By Simon Mont, Organizational Design Fellow
Humans are truly amazing creatures. We can reason and deduce. We can intuit and feel. We have an innate desire to expand ourselves to understand more complexity, assume more responsibility, make bigger contributions, and develop into an ideal version of our selves that we can now just barely glimpse even in the moments of our greatest clarity. We hold visions of unnameable harmony and justice in our hearts. When we have the space to follow this deeply held, essentially human, intuition, we are capable of tremendous insight and creativity.
Our organizations can be built to harness the full potential of our selves. They can be built with an understanding that each of us is sometimes a visionary, sometimes an accountant, sometimes a writer, and sometimes something that can’t even be described. Organizations can be built with an understanding that we each hold multiple intersectional identities that give us powerful and unique insights that we can express and operationalize in any variety of ways. We need to build organizations like this for the sake of our ability to unleash the greatest potential for collective action in service of social change. And we need to do build them to make sure that those of us that work in these organizations can live the lives we crave while we do it.
Unfortunately, most of our organizations aren’t up to the task. Job descriptions limit the scope of our visions and potential. And a culture and set of practices grounded in corporate and capitalist paradigms has crept its way into many of our social justice organizations. It has impacted how we behave, and what parts of ourselves we bring into our organizational spaces. This, in turn, has directly impacted our ability to build a just and sustainable society. The good new is that there are other options.
The “Professional” is a Problem:
Many of our organizations expect us to show up a specific way, they give us a role to play: the Professional. The Professional has been educated in mainstream institutions, s/he stays focused on the work at hand and does not let his emotions get to them, s/he is efficient and accountable, s/he is confident and does not discuss insecurities or mistakes openly, s/he is expected to want to climb an organizational ladder for the sake of their career, and s/he tends to be a “he”. By making this character the norm, our organizations are encouraging us to leave a lot of our selves at the front door.
If we let go of this ideal tremendous opportunities open up: Suddenly we can discuss mistakes openly and gain support to identify the patterns of thought and behavior that gave rise to them, we can discuss how to better align our daily activities with our understanding of how to make a difference in the world, we can acknowledge that emotions impact our capacity and life experience impacts our perspective, we can bring the insight of our intuition into the conversation, we can honor the expertise held by community members that haven’t pursued higher education. And we can stop spending so much energy pretending to be “professional” and instead celebrate ourselves for who we are and get to the real work: making the world more just and sustainable.
Becoming More Effective:
By replacing the fiction of the “professional” with the more liberating concept of the “full self” we can make our organizations more effective, more sustainable, and more transformative.
When we create space to acknowledge intuitions, discomforts, fears, and hopes, two incredible things happen. First, we become more attuned to the subtle dynamics that are at play in the world. Many powerful insights are hidden in the nooks and crannies of our subjective experience; if we limit our conversations only to what we already understand well enough to talk about with clarity, we will be blind to possibilities. Second, when people can relate their programmatic tasks to a deeper sense of themselves, they will be much more motivated to perform. When a person’s work is no longer a job but instead an opportunity for them to be the person they always wanted to be, they will bring all of their emotional, intellectual, and social prowess to bear on their work.
Our organizations will be sustainable because the people within them will be more fulfilled. When we bring our whole selves to the table, workplaces become sites of genuine self-actualization. By discussing what we need to be empowered and aligned, we open up the possibility that our work day becomes eight hours of literally making our own dreams come true while being surrounded by people who see, love, and believe in us. We can trade in burnout for fulfillment, care, and community.
Our organizations will be more transformative because the workplace becomes an incubator of systems-based thinking. When folks dream about what it means to be empowered and creative in a space, they become attuned to the subtle ways in which they are limited in other areas. When folks have higher expectations of what the workplace will be like, they will be able to identify the various structural and cultural factors that are limiting them. The factors that limit them in the organizations are often manifestations of larger social trends that are present in many spaces. By strategizing how to eliminate blockages in the organization, folks get practice in how to eliminate those blockages elsewhere in society.
Putting It Into Practice:
We can radically reimagine our workplaces and the cultures that live there. While the task may seem daunting, there are plenty of easy-to-implement practices that can open up new possibilities. It can begin with a sincere check-in at the beginning of meetings to give folks an opportunity to share something that will help them become present and humanized. It could expand to include an honest check-out where folks share their experience of the meeting in order to discharge any tension and give the facilitator constructive feedback. Some organizations implement appreciative inquiry partners that meet with each other to discuss how they are experiencing the workplace and support each other’s growth. Other organizations institute practices where folks publicly discuss mistakes they made and then are asked questions to help them understand what underlying mindsets gave rise to the mistake. Still other organizations have all members share the most significant personal challenge they are working on (i.e. working on trusting others, working on being open to feedback) so that they can be supported and held accountable. One organization goes so far as to give performance reviews and condition bonuses partially on folks contribution to a healthy interpersonal culture that encourages presence and growth.
The options are endless, and many are easy to implement. Being our full selves in our workplaces requires intentionality in order to break down the invisible barriers that limit us. But by doing so we can be happier, healthier, and more effective at changing the world.
We want a liberated, empowered, open hearted, accepting world. And we can’t create it on a societal level until we learn how to embody it in our organizations. It’s time to be the change we want to see. It’s time to honor all of our full selves, to tend to their development, to harness our visions. It’s time to show up fully for the work and not pretend like changing the world is just our day job.