Monday, 1 November 2010

Spirit at Work Part I

by Tom Heuerman, Ph.D

Job Vacancies, Employment, Jobs Vacancy

That February night in 1991 was cold, dark, and windy. I dined at Water’s -- a trendy restaurant on north Washington Avenue in the warehouse district of downtown Minneapolis. My dinner companion, Diane Olson, Ph.D., was my friend and consultant. We sat in a booth at the back of the restaurant. In awe of my learnings from a leadership experience I was involved in, I discussed my insights with her.

I was the leader of a 4,500 employee business unit at the Star Tribune newspaper, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This business unit was in the midst of a transformational change process. I glanced around secretively, leaned over the table that separated us, and whispered to Diane, “You know, this transformational change is spiritual -- it’s what free and authentic people do naturally.” Diane smiled and nodded; she already knew and understood.

I am not an outwardly religious person, and I usually keep my spiritual beliefs to myself. I feared saying the word spiritual out loud. I was convinced that had I described the change process as a spiritual journey, the mechanistic organization would have rejected me quickly. On the other hand, linking the change effort to materialism (reduced costs and increased revenues) provided heroic status -- at least for a time.

Spirit at Work is one of the endless themes of the fragmented efforts to move organizations to a holistic and organic worldview -- fragmentation contrary to a holistic and organic worldview. And, like the other well-intended and theoretically sound initiatives, Spirit at Work is in danger of being rejected as a fad because many people think of Spirit at Work as an easy fix to complex problems.

Spirit at Work is serious business about life and the human condition--difficult inner work followed by courageous actions. Not feel good and everything will be all right talk. That is not real; Spirit at Work, a challenge in its own right, has a powerful and destructive shadow side.

Today more than 11 years after that dinner conversation, I reflect on what I meant when I said, “…this transformational change is spiritual….” Just what does Spirit at Work mean?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines spirit as:
The animating or vital principle in man (and animals); that which gives life to the physical organism, in contrast to its purely material elements; the breath of life.

Work is:
Action of a particular kind....

In 1997 I wrote a description of our change effort:
Change began in 1990 with the need to save millions of dollars and to respond to a union organizing effort. In addition, demographic and market changes that demanded new ways of doing things were on the horizon.

The traditional way to defeat an organizing effort was to spend a lot of money on a political campaign. This approach could not be used when the leaders had to save millions of dollars at the same time. Nor would that traditional approach transform the enterprise into a more flexible and creative organization positioned to meet new marketplace challenges. The leaders of the business unit had to search for new ways to achieve their objectives. We felt a sense of urgency and excitement.

A period of exploration and study about ideas new to organizational life began. A few business unit leaders embarked on a journey of discovery. We read books, attended conferences, visited other organizations, and talked about ideas. We were free. Those who had caused the crisis had retreated to the safety of their offices. We began to feel the end of the old ways, the confusion of chaos, (which we embraced), and the uncertainty of new approaches. The group chose an approach to change that would involve and empower all employees. We felt challenged and capable.

Leaders discussed the need for dramatic change with employees in groups of 8-10 people. Energy was unleashed. We wrote a definition of Value Driven Leadership -- the core principles that bounded our authenticity. As possibilities emerged a vision document was drafted. The details became clearer and the approach more refined. Our commitment to fundamental change that would evolve all of us grew.

Leaders used the ideas of the entire organization to fine-tune the vision that evolved continuously. The achievement of our objectives required immediate action. We knew that to succeed we had to make dramatic changes in how we led the organization. People ventured into the unknown and could not know every issue, detail, and obstacle they would encounter. We were pioneers -- guided on the journey by our values, our vision for the future, our faith in the dynamic processes of life, and our collective ability to learn and change.

People responded to the challenge. The worries and frustrations of day-to-day life receded from awareness. A powerful sense of purpose became real. Supervisors stepped aside and allowed those close to the work to manage the work. The rule books went out the door.

Finding what worked was what was important. Barriers were eliminated. Anyone could talk to anyone. Those with the needed skills or information led, regardless of rank, and all who wanted participated in the creative process. People learned and adapted as they proceeded. We were engaged with life.

People worked hard. The changes were stressful. Pain and fear were talked about openly. Despite the difficulty, people did not want to retreat to the old ways. I know because I asked them frequently. They could see a better future and would sacrifice to achieve it.

Employees were involved in the redesign of their work. Consultants provided facilitation and methods. Managers created change process teams made up of informal leaders. Their role was to be sure the employees felt valued, involved, and informed during this change effort.

Everyone got to be someone. Trust and credibility grew, and the union organizing effort went away. Employee leaders of the organizing effort became leaders in the effort to transform the business unit. The energy level was incredible. We were alive in the moment instead of toiling for an obscure future. Personal and team growth was rapid and improved performance came quickly.

We established the first self-managed team. We would experiment with one self-managed team for a year. We would learn from the experiment and then decide where to go from there. Decisions on design were made as the team proceeded. The team and managers developed unique training programs.

Meanwhile, leaders continued to seek out opportunities to learn what others had done. They began to adapt ideas to their unique reality. More people participated and excitement grew. Operating procedures were written down. We clarified our values and intentions. When the team completed its training, we celebrated.

Pressure to integrate and extend the learnings from the first self-managed team was intense. We forgot about the year-long experiment. Soon fifteen teams were up and running. The consultant and internal trainers conducted training programs daily. They adapted the methods weekly. Within fifteen months, thirty self-managed teams were operational, a skill based pay system was in place, a partnership with a union had begun, supervision was reduced significantly, and unique training programs had been developed for teams, team leaders, and managers.

Meanwhile employees continued to learn and to document the new processes and learnings. Leaders became more reflective as they struggled to “walk the talk.” Leaders began to become aware and mindful of deeper processes and shadow side dynamics in their relationships and in the organizational culture. We had struggles, and we enjoyed them.

Operational results were phenomenal. Now when employees went to conferences they were presenters as well as observers. People began to visit to learn from the business unit. Consultants began to write about this work.

For a moment we were more of our natural selves: braver, smarter, and more creative than during more orderly times. We worked harder, cared for one another more, and accepted our differences. We were filled with hope for the possibilities we saw for us as people and for the life we lived at work. For a moment we were more of our best selves -- always the deeper purpose of our efforts--the organization provided the container.

The aliveness I felt came from the expression of my deepest authenticity. The aliveness came from living my purpose and my values in service of an ever-expanding vision that inspired me. My direction comes from within -- not from external sources -- and that direction guides my external actions (all done imperfectly, of course).

The change effort continued, and its meaning became clear to me. I realized how our leadership brings forth mediocre organizations and dispirited people. I came to understand the powerful energy generated by a shared vision. I saw the courage summoned when people create together what they want most for their lives. I felt the inspiration born when people live by their deepest values.

In August 1991 business unit leaders were asked to tell the company’s senior staff about their work. This staff of seventy or eighty managers met monthly. These meetings were mostly “show and tell,” and the managers who attended them were generally cynical about what they heard there.

After some introductory remarks Betty, a stately black woman, got up to speak. A year before she was a leader in the effort to unionize her department. She and I were wary of one another initially. I got to know Betty that year. She had a loud voice and a great sense of humor. Betty was down to earth and asked tough questions. She cared about people and was not intimidated by me. Soon my first negative impressions of Betty changed; I liked her (see Pamphlet 16: Betty)

Betty addressed the group:
My name is Betty, and I’m from Field Services and I’m nervous. I’m really proud that you all got dressed up because I was told by a team member that you wouldn’t have clothes on.

The room rocked with laughter. Betty owned the audience. Betty spoke from the heart, and you could hear the dignity in her voice as she described how her team redesigned their work, reduced their staff from eighteen to eleven, and trained in group process skills. She described how difficult, frightening, and challenging this change had been. I looked at the audience. Many of the cynical managers had tears in their eyes.

Mary then talked about how her role as a team leader had changed. Employees had labeled one of her teams the Team from Hell. With great pride, Mary described how she had made T-shirts with the logo Team from Hell on them and gave them to the team members during their training. They discussed the painful perception of their team, and they made some commitments to one another. Six months later the Team from Hell received an award for achieving the most improvement in customer service measures.

Mike was a middle-aged union leader and a member of a self-managed team. He talked enthusiastically about how much this change meant to him and other front-line employees and about how good he felt coming to work each day. He saw opportunities for the company and the unions by working together to serve customers. No union leader had ever stood before the senior management of the company and said that before, and none has done it since.

When the presentation ended, David Cox, the CEO of Cowles Media Company, stood and, with a tear in his eye and a frog in his throat, said, “People often ask me what living out the values in our charter will look like. You have just seen it.” Cox told me: “This presentation will change the company forever.”

This describes Spirit at Work. Spirit is not the move to teams, the quality efforts, the job redesign, and all the other tools we use to change organizations. Spirit is the deeper energy, the creativity, and the commitment that emerges when free people live their highest and most authentic potential. Spirit shows itself as pride, courage, excitement, and enthusiasm in the face of uncertainty and danger.

For me (today):
Spirit at Work represents the expression of our deepest authenticity as, inspired by our sense of purpose and guided by our values, we step into the unknown and move courageously together toward a bold vision feeling the aliveness of life experienced completely and humanity realized more fully.

Historically Spirit at Work was effectively destroyed by industrialization when work was redesigned to make money for others. Our Spirit at Work at the newspaper was eventually destroyed by people who, afraid to look within, projected their fear, pain, and limitations outward and destroyed our creation.

Why is spirit important? Because, simply, we are spirited beings, and our spirituality makes us human, connects us to all of life, and elevates us to our potential as caring people. If we ignore our spirits, we lose our humanity. The uncertainty of the times, the suffering all around us, our need to help others, and the grandeur and mystery of life focus our attention on spirit at this difficult time in our history.

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