Kerplunk! Interrupt the Pattern and Start a New Game

Chapter 13

In this chapter:

In crisis management, be quick with the facts, slow with the blame

Insert In Part III, we look at how to build on the communication, collaboration, and leadership (CCL) ideas from Part II and bring new behaviours into play to co-create systems of service that will fulfill both stakeholder needs and the bold company vision.

Systems are support structures to hold desired new behaviours in place. If we think of new behaviour as the staircase the team uses to climb higher, systems are the handrails. Sure, some people can run the stairs two at a time, but others need the handrails or take comfort in knowing they are there for support, if needed.

Adopting the Code of Honour, using Conscious Communication to initiate awkward or difficult conversations, developing a store closing checklist, drafting position agreements for every job function, preparing an organizational chart showing lines of authority and functional accountabilities—these are not administrative make-work projects! Each is an organizational tool that adds value to your business. Each should be developed and implemented with care and intention.

Think of new behaviour as having two dimensions:

  1. The choice to act and interact with greater self-awareness.
  2. The outcome that is generated (CCL displacing current behaviours) when everyone chooses to act with intention.

New behaviour isn’t about telling people what to do or giving better instructions (although clear instructions are helpful). People choose new behaviour not because you want them to perform better but because they desire the intrinsic benefits and outcomes they are working toward for themselves.

In other words, new behaviour hinges on new attitudes and new decisions. The catch is that our attitudes often stem from deep-seated judgements and patterns we’ve hardly stopped to question. 

Our brains are designed to generalize, compartmentalize, and stereotype. To make snap judgements. We cannot accurately assess the capacity of others without getting to know them, and yet we judge them regularly for lack of commitment and lagging performance. We create expectations of people’s personalities and behaviour. As soon as we think we’ve got them all figured out, we limit their potential based on our restrictive view and look for evidence to prove we’re right.

Either way, we now have a vested interest in those people staying in the boxes we created for them.

As a recovering judger myself, I understand that none of us wants to believe we’re part of the problem. Using the self-awareness tools presented in Part I and the personal leadership indicator of the Possibility Zone will help you recognize your internal dynamics so you can powerfully influence behaviour in others. It’s not about fixing, changing, or manipulating others (that’s not operating in the Possibility Zone). The goal is to release trapped potential in your workforce that may be constrained or pigeonholed by inaccurate judgements.

Throughout history, many successful people from all walks of life were initially judged and found lacking: Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Edison, Michael Jordan, Elvis Presley. Experts proclaimed them to have little potential for their chosen fields.

People, like carbon under pressure, are diamonds of diversity. Everyone has the capacity to shine. With each limiting judgement or stereotype, we may be losing the one person who is best equipped to help us understand a customer’s need, innovate a product or service, or come up with a bright idea that increases profitability.

It’s time we stop judging one another and start looking beneath the surface for the real enemy—poor systems that suppress and restrict people and ideas from flowing in multiple directions. The person is not necessarily the problem. An interpersonal conflict or a person’s irritating behaviour is often a function of the work environment.

Nothing good comes from entering a situation with a preset attitude. Instead of reacting to people, who are in turn reacting to something or someone else, we need to start asking different questions. 

A dysfunctional workplace is like a trap. We need to work together to find a new way out.

Visualize a game of Kerplunk, where all the players’ sticks are holding the marbles (the current dynamic) in place. Everyone fears the drop, but everyone is also stuck. It takes only one player—you—to recognize the interconnectedness of each person’s pattern, pull your stick, and change the whole game. All the marbles drop. 

Once the marbles are displaced, everyone can work together to channel that energy more productively, making business happen. You have to declare the previous game over before you can start a new one, one that has everyone learning and growing, socially and economically, together. Loosely connected, tightly aligned. It’s Prohibition all over again. Each individual and organization is playing a game to win, except instead of spirits, this time we’re bootlegging possibility.

Put Me In, Coach

Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them

Business owners are well served to think of themselves as the coach of an elite sports team, running the plays and bringing out the best in the team. This outside perspective removes them from the star player role and enables them to customize the right blend of talent on the playing field. This is how you build a business that works for you, rather than building yourself a job as the star player.

No matter how people are being categorized and compartmentalized, I promise you this: your current structure, or lack of structure, is holding your team back. Look for divisions in your workplace: sales–production, management–union, gay–straight, male–female, Black–White, Christian–Muslim, Aboriginal–Caucasian, Department A–Department B, left brain analytics–right brain creatives, us–them. These invisible partitions are the source of your management and implementation challenges. A divide blocks possibility (and profit) from flowing freely.

My intention in writing this chapter is not to find fault or lay blame. Labels and generalizations are inevitable; it’s how our brains process information. But each of us also has the power to interrupt the pattern—kerplunk!—and start a new game. As always, awareness is the first step.

  1. How might we be unfairly categorizing others? What triggers us? How do we trigger them?
  2. What’s the real root of the problem?
  3. How can we shift our point of view to address the real issue— identifying (from multiple perspectives) what’s missing in the system?

Let me give you some examples.


Bias is a judgement that creates a separation, projecting limitations onto other people based on past cultural conditioning. The judger creates the separation, and the recipient has to fight against it to be deemed the exception to the rule.

Bias of all kinds permeates the workplace. If you doubt me, ask a new immigrant, a person of colour, an international student, or an Aboriginal person looking for work. Ask recent graduates searching for their first paid position in the field.

I have faced discrimination as a woman in a male-dominated industry on three life-defining occasions. I discovered a deeper underlying concern that had less to do with my ability and more to do with fear, triggered by stereotypes and bias, of what my gender meant for my performance. Male bosses and colleagues wanted to know, but didn’t ask … does she have the physical strength to do the job? Can she handle the rough lifestyle? Has she got my back in an emergency? These deeper operational concerns—the real root of the problem— had to be addressed before tolerance and acceptance were possible.

When I took marine training, I was one of two women in a class with about fifteen men. I was used to being in the minority in that industry. In fact, I was taking the class because I naively believed the credentials would help me overcome the stereotypes and gender bias I kept encountering.

“You should be at home baking cookies” was not the greeting I expected on my first day of class.

The speaker’s name was Voytek, a master mariner with decades of marine experience as a captain of deep sea vessels. This tall, commanding man was to be my instructor for the next several months.

“Pardon me?” I said.

He looked me straight in the eye. “You should be at home baking cookies. You don’t belong here.”

“Buckle up,” I thought to myself, “here we go again.” With just a few words, Voytek had set the tone and primed the environment.

Assessments in the course were competency based, pass or fail. Tasks were not modified for women. I recall jumping from a high wharf into English Bay wearing a survival suit that was so big it did not form a seal at my neck. I was terrified. First off, I’m scared of heights. Plus, Voytek had informed me that water rushing into my suit could form air pockets capable of tipping me upside down. But when he positioned me to go first, I jumped.

I was elated to learn that with proper technique (step-by-step instruction), it was possible for me, with my small frame, to right a twenty-five-person overturned life raft while I was in the water. This was no dingy or canister inflatable. It took me several tries, but in finding a rhythm and following the right sequence I discovered I could use the weight of the raft to help me gain the momentum needed to flip it right side up.

Fighting fires in a burning superstructure wearing full safety gear was the most intimidating challenge for me. Visibility in the thick black smoke was zero. I felt vulnerable because the gear was several sizes too big. In 1986, firefighting gear had not yet been adapted to fit the wearer’s frame.

Assignments required laser focus and fierce determination. We were rated on individual ability, even when working in teams. As tasks grew more difficult, Voytek expected that this may be the one to break us. There was no do-over. I was too stubborn to give him the satisfaction of thinking he was right about me belonging at home baking cookies.

Two people in our cohort, one man and one woman, failed to complete the program. For the longest time I was self-congratulatory about my own success with little regard for the imprint that experience may have left on my female colleague.

She filed a grievance against Voytek for his comments on the first day of class. I was called as a witness. I felt awkward being there. To me it wasn’t an open and shut case of discrimination. Voytek’s cookie-baking comments on day one were inappropriate, yes, but he did not withhold training opportunities or instructional techniques from anyone. His technical instruction throughout the program was excellent, in my opinion.

Did Voytek show his bias on the first day of class? Absolutely. Yet with each accomplishment, Voytek’s operational concerns about ability were addressed (the root of his bias), and his demeanour toward me and my female classmate softened.

It’s important to separate fact (doing) from emotional sensitivities (feelings), though both halves of the equation must be solved to move forward. Looking beneath the surface of the bias often reveals a deeper operational concern that may easily be addressed, if both parties are willing to think, communicate, and innovate.

In my experience, bias devolves to win–lose when I react emotionally to someone else’s initial judgement of me. Yet to hold discrimination up as a defensive weapon to avoid doing the work sets everyone back. This approach lacks integrity.

I prefer a more strategic approach that falls in the middle—in the Possibility Zone. When I recognize bias or resistance (evidence the other person is not in the Possibility Zone), I attempt to engage my adversary in the possibility of achieving a result that neither of us could accomplish on our own. Holding space for someone to experience a shift of mind doesn’t mean that person’s views will change instantly, but having a big vision helps. When people discover through firsthand experience that they can achieve great things by collaborating differently, it opens minds and elevates performance, sometimes for a lifetime.

 I listed Voytek as a reference when applying for marine industry positions for several years. I knew he was honest enough to share his initial reservations and enthusiastically endorse me based on the merit of operational and leadership competencies he’d witnessed first-hand. Together we made it to win–win.

Mavericks, Renegades, Underdogs, and Scaredy-Cats

Give me your most challenging and disengaged people, and I’ll show you the magic. The greatest untapped resources lie in four kinds of people commonly overlooked or cast aside. I call them mavericks, renegades, underdogs, and scaredy-cats: the disobedient rule breakers, people with attitude, dropouts, lone wolves, minorities, immigrants, complacent front-line workers, introverts, and those who have been hurt to the point of being withdrawn. Anyone who wouldn’t otherwise be given the chance.

I don’t care about assigning labels so much as celebrating and acknowledging our strengths, weaknesses, and imperfections. You want to form a strengths-based team? Innovate? Profit wildly from systems of service? You’ve got to dismantle the Invisible Barriers, the standards and ideals about success, and limiting beliefs about people’s potential.

Just because someone did well in school doesn’t mean that person will be successful in a business role. In fact, as Robert Kiyosaki has quipped, “In life the A students end up working for the C students and the B students work in government.” With skill mastery and the right fit, anyone can produce extraordinary business results, regardless of academic achievement. People can reach new heights if they have the right kind of support and encouragement. That’s why I’m so passionate about The Doorway’s positive influence on street youth.

I’ve met a lot of people in my life who were told by parents, teachers, or bosses, expressly or by implication, that they would “never amount to anything.” Someone had imagined the ideal candidate, and these people didn’t fit the image. Talk about soul-sucking!

All people are smart people. Who has been benched in your company who might have a terrific play to run?

I did not do well in the K–12 school system. I was so painfully shy I couldn’t muster the courage to raise my hand to ask to go to the bathroom. The experience of being in the classroom made me feel insignificant, discouraged, and weak.

Mine was the only elementary school in the city with no gymnasium. When I entered the world of comparison known as junior high, my insecurities grew. I was eons behind my classmates in terms of physical skill development. My apathy toward academic learning wasn’t as obvious to outsiders as the inferiority I felt in the gym. I couldn’t hide my physical incompetence.

I started armouring up with defence strategies. It started with physical ailments—upset stomach, headaches, fever resulting from holding the thermometer under warm water. Anything to get out of gym class.

Social researcher and bestselling author Brené Brown says, “We judge others in the areas where we are most susceptible to shame.” People like me armour up to protect ourselves. When I ran out of medical excuses, I turned to raw teenage defiance. My best defence against vulnerability was pretending I didn’t care.

Unfortunately, those of us with defensive armour don’t shed it at graduation. We wear it into the workforce as invisible shields of attitude, addiction, depression, obesity, and other titles that carry social stigmas. Carrying that heavy armour though life robs us of opportunity and connection. Before I share the next story, think of someone you’ve known in the workplace who displayed a defiant, if not impossible, attitude. Say that person’s name aloud.

There were five tough boys in my grade seven class. Sid, the shortest, was the toughest and meanest of the bunch. Scarring from cigarette burns dotted his forearms. I never knew if he did that himself or if it was done to him. The intensity behind Sid’s eyes could bore holes through you, just like those cigarette burns.

Room 7-10 was notorious for outrageous behaviour and power struggles between the teacher and the students. The harder the teacher tried to control behaviour, the more heated and escalated the push-back became. The cycle ended at year end with the teacher’s resignation and a door slam so hard it shattered the safety glass.

I knew enough of Sid’s back story to realize he had to be tough to survive. He was the youngest in a family of well-known boxers and hockey enforcers. His mom died when he was seven, and his father was hard on him. Despite what I’d witnessed in the classroom, I wasn’t afraid of him. I could feel his pain.

Those who took the time to know him saw the disconnect between how he was on the inside (anguished) and how he behaved (hostile). He was a leader in his own right, enforcing his own code of vigilante justice. Kids always knew where they stood with Sid. There is an underworld to leadership that many business people—former A and B students in particular—don’t understand. I call it the dark side of success, a parallel universe where hierarchies, behavioural norms, performance expectations, pressure to conform, and competition run wild. When people can’t find acceptance in the mainstream world, many turn to the dark side.

Sid may not have been cut out for success in a traditional hierarchical organization, but he was a leader, fuelled by passion. And he fell through the cracks. I believe that with empathy and positive guidance, Sid could have risen to great heights. Adversity gave him a bucketful of courage, so there’s no telling what he will do with it. Today he’s sharing his life experiences to inspire other people to live clean and sober.

When the system can’t address the pain of young people like Sid, it casts them aside. They become the mavericks, renegades, and underdogs who walk among us, people on the other side of the tracks. Their ingenuity, energy, and passion lie dormant. We all miss out when we assume people who’ve been spit out of mainstream systems have nothing to contribute. We all need to find the right fit.

I’m not suggesting people in authority or anyone who passes judgement is a “bad” person. We simply haven’t created environments (systems of service!) in which people flourish. Instead we rely on personal commitment and subjectivity (“good” manager, “bad” manager) to create the right environment—without any training at all on Invisible Barriers or systems design.

We must find the compassion to address root causes and look for design flaws in the system instead of condescending, judging others as less than, and labelling people as the problem. If we were to design systems of service in our institutions, I’m convinced we could alleviate some of the most debilitating social stigmas and economic ailments of our time.

How do some of these patterns of judgement show up in your workplace? In your people? In yourself? Clock watching, staff turnover, capable people overlooked for promotion, departmental rivalries, wasteful spending, great product but poor customer service, operational mistakes—it’s all having an impact on the bottom line. Trace it back to a root cause. You’ll find a pattern undermining performance.

Don’t get caught up in doing, doing, doing. Stop. Shift your thinking. Become an impartial advocate acting on behalf of your business and your people. Start a new game. 

Breakthrough Boosters

  1. Who are your perceived adversaries? How could you find common ground with them to improve the system without compromising anyone’s values? Check in with yourself. Are you operating in the Possibility Zone?
  2. Where could deep-seated judgements be creating structural barriers that are impeding performance in your organization? Where could operational performance be improved?
  3. Diversity and inclusiveness can provide your organization with significant competitive advantages in terms of creativity, innovation, and customer satisfaction. I have interviewed several professionals to showcase different perspectives on diversity in the workplace. An inventory of video vignettes is waiting for you at diversity.html. 

Remember: Treat all points of view as if they are as valuable as your best client. Listen for opportunities to bridge service gaps, facilitate smoother connections between departments, and integrate functional systems. 

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