As a leader, do you believe that it is possible to fundamentally change the default culture of work?
If not, why not? If so, how do you suggest we get there?
The ultimate purpose of this blog is to give you anything and everything I can to enable you to become an unstoppable catalyst for change. One component of that is to analyze and explore heroic and lovable leadership.
Our world is currently shaped in large part by the interests of business. It shapes nearly every aspect of our culture. Therefore, changing the culture of work is central to our capacity to change the world.
We cannot change work until leaders everywhere address the elephant in the room: trauma.
The world of business was designed — and is continually adapted — to benefit a certain small group of people. We have accepted that there will be winners and losers. Hierarchies are still the most common corporate structure. Power is consolidated at the top. Money and status flow upward. As a result, the business environment that we operate in, cultivate, or passively endorse is based on their values: control and domination. It is no accident that nearly every aspect of business has been explained through metaphors of war and conflict.
The popular narratives promoted (read: propaganda) over the last 100 years are typically about cycles of boom and bust, wars fought and won or lost, and primarily feature a specific class of people presented as winners including politicians, military generals, and those who achieve outstanding financial success in the private sector.
Yet, at the same time, talk to an individual among the general population, and we might hear an entirely different story. We might hear about layoffs, unemployment, disability, student loans, rising healthcare costs, wage stagnation, and debt. We might hear about how we treat veterans, the LGBTQ+ community, Black Americans, Asian Americans, Immigrants, and others treated as “others.”
While both groups of stories may be “true,” one group is considerably more personal. Each of us internalize the stories of our time and it creates a specific lens that tints and colors our perception of the world. The more traumatic the experience, the deeper the tint and the darker the lens we look through. Collectively, there are more of us who are traumatized in some form or fashion by a world and business environment that does not prioritize us than there are those who benefit from this paradigm.
Stories Shape Behavior
Humans are driven, by instinct, to avoid pain. As social animals, we fear isolation. Some will use this to their advantage.
As a leader, once you understand this you can more easily understand and contextualize how people behave. All it requires is to ask yourself…
What is this person protecting themselves from?
Each person you interact with in business, as in life, is a collection of trauma and you get to interact with it. Lucky you! We often make the mistake of believing that people’s actions are thoughtfully and rationally considered. In truth, we’re mostly on autopilot, operating from the stories that color our perception.
Trauma @ Work
Bobby was taken advantage of in his previous jobs. He was young, inexperienced, and felt powerless to set boundaries or push back. So when his boss asked him to do things that made him uncomfortable, forced him to work uncompensated, or even handle his boss’ responsibilities, he kept quiet. Is it any wonder that, nowadays, he reacts poorly at work when asked to do something for the good of the team?
Joyce has never been onboarded properly at any company she’s worked for. She’s always had to figure it out for herself. So, is it any wonder why she doesn’t properly onboard anyone who joins her team? Is anyone surprised when she neglects to ask for what she needs when she joins a new company?
Seth watched his mother get laid off in the 80’s, twice. She struggled to find new work. His dad worked a blue collar job, until he was left unemployed in his 50’s by a job shipped overseas, with little more than a body broken down from years of physical labor, no marketable skills, and a meager retirement savings. Is anyone surprised that Seth is distrustful of any company?
Chris goes to HR every single time something goes wrong. Why? Because someone went to HR on her in the last job, and instead of a healthy conversation she was reprimanded and feared for her source of income and healthcare. Now she is quick to get others in trouble before she gets in trouble. Can you blame her?
Emily was made to feel like an idiot for typos in her emails. She was fired from her last job over those typos. Now she works extra hard on her attention to detail in emails and while she tries to be flexible with her team about typos when they do it, occasionally she finds herself judging them. Why does she get so upset with them?
Tariq has been the only person of color on his last three teams. He’s been asked inappropriate and offensive questions at two of those companies. Now the boss at his new company doesn’t understand why he’s not comfortable and getting along with everyone. Are you as confused?
What’s the Moral of the Story?
As humans, we find patterns, we learn lessons, we make meaning. Right now, each person, in each organization has a sense of how the world is. It’s based on individual experiences, and a perception of the collective experience.
So, in a business environment that is fiercely competitive, and where the spoils of victory are so revoltingly consolidated, is it surprising that people operate from a state of fear or are distrustful of authority?
We can change one thing, to change every thing.
We can start with Love. By that I mean care, trust, respect, and kindness. Imagine if that was our North Star in business.
What if in every company around the world we took actions to see the power shared equitably between owners and labor? What if the rewards were more equitably shared between owners and labor? What if we created a playing field where safety and security were a given so winners can still win while losers don’t lose everything? Would that make us fear less, work more collaboratively, and create a better world? I think so.
What if inside of our companies we were more understanding and adaptive to various traumas? What if we chose to be more curious and challenged singular definitions to include a wider variety of perspectives? What if we de-emphasized hierarchy and prioritized empathy? Would that make us understand each other better, make work less stressful, and create a better world? I think so.
Check your gut
- Did my mention of the word Love cause you to roll your eyes?
- Did the picture I just painted feel totally unrealistic?
- Are you ready to write all of this off as new-age, feel-good Pollyanna?
Well, I’ve got news for you. Everything that current is the way it is…it’s all made up! Every last bit of it is made up and continues to exist because we let it.
We continue to smash, crush, and destroy our competition. We continue to fire people without really caring what happens to them afterwards. We continue to prioritize our business needs over the needs of the people that run our businesses. We continue to reprimand the behavior instead of understand the person.
It’s all in the choices we make.
It will always feel unrealistic when you think you are solely responsible for changing the world. Because none of us can do it on our own. However, if you can change yourself, if you can change your company, and more people did the same, it could all change tomorrow. All you have to do is start by caring about people first and making that your North Star. Believe that strongly enough, and the rest will follow.