Change happens from the inside out. That’s a popular piece of wisdom in the world of personal development and therapy.
It focuses our attention on the ‘inner work’ rather than the outer circumstances of our life. And it’s a sound, empowering principle. Up to a point. But it can also put a lot of pressure on people to overcome very difficult situations. If they don’t triumph over adversity, the implication is that it must somehow be a personal failing.
So we also need to pay attention to constraints coming from our external systems, such as family, community and work environment. Work is an important one. It takes up a large share of our time and energy, and it’s bound up with our sense of identity, belonging and self-esteem. It can also contribute a high number of “difficult situations” to our lives.
Many of our work-related challenges seem almost endemic in today’s organisations. For example: a relentless quest for new growth amid tightly-squeezed budgets and headcounts; an ‘always on’ work mode that causes chronic stress and burnout; bureaucracy that stifles motivation and innovation.
Inside-out responsibility for change can only go so far. The onus should also be on businesses and organisations to initiate and facilitate change from the outside-in.
A CULTURAL SHIFT – AND THE SUPPORTING ROLE OF MINDFULNESS
Thankfully, as I noted in a previous blog , there’s a groundswell of new interest and thinking in this area. The movement to find new ways of working and leading isn’t only motivated by the need to foster employees’ wellbeing; it also makes better business sense. It creates the possibility for individuals, organisations and wider society to find a truer kind of enrichment through work.
In a related move, we are seeing a growing emphasis on mindfulness in the workplace. It’s a theme that frequently runs through proposals for new ways of working. Even if they don’t name-check the relevance of mindfulness, these proposals often invoke its principles. It’s flying partially under the radar of this cultural shift, but it has a significant role to play.
Here are some examples of how new ways of working are related to – and supported by – principles of mindfulness:
- New organisational structures and authority models are evolving, based on self-management, ‘holacracy’ and agility. Mindfulness cultivates self-realisation, i.e. the fulfilment of our deepest potential. It gives us more access to innate qualities like intuition, wise judgement, creativity and adaptability.
- People are identifying a need for more ‘space’ as a personal resource – some extra capacity in their workday and their mind for deep thinking, reflection, renewal and change. Mindfulness creates an expansive space of calmness and clarity by bringing our awareness to the present moment and decluttering the mind.
- There is a paradigm shift from advance planning to continuous improvement – founded upon a culture of experimentation, real-time feedback and psychological safety. Mindfulness fosters a spirit of openness, curiosity and trust; it starts from an accepting space of not-knowing, while observing the details of our experience and what emerges from it.
- Growing attention is being placed on organisational purpose, ethics and responsibility – as seen in the rise of B Corporations, public benefit corporations, impact investing and the Long-Term Stock Exchange. Mindfulness gives us a stronger sense of empathy and connectedness. It helps us to see the bigger picture and to align priorities with our hearts as well as our minds.
- Top-down approaches to organisational development and change management are increasingly being challenged for their low rates of effectiveness. Mindfulness provides a deeper understanding of how we experience the ‘inner texture’ of transitions – and how we can integrate change in a more complete way.
TRAILBLAZING BOOKS WITH A VISION FOR CHANGE
Here are five books about ‘new ways of working’ which incorporate these ideas and have made a big impact on me. I’ve included a quote or two from each that I found especially affirming, inspiring or thought-provoking.
1. The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working (2010) by Tony Schwartz, Jean Gomes & Catherine McCarthy
This book’s title has become one of the catchphrases of the movement. The central idea: we have four core needs in our working life and each is fuelled by a different kind of energy: 1. Sustainability (physical energy); 2. Security (emotional energy); 3. Self-expression (mental energy); and 4. Significance (spiritual energy). But modern workplaces drain our fuel tanks and neglect our needs. So the book sets out some clear, well-researched remedies across the four areas.
“‘How can we get more out of our people?’ leaders regularly ask us. We suggest they pose a different question: ‘How can I more intentionally invest in meeting the multidimensional needs of my employees so they’re freed, fueled, and inspired to bring the best of themselves to work every day?'”
“If you’re a leader or a manager, creating a new way of working begins with recognizing that renewal serves performance… The big mind-set shift leaders need to make is from focusing too much on competency, the skills necessary for a given job, and too little on capacity, the fuel people need in their tanks to bring their skills fully to life.”
2. Brave New Work: Are You Ready to Reinvent Your Organization (2019) by Aaron Dignan
This is probably my ‘new best book’. I want everyone to read it (and then go forth and reinvent). It’s packed with great examples, anecdotes and analogies, framing these within a compelling vision for change. There’s also specific advice on transforming the organisation’s operating system across 12 domains, e.g. Authority, Structure, Resources, Strategy, Workflow and Compensation. If you prefer videos, here’s a presentation given at the book’s London launch event.
“At this point you might be realizing, Oh shit, we’re not just changing the organization; we’re changing how we change the organization. You’re right. And it’s every bit as meta as you’re imagining… You can’t blow up bureaucracy with a bureaucratic change process. You can’t build a culture of trust with a program full of oversight and verification. Start the way you mean to finish.”
“People don’t resist all change; they resist incoherent change poorly managed… Look at resistance as information. People are telling you something when they resist change. Your job is to find out what. Resistance is an invitation to talk, listen and learn.”
3. Corporate Rebels: Make Work More Fun (2019) by Joost Minnaar & Pim de Morree
Two jaded Dutch guys quit their corporate jobs “with a vague but thrilling plan”. They made a Bucket List of progressive organisations, entrepreneurs and gurus who could teach them about radically different working cultures. Then they travelled the world, spent time with these pioneers and shared what they had learned in the hope that the messages would spread more widely. This is their engaging account, full of alternative perspectives and inspiration for change.
“People often think that change can be enforced from the top, with directors deciding who should do what… However there are disadvantages: many CEOs do not dare take radical steps, giving rise to half-hearted projects. With coercion you can expect sabotage, opposition and frustration. Instead, find the rebels, inspire them with your vision – and support them… Most progressives use a similar methodology. It may be different from the syllabus taught in business schools, and it may not be what the traditional consulting firms recommend. But it’s what we’ve seen in practice, over and over again.”
4. Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team (2017) by Simon Sinek, David Mead & Peter Docker
“The key to achieving fulfilment starts with understanding exactly WHY we do what we do.” The follow-up to Sinek’s Start With Why recaps on its key principles but also translates them into a ‘how to’ guide. It sets out easy-to-follow exercises and workshop plans, helping organisations identify their purpose and place it at the heart of their working practices.
“To keep the WHY alive over time, we must keep it front and center, communicating it and committing to living it – on purpose, with purpose – every day… In an organization, when the WHY goes fuzzy, we call this the ‘split’… Although we may not be able to articulate the change, we can all recognize when the organization experiences the split. Symptoms include increased stress, decreased passion and lower productivity, engagement and innovation. People start saying things like ‘It used to feel like a family around here. Now it just feels like a job.'”
5. Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership (2014) by Janice Murturano
This one speaks more to the individual experience and the ‘inside-out’ aspect of workplace transformation. But it’s targeted at leaders, so there’s more chance of it influencing organisational practices too. Murturano is an ideal ambassador for mindfulness – eminently sensible and credible for a business audience while also staying true to the message.
“On the path to becoming an influencer in many organizations ad groups, you can be presented with enticing invitations to be like someone else, or moments that beckon you to ignore that gut feeling and step away from the values and ethics you hold deeply. There are … the pressures of meeting this quarter’s numbers, the calls to ‘do something’ even when patience is the better course, and the statements about what ‘everyone’ is doing in the marketplace as justification for actions that take you into gray areas. It takes strength and courage to stand in ‘who I am’ at moments like this. The more time you spend in exploring and understanding yourself, the more likely you are to find that strength and courage.”
It’s encouraging to see more books in this vein being published and well-reviewed by other business people. But many of the ideas they set out still seem to be in an ‘innovator/early adopter’ phase. What will it take for them to seep into the mainstream? Let’s all join this movement and help it to gather momentum – so that more of us are supported in better ways of working.