Just Smile and Nod

(AI generated the image above with the prompt: A photographic image of a work team of people sarcastically giving a thumbs up. I love the creepy smiles and extra arms!)

When leaders want something from their teams, they often call a meeting. The hope is that through a successful meeting, the team will reach an agreement that creates commitment, which, in turn, leads to action and ultimately makes an impact. That’s the dream.

However, during these meetings, leaders have a limited toolkit to gain alignment. They might use their authority, hint at a quid pro quo, or mediate conflicting opinions to reach a compromise. In the end, leaders are often left interpreting comments and body language to determine whether the appearance of agreement in the meeting will translate into actual implementation of the agreement afterward. That’s the reality.

Head nods or raised thumb emojis are meant to signal agreement, but they could, in fact, mean any number of things:

  • “This is a good plan. I’m ready to make it happen.”
  • “I can live with this proposal, but don’t expect me to make it a priority.”
  • “This will never work, but I’m not going to damage my career by appearing uncooperative.”
  • “Let’s all look like we agree so we can end the meeting.”

What can a team leader do to increase the odds that agreement, or the appearance of agreement, turns into actionable commitment? Enter CADA.


CADA is a four-step alignment-building process designed to facilitate productive group discussions about a proposed course of action. By the end of a CADA discussion, a leader will know where the team stands and can feel confident that agreements will lead to action.

The four-step CADA process:

1) Be Curious

During the first part of the discussion, the team agrees to set aside their initial reactions and judgments about the proposal. Instead, they ask questions about the basis for the proposal and the implications of acting on it. For example:

  • What current situation are we addressing with the proposal? Or what desired future are we hoping to achieve by acting on the proposal?
  • What information sources were used to shape the proposal?
  • Who will be impacted by adopting the proposal? How might they react?
  • How will we know it’s working?

2) Be Analytical

In the second part of the discussion, the team makes distinctions between facts and opinions about the proposal. They ask questions about the risks and benefits of the proposal, and they apply criteria for assessing it. For example:

  • What are the pros and cons of the proposal?
  • What options were rejected? Why were they rejected?
  • What criteria should we be using to assess the proposal? Based on the criteria, how does the proposal measure up versus alternatives?
  • Given the risks, are we better off doing nothing? If we move forward, what other priorities will be impacted?

3) Be Decisive

The team reaches a conclusion. During Step 3, the team also clarifies whether they are authorized to act on the agreement or are simply making a recommendation for approval. They ask questions about their level of commitment. For example:

  • Based on our analysis, what modifications are required to get full team alignment?
  • Who else will need to weigh in before we can act on this decision? What do they need before they can approve the decision?
  • How will we talk about the decision to stakeholders?
  • What do each of us need to feel better about any aspect of the proposal that concerns us?

4) Be Accountable

The team comes to trust that each member will make good on their commitments. They ask questions about dealing with next steps and obstacles. For example:

  • What will each of us do next to move things along?
  • What barriers to successful implementation do we anticipate, and how will we deal with them?
  • How will we share information with each other about what’s working and what we’ve learned?
  • How will progress be monitored?

The key to using CADA is ensuring that everyone is in the same conversation at the same time. In other words, don’t allow people to get analytical or decisive when the focus is on being curious.

Ready or not…You’re in Charge

The state of the economy is unstable and tumultuous. Do you know what is steady and predictable? Demographics. The Pew Research Center estimates that since 2011, the number of Baby Boomers retiring has been growing year-over-year by about 2 million, and that number is on the rise. In 2020, over 29 million Boomers left the workforce.

Organizations are frantically searching for competent executives to replace the retiring Boomers. Finding replacements for senior executives seems to be the area where the need is most pressing. If you need an illustration, think about who is in charge of the Senate and the White House right now.

A lot of senior executives are retiring or should be retiring. As a result, HR professionals responsible for talent planning must pull off a magic act. They must find a way to conjure 20 years of experience out of 10 years of experience. Consequently, many of our clients are asking us to help them accelerate the readiness of high potentials to take on bigger roles.

You could make a case by taking the glass-half-full perspective. Less seasoned leaders can bring fresh ideas and structural change to our organizations. Yet according to a recent McKinsey analysis, 50% of the CEOs in the study are seen by others as having failed in their early tenure, and 90% of the CEOs wish they had handled their transition better.

Take a moment to consider how framing the issue as a need to “accelerate readiness” directs our efforts. When I hear the phrase “accelerate readiness,” I picture using a microwave instead of an oven to prepare food. The hidden presumption is that there exists some outcome called “readiness.” Ding, now you’re ready.

Just ask any new parent – you can’t ready someone for a transition that changes their life. We can prepare, but what new leaders really need is structural support, a social network, and coaching.

Structural Support

We shouldn’t simply plug a new executive into the void created by a tenured leader’s departure. The previous leader had undoubtedly shaped the routines, processes, and norms to serve their personal needs and style. New leaders should consider their preferred involvement strategies. They should be clear about how they like to communicate. They should understand their preferred methods for analyzing and synthesizing information. Knowing what it takes for new leaders to do their best work, makes it easier to establish new structures to help them perform at their best.

Social Network

Both inside and outside the organization, new leaders need to establish trusted relationships. They may need to reassess their existing relationships in light of their new role. The bigger the role, the more difficult it becomes to obtain unfiltered information. New leaders will benefit greatly from cross-boundary relationships with other new leaders. Think of it as a networking club for any senior leader in their first year on the job. For small and medium-sized businesses, it might mean joining an external networking group.


Many executives get coaches. Typically, coaches get pulled in only when a perceived problem is undermining the executive’s effectiveness. A leadership transition coach understands the unique demands of stepping into a more challenging role. Especially when people have gotten used to the way the previous leader operated in the role. A transition coach can provide objective guidance untainted by political agendas. Most organizations don’t want freshly promoted executives to broadcast their doubts and vulnerabilities. A transition coach can lend a sympathetic ear.

Maybe we’ve been asking the wrong question, or perhaps an inadequate question. It makes sense to prepare people for bigger challenges and larger roles. We should frequently review the effectiveness of our training and development efforts. At the same time, let’s think about preparing the organization not just the incoming leader. While we figure out how to accelerate the readiness of our high potentials, we should also consider how to accelerate the readiness of our organizations to support their success.

Stuck v. Unstuck

Of course, Unstuck Minds has a point of view about abortion rights and the role of governments. Lots of people have points of view. Sadly, we’ve moved beyond reconciling our viewpoints. Now we’re stuck with a fight.

Disagreements are not Battle Lines

When we hold deeply entrenched opinions, we become susceptible to the dangerous belief that the people we disagree with are our enemy. Yes, we’re worried about the loss of freedoms, rights, and democratic ideals. We are even more worried about losing our ability and willingness to solve big problems together.

We’re worried about the loss of freedoms, rights, and democratic ideals. We are even more worried about losing our ability and willingness to solve big problems together.

Let’s keep in mind that when we bring an issue into a court of law in the United States, we’re no longer seeking a solution. We’re seeking a ruling. Our country has adopted an adversarial system of law to settle disputes. Lawyers are trained to avoid nuance, complexity, and overlapping interests in favor of unassailable arguments. Once we give up on a negotiated or collaborative settlement, there’s no incentive to seek common ground.

By framing an issue as a choice between two opposing alternatives, we’re stuck devoting our energy to getting our way. If we can’t make a strong enough case for the outcome we want, we cunningly destroy the legitimacy of our adversary’s case. We no longer seek new insights and options. We simply define the battle line and pick a side. We end up with winners and losers. The losers will be expected to accept defeat and abide by the outcome they fought against.

In the wake of the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, many of us feel the sting of defeat. We feel powerless and excluded. Something vital has been lost, something we took for granted has been taken away. We’re afraid that it won’t stop with reproductive rights. We fear a cherished way of life is being systematically dismantled.

Taking a more expansive and detached perspective reveals a pattern.

In 2016, rural, religious voters felt mocked by urban elitists. They felt that they were losing their country. They rallied behind the battle cry, “Make America Great Again.” They villainized people they believed were destroying their way of life. A resentful, disenfranchised plurality of citizens put Donald Trump in office and paved the way for Trump to reshape the Supreme Court.

When we care more about consolidating power than seeking solutions, we doom ourselves to an endless battle. We give up on creativity and compassion and instead work to put our people in charge of writing the rules and refereeing the game. Why bother fixing a problem if we can manipulate the outcome to get our way?

Overreliance on Authority Figures

We will continue to face calamities like pandemics and natural disasters that require swift, expert, autocratic responses. When responding to an emergency, we want our elected leaders to gather input and make efficient, smart decisions. But not all complex issues pose existential threats. As societies advance, as citizens become more educated and capable, we should see fewer and fewer disagreements that can only be settled by empowered authorities.

We shouldn’t, for example, need the Supreme Court to dictate which books can be found on the shelves of our public-school libraries.

It’s dangerous to disengage from problem-solving and put all controversial decisions in the hands of people with power. First, we become less capable of finding a way forward together. Secondly, who we put in charge becomes more important than improving the institutions enshrining our values. For example, we stop working on the effectiveness of our public-school boards and instead focus on electing a board that will do our bidding.

When we care more about consolidating power than seeking solutions, we doom ourselves to an endless battle. We give up on creativity and compassion and instead work to put our people in charge of writing the rules and refereeing the game.

It doesn’t take any special skills of prognostication to see the makings of a vicious campaign season ahead of us. Here, in a nutshell, is every campaign ad we’ll be seeing this year:

Vote for me because I’m like you. The other candidate works for them. They want to enact laws designed to harm you. I won’t let them.

If a message like that doesn’t feel insulting, you’ve given up on thinking for yourself.

Complex problems deserve nuanced solutions. But improving how we think and connect is not easy. When we avoid thinking together in favor of letting courts and lawmakers decide, we lose faith in our ability to cooperate. How might we start?

Think better by distinguishing between inferences and observations

Develop a habit of discerning how people make the case for their opinions. Ask yourself when listening to an argument or advocacy, am I hearing inferences or observations? An inference is a conclusion. An observation is a comment on something noticed.

Many of the January 6th rioters wanted to hang Mike Pence is an inference. The word “wanted” is what turns the statement into an inference rather than a fact. Many of the January 6th rioters chanted, “Hang Mike Pence” is an observation. It’s natural to reach a conclusion about what the rioters wanted based on what they said, but when working towards a solution it’s best to build on what everyone can agree to.

Connect better by letting it RAIN

RAIN stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture (mindfulness teacher Michele McDonald, who is credited with developing RAIN, uses the N to stand for non-Identification). Psychologist and author Tara Brach has popularized the four-step meditation in numerous articles, videos, and in her book, Radical Compassion. In a brief overview of the tool, Brach describes RAIN as four steps for becoming more mindful when feeling anxious or stuck. We believe RAIN can also help when feeling upset by a confrontation or triggered by a distressing situation.

Recognize what is going on. Consciously acknowledge the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors affecting us.

Allow the experience to be there. Just as it is. Try not to fix or avoid what is happening and simply accept the reality of the experience.

Investigate with interest and care. Become curious, in a non-judgmental way about what you’re experiencing.

Nurture with self-compassion. Recognize that you’re in distress and be kind to yourself.

When you learn to be kind to yourself in moments of stress, you’ll develop the inner resources needed to be kind to others.

At Unstuck Minds, we believe that when we think better and connect better, the world becomes more creative and compassionate. Connecting better requires a belief in human dignity and a practice of empathy. Thinking better requires curiosity and a willingness to change your mind.

How to Apologize

Last week I had a conversation with my friend and colleague, Ford Hatamiya about a leadership development program he’s designing. We talked about practical ways to help organizational leaders behave more empathetically. One idea that didn’t make the cut was to teach leaders how to apologize.

There’s a scene about people’s pent-up need to hear an apology in one of my all-time favorite movies. A Thousand Clowns (1965) stars Jason Robards playing Murray, an iconoclastic comedy writer living in Manhattan. Murray risks losing custody of his nephew if continues to live his unconventional lifestyle. When Murray falls in love with Sandy (Barbara Harris), one of the social workers assigned to his case, he promises her that he’ll get his act together and find a steady job. He interviews for several jobs but can’t bring himself to accept any of them.

Knowing that he will have to explain why he turned down the offers to Sandy, he thinks about how he’ll break the news. When Sandy arrives at Murray’s apartment to cook dinner for him and his nephew, Murray offers Sandy an apology. The apology (1:26) is heartwarming, funny, and creative, but it ultimately misses the mark. In the end, Murray says the words, but doesn’t feel the feelings.

Apologies are not about what happened

Apologies are not about what you did. That’s what explanations are for. Apologies exist to repair damage and reduce harm. Admitting that you made a mistake is helpful. Demonstrating that you understand and feel remorse about the impact of that mistake is transformational.

An apology has the power to shift a relationship. A great apology creates space for generosity and compassion. Apologies bring attention to our vulnerabilities. We are altered by the offer of a heartfelt apology. The expression of the apology invites those we’ve harmed to connect with us more deeply.

Some apologies are designed to quickly reestablish a temporary imbalance. If I step on someone’s toes, the body language and tone of voice accompanying, “I’m sorry,” restores the status quo. The quick, rebalancing apology is the stuff of social norms. Like the how-are-you-I-am-fine exchange, saying “sorry” can feel more like a reflex than a concerted effort to reduce harm.

What the world needs now is More Harm Reduction

A proper apology requires virtuosic empathy. I must sit with my own feelings long enough to distill out extraneous emotions that will undermine the apology. I might feel angry that someone triggered my regrettable behavior. I might feel embarrassed by how I acted. I might feel afraid to acknowledge that I have needs I’m not proud of. All these emotions are useful to reflect on and none of them are about the impact your behavior had on others.

When we refuse to acknowledge our impact on others, shared societal challenges metastasize into uncontainable crises.

Apologies don’t require you to change your core values or deeply held beliefs. You only need to accept that we should avoid causing unnecessary harm. When we refuse to acknowledge our impact on others, shared societal challenges metastasize into uncontainable crises. Consider David Brook’s ominously titled opinion piece for the New York Times, America is Falling Apart at the Seams (July 13, 2022). In the article, Brooks catalogues the evidence for the headline’s pessimistic claim.

An Example

Let’s say I was raised to believe, like many who grew up in the Southern United States, that it’s a sign of respect to refer to people as “sir” or “ma’am.” One day I say, “Thank you, ma’am” to a stranger who holds the elevator door for me. Instead of a smile, I’m met with an icy stare. Maybe the person who held the door takes advantage of our private time in the elevator to tell me, “I’m sure you didn’t intend this, but when you refer to me as ma’am, I feel uncomfortable because I don’t identify as female.”

In the heat of the moment, a dizzying array of feelings might overwhelm me. At best, I might be able to mumble “I apologize,” as I stare at the floor indicator light, silently willing the elevator to speed up. But what happens when I encounter the same person in the elevator the following day?

Should I explain my views on gender identity? Should I minimize the incident by saying that it was just an unconscious reflex, and I didn’t mean anything by it? Should I offer helpful feedback about trying to be less sensitive? No, no, and Hell no.

When I shift my focus from my perspective to the perspective of the person who felt uncomfortable, I create the possibility for learning. I stop seeing the person as wrong and I start seeing the person as different. Again, I’m welcome to hold on to my beliefs about gender and etiquette. But to craft a real apology means legitimizing (not agreeing with) other worldviews. I’m not apologizing to keep the peace with someone I disagree with. I’m apologizing to repair harm. The person held the elevator door for me. I can reciprocate with an apology that opens the door to a new way of relating.

Here’s one version of what I might say the next time we meet:

I thought about what you said when I called you, “ma’am.” I tried to imagine what it would be like to have people invalidate me by relating to me as something I’m not. I’m sorry I did that the other day. It must have been especially maddening since you had just done me a favor. For what it’s worth, you’ve given me a lot to think about.

Too much? Maybe. Also, maybe not enough. All you need to do is find words that make things better for anyone hurt by what happened.

I started this post suggesting that crafting apologies might work as an exercise for leadership development. Even if you don’t say you’re sorry, there are benefits to simply preparing the apology. When you force yourself to articulate someone else’s perspective, you enlarge the boundaries of your tolerance.

Here’s a quick, practical, 4-step guide to apologizing from U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good in Action Website.

Now, let’s all get out there and start apologizing!

The Unstuck Mindset

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing there is a field, I will meet you there.


During the Classical Period, The Greek philosopher Aristotle explained the cosmos just as it appears, with the Sun and Moon revolving around a stationary Earth. When certain celestial objects (planets) did not move as predicted, Ptolemy figured out how to make the math work. In 270 B.C.E. some 1800 years before the Copernican Revolution, a Greek astronomer named Aristarchus proposed a Sun centered (heliocentric) cosmology. The general public could not fathom Aristarchus’ view that the Earth moved around the Sun; if the Earth was in motion, they reasoned, we’d be able to feel it move.

History gives Copernicus credit for making a heliocentric cosmology stick. Copernicus, Aristarchus, and likely others did not allow the certainty of appearances and consensus to dissuade them from considering alternatives. Copernicus and Aristarchus exhibited unstuck minds.

In 1994 South Africa ended the policy of legally enforced racial segregation known as apartheid. In 1996 President Nelson Mandela asked the Archbishop Desmond Tutu to chair South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The commission was established to investigate human rights abuses in South Africa during apartheid. As an advocate of restorative justice, Tutu proposed that the commission undertake a threefold process of confession, forgiveness, and restitution.

The TRC has been viewed by many as a model for national healing, albeit an imperfect one. In spite of the angry calls for retribution, Mandela and Tutu believed that for the oppressed to adopt the practices of the oppressors would be a betrayal of the humanistic ethics of Southern Africa known as Ubuntu. Mandela and Tutu envisioned a peaceful, thriving, multi-racial nation. Mandela and Tutu exhibited unstuck minds.

An unstuck mind develops from the disciplined application of an unstuck mindset. The term mindset describes the relatively stable assumptions and beliefs we apply to our thoughts about ourselves and about the world; it’s our way of thinking about things. In a way, “Unstuck mindset” is a useful contradiction in terms. To suggest that a mindset is unstuck is to acknowledge that we have a way of thinking about the world and at the same time acknowledge that we’re not wedded to our way of thinking.

In a way, “Unstuck mindset” is a useful contradiction in terms. To suggest that a mindset is unstuck is to acknowledge that we have a way of thinking about the world and at the same time acknowledge that we’re not wedded to our way of thinking.

When we work with clients who seek to develop their leaders’ strategic agility, we start from the premise that strategic agility benefits from an unstuck mindset. After all, being strategic means having a plan. Being agile means being able to make quick and easy movements. Putting them together means having enough certainty to choose a destination while simultaneously being attentive to signals that present viable alternatives and breakthrough options. Aristarchus and Copernicus didn’t try to fit their observations into the prevailing worldview, they wondered if the anomalies they observed might be clues to a new paradigm.

The unstuck mindset is grounded in bedrock values. The unstuck mindset trusts that learning is its own reward. The unstuck mindset presumes that as humans, we have the agency and capacity to determine our futures and solve our problems. Mandela and Tutu empathized with the pain of those calling for vengeance, yet they created an opening amidst the tensions associated with the end of apartheid for justice.

The unstuck mind develops insights by sitting with, rather than avoiding questions and tensions. Being comfortable with questions and tensions makes the space between uncertainty and certainty more habitable. The unstuck mind prefers continuums to categories. The unstuck mind thrives under conditions of ambiguity.

An unstuck mindset allows you to develop four thinking skills:

  1. How to think about the context surrounding the situation you’re dealing with, so you don’t miss something important
  2. How to think about the structures holding your current situation in place, so you don’t solve the wrong problem
  3. How to think about the desires and needs of people in your network, so that you don’t exclude diverse perspectives
  4. How to think about how you’re thinking, so that you don’t get misled by blind spots and biases

We’ve struggled to find a simple way to express what it meant to have an unstuck mindset and then we came across the image above. We’ve started referring to the young adventurer in the image as Charlie. Charlie is the embodiment of an unstuck mindset. Just look at him! Charlie has prepared himself for discovery. He is relaxed, righthand in pocket. He is undaunted, left fist pointing to his future. One gets the impression that Charlie has attempted this voyage before. Charlie willingly launches himself into the uncertainty of wide-open spaces because he understands that all the best possibilities dwell in the wide-open spaces.

How to Question our Future

A stuck mind is disabled by complexity and uncertainty. In the face of our pandemic, stuck minds are yearning for a return to normal, as if the state of the world before the virus shut things down represented some ideal. Grieving the loss of our routines and interactions makes sense. I don’t want to minimize or dismiss the impact of what we’ve lost, what we continue to lose. On the other hand, focusing on getting back what we’ve lost misses the opportunity to consider what we might bring forth.

The author William Bridges built a consulting practice around his theory of “transitions,” which describes the human experience of confronting change. Bridges points out that the way we speak about change is very different from the way we experience change. We talk about change as an event with a before and an after. However, when humans are involved in change, we don’t simply adapt to a new set of circumstances. Humans, according to Bridges move through a three-stage transition as we become familiar with and learn to accept what is different.

Ironically, the first phase of the transitions process is “the ending.” In the ending phase, we focus on what is being lost or going away. We can’t give our attention to what is changing until we’ve made peace with what’s ending. I’ll come back to the second phase in a moment.

The third and final phase of a transition, according to Bridges is the “new beginning.” In a new beginning, we tentatively accept the post-change reality. We start to alter our habits and routines and give our attention to making things work given the conditions we find ourselves in.

Bridges calls the second phase of the transition process, “the neutral zone.” The neutral zone is a time of anxiety and ambiguity. In the neutral zone, people become polarized. Some are impatient to move into a new reality while some are unwilling to accept that a former reality has ended for good.

Surprisingly, the neutral zone also provides an opportunity for creativity. When you are not stuck in the past and you are not yet habituated to a new reality, possibilities present themselves. In describing the neutral zone, Bridges (1991) wrote, “When everything is going smoothly, it’s often hard to change things… People who are sure they have the answers stop asking questions. And people who stop asking questions never challenge the status quo” (p. 36).

The Unstuck Minds Compass Model is a good source of questions in times of uncertainty and complexity. The Compass Model suggests posing questions from four different directions or dimensions:

  1. Explore the context by asking, What’s changing?
  2. Analyze current structures by asking, What’s keeping things in place?
  3. Consider social networks by asking, Who needs what?
  4. Reorient your thinking by asking, How might we reframe our challenge?

Let me provide some responses to each of the Compass Questions and invite you to add your own answers in the comments section below:

What’s Changing?

  • We’re developing a deep appreciation for essential service providers and healthcare workers.
  • We’re learning the depth of our interconnectedness in terms of social systems and infrastructure.
  • Disparities in access to services, opportunities, and basic needs are becoming even more evident.

What’s keeping things in place?

  • A false dichotomy between economic health and physical health.
  • Territorial approaches to solutions rather than collaborating across boundaries.
  • Politicizing problem-solving by only agreeing to solutions that help you maintain control and power.

Who needs what?

  • Leaders need to project competence and trustworthiness.
  • Healthcare workers need to feel safe, well-equipped, and effective.
  • Vulnerable populations need to feel protected, empowered, and able to safely access necessities.

How might we reframe our challenge?

Given what’s changing, what’s keeping things in place, and in consideration of people’s needs, the final question of the Compass Model invites us to change our questions. People with stuck minds are asking, “When can we return to normal?” People with unstuck minds recognize an opportunity to ask questions that create new futures. Here are some of my favorites:

  • What will we miss about sheltering in place that we can include in our future routines?
  • From an article in The Atlantic by Ed Yong: How might the society we return to be fairer and less vulnerable?
  • What role do we want and not want technology to play in the way we work, learn, interact, and entertain ourselves?
  • How do we make empathy and compassion a way of life when we’re not facing an emergency?

What are the questions worth asking during this time of transition for your organization?

Bridges, W. (1991). Managing Transitions, Making the most of change. New York, NY: Harper Collins

The Hierarchy of Inclusivity

Efforts to help organizations become places that welcome differences – in who we are and how we like to work – have shifted from an emphasis on diversity to an emphasis on inclusivity. An emphasis on diversity, which can be thought of as an outcome, leads to conversations about representation that often devolve into a focus on demographics. An emphasis on inclusivity, which can be thought of as a practice, leads to conversations about human needs that create opportunities to focus on structures that create and sustain unfair advantages and oppressive disadvantages.

Abraham Maslow famously represented human needs as a pyramid suggesting that we won’t be motivated to meet some needs until more foundational needs have been satisfied. For example, in Maslow’s hierarchy, we cannot work to meet our need for “love and belonging” until our physiological and safety needs have been met. I won’t seek out companionship if I’m living in fear of being harmed or being left without a livelihood.

At Unstuck Minds we have been dabbling with a framework that borrows the notion of a hierarchy of needs with a focus on inclusivity. We want to acknowledge recent conversations with our colleagues Tracy Rickard and Ford Hatamiya who have both contributed their experience with the topic to the current expression of the model. We view this post as an invitation to continue the conversation about how best to provide a simple, memorable, and powerful way for organizational leaders to explore how they practice inclusivity.

Hierarchy of Inclusion Needs

The Need to be Seen

The first section of The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (Senge, Kleiner, Roberts, Ross, and Smith, 1994) introduced many of us in the West to the African philosophy of Ubuntu. Senge, et al. shared the Zulu phrase, Umuntu ngumuntu nagabantu, which translates as: “A person is a person because of other people” (1994, p. 3). In a sense, your acknowledgement of me brings me into existence.

The Ubuntu philosophy explains the significance of the Zulu greeting, Sawubona, which literally translates as: “I see you.” Each encounter with someone becomes a reaffirmation of our coexistence and interdependence. In writing and directing the 2009 movie Avatar, James Cameron imbues the Na’vi, the native population of the fictional planet Pandora, with a version of the Ubuntu philosophy. In Na’vi, the greeting, Oel ngati kame, also means, “I see you.”

If I don’t feel seen at work, I will not identify with my organization. I will see my workplace as a foreign territory I periodically visit. It will feel risky to reveal myself to others.

The Need to Belong

David McClelland, an American psychologist most noted for his work on motivation theory, popularized the concept of affiliation needs. McClelland thought of affiliation as a fundamental need to feel a sense of involvement and belonging with a social group.

Researcher, author, and world-renown speaker Brené Brown has made “belonging” a centerpiece of her message about the power of vulnerability. Brown, like McClelland describes belonging as an innate human desire. For Brown our need to belong sometimes manifests as a desire to “fit in” that ironically separates us from others because we are hiding our authentic, imperfect selves.

If I don’t feel like I belong at work, I will not support my organization. I will see work as a marketplace where I trade my effort for pay. I play a role at work the same way that a car-engine part plays a role in making the car move. When my capacity to serve my function is diminished, I expect to be replaced.

The Need to Matter

Following the rubric of a hierarchy, until I feel seen, I won’t try to belong. Until I feel like I belong, I won’t work to establish my distinctiveness; a distinctiveness that demonstrates how I matter. When I no longer question whether or not I’m a recognized and accepted part of my organization, I can seek out ways to be significant to my organization.

Will Schutz, an American Psychologist, author, and creator of the psychometric instrument known as the FIRO-B® described “significance” as the primary feeling associated with our need for inclusion. For Schutz, to feel significance is to “…know that I make a difference, am an important person, am meaningful and worthwhile” (1994, p. 31).

If I don’t feel that I matter at work, I will not contribute my creativity, ingenuity, or discretionary effort. My organization has become a comfortable place where I understand the routines and people count on me to do my part. I might embellish the odd assignment with a personal touch in order to express myself, but eventually my yearning for meaning and for being consequential will alienate me from my organization and I will seek self-esteem elsewhere.

Applying the Framework

If you are a target of the “isms” that undermine social cohesion and human development (racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, etc.), it makes sense that you would feel worn out and angry by a daily struggle to be seen, to belong, and to matter. If you have the good fortune to fit your society’s preferred identities, your world has been set up to facilitate your requirements for being seen, belonging, and feeling like you matter.

Frameworks can help us see invisible structures. If we can’t see how structures cause harm, we can’t talk about them. If we can’t talk about them, we can’t dismantle them. Over the course of your day, how much energy do you expend trying to be seen, trying to belong, and trying to matter? Now pose that question to someone who experiences society as inhospitable.

Senge, P., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R.B., & Smith, B.S. (1994). The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. New York, NY: Doubleday

Schutz, W. (1994). The Human Element: Productivity, self-esteem, and the bottom line. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Who Gets to Pose the Question?

Last week, my friend and colleague Michael Reidy shared a powerful insight with me. I had just completed an overview of the Unstuck Minds Method at an Interaction Associates gathering. During the overview I showed a slide contrasting questions asked by leaders before applying the Unstuck Minds method (left-hand column in the table below) and the corresponding reframed questions developed during various workshops over the last couple of years (right-hand column in the table below).

The left hand column lists questions the leaders started with, questions about situations where the leaders felt stuck. The premise behind the Unstuck Minds Method is that leaders, teams and organizations can get stuck simply by pursuing a flawed question. We refer to such questions as “Quicksand Questions.” By contrast, the questions in the right-hand column help us move forward in ways we haven’t considered. We call questions that allow for novel options, “Unstuck Minds Questions.”

Before I share with you what Michael saw, what do you notice about the difference between the Quicksand Questions and the Unstuck Minds Questions?

Michael pointed out that the questions on the left are asked from a position of power and authority. The people asking the questions on the left see progress as possible only when others are persuaded to change. By contrast, the questions on the right support the needs of those who lack formal authority, but without whom we can’t make sustainable progress.

Michael’s insight got me thinking about the role of power and control when it comes to posing questions. You need only watch a congressional hearing to see how status differences play out between the questioners and the questioned. It’s not just formal or political inquiry that introduces a power dynamic. Even the most innocent and sincere questioner can intentionally or unintentionally direct an interaction’s focus. Consider for example, the insatiable curiosity of young children.

Four-year-olds (and occasional precocious three-year-olds) ask a lot of questions. We talk about the power of the “beginner’s mind” or the curiosity of children who often pose the most interesting questions because they haven’t learned to limit their thinking by what makes sense (Have a look at the clip, “How Does Life Live?”).

We assume that the questions of children are motivated by pure curiosity. I’ve begun to wonder whether something else might also be going on. Imagine how empowering it must feel to suddenly be controlling interactions with adults. The four-year-olds who have been in the role of responders even before they had language suddenly have adults following their lead. The child poses a barrage of questions and the adults comply with responses.

The questions people ask about the situations they want to change reveal a lot about what they are thinking and feeling. Asking better questions may not simply improve the quality of our thinking. Asking better questions may reveal and diminish the hidden power dynamics keeping us stuck.