For years, I’ve been saying that I don’t know how the world of our dreams would come about. The gap between what I see in the world and what I want to see is so vast, that I don’t have any linear “theory of change” that makes sense to me. For some weeks now, I’ve been going to sleep, many nights, thinking about what could bring about a true shift to a collaborative future given how completely intertwined all the pieces of the existing social order are.
In my recently published book Reweaving Our Human Fabric: Working Together to Create a Nonviolent Future, I humbly acknowledge my inability to show a path. Instead, I do two things in that book. One is looking at where we are and what we can do, now, in this world, to move in that direction, however small the steps are. The building blocks I see are a disciplined commitment to nonviolence, to learning how to work together with others to reclaim collaboration, and to a massive revision of our understanding of power and leadership. The other focus of the book is on painting as vivid an image as possible of what a fully collaborative future can look like, so as to inspire and nurture these commitments and to provide a direction to move in.
This dual focus – a strong uncompromising vision of what’s possible on a big scale combined with a very concrete and practical approach to living now, as individuals and within groups and organizations – is the essential nature of what I do in my work overall. In that way, as well as others, I strive to learn from Gandhi, who called himself a “practical idealist.”
Just recently, on a call with people from about eight different countries who are aiming to put into practice and share with others what they have learned from me and my materials, I asked out loud: what is it that we think we are doing, those of us bringing NVC to the world? Are we teaching people how to communicate, or are we sowing seeds for transforming the global social order?
As someone committed to the latter, and as a finite mortal, I want to aim for sowing and watering the seeds most likely to sprout. And I can’t always tell which those might be, so I am also committed to the humility of knowing that life includes magic and the unexpected. This makes the task of evaluating my own efforts almost impossible. Since I cannot bring about the large scale revamping of our global social order, I don’t know of any external measure for how to gauge the effectiveness of my work. Instead, I use an intuitive gut sense of the potential ripples of everything I do while trying to bring my all to wherever I am, whoever I am with, because of never knowing what might create bigger transformation than I imagined possible.
And so it is that on the practical plane I have chosen to focus on leadership and collaboration. Sometimes I think of what I do as supporting those with a collaborative consciousness to adopt an attitude of leadership, and those in leadership positions to regain both a commitment to and skills in collaboration, most especially collaborative leadership.
While it may seem simple enough, it really isn’t. I am learning more and more about the immense challenges facing leaders who attempt to move towards more collaboration, both within themselves and in engaging with others. Similarly, individuals who choose to empower themselves to move towards leadership in all their affairs, also encounter significant obstacles, both internally and beyond.
True to form, I start with vision before moving to the very real challenges.
A Vision for Dealing with Performance Challenges
The example I am using here is adapted from a real-life situation at a company I am supporting, leaving the nature of the production vague and the names changed to support confidentiality. I am completely sidestepping the question of whether or not in a more collaborative future economy production and distribution of goods will be done in ways that resemble what we do now.
Jim has a role within this small manufacturing company that requires him to coordinate schedules with, and report on activities to, several different units within the company. They, in fact, partially depend on his reports for knowing how much and when they need to produce. For a while now, he hasn’t delivered his data reliably, leaving the managers of these different units to operate partially in the dark. Needless to say, they are quite unhappy. In the real-life situation, to which I plan to return shortly, they came to Alex, their manager, instead of directly to Jim, to express their concerns. Alex, in turn, went to Iona, the CEO, who is the person I am directly supporting, leaving her in an exceedingly challenging situation given her own deep commitment to shifting all operations to collaborative, self-managing modes.
Luckily, in this moment I am focused on vision, and so I can tell you a little story, entirely fictional and yet real, about how this kind of situation is handled in a future, collaborative world. Please sit back and let your imagination loose as you read the following.
To begin with, feedback giving and receiving is built into the operations of this fictional future company, just as it is all over the world. There isn’t even a need to call a special meeting, because they are regularly done. Everyone knows how crucially important it is to have a flow of feedback, and it is seen as a precious gift to receive and a privilege to give. Its purpose is learning together how to function better, how to serve the purpose of the organization or group more effectively. It has nothing to do with criticism, shaming, reward, or punishment of any kind. (Please take a pause here to imagine what a shift this could be.)
In this kind of climate, it is highly unlikely that the managers in question would notice a decline in reliability for any significant length of time without bringing it up in their next meeting with the Jim of the future, without ever needing to involve the Alex or Iona of the future, to whatever extent their roles would exist. Why delay it? There need not be any reluctance, since there is no harm to Jim from hearing it, no break in connection, not even a drop in harmony. I have such relationships, and I know. I just got an email from someone on staff at BayNVC, for example, who brought up some challenging topic and said: “I so appreciate the opportunity to have these conversations with you.” In our world, this is the exception. In the world of the future, this is the norm.
Part of what makes it so unremarkable in that future world is that the intention of the feedback is for everyone’s benefit, including Jim’s. Depending on the cause of the reduced performance, very different kinds of steps will be taken to improve it.
Is there something going on in Jim’s life that’s making him stressed and therefore less able to focus on his tasks? Imagine this future, where having personal challenges is not something you hide and hope for the best; it’s something you can actually get support with in your workplace, because it is recognized that personal lives affect our ability to contribute, and maximizing our ability to contribute is a shared social goal. How lovely will our lives be in this future, where empathic resources are widely available, utilizing resources within the organization or in the community.
Is it that something changed in the flow of production, with or without anyone choosing it, which is making the task more challenging? In this future, it is no longer taboo to express such concerns. Jim would not be penalized for speaking up about such changes. Instead, every exchange of feedback can turn into mutual feedback which can help everyone realize that there is, perhaps, a systemic block to delivering the necessary information because of unforeseen consequences from some other process change in the company. Complexity is inherent in life, and we cannot anticipate everything. A free-flowing conversation, without fear of reprisals, can lead to rapid systemic learning. In that case, those present might initiate a brainstorming session to consider possible solutions that retain the intended outcomes of the original change as well as aiming for ways to undo the negative unintended consequences. Such a session would include at least those responsible for the previous change, plus Jim, the affected managers, and others who may wish to join in or whose imaginative, brainstorming, or facilitation gifts are particularly wanted. Following such a session, and depending on outcome, a smaller team would likely emerge that will work on tweaking the system in question. No harm to anyone, just learning.
Finally, is the source of the loss of reliability due to burnout, loss of capacity, or reduction in motivation? In that case, Jim and others would engage in an inquiry to identify whether anything could change to support him in regaining capacity, or whether the best outcome would be to assign him to a different role, within this organization or elsewhere. In a world in which work is done based on willingness and capacity, with the primary intention of contribution, and fully divorced from
sustainability a person’s ability to sustain themselves, there would be no serious harm done to anyone from being re-assigned. (Again, as much as you might find it unbelievable or unrealistic, please take a moment to consider the possibility that we can create a world in which sufficiency of resources for basic human needs is generally guaranteed. And – of course there will be challenges and problems to solve, and I tell stories about twelve of them in my new book, and have posted three online.) Jim would then train the new person, and a transition process that maximizes continued flow and effective use of resources would be designed.
Coming back to Our Current Reality
Now we can come back to the actual dilemma that Iona is facing. What is she going to do with Alex, Jim’s manager, who in real-life has actually just handed in his resignation, because her overall enthusiasm for collaboration and self-management is too much of a stretch for him? What about Jim, how can she engage with him meaningfully, especially given that he has just jumped on the opportunities opened up and has volunteered to take on a leadership role and facilitate the weekly managers meeting? And how can she support the managers in approaching Jim directly rather than going to Alex in the first place?
Iona’s company culture, and more significantly, the culture at large, is not yet suffused with the overall norms of feedback as learning, collaboration as the most effective path to gleaning collective wisdom, and fearlessness based on trust in being able to attend to our needs. Even if Iona has sufficient faith, which she does, she continually encounters unexamined areas within herself and incredulous resistance from around her.
Internally, she faces two main challenges. At times, she is so enthusiastic that she forgets that others may not have sufficient empowerment or interest in the whole to participate. At other times, she still unconsciously assumes that certain decisions will be just hers. Finding the path to walk is fraught, because none of us have been brought up in a fully collaborative world, and few of us are able to envision it in full, with all the very real challenges that we would need to address. Collaboration is not utopia; it’s just a different path to attending to needs and the significant differences that exist between people.
Externally, there is the ongoing question of how much to aim to engage with someone who is not on board with her radical notions before deciding it’s not a fit. I faced this situation myself a year ago, when my own attempts to collaborate with a staff member failed, repeatedly, crashing against a completely different orientation to the relationship between personal life and work, a different understanding about the nature of the relationship between “boss” and “employee,” and a very restricted interest in the process of dialogue. To the end, which took a few months to reach, I continued to aim for a collaborative solution, and couldn’t find a way to create sufficient partnership with the person in question. I was hoping that at least we would agree that it wasn’t a fit, have enough partnership on that. And it didn’t happen. The relationship ended by my choice, unilaterally, because I had no more resources left in me to continue to dialogue with that person; no vision for where else we could go in our conversation; what else to do to work things out in either direction. I remain sad and accepting of this outcome. In a world in which most of us lack the capacity for dialogue and collaboration, I am not surprised that we have limits on how far we can go in any one relationship.
Iona was still willing to continue to engage with Alex, because his contribution to her company has been so stellar. It’s sad for her to see him go, and yet she also feels relief, because for a while he was the staunchest opponent of what she has been trying to do. Will there be others who will end up leaving before she can establish a more collaborative work culture and put in place systems that function to support it? Does this serve as an indictment of the vision of collaboration, a way of saying that we can only do it with some people and not others? I don’t think so. Alex was part of the company before Iona decided to switch gears and shift to a collaborative approach. This can certainly be a rough transition. It’s entirely different for someone to come into his position now, when the company is already formally described as collaborative even while still striving for it.
Thoughts about the Path to More Collaboration
As I’ve been saying for a while, our collaboration muscles have atrophied, and many of us have thereby lost our intuitive sense that collaboration works. We are so habituated to making decisions for ourselves by ourselves, or for others when we are in positions of power, that it’s easy to think that unilateral decision-making is the most effective. Nonetheless, as a commenter on my blog wrote: “Even if I’m the smartest guy in the room, I’m not as smart as all of us put together.”
Certainly, those of us who want to put collaboration at the center of how we function are swimming upstream. Everything is stacked up against us. Our imagination is stunted, models are few and incomplete, empowerment is lacking. How can we even start moving in that direction?
What’s most needed, in my mind, is the empowerment of all to be able to express their needs and perspectives and, simultaneously, be interested in the needs and perspectives of others and in finding a solution that works for all. These are three different pieces, not one whole, and all three are necessary in my experience for collaboration to be fruitful.
The first one is particularly challenging for those without formal power, and presents a major obstacle to leaders who want to embrace collaboration. Even in top-down, non-collaborative organizations, those without formal power often underestimate what “soft” or relational power they do have. So many of us “put up and shut up” more than our managers actually expect from us. It is socialized into us. I have been in organizations where I hear from the leaders a true hunger for empowered responses from staff, while at the same time their employees lack trust in the empowerment offered or don’t know how to step into new ways of operating. The collaborative leader needs to invite people to stretch to express their needs and perspectives, even when those are unpopular or opposed by a manager. Even then, trust only grows when it’s clear the leader has truly let go of punitive measures, which is far from easy for someone who is in leadership and wants the organization to succeed.
The second one – being interested in the needs and perspectives of others – is a core struggle for people who are in position of formal power, and serves to quickly disillusion others if not attended to. This is why it’s so important for would-be collaborative leaders to be honest with themselves about how far the openness to collaboration truly goes, and to be transparent about that truth, so that there can be a match between expectations and reality. No one organization can operate entirely as a collaborative island within a competitive context. Even the Kibbutz movement ended up adopting decisions that prioritized the needs of some because they were more akin to what I would call a “collective entrepreneur” than to a self-sufficient cooperative community. A current CEO who wants to embrace collaboration needs to spell out clearly what is and what isn’t up for grabs, and it cannot be all at once. Some sense of stability and continuity is essential for any social experiment to be sustainable.
The third, the fundamental commitment to a solution that works for all within the context of what the organization and its purpose are, is almost universally absent in habitual function and thinking. Still, I remain hopeful, very hopeful, because time and again, I have found it to be amazingly within reach for everyone as soon as the invitation is issued. Anyone can issue this invitation, and it’s most effective when coming from an official leader, just because of our habit of giving more weight to what a leader says.
As with everything else, we need to evaluate our efforts, and collaboration is no exception. Especially during a transition to collaboration, and in the face of so many who would doubt its effectiveness, I want us to be able to demonstrate its effectiveness. Here is how I would aim to do that. First of all, success means reaching our goal, whatever it is that we set out to do together. This could be increasing production, improving services, or even making a decision about what the goal would be. If the collaborative efforts meant we are not reaching the goal, then the process has overpowered the outcome, which can only build mistrust about collaboration.
While often this is the only thing that gets measured, I also want to measure the cost. Did we lose people? Did we lose other resources? If so, perhaps the collaboration was not so effective. How much willingness is truly in the collaborative outcome? If we get to the finishing line with a huge stretch on the part of many people, then I question how collaborative the path actually was. For me, the ultimate hope and faith is that we can become better and better at collaborating effectively, not just collaborating. We have food to grow, goods to make, and services to provide. We must be able to do this effectively while collaborating, or no one will believe it’s possible. The more of us are able to do that, the more case studies we can point to, the more chances I see that we will keep getting closer to the world of our dreams.
Beyond that, I must content myself with what I learned from Charles Eisenstein when he visited Oakland a couple of years ago. In my own words, since I don’t remember his: linearly, we are doomed, except that change is not linear.
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