Positive Impact Blog

Thought provoking insights for change makers


Mind tricks that limit growth

The pursuit of personal growth and learning plays a central role in my life.  However from time to time I question whether it is worth it.  After all, growth requires change and deep change is hard. Sometimes I ask myself whether I am up to it.  Maybe I am too old, too busy or just too lazy to do the hard work.  Perhaps I’ve grown enough.  After all I have a good life.  Wonderful friends and family surround me and I love my work, which I consider to be meaningful. So why do I need to change?  The answer for me is that I believe to grow is to live. I share this belief with my blogging partner, Katrin Muff who demonstrates her thirst for growth in how she lives every day.

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Last month Katrin described the external conditions that tend to stimulate her and push her to try something new.  The previous month, I discussed an incident that led to my own painful growth.  While reflecting on what stimulates our growth inspires me, I believe that we also need to stay aware of the barriers that can stymie us.

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist and professor Daniel Kahneman describes “a puzzling limitation of our mind: our excessive confidence in what we believe we know and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and uncertainty of the world we live in.”[1] I suspect that most of us consider ourselves to be logical thinkers. Yet, since we are human, we are all subject to thinking biases that can inhibit our ability to learn and access new experiences apart from our own status quo.  Consider the following:

Confirmation Bias

Magicians, who practice sleight of hand, or misdirection as they call it, count on our seeing what we expect rather than what is taking place in front of our eyes. And usually we do not let them down. We are all susceptible to seeing what we expect. Confirmation bias, or the tendency to seek out, notice, interpret and remember information to protect our prior beliefs and expectations is widespread.

False Consensus and Naïve Realism

The “false consensus effect” refers to our tendency to overestimate the degree to which others agree with us. And the “naïve realism bias” is a tendency to believe that we see reality as it is and that others who disagree with us do not. When suffering from this bias, we view anyone who disagrees with us as irrational, uninformed or overly subjective.[2]  The presumption that everyone sees the world the way that we do can stifle our growth and isolate us from diverse thinking.  However even more dangerous is the belief that those whose views of the world differ from our own are wrong. In truth, our views are merely our theories, hidden or not, of how things work. And theories aren’t the same as truth.

Illusionist making trick with magical play cards

I know that I am susceptible to these mind tricks that can prevent me from change.  Yet if I truly value ongoing growth and personal change, I must be vigilant to falling prey to these biases.  While I do not have any clear answers to how to fight them, I do know that my first step in neutralizing the biases is to acknowledge that I am susceptible, as are all of us.   As I interact with others, I can adopt the discipline of taking mental time-outs to reflect on how I am feeling and what I am thinking.  I can entertain the possibility that the biases might be at work.  This level of self-awareness should give me a fighting chance at foiling my own mind tricks.  And yes this level of vigilance is hard work.  Yet I hope that I will never grow too old, too self-satisfied, too arrogant or too lazy to do the work that growth requires.

[1] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1 edition, October 2011.
[2] List of Cognitive Biases, Wikipedia, 2018.


Personal readiness for change

Have you ever wondered why you feel so open to change yet believe that others resist it?  Most likely, many of us assume that we never resist change.  Yet I believe that we are often blind to our own defenses against it. As the year ends and a new one begins, I find myself in a contemplative mood! I wonder about my own blind spots. Last month Katrin Muff discussed the importance of learning to listen to herself – her body & intuition- in her own personal journey of change. She talked about the need to free herself from the restrictions that held her in place rather than enabling her to grow and change. This month I will discuss my own change challenges and what I am learning from the journey.

Simplicity-SelfReflection

Personal readiness for change is not an either/or proposition – either we are ready, or we are not. Readiness occurs in stages. The first stage is to become aware that we need to change. Many of us may secretly (or perhaps openly in some cases) see ourselves as infallible. We might take pride in our past successes and believe that they resulted from our own impeccable knowledge, skill and perhaps personality. Since what we have done in the past has worked for us, or so we think, we don’t question the path we have taken until we hit a roadblock, or we realize that the path we are on isn’t really taking us where we want to go.

I recall like it was yesterday a conversation that I had with a friend many years ago when I was faced with a difficult personal challenge involving the breakdown of a significant relationship.  I described to my friend how I was trying to understand the other person’s point of view and was doing my best to accommodate to avoid losing the relationship altogether.  My friend looked me in the eye and said, “Why don’t you try something different this time.”  These words were so simple yet very powerful.

Upon more discussion with my friend coupled with a heavy dose of self-reflection, I realized that I had been following a script that had guided my behavior under similar circumstances for a long time. This script included something like the following: my role in life was to preserve the feelings of others by listening to them, understanding them and adapting my behavior to meet their needs to the best of my ability. While I wasn’t completely aware of this script, I believed, with some evidence, that I was very good at maintaining relationships. Up to this point, I had not considered the full impact of my behaviors nor had I contemplated that I might find a better way of handling interpersonal challenges.

When my friend told me to “consider doing things differently this time,” I entertained the possibility that alternate, and perhaps superior paths might be available to me.

I began to question my assumptions about my role in relationships and to take a deeper look at what I had given up and how I had shortchanged others by following this script.  I recalled the resentment that I often experienced as I sublimated my own needs to avoid conflict or to preserve the status quo in my relationships. And interestingly, these relationships often disintegrated over time anyway. Perhaps this was because others sensed my resentment. Or maybe my behavior ensured that my relationships were superficial and thus not very rewarding since I did not share my feelings and needs with the other.  Or possibly the relationships fell by the wayside over time because of my own fatigue and anger from always accommodating.  I began to see that my behaviors could be viewed as a sign of my own self-righteousness and could be experienced as demeaning to others.  I realized that I needed to change.

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Once we recognize the need for personal change, we can begin to contemplate what it means for us. However, we may still be ambivalent and, therefore not yet prepared to act. We can get stuck in this stage. While we may become aware of our own personal limitations and how our behaviors block change, we may still lack the motivation to act differently. As I thought about “doing something different this time,” I grew anxious and afraid.  I began to ask myself whether changing my accommodating behavior was too risky.  Over time, and with help, I was able to understand better where the anxiety was coming from and how it kept me from changing and growing.  I also began to realize what I was missing in relationships because of my own self-limiting behavior.  Slowly I became more open to change. And I did “do something different this time.” I will always be grateful for this simple advice that led to my growth.

While I understand the need for it, I have found that changing is difficult.  The old scripts are deeply embedded. And I still question whether the risks are worth the rewards.  Nevertheless, I have come to terms with change as a process rather than an event. Personal change requires deep self-awareness, courage, and perseverance.  Change and growth will never be easy.  Yet, I believe that my life can become more purposeful and my relationships more mutually satisfying as I allow my script to change. My own New Year’s resolution is to continue down the path of personal change. I believe that my relationships, and indeed my life, will be richer as a result of my continuing with this journey.

Happy New Year to all.  And may 2019 bring each of us the humility to seek self-awareness and the courage to grow.


Creating a Culture Through Stories

Blog by Kathy Miller Perkins, www.millerconsultants.com

Our personal stories are powerful. When talking about myself with others, I might recount a particularly exciting experience such as the time I served as a foreign exchange student in Thailand when I had never been away from home before and had never flown on an airplane. Or I might describe my life with my family and my three dogs, who never fail to amuse me.   As I tell these stories, I am sharing who I am – both how I see myself and how I want others to see me. Likewise, when I want to get to know someone, I usually start by asking them to tell me about themselves. I might ask about where they live, their families, their professions, their interests among other things. And I am not merely collecting facts. Instead I am listening to their stories because the tales they tell communicate their character.

So too the stories that we tell within our organizations and to the public about our companies communicate identity.  And Identity is the foundation upon which the organization’s culture rests.  In my work as an organizational psychologist, I am often asked to work with the clients to assess their organizational culture.  While I have a variety of method for carrying out this task, I find that listening to the stories they tell is among the best.   And all companies have their own stories or myths which reveal how they view themselves. And, in turn, their perceptions of themselves influence how they show up in the world.

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Not too long ago, I worked with a large organization in New York. To get a feel for their culture, I asked them to tell me stories about themselves when they were at their best.  They became quite animated as they spoke of how they rallied during the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. As I asked them questions about these stories they filled in details about their smooth working relationships under these extreme circumstances.  And they noted that their interactions aren’t nearly as smooth in their day-to-day work world.  We could all agree that this organization had a hero culture that worked well for them under crisis but not so well in more stable times.

Next, I asked them to tell some stories about incidents when they, as an organization, were at their worst. One of the stories I heard was about a cross-departmental project where people in one group hid information from those in another, presumably to maintain a more powerful position, or because they thought the other group would slow down their progress.  This part of the exercise wasn’t nearly so much fun as the first.  Yet the stories were colorful and revealed clearly some of the cracks in their day-to-day culture that made them vulnerable as an organization.

By analyzing how they acted at their best and at their worst they began to identify the conditions that brought out the good and the bad behaviors. They began to seek new ways of viewing themselves and their work.  They sought to switch from “we are at our best only when in crisis,” to “we can create conditions in our day-to-day world that will bring out the best in all of us.”  They were changing their story.

About this time, a new leader entered the organization. He brought the employees together in a “Town Hall” and told his own stories. He began by telling anecdotes about his  life and his work, followed by his vision for the organization. He claimed that he considered his work to be a calling – not just a job. And he challenged the employees to reconsider how they viewed their own work. He told them that “values count,” and described how his values influence his life every day. He ended by making the following commitment:

“I will give my time, energy and commitment to helping us become a world-class organization. I honestly believe that we can become a best in class standard against which other similar organizations can measure themselves.”

I cannot relay the conclusion of this story because my assignment ended shortly after the Town Hall.  However, when I left, I felt certain that this company could change.  To do so required them to tell a new story about who they are and who they want to be.  And I took away some powerful lessons: Just as we must change our own narratives when we seek to change ourselves, organizations can begin to change their cultures by creating their own new stories.


Personal Change Challenges Leaders

I have been in the change agent business for many years. As an organizational psychologist, I have assisted companies in identifying and addressing obstacles to their organizational success. Recently my work has turned towards companies that wish to redefine and broaden their definitions of success. These companies are examining their purpose beyond profits. They have not abandoned the desire to make a profit and they are certainly still committed to delivering financial returns to their shareholders. However, they are looking for ways to succeed financially by pursuing solutions to societal challenges – the wicked problems that I discussed in my April blog. The question that I would ask the formal leaders of these companies is whether they are ready for the personal changes that this journey will require.

This quest for purpose really picked up steam after Larry Fink, the CEO of the global investment management corporation Blackrock, said the following in his annual letter to CEOs: “To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.” While his proclamation has been controversial, many have heeded his warning by examining their own companies’ purpose beyond profits. By and large I consider this to be very good news indeed. Our societal challenges necessitate looking for solutions from all corners of our world. However, I fear many in formal positions of leadership are unaware of how the pursuit of purpose beyond profits will affect them personally. As Katrin Muff pointed out in her May blog, only exceptional individuals are able and willing to embrace their own roles as global citizens.

Katrin and I agree that the term “leader” should not be limited to those who are in formal positions of authority. Still, successful company transformations do compel those who fill these roles to undergo personal changes. In my role as an advisor to companies undergoing change, I have observed a remarkable lack of awareness of how the desired transformations will necessitate personal changes in those at the top. My educated guess is that many are completely unaware of the need for personal change and others are unwilling to live with the inevitable discomfort that change always brings.

Change is hard. Indeed, global consultancy Bain and Company reports that only 12% of corporate transformation programs succeed in reaching or exceeding the goals. Furthermore, only 2% achieve their goals when the transformation is focused on sustainability. This low level of success can be attributed to many factors including resistant cultures, shifting priorities and lack of a vision that inspires and engages employees. However, my own experiences, both personal and professional, have led me to conclude that leaders’ resistance to personal change is a major stumbling block to successful organizational transformation. Often leaders of our client companies take the position that everyone and everything can and should change as long as they, themselves, are not affected.

Many powerful individuals come to believe in their own infallibility. They assume, sometimes unconsciously, that they rose to these levels of power because of their superiority. These assumptions concerning how they got where they are may be accurate. Nevertheless, as the game changes, so do the rules for how to play it.

When leaders commit to moving their organizations towards purpose beyond profits, they are very likely to find that to succeed, they must give up some of the power that they have enjoyed. Wicked problems require collaborative solutions. Likewise, leaders are likely to be confronted with world views different from their own cherished beliefs. And all must live with ambiguity that may be foreign to them in roles where they have had complete power to make unilateral judgments and act decisively.

These personal challenges are not easy to confront. Some leaders will be up to the tests while others won’t even try. Katrin wrote about the difficulty of overcoming defense mechanisms that blind us to the need for personal change and cushion us from its discomfort. To illustrate this point, a friend and colleague reminded me a few years ago that a person who wants to quit smoking may still be unwilling to give up cigarettes. So too, leaders who want their organizations to transform may not be willing to take on the personal challenges that will lead to success.

I have experienced this resistance myself when I have slammed into my own defenses. As I have worked collaboratively with colleagues from across the globe, I have become very aware of my own limitations when my world views and power are challenged. I work diligently to push through my discomfort as I realize that I must change personally if I am to become a global citizen. Some days I am up to the challenge and other times I dig in and refuse to budge. Nevertheless, I know that my personal journey to overcome my own defenses is worth the effort. I truly want to contribute to addressing our collective global challenges. And to do so requires me to seek awareness of ways that I must change. I must learn to live with the discomfort that I experience as a result. I take one step at a time. Sometimes I fall back a few steps but overall, I keep moving forward. Gradually I am making progress in my own change journey.


Where are the Super Power Change Makers?

Since reading Katrin’s March blog on the Superpowers of Change Makers, I have been reflecting on leadership and what it looks like in these tense and polarizing times. I have been asking myself the following questions: Who are the heroic leaders for our times? Where are those superpowered change makers who can lift us out of the pessimism and malaise that leave us exhausted and paralyzed? I am eagerly anticipating Katrin’s book for inspiration as I am failing to find many of these superpowered leaders in my world.

Yet when I view this predicament with a different frame, I realize that perhaps I am asking the wrong questions. Instead of speculating on why more leaders don’t demonstrate these change-making skills, perhaps I should be asking myself how I can acquire these capabilities and inspire and enable others to do the same so that we can all make change. Indeed, Katrin pointed out that superpowers are not inborn traits. The “great man” theory of leadership which contends that leaders are born not made has been debunked repeatedly. With effort and courage, every one of us can become a change maker leader.

The quest to develop the superpowers is not for cowards! Most of us are proud of our strengths. Yet Katrin explains how these strengths can limit us when we take them too far. For example, I take pride in my ability to stand up for my convictions and live by my values. Yet taken to the extreme, the strength of my convictions could lead me down the path of close-mindedness and rigidity. To develop superpowers, I must entertain the potential dark side of my strengths. I must be willing and able to refine how I use my strengths to avoid overdoing it to the detriment of my effectiveness.

One of my coaching clients spoke of the “fully baked leader” recently. He seemed to be suggesting that there is an objective and limited set of skills and capabilities that one must acquire to become a leader. Yet in my opinion “fully baked” leaders do not exist. Those who believe that they have developed a complete set of leadership capabilities and have nothing left to learn, will never become superpower- charged change makers. To become effective change makers, we must commit to ongoing growth and development. We must deny that we can ever become “fully baked.”

Some of us who are not in formal positions of authority may be tempted to avoid the difficult path to developing superpowers. Perhaps we tell ourselves that change making is limited to elected officials, CEOs or others who head up organizations and institutions. I urge you to resist this line of thinking. Leadership is far more than filling a position. We cannot afford to fall into a victim mentality. Instead we must acknowledge that leadership does not require a title and refrain from using a lack of one as an excuse for doing nothing.

Leadership does demand bravery and the willingness to take risks. It necessitates our listening to and valuing diverse perspectives. Leadership entails seeking solutions to wicked problems most always through collaboration with others. It obliges us to always seek balance in how we use our strengths. It requires us to continue to seek development and growth. There will always be one more lesson to learn, one more hurdle to overcome and one more challenge to confront with grace and courage.


Are You Ready for the Surprises?

These days all of us recognize that long-term success is not guaranteed for any organization, even those that appear to be secure now.  Unremitting change can sneak up on companies and entire industries with lightning speed. New competition may catch us off guard. Activist stakeholders may make strong and unexpected demands. Disruptive technologies may threaten our products and services.  If we recognize our vulnerabilities, we can prepare ourselves and our organizations to face the inevitable and frequently uninvited changes that can impact our futures.

In our January Transatlantic Blog, Katrin Muff discussed how she learned to build personal resilience while facing challenging situations. She defined resilience as “the capacity to respond to external pressure by adapting and recovering quickly and hence finding a new equilibrium.” This month I will extend her discussion to organizations and explore two different perspectives on organizational resilience.

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The Coping and Adapting Perspective

A common perspective of resilience is that it involves an organization’s ability to absorb shock, cope, adjust, bounce back and resume previous levels of performance in the face of unexpected threats. This definition implies that organizations are reactively resilient when faced with changing conditions. This capacity for adjusting quickly to unforeseen circumstances is positive for any individual or organization. Who wouldn’t want to be able to bounce back in the face of what could be viewed as adversity?

The Transformative Perspective

Another way of framing resilience is to view it as an organization’s ability to proactively seek the opportunities that even unanticipated challenges can offer.  Rather than merely coping, adapting and bouncing back, these organizations allow change to become transformative. They emerge stronger than before while embracing changes that others might view as threatening.[1] This is the kind of resilience that allows organizations to reinvent themselves.

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Characteristics of the Transformative Resilient

Organizations that possess transformative resilience have unique characteristics and cultures. Researchers have concluded that they possess a “blend of expertise, opportunism, creativity, and decisiveness despite uncertainty.”[2] In my own research and writing, I refer to these organizations as change adept.

The challenge as I see it is that so few companies possess these cultures and capabilities. Our research consistently shows that change adept organizations are very rare. In our studies of organizational culture, we find that companies do not have strong track records for large-scale change for the most part. Many fully acknowledge that their organizations do not handle uncertainty well. Very few encourage challenges to the status quo and most fail to allow time for reflection and learning. Without these qualities, organizations are likely to be change inept rather than change adept.

As always, a first step in confronting a weakness is to acknowledge it. Therefore, I challenge you to reflect carefully on the culture of your own organization. Ask yourselves whether the collective has the mindset and capabilities to cope and adapt in the face of threats. This is a minimal standard for survival. Next ponder whether your organization has transformational resilience. When you can address change by looking for opportunities to transform rather than threats to overcome, you will be on the right path for long-term success.

 

[1] Marston, A and s Marston. Type R: Transformative Resilience for Thriving in a Turbulent World. PublicAffairs (January 9, 2018).

[2] Lengnick-Hall, C.A., Beck,T. and Lengnick-Hall, M. Developing a capacity for organizational resilience through strategic human resource management. Human Resource Management Review, 21 (2011)-255.

 

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.

 


Corporate Culture in 2017

As I write this blog, year 2017 is winding down. Throughout the year my blogging partner, Katrin Muff, and I have commented frequently on corporate culture. The media seems to share our interest in this subject. Indeed, references to corporate culture have shown up on the front pages of many reputable newspapers and magazines this past year. I did a cursory web search to gather up a few of these stories.

I don’t claim to have done a scientific study of how often and in what context the media mentioned corporate culture.  Nevertheless, many articles popped up when I entered the search term “corporate culture 2017”. Most pertained to companies’ significant problems attributed to toxic corporate cultures. Of course, the media often showcases the bad news stories. Still, the volume of content was significant enough to warrant my attention.

The Wells Fargo Bank fraud hit the headlines at the end of 2016 and kicked off 2017 with bad news for the company. Several newspapers including the Washington Post and the New York Times reported that Wells Fargo employees had opened millions of phony accounts without their clients’ consent. The articles attributed the malfeasance to a company culture where pressure to meet unrealistic sales goals undermined corporate ethics.

Likewise ride-sharing company Uber made the news repeatedly throughout the year. Referring to the egregious sexist culture, the Washington Post had this to say:

“Corporate culture has long been the sort of squishy management consultant term that’s hard to define, even harder to change, and the recipient of lots of lip service yet little action by chief executives. But however amorphous the phrase may be, its importance was stamped into stark relief this week after a former female Uber engineer made allegations about its sexist, chaotic and aggressive culture.” [1]

United Airlines landed in hot water in April of 2017 when a passenger was forcibly dragged off a plane. The articles attributed the incident to a culture where behavior is scripted and employees have little if any latitude to make decisions.[2]

The last few months of the year brought countless stories of cultures where women were treated as prey. For example, in November of 2017, Fox News set up a Workplace Culture Panel following reports of widespread sexual harassment throughout the company.[3]  And as recently as December, the New York Times published an article on sexual harassment at two Ford Motor plants in Chicago. The headline read as follows: “How Tough is it to Change a Culture of Harassment?  Ask the Women of Ford.” [4]

While I could devote the entire blog to recounting similar stories, I believe that the examples I have offered are sufficient to make the point. Culture counts. No matter how amorphous the concept may seem, those of us who lead companies ignore our organizations’ cultures at our own risk. Consider the degree to which toxic cultures impacted companies and the people in them in 2017. Let us each resolve to assess and address our own organizational cultures in 2018.

Take the first step by looking at your current culture. Ask yourselves questions such as the following:

  • What is the purpose of our company and what do we stand for?
  • How do our corporate values influence our decisions and behaviors?
  • What are the stories that we tell each other about our organization?
  • Who are our admired heroes?
  • Who makes the rules for the organization?
  • What do we reward and what do we punish?
  • How often do we have conversations that consider diverse opinions?
  • To what degree do we value the contributions of everyone in the company?
  • What do we do to show respect for all?
  • How do we ensure that everyone’s focus is on serving our customers?

In addition to answering these questions ourselves, we should pose them to others. In my 30+ years of consulting, I have found that leaders are predictably astonished by how employees’ perceptions of the organization diverge from their own. While some are tempted to explain away the differences, the best leaders value the input. They dig deeper to understand and address the discrepancies.

Leaders create the conditions within which a culture emerges. However, they may not fully understand the possible consequences of the systems that they put in place. Likewise, they may be shielded from what occurs within the organization day to day. Asking the right questions and listening openly to the answers can provide them with the needed data for making appropriate changes to improve the organizational culture.

As I anticipate 2018, I wonder what catastrophes might be prevented in the new year if leaders of every company committed to taking  a close look at their own organizational cultures. Chances are most would find a mix of strengths to reinforce and weaknesses to address. And in some cases, they may find signs of the toxicity that, if not eradicated, could create serious consequences for their people and their companies. Let us all resolve to become proactive this new year in stamping out the unhealthy parts of our cultures while fortifying the strengths.

 

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-leadership/wp/2017/02/24/why-a-toxic-workplace-is-now-a-much-bigger-liability-for-companies/?utm_term=.c854fdb575d8

[2] http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-toxic-united-wells-20170411-story.html

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/20/business/media/fox-news-sexual-harassment.html

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/12/19/us/ford-chicago-sexual-harassment.html

 

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.