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Welcome to our interview with Gwen Kinsey. Gwen is a Transformation Leader who provides Programs & Tools at GwenKinsey.com. Gwen learned strategic change management through self-directed experience. She is a former President and General Manager from the television industry who shares what she learned about leading organizational change to help transformational leaders create what’s next.
Welcome Gwen, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of the Exploring Forward Thinking Workplaces conversation. Our interview with Gwen follows below. Read the interview highlights and get our take on the interview at Uncovering More Natural System Wisdom.
Bill Fox: How do we create workplaces where every voice is heard and matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Gwen Kinsey: Workplaces are a microcosm of what’s going on in the world. The schisms and splits that are impacting us aren’t just happening at work, they’re happening everywhere.
I’m reminded of Joseph Campbell and the work that he did. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell talks about the natural tension between finding value in individual purpose vs community purpose. What’s amazing is more than 70 years ago, Campbell saw that this perceived gap between individual purpose and community purpose would widen. Campbell knew that this schism would be the challenge of our time. He said that healing this artificial split between I and We is our foundational work. Our job with a capital J is to figure out how to balance that natural polarity.
In our workplaces, we spent these same seven decades getting smart about what processes we could create to help individuals reach discreet, replicable goals. We used mechanization and efficiency frames. We designed systems to refine individual control—control for efficient replication become our primary focus. We used that same frame in our education system. We stopped teaching children how to learn and started turning out employees. Heck we even apply efficiency goals to our private lives. Only we’re figuring out that time management systems can’t help us control much at all.
Our systems are breaking down. The problem is we’ve missed an essential question: How do we balance the natural tension between what’s best for the individual vs the community at large?
This dynamic is a natural part of every living system in nature. Ask yourself in nature, which has more value…the individual or the community? Nature treats this a false choice. Both are important to a healthy ecosystem.
Nature provides terrific insights for what dynamics must be present to balance this polarity of purpose between the individual and community:
- One dynamic is that the purpose of community is to improve the life, health, and sustainability of everything within the entire ecosystem. The community can’t endure unless it serves and benefits all.
- Another dynamic is that the purpose of each living entity is to serve through its role within community. An individual can’t stay healthy and relevant unless it adapts within the community as the community changes.
So, to create a world where every voice matters, everyone thrives and innovation happens naturally we need to heal the artificial schism between individual purpose and community value. Unfortunately, our ego gets in the way. Ego is the unconscious thinking part of our brain that has us behave as though human purpose can be independent of a healthy community. Nature knows better.
We are struggling because we’ve designed our ways of interacting and systems for control and replication. They aren’t designed to bridge the artificial split between I and the community of We.
To balance both we have to shift from ego centered thinking to adaptive, natural system wisdom.
Bill: What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Gwen: Can I let the contrarian in me come out? I think this is the wrong question. That question points us to how do we influence somebody so that we can control their behavior to suit our goal. Control doesn’t allow for “what else is possible here?” If an employee can’t see how they make a difference with my unique contribution, it’s tough to get excited.
This question brings to mind what I find in workshops. When I do a workshop on feedback for example, the word accountability comes up regularly. Managers ask, what do we have to do to have people be more accountable? How do we control people so that we get them to accomplish our goal? I always tell folks accountability is an outcome. It’s an outcome that comes from a natural process of people being authentically involved and connected in purpose.
That’s not the same as buy-in. It’s sweat equity. That’s the term I like to use. Sweat equity means you feel connected to something. Your heart is in it. You feel a passion about it. You sense the connection between what it is that you’re doing and why that matters to you as well as why that matters to the community. As a result, when that connection is alive you are accountable because what matters to you is on the line. That’s the outcome. Another question for forward thinking organizations is, “How do we facilitate our natural system wisdom?” That’s different.
I think a lot of what you read in the business press reflects leaders wrestling with the symptoms of that artificial split between individual and community. Instead of wrestling with symptoms, I help people address the root cause, designing a natural systems way of integrating I and We instead of reflexively going for that control mechanism.
Bill: What do people really lack and long for at work?
Gwen: Here are a couple of ideas about that.
In my leadership work, I started off studying engagement strategies. As I peeled that onion, I kept coming back to the balance between I and We. If people feel like they’re valued and contributing members of a community working towards something bigger than themselves… that’s an important precondition to well-being. (Of course, none of this matters if people aren’t earning a living wage.)
People also want to be free from living in a constant state of fear. Today’s rate of change triggers an underlying fear that things are unstable. People who are worried that their relevance is uncertain live in fear. That reflects a wider perspective of where are we as a society and as a workplace—we’re in between. Accelerating technological advances and intertwining of global communities feeds this.
We’re in a state of transformation. Our entire economic system is being challenged. Our political institutions are being challenged. We have this incredible friction driving a desire to go back to the way things were. Back feels more familiar and safer. Unfortunately, our known solutions were formed by the world in the way that it used to be. Life is different today…so fear is going to be present while we navigate in-between.
In my executive coaching, I see the best antidote for fear is a compelling vision of something more powerful than fear…it’s always something that is very important to my client. Worth transcending fear. When they imagine possibilities that enable them to take even one concrete step forward, their fear is more manageable.
People want and need to participate in creating what’s next. As organizations, we need natural systems that help people to sense, adapt and experiment with things that really matter. Can we help them learn their way into the future? How can we create an environment where people feel they are a valued and contributing member of a community? It’s not about buy-in, it’s about participation. They have to be able to see their contribution matters and at the same time, have space to grow so they won’t be left behind.
Bill: What’s the most important question leaders should ask employees?
Gwen: What are you noticing? What else are you sensing? What should we be paying more attention to? I realize that’s more than one question, but I want to illustrate the importance of asking people to look outward and share what they’re observing. What questions help them open their lens? Ask yourself, what do they see that I’m missing? Because when those kinds of conversations happen, they surface more good stuff we get to work with. It not only helps engage an individual who feels valued, acknowledged and appreciated, but more importantly, those additional perspectives generate more possibilities.
That doesn’t mean we use all possibilities, but we have more to work with before we begin a collaborative sorting process of which ones offer the best opportunities with the least downside. Now we’re getting somewhere…we’re germinating seeds for innovation and creating new solutions. Ask that lens-opening question. Whatever that looks like to you. It’s not only good for problem solving, but it’s also good for helping people to learn and grow. Allow them to figure something out. Or to learn on the fly. Or to just think about something from a looking outward perspective.
Bill: What’s the most important question employees should ask management?
Gwen: Let’s invoke that collective awareness. “How are we doing?” That might not be the best question, but I’m looking for what’s that opening question that moves the conversation to something broader and something bigger than just me if I’m that employee. Having employees think that way is a good thing. Those are the conversations that serve us in that in-between space.
Bill: What’s the most important question we should ask ourselves?
Gwen: I have a favorite question, and I learned to ask it years ago. I started asking it of other people, but then I realized I had to ask myself the same question. In my first job as a sales manager, I had people coming in my office all the time asking me questions. It was exhausting because it seemed like the more questions I answered, the more questions I got. Then it dawned me that people weren’t asking me their real questions. What they were really looking for was either validation or they were looking for ideas because they hadn’t taken the time to think through what they were trying to do.
For whatever reason, I realized the more I gave them, the more they asked. I just decided my new question was going to be, “What’s your real question?” I started asking people that because what I realized was a lot of times, they either hadn’t thought something through especially if they were encountering something for the first time.
By me giving them an answer, I precluded their learning. But by my saying, “What’s your real question?” I could start asking questions that helped them think through their problem. For people who were looking for validation, well that was just a way of calling out the fact that they were looking for exactly that. When I started saying, “What’s your real question?”, it completely changed the dynamic I had with my employees.
Then I thought, what about me! Every time that I start thinking I want to explore something, or that I have an answer and it’s not working, or I’m getting push back, I’ll take a step back and ask, “Well, what’s my real question?”
What I’m trying to do is setup for myself the same thing I did for others. Questions set the trajectory for where we go for answers. Whatever that question is sends us in a particular direction. Start off with thinking about what should that question look like. For me, it’s “What’s your real question?”
Bill: Do you have any final thoughts on what we’ve talked about here today?
Gwen: I think I’d go back to where we started, and that is attending to the larger social dynamic of balancing I and We.
Back in March I read a newspaper article that Google had done some research looking for the highest performing sales and marketing teams in their organization. They did this huge metadata analysis. They looked at people’s talents, when they were hired, their education… they looked at many things to try to decide what do the best teams look like, and how do we replicate that?
At the end of the survey and analysis, what they recognized was that it was about the people dynamics. That points to that perspective between I and community as opportunity. What does that social architecture look like? How do we create that environment that utilizes natural system wisdom?
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