Last week, an app called Postmodern debuted on the app stores. The app aims to connect you with other brains in the universe for anonymous, short, ephemeral conversations. It works by enabling timed conversations between strangers that last from 5 to 60 minutes. When the time’s up, the conversation is closed forever. No pictures. No profiles. No names. No record. Just two minds exploring together. You won’t be able to return your conversations once they’re over, but you can let the thoughts marinate for as long as you wish.
The founder of the app, Nathaniel Sokoll-Ward said. “It’s critical that we have the ability to intellectually explore without fear of social ramifications.” That line inspired this Thursday Thought. Many of us work for or have worked for egotistical bosses and managers often devoid of empathy. In many cases, they are not (entirely) at fault, often the organisation has promoted them to management positions as a reward for organisational tenure rather than leadership capability. In these cases, they lack the necessary skills to inspire a group of people. What organisations do not realise is that such actions are a contributing factor to organisational decay. When a manager is unconsciously incompetent it means they do not understand or know how to do something and do not necessarily recognize the deficit. Often they may even deny the usefulness of a new skill. “Why would we waste money on training, just read a book!”, I have heard some say. However irritating unconscious incompetence is, a much more sinister stage of competence is conscious incompetence. In this stage of competence, a manager is well aware they lack certain skills, but rather than invest in those skills or approach their own learning and development team to pursue new capabilities, they become protective.
When we are in a protective state, we close our minds off to opportunity and we become blind to the threat. What is worse, we project this onto the team we lead. As a result, we create a fearful and dysfunctional environment, where something you say as a team member may trigger your manager’s fear reflex. An innocent (and often very valid) suggestion may remind her that she is lacking skills and she does not want a team member showing her up.
If you are someone who is full of ideas, a cognitive explorer, you want to, nay, you have to express both opportunities and threats as they arise. The need to share is part of who you are. Often you were that kid who came home from school to tell Mom and Dad about what you learned. Equally, you were the kid who told Mom and Dad about some unfairness that you witnessed in the schoolyard. As we grow up, we learn that not everyone wants to hear our ideas and they certainly don’t want us to call out when we think something is wrong. Speaking up comes with risk, especially if you are highlighting a potential threat, let alone an opportunity.
In such cases, you lack what our previous guest on The Innovation Show, Amy Edmondson calls psychological safety: “Psychological safety is a belief that asking questions, speaking up with ideas, admitting mistakes will be valued, will not be punished, but will be valued by my colleagues. We live in this increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous environment. The short name for that is VUCA and in a VUCA environment, if we don’t have everybody employed as sensors, in a sense, everybody is present to be alert to what’s really going on, then we’re in trouble.”
While psychological safety is the foundation for a functional work environment, there is still an onus on us to have the courage to speak up. Leaders can encourage this behaviour by listening without judgement, allocating time to hear what their people have to say and having some mechanism in place to take action based on what people share. While the organisation and leadership have a major role to play in setting the stage, it ultimately comes down to us as individuals. Will we stand up and have courage? Will we speak up when it matters most?
Our guest on this week’s Innovation show is Professor Jim Detert, author of “Choosing Courage”. Jim told us “Opportunities for courage put your values on the line”. He says, “If we won’t accept the pain or loss that may be associated with defending our values, they’re just espoused or aspirational values, not core or in-use values.”
I feel slightly uncomfortable sharing this, but I have to eat my own cooking here and have the courage to speak up. In one role I worked in, my manager told me to stop writing my weekly article, the Thursday Thought, I have not missed a week in six years. In addition, she told me to stop doing the Innovation Show. Perplexed, I naturally asked why. The answer was simple, that it was not my job. I agreed it was not my job but rather it was a passion and one that made me even better at my job, it educated me and ultimately made me more valuable to the organisation. I also did it in my own time at no expense to the company. Ehhhh! Wrong answer!
I was given an ultimatum, either I stopped writing and stopped the Innovation Show or? I remember the next morning as clear as day, looking in the mirror after a gym workout. In the mirror, I did not see my own reflection, but the disbelieving face of my wife, how could I turn down such a well paid and pensionable job? I turned to my values for the answer, I believed in doing the right thing, in authenticity, in fairness. If I stayed I believed I would rot under a mask, like a Dorian Gray portrait at work. Soon after, I left the organisation.
It was one of the best decisions I ever made, Je ne regrette rien.
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