Are our workplaces making us crazy?

Johann Hari’s article “Is everything you think you know about depression wrong?” has got me thinking. In challenging the medicalisation of our mental wellbeing he paints a bleak yet familiar picture of how our workplaces aren’t meeting our needs…

It turns out if you have no control over your work, you are far more likely to become stressed – and, crucially, depressed. Humans have an innate need to feel that what we are doing, day-to-day, is meaningful. When you are controlled, you can’t create meaning out of your work. (Hari, 2018)

According to Johann, 87% of people don’t like their work. Thats a awful lot of unhappy and disengaged people. For years now, I have advocated a way of working that I believe helps change what Johann describes as an “epidemic of meaningless work” e.g.

  • greater autonomy gives us more control over our work
  • an equal voice in our teams gives us a sense that we matter
  • teamwork creates connection between people
  • alignment with a wider mission adds to a sense of purpose

These changes have certainly made me feel a lot more positive about coming into work, and many of my colleagues feel the same. But in spite of all the benefits, it has been observed that the degree to which organisations are successful in adopting these practices can vary. The reasons for this and what to do about it are the subject of much discussion especially around culture, leadership and how these can change. Johann’s article suggests an underlying cause to people’s unhappiness at work…

In its official statement for World Health Day in 2017, the United Nations reviewed the best evidence and concluded that “the dominant biomedical narrative of depression” is based on “biased and selective use of research outcomes” that “must be abandoned”. We need to move from “focusing on ‘chemical imbalances’”, they said, to focusing more on “power imbalances”. (Hari, 2018)

We take if for granted, but almost all organisations are hierarchical. Unless you are at the very top of the pyramid, there is someone who has authority over you, the extent of which is determined by how much the organisation needs you and you need your job. How this plays out in our day to day experience of work depends greatly on how people exercise this power. Some people use their authority to coerce subordinates, whilst others find ways of doing the work that are mutually beneficial.

Dr Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and creator of Nonviolent Communication, contrasts to these strategies as “power-over” people as opposed to “power-with” people. He observes that…

Power-Over leads to punishment and violence. Power-With leads to compassion and understanding and to learning motivated by a reverence for life, rather than fear, guilt, shame and anger. (Rosenberg, M)

He posits that central to having “power-with” people is the belief that we are ultimately more likely to get our own needs met, if we first understand and consider the needs of others. Empathy is being present with someone to hear and understand their needs. It creates trust and connection between people. Self-empathy is being present with and connected to our own needs. It enables us to remain centred and helps us to achieve good outcomes for the whole.

For example, I may have a need for our work to be conducted in a sustainable way, and an idea about how this could be improved in our team. As a member of a self-organising team, I don’t have the authority to mandate that the team just try my idea. My colleagues almost certainly have a need for their views to be considered and to shape ideas before they are able to really give them a go. Self empathy enables me to understand that I also have a need to be recognised for ‘my’ idea, and to reconcile this with there being a better outcome for us all, if we collaborate and make it ‘our’ idea.

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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

All sound a bit too ‘warm and fuzzy’ for business? Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella clearly doesn’t think so. One of his first actions was to give a copy of Marshal Rosenberg’s book to each of his execs in his efforts to address the “toxic culture” that he inherited from his predecessors. (Abadi, 2018)

The way of working I described earlier seems to flourish where those with power have confidence that, given clear objectives and support, people will deliver without having to be directed and controlled. There are practical considerations e.g. as well as knowing how to give people clear objectives and effective support, it also requires appropriate feedback loops that signal to engaged stakeholders that we are all moving in the right direction. But these can be all be worked out.

The opportunity, for those who can see the value, is to learn how to practice “power-with” people. Maybe this is the key to slowly dissolving hierarchies and creating working environments in which people’s mental wellbeing doesn’t suffer. Few people are fortunate enough to find their calling. Even if we do not all love our work, I hope that it is possible for it to be a positive, satisfying activity that goes beyond meeting our need to provide for ourselves and our families.

Summary

Most people are unhappy at work. The more we are controlled, the less our need for meaning is met. There is a way of working that better meets this need, by giving people greater autonomy, however the level of adoption varies. Maybe this variability is to do with how people with authority exercise power at work. Some use their “power-over” people to get things done. Some are able to develop “power-with” people to co-create mutually beneficial outcomes. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a way of developing “power-with” people. Maybe focussing on this could increase our success in transforming organisations into happier and more productive places.

 


Image and quotes Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd

References:

Hari, Johann. (2018) Is everything you think you know about depression wrong?’, The Guardian, 7th January [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/07/is-everything-you-think-you-know-about-depression-wrong-johann-hari-lost-connections

Rosenberg, M. () ‘Marshall Rosenberg’s NVC Quotes’, PuddleDancer Press [Online]. Available at: https://www.nonviolentcommunication.com/freeresources/nvc_social_media_quotes.htm

Abadi, M. (2018) ‘When CEO Satya Nadella took over Microsoft, he started defusing its toxic culture by handing each of his execs a 15-year-old book by a psychologist’, Business Insider UK, 7th October [Online]. Available at: http://uk.businessinsider.com/microsoft-satya-nadella-nonviolent-communication-2018-10

Better ways and words for giving “Feedback”

Feedback is immensely helpful for our individual growth and team performance. And yet giving feedback can be a challenge. How can we make it more likely that our feedback will be well received and have a positive outcome?

Being able to give and receive feedback creates a huge opportunity for us, and yet for many people even the term “feedback” is loaded with negativity. Lets see if we can find some better ideas and words to help us with this important skill.

Psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg, creator of Nonviolent Communication (or NVC) proposed that when we communicate, we are really only saying one of two things: “Thank you” or “Please”. In other words we are either expressing gratitude or making a request. How could this idea help us with giving feedback?

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Dr Rosenberg role-playing scenarios to demonstrate the application of NVC

“All people ever say is THANK YOU (a celebration of life) and PLEASE (an opportunity to make life more wonderful)” Marshall B. Rosenberg PhD.

Thinking of “positive feedback” as giving thanks and “negative feedback” as a request to behave in a different way, gives feedback new meaning and opens up a new vocabulary. A compassionate request providing an actionable alternative way of being has the potential to be far more valuable to someone than simply pointing out their limitations!

Say Thank You often

Expressing appreciation isn’t difficult. It is just a case of being clear about what it is someone is doing and why this is helpful. Here is one simple way of achieving this:

recognition
A commendation from George to Sunil thanking him for his openness

Developing a sense of gratitude is good for us, mentally and even physically. Sharing appreciations publicly not only celebrates our colleagues. It encourages others to do likewise and helps to create an open feedback culture within the team.

Saying Please?

Asking someone to behave differently takes more care, however it needn’t be that difficult either. NVC gives us a more positive way to frame our requests that is more likely to receive a compassionate response from the recipient. Consider the following example expressed in a form inspired by the NVC request:

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A recommendation from Jane, suggesting how a teammate could meet her need for equality and respect

Lets examine the request a little more closely by breaking down each part:

I am noticing…

Jane identifies her teammate’s behaviour i.e. interrupting Pauline and Sunil and gives examples of when this occurs e.g. in their planning and design meetings. These observations are expressed in a way that is without judgement or diagnosis, while the examples provide clarity.

Starting with observations of just what the person is saying and doing is important. Often we form an opinion of someone, but when we try to identify the actual behaviours that led us to this diagnosis, they prove elusive. If you find you are struggling to identify the person’s behaviours i.e. just what they are saying and doing, then maybe you need to wait, observe more closely and reevaluate the basis for your request.

The greatest benefit comes from identifying repeated behaviours that are having the most significant and detrimental impact on the individual and or the team.

This makes me feel…

In the example, Jane is feeling frustrated and anxious because her need for respect and equality for others isn’t being met by her teammate’s behaviour. In this situation, by expressing her emotions and her underlying unmet need,  she is more likely to elicit a compassionate response from the recipient. This inventory of feelings shows the full range of emotions that we may experience. Thankfully in professional situations the range is more limited making them easier to identify and express.

The ability to identify and communicate our feelings and emotions is an important life skill. Our feelings point us to the unmet need that is driving them. This knowledge gives us an opportunity to find strategies for getting our needs met that are not in conflict with other people’s strategies for meeting their own needs.

A common misinterpretation is to say something like “This makes me feel… like you do not care about the work“. Note that this isn’t expressing an emotion. It is actually making a judgement about what you think the other person is thinking! If you find yourself doing this, reflect for a moment on the emotions you are feeling, not what you are thinking. This will help you to identify the need that is not being met by the recipient’s behaviours. Just as with feelings, humans have share many needs. Here is an inventory of needs that may help you identify your own in a particular situation.

From now on, it would really help…

Finally, Jane asks her teammate if they would let Pauline and Sunil explain their ideas fully their design meetings. This would meet her need for respect and equality. The request is expressed as something the recipient can actually do, as opposed to asking someone not to do something. This is clearer for the recipient and reduces the possibility that the request will be met with a defensive reaction.

Conclusion

Equipping ourselves with the tools to be able to give feedback is the first step. The form described above is inspired by the NVC process. Another approach similar to NVC, is the Feedback Wrap from Jurgen Appelo’s Management 3.0.

Whichever you prefer, both help us to say the things that need to be said. As long as we say it from the heart, with good intention towards the recipient and the team, we won’t go far wrong.

I’ll leave you with Dr Rosenberg talking at an NVC workshop…

The examples shown above are taken from TeamSense, a fairer way for team members to exchange frequent meaningful feedback.