All of us have been trained since birth to wipe out change by using several different filters. We find these filters used often in the workplace to resist change, but they also undermine morale and transparency. Effective change requires that we recognize these filters exist in all of us and learn to become aware of them when they are in play. The reactions are often so commonplace and routine that many people assume no one notices the mechanisms involved. Let us start by recognizing and understanding what actually happens when we manage to stop the process of personal change in its tracks.
My core program on work engagement routinely provokes personal change in the compressed period of just two days. In the early days of delivering the programs, a minority of participants would predictably attack our philosophies. These attacks contributed to stress for the facilitators and other participants. Once I defined the filters behind these reactions, we began pointing them out at the beginning of the program in order to present them and, thus, get them out of our way. For the most part, the outbursts stopped entirely.
In our leadership and engagement programs, we also teach people to recognize and manage these “killer filters” so that they are better able to deal with personal and organizational change.
So, what are these filters?
Cynicism, most often associated with distrust and pessimism, causes us to question our motivations, undermines our best intentions, and talks us out of taking action. Cynicism is similar to contrarianism, which is the urge to always argue the opposite position, even to the most positive mission, vision, or purpose. In the workplace, cynicism shows up in messages like the following:
“We shouldn’t be doing this.”
“We don’t have the time or money to change.”
“I don’t have the time to learn something new. I’m barely keeping ahead of the work as it is.”
In the career development space, it can show up similarly: “I could never make a living doing that.”
We call this one the “assassination filter.” When someone is particularly frightened by change or transparency, they often use a distilled version of cynicism – i.e., contempt – to in order to kill progress and change on the spot.
Oxford Living Dictionaries’ definition of contempt makes the point: “the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn: He showed his contempt for his job by doing it very badly.” I often tell leaders: If someone comes after you with contempt, they are more than just fearful; they are terrified.
A few years ago, poet and performance artist Gary Turk created a video called “Look Up.” The video, which quickly went viral, shows two alternate scenarios. In one, a young man who is fixated on his cellphone misses the life he was meant to have. In the other version, the young man “looks up” and meets the love of his life. They marry, raise a family, and hold hands in old age as she passes away.
Turk’s performance piece is a rather eloquent message about what we lose when we “check out” with our technology. To be clear, I don’t interpret this video as an attack on technology. Indeed, many use technology to connect in meaningful ways with others. The video is directed toward those of us who become so consumed by technology that we lose out on meaningful human interaction.
Clearly, Mr. Turk’s message sparked much contempt. Just look at some of the reactions:
“I don’t know who I find more galling – Gary Turk, who wrote this one-dimensional preachy fluff, or the millions of sheep sharing it on social media.”
“Thanks Helen! Every time I read it, I just want to rip it apart line by line – I’m glad someone else has the energy to do so.”
When an entire team falls into cynicism about a change process, the most domineering member of the team will often step forward with a contemptuous point of view. This is the very indication that we need to educate, comfort, and establish clear messages about our commitment to the change initiative. This also represents a time to point out what people stand to benefit if they get past the filter. People are not motivated much by demands and orders. People tend to move forward when they see their potential fulfilled.
By some estimates, more than 80 percent of America’s workers don’t like what they do for a living, which means the majority of our workforce is in a state of aimlessness. They’re just going through the motions. They respond to performance commands with contempt. They avoid change because they haven’t defined what they need in their current state, nor are their companies inclined to help them define what they really want to do.
I have encountered many organizations where the subtext in the culture is, “If we help them to define what they want to do with their lives, they will leave.” How can we possibly produce engagement with this dreadful outlook? Socrates once said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” As we take a closer look at skilled self-inquiry, we begin to realize that becoming aware of our anti-change filters also helps us understand the negative impact they have on our individual lives and organizations.
The widespread state of aimlessness is an extension of the malaise that comes from the crash of the Industrial Revolution, but it is also an example of the recruitment pitch we established during that era. We promised people predictability and survival, and many settled for that pursuit. The practice of self-inquiry can be painful because if we “sold out” for predictability and survival, we must now face the impact of that decision on our lives and overall well-being. It is no longer enough to simply demand that people “wake up” and show enthusiasm for pushing the organizational vision. We need to get them to define their own highly personal visions, their own senses of meaning and purpose, and their own compelling definitions of what it means to be happy with their work. Until we do this, we will have drones who drudge along day after day and year after year.
“I’m too young, too old, too fat, too thin, too stuck, too angry …”
“I can’t take care of my own desires and needs; I have three kids to get through college.”
“We don’t have the resources to change, so why should we bother?”
Resignation is the file cabinet that stores all of the “evidence” we have compiled to prove we cannot and will not change.
Some of us would characterize resignation as a lack of hope, but it is actually a lack of optimism, an unwillingness to believe in ourselves. The experience of failure often blossoms into a belief that we simply don’t have what it takes to pursue vision or success. We present our problems as forms of bias – e.g., “These companies are only hiring young people. You know how it is when you turn 60.”
But that form of resignation overlooks the fact there are scores of people in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s who are making a big difference in the workplace. Resignation is the filter of giving up.
For 20 years, Inspired Work focused on the aforementioned four filters. Societal change, however, has introduced a fifth filter: We call it “frenzy.”
According to Dean Schabner of ABC Television, today’s full-time employees work an average of 49 hours per week, which translates to about six days out of the week. Since 1993, the average full-time American worker has given up more than a month of leisure activity because they are now spending part of the weekend on work. We work harder than any other industrialized nation, including Japan, where workers who died from stress used to receive a hero’s funeral. About 3.6 million workers in the United States spend more than three hours per day commuting. According to Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post, our annual commute time for just one year, added up nationally, would be enough time to build the Great Pyramid of Giza 26 times over.
Smartphones now allow employers to reach employees at all hours of the day and night. In many cases and with increasing frequency, we are not giving employees time away from work to renew themselves and replenish their energy. France has recognized the problem, even going so far as to pass a law making it illegal for employers to email employees during off hours.
Many employers mindlessly push people to the edge of crashing and burning. Between commute times, taking care of children, making the mortgage payment, getting groceries, and trying to get enough sleep, frenzy has become our state of mind. It shields us from change because we simply don’t have the time to reflect on it, let alone pursue it.
How do we deal with these destructive filters?
In our program, we point them out and discuss them; in most cases, that will get them out of the way. Recognize that they reside in all of us and in every organization to some degree. Ask stakeholders to recognize them and help you work through them.
Be vigilant. Humans have a particularly creative way of running their filters and biases at a completely unconscious level. Dig into these filters. You can then better anticipate and understand pushback when an announcement of change is made. Understand that identifying, managing, and overcoming these filters is an incredibly valuable skill area for your managers, your mentors, and everyone else in the work culture.
Reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from The Workplace Engagement Solution © 2017 David Harder. Published by Career Press. All rights reserved.
David Harder is the founder of Inspired Work.