We have explored up to this point two supports for a strong organization: building a culture of architects and designing an environment. These supports establish the conditions for a community to begin the work of realizing its mission.
Now, we turn to the work itself.
Once we have a sense of collective ownership (or shared responsibility), open communication, conversational norms, a clear mission and a thoughtfully designed environment, what is the work that we actually do here? And how do go about producing the best work or reaching goals related to the mission? Do we just show up and pursue our own projects, meet deadlines, say the right things at meetings to get them over with, and occasionally praise a colleague to keep up the appearance of collegiality or commitment? And, isn’t it enough for us to follow the policies and rules and to practice the norms we’ve come up with, without getting “too personal” and too involved?
It’s quite an accomplishment if an organization’s people strive for most if not all of the above on a regular basis. But, even in a community where people pursue individual excellence and separate projects, there will always be moments of interaction with others in the organization –sometimes several times a day- and there will always be those moments when we feel defeated, frustrated, stuck and overwhelmed, and need the help of others to get things done.
In the short and long term, the ability to work with one another to get things done depends on the quality of relationships and interactions we have in particular moments. Even if we choose to maintain professional distance or perhaps personal distance from colleagues or community members to ensure our own sense of safety and comfort, it is difficult to avoid the personal element of collegial relationships and the inevitability of encounters, interactions and the occasional confrontation.
If this has some truth to it, then another question arises: How do we navigate the ambiguities and discomforts of working relationships while striving to do the best work? While there is no easy answer, it seems almost likely that organizations must have an ethos of cooperation if they hope to build positive relationships to support their mission. This ethos, of course, can only come from the top.
Three Visible features
Leaders who care about their community and the people they serve, including subordinates, partners, stakeholders and clients, will generally show consideration, humility and the willingness to engage others on equal ground. Thus, they spend their time modeling and promoting the value of genuine cooperation. Three features that are clear visible in genuine cooperation are consideration, uncertainty, and exchange.
1. Active consideration
In the same way that a culture of architects is characterized by agency and designing an environment is characterized by intentionality, genuine cooperation is characterized by flexibility.
Consideration is about our willingness to consider other people’s perspectives and experiences while we are in the process of determining which words to say and which actions to take. This attitude can help us to remain open to alternatives and to new ways of doing and seeing things. It can also help our professional relationships because our colleagues experience us as concerned about their well-being, perspectives and working conditions.
Consideration for others is one of the most elementary values we are exposed to from an early age. We are taught that to be considerate is to take others into account when we say or do something. Over time, this value appears to lose its active nature in the life of human beings and is frequently regarded as a moral imperative to be kind to others without much thought to what kindness to others might entail.
A closer examination of consideration reveals that this value is not the same as relying on a default moral attitude of simply being nice to people. If consideration is to be genuine, it needs to be active.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, consideration is defined as an engagement in “continuous and careful thought.” It is also defined as “thoughtful and sympathetic regard.” The transitive verb consider means “to think about carefully… especially with regard to taking some action” and “to regard or treat in an attentive or kindly way.”
So, consideration implies an active, attentive and sympathetic regard for others.
Active consideration begins with the question: Who am I leaving out?
This is an important question, and our inquiry can be helped if we commit to go deeper in our contemplation of another’s reality. This reality has many aspects. We will look at three: Language, perspective and personal experience.
Language is powerful. For our purposes, let us assume that someone whom we are actively considering speaks the same language as we do. We can start by acknowledging that words mean different things to different people. In her book, “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work,” linguist Suzanne Elgin, (2008) explains that words have rhetorical features. She cautions the reader that words have very specific emotional and intellectual meanings for different individuals depending on their unique experiences and points of reference.
In a public school, for instance, the word “reform” has negative connotations for teachers. It is not that teachers do not wish to see positive change. Far from it. Most educators would prefer to be fulfilled from having made a difference. The problem with the word “reform” is that it has come to connote a way of making change that involves the judgment and punishment of those required to implement the change. It involves the imposition of reform rather than an invitation to awaken the spirit of reform in the implementers.
An educator who is the recipient of this form of treatment cannot help but to perceive reform as an act of violence. What makes reform appear to be a violent act is that it is often predicated on a limited evaluation of the circumstances in which they teach, an evaluation that is often accompanied by the claim that they are not working hard enough. Among educators, there is a perception that there is a lack of understanding among these reformers in the moral, political and structural conditions of the actual teaching situation. There are many other elements at play in the case of a “failing school.” Ignoring these elements in the name of “reform” has understandably turned educators off from the very idea. The rhetorical features of the word reform evoke in educators a cringing response, for such a word as come to mean “punishment,” “shame,” and “anger.”
Conversely, the rhetorical features of “reform” for those doing the imposing are quite positive. Reform for them brings to mind the prospects of “improvement,” “accountability,” and “progress.” It might also bear the redolence of “liberation” as in the liberation of students from lower socio-economic conditions from the degradation of “status quo” education in underfunded schools and from the warehousing mentality and moral disengagement of those charged with the duty to inspire them. If a person outside the education profession spent a week with a professional educator and used the word “improvement” during discussions with the educator -rather than reform- there is a good chance that both would discover they are on the same page.
Another example is the word “force.”
Let’s take a look at a quote from a well-respected educational and organizational scholar, Robert V. Carlson. In his seminal book, Reframing Education, Carlson (1997) writes, “in organizations… in which rights and responsibilities are clearly articulated and public… politics are forced to operate with a moral or ethical framework” (pp. 188-189). The idea expressed in that statement has merit, and, in an academic book, every word fits perfectly. But notice the word “force”. If we could revise the statement to say that an organization’s politics can be compelled to operate in a moral framework, we could sidestep the unnecessary suggestion of violence, control or coercion that are likely to be conjured up by the rhetorical features of the word “force.” We could further revise the statement to say that ethical politics could be encouraged by transparent communication, which implies more an invitation than a mandate.
Another consideration of language is the careful selection of words that will keep people “at the table”. If a conflict arises in organizational life and things get heated, all parties need to be given an “out.” Assertions of absolute truth about a situation or disagreement can easily come across as an accusation, so it’s always good to reframe “facts” as possibilities or potentiality. This can be done by the use of helping verbs and adverbs which express conditionality, e.g. might, may, possibly, could, perhaps, maybe.
Compare the examples below.
1. Your design of last year’s top-selling product caused the sales to drop.
2. It’s possible that the current market no longer supports last year’s product line, though it’s also possible that the design may have needed some re-vamping, too.
The above paragraphs offer only a brief glimpse into the power of language in demonstrating consideration for clients, colleagues and others who are part of a community, workplace or temporary project. There are many books on the subject, especially in the fields of linguistics and organizational learning.
There are also considerations in the area of language, relating to cross-cultural understanding and respect. For more on this aspect of language, I recommend even a cursory study of multicultural theories, including anti-oppression, critical theory and various strands of deconstructionist thought.
In summary, we should keep in mind that language is a very powerful tool that can cause greater understanding or greater harm, depending on how conscious we are in our use of it.
In the words of Peter Johnston, author of Choice Words, language is not merely representational; it is also constitutive.
In other words, language creates reality.
Perspective and Personal Experience
The active consideration of others’ perspectives can help to build relationships and trust, and increase productivity. We can remain conscious of the question: Whose perspective am I leaving out? Whose experience is impacted by my choices?
Our answer to the question can help guide our actions so that they can be more ethical and not cause harm to others. One way to ask the question is to scan our immediate surroundings in the moment. Another way to answer the question is to engage in a “mental scan” of the different people in a particular situation who might be directly affected by a choice we make individually or a decision we make collectively. This is what it means to “act politically” (Heifitz, et al, 2010) and represents what is commonly referred to as “positive politics.”
Politics is a neutral word. It can be defined as the negotiation between two or more people over the ways and mean to distribute resources, including money, time, attention and human capital. It should be easy to see how often politics succumbs to the ego-driven impulse to “get what’s mine”. All too often, in organizational life and beyond, the negotiation breaks down and turns into a covert game of one-upmanship, deception and even psychological violence (not to mention physical violence, which certainly has played out on the larger scales of national and international politics.
Again, it bears repeating that I am assuming that the reader desires a positive culture in his/her organization and actually wants cooperation to be evident among the organization’s members. I am repeating this because positive politics is only possible when we are dealing with “honest brokers.” If there are members of the community who are looking out for themselves –especially if they are a part of the leadership- the politics be negatively impacted, and, over the long term, the mission will suffer.
Having covered the question about what the reader may want, let’s assume that you want your organization’s politics to be positive. Positive politics are practiced simply by keeping in mind how others are impacted by choices and decisions. There will always be compromises, and sometimes-painful decisions will need to be made. But, it’s important always to consciously take other human beings into consideration.
A short and simple example of the lack of consideration in the areas of perspective and personal experience is when a customer service representative’s hours are cut by a third without her knowledge. Imagine, what Teresa might feel when she sees the drastic change in her schedule without having been informed. Behind the scenes, management may have had to make hard decisions about cutting hours due to slow business, and may even have tried spreading the cuts across the whole department. But choosing not to communicate directly to Teresa is an example of not being considerate to her personal experience. She will be making 33% less money and she wasn’t prepared for this. However long she stays on the job, she is not likely to be cooperative, and may even actively seek to undermine the work itself. At the very least, her morale has been deeply impacted and her sense of trust in the work community completely eroded.
Sure, this could be collateral damage, and maybe it seems okay that one person is unhappy. Hard decisions were made, and that is that. But, others who have witnessed this may now have to recalibrate their own relationship to management. A toxic environment could easily spread, causing people to look out for themselves, and possibly scheme against each other. After all, their perspectives have changed, and their trust in the organization has been compromised.
To be humane and considerate is far more efficient than to take the technical approach to decision-making. In all organizations, money, time, attention and human capital all matter.
But, they only matter to humans themselves.
2. Embracing uncertainty
To consider any perspective other than our own would require us to let go of our own perspective -at least some of the time.
If we hope to find solutions in our work both individually and collectively, it will be helpful for us to question our assumptions, to crack the rigidity of our perspectives, to learn to allow our impressions and thoughts to flow a little bit, to be fluid enough to experiment. Some of our greatest solutions often come to us after a period in which we have hovered around a viewpoint long enough to resist landing on it. If we can learn to experiment with “not landing” and hang out in that uncomfortable, uncertain space, we might gain more insight about a problem, ourselves or a colleague.
To the degree that our ideas about others, our situations and ourselves are fluid, we are able to go with the flow. This may perhaps sound similar to Buddhist epistemology and other Eastern concepts, but there is a rich tradition of Western philosophy in which thinkers have posited a similar approach to viewing others and ourselves. Hegel comes to mind with his belief that truth cannot be found until we have committed ourselves to phenomenological destruction -the commitment to “destroy” or to let go of the absoluteness of our beliefs about particular phenomena, including ourselves and other people.
Put in the simplest possible terms, to be uncertain is to be open to people, other situations, and ourselves as they naturally are without the cartoon we make them out to be. The authors of “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World” (Heifitz, Grashow, Linsky, 2010) caution us to question the stories we might be telling ourselves and to re-frame our claims to “truth” as assumptions. This is a key insight shared by many scholars and authors in the fields of organizational theory and leadership studies, as this practice helps us to remain open to differing points of view. All too often, clinging to a rigid point of view about a person or situation can lead to what Heifitz, et al refer to as “unproductive interpretations” (p. 117). How else can we expect to “get things done?”
Uncertainty can be viewed as a practice or it can be viewed as an attitude. Some theorists and writers in the fields of transpersonal psychology and spirituality believe that we can learn to live from the space of uncertainty most if not all of the time. This is not my present experience, so I cannot say one way or the other. But, I do see it as extraordinarily useful in living my life and in sustaining long-term collegial relationships.
Building consensus and trust is no easy task. With the assistance of a democratic process, including structures for participation, a norm for open communication and a sense of shared responsibility- these voices will be heard. With the intentional support of an adequate holding environment -including the clear presence of a mission, the thoughtful design of physical spaces, and the promotion of productive norms for communicating- these voices may be calm and courteous enough to tolerate differences and make adequate decisions. With the practiced behavior of actively considering the language, perspectives and personal experiences of colleagues, those decisions can be re-visited and possibly even changed.
But none of these supports, norms, behaviors or attitudes can be fully realized without the transformative qualities of remaining open-minded. Whether we call it conceptual flexibility, uncertainty, emptiness, humility or openness, it is a quality that is necessary for all other elements to come into play. And, it is a quality that is necessary for innovation and productivity to be possible.
Uncertainty plays a pivotal role in the development of genuine cooperation, because it actively interferes with any claim we might have to know another person.
People are complex beings interacting in a complex world. We may never fully know the extent to which a colleague is an ally, adversary, friend or foe. It is possible that those whom we have designated as “friends” may sometimes have competing loyalties, and, therefore may not always be there for us. It’s also possible that those whom we have designated as “adversaries” have a richer inner life than we imagined, including unseen private sufferings and a tapestry of benevolent feelings they have for some people in their personal lives.
In essence, our courageous embrace of uncertainty is the practice of non-violence. Our willingness to set aside the caricature we have in our minds of another person (friend or foe) is non-violent because we allow them to be the fullness of who they are. What’s more we allow the possibility of their complete humanity.
The following quote from the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton sums up uncertainty in a deeply human way:
“A test of our sincerity in the practice of nonviolence is this: are we willing to learn something from the adversary? If a new truth is made known to us by him or through him, will we accept it? Are we willing to admit that he is not totally inhumane, wrong, unreasonable, and cruel, etc.? This is important . . . Our readiness to see some good in him and to agree with some of his ideas . . . actually gives us power: the power of sincerity and of truth. On the other hand, if we are obviously unwilling to accept any truth that we have not first discovered and declared ourselves, we show by that very fact that we are interested not in the truth so much as in “being right” . . . Nonviolence has great power, provided that it really witnesses to truth and not just to self-righteousness.
“The dread of being open to the ideas of others generally comes from our hidden insecurity about our own convictions . . . On the other hand, if we are mature and objective in our open-mindedness, we may find that in viewing things from a basically different perspective – that of our adversary [or a friend who has temporarily abandoned us] – we discover our own truth in a new light and are able to understand our own ideal more realistically.”
From that place of uncertainty, our consideration for others emerges out of a commitment to question all of our assumptions and to remain open to alternative realities. But, the alternative reality that is most transformative of all is the one that emerges in our creative exchanges with others.
The combination of consideration and uncertainty can change the quality of the experience of each to such an extent that they become indistinguishable.
Think about it. The more actively we consider -or contemplate- the more complete reality of other human beings, the more naturally we are curious about what they are thinking or feeling. The more we are curious to know about what they are thinking and feeling, the more open we become to whatever manifests in them. But which is which? The openness to whatever manifests in ourselves or in another implies an “act” of anticipation, a kind of magical waiting, like a child on Christmas morning. There is a thoughtful kind of seeking, an active energy of gently reaching out. A reaching out for “what could be” and a simultaneous befriending of “what is.”
But, what is being actively considered from the place of uncertainty is the conversational space itself -the rich flow of ideas and insights that are possible when the polarity of you and me has become relaxed.
In this exchange, we can learn to truly respect one another. As author William Isaacs (1999) reminds us in “Dialogue and the Art of Thinking,” respect means to “look again.” Consideration, uncertainty and exchange is about looking again and again, with an open mind –whether we are looking at ourselves, other people or a particular problem requiring a solution.
When this exchange is taking place, it can feel like an electrical current, generating feelings of mutual respect, trust and even playfulness, allowing for all kinds of insights, all types of solutions, and all sorts of answers. We feel the current sometimes as an undulating wave and sometimes as a charge. We know we are feeling it, and we suspect that others are feeling it, but we cannot locate the actual source. That is because the source is the exchange itself, which is made possible by our genuine commitment to engage with each other and to learn together.
Genuine cooperation acts as a support for a community by the creation of a culture in which active consideration and the embrace of uncertainty can be observed as visible problem-solving behaviors that occur through all levels of a community’s work. The result is a culture of exchange, in which human beings gain more insight into their working relationships and collaborate towards the discovery of innovative solutions to the inevitable challenges.