Authentic Voice

In a recent blog entry I shared a story about a mother and her son who was being bullied at school.  In my last entry I described how the story led me to a new question and an eventual resolution.  When my friend and world class teacher, Horst Abraham, read the story, he responded as follows.

“What a powerful story: “Back Off!” and finding your voice.  That is the essence of ‘Fierce Conversations’, a topic I have found more and more people being attracted to as they are searching for their true voice. When have we lost that voice to begin with?”

I am captured by the notion of people in the world searching for their true voice.  The word voice is most commonly associated with the notion of speech.  If you can talk, you have a voice.  Yet the idea of true voice means more than exercising our vocal cords.

Decades ago it was popular to speak of someone having “soul.”  A great musician, author, teacher, speaker was differentiated from a good musician, author, teacher, speaker by the fact that they were communicating with soul.

What this means is they were in touch with their own essence, core, or spirit.  They could recognize how they were emotionally responding to the changing world.  They could transform those feelings into words that carried both cognitive and emotional meaning to others.  In doing this they express what others may be feeling but could not articulate.  Their message has both emotional and cognitive content and it also has novelty.  It holds attention, makes connection, and permeates others.

When a person expresses something from the soul, we tend to listen.  Their emotions open our hearts and their content engages our mind.  This means that our own minds and hearts open and deep learning becomes possible.  Listening may thus lead us to see the world in a new way.  When we do, we become capable of acting in a new way.

I believe when a person finds their voice, they are speaking from their deepest feelings.  By integrating words with those feelings they are creating a transformation.  They are bringing power into the world by exposing their most noble self.

When a boy in the fifth grade says to a bully, “Back off,” and does it in his “thunderous voice,” the boy is expressing nobility.  When a woman stands in and speaks of finding the hand of God in the death of her child, she is also speaking in her “thunderous voice.”  When a lower level executive speaks up in a meeting with genuine concern for the common good, and questions the morality of a given decision, the executive is speaking in a “thunderous voice.”

I end with the penetrating question posed by Horst.  “When have we lost that voice to begin with?”  When have we become past feeling?  How do we become past feeling.  Why is it so rare to hear words spoken from the core of the soul?  Recently I had an experience that gives me insight.  In the next blog I hope to explore it.

Reflection

Why are so many people hungering to discover their authentic voice?

What is an authentic voice?

When in our organization have we heard someone speak in a thunderous voice?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

The Power of Authenticity

I often meet with a room full of executives who are strangers to each other. They often come from different lands. They assume that there are huge differences between themselves and the others in the room. They connect to each other from their heads but not their hearts.

I ask them to list three life experiences that most define who they really are. I then ask them to form groups of eight and take turns sharing their three stories. This brings a reaction of terror. I reassure them and send them out to talk.

At the end of the exercise, I ask them to answer two questions. What do the eight of you have in common? How is the group different from when you started one hour ago? In answer to the first question, they speak of common experiences around family, death, failure, success, learning and so on. They express a sense of awe in discovering that they all share the same experiences and the same core values. In answer to the second question they tell me that an hour before they were strangers, now they have deep trust for one another and feel that they could accomplish great things if they were asked.

No matter how many times I do this exercise, I am always struck by the powerful transformation that takes place. It can be explained by the fact that being transparent is transformational. Normally we see the expression of our unique self as an act of vulnerability and we avoid the expression of our most intimate feelings. It is natural to avoid that which feels dangerous. So we live in a web of superficial exchanges. When we exercise the courage to express our truest feelings, something important happens. We learn that that which is most unique about us is that which has the greatest potential for bonding us.

When we express our uniqueness others tend to listen. When we express our truest feelings, others tend to resonate with the emotional truth they are hearing. They pay great attention. They often respond by expressing their own more authentic feelings. At such moments we realize that we share the same core values and we can trust each other. The expression of the authentic self is a key to trust and transformation.

 

Reflection

Who is the most authentic person you know at work, how do you feel about the person?

Why is authenticity transformational?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

 

 

Congruent Conversation

Carl Rogers wrote extensively about congruent communication. We become congruent when we express feelings that are consistent with our experience and our awareness. We say what we feel and feel what we say.

Rogers indicated that when we become congruent, it changes the conversation. Communication becomes more reciprocal and the other people in the relationship become more congruent. This increases the accuracy of communication and understanding is enriched. Everyone in the conversation is better able to function.

On the other hand, when no one expresses feelings that are congruent with their experience and awareness, the relationship will stay at a superficial level of quality, understanding will decay, functioning will decline and there will be dissatisfaction with the relationship. This observation is a key to organizational change.

It is normal for people in authority to believe that it is their task to act as experts and tell people what to do. The exchange is intellectual in nature and usually lacks congruence. The group becomes increasingly dysfunctional. In organizations dialog is the oxygen of change. A congruent person is a catalyst of congruent dialog and opens the path to change. Such a dialog is a system of mutual support in which everyone is able to learn and perform at an optimal level. High performance unfolds naturally.

Positive Leadership, Positive Culture

Note: The first part of this passage was posted before. Here a new story has been added. I think the passage takes on greater value.

I know a woman who holds a first level job in a large organization. She told me of the day in which the workforce was suddenly downsized. People were told that they no longer had jobs and security officers immediately escorted them off the premises. Although it had been six months since the event, in telling me the story, my friend cried and her body actually quivered.

It seemed to me that she was as traumatized as if she had witnessed the rape of a family member. Still worse, she had to cope with the fact that the perpetrator was at large and she might yet be a victim. She said that, despite the fact she kept her job, her perception of the company and of her role in it has completely changed.   If she were ever able, she would leave the company. Many of her peers feel the same. They show up to work but they are fundamentally uncommitted. The company is now functioning with an army of unengaged people. The capacity to produce wealth is drastically reduced.

Why do intelligent people do this?

The key word is convention. The executives who designed the downsizing were following conventional, problem solving assumptions. They went to conventional HR leaders and conventional lawyers who gave conventional advice on how to solve what is now a conventional problem. Conventional thinking is based on transactional assumptions. It reduces the whole (culture) to the part (individual people). It focuses on the reduction of discomfort in those of power.   It narrows in on the immediate problem to be solved which is to get unwanted people (that is, human trash) out the door with least risk. It does not see the future of the culture. It does not recognize that every act of turning a person into an object stays in the human network and breeds fear, distrust and the pursuit of self-interest.

All of this is compounded by the limitations of conventional measurement. The financial implications of massive disengagement are very large but usually the loss is unrecognized and, even if it was recognized, no one would be held accountable. In such situations we actually expect and accept conventional, bad management and conventional, bad outcomes. We see them as normal and we see no other alternative.

What is the alternative?

I was part of a video project in which I interviewed a man who has been a successful, life-long entrepreneur. He believes in rigorous business discipline. He also believes in rigorous personal discipline. He strives to live at a higher level of consciousness.

During the interview, he shared the story of the “hardest thing” he ever had to do. He had an organization of 80 people. A recession hit and it was necessary to let 20% of his people go. He eventually gathered them and shared the dreadful news. When he finished, all 80 gave him a standing ovation.

This claim is surprising because it violates our conventional assumptions. A standing ovation is an act of collective recognition given for a demonstration of excellence. Why would people give a standing ovation to the person who just fired them? I posed this puzzle to 20 executives. In three minutes of serious discussion they came up with the correct answers:

  • The people knew the man was authentic and he would never deceive them.
  • They people knew he was acting for the common good.
  • The people knew he had tried every other avenue.
  • The people knew he genuinely valued them and was suffering with them.
  • The people knew he would do anything to help them get new work.
  • The people were witnessing excellence in leadership.

I shared this account with a friend who is a noted consultant. He told me of a downsizing in a large company that also produced a standing ovation. The event took place in an organization that has a strong reputation as a positive company. The CEO flew across the country with his eight top people. They held a meeting, shared all relevant data and announced the downsizing. They also announced that the next day each of the eight was assigned a room and would be there all day. Everyone was invited to meet and share what they felt. The eight were in discussions with employees the entire day. From 5 PM to 10 PM the eight met and shared what they learned. The next day another meeting was held. The CEO listed all the things they learned and shared the things they were going to do to help people as they transitioned. At the conclusion the people being fired gave a standing ovation.

Why did they do this? To answer this question, please revisit the above list. The two stories are the same story. While most authority figures live from the conventional mental map, a few live from the positive mental map. While they accomplish the immediate task — downsizing — they simultaneously create an even more positive culture. So it is with every immediate task.

This appears to sound mysterious and even objectionable. Yet consider this. In three minutes of deep thinking, 20 executives could come up with the explanation for the standing ovation. While our behavior tends to be driven by the assumptions of convention, deep within each of us, is an understanding of the path to organizational excellence or positive organizing. There are many external incentives that keep us from accessing this deep understanding. To bring the deep understanding to the realm of action requires that we commit to and sacrifice for the common good. It requires that we give our hearts as well as our heads. When we do we give the whole self and others give us standing ovations.

 

Reflection

What is a positive culture?

What is positive leadership?

How does a positive leader create a positive culture?

 


 

Changing Your Focus

When Delsa and I were first married, I was in graduate school and had a very heavy course load.  Yet I needed to earn enough money for your mother and me to survive.  I knew I could not do it on the minimum-wage jobs available in a college town.  I decided that I would work for the Fuller Brush Company.  This meant going door to door and selling brushes and other home care products.  Selling door to door is difficult because it means experiencing rejection many times a day.  Each night I would leave the apartment at five, drive to the neighborhood, and sit in the car.  Hating what I was about to force myself to do, I would drag myself to the first door.  I would usually do about ten doors and get ten negative responses.  Finally I would stop and tell myself that I was wasting my time.

It was tempting to tell myself that I had been assigned a bad neighborhood.  But I was also experienced enough to know the problem was not the people.  I was the problem.  I was following a normal script and getting normal results.  I was not willing to step out of that normal script.  I needed to make a big change.

In that situation I had a trick I would use to help me make such a change.  I would stand on my toes, close my eyes, squeeze my fists, and bounce up and down until I could feel the energy flowing.  Then I would run, not walk, up to the door and knock.  (Sounds silly, but it always worked.) When people came to the door, I would bowl them over with positive emotion.  With great enthusiasm I would hand them the free sample of the month and tell them how glad I was to be of service and ask how I could help them most.  Most nights I would make sales at seven of the next ten doors.  No matter how many times I tried this, I was always amazed at how well it worked.

Why did it work?  Why did the same kind of people who had been rejecting me suddenly become good customers?  What was different, the people or me?  Obviously, it was me.  If it was me, then there is an important implication.  I was in control.  The normal assumption to make is that the people in the houses are in control.  They can choose to slam the door or invite me in and let me demonstrate products.  An ordinary person in an extraordinary being state alters the routines of the people encountered.  The choice to call forth our best self changes the external world in which we exist.

Now there is one thing I do not like about the preceding example.  The example is about sales.  In sales, people often talk about techniques for manipulating people to buy.  This tendency leads to a false conclusion that goes something like this: “We need to be positive thinkers so we can manipulate people to do the things we want.”

When I was selling Fuller brushes, I had one motive in mind — to make money.  I was there to sell and earn a living.  Now notice that as long as this was the primary motive, I failed in my intention.  I did not make money.  I did not sell very much.  I was an ordinary salesperson generating ordinary or predictable outcomes.  When I took control and went outside my comfort zone, I became more inner-directed.  That’s the being state where something else happens.  We become more other-focused.  We become more concerned about the needs of others.  The person who answered my knock was no longer a neutral object who was going to buy my products and pay me money for them.  Rather, I was now glad to see this person and was there to “serve.”  When my purpose (making a living) was supplemented by a focus on others (love), things changed.

(Letters to Garrett, pgs. 39-41)

Commitment and Rebirth

We spent time with a young friend who is now in a governmental medical residency. He signed a contract to specialize in radiology. When it came time to enter the specialty the bureaucracy no longer offered radiology. While he pointed out that they were legally bound, they put intense pressure on him. He faced all the intimidation with quiet, focused confidence and eventually the bureaucracy caved-in.

The story is important. There is often a moment when a person can choose a right principle, fully commit to an outcome, and then move forward no matter the cost. Opposition churns with intensity then it collapses and the world is changed. David conquers Goliath. The experience changes David.

David discovers the power of his own virtue. He sees potential in himself that he did not see before. He also realizes that the same potential exists in others who do not see it in themselves.   He is anxious to help others empower themselves. He knows that the external social world is vulnerable to human commitment.   The awareness of this truth makes him free and opens to path to living a proactive life.

 

Reflection

When have I have I been totally committed no matter the cost?

What happened?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

A Positive, Empowering Organiztion

Occasionally there is a story of positive organizing that is so potent it must be told.

On August 12th I posted a list of characteristics for people who embrace the positive mental map. I listed 13, although there are many more. Here is the original list.

People who embrace and live the positive mental map:
• Embrace the common good
• Feel confident
• Seek growth
• Overcome constraints
• Expand their roles
• Express their authentic voice
• See and seize new opportunities
• Build social networks
• Nurture high-quality connections
• Embrace feedback
• Exceed expectations
• Learn and flourish

My daughter recently shared a story with me about a 23 year-old CEO who emulates every single one of these characteristics. I’d like to re-tell her story, highlighting the above characteristics throughout her story to illustrate how this CEO took her vision and created a positive organization. (Follow this link to the original story.)

Veronika Scott grew up with parents who were addicts and not a lot of hope. She was given an opportunity that she seized with both hands – a college scholarship. (seek growth, overcome constraints) It was in one of her classes at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit that the epiphany for her business was born. A teacher challenged them to create a product that would fill a need rather than something faddish. (See and seize new opportunities)

Homelessness is a problem in Detroit so Scott visited a homeless shelter. Her welcome was less than warm, but she persisted in interviewing them, trying to find a need she could fill and building relationships with them. (Build social networks, feel confident) Finally she decided to design a coat that transformed into a waterproof sleeping bag.

One day when she was handing out the sleeping bags, a homeless woman started screaming at her that they didn’t need sleeping bags – they needed jobs. She didn’t get upset, instead she recognized the truth in what this angry woman said (embrace feedback) and it occurred to her that she could hire the homeless women to help her make the coats. (Learn and flourish, expand their roles)

Scott said, “Everybody told me that my business was going to fail – not because of who I was giving my product to, but because of who I was hiring. They said that these homeless women will never make more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – you cannot rely on them for anything. And I know my ladies enjoy proving everybody wrong.”

Since late 2010, Scott and her 10 formerly homeless employees moved into a graffiti-covered building in an old Irish manufacturing neighborhood in Detroit where they have made more than 1,000 coats. Most have been distributed to homeless and this year she plans to make four times that many. (embrace the common good) She calls her company The Empowerment Plan.

She is starting to get the kind of publicity to raise real funds – $300,000 donated this year – with a goal of $700,000. These funds will help her hire more women and give warmth to more homeless folks. (nurture high quality connections)

In an interesting twist, she showed her coats at an Aspen fashion show where they generated a lot of interest. Now those Aspenites want the coats too. She is hoping to start a for-profit sister company to design the coats for the retail market and hire homeless to work there as well. (make spontaneous contributions) The Universe has an interesting way of rewarding passion and a focus on the common good. (exceed expectations)

Living from the positive mental map is a win-win. It has created a new life for Scott in which she is thriving. She has invited others to join her and is meeting a need for a large number of homeless people (warmth), and a smaller number of homeless women (jobs). The positive feelings are spreading and people want to contribute to the cause. Not only do they want to contribute, but they want to buy this product because it is a smart design. Scott will have the opportunity to create more jobs for people in need, to make a profit, and to help the larger economy. Truly an empowering plan.

(If you are interested in learning more about Veronika and her company, you can find them on Facebook.)

Reflection:

  • Which of these 13 characteristics are found in your organization?
  • How can you identify and follow your own passion to empower yourself and others?

An Evolving Network of Accelerated Learning

At a conference I met a woman from Australia. She is an organizational consultant who relies heavily on positive psychology. She also does much work in the media. She asked if she could do a video interview about my new book. A few months later we held the session.

Over the computer we chatted as we prepared to start. When it was time, she did an introduction for her video audience. Just before, she seemed to take a breath and turn on a personal switch. She became a little more focused, a little more energized and she spoke just a bit faster. She was consciously choosing to leave the conventional state so as to operate at a higher level of investment and invitation.

As the experience unfolded I began to notice a feeling of delight. Afterwards I noticed my mind racing with ideas from the conversation. It was clearly more than a typical interview. It was a generative conversation.

The next morning I returned to the experience. Why was the conversation so generative? Yes she had chosen to become more engaging but that would be true of most media people as they go on the air.

She had also brought something else to the interview. As I pondered, it occurred to me, that when I teach, I consciously choose to go into a similar state of elevated engagement. When I do I am usually working with people who are coming from an entirely different worldview. The ideas of positive leadership and positive organization fly in the face of conventional assumptions. They are usually interested but skeptical.

Because of their skepticism it is incumbent on me to do more than instruct. I have to establish a relationship of trust and empathy. I have to monitor for misunderstanding or resistance and adjust. I have to work in such a way that it becomes possible for the people to entertain the ideas. It often turns out to be delightful, but I am carrying the accountability. It is my role to do the hard work of transformative teaching.

That kind of hard work was not what was happening in the interview. The interviewer understood the content, not only because she read the book but because she also does the same work that I do. She spends her time trying to help executives embrace the unconventional positive perspective. So instead of simply asking superficial questions, she asked questions she really cared about.   She then built on my answers by adding thoughtful insights from her own experience and then asking the next question.

As I wrote the last sentence, a light bulb went on. She was doing something that differentiates great teachers.   Great teachers turn their classrooms into positive organizations where learning can accelerate. She was turning our interview into a positive relationship where learning could accelerate.

How did she do this? First she had to do all the conventional things that all interviewers must do. But then she enlarged the process.   She did this by adding dignity to my answers and inviting me to embrace and elevate what she had just said. She was facilitating the formation of an evolving network of accelerated learning.

What is an evolving network of accelerated learning? Consider a second illustration.

When I teach my goal is to turn all the students into a network of accelerated learning. I do the basics then I begin to ask probing questions that require students to think deeply and take the risk of saying what they really feel. At that point, I cherish the response, no matter what it is. I examine it and appreciate it. By appreciate I not only express gratitude to the person who offered it, I also add dignity to it by enlarging the meaning of the contribution. I restate it as clearly as possible, let my brain bring an associated thought, then I express the associated thought and ask the entire group a more probing question.

The group intuitively recognizes that I am engaging with them in an authentic exploration. They sense that a generative conversation is unfolding. Engagement goes up and so does the quality of the contributions. As this happens the collective intelligence expands. People realize that they are safe in taking the risk of authentic sharing.   They begin to see that as they contribute, they are creating a web of deeper and deeper mutual understanding.   They feel animated by the process helping each other open the doors of consciousness. Because the group is learning each individual is learning.

Creating a web of accelerated learning is not only a characteristic of great teachers it is a characteristic of great leaders. Great leaders build trust, show consideration, offer an attractive future and challenge existing assumptions. In doing this they create positive organizations where webs of accelerated learning can naturally emerge.

At the conclusion of the interview, I told my new friend that she was a great interviewer. She laughed. Then she apologized for taking more time than was planned. She said she felt so good about what was happening that she did not want to stop the process.  We both walked away lifted by the accelerated learning that occurred for each of us.

 

Reflection

When have I been a part of a generative conversation?

Is it possible to consciously choose to create more generative conversations?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

 

 

Culture Shaping

In the movie Norma Rae, a small town girl is heavily shaped by the cultural forces around her. Her life concerns are conventional. She meets an unusual man. He is a union organizer. Unlike all the other men in her life, he refuses to see her as a sexual object.   Instead he sees more potential in her than she sees in herself.

He invites her to pursue a higher purpose. This means engaging in courageous behaviors and, at one point, she has to put everything on the line. In the process of losing her job, she chooses to stand on a table and hold a sign that says UNION. The unusual leadership act moves the workforce and a transformation occurs. In the process she accomplishes more than she believed possible and she becomes a new, empowered person.

Afterwards her unsettled husband says, “I liked the old Norma Rae.” The union organizer responds, “She stood on the table and now she is free, you may be able to live with that or you may not.” What did he mean? In what way had she become free?

I once read a book that suggested that the two most powerful determinants of human behavior are genetic programing and cultural programing. We are born with a genetic map that determines much of how we will behave. Then, from the time we are born, we are continually programed by the culture. That is, we are constantly shaped by collective expectations. We do what we are genetically and culturally programed to do. In the process we become what the author calls “mind slaves.”

There is an alternative. We, like Norma, can become free. We do this by embracing a higher purpose, by orienting to the common good. As we choose to pursue a higher purpose it requires us to move outside cultural expectations and we encounter resistance. If we are resilient and persist, we become increasingly conscious of how the culture works, of our own deepest desires and capabilities, of the potential in others that they do not see in themselves, and of how to move forward in the pursuit of purpose. In becoming conscious of how the conventional culture shapes us, we acquire the capacity to shape the culture. In learning to be a culture shaper we gain a very rare capacity.

 

Reflection

To what extent are the people around me “mind slaves?”

Who are the exceptions who shape the culture?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive culture?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Selflessness, Listening and the Increasing Probability of Success

In the conventional perspective an executive is an expert who informs.  In the positive perspective an executive is a leader who also transforms.  This means the leader can transform beliefs and expectations and thus bring about cultural change.  The organization is always getting better.

I know a very positive leader who personifies this capacity to constantly build a more effective culture.  He is full of energy, has a photographic memory and a broad kit of management skills.  Yet these are not the characteristics that most differentiate him.  He does something that few executives do.

I had a conversation with one of his former direct reports, I will call him Peter.  In describing my friend, Peter told a story of his first conversation during his first day on the job.  My friend told Peter, “You cannot offend me.”  He explained that he always wanted to know, in every circumstance, what Peter really believed.

In many cases a direct report would be skeptical of this claim.  Few people really want to hear a genuine difference of opinion.  For this reason, in most organizations, truth seldom speaks to power.

Peter said he believed the claim from the outset.  Peter therefore committed to always share what he was really thinking.  He said that sometimes he was so direct in stating his opinions that he later felt to call and apologize.  Yet my friend never showed even the slightest offense.

Peter said, “I could not offend him because he genuinely wanted to know my opinion, particularly when it was different from his.  Every conversation was fully authentic.  There was never any posturing.”

We discussed how such communication was possible.  Eventually we agreed.  My friend always puts the common good ahead of his own ego.  Because he is a selfless leader, because he puts the organization first, every conversation has integrity.

Peter then pointed out an interesting side benefit that accrues to people of transformative influence.  “His commitment to listening meant that I was fully heard.  So if he decided to go in a different direction, I was fine with it.  I knew that he had fully heard my honest opinion.  So I was willing to trust him and support him in any direction he wanted to go.”

If you want to know if a person is a transformational leader, simply look at his or her direct reports.  If they are “yes” people the person is not a transformational leader.

Transformational leaders transform their direct reports into transformational leaders.  The direct reports are empowered people who speak with authenticity.  Their people speak to the direct reports with authenticity.  A positive organization is comprised of strong people, acting in empowered ways, while operating with high unity.

Transformational leaders create a network of unified, committed people who tell each other the truth.  In such a network of purpose, action and learning, success is far more probable than it is in a conventional organization.

 

Reflection

Do my direct reports have the ability to offend me?

Why do transformational leaders have transformational leaders as direct reports?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?