What if the future of our businesses depends upon our ability to be un-business-like?
Why are memorial services celebrating the life of a loved one who has passed always convened around candlelight, music, and poetry and not around bright lights, PowerPoint presentations and spreadsheets?
Today’s guest post is by Dr. Robert H. Lengel, author of A Place For T: Giving Voice To The Tortoise In Our Hare-Brained World (CLICK HERE to get your copy).
Why are memorial services celebrating the life of a loved one who has passed or that bring communities of diverse people together after a tragedy like a human-caused tragedy or natural disaster always convened around candlelight, music, and poetry and not around bright lights, PowerPoint presentations, and spreadsheets? Memorial services are meetings around the most significant emotional and spiritual events in our lives – not about budgets or cost overruns that seem insignificant in comparison. They serve to help people who might or might not know each other find a sense of presence with change and hold hands to risk moving forward. Change always involves grieving the death of something old and mustering the courage to accept the birth of something new. I think it’s time to shed some new light on how we meet to achieve change.
Nothing would be more un-business-like than convening a business meeting in candlelight with music and poetry and nothing would be less human-like than convening a memorial service in bright lights with agendas, charts, and graphs. We need to recognize that not all meetings are the same. I think there is a practical business lesson here – at times our task requires us to be impractical and un-business-like. Those times are turning points in the life of an organization when change, creativity, and innovation become a survival necessity and people need to support each other as human beings in changing themselves.
The lesson is simple. Organizations exist at two levels of reality. The most obvious surface level represents the brightly lit performance stage on which human beings act out their defined roles. It consists of structures, organization charts, systems, goals, regulations, policies, plans, and job descriptions. These elements are visible and difficult to ignore in our day-to-day work. There is a deeper underlying level of reality, however, that is only visible in candlelight. That fragile flame reflects the spirit of loving, compassionate, forgiving, respectful, and collaborative human beings conscious of their common mortality and their insignificance in the face of the night sky. Any change strategy is more likely to be effective if we could work with these human beings and not the entrenched role players who have a stake in the status quo.
We look more like each other in candlelight than we do in the roles we play under the bright stage lights in the conference room. In this light, people are more open to change and ready to support each other in risking it. Issues like trust, poor communications, broken relationships, lack of employee engagement and buy-in, and leadership development are barriers to change that are amplified in bright light and defused in candlelight. These barriers are surface-level issues that can only be addressed at the deeper level of organizational reality. To prepare people to transcend these barriers and achieve real and sustainable change, it is necessary to reveal them as human beings beneath their business suits. Shouldn’t our meetings about change topics be more like memorial services that invite emotional and spiritual presence than agenda-controlled and facilitated meetings that intentionally deny that presence?
We need to better appreciate the effect of how we illuminate our meeting places. For decades I have been experimenting with ways to bring the spirit of candlelight into meetings where it makes sense to do so. I have just published a book entitled A Place for T: Giving Voice to the Tortoise in Our Hare-Brained World where I share my learnings. My book launch events communicate my message with a simple experience. I begin my presentation in a brightly lit room with shuttered windows. On a table in front of the room, I have lit candles. After a short PowerPoint introduction, I shut down my computer, turn out the room lights, play reflective music, and let my audience sit in silence before I continue. Now those flickering flames become the focus of attention. Then I ask them to share what they experienced with the change in lighting. They naturally get it and awaken to the deeper level of reality without me lecturing to them.
Our human consciousness is mirrored in those candle flames. They awaken the human being within us. People who sometimes feel lost, unappreciated, and alone in the roles they play, sense a call home to what they really care about. Now I can talk to an audience that is prepared to be intimately connected to what I have to say and prepared to engage in meaningful dialogue. Isn’t this what organizational leaders really want – to have employees who are intimately connected to what they have to say and fully engaged? But I fear these leaders are a bit afraid of the darkness and don’t trust what might emerge.
Lack of trust might be the biggest barrier to change. If you want trust, then trust. Creating candle lit meeting places challenges leaders to let go of the need to control and trust the natural capacities of employees to do what is right and good for the organization. As I look back on my experiences, I have developed a much greater appreciation for the potential inherent in the natural emergence of change as a product of learning and for the natural emergence of leaders as needed. In their busy lives, employees might have forgotten how to talk to each other, what conditions they need to learn together, and how to lead in their own way. But if the lighting is not blinding them to the fragile candle flame, they will help each other naturally remember that they already know these things. I have seen this emergence happen too often to ignore it. We just need to create the meeting conditions, a meeting place, that invites the conversations we need to have, not the ones we assume we should have. The most critical condition might be how the ‘place’ is illuminated. I think senior leaders need to muster the courage to occasionally turn down the house lights and risk being un-business-like in candlelight. We all look better in candlelight.
Dr. Robert H. Lengel is Associate Professor emeritus at the University of Texas at San Antonio, president of the consulting firm LeaderWork Inc., and author of the new book A Place For T: Giving Voice To The Tortoise In Our Hare-Brained World. He holds a BS and MS in aerospace engineering, an MBA, and a PhD that blended oceanography, environmental management, leadership and organizational dynamics in business. For more information, please visit www.APlaceForT.com
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