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night day treeSustainable organizations know that all members of a team have something valuable to offer. They instill this belief in their culture, and apply it both internally and externally to clients, customers, partners, and vendors. They build their business on good relationships with people, which are based in respect.

As consultants, we often challenge our clients to differentiate between their aspirational values and beliefs and their actual values and beliefs: we instruct them to place their aspirational values in the category of vision; their actual values then remain as the things they do so naturally that they are assumed – and yet, still somehow distinct from others in the marketplace.

Believing that all members of a team have something valuable to offer is aspirational for many organizations. And those who believe it, but who don’t consistently live it out, find that they let value they already have go to waste. This waste weakens their company and is often symptomatic of other structural challenges in the organization, as well as mindsets and habits that are not sustainable in the long run.

Like an un-booked hotel room on a night when every other spot in town is sold out, missing team members’ value stands as the opportunity of a lifetime in the evening, or a foolishly missed opportunity in the morning. It certainly matters what time it is.

In the clear light of morning, we see that there are two ways we miss out on our team’s value – or, in serious cases, actually devalue our team: Structural Misses and Personal Misses.

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Manager Leader

 

I worked with a young executive. Everything was going extremely well for his organization. But like any good leader, he would regularly do his SWOT analysis and he had identified threat looming on the horizon.

 

No big deal. He picked out the threat two years in advance. He had plenty of time to prepare.

 

Here's the kicker: he was the only person in his organization who perceived the threat. The rest of his team was content with the status quo and saw no reason to adapt.

 

[P]eople will rise to a challenge if it’s their challenge. They won’t necessarily rise to your challenge.
 – Wayne Smith, Former Assistant Coach of World Champion New Zealand All Blacks

 

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helpingupHealthy vulnerability is essential for sustainable leaders and organizations.

When we develop as leaders, we typically have to un-learn much of what got us to where we are in the first place, and replace it with a way of being that at least initially strikes us as uncomfortable and disconcerting. However, if we can hold that discomfort for what it is, we are likely to be sustainable for the long term.

How we get here

We spend most of our formative years in settings where we are rewarded for what we know, what we can do with confidence, and whom we can persuade. From those things, we are then rewarded again for being able to solve problems based on that knowledge, confidence, and persuasion.

Our first jobs, typically, take the same viewpoint: the manager hires us based on those things. We have a core body of knowledge that allows us to build from there, or to be able to train to do tasks that apply that knowledge over and over again.

This model works relatively well as long as we are working in a 1-to-1 relationship with our boss, receiving orders and executing on them. It starts to show strain when we move to a team setting, shows fault lines in a cross-disciplinary team setting, and crumbles once we begin to expect people to lead.

Why does this system crumble?

True leadership is the ability to see the potential in other people and systems and develop and empower that potential. (See Brown, 2018, p. 4.) This means that helping others solve their problems in a way that they can then solve them for themselves is the highest praise for a true leader.

The challenge is that most of us leaders are afraid to actually lead – because we are actually truly afraid. We are afraid that the empowerment of others and the development of their potential and the potential of the systems in which they operate, will cause us harm: we will no longer be needed, we will be surpassed, we will be left behind, we will be somehow harmed. Those fears are real. Many situations have validated these fears in many of us. We have seen those things in the past when others get rewarded for surpassing us in knowledge (even when that knowledge has come through violation of boundaries), confidence (even if it is just bravado), and persuasion (even if it is just manipulation).

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ElizabethDishwasherWhether we are trying to lead change, sell a product, or come to a team decision, we encounter resistance. When we encounter resistance in an organization, we tend to get frustrated and blame those resisting our proposal, our pitch, our leadership, or our point of view. This is a natural human tendency. Sustainable leaders see resistance not as a place for blame, but as information. Moreover, without discovering what information we are receiving in the resistance, we will be unlikely to find a way forward.

Quick story:

My two-year-old helps me unload the dishwasher most mornings when we come downstairs. She pulls dishes out at random, and hands them to me. Before I get a chance to really get that dish or fork put away, she hands me another. I end up working as fast as I possibly can to keep her from breaking whatever is in the dishwasher.

After we are done, she insists on pushing the racks in (“Do-it. I-SELF!”), and closing the dishwasher door (“Coze-it, Daddy!”).

While I admire her growing agility, independence, and desire to spend time with me, my two-year old’s “help” is often more work for me. On several occasions recently, I have had to find something else for her to do, relocate her, or put either my wife or her siblings in charge to play with her while I finish. She is utterly confused when I tell her to stop helping me. In this way, I am giving her resistance. Of course, helping her understand how to help, helpfully, is the challenge of working with a two-year-old.

The problem is that we most often treat resistance from others as their obstinance, old-fashionedness, being blind, being stuck, or being deficient.

Where We See Resistance

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Hare bolting across a fieldWe’ve spoken in several places already (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) about the importance of being process oriented vs. outcome focused. We’ve seen why this is a good practice. Today, we’re going to take it one step further and argue that process orientation is not just a behavior, but a value for sustainable companies.

Behaviors and habits are not enough

Sustainable companies understand that most habits and behaviors change over time, and the ones that do not often have roots that go deeper than the present moment. Behaviors reflect the things we do; habits reflect the behaviors we do day-in, day-out.

Both habits and behaviors, though, tend to change when people experience stress.

Treating process orientation as a behavior, and the behaviors around process orientation as habits, will sustain most companies for a while. This is especially true about procedural matters and items that have significant risk compliance documentation.

But derailment of process orientation occurs outside these day-to-day work due to five challenges.

The Five Challenges

Anxiety.

When something happens that generates fear – especially a visceral or existential fear – our brains short-circuit our executive functioning to make things safe again. This built-in, evolution-optimized reaction prevents us from stepping out in traffic or jumping out of aircraft without a parachute; it also causes us to put our hands up when something comes flying at our faces. They give us the quick results we need without thinking to get us back to safety or prevent harm.

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