The “Political/Cultural” section of this newsletter is a bit different. I was asked, at a meeting of educators and business leaders, to make some comments on future “big picture” issues facing our society, as we slowly emerge from the economic contraction and malaise of the last few years. The comments were well received, so I thought I’d share them with you.
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The unique structure of the program allows significant numbers of people to be trained without ever leaving their offices; with a minimum of time investment; and at a very attractive price point. The flexibility of the learning technology also allows organizations to add their own proprietary information to a training program.
Currently, we are offering programs in “Fifth Wave Recruiting” and “Fifth Wave Leadership.” The former is geared toward dedicated recruiters, human resource professionals, and mid-level managers. The latter is designed for mid-level managers, sales professionals, and customer service representatives.
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In working with this client, I facilitate, along with the CEO, three accountability groups, made up of mid-level managers who represent all of the departments and functions of the company. In the middle of a discussion with one of these managers, about his particular challenges, he revealed that he had felt for some time, that the company had made a clear mistake in hiring a fellow manager in another area. A discussion ensued about the specific behaviors and capabilities (or lack of such) of the manager in question. And it was clear, after a short while, that the performance problems of the manager in question, were directly attributable to the characteristics pointed out by the accountability group participant.
At the conclusion of this discussion, the CEO asked the group to estimate a dollar amount of lost revenue attributable to missed opportunity, poor communication, unaccountable management of staff, and a myriad of dysfunctional behaviors. The CEO emphasized that he wanted them to be specific and very conservative, and to be able to justify the dollar amount with examples. The amount they came up with was sobering – in the low six figures, projected over the course of a year. To say the least, the rest of the group meeting was even more sobering and informative. Well over half the group had similar observations about colleagues, subordinates, and superordinates (including the CEO). This theme was mirrored in the two remaining groups, and at the end of two days of meetings, we had arrived at a total, conservatively estimated amount of two and a half million dollars of lost revenue.
When we asked people why they had not spoken up earlier, and made the company’s leaders aware of their perceptions and feelings, they identified attitudes and assumptions about sharing their feelings about other people, that had little or nothing to do with their history with the company, and everything to do with their personal background and history. They initially talked about not wanting to “get people into trouble,” but as we explored this, it became clear that the company had no history of summarily firing people who had performance problems, and, quite to the contrary, had an established track record of working with people (and providing resources) to help employees remediate their problems. What became evident, after much discussion, was that people weren’t afraid of getting other people into trouble – they were afraid of getting themselves into trouble. And the fear was not of getting fired, but of being disliked and ostracized.
Our work paradigm comes from our personal paradigm; not the other way around. You can talk all you want about being open to people telling you what they actually see and how they feel about it – i.e. telling you the truth. But this isn’t going to happen if they’re clueless about their underlying belief system about the penalties of speaking the truth.
So what’s the lesson here? Don’t spend much of your time talking to people about how open you are to their feedback and how much you value honesty and directness. Its like beating your head against a linguistic wall. Instead, do spend your time talking to people about their past experiences in being open and direct; how that went (usually badly); and that you fully understand how risky it feels to level with people. Simply getting this on the table dramatically decreases the anxiety connected with telling the truth. Not only can the truth set you free, it can also drop to the bottom line.
1. We are not experiencing a classical recession. We are in the midst of a global sea-change in our economic and cultural life due to the explosion of information and its impact on consumer and personal behavior. Consumers will be increasingly unimpressed with brand name products, and in transactional interactions, will be brutally price driven and have the information to back up their position. In relationship-driven purchases they will be unforgiving of poor or marginal people skills, and totally unaccepting of neutral or lousy attitudes. Personal relationships will have higher and higher expectations, and the demands for vulnerability and real intimacy will challenge people at levels they have never imagined.
2. We are never going back to “how things used to be.” Everything is undergoing profound changes that will prove to be permanent changes in employment, lifestyle, and sociopolitical attitudes and behavior. More and more people will work virtually or as “free agents;” international mobility will fundamentally redefine the idea of “where do you live?”; and non-aligned voters will supplant party loyalists. As the Great Depression and post WW II affluence reshaped generations, our global crisis and contraction, will reshape us.
3. There will be no significant drop in the unemployment rate in the foreseeable future. An unemployment rate of 5% will be seen as the anomalous period. (The vast majority of economists have always considered 5% unemployment, full employment.) We have overdone so many things, for so long now, that we have almost entirely lost perspective. The creeping sense of entitlement, coupled with the deteriorating attention to accountability, has created millions of “make work” jobs. (On a recent trip through the Pittsburgh airport, I counted 19 TSA workers standing around, chatting and joking with each other. When I asked what they were doing, I was told that they were on a “break.”)
4. No matter how much the economy “recovers,” businesses will continue to let people go. They have discovered that they can do as much, or more, with less people. This has profound implications for how we help people become marketable. With profits flowing in, unabated, for years, many employers unintentionally became de facto employment agencies, instead of productive businesses.
5. We need to stop directing our efforts toward finding jobs for the unemployed or underemployed, and focus our efforts on giving people the requisite skills to market their ideas and talents to entrepreneurial ventures and to seeing themselves as “free agents.”
The notion of finding jobs for people continues to frame them as passive and helpless victims, instead of people in control of their lives. We need to remember that information-intensive cultures push more and more responsibility onto individuals, not less (in spite of what’s coming out of Washington).
6. The movement of existing companies will be toward a size model of middle market and small market companies. Those that remain big will become more and more virtual, with people working at home, or in small geographically dispersed pods. Huge, centralized businesses have become lower trust and higher control organizations, and have crippled decision-making, at all levels. This realization has begun a re-ordering of their fundamental structures.
7. The consumption of goods and services having retrenched to 50 – 70% of “pre-recession” levels, will stay there permanently. We will continue to be a consumer driven economy, but we will be putting our purchasing decisions through a significantly modified filter. The blending together of “necessities” and “luxuries” has been shaken at its core, and massive re-prioritization is taking place. Everyone we work with, and everyone I talk with, is seeing a return of the consumer, but at a clearly downgraded level. The challenge to business will be to figure out how to sell less to more people. (Look at Chris Anderson’s book, “The Long Tail.”)
8. The training of the worker of the present and the future will be heavily weighted toward “soft skills,” with an emphasis on people skills and the ability to develop others. Task masters will be more and more expendable. Our technology has reached the point where we can monitor performance and collect data to make decisions, with minimal involvement from people. We don’t need managers to watch people work and give them painfully obvious feedback. We need leaders, at all levels, who can help workers figure out how they get in their own way, and what they need to do to change it.
9. The capacity to take risks – financial and interpersonal – will separate the “haves” from the “have-nots,” more than any other single factor. Information drives people to higher and higher levels of risk, and challenges them, at a values level, to decide which is more important to them – growth or comfort. What we have learned, in our work, is that sustainable change only occurs when you put important relationships constantly at risk. (Risk, in this context, means continual challenge and higher and higher expectations.)
10. Educational institutions have the opportunity to lead the way in this transition, if they begin to teach students the core skills of relationship-building, decision-making, conflict creation (and management), and the building of intimacy through challenge and constructive confrontation. In order to do this, the educational establishment will have to engage in a massive paradigm shift, from security to excellence. This will be a tall order.
11. We need to prepare our society for radical changes in socio-economic behavior. For example, the coming disaffection with home ownership, and the realization that a fixed asset of that magnitude is increasingly incompatible with a mobile, free-agent culture. In a nutshell, the ability to tolerate and absorb fundamentally different lifestyle and work-related choices, will be pushed to the limit.
Years ago I worked with Mel Pope, a financial services client in Tallahassee, Florida. Mel was (and I believe, still is) one of the kindest, most gracious, and most generous people I have ever known. If you look up the word “gentleman” in the dictionary, you’ll see Mel’s picture.
When I came to Tallahassee to work with Mel and his organization, I stayed at Mel’s house. His house was situated on a beautiful piece of property, at the end of a very, very long and perfectly straight driveway. One day, when we were leaving Mel’s house, to go to his office, I noticed, at a distance, a car turning into his driveway and chugging its way toward us. As it got closer, I saw that it was a wreck of a car; old, huge and dilapidated. In addition, it had all kinds of antenna-like projections sticking out from every possible location. I asked Mel who that was coming toward us, and he told me, “that’s Ronnie; I want you to meet him.”
The car finally arrived at where we were standing, and out of it popped a disheveled, frenetic, and quite agitated man, talking at us, oblivious to any niceties of conversational interactions. As I remember it, he was telling Mel something about a conversation with the Governor and the state police, and that there was an imminent threat to the planet from God knows where. I didn’t need my psychotherapy training to know that Ronnie was nuts. He was what we call an “ambulatory schizophrenic.” In Star Trek terms, he operated in a parallel universe. Mel told me, subsequently, that Ronnie lived in his car, monitoring police calls (and anything else he could pick up), and periodically made the rounds of Mel’s neighborhood, warning people of impending doom, and, incidentally collecting food and cash. This had been going on for years, and Mel couldn’t remember a time when Ronnie wasn’t crazy.
At one point, when Ronnie paused to take a breath, Mel told him that he’d like to introduce him to his friend – me. “Ronnie, this is my friend, Morrie. He’s a psychologist who comes down here to work with me and the agency.” I have never, in my life, seen someone lose all the color in their face as rapidly as Ronnie did, the moment he heard the word “psychologist.” He turned white as a sheet, and headed for his car. Mel stopped him and said words that I will never forget – “Ronnie, he won’t put you away. He’s okay.” Ronnie relaxed, though visibly shaken; and after a short while, went into Mel’s house to talk with his wife, and get some food or money.
As Mel and I drove away, all my years of crystallizing my thinking about institutionalizing people came together. Right after my psychotherapy training ended, I spent about a year and a half working at a private psychiatric hospital. For a small number of patients it was a good place. It gave them some necessary boundaries that they couldn’t find elsewhere, and it helped them organize and manage many free-floating and disparate feelings and thoughts. For most patients, it was a nightmare. They didn’t know why they were there; they didn’t know why they were being medicated; and they had harmed no one. From their perspective, they were in prison. It became clear to me that they were in this hospital because they were disturbing; not because they were disturbed. (If this distinction piques your curiosity, you may want to look at the writings of Thomas Szasz, M.D., the founder of “radical psychiatry.” Szasz was the mentor of one of my early mentors in my clinical career.)
Ronnie did not bother or disturb me. He had created a life that clearly worked for him, and had found a community, of sorts, that helped sustain him. Why would anyone want to put him in an institution? Would it be about Ronnie, or would it be about their own unresolved pain?
We need to think long and hard, in our society, about why we “help” people, and what its really about. How much of our help is for the benefit of the recipient, and how much of it has to do with our unresolved stuff. A crooked motivation always ends up with disabling help. It has been (and remains) one of my missions in life, to hold our culture accountable for why it does what it does, and to continually ask the question: “Who are we really doing this for?”
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