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Posted by on Oct 4, 2010

Reality Depends on Where You Sit

For some, possibly synchronistic, reason lately I have been confronted with numerous examples of cases where the interpretation of what happened really depended on where you sat.

For example, one employee was railing against managers who do not prioritize the organization’s interests over their own. Later on, he described as a victory his own manager’s success in getting a favorable budget allocation out of a shared pot of money.

I think it’s pretty clear, but in case not, imagine how the people outside his department must have felt. Pure selfish politics.

It also happens a lot when one department needs something from another. The requester is seen as demanding, insistent and unreasonable. The other department may be seen as slow, unresponsive and aloof.

One more: An employee who has selected responsibilities on a special team is struggling to balance his or her commitments to the team under a heavy workload. The team may feel he or she is not “pulling their weight,” while the host organization is worried about all that time the person is spending on that special team project.

In all cases, the common denominator is a manifestation of what I call the crisis of the “I” story. In the I story, the only reasonable interpretation of events is filtered through what benefits the story teller. The I story excludes the interests and priorities of others. It is a nice, clean version of reality.

Except that it’s limited, and therefore often wrong.

Before addressing what specifically can be done to break out of the I story, I’d like to explain that conceptually, nothing can really change until individuals accept their interdependent, connected relationships with many others. A locus solely out of “what works for me” is doomed to fail. This is really a matter of consciousness, not tools or techniques.

The last sentence in the new, and phenomenal, book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working by Tony Schwartz, is “A new way of working ultimately requires an evolutionary shift in the center of gravity in our lives – from ‘me’ to ‘us.’”

Much of this boils down to one, misunderstood word: empathy. Empathy is not sympathy, but rather the ability to see things the way another person might see them. It doesn’t even mean you have to agree, just that you get it.

If a person can get to this point, then there are a few specific things that can help in the complicated, fraught world of work.

Clear standards: Good agreements on who will do what by when provide an objective reference standard, and minimize negative judgments of others. Because agreements have to be negotiated, raw self-interest may be surfaced before it becomes a performance problem. Of course, this doesn’t mean that one’s locus shifts from self to others, but at least it’s understood earlier in the process.

Relationship work: This means intentional action to learn about and improve relationships. Feedback is the most direct way, but check-ins, process checks and just asking how others think things are going can surface disconnects.

Self-checks: This means asking yourself, “What is my intention here? Is it all about me, or is about others, too, and jointly figuring out what needs to happen for the best interests of the organization. It may seem simple, but it can take a lifetime of work.

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