Pondering the question of focus

I had a really interesting conversation today with an executive in the company we acquired last year. She was talking about how different their (old) corporate culture was, and how that has probably been the hardest part of the integration over the last year. One of the biggest differences she sees is that their culture has always been fully focused externally – working with and for their customers, usually to the exclusion of everything else. She and her colleagues hear us talk about customer focus and kind of giggle. In their eyes they don’t talk about it, they just live it.

inside outside

This discussion has been bumping around in my brain since then. I’ll acknowledge that my company does a fair bit of navel gazing, and sharing internally, and focusing on developing employees. So I’m struggling with… defending isn’t really the right word. I’m thinking about pros and cons of internal focus in an effort to help explain how having a balance of the two can in fact strengthen the moments of external focus. And what I’m writing is really me thinking out loud.

It seems to me that if you are constantly in external focus mode, you don’t have time to strategize. Without time to reflect, how do you learn? And if it is all about forging ahead, how do you spread knowledge to reduce the learning curve for those around you? Serendipitous events wouldn’t have the ability to become movements. Continuous improvement has no chance when there is no time to even glance inward. Personal growth is stunted by a lack of time and energy. And actually, looking at that shell image I inserted into this post make me think about analogies. How every person is then in their own little cell where the only window is looking outward. You can’t see what’s going on to either side of you. You are blinkered.

Obviously too much internal focus means you are spending too much time within your own four walls never looking out. While this allow things to stay neat and clean, and gives you plenty of time to spruce the place up, if you have no one to show it off to, there’s not much point. And in business, that would also mean that you’d eventually run out of customers because you’ve spent too much time talking about how to make them the focus on not enough time just doing it.

So how to explain to convince someone that taking time away from that external focus can make the time they spend externally more valuable? That internal focus can help renewing, refresh and refocus employees? That having that minute to breathe can spark the creativity needed to solve thorny problems?

I see a glimmer, and so maybe it just takes patience and some examples. A little evidence and some more time to quell the fear. And maybe, just maybe, this ties back to my earlier thoughts on trust.

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It all starts with trusting yourself

trust 3

When I started out on this class project, I really wasn’t sure where I was going. Having worked in community management for over five years, I knew trust was a significant part of the equation for employee participation, but I didn’t really have much external reinforcement to back up the anecdotal evidence I was seeing. I was very curious to see what I’d find when I went looking. And thankfully I took my instructor’s excellent advice to heart. I didn’t necessarily rely on only scholarly texts, but took inspiration from many places. For this post, I’m pulling from many very disparate sources, and I think perhaps viewing them from different perspectives than the authors. As we’ve all heard repeated, you often see what you are looking for.

Oddly, the first time the idea of trusting yourself really struck home with me in the context of this blog post series was during a sermon at my church. It was about having the strength to face very difficult circumstances, and trusting that you won’t be given a task so difficult that you can’t overcome it. The latter bit is so very important – if you don’t believe in yourself, trust that you can do it, you are already defeated. That was where the pastor’s first story started – with a woman who was so overwhelmed that she no longer believed in herself, instead choosing to take her own life. The story ended at the cemetery, with a picture of her children looking skyward, afraid to face their future. If we go back to my original definition of trust as a lack of fear, what I see here is a struggle with trust in oneself. Those poor kids had seen that mom wasn’t up to the task, and this might logically make them lose faith in themselves – trust themselves a little less.

I had also reached out to John Stepper, who I knew was close to publishing his book on Working Out Loud. I had no idea if it contained anything about trust, and to be honest, when I talked to him he said he didn’t think he reference it directly. None the less, he was happy to give me a pre-release version if I thought it would help. I love John’s work, so I dug right in. And I was far from disappointed! He tells a story in Part 1 – For a Better Career and Life about a woman, Mara Tolja, who was in a job she hated. Seemingly by accident, she found something that spoke to her by using the her corporate collaboration system. By focusing on that, and working hard in to also help others in that arena, she ended up carving out a niche and creating a job for herself that she loved. Again, to me this spoke of trusting in herself. Mara didn’t walk away from the challenge when she felt inexpert. In her words,

“I didn’t feel like an expert. Who am I to speak to these people? But when I talked to
more people, I realized I knew more than I gave myself credit for.”

So she trusted in herself, speaking at major conferences all over the world, including some for her firm, and now has opened up a whole host of new opportunities that would otherwise have eluded her.

Beyond this specific example, the people who John has coached trusted in themselves enough to start his coaching program. In a similar way, entrepreneurs exhibit significant belief in themselves. Thinking about all of this, I then went looking for quotes on self trust, and so many great authors and thinkers have spoken eloquently on the topic. For example, Norman Vincent Peale says,

“What the mind can conceive and believe, and the heart desire, you can achieve.”

and Jane Austen,

“We all have a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

and Unarine Ramaru,

“If you seek happiness through someone else’s perspective, you might as well get comfortable with sorrow.”

Finally, in my program at Northwestern, Christina Pedulla’s graduate capstone (as referenced in the Jive Community), says:

“the most cited reason for sharing knowledge was to help others….”

While she states that personality traits don’t influence sharing behavior, this reasoning still presupposes that one trusts in ones own knowledge enough to feel sharing it would be helpful to others.

Unfortunately, I’m not really sure where all of this leaves me in terms of my originally stated goal of creating a roadmap to help people feel comfortable contributing to a corporate social network. It is helpful to understand that trust to participate begins with trusting oneself, but how do you go about helping others to develop trust in themselves? The only thing that comes to mind is to model it as best you can yourself, and to reinforce it when you see others exhibiting it; to appreciate the gift you’ve been given, both in the form of the knowledge as well as the act itself.

I guess as with so many things in life, I’ve ended up with more questions than answers. But I’ve uncovered some great wisdom in my pursuit, and hope that having shared that will help me trust myself a little more.

Why trust is so important in employee engagement

As I struggled with deciding what article to read, what book to focus on, or where to take my next post, Simon Sinek‘s most recent TED Talk, Why good leaders make you feel safe, was posted in my company’s enterprise social network (ESN). And every bit of it speaks directly to my heart, to concepts I’ve struggled with long before I chose this topic to blog about for class. As he says,

“When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people inside the organization first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice the tangible results, so that the people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen.”

He also gave a remarkable example of how this played out, in a real company. When Barry-Wehmiller was hit hard in the recession in 2008, instead of laying people off to make up the $10 million shortfall, the CEO decided on a novel approach:

Every employee, from secretary to CEO, was required to take four weeks of unpaid vacation. They could take it any time they wanted, and they did not have to take it consecutively. But it was how (the CEO) announced the program that mattered so much. He said, it’s better that we should all suffer a little than any of us should have to suffer a lot, and morale went up.

They saved twice what they needed to, in part because on their own, the employees voluntarily started trading time off. Workers who could more easily afford it would take more time off so that those who could afford it less could take less time off. As Sinek predicted, remarkable things happened.

And I wonder why we all don’t instinctively know this; or if we do, why we ignore it. It is the same for us at home, in our social circles, or wherever we go. If we don’t feel safe, we don’t give our best. We might do our duty, or do what we need to in order to look good or to save face. But when we truly believe that the people around us have our back, we give it our all.

I vividly remember a situation I found myself in where I was really scared to take action. I knew many of the consequences of acting weren’t desirable; the consequences of not acting, worse by most accounts. But the decision in the end was not about weighing the consequences. It came down to trust; to knowing that if the tables were turned, the other person would have done it for me. And that gave me the courage to push past my fear and act.

So great, I now not only feel this viscerally, but can also name it. Describe what trust means, and why it matters. And I can absolutely see how and why a lack of trust detracts from engagement in an ESN.

  • If you don’t trust that your contributions will be appreciated, why bother?
  • If you don’t trust that your leaders have your best interests in mind, why put yourself on the line?
  • If you don’t trust that your co-workers also have your back, why chance that they will use what you post for personal gain?

I also have a much better appreciation for why community management is more about culture than anything else, and often involves culture change. Don’t get me wrong, you can absolutely have engagement in a culture that is not based on trust. Fear of consequences can and does motivate people to act. But the kind of engagement you’ll get in that kind of culture will be unlikely to bring about results that are better than they were before the ESN was implemented. And it surely isn’t going to increase overall employee engagement in the deeper sense.

Now that I’ve nailed that part of it, I’m off again to start digging into how to deal with the problem. What can be done to move away from fear and toward trust so that employees

will give us their blood and sweat and tears to see that their leader’s vision comes to life….

Or in this case, to feel free to contribute and participate in their company’s ESN to further the goals of their company.