Futures Rambling # 79
by Laurie Aznavoorian

The Human Research and Ethic committee overlooking a current research endeavour has once again not disappointed in making our research team jump through hoops to gain ethics approval for the upcoming data collection phase of our next research initiative. Historically, I’ve poked fun at the committee for holding projects like ours to the same standards as those that could have far more serious consequences than determining whether a desk is occupied or not.

In this case it’s warranted, our research participants will be wearing Sociometric badges and there is an understandable concern the electrical pulse from the sensor might mess with pacemakers. However, that was not the question that flummoxed us it was another, which I am embarrassed to admit we hadn’t even considered. It was about the benefit of involvement in the research to the participant.

Pretty lame given we tout ourselves as professionals who care about occupant’s experiences in the workplace! Surprisingly, or perhaps no so much, we had only articulate the benefits of the research to our clients and ourselves and hadn’t given two minutes thought to what might be in it for the guinea pig. Surely there would be something.

Fortunately a compelling answer surfaced without too much mental duress. When you think about it, it’s quite simple, who wouldn’t want to know more about the effectiveness of interactions they have with co-workers? After all, information is power, and understanding the nuances of how we interact with one another will help lay the foundation for more meaningful and productive collaborations.

The Sociometric readers we are using will provide a great amount of valuable data, but unfortunately, it will not lead to knowledge that will break the back of many serious maladies that plague the typical workplace. To be more specific, to some extent they will measure variables that will allow us to monitor behaviour, since they do not record speech, we will never really know when a colleague is being a jerk and talking behind another’s back or trashing someone in the corridor.

Shocked? That doesn’t happen in your office, not true if you subscribe to Robert Kegan’s ideas about being yourself in the workplace, he’s a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of education who believes most interactions in a ‘normal job’ have nothing to do with the real work we perform and have much more to do with a second job we have that is arse covering, looking good and hiding shortcomings.

I concur. I’ve met several people who’ve spent their entire career dedicated to this exact endeavour! Kegan maintains that even though we know covering our weaknesses, inadequacies and uncertainties is counter productive; we do it anyway and it is typical in the ‘normal’ organisation where people feel compelled to hide their less developed parts, or true self.

It makes no sense if you think about it logically, our employers hire us not because we’re perfect, but to realise the potential they see in us. After all we are human and therefore imperfect. In reality, we are not logical, so we spend enormous amounts of time everyday trying to be something, or someone were not, by putting on airs and covering our shortcomings and errors. Unfortunately, this makes us more likely to continue making the same kinds of mistakes hampering growth for each of us personally and for the companies we work for.

Patrick Lencioni lists these same exact attributes in his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, suggesting that hiding weaknesses and covering mistakes, amongst a number of others, are indicative of organisations that lack trust, not to mention one that is standing still because it’s too timid to evolve. Lencioni supports what our Trust Research, and many others, concludes and that is a lack of trust in an organisation impacts productivity and profit, and it makes people feel downright miserable.

Our sociometric readers are not going to remedy this completely; they will record signals that will provide insight into the authenticity, honesty or sincerity of co-workers interactions. But they can’t really tell us when one employee behaves like a complete tool, in an unproductive or unprofessional manner. What they will tell us is how people interact with one another during various phases of the collaborative process and from this we can bridge the gap to infer how the environment helps or hinders it.

We will most definitely succeed in capturing insights that will inform designers and clients on the spatial attributes that support phases of the collaborative process, but going back to the Ethics Committee question, what’s is this research doing for the people? How do we help them achieve richer interactions and encourage them to be their complete self in the workplace by boldly exhibiting their passions, enthusiasm, wacky ideas and warts? How can we create a company culture, because this is not about a workplace, where employees are not ashamed to be who they are?

That is the $60,000 question, and one that is important to understanding, what Keagan describes as, our ‘new economy’. In the new economy employees seek benefits beyond a paycheck, of the old economy of salary and benefits will continue to be important, but in the ‘new economy’ employees will seek incomes that address “the psychological person”. These incomes support happiness, not in smiley face kind of way, but rather a state of happiness as an evolutionary process that comes from the Aristotelian concept of unfolding, growing and developing as a person.

This probably sounds familiar to many I’ve spoken to recently who are searching for fulfilment and happiness and not finding it at work. Undoubtedly there are a host of reasons for worker dissatisfaction, but one could be not working for a DDO, a deliberately developmental organisation. These are companies that walk the talk and go out of their way to draw employees into a process that helps them grow and become better versions of themselves.

Sign you up to work in a DDO you say? Well maybe think twice, because for most the level of openness required to promote personal growth is a little too scary a proposition. It is true, being in a workplace where there are no secrets and every conversation is an open one can lead to discomfort. Kegan gives an example of an organisation in Connecticut that records every meeting. An extreme example, but one it gives a taste of what true transparency is.

You might rightly surmise, it is not everyone’s idea of fun, but for those that do preserve, working in a DDO can be exhilarating. Some see it as an illustration of the organisation’s generosity with time and a willingness to make an investment in their future. They believe the organisation really cares about them as a person and do not see them as just a means to an end. They thrive in the organisation, would not consider working for ‘normal organisation and the company benefits from excellent results.

For others it’s too confronting and this is why many DDO’s have high turnover rates, and face it not everyone wants their co-workers to know who they really are, you never know they may be in the witness protection program or they want everyone to think they are better than what they are. Those that feel that way have many organisations to choose from that are ‘normal’

I imagine if we had wanted to record this type of information in our research we would not have been given ethics approval, because we could easily delve into people’s psychological well being, and find ourselves outside of our pay grades. Both researcher and participants could find out things they prefer not to know. Like that famous line from A Few Good Men, we think we want the truth but we can’t handle it.

Sources:
Are You the “Real You” in the Office? HBR IdeaCast 5:45 PM March 27, 2014

Russell, Joyce E.A., The importance of trusting co-workers; Australian Financial Review, April 17, 2014