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Changing the World

Human beings are fascinating. More complex than can be fully comprehended. We are predictable and unpredictable.

For example, once settled into comfort zones, we tend to become predictable. Resistant to most forms of change — at least when initially presented with opportunities that fall outside self-imposed norms. We do our best to hold on to what we know. On the other hand, we are unpredictable in that when it seems least likely, we dive aggressively into catalyzing change. Most of us harbor strong desires to change aspects of the world as we know it. Hard wired to both maintain the status quo and change things, we humans simultaneously resist the unknown while aspiring to have an impact. Go figure!

Sadly, far too many of us allow our potential for positive change to dissipate over time. At some point during our life journey, we arrive at a state of complacency. Left unattended, complacency drifts into resignation. Accepting the world as we see it, we tell ourselves that there just isn’t much we can do, so why make the effort.

This pattern of behavior is unfortunate because we are all born with equal potential to make a difference. It’s just that somewhere along the line, we get distracted, give up, or fall prey to constraining ideologies or limited interpretations of possibility. Too often, we allow self and/or situationally generated, disempowering stories to inhibit the level and impact of our engagement with the world.

This does not have to be the case. It’s not too late to make a difference.

How do we get the ball rolling? Take a bit of time to do the hard work of getting clear about WHAT MATTERS to you.

Make a list. Once you have the list delineated, step away from it and do something totally unrelated. Preferably, use your body.

After a period of distraction, come back to your list. Note those things that are negotiable and those that are not. This done, you are almost ready to go into action. But first, declare a vision for your future — you have the capability of designing futures of choice and taking action to make them happen.

Now, and this can be the hardest part of all, channel your energy and focus toward affecting the change required to achieve your vision. To quote Steve Jobs, “Say no to a thousand things.”

” Everybody has the same energy potential. The average person wastes his in a dozen little ways. I bring mine to bear in one thing only: my paintings, and everything else is sacrificed to it…” —Pablo Picasso

In my case, after years of witnessing and experiencing the remarkable degree of distress and suffering that so many endure in their jobs and professions, I decided to funnel my creativity and energy toward reducing suffering at work. I saw how stuck I had become and regularly interacted with highly accomplished individuals who, in moments of intimate candor, related tales of career discontent and job-generated suffering. I felt compelled to change the course of my career to impact the world in this manner.

Firmly believing that a direct correlation between elevated business performance and reduced suffering existed, I joined forces with my partner to prove that hypothesis. Now, I can categorically assert that this is the case. Creativity, initiative, ownership of action, business results, and value creation are all compromised when people suffer.

Suffering in the course of a life is unavoidable. Some suffering — sudden or extended illness, pain, immobilization and isolation due to injuries incurred during an accident, the unexpected loss of a friend, family member or lover are common examples.

Other forms of suffering are tied to circumstances that endure through lifetimes or even generations. People are born into poverty, disabling illiteracy, physical disabilities or disease, nutritional deprivation, or war-torn environments. In these cases, the luck of the draw produces cruelties that no human being deserves or should, in an ideal world, have to endure.

Work is a construct that allows individuals to singularly and collaboratively leverage their inherent creativity and efforts to contribute value to the common good as a means of providing for themselves, their families, and their communities. Yet somewhere along the way, the notion of human creativity as a valuable asset was subjugated to the idea that human efforts and contributions could be engineered and incentivized to function as if they were mechanical components of a larger system of productivity.

Depersonalizing work, industrial-age managers overlooked the spiritual needs and intrinsic motivators that inspire employees to fully engage, deeply commit, own results and drive innovation. Instead, they endlessly searched for means by which they could affect machine-like constancy and productivity within the talent pool that operated their businesses.

Not surprisingly, treated like impersonal cogs in a wheel, employees rapidly developed resentments and frustrations, let go of being accountable for results, and steeled themselves to the point of emotional detachment. Management-driven, mechanistic disenfranchisement inevitably led to frequent human indignities, distress, and widespread suffering.

Along the way, a high perceived risk became associated with candor. Difficult conversations were more often avoided than invited. In top-down, command and control cultures, to speak out was to risk dismissal, stagnation, or retribution. Thus, third party grousing sessions progressively supplanted and circumnavigated direct engagement and debate.

Bit by bit much was lost. A great deal of workplace-related distress was layered over the inevitable forms of suffering that accompany life.

In the creative economy of the second decade of the early 21st Century, to be resigned, feel disenfranchised or have a resentful, detached, and suffering workforce is a distinctive competitive disadvantage. To be in a position to change the world, individuals and companies must be able to draw directly and energetically from passion and channel creativity in the service of inspired ambition.

All-in engagement, unwavering commitment, and self-driven ownership of action and results must be present for this to happen. Motivation must be intrinsic, opportunities to have a personal impact, and sufficient self-determination to make and bear responsibility for key decision making and results are essential. When these are present, necessary foundations are in place to catalyze change.

Easy to say, but not as easy to make happen.

To illustrate this point, the first dozen or so years of pursuing our present quest involved meticulous, step-by-step development, testing, and refining a systematic approach to building sustainable high-performance organizations — with a largely unspoken agenda of reducing suffering at work.

Spurred on and strengthened by the dozens of individuals who came to us to report that we had changed their lives positively, we learned that there really is no simple trick for reducing suffering at work. To do so, one must bring focus, investment, and action in multiple interrelated domains.

Primary among these are the network of individuals, relationships, and conversations that shape the intangible architecture, form culture, and drive action in competitive enterprises and teams. As in my first career in bricks and mortar architecture, there are many components, layers, and factors that go into building business communities that unleash rather than stifle creativity.

But, there are a few universal and foundational truths that I can share for your benefit. Here are three:

Accept that Human Beings:

– Are tremendously complex and often irrationally emotional. Be willing to engage and navigate complexity and emotion. To do this successfully, you must be able to empathize, experience and express compassion.

– Want, almost more than anything else, to feel seen, heard and valued. Be present, be open, be willing. Center, breathe, and focus before every key conversation.

– Long for, are relieved and energized by straight talk. Candor is a sign of respect and appreciation. There are no more critical skills today than those of listening and candid, thoughtful, honest conversation.

Let Go:

– You can’t control everything. Life happens. Don’t fight it.

– Choose to trust. The more you do, the more you can.

– Enroll, align, focus, and release. Team with talented people with shared values and aspirations, set high standards, step back, watch the fun. But, don’t forget to monitor progress, intervene and adapt constructively when appropriate.

Step into Your Fears

– Leading for creativity requires vision, authenticity and courage. Be willing to run the risk of disclosing who you are and what you care about.

– It’s all personal—dive in. There is no line between life and work (when work involves creative engagement and expression).

– Be clear, be firm, be resilient. Declare the future, adhere to standards and when you get knocked down, as you inevitably will, get up, dust off and move forward. People respect conviction and resilience and are willing to align with clarity.

To want to change the world is admirable. To understand and accept that suffering exists is essential. To have the courage to step into humanity, engage with its complexity, listen and converse with compassion and candor are some of the most courageous and impactful actions you can take toward building a creative firmament that will open the door to and catalyze real change.

These are a few of the things you can do today to reduce suffering at work and take a step toward changing the world. Use them, please!

Sandy Nelson