Posts Tagged ‘change’

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Isn’t Anyone Listening Anymore?

April 19th, 2012

Last week, I lost my cool after a series of incidents while working with my personal trainer Mary.     I don’t remember if I have ever done this in the 62 years of my life.  Afterwards, I realized that maybe I was reacting to more than just these immediate experiences.

Here is what happened.

First, she transposed her calendar wrong so she missed our appointment.  Instead of just acknowledging that she messed up, she tried to explain what she did.  When I said I understood the mistake and was ready to move on, she kept on explaining until the next session.  I had to wonder: Did I seem confused?

Then, while she was working with my quads in the following session, I commented on how I would not be able to do this exercise without her help since I could not see my legs’ positioning from behind.  She immediately tried to explain that she knew what she was doing and she was really just trying to help me.  I said to her that I was just frustrated with my lack of ability to work this routine on my own.   But she was too busy defending her competency that she could not hear me.  Did I say she was not helping me?

Finally, she tried to get me to drink a protein shake that she swore by.  I said I did not want to because it contained sugar.  She said, just because I did not want to use it, it did not mean the shake was not good.  Did I say the shake was not good?

What just happened?  If I look beyond these exchanges with Mary, I started to notice the pattern of behaviors that seems to be common among younger people, including service providers, students or employees.  They seem to have no hesitation to stand up for themselves and argue their points of view.  Maybe this is what their parents have taught them.  If this is true, their upbringing certainly is different than mine and generations before me.  We were taught to play with the cards that are dealt to us without protest, while the younger generation seems to want to change the deck.

While many people are very good at advocating for themselves, they tend to miss the art of listening.  If Mary did, she might have found that there was nothing for her to defend.

As a professor, not a semester would go by where I did not have one or two students argue that they deserved a better grade.  They would present all kinds of reasons but none of them had anything to do with their performance in class.

There also seems to be a pattern in this younger crowd who talk so fast that I often cannot understand half of what they are saying.  And they tend to interrupt me when I am still talking.  So, is it because their brain is so much faster like the computer they were trained to use since they were children?  Is it because they live in a world that data is instantly available?  Or because they just did not know how to listen beyond bits and bytes?

In the meantime, the fast-paced life in our current culture forces us to constantly move at light speed and bounce like pin balls.  The multitasking trend does not help either.  All it does is to create a distracted generation that misses the most valuable lesson in life.  That is to be a fully present human being.

Mary is superb in her technical competency as a personal trainer.  What she lacks is the ability to be fully present in her relationship with people.  She is too busy following her own impulse.  The computer in her head puts her on a constantly reactive mode.  She has no ability to sort out the external stimulus and decide what to respond to or not.

As a customer, a teacher and an employer, I have a set of expectation.  I want to see more than technical competency in my trainer, my students or my employees.  I want a working relationship with a mature human being so that I don’t have to teach them how to grow up.

This is just my hunch.  Maybe people in the younger generation have been pampered so much as children that they were never allowed to have any “failure” experience.  And they never learned to have a more appropriate emotional response to the outside world.  Or maybe, all those computer skills have not helped them develop socially.

Many of my major clients in the U.S. and around the world used to tell the new hires that they were lucky to work here.  Now the new hires tell the employers that the company is lucky to have them.

The center of the world has shifted.

This is wonderful and worrisome as the same time.  What is positive is how self-motivated and confident this new generation is and will keep their employers on their toes.  Today’s employers would need to make sure the work environment provides enough stimulus and learning opportunities in order to keep these young people engaged and help them bring their best talents here.

What is challenging is about the same qualities above.  Sometimes overly self-serving and confident people tend not to take in feedback well.  They tend to want to skip a few steps on their developmental journey without paying the necessary dues.  Computers do not have the moral or emotional compass because they are not built that way.  Maybe one day, all computers will have this compass in their artificial intelligence.  But human beings should always be more developed than computers.  We are running the risk of raising a whole generation who act like computers but lack emotional and relational skills that are absolutely essential in order to be successful in this world.

Do we only measure our success based on how much money we have made or how brilliant we are in business?  Did we get here all by ourselves? If not, what happens to our ability to be humble and appreciative of others?

But is this phenomenon only happening in the younger generation?  I think not.  When we stop listening, we are no longer present.  We are quickly becoming a society of talking heads as if, lights are on but nobody is home.  We are not really here.

Listening is more than just hearing through our ears.  Spoken words only represent 25% of the total message. Listening is also about observing non-verbal ques.  It is about scanning our internal and external world.  It is about awareness.  Even when we do listen, we are too busy attaching our own meaning to what we heard or observed.  I have coached many brilliant leaders and found that they have something in common.  Brilliant people tend to walk around with their expertise on their forehead.  They talk over people because they want to tell and teach what they know.  But by over-telling and over-teaching, they have no awareness that they have just alienated people around them and lost the credibility that they passionately want to demonstrate.  Also, people with any kind of expertise are often too busy preparing their answers or rebuttals while listening to others. They do not really take in other people’s point of view.  Since they often believe that other points of view are not as brilliant with theirs, they tend to ignore and not show enough appreciation for them.  This does not help build a cohesive relationship at work.

In David Bohm’s work “On Dialogue”, he talked about how we each bring our assumptions and opinions to the public square.  In the battle among opinions, there is always winner and loser.  If we rely only on competition to go on as a planet, we will never get to a harmonious place where all of us can live peacefully.  Truth does not emerge from opinions.  It must emerge from something else.  It comes from the unspoken and collectively understood places within us.  In “Dialogue”, when we learn to suspend carrying out our impulses and our assumptions and just take in all of them, we will find out that we have a common consciousness and we are all part of the same human race.    If we know we have a shared future, why would we need to spend so much energy by winning the talking war?

True dialogue has two parts:  advocacy and inquiry.  In our current society, we tend to over-use “advocacy.”  Many brilliant executives fall into the same trap.  Since they are very intelligent and accomplished, they often over use their strengths.  They can turn any meeting or exchange into a debate or lecture where they would kill you with their data, thoughts or point of view.     What happens to humility and empathy?     The more they talk, the more they sound like there is something they need to defend about.  The true genius has no need to defend them.

Why do you need to explain or defend so much?  What is your hurry?

Buddhism teaches us that if we want to be understood, we first have to understand.   Inquiry skills allow us to understand others so that we do not hasten to attach our meaning to what we heard or observed and end up creating unintended consequence.

Several weeks ago during a networking meeting, a man I met spent our time together telling me what he and his business were about.  Never once did he ask about my business.

Years ago, on a first date with a man, he spent the first hour and half telling me his life story.  After I came back from the lady’s room, I asked him if he liked to know anything about me.  He said, “Yes, what do you think about us?”

Now I know why I lost my cool last week.

Celia Young coaches leaders to listen fully with their presence.

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Is Our Soul for Sale?

February 27th, 2012


In a cheesy little movie, a young woman activist just found out that the bill she was lobbying for up on Capitol Hill was defeated because an older woman senator, who was supposed to help her champion the bill, has traded it for a bill that the senator’s corporate backers had wanted to pass.  Confronted for this perceived betrayal, the senator said; “I cannot do any good if I am not here on the Hill anymore.”  The young woman activist said, “But you are not doing any good here.”

This seems to be a common argument that many politicians carry with them as if getting re-elected is their primary purpose.  They have neglected to ask if they sell themselves to the highest bidder in order to stay in the office of power, what good they would do.  And who would they become?

For over 25 years, I have been working as a change consultant for major corporations.  I have witnessed many initiatives that started with great purpose but failed to produce the intended results at the end because too many people looked the other way when the need for real reform ran against the need for individual career survival.

For example, the work of “Diversity” has become an industry in the last few years.  Now there is even a position called the Chief Diversity Officer.   The Office of Diversity has a budget and a few staff.  But what is its purpose?  Has it found its voice?  Or has this work become a million dollar “box to check”?  A true diversity initiative is meant for an organization to fully utilize its diverse talents to support innovation in turn, to increase its competitive advantage in the marketplace.  In order to do this, we first have to have the diverse workforce from which to draw diverse talents.  In order to have a diverse workforce, we have to do more than just recruit different people.  We cannot capitalize on our people’s diverse talents if we don’t appreciate their differences.  In order to appreciate our people’s differences, we must have an organization culture that is open and receptive to their diverse ideas, styles and values.

But after years of doing the “diversity” work, many companies still have not seen enough diverse people in every level of their organizations. And most of the work was done to help women, minority and other underrepresented groups to succeed in the organization by teaching them to master the existing “success formula”.  In another word, this is the work of “assimilation”, not “diversity”.  We have not designed or implemented a process or a path to capture their differences.  If the organization culture stays the same while trying to recruit diverse talents, there is no capacity to absorb the differences.  It is like the body continues to reject the transplant.  At some point we ought to stop blaming the transplant for not fitting in but the body that is not ready to fit the transplant.  This is when we need a cadre of true change leaders internally, that has enough courage to tell the truth and challenge the status quo.  However, too often I’ve noticed that the people who were put into the position to lead the “change”, ended up towing the company line instead of standing up and speaking out for “change”.  They helped the organization stay the same while climbing their own personal career ladder.  Often they did not know that they were put there to window dress for an organization that really was not ready or interested to change.  So all they do is move the food around on the same plate while the diner starves to death.

The same can be said about training.  Many organizations spend millions of dollars sending their managers to training but never had a clear expectation or attach specific accountability to their deliverables.  While a percentage of the individuals indeed were impacted and changed because they were already open to change, the majority of them went back to their desk and did their job as usual when the glow from their faces faded after a week.  Did the organization have an intention to change by having these managers lead the change?

Talking to a potential client on the phone the other day, I told her I was interested in doing the “real” work of helping her people and organization change.  I knew I ran a risk of not getting any assignment from her but I also knew that after 26 years working in the business, I am tired of supporting clients to push the same food around the plate again.  And I also know that as an external consultant, I cannot do any work without the help from the internal change agent who is willing to champion the change.  It is often easier for me to stay true to myself as an external.  But as an internal staff, people often think they need to bend and camouflage themselves in order to get along.  I believe when a person assimilates too much, they will become irrelevant to the organization they just assimilated to because at that moment, they are no different than the person sitting in the next cubicle and now replaceable.  Even if we think we need the job, to add value to our job, we need to maintain our differences and marginality, which means we need to stay true to who we are.  Otherwise, we are not doing any good here just like that woman senator on the Hill

To become a true champion for “change” is hard work.  We have to be willing to pay a price to stand up for what is right and beneficial for the whole.  Every single day, we go to work and have to make a decision whether to go along with the status quo just so that we can have a job.  When we overdo this, we have become so assimilated that we are no good to ourselves and to the cause we say we believe in.

Many years ago, I interviewed for a potential executive coaching assignment with a woman in a major national agency in Washington DC.  Not too long after we were into our conversation, she said she worried that her people didn’t come to her for advice or mentoring.  And she was under the impression that they did not think she cared or was capable of nurturing them.  As she talked, she started to cry.  While we had not yet agreed on the coaching assignment, I thought I would use my coaching skills to help her put herself back together before she would face the world for the rest of the day.

A few weeks later, I found out I was not chosen to be her coach.  I am sure many factors played into her decision.  But one of them stood out loud enough for me.   For a moment, she let her guard down, became vulnerable and showed her intimate self to me.  Somehow this frightened her as if she could not afford to let anyone see that side of her.

I wonder how high a price she has paid to get to the second-in-command position of the agency.  The price probably included her ability to nurture, or her femininity that her employees were missing.  This might have caused them to lose their trust for her.

Is it her fault to become so camouflaged?  Not entirely.  If the organization did not demand that she fit into a “hard hitting”, “sharp focused” and “charging up the hill” type of leader, in other words to become more like a man, would she have been more of who she really was?

Many of us changed and adapted ourselves so much in order to come to work, after a while, do we still know who we are?

Many men I worked with have also suffered long with this dilemma.  They don’t usually discover this loss of self until they hit 50 years old and realize that they are not going to be the president of the company.  Their health turned bad.  Their marriage fell apart.  And they did not know how their children grew up.  Many white men especially can feel the sharp pain since they were the first to get on the career ladder in most of the business organizations.  White men, as a group, like to think of themselves as only individuals. And they believe that they got to where they are in their career totally because of their individual hard work.  So when their world falls apart, they have no one to turn to.  They have woken up to see that the years they put in to be good soldiers and good company men had not gotten them the true happiness they longed for.  By that time, they became so lost.

Change is hard work and it takes time.  It often requires a significant portion of the organization to take on the role of internal change agents with a lot of courage to sometime go against the existing trend in order to champion for change.   Yet too many organizations still think that change will happen in a 2-hour training class.  However when no one is willing to stop the train, challenge the path we are on and advocate for alternatives, we all have just become sheep following each other over a cliff.

Steve Job at his 2005 Stanford University commencement speech said “…Find what you love to do.  Don’t stop until you are truly satisfied in doing what you believe as great work….Live as if there is no tomorrow.  Avoid the trap of believing you have something to lose…Don’t waste time living others’ lives…  Stay hungry.  Stay foolish.”  This is not just a job.  If we cannot be ourselves and are not doing what we love to do, why are we wasting time doing it?

Finding our passion and staying true to ourselves are two sides of the same coin.  Even if we need a job just to pay the bills, we can still find pleasure and passion in it so we will feel better about ourselves and our performance will be better.  Why should anyone sell themselves short?

In order to find pleasure and passion in the work we do, we better align our core values to it.  Every time we chip away a little bit of our true self on the job, we moved a little farther from our passion and our core.  We have basically created a deficit in our soul’s bank account.  I don’t want to live this way.  I don’t want to conclude at the end of my life that I have sold out before I close the book on myself.

Hiro and his wife Miho own and operate a running shoe store called “Run More” in my little town.  The other day, I went in their store for the first time, Miho bowed to me several times and smiled broadly.  When Hiro finished with his last customer, he came over and shook my hand warmly and proceeded to get an imprint of my feet.  Next thing he did was to get down on his knees and observe the way I walked back and forth.  Afterwards, he pointed to a section of the product display called the “structured cushion” and recommend that I choose a pair of sneakers from this section.  He then took out two pairs of insoles and had me try on to decide which fit me better in order to help correct the way my right foot is overcompensating for my left foot due to knee injuries.

I was so struck not only by his knowledge but also his intensity.  In those 20 minutes, I was totally convinced that Hiro believed in the shoes that he was selling and in his work of helping amateur athlete like me to keep doing what I love to do without causing more damage to myself.  Hiro and Miho are just ordinary people.  They came from Japan not more than a year ago.  Their English was far from perfect but their enthusiasm has trumped all the obstacles they might have encountered in this new land.

Yesterday, my girlfriend and I were in the local Starbucks to get coffees.  Somehow when she opened the lid to add cream, the hot coffee spilled onto her hand.  We asked the young woman behind the counter if they had an icepack to stop the burn.  She answered no but offered no help to us.  I had to keep asking what else she could do.   She said she could give us some ice but she had no plastic bag to put the ice in.  Instead of standing there, I had my girlfriend run to the bathroom and quickly rinse her hand under the cold water.  We finally got some ice in a plastic cup from the young woman as we walked away.

What do you think Hiro and Miho would have done differently if they worked behind the Starbucks counter yesterday?  They probably still might not have an icepack.  But I am sure they would run a bit faster and try a bit harder to find the next best solution for my girlfriend’s burnt hand.  What is missing in the young lady at the Starbucks?  Is it lack of training from the company?  Or is it lack of passion for her job?

What does it take for people to care, knowing it is not just a job that they spend their most precious lives on?

What does it take for that woman executive to reclaim her whole self?

What does it take for us to renegotiate our worth based on our core compass, not some big paycheck and big title alone?

How ready is your organization to accept your employees as who they really are, in order to encourage innovation?


Celia Young helps her clients to be true to themselves as individuals and as organizations in order to achieve their highest purpose in life and in business.