know I do the same thing, some of these instruction books seem impossible to read.”
Kerry then reviewed the first page of the book, pushed a button and the product worked perfectly. The man became embarrassed and began to apologize. Kerry interrupted him and told him a story of when he had done something very similar. The man was profuse in his thanks.
As Kerry then told multiple stories like this one. In most of the stories the people were troubled. Kerry went the extra mile to help them technically while simultaneously caring for them personally. Interestingly he said he did not treat these troubled customers with concern because he wanted to make money, he did it because he now authentically cared about them. Yet in many of the stories, the troubled customers returned to him with more business or they sent their friends with more business.
Kerry’s story seems so simple that our first reaction might be that everyone understands what is illustrated. While I agree that the story appears to be simple, I believe that under the story is a structure of importance.
At the outset Kerry is a very capable person with a conventional or technical perspective on life. The perspective is fraught with assumptions of hierarchy, technology, expertise, privilege, ego, power and authority. Kerry sees himself as independent, separated from others and he is free to act upon them.
His assumptions keep him from seeing a more complex view. Every interaction is part of a relationship. He lives in interdependence. His every feeling, thought and action has impact and the impact loops back and co-creates Kerry’s reality. These invisible loops, that he was very likely to deny or laugh at, were so important, that Kerry lost his business. Yet, even when it happened, he was not yet ready to learn and change.
It was only later, when a new life experience, in this case the events that comprise a religious conversion, deeply challenged his basic assumptions and required him to reconstruct his technical view of the world. In his new world he was still a technical expert but now he was also becoming a relational expert. He was learning how to love and therefore was becoming a more authentic human being.
Because of his personal transformation, Kerry combined a new, relational lens with his old technical lens. The new hybrid lens allowed him to see a more complex world.
He could see that hierarchies are also social networks. He could see that independence and interdependence operate simultaneously. He could see that every feeling, thought and action that he put into that network would in some way return to him. He could see that technical expertise is more valuable in relationships of mutual influence and learning. He could see that authority without concern is toxic and short term ego payoffs come at the price of long-term value creation.
In making these discoveries Kerry was combining his old, technical lens with a new relational lens. The new, hybrid lens allowed him to see and to speak differently. He had become bilingual.
In becoming bilingual, Kerry also became transformational. In every one of his stories, the presenting problem suggested some conventional reaction. In every case Kerry did not react as expected. Instead he engaged in unexpected, positive behavior. We call it positive deviance. In exercising positive deviance he invited the other person to move to a new, more positive state. In most cases they did and they were so grateful, they wanted to continue the relationship with Kerry. They trusted him and were willing to invest in him. Because Kerry was a transformational influence they were living better and so was he.
Who do you know who sees self as independent, separated from others and free to act upon them?
Who do you know who was once independent and is now interdependent?
How could you use this passage to create a more positive organization?