Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson: co-founders of Holonomics Worldwide. Authors of Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design and Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter.
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How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Simon: This is one of the key points we address in our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter. We work at the mental models level to ensure that everyone in the whole organization is valued.
People nowadays are focusing more on finding the company’s purpose, but status, power, competition, etc., remain.
These things exist in large organizations, so one of the foundations of Holonomics is the universal human values of peace, truth, love, right action, and non-violence.
The study of human values in education has been the focus of Maria’s work for many years. Once you have this foundation in place, then other things start to become possible. Without these values being acted, present, and lived, you can’t instigate work across whole organizations.
Maria: We work on the level of consciousness. This means asking questions such as “Why am I doing things the way I am?” We aim to help organizations improve relationships between individuals, so we ask people if they are happy with the quality of their relationships, with themselves and with others and if they are happy with the results of the work they do.
So, we start to develop people’s consciousness about what they are doing in their workplace. We ask questions such as, “Why do I wake up every day to come to work?” “Am I happy with the results of my work?” and “If the quality of my relationships were improved, could I be doing something better?” Asking effective questions is the start of the process of putting these values into action. Quite often, a company has a list of values displayed on the wall of their offices. There is a mission, there are the values, but people are not putting this mission and these values into practice in the day after day work. Our approach is to always begin to allow people to start being more conscious about what exactly they are doing.
There is a mission, there are the values, but in fact, in the day after day work, people are not putting this mission and these values into practice.
Simon: It’s a great question of how you work with a whole organization because you need a wide variety of techniques. At the higher levels of an organization, we find many different methodologies and practices, Balanced Scorecard, for example. One issue we find in the implementation of the Balanced Scorecard is a lack of appreciation and understanding of its underlying systemic nature. Something like a Balanced Scorecard is a fantastic tool. It’s highly systemic, but when you treat it almost as a linear process whereby with a prescriptive order of templates to fill in step-by-step, you completely miss the underlying logic, the underlying values, and the systemic vision which this type of methodology truly brings.
In our book Holonomics, we refer to the concept of the dynamic way of seeing. This relates to the amplification and expansion of our consciousness to see more and understand more. Only then can we start talking about what systems thinking means. How can we understand the organization as a living system and have rules, regulations, and processes? When you amplify the consciousness, help people see more, help people value everyone in the whole organization, and understand the contributions of everyone. We can start to create and facilitate powerful interventions.
The other thing we discuss in Holonomics is the concept of ‘lived experience.’ The reason is that leaders and executives in organizations are often very convinced that how they construct reality is the correct one. It’s very difficult for someone in a senior position to enter into the lived experience of people whose lives and daily realities are extremely far from their own, so one of our approaches is to use gamification. We create gaming events where these issues can be addressed without people at higher levels in an organization being threatened or challenged by changing their mental models. By entering a gaming environment, we can naturally slip into storytelling, which is a very natural and unforced way to take people into understanding other people’s perspectives without being forced. By avoiding a confrontational approach, our interventions can have a far greater impact than they otherwise would.
What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Maria: The key point is engagement. Normally organizations have a mechanistic way of thinking. They think that they have to implement some methodology or program to make people more engaged. It is not about bringing something from the outside into a business, but in fact, it’s about starting with a look at what is inside each person. Engagement means that I want to wake up and go to work, and I am happy to do that. I have enthusiasm for what I do, and so again, we have to work with meaning.
It is not about bringing something from the outside into a business, but in fact, it’s about starting with a look at what is inside each person.
In many cases, we help organizations and leaders introduce dialogues that explore the meaning of work with their teams, exploring questions such as “why are you doing what you are doing?” “Why are you important for the organization?” and “where does your work contribute to the strategy?” Engagement is related to meaningful work, meaning why I am doing what I am doing, so leaders need to invest the time and effort to help people understand the contributions of their work to the overall strategy of the company, which will result in them being more fully present and engaged at work.
When I lead a course or provide consultancy to a company, I normally ask those present, “How much of you do you think comes to work?” Normally people say 30%. At first, they may say that they don’t know how to answer. So I prompt them by asking them to imagine everything they are, everything they would like to do, everything they can imagine in their creativity, and reflect on how much of these aspects is coming to work every day. In general, people say 30% or 40%, so I then have to start to work with these people and ask what is happening, asking questions such as “Why does such little of you come every day?”
Simon: It’s interesting since sometimes we don’t realize which types of companies are doing this transformational work and where the change is happening since the literature on sustainability often relies on a small number of well-cited case studies Unilever or Patagonia, for example. Maria facilitated one workshop in São Paulo on this theme for a major European bank with offices and locations around the world. This workshop for the Brazilian division of this international bank was on happiness for their female executives. Discussing happiness and especially the concerns of women in a banking environment can be challenging, but there were people in the bank who said, “No, this is something we want to address.” There were a lot of female executives who enjoyed going to this event.
Maria: We provoked a fascinating discussion because it can be common to see in organizations many people whose daily experience at work is only one of the continual problems, and these are problems which they identify as being outside themselves — “It’s my boss, it the environment, it’s the market, it’s the clients, it’s always the third person.” The person has difficulty seeing themselves, what they are doing, why their relationships are not so good, and why things are happening to them.
So I often help to coach executives to help them explore how they can change the way they see the world here and their lives to really evaluate more mindfully what they are doing, if they wish to continue doing it or not, and if they wish to change something in their lives.
What do people really lack and long for at work?
Simon: We define sustainability as the quality of our relationships. This helps us talk about sustainability in a very broad sense. It allows us to start dialogues and conversations with people who would normally be turned off by talking about climate change, recycling, or whatever they imagine sustainability to be. The three big themes we’ve been addressing recently are authenticity, vulnerability, and humility. Humility is very powerful, but if you come from the previous leadership paradigm, which is all about being an alpha male, it is almost impossible to understand how humility is associated with power. When you have humility, you can see more of a situation; you have a deeper, more inclusive perspective, developing more meaningful relationships with people. Sometimes, people lower down in an organization are consciously aware that they could be doing things better, contribute, and see aspects of their part of the business that need improvement, but they’re not listened to. Sometimes the message that comes back to Maria and me is, “if only the leadership could be a little bit humbler.” When leadership teams start to show a little more humility and start listening, it dramatically affects them.
When leadership teams start to show a little more humility and start listening it has a dramatic effect.
Maria: Another aspect which I ask people to reflect on is how they can develop curiosity, better able to evolve, and discover new things. In those company cultures with a strong degree of command-and-control, people are given responsibility for specific tasks. They feel that normally there is no space to allow them to contribute more or engage in truly meaningful conversations to articulate their fears and be their full authentic selves. In this kind of environment, it’s not possible to evolve and be happy. Business environments where people are very careful in what they say and always holding back on what they want to can be very stressful because individuals cannot be themselves and cannot relax. Experiencing this day after day consumes a great deal of energy and impacts our emotional states.
What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
Simon: I would say the most important question a leader can ask their people in an organization is, “What is it that I am not seeing?” Half of our book, Holonomics, is dedicated to what we call the dynamics of seeing. Unless you can open up someone’s way of seeing, they’re just not going to see the problem. They won’t see, be mindful of the impact of their words. You can’t instigate profound change without changing the way of seeing. What’s different and quite powerful about Holonomics is that we’re inspired by certain philosophies, phenomenology, and hermeneutics. What’s listening? It’s all about the way of seeing and the way of understanding meaning in the world. How are you going to have meaningful experiences?
We have several exercises, many of which are in the book. We take executives through to help them experience the dynamics of seeing and reflecting on how they see and construct reality. After we’ve gone through these exercises, then we’ve been able to open up space where leaders can understand the importance of the question, “What is it that I’m not seeing?” If you ask someone what they are not seeing, they’ll answer that question with their traditional and protective mindset, “Well, of course, there’s nothing I’m not seeing.” If a leader has humility, then it becomes a very powerful question.
Maria: Normally, it’s something that we work with. Normally in our hierarchical organizations, after a time, the person at the top can’t see what is happening in relationships to their clients, and they can’t see what’s happening in the organization. If leaders don’t have authentic dialogue, people will take them only one part of the story, and normally the good part, never the bad part. Sometimes, it can be as if they are in a separate cell while still having to make decisions about the company's lack of information. The strongest question is, “What am I not seeing that I should do?” It can be the case that leaders do not ask this question to those working in consultancies. Normally they want to hear only that which they wish to hear. When you start to say difficult things, the reaction can be one of saying, “No, it’s not bad.” If leaders in their elevated positions who normally take this stance could ask this one question, then if they could discover that which they were not previously seen, it would be very powerful.
Simon: With our work, we don’t separate consultancy from coaching. You have to coach leaders into what they cannot see so that they can appreciate the full power of the question.
What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?
Simon: That’s a great question and one which very much depends on the culture of an organization since many are still driven with a command-and-control mindset where deep questioning is not encouraged. The most important question in many businesses and organizations is that employees can only ask about their leadership teams rather than directly to their leadership team. The question Maria and I always ask if people in leadership positions is, “Are they being coherent?” This question of coherence lies at the heart of our tool, the holonomic circle, to help organizations implement what we call “customer experiences with soul.” At the very center of the circle is the trinity of what I say, what I do, and what I mean. We define authenticity as the maximum coherence between what someone says, what someone means, and what they do. Nowadays, I think, especially a lot of younger people, want more coherence from the leadership. They want more connectivity; they want more engagement, and they’re looking for coherence. Even when I view this now, I don’t just look at the words they say when looking at leaders. I don’t just look at the purpose that they claim to be living. I look for coherence between what they say, what they mean, and what they do. I also look for this coherence when we are approached to create partnerships or when we are asked to get involved in a project or a network.
We’ve been introducing our tool for some time now, and it is interesting to see how this central insight resonates with people. Maria presented it in a company last week, and someone said, “Wow, this tool really captures what you mean by the soul of an organization.” If we wish to introduce more soul into an organization, it must start with its leaders’ coherence.
Maria: If I could choose one word to define good management, it would be ‘coherence.’ An example of incoherence in leadership is when someone decides upon the actions or directions the company should take but without investing in the knowledge to understand the problem fully. Leaders often expect others to understand the new strategy and how to do new things without themselves putting in the effort to master the knowledge, skill sets, and behaviors that they wish to see in others.
Normally, because of the hierarchical nature of organizations, orders come top-down. For instance, middle management is very difficult because they have to understand what the leaders above them want. They have to translate it to the operational people. Normally, because they have the ambition to move up in the hierarchical structure, they don’t question the leadership team. They only accept the orders, and they believe that if they ask certain types of questions, they may think that the leaders will perceive them as weak or that they don’t understand, so normally they don’t ask clarifying probing questions.
Normally, when I am with this middle management, I work with them to bring these feelings out. It is important to ask people if they do have a culture where it is possible to question leaders, and if not, to look at how to nurture one. Often, a leadership team is not asked to contemplate how they interact with middle management.
Simon: So, it is vital to nurture a cooperative culture rather than a combative culture. A constructive culture, where you can ask constructive questions.
Maria: Nowadays, I’m saying to people that they should be a little more daring because I often see a lot of apathy inside organizations, where everybody waiting for someone else to do something. If everybody took this position in the organization, then nothing will change. People should start to dare a little, to ask deeper questions, even if their culture is not favorable to this type of dialogue.
What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?
Simon: The one question that I’m conscious of asking myself regularly is, “Am I really being authentic?” I do see things happening that I disagree with, and in these situations, Maria and I have decided not to get involved in certain projects and activities. When you are fully in your power, you can walk away from requests which, although masquerading as opportunities, are anything but.
One of the things that people say about us, time and again, is that they can’t see a difference between who we are as people and our professional selves. I take that as a compliment. People cannot see a separation resulting from our great desire to live authentic and coherent lives.
This, for me, is my compass. We have decisions to make every week, and we have to say, “Are we going to do this or this?” We can’t do everything. We have to decide the most authentic thing for us and the most long-term and sustainable path.
Maria: For me, it’s authenticity. People should start asking themselves, “Am I fully here? Are we putting our values into practice? What do we believe? Are we entirely in the current moment? When we are fully present in the current moment, we can check if we are fully authentic in everything we are talking about.
Humility and vulnerability are both very powerful attributes because when we do not have answers, there are times when we may not know things, and in times of confusion, we can feel fear. At these times, people may feel as if they wish to run away from a situation.
Simon: Fully authentic leaders do not run away from uncomfortable situations. They can stay within the situation to find resolutions.
Maria: Yes, because we have to deal with these things all the time in our lives regardless of the position or situation. I always am paying attention to the quality of the relationships I have with everyone I have a connection with and what is happening in my life. Why is one situation difficult or not pleasant? I always ask myself what I could do better to improve it?
Simon: You take personal ownership.
Maria: Yes. I believe that this is the most important thing. We are responsible for what is happening in our lives. I do believe in that. When we become accountable for our lives, we become more authentic, and although this may not immediately resolve a difficult situation, our experience of that situation is entirely different.
Simon: When leaders develop this level of authenticity in themselves, then they can inspire others in the organizations to become more authentic, coherent, which in turn leads to the emergence of a far more productive and healthy culture. When this emerges, then everyone across the whole organization becomes more involved and engaged in their work and that of their colleagues, and this is when an organization is then able to design customer experiences with soul, an experience that is truly able to express the purpose of the company.