Bring your full self-expression to work

In one of my earlier blogs I shared about the story of a client friend who described his work as his “8 hour inconvenience.”

Almost every week as I work with teams of all levels around the globe, I encounter a similar team dynamic: people being hesitant to express themselves boldly and passionately, especially when dealing with the sensitive issues, challenges and topics that frustrate them and stifle their productivity and effectiveness.

In fact, in most teams, bold and courageous communication is often replaced by resignation, fear and a victim mentality.  It’s not that people are cowards. It’s that in organizational settings, even courageous people tend to play a more safe and politically correct game.

I understand the root cause of this dynamic. Pretty much everyone I talk to in organizations has seen others attempt to drive change only to be blocked by people in position of authority who didn’t like the ideas. In many cases, people have personally experienced this dynamic themselves.

Most people would acknowledge that there are two basic reasons that hold them back from speaking up in meetings. They are either afraid to rock the boat and/or get into trouble, or they feel resigned about their ability to change the outcome and direction.

But, if people spend such a big portion of their life at work, how can they transform this disempowering existence? Most people spend more than 8 hours a day at work. For many, 12 hours a day is the standard.

Why can’t our work be our “12 hour bliss?” or “12 hour self expression?”

I think it can and it should!

There are a few simple things you can do right away to ensure you have bliss at work:

First, make sure you have a challenge or project at work that you genuinely love. People always rise to the occasion and express themselves with passion and enthusiasm when they are working toward a future they love, or when they are a part of a team and game that they feel committed to, and passionate about. In fact, if the game you love playing requires self-expression, passion and courage, you will be hard pressed to not rise to the occasion and passionately apply yourself.

Unfortunately, Corporate America is filled with good managers and employees who have been uninspired by what they do for so long they have stopped expecting to have bliss at work. Because they are so proficient in their jobs, they can perform them sufficiently without bringing their A game to work. They can do an acceptable job on “autopilot.”

Here is a potential self-assessment checklist you could use for working on loving your job:

  1. I believe in the purpose, end goal and activities of my job or project.
  2. I have a deep, respectful and trusting relationship with my boss, all my team members, and all my customers.
  3. I feel I can bring up and address any/all important issues and topics.
  4. I see how my direct work is impacting the bigger organizational success.
  5. I feel I have a powerful platform to make a significant difference.
  6. I feel my hard work and commitment are known, valued and recognized.
  7. I feel excited to return to work on Monday after the weekend.

Rate each item from 0 (low) to 5 (high) and then find your average. If you score 0-1 it probably means “you don’t love your job”. If you score 2-3 it probably means “you own your job” and if your score 4-5 it probably means “you love your job”.

If you don’t love what you do and you can’t get there, make sure you can at least genuinely accept, own or choose it. Your work can be nurturing even if you don’t love it. But, you have to at least make the explicit mental choice to choose and own it.

If you can’t even do that, you should leave your job. It is painful to come to work every day to do a job you don’t love or own. If you don’t make a change, you are bound to eventually become apathetic, resigned or cynical.

The only reason people stay in a job they don’t love is because they don’t believe in or trust their ability to find and/or create a greater job they do love. So, by taking action to find your dream job, you are in essence taking a stand about your greatness and your ability to create a blissful life.

I have seen many people muster up courage and change jobs, companies and even careers in order to find self-expression and bliss. Many of them had fears and anxiety about making the move. But, in all cases, people found a job they loved or at least genuinely owned. And, their action also made a significant difference in their experience of themselves.

Stop the Passive Aggressive Behavior

In most organizations, passive aggressive behavior is rampant.

The dictionary defines passive aggressive as: a type of behavior or personality characterized by indirect resistance to the demands of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation, as in procrastinating, pouting, or misplacing important materials.

In reality, passive aggressive behavior is actually much worse than this definition suggests.

Typical passive aggressive behavior happens in environments where people don’t feel they can fully express their feelings and thoughts–especially the negative ones. So, instead of communicating openly, authentically, courageously and effectively, people tend to pretend that everything is going well, even when they really feel the opposite – irritated, upset and/or angry about what is going on.

They say the positive, politically correct things out loud in the most positive, politically correct and “respectful” manner. But inside, they feel otherwise. This dissonance between the spoken and unspoken conversations creates tension, stress and awkwardness and people often feel they have to walk on eggshells around each other.

Because people who are behaving in a passive aggressive manner make such a big effort to appear as if they are positive about things, they often feel no one is noticing that they are inauthentic. However, for the most part, everyone around them sees through their behavior.

In a passive aggressive environment, the problems go beyond simply walking on eggshells. People also become reluctant and afraid to push back on sensitive topics, address conflict or hold each other accountable for behaviors and performance. People often say “yes” to things and then pay lip service to these. As a result productivity is significantly compromised and undermined.

Some people behave in a passive aggressive manner because they are afraid of their own volatile reactions to challenging situations. They don’t trust their ability to communicate effectively, especially when it comes to conveying criticism and disagreement. They fear that if they really express themselves, especially their frustration and anger, it will get out of hand. Others are afraid that if they fully expressed themselves they’ll get into trouble with their superiors and as a result their career will suffer. So, people simply avoid conflict and don’t say what is really on their mind. This only perpetuates and fuels the source of the passive aggressive behavior. I see this dynamic at all levels of all companies that I am exposed to.

Pent up emotions, frustrations and unexpressed communications are like bottled energy. Eventually, this energy must be released. The more it stays bottled up, the more likely it is to explode when triggered. This often happens at the most inappropriate times, in the most unproductive ways. When people “lose it,” it usually creates damage beyond proportion.

Other avenues of release for the unexpressed feelings are gossip and background noise. As we all know there is a lot of this going on in most organizations. People say one thing in public and another in the conversations around the cooler. And, again, that dissonance hurts organizational spirit, trust and performance.

So, how do you stop it?

Given that passive aggressive behavior lives in communication, it has to be transformed in communication. This requires leadership, ownership, commitment and courage, first by the leaders and managers.

If leaders are willing to create an open, honest environment for communication where people can fully communicate and express their views, they can stop the passive aggressive behavior. But it has to start with them.

However, if leaders are too afraid to be vulnerable, or they don’t trust themselves to create a more powerful and authentic space of communication around them, or they are simply too caught up in the passive aggressive behavior themselves, nothing will change. In fact, they will continue to be a part of the problem.

They will most likely continue to hide behind their title and authority in order to avoid hearing bad news or criticism, especially about them selves. By doing that they will perpetuate the issues and drive their team to more passive aggressive behavior.

Individual team members can also transform passive aggressive dynamics with other individuals, independent of their leaders and managers. They too have to behave with courage and commitment. They could show up as genuinely open to feedback, coaching and open, honest, authentic and courageous dialogue by enrolling and engaging others to always interact with them that way.

The more trust people create with others around them, the less passive aggressive behaviors will take place.

A manufacturing plant supervisor I worked with once told me: “I make sure to have lunch with my people every day, because people don’t screw someone they have lunch with.”

You can promise the uncertain

You can promise the uncertain

Can you promise an outcome that you don’t know how to fulfill or that you don’t own and control all the aspects that are needed in order to fulfill it?

My answer is yes! In fact, I think in many cases, these type of promises are the ones most worth making because they often reflect our aspirational dreams and game changers.

When Kennedy promised that the USA would put a man on the moon and get him back safely by the end of the century, NASA didn’t exist. In fact, all of the key technologies and materials needed to achieve Kennedy’s lofty vision didn’t exist. But, by making the promise, Kennedy ushered in a new era of dialogue and collaboration among the different space related agencies to achieve this “impossible” goal. Kennedy’s declaration stimulated a new level of innovation, which eventually positioned the USA as the leader in space exploration. This endeavor also contributed to numerous technological advancements in other fields.

Kennedy’s declaration is a very famous example of making a promise without knowing exactly how to fulfill it. But, if you think about it, we all do this all the time.

For example: every time a man and woman say “I do” and commit to spending the rest of their lives together in love and harmony, they are in essence promising something they don’t fully know how to fulfill.

In organizations when clients request or expect higher quality, lower cost and faster delivery, people rise to the occasion and go out of their way to figure out how to provide this out of the ordinary outcome.

We all make ambitious and uncertain promises that we don’t know how to keep all the time, so why are we so afraid and reluctant to proactively do so?

It is because as human beings we are fundamentally rooted in the past. We behave as if the past is the only indicator of what is possible or impossible in the future. I find that most of us live this way for the majority of the time.

That’s why people often say things like “this project is going to be really hard,” “It’s going to take me a long time to gain their trust,” and “we can’t double the numbers in one year.”

We have all witnessed that the things that seem most certain often don’t turn out that way. And, what seems most unlikely often does happen. Rationally, this means that what we may consider possible/likely or impossible/unlikely are not facts at all.

Nevertheless, even though our reality has been shaken by themany times, the past seems to still have a firm grip on our view. This is what makes us uncomfortable to make promises about what we don’t know how to fulfill.

There is a different paradigm of thinking available to us that is rooted in the future. There are many variations on this way of thinking, but all of them represent the idea that our actions and behaviors are more driven by the future we are anticipating, than by our past.

If we commit to an aspirational future state that is desirable and believable, even if we don’t know how to achieve it just yet, we will invest our hearts and souls in pursuing it and figuring out how to fulfill it.

I am reminded of something I learned early on in my career from one of my mentors that has repeatedly proven to be true: “if you do the right thing for long enough, you will always get the outcome you desire.” Unfortunately, I see too many people failing to achieve their dreams more because of lack of trying (or giving up too quickly) then because of giving it their all and falling short.

The distinction believable is very important here. It’s the bridge between the past and the future. If what we promise is not believable, it will live as a pipedream and we won’t pursue it. If it is too believable – i.e., predictable—it won’t be inspiring even if we do pursue it. Believable, predicable and pipedream are not facts. They are paradigms that we can choose to adopt in order to transform our minds.

And, of course courage is a key component.

As per one of Goethe’s couplets: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

So, if you want to take your personal or professional life to the next level, promise something bold and inspiring that is desirable and believable and go for it. It may not go the way you think it should. But, if you stay with it you may be surprised by what you accomplish.

And, as I always tell people at the end “Even when you are doing all the right things leave a bit of room for miracles and luck.”

What is your identity wrapped up in?

I was speaking to a client who recently retired as a senior executive in a well-known global telecommunication company. We have become friends over the years of working together and he was sharing with me his initial experience of retired life, and what he had learned so far about how to have a successful retirement.

One of the things he pointed to was that in order to have a successful retirement, we need to be able to disassociate ourselves from our past professional title, status and position. While this is certainly true for executives, I believe it is relevant for everyone.

After our conversation, I was thinking to myself that doing this might be easier said than done.

First Story: At the age of eighteen, I was drafted for my army service. I spent the first four months in intense basic training. In our platoon, there was a clear hierarchy and pecking order. The Sargent was feared, the Second Lieutenant, our direct officer, was admired and the Captain, head of our company, was revered.

After almost five years of service, I retired from the military service as a captain and continued on to my professional life. Four years later, I was a successful consultant in an international training company.

One day as I was entering an office building on my way to a client engagement, I bumped into my ex-Captain from my basic training.

My heart skipped a beat. Even though I was a successful twenty-seven-year-old married consultant, in an instant, I was transferred in time. And for an instant, I was transformed into an eighteen-year-old apprehensive private in awe of his God-like Captain figure.

Thank God I snapped out of it in time to be able to reminisce with the man who was standing before me as a full grown adult.

Second Story: I was employed by an international training and consulting company for fifteen years. It was my first job in life and just like in the army, I rose through the ranks very rapidly, progressing from a junior position and title to a senior executive position and title. At the height of my employment, I felt at the top of the world. I was highly regarded by the CEO and all the senior executives of the company and I was often invited to participate in company-wide events.

But, one day I decided to move on. It was a tough decision as my entire identity was associated with this enterprise. I lived the first fifteen years of my professional life in that company. I became who I was in that company.

I left the company and found myself in an identity crisis. I was questioning: “Am I really successful and great or was it just inside that company?

Thankfully, the story has a great continuation. Fast-forward seventeen years; I have become a successful business owner consultant.

Our identity often does seem to be wrapped up in our professional and social title and status, as well as what comes with it.

In today’s world being a “celebrity” or “VIP” means something. People generally seem to be much more in need of external validation. Title and status make us feel more important. It increases our self-worth.

I travel a lot so every year I want to reach the highest frequent flyer status, as well as the highest status in certain hotel chains that I like. Yes, it’s because of the added perks and convenience, as well as the special attention I get when I fly and/or walk into a hotel. However, if I have, to be honest, it also strokes my ego and makes me feel more special. It is part of what shapes my identity.

In conversations with colleagues and executives the question of “how many miles have you flown this year?” or “what status are you in this hotel or airline?” comes up a lot.

Even though some people say “title and status don’t matter,” In most corporate environments, formal and informal title and status are very relevant. People tend to bring the topic up when they feel insecure or when they feel others are not giving them the respect their title and status entitles them. But, the self-consciousness around title and status seems to always be on alert.

I mention the military and corporate America environment because these are two sizable environments that have a great deal of impact on people’s identity.

I have had the opportunity to coach high-ranking officers in their transition from long military careers to civilian life. In many cases, this was a challenging transition from an identity standpoint.

So, when my retired client and friend shared his insight with me, it made me think about my own identity and how easy or hard it will be for me to disassociate myself from my past professional title, status and position when the time comes.

I guess that is why we often have to remind and encourage each other that “There is life after whatever we are doing today.”