High performance and under-achievement have one thing in common: Both are fuelled by emotion.
Emotions in the workplace are like combustibles. Used properly, they will skyrocket you to success. If not, they can blow up in your face, causing complacency, confusion, and resistance to change. Whether you acknowledge them or not, they are embedded in the physical body and subconscious mind, both driving you forward and holding you back. The same is true for every member of your team.
Consider that today’s unproductive meeting is the result of something unresolved from last month. That’s how it works. Staff remain incomplete about decisions that were made without consulting the appropriate people or addressing concerns of those directly impacted. Incompletions run the show. That’s when the conversation is driven underground—to informal and political networks.
Few people want to talk about what’s really going on. Even the “experts” tread with caution. Speaking about culture, trust, bullying, and success principles is too high level, far removed from day-to-day activities. Until we get down and dirty, dealing with everyday occurrences, we tend to think those generalized words of caution are intended for somebody else. It’s not me, it’s them. The truth is, it’s all of us.
It takes courage to own our humanity. Learning to embrace our flaws and imperfections, without experiencing a loss of power, takes time and practice. Keeping ourselves in the Possibility Zone takes practice. Quick fixes have become our “solution”: asserting power to get our way, using intimidation, looking the other way, suppressing how we really feel, talking behind people’s backs. Those tactics all have a backfire effect.
When the business environment is superficial, people show up on autopilot. They are cursory and compliant, not deeply committed to the work they do. Imagine the upward spike in growth and profits if you could redirect this combustible human energy to retool your business as a rocket ship that’s loaded with purpose and meaning. Isn’t it worth giving it your best effort to shoot for the stars, even if you only get as far as the moon?
Systems leadership is a creative superpower, a secret weapon. Use it to serve the greater good, to teach and inspire people who are sickened by office politics, creatively stifled in their jobs, or socially suppressed in their careers. The right kind of structure can blast people out of the soul-sucking systems that hold their potential trapped.
Let me give you an example.
Animosity and resentment ran thick between Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and salmon gillnet fishers. Fishery managers were reacting to new legislation, and fishermen were angered by their reactionary approach to resource management. Neither party trusted the other.
Fishermen were allowed to harvest sockeye salmon, but in so doing they inadvertently caught coho, a non-target species that had just become protected. DFO managers believed there was no way to avoid catching
coho, so they saw no alternative but to shut down the commercial fishery.
I was brought in by industry to find a solution. I knew I needed to find a common denominator—something both sides wanted—that would enable them to work together differently than they had in the past.
I related to both industry and government as equals with different strengths. DFO’s strength was scientific protocol and authority to proceed. Industry, meanwhile, had decades of technical, local, and empirical knowledge of the fishing grounds. The challenge was to combine strengths and capacities from both sides to build systems to satisfy real and perceived risks, threats, and concerns.
I asked the fishermen, “If you could fish sockeye but had to avoid coho, what would you do differently?” “We’d avoid Area X entirely,” said one. “We’d use a weed line to drop the net lower in the water so coho (which swim shallower) could go over our nets, but we’d still catch sockeye,” said another.
One guy had invented a revival box so non-target species could be flushed with oxygen-rich sea water, revived onboard, and released live. In other words, the fishermen had a ton of ideas.
DFO managers nearly sprung from their seats with accusations. “We can’t make resource management decisions based on hearsay and good intentions!”
I suggested setting up a test fishery in Area D to evaluate the fishermen’s empirical knowledge against DFO’s scientific protocols.
“DFO will never go for it,” said the fishermen.
“Okay,” I said. “But if by some miracle DFO does agree to a test fishery, would you honour the test fishery protocols as a matter of your word?”
“Of course,” they said. “But it will never happen.”
I had a similar conversation with DFO.
“If we set up rigorous scientific protocols and provide third-party validated catch data from the fishing grounds in real time, so DFO managers knew moment to moment exactly what was happening on the fishing grounds, would you enable us to manage a series of test fisheries?” I asked.
“Sure,” they said, “but who’s going to pay for it? We don’t have the budget for this kind of research.”
“What if we build a budget, use DFO’s best guess at run size prediction, and take a percentage of the total catch off the top to pay for the research?” suggested the association president.
“The fishermen would never agree to this in a million years,” said DFO.
“Okay,” I said. “But if by some miracle they do agree, would you permit us to set up and manage the test fishery?”
Neither side believed it was possible to get the other to agree. I knew in my heart it was possible. A few weeks later I facilitated the signing of Canada’s first collaborative agreement between an industry association and DFO. The research was funded from the proceeds of the catch. Every aspect of the project was documented and systematized: determining the selection criteria, recruiting the test boats, programming the input devices used to collect field data, recruiting and training the onboard observers who validated the findings.
Let’s recap this story using the principles in this book and the perspective of decision-making as a steering wheel. When coho conservation was introduced, DFO managers made unilateral, fear-based decisions to shut down the fisheries for fear of over-harvesting. Their decisions were reactionary (in the yellow or red zone). Commercial fishers were angry, reacting negatively and defiantly toward the department (in the yellow or red zone). Neither party was operating in the Possibility Zone.
It takes only one person to commit to staying in the Possibility Zone—no matter what—to create a safe space for underlying concerns to be expressed. Holding space for possibility is about creating the right environmental conditions for others to reflect objectively on their situation and choose to participate in creating a new path forward.
Success is not a function of intellect, authority, resources, or technical knowledge, as we often assume it to be. Success is a function of personal commitment plus the profit formula: communication, collaboration, and leadership times new behaviour and systems of service.
We facilitated field research for three years. The fishermen’s practical knowledge of fishing operations resulted in suggestions that had a “scientifically significant” impact on fishery conservation goals. The president of Area D Salmon Gillnet Association won the Governor General’s Award for Selective and Responsible Fishing Practices.
This project was successful because we designed a set of resource management systems using the building blocks of systems leadership presented in Chapter 5, The Cure for Business Blindness:
None of the issues that had industry and government in conflict were personal; the real problem was that the system was poorly designed or nonexistent. I set out to design open and transparent processes that satisfied concerns and created new opportunities for both parties. Instead of taking sides on an issue, my focus was to build structures for industry co-management.
Isn’t the ultimate objective of your skunkworks project the same? To maximize effectiveness, efficiency, and team satisfaction as you reach toward profitable new opportunities as a team?
I wish I could tell you that industry and government both lived happily ever after. They didn’t. I didn’t have the language, at the time, to teach them the principles in this book. I intuitively built the systems as a “doer” (more about that in Part III). Both parties hit a high mark, a one-hit wonder, and reverted to old patterns. When my contract was up, nobody stepped in as a Generator to hold space and build a system to expand the new behaviours into future fisheries.
As you read the six rules of emotional engagement, keep this old proverb in mind: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
If systems leadership is the “what,” the Possibility Process is the “how” that enables people with diverse interests and perspectives to co-create the systems necessary to achieve desired outcomes for your business.
Displacement of old ways is essential. There is too much momentum pulling for the status quo. You must step outside the current system and create a Possibility Zone where you start with a clean slate, beginner’s mind, and the early adopters. Area D fishermen were early adopters willing to co-create responsible methods to avoid non-target species.
From the above experience, I distilled the six rules of emotional engagement (and good business!) to create an emotionally compelling atmosphere that brings out the best in people.
1. Create a clear structure. We gave people a sense of order by creating fishing plans and operating procedures. This helped to ensure decisions and actions were applied universally. Because trust was missing, everyone needed to know that a foundation, a structure, and a clear set of standards were in place. Structure was a refreshing alternative to the reactionary, command-and-control decision-making everyone was used to.
2. Allow all voices to be heard. People on both sides of the issue felt heard, right from the idea-generating stage. Formal and informal communications flowed in both directions. Good ideas and problem solving suggestions were publicly recognized. People knew their contributions mattered, so they were willing to share observations and ideas.
3. Connect people to something bigger than themselves. Both sides knew they couldn’t accomplish the fishery objectives without the support and cooperation of the other party. Together we aimed high to sign Canada’s first Collaborative Agreement.
4. Give people a sense of purpose. Industry, not government, presented the plan and was responsible for implementing it. Once the DFO was on board, the fishermen no longer felt victimized or had time to wallow in negative feelings. It was their show. They knew what DFO’s issues were, and they were charged with resolving these valid concerns.
5. Give the project moral weight. Both sides worked together to find new ways to be selective and responsible in their fishing practices. They operated with a higher conscience. People knew their work was important and that everyone had something to contribute.
6. Keep the process open and transparent. The process was open and transparent to reduce the risk of inappropriate influence or interference. Everything was well documented.
Most plans fall apart during implementation. I am all about implementation. Policies and directives cannot change attitudes or lower resistance. Human potential blossoms in an environment that’s free from bias, judgement, and red tape. That kind of ecosystem must be created with intention. It doesn’t happen by default. Think of your situation this way:
By default, business owners focus on physical assets and tangible goods to build their businesses. It makes sense. All businesses have tangible assets to manage. But people need more. People cannot be managed; they must be led and supported. Human ingenuity is not a commodity.
The next time you reflect on succession planning, product innovation, or market development, consider the project a two-part process. Part one is the transfer of equity, property, physical assets, manufacturing processes, and contractual obligations. Lawyers, accountants, and valuation consultants support the transfer of tangible goods and assets. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Part two is a function of your ability to facilitate the psychological transition of your team. Look again at the uphill battle in Chapter 7. That image will help you anticipate the natural progression of people coming to terms with where you are going and what it will take to get there.
If you play your cards right, your next big decision involving physical property or tangible assets is an opportunity to strive for a much higher level of performance by meaningfully engaging people in the planning process.
Leaders get hung up on hierarchy of authority and forget that communication is a system; it should flow in all directions. Like blood flows through the body, communication must reach the organization’s extremities. Clear and open communication nurtures the psychological transition. When expectations are not being met, or you find a communication or attitudinal blockage (because we always do when we’re objective), recognize it for what it is—an opportunity to innovate like never before.
Emotion is the most powerful building block. You can’t see it, touch it, or measure it, but that doesn’t mean emotional vitality doesn’t exist. The six rules should be factored into the design framework in your business.
To keep people alert and engaged at work, you must connect their passions and wants to the organization’s needs. That’s not the same as wanting everyone to “like you.” When you do that, you are connecting people to you, rather than to the vision and mission of the organization. Never collapse the two.
Everyone has a deep desire to be heard, understood, and to know that they matter, including the people who pretend not to care. They need to know that their best performance today makes a difference to their future within the business, and to the ideal future of the organization.
Each of us has behaviour patterns ingrained into our personalities. What makes us rise to a challenge? What pitfalls cause us to fail? Emotional triggers and the idiosyncrasies of being human have to be factored into the plan. Otherwise, you’ll notice them when the plan fails during implementation. Effective systems, with all sixteen dimensions factored into the design, s-t-r-e-t-c-h people beyond their natural limitations!
What if growing your business became a game that your employees and suppliers wanted to play to win? You wouldn’t have to work so hard.
Remember my Uncle Bill? Without having the direct authority of an employer–employee relationship, he used these principles to his advantage during Prohibition. Instead of denying that informal social networks and emotional connections existed, he leveraged these intangibles and heralded a period of growth and prosperity that remains unprecedented to this day. He leveraged desires that moved people to action as a creative force to drive growth in his business and industry.
You can too.
The future of every business lives in its people. Bold ideas, practical know-how, skill mastery, critical analysis, judgement, and decision making are intangible assets. Soft skills are difficult to convey and communicate, but don’t underestimate their power.
Start small and allow success to grow organically. Follow the six rules to engage hearts, not just minds. If we take better care of our people, they will take better care of one another, our customers, and our tangible assets. Soon the early majority will want a piece of this new game for themselves. Results will grow naturally as the late majority comes around and momentum builds. Soon you’ll displace the current reality with systems and processes designed to reveal your ideal future.
Remember: A co-creative approach to problem-solving and innovation works. With practice, the stress and frustration of dealing with “people issues” will decrease. In time, you will facilitate solutions with ease, and when that day comes, you will feel unstoppable.