Workers have been told that they need to collaborate better. But is that missing the point?
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The consultants and change agents were focused on the potential to create a new way of working based in agility, transparency, freedom and creativity. Organisations and their managers right down to the frontline were focused on extending models of power and leveraging the technology to improve employee engagement without real change. Employees wanted some improvement in their work, better information and better help, but they weren’t seeking the revolution of the advocates, mostly they wanted work to be rewarding, productive and safe.
The second issue flows from the first. With so many diverse interests at play, we could never nail a consistent metaphor for the activity that these tools were helping to improve. Were we focused on social networking, collaboration, employee communications, employee engagement, community, employee experience, innovation, or something else? The answer of all of the above doesn’t fit in the reductive simplistic management model in place around the world. No wonder people had so much trouble with ‘what to use when.’ ...
Last and perhaps most devastating of all, too much of the adoption work became about what to do to employees to encourage use of the tool – what to take away, what to force into the platform, how to create incentives from cupcakes to competitions to regular video updates from the boss. This top-down focus on doing-to-others meant so many organisations missed the peer-based bottom up doing-with-others that represented the exponential potential of value. Community which is hard and long-term was swapped for the short fix of launches, gamification and measurement. Employees arrived on the new tool without any sense it was for them to get value and asked “do I have to use this too?”. Managers invested significantly to get all their employees on the platform and went “is that all there is?” No wonder the next platform launch always looked tempting.
I think I was hoping for a more profound set of solutions than the usual "humanism, not technology, is the solution." Do I have something better to suggest? I usually start from workers, not leaders, planning change.
This action point to leaders from Terry is important:
Back your employees: Your employees are better, more committed and more capable than you think. Give them a chance to show you what they can do. Manage exceptions as exceptions not the foundation of new policies and constraints. Trust flows from trust and one of the critical elements to success in collaboration is mutual trust.
Who's mistrusting who at this juncture?
Two: Many writers I follow have suggested that we need to get past simplistic ideas about collaboration and get more radical with setting up an emerging consciousness of work. This interview with writer Zak Stein (pointed out by org culture guru Stowe Boyd in his paywalled but worthwhile Substack) may seem too out there, but if all our "normal" solutions are being swamped by the pandemic and other crises, then maybe we need some more radical ideas:
In my psychological work, I break it down to three broad categories that characterize ontogeny—or the evolution of the individual. First, we find the development of cognitive complexity and the capacity for skilled behavior. Then we find dynamics of personality maturation, or ensoulment, which means the psychodynamics of dynamics of emotion and interpersonal relationships. And thirdly, we find phenomena of transcendence, which means consciousness, awareness and the capacity to be emotionally self-regulating. All these three are important: development, ensoulment, and transcendence. …
So, we need to boost all three of those domains. If we boost any one of them without boosting the others, we are messed up. If you just boost developmental complexity and ignore shadow and the capacity for contemplation, then you just get what we have: a bunch of nerds running out of control with high IQs and great technical capacity, but no heart and no sense of transcendence. If you just boost personality and ensoulment, then you're endlessly “circling” and doing shadow work and can get stuck in the tragic. We then misunderstand the importance of science. And, of course, you can engage in spiritual bypassing by focusing just on the domain of transcendence, meditating your way out of the global catastrophe into oneness.
Read the whole thing, especially the end about "negative capability … the ability to look at a problem, not know the answer, and be fine with that. It's the ability to hold not-knowing and uncertainty. That is something we need to cultivate a great capacity for. But it's very difficult when life and death are on the line."
Three: Let's start picking at some of the reasons that we don't collaborate. One excuse has been the so-called generation gaps in our offices. This Harvard Business Review piece makes it clear that this is overblown.
Four: This Brave New Work podcast episode from org design firm The Ready is titled "Changing How We Talk about Change," but I found an important point buried in there about how a Twitter poll revealed that "no one cares about employee engagement anymore." I wonder if collaboration is our newest version of engagement (or perhaps vice versa), representing a speeding up of our disdain for buzzwords and office jargon.
Five: Another Brave New Work episode describes how teams can find their own "operating system" and how easy it is to skip retrospectives, another promised collaboration that doesn't happen enough in practice. If you feel that you go to meetings just to say "I'm here in case you say something you wouldn't have told me otherwise," this episode is for you. People attending meetings as representatives of departments or teams— and not as themselves—is another failure of retrospectives and collaboration.
Six: I'll go back to the Substack newsletter from Stowe Boyd since the interview with Zak Stein that I mentioned above is just one of several points made about transcendence and emergence. it covers many topics. Check out this post from Mark Storm and Boyd's own older post Ten Skills for the Postnomal Era. Many people I follow, some still in the org culture field, some who have moved more deeply into spirituality, have taken a more holistic view of organizational culture. It shows up in my still-unrealized plans for building a Museum Human sangha on Discord, and yet there's a massive chasm in our orgs and on our teams to get colleagues to even consider a transcendent mindset. Is this a secularist response, a deeper cynicism, or a failure of the spiritual view to, well, collaborate?
Seven: In the same vein, this article from Corporate Rebels delves into "ethos," a deeper take on purpose. Ethos is not culture but instead underpins it, providing the moral backbone on which the culture is built. It's worth asking, what is the workplace "ethos" of museums?
Every policy or process doc I write now has a section called “Reasons to Revisit.” It is essentially a reverse success criteria. Rather than a short list of things I would expect to see if the policy was successful — which I do but in a different section — I write about things I would expect to see if the policy needed substantial revisions or to just be killed off altogether. …
It’s important that these signals be as specific as possible. If you’re familiar with the methodology of Objectives and Key Results, you should write them the same way you write Key Results. Be specific, be measurable and double check that whatever correlations you’re assuming are relevant.
Nine: Self-management is not something to be imposed from above or abdicated into (by leaders washing their hands at change); it is a new operating system, as per this piece on LinkedIn. The article is heavy on the "teal" mindset exemplified in the workplace "operating system" known as holacracy, but as I wrote above, it might be time for some radical thought in museum workplaces.
Employee expectations of work may have fundamentally changed after the experiences of 2020 and 2021. Many learned new ways of working and may have an updated definition for what an employer caring about their overall wellbeing means. The work-life intersection has new meaning. Gallup finds those who prefer remote work now cite reduced commute times and better work-life balance as the key reasons. These may be new and more serious considerations for many employees...
Speaking for myself, I don't think the solution is just better communication; better and more autonomous practices are necessary. Otherwise, collaboration and communication will be as cynical as "wellbeing," contributing to performanceand not helping people be better humans.
Even just a couple of years ago, few people were more likely than me to answer "collaboration" when asked what our museum workplaces needed more of. That might have been a product of my role as a cultural translator between different teams and departments. Now, the situation is simultaneously simpler and more complicated.
I agree wholeheartedly with the holistic takes on workplaces—we need emergence and authentic humanity. The steps, I believe, are where liberation comes in. We have to stop waiting for leaders and stop accepting our fate as hopeless. Workers can make a change—it takes trust and communication and a commitment to not believing the status quo is all there is.
Enjoy the links!
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cover image by Tim Mossholder / Unsplash [description: a colorful geometric drawing of outstretched hands, palms open]