Take My Pencil. But Please Leave the Computer.

I just read that according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 75 percent of employees steal from their workplace, and many do so repeatedly. Instant flashback to the day my neighbor showed up on my doorstep, lamenting that his kid didn’t get a job because he had flunked the ‘honesty test’ given to him by HR. This is the same person who knocked on my door to confess to having done small thing that I hadn’t even noticed was awry. In short: the most honest kid I have ever known. So much for honesty tests.

I was once president of a sheet metal manufacturing company. It was the kind of business where “theft” meant someone had highjacked your truck and fenced the contents, so I’m sensitive about the various levels of what I prefer to call ‘misdirection of corporate assets.’

Dr. Dan Ariely, behavioral economist and author of bestseller Predictably Irrational, has done dozens of studies on just how far people are willing to go in the direction of dishonesty while still maintaining a self-image as a ‘good’ person. So we have some reassurance from a distinguished researcher that it’s forgivable to take a pen home from work, but not a box of them. But I found it a bit disturbing to realize that I’ve often been overly tolerant of bad behavior.

So what can we do to tighten up the ship? Deterrents work very well. But only if all of these conditions are met:

  1. Everyone needs to know that if anyone steals, something bad will happen.
  2. They need to believe that if they steal, they will be caught and punished.
  3. They need to see that punishment as truly undesirable.

I can see you shaking your head at that third one, asking yourself, isn’t every punishment undesirable? Actually, no. The usual punishment for stealing things at work is getting fired. For some people, that’s a reward, not a punishment. This is especially true if the person heads directly to the unemployment office and collects benefits because you didn’t have the heart to fight it.

America’s prisons are filled with people who: a) never thought or believed that they would get caught; b) thought that getting caught wouldn’t be all that bad; or, c) just didn’t care at the time. That’s the problem. It’s truly rare that all three of the essential conditions of deterrence are present at the same time.

So here’s the question: How do you make sure your people are not among the three-quarters of the workforce cited as pilferers (or worse) by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce? The answer: You can’t ‘make sure,’ but you can make improvements.

First, do a security audit and check on critical systems and processes in Finance, IT, and physical security. Remember: when you allow vulnerabilities, you create the other guy’s temptations.

Second, know that most people do desire to ‘be good’, so take action to reinforce that orientation. One of the most effective tactics is to educate and improve management skills in reducing workplace stress. Why focus on stress? It’s because uncertainty, verbal abuse, and unfair treatment makes people frustrated and angry. And when people are angry, one of the ways they work it off is to take things and self-justify that it is only ‘evening the score’.

Finally, take the advice you’ll find on any typical investment brochure: “Past performance is not an indicator of future performance.” Think about this when you invest your trust in people. Some of the best and most honest workers you can hire might have slept behind bars for a time, and learned the hard way that they never want to go back. It’s called ‘going straight’, and it really happens. Meanwhile, there are plenty of ‘honest, respectable folks’ who might be just a bad mood or a breakup away from dipping into the till.

Now, getting back to that dad on my doorstep with the kid who flunked the honesty test. Here’s what I told him…after first calming him down and citing chapter and verse on the virtues of his admirable and upright offspring:

“Would you really want your son to work for a company that doesn’t trust him?”

This post originally appeared on Innovation America.

 

Do You Work in a Culture of Mehdiocrity?

No, my spell checker is not out of order. In fact, I had to fight to get it to stop correcting me.

Mehdiocrity:  A state of being wherein the only acceptable alternatives are to be non-reactive, to be unengaged, or to raise indifference to an art form.

There’s a lot of it going around.

Mehdiocrity is not as simple as mediocrity.

With mediocrity, you get a result. And if your team is truly mediocre, it’s probably a result that’s repeatable and reliable. This condition is even built in to the quality metrics of ISO 9000: the product doesn’t have to be excellent, just consistent. Work gets done in a mediocre culture, but it doesn’t make your heart sing.

Mehdiocrity is much different.

It has nothing to do with intelligence, talents, abilities, skills, values, ethics, emotions, or personality. In fact, it’s totally cultural. By which I mean contextual, and not related to where you grew up or how your family celebrates birthdays. It’s not you: it’s your work environment. Perhaps the cause is stagnant growth, lack of healthy competition, or stultifying business processes. But it’s often said that ‘people don’t leave companies, they leave managers’…so it could be your boss.

Right now, you’re probably wondering, so here’s how to find out.

The Mehdiocrity Test:
Just answer yes or no. No maybes. (That would be mediocre.)

  1. I don’t know what the purpose of my job is and I have given up trying to figure it out.
  1. I only receive praise for things I don’t care about and for accomplishments that I can’t actually remember ever doing.
  1. My opinions only count when they match those of my manager and the people around me who my manager is favoring at the moment.
  1. I use my allowed leave time as soon as it is granted, since I feel I must have regular ‘mental health’ days.
  1. While I may occasionally have opportunities for learning, I don’t bring the knowledge back to my business unit because it might conflict with the unyielding mindset of my manager.
  1. When my colleagues at work ask me ‘How’s it going?’, the only honest answer I could give (but usually don’t) is “meh…”

Scoring: Yes = 0 or 1, are you hiring? Yes = 2, merely mediocre; Yes = 3 or 4, uh-oh; Yes = 5 or 6, go to YouTube immediately for Lewis Black rant-therapy. 

OK. Now you know. What are you going to do about it?

Remember it’s just your environment. You could leave. Or you could plan to leave. Or maybe you are still thinking that the money and benefits are worth it.

These days, not many people have the luxury of a quick exit. Where you work, the people who were able to leave have already left. So let’s assume you’re going to stay. Here are three steps to preserving what’s left of your life force while you figure things out.

  • First, make sure to be doing something outside of work that is not mehdiocre.
  • Second, find things you can do (without being noticed) that are important and beneficial. Think ‘stealth productivity.’
  • Third, make sure you are fighting on the side of the angels by doing things that leave the world just a little bit better. And when you do, don’t forget to reward yourself!

Got any mental health days left?

 

Does Your Team Suffer From ‘Connectile Dysfunction’?

According to recent research by Shikhar Ghosh, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, based on data from more than 2,000 companies, 75% of venture-backed startups fail.

Of course, there are different ways to define failure, but losing all the money you’ve put in – or losing your dream – certainly qualifies. Some might use shorter-term benchmarks, like achieving sales and revenue targets within a given timeframe, in which case an even higher percentage of funded startups would probably wind up sporting a big red F.

This is important, not just for startup teams and not just for the investors, but for the U.S. economy as well. This chart showing 33 years of net annual job growth tells you why: Startup ventures create jobs. Big companies don’t.

presser

So the really big questions are, why do so many startups fail – and what can be done about it?

Studies have identified various issues that contribute to the blow-up of startup teams, including competitive factors, market factors, technology churn and such, but the #1 – by a long shot – indicator of pending demise can be summarized with just one diagnosis: Connectile Dysfunction.

Connectile Dysfunction (or CD, as we team-oriented entrepreneurs call it) causes the heartbreak of startup failure, which leads to chronically depressed economies.

Sound dangerous? Contagious? Fatal? It can be. But thankfully, CD is diagnosable and treatable. There’s even a way to immunize against it.

CD happens when the way in which people connect with each other lacks sufficient respect, trust, and faith in the team vision. This can happen with people on the team, as well as with customers, investors, vendors, and the larger social community.

CD creates disappointment, misunderstandings, and stress. This exacerbates the problem, and also blocks quick resolution. The side effects can have long lasting, demoralizing effects on every team member.

So, let’s say you believe your team has some level of CD and just isn’t up for the challenge. (Yes, there is a spectrum of severity for this disorder.) What to do? Start by asking these not-so-simple questions:

1. Do you have the right people on the team? That is,

  • Do they actually want to do that work?
  • Do they do the work at the quality level the job demands?
  • Are they relatively free of ways of working together that you don’t want to encourage in your culture?

2. Are they doing their work in a way that keeps their connections with people ‘clean and clear’? Do they have the right kind of supports and do they have the appropriate level of autonomy?

3. Have you noticed any particularly odious qualities to the way they interact with others?

Keep in mind that 75% of VCs and private investors thought they knew the answers to these crucial teaming problems. But they didn’t, and it cost them plenty. Now they are probably a little gun-shy and less likely to pull the trigger on the next startup opportunity, which won’t do anything for the economy.

A variety of new approaches, from neurological studies to the mining of ‘big data,’ are being applied to the search for new ways to identify, assemble, and lead the right teams for the right mission. One such technology elicits ‘teaming’ behavior, and takes a direct measure of the different ways that individuals seek to contribute to organizational needs, thereby producing the analytics of team chemistry, and new ways to structure and manage teams for optimal performance.

Now picture an island holiday, a glass of fine wine at sunset beneath swaying palms, with the promise of great things to come hanging heavy in the air: profit-sharing, stock grants, market domination, culminating in a climactic liquidity event.

That’s reality for some entrepreneurs – the ones who built great teams. So before you invest your dreams, time, energy, and/or money, take personal responsibility for preventing CD, and look for help in the areas of team analysis, teaming analytics, and team development.

You could start by tweeting me, @DrJaniceStat.

This post originally appeared on Switch & Shift.

 

DO…YOU…MIND?!??

We’re learning more and more about the mind all the time. Neurological functions. Brain chemistry. Thought processes. Feelings and states like being ‘in the zone,’ or ‘positively engaged,’ or even ‘transcendent.’

But it seems we are talking more about mind, and using it less.

We used to use the word ‘mind’ as an action verb or concrete noun. I present three examples for your analytic pleasure.

When I was a kid, “mind the baby” was a phrase often directed to older siblings by an otherwise-engaged parent. It was a call for attention and action – at minimum a few doting moments playing peekaboo or counting fingers. Today, the more likely strategy would be to put the baby in front of the television, or perhaps an attention-grabbing app running on a baby-proofed tablet. Stimulation, yes. Mind? Not really.

A few years later, when I had come to understand some of the ways that my actions affected other people, I got a lot of reminders to “mind your manners.” I’m not the product of a white-glove household. There were no silver spoons at our table and never more than one fork at a time either, so the rules found in etiquette books weren’t part of the manners that were supposed to be minded. To my mother, manners were simply morals in action. You were expected to come to any situation with your morals intact, to be aware of them, and then to apply them to the situation. Respect wasn’t just a song title.

And then there’s the expression I remember from a time when I had just had my feelings hurt in some teenage way by some teenage boy. I was commiserating with a friend when her mother, a southern belle of great wisdom, said “Don’t pay him no never mind.” To my New York City ears, that was about as confusing as a suggestion can get, but it stuck with me. I deconstructed the sentence and realized that, with three negatives in it, she was really telling me not to expend any more of my time, attention, or misplaced emotion on someone who didn’t deserve it. And she was right. There’s a cost to you when you pay with ‘mind.’ It’s like any other investment: start by estimating your ROI and act accordingly!

I know there’s a renewal of interest in ‘mindfulness’ or self-awareness, and that’s a good thing. I just hope that it takes the form of what Adam Grant (in his best-selling book, Give and Take) calls ‘otherish’ behavior. Without the blend of self and others, it’s a cold and lonely world.

Perhaps, to your mind, none this really applies to you, and I’ve misunderstood your personal situation. If so, I hope you’ll call it to my attention so I can act on it. Or, if you happen to have been a fan of Saturday Night Live in the 1970’s, just picture me as the late Gilda Radner’s delightfully dotty character, Emily Litella, who misheard, misinterpreted, and misspoke, until finally set straight.

“Never mind.”

This post originally appeared on Innovation America.

Getting Engaged

Big-city high-rises often have exercise/pool areas that rival the best-equipped health clubs. I like to use the one in my building as a study. Late one evening, relaxing in the hot tub after a day of constant business activity, I was joined by two young professionals who were having a discussion – actually a debate – on the topic of ‘engagement’* surveys. One is a psych major turned HR manager and the other a product manager with a degree in marketing. I’m going to call them ‘Psych’ and ‘Product.’

Psych was asking Product if he could get her a copy of the Gallup Q12 – a set of questions that test for employee engagement so she could use it to survey people in her company. Product pointed out that the Q12 is copyrighted material, and went on to lecture Psych about the value of such attitude surveys – or more accurately, the lack thereof. He must have taken great notes in class. He cited chapter and verse from product marketing literature, summing it up by stating categorically that although people might give you rave reviews, if they aren’t buying your product, who cares?

Psych was not convinced. She had been given an assignment by her boss, and was determined to follow through. I felt sorry for her.

If you are – or know – someone who feels compelled to measure engagement, especially if the assignment has career-altering consequences, here’s a set of questions that you can offer without exposing them to copyright infringement litigation. Why am I doing this? Well, I’ve done 30 years of study and research on what makes great teams great, and I know there is a big difference between a person’s attitude about their place on a team (their level of engagement, if you will) and the underlying factors that influence ‘teaming’ behavior. The former will tell you about existing conditions. The latter will tell you why, and what you can do about it, thereby bridging the gap between attitudes and business results. (see http://www.Teamability.com)

Here are my survey questions. Tell people to rank them on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). (If you want to credit me and send a link to your results, even better.)

The ‘Teamability® 7’:

  1. I know the vision, purpose, and/or goal for everything I do at work.
  2. When problems arise – of any kind – they are usually resolved in a reasonable and efficient way.
  3. My job responsibilities are aligned with my desire to serve my team and my organization.
  4. I get respect and recognition from others in a manner that is meaningful to me.
  5. My manager ‘gets’ me – consistently listens to me, values me, and encourages me to grow.
  6. My coworkers feel like a real team to me. We share the load, we support each other, we have fun together, and we get the job done.
  7. I may not have the most important job in the company, but I know that I make a significant contribution.

I’m sure you know what you want, so I don’t have to tell you the ‘right’ answers.

Oh, and just in case you are wondering what happened between the two young professionals in the hot tub…

I just heard they are getting engaged.

* An “engaged employee” is described, variously, as one who is fully involved in and enthusiastic about his or her work; who acts in a way that furthers the organization’s interests; who will ‘go the extra mile’ for colleagues and customers.

This post originally appeared on CustomerThink.

Privacy, Trust, Data, and Love

The near-complete annihilation of privacy can be a terrible thing. But when it happens between two people, the result is an extraordinary reward called ‘falling in love.’ So why, then, are we seeing such an uproar about something that – under the right circumstances – we are so willing to surrender?

Perhaps the current conversation on privacy needs a refresh on the element of context. In this sense, context would include the set of limitations we put on the scope and depth with which we are willing to interact with a particular ‘other’.

Using myself as an example, there are people with whom I will share the entirety of my self: not merely the quantitative, but also the qualitative. That’s because, for me at least, it feels good to be understood, and to truly understand another person requires a high level of information, both historical and current. Further, there needs to be a high level of confidence that this information will be used in a positive way, if not for me then for someone or some thing we both care about.

And then here are entities with whom (or with which) I share selected information. They will never fully understand me, but they may offer me something I could not easily locate or obtain for myself. (Yes, if you have black t-strap kitten heels that I like, I will happily disclose my shoe size. But I’m not telling you my secret number – the price I’m willing to pay – because that makes for too one-sided a relationship.)

Lastly, perhaps sad to say, there are those with whom I will only share misinformation. If I sense a bait-and-switch, or an attempt to capture my information under false pretenses, I am likely to provide entirely fabricated data, chuckling to myself as I fool your system. I don’t trust you because I learned that you don’t have my interests at heart, and may be even be opposed to them.

And so, I may trust you with my data, my information, my heart, and even my soul. But remember, I will always be asking one question.

Will you still love me tomorrow?

This post originally appeared on Innovation America.

Cheats and Crooks and Creeps. Oh my!

Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore. The moral compass that Auntie Em and Uncle Henry provided has been spun through the eye of the tornado and it has lost its direction.

I just read that McKinsey, one of the most prestigious consulting companies in the world, has instituted a new set of rules to prevent another ‘incident.’ That’s my mild-mannered way of saying that two senior leaders in the firm had been caught in a high-stakes game of insider trading. As a result, the new Global Managing Director has decided that McKinsey’s 87-year tradition of individual and corporate integrity wasn’t working anymore, and needed shoring-up by stringent directives and compliance testing.

Apparently rebellion is afoot at McKinsey. Against what rules, I don’t know. After all, I’m not an insider. But as a mom as well as a CEO, I have some advice to offer to the rule-makers.

What you’re doing is obviously needed, but it seems that some of your insiders have said the changes create a ‘nanny-state.’ They seem to feel that they have been thrust back into kindergarten.

Maybe they should be. It’s the place where, if mom and dad haven’t drilled it into you yet, you learn the basics of ‘working and playing well with others’ (as it was described on mid-20th century report cards.)

Perhaps I can offer a way to underscore that lengthy, detailed document that everyone is now required to sign. Here’s what I’d do. I’d keep it simple, and deliver it with my best attempt to mimic a 1940’s military drill sergeant. Here’s my rap:

Listen up! This is the stuff that you should have learned a long time ago.

1. Don’t take other kid’s toys without asking. (The corporate behavior code probably refers to this in a few places. Padding your expense account may not seem like outright theft but it is.)

2. Don’t sneak a peek at other kids’ cards. Really? Even if they aren’t too careful about protecting them? Damn right! (Consider swapping ‘Inside info’ for a more accurate phrase: Trusted confidential material. If you have access to sensitive matters and can’t keep a secret, you belong on the outside, looking for a new job.)

3. Don’t be a bully. And don’t make excuses for bully behavior. (You know what I mean. The greater your position of power, the greater your responsibility to ensure that the rules are fair and the playground is level.)

Violate any of these and you are at best a creep, and at worst a cheat or a crook; or maybe even all three.

This post originally appeared on Innovation America.

You want ‘Team Chemistry’? Start with Biology and Physics!

Forbes’ publisher Rich Karlgaard drew a line in the sand when he launched an article entitled Teams Matter, Talent Is Not Enough. And then along came the brilliant research of Adam Grant, set forth in his NY Times best-seller Give and Take. Dr. Grant proved that, contrary to a particularly nasty old adage, nice people frequently finish first.

I see these two writings (and waves of commentary along the same lines) as the beginning of the end of the ‘hire-only-the-best-and-brightest’ era. For the longest time, hiring has been all about talents, traits, skills, education, and experience. Now, we’re returning to a more complex and enlightened place in which the way a person ‘teams’ is gaining attention and awareness for its critical value.

People speak wistfully about ‘team spirit’, as if it were a kind of magic spell that could be cast by only the most enlightened of leaders or coaches. Now the phrase ‘team chemistry’ is coming back into vogue, and that’s a lot closer to the truth. Teamwork does indeed embody chemistry.

Not ‘I like you” chemistry. Real hard-science chemistry, and biology, and physics.

Biology has given you some inborn drives. One of them drives you to learn and master your world. Another drives you to connect with other people. Put the two together and you get the basic reason humans form teams. Including, by the way, that most basic of teams: the twosome.

Physics, which is essentially the science of how stuff works, explains a lot about the way to build a physical structure (or infrastructure) that won’t collapse when an earthquake or tornado hits. Think of what that takes. Strong parts connect with other strong parts in a very strong way. (Okay, that won’t get you an engineering degree, but it’s at the core of building anything complex. And you can’t have a team with just one person, right? You’ve got the drift, right?)

For the moment, let’s just focus in on that ‘very strong connect’ part. In human beings, that’s called interdependency. It’s what causes us to lean on each other and not topple over when bad things happen – like economic tremors causing our employer’s ‘Richter scale’ to register above 4.5.

So, just to review before we get to the midterms…

We have people with fundamental biological drives, which vary. (We can measure that variance, thanks to a new ‘team science’ that applies to any team in any kind of organization.)  And these drives operate within the framework of a team, and fundamental elements of teamwork, which follow the rules of physics.

Now we’re ready to tackle chemistry.

Even if high school or college chemistry is just a faded memory for you, you might be familiar with the principal of valence, aka covalent bonding. Or (depending on when you went to school) molecular orbital theory, which begat modern valence bond theory. No matter the name, or the level of detail in scientifically explaining how atoms form molecules, valence is about attraction. The most important thing you need to know about attraction between two entities is that it happens because there are physical forces that come into play to balance out an unstable imbalance. This creates ‘completeness.’

When you understand the teaming energy that is inherent in each person on the team, then you can predict how they will handle adversity, change, or just plain old stress. You can also predict the focus and drive they will apply to the fulfillment of a team mission. In the language of Teamability® these attributes are called ‘Role’.

Ready for team chemistry? Here’s the formula:

In humans, ‘completeness’ happens on a team after you get the right biology, e.g., people motivated to do something big with a team, into the right physical configuration.

Since each Role exhibits a complementary (balancing and energizing) influence on one other Role, add only the Roles that are most appropriate to the team’s mission, and introduce them all to each other so that each can find their ‘Role-pair’.

Then step back and watch the sparks fly!

Do it for the Team

To my parents, who were the children of immigrants, the idea that work should be meaningful was self-indulgent. They considered work to be a matter of tribal survival, to wit: You work hard. You provide for your family. You support your community. You put things off for the future and hope for the best. Those were the important things; the meaningful things. How different it was from the ‘do your own thing’ culture to which I was introduced in the 1960s, and how utterly remote from our children’s culture of 24-hour fast food and Facebook!

The roots of my lifelong inquiry into the nature of teaming have long been entwined with my quest for personal meaning. I used to think this was a contradiction of my forbears’ reality, but maybe it’s not. After all, what if the apple that you pinched from a fruit truck was the only thing you would eat for a whole day? Is there any question that you would be willing to work in a sweatshop for barely enough to buy bread, take a beating in the fight for the right to organize, and find your meaning at home?

The answer is this: The Industrial Revolution is over, and of course, you have the right to have meaningful work! We also have an obligation to be our best selves, and at work, we are at our best when we do work that is personally meaningful and satisfying. That right and that obligation are deeply embedded in our membership in an organized society where we continually influence each other’s experience. The quality of our time at work is a major factor in family, community, national, and global quality of life.

Somewhere there is a team that needs your specific, personal way of making a meaningful contribution, but there is a problem. We have interests, and skills that we are good at, and we acquire ideas about things we think we will enjoy doing. If they happen to be on target, terrific. But our accuracy in determining such matters is generally hit or miss. Consequently, a large percentage of the workforce is doing work that is not in tune with the deeper sense of meaningful.

Before I explain further, let me put some context around this.

I have been studying human interaction for a very long time. This is, after all, the business of behavioral scientists. But while most are interested in the behavior of individuals, I became fascinated by the behavior of teams, and I had questions.

Why, I always wondered, did the presence or absence of one specific person seem to have such an outsized impact on the rest of the team? Why did some people handle team upsets so calmly, while others went completely off the rails? What was behind the nitpicking and backbiting on a team when everyone had said their reason for being there was to be part of a team that helped and supported people?

I began to think that there was a lot more to teamwork than just people and job titles. People bring their intellect, their personalities, their knowledge, and their experience to teams, and those things are important. I knew about the many ways to measure and evaluate those attributes. But I wanted to know if there was a way to understand and measure the quality of connection or collaboration that a person, or a team, was capable of generating. To get to where I wanted to go, I had to understand teams that worked well – and those that didn’t.

So I thought about math and chemistry and physics. You know, in the physical sciences, when things don’t work together, scientifically speaking, nothing happens. But when chemical reactions DO happen, it is because one part connects with, or ‘needs’ the other! And they ‘need’ each other in the right proportions. Perhaps, I thought, people in teams were no different. What if principles like valence and coherence and molarity were actually happening at human scale? What if there was a way to understand and work with the physics of teaming?

After years of study, my research partner and I found that when you feel you have a mission in life, that’s a scientifically valid feeling. We took that knowledge to be a foundational element of team behavior and called it Role – with a capital R. We eventually identified ten elemental Roles that, working in concert, could meet all of an organization’s needs. And we knew, with all of our love of science, that identifying and understanding a person’s Role could be invaluable to management in selecting team members and assigning job responsibilities – and also to individuals in choosing a field of study, a career, and even a life partner.

With this new understanding – and Teamability®, a new technology of teaming that we engineered to measure it – it’s possible to close the gaps between what people do, and what makes them more comfortable, happy, and productive doing it with other people.

To my mind, the essence of meaningful work is this: contributing what is sacred to you – your life’s mission – in collaboration with other people who are contributing from their life’s mission. It adds up to people being fully engaged in teaming and fully in harmony with the mission of their team. This is the formula that makes any workplace a better place to work.

This post originally appeared on the blog Switch & Shift.

Question Authority! (Then Listen to the Answers)

I forget where I first heard the rallying cry Question Authority!

I mean, I’m a sixties person. I had it on a sweatshirt, on my college notebook (kids, this was a primitive device that required pen, paper, and handwriting) and on the stickers we pasted on phone booths. (Oh my… How do I explain ‘phone booth’? Ah! They were conveniently placed little rooms where Clark Kent could change into Superman.)

I think the term is also in one of James Baldwin’s early works.

Questioning authority was a team sport. We’d gather in small groups, debating whether or not the latest word from Washington – or from our college administration – was TRUTH. (We liked TRUTH and we spelled it that way.) Remember, there was a conflict raging in Southeast Asia (not a war, officially). And there were conflicts raging in the streets of urban America.

As we sung along with Bob Dylan, the times indeed were “a-changin’”.

I have not stopped questioning authority. But along the way, I started to listen to the answers.

Mostly, since I’m now old enough to be an authority, this means I get to question myself. And listen to my answers. And go back and clarify exactly what I meant when I said that. Sometimes what I thought was TRUTH is merely correct. Or open to debate.

You may not think you are an authority, but you are, at least on something. (Age does not really matter. Five year olds can be great authorities on the most surprising topics.)

So, when someone says something authoritative, what’s your default response? Question, accept, or listen and then decide?

If you are always questioning, you risk getting caught in the undertow of doubt. Slogging through battle after battle will surely slow your forward motion.

If you never question, you can never use the power of Authority as a stone against which to sharpen your individuality, to hone your wits, or to create synergy by joining with other people of like mind.

But if you listen, you have time to question. And time to digest the feedback. And time to raise your level of awareness before you ask your next, deeper question. People need to develop a mindful relationship with authority, whether it is internal or external. And you’ll be the wiser for the exercise because you will gain greater knowledge and trust (as appropriate) in that authority.

By the way, I also recall (with just a hint of a blush) parroting another watchword of the day: Don’t trust anyone over thirty! That particular form of authority didn’t last long.

This post originally appeared on  Switch & Shift.

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