The question isn’t where is this going, but rather where do we want it to go?

Last week I participated in a two-day workshop on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and digital skills. It was part of an international project on AI and digital discovery that my good friend and colleague Anthony Elliott* has been involved in developing and leading. Anthony argues that what is happening in the world today is no longer a technical revolution, but rather a technical tsunami, where the development and implementation of new technologies is so fast and wide spread that it is unlike anything we have ever experienced before. There are mind-boggling innovations being done in all kinds of areas and arenas, but few have considered what the social connotations of these innovations will be. How will they, for example, affect how we interact with each other in the future? This is something we have actually already started to see since the introduction of social media.

Well, as you can imagine, getting together with academics and practitioners for two days to discuss these issues was an exciting experience. However, there was one thing that struck me right at the start.

During the two days, we were split into groups to talk about and create an understanding of different aspects of AI and leadership and how AI will change leadership in the future. Each group was assigned one aspect of this and right then I thought, wait a minute. The question was formulated, ‘where is so and so (insert an aspect of leadership and organization) going’ but shouldn’t the question have been ‘where do we want it to go’ instead?

Because this is the way we often talk about technology, AI, and any form of innovation and development. We talk about it as something happening to us rather than something we can be involved in shaping to our needs. But the thing is, these new technologies are created for us as tools to help us in our work and every-day lives. We should be involved in talking about and affecting the direction they take – all of us, not just IT developers, coders and engineers. We need to think about what we want and need these tools to do, because yes, AI sounds like something fancy but it is in fact just a tool.

So, AI will transform social life, it already has. And we can’t stop it from happening, it is already here. But we live in a time of change and I am a firm believer that now is the time to affect in which direction we go from here, and that is something that we should all be involved in.

Which brings me to another thing that struck me in the workshop. During the two days, each group was sent on a ‘learning safari’ to get our heads around the questions at hand. My group had a Skype interview with a leader in a Swedish media organization, who had experience of AI and digital implementation. She said something that in all its simplicity was actually quite profound. She said, “I’m not afraid of AI.” The reason she isn’t afraid, is that she has been in contact with it. She has seen what it is and what it does and can do, and she has worked with it. She knows that it isn’t anything to be afraid of; that it isn’t a mystic being developed to replace us and everything human, but a tool to use and shape to our benefit.

So yes, let’s create more opportunities and get-togethers like this workshop so that people – people like you and me – can talk about what our wants, needs, and fears are for the future. Let’s make this our future. Let’s be involved in deciding how it should unfold.

*see his new book The Culture of AI

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Do you set things up for failure or for success?

I experienced something heart wrenching this weekend. I’m visiting Adelaide for work and I love taking walks in the morning in the wonderful parklands that surround the city. The sound of the birds and the scent of the gum trees are what I always take with me when I go back home and I’m trying to enjoy them as much as I can while I’m here. There is a large green area very close to where I live where there are horses. Those of you who know me, know how much I love horses and I enjoy walking over there just to look at them.

On this particular day there were just three horses out in the pasture. They were further off in a different enclosure than usual so I walked towards them to get a better look. I find Adelaideans so friendly that I end up having meaningful conversations with complete strangers every day (this is true), so I thought maybe I could have a chat with the owners of the horses.

As I approached, I noticed that the people there had been saddling up two of the three horses and that they were leading them away towards the gate. The horse without a saddle was trotting alongside them looking very excited to be going on an outing. He (it could have been a she but let’s just say he for the sake of simplicity) didn’t seem to register that he wasn’t wearing a bridle or a saddle, he just knew that his herd was leaving so he was leaving too. A man started waving a stick at him to distract him and in the meantime the other two horses slipped out with their riders and the man with the stick quickly followed.

What happened next was the part that was so heart wrenching.

The horse left behind panicked. Horses are herd animals and this horse’s herd had left without him. He started neighing and he neighed and neighed and neighed. He called after them; it sounded like he was crying and shouting at them to come back. In a complete panic he started galloping from the gate where he was standing towards the fence (where I was standing, but on the outside), which was also towards the direction his herd had gone. He ran around, back and forth and then full speed towards the fence again, grinding to a halt right before he crashed into it. Then the was off again. Then he came back and he neighed and called out to them again. By this time, they were out of sight.

I tried talking to him, thinking maybe my voice would calm him down. Maybe it did, I don’t know. Either way he started trotting back and forth along the fence, stopping to neigh and to have bowel movements (he had a few so I can only conclude that it was caused by the stress). He went back and forth like a caged animal, but with this nervous energy that he would suddenly not be able to contain and then he was off again galloping in a panic.

At one point he came over and reached out to me over the fence, so I put out my hand. He sniffed it and then he was off again. I talked and talked to him, but there was nothing I could do. I didn’t know this horse; he was someone else’s property and I didn’t have a right to touch him. Nor would it have been wise, we’re talking about 500+ kilos hurtling around uncontrollably.

I stood there for a while feeling miserable for this animal. Out of compassion, I was unable to leave. I felt that at least someone should stay with him, but finally I just had to go. Again, I had to remind myself that this was not my horse and there was nothing I could do. The owners/riders would be back soon. I turned to walk away and the neighing that had stopped by then, started again. It broke my heart.

Where I come from and where I horse-back ride, this would never have happened. We have a strict rule never to leave any horses alone in the pasture. If there are two of them and you need to fetch one, you always take both because you can’t leave one behind. And the reason for that suddenly became absolutely crystal clear to me.

One of the things that really bothered me though, was how unnecessary all this was. This horse was subjected to extreme stress and the situation was potentially very dangerous. He could have been hurt in his panic-stricken state. If this happens regularly, which I assume that it must, it invariably has a long-lasting effect on the horse and his wellbeing. So, you end up with a horse with all kinds of issues who might become nervous in different situations, causing even more potentially dangerous situations for no reason what-so-ever. I say no reason because this was a situation that could have been avoided. You can just decide never to leave a horse alone like that and you will have a much calmer, happier and healthier horse that is a lot easier to handle. And a horse that is easier to handle makes you calmer and happier, which in turn has a positive effect on the horse again. See what I’m getting at, it becomes a good circle.

But isn’t this true for most things in life? You can set things up to succeed or you can set things up to fail. By creating situations and doing things in a way that minimize friction and conflict, you enable everyone involved to succeed. By not doing so you potentially set yourself and everyone else up for both conflict and failure. Or if nothing else, it just makes it harder to get anything done.

Opting out of the expected and in to the unexpected

I was adopted about a week ago. I was adopted into an opting out family, which now consists of two opting out sisters, me and Kenieshiear Czetty.

What happened was that I was found through my Instagram account (@ingrids_silk_painting) by the creator of the opting out podcast series.

Kenieshiear contacted me through Instagram (this is social media at its best, connecting people globally), saying how she was so excited to find me and my opting out research, and that she felt like we were sisters. It was mind-blowing, I was just as excited to be found. However, I’ve been travelling for the past three weeks and I have had such a bad internet connection that, excited as I was, I wasn’t able to listen to any podcasts until the other day.

But then I did. I started listening and listened for about an hour and a half worth of podcasts in one go. To be honest, I kind of toyed with the idea of an opting out podcast of my own at one point, but I’m not sure I could do it. At least not as openly, honestly and spontaneously as Kenieshiear. I have a lot more listening to do, but let me share with you the most profound things I took away from these first 90 minutes.

  • She talks about opting out of the expected and opting in to the unexpected. That’s so eloquently put and exactly as I see it. It may be the expected and unexpected on a personal level, you might surprise yourself. Or it may be the expected and unexpected out of a social perspective. This means that not everyone will get what you are doing, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
  • If something feels hard, if it’s overwhelming you and making you feel bad, you need to not ignore it but to dig deeper and explore it.
  • You have permission to do what feels natural to you.
  • Lock arms with someone who will walk with you on your opting out journey, someone who will help you ignite what you have. Everyone isn’t ready for this, isn’t open to the unexpected, and if not, they won’t be able to support you. Be sure to find someone who can.
  • If you’ve had the courage to change your life, if you’ve been set free, you can go and set someone else free. “Let’s all be the wildfire of change.” Don’t you just love that?

Anyway, listen for yourself: https://houseofczetty.com/series/opting-out/

Are we surrounded by idiots or is the joke on us?

I’m sure you’ve heard of the book, Surrounded by Idiots: The Four Types of Human Behavior and How to Effectively Communicate with Each in Business by Thomas Erikson. I mean who hasn’t. It’s been an international sensation and people everywhere have been taking the test in droves to find out which color they are. Or to figure out what colors the people around them are.

I understand the appeal of taking personality tests like Erikson’s. It can be fun to define oneself and recognize one’s personality traits and behavior in typologies and descriptions. It somehow makes us feel normal and understood yet special and seen all at the same time. And entertained too, when a test seems to hit the nail smack on its head. I used to like taking tests like this as much as the next person, that is until I started doing research and realized just how problematic they can be.

One problem is defining people and putting them into boxes. When I researched women who opt out, I was struck by how people have often tried to define especially women to explain why they do or do not work and/or have a career. You know, a woman might be a career type of person, or a family first person. Depending on her behavior she can be put in a range of different boxes or categories to explain why exactly she makes the choices she does and/or why she doesn’t seem to want to do what it takes to have that successful career feminist have fought for her to be able to have.

Only that she can’t. She can’t actually be defined by her behavior because there are so many things other than her preferences that shape what she does. So just because she doesn’t prioritize her career at a given time, doesn’t mean she isn’t a career type of person. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to have a career, and it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have what it takes. It just means that at that particular time in her life she may have other responsibilities and priorities and it might not even be a question of choice. Or she may be continuously discriminated and sidestepped at work. Or she may have a spouse who is never around and if she doesn’t take care of her children (or her ailing parents or her sick sibling or friend…), who will?

It might be that she cannot put her career first at that particular time, but it might also be that in five years she will.

The problem with typologies is that they define us as a certain type, while in reality this changes over the life course depending on where we are and what is going on in our life at any particular time. Another problem is that if we get defined by typologies, we tend to be stuck in a box by others, which it then can be difficult to get out of. After five years, the woman in the example above might not even get an opportunity to show what she can do because she has been defined and put in the ‘family first’ box.

And so it is with colors as well. When we get defined according to a certain color or set of colors, either by ourselves or others, we get simplified to the point that it can really be problematic.

When we define someone according to a color, we do it based on what we know about the person, or what we think we know about the person, and not on who the person really is in all his or her complexity. We may unconsciously condition ourselves to only notice behavior that confirms that color and as a result not even notice or acknowledge behavior that contradicts it. This is human, we tend to observe what supports our beliefs (even if they aren’t accurate). It doesn’t matter what a person says or does, we will only see what we want to see. A person might, for example, be trying to reach a common understanding with us, but if we think of the person as red and very competitive, we might misconstrue this behavior and not appreciate what that person is really trying to say or do.

So, if worst come to worst, it might even become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of just being ourselves, and rising to our full potential, we get pushed back again and again into the box that others have defined for us. It just ends up holding us back.

But still we like typologies. They have a way of making the complexity of the world more manageable, and we use them all the time in organizational settings to determine who we are and how we can work more efficiently as teams.

However, the problem is, that defining people doesn’t actually predict their behavior. Research has shown that just because you are defined as a certain ‘type’, it doesn’t mean that you will act like that ‘type’ is expected to act. Behavior isn’t determined so much by personality, but rather by situation. What this means is that the way team members act and react in different situations, rather depends on the organizational culture, the behavioral norms in that organization, do we feel psychologically safe, the task at hand… to name a few. Defining someone as red or green or yellow or blue, really doesn’t say very much about how that person is going to act in any given situation.

But the thing that really takes the cake, is that as far as I understand, there is no research that actually supports these color typologies. They aren’t actually new, they are just colorful versions of existing typologies, for which there actually is no empirical support. What this means is that this test is neither accurate nor reliable, and no academic I know of would actually use or recommend it.

But then Erikson doesn’t have any formal training in this area, so who knows if he is even aware of this. Or if he is, maybe he just doesn’t care.

If you want to read more about this, here is an excellent article for those of you who understand Swedish: https://magasinetfilter.se/granskning/omgiven-av-idioti/

Make no mistake

Last week I got to visit the painting studio of a very talented Finnish artist, Fanny Tavastila (check her out on Instagram, I really love her paintings: @fannytavastila). Seeing her space and hearing her talk about her creative process was both interesting and inspirational, but it also gave me food for thought.

One of the things she talked about was how she deals with mistakes. Like when she adds something to a painting and changes her mind, but can’t conceal it completely. Or if something happens and leaves a mark, which can’t be corrected.

What she does is simply let it be a part of the painting. The reason is that any mistakes are part of the creative process and the painting simply wouldn’t be what it is without that process. So she doesn’t worry about it too much. After all, it’s also part of what makes that particular painting unique. It’s part of the story.

This really resonated with me, because isn’t this also true for people? I have made plenty of mistakes in my life – we all have. But when asked what I would do differently if I could do it over again, I’m not sure that I would do anything differently. Even though there are situations I really wouldn’t have minded doing without, without those mistakes I wouldn’t be who I am today. I mean to be honest, the bigger the mistake, the more I learned about me and the world around me.

Besides, I didn’t plan on making mistakes. I was just acting to the best of my knowledge and ability, because that was who I was at the time. Now, luckily, thanks to my mistakes I know better.

But this is actually a problem in society and in many organizational settings today. We aren’t very forgiving of ourselves or of others, and we tend to strive for perfection. We worry about making mistakes at work, even though we are bound to make them if we take risks or develop something new. And we cannot learn new things if we don’t try.

So on the one hand we talk about the learning organization, and on the other hand we don’t really have a lot of patience for mistakes. Although risk taking is seen as a strength, mistakes are seen as a weakness. That, if anything, is a contradiction.

Another thing people often see as a weakness, is asking for help or admitting that they don’t know something. The other night, my husband and I were having another one of our kitchen table discussions, and he was telling me about an article he had read about corporate leaders who struggle when they don’t have all the answers. They often feel alone because they don’t have anyone they can ask for help.

My spontaneous reaction was, well what about their team? That’s why experts are recruited, to solve problems and provide answers to difficult questions so that ‘we’ as an organization can figure out what the way forward is. No one should even expect the leader to have all the answers, but still, apparently, they often don’t feel comfortable asking for help and admitting that they don’t.

Think about it. If you can’t support each other as a team, should it really be called a work community? I mean, to me it doesn’t really sound like a community at all, it sounds more like a random group of people.

But the same goes for others too. It is not only leaders who have trouble admitting they don’t know in the fear of being perceived as weak, or dumb, or just unprepared. What I have found though, is that if you’re wondering about something you should just ask, even if you’re worried it’s a stupid question. If it isn’t clear to you, it probably isn’t clear to others either. And no matter what others may think, the one who actually asks finds out, while the one who doesn’t just continues not to know.

Put your money where your mouth is

Yesterday was the first day of the rest of my life. That’s what it felt like. And Wednesday marked the end of an era. After almost six years with my previous employer, I have changed jobs. Or actually I’m still doing the same job – my research project on men opting out – I’m just doing it at another university.

It feels like a really good move for me. I’m a sociologist and for the first time since I got my PhD, I’m going to be surrounded by sociologists and social psychologists and that feels really exciting. I’ll be meeting new people and finding new opportunities for collaboration. In that way, changing universities before the end of a project is not a bad idea at all, even though it wasn’t originally part of the plan. It will give me the chance to prepare for my next step before I’m actually there.

However, my decision to move was not only based on thoughts of the future. What triggered it all was actually an unfortunate chain of events that made me realize that I simply couldn’t continue working there anymore. The routines (or lack thereof) and practices were so detrimentally against everything I stand for. I make a living researching, writing, and talking about sustainable work solutions, workplace wellbeing, and work environments that are respectful of the individual and their needs. I’ve made it my mission to change organizations for the better, so you can imagine the cognitive dissonance of working in an environment that just didn’t live up to these standards. It felt hypocritical.

Well, I reached a breaking point and decided it was time to put my money where my mouth is. I realized that it was time to expect a sustainable and respectful working environment and culture not only for others but also for myself – for me as an employee.

It hasn’t been easy. Change never is, even if it is good change. In fact, the other day I read something that really resonated with me. It was a post about decision making and how making good decisions can be painful but that you have to push through. And it has been painful, it really has. Especially the limbo I was in before I was able to actually move.

But I know it was the right decision for me. I now look forward to just getting on with it, and to being able to look myself in the mirror and be proud of actually walking the talk.

Shhh… can you hear that? That, my friends, is the sound of me getting back into the driver’s seat!

No offence but… 3 rules of thumb for constructive communication

It never ceases to amaze me how two people who speak the same language can have such trouble understanding each other. I often seem to witness this and find myself translating from one language to the same language. The problem is that people don’t always come across as they intend and the other person doesn’t always hear what’s really being said. It’s a recipe for misunderstanding.

Sometimes we need to raise difficult issues with others, but how do we do this without offending the other person? How can we enable a constructive dialogue? Here are three things that are good to remember:

  1. You’ve probably already learned about sandwiching constructive criticism. This is something that is taught in schools, workplaces, leadership training programs and a number of other places. What you do is sandwich your criticism between positive feedback. By doing so you start by making the other person feel good about him or herself, you then talk about what could be improved, and finally you end with something good, reminding the person that they are appreciated and good at whatever it is they are doing. It’s effective and it’s also just a nice way of going about it.

This is pretty basic, however there are also a couple of other things that are good to remember but that people don’t usually think of:

  1. Pointing fingers really doesn’t help. If somebody’s behavior is irritating or just not desired, you won’t get them to change their behavior by starting your sentence with things like “You always…” or “Why do you always have to…” This feels like an attack and it will most likely end the conversation before it even started. A better strategy is to turn it around and start with yourself. Explain how the behavior makes you feel. For example, try starting your sentence with “I feel uncomfortable when you…”or “”It hurts my feelings when…” or “I get confused if…” or, more for something more work related, “Our business partners don’t understand when…” Talking about your own experience instead of issuing blame is a much better strategy and might even lead to a discussion and a solution to the problem.

 

  1. And finally, one of of my pet peeves. I get frustrated when people say things like “No offense, but…” or “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” or like what I recently heard, “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but…” It’s amazing how often I hear this and it is a completely disastrous way to start a sentence. When you start with “No offense, but” it makes absolutely no difference what you say after that because offence will already have been taken. When hearing that, what a person really hears is “WARNING! WARNING! What I am about to say is actually going to be very offensive and hurtful and probably also an attack, but I’m trying to be nice about it and I don’t want you to react negatively.” You see the problem here? And ironically, most of the time what follows really isn’t that offensive at all but it comes across as such just by the way it is presented. So if you, for example, don’t love the music that your friend is playing, don’t say “No offense, but this isn’t my favorite music”. Try instead to just say “You know, this isn’t my favorite type of music”. It sounds much less offensive. Because you’re not insulting your friend’s taste in music, your just having a conversation about what kind of music you do and don’t normally listen to. Or instead of saying, “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but could it have been a misunderstanding?” try just saying, “Could it have been a misunderstanding?” Trust me, much less offensive.

So this is something for you to think about and to try. Let’s all do each other a favor and offend each other less so we can start communicating more effectively.