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Welcome to our interview with Michael Neill. Michael is an internationally renowned transformative coach and the best-selling author of five books including The Inside-Out Revolution and The Space Within. His weekly radio show, Living from the Inside Out, has been a listener favorite on Hay House Radio for over a decade and his TEDx talk, ‘Why Aren’t We Awesomer?’, has been viewed by over 150,000 people around the world. You can follow Michael on Twitter and Facebook.
Welcome Michael, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of the Exploring Forward Thinking Workplaces 2.0 conversation.
Bill Fox: How can we create workplaces where every voice is heard and matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Michael Neil: There are two things that I would say to the first part—where every voice matters. First off, creating a workplace where every voice matters really just depends on meaning it. In other words, it’s a great sounding thing, but you’ve got to start by seeing—do you actually think every voice matters?
Or do you just think that would be a good thing to do? Because if you just think that would be a good thing to do, you’re not going to do it. You’re not going to succeed because ultimately people hear what we mean, not what we say.
The heart of that question is, “Why should every voice matter?” And if you genuinely believe everybody has something to contribute at whatever level they can contribute, then actually there are a million ways to create that workplace. That could range from a suggestion box where the ideas are actually considered to meetings where people listen to one another instead of listening to respond.
You know to me, a bad meeting is like a Facebook discussion where nobody’s listening, and everybody’s making points. A good meeting is a meeting where everyone is listening, and there is space to hear something new beyond what anyone brought into the room with them. But if you don’t fundamentally think that every voice matters, then honestly, you could have the best strategy in the world, and it wouldn’t work.
To create a workplace where everyone thrives and finds meaning, you have to begin by showing people where thriving comes from—and where meaning comes from. Maybe that’s an obvious thing for someone who wrote a book called the Inside Out Revolution to say, but it comes from inside. It does not come from a workplace. There is no such thing as a workplace that can do that. But you can have a workplace filled with people who are thriving and who know where to look for meaning.
To accomplish that, first there’s an education component to it. I would say education more than training—though training is one of the ways you can get at education. Coaching is also one of the ways you can get at education. But an education component where people start to learn, “Oh that amazing feeling I get when I’m engaged, and I’m challenged but not overwhelmed?” It’s a place where creativity is flowing, and I feel great about what I’m doing and how I’m doing it.
That is cultivable from within me. However, there are very clear things that get in the way of that—that when I can take them into account—I will thrive more and more of the time. So, if I have a workplace where the workers are educated in the inside-out understanding, then they are awake to that capacity to thrive and find meaning in themselves. I will then have a workplace where people thrive and find meaning. Now I might get lucky, and on a project that people buy into, they’ll have that sense. But, that’s going to be sporadic. That’s going to come and go. If I want to make the workplace a place where that happens, then that comes from within the understanding of the people who are working there.
Regarding change and innovation, well the funny thing is that change and innovation do happen naturally when you’re not getting in the way. So that’s easy—that’s the easy one. Stop stopping it! You’ll be fine. I think the main thing to see with change and innovation is that these are natural processes that we either facilitate or inhibit.
To introduce a change initiative or innovation initiative is a misunderstanding of change and innovation. The more we make space for things to unfold—as opposed to trying to make them fit the banks of the river we dug—the more they will. It becomes almost a dance with creative ideas, with fresh ideas, and with innovation rather than a military march. I know there’s a bottom line and a military march has an appeal, it’s just that the military march by design has very little space for change or innovation.
Bill: What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Michael: I think to get an employee’s full attention is a give-to-get-game. I think fundamentally enough, human beings are pretty simple in that way. If you give them your full attention, you will wind up with their full attention.
Best performance is a function of clarity of intention, buy-in, and state of mind. If the people working for me know what their job is, they know what they’re up to and they’ve bought into it, we’re more than half way there. If they also understand the natural variance in a state of mind, so they’re able to come from the highest and best place that’s within them and do less damage when they’re off their game, then you’re going to get optimal performance.
So, in summary, there needs to be three components:
- Clarity of intention, i.e. knowing what they’re up to
- Buy-in, i.e. fully embracing the task at hand
- An understanding of the state of mind such that they can perform at higher and higher levels more and more of the time.
Bill: What do you think people really lack and long for at work?
Michael: I can answer that at a couple of different levels. At the highest level, I think what people both lack and long for is connection and a sense of purpose—a feeling of being connected to a larger whole and the sense that what they do matters. At lower levels, you can make the case that they want acknowledgment, they want self-esteem, and they want advancement. Those things are true, but they’re lower level. They’re never going to be fully satisfied.
I remember years ago working with a weight loss group. I said to them “There aren’t enough cookies in the world to make you feel loved and whole.” It’s the wrong tool for the job. The things we traditionally think of people wanting like better salaries, more beanbags, whatever, are sources of “imitation connection”, “imitation purpose”, and “imitation happiness” at work. What we’re craving is that sense of being part of something bigger than us that matters.
The playwright George Bernard Shaw who said:
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
We all know that at some level. To get into that mindset of service vs. personal gain, it is as simple as it being sincere. I was kind of saying this when our conversation started. If you get that being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one is what matters, you will create a workplace where that’s what matters. If you think that’s just a good idea or slogan, you’re going to struggle like hell.
Bill: What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
Michael: I’ll answer it in an idealistic sense first and then get a little more real. In an idealistic sense, the questions I think they should be asking employees are, “Do you know what you’re up to?” and “Do you know what you’re really capable of?”
I only call these questions idealistic because for most people, “Do you really know what you’re capable of?” sounds like a very loaded question. It’s a self-esteem issue. It gets into personal psychology. It’s a bit beyond the scope of most leaders or managers to mess with people’s psychology.
When I say, “Do you know what you’re capable of?” I’m pointing to a deeper dimension of the mind—a deeper dimension of the human potential where creativity, resilience, and resolve come from. It’s that irrepressible part of our human nature that bounces back as good as new no matter how many times it gets dropped.
I love the analogy for resilience of a Christmas tree ornament, an orange, or a rubber ball from the book Bounce by Keith McFarland. If you’re a Christmas ornament, you look great—but don’t drop you, because you’ll shatter into a thousand pieces. If you’re an orange, you look tough on the outside, and you can take a lot of dropping, bouncing and throwing—but on the inside, you’re getting battered and bruised and rotting away. But a rubber ball is made to bounce. We are all “spiritual rubber balls” in that sense. The human design is such that we’re made to bounce, but we think we’re fragile like Christmas ornaments or tough like oranges. Neither of those gives us the same freedom of movement as knowing that we’re made to bounce.
The other question, “do you know what you’re up to?”, can be seen at multiple levels as well. There’s an old story of Michelangelo walking to the Sistine Chapel while he’s doing his painting and passing three stone masons who were working on the grounds of the Vatican. He stops the first stone mason and asks, “What are you up to?” The stone mason says, “I’m just chiseling away at rock, man. I’ve got six more hours.” He passes another stone mason who seems a little more energized and focused than the first stone mason and says, “What are you up to?” The stone mason says, “I’m a good person. I’m providing for my family. I’m doing meaningful work.” Then he passes a third stone mason who’s whistling, and he says, “What are you up to?” This stone mason said, “I’m creating a home for people’s spirits to soar!”
Well, they’re all doing the same job, but they’re having three completely different experiences and bringing three different levels of creative engagement to it.
You can hear that story at the level of clever management technique, where you essentially try to convince your employees that what they’re up to matters. But when someone sees it for themselves – “this is what I’m up to, this is why it matters, and I’m all in” – that’s when the game really changes. Once you’re all in, it gets so much easier. Most people don’t get that.
If I could drill one thing into people’s heads, it’s that everything is hard until you’re all in. In some ways, marriage is a good analogy for it, although I know that not everybody’s marriage works like this. In a committed relationship, whether it’s marriage or not, when you bump into each other and get on each others nerves, which you will, the question isn’t “should we stay together?” or “is he or she the right one?” The question is “how do we make this work?”
Until there’s commitment, at least half the energy is going towards questioning the relationship. Once it’s resolved, once that’s off the table, then both your minds work together to generate creative solutions.
Same thing at work. As long you’re not sure what you’re up to or if you’re up to the right thing, more than half of your energy is spent wondering. You get so preoccupied with that that there’s no space for fresh ideas and innovation around what you’re up to. Once you’re resolved about what you’re up to – you’re all in, all of that’s off the table. That question is out of your head, and you’re free to be inspired about what’s next
Bill: What’s the most important question employees should ask leaders?
Michael: This may sound a little bit idealistic, but I think it would be, “Could you help me see what I’m not seeing? Help me see what I’m not seeing that would make my job easier, that would make me better at my job. That would allow me to participate fully, express myself fully, give myself over to this more. To get more out of it and put more into it.”
Because if you have the choice—and most people don’t see this as the choice—but if you’re going to do the job anyways, you want to be fully engaged. You want to be all in. You want to love it. “Help me love it”… that’s wrong because people then say, “Give me more time off and …” No, it’s not that. It’s “help me see what I don’t see”. People are amazing. When we see a better way, we’ll take it.
I use the analogy sometimes of if you’ve gone to work the same way every day and it’s an hour in traffic, and I show you a shortcut that will get you there in 10 minutes through a meandering forest road with no traffic, you only have to see it once. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been doing it the old way for 30 years – as soon as you see a better way, you’ll take it.
It’s the same with us. We think “Oh habits take a long time to change.” Not really, not like that. If we see a better way, we’ll immediately start to take it. So if we can help our employees see a better way to work, they’ll intuitively and automatically start to take it.
Bill: What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?
Michael: This isn’t how I expected myself to answer this question, but the question that’s coming to mind is, “Am I here?” What I mean is, am I awake within my body? Am I actually here? When I’m here, I’m incredibly capable. I’m surprisingly wise. I’m oddly compassionate. I’m quirky, but quirky in a way that’s perfect.
When I’m not really here, I’m a bundle of psychological impulses and conditioning. My behavior lacks heart and depth, and it doesn’t impact on the world in the same way. It’s the best of both worlds versus the worst of both worlds. When I’m here—when I’m awake within myself—I have a much richer experience of life. I’m able to ride the stresses, strains, and variances with a lot more ease and grace. Plus, I’m just more creative and effective.
Not only that, the experience other people have with me and the impact I have at work is completely different. I feel better. I do better. I have a richer experience. I’m able to contribute more. So that is a simple variable: How awake am I within myself? How present am I within myself? Am I here?
Do I always remember to ask myself these questions? No, but it’s one of those things that makes a big difference in my life anyways. I rarely notice I’m gone, but I always notice when I’m back. It’s like, “Well, hello you! I remember you. Where have you been?” Actually, I know where I’ve been. I’ve been in my head thinking.
I talk about it in The Space Within, but I talk about it there as going home. That experience of being at home in yourself. It’s not always easy to notice you’re away because you’re functional and you’re fine. But when you’re home, it’s obvious.
Bill: In closing Michael, what question is coming up for you right now after responding to our questions?
Michael: I don’t know what the question is, but the thing that strikes me is “what’s the role of coaching and leadership in management? To what extent can an understanding of coaching make you a better leader or better manager, as opposed to the many different styles of management and leadership that take a more top-down approach?”
I see coaching as the art of helping people get more out of themselves and their lives. It’s the ability to bring out the best in someone and make the best better – to help people to find capacities in themselves that have been largely untapped. Then you help them to not only tap into those capacities more regularly but to ground in them so deeply that it becomes their primary come from instead of an occasional burst of “peak performance”.
Peak performance is by definition only occasional, but high performance is sustainable. That distinction comes from an understanding of what we’ve got going for us and what we’re up against. It starts with you. It’s a bad news-good news scenario. The bad news is that it’s difficult to get the most out of your people when you’re having a bad personal experience of work or life. The good news is that you get to be your first “client” – to start with you. It’s not selfish to start with yourself because it’s your own state of mind and quality of experience that’s going to be key to the impact that you have on your people.
In my work, what has become more and more apparent is that what we have going for us is an innate capacity for creativity, well-being, and resilience. What we’re up against is that we’re very busy minded. We all walk around preoccupied most of the time. We don’t even notice that we’re tapping into such a limited part of our creative capacity. The more I see and experience that insightfully in myself, the easier it is to see in my people, and the more fresh ideas I have to help bring them back into themselves, into the room, and into the game. Once someone is sitting in their full potential, then you can unleash that potential in a direction. If you have a room full of people who are awake to their own potential and are all looking in the same direction, it’s amazing how insightful they can be and how quickly things can change.
Bill: How can people learn more about the ideas you shared in this interview?
Michael: We’ve developed a number of programs over the years designed to wake people up to this innate capacity and to help others to wake up to it as well.
Supercoach Academy is a training program for coaches, teachers, and managers that we’ve been running since 2010; we’ve also been running a program since 2009 called Creating the Impossible, which is the title of my next book that will come out in September of 2017. The full title is Creating the Impossible: How to get any project out of your head and into the world in 90 days or less.
The program points to the very predictable ways we get stuck and the relative ease with which we can get out of our own way and more forward on what it is we want to create. We do it as a public program but we also bring it into businesses—not necessarily in quite as formal and structured a format because we adapt it to the individual business.
The fundamental notion behind the program is that the reason something looks impossible is because we’ve already made up in our head how it would happen, and we don’t think we can make things happen in that particular way.
When you can go back to the drawing board and start from scratch, it’s amazing how quickly different opportunities and possibilities start to appear. What seems impossible at the beginning quickly becomes not only possible but likely. Once people realize that they can take on something deliberately that they don’t think they can do but would be worthwhile if they did, it’s amazing what gets unleashed.
And that’s why it’s so relevant to business. It’s not about working harder, or even smarter. It’s about showing up to any project fully committed and completely open. There’s just this connection to an intuitive creative collective unconscious that begins to emerge. I can’t tell you exactly what that is, but it’s always available. The way I say it sometimes is, “It’s 100% reliable, but 98% unpredictable.” Because the ideas and opportunities rarely unfold the way you think they’re going to. But they do unfold. And when you know that each time you go to the creative unknown the new ideas will come, that one thing is worth its weight in gold.
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