The Quality of Attention at Work Part 1: Making it Meaningful

The paradox of our work is that it presents us with an amazing canvas for the practice of mindfulness while at the same time is such a challenging environment in which to be fully aware and present.

For most of us, and more importantly, for most teams and organizations, the work environment is enmeshed in a wide range of stories–some useful, and and most, not. In fact, in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari explores at depth, the special human capability of creating, believing in, and propagating what he terms “collective fictions.” Harari, himself a serious meditation practitioner, points out that as a species, we have been able to survive and thrive by working together–which requires the ability to hold a collective story in our minds.

Humans think in stories, and we try to make sense of the world by telling stories.
– Yuval Noah Harari

In the workplace of the 21st century, storytelling is most often connect with, and sometimes synonymous with, culture. Different workplace cultures can be described as agile, high performing, toxic, patriarchal, racist, plodding, competitive, collaborative, and so on. In most cases, the best cultures are intentionally curated by their leaders, sustained by collective stories told by most people in the organization, and reinforced by connecting relevant activities and milestones in the life of the organization to the dominant story.

However, in the majority of workplaces, the making and sustaining of culture is far less intentional; the result of the lack of quality attention to what is happening, individually and collectively.

A workplace of any size is comprised of people lost in their own thoughts, emotions, reactions, dramas, and personal stories about what the work is, why we are doing it, who should be doing it, how it should be done, etc.–and this is if their mind is on the work at all. We can be more distracted than ever at work. We are easily pulled away into the many other dimensions of our lives by the various devices, message streams, and jumbled mental states that surround us.

As leaders, we may also not even be aware of the stories we are telling ourselves, let alone others, as we move through the days, weeks, and months of our team’s work. What we do experience is the frustration of not achieving the outcomes we imagined in our mind. We wrestle with the challenges of “lack of alignment” in our team around what we thought were common agreements, core values, or agreed goals. We may even suddenly discover, upon achieving our intended outcome, that it was not what our manager had in mind, or that other teams don’t value the outcomes of our work, or our customers, however broadly we define them, are uninterested.

Before we can fix these problems with our team, we have to bring more attention to our own experience at work. By staying present with our own activities, we can explore the implicit thoughts, reactions, emotions, and doubt that are contributing to our own story at work–and therefore contributing to our team’s story.

There is valuable guidance for how to undertake this work of paying attention, Dogen’s Instructions for the Head Cook (the Tenzo), written almost 800 years ago.

(N.B. My references in this post below will be based on a the translation by Leighton and Okumura.)

Dogen, a monk, is credited with being the founder of Soto Zen after bringing the teachings from China to Japan. He wrote the Instructions for the Head Cook in 1237 at a time when many Zen temples were led by a team of monks, each with their own management role, one of whom is the Tenzo, the Head Cook. Dogen’s Instructions is an amazing piece of work because it is not only a useful guide to meditation practice, but is also an immensely practical guide for those of us seeking to be more effective in our leadership work. Below, I explore several lessons, based on quotes excerpted from the essay, and their relevance to bringing more attention to our work–contributing to a more generous and productive culture in our teams.

“If you do not have the mind of the Way, then all of this hard work is meaningless and not beneficial.”

Our starting point for work that matters is to simply bring attention to it. Without bringing mindful attention to our day by day, minute by minute experience at work, we will be consumed by the inevitable dramas, stories, and circumstances that impinge on us from within our own mind, circulating in our organization and erupting from the external environment. I take his guidance as an admonition to not get lost in seeking “meaning” for my work in the ramblings of my mind, or in the minds of others, but rather to stay centered and observe each activity in order to derive the meaning. When I am feeling overwhelmed or lost, I try to bring myself right into my seat–what sensations can I feel? what sounds do I hear? What is my mind doing? Is my breathing shallow or deep? Is my heart racing or at ease? If I am out of sync with the direct effect of the work on my mind and body, I am more likely to absentmindedly work in a way that creates confusion for others, misses targets, and leads to personal exhaustion.

“Thereafter, all the temple administrators gather in their offices and discuss what combinations of flavors, which vegetables, and what gruel to serve for the next day….After agreeing on the different courses, [the tenzo will]write a menu and post it on the signboards…”

Here, Dogen, is speaking directly to the challenge of aligning teams around goals. He suggests that before we even start our work, we need to discuss and agree the plan with our peers, and/or our own manager (or our board). Visualize the six leaders of an ancient Zen temple, where perhaps dozens or hundreds of monks are living and working, discussing the daily menu and the provision of certain ingredients to be used. Sounds like the monks were holding daily stand-ups. How often do we make assumptions about the detailed inputs and outputs of our work only to find out later that the assumptions were incomplete or just plain wrong? Are we being specific enough? According to Dogen, step one is get agreement and make it very concrete.

But, how present are we when we are making these agreements? Are we actually listening attentively to the contributions of others or are we only listening for when they agree or disagree with what we want to do in our own mind? Are we getting ready to pounce on them with vigorous agreement or disagreement? Try to pay attention in your next meeting and observe what is happening? Try to keep these ancient monk-leaders in your mind as inspiration.

Then once we have agreement–how are we communicating the agreed upon goals? In every place I have worked, one of the most common complaints is either “we don’t know what our priorities are” or “I can’t see how my work aligns with leadership’s objectives.” Here, Dogen, is again being quite specific. As soon as we know what we are going to do, communicate it publicly (“write a menu”) and prominently (“post it on the signboards”) so everyone knows the plan. With such a public sharing of the goals, those who will benefit from, or share in, our work can hold us to account. Our team at Humentum keeps experimenting (not always successfully) with OKRs as our tool for achieving this level of alignment, transparency and accountability. Despite our struggles and misfires, they still provide more promise than almost any other system I have used.

“You should not attend to some things and neglect or be slack with others for even one moment…It has been said that, for the tenzo, rolling up the sleeves is the mind of the Way.”

Here, I combine two different pieces of advice from Dogen into a unified approach. First, once we have agreed our goals, we need to be able to align all of our work to those goals. I often hear, “wait, but what do I do with my day to day work that does not align with my OKRs?”

The truth is, that we can’t separate our daily tasks from our desired goals. If we do, we can end up lost with intangible goals that are disconnected from the day-in/day-out effort that it takes to achieve them–goals as a concept. It was Gordon Hinckley that wrote, “You can’t plow a field simply by turning it over in your mind.” For many leaders, goal setting is exactly that. If the goal is so detached from the work, the leader can lose the feel and the grasp for the actual steps and activities the team needs to take to realize our goals. Frustration and mistrust amongst the team usually follows.

In Dogen’s Instructions, he is quite clear that the tenzo cannot just give orders, (s)he needs to take personal and intimate responsibility for the work when he writes, “In such a manner, lofty ancients of the Way have carefully practiced this job with their own hands…If you made a mistake cleaning rice and sand, correct it by yourself.” You could read this as an encouragement toward micromanagement, Rather, I read it as asking us to bring a keen intimacy to the work–whether your own work or that of your team. Know the details, care about the details, let the details inform the goal and the journey so that the work is meaningful in the moment. This will strengthens your ability to lead others because it is grounded in deep understanding of their challenges and struggles.

An another trap is that we can forget about the goal while we focus exclusively on the habitual transactional tasks. Now we lack the meaning needed to achieve something more beneficial and impactful with our work. How many teams set their annual or quarterly goals and then never look at them again until the end of the period or their performance review? We get lost in the endless stream of either urgent interruptions or the comfort of mindless repetition.

Well-written and communicated goals can be a mindfulness bell each day that helps to clarify the intention behind each thing that we do. They can be an invitation to commit more deeply to the task, to improve how we do it, to increase the value of its accomplishment to others. Dogen’s instruction reminded the tenzo to each day consider all the people (and their work) that was dependent on his success (or failure) at preparing the meal.

Goal setting can also be an invitation to question why we are doing the task at all? Does doing this work help me achieve our goals? Is it benefiting my team? my customers? my community? I often encourage my team members who struggle with aligning their “day to day work” with their OKRs to be rigorous in asking, “if this task does not align with an OKR…why am I doing it?” This can often lead to an opening where work processes can be re-thought, re-imagined, or even eliminated to reduce unnecessary effort.

“Do not comment on the quantity or make judgments about the quality of the ingredients you obtained from the director just simply prepare them…Definitely avoid emotional disputes about the quantity of the ingredients…People who change their mind according to ingredients, or adjust their speech to [the status of] whoever they are not talking to, are not people of the Way….As for the attitude while preparing food, the essential point is deeply to arouse genuine mind and respectful mind without making judgments…”

In several different paragraphs, Dogen makes reference to our judgments and encourages us to let them go. Why? Aren’t we supposed to aspire to quality in our work?

You’ve heard many of these excuses before. “It’s not my fault, we did not achieve the goal! It’s because, our tech is not up to date or it’s hard-to-use; we don’t have as much capital as our competitors; the donor cut our funding; I didn’t choose this team and we don’t have the right skillsets, (and so on…)” For the tenzo, the ingredients were the quality and quantity of rice, vegetables, mushrooms, etc. For us, the ingredients may look and feel differently, but how often do we use arguments about the inputs to justify our lack of attention to detail and the quality of the outputs.

Yes, talent, tech, money, creative are all useful and helpful ingredients in building a successful product, service or organization. But in THIS moment, we only have the ingredients we have, right NOW. What amazing work can we do in this moment, by aligning our goals with each other, applying well-defined processes, and working mindfully to create a beneficial outcome today. And, nothing destroys a team’s productive culture faster than emotional disputes and arguments on items that are often outside of our direct control in the moment. Even in 1237, Dogen observed that and understood that whether we are “only” complaining in our mind, or we are complaining with or about others, that it corrupts the product of our work.

Dogen goes further and writes, “even when you are making a broth of course greens, don’t arouse an attitude of distaste or dismissal. Even when you are making a high-quality cream soup, do not arouse at attitude of rapture and dancing for joy.”

Today, you might be struggling to make payroll, tomorrow a new funder comes forward. Great! In both cases, we have only the work in front of us today and we can make the best of it without complaint, without boasting. We do this by attending to our own mind as we do the work, by tending to the quality of our relationships with others, and by tending to, and understanding deeply, the needs of our customers or others that we serve.

“As I observed the people who were devoting themselves for a year to their jobs of temple administrators or heads of departments…each of them maintained three essential attitudes…Benefit others, which simultaneously gives benefit to the self…Make the monastery thrive and renew its high standards…Aspire to stand shoulder to shoulder and respectfully follow in the heels of our predecessors.”

Dogen’s Instructions to the Tenzo, was not just his own thinking. He actually traveled around China and Japan and spent time observing the work of other monks, and talking with them about how they approached their jobs. Many of his interviewees provided quite direct feedback, for example, “Oh, good fellow from a foreign country, you have not yet understood wholeheartedly engaging in the Way, and you do not yet know what words and phrases are.” I love this, because, he admits that this work is indeed a practice–we never get it right all the time, and there is much we can learn from the work and insights of others.

And yet, from his travels he was able to distill three three essential attitudes that we can unpack with respect to our work and their impact on culture.

“Benefit others, which simultaneously gives benefit to the self.”

Long before Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term, Dogen was proposing that we embrace the notion of servant leadership, or as Jim Collins called it, “Level 5 Leaders.” Whether making rice gruel, running a global rice distribution company, or inventing a new renewable fuel than is derived from rice, our culture and indeed our success is deeply dependent on our sense of purpose. Dogen argues that purpose comes from keeping the benefit of others (your team, your customers, your community) at the forefront of your mind as your daily work.

Greenleaf biographer, Don Frick, with echoes of Dogen, explained Mr. Greenleaf was not describing a new kind of leader when we coined the term servant-leader:

“Servant is not an adjective. It is a noun. The servant-leader is both servant and leader at the same time.

The servant, without the leader, is focused on providing for others, doing good deeds and making things easier for those they serve. The servant is all about the heart and the soul. Their orientation is to relieve pain and bring solace. So many in our midst feel compelled to volunteer and meet the needs of others. We are blessed to know them and to follow their example of service.

The leader, without the servant, is focused on achieving goals, fulfilling the mission he or she has been charged with and growing their sphere of influence. The leader is about the brain and the body. Their orientation is toward action. They bring energy and we want to keep pace. We are motivated by their clarity of vision and unrelenting pursuit of a goal.

The servant-leader is more than the “and” of these two nouns. Servant-leaders humbly accept that they achieve goals when they help their team members achieve their highest aspiration and connect them to a compelling purpose. Their focus is lifting the capacity of others, with no expectation of what they get in return. It is the richest way to live and find meaning.”

Make the monastery thrive and renew its high standards.

We live and work in a complicated time. The enduring nature of our institutions are under threat; internally and externally. On the one hand, we are watching well-established, trusted brands struggle to adapt to evolving customer needs and the demands of new business models, competition and other macro-environmental threats. At the same time, any one of us can start a company, non-profit, or social enterprise today–from our house, on our phone, with nothing more than a credit card and a good idea. Some of these become highly successful companies that are sold for billions of dollars while still employing less than 20 people (see Instagram.)

Because of the fluidity of the institutions that we work for, we are told that our own skills, capabilities, network and reach may be more valuable on their own–not tied to or affiliated with our employer. In many cases, employer loyalty is dead. So, we are also encouraged as individuals to manage our own personal brands. With blog platforms and social media, any employee, regardless of their role or title, has the ability to be an independent voice and influencer today unlike any time in (modern) history.

So what can we learn from this second of Dogen’s observations? His argument is to keep something bigger than ourselves in mind. To work collectively to build something of value in order to experience more rewarding work and long lasting joy than if we focused solely on our own gain, reputation and career needs. He is pointing to what happens in the mind when you reflect on creating something that will outlast and outlive you. It slows us down. It re-orients us to quality over quantity. It reminds us that relationships probably matter more than just getting this task done, which informs our principles and values. This orientation has a profound impact on the culture of an organization.

John Abrams in his book, The Company We Keep, where he chronicles his own team’s journey in building a construction company on Martha’s Vineyard island, writes, “Our view of time is squarely at odds with short-term business thinking. The work of South Mountain Company will not be finished in our life-times, it will continue for generations…We try to think about our work as cathedral builders thought about theirs.”

Would thinking about building a cathedral (or monastery) change how you make a decision today?

“Aspire to stand shoulder to shoulder and respectfully follow in the heels of our predecessors.”

There is a certain hubris that can come in this modern age of leadership. The best ideas are created now. The old ways of doing things don’t work. We must tear stuff down to build stuff up. I have far too often been guilty of this thinking and this way of leading.

And yet, I still believe in and lead from a perspective of a deep respect for continual change. There is no certainty, no stable ground to stand on. Organizations that act as if there is are at risk of becoming irrelevant. Agile and lean approaches to management make a lot of sense in building nimble, sustainable organizations.

And still yet what can be learned from those who came before us? Standing shoulder to shoulder does not mean that we need to blindly adopt the ideas of our founders, or of the prior CEO, or any leader from the past. But it can encourage us to see ourselves as their peer, to connect with their humanity. It challenges us to see and respect that they tried to make the best decision they could with the quantity and quality of ingredients they had at the time. What can we learn from those decisions? mistakes? successes?

It invites us to humbly remember that our work and our decisions will soon be history too. Are we working in a way so that others can follow our lead? What will our successors experience when they put their feet in our shoes? Can we see our calling to be a student as well as a teacher, a follower as much as a leader?

Let’s take this as a reminder that our responsibility is to pay attention, keep practicing, and keep honing our own craft of leadership that builds on the lessons of our mentors and predecessors, but makes it our own. A workplace culture that is attentive to the moment, agile in its responses, and respectful of its history and its future is much more likely to create beneficial impact for everyone it touches.

Note: this post is the first in a series that will focus on honing the quality of attention we bring to our work. It is based loosely on a set of teachings from the Buddhist meditation tradition that I have been practicing this summer as part of an online course with Ven. Dhammadipa. Any gaps in understanding of the Dhamma are all mine.

Photo by Rémi Bertogliati on Unsplash

How to (virtually) pivot an organizational strategy on a dime

Originally published on

COVID-19 is bringing disruption to practically every organization’s business and financial model. At the same time, for many of us in the NGO sector, it is requiring an all-hands approach to meeting the current needs of the moment—responding in real time to the crisis and working longer and harder each day to do it. And, of course, doing it as a distributed team with everyone working from home.

So, where and how do you insert the time to strategically plan for the future? How do you do it without a “strategy retreat?” How do you even know where to start with the current pace of change (where every day feels like a month) and the unprecedented uncertainty?

Our team at Humentum embarked on crafting a new strategy for a mid- and post-COVID world starting in March and found the process to be remarkably productive (if not a bit exhausting.) We have identified some pitfalls and lessons learned along the way that may help you and your team conduct your own strategic planning process.

A few caveats. We were already working as a fully remote team across eight countries and eleven time zones—so we could draw on that experience. We had already started a strategy process—so we could pivot that process as opposed to starting a new one. We are a relatively small team—so you may need to adapt our approach to your organization’s size.

1. Embrace the uncertainty—and allow your team to really immerse themselves in it

In this context, you will be grappling with both the global uncertainty generated by the pandemic, as well as the individual level uncertainties facing each team member. Your process can meet them where they are at.

Our strategy workshop was spread across four days in a seven business day cycle. We started each day with an extended time period for people to just “check in.” How were they feeling? What was going in that day? Were they energized, lagging? Anxious, sad? To be able to do deep intellectual work where we want to embrace how our organization and work might evolve, you have to create space and a process to help people engage that both honors their current “headspace” but also helps them check it at the virtual door. We used several approaches: open dialogue, short mindfulness sessions, a prior day reflection, etc.

We also prepared three scenarios for how the world might look 12-18 months in the future. In another time, or in a larger organization, you might spend days doing in-depth research to craft the scenarios. Not now! We quickly used insights we were gleaning from our members, our partners, and some quick web research on emerging thought leaders’ views, as well as history from the 1918 pandemic, to generate three light weight scenarios to ground our thinking. The Fog, the Slinky, and the Crossroads became our team’s shorthand for the three unique scenarios mapping the complexities and uncertainties we were grappling with.

Each team of three to four participants were assigned to one scenario. They spent most of the virtual retreat working in their scenario—becoming our team’s internal subject matter expert on it. They spent one day building out the scenario in more detail: what might it mean for our sector, what might it mean for Humentum? What big questions emerge? They spent another day generating potential strategic options for Humentum in terms of our response. They spent the third day refining those options based on feedback from the broader team.

2. Rigorously challenge your ideas—there are tools and techniques that can help

One of the risks of any strategy process are the traps of groupthink and confirmation bias. The risks can be higher in a remote setting as the format. If not accommodated for, a virtual setting can encourage fewer people to speak up, can lead more easily to a dominant opinion emerging, and can cause some people to feel more reluctant to speak up if they are uncomfortable with the technology. You can address these risks both with the use of different tools as well as some facilitation techniques. Throughout the process, we used Mural as our primary space to capture ideas, thoughts, and actions. We love this tool because (1) it enables so much of the same flip-charting and active facilitation that we are accustomed to in face to face sessions, (2) it is dynamic—meaning it can evolve with you during the event and post-event allowing for extended collaboration, and (3) can support both synchronous and asynchronous knowledge capture which allows reflective team members more space to contribute. And unlike a shared Google Doc or similar, it is visual which supports more creative energy.

Tools are not enough. You also need to design facilitation approaches that challenge your thinking and assumptions. We used three techniques in this event that worked really well: Killer Questions, Six Hats and the Coconut Shy. All the approaches were designed to undermine groupthink and confirmation bias by expressly asking us to go deeper, challenge assumptions, and not follow the lead of the first person to respond. Six Hats  was very useful when we started to examine different strategic responses. It allowed people to take on a specific role, which often would be out of character for them. It also made sure we looked at a set of responses from a wide variety of angles. How many meetings have you been in where the entire room’s conversation is set in motion by the first person’s comment—and whether people agree or disagree? Six Hats is designed to overcome that flaw. In a Zoom meeting, this exercise is particularly useful to surface a wide range of views from more people.

3. Balance the intensity and focus with time to reflect

Typically, when working on strategy, you might pull everyone into a strategic offsite and work, eight, ten, or more hours per day for a couple of days or a week. That’s what we had planned for late March until COVID-19 emerged onto the scene ending all international travel. Running this type of experience virtually required some adjustments. First, we had people in five different time zones—eight hours apart. We needed to flex the time to make sure no one started before 6:00am or ended after 9:00pm. Then we needed to accommodate the fact that we all had other work to manage and were at home with family commitments. Finally, we wanted to also acknowledge that being in a video conference for too long is difficult. So, we settled on two sessions a day; one for two hours in plenary and another for three hours in working groups with a one-hour break in between. Yet, a lesson learned was that even that was too long and too intense. Despite having a lot of experience with online meetings, we found the deep mental activity of the planning effort to be much more tiring virtually compared with in-person. In addition, these events were combined with the emotional fatigue from the early weeks of the pandemic and the extra hours we all were putting in to manage our day-to-day workloads. So, when planning your retreat, consider a longer duration event with shorter bursts of activity. You will also get the benefit of more time to reflect and learn in between sessions.

4. Keep the energy (and laughs) coming

What did work were our energizers and games that kept the energy up and the smiles on people’s faces. We did a virtual karaoke version of “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor. We used our arms on the Zoom Gallery view to try to create a square on the screen. We played rapid rounds of an office scavenger hunt as we all had to find items that were red, blue, soft, heavy, etc. in our workspaces, and so on. Scenario planning and strategic work are important and especially now can lead to critically important decisions. Yet, that doesn’t mean we can’t help our team to think more clearly, and probably come up with more creative outcomes because they are a bit more relaxed, energized, and open.

The Quality of Attention at Work Part 2: The Arrow

My first silent meditation retreat. I can remember it as if it was yesterday. It was a blustery and bitter long weekend in the depth of a cold February at IMS. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I certainly did not expect that particular retreat experience to be both physically uncomfortable and also life transforming. It was during the first full day of the retreat when one of the teachers said, somewhat casually and in passing , that there are only six things that are ever happening. You are either seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching or thinking. That’s it. (The Buddha identified the mind as the sixth sense, and therefore thinking is the sixth sense activity.)

Boom–something went off in my mind. If that’s all that’s happening, why does life seem so complicated, stressful, challenging and confusing most of the time?! What about all of our plans and ideas for our life? What about our work experiences? the projects? the profits and losses? the conflicts over resources? the happy and unhappy customers? That day, I started on a journey to try to see what is happening in each moment in my work as simply being an experience of one of those sensations. I quickly discovered that it is not so easy.

It turns out that humans add a whole set of fabricated stories on top of these experiences and in fact, that is where the complexity and the frustration comes in. As I explored in Part 1, Yuval Harari wrote about our ability to create collective fictions. These fictions, or stories, are both our strength and our weakness. Why?

Since that bitter cold winter day at IMS, I have since learned about another aspect of our mind; one that contributes to a lot of frustration. It turns out that the description of what is happening in each moment, just those six things, is slightly more nuanced and complex. Yes, what is happening in our body is quite straight forward, if we just pay attention. I am in a meeting. I am seated at my desk in my home office and I can feel the body in the seat. I see my colleagues on the display. Someone is talking and I both see and hear that. I feel the breeze coming in the window, cooling my skin on my left arm. My wife is making lunch, I smell the vegetables she is cooking. The Buddha refers to this type of awareness as “bare attention”.

“In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard…”

from the Bāhiya Sutta (full translation)

Simple, right?

Enter the sixth sense, our mind. Here in the mind, however, there are actually four levels of things that could be happening. One of those is called feeling tone. For each sense experience (a sight, a sound, etc.) , there is likely also a feeling tone–not an emotion, but a simpler sense of something being pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. These feeling tones can be subtle or strong, but unless we pay attention, they are often invisible to us–and that is where the trouble starts.

So, let’s go back to the work scene I described above. That scene is a few short moments for me in a long work day. So, if each of those experiences generates a feeling tone–there are literally thousands of these feelings occurring in a workday–what I call micro-moments.

So in this moment of participating in this meeting, when I tune in, I discover, a subtle positive feeling because the breeze is comfortably cool. I like the smell of the vegetables–another subtle positive feeling. I can feel the seat, not much happening, neutral feeling. I just heard someone disagree with my proposal–negative feeling tone arises.

Now–here is the moment that has all the power–what does my mind do next. Most of the time, for most of us, we miss the arising of that feeling tone, and we start building a story. “He always puts down my ideas; What? Was she even listening? Never mind, I’ll do it my way anyway; Who else thinks that? Maybe I will just get a new job.”

First, I feel the negative ping of the comment. Then I feed my mind a set of negative thoughts, and experience another negative feeling tone as a response to those thoughts.

Or maybe, I just zone out for the rest of the meeting, check email, or Slack, or to distract myself from those feelings.

Suddenly, I am having a bad day. Or am I?

This response is often referred to as the second arrow. The Buddha described quite vividly how this happens.

“It’s like a person who is struck with an arrow, only to be struck with a second arrow. That person experiences the feeling of two arrows.
In the same way, when a person experiences painful physical feelings they sorrow and pine and lament, beating their breast and falling into confusion. They experience two feelings: physical and mental. When they’re touched by painful feeling, they resist it.  The underlying tendency for repulsion towards painful feeling underlies that.”

Full Translation

That tendency for repulsion or aversion–that’s the second arrow.

And this is happening not only with my thoughts, but my physical sensations. My neck starts to hurt from looking at the screen too long. It is no longer a gentle cool breeze, but a cold wind on my arm. After six hours of online Zoom meetings, my mind is fatigued and I get a low grade headache.

What I have learned to see on silent meditation retreats, and in my daily meditation practice, is how quickly these experiences happen, and how quickly the feeling tone can change. When I am not paying attention, I can see how a series of unexamined feeling tones starts to become a pervasive attitude or mood that persists. When not paying attention, I can see how quickly I can say or do something unhelpful in response to that fleeting feeling tone.

And this is why working with others can be so challenging. In a team of any size, everyone is experiencing these feeling tones in response to their physical and mental stimuli. So, the number of feeling tones and reactions in any given moment in our team are multiplied by the number of people involved. In addition, there is an element of chaos and randomness because we are all usually responding and reacting mindlessly in response to each others reactions in each micro-moment. Suddenly, the entire meeting has become a litany of minor or major complaints or has veered well off course from the primary agenda. It is amazing that we can anything done at all.

The tricky thing about the feeling tones are that they are (1) fleeting–they are a very brief response to sense experiences, (2) relative–they are not absolute and fixed based on the sense experience (i.e., the cool breeze could be pleasant or unpleasant), and (3) unreliable–they can change quickly and they can inaccurately “describe” a sense experience. So, unless we are paying close attention, we may miss their arising, and our mind may be begin to form new mental stories based on these fleeting, relative and unreliable “realities.”

So what can we do? Basically, slow everything down; create a gap between the feeling tone and any new thoughts, speech or action.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

– Victor Frankl

This “minding the gap” is hard enough in a meditation setting, but in the context of work, when there is urgency and a sense of momentum, it is even more difficult. Yet paying closer attention to a series of mental and physical cues can point to the influence of these feeling tones on the mind.

(1) Investigate the unpleasant feeling tone. With practice and attention, it is possible to become more aware of the changing feeling tones throughout the day; moment to moment. This presents an opportunity to question what is being experienced and trace back the feeling tone to what may have been going on in the body. Was it something you just heard someone say? Did you see a piece of data that looks wrong? Did your mind drift back to a prior failed project with similar characteristics? Are you hungry and ready for lunch? This investigation helps to reveal the feeling tone as the fleeting, relative and unreliable “blip” of energy that it is. It can diffuse the immediate desire to respond–if indeed the response will likely create more anxiety, stress, or frustration for you and/or for others.

(2) Reign in the inner drive to say or do something. With practice and attention, it is possible to become more aware of the surging internal energy toward saying or doing something before you act upon it. This surge means you have probably missed the original feeling tone, but it is not too late. This build up of energy is the inevitable mental drive to relieve the stress and tension created by the feeling tone. Unexamined, we take it as a cue to speak or act. Examined, we can see it as just another type of passing energy in the mind and with the proper gap, can decide whether saying or doing something in that moment would be beneficial for everyone involved. By choosing to pause, there is also an opportunity to trace back and see where a feeling tone cue may have been missed, or what feeling tones are arising in response to the energy to act. Note also that a positive feeling tone that may arise from a “good idea”, or an opportunity for praise and recognition, etc. Positive feeling tones are not immune from leading us into saying or doing something that will prove to be unhelpful later.

(3) Notice when you have lost your focus. Checking your text messages or browsing the web? This distraction is likely a response to either a series of neutral feeling tones; the sense that “nothing is happening” or numbing out in response to an unpleasant feeling tone. Finding yourself well down the rabbit hole of one of these activities can be a useful mindfulness bell at work to bring attention back to the present moment. What’s happening right now? What am I feeling? What was happening the last time I was present with the work or discussion at-hand? The mind is attracted to the “hit” from pleasant and unpleasant feeling tones, so when our sense experience is not generating them, the mind gets busy finding experiences that will. Instead of following those impulses for distraction, they can be used as a cue to examine what is happening in the present moment and explore how to bring more interest and more attention to the current task or discussion. There are many “neutral” feeling tones in the work day and learning to be with them without seeking distraction is a powerful key to increased focus. One trick to stay focused in those moments is also to look more closely for other feeling tones, specifically, positive ones that may be subtly lurking in the background and use those to ground your energy instead of seeking distraction.

Now, you can’t control the reactions and responses of your colleagues. However, a workplace culture can make intentional use of deep listening, value the quiet space that sometimes emerges in conversation, encourage team members to assume positive intent, and demonstrate compassion when people react unskillfully. By doing so, an organization and its leaders are creating a space that can lead to productive discussion, planning and engagement.

Note: this post is the second in a series that will focus on honing the quality of attention we bring to our work. It is based loosely on a set of teachings from the Buddhist meditation tradition that I have been practicing this summer as part of an online course with Ven. Dhammadipa. Any gaps in understanding of the Dhamma are all mine.

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

5 things I learned about teams from washing pots on silent retreat

I recently returned from a nine-day silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Societyin western Massachusetts. This was the longest time I was going to spend on retreat and I was a little unsure about what to expect from such an extended time of quietude and reflection. At the same time, I was not exactly alone, as I was sharing this journey with 95 other retreatants. As part of the experience, each person is expected to work a 45-60 minute job each day to help keep the costs lower and to explore how to apply mindfulness to work and daily life. I was assigned to wash pots with two other retreatants every day after the midday meal. What happened next was completely unexpected!

Although the three of us met briefly on the first night and exchanged introductions, by the time of our first shift, I could not remember their names (and as it turned out, they could not remember mine either.) So, here we were, three people who didn’t know each other (or our names), who had each taken a vow of silence, and we had to work together in a very tight, very wet and very warm space. What emerged were key lessons that could make any team more successful.

Lesson 1: Clarity of purpose

While we were unable to direct each other’s work, ask questions or even make small talk—we knew what we there to do. We had 45 minutes to wash pots, pans, pitchers, utensils and other miscellaneous kitchen equipment from the day’s lunch preparation and service. Everything needed to be soaped, scrubbed, sanitized, dried and put away. And the entire work area had to be cleaned and reset for the next work crew who would replace us at the end of our shift.

How many times do we find ourselves adrift in our normal work? or debating as a team (halfway through a project) what we are actually trying to accomplish? Consider the impact of that confusion on productivity, team relationships and individual job satisfaction. When that happens pause and take time to explore, agree, and document your team’s purpose and outcomes; it will make everything easier.

Lesson 2: Well-defined roles, responsibilities and processes

To facilitate efficient work without talking, we were trained on arrival day on the three roles in the pot washing team. We each selected one for the duration of the retreat. For me, it meant washing all of the smaller items in one of the sinks, placing them in a plastic rack, and sliding that rack into the sanitizing machine. Benizio scrubbed (and scrubbed) all the larger items and hand sanitized them. And, Rebecca took all of the sanitized items, dried them and put them away. Easy—we knew what each had to do, we knew what each other was doing, and we had access to job aids if we had any questions. As a result, without speaking, we worked efficiently and effectively towards our desired outcome—everything clean and reset for the next crew.

Even if our day-to-day jobs are more complex than washing pots, this lesson still applies. How many times have you heard in your office, “I don’t even know what he does!” So ask yourself, what can you do this week to better define your team’s work?

Lesson 3: Awareness and generosity

Yet, of course, just like in your work and mine, the flow and scope of the tasks in our workspace was uneven and unpredicatbale from minute to minute and day to day. Depending on the meal, or on the work pace of others in the kitchen or dining room, work would pile up for one of us. Meanwhile the others might have an empty work station. Without a word, we would pitch in and help. Aware of the backlog (this was a meditation retreat after all!), motivated by a generosity of spirit and effort, and supported by a well defined work process, any one of us could help each other out. I often started drying the multitude of salad dressing ladles and water pitchers that had piled up in Rebecca’s work station. Or Benizio would start washing some of the smaller items in his sink while waiting for more baked on stainless steel pans to show up.

How does that work in your team? What is preventing people from lending a hand when needed? When the work is buried in our laptops and phones, sometimes what needs to be done is not so obvious as a pile of messy pots. Agile project management is great for making the backlog of work transparent—so anyone can see what needs to get done, pull the next item and get started—without even speaking!

Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

Lesson 4: Appreciation

At 1:15 each day, the next crew would arrive. The three of us would finish the last few items—keen to leave the work station clean and ready for our nameless and silent replacements. When the work was done, we’d hang our aprons and gloves to dry. Then, we would turn to each other, and with a slight smile, gently bow to each other; a slient and implicit “see you tomorrow.” A simple gesture that meant so much and sustained the team.

Do it—today—send a simple thank you email or Slack message, or take 5 minutes at the end of your next meeting to reflect on what you accomplished in that hour. It will feel good—and might even become a habit.

Lesson 5: Patience

This last lesson did not come from my potwashing shift but was shared by our traditional yet radical retreat leaders, Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Santachitta. They are western-trained Buddhist nuns who have been working together for over twenty years. They and a few colleagues have recently partnered to start one of the few all-women monasteries. Their insight about working relationships was that even when you have a clear purpose, well-defined roles, are generous with your time and energy and appreciate each other—working together is hard—especially over a long period of time! Yet, the benefits are powerful. These working relationships can be compared to the effect of rocks tumbing against each other in a mountain stream. What starts out as rough and gnarly pieces of earth, become, after years of rubbing against each other, smooth, glossy and beautifully rounded stones.

We all know that when the going gets tough, it is easy to lash out, or worse move on to the next project or the next team. This image of the stones is an inspiration to stay with it and let the turbulence of the project help the team to shine.

(Photo by Wil Stewart on Unsplash)

So, give it a shot. If your team is working through a conflict or facing a tough time, pause—and speak less. Take time as a team to clarify what you are trying to accomplish. Assess the work and make sure the roles and process are well defined. Be aware of when the workload is unbalanced and help re-balance it. And create regular times and rituals to appreciate each other. Then see what happens, maybe your team will also be a little shinier today than it was yesterday.

Originally Published on LinkedIn on April 22, 2018

Re-imagining the role of generosity in leadership

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others’?” ― Martin Luther King Jr.

Generosity, and its role in leadership, is often an unexplored frame in how we manage and lead. Even more specifically, how can leadership teams make strategic decisions while using generosity as a frame? I spent some time before the new year thinking about leadership models and my own intentions to bring more authenticity to my work. I am aspiring to bring more focused intention to how I use my attention and how I make decisions, be more generous with my time and expertise, and stay open to being wrong by seeking the truth, however inconvenient.  This blog post expands on a discussion thread I started on LinkedIn around the theme of generosity because I think it is misunderstood. It generated a wide range of comments, several of which I will address here.

First, what do I mean by generosity in this context?

Several comments to my thread interpreted the definition with a narrower framing of the leader as a generous individual, giving of one’s time, energy and expertise to others on their teams and or in their organization. This is an important component of generosity in leadership. However, I am interested in taking it a step further—how can generosity affect our strategic decision making and how can it shape an entire organization’s interactions with its ecosystem—its customers, suppliers, partners, and even its competitors. Generosity is not only about being a responsible leader or an ethical organization, i.e., generosity should not be equated with corporate social responsibility. And, by the way, not for profits, or social enterprises may not necessarily be led by leaders using generosity as a frame.

Generosity in leadership is the practice of using your organization as a means of giving freely to the world around you—without expectation of getting anything in return. It is grounded in a mindset of abundance about our assets and our opportunities. From this mindset of abundance, an organization also practices generosity by recognizing that its success, indeed its existence, is dependent on everyone around them and that it cannot truly act independently without consideration for its employees, suppliers, customers, regulators etc.

Now, two disclaimers. First, I am not suggesting that leaders should be financially irresponsible—an individual or an organization must sustain itself—otherwise, generosity is undermined by the failure to thrive. Second, I am also learning about my practice of generous leadership through this process. Therefore, I don’t claim that I, or the organizations that I have led, have gotten this right in every or even most instances. It is with humility that I am exploring these topics in more depth. 

Here are a few areas where we can explore the nuances of generosity.

1. Content marketing and thought leadership have become commonplace and a standard part of a marketing strategy. Looking more closely, is the starting point generosity, i.e. sharing our personal or organizational expertise with its community, or is it self-serving, i.e., content marketing as a lead generator? And if by sharing content, we are generating leads or growing followers in our network does make the process less generous?  A few commenters to my LinkedIn post shared their struggles with this balance with questions such as “Am I writing/sharing content with the goal of fostering meaningful dialogue, learning, connection, and community?”  “Am I writing/sharing content that offers my authentic perspectives and insights?” The critical issue is what is our intention? And are we are expecting a specific response? We can ask ourselves by sharing this content am I being authentic, and will the reader be better off for having engaged with that content? Will they be able to take action on that piece of content without purchasing the product or service that we offer? One comment summed it up best with, “Generosity is the only way to build [a] network in my mind.” Why? Because most people can see through inauthentic attempts to share.

2. There is a massive growth in ‘for good’ initiatives across multiple sectors. This should be applauded and welcomed. It reflects that customers want to do business with organizations who are giving back to the communities. However, I would argue that to truly resonate in a market, an organization need to start with being radically open and view the sharing of their product or service with non-profits, or other social sector users as part of an intentionally generous approach, without the expectation of business growth. I have noticed, however, an increase in companies viewing the “for good” space as a new channel. There is nothing wrong with charging for services or having differentiated prices for non-profits. The slippery slope comes when organizations design their ‘for good’ initiatives to specifically open up new channels while branding them more broadly as being part of their ethic of generosity. And, it probably doesn’t work anyway as customers are becoming increasingly savvy to these types of inconsistencies. Instead, leaders could focus on how not to ‘give back’ to make up for excessive profit but to ‘give’ as part of their business model. Open up your API. Provide a pay-what-you-can option. Offer a Creative Commons version of our content. And, so on.

3. Generosity and a mindset of abundance seem to be closely linked. As leaders, we can be regularly cultivating a mindset of abundance in our teams; reflecting on the talent, skills, products, capital, opportunities etc. that we have. Doing so can overcome the tendency to focus on constraints, budgets, competition etc. 

I always recall one of my early mentors reminding me that “you need to spend money to make money.” John was a very disciplined manager in terms of managing his costs, our dining hall at Cornell University always had one of the lowest cost structures. Yet, he never let that discipline get in the way of investing in new menu items, new equipment, or other upgrades that would enhance the customer’s experience to grow our business—in a university dining hall! John understood the power of thinking abundantly on customer expectations. And, despite his gruff manner, he generously invested in his employees: teaching while on the job and giving and sharing with employees who hit rough patches outside of work. 

I can track my career, and when I have let go of fear and invested in customers or invested in employees—generally, success has followed. And conversely, when I have allowed constraints to influence my decision making about those investments, it has usually started a downward trend that I would need to spend more money later to reverse.

The lesson for me is that great leaders can create success by tapping into the deep well of others’ passion by opening themselves up through their own sharing.  

Organizational psychologist and researcher, Adam Grant, sums up this topic well on his LinkedIn feed with: 

“We need more leaders who are givers, not takers. Takers demand attention. Givers pay attention. Takers brag about success. Givers take responsibility for failure. Takers aim to be better than others. Givers strive to do better for others.”

So, think abundantly, take risks and try sharing a little more today than you did yesterday.

Originally Published on In on February 21, 2020

Can we solve complex leadership challenges with simple habits?

Feeling overwhelmed by the pace of change? Does it seem that the complexity of our world is outpacing the ability of leaders (political, business, NGO) to manage? Me too, and we are not alone.

The latest survey of international NGO (INGO) CEOs demonstrates that leaders are deeply concerned about the multi-factor changes buffeting our sector and the ability of their organizations to respond in an appropriate and timely way. Sixty percent of CEOs reported that their organization is not matching the rate of change and complexity. Notably this is higher than a similar survey conducted by Toffler Associates which reported 42% of private sector CEOs reporting that their organization is “challenged” to weather change. This makes sense when you look at the types of concerns reported by INGO CEOs: digital transformation (#1), rising inequality, migration flows, climate change, changing financing models, financial disintermediation, and declining trust in civil society institutions.

These are global, complex and multi-variable problems with no simple solutions. And they are in strong alignment with how Toffler Associates summarized the disrupting forces in their recent report including societal collisions, power dynamics, human and computer interactions all evidenced by eroding trust, digital confusion, innovation and regulation misalignment. (Note: the CEO of Toffler Associates discussing these factors in more depth in this podcast.)

So, what to do?

The Toffler Associates report advocates for leaders to re-commit to building human-powered organizations. Despite all the tech and digital solutions, Toffler Associates believes that we are in the midst of another human-centric revolution, but worry that leaders are losing sight of that fact. “ Recent studies illuminate that many of our current leaders are inclined to forget that the modern organization is human-centric. Globally, around 85% of employees are not engaged or are actively disengaged in their job. In the U.S. that number is closer to 69%, but it still lis woefully concerning.” They advocate for leaders to increase their investment in culture and aligning their culture with organizational values and human-capital and performance programs to increase engagement. 

That sounds great, but if you are like me, don’t you want to dig deeper into the how? 

If culture was so easy to change, every organization would be doing it easily—and CEOs would be less worried. Well, recent work from the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI) suggests, by applying what we know about brain science, that much of what leaders have been historically doing to change culture has been wrong (or at least less effective). Organizational leaders tend to over-emphasize communications, awareness building and developing organizational competency and employee skillsets. Their research and recent work with companies such as Microsoft and GE has focused on simpler and potentially longer lasting approaches.

First, organizations, like individuals, need to adopt a growth mindset in order to increase resiliency in the face of these societal changes. Just as research indicates that focusing on effort rather than performance measures (like grades) builds more adaptable and resilient minds in individuals, adopting the same approach when used by leaders can increase innovation, risk taking and agility in organizations. It’s about organizations learning to learn! As they note, one of the key aspects of the growth mindset is the fundamental belief that growth is possible When INGOs are facing such complex challenges, we MUST believe that change is possible for our organizations and our society, otherwise, the challenges we are facing will be interpreted as threats—increasing organizational stress, paralyzing decision making, and reducing our ability innovate.

Now comes the simple part. 

They advocate a focus on Priorities Habits, and Systems (PHS) to drive culture change in organizations. As a self-improvement junkie in my personal life, I was immediately attracted to the idea that if you can help an organization build new habits, you can facilitate long-term change. It seems so obvious—but somehow feels like it is overlooked as an approach to change. The NLI Guide, How Culture Change Really Happens, points out that most of the time leaders describe why we need to change, and maybe what we want to change, but NOT doing the day to day work of helping people understand how to change—at the individual and the organizational level. At Microsoft, for example, they helped leadership distill their leadership focus down from 100 priorities to three really simple ones: “create clarity, generate energy, deliver success.” This simplicity and clarity of focus enabled their employees to align new work habits to an easy-to-use and even easier-to-remember framework. (Disclaimer: in full disclosure, this sounds simple in concept, but is hard to implement in reality; I know that I am struggling with converting priorities into habits with my work at Humentum.) 

I often listen to the Tim Ferris podcast, where he asks his guests to describe and deconstruct (in great detail) their own personal habits that lead to success. He recently interviewed Jim Collins, author of Built to Last and Good to Great—two books in the 21st century business leadership canon. In the interview, Jim describes his own system that ensures that he is focusing the right amount of time on his own writing and creative work. First, he has identified a metric to help him stay on track in terms of the number of creative hours worked per month and year. He backs that up with a a daily habit for recording his time each day. But, more importantly, he records not just the time, but the qualitative information about how he spent that time, and how it felt. Doing this step enables him to adapt and adjust throughout the year to overcome barriers and obstacles to achieving his goal (growth mindset in action!). Describing his approach using NLI’s framework, he has a priority (spend 1000 hours per year writing and creating), a habit (of tracking and describing how he spends his time, and a system (a spreadsheet tool ) to support it. 

Coming back to the challenge for the NGO sector, let’s frame it up in our context

How do we simplify our priorities? Both as organizations and as a sector, we love complexity. We have spent decades perfecting frameworks, standards, evaluation methods and tools, theories of change and on and on—but how do we simplify that into easy to use set of (a few) priorities aligned to addressing the complex challenges we face today? 

How do we create new habits? For example, can we break down any challenge, such as digital transformation, into smaller bite-sized habits for people. Then, regardless of where in the organization an individual works they can “ digitally transform , as opposed to hoping that one big tech bet will turn an INGO into Apple or Amazon. Our work with NetHope on the Digital Skills Framework is very much a step in this direction by focusing more on comprehensive behaviors and less on tech literacy skills.

How do we change the systems? NLI uses an example in their Guide, about trying to developing healthier eating habits while working in a sweets bakery—obviously very difficult. What is the NGO equivalent? If we are trying to change our funding models, do we need to spend less time talking to “traditional donors” and more time with impact investors, tech entrepreneurs, B-Corp CEOs and others using capital in innovative ways to drive change?

What does this have to do with trust?

Finally, I want to come back to the issue of trust. Both the Interaction survey and the Toffler Associates report emphasized the decreasing trust of most organizations, not just NGOs. Specifically, the Toffler Associates report describes the problem this way: “ Free flow of information (and misinformation) crosses virtually every traditional boundary, leading to lack of trust between organizations, individuals, institutions, and communities.There is confusion on where to put the resources that nurture these crucial bonds of trust, forcing organizations to be more in tune with their customers and stakeholders at local levels.” This could easily describe the trust shocks that have rocked our sector related to: “aid too”, aid diversion and fraud, and community mistrust of NGO intentions and outcomes. This is why Humentum has made trust a core issue of our convening focus this year, especially at our conferences.

By applying the PHS framework, NGOs (and the sector) might be able to rebuild a culture of trust. Fundamentally, trust is about doing what you say you are going to do—consistently—and demonstrating it with transparency. By clarifying what we want to do (priorities), defining how we will do it (habits), and creating the mechanisms to support those priorities (systems)—we are changing a culture, delivering on our promises, and re-building trust.

Originally Published on Linked In on March 25, 2019

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash