To a discouraged leader

You walked into the meeting so upbeat at the opportunity to share your vision. But even as you talked, you could see the lists of objections forming behind the eyes of several listeners — the usual suspects, whose first reaction to most new ideas is to throw up a smokescreen of reasons why we can’t do it. Before you finished your first presentation, you could feel the wind leaving your sails. As you walked out of the meeting, you were as much dejected as you had been excited earlier that morning.  Then, you go through the stages of grief, inwardly and privately, telling yourself that you are never going to cast another pearl of vision before these swines of negativity. You’ll just live in the dull world they apparently inhabit, checking off duties, punching the mental clock, letting the workplace just drift and collecting your paycheck.

And of course, despite your best effort to kill your own soul, it miraculously persists. It catches you unawares. Before long, you have a new, exciting idea about how things can be better for everyone, and you find yourself almost against your will sharing your passion out loud to the swineherd again. (Isn’t it encouraging how those healthiest parts of you can’t actually be killed? What you like most about yourself just erupts in spite of everything. )  The truth is, no-one can suppress their own vision.  So forget that.  It can be exhilarating, in an ironic way, when the leader is forced to admit and embrace her own health. To admit to herself that what causes her pain among the swine is never going to stop, and she would never want it to, really.  No, there are only two choices: succeed in getting these pigs to see what you see, or go find better pigs. (That’s quite enough with the swine metaphor, I agree.)If you haven’t already done it, stop right here and admit something to yourself: to the degree you actually have vision and try to spread it, you are a special person. You are not normal. (You knew that already, but you were afraid you would be a moral monster if you called yourself special.) But — if you are a special person, doesn’t that mean that the very logic of your own self-image requires that the people around you are not like you?  Doesn’t your own vision of yourself argue that feeling the drag of others’ negativity is expected and normal?  Embrace it. Oh, you want to have vision and also have everyone around you see it as soon as you speak? Well, that would certainly be better for you.  Better for them, too, you say?  But if these people around you could see what you see so easily, would you still be special? Would you even be needed? Is it possible you are in the right place, and it is hard? Just asking.

Wherever you go, there is where you are.  Finding a better workplace is an option. You may feel like you will spend years vision casting and never see your dream realized. If you were surrounded by positive people, you think, you could do more than spin your wheels.  Why look back and see just futility?  Why not change the world?There is nothing wrong with that choice. It is certainly true that organizations filled with people like you are a magical place, and to be a part of that magic is a once in a lifetime opportunity. These are rare times and rare places.  (You do know they were built by people like you, against great negativity? Tell them thanks when you get there. )  But it’s also false to see normal workplaces, filled with the drudgery that weighs on you, as futile.

What is the one thing that is here for you that is not there in that magical workplace of your dreams? What is being added to you by this hard work? What are you internalizing in this cycle of disappointment and adaptation that brought us even to this conversation today?  Vision-casting in the midst of negativity, that’s what.   And you will not learn that in your ideal workplace, I guarantee you.  So you can go where you’ll be surrounded by more magic, and no-one could blame you for that, or you can stay and get stronger in producing the magic. The good news is that there is no less opportunity to grow in either setting.  The growth is just different.   Either choice is good; just don’t make a false comparison by seeing your own situation with the negative eyes that so trouble you in others.

There is no typical person.  Negativity is usually self-defense.   People defend themselves because they are afraid.   Afraid of what? Well, not you, of course, since you are always kind and never attack. (Smile.) They can be afraid of lots of things, but start with the obvious: your ideas, brilliant as they are, sound like more work to them. And they already feel like they don’t get done what ought to be done. They already feel condemned, and would not even be sitting there in that meeting unless they were made to come.  They would be doing something else they actually do consider their job.  Some of them feel themselves getting further behind with each moment that you and I are talking to them.  Does that help?   Does it help you to remember that often a negative person is a person with a conscience about their own work, and they don’t want to feel worse in the light of their own standard than they already do?   Sure, you see clearly that your idea will make their jobs easier, but they honestly do not see that.   And you cannot hold against them what they honestly do not see.

Others are negative from early childhood. Or maybe there is something terrible going on in their private life that you’ll never know about, but they just can’t stretch outside of today to be excited about your idea.  OK, you win. They are bad.   I don’t mean that negative people are merely victims.  They are morally culpable. They are culpable for killing ideas which can lift them up and make their neighbors’ work easier and happier. And let’s be honest: some people just want the daily routine they’ve established to not change, because they are self-centered. They are utterly selfish, and don’t give a hoot about the company or the people working alongside them.

Maybe, for some leaders, there is a necessary moment here.   Just like everyone needs permission to embrace their own health, everyone needs permission to call sickness what it is. So let’s do.  Let’s gather in our own little huddle and label those nattering nabobs of negativity.  They are not just afraid, they are bad.  I agree.  What’s more, when we come to actually consider actual people, we find quickly that it is hard to untangle the fear from the badness.  People are so complex that even they don’t understand why they react the way they do. They are selfish, and will call it something else; they are afraid, and don’t even know it.  But once we’ve nourished ourselves on this exegesis of their badness, what now? As leaders, what now? Overcoming their badness is our job.

Hold them accountable for seeing? Is all this to say that there is no accountability in the workplace? Are we just to let people go on killing idea after idea, dominating the entire group with their darkness, so that the whole shop is a dead zone? Hopefully not, but the path to positivity is not tighter accountability.  It depends on what you actually want when you talk to people.  Accountibility structures can get compliance, but compliance is almost never what the vision caster wants.  You know yourself so deeply that an unenthusiastic compliance is the last thing you want when you have a vision and you share it.   What you want is for them to really see what you see.   No accountability structure will accomplish this. Thinking that it can is what produced that old semi-joking break room poster: “The beatings will continue till the morale improves.”

Structured accountability can sustain values that the organization has already adopted, but cannot cause the organization to adopt new values. And if the leaders of an organization do not fully agree on the values, then any discussion of accountability for those values will not work.   If the leaders do not see the same vision, their group vision, even communicated well, will look confused and incompetent to those who are not supposed to be vision leaders.   The leaders need to shut the door and do the long, hard work of leadership on each other before they go out on the shop floor and give talks about being positive.   Even if it takes years.  Culture is changed by force of charismatic, transformational leadership.   Passion first, structure second.

Vision is what advances the organization today; structure is what preserves last year’s vision.  I am not saying that we should not set high expectations for people. We should. But expecting people to “be positive” simply does not work, in and of itself. They are not failing to perform an objective task. They do not suffer from a cognitive error; it’s more deep seated than that. They have to catch it, like a virus. They can catch it by osmosis, when they are surrounded by positivity, or they can catch it one on one from a great leader. The first is indirect, and follows upon the second, the direct work we need to do as leaders in the midst of the negative aura.

Passion without compassion feels like tyranny.   If you are a positive person, you have a visceral reaction of horror at a negative view of the universe. When it comes out, it even angers you. It angers you at the level where you — dare we say it? — love that other person. You want for them so much that they not be trapped in that dark place. You are jealous for them with a righteous indignation.  Be careful at this moment.  This visceral reaction is true and authentic within you, but is… yes, negative for the group, when you display it.  It amounts to your own self-indulgence. It can come across emotionally aggressive.   For those already feeling a vague fear, it simply feels adversarial. The actual meaning of words gets lost in a general sense in the room that we are now disagreeing and that someone must lose.  The win-win is gone. (Keep in mind that “win-win” is an emotional reality, not a logical one.)  Remind yourself to see the world from their point of view, not just yours, not even when yours feels so righteous. (It is righteous, by the way. Just not useful.)

What they are perceiving is that they came to a meeting they did not call, heard what they thought was emotion and it sounded like work, and when they said to you “this sounds like work”, you threw a double amount of emotion at them. That’s what this discussion looks like to them.

You either see, or not.  There is no in between. The negative person does not actually see what you see. That means they are not actually objecting to your idea, but to the ghost of your idea they built in your head as you spoke.  Do you get that at an emotional level for yourself?   They do not reject your idea.  They reject a caricature of your idea. The truth is, when the vision is seen, it is embraced.  You have to believe in what you see even more than you do, I think.  You have to believe so much that you know that if anyone else sees what you see they will immediately and with all your passion embrace it.

Remember, you are different. That means that whatever it took for you to see your vision will never be enough to make them see it. Their ability to see is not as good as yours. The moment when you feel like you’ve exhausted both the content and the passion in words you feel proud — that’s the moment they are feeling an obscure pressure that feels like work. You’ve just started.

Sequence matters, especially in magic. There is a downward spiral in group discussions. The visioneer speaks first, then the negatives pop up, then the visioneer tries to debate the negatives, and they dig in.  Nothing good can come of this.  Often there is an earlier stage of the discussion that you skipped in your enthusiasm for your idea. The dead give away here is that feeling in the room that we are all talking past each other. When it seems like we are talking about different things, then realize: we are.

What sense would it make for a group of friends to fall into a movie discussion, yet each only saw one scene of the movie, and all different scenes, at that? You’d never try that movie discussion, yet we sit through meeting after meeting where it’s obvious the participants are actually talking about different things. If you could see their thoughts, you’d be amazed by the variety of distorted versions of your original vision.  Just stop the discussion. Back up, and go back to the conflicting assumptions, and talk about them. You’ll find more agreement, because people are actually fighting against what is not really there.

Jui-jitsu: move with your opponent, not against.  Sometimes the strongest person in the room is the one pushing everyone down the hill. Don’t respond to a negative with more of your positive, as if everyone just needs another dose. It may seem counter-intuitive, I know, but when you share your vision, and someone objects, move toward the objection, not against it.  Affirm it.  Agree with it.  It is real.   It is not the truth about the whole world, as you see it, and the objector’s overall vision is not healthy, but the objection is real because they see it.  In fact, you really needed to hear the objections.  (Strange, I know: the objections are ghostly caricatures of your vision but you need to hear them.)  You want to draw these ghosts out into the light of day, not stuff them back into their dark closet as if that will make them go away.  You need to hear them expanded on, because if you will listen very carefully, you will begin to hear key words and phrases that will give you insight about what the objector really sees. You’ll have a lightbulb go off. You’ll see in a flash of inspiration what it is they are stumbling over, and you’ll be able to speak to it in a way that has hope of succeeding. (Plus, you’ll get to know them better.)  So many good and talented leaders react to negativity in an open group as if it is something to be suppressed, and in doing so they hamstring themselves in the long run. They use their considerable talents in developing cute techniques to get around objections, like misdirection and so on, not understanding that negativity suppressed just becomes a guerrilla war.

This kind of “positivity”, taught in management seminars around the world, is a fake positivity.   It does not last. It does not seep down into culture.

Another counter-intuitive truth: in the right setting, with the right controls and planning, the most valuable speaker will the the person in the room who is most negative. They will define the contours of your task for you.  You just need to be smart about the time allotted to any individual meeting. You know ahead of time that you are going to get objections. Have time allotted for them. Treat them not as irritating flies to be swatted, but as important points to be addressed before any vision can come true.  I did say that positivity needs to be caught like a virus, yes, and now you are wondering that I’m wanting to encourage negative talk.  Doesn’t the negativity also spread like virus? Yes, but it spreads the most when it is most hidden, and will go underground if not aired. The truth is, positivity is a much more virulent organism than is negativity, and the most therapeutic moments are when they encounter each other at full strength out in the open. Again, negativity cannot be suppressed.

Enough with the theorizing   But we can ask anything of people, then? Sure.  What you yourself do, actually, is you respond positively by faith, because of who it is that is talking to you. You give the person the benefit of the doubt that if they have an idea there must be something good to it, and you will hear it.   And you want your hearers to do the same for you.  So, set it up.

Make the group small.  And small is not a numerical word, it is a trust word.   People who already have built some trust with each other will be much less likely to list objections as they listen.  Especially in a small and trusted group, you can ask everyone to respond positively, before they see anything.

Play a game.  Let’s call it “Buy your own darn objection.” For every idea that is offered, you can’t offer an objection until you’ve said something positive about the idea. One positive buys you one negative. Keep score on the whiteboard if you can make it fun.  Many mid-level leaders simply do not see their own congenital pattern of responding to ideas with objections.  But also, you have to buy their trust.   Don’t let projects run away and create work for people till after they have bought into the vision.  Make it clear right at the beginning of a brainstorming or vision casting session that the meeting will not end with a to-do list.   Keep a space between brainstorming and project work, so that your peers can tell by tone and even body language that this conversation is not a new project coming their way.  This zone of safety will let them set their fear aside.

None of this is to argue that vision or cultural change is easy.   It is as hard as love, and as rewarding. And really, there is no recipe for transformational leadership.   If there were, magic would be common.

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