Sunday, December 29, 2013

Flipping "Money, Power & Respect"

One of my favorite hip hop songs from the late 1990s is “Money, Power & Respect” by The LOX (with Li’l Kim and DMX). It’s a great song to blast while exercising, plowing through tasks at work, or cruising leisurely through the neighborhood in a Zipcar. The song has a very catchy synth line, a simple hook, and sick flow by the rappers. Lyrically it espouses the important tenets for gangsters, gangstas, and old-school management. Early in my working career, I bought into the gist of these principles: “Once you become financially successful, you gain power. And with these two things in hand, respect from others is earned.”

I don’t believe in the emphasis on “money, power, and respect” anymore, but instead “meaning, influence, and community.” The latter probably wouldn’t make a cool hook for a hardcore rap song, though. However, flipping the script and replacing them with new values make more sense to me.

Finding meaning in work in a greater incentive for me than engaging in a never-ending pursuit of more money and prestige. The hamster wheel of going after a bigger payday takes away from finding enjoyment in what I do, understanding why I do the work, learning who I am helping through my work, and seeking a greater purpose. I gain more enjoyment from sharing laughter and goodwill with my customers when I make onsite visits, offering congratulations to my peers and customers whenever they receive public recognition, and learning about goals of my customers (and contemplating how I can add value to the work they do). Being a “Rock Star to the Rock Stars” is my value proposition.

After having worked in the corporate world for nearly twenty years, the lure of money doesn’t excite me as the allure of making new connections, growing professionally, and shining at my strengths. I would rather take a reasonable and modest pay cut for an opportunity to engage more at work, instead of grabbing overtime pay for doing soul-draining tasks: I’m not interested in accumulating combat pay. It may seem flippant to make these statements from the perch of middle-class luxury, but I found the pursuit of bread to take energy and focus away from finding meaning in my work and seeking areas where I can get my shine on.

I share the meaning I find in work with other like minds by cultivating influence. Through doing meaningful work, becoming remarkable at what I do, and building career capital, I grow my influence. When I complete work projects with precise accuracy, timeliness, stellar service, and proactive communication, I create value and gain career capital. When I help bring people and ideas together, I demonstrate my value proposition. When I contribute creativity and expertise into my projects and work, I boost my influence meter upwards.

I’ve accumulated a reserve of influence through being a dedicated and motivated follower for my project leaders whose endeavors I fully support. I share insights and information that contribute to their process improvement successes. I write original content for newsletter projects at my workplace and in the professional organization that I am involved with. Every positive interaction and effort add droplets of influence in my reservoir. I've learned that faithfully supporting these people results in new opportunities being gifted my way: I’ve been placed on exciting new project teams, invited to career-enhancing training opportunities, and referred to new connects.

Here is an example of how influence has improved my work life during 2013. Early in the year, my department had nearly two hundred support documents that needed to be reviewed for accuracy and relevancy, which we were responsible for addressing. The review deadlines for these documents had been missed, and there was pressure from up on high to have the documents reviewed. No one on my team was interested in this task, and my management ordered me not to bother with document reviews. I viewed this task as an essential business need, and since my professional interests included technical writing and content curation, I went rogue and went all in. I surreptitiously spent several weekends reviewing the documents, put in the work, updated the project owners of my progress, and even took a “learning vacation” to attend a local documentation conference. In six weeks’ time, the all the documents were updated. I received gratitude from up on high, was asked to join couple of documentation-related project teams, and made awesome connects at the documentation conference. One of these connects at the conference was a colleague from another department at work whom I shared interests with in content curation and presentation. We started meeting after work, discussed things to try which would improve the culture (and make work fun), and started a skunkworks project for hosting lunchtime Lightning Talks presentation events. These talks were well-received by our audience, and I’ve shared my findings and enthusiasm with my professional organization.

Would this success have happened with power alone? Likely not. Cultures and processes that encourage anyone to create meaning and share them are the ones that will lead to success. Creating meaning is no longer in the private domain of those in power. Old-school detractors and fanboys of command-and-control hierarchies can accuse me of mindlessly following thought leaders like Seth Godin, Hugh MacLeod, Pamela Slim, Daniel Pink, and Todd Henry, but insistence on the use (or abuse) of power for pushing ideas across is archaic and pusillanimous. Is it any wonder why most of the notable figures in human history are those with influence--not necessarily those in power?

The equation of Money + Power = Respect may ring true in the world of gangs and corporate hierarchies, but I prefer the currency of building community. The latter is more rewarding than getting--or buying--respect. There is deeper permanence in creating tribes based on shared meaning and values, compared to shallow superficiality of seeking respect based on one's status.

Communities open doors to new experiences, spread ideas, and connect people. Many of my successful endeavors over the past year would not have been possible without communities and tribes. Attending World Domination Summit in July instilled hope that I can create meanings through actions--both at home and at work. Discovering the power of storytelling at WDS and spreading this gift at the SIGUCCS professional conference and during Lightning Talks events have strengthened my tribes. It’s gratifying to watch compelling ideas spread like wildfire amongst my tribes.

If you invest in, and give to, a community where others appreciate your value proposition and the meanings that you create, doors will open more readily. Once your personal brand is known, the people in the tribe can introduce you to new opportunities. Once I overcame the initial reluctance and shaming negative thoughts (like “I don’t belong here” or “My ideas are not good enough for this group”), I felt comfortable dipping my toes in the pool, and was able to share with and learn from others in the tribe. That’s how I was introduced to the power of short presentations and storytelling this year. Welcome to the new sharing economy.

And as a part of highly-functional community, respect will come naturally regardless of what your job or title is. Contrast that with a command-and-control culture where, if you lose a job title--or even a job itself--you could wind up without respect. Would a gangster pay respect to a former boss who has fallen from grace and has no rank? Can an executive who has an obsession for status and power, lose his or her title and still receive respect from former subordinates?

If I'm running a Mafia, a Yakuza, or a street gang--or if I have a raging fetish with establishing and maintaining a corporate hierarchy--then I may believe in the principles of money, power, and respect. But that's not how I live. Perhaps back in 1998 I believed in those principles, but no longer. My daily actions are about meaning, influence, and community. Pass the MIC, yo.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Life Is So Strange When You Don't Know

Learning experiences and successful endeavors which I have absorbed over the past few years have been voluminous. I am starting to learn how it feels to persevere, create successful outcomes, practice mindfulness, share my passions with increased conviction, explore possibilities, and embrace vulnerability. There is one area, though, that I sometimes struggle to accept: living with uncertainty.

My future state is “destination unknown.” That is a scary statement to make, since I am rejecting the premise that my future is a preordained set of material, financial, emotional, social, and psychological comforts. For decades, I have been in denial about my future: I preferred not to think about it since I was too busy living in the present. But the recent transformations have made me aware that a blueprint for a future state would help me make choices which could lead me to comfortably embrace uncertainty.

The destination is unknown, but I have a great grasp on the direction I want to pursue in life. And over time, the destination and the direction may change—that is the nature of how I flow.

Very recently I made a big decision to uproot myself sometime within the next twelve months. Since I moved to Portland in 1995, I have lived in the same apartment. For many years, I have felt discontented about my home base, as worn furnishings and clutter contributed to unhappiness. I want to downsize and move into a smaller space that has charm and better reflects my personality. Before I move into a new place, a massive purging and decluttering program will take place. I also want to change my relationship with belongings and become less attached to nonessential stuff. Furthermore, I want to formulate a financial strategy so the move will be sustainable from an economic standpoint.

These directions seem sound and logical, but my destination is unknown. I have no idea if I will be living in the same neighborhood, in a different part of town, or elsewhere altogether. Destination unknown.

In the next twelve months, I also want to pursue fitness goals. I want to run a 10k race and ride several century bicycling events. I want to pursue regular exercise because I want to live a long and healthy life. I am also aware of my family’s health history, which suggests that exercising regularly is paramount for me. I can train with those goals in mind, but there is no guarantee that I will experience a long lifespan. Destination unknown.

Over the next few years, I want to gain experience in disciplines which could benefit my professional career. I want to study and participate in project management, lean methodologies, business communications, presentation skills, and promotion of progressive workplace culture. I want to continue attending conferences that will aid in my learning. I want to pursue activities which tie in with my professional aspirations. But there is no guarantee that I will find my dream job within the next few years. I may not even have a job months from now. Destination unknown.

Uncertainty is scary at times. Taking risks feels like walking on a tightrope between two skyscrapers without a safety net underneath to catch me if I fall. Do I feel scared? Yes. But I will not stop and falter. I am learning to embrace it, through good times and the not-so-good times. I often feel the urges of vanity and security: they want things to stay predictable and safe, feeding into my reluctance to let go.

But uncertainty is invaluable. As I learn new things, create a body of work, and absorb new experiences, new doors which were previously obscured from view will appear. New opportunities will come knocking on these doors. Some of my passions, goals, and areas of interest did not even exist a decade ago—or were previously unavailable had I not embraced uncertainty.

I am living in exciting times. I can draw a blueprint of where I want to go in my life--while accepting outcomes and being open to new possibilities that appear. That is the beauty of uncertainty.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Taking The Bullying By The Horns

There has been a good amount of recent public debate about bullying in social circles--at work, at school, and elsewhere. Public opinions range from those who callously tell the victims to grow thick skins, to those who respond with furious outrage that our society is very lenient and permissive with the perpetrators getting away with those heinous acts. This is a complex issue.

Several years ago I dreaded going into work for many months. My company went through a reorganization and experienced massive personnel turnover. One of the new team members was a personal friend of a senior level executive. I was assigned to train him on the standard procedures of help desk work. On his second day, the colleague asked me if he could deviate from the firmly-established work schedule in order to attend a food event that was taking place during the day. I politely requested that he adhere to scheduled breaks and lunch time, which was the established protocol. His face immediately turned raging red as he threw a histrionic fit, muttering nonsense about how he “was going to starve to death” that day. He adamantly ignored my logical attempts to offer alternative locations for sourcing food. That incident was just the start.

This bully on the team then decided to pawn off all of his work that he was either incapable of doing or didn’t feel like processing, and expected me to finish his assigned tasks (this was during a period at the workplace when I was expected to train other new teammates and handle administrative chores for the workgroup, in addition to completing my assigned work). Over time, his manipulative tantrums happened with greater frequency and he acted this way to both colleagues and customers. He routinely made derogatory comments about peers in other departments whom he had briefly met moments prior. He insisted on “helping” me with my work, believing that my technical skills were weak and that “I needed mentoring.” He continued his manipulative and abusive behavior in the workplace with impunity, feeling that he had some level of entitlement and protection due to his relationship with a higher-up.

Many people on the team raised concerns about this bully’s behavior with our management, but no action was taken for nine months. We were given hollow excuses such as, “Oh, he just needs more training.” We all suspected that our superiors were afraid to raise the issue of the bully’s behavior to the senior executive, and allowed the bullying behavior and toxic environment to continue, until he finally wore out his welcome.

Did the workplace culture improve after the bully got fired? Hardly. Other people on the team observed that they too can get away with abusive and demeaning behavior toward others. There was another former colleague who, after I asked him in earnest about what I could do to learn a newly-adopted product which he was a subject matter expert on, rudely yelled at me in response and told me to mind my own business. Raising the issue with management only resulted in a pusillanimous advice: “If you have questions about the system, talk to someone else on the project team."

So what can you do when a culture is broken? What do you do when earning a paycheck involves exposing yourself to a workplace where bullying is tolerated? Is it worth the decent pay, although it may seem like more a combat pay? Do you dare greatly and walk out of a well-paying workplace like professional football player Jonathan Martin recently did a month ago?

I admit that I was no angel in terms of exhibiting antisocial behavior. I learned at a young age that some bigger kids will mercilessly pick on smaller peers without giving any thoughts about the consequences of their actions. In junior high, there was a tall, gangly kid who was one year ahead of me. Every time he saw me in the hallway, he would put his fingers next to the outer edges of his eyes, raise them, and make mocking, demeaning “slanty-eyes” faces at me. This went on for an entire school year. One time he pushed me into a row of lockers in the hallway after I had walked away from his slanty-eyes act. This guy was so incessant about mocking my looks that he would take few moments away from his basketball team’s pre-game layup drills to make the face at me when I walked by. I was scared of being mocked and humiliated every time I walked in the hallways between classes: I even took mental notes of what his course schedule was so I could do my best to avoid seeing him in the hallway. I constantly asked my mom what I can do to make my eyelids grow bigger so I wouldn’t get teased. I grew resentful of my parents for moving our family from Japan to a country where mean people would act this way. So I did what most kids did: I picked and bullied smaller and younger classmates. I punched couple of kids in my gym class who were smaller that I was. I threatened kids who were few years younger than I. It was the thing to do back in the day. There were only a dozen incidents like these in my childhood and adolescence, but it felt like a survival tactic. I am not proud of them.

So what can you to put an end to bullying? I don’t have an answer. But I have a notion that negative behaviors are less likely to happen in a culture where trust, encouragement, and support are valued highly.

Elsewhere in my organization, I hear stories of colleagues who genuinely care for one another. They surprise their peers with vases of flowers to commemorate their birthdays, host baby showers for colleagues who are expecting a new family member, offer sympathy bouquets and cards for passing away of their colleagues’ animal companions, and make new teammates feel welcome by taking her or him to lunch. Another department created a culture of supportiveness and fun through making mutual encouragement of all teammates a daily habit, and incorporating occasional fun activities (such as hosting blind tastings for refreshments). At a conference I attended last month, I learned that a colleague at another institution makes it a point to make new team members feel welcomed by treating her or him as the most important person on their first day of work. Another colleague/friend from a different school places emphasis on getting to know teammates on a personal level: he takes them out to lunch, organizes after-work fun gatherings, and pursues other activities to establish trust.

Perhaps I took the encouragement given to me from my former leaders for granted, but they did many things to create positive cultures. A former manager introduced me to The Four Agreements (I strive to be impeccable with my word, not take anything personally, not make assumptions, and always do my best every day) and the ideas behind Nonviolent Communication. Other leaders encouraged to immerse myself in leadership opportunities.  Another manager nudged me to expand my leadership boundaries by loaning me Good to Great and Who Moved My Cheese? books. She also threw an impromptu cake party at the office the day after I passed the examination to become a United States citizen--I no longer felt ashamed to be that slanty-eyed seventh grader who was bullied in the hallways. This awesome culture regrettably eroded after the reorganization.

So what can I do to create a culture where bullying and toxic behaviors are less likely to happen? I don’t have a sure answer, but I know what needs to be done to steer the sails towards a general, optimal direction. I want to continue being inspired by examples of positive cultures and interactions that are happening elsewhere. I want to do my work in a way which honors my values and reflects what I believe is possible. I also want to show courage and speak out when I witness or experience toxic behaviors. I want to establish boundaries and let others know what is acceptable and what is not. Sadly I learned that no one else, including management, is going to make these changes: I have to advocate for myself and create sustaining habits through my actions.

You may be a professional football player who is earning a six-figure salary. Or you may be a school kid who is being ostracized and bullied for your looks, physical stature, ethnicity, physical handicap, sexual orientation, or other things that make you stand out. You may be a company person who is being subjected to mental or emotional abuse at the hands of others in your place of work. No one deserves being bullied, and there is no excuse for treating others in a way that sullies and stains a culture of trust which many people have worked hard to create and maintain.