5 Practices that Never Go Out of Style
The awkwardness of the Holiday Season in our polarized society has arrived. It is an important time for several religious communities who are celebrating narratives core to their identity and belief systems. As a result, our personal philosophies spill into public view and at work. We struggle with inclusion and diversity and we choose the generic greeting, “Happy Holidays.”
Holiday inclusion never used to matter for the workplace. It used to be that belief systems were relegated to our private life, but society has gradually shifted. With the late Gen-X and Millennial generational cohorts, there is a rise in the desire to live more authentically and in line with their personal belief systems. Along with this shift is the increased prominence of broader ethical concerns like sustainability, diversity and inclusion, equality in the workplace, and so forth. Our belief systems are important to us and shape “our way of being” in the world in profound ways. However, we don’t always know how to bring the two together. In the spirit of the Holiday season and being authentic, here are five old and new practices that research shows are tied to high performance. They balance out the thin, lean, efficient, KPI focus that can be too transactional. All five are demonstrated in evidence found in ancient philosophical and sacred texts. They are also validated in current positive and social psychology, as well as neuroscience research. These practices are aspirational, worth cultivating and form the foundation of great societies, families, organizations and people.
Gratitude begins with the awareness that things could be considerably worse for us. We all have been afforded opportunities, advantages, successes and failures big and small that add up to the goodness in our life. Positive psychology tends to focus on the inward state and impacts of gratitude. Alternatively, I want to draw attention to the expression of gratitude as an external act to those around us. At work, it’s the expression of gratitude that is powerful. People respond positively when they are aware that their hard work, engagement and going beyond what is minimally expected is seen. Two simple words, thank you, are the acknowledgement of it. By saying thank you, we are saying I see you, I am grateful for what you give of yourself to make our organization what it is. I’m shocked by how little I hear these words—particularly from senior leaders. I frequently have leaders push back, as though simply paying people for the work they do is enough. As a leader, I feel privileged that I have such great people working with me. The fact that employees, customers, vendors, and advisors give so much of their life and talent to move our organization forward is humbling. Honestly, I couldn’t do it without them. It’s considerably more than a mere transaction. Saying thank you is a reflection of our relationship, their value and my gratitude. (To read more see The Greater Good at UC Berkeley https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good)
When the topic of being generous arises, we typically think of sharing material assets or money. This isn’t surprising given the wealth creation of the past century. In a manner similar to gratitude, researchers focus much on the potential rewards for the individual and their inward state (happiness, less depression, etc.). Generosity is a much larger topic, however, and involves more than just giving a few bucks away and feeling better as a result. In its pure form, generosity has no quid pro quo—which I find ubiquitous in the business world—We instead give with no expectation of return or influence. Gratitude is rooted in a profound sense that we are stewards of the various forms of capital we possess. The old saw, it is better to give than receive is remarkably accurate. Yet, leaders, employees and organizations can take on the quality of being stingy, cheap and lacking in generosity. In such a busy, hectic world, I have come to realize that the giving of our time is the most valuable gift we can offer. Providing introductions from our social network, agreeing to meet with people outside our usual network or social class, are all forms of generosity. Rather than a singular action, generosity can become a way of life and even a part of our daily organizational practices.
In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins identifies humility as a key component of a level 5 leader (the highest performing in his system) We agree. Humility is one of the most misunderstood and essential elements in building high performing teams and organizations. Not surprisingly, humility is a tough sell in today’s environment. In a world of padded resumes, overstating accomplishments and experiences, self-promotion, fake it ‘til you make it practices, humility doesn’t stand much of a chance. Humility is a reflection of someone who is comfortable in their own skin, is on the road to self-awareness, knows their strengths and weaknesses and most importantly, owns them. Humility is a quality of being vulnerable, being seen and known for who you really are—no more, no less. It is accompanied by a profound sense of how great the world around us is, how much we don’t know, and how far we have to go in our own development and growth. The way this quality shows up in the workplace is an openness to new learning, an acknowledgment of our need of others on the team, and a profound awareness that we can’t do it alone. Organizations that share this quality are improving, learning, growing, innovating.
Empathy has received a lot of attention of late. It is another old idea and an essential element for relationships of any kind. The fact that there is so little empathy in today’s society isn’t that surprising; given the way we have used our resources to shield ourselves from adversity and the experiences of others in our world. Pity is not the same as empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings and experiences of another person. If we have the ability to empathize, we understand our team, employees, clients and vendors at a much deeper level. We can then positively shape and improve their experience, performance and outcomes. The problem is that talks or trainings on their own will not produce true empathy. We have to be willing to remove the fences that keep us apart and enter the world of the other to truly understand and be changed. We have learned much about the brain, our individual capacities and empathy over the past fifty years. If you’re interested in learning more perhaps start here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201310/the-neuroscience-empathy
The notion of truth with a capital T has taken a battering over the past few decades. We have recognized the fact that individual perspective can profoundly shape how we see and understand the world. Yet, the pendulum has perhaps swung too far in the opposite direction where opinion and conjecture masquerade as truth. This is particularly true in organizations and people-oriented consulting. In his wonderful little book, Factfulness, Hans Rosling makes the argument for being open to new learning and change when presented with quality data and verifiable facts. Truth is a quest, as we learn more, the more we need to change with what we learn. The challenge for us all is to remain open to change in light of the new and to hold ideas, practices and behaviors lightly. Otherwise, the outdated ideas and practices that don’t survive the test of research and scientific inquiry will linger. Frankly, it is why so many older white male leaders are struggling at this time. The world has changed and their beliefs, practices and way of being are not in step. #okboomer and #okmillennial are part of this process. It is easy for people and organizations to become static, stuck in time and want to blame others or the broader environment. There will always be friends, advisors, consultants, leaders, who are invested in the old, outdated ways to reinforce their viewpoint. Many of the big problems our organizations and societies are attempting to solve and confront, is this issue. Climate change, innovation in the workplace, generational conflict, labor vs. management, employee experience, diversity and inclusion, poverty, trade negotiations, etc. are all limited by the seeming unwillingness of people to embrace the new and adopt the best way. Given the pushback from broader society that Copernicus and Galileo received, and that we still find with the renewed embrace of the tantalizing idea of a flat earth, it shouldn’t surprise us. We live in a time of reinvention and discovery, but not all ideas and practices are equal. It sometimes feels like organizations are trying to reinvent the wheel or fire. We need to identify what to retain from our past and what to let go. These five traits/practices have endured throughout history and continue to be validated through various research methods. They represent characteristics of people at their best and are hard won. But rather than simply thinking of them individualistically and as inward dimensions that leads to personal happiness or positive wellbeing, focus instead on their outward expression within the various communities of which we are a part. When done well, they will have a much greater impact than that trendy new workplace bar and other amenities—it will also cost a lot less.