Monday, 1 November 2010

Spirit at Work Part II

by Tom Heuerman, Ph.D.

Job Vacancies, Employment, Jobs Vacancy


Freedom, the mother of all values, is necessary for spirit—the breath of life. Freedom is our ability to pause in the midst of conflicting choices, to ponder, to reflect, to reconsider, to ask questions, and to choose our response to the stimuli before us.

Freedom is our choice to be ourselves and gives us dignity. Authentic choices and actions bring forth spirit: the energy that gives courage, passion, vitality, intensity, and aliveness to our existence. Spirit inspires the never-ending struggle for greater freedom in the ongoing evolution of human possibility. Authentic people who take action are free and spirited.

Our freedom is inherent—we have free will—free choice to do battle with the forces within and outside of us that would limit our full humanity. We do not always rejoice in our personal freedom. Freedom means choices and that means anxiety because we may make the wrong or even evil choices.

Choices also mean guilt because our choices may diminish ourselves or break someone’s external rules. Our conformity is our effort to escape the anxiety of freedom but we then feel the guilt of an inauthentic life.

To face the anxiety and guilt that accompanies freedom is better than denying what is real (freedom and choice) and creating more pain for ourselves. Mature and authentic people know they must choose for avoiding choice is not possible. Not choosing is a choice. Will I choose spirit or will I choose to deny spirit?

Our responsibility for the quality of our lives is innate. It is the natural way. Responsibility is the acceptance that my choices are mine alone, and I do not blame others for my choices and actions. Blame is a defense against responsibility. We know we are the source of improvement of our circumstances.

At work we can stay or leave, we can conform or rebel, we can be authentic or inauthentic. We can act on our awareness or we can do nothing. We can live our values or seek acceptance at whatever the cost to our self-respect. We can choose the type of person we want to be. These are our choices and no one else’s, and they each come with anxiety and guilt.

I went to work at the newspaper in 1976. Appalled at the behavior I observed, I wanted to quit after two weeks. But I had a family to support and needed the job. I decided to stay and to live my values every day and do what I could to make this a better workplace. And that is what I did for 18 years. After I left a colleague wrote me, “It is right for you to leave.

It is right for me to stay and work hard to not let the dysfunction affect me and to protect the people who work for me from it.” Each choice was responsible and authentic. I admire my colleague Ray who has found a way to preserve his integrity and be authentic within the workplace. Not all of us feel we can leave. Not all of us can lead or participate in large change efforts. But each of us can find our own way to assert our freedom and live with spirit even in the most diseased organizations.

Accountability is our choice and acceptance of our freedom and responsibility. We are most deeply accountable when we see reality like it is, accept the evil our anxieties reveal, and compose a life to fight and conquer the evil before us. We are accountable when we see how we collude in the leadership and organizations we criticize and accept that we are the ones to fix the problems. We are accountable when we accept the consequences of our free choices. Accountability chosen freely results in authenticity and noble choices; accountability imposed results in inauthenticity and compliance.

In the change effort I described in Pamphlet 59 to define Spirit at Work, a vice president and another executive created the crisis that resulted in a union organizing effort and the need to save millions of dollars. But they were not responsible or accountable. They blamed 5 women managers who lost their jobs. The men retreated to their offices and gave me the assignment of cleaning up their mess.

The crisis, combined with their retreat, provided an opening for expanded possibilities in the organization. The range of our freedom was enlarged. Our possibilities were limitless. The door was open and we exploded through it and never looked back. We seized the opportunity to act from our freedom, take responsibility, and to be held accountable. We invited others to join us. Some did and others chose not to. The aliveness we felt came from those decisions.

Below are some examples of how we instituted freedom, responsibility, and accountability into our change effort (mostly unwittingly).

We adopted a rule of “no secrets,” initiated an open door policy, promised not to “shoot the messenger,” and invited others into the process. Slowly people came forward and took risks. Trust grew when people were heard and treated with respect. At first much anger surfaced. It felt overwhelming at times. So much had been repressed for so long and the anger needed to be expressed before people could move on.

We wanted to treat people like adults and committed to telling what we knew when we knew it on issues of concern. I remember meeting with a team to tell them they would downsize six positions as a result of their plan to redesign their work. They knew they would be going down in positions but not how many.

I recall how anxious I felt about telling them this decision. I feared this group, composed of leaders of the earlier organizing effort, would start the union action again. I blurted it out. They responded by asking thoughtful and responsible questions. They designed the process that would determine who went to other jobs and who stayed. They then made the changes. This lesson was powerful -- for me and my paternalism: when we treat others like adults they tend to respond in kind.

We tried to make people happy. We learned quickly that we could not make anyone happy. We decided we were not in the happiness business. Efforts to make everyone happy would only deepen the sense of entitlement (an attack on accountability) that pervades corporate America -- especially at the top. We would strive to create conditions where people could make the choice to be authentic, to participate, and to be their best each day.

We made all our own decisions on how to lead the change effort, what resources to use, when and how to eliminate staff (all downsizing was voluntary). Every Thursday night the leadership team met at a restaurant to catch up with each other. This was a time for us to pause, reflect on our choices and to ask if our decisions and actions were in alignment with our values and vision.

Often they were not, and we changed what we were doing to better “walk the talk.” It was also the time to look forward in awe and dread as we wondered how we would ever accomplish our vision. We felt the anxiety of freedom but we were in it and the only way out was to go through it. We learned that we could learn as we proceeded and adapt accordingly. These dinners exhilarated us as we were free, real, and creative together.

We involved people in the redesign of work and the establishment of teams. Consultants provided facilitation and methods and employees provided wisdom and expertise. Employees designed their own skill-based pay system. Employees designed the implementation plans and put them in place. Most participated and felt valued, involved, and informed. Leaders learned to not make decisions for employees when they tried to delegate decisions upward and to help people solve their own problems.

We accepted accountability as a positive. As leaders we learned to admit our mistakes and to say, “I don’t know” when we didn’t know something. We learned to apologize when we made mistakes as we understood that mutual trust grows when “I screw up and you know I didn’t do it on purpose.” It was scary to say we didn’t know all the answers and to admit mistakes and apologize. People respected us for doing what was real and right.

We created change process groups made up of employees critical of management. Many were the leaders of the union organizing effort. They gathered feedback from co-workers and shared it with managers. The goal was for every employee to feel valued, involved, and informed.

Teams began to set their own goals -- always more challenging than I established for them, and we eliminated traditional performance appraisals. Employees began to hire team members, scheduled their own days and hours, manage team budgets, and give each another feedback.

Several team members came to their team leader. They wanted to confront another team member who was a member of a minority group making the situation more sensitive in their eyes. They did not want the team leader to handle the conflict. They wanted her to coach them on how to handle themselves. They met with the co-worker. Later, in a team presentation to the union and management, the team member who was confronted spoke openly of how his team had handled him with dignity and respect.

Teams and employees participated in the design of training programs. We assigned each employee to a learning group on a topic important to the business. Each group established a learning goal for themselves. For example, they could hire a speaker, do a site visit, or read a book together. They then set a business objective to demonstrate their learning.

When finished the team did a presentation for the managers, union leaders, and other teams. The presentations inspired us. I chuckled when a young part-time secretary described her group’s vision and then asked the CEO what his vision was for the corporation, and he stammered and stuttered a weak response. It soon became apparent that people had tremendous learning abilities and they often embarrassed senior executives with their questions and knowledge.

We found freedom to be elusive. As soon as we took responsibility for one area of our work life, another possibility presented itself. And the new had to be adapted to others and to other dynamics. I realized that in life we would always be in a struggle for ever expanded freedom to be all we can be. We were rebels against all that is anti-human in organizations.

We fought for dignity and spirit and stretched for greater maturity and character. I knew we were in danger. The villains would eventually come out of their offices and try to again lead from the rear. But we had a blast while it lasted, and we experienced the spirit that is possible for everyone. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in a process that impacted me deeply.

Spirit at Work is not a bold enough vision. To talk of Spirit at Work is to fragment (a method of the mechanistic model) the human spirit that is born to be free, alive, whole, and healthy in all aspects of life -- not just at work. We need greater foresight and need to conceptualize grander aspirations for ourselves for the human spirit is sadly in need of revitalization everywhere: in our schools, churches, families, and on the streets of our communities.

I believe those of us who want to transform organizations should talk of The Renewal of Spirit and learn, by doing our own inner work and taking our own courageous life actions first, to live, love, work, and lead in spirit -- purposeful, authentic, courageous, and interconnected with all of life--in all we do. We need to be the models for others, not the “doers” or experts for others.

A spirited life requires that we make a conscious choice to live a free, responsible, and accountable life. As free people we choose a life of spirit for ourselves and then take it with us wherever we go -- even to spiritless places. We are responsible. No one can or will awaken our spirits for us.

As leaders with power over resources and the actions of others, we can create anti-human organizations that reflect our own dearth of spirit, but we cannot diminish people’s freedom, their personal responsibility, or their sense of accountability without their acquiescence. As leaders we can create conditions that support and encourage people to act like free, responsible, and accountable people at work, but we cannot force them to have SPIRIT or to choose freedom, accountability, or responsibility. That is always their choice.

We do not create Spirit at Work. Instead each of us chooses to be alive and to live a life of spirit, regardless of external circumstances. We choose freedom, responsibility, and accountability for our lives. Authentic people create authentic organizations. Mother Teresa said, “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.”

I know, from my life experience, how scary it is to acknowledge my freedom, to take responsibility for my choices, to feel the anxiety and guilt of freedom, the uncertainty of life, and to be accountable for my decisions. Fear is not a bad place to begin a spiritual journey.

No one knows what lies beyond this pale. But if there is anything other than extinction, we can be sure that the best preparation for it, in this brief interval when the bird of time is still on the wing, is to live out our lives and our creativity as fully as we can, experiencing and contributing what we can.


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