Vote is a four-letter word, but I never took Latin. So, no voting for me.
Hey, Friend, Are you going to vote? I am sure there is an election coming soon. Have you cast your vote before? I have. A long time ago.
I grew up in East Germany before the Wall came down. Every couple of years, they had something one Sunday, which they called an election. You would walk to the polling station, show your ID, be given a ballot, take one step to the right, fold the ballot, and stick it in the ballot box. Done. You had just voted for one list of candidates. All of them. From different parties and associations. All on the one state-sanctioned list, which you approved towards the 99.9%. And if you did not, they would revisit you with the “flying” ballot box. Again. And again.
In the first election after demonstrations, civic movement, and round tables— remember 1989? — I registered my protest vote. I had done the math. After the counting and announcements, I revoked my right to vote for a couple of years, believing that only people who don’t mix up politics and math should vote. Protest voting is nonlinear.
The German word for vote is die Stimme. Most common backtranslation: the voice. When you have a voice, you vote — when you vote, you have a voice! I always thought the words vote and voice are related, and maybe they are. But I never took Latin.
In England, I voted in local elections. But neither John Major nor Tony Blair were my fault. They were not my success either. European immigrants only vote locally. And in Canada? Permanent residents can’t vote for anybody. I watched the news and kept quiet.
And now I am here. Southern California. Best climate I have ever been in. Geographically. I will keep quiet, hanging on to my Green Card.
Hey, Friend, Middle of a work day. I am using my lunch break to write. Thank you for your comment, Chris, on my previous post on the word herd immunity. Sitting about 150 miles away from your home, I can picture your schedule (I might pick up on this later) and imagine the conversation with your son. The marvels of reading and writing…
The post heading gives it away: what caught my eye was: “It boils down to a coping mechanism for a yawning lack of ambiguity tolerance among us humans.” Fancy word that. Let me bounce it around a little.
I believe you are right. We are always trying to cope with ambiguity. We like to know what this virus is—exactly. What does it do the body, to my body, should I get infected? When will we get back to normal? On November 11? Or on December 14? And what does normal mean, anyway? And why did you throw another Latin word into my immunity?
So, I looked it up: ambiguity. It’s old. It can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed ancestor of all Indo-European languages, such as English, German, Latin, Spanish, Persian, Sanskrit, Urdu, … Linguists hypothesize that PIE was spoken in the third millennium BC, 5000 years ago. *ambhi (around) and *ag (to drive, to move) In Latin, the word referred to “double meaning” already.
So, I guess even 5000 years ago, the nomads had to deal with unsteady things, that kept moving, struggled with deriving one meaning from the many they saw, and encountered phenomena of a doubtful or uncertain nature. So much so that they probably had a word for it.
5000 years. And we are still struggling and coping with ambiguity. Why? It’s everywhere. As they say: Words have more than one meaning. (Linguists call this phenomenon polysemy. And yes, it is pretty much all words.) Most phenomena in nature and in society are complex; development and processes in general are often nonlinear; each one of us can take a different perspective, develop a different — often only partial — understanding. Ambiguous.
So, what are we going to do with our lack of ambiguity tolerance? Tolerate it more? Eliminate ambiguity as drastically as we can? Struggle with it from time to time over the next 5000 years?
Or is there another way? What do you think?
As always, hanging in there and thinking of you (plural … again!)
COVID-19: In many parts of the world, regions and institutions are in lock-down, venues of education, culture, and entertainment have been closed, people return to their homes and stay there, supermarkets have closed for a time because their shelves are empty, education administrators advocate the move from – what they call – face-to-face instruction to – what they call – virtual teaching online … I would like to talk a little about the latter two, calling them off-line and online:
This seems to be a good time to tell a story, one of my stories. So, why don’t you sit down comfortably, protect your back, don’t hunch over your reading device … this story might get a little longer. Because it is a story, I will give my best to refrain from weaving in scientific or theoretical references; I will leave the look through the theoretical lens for another time. Why can I do that? Our stories, interrelated narratives, anecdotes are not only complex in and of themselves, they are also a way to make sense of complexity (and sometimes chaos) around us or even in us.
Quite early on and also later, my mom would send me shopping with a list, which was off line on a small piece of paper. I would go and stand in line, ask the shop assistant for things from my list. My question never was: Could I have …? It was: Do you have …? And often the answer was: No.
My mom sent me shopping well before stuff was needed – so were many others or they went by themselves, when they were old enough. Mom seemed to know when and where yoghurt or toilet paper was in store. I would buy it then, so we had it at home when it was needed.
Signs on shelves often said: Take Only 2. And that was what I did – as did many others – I took 2, whether I had it on my list or not. It was cheap, and who knows what was to come, we might need it.
Shortages were frequent. One day, I was in a butcher’s. In stead of cold cuts and schnitzel, two small flower pots were on display. I asked whether there was anything behind the counter and was told that, no, everything was exported to make hard-currency cash for the COMECON economy. I did not buy a flower pot, because it was not for sale.
I had always thought that these were characteristics of a command economy with overwhelmed, partially educated, paranoid, underwhelming elderly men in government. The economy was not geared toward consumption; infrastructure and logistics were poorly funded and organized. Well more than 30 years later, I did not expect to see empty shelves in supermarkets …
Let’s move to the second part of my story. Let’s go online.
And then I went online. Occasionally. With the telephone. During my year abroad in Kaluga, Russia, I would go to the local post office. Waited in line. Was told to go into booth number 7. Picked up the receiver. And could talk to my mom in Germany. The line was neither stable nor clear, but we were both grateful about the marvels of technology – I was in the post office booth, she was at a neighbor’s house which actually had a landline telephone. We stayed in touch by whatever means available: telephone, letter (sometimes also given to somebody traveling back from Kaluga to East Germany), or small packages with treasured goodies, in my direction only.
In the early 1990s, I moved to England. Staying in touch with the family got easier. Phone bills were high, and connections were stable and from home to home.
And, I used Gopher and later Mosaic to go online with my office PC. The Internet had emerged, and I was showing students how to find a few German fairy tales or the odd Spiegel article (still hosted on a university main frame computer). In the computer language lab, we used a web page that I had written with a set of annotated links to all texts that I could find and that were in German, in addition to little programs stored on computer disks. Soon after, things came on CDs and had images and sound. Hypertext. The students and I still talked. A lot. We sat in front of the computer(s) and talked. We shared screens in one computer lab and talked. We put in floppy disks and talked. We all learned to type – even umlauts äöüßÄÖÜ – and talked in and about clear writing. We recorded ourselves on stand-alone PCs and listened to audio files and we talked.
In 2001, a few colleagues and I began to design an online course – one semester of learning German from scratch. And we used the telephone to exchange spoken texts and we talked. Students would pick up the phone, punch in a felt 273 different digits upon request, and speak their oral assignment into the phone. The sound file was magically streamed to the server, where I would see it seconds later, listen to it, take some notes, pick up the phone, punch in 273 digits, and record a response that was streamed to the student. I still remember the system’s name: VERA. Vera means hope and belief in a number of languages.
Since, my students and I have emailed, Skyped, built wikis, blogged, discussed and chatted by both writing and speaking, and Zoomed. And we talked both online and off-line. All the time. More than ever before.
Long story. And I have not told the half of it. But where is COVID-19? Apart from the two mentions at the very beginning? The pandemic, the precautions, and the social and individual reaction to the unfolding complex web of events have been here all along. It is the counterpoint and context to my story. And the story is the counterpoint to the complex and – at times – chaotic phenomena of the pandemic, as I am experiencing them here in Southern California, at work, and through the omnipresent media and public discourses. So, let me finish my story by talking about this week. And then I will spare you the theoretical lens. This time only; I will put it on for the next blog post.
I have watched the clip with Walter Ulbricht denying the plan to built the Berlin Wall, listened to rambling propaganda word assemblies of the East German swamp and establishment, heard Erich Honecker explain that green salad just needed to be washed and it would be radiation-free after the Chernobyl disaster, and saw and experienced empty shelves and the shortage of toilet paper in days long gone. Until 2017, I had hoped that such ill-worded and ideologically biased government statements and speeches at such a low level were a thing of the past. Until this week, I was so sure that I would not see or stand in front of empty store and supermarket shelves, in the country where I live, again. Full disclosure: I have not been to a supermarket this week, but I could not avoid listening to friends and family who have and seeing pictures online.
Online, I have been researching and advocating the considered pedagogic use of digital technologies in education for the last thirty years. This week, it seems, everybody in education, abruptly asked to abandon their classroom, is talking about online learning, virtual teaching, blended, hybrid, asynchronous, … Why am I not relishing the moment? First, the words! A blend should only happen in a blender in the kitchen. It is bad enough, sometimes, if it is done to whisky or wine, inmho. It should not be done to people and with people, I believe. In the relevant literature, hybrid used to mean (until this week, it seems) having a course that was done partially face-to-face, partially online. How is that gonna work when all classes are moved off campus. And virtual teaching? Most professors believe they know what teaching means. Virtual means “being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized.” So, I am asked to teach – virtually – and won’t be recognized for it? By whom? For many educators who deep down have always believed that computers, digital media, and remote communication are either evil or at least vastly inferior to a close encounter, this change to education not in the classroom, lecture hall, or lab has come too sudden and was enforced from the top or forced upon them by adverse and unusual external circumstances. And I have come to believe, after being a student at the time of the Peaceful Revolution, that change better be gradual and voluntarily embraced by many to be sustainable.
Today, I am hoping that soon we are all going to come out of COVID-19 healthy, being again able to travel to different places without any fear, coming together in families, in small and large groups, and, if you enjoy that sort of thing, in huge gatherings, to have fun and a feeling of community. I am also hoping that online – teaching, learning, and talking – will finally be seen by many as what it is. Just another way of getting in touch with people, learning from one another and about one another. A way to communicate that is neither worse nor better than writing somebody a beautiful letter or chatting with somebody sitting next to them on the sofa or teaching a group in a comfortable classroom. It has always been more important to me that we talk with one another and learn from one another than through what channel and by what means we do this. It is up to us to learn how to use new(er) technologies and other means better. There is a tool for everything, but not everything is a hammer.
Especially in times of crisis or a pandemic, it is important to keep talking to one another truthfully and to keep learning.
A colleague cancelled her trip to Italy. She knows the country well and is not afraid of going there. She is afraid of being quarantined, when coming back home to the US. The conference of the American Association for Applied Linguistics with 1,400 registrants in Denver, CO, at the end of March has been cancelled “in light of developments over the last few days” (AAAL, March 9, 2020). Schools are closed in some parts of the world; universities in the US are preparing to take all their courses online until the end of the semester.
Is there a way to make sense of this change, these changes, the angst? I believe there is.
If you have read previous posts or our Team page, then you know that I am neither a medical professional nor a specialist in public health. I watch the international news, care about my own health and that of others, also in other parts of the world, like traveling and (international) get-togethers. And generally, I prefer when I can follow through on a planned course of action. I had planned to buy tickets for the two trips my wife and I want to take in the summer months last week. I didn’t.
How can we make some sense of this complex phenomenon? From what I have read thus far, COVID-19 has not yet been traced back to its initial conditions yet. Why would this be good to know? Generally speaking, because these variables – however minute – are there from the beginning and are often influential at all iterations through which the complex process goes. Unfortunately, misunderstanding initial conditions can lead some people to make decisions that at least appear to be unnecessary. I read recently that the sales of Corona beer are down because of the “namesake” Corona virus; apparently fewer people feel like going to a Chinese restaurant in the US because of the belief that the virus was spread from China.
Not only because I had intended to write about nonlinearity – as an important characteristic of a complex adaptive system – in this post, I will say that understanding the complex global spread of a nasty virus as a nonlinear process is of utmost importance.
Quickly in a nutshell, what does that mean for each one of us?
Small changes are likely to have a disproportionately large effect. Washing my hands, avoiding to touch my face, and in general being very careful with hygiene, can and will have the effect that I am better protected from catching the virus and that, if more and more people follow such guidelines (and other measures are taken in concert), the spread of COVID-19 can be contained.
Consider the context, learn about the many components, facets, and variables of this complex phenomenon. How is the virus spreading and impacting people in different places of this world? What can its many nonlinear trajectories tell us about its nature? From the little I understand COVID-19 is a relative of the SARS and the MERS viruses. In 2003, I lived in a city close to Toronto, and Toronto was one of the metropolitan centers affected by SARS at the time. SARS had a lower spread worldwide than COVID-19 has already had until now. On the other hand, it had a higher fatality rate (of almost 10%). It passed in about six months. Even with my very limited expertise in things medical this gives me a more rational perspective. It gives me hope and it gives me compassion for other people, people with different fears, people quarantined on a large cruise ship, people with responsibility for large gatherings such as a university or an international conference.
Accept the complexity. This acceptance mainly leads me to NOT do something. I do not expect a linear change. Just because we do A – whatever A is – just because the government implements measure A – whatever A is – just because the WHO issues guideline A – whatever A is – I do not expect a direct – linear – outcome B. No single step, measure, cancellation, … will change the course of COVID-19 singlehandedly. All the measures by many different people, bodies, and institutions, our preparedness of making considered – often small – changes, and our mindfulness that continued observation and analysis of the system – of the development of COVID-19 worldwide – are and will be necessary.
Change has the best chance of being sustainable, if it is considered and iterative.
I realize that I quickly glossed over the intricacies of nonlinearity. Well, this gives me a chance to write another post on the topic in the near future and do a better job.
I do. Like skiing. So, please bear with me for a minute. This is one of those strange texts where things are only revealed at the end.
First, we are going on a skiing hill. And because we are talking about initial conditions and the sensitivity complex (adaptive) systems have to them, this is a very special hill. For this thought experiment, the hill has been designed by a mathematician. The slope of the hill is homogeneous. The hill has moguls. These are of perfectly identical smooth shape, and they are spaced evenly, both horizontally and vertically. Let’s take the comfortable chair lift and go up. Not to worry, you can come; you won’t need to ski, a ski will do all the work. All we have to do is make predictions, observe, take notes, and then compare our observation notes with our predictions. This way we will know a little more about the nature of complex systems. We are on top of the hill. Take one ski, please. You can also use a snowboard, if you prefer. Place it flat on top of the slope, mark its position, and let it go downhill. We are observing its path, the trajectory of this process. We know exactly how it went down the slope. And we mark its exit position at the bottom of the hill. Just memorize it. Meanwhile, I will go back down and fetch the ski. I am sure you noticed that the one initial condition, to which we are paying particular attention in our thought experiment, is the entry position, where we let the ski go. The end state of this complex dynamic system is the ski’s exit position at the bottom of the hill. Alright, I am back up; let’s do this again. Find the first entry position. Move the ski or snowboard just slightly to the left or right, whichever way you are inclined. Mark the second entry position. Now is the time for predictions! The entry position is minutely different. What trajectory will we observe? Identical to the first one, because minute differences don’t matter because they are just noise in the system? Parallel, because the slope is homogeneous and the moguls are identically formed and evenly spaced, and all we changed a tiny wee bit is the starting position? Or just different in so many parts? How about the exit point? Is it going to be exactly the same distance between exit points 1 and 2 as there now is between the two entry points? Or are the two distances going to be different? Unless you really are on this skiing hill, you will have to believe me: The trajectories are different, and the distance between the two exit points is not the same as between the two entry points. We can let the ski go down time and again. The probability of both the trajectory and end state being different to any one of the earlier ski runs is significantly higher than the probability of trajectory and exit points – the end state – being the same.
Why is this so? Because complex systems have a high sensitivity to initial conditions. To show in our thought experiment that the sensitivity is high we only introduced a minute change to the initial condition, the entry position, and we assumed that nothing else changed. The weather and snow conditions remained the same, the force of letting the ski go is always the same, the ski did not carve into any mogul, … And still, trajectory and end state are different, and sometimes wildly different.
In Chaos Theory, this has also been called the Butterfly Effect. (When talking I am often prone to go off on an – interesting – tangent. Here I won’t do it and you will have to wait for a later post. Or you can look it up in Wikipedia.) It is a good example of how important initial conditions are, because the system is highly sensitive to them, even when many other variables – also of a larger magnitude – interact and change in the process. There is one main reason why this is so: These variables – the initial conditions – are the first ones to impact the process, even if only slightly. When we observe a complex dynamic system, a complex process, we can split it into time segments, iterations. And in one way or another, the variables of the initial conditions impact each iteration. Or as they say: Constant dripping wears away the stone.
Are initial conditions equally important when we want to understand complex social processes, such as work in a team, leading and managing a project, or an intimate relationship or marriage? I think we all know what the answer is, simply from experience: Yes, they are. Once we encounter a complex problem, we are well advised to look for and at the initial conditions of the underlying process(es). How we can figure out what the initial conditions were and how they influenced how events unfolded, we will have to leave for after the introduction of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems. What is important to take away from this brief excursion is that all complex systems are sensitive to their initial conditions. And (not only) because of this sensitivity to initial conditions, complex systems cannot easily be reversed to a prior state. No one steps in the same river twice. Complex adaptive systems have what we can call a history. This is strongly connected to the characteristic of nonlinearity. And that is the beginning of another post.
Let’s forget about changing anything. Just for a little while. Let’s just think about complexity. Something complex. A complex process. Got it? Why is this process complex? What makes it complex?
First answers are simple: a process with more than one actor is more complex than a process with just one actor. But it is not just the participants. Many natural or industrial processes are complex, and they do not necessarily even have participants (humans) that act in them. So, there can also be many components. And if that were not enough, more often than not there are many variables. You remember these variables from math classes in school.
x + 7 = y
This is a nice linear equation – and thus not complex. For each x there is exactly one y, which can be calculated, if you know how do do this sort of thing.
Think about the complex process you have in mind. It does not just have one variable, one x, that changes or can be changed. Most processes in life, in society, in biology, in physics, in nature, … in most places where we care to look, have more than one variable. More than one (in)observable trait, characteristic, or feature that can change or that can be changed.
Now that’s OK, you say. We just have to look at a few more things. Right! Problems arise when there are very many, often too many, to always keep our eyes on, to look out for, to consider. And not only that. Each of these variables, each x, if you like, does not just have one dependent y. More than one variable can depend on each changing variable.
I am changing the period of time I use for exercise in the morning. I am changing time t. Time t influences my fitness level; I am increasing muscle mass and flexibility. Because of the increased muscle mass, my metabolism changes during the day. I feel better, I am more agile, I move more and quicker, burning more calories than on the days prior. And by increasing time t for exercise, I am reducing time r for reading … Twitter, my favorite book, a newspaper, or some emails. I am also reducing time c for cooking, so I will have to have my lunch prepared the evening before or will have to go to the cafeteria to buy something to eat.
You get the point.
A complex phenomenon does not just have many variables. Each of these variables potentially interacts – metaphorically speaking bounces off and changes – one or more other variables. Overstating just a little bit: each of the many variables changes all the time, in concert and against each other.
Did I say at the beginning: Let’s forget about change for a little while? Impossible. We quickly returned to the concept of change. Change is part of complexity and complexity is part of change. We cannot – and should not – consider one without the other. [Maybe just for a quick thought experiment, or if we are really tired in the evening.]
What are the consequences? Complex phenomena are in constant flux, change constantly. That’s why we often talk about complex dynamic systems. Variables interact with one another, components interact, actors (participants) interact. In these many continuous or iterative interactions, each variable, component, and actor are also prone to change. They co-adapt. Especially for social systems, we often use the label complex adaptive systems (CAS). And if we want to understand change better, be able to influence it a little bit, or just deal with it, it is useful to look at some of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems.
CAS are likely to be on a nonlinear trajectory, which means a change I put in does not necessarily result in a proportionate change to come out.
CAS are sensitive to initial conditions. The variables, however small they might be, that were there from the very beginning are most likely to have had a relatively large impact on the whole process, simply because they have been around for long enough.
CAS have attractor states – states they are more often and more likely in. They also have repeller states, states which they could reach theoretically but never or hardly ever reach.
CAS are likely to reach an equilibrium – like a standstill, change is very close to zero – if no new energy enters the system.
I am glad I got this out of the way. And maybe so are you. Remember that I said it is often useful to apply a theoretical lens to gain a better understanding of a problem? At some stage I had to introduce the lens. In subsequent posts, I will look at these characteristics of complex adaptive systems, one by one. And I will show for each one what role their understanding can play in solving personal problems, problems at work, in social interactions, or just around the house.
The neat thing with these CAS is that there has been a lot of research that tried to figure out how to get a better handle on the complexity. And I am as sure as one can be that what we learn about the ever-changing complexity will come in handy almost every day, when solving problems. Whether this is in your personal life, when making leadership decisions, or simply when you are trying to fix something that you believe needs fixing.
In a rush to bring a close to an already overly long post last week, I paid short shrift to the Interpersonal aspect of Professional Boundaries. I wrote a bit about establishing and maintaining clarity on the difference between purely social/personal relationships and those of the professional type, but I left out two essential pieces. I will boil them down in this (relatively!) brief addendum: it all comes down to statements and questions.
In my first real job out of grad school, I quickly found myself in a supervisory position where I interviewed, hired, trained, managed and, yes, fired people. Accountability (another staple of the BASE model) was becoming an ever-expanding part of my professional world. One day (a “casual” Friday at that), in our three-person office, my boss was working from home. That left me and my fellow teacher supervisor to our own devices. A re-hire candidate was coming in for a pared-down interview to determine if she would come in to teach again for us that summer. We had it on our shared calendar and thought that meant that our boss was aware and was fine with it.
Later on, when back-briefing him on what we had accomplished that day, we found out that we had been mistaken. The long and short of it was that our boss would have never approved of us bringing any prospective employee in for an interview if he thought we were going to be dressed casually (Friday or not). He was not pleased, and I realized later that it had more to do with the assumptions that had been made (more by my co-worker and me than by him) and the resulting communication breakdown, than with the actual situation of an employee seeing her supervisors in casual clothes. My boss made me keep “Challenge Your Assumptions” as my computer screensaver for the ensuing 12 months. The phrase, and the lesson it was meant to teach, has unsurprisingly stuck with me.
What it has to do with today’s post is simple. We often make not-so-good assumptions about the importance of differentiating between our statements and our questions in interpersonal interactions in the workspace. The other day, I heard about an employee who will soon be leaving a workplace, and as such is having some responsibilities transferred to other colleagues. When one of those colleagues got together with this person to discuss the details, the soon-to-depart employee at one point exclaimed, “I’m not gone yet and this is still my responsibility!” Their interaction went downhill from there.
As soon as I heard this story, an empathetic smile came to my face. This person has a question, whether they realize it or not. What happened? A statement was made, and to the wrong person at that. This employee, somewhat understandably given the stress associated with leaving a job, failed to challenge assumptions about how the transition would be handled, and as such made a statement to a colleague when a question directed to the supervisor or manager was what was most needed to clarify things. So, to keep this as short as I can, here’s the upshot: do your best to have clear Professional Interpersonal Boundaries around your statements and your questions in the workplace. This is likely to require active challenging of many of your favorite assumptions, but that’s almost never a bad thing. At worst, you come to the conclusion that your assumptions were good. At best, you save yourself (and your co-workers) some embarrassment and grief.
This leads me to the second thing: questions. Everyone knows how to ask them, right? But, how many of us can claim a high level of clarity and confidence that we most often ask the best kinds of questions in the most important work conversations? Count me as one of the people who can’t always make that claim. But, maybe you’re reading this and aren’t even sure what the heck I’m talking about. Let me try to clarify.
In his 2013 book “Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling,” celebrated Organizational Culture/Behavior/Psychology expert Edgar Schein lays out exactly why questions, and being very clear on when to they are superior to statements, matter so much. He writes:
“How can we do better? The answer is simple, but its implementation is not. We would have to do three things: 1) do less telling; 2) learn to do more asking in the particular form of Humble Inquiry; and 3) do a better job of listening and acknowledging.”
Simple, right? No, of course not. Schein already told us it isn’t simple at all. So what does it mean? He says we should “do more asking in the particular form of Humble Inquiry.” But what is that? Well, to paraphrase Schein, it’s finding the opportunity in any given interaction or conversation to be genuinely curious about something that is being said or communicated, and then asking a good question (i.e. NOT one whose answer we think we already know) about that something in which we are truly interested in learning more. Still not simple, I know, but at I hope least somewhat clearer.
So, what now? Well, for this week (and well beyond, if you like), perhaps just try paying more attention to the frequency and type of statements and questions you notice in your workspace, both yours and those of others. If you are a formal authority figure, let me suggest you REALLY pay more attention to this, but I advocate strongly for it no matter your position.
As you pay more attention, look for opportunities to turn a statement (one of your own or one you notice) into a question. Once you have a handle on that, try to turn it into a Humble Inquiry-type question. Want an example? Let’s go back to the situation I outlined earlier: “I’m not gone yet and this is still my responsibility!”
What kind of question can that become? In the moment, talking with a co-worker, perhaps something like “Did (our supervisor) say that you were to take this over effective immediately, and would it be alright with you if we went and asked (our supervisor) for clarification?”
Either or both of those might work, no? I am confident that the interaction would have been less likely to go south (as it did in reality) had either or both of those questions been asked in place of the statement that was made. Especially if they had been asked with an authentic tone of curiosity and interest. I wonder (genuinely) what you think.
Remember, comments are welcome on this blog. Feel free to post a reaction, a question, or an anecdote of your own. Mat and I will be happy to read them and respond whenever we can!
Take a moment and watch this, even if you’ve seen it many, many times before. This time, watch it with an eye and a mind for cognitive and interpersonal boundaries in the professional context. Be prepared to look, somewhat critically, at the kind of thinking and interacting that is going on, and how the boundaries that are in place for the protagonist, Peter, are involved:
What did you notice? Just make a mental, or written, note of it for the moment. Now, watch this clip and do basically the same thing:
So, what changed? Go beyond the narrative device(s) utilized in the movie, and just think about what could have gone on within Peter in terms of his thoughts and interactional decisions vis-à-vis the workplace. It’s quite something when you stop and look at it with a different lens…
In today’s post, part two on Professional Boundaries, I will once again outline a couple key elements of Professional Cognitive and Interpersonal Boundaries, much as I did for the Temporal and Kinetic aspects in part one.
Cognitive Professional Boundaries can cover a lot of territory. There are so many things to think about at work, around work, between yourself and “the work.” For my money, though, it mostly boils down to a couple of main things: 1) Your relationship to authority in the work context, and 2) the way you think about tasks in your workplace. Let’s begin with your relationship to authority…
For most people in the workplace, “authority” begins and ends with positions, titles, and so-called hierarchical org charts and corresponding work-flows. I’ll not dispute that in many work environments this is (or strongly appears to be) the law of the land, but I will assert that it is (almost) never as much the case as it appears to be.
Yes, supervisors, managers, and all-around “bosses” wield a certain amount of formal authority that can be neither avoided nor denied. But, do you automatically fold your tent or change your overt point of view when it doesn’t align with whatever the “boss” is saying? If so, I must simply ask you to consider why that really is. I mean, I get it, sometimes it is downright dangerous to disagree with a supervisor, manager, or other “boss” monster-type. Yes, you do need to read the terrain well in order to decide when it is acceptable to be a voice of disagreement or even dissension. You also have to do your homework. Nobody wins points for having the courage to disagree in an uninformed manner.
So often, the tasks we perform at work are tied to a dry, frequently outdated, job description that was written more to make sure we could be held accountable in the event of underperformance than to offer us pathways to success and growth. As a result, all too often we restrict our professional enthusiasm and working passion to those rare opportunities we are given (note the use of passive voice there) to step outside of those constraining job responsibility boxes and take on a special, usually temporary, new task. And once that special task or project ends, we return to our cubicles (real or imagined) and resume our business-as-usual routines. We resume a posture where all our real authority and light is dampened by a self-protective stance, doing just enough work, as Peter would say, to not get fired. Oh, we probably tell ourselves a different story about it. I’ll even grant that many of you reading this are doing much more than that notional bare minimum, but… is it really your best? And if it isn’t, why not? Really. Why not?
Is it your boss’s fault that you don’t consistently put your best work forward? Is your compensation rate truly to blame? Is it your competitive/counterproductive/challenging colleague’s fault? Is it because you haven’t been vested with the kind of positional, formal authority that you (and sadly most people) view as pre-requisite to being fully enabled to unleash all your talents? I mean, come on…
What if you could seek to embody and exercise a different kind of authority? What if your threw all your extra energy and focus at work into identifying right actions, tasks, and solutions for as many relevant issues as possible? What if you worried more about doing what is needed than what is “right” or “fair” in your, or someone else’s, highly subjective point of view? It’s risky terrain to navigate, no doubt.
But if you can change the way you think, actively challenging all your most embedded assumptions about what work owes you and what you owe work, you may find that a different kind of authority, the kind Ronald Heifetz and others in leadership studies call “informal,” can become yours to wield. Understanding, and learning to engage with, the part of yourself that is authoritative and solution-oriented, irrespective of your position or title, is as close to a fool-proof pathway to professional success and fulfillment as I can think of.
And it all starts with mastering your thinking around what authority really is for you, and what purpose it really serves. Professional growth then extends to how you can apply that thinking not just to the tasks that land on your proverbial “desk,” but also on those that face your entire workplace team and/or organization. Rare indeed are the stories of people who got bumped up in responsibility or pay, or who reported feeling more fulfilled, by having the firmest handle on what their job wasn’t…
Interpersonal Professional Boundaries are the trickiest to capture and make meaningful change within. Work relationships, as discussed at length above, are often driven by the almighty org chart, workflow, or by the prevalent culture in a given place of business. Haves and have-nots emerge and we all behave accordingly or we move on to a different job.
There are, however, a few things I believe it is important to keep in mind. They mostly center around what I see as the erroneous, and even dangerously misleading use of words like “family” and “friends” in the workspace. Before you close this tab, deeply offended that I dared to disparage the great familial environment that exists at your work (and that you may have perhaps even helped to create), bear with me for a few moments more.
While friendly and familial relationships are no doubt the great joys of most of our lives, are they always only joyful? The answer, of course, is “no,” or at least “probably not.” They swing and cut both ways. Sometimes they are the most volatile kinds of relationships we can have. Is this really the kind of thought and feeling process that will serve us best at work? I’ll just come out and say that I firmly believe the answer to be “no.” This is especially true if you hold a position of formal authority.
Certainly, there are cultures outside the so-called “West” where the expectation is precisely that bosses, subordinates, peers and co-workers will treat one another as if they were friends and family (many times because they actually are!). However, in the context of the U.S./North American workplace, and in the ever-more globalized professional landscape, the safest bet is to establish and maintain interpersonal professional boundaries that are driven and informed by mission, tasks, work, and shared professional values.
Finally, I hope you’ll spread the word about this blog and check back next week for my first post on Physical Boundaries. Most importantly, whatever you do, or don’t do, infuse it with intention and conviction.
As promised in last week’s post, this week I will begin to dig into the first of the four areas of Boundaries as I outlined them under the BASE model: Personal Boundaries. In keeping with what is often the natural emergence of things as we begin the conceptualization process, we will begin with ourselves. What are our Personal Boundaries, and how consistently do we recognize and adhere to them? As we consider this key question together, I will offer some guiding questions to help us along in the reflection/discovery process. In part 1, we will examine and interrogate the first two of four aspects of Personal Boundaries: Temporal and Kinetic. Later this week, in part 2, we will dig in to the Cognitive and Interpersonal aspects of Personal Boundaries. Toward the end of each part, I will close with an invitation to engage in some ongoing work over the course of the rest of the week, and also provide resource recommendations where I have them to offer. Without further preamble, let’s begin.
Temporal Personal Boundaries are concerned with how we organize and manage time for ourselves and those around us. Before we can properly understand this, however, it is necessary to better define our own relationship to time. We can begin by simply assessing our level of attunement to the passing of time. Consider your responses to the following questions in the context of not relying on a timepiece: How often are you confidently aware of what time of day it is? To what extent are you able to keep track of the duration of activities in which you engage? For instance, do you frequently feel misaligned, in terms of either mindset or activity/energy level, to the time of day in which you find yourself, whether late morning, mid-afternoon, or early evening? What about the passing of time? If you begin an activity, say sitting down to read a book or getting engrossed in preparing a meal, are you able to stop yourself in the midst of it and accurately assess for how long you have been engaged (in minutes or fractions of an hour, not seconds)? No particular answer is more or less valuable or important, but it is good to have a sense of this for yourself, as it can help you have a more faithful frame of how you personally interact and engage with time in your day to day life.
What about your sense of time as it relates to others? How often do you feel impatient when you are expected, or obliged, to passively observe and/or wait while someone else engages in an activity, whether it be thinking, talking, cooking, working, or getting ready to go out? How do your expectations vary between the time you can patiently allot yourself to do something versus what you can graciously offer to another? You don’t need to answer these questions with judgment. Just take a moment to reflect and see what arises for you in response, possibly jotting a thought or two down, or even taking a more full five to ten minutes to journal on it.
Kinetic Personal Boundaries have to do with our movements and physicality or, worded a simpler way, what activities we do and do not engage in. The central question here pertains to what and who determines the activities in which you do, and do not, engage? This may seem like a very simplistic question, to which the answer can only be some version of one of three major types:
“only I decide what I will do”
“I live to serve and match my actions accordingly”
The relative valuation given to each of those response types will vary, of course, according to the cultural norms with which you were raised, those that are in place where you currently live, or those you have integrated into your personal worldview. In any case, what matters most is to be mindful and aware of what most often drives you to, or keeps you from, taking action and if those factors change under different circumstances (that do not rise to the level of the extreme – almost everyone’s motivations change in extreme situations).
The purpose here is to accept that we will struggle to reliably understand and evaluate, much less consciously moderate or modify, our own actions and tendencies unless we understand where they come from. Here you may find it helpful to reflect on things like your activity levels in terms of socializing, down/alone time, physical and mental wellbeing (nutrition, fitness, meditation, sleep, etc.), personal development (reading, journaling, ongoing education), and service to others. Of course, you also need to examine the activities you engage in that are the unhealthy opposites of the favorable ones I have just listed. What routines and/or patterns emerge when you ask these questions? Whatever your answers about the amount and/or quality of activity you engage in any and all of those domains, it is at least as important to understand whether the catalyst for your Kinetic Boundaries comes from within, without, or a mix of both. Spend enough time in honest dialogue with these questions, meditating and/or journaling according to what works best for you, and I am confident that you will have moments of surprise and discovery.
Insight Timer – A freemium meditation and personal improvement app for iOS and Android. Plenty of great free content for beginning and building on meditation and mindfulness practices, and paid courses and additional content to boot!
7-minute workout – A great, free resource for getting your fitness fix, no matter your current fitness level or exercise habits! Shows how to perform all movements, requiring only body weight and some personal drive.
The Miracle Morning – A wonderful book, not free, with ample web resources, by Hal Elrod. This book will help you reconsider the extent to which a lack of time and energy are really what stand between you and pursuing your life goals.
What better topic for the start of the New Year than boundaries? Liminal spaces are defined by boundaries and, if we stop and think about it, so are many of the crucial decision points in our daily lives.
Last week I provided an overview of the personal and professional leadership model I have come to conceptualize over the years as BASE. Yes, it is yet another acronym for us to consider in a world that seems to be quickly approaching, or perhaps even exceeding, a critical mass state of WTFs and SMHs. Nevertheless, I share this with you in the sincere belief that by reflecting on the thoughts that underlie each of BASE’s four principles, you can build a program for yourself that will aid you in challenging even the most powerful of the FOMOs!
Over the course of this month, each week I will outline some critical questions and guidelines for developing ourselves and our thinking around the “B” in BASE: Boundaries. Today I will quickly outline what I see as the critical elements of Boundaries, and offer a few reflection questions to prepare us for the work ahead.
So, in that spirit, I offer you this invitation: when you read or hear the word “boundaries” what other things (whether they be other words, images, or emotions) do you immediately associate with the term? Take a moment and write some of those down before reading on.
Now, armed with your list of associations, consider the following question: what are the relationships between the boundaries that exist in your life today and your “self”? Are they relationships of reassuring structure and congruence? Do they generate productivity? Tension?
Reflect on the things you jotted down just a moment ago and try to connect with the thoughts and emotions you may have experienced as you wrote them. Did you feel mostly positive and reassured, or were apprehension and friction also involved? For many of us, traditional boundaries are experienced as much as limitations on what we want and need as they are sources of security and wellbeing. This ambivalence, or the potential for it, is vital for understanding the power of boundaries in our lives. However, let’s return for a moment to the definition and question about Boundaries that I posed in last week’s post:
Boundaries: The things in your life that are non-negotiable, both for yourself and for others. What are they, really, for you, and how consistently do you hold yourself, and others, to them?
For me, the real core question has to do with the extent to which we are in charge of the narrative we hold for ourselves around the Boundaries in our lives. In order to answer these questions, it may be helpful to think of Boundaries as falling under some different kinds of categories.
I divide my thinking on Boundaries into two major sets: areas and aspects. The four areas of Boundaries in the BASE model are: Personal, Professional, Physical, and Psychological. If we want to fully understand the nature and role of Boundaries in our lives, we must be able to identify and evaluate them across a spectrum of our existential domains. Do these areas and aspects sometimes, or even often, overlap? They almost certainly do, but Boundaries that inhabit two or more of these areas in our lives most likely originate in just one of them. Knowing the genesis of any boundary that permeates multiple areas is vital to our ability to (re)assume agency with respect to it.
Again, take a moment to consider these four areas and make a short list of the Boundaries, for yourself and for others, that you can already identify in each. Remember that there is no way to get any of this wrong. If you perceive it as a Boundary in your life, then it is! Feel free to underline any that are present in more than one area, as they will likely be ones that warrant greater consideration from you.
Once we have a sense of the way Boundaries in our lives work across the four areas, it can be productive to examine them in terms of their aspect(s). The four aspects of Boundaries that comprise this portion of the BASE model are Temporal, Kinetic, Cognitive, and Interpersonal. When considered properly and kept in balance, each of the four Boundary areas will also entail some element of each of these four Boundary aspects.
Temporal Boundaries are concerned with how we organize and manage time for ourselves and those around us. Kinetic Boundaries have to do with our movements and physicality or, worded a simpler way, what activities we do and do not engage in. Cognitive Boundaries entail how we engage with our thoughts, and Interpersonal Boundaries pertain to our interactions with others.
As one final reflection exercise for today, return to your list of Boundaries in each of the four areas, and try to label each with one or more relevant aspects. Once you have made a pass at this, examine the list again and notice the distribution of Boundaries across both areas and aspects. Does it already suggest anything to you about the relative equilibrium in your life in this regard? Does it challenge or reinforce any closely held ideas you may have about your “self” and the ways in which you engage with your world? Feel free to journal a bit on this (set a Temporal Boundary for it!) and see what surfaces for you. Hang on to these “notes” you have made, as they will prove valuable as we delve more deeply into each of the four Boundary areas each week for the rest of the month.
I will stop here for now. Over the course of the rest of this month, I will delve into a different Boundary area in a new post each week. Along the way, I will provide more detail and definition to my understanding of each area and the important aspects within it, as well as offering some additional reflection questions and, here and there, book, podcast, and/or app recommendations.
About a week ago, I took some time and built a little skeleton of blog posts to set up the functionality of our site. Chris and I began the Panta Rhei site for two reasons (I believe; he will correct me soon if I am wrong):
We believe that with our joint expertise, experience, and education, we have a couple of things to share, things that we hope others might find helpful. We have always shared them with family, colleagues, students, friends, … at conferences, in the classroom, in meetings and informal conversations. We want to reach out more and do this more systematically.
At this stage, our thoughts are on different phenomena, challenges, fields, prospects, questions, … It is a whole complex – a bit like a nourishing, comforting stew – of ideas, insights, lived experiences, learned theorems. Difficult to digest and even more difficult to name the ingredients and teach the recipe. So initially, we will use this blog to bring clarity and system to our thoughts. To stay in the picture: we don’t expect anybody to want our stew exactly the way we have had it simmering for many years. We will use the stew as a solid base for a variety of soups, soups that are not only nourishing but also presentable and transparent. In other words, each blog entry will bring more clarity to one thought. And we decided to do this “live” and publish each blog post immediately or soon after writing.
We are hoping to get your reactions, your comments, your questions, …
This post has been tagged with all 36 tags we currently have for this blog to give you an idea what this is all gonna be about. A little more in this vein in the next post.