Character

20151104_145251This subject is a troubling one and one that is getting all kinds of mainstream attention. Below is a post that was originally written in 2014.  It was published in the TMS Learning Exchange as well as the online publication Dialogue. I am reposting it here as I think it is very relevant within the OUCH! context and representative of how mainstream OD focuses on this topic. This post is quite a bit longer than most here so find some time, sit back and read and then offer your comments.

A CAUTION IN THE SEARCH FOR CHARACTER

In the aftermath of the 2008 semi collapse of investment capitalism and the ensuing and continuing global recession there is a growing trend calling on the need for ‘more character’ from those who we see as leaders in our organizations.  Business schools around the globe have picked up on the need for character by emphasizing and expanding curriculum in ethics, sustainable growth, stakeholder value, community responsibility and such.  And as would be expected when something is seen as necessary to lead successful organizations, research and metrics are being developed to measure character.  Indeed there is already a growing body of work that ties measurements of character to measures of financial return.

Think for a moment what this may mean as this spreads out into a more general understanding of how we see organizations, success and leadership.  It used to be if your organization did not produce the results expected of it, leadership was simply incompetent.  Now leadership will be both incompetent and of questionable character.  How would you like to carry that judgment around with you?

Think for a moment further about what this may mean generally, not just to leadership.  There is a virtual maelstrom of blame being thrown around now to avoid the judgment of incompetence in organizations.  Add in the variable of questionable character and it will get worse.  Few of us will escape the onslaught of avoidance techniques (including our own) and we can also expect greater levels of the consequences; higher turnover, lower engagement, greater stress and pressure, and perhaps worst of all, a turning away from accountability in its most basic form.

I am not at all against a focus on character in our organizations.  What I am against is how this focus on character is beginning to play out in our organizational lives.  There are 3 critical areas that I see as highly problematic:

  1. Character in the service of certainty.
  2. Character being defined as owned by the individual.
  3. The dumbing down of the concept of character by metrics.

1.     Character in the service of certainty:

How have we got to this point, this growing trend?  The primary, fundamental and mostly unquestioned assumption regarding how we understand organizations is that those who lead can plan the future they want for their organizations.  Leadership can create a future that is highly predictable/certain to happen; if they are competent enough.  So how can the economic events leading up to 2008 and ongoing be explained within the framework of this assumption?  If you landed on a lack of competence as the reason for this widespread compromise of the assumption noted above you would be saying there were an awful lot of incompetent people running large and important organizations.  Many of these leaders were educated and trained in Western business schools.  Many had the latest management guru’s books on their office shelves.  Many were coached or counseled by leading consulting companies.  And prior to the 2008 economic crash, many were doing exactly what we wanted of our leaders, making a lot of money for their organizations and their shareholders.

If you land on incompetence as the reason for the economic mess that most of us have been effected by, then there is a lot of incompetence in the entire realm of organizational life, likely including you and me.

So we tucked away the incompetence reason and landed on ‘character’ as the reason.

Interestingly this is a very typical shifting of accountability in trying to explain why things don’t go as planned when the assumption of the ability to create certainty is unquestioned.  This shift is one from perceived objective metrics to subjective ones.  If, for example as a leader of an organization you make an investment decision that doesn’t succeed as planned someone can accuse you of not analyzing well enough and look at objective reasons why this was so.  If objectivity doesn’t produce a sufficient reason for failure then the move is to something subjective, like character. No objectivity is needed here, no hard proof.  If someone, especially someone with power, accuses you of a character flaw it is very, very hard to refute this since the definition of character is subjective.  You DO have a character flaw from the perspective of their definition, and their definition is right if they have enough power.

Character in the service of certainty is painfully uncreative, simply another ‘thing’ we can hang our hopes of a certain future on.  Unfortunately, as noted above, the consequences when character does not produce certainty are even more painfully personal and destructive.

If we want to have productive discussions about the need for a different kind of character in organizations we need, at the very least to decouple it from our assumption that certainty can be created.  More effective would be to do away with this assumption in the first place.  Then we could talk about character as the highly subjective and context dependent thing it really is.  We could talk about character and power, character and the requirement of profit, character and personal compromise.

Are these not the discussions we should be asking our leaders to have?  That we should be having ourselves?

2.     Character being defined as owned by the individual:

Character as something owned by the individual is simply another example of the cult of individualism so prevalent today.  This assumes that character is created by an individual, solely owned by them and open to change by individual, personal choice.  Context is irrelevant.  Relationships are irrelevant. Power is simply something to be consciously dealt with.

The idea that character emerges through interaction with others and is only relevant within the context we find ourselves in is an inconvenience best ignored.  Otherwise the assignment of blame becomes too challenging; we might find ourselves in the mix, since we are part of the context.

Keep in mind that many of those now blamed for being so crucial to the economic collapse in 2008 were deemed exemplary contributors to their organizations only months earlier.  As the tide of public opinion turned on them, including that of their very own shareholders, their character, as if by magic turned as well, from beacons of light to demons of greed.

If we want to understand how character can impact our organizations we must acknowledge that character, to a very large part emerges in a socially constructed way.  That any valuation of character cannot be separated from the context in which it exists.  While this may edge us toward the chasm of relativism, where character means nothing and context means everything, we will be better served by nearing this edge than ignoring it altogether.  Only by considering context can we really seek to understand the impact our character may have or the impact that context is having on our character.  We are faced with much greater clarity of the choices we are making.

Is this not what we want from our leaders?  Is this not what we should expect of ourselves?

3.     The dumbing down of the concept of character by metrics:

As soon as you link a measurement of character to a measurement of financial return you are falling into the trap of assuming someone or some group in power can produce a certain future.  Character simply becomes another metric propping up the false belief in the capacity of leaders to create certainty.  It is no different than return on investment, cost benefit analysis, sales projections and all the other much more ‘objective’ things we measure and assume if done right will get us what we want.

When we apply metrics to highly subjective concepts, eventually the concept, and challenges associated with it get ‘dumbed down’.  By this I mean something that is very complex, and which should remain very complex, gets thought about in very simple ways because what looks like a simple measurement now defines the concept.

We are quite close now to having numbers measure character.  If you hit 8 out of 10 you will be of good character; a 5 and you get thrown on the trash heap.  No discussion needed on character at all, just the numbers please; I’ve got recruiting to do here!

Another example; I have asked a number of financial services people what they think caused the 2008 crash.  Every one of them said the same thing with different examples used.  It was a relatively few greedy, powerful people that caused it all.  And when asked what might prevent such a thing from happening again?  More or less find a way to get rid of the greed or the greedy people.

Simple reason, simple solution, and no personal accountability at all.

And all the while their own jobs are to do exactly what those greedy people were doing so effectively just prior to the crash; make lots of money on investments.

It becomes so simple when you attach a metric to character.  Simple to determine good character from bad, simple to assign blame when things go wrong, simple to say “I had nothing to do with it’.  And you never really have to talk about character at all, you just need the number.

What is interesting here is that some very good work is being done leading to finding metrics related to character.  Serious and important conversations and considerations.  True caring about what is needed in organizations to make them better across a broad spectrum.  There is real hope that the work will make a difference.  The dumbing down occurs when all this good work becomes a measurement.

We would be far better served to forget the metric and push for conversations and considerations in organizations that uphold the complexity of character.  That asks people to grapple with that complexity and keep the conversations going.  To realize there will never be a definitive answer, just more conversation, just more moving forward as best we can.

——————————————–

So what can we do, what can you do?  The don’ts are: don’t let the concept of character be connected to certainty.  Don’t let character be defined as an individual attribute.  Don’t let the concept of character become simple.

And the do’s? Ask yourself what character means to you; what is it for you.  Engage in conversations with others about the same questions.  Keep the conversations going and see what emerges.  Talk about power and context and how it impacts character, yours and others.

And perhaps most importantly let yourself be human with regards to character.  The ideals of what we think our character should be will always be compromised in some way by being in an organization.  Always.  Let that be ok even if it is uncomfortable.  Letting it be ok keeps the conversations about character going.  The discomfort keeps those conversations valuable.

Influencing Resources:

  1. Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth – Margaret Atwood – House Of Anansi Press Inc, October 1, 2008

I found this a good resource on differing perspectives on debt and how these perspectives shape our thinking of personal value, including character.

  1. Complexity and Organizational Reality: Uncertainty And The Need To Rethink Management After The Collapse Of Investment Capitalism – Ralph Stacey – Routledge, February 1, 2010

I like the ideology put forth by Stacey of Complex Responsive Processes and this book applies that ideology to the real world occurrence of the 2008 economic crash.

Afterward:

I realize this article is primarily about character and organizations.  It is hard if not impossible to put a boundary around organizations and not find their influences outside those imagined boundaries.  Organizations leak; everywhere.  I think the issues discussed in this article will leak outside of our organizations as well.  Imagine a scenario not in a formal ‘work’ organization.  Perhaps your daughter in school struggling with grades, your brother facing foreclosure on his house, your mother without enough retirement savings….

Imagine hearing people discuss these situations starting with this statement:

“It was a flaw of character.”

In the light of something not going as planned imagine hearing this statement.  Would you be hurt? Angry?  Shamed?  How will you defend someone against such a statement?  How might the person this statement is aimed at be looked at in the future?  How will you look at them?

That statement and the questions that will be posed in its wake are on the brink of mainstream conversation.  It is frightening.

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Are You Doing What You Love?

20151104_145251There is little that irritates me more than hearing OD people, or anyone for that matter talk about ‘doing what you love’. I close down videos and web casts, walk out of rooms, throw out articles and come close to banging my head against walls when I hear someone pontificate on doing what we love. We are encouraged to seek out, in a job, what we love, our deepest calling, our destiny, and other endless piles of rhetoric that just make us feel inadequate when we cannot find it.

Keep in mind that the foundation for interaction in organizations is economic (its purpose). Rarely do you find those things listed above in economics. I will be questioning their actual existence in a future post.

It’s a good time to re-use an older post that deals with this topic with a little addition to the end.  This post was originally written in 2012 and edits and additions are in red.

PASSION – CHOICE OR DESTINATION?

There’s a lot of talk in the OD world about passion and doing what you have a passion for, what you love.  So just imagine what it might be like if everyone in the world took this sage advice and went looking to find the work they had this wonderful passion for.  You’re probably now wondering where your next meal is going to come from, you have no place to live in and you’re walking the streets naked.  Well, there likely wouldn’t be too many streets to walk either.

Too much of this OD rhetoric treats passion and doing what we love as something to be found, a wonderful destination ‘out there somewhere’, and our work is to search until we find this nirvana.  Besides being an arrogant slap in the face of the 99% of the world that has to work at something to get by economically to the next day, week or month it is a devastating message about passion itself.

The message is that passion lies outside of us somewhere.  That passion is not a choice to be made but a destination to be discovered.

To me it represents another example of the problems with the creative tension model  However; this example grates on me like nails down a chalkboard.  Certainly, I hate what I see as the arrogance of it but perhaps more importantly I think it compromises our capacity of choice.  And when it comes right down to it, is there anything more central to our identities than the power to choose.

I think it is far more powerful (and realistic) to see passion as a choice.

When passion is seen as a choice we cannot escape ourselves and off load the idea that somewhere out there is a place, thing or job that will ‘unleash’ our passion.  Yes, ‘unleash’ which is another very popular word in OD circles these days.  Unleash our passion like it has been chained up somewhere; probably by some boss, teacher, circumstance, whatever we might choose that is outside of ourselves and getting in the way of us being passionate.

Those who see passion as a destination tend to be always looking for something better.  Their ‘current state’ is never good enough and typically the reason for this lies somewhere outside of them.  They’re always waiting for something better and looking for someone or something to blame when the wait gets too long.  They tend to be generally unhappy in a subtle way and a drain on the energy of those around them.

Those who see passion as a choice do good work, even if it may seem mostly meaningless.  Primarily because it is them doing it and they have the power to choose to do good work or not.  And even if the work is mostly meaningless they choose to bring meaning to it by building relationships with those they work with.  The choice may have little to do with the actual tasks at hand and more with the context in which those tasks are done.  And those that see passion as a choice see the most important context in the work they do is quite simply, them.

A few weeks ago I heard a CEO talking to a small group of new employees I had the privilege of working with.  One of the things he said to them was to be passionate about what they do.  The ‘do’ of that statement could be anything; the passionate part was their choice.

What choice are you making?

2017 – This tendency that OD has to place passion, loving what we do and other emotional components as something to be found ‘somewhere’ in organizations (like the holy grail) contributes greatly to the dynamic of shame, blame and guilt. It is an example of anthropomorphizing organizations beyond the metaphorical and into perceived reality.

If we are brutally honest, most of the actual work we do is personally meaningless! How we do that work and how we do it with others has meaning, it is an expression of our identity that could occur in any organization, anywhere at any time.

So the next time you hear someone babbling about doing what you love; just leave.

Struggling with the Gap of Purpose

20151104_145251It has taken me a little while to figure out what this post should focus on. Previous posts established two distinct and quite different purposes for organizations and people.

The purpose of an organization is to be a viable economic entity.

The purpose of a person is to express identity.

These two purposes are not typical of the mainstream definitions of purpose of organizations and people and they illustrate real and important differences.  Differences that tend to be ignored in the OD world. The OD world has anthropomorphized organizations beyond the metaphorical and treats organizations like people.  And this treatment takes a decidedly psychological perspective.

My challenge in trying to figure out what this post should focus on was a result of my seeing a real gap in the purpose of organizations and people and struggling to illustrate this gap. What I eventually realized was that the present focus of OD simply does not see a gap, the problem mainstream OD creates is seeing both organizations and people as the same psychological entity! Two problems masquerading as one!

What brought me to this revelation was a walk with my dog and a visit to my favorite coffee shop. On the chalkboard of the coffee shop was a quote. ‘Our coffee is an experience that chalk is unable to convey.’ And I realized that….

‘Our identity is an experience that organizations are unable to convey!’

Yet when it is considered that organizations and people are the same, as mainstream OD does, then an organization SHOULD be able to convey our identity; at a very real and personal level.

OUCH!

I need to take a small step back at this point. Above I have been doing my own anthropomorphizing of organizations; treating ‘them’ as some kind of entity with qualities they simply do not have. It seems to be the only way to write about them in any coherent way. In earlier posts I said organizations are nothing more than the pattern of interactions between people; a fairly stable left loop of people hanging out doing stuff under the same company name.

So if there is a difference between the purpose of an organization and the purpose of people then the interactions we have within the economic context of an organization should be different from those we have within the context of expressing identity.

And if you say organizations and people are the same then interactions should be the same in both contexts. Well they aren’t and we all know and have experienced this. Mainstream OD with its focus on systems and psychology feeds this OUCH! constantly and this OUCH! is loaded with blame, shame and guilt.

The next few posts will look at a few of these:

  • Finding meaning in your work
  • Doing what you love
  • Character
  • Engagement
  • Motivation

And maybe more…. even typing these things just makes me want to scream!

Before the next post though, I would ask you to think about the last training or OD type initiative you were involved in. Think about what the interactions were like within that initiative and consider what the intentions of that initiative were.  You might want to even jot a few notes down so as we go through these next posts you can be ferociously gentle in your analysis of what was happening.

The Purpose of People

20151104_145251It is a bit challenging to not get all philosophical when you talk about the purpose of people. At some level this is truly a subjective topic so the best you can do is try to put some of your thinking out there regarding why you have come to your subjective conclusion and go from there.

As noted in earlier posts I think the purpose of a person is to express identity.

This perspective is different from the idea that survival is the purpose of a person; survival being the dominant popular perspective since Darwin did his thing quite some time ago. I put survival secondary to the expression of identity.

Why? Well there are two primary reasons, one slanted toward social construction and the second slanted toward simplicity.

First, if we live in a socially constructed world, that world and our existence in it is relative to other things, most significantly other people. Simple survival adds very little meaning or substance to that relative existence. How we express our identity, including how we express our identity to simply survive, adds significant meaning and substance.

In a socially constructed world, expression of identity precedes survival.

Also, just ask yourself what you have done in your life where you were totally focused on just surviving.  My guess is your list is very tiny and for most of us, non existent. If you do have a list my guess is that it was an expression of your identity in terms of how you went about that focus on survival. Someone else probably would have done things differently; their own expression of identity.

Second, if survival was the primary purpose of people, it is very hard to explain why we have such diversity and the creation of so many things that just don’t directly relate to survival. What is the need for art, literature, music, poetry, blog posts on organization development! What is the need for differing races, species, beliefs, religions etc. etc. etc.

If survival was the primary purpose of things, it would have been far more effective to stop at the single celled organisms floating around in the oceans. They do it better than anything!

To account for most of what is around us in this world, expression of identity precedes survival.

At least for me, and subsequently these posts!

From this point then, the purpose, the fundamental driver of meaning and behavior for a person rests on a foundation of expressing identity.

As noted in earlier posts, for an organization, the fundamental driver of meaning and behavior rests on an economic foundation.

Expression of identity and economics. Consider just how different these purposes are, how different the entire interaction model is if it rests on a purpose of expressing identity or rests on a purpose of economics.

Interaction Model

What are interactions like; what are intentions like; what is the left loop like and what are the gestures and responses like for each purpose? With even a cursory consideration of these questions we find extensive differences, in many cases differences that would be opposites.

And yet, in the OD world we tend to either ignore these differences or worse treat organizations and people as having the same purpose. The act of anthropomorphising is no longer metaphorical, it becomes reality and this is where things come off the rails and get ugly.

The next post will look at some of the examples where this dynamic plays out and the damage it can do. As well we will look at what can happen when we acknowledge the big gap between the purpose of an organization and a person.