Insultancy for the masses

When I was at the beginning of my consulting career, my colleagues and I used to joke about setting up an insultancy company, as opposed to a consultancy company. We didn’t seriously believe in this idea, but laughingly we would talk about how people would surely pay for some tough love.

Well, it was funny at the time – I guess you just had to be there – but reading my local newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet a few days ago, it occurred to me that we really were way ahead of our time. I still don’t really believe that people would pay to be insulted, not in any great numbers anyway, but apparently, now-a-days, what people do pay for is to see others get insulted.

In the letter from the editor there was a short reflection of the talent shows and competitions that are shown on reality TV. The popularity of talents shows is nothing new as such; people have always liked them. But, according to the editor, what is new is that these shows have become increasingly rude and often just mean, as the people participating get insulted and taunted by judges and by each other, which viewers seem to really enjoy. I don’t watch a lot of TV, so I hadn’t reflected over this very much before, but that letter from the editor really rang true with my blog post last week. I wrote about rudeness on social media and how it really sets a bad example, and of course it isn’t only social media. There is something about our social climate today, which affects how we treat each other both virtually and in real life. The culture of insultancy really seems to be going strong.

So on that note, let’s be kind to each other this holiday season.

Happy Holidays!

I will be back after the New Year with new blog posts, see you then!



The age of self-centeredness

I have a 10-year-old who is one of the most empathetic people I know. When classmates get hurt or teased, he feels their pain. He also often wonders why so many people in the world don’t seem to empathize at all, why don’t they seem to care about what happens to others? As a mother, I find this a hard question to answer without sounding too dismal about the state of things. You want to instill hope in your children. You want them to be optimistic and see the best in things, but the same time you can’t protect them from everything and neither should you. They also need the tools to deal with reality, to deal with setbacks and bad news. They need to develop resilience; they’ll thank you for it for the rest of their lives.

So I don’t always know what to say, but we do have conversations about things that are confusing, like the lack of empathy. We talk about social media a lot and how people seem to think that it’s okay to say very hurtful things to others just because they don’t do it to their faces. And let’s be honest here. The threshold to being rude to others is lower on social media, especially if you don’t know the person on the receiving end personally. But it is still rude and hurtful, and when grown-ups act this way they set a really bad example to their kids. They teach them that it’s okay to speak to people this way, which in turn can be seen in how kids talk to each other at school. Sometimes I wonder what happened to respect. Growing up, my mother taught me that if you don’t have anything positive or constructive to say, then it is best to just not say anything at all. A pretty good rule of thumb if you ask me.

But what is really going on here? Well, some have argued that what we are seeing is a culture of narcissism. *

According to social theorists, a reinvention and therapy culture has evolved, at least in the West, which creates a self-absorption that really doesn’t strike me as very healthy. If you’ve been to a bookstore lately, you will probably have noticed the vast number of self-help books, books that promise to make you the very best version of yourself. It seems there is nothing you can’t do or achieve with the right book. They, along with the endless number of reality shows that have entertained us for the past couple of decades, where people get made over or provided with fast therapy before millions of viewers, bring a promise of reinvention and instant transformation.

This may sound like a good thing, but unfortunately this constant obsession with the real and true me tends to become a bit destructive. The quest for authenticity seems to make everything we do or say okay as long as we are being true to ourselves. Instead of good or bad, our behavior becomes a clue to who we really are, an insight into our unique inner selves.

Translated into plain English, this just means that therapy culture not only makes us self-centered, it makes it okay to be self-centered.

I think there is some truth to this, even though it is only part of it. There are naturally other factors, which also play in, like the heightened awareness of risk that people experience and the threat of a loss of identity, which the xenophobia that is bubbling more or less under the surface in many corners of the world, testifies to. But that is material for a separate blog post. In the meantime, I wonder, what can we do? How can we get people to become less self-centered?


* For more on the culture of narcissism see for example The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations by Christopher Lasch or The Fall of Public Man by Richard Sennett

Whose reality, whose truth?

After the US presidential elections, Brexit and all the other worrisome developments we have seen around Europe, this is a question that comes to the fore as people all over the world struggle to understand what’s going on. Whose reality is more real? Whose truth is more true? Because one thing has become painfully clear, we live in a time when we are finding it very difficult, to not only understand each other, but also to see each other for who we are. Thanks to preference-driven media (you get more of the types of things you click on) we read what we like, see what we want, and communicate and socialize mostly with those who are like-minded and of similar opinions. This makes life very comfortable and convenient, but it doesn’t make us aware nor prepare us for any other opinions or realities that may be out there.

This is kind of ironic considering all the talk of celebrating diversity that we hear in the organizational context. With markets becoming more global, organizations have to have a workforce that can meet the diversity and multiplicity of wants and needs among customers. Diversity has quickly become a strategic issue, something that every self-respecting company today needs to pay attention to.

However, on the most part companies, unfortunately, don’t really live up to their own rhetoric. Managers still tend to hire like-minded people, and although there may be some awareness of cultural diversity, organizations don’t generally recognize all the other types of differences concerning lifestyle choices, preferences, and needs among their employees, and they certainly don’t seem to embrace them. Although research has shown that diversity does provide real advantages. As I once heard Mellody Hobson say, if everyone in a management team is in agreement, run because that is definitely not good!

But back to the media bubbles we create for ourselves. Media providers increasingly provide us with what we think we want. But the thing is, what we want and what we need is not the same thing. We need to acknowledge that our reality is not the only reality, nor is it the most important reality. To quote one of my favorite authors Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, there is a danger of a single story.

I have a friend and colleague who I admire very much. One reason is that she doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable; she doesn’t only talk to like-minded people. She is an academic and an activist, and she actively engages in public debates. I was there when she defended her doctoral thesis a couple of months ago, and I have to say, it was one of the most inspirational and thought provoking events I have ever attended. In her thesis, one of the things she argues for is to replace the idea of the universe with what she calls the pluriverse in order to both acknowledge and embrace the diversity and difference between peoples, realities, perspectives, and truths that make up this world in which we live. Maria recently published her lectio (the talk she gave at her defense) on her blog Sustaining Roots. Go check it out; it’s a great read.

Only by seeing, acknowledging and accepting the multitude of stories, realities, and truths that make up our pluriverse, can we create a world for all of us. A world where we can all thrive, not just some of us, and where we can do so in a sustainable way, without destroying this planet we call home.

Harmony, not balance

The other day when I was meeting with a student about her thesis, I was introduced to the career website, which had just released a list over the best jobs for work-life balance. I had honestly never heard of this site before, and my student was telling me about how she and others in her year spend a lot of time talking about what kinds of jobs they are going to apply for once they graduate from business school. It turns out that they look to Glassdoor for advice and that they base their career decisions on questions like balance and quality of life. Now, it’s not that they aren’t ambitious or don’t have what it takes, these student are high-achieving and have a good chance of landing great jobs when they graduate. To them, there is more to life than work, and they want to have more than ‘just’ a career. Rightfully so, if you ask me.

I like talking to students. It gives me a glimpse of what our future holds. They are after all the ones, who are going to be our future leaders. This conversation about work-life balance and Glassdoor was intriguing to me, but it also gave me hope. These students are going into working life with their eyes wide open, and they know what they are looking for in potential employers.

Work-life balance is a funny thing though. I say funny because it seems to be on people’s lips everywhere, but at the same time I myself find the concept quite problematic (see for example my post Who wants balance anyway?). As a concept, work-life balance came about as a critique of the idea of an ideal worker, of someone who dedicates his or her life to a job. But that isn’t really what has been achieved. Work-life balance has rather become something that concerns mostly women, which at the same time is problematic especially for women, because it strengthens the idea that the valuable, masculine domain of paid work is separate and best kept separate from the less valued, private domain of non-paid (care) work, where mostly women reside. And to be honest, this separation of work from life is one of the things that I find most problematic about the whole idea of work-life balance. My work is such an important and integrated part of my life, which is also exactly the way I want it.

A colleague and I have been working with concepts of balance for the past couple of months and one thing we have found among many women who opt out to adopt new lifestyles, is that this is exactly what they do. They stop seeing their work as separate from their lives, and they stop looking for balance between artificially separated entities. Instead of keeping one from the other and finding balance between the two, they look for harmony and somewhat seamlessly interlace and move between work and other parts of life. This, in turn, provides them with a sense of coherence and authenticity, which is important.

I have a quote tacked to the wall above my desk:

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Mahatma Gandhi

To me this is true on so many levels. I think harmony is the answer, rather than balance.

What not to do

A few years ago, I was approached by a small company that specialized in psychological testing. They had developed a test of their own and they wanted to expand their market. So I was approached and asked if I wanted to represent them. To this end, I was invited to take their test to get a better idea of what it was they were offering, and so I did. The test basically defined you as a ‘yes-sayer’ or a ‘no-sayer’. Yes-sayers were considered progressive and open to change and new challenges, i.e. everything a company could ask for, and no-sayers were basically negative, non-team players that a company should be wary of.

By now I hope you are all raising an eyebrow and thinking, what? Did they really have that narrow an understanding of what makes a good worker? Yes, sadly this was the case. Unfortunately it continues be the case in many companies today, and although people are becoming more aware of the real strength of diversity, many companies still find a certain type of person most attractive.

Well, anyway, while I had previously in different tests been defined as positive, optimistic, curious, and open to change, in this particular test, I was defined as a no-sayer. I think the reason was that I found the questions too simplified to reflect the complexity of what it was they were testing and I was critical in my answers. So the outcome was that I was negative and needed to work on certain aspects to become a valued and attractive employee. Needless to say, I decided not to represent them, and I’m sure the feeling was mutual.

Luckily we have, despite everything, made some progress over the years. While ‘no’ used to be a bad word in the business world, that is no longer the case. I see advice all over targeted at business professionals on how to say no, and according to this advice, to be successful you should really be saying no all the time (I’ve added a couple of links below for those interested). Luckily, we now seem to understand the importance of being selective in what we do not only to succeed, but also to survive. In that light, this uncritical glorification of the yes-sayer just seems naïve.

But it reminds me of another issue that is also related to this. In management, as in many other areas like child-psychology or pedagogy, we have learned the importance and strength of positive redirection instead of always telling people what they are doing wrong. And I agree, I am a great believer of positive redirection, but at the same time, it is also important to sometimes say ‘no’ to unwanted or inappropriate behavior.

I’ve been discussing this with a friend for some time now. We often talk over lunch about the unbelievably bad management and behavior that we have witnessed both in our previous and current jobs, and half-jokingly we’ve been playing with the idea of setting up a website or Twitter account where we would share daily advice on what not to do. For example, do not break bad news to employees when you see them having lunch with friends outside of work (don’t roll your eyes, I’ve seen this happen). Because, while you think this would be common sense, apparently it’s not. So yes, positive redirection is good, but sometimes, it’s important to just say ‘stop, no, that is something you just don’t do’.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced or seen really appalling behavior in our work. If you had to give one piece of advice (or more) on what not to do, what would that be?


Links on saying no:

Why the most successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything

12 Things Successful Business Owners Say NO to

3 Times When Millennials Should Say ‘No’ At Work

My name is Ingrid and I am a storyteller

I love stories, I always have, and I come from a long line of storytellers, both on my mother’s and my father’s side. When my sisters and I were little, we would huddle together under a blanket as my dad, in a deep deep voice, told scary stories of the Big Bad Wolf. In my mind I can still see the picture he painted: the ramshackle cabin in the deep dark forest under towering fir trees, and the telephone the wolf always used to call the pigs to trick them to come to different places where he planned to catch and eat them. I get goose bumps just thinking about it.

But I didn’t realize what a great influence stories have had on me and almost everything I do until relatively recently. I remember being about thirteen years old and struggling to remember important dates when studying for a history test in school. In my desperation, realized that if I read my history book like a story, it would be much easier to remember. And presto: I aced the test. Without knowing it I developed a tool for myself, which I use again and again, whether with my kids, with colleagues, with clients, or with students. If I prepare a lecture, for example, I weave a story of the theories, cases, and examples. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to even remember what I am supposed to talk about for 90 minutes. And when giving talks, I don’t think of them as presentations, but rather as stories I tell – again, more for my own sake than anything else. And it works; most people seem to like stories and I find that I can engage them in this way.

So when I saw one of Brené Brown’s TED talks a while back, I felt all the pieces of the puzzle just fall into place. I liked her talk – it’s definitely worth a watch – but it’s what she calls herself that I love. She calls herself a researcher storyteller, and when I heard that I though wow, that’s exactly what I want to be! And I am. Regardless of what I’ve done in my previous career or what I end up doing in the future, I have always been and will always be a storyteller.

I’m going to end with a quote I found in a novel a few years ago. I don’t remember much about the novel, except that I liked it, but apparently there was one passage that made an impression because I wrote it down on a piece of scrap paper that I found the other day when sifting through old piles. So here it is, Brian Morton in Starting Out in the Evening:

“The story-making organ never sleeps… The world, the human world, is bound together not by protons and electrons, but by stories. Nothing has meaning in itself: all objects in the world would be shards of bare mute blankness, spinning wildly out of orbit, if we didn’t bind them together with stories.”

Isn’t that just so true?

Things I would do

I have a dream. In fact, I have many dreams – things I fantasize about doing and lives I dream about living if I didn’t do what I do now. Especially when I’m feeling stressed and overwhelmed by it all, I think of all the things I could do instead.

I would live in the country and have horses. Be close to animals and nature. Listen to the sound of the sea and the rustling of the leaves in the trees, and I wouldn’t have to deal with people, intrigue, and office politics.

I would be a painter and I would paint fulltime. I would be creative and create beautiful things all day long. I would surround myself with textures and colors and steaming cups of coffee. Possibly in Tuscany.

I wouldn’t live in the country, I would move right back into the city and go to museums more often than I do now, see more movies, and pop down to my favorite corner café for coffee. Because I would have a favorite corner café, which I don’t where I live now. I would live in an old building with high ceilings and huge windows and I wouldn’t have a garden because then I wouldn’t have to feel bad about not having the skill or the energy to take care of my over-grown garden.

I would have a garden and I would be absolutely fantastic at gardening. I would know all about plants and what they need to grow. I would watch little saplings develop into gorgeous flowers and trees and I would enjoy the slow pace of it all and I would surround myself with fragrant beauty.

But then I think about what I heard a wise person say not too long ago. She said maybe you should think twice before making your hobby your day job. Because a hobby is an escape, a place you can go to get away from it all, and when you make it your job, suddenly it starts to become a source of stress and anxiety. And I realize that some things I just love too much. Like horses and painting. I horseback ride to get away and I love that being with horses is completely worry-free for me. And I paint only when I want to, and when I have the time and the headspace. I never have to create under pressure when I paint, and I kind of want to keep it that way.

So as I sit here among my weeds in my over-grown garden, I realize that I don’t really want to move to the country. And I don’t really want a corner café either (ok, I do, but I’m also really happy where I am now). Maybe I’ll learn how to garden some day, or maybe I won’t. But it doesn’t matter. In the meantime I realize that no matter what work I do, whether it’s a dream job or not, there is always going to be stress and there is always going to be anxiety, and I will always dream of doing something else. Because the truth is, dreaming big is just the best thing there is.