I’ve become increasingly fascinated by power in the last few years. Think about it: power is woven through every experience we have with others: in relationships, interactions, and organizations, but we almost never acknowledge it. Saying power is invisible doesn’t quite get at its intangible quality. I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s unseen, because so frequently we’re not even looking for it.
This morning I spent nearly three hours digging out a Wisteria from my front garden. It was there when we moved in 5 years ago, hastily planted by the sellers to make the house look more appealing. “Wait”, I was told by people who knew more about plants than I do. “It takes a couple of years, but it will give you beautiful flowers.”
So, I waited. And every summer it sent green tendrils up and around and along the wrought iron fence. Slowly at first, and then like an evil, starving octopus grabbing at the other plants, reaching boldly out into thin air, slapping at passerby’s faces. We’d regularly trim back the “tentacles”, as we came to call them, but they quickly reappeared. Sometimes it seemed like I should be able to actually see the vines growing, they regenerated so fast.
I had a whirlwind week, and a highlight was facilitating a fantastic panel discussion on toxic cultures at the Conference Board of Canada’s Corporate Culture Conference. This is a topic I’ve been asked to speak about a lot in the last year, and it always leads to interesting conversations after my session. It turns out that a lot of people have experienced a workplace they would describe as toxic at some point in their career.
Of course, “toxic” is a description of impact, not a diagnosis of an organization. I think it’s important to keep this distinction in mind, lest we assume that labeling it is the extent of analysis that’s required. Or, like the great philosopher Britney Spears, we decide that there’s no escape.
Like a lot of people, I just read ‘How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation’, an article by Anne Helen Petersen. If you haven’t read it yet I urge you to do so. It’s excellent and touches on a web of issues facing today’s workforce. While ostensibly about the conditions that make millennial burnout so likely and prevalent, I suspect many people (of all ages) will see some aspects of their lives reflected in Petersen’s words.
The article intersected with a few other things this week. One was a Twitter conversation I got into this weekend about Shadow Work. In her article, Petersen names the feeling of profound inertia she has about some of the mundane maintenance tasks of living “errand paralysis’.
Welcome to 2019! I didn’t plan to write or publish this 2018 reflection on blogging, but I got up today and that’s what happened… I think this is a good annual practice for me to get into in order to think about the year in review and the year ahead, and who knows, maybe a few people will find it interesting. So here goes:
Well, it looks like we made it. 2018 is moving into our rearview mirror and I’ll bet I’m not the only one with mixed feelings about that. This year was turbulent, both generally and personally. I left a beloved team, made the leap into independent consulting (and managed to pack all the usual rookie mistakes into a very short time-frame #overachiever), did a bunch of public speaking, and jumped back into a fascinating new role in an interesting organization, all while grappling with defining a side project related to sexual harassment, complexity, and power. Oh, and the world seemed determined to drift into dystopia.
I felt uncertain and unbalanced the entire year. The upside was that I was especially receptive to learning from others. This year I questioned everything, and was comforted to find others who had already been asking the same (and better) questions; people who didn’t rush to fill the air with simple answers and singular solutions, but inspired me to sit with my uncertainty and try to learn from it. I’m grateful for that, and for them.
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
— Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the words we use for important ideas about work ‘diffuse’ over time, and all the problems this creates. Like a game of telephone, as an idea spreads its initial meaning gets refracted through each receiver, who stamps it with her own experience before passing it on. What starts out as a clear concept gets muddier and muddier over time.
“…complexity is about how things connect far more than what the things are.” – Dave Snowden
I crashed my brain in August. In the same way that my computer gets slower and slower as I accumulate more and more open tabs, I was finally left with a spinning wheel of mental overload.
Do you ever feel like you’re having the same conversation over and over again? Maybe it’s with your boss, a colleague, your spouse, a parent, with yourself? I know I do, and it feels like being stuck in a well.
We might use slightly different words, shift our tone or emphasis, but underneath that superficial layer we’re playing out the same interaction again and again.
I began a new role at a new organization a few weeks ago, and I’m once again appreciating the unique and precious experience of being in a liminal space.
The concept of liminality comes from anthropology, and refers to a finite period in which we stand with one foot in a new literal or metaphorical place and identity, and one foot out in our old place and identity. We are still an outsider, but are in the process of deliberately becoming an insider. This is a special, fluid, and confusing time, one in which our understanding is incomplete, and our new role is still solidifying. In a liminal period, we still lack much of the context that insiders have, which means our understanding of the new is incomplete. But this lack of shared history with other insiders (and often the assumptions that shared history creates) can sometimes help us briefly see with greater clarity than the insiders.