Monster or angel?

Pick someone important in your life – a lover, friend, colleague. Your boss. A team member. Brother or sister. Mother or father.

Now look – who are you having them be to you? What image are you projecting their way?

Are you expecting them to take your pain away, to hold you in a perfect embrace (physical or metaphorical) in which you do not have to feel any worry or address any trouble?

Are they an object for your resentment or your hate – propping up your self-esteem each time you belittle them in thought or deed?

Do you have them elevated, on a pedestal, a constant reminder of your own inadequacy (and hence an excuse for the way you over-extend yourself or hold back)?

Are they there to show you that you’re loved and respected always? And when they fall short, to be the target of your frustration and woundedness?

Are you expecting them to parent you? To excuse you? To soothe you? To excite you? To rescue you? To provide for you? To be an object of your scorn? To be a monster or an angel?

And because of all of this, are you relating to them as them, or as an image?

All of this matters because too often we find we’re not in relationship with a person, but with a story. And as stories are smaller and more rigid than people are, it turns out that’s not much of a relationship at all.

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Misunderstanding feedback

‘Giving feedback’ has become so much a part of what is considered good management that we rarely ask ourselves whether it’s effective or question the premise upon which it’s based. I think it’s time we did.

The very idea of ‘feedback’ as a central management practice is drawn from cybernetics. The simplest kind of single-loop cybernetic system is a home thermostat. The thermostat responds to feedback from the room (by measuring the ambient temperature) and turns on heating when required so to warm the air to a comfortable level. When the target is reached, the thermostat turns the heating off. It’s a ‘single-loop’ system because the thermostat can only respond to temperature.

In a double-loop feedback system it’s possible to adjust what’s measured in order to better address the situation. If you’re bringing about the conditions in your room to make it suitable for a dinner party you may need to pay attention to temperature, lighting, the arrangement of furniture, the colour of the table cloth, the number of place settings, the mood and culinary taste of your guests, and the quality of conversation. Single-loop systems such as thermostats can’t do this. But double-loop cybernetic systems allow us in principle to ask ‘what is it that’s important to measure?’. And, of course, human beings are far more suited to this kind of flexibility than thermostats are.

It’s from this way of looking that we get the contemporary idea that feedback – solicited or not – is what’s most helpful or appropriate for someone to learn to do the right thing. But it is based on something of a questionable premise. Thermostats, even very clever ones, and other cybernetic systems don’t have emotions, or cares, or worries. They do not love, or feel fulfilled or frustrated. They do not have available to them multiple ways to interpret what is said. They do not hurt, and they do not feel shame. They do not misunderstand or see things in a different way. They don’t have an internalised inner critic, nor do they have bodies that are conditioned over years by practice to respond and react in particular ways. They are not in relationship. They do not have to trust in order to be able to do what they do. And they do not have a world of commitments, intentions, relationships, hopes and goals into which the latest temperature data lands.

People have all of these.

When we simply assume that spoken or written feedback, even if carefully given, will correct someone’s actions or help them to learn, we assume they are more like a cybernetic system than they are like a person. Sometimes it can certainly be helpful – when the feedback is in a domain that both giver and receiver care about, given in language that makes sense, and when it meets the hopes and aspirations of the receiver with sensitivity and generosity. But many times we find that the very act of giving feedback wounds or confuses or deflates or misunderstands or treats the other person as if they don’t know what they’re doing. We find that the world of the giver is nothing like the world of the receiver. We find that our best effort to construct feedback according to the ‘rules’ mystifyingly doesn’t bring about what we’re intending. And then we get frustrated or disappointed, and try to give the feedback another way, imagining that if we can come up with a clever technique or way of saying it then our feedback will work.

Perhaps a place to start would be to stop thinking about people as if they were glorified thermostats. In order to do this we’d have to soften our ideas of truth in feedback – specifically the idea that the one who knows the truth gives feedback to the one who must be corrected. Secondly, we could start to think how many ways there are to learn how to do something well than being told how someone else sees it. And third, we could wonder how we can share the riches we do see in a way that gives dignity and maintains connection between both parties – starting by knowing when it’s time to request, demonstrate, reflect, inquire together, make new distinctions in language, show someone how to make good observations for themselves, or simply stay out of the way.

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Idiots and Monsters

The problem with all of our judgements about others

‘He’s an idiot’

‘She’s a monster’

‘He’s useless’

is that they turn the other person into a non-person, a label, an object upon which we can project all of our frustration, all of our disappointment, all of our despair.

Fantastically powerful in maintaining our own self-esteem, judgements give us a sense of self only because they strip the other person of most of their self-hood. How much love, care, dignity, integrity can we see in another – however angry or frustrated we are – while we have them be an idiot, a charlatan, a waster?

Our judgements conveniently blind us to our own contribution to the very situation which matters to us so much. As long as ‘he’s a crook’ we’re freed from our capacity – and our responsibility – to speak up, to make requests, to listen, and to break out of the patterns that are our own part in keeping the difficulty going.

And, most of all, our judgements absolve us of the responsibility to understand the other in their fullness, stifling our interest in what about them and their lives has them behave in this way. And they stop us bringing the necessary compassion and wisdom that’s always required to find if we want to find our way out of the prison of our frustration, resentment, disappointment and anger.

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People are oceans not objects

Today, just this: ‘People are oceans not objects‘, from Robert Poynton’s wonderful blog.

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How quickly we label people.

“He’s so kind”, we say.
“She’s so frustrating.”
“He’s only out for himself.”
“She’s so brilliant.”

There are at least two problems with this.

The first is that in the midst of these labels we all too readily discount any evidence to the contrary – we see the label and miss the person. The second is that such certainty about others quickly invites into comparisons – ways we get to feel better or worse about ourselves.

Both of these obscure for us the full range of qualities present in the people we know.

And then we have similar stories about ourselves.

“I’m so terrible, so lazy, so selfish”
“I’m wonderful, all together, so perfect”

What would it be to treat our labels as just the start of knowing someone, rather than the end? That way we can step out of the very narrow band through which we experience people. And perhaps we can start to discover the wondrous complexity, and the unknowable vastness and mystery, of every single person we meet.

Organisations, projects, and our capacity to forget our own humanity

You may know the story of the Tower of Babel. A whole generation of people, those who have grown up after a world-devastating flood, conspire together to build a sky-tower like none ever seen before and are punished and dispersed across the world for their hubris and arrogance.

Our hubris, problematic? Yes, when it dislocates us from the rich biological and social world of which we are an indivisible part, when we over-extend ourselves in pursuit of our wants with no heed to the consequence and impact.

But the story itself is problematic if taken as a caution against human boldness and creativity, because these are the very qualities we most need in order to bring about a world in which we can all live.

It is our capacity to imagine, to invent, and then to act in cooperation with others that have brought about medical, technological, social and political advances that have transformed the quality of life for billions. Confidence in our ability, acted upon with due consideration of the wider world, is no compromise of our humanity but a dignified and important expression of it.

In an imaginative retelling from the 1st century work of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, there are no stones available to build the tower, and so thousands of people are marshalled to bake bricks until the construction is some miles high. Those with new bricks climb the tower on the eastern side, and those who descend go down on the western side.

Sometimes a person climbing up or down falls. When a person drops to their death, nobody notices. But when a person falls with a brick the workers sit down and weep, not for the life lost but because they do not know when another brick will come in its place.

In this interpretation the compromise to our humanity comes not through building itself, but through the way in which we build. Or, said another way, our projects can bring about great changes in the material world at the same time as they bring about great changes in our social and inner worlds. We are inevitably shaped both by what we do and by the manner in which we do it.

The danger here is not that we hope and dream and build and make and create. The danger that Eliezer is so keen to point out to us is that we easily do so without paying sufficient attention to the kind of people we are becoming through the doing. We become means-to-an-end, objects, ‘it’ instead of ‘I’, ‘it’ instead of ‘you’.

In this reading the story of Babel is a reminder of our endless capacity to forget ourselves and others as human beings even as we pursue our most human of goals.

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The mastery of the wheelwrights about whom I wrote yesterday involves not just practical skill in working with wood but attunement to the personal and cultural background of their customers. In this way, there’s never such a thing as a ‘standard’ wheel and, indeed, not even a standard response to a particular customer. Instead, what gets made is a sensitive and appropriate response to the current moment, and to the unique intentions and life of the customer.

In other words, as well as responding to the particular domain of their craft, the wheelwright is responding to an entire context or, better said, to a world.

Standards and uniformity make absolute and vital sense in many domains. Without the USB standard, for example, connecting devices to computers would be a nightmare. Imagine also if you had to have bespoke tyres made specifically for your car every time you had a puncture.

But in dealing with human beings, what’s often called for is a sensitive response to an entire world, just as in the case of the wheelwright.


When a doctor treats your symptoms without first asking about you as a person, or about the life in which they arose…

When an HR department or manager fits you into a competency framework or grading system that takes no account of your particular you-ness that you bring, let alone the unique characteristics of your work that can never be reduced to a job title or list…

When the person who’s coaching you uses a technique or a list of questions that they’ve used with every client so far…

When a person is replaced by an automated checkout machine that says to you in truncated English ‘Place item in bagging area’, and you’re left feeling alienated and disembodied…

In each of these cases you’re experiencing being de-worlded, or put more simply, having your human world and context ignored. And there’s also a way in which the person with whom you’re interacting – if there is one – is de-worlded too, abandoning their capacity to sense into and respond to the totality of a situation and responding in a narrow and automatic way.

Medicine and coaching, teaching and managing, parenting and friendship, therapy and leadership, legal advice and mentoring – of these require, at their best, the kind of attunement to the particular world of the other that I’m talking about here. Or, put another way, an I-You rather than an I-It relationship.

It’s a necessary capacity, all too often ignored or considered irrelevant when we pursue speed and efficiency as the only measures of work, or service, or relationship with one another.

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What to look for in others

What would happen if you oriented more often towards the basic goodness in other people?

Not some simplistic, positive-thinking way of pretending to yourself that everyone around you is nice or has your best interests at heart. That way lies a comforting and often harmful kind of self-delusion.

No, actually looking for the genuine goodness in each person that may not even be known to themselves. And trusting that everybody has it – is it – simply by virtue of being human.

Being able to find this in others might take some patient observation and discernment on your part, some practice. So that you’re not guessing. And so that you can overcome your own cynicism, disappointment, or frustration.

You might get a clue by observing closely what another person most consistently tries to take care of, even if inexpertly. Justice and fairness, looking after people, achieving important goals, bringing a unique and personal expression, developing knowledge and understanding, keeping options and possibilities open, having things actually happen, harmony and coherence – these are but a few examples.

Finding the basic goodness in others and in ourselves is a powerful project because it gives us something to rely on as we navigate the complexities of work and the rest of life alongside other people.

When we can’t see it we’re easily locked in a cycle of mistrust, defensiveness and judgement, seeing ourselves and others only as accidents waiting to happen.

But with it firmly in view, we have the best chance to call on and bring out what’s most noble and dignified in each of us – the part of us that wants to serve life even in the depths of our most troubling confusion, conflict and uncertainty.

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Constrain or Liberate

Everything you take to be true about another person can only ever be part of the situation.

For one part, you can only see the other from where you stand, from in amongst the commitments, values, expectations and way of making sense that are particular to you. To see this, just think for a moment about how differently someone’s brother or sister, lover, parent, friend, colleague or customer might describe the person in question.

For another part, there’s much more to every person than any of us can tell. Unfathomable depths, history, hidden intentions and wishes, longing, suffering, hopes, fears – many of which will be available only to the person in question and some hidden even from them. You can only guess at these, and your guesses are just that – a hunch about the inner world of the other. You can easily be wrong about all of this, even when you’re feeling most certain.

The consequence is that whatever account you have of another is never simple truth but always an interpretation on your part: a fitting together of what you can see and experience directly in a way that makes sense to you, in your world.

For any set of observable ‘facts’ there are a host of coherent interpretations you could choose, each which lead to different places. And there are better and worse interpretations available or, said more simply, better and worse ways of accounting for the other.

Some interpretations imprison you, and often the other person too. Interpretations that involve blame, resentment or rigid judgments tend to produce this, committing you to tight circles of action and emotion that cannot easily be broken. These are I-It interpretations, fixing the other as if they’re an object rather than a person.

Other interpretations can free you both, particularly those that invite curiosity and inquiry on your part. These are I-You interpretations, treating the other as a mystery to be understood rather than as an obstacle to be circumnavigated or a problem to be solved.

Which kind of interpretation you choose matters, because each leads to different kinds of action, to different kinds of conversation, and ultimately to different kinds of relationship.

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What the world is calling for…

My secret project (see yesterday’s post) – being seen as good.

Yours? The way you secretly try to have people see you?

as having integrity?
as being lovable?
as successful?
as special?
as serious and super-intelligent?
as loyal and committed?
as playful, fun, lively?
as strong and in control?

And what happens when you don’t get seen the way you demand?

Do you collapse? Sulk? Rage? Get ashamed? Tune-out? Get distracted? Make judgements? Blame yourself? Blame them?

How does all of this effect the people around you? Your colleagues? Your family?

There’s enormous freedom in finding out that your project is well past its due-date. And that what the world is calling for is not your act but your humanity.

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Yes, I know, you’re really busy.

But would you take some time to sit still for a while? I mean really still. Twenty minutes of not doing anything.

Sit upright, alert, awake to yourself and your life for a while, and see what you find.

Don’t go to sleep (though you might quickly find once you’ve been sitting for a few moments quite how tired you actually are).

Quite soon you might discover how difficult you find it to be with yourself (could this be why you’re quite so busy as you are?). And how much is going on even when you’re doing nothing.

Thoughts crowding in. Ideas. Plans. Judgements. More plans. More judgement. Your inner critic chomping away. Feelings – irritation, anxiety, fear. Perhaps flashes of joy. Maybe love. Maybe gratitude. But, for many of us, mostly anxiety and irritation of one sort or another.

But if you do sit still for a while, and if you do it regularly, you might start to catch glimpses of something that’s behind your familiar whirling thoughts and feelings, behind all the stuff that you habitually take to be you.

Maybe the first thing you’ll encounter is a more expansive you than you ordinarily know. A you that can observe all of the activity, judging and fearfulness, and know itself to be bigger than all of that. A you that doesn’t need to be needed. A you that isn’t so invested in running away into busyness. A you that’s able to experience whatever there is to be experienced.

And then, given enough careful attention, and with much waiting and stillness, you might discover something even beyond that. A background aliveness from which all of the you that you experience arises. An aliveness that’s deeply engaged in everything – for it is life itself – but not caught up in it. An aliveness that’s content with simply being alive, amazed at it even. An aliveness that finds joy in the simplicity and sheer unlikeliness of being here – in breathing, in the beating of your heart, in your capacity to see, hear, love, hate, grieve, act, sleep, rest, eat, move, speak, listen. An aliveness that is not trying to get anywhere at all but which is fiercely, actively committed to life itself.

We forget this part of ourselves because finding it also requires us to find so much of ourselves that we can’t tolerate. But we would do well to remember it once in a while, because it’s a source of deep love, deep commitment, and vibrant, generous, living possibility.

And to be sure, we could all do with some of that in our frantic, over-stretched lives.

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Business and personal

This week, to mark the first anniversary of this project, I am republishing favourite posts from each month of the first year of On Living and Working.
This is from August 2013.

Many business difficulties are, at root, personal difficulties…

… conversations we’re not bold enough to have, motives we hide and dress up as reason, emotions we don’t know how to deal with, resentments we fuel, imagination constrained by blame and the fear of shame, judgements of people who are different from us, fear and anxiety we won’t name, scapegoating, saving face, projections of what’s in our shadow, self-pity, self-aggrandisement.

But we’ve convinced ourselves (since the start of the industrial age) that businesses are machines rather than collections of people. It conveniently leads us to try to engineer our way out of difficulty – a detached move that saves us from having to own up to our own part in what’s going on.

And so when faced with what seems unsolvable, we turn to

restructures (a recurring favourite)
competency frameworks
mergers and acquisitions
leadership frameworks
the latest update to company policy
changing what’s measured
charts of acceptable behaviours
training programmes

rather than do the apparently more difficult, more unpredictable, more messy work of turning to one another with sincerity and curiosity, and being truthful about what’s going on.

So many difficulties can be solved by talking about what’s happening, both within us and between us. But mostly we allow ourselves to take up the convenient story that this is irrelevant to business, out of place at work.

We even call it ‘soft’.

Addressing the personal, emotional, relational part of our business difficulties is anything but soft. It’s the hardest, most important, most rewarding and most practical problem solving arena of all.

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Let’s have a process for that…

What you really wanted

Honest, enrolling conversations with colleagues and staff about progress, about what’s important, about how they’re doing, about what could change, and about what might be needed next.

What you did

Foresaw all of the problems in doing this; felt your anxiety and the anxiety others would experience about being open in this way; and so invented a process instead:

“We’ll set specific, measurable goals at the start of the year” – which avoids the difficulty of talking about all that people do that’s uncertain, shifting, cannot be predicted, that which changes, that which is affected by the efforts of many and by the changing circumstances of the world.

“We’ll have meetings with each member of our team twice a year to review progress” – which frees you, for most of the year, from the difficulty of turning towards one another and talking about things as they happen.

“We’ll assign each person a performance rating from 1 to 5 so they know where they stand” – adding a measure makes it look like you’ve reached the truth of the situation. It gets you out of the difficulty of talking with nuance, of discovering together what’s really happening, of learning from your employees, of discovering how much you don’t know, and of finding out your own part in how things are going.

“We’re finding that people have difficulty giving low ratings to their teams when required, so we’ll have a forced distribution – a fixed quantity of 1s, 2s, 3s and 4s” – which saves you from any genuine conversation at all. By forcing the ratings you can simply say “I’m sorry, we really wanted to give you a 2 but there weren’t any left, so we’re giving you a 3”.

“We’ll pay people, or promote them, based on their rating” – which saves you from the trouble of genuine conversation about people’s future and the future of your organisation – you can blame the rating on people’s ability to move on.

Process can support you, yes. It may often be necessary.

But every step here, if implemented without also cultivating the ability to speak and listen, takes you further from your original intention of enrolling, engaging, and supporting people’s contribution. Every step makes all of you more machine like. Every step treats people more like a commodity and less like participants in a shared endeavour. And all because every step is being used to cover up anxiety – turning people away from the risky endeavour of skilful, genuine, nuanced, open conversation with each other.

In the end, when what’s required is talking with one another there’s no substitute, no substitute at all, for the difficult work of learning to talk well with one another.

And if you’re looking for process to do the heavy lifting, you’re looking in the wrong place.

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What others are to you…

What’s your understanding about what other people are?

A way of getting what you want?
A nuisance, an irritant?
To be battled and ultimately overcome?
A source of comparison – always better, or worse, than you?
To be kept-up with?
Machines for production?
A bundle of behaviours to be changed?
A supply for your self-esteem?
Mysterious, inviting wonders?

Which interpretation you choose (and you’re always choosing one, even if it was handed to you by your culture or your family) powerfully shapes

What’s possible for you and for them
What kind of relationships are possible

If you look closely at yourself, can you tell which your understanding is?
And if it’s producing the kind of life and work you’re really intending?

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The heart of a complaint

Every complaint has at its heart a genuine treasure: a something that the complainer values and cares about.

It’s so easy to miss this when we dismiss people as moaners, whiners, or nuisances.

When our complaints are disregarded the hurt and resentment comes not so much from you not doing what we asked of you, but that you didn’t see us first and foremost as human beings with cares and concerns that matter.

Instead of seeing complaining colleagues, customers, family as irritants, can you allow yourself to see the committed person behind the complaint? It’s a far more powerful, relationship-building, trust-developing place from which to respond.

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Blinded to half of our lives

The separation of subject from object brought to us so powerfully by René Descartes in the 17th century (and which I wrote most recently about here) gave us new ways of understanding and manipulating the material world which in turn gave birth to modernity. His work ushered in an age in which at last science, technology and medicine could seriously take root. You don’t have to look far to see how much this has made possible.

But you have to look more closely to see how it has also led us into a deep misunderstanding of ourselves.

In the 19th century August Comte built on Descartes’ position to create logical positivism, which argued that nothing in the human world could be considered to have authority unless it could be objectively measured. For positivism what was real about people included behaviour, action taken, money earned, measurements made. Feeling, meaning and stories were distinctly second class as far as truth was concerned. In a stroke, positivism declared much of the experience of being alive, the unique subjectivity that makes us most human, to be irrelevant, a marginal footnote to the real stuff of existence.

We’ve enthusiastically taken positivism into the heart of our institutions and as we’ve done so we’ve understood ourselves and others primarily as objects and as consumers – a surface, materialist understanding that leaves a huge part of ourselves behind. We relate to people primarily through how they can be ‘of use’ to us, what they can get done. And consequently we are often at war with ourselves, suppressing and denying our longing for something real, something that has depth, something that’s more than surface.

It should be no surprise that positivism was seized upon enthusiastically by the architects of that most modern of human institutions, the organisation. By reducing people to surface and to measurable activity, and by discounting the rest, the early factory owners could have people become extensions of the machinery of production. It is at work in so much of what’s considered ‘best practice’ in contemporary management – in behaviour frameworks, performance grading, the banishment of the inner world from the workplace, the label ‘human resources’, and our insistence that people fit in rather than bring themselves forward fully.

Positivism is so prevalent and so often unquestioned because, in many ways, it works – just as long as you are happy that people stop being people so they can become part of the machine.

But it fails to take account of so much of what we are – symbol-making, metaphor-creating, meaning-seeking beings who navigate our lives wondering, dreaming, fearing, hoping and longing – and that our measurable doing is just the tiniest part of it.

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All the same

Seen against the ever-present certainties of our lives – we will die, we will grow old, all that we build or create will eventually fall apart – differences between us drop away. We are all the same.

It’s so hard to live consciously with this in mind, to reach out across the space we imagine separates us and be open to one another. So hard to share our fear, our longing, our truest hopes. So hard to stay present long enough to look deeply into the eyes of others, to fall into them, allowing ourselves to know and be known.

Why so difficult? Perhaps because of the shame we necessarily picked up along the way: sharpened every time we had to be told not to do this or that, to be this way or that way in order to fit in with our families or with our culture. Because of our self-doubt and our inner-criticism, which make it so hard to love ourselves fully (a pre-requisite for allowing ourselves to un-self-consciously love others). And because we are afraid.

And so we hold back, always reserving some distance even from those who love us the most, because that way it feels as if we’ll hold on to some measure of safety. Or we judge others, resent them or hate them, turning them into less than human-beings in our hearts, because it makes us feel better for a while.

Even though we know that our deepest connection with one another is precisely that which can save us from the void.

This is the great ethical work, so difficult to do and so necessary, which calls to us – learning the sensitivity to respond and be open to other people, who we take to be so different from us but with whom we share common ancestry, and common destiny.

For we are intimately related.


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For the past century and a half, we’ve become driven by measurement, a consequence of the revolution in philosophy and science ushered in by the work of René Descartes in the 17th century.

Descartes’ profound contribution was to make detached, analytical observation of the world central to human knowledge. He gave wings to the scientific method of hypothesis and experimentation which has transformed our way of living. And he did so by being committed to objectivity – what’s independently observable and measurable, as opposed to subjectivity – the particular first-person lived experience of being-you or being-me that cannot be described in objective ways.

By dividing subject and object in the way that he did, Descartes gave us tools to stand back from the world with a critical, doubting eye and to make new startling new discoveries. But in order to do so he had to split ‘I’ from ‘world’ – leaving out personal experience completely because of the way it appears to arise from the mysterious insides of a person’s mind rather than being ‘of the world’.

Descartes gave us a world in which we take ‘hard’ – what’s objective – to be real and of primary importance and ‘soft’ – what’s subjective – to be secondary, often so far as to be considered of no value at all. And so completely do we live in this Cartesian world that it can be difficult for us to see how much we systematically discount by looking at the world, and ourselves, through these eyes. Even the words ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ say much about our orientation to these matters.

There will be much more to say about this over the coming days and weeks. But for now, a simple question – how often in organisational life are you insisting on looking only for what you can measure, and consequently how much of the human world of your work are you not looking at, at all?

‘Hard’ measures can tell you much about machines, or processes, or inventory, or money. But they will leave out most of what’s meaningful about the people who work with you – the ‘soft’ stuff that isn’t ‘soft’ at all and which can only really be discovered by being in conversation with others. And this is precisely because people are not objects but subjects, the kind of being that the Cartesian world in which we live goes to great lengths to discount.

Hard measures – productivity, hours worked, behaviours observed, profit earned – will tell you nothing about vital human concerns such as meaning, aliveness, longing, camaraderie, friendship, love, dedication, frustration, resentment, inspiration and so on – because people are essentially ‘I’ rather than ‘it’, subjects rather than objects.

You may well be trying to shape the life of your organisation by paying attention to what’s measurable when you should also be paying attention to what’s not measurable, but equally real.

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This Is Water

This week I have been re-reading David Foster Wallace’s short work, This Is Water: a book about taking up an I-You relationship to the world, the importance of freedom, and a caution against enslaving ourselves to our own self-centredness. It’s a call to think about how we think, and about how we pay attention to our lives.

“Everything in my own immediate
experience supports my deep belief that I
am the absolute center of the universe, the
realest, most vivid and important person
in existence.”

If we’re prepared to examine this kind of narrow habitual thinking, argues Wallace, we can live in horizons much wider than a life lived on automatic pilot. By taking our part in the construction of meaning seriously we open up possibilities for connection even in the most hum-drum, irritating, everyday situations of life. We can

“experience [even] a crowded, hot, slow,
consumer-hell-type situation as not
only meaningful, but sacred, on fire
with the same force that lit the stars –
compassion, love, the subsurface unity
of all things.”

The book is a warning that much of what we uncritically worship (and we’re always worshipping something) has the capacity to consume our lives: worshipping money and things leads us to feel that we never have enough; worshipping intellect leaves us feeling stupid and a fraud; worshipping power leaves us feeling weak and afraid, always needing to pursue more power in order to feel safe.

And so it’s an invitation to choose, to orient our lives around meanings that are big enough to break us out of the prison of our selfishness, our sense of being the centre of everything.

It will take you all of 20 minutes to read this beautiful and challenging invitation to the work of a lifetime.

“Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily
true: The only thing that’s capital-T True
is that you get to decide how you’re going to try
to see it.”

Essential reading for anyone who has responsibility towards others in life – whether as colleague, friend, family, customer, citizen, or passer-by.

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Stimulus and Response

After writing yesterday’s post on work and love, I was introduced to Dan Pink’s RSA talk on our mistaken assumptions about what makes good work possible.

The subtitle of his talk could be ‘Don’t think you can manipulate people into making their most genuine contribution’.

Paying bonuses for performance, argues Pink, works out only in very particular situations. Promise to reward people more for performing a mindless mechanical task, and often, yes, they’ll find the wherewithal to do it better, or faster.

But make bonuses the reason to do work that requires care, thoughtfulness, or imagination – especially if that’s your primary method of engaging them – and you’re most likely to see poorer results.

I don’t think this should surprise us. We know pretty quickly when we’re being manipulated and it often makes us cynical and resentful.

The very idea that bonuses would increase performance arises from the still-influential work of the behaviourist psychologists of the last century. They argued that the inner experience of human beings is irrelevant, and that we can decide what to do by looking just at outer stimulus and response patterns.

In many organisations we’re still caught up in the simplistic understanding of people that the behaviourists inspired. The consequence? The design of management practice based on the reward and punishment responses of animals such as rats.

But we’re human beings, with rich inner worlds that cannot be ignored just because they’re hard to measure. We are brought to life by meaning, belonging, contribution and creativity. We’re not machines, nor do we contribute any of our higher human faculties in response to a straightforwardly manipulative stimulus such as a bonus.

When we’re treated  – or treat ourselves – as if we’re something less than the complex, meaning-seeking beings that we are, it should be no surprise that we – and our work – are diminished.

Pay people enough to have the issue of money be off the table, argues Pink. And then you need to ask deeper questions.

Here’s the animation from his talk, with thanks to Geraldine for introducing it to me.

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What you’re not

It’s so easy to identify yourself with your circumstances, and to have your sense of your own possibility shaped by them.

But it’s important to remember that while you will always find yourself in, or subject to, particular circumstances, they are not you. They never were. They never will be.

You are not your failure or your difficulty, your pain or your illness, your frustration or your longing, your debt or your confusion, your hopelessness or your fear or your certainty that you are stuck.

And, equally, you are not your success. You are neither your status nor your privilege, your bank balance nor the string of letters after your name. You are not your fame, your salary, the size of your house, the number of ‘likes’ you have.

Every time you think you are your circumstances, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’, you diminish yourself.

So who are you if you are not any of these?

Can we ever find the words that will do justice to this question?

For today, I think Khalil Gibran’s response, from The Prophet, is a very good place to start:

“You are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself”.

Nothing more. And, certainly, nothing less.

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Speak to me from the darkness

Compassion is knowing our own darkness well enough that we can sit in the darkness with others.

And it is a relationship between equals, never a relationship between the wounded and the healed.

— Pema Chödrön

When I’m feeling ashamed at what I’ve done – an ordinary, human course of events in which I’ve made a choice I regret – the last thing I need you to do is to tell me what I could have done differently.

The judgement inherent in your advice prolongs my shame, and increases the distance between us.

Speak to me instead from that part of you that knows you could find yourself in a similar situation.

And, please, show me you see my humanity, and that you share it too.

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Work and the consumer

When we think of ourselves primarily as consumers, we perilously narrow our understanding of what work is for.

For the consumer, work is primarily about getting more. Work generates income, which generates buying power, which generates the mark of success for the consumer – being able to have what you want.

And since there’s always more to want, being in work to fulfil the narrative of the consumer can never, truly, fulfill. We become wide-open gaping mouths, always wanting, never satisfied.

And, in this way, we rob work of so many other life-giving possibilities:

  • that it might connect us deeply with people and give us a place to belong
  • that it might be a way in which our particular gifts and talents can be marshalled for the benefit of others
  • that it could be a deep source of meaningful engagement with life

If we want work to open bigger possibilities for ourselves, our organisations, and our society, it’s time for us to give this a lot more serious thought and attention than we’re currently used to.

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Not machines

Organisations are not machines that can be programmed.

Because people are not machines either.

People are human beings. 

A radical perspective, I know, in a world where we’ve spent the last 150 years doing our best to have people fit in as if they were cogs or crankshafts in a huge mechanism.

Our insistence on seeing ourselves as machines makes organising ourselves look easier, but comes at a huge cost. Either we ignore what’s spontaneous, mysterious and creative about people in order to see only what fits the narrow way we’ve committed ourselves to seeing. Or we corral people into leaving parts of themselves out so they can appear to be the tightly defined machine part we’ve insisted they be.

Wouldn’t understanding ourselves as human, and our organisations as living, bring us a more truthful, challenging, possibility-laden, and creative way to respond to the urgency of organising ourselves so that good work can happen?

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The language of objects

“The language of objects catches only one corner of human life”
Martin Buber

If we want to survive in the world we need to know how to relate to everything around us as an object (an ‘it’) – something that is of use, that can be formed, or shaped, or measured in some way, that can serve our needs. Without this, we would soon die. Or, at the very least, all our intentions to have anything happen in the world would be thwarted.

But just because the past 200 years of science and technology have given us an explosion of new ways to objectify the world so we can shape it, please don’t be misled into thinking that’s all there is to human life.

If we don’t pay attention, pretty soon we can reduce everything – including people – to objects. And then we miss the possibility of encountering anything of substance. All we get is surface.

So, by all means, do the necessary work to measure what people around you are up to. Assign scores, gradings, personality types, psychometrics. Rate people by their performance, their ROI, their bonus, their job title. Do all this in whichever way helps you to have what matters to you actually happen.

But, please, don’t mislead yourself that what you’ve created is all there is about them, or that you’ve ‘got them nailed’ in some essential way.

Because behind your measures – indeed all around them – people are worlds of immense complexity and depth. And, however efficient we’re getting, we need to remember this if we’re going to go beyond surviving and do work in which people can actually thrive.

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One of the sources of profound difficulty in human relationships: trying to colonise other people’s worlds.

… by being blind to their difference from you:

Assuming they see (or ought to see) and understand in the same way you do.
Expecting them to respond as you do: be excited about the same things, irritated by the same things, upset by the same things, and committed to the same things.

.. or by attempting to knock them into (your) shape:

Consciously or unconsciously applying pressure to have them fit the shape of your own world. Using shame, promises, withdrawal, forcefulness, sulking, rejection, or reward to corral them.

This kind of colonising is an everyday oppression of others that we so easily get into, without even knowing it’s what we are doing.

Can you see it in your attempts to have the people you work with all be the same (same values, same behaviour, same personality, same opinions)?

Or in the way you parent your children to have them turn out like you?

Or in what you demand from friends or lovers?

Perhaps it’s time to give up colonising and start to be an explorer instead. What other people’s worlds have to teach you, if you’ll let go of your grip enough to allow it, might just change everything.

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Birth of a toothpick

“I once saw a cartoon,” he told me. “It was about a huge tree, cut down, stripped of its leaves and branches, and then fed into a factory which whittles it down and down until, at the end, out pops a single toothpick.”

“And I am that toothpick” he said, with sadness. “Once, I had wide-ranging interests, a full and varied life, but I’ve allowed myself to become narrowed and withered by my single-minded pursuit of my career, and it’s years since I’ve touched any of them. It’s not how I intended to live.”

You can see some stills from the cartoon, produced in 1939 by Walter Lanz of roadrunner fame, here, including the striking final frame where the toothpick is born.

It was a rare moment of vulnerability and truthfulness among a group of senior corporate leaders. And I had a strong sense of the opening that this could be for him and for the people around him to do something about the condition they, and their whole organisation, found themselves in. Because, as I’ve said in elsewhere on these pages, often we don’t get to see what our doing is doing to us and to those around us.

More of us have become toothpicks than we might care to admit, armouring ourselves against our deepest longing, living a divided life. And in doing so, we have other people become this way too. It exacts a huge cost from everyone.

As Giles Fraser argues this week, feeling and articulating our own essential human vulnerability in this way is the first real opportunity to have our most human needs met, because it’s the moment we admit – perhaps for the first time – that we have human needs at all, and so does everyone else around us.

It’s our first opportunity to put our lives back together. And no amount of hardening ourselves by denying, defending, posturing, or using status or seniority as a mask can do this for us.

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You say goodbye to her, perhaps at the doorway, perhaps with a hug, and you both say to one another ‘see you soon’.

But, as with every parting, you cannot know if that’s true.

So many possibilities. So many reasons why ‘see you again’ might not come to pass.

Does remembering that, occasionally, help to bring you back in touch with the living, breathing wonder that she is, and that you are too?

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Once, perhaps not so long ago, we had a sense that there were activities worth doing for their own sake.

But perhaps without realising it, we’ve more and more taken on an understanding that the only value worth serious attention is economic performance.

It doesn’t take too much looking to see how much of human life is of an importance far beyond any number we can put on it. People try, but can a figure placed on the value of friendship, a walk in the park, a forest, or time spent in the presence of great art or beauty ever hope to express its true value in our lives?

And when the nurturing and sustaining of human relationships with friends, family and community has little measurable economic value, but long hours of office work apparently do, is it any wonder so many people, without realising how they got there, now find themselves so painfully, terrifyingly lonely, even in a crowd?

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Measurable things

In so many organisational settings we seek to turn human beings into measurable things, assessed for productivity, efficiency, and for ability to match a prescribed list of behaviours. 

Yes, I understand, we have to measure in organisations. The era we’re living in, in which economics is the narrative by which we account for the worth of just about everything, demands this of us. And there are solid reasons to track, with rigour, how things are going.

But most of what’s most important about human beings can’t be reduced to an objective measure, a behaviour chart, or a figure to put on your balance sheet.

If you treat people as resources, you call on them to act as if they are resources.

Resources don’t exhibit wholeheartedness, care for the people around them, or a capacity to discern and dedicate themselves to a noble pursuit that genuinely matters. And the resource narrative does much to reduce us to individualistic, self-serving shadows of ourselves, pursuing the measure rather than doing what’s of enduring value.

We’re going to have to do better than this if we want to create organisations that have people – and society – flourish. And we’re going to have to face up to our fear of all the things that could happen if the people around us were freed up to be fully, fiercely, and uncompromisingly alive.

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