The ‘woo-woo’ stuff has a calculable impact on revenue

Poor leadership splinters society. We have copious modern-day examples which don’t need to be spelled out. Companies are microcosms of society at large. The scale might be different, but the effects of poor leadership within companies are the same. Splintered companies perform poorly in the long term, if they survive at all.

While there is a growing awareness of the importance of good leadership on a company’s success, there are still many that view leadership, culture, and employee engagement as ‘woo woo’ stuff that can be ignored or is a waste of time and money and doesn’t impact anything ‘legitimate’ (such as revenue). It’s time for us, especially as a society of capitalists, to take our heads out of the sand. The results of forming a conscious culture and leadership approach certainly have some “softer” benefits, such as happy, engaged employees. But even those — the financial implications of happy, engaged employees — are now quantifiable and can be tied directly to the bottom line.

You want stats, I give you stats. Lots of them.

  •  Gallup, in their State of the American Workplace report, found that over 51% of employees are actively disengaged. “An actively disengaged worker (is) someone who is “unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to coworkers.” In other words, they are people who don’t like their job and aren’t afraid to let others know about it.”
  • Gallup also found that an actively disengaged employee costs their organization $3,400 for every $10,000 of salary, or 34 percent. That means an actively disengaged employee who makes $60,000 a year costs their company $20,400 a year!
  • You do the math — 51% of your employee base multiplied by the cost of a single actively disengaged employee = a lot. I was a math major. Trust me.

If that’s not enough, here are some more stats:

To turn the stats towards the positive side of the coin:

  • SHRM reports that engaged employees (i.e., they like their leader(s) and they are a good cultural fit) perform an average of 20 percent better than their dissatisfied counterparts. They are also 87 percent less likely to change companies.
  • The Dale Carnegie Institute has found that companies with engaged, satisfied employees may outperform their competitors by as much as 202 percent.
  • The Harvard Business Review provides stats that contented employees have 31 percent higher productivity, generate 37 percent more sales, and are three times more creative than their disengaged counterparts.

If you prefer your stats in picture form, I have you covered.

Here’s some more insight into why it’s critical that leaders attend to the emotional well-being of their employees. The following infographic was published by, a San-Francisco-based workplace personality assessment company (this is a portion of the full infographic)

Hopefully you’re statt-ed out enough now to realize that culture and leadership development are critical factors to financial success. So, what do you do to ensure you’re maxing out employee engagement? You take active steps to ensure your culture and leadership are functioning at peak performance.

  • There should be a line item in your yearly budget for Leadership & Culture Development, right alongside your Marketing and Operations budget line items. It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity.
  •  Geoff Graber, Co-Founder of Evolution, states that a good rule of thumb is to allocate 3% of revenue towards Leadership Development, which can come in the form of:
    • Executive Coaching
    • Leadership Training
    • Leadership Offsites
    • Culture Initiatives

Strong leaders and a strong culture are directly linked to engaged employees. And engaged employees are directly linked to a company’s financial health. Call it woo-woo or just good business, but the bottom line is that if you address Leadership and Culture consciously, you’re bottom line will benefit.

Are you a manager, a coach, or both?

It always strikes me how quickly the people I coach forget the power they have as managers and executives. Managers have the power to change the world. They literally hold people’s lives in their hands. It’s not just hyperbole.

I’ll illustrate what I mean through a bit of my story—one that likely mirrors yours. This concept is in some ways obvious and simple, and in other ways extremely difficult. The message is not “be a nice boss”. The message is “be a good boss”. Pushing people to be better, being fierce in your focus and resolve, demanding execution? All great things. Especially when underneath is a big heart and a focus on the “headcount” in front of you as another human.

We all know that fulfilled people, set on fire with passion, can have an incredible impact. We now know that being a good boss is like being a coach—you maximize the talent of those around you. The notion of WWII era command and control has been integrated into a foundation of management that is rooted in human potential. Being a manager is full of meaning and spirit. We forget, much of the time, just how big of an influence we have on others. This is truly noble work.

I remember moving across the country and after a few months of shuffling with new managers, I got who I now use as the archetype for my “bad boss” when I deliver management and leadership training. This boss told me I wasn’t worth the money they were paying me. That I wasn’t a good fit. That I wasn’t really bonding or gelling with the team. That I was weird.

Ouch, right? I’m a tough enough guy, but back then I was brand new to a big city and had taken a risk to move somewhere I knew no one.

She wasn’t a bad person, really, and in many ways probably just saw me as a bad fit. Let’s leave that alone for the moment. What did happen, day in and day out as I was impacted by her, was a deep and intense sense of fear, insecurity, and anxiety. I would take that home with me each day, a somewhat broken man. My then girlfriend (now wife) would have to put me back together as I struggled to keep my head above water.

I went to all sorts of dark places: getting fired, having to return home across the country with my tail between my legs, being out on the street with no money, etc. It got worse, I felt worse, I made everyone around me miserable. My girlfriend (now wife) began to take some of my depression on. The ripple extended to her. We would eat silently sometimes staring out the window. I could go on…

Many of us have had these experiences—the bad boss. Just thinking about that person probably brings you right back. Your face might even flush, emotions rising in you, your amygdala working in overdrive. How many years ago was that, exactly? And what kind of parent/spouse/partner/friend were you in these moments? You get the point. We send a ripple far beyond what we know—and especially through those whose lives we hold considerable control over.

The opposite of course, is also true. I can cite Dave Hoerman at DaVita as a incredible influence and a gentle guide in my work life—he believed in me, guided me, and put me back together when I was fried and burnt out. He championed me and was a great mentor and friend. I left interactions and meetings with him feeling good—sometimes a bit harried at the volume or speed of work, but good, and generally excited. He would regularly acknowledge me, publicly and privately, for all sorts of small and big wins. I never wanted to let him down. Dave was a good boss. I can go back and mine examples of how to coach people, using how he impacted me to positively impact others. The ripple extends.

Most of the people I coach lose sight of this from time to time. Most of them want to be good bosses. But work happens, deadlines loom, pressures mount. Being a good boss generally means following a simple set of guidelines, a code of sorts. There is ample flexibility, and it is grounded in getting things done, but the 21st century evolution understands and includes the notion that being a good boss means being a coach—developing other people, maximizing who they are, and making them better versions of themselves. Here’s a quick guide for how to do this:

The Good Boss Rules

  1. Find and cultivate team meaning through a shared sense of vision and purpose. Meaning drives greatness.
  2. Acknowledge wins—small and large. This builds a fire in people.
  3. Part of your job is to be emotionally and socially intelligent. Practice this.
  4. Coach people—help them grow and find their own answers.
  5. Be fierce. Be compassionate.
  6. Listen openly and intently.
  7. Be clear in what you expect.
  8. Get feedback about how others perceive you on a regular basis. Perception is reality when you lead.
  9. Align your management processes with your goals and purpose. Simplify them. Enable others to act.
  10. Know your values. Know your organization’s values. Make decisions from this place.

Grow your orbit with one eye to the past

It is not easy, or common, to talk  about our past and how it has influenced how we move in the world. Especially in business. Therapy and dipping into our history to see the modes of being we have picked up from those who have influenced us is still counter cultural in business. And yet, to Evolve consciously, we must know who we are, where we come from, and what we need to do to continue growing.

Standing like statues at the gates of the office we walk into are the monolithic imprints of our parents and where we came from. These archetypes of work and movement speak to us, telling us how to find purpose and make the world our own—what choices to make, what to sacrifice, how to be joyful and free, how to lead, how to follow. They form the rules we follow at work and in the broader world.

Many of these rules have been passed down through the generations, from our father’s father’s father, so to speak. And often make us feel limited and unfulfilled, as if we are dutifully going through the motions. Sometimes, we wake up and choose another path. Sometimes, we are compelled subconsciously to move across the country or do something radically different, to take risks, to succeed at the sacrifice of all else, to forgo the burden of being the “first” child in the family to go to college and find success. And so we move and are moved. But we always have the pull of some ghost as we move along the path, on behalf of our family, toward wherever growth and development end.

How we relate to the world exists in two areas: our sense of movement and purpose, and our relationships and connection. Some of this is mysteriously gifted to us through birth, or karma. Our little personalities are born out of the womb, and we are fussy or peaceful, hot or cold, even or volatile, loose or tight. There are elements of personality that are beyond our conscious control.

Then, there are the things we pick up along the way. Things imprinted by those who we were the most open to being influenced by: our initial caregivers and parents.

When we look at how we move in our career, there is an aspect of traveling our parents’ road. I am watching myself make similar moves at the same times my father did. Even as I orbit farther away from his path, some elements remain the same. Career choices, interpersonal dynamics, and subtle parallels follow me as I try to reconcile a deep family pattern that isn’t inherently bad or good.

As we slowly wake up to these patterns and rules, things change. The same obligations don’t make sense. The same compulsions don’t hold. We make similar choices, but our orbit gets slightly larger. Some choices match the family rules, some don’t, orbiting a bit farther out each step of the way.

My drastic sense of individuation and movement around the world makes sense. I see the arc of growth—it stretches back to the old country, my ancestors moving from faraway lands for a better life, until my point in the line. At some level, I hope my children will escape the orbit even farther. What that means, I’m not sure. Maybe they’ll be artists. Maybe they won’t go to college but live simply and freely as fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe they’ll act and be free of the burden of self-analysis because their parents did so much to heal and grow.

In fact, it’s inevitable. They will. And then a new cycle will begin, in which their children look at them and seek to grow beyond them, again and again, orbiting out toward wherever we are all headed.

Your guilt is a gift. Do you know how to use it?

Every female founder & exec I know struggles with balancing being a Leader and a Woman. We all want to give 100% to each area of our lives, which, of course, is mathematically impossible. We’re in an age where, although we are finally allowed to let our abilities shine through leadership, we’ve yet to figure out a way to integrate being a strong leader with the other aspects of being what’s historically defined being a woman — mother, wife and domestic goddess. We want to be exceptional at it all, and as a result, we feel like failures across the board. When you dig beneath the surface of that desire, there often lies a deep, nearly cellular-level guilt. It’s a bad guilt. It hurts. It’s fueled by fear. It says things like this:

· What kind of a mom am I to miss my daughter’s game?

· How am I ever going to get a husband if I work 15 hours a day and then pass out each night?

· It’s hard enough being a woman entrepreneur in a man’s world. I have to work twice as hard to get the __________________ I need. (fill in the blank — respect, funding, etc).

· Will there ever be a good time to take a step back to have a child?

· Everyone says “self-care” is important, but when am I going to fit that into my 15-hour days? I’m too scared to take my foot off the gas. But, if I don’t take care of myself, I’ll fail.

I’ve yet to coach or mentor a female founder where some variation on that theme has not come to light. Through the coaching process, I’ve witnessed a lot of angst, confusion, inability to latch on to a path that allows these founders to shed the guilt. But eventually, they come to one path that opens for them. It’s about shifting that guilt into the opportunity to model balance and self-acceptance.

You can get there through a couple of avenues. One is to ask yourself “What would you say to your BFF?” Works like a charm. Another extremely effective way is to turn the lens from the founder to their employees. Do they want their people to constantly beat themselves up and to feel like failures? Do they want them plagued by guilt? Do they want them to feel they have to hide who they really are?

When these founders ask themselves those questions, there’s a resounding NO. The kind of “No” that says they would never want anyone else to feel the way they feel about themselves. When they realize that, as leaders, they have the opportunity to model balance, acceptance & integrity, their bodies shift. Tension becomes purpose. There is an opportunity to show their team what it’s like to be real, to do the best they can do, to have integrity by aligning their actions with their values by allocating time to all parts of their lives that matter. Maybe it’s women’s inherent caretaker nature, but that vantage point shift and re-framing creates a path for guilt to morph into self-acceptance, which in turn provides a safe haven for self-acceptance within the essence of a company’s core. So, when you feel guilt ebbing into your world, use that moment as a cue to remember that you’re doing your best, and to model that self-acceptance for your team.

Some suffering is necessary. Here’s how to get through it.

Viktor Frankl’s most famous work, the book Man’s Search For Meaning, is one of my all-time favorite treatises on life. In it, Frankl details the horrors of his experiences as a trained psychiatrist and prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland during World War Two. He also goes on to describe how the experience led him to establish a new school of psychology — in Vienna after the war — called Logotherapy.

For anyone who’s read it, the book is both a riveting account of some of the worst aspects of humanity coupled with the amazing, heroic learnings of a brilliant man. Frankl epitomizes the reality that life can be, with the right approach, viewed as a series of learning experiences — even those experiences that most people would characterize as awful. The wisdom he offers is rich and boundless.

During his account Frankl talks at length about suffering, something all camp prisoners experienced in spades. Suffering, he believes, is a choice, and the way that people choose to view suffering, both in how they experience it and also how they come away from it.

First off, Frankl is not a masochist. He believes that unnecessary suffering is pointless. If suffering is avoidable, then a rational person should move away from it.

But some suffering is either unavoidable — such as his situation in a concentration camp — or it’s suffering that people freely enter into, such as starting a business or raising a family. It’s odd to think of being an entrepreneur or parent as suffering, but anyone who’s done it will likely agree that it has its moments.

It’s this aspect of necessary suffering that I want to explore.

No one enjoys being tested to their limit. No one. No one likes to be at the end of the line financially or emotionally. And as someone who both is an entrepreneur and works with entrepreneurs, I know that being tested to these limits is common for many people.

And, frankly, just being alive and dealing with others provides endless opportunities for suffering — we all face disappointments, loss, and ultimately death.

So, in these moments of necessary and unavoidable suffering, how do we handle it? How do we navigate through the challenges? How do we do our best?

Purpose, say Frankl. He says:

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

Those with purpose transform suffering into meaning, which is something that people can endure. It’s why people starting a business must be driven by more than short-term gain; they must be driven by why they’re doing what they’re doing.

It’s why people starting a family must be driven by more than fun and enjoyment in the moment; they must be driven by the long-term contributions they are making.

The choice to find meaning in suffering is one of our greatest opportunities. This requires courage. This requires fortitude. This requires endurance.

Think about your current situation. What’s causing you suffering? If it’s avoidable, move on. You don’t need to endure pointless suffering.

But if it’s unavoidable or necessary to your life, what meaning can you apply to it?

Try this template:

  • What’s causing me anguish?
  • Why am I continuing to deal with it?
  • What will successfully enduring it provide me?
  • What’s my greatest learning from these experiences?

It’s noble to endure worthy suffering. Some of the greatest gifts people have given the world come from mighty struggle. Many of our greatest technological inventions were labors of love that came after years or decades of failure. Many of the greatest advancements in human rights came from the fidelity to principle that countless leaders showed in the face of difficulty.

Never underestimate what a committed person can do. Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote instructs us that, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Want to be more logical? Say goodbye to your emotional baggage.

The Fable of the Bridge by Rabbi Edwin Friedman presents a dilemma common to many of us. It describes a scene in which a young traveler embarks on a long trip on foot to accept a promising opportunity. During this journey he crosses a high bridge and encounters a strange man. This strange man extends the end of a rope to the traveler and then suddenly jumps off the side of the bridge. The stranger is tied to the other end of the rope so is suspended in mid air, being held up by the traveler on top of the bridge. It’s a tense and physically painful situation for both.

The traveler pleads with the stranger to climb up the rope and relieve him of the burden of holding him. The stranger repeatedly refuses and claims, “You are my responsibility. Don’t let go!”

The traveler, losing physical stamina, and thinking wistfully about his opportunity, becomes ever more desperate to free himself of this person. He attempts to tie the rope to something else. Without success. He pleads again and again with the stranger to do something about the situation. Nothing works.

Finally, when confronted with going over the bridge and dying himself — and never realizing his opportunity — the traveler lets go and moves forward.

We all face a similar challenge every day.

Most of us think that logic rules our decision making. Not true. We’d like to think that we’re rational people, doing what makes the most sense for us in the moment based on a discrete calculation. Not true again.

Logic plays a certain role, clearly, in how we act; but emotions, and specifically emotional attachments, factor much larger into the big picture. As humans we have instinctive drives to attach emotionally to other people. It starts for survival purposes. These attachments provide us safety, security, and opportunity. Some of these attachments help us, some hurt us, and some are mixed bags. Children need parental or guardian support to survive. Adults need relationships to make it.

So, it’s when we move forward with our lives and evolve that we’re usually confronted with attachments that no longer work. We want to move to another part of the country or world, yet we encounter a conflict with a person or expectation from where we live now. We want to step into a new career, yet we face opposition from people who like or want us to remain where we are now. We start a new relationship, yet we stumble over the legacy relationships — or even feelings — from the past.

Oftentimes our own self-image constitutes this “baggage” from the past. We see ourselves as someone who does this or doesn’t do that, regardless of the fact that these ideas are out of date or even self-destructive. It’s shocking how many people remain in miserable — even dangerous — situations because they believe that they deserve it. Their identity is defined by a certain treatment.

The stranger hanging on the end of the rope in the bridge story is symbolic. He could be a symbol of a person living with us right now or a symbol of a community of folks we grew up with. Either way, the power and pull of this symbolic figure is often mighty.

Letting go of the stranger, so to speak, is scary. There’s no happy face to put on it. Even though freeing ourselves of the stranger sounds good, and might indeed be good in the end, it’s still represents a death, or at least an end of something familiar.

Attachments to people and ideas are strong. They provide security, stability, identity, and more. Even if they no longer serve us, they likely once did. Saying good-bye to them equates to saying good-bye to part of ourselves. A little piece of us dies along the way.

Our world is dealing with giant challenges related to this concept. People in much of the world today are confronted with more information on a daily basis than people two generations back faced in a year (or more). We are asked to grow and change all the time. It can be dizzying.

Some of us are standing on the bridge holding ten strangers by rope. We can barely take it anymore. We can scarcely stay upright. We want relief, yet we can’t let go.

It takes courage to know that we will survive. It takes courage to know that we will give more to the world by freeing ourselves of these burdens. It takes courage to say good-bye to people and memories that once served us but no longer do.

Letting go leads to moving on.

Find a better source of motivation than deadlines

I get it. Some folks just sit idly by and wait to perform until the heat’s on. They will complacently lead or manage their organization without purpose or focus because there’s no short-term pain. When money is on the line, it’s all about getting results, whatever the long-term cost.

But not so fast. In my work coaching executives and sales professionals in a host of high-growth companies, I’ve seen this approach fail again and again. Why? Because it puts people in a panic, and we all know that panic doesn’t lead to good decision making. It leads to reasoning that sacrifices long-term sustainability for short-term survival.

What I’m seeing in many cases is that companies effectively say to their leaders: “Congratulations, you’ve been selected to lead this organization. Every day we’ll assume the worst about your capabilities, and once per month we’ll send a team of people to threaten your professional existence. Good luck, you’re going to need it.”

It’s the rare person that can withstand these pressures, let alone thrive.

The main challenge I see with this model is that it makes the attractiveness of leadership unappealing. In firm after firm I’m seeing struggles in finding people who want the role of executive. Being an executive often appears miserable — little sleep, endless meetings, grinding pressure. Sure, the money’s usually good, but at what price? It doesn’t seem worth it.

And it’s not much fun. What gives life to most of the people I work with is the thrill of creating something new and developing people to do things they never thought possible. They love to innovate and they love to help others. They don’t do enough of this because they live under constant threat.

Things start to shift to external matters, almost exclusively. How to hit this deadline? How to reorganize this unit? How to meet the number?

These are all worthy things, for the most part, but what gets lost is why they’re doing this work in the first place, the internal motivator.

Efforts begin focusing on how to survive their schedule, how to get through the day. Behavior is reactive and self-protective. How to get to the weekend? How to get to the next vacation?

It really can turn into a Faustian bargain. People can withstand and endure grueling circumstances to produce results. Humans are hardwired to survive.

But this modern economy is not driven by mindless automatons scurrying to avoid the unemployment rolls; rather, it’s about excited and engaged professionals disrupting the status quo by creating profound value.

This may sound Pollyannaish to some. Happy people do good work, so let’s all be happy. No, that’s not the case. Left to their own devices, most people will be mediocre. They need stimulation. But what sort of stimulation provides the best long-term results? Fear or inspiration?

The Faustian bargain often plays out because the executive’s panic will generate results, but these results come at a price. The results come because the executive “turns off” their inner self. They power through discomfort and disillusionment. Rather than connecting the dots between internal drive and external results, they get rid of one dot.

This harms future performance.

Most people I work with need to be reminded why they are doing what they’re doing. They need a reintroduction to their opportunity. They’ve lost sight of vision and purpose.

When I help bring their opportunity to create and help others to light, they shift their energy to excitement and enthusiasm. The context changes. They want to work hard not to avoid suffering but rather to carry out their life’s work. They start to fall back in love with their work.

Daniel Pink’s book Drive suggests that the carrot-and-stick approach to management not only doesn’t work, it’s often counterproductive. Pink’s review of the research suggests that people in the modern economy are driven by Purpose, Autonomy, and Mastery. When I ask my clients about “stick-driven” results, they slump. When I ask them about doing something that no one else has ever done, or becoming the best in the world at something, they come to life.

These topics are life-giving, and life-giving energy is sustainable.

Think about the people you lead. Why are they working for you? Is it sustainable?

What flirting taught me about networking

I was talking with a colleague last week, and when she asked about my being a musician (which, I’ve found, is relatively unusual for a business consultant), I heard myself reply, “You know, you can type my name into Pandora if you want to hear my music….” She immediately perked up – and I knew she would. I knew that my music being on Pandora would make me “special.” It would raise my clout in her eyes.

It seems harmless enough, a way to call attention to myself and show what an interesting guy I am. We all do it at times – when we’re flirting, when we’re meeting someone in a business context for the first time, when we’re trying to make an impression. It’s like I’m baiting a hook and tossing it into the water to see if they’ll bite. If they do, I’ve demonstrated my worth, and I think I’m more likely to get the date, or the business deal, or whatever I’m going after.

How’s it working?

But when I really look at the results I get, what I’ve found is this type of “flirting” actually distances me from the other person rather than drawing us closer. It’s like I’m saying, “Look what I can do that everyone else can’t.” Bang – door closed. There’s really nowhere for our conversation to go from there.

So if this closes the door, why on earth would I ever do it? Because I so often fall into the frame of reference that what makes me special is what I do – not who I am. I didn’t create connection with my colleague when I answered that she could hear my music on Pandora – all I did was attempt to demonstrate my “value”. I didn’t offer her anything about who I really am as a person, and I definitely didn’t create a space for her to share anything about herself.

We all know the difference – we can feel it instantly. Am I saying what I’m saying in order to create an authentic link with someone, or to call attention to myself? Genuine connection, in my experience, is created when we share something vulnerable, and seek to create a safe space where others can do the same.

Open the door

How, then, might I have replied to this woman, in order to create genuine rapport? Well, I might have said something like, “You know, my parents started me on piano lessons when I was a kid, and it really stuck with me. I drifted away from music in my twenties, but when I had a time of personal crisis in my mid-thirties, I discovered, to my surprise, that I had somehow unexpectedly developed my own musical voice. I began to love composing my own music, and thanks to streaming music sites, I’m now continually amazed to hear from people all over the world who are listening to my music. I find playing piano is not only tremendously fulfilling – it also seems to balance me in a way that’s pretty remarkable, and I believe makes me a better businessman. You know – something that’s absolutely not about business, which makes me better at business. What do you do? Do you have an art you love, or a sport that gets you out of your head and into your body – some way you step away from your business mind and get a fresh perspective?”

Okay, so that’s a lot of words… but I just timed it, and it only took 45 seconds to say, so it’s probably not so long a response that it would lose my listener and jeopardize the prospect of building a relationship.

And what did I do in it? I revealed some things about myself that she can probably relate to (learning something as a child… drifting in early adulthood… a crisis that revealed unexpected gifts… and the benefits I’ve found of not solely inhabiting my mind), and I set her up to tell me about herself at a deeper level.

There’s nothing to prove

I can only feel confident in doing this if I believe I don’t need to prove myself to her. Then, and only then, can I become truly curious – from an authentic and undefended place in me – about who she is, what makes her unique, what she cares about.

Where, in your efforts to show what a clever, capable, powerful, reliable, sexy, fill-in-the-blank person you are, are you actually creating distance when you think you’re going for closeness? What if you knew beyond any doubt that you were those things in spades, and you never needed to prove anything to anyone? Here’s the secret: you are, and you don’t.

Don’t believe me? Try it on for a day. Pretend someone waved a wand and for the next 24 hours you don’t need to prove anything to anyone. How does that feel? Lighter shoulders? Relaxed brow? Spine a little straighter?

Now, how will your conversations be different today?

Question your own beliefs to become a better listener

At some point in my lifetime — perhaps sometime in the mid 1990s — listening fell out of fashion. At least in America. Stridency rose to prominence. The loudest voice in the room seemed to prevail.

It didn’t seem to be a shift towards confrontation or conflict; no, it seemed to be a departure from acknowledging the opposition. Talk shows devolved to mutual monologues, in which opposing guests would wait their turn to say whatever they wanted to say, refusing to notice or mention that their fellow guest had even made a salient point.

Technology appeared only to hasten this shift. The emergence of the information superhighway — as the Internet was once known — allowed people of the same ilk to enter virtual space in which the only thoughts and beliefs espoused were friendly and acceptable. It created massive echo chambers of emboldened adherents.

Good news for mobilizing supporters. Bad news for learning much of anything new.

Many of us now live in a world ruled by confirmation bias, a phenomenon of reasoning in which a person filters out whatever doesn’t fit their preconceived conclusion and only acknowledges what does fit. It happens all the time in the worlds of academia, government, religion, business, and philanthropy. It happens, essentially, any place with large groups of impassioned people.

A noteworthy example: Much of America’s obsession with low-fat diets came into vogue in the 1970s based on the advocacy of a series of politicians who were familiar with research carried out by Dr. Ancel Keys. Dr. Keys postulated, based on his research, that people who reduced fat from their diet would lower their own risks of obesity and heart disease. This hypothesis led to decades of government policy and fad-diet crazes. The problem is, it really didn’t seem to work. And, further scrutiny of Dr. Keys research showed that he studied dozens of places on the planet where people consumed low-fat diets and experienced minimal obesity and heart trouble; yet, he also encountered plenty of spots where people consumed high-fat diets and experienced minimal obesity and heart disease. He just left the data out that didn’t agree with his conclusions.

Which brings me back to the issues with communication in America today—we’re leaving out the data that don’t agree with our predetermined conclusions.

Admitting it is the first step…

“I was wrong.”

I’ve had to utter those three words more than few times in my life. If I’m honest with myself, I hated saying them. Sometimes I even played out conflict and drama unnecessarily long because I didn’t want to say them. I hurt others along the way.

But I had a choice to make about how my beliefs and actions would impact my life and the lives of others around me. When seeing the bigger picture, I chose to admit my wrongness. It still wasn’t easy to do.

The anticipation of this experience is what shuts so many of us down.

If I don’t listen, then I don’t need to think. If I don’t need to think, then I don’t need to question my beliefs. If I don’t need to question my beliefs, then I don’t need to admit being wrong.

Stop the listening. Prevent the admitting.

It takes courage to listen. Listening requires seeing the other person as a valid human being. This is hard to do if you simply want to prove your point. It’s easier when the other person isn’t a valid human being.

Listening requires you to question your own beliefs. How did you form your belief? Did it come from something that someone told you? Did you learn it though firsthand experience? It’s easier not to answer these questions.

Listening demands awareness of impact. How do your beliefs impact those around you? Do your beliefs hurt other people? Do they hurt you? It’s easier not to answer these questions.

Put simply — listening creates vulnerability, vulnerability that scares us. No one likes to be vulnerable. Nobody likes to feel uncertain. None of us likes to even consider being wrong.

So, here’s what gets lost when we avoid vulnerability.

  • Reasoned solutions
  • Full engagement
  • Meaningful inclusion
  • Intellectual evolution

It’s a shut down situation: “Heads, I’m right. Tails, you’re wrong.” This isn’t healthy for society.

At the core of this is a deep-seated fear. It’s the fear of nothingness. We fear it more than just about anything else. Who am I if this belief isn’t true? It’s too much ambiguity for many of us.

Yet it’s exactly what we need to explore. In a world of ubiquitous information — some of it helpful and some of it not so helpful — we need to become better at examining our beliefs. We can go two ways with this: we can use this explosion of information to hunker down and drive self-righteousness or we can use this elevation of data to grow and enrich us. In some ways, it’s that simple.

Take three of your most ardent beliefs. Complete the following sentences:

  1. People are fundamentally ______________.
  2. The world works because people _______________.
  3. I am successful because I always _______________.

Now, consider what would happen if these three beliefs were determined to be wrong. How would you feel? What might change about your worldview? Would any new doors open?

Going through this process is something every person on the planet is going to have to do multiple times throughout their lives. This is something people rarely had to do in the past.

If we want to live in peace and prosperity going forward, we all have to do this.

Evolution is everywhere

“You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.”
― Jalaluddin Rumi

We are all plants stretching towards the sun. Life clings to life, even in the harshest environments. There is an impulse in every living thing to grow. And yet, growth is difficult and messy. When we’re in the midst of it, sometimes it feels like it will never end and the process feels fraught with strong emotions. But all of us, almost as our birthright, have a drive to grow and change. Beyond our basic needs we have a desire to become a more complex, effective version of ourselves. We have an impulse to evolve.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo amongst others, describe the evolutionary impulse, that in every living cell there is a drive to evolve. This impulse is a great tide of consciousness that has been spiraling forward to right now, in which the matter of the universe is able to contemplate itself. The universe has become consciousness. This has happened like a great wave, building in complexity towards its peak, and beginning to break onto itself, moving faster and faster in exponential growth. We are the stuff of stars, contemplating stars.

We now know that across the universe, energy cannot be created or destroyed: it simply changes form. And from the moment of the Big Bang, it began transforming continuously. It started with a series of simple elements that became more complex elements that became matter that became more complex matter through sometimes explosive forces, creating the building blocks for stars. From these stars planets formed, then organic life, then sentient organic life, then consciousness. The moment of consciousness is a big one: the universe realizing itself.

At each stage of development, the universe takes what is present, and builds on it to create another. It transcends and includes the previous stage. Every aspect of life is built on the last. Sometimes maladaptive mechanisms actually become helpful, as life grows towards the sun, incorporating new operating systems to deal with harsh climates and environments. Extra protections, ways of hiding, protective behaviors that can sometimes fiercely keep the organism whole. Evolutionary biologists study this in the physical world, watching as plants and animals grow and adapt to thrive in their environments. The metaphor is obvious.

We humans have an impulse to evolve in our cells as well. And like the universe, there is no way around the law of transcend and include. Many of us have developed patterns that are indeed maladaptive. We fought sarcasm with sarcasm. We learned to perform love and to perform being loved in turn. We retreated into our inner lives to find safety, building worlds that offered retreat and meaning. Instead of destroying them, or ridding ourselves of their influence, the way forward is through understanding and integration. As we heal ourselves, and find what lurks in the shadows we build a new internal operating system and evolve past our limitations. We reflect and learn. In this, we stand in a lineage of thousands of years of ancestors; whose wounds, narratives and ways of being have been passed down through millennia, and as we become conscious and take the charge to evolve, we are doing their work, the work of our forebears. Because you are here right now and aware of yourself in this moment, you may be the first over a thousand years of ancestry that has the will to consciously grow and change. To heal, to live with greater purpose. To even know that you have to evolve. Let this sink in for a moment. Going into our depths to find ourselves allows for a rewiring and an evolution in our consciousness. The time is now.

In this burden of consciousness is the responsibility to evolve. Looking at our actions and taking account of them, making commitments to new and more sustainable forms of living and leading, and finding our own integrity and alignment are the outgrowth. We evolve with an eye towards our deeper operating system; our deeply held beliefs about ourselves and the world, family narratives, repressed emotions. These things are our operating system. As as we move forward, we upgrade it.

It can be hard, but if we can move through the valley, we find a garden on the other side and a life of meaning, richness and purpose. As this evolution happens, the ripple we send to others: our families, our friends, our communities and the world at large changes. I do this for my daughter, for my colleagues, for my wife. This impact is one drop in the great wave of evolution that is happening. With each drop, the universe evolves.

I Wanted To Change The World
When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.
I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.
When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.
-Unknown Monk 1100 A.D.