I’m a 60-year old, white, heterosexual, cisgender male. I’m not apologizing; that’s just how it has turned out for me.
I mention the circumstances of my existence and identity because I want to offer something useful to promote diversity, inclusion and equity on our teams and in our workplaces. I make this offer in spite of my identity and circumstances (or maybe because of my identity and circumstance).
I’m experimenting with a card deck of questions that you can download for free at Unstuck Minds. I’m imagining that a facilitator or team leader would bring people together, shuffle the cards and place them face down on a table. A group of people who want to better understand and appreciate one another would take turns picking a card and reading the question out loud. Any member of the group with a personal experience to share in response to the question speaks up with an answer and/or an example. The leader or facilitator closes out the session by asking for insights.
I have listed the questions below if you’d rather not bother downloading and printing off the questions in the form of cards. I would love to hear what you think of the questions and how you use them. I will happily update the deck based on new questions that people submit or revise questions based on suggested edits. Bookmark this blog post so you can submit new questions in the comments section. Indicate whether you like or dislike the questions so we can decide which new questions get included in an updated deck.
D.I.E.T. Deck Questions
What do you believe is among the first things people you meet at work notice about you? What would you rather they notice about you?
In what retail store do you feel most at ease? Why?
You’re walking into your first meeting with a team of people you’ve never met. The others have been working together for a year. What do you most want the team leader to do to help you feel like you belong?
What do your co-workers not get about you… that you wish they did?
What language was spoken in the home you grew up in that is not spoken at work?
What did a memorable teacher do to make it easier for you to learn when you struggled with a subject or topic?
Which of your colleagues is worn out by a non-stop series of interactions? How do you know?
When you board public transportation and walk down an aisle to find a seat, what do you assume the people who are seated think when they notice you?
What do you wish recent college graduates understood about what it takes to be successful?
What do you wish people who will be retiring in the next 15-20 years understood about people just entering the workforce?
How would you feel about being forced to use a bathroom designated for a different gender?
How important is it for a cafeteria at school or work to accommodate dietary restrictions (e.g. allergies to the presence of certain foods, religious dietary laws, diets based on health or ethics, etc.)?
What assumptions grant you an unearned advantage over others (e.g. “Tall people are good at basketball,” so you get chosen to play based on your height – Thank you for this example, @Stephanie Walton)?
What do you need to use that is designed badly for someone like you?
What do you have in common with someone at work who is very different than you, something you were surprised to discover?
What’s an example of something in our organization that is rigged against people like you?
What’s an example of language or jargon used by a group at work that seems designed to exclude others?
What do you “just deal with” at work, even though it puts you at a disadvantage?
Bonus Question: What’s the name of the person who cleans the toilets at your workplace? What else do you know about them?
As I write this post I’m sitting in my Beijing hotel room,
the haze outside my window as impenetrable as the language. I arrived in China a
few days ago to work with a group of leaders on the topic of adaptability and
agility. It’s only now occurring to me that the participants in the program
weren’t the only ones developing their adaptability and agility.
Speaking of “impenetrable,” this week astronomers using a
global network of radio telescopes captured an image of a black hole.
Heretofore, the black hole only existed hypothetically. Einstein’s equations
predicted black holes and astronomers have detected indirect evidence of their
existence. Now they’ve captured a glimpse of one, or more accurately captured a
glimpse of the event horizon surrounding a black hole. The event horizon is the
boundary, beyond which nothing, not even light can escape. It marks the border
between our familiar universe and a place where all physical laws break down.
And speaking of a breakdown of laws, we are now in the second half of the Trump administration. Even as we become inured to the word, “unprecedented,” Trump continues to enjoy the support of millions of Americans. More and more it seems we are drawing geopolitical event horizons around groups of people; we cannot escape our event horizons and the rules we play by operate differently on either side.
I continue to feel disoriented by the state of our politics. The current White House seems like a black hole, except that information occasionally leaks out and we get a look at a place where the laws of decorum and maybe the laws of justice are breaking down. This week I also felt disoriented as I attempted to make my way around the Wangjing Sub-district of Beijing.
Interestingly, as I reflected on my own challenges with adaptability, I started to understand something about support for Trump that has eluded me.
I’ll explain what I mean with a slightly embarrassing story about what happened when I arrived.
Let me start by saying that I travel nearly every week for
work and I’ve taken dozens of trips overseas. This week was my fourth visit to
China. The difference is that in the past I’ve been pampered. Generally, when I
visit Asia I’m part of an International group hosted by one of my clients. I’m
greeted at the airport, transported to my hotel and there is always a helpful
person nearby to translate and offer guidance. This week, I had to make my own
Being an experienced traveller and a neurotic human being, I
planned meticulously. I downloaded useful Apps; I printed all my destinations
in Chinese characters to show taxi drivers, I made sure that my phone and
credit cards would all work. Still, I felt anxious and used up a lot of mental
energy imagining what might go wrong.
I landed at Beijing International airport and found my way
to the taxi stand. I stood in a long queue of people; I looked like I didn’t
belong and I felt like I didn’t belong (a useful experience for a white male
Baby Boomer American who travelled to China to teach something about
adaptability). A guy approached me and in broken English explained that he
would take me to my hotel. I was well aware that this was an attempt to take
advantage of me and yet in my jet-lagged, anxious state of mind, I agreed. I
asked about the price and he kept saying, “meter price.” When we arrived at the
hotel, he showed me a card with a price on it (the meter was never turned on).
When I objected to the price, his English got worse. In the end, I paid ten
times the appropriate taxi fare. My driver was an opportunist who made me an
offer that I would never have accepted if I hadn’t been stressed out and
disoriented. In a situation where nothing was making sense, I went with
something that made sense; even while knowing it wasn’t good for me.
We make bad decisions when we experience stress and being disoriented is a particular kind of stress. I anticipated feeling disoriented because I chose to travel to a place where many of the norms I take for granted don’t apply. I was prepared to feel out-of-place and I still let someone take advantage of me.
Imagine feeling disoriented not because you chose to travel to a foreign land, but because your home no longer felt familiar. You look around and suddenly notice that the rules have changed; the most popular and influential people don’t share your values. The people in positions of power make fun of people like you. It’s as if you are standing in a line and suddenly feel unsure that waiting in the line will get you what you want. Someone appears who has learned to speak enough of your language that you feel a bit more in control. At some level you understand that he’s only looking out for himself, but at least the situation makes sense to you.
I realize now that the appeal of preserving our routines and our priorities is not simply about conservatism. Sometimes when you’re worn out and worried, even a huckster can feel like a port in a storm.
Aikido is a Japanese martial art form with spiritual roots that can be traced back to Shintoism. Aikido emphasizes harmony and unity. Aikido practitioners learn to defend themselves while simultaneously protecting their attacker from injury.
Consider the difference between aikido and boxing. The
purpose of Aikido is to reconcile disharmony. The purpose of boxing is to
overpower your opponent. Which practice most closely matches your assumptions
In The West, we tend to think of influence as persuasion. When we equate influence with persuasion, we seek out techniques designed to make an impression and overcome objections. We develop our ability to verbally spar by learning how to jab and when to counterpunch. Advanced techniques include lowering your guard by pretending to listen when in fact you’re simply inviting your opponents to expose the weakness in their arguments.
In theory, we don’t have opponents at work; we have colleagues. In some cases, we want to influence our colleagues because we hold incompatible opinions about something. Most often, we want to influence our colleagues by being included in their thought processes. The lawyer wants to consult with decision makers before they sign a contract. The engineer wants their concerns about safety or quality to be taken seriously before promises are made to a customer. The HR business partner wants a leader to consider the implications of an organizational change on employee engagement, capability, and trust before setting the change in motion.
Setting aside structural or cultural explanations for why someone with authority might not seek out or even welcome input from an expert, what will it take for your input to become influential? If you frame your goal as persuasion, you’ll adopt techniques for packaging your point of view. If you frame your goal as reconciling disharmony, you’ll approach interactions with curiosity and empathy. I have written about “collaborative influence” in a white paper called, “How to Change a Mind; Yours and Others.” I have also proposed a thought framework that differentiates forms of influence in a blog post.
To get you started, here are three questions you can consider before attempting to influence someone at work:
Under what conditions are you most open to changing your mind?
Under what conditions are the people you hope to influence most open to changing their minds?
How might you create the conditions everyone needs that makes mind changing easier?
In October of 1962, through a series of backchannel negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Cuban Missile Crisis came to an end when Attorney General Robert Kennedy met with Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin to broker a deal involving the removal of US missiles in Turkey. The US had planned to decommission the missiles in Turkey anyway, but including the removal of the missiles as part of the settlement allowed Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev to privately claim to officials in the Kremlin that he had won a concession from the US. The solution worked because it satisfied a web of needs and interests.
In my last blog post I described distinctions among three groups of stakeholders that we often consider as having homogeneous needs and interests: the consumer, the client and the customer. I defined consumers as the group who ultimately adopts a solution, the client as the individual requesting a solution, and the customer as the individual or group who authorizes or pays for the solution. I suggested that those of us in the business of designing solutions would be well served by paying attention to the distinctions.
Since presenting the distinctions at a community forum for
learning and development leaders, I’ve had several conversations about the
differences among customers, consumers, and clients, all of which suggest to me
broader applicability of the concept. For example, in the case of the Cuban
Missile Crisis, The Kennedy brothers and their advisors crafted a solution. The
solution worked because the customer, Khrushchev (who authorized the solution)
needed the consumers of the solution (The Kremlin officials including
Khrushchev) to get something they needed (a demonstration of their sovereignty).
The client, Dobrynin acting on behalf of the customer, requested and helped
shape the solution.
Human centered design, but which humans?
For the last several years organizations have focused attention on helping their leaders become more innovative. Design thinking has been the methodology of choice for teaching leaders how to spur innovation. Design thinking is founded on the premise that innovative solutions depend on insights about people and their needs. Until an interesting idea or new invention gets adopted by people who see it as a way to get their needs met, you may have a novel creation, but you don’t have an innovation.
I now see that one of the challenges I have encountered in
translating design thinking for organizational leaders has been assuming that
the customer, the client, and the consumer all want the same thing. If you’re
designing a consumer product for, say a packaged goods company, the client (who
asked for your help) and the customer (the functional leader whose budget will
pay for your help) want you to focus on the needs of the consumer. For the most
part the interests of the client, customer, and consumer are shared.
If you’re designing a new manufacturing process, the needs of the client (my boss put me in charge of this project), the needs of the customer (my bonus depends on increasing throughput by 10%) and the needs of the consumer (The company is changing the way I do my job) may create a misalignment of interests.
Design thinking means starting with people and their needs, but it’s not always obvious which people to start with. When tensions exist between needs, whose needs take priority?
An HR business partner asks you to coach a leader
In this case, your client is the HR business partner. The
consumer is the leader getting coached. The customer may not be obvious. Maybe
the leader’s manager came to the HR business partner asking for help. On the
other hand, someone responsible for talent development may have identified the
leader as ready for promotion and sees coaching as a tool to prepare the leader
for new challenges. If you don’t consider the needs of the person authorizing
the coaching request, you may be missing important context for your coaching
A leader requests a training program for her team
In this case your client and your customer are the same
person. The consumers are the team members being asked to attend a training
program. If you develop a training solution by assuming that the needs of the
customer are aligned with the needs of the consumers, your well-crafted
instructional design may fall on deaf ears.
An executive team asks for an update on a project you’re
Your manager requested that you put together a few slides on the project and present at the next executive team staff meeting. The manager is your client. The executive team is both customer and consumer. They authorized the solution (your presentation) and they will use (as consumers) the information you present. It would be easy in this case to ignore the needs of your manager. After all, your manager reports to one of the executives you’ll be presenting to. On the other hand, your manager reports to one of the executive you’ll be presenting to! What are the consequences of ignoring your managers unexpressed needs when designing your presentation? In what ways does the presentation represent an opportunity for you and your manager?
Consider a challenge you’re currently working on. Who asked you to take on the challenge? Who, ultimately will authorize and/or pay for your recommended solution? Who will need to alter their behavior in order to adopt your solution? To what extent are three stakeholder groups’ needs aligned?
The consumer said to the customer, “I could really use a cognac.” The customer told the client, “I can only afford a beer.” The client asked the bartender, “What do you have that tastes like a cognac for the price of a beer?”
If, like the bartender you sell solutions (sorry), some off-the-shelf and some customized, you would be well served (again, my apologies) to recognize the difference between the needs of a client, a customer and a consumer. In the case of an actual bar, the three roles reside most often in a single thirsty person with money. When it comes to pitching organizational solutions, the roles are spread out and sometimes obscure.
Let me stop belaboring the metaphor and define my terms. I will use the example of selling learning solutions, but the same distinctions apply whether you design and deliver technology solutions, organizational change solutions or solutions in the form of expert advice.
Consumer (of a learning solution): The learner or participant in a learning process
Customer (of a learning solution): The person(s) who will fund the design and delivery of the learning solution sometimes called, “the sponsor.” By “fund” I mean they are literally paying for the solution or have decision-making authority to direct resources to the design and delivery of the solution.
Client (of a learning solution): The person authorized by the customer to identify solution providers and work with solution providers to get the solution designed and delivered.
When responding to requests for learning solutions, we often
presume that the client and customer have equivalent or at least aligned needs
and interests. We also presume that chief among their interests are meeting the
learning needs of the consumer.
Often, and especially in larger organizations, neither the client nor the customer will receive the learning solution. Furthermore, the client is often more beholden to the customer than the consumer even though they are making design decisions on behalf of the consumer. If you want to increase the odds of having your solutions see the light of day, you’ll want to identify who is listening to your proposals as a client, who is listening as a customer and who is listening as a consumer.
Here are some questions you can pose to better understand
the needs of each role:
Questions for the Customer
How will successful implementation of the
solution support your priorities and commitments?
What do you most fear could go wrong if we miss
something important when designing or delivering the solution?
Questions for the Client
How does getting this solution implemented relate
to your organizational responsibilities?
Who in the organization is approving resources for
(paying for) this solution? How will they decide if you have served them well?
Questions for the Consumer
How do you experience the problem we’ve been asked to solve?
Describe the type of solutions you find most helpful and easiest to adopt?
Ideally the needs of the customer, the client and the
consumer of your solutions overlap. If not, you may need to dig deeper to find
areas of shared interest. Otherwise, the consumer will be served something they
don’t want, the customer will only focus on the budget and the client will give
you mixed signals as you try to concoct a suitable solution.
It’s that time of year when goals are set and performance contracts
renewed. The official corporate clipboard awaits this year’s scorecard. Santa
is not the only one who keeps a list.
Consider your most important relationships: family,
life-long friends, partner or spouse. It would be bizarre to judge the
relationship based on a scorecard that tracks what you get compared to what you
give. In fact, when you stop being grateful for having someone in your life and
start comparing what you give to what you get from that person, it’s a sign
that the relationship is deteriorating.
If you manage others or work in a function responsible for
improving relations between employee and employer, it’s likely that you want people
to feel a stronger emotional connection to their work. What happens to the
relationship when success gets defined in terms of an exchange of value?
In 1923, the scholar, philosopher and political activist, Martin Buber published his most famous work, I and Thou. The essay contrasts two ways of relating to the world: The I-It relationship and the I-Thou relationship. An I-It relationship presumes a distinction between subject and object. In an I-It world, we move around like billiard balls bumping into one another and experiencing temporary exchanges. We are tempted to perceive the world and talk about the world in an I-It way because that’s how things seem to us. We experience ourselves as self-contained and impervious to the stuff we encounter.
Despite how it seems, Buber suggests that reality is not about subjects (us) being separate or apart from what we experience as objects (not us). Rather, as we encounter others and things we enter into a dialogue, a transformation. An I-Thou way of relating reveals what we share rather than what differentiates. Describing the I-Thou relationship is a challenge for our language and our Western ways of thinking. Suffice to say that in those moments when we feel transcendent connections, when we lose ourselves in an experience we’ve had a close encounter of the I-Thou kind.
When we define a work relationship in terms of what gets exchanged between employee and employer, we highlight our boundaries rather than our mutuality. We reject our interdependence. Our I-It work relationship is not much different than the one between a thirsty person with money and a vending machine with beverages.
If it’s true that younger workers crave purpose and meaning,
we may need to reevaluate how we evaluate. Rather than asking your boss: What
incentives and compensation will I get for meeting and exceeding my objectives
this year? Try this question instead: How will we share responsibility for each
other’s success this year?
The story goes that my parents met with my sixth grade science teacher during a school open house and when they asked him how I was doing in class, he told them, “Well, you know what we say about Jay; often wrong, but never in doubt.” I will never know for sure what happened during the open house because my mother always opted for the version of any event that made for the better story.
During a dinner party shortly after the visit with the science teacher, she shared the comment with Dora and Bernie Jacobs, friends of my parents that I had known my whole life. After hearing the story, Bernie dubbed me with the nickname, “Often.” Forty-odd years after that parent-teacher conference, I told the story to Nancy Southern, the chair of my dissertation committee. She seemed to enjoy the punch line a little too much. “Still?” I remember thinking to myself, “I’m still an insufferable know-it-all?”
After trying out several colleges and even more majors, I stumbled upon philosophy. I felt strangely secure amidst the constant state of philosophical uncertainty. Come to think of it, maybe I was so committed to never being wrong that I eagerly embraced a discipline in which nobody was ever right. I loved being part of a community of people who argued in order to make ideas more beautiful and unassailable. I became a contradiction in terms, a devout doubter. I concluded that what others saw in me as a lack of doubt, I saw as unwillingness to accept ideas at face value.
I loved studying philosophy, but I dreaded coming home on breaks and talking to adults who wanted to ask me about school.
Jacobs: What are you studying in school?
Jacobs: What are going to do with that?
I would usually come up with some jokey deflection to mask my true feelings about being asked, “What are you going to do with that?” “I’ll open a philosophy shop,” I would say. Or, “I’ll go into foodservice like everybody else with a liberal arts degree.” By the way, I did actually go into foodservice although I feel like the phrase, “I went into foodservice” overstates the situation. I got a job washing dishes; twenty years later I headed a corporate training and development department for a chain of casual theme restaurants. I guess you could say that foodservice got into me.
Dora Jacobs, with her perfectly reasonable yet irritating question about what I would do with a degree in philosophy is in good company. For years, the quickest way to undermine my credibility with colleagues and clients was to mention my undergraduate degree. I offer in evidence Episode 5 of Season 2 of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series, “Newsroom.” In one scene, the Director of the news division, Charlie Skinner played by the archetypically avuncular Sam Waterston is having a conversation in his office with an old naval intelligence buddy named Shep. Shep asks after Charlie’s daughter:
She’s in Amherst.
What’s she majoring in?
do you do with a philosophy degree?
It takes all the energy I have not to ask that question at Thanksgiving
Et tu, Aaron Sorkin?
It has taken me years to recognize that I avoided answering the question, because I felt insulted by the presumption that learning is a means to an end. Learning, like humanity vis-à-vis Kant’s Categorical Imperative, is for me an end in itself. (Hah! Take that Dora Jacobs).
Training in philosophy is like training to be a miner. Students of philosophy learn to recognize rich veins of inquiry and use the tools of the trade to open them up and assess their worth. We spend most of our time in the dark and below the surface. The sane ones come up to the surface and return to friends and family between shifts. The lost ones confuse the mine for reality. If you think I’m being overly critical of a noble academic discipline, consider that both Socrates and Wittgenstein likened philosophers to flies. The former thought of philosophers as gadflies to the state, the latter claimed that the aim of philosophy is to “show the fly the way out of the bottle.”
Because I had supported myself with foodservice work in college, I was able to parlay my sorting skills (thoughts and silverware) into a job as a restaurant manager. For me, the way out of the bottle was busyness. When hungry customers are lining up at the door, when servers and cooks are squabbling in the kitchen, and when bartenders are running out of clean glassware, the manager has no time to ponder the ethics of serving meat or whether alcohol influences the nature of truth. Eventually, somebody with authority decided that I was hardworking and thoughtful and rewarded me with a promotion to the corporate office. I now had my first office job. A job that involved running around less and thinking more. I was being lured back into the bottle.
Early in my corporate career, I received a performance review warning me that I was developing a reputation for being “quodlibetic.” Seriously, my boss included the word, “quodlibetic” in my performance appraisal. According to the Merriam Webster on-line dictionary, the word, “quodlibetic” means consisting or of the nature of a quodlibet: purely academic; also: characterized by or fond of academic discussion. I imagine my old boss wearing out a thesaurus to find a way to gently criticize me for derailing conversations with impractical questions and quibbling over inconsistencies in the way my co-workers expressed their ideas. I understood the feedback, but secretly I took it as a compliment.
Several years and a few promotions later I found myself working in an even larger corporate office for an even larger foodservice company. As a team leader, I was invited to attend a leadership development workshop led by an upbeat and inspiring woman named Linda Dunkel. Linda led us through a transformative three-day workshop called Facilitative Leadership®, a workshop designed by a Boston-based consulting and training company called, Interaction Associates. The moment Linda referenced Aristotle’s Rhetoric during a lesson on how to share an inspiring vision, I should have known that I would end up working for Interaction Associates.
Which brings me to the plot twist and the reason for this post. After nearly twenty years as a consultant with Interaction Associates, and more than thirty years after getting my undergraduate degree, it turns out that the world sorely needs philosophers. Specifically, the world needs leaders and citizens with thinking skills designed for conditions of uncertainty, ambiguity, and change. In fact, I would argue that the global ascendency of nationalism represents an inability to adapt when one’s worldview is challenged. If nothing else, training in philosophy prepares you to question world-views, including your own. It may be comforting to hold on to assumptions that no longer serve us, especially assumptions that shape our identity. Unfortunately, comfort holds us back; comfort settles for the status quo. The faster things change, the more tempting it becomes to blame change rather than blame our capacity to adapt. Without the ability to pause temporarily for philosophically detached reflection, we end up with rising levels of anxiety and divisiveness.
In the Fifteenth Century, it was reasonable to think that our Sun circles a flat Earth because that was how it seemed. The answers and knowledge of the Fifteenth Century comforted our ancestors, but also kept them stuck in their ways. Leaps of progress are not born of answers; transformative progress results from changing the questions. As questions improve, answers lose their footing, which clears the way for better questions. Before Newton, “Why does the apple fall to the ground?” was the best form of the question. After Newton, the question became, “Why do objects like the Earth and an apple attract one another?” After Einstein, the question became, “How does the Earth’s warping of space-time and the apple’s warping of space-time explain the two objects getting closer to one another?” As we continue to explore and learn about the universe at very large and very small scales, new insights and hypotheses arise that continue to shape the way we pose the question. Some theoretical physicists studying “dark matter” and “dark energy,” conclude that the phenomenon we describe as “gravity” is an illusion in the same way that the phenomenon we experience as “temperature” becomes meaningless at the microscopic level.
Until schools stop shoveling test answers into the heads of our children in the name of learning, we will have to reacquaint adults with the curiosity that came naturally to them as kids. When we become skilled at asking better questions, better questions will feel less scary and more practical. As a starting point, consider inviting a philosophy major to your next meeting.