I’m in Transition; How Do I Choose a New Path (What is Right, Part 5)

In part four of this What is Right series (here) I mapped out a five-step decision for thinking through big, and potentially life-altering, decisions. As I start this post I am reminded of a favorite quote, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” Since some may struggle a bit when attempting to apply principles to practical situations, I thought I’d provide an example of applying this decision process to a practical situation almost any reader of this blog will face one or more times during their professional career.

Scenario: I am a professional in transition and faced with crafting a strategy to search for income. How do I apply the What Is Right decision process to my search? I don’t pretend the suggestions below cover every situation, but they will help you get started.

1. Is there a reigning principle of natural law in play? How is my search target (the business I would start or join) aligned with natural laws? Said another way, does the product or service which is the outcome of my profession have redeeming social value? Does that product or service contribute to society’s overall health and/or wealth or at least not contribute to moral decay? Does my prospective employer or partner(s) have a reputation for honesty and fairness–are they worthy of my trust?

2. What prior commitment(s), if any, effect(s) my choice or a new job or career? Have I made commitments to my family which should limit or constrain my professional alternatives? Would the job involve relocation, hours and/or travel which would preclude my follow through on existing commitments? Have I made previous financial commitments that require a certain level of income to fulfill? Have I made previous commitments in the community that should impact my decision?

3. What career path or job opportunity most aligns with my life purpose and goals? Is continuing down this professional path consistent with my life purpose or calling? Do I feel a passion for this type of work? Is my search target appropriate for my current season of life? Would this path or opportunity help me advance to or achieve certain long-term goals?

4. What Relationships could impact or be impacted by my choice? Whom do I know that could assist me in landing a desired professional opportunity? What people in my network have walked this same path and could provide me wisdom from their experience. Who is affected by my choice? What are their related desires or concerns? What people might move into or out of my circle of influence if I change companies or communities? How and where might my circle of influence expand or contract based on the professional alternatives in front of me? Whom might I teach or from whom might I learn along different professional paths?

5. What is Reality? Do external threats encourage or compel me to make a professional change? Should I change companies, functions, levels, industries, communities or careers? What are the odds for a successful transition if I change three or more of those at once? Do I have a distinctive and compelling professional story that aligns with the opportunity I’m pursuing (because the question is often not can I do the job, but will somebody hire me to do the job)? Do I have the talents and experience necessary to succeed? Is my prospective industry or employer growing, stable or declining? Turnaround specialists jump into sinking or floundering businesses all the time, but they both know what they’re getting into and how to get out of it. I may want to accept a position of lesser responsibility and compensation as a way of getting in the door, but what are the realistic odds of getting to my target compensation level in a timely manner? If I’m starting a business, do I have the financial reserves to carry my family and the business until the latter starts generating sufficient cash flow.

I’d be interested in hearing from readers your reactions to this decision-making model or ideas for other approaches you’ve found successful.

Relationships & Reality Matter (What is Right, Part 4)

Writing has long been a mechanism for me to mentally, emotionally and spiritually process issues, which is one of the reasons I initially began blogging. However, one of the challenges about blogging a multi-part series is that my mind continues to learn from new perspectives that change previous posts. This post is a direct consequence of that process.

During the past few weeks I had the privilege of a conversation with Gary Smith, a friend and fellow member of a CEO peer advisory group in which I formerly participated. Smith shared some powerful insights that expanded and enriched the step-by-step decision process I originally articulated in part two of this What is Right? series (here).

As a quick recap of that earlier post, when faced with a decision for which the best course of action is initially uncertain or ambiguous step through the following questions in order:

1. Is there a reigning principle of natural law in play? These are decisions where there is a universally applicable (although often not universally accepted) right versus wrong.

2. What prior commitment(s), if any, effect(s) my choice? These might be commitments of belonging (i.e. open-ended commitments we have made to others) or commitments of action (i.e. commitments to specific behaviors and/or deliverables).

3. What choice most aligns with my life purpose and goals (for this season of life)? In a secular environment we might call this a mission statement. In a spiritual context this is often termed a calling.

After my conversation with Gary Smith, I’m inclined to add two steps:

4. What Relationships could impact or be impacted by my choice? As an engineer, great ideas grab my attention. However, life experience has taught me that absent relationships even the best ideas die quickly or go nowhere. Why? Great ideas involve a diversity of skills and a depth of complexity over which no single individual can hope to have mastery. Relationships help us foresee issues that would otherwise trip us up. Relationships expand our minds and hearts to possibilities we would otherwise ignore. Relationships solve problems that would otherwise stymie progress. Relationships tap into resources without which a great idea would otherwise starve. Relationships lend us courage without which we might otherwise succumb to fear and doubt. Relationships leverage the power of shared passion without which we would otherwise give up.

5. What is Reality? Before we forge ahead into any new endeavor we must frankly confront reality. Do the numbers and other assumptions make sense? Test the math. Does the desired objective rely upon outcomes aligned (or wholly at odds) with historical norms? Bottom line…We must count the cost.

In part five of this series, we will take this What is Right? process and apply it to a practical situation that is confronting or will eventually confront readers of this blog.

Binary Thinking. What is Right? (Part 3)

This is Part 3 in a series on “What is Right?” (How to decide when the choice isn’t obvious). Part 1 (here) identified seven filters (tools) that can help you choose right. Part 2 (here) outlined a simple three-step thought process for applying those tools. This post describes a subtle, but potentially dangerous trap into which we often inadvertently fall. I call it the “Binary Decision Trap.”

In short, the Binary Decision Trap frames questions around issues with only two possible answers – yes/no, start/stop, go/stay, etc. Without denying the presence in life of authoritative questions involving right and wrong, we too often allow binary thinking to constrain our alternatives and thereby eliminate a vast array of potential outcomes which might enrich our lives. I want to quickly explore three perspectives around binary thinking. Why do we submit to, or even prefer, binary thinking? The consequences of binary thinking? And, how to avoid binary thinking?

Why we fall into binary thinking?

It’s simple. Binary thinking enables us to address the increasing complexity of our world. We quickly narrow our thinking to one alternative and frame it as a go/no-go, good/bad, us/them choice.

It’s easy. Admittedly, some decisions are substantially less consequential and deserve an easy decision process. However, we must guard against lazy thinking that allows decisions of import to drift into binary thinking mode.

Competitive mindset. The competitive nature of American culture cultivates a mindset that frames the world in binary terms—winners and losers. We especially see this happening in the political arena where players from all political persuasions leverage and twist every action and statement for advantage—whether to lift its own party or tear down others. When our minds and emotions get bombarded daily with win/lose dialogue it seeps unaware into every aspect of our lives.

Scarcity mentality. People with a scarcity mentality automatically default to “either/or” thinking. Their fixed-pie worldview condenses every issue into haves and have-nots; givers and takers; and winners and losers.

Consequences of Binary Thinking

Law of Unintended Consequences. We get surprised. Striving for simplicity causes us to devalue or neglect context. We naively consider inconsequential and ignore whatever caused the current situation. We also fail to speculate about the impact our choice may have on the future.

Polarization occurs. Binary thinking divides us. Advocates for either side of a binary decision quickly fracture into separate camps and harden their positions. Rather than facing off against the issue advocates face off against each other.

Extremes get amplified. Oversimplification and polarization make it easy to believe that more is better (or worse).

Arguing replaces dialogue. Binary choices drive stakeholders to choose a side too early in the thought process. Once we’ve chosen a side, we feel compelled to defend that choice. The dialogue which naturally accompanies a spirit of open inquiry gets supplanted by the argumentation which flows from a mind closed to other alternatives.

Winning replaces learning. Binary thinking encourages a win-lose mentality. Our thought process narrows to alternately selling or defending our position. Our energy gets consumed in advocacy and leaves no mental capacity for learning.

Identity crises. In extreme cases, we even let our identity get allied with our choice. At that point, our ego enters the equation, and we lose perspective. Rather than a dispassionate search for the best solution, we engage our intellect and emotion in self-defense. As an aside, this reminds me of one of the best pieces of business advice I ever received; namely, “Never get so closely identified with your position (on an issue) that when it goes down, you go down with it.”

Avoiding Binary Thinking

What practical steps can we take to avoid binary thinking?

  1. First, and most importantly, actively seek the best alternative; frame the issue as “ What is the best/wise thing to do?” Consider a variety of alternatives and mentally condition yourself to avoid staking out a position too early when faced with an important decision.
  2. Take time to consider context. How did I/we get in this situation? How have my own choices influenced the present? How have external factors contributed to present circumstances? What is driving current behaviors—My own and others? What’s changing around me that could make the future different from the past?
  3. Consider consequences. Invest time in contemplating what-if scenarios. I will discuss in a future post the fourfold test I use.
  4. Consider all the stakeholders. Who is affected by this decision? Ideally seek their input and perspective, but at a minimum reflect on how the various alternatives will impact them.
  5. Actively seek different points of view. There is wisdom in many counselors. Look beyond the circle of stakeholders. Listen and learn from those who have walked the path before you. Seek input from subject matter experts. Sound out the wise people in your life.

A shout out to Eric Jackson whose May 2004 column in LocalTechWire.com introduced me to the concept of binary thinking.

What is Right? Thinking it Through. (Part 2)

Part 1 in this three-part series on “What is Right?” mapped out seven different decision filters we can use when confronted with a choice. Those filters serve as tools in our mental decision kit. However, like most tools they produce the most effective results when applied by a skilled craftsman within the framework of a process. For example, it does little good to smoothly sand and finish pieces of wood before cutting and shaping the individual pieces into their final forms and assembling those pieces into the final product.

What process might we apply to making choices? The following three critical questions help us apply the seven decision filters (authoritative, aligned, aimed, available, attentive, acceptable, and appropriate) in a logical manner. Disclaimer: I do not intend for the following process framework to fit all situations or all seasons. For the purpose of this post we will focus on choices that fit under the umbrella of “What is the right thing to do?”

1. Is there an authoritative principle of natural law in play?

Natural laws apply to all peoples in all situations for all time. These natural laws are written on our hearts, and our own conscience acts as a witness; either condemning or defending the alignment of our behavior with those natural laws. We can squelch or cultivate our conscience but natural laws stand inviolable. Consequently, everything starts here. On a related side note, the whole concept of civil disobedience collapses as vacuous nonsense unless certain authoritative principles trump all else.

2. What prior commitment(s), if any, affect(s) my choice?

Commitments of belonging …Groups of people who have voluntarily chosen to align for a common purpose; whether they be countries, companies, clubs or communities (beginning with marriages and expanding outward), often create written and unwritten policies to govern the behavior of group members. Those policies describe “what is right” for inclusion in the group. As such, when I choose to join any group I essentially commit to conform my behavior to that group’s policies. Recent accusations that Todd Gurley, running back for the University of Georgia, may have signed his name to certain memorabilia items in exchange for compensation provides a great example of the interplay between these first two steps in the decision framework. Some argue that the NCAA’s policy prohibiting a player from financially capitalizing on their own image while doing the same for itself is not right. I happen to believe this argument has some merit; nonetheless, by voluntarily joining an organization aligned with the NCAA, Gurley effectively placed himself under the authoritative policies governing behavior in that organization. Consequently, if the NCAA determines his behavior violated their policy, Gurley may get barred from future competition for some period of time. Without speculating as to Gurley’s culpability or possible motivation, his situation reinforces the point that even when our behavior aligns with natural law, we may still find ourselves subjected to social ridicule, adverse financial damage, or, in extreme cases, risk of physical harm.

Commitments of action … One of my early mentors, Luther Boggs, made a statement which has stuck with me for decades. “A commitment is not a commitment, unless you are prepared to personally sacrifice to keep it.” Our lives are more productive and less stressful when we act with integrity and keep our commitments.

3. What choice most aligns with my life purpose and goals?

Some might argue that this question should come second, but I contend it rightfully falls here. Choosing what is right does not allow us to abrogate prior commitments merely because we define a new goal. For example, a husband or wife should not walk out on their family to chase a new dream. As highlighted in a previous post (here), a personal mission statement is a powerful and useful tool. Absent the guiding presence of a personal mission statement, you cannot really answer this question. You will especially struggle to determine your availability and decide what invitations to decline. So, if have not yet created a personal mission statement or captured written goals for major roles and responsibilities in your life, I encourage you to do so.

Once past those three decision gates we are beyond principles and priorities and into the arena of preference where demanding our own way is likely just selfishness and deference should typically hold sway. Into this space apply the decision filters of attentiveness to the needs of others, responding to the appropriateness of the situation and choosing to behave in a manner acceptable to the sensitivity of others.

Part three in this What is Right? series will discuss the Binary Decision Trap.

What is Right? How Do I Decide?

What is right? We face repeated opportunities (and sometimes requirements) during the course of each day to choose among multiple courses of action (including doing nothing). How do we decide? Absent compelling (internal) or constraining (external) forces human beings will default to choices that serve our own needs and desires. We will default to what is easiest or makes us comfortable. We will naturally decide and act to achieve our own goals or make ourselves look good. How do we overcome those inherent tendencies? What mental filters should guide our choices?

Here are seven factors which can help us decide and act more rightly more often:

Authoritative. In some situations there is a right and a wrong. Our society’s increasing focus on individual rights casts a relativistic pall, which marginalizes or even mocks this notion. Nonetheless, I contend that there are certain universal truths that apply regardless of time, place or circumstances. For example, abusing a less powerful person is never right.

Attentive (to the needs of others). Our judgment on what is right may change when we consider the needs of others involved. Right choices for a couple’s weekend activities change when they add a baby to their family.

Acceptable (to the sensibilities of others). Sometimes we choose to act in a certain ways purely out of respect for others. We may adapt our dress, actions or speech to comport with the acceptable social norms of certain situations or of other cultures.

Appropriate (for the situation). Circumstances often influence the right course of action. Certain behaviors suitable at a football game are improper during a church service. Similarly, decision-making methods appropriate in a stable business environment may not work right for a business in crisis.

Aligned (with core principles or natural laws). The right position or posture often requires that we balance competing forces at play. When we fall down physically, a relationship or business fails, or we struggle emotionally, we are most often out of alignment with certain core principles or natural laws. This principle led to the phrase, “right the ship.”

Available. At times rightness is a merely a matter of availability. If we cram events one after another into our daily lives, we have no margin of availability to respond to the inevitable opportunities or crises which intersect our lives unplanned. Creating such margin involves purposeful choices. In support of this principle we also make ourselves available without reservation or restraint to those closest to us. We will cancel other plans politely and firmly yet without hesitation or regret when those people need us.

Aimed. Pursuing the right course requires that we determine first the proper destination or focus of our attention and energy and, secondly, the most effective and efficient path or process to reach that goal. Stephen Covey called this “Beginning with the End in Mind.” Absent an aim our choices can lead to wasteful wandering.

Interestingly, two themes undergird this entire list of factors which influence what is right — Respect for Truth and Respect for Others. Said another way, identifying what is right rarely starts with us. A purposeful pursuit of right behavior involves looking outside of ourselves; not focusing on what makes us most comfortable, satisfied or happy. That’s not to imply that our ease, satisfaction or happiness is of no import. Rather, I believe it means that we find these elements of personal fulfillment through exercising a servant’s heart.

The next time you face a decision and want to choose rightly, consider applying the filter of these seven elements.

PROPS…The speaker at a recent Kettering Executive Network event, Andrew Dietz, discussed the importance of relationships in growing revenue and applied the principles from his book “The Opening Playbook: A Professional’s Guide to Building Relationships that Grow Revenue” to people in professional transition. When we’re selling a product/service or even ourselves, Dietz urged concentrating more on opening than closing. An effective opener, Dietz argued creates more opportunities to win. The keys to great opening involve the right connections, conversations and context. Dietz discussed each of those three keys, but that little question, “What is Right?” got me thinking and led to this post.

15 Inspiring Leadership Acts

The last post on this blog explained the differences between motivation (internal drivers that push each of us) and inspiration (external animating forces that pull the best out of others). Here are 15 practical leadership suggestions that can inspire others. Any single suggestion produces positive results. The effects rise exponentially when leaders consistently apply multiple approaches over a sustained period.

Before I launch into the list, let me highlight a subtle trap. Essentially all these suggestions fall into the “I knew that” category, but that’s irrelevant. Many of us too often fall into the I-knew-that-but-I-don’t-do-that category. The key difference between great and average leaders is not what they know about leadership, but what they consistently do as leaders.

  1. Understand “what” motivates someone before we begin talking about “how” to inspire them. We mistakenly presume too much or overlay our own motivators on others. There are assessments available to help you understand the motivational drivers of your people. Consider using them as tools to help you lead.
  2. Inspiring excellence is about aligning talents and passions with job requirements and objectives. Business people frequently place too much value on experience and skills and ignore or devalue the importance of core talents. If someone works in a job that utilizes their core talents they will most likely be more successful, and that success energizes them.
  3. People respond reluctantly to a position. Relationships inspire them. Leaders must make sustained investment into the lives of others.
  4. Understand their price point. Everyone has a different price point beyond which they will not voluntarily go—you need to know where it is.
  5. Everyone inherently aspires to belong to something bigger than themselves. People are not inspired by a corporate brand. A soldier fights and dies for the person in the foxhole beside them not the U.S. Army. In the absence of a shared vision / common objectives, we all default to personal motivation drivers (i.e, is this good for me?).
  6. Principled. Resolute. Predictable. Make sound, principle-based decisions. People despise weathervane managers who too often allow the latest idea or the last voice to sway decisions. Resoluteness also cultivates courage in others.
  7. Good people inspire others around them. They constructively urge each other on to better performance and unlock positive peer pressure. On the flip side, unchallenged poor performance is a huge de-motivator. Good people will resent it and eventually leave.
  8. Sacrifice inspires people…especially when it benefits them. It’s not about YOU!
  9. People reciprocally respond with loyalty when leaders “have their backside.” Team members deal with enough uncertainty and surprises in their lives without having to wonder whether the leader will loyally support them.
  10. Be a compassionate and timely straight shooter. Don’t coddle people and hide bad news. Be honest about individual and company performance.
  11. Leadership confidence and energy are contagious. Your passion ignites those around you. Your pessimism drains them.
  12. Genuineness attracts people. We react to self-serving pretentiousness with revulsion.
  13. Celebrate success! None of us likes to feel stagnant. Openly acknowledge progress and express gratitude for the contributions of others.
  14. Committed to learning. People feel inspired by those who humbly admit and learn from their mistakes. Transparent students of life and business unlock the native streak of curiosity in us all.
  15. Daily practice gratitude. Sharing credit inspires a sense of belonging and fulfills our inherent need to make a contribution. Leaders who regularly express gratitude for the contribution of others inspire team members to do more.

Select a few of these inspiring acts to practice during the coming week.

It’s an Inspiration. Why You Can’t Motivate Anyone.

Present day culture often confuses motivation and inspiration, and this confusion spills over into the business environment. However, it is not an issue of motivation or inspiration. Rather, great business leaders know that exceptional business results require both motivation and inspiration and, equally important, they understand the different origins of motivation and inspiration.

How often have you heard some variation of the following phrase, “We need to figure out how to motivate this [insert the name of a team member, customer, supplier, etc].” In reality, it is impossible to motivate someone else to do anything. Why? Motivation is an internal driver. A wide range of factors motivate us. Some of those factors involve basic physical needs—food, clothing and shelter. Other drivers arise from our spirit. Some desires of the heart appear almost universally—gaining the respect of others, feeling loved, and aspiring for significance. Yet, other desires of the heart come from inherent character traits and vary from person to person. For example, crowds energize some of us and drain others. Lastly, spiritual drivers flowing from an intentional commitment to certain values inform and guide our behaviors—caring for the defenseless among us, beliefs about an afterlife, or the importance of learning.

Inspiration, on the other hand, involves an external animating force that draws out behaviors Inspiration is the province of leaders who seek to influence the behavior of others. Inspiration seeks voluntary cooperation not compulsory compliance.

What inferences and behavioral implications might we draw from these differences between motivation and inspiration:

  • Effective inspiration requires caring and curiosity. Is not about me. Skillful inspiration is very others-centered and requires cultivating a curiosity about what drives others.
  • Effective inspiration requires the expenditure of energy. If we hope to inspire others, we must often provide an input to produce the action we seek. We find in chemistry a complementary analogy where two substances require the presence of a separate catalyst to create the desired chemical reaction.
  • Inspiration cannot impose or inject from the outside an idea foreign or repulsive to an individual. We call that coercion. Rather, inspiration is about discovering and drawing out motivations already resident within the other person.
  • We can inspire through leadership, but if motivations arise internally, we must seek and hire people motivated by factors suitable for our team or business. Hiring for motivation requires that the organization explicitly understands its own drivers since you cannot hope to find what you cannot describe.

Part 2 (next week’s post) will convert these implications into 15 actionable methods that can inspire ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.

What Kind of Fool Am I?

None of us likes to be thought a fool, but fools we are. Hang with me on this one. I end with a constructively positive challenge, but getting there means we have to first wade through some, well… Foolishness.

We all know people who are generally fools. It seemingly is a habit they cannot break. We also know people (Including ourselves) who occasionally do foolish things. So, a gathering of fools is not an elite club, but rather a quite crowded room. Before you declare yourself free from the taint of foolishness, quickly consider the types of fools:

Rash fool – Plunges ahead without taking time to consider the costs or potential consequences of their actions. It is surprising even among supposedly smart business people how often this happens.

Lazy fool – Fails to musters the energy to observe and learn from the world around them, the actions of others, or their own life experience. Neglects to prepare for the future.

Undisciplined fool – Lacks the will to consistently act in accordance with wisdom

Stubborn fool – Refuses to adapt to changes in the world around them or knows the proper action in a particular situation but refuses to act on what they know is the prudent course of action

Intentional fool – Knows the proper action in a particular situation, but refuses to act accordingly, or, even worse, purposefully chooses to act in contradiction to prudent course of action

Stupid fool – Steadfastly ignorant, lazy, undisciplined, rash and stubborn. This combination is especially deadly.

Ignorant fool – Lastly, even if we are knowledgeable, disciplined, and prudent, we may yet act foolishly out of ignorance. No one person can possibly know everything; so at times our ignorance in certain areas leads to foolish actions. Nonetheless, our good intentions do not shield us from the consequences of our ignorance.

So, how does one minimize the self-inflicted damage of our own foolishness?

  1. Seek after knowledge and wisdom. No, they are not the same. Knowledge involves an acquaintance with facts or principles where wisdom adds the element of discernment that knows when, where and how to apply those facts and principles to achieve the best outcome for everyone involved in or impacted by a particular situation.
  2. Cultivate a heart of gratitude that leads to humility. See “Antidote to Pride” for more on this subject.
  3. Surround oneself with people whose knowledge complements our own gaps.
  4. Spend our time with people whose character inspires us to avoid rash, lazy or undisciplined behavior.
  5. Practice prudence. I love that word. Webster’s dictionary explains prudence as “wise or judicious in practical affairs; discrete or circumspect; sober; careful in providing for the future.”

Antidote to Pride? It’s Not What You Think

Pride and humility. Mutually exclusive and polar opposite attributes of human character. But, do we conquer pride by striving for humility?

We all know prideful people and do not think highly of them. The inordinately high opinions of their own importance, merit, or superiority creates a discordant clash with reality. They annoy us. They frustrate us. They may even thwart our best intentions with their attention-seeking behavior.

Each of us also knows people who were genuinely humble. The humble do not seek status or rank. They may be meek, but they are rarely weak. The genuinely humble understand and leverage their talents and resources on behalf of others. The humble are not victims. Instead, they act with purpose. The humble are servants, but not subservient. These people are often gifted and giving in a modestly unassuming manner which garners the respect and admiration of those around them.

Our view of self lies at the core of these opposing behaviors. The prideful consider themselves more important and, therefore, worthy of elevation above others. By contrast, the humble consider themselves no more or less important than others and seek no benefit or advantage by their actions. The prideful have a high view of their own capabilities to influence people and events around them. The humble are quick to recognize the limitations of their own abilities and appreciate the contributions of others. And therein lies the secret antidote to pride… A grateful spirit that recognizes the value of others.

Allow me to explain by shifting attention to people who project false humility. These people know that humility is more valued than pride; so they attempt to counteract pride by acting humbly. However, fearing their humility will go unrecognized, they trumpet it at every turn, and in so doing, reveal the self-serving and ungrateful nature of their heart.

If we are brutally honest, we must each confess to at least the occasional prideful thought. Unfortunately, the naturally self-centered tendency of human beings also means that prideful thoughts sometimes pass unrecognized through our heads and even out of our mouths. Countering an unrecognized behavior is almost impossible. Fortunately, our best defense against pride is not consciously stamping out prideful impulses or striving for humble behavior. Instead, we merely need to establish an habitual spirit of gratitude to turn our hearts from self-centered pride to genuine humility. We may cultivate a grateful spirit if we start each day by expressing thanks for the blessings in our lives.

A shout out to Melvin Benson for the core concept of this post.

Love at Work. It’s Missing, and That’s Bad.

A recent blog post “Law. Liberty. Love.” argued that absent a constraining force the amoral nature of liberty destroys the peaceable and productive threads that bind together any societal group, whether a family, team, community, company or country. The choice to constrain liberty by an external force (law) or restrain liberty from an internal motivation (love) impacts societies and businesses in innumerable ways and results in vastly different outcomes.

Society of Liberty Constrained by Law

Liberty constrained by law and administered by imperfect human beings faces a continual and mostly losing battle to find the proper balance of prudence, reasonableness, equality and reliability.

Liberty constrained by law creates narrow spaces hemmed in by the boundaries of many regulations and policies and wastefully consumes attention and energy to understand and avoid those boundaries. This approach demands long lists of dos and don’ts that cover every conceivable situation. Consequently, we end up with voluminous regulations and policies; including bulging employee manuals that no one reads; except to determine, after the fact, whether an infraction occurred.

When we constrain liberty by law some people in the group will push those boundaries to test how far they may go without suffering harm. Consequently, the group consumes significant time, energy and money protecting those boundaries and addressing the people who flout them. On the flip side, more risk averse people withdraw in fear of breaching an ill-defined or unknown boundary. Both responses drain the vitality from a society.

Society of Liberty Restrained by Love

On the other hand, liberty restrained by love creates vast open fields of opportunity for creativity and risk-taking. When we know that others have our best interests at heart we trust (not fear) them. This freedom from fear unleashes the innovative spirit within each of us.

Rather than an energy-sapping focus on boundaries, we channel our resources on wide-open opportunity spaces. We shift our minds from the negative to the positive. We concentrate on opportunities not obstacles. We focus on constructive behaviors; not catching people doing wrong. We don’t spend money on compliance. Instead, we invest our resources on encouraging and developing people.

People began to watch out for each other and catch mistakes (not as a gotcha, but for the good of the team). The late Bob Galvin of Motorola was fond of saying, “Individuals make mistakes, but teams can be perfect.” People start compensating for each other’s weak spots and collaborate in ways that yield results far beyond the sum of their individual efforts. People feel better about coming to work in an environment that encourages and challenges to be their best. Consequently, attendance and attention improve and drive a safer work environment, better quality and higher productivity. You get the idea.

How do we develop liberty restrained by love?

Present society defaults to liberty constrained by policies and regulations to the point that “love” for others is rarely heard in the public square or board rooms. Why? In the English language the word “love” carries multiple meaning, and this creates confusion. Classical Greek used three different words for different types of love. Eros, or physical love, which often involves sexual expression. Phileo, or soul love, is most commonly associated with affectionate feelings toward friends or personal interests we enjoy. Agape is a mature sacrificial love that is intentionally and overtly others-focused; the expression of which almost always comes at a cost to the bearer of agape.

Unfortunately, the sexually charged nature of our society means that eros dominates the meaning of love in public discourse, and, thus, we rightly shy away from it in a business environment. Yet, we instinctively know that building and sustaining any collective effort requires expressions of affection (phileo ) and sacrificial caring (agape). Since we cannot use the distorted word love, we have sought a substitute in “respect.” Unfortunately, in an environment of liberty predominately constrained by policies and laws, respect is often just a bland and unemotional tolerance with no caring for the object of respect. We just put up with or ignore each other and our lives and businesses suffer for it.

How then do we change this dynamic and unleash the power of liberty restrained by love?

It starts with each of us individually. We must shift our mental and emotional focus from personal rights to personal responsibilities. We must change our mindset from what can I get to what can I give. Invest time in getting to know others beyond work (i.e. care for the whole person). Invest resources in developing people around us. Treat others as voluntary collaborators with us rather than “assets” we leverage only for what they are worth to us or the group to which we both belong.

Openly express our appreciation for others and their work. Openly praise expressions of sacrificial caring by others. Gratitude and giving are contagious, but they will not go viral if these behaviors are stealthy. We have a real live example from recent weeks where over 300 people in line at a Starbucks in New York City paid for the order of the person behind them.

Our place in the group’s hierarchy matters little. Anyone can be a catalyst for liberty restrained by love. Yes, it may feel lonely in the beginning, but others will notice and begin to emulate sacrificial selfless behavior.