Humans are naturally programmed to be risk-averse. We all have a voice that tells us to focus on surviving instead of thriving, the lizard brain in us all that flees from our emotional edges for the safety and comfort of what feels familiar. But it is ironically that very familiarity that is so often the cause of our failure to truly soar as the best versions of ourselves. When I think about the successes that I have had, they all came from some fundamental risk, some extreme moment of vulnerability where I put myself out there. Conversely, my failures cannot be traced back to any single moment, but rather stem from a series of imperceptibly small left turns, as if my tires were not properly aligned. The inertia of comfort sent me off in the direction of failure without me ever making a conscious choice to turn left instead of right.
The inertia of a business to focus on what is comfortable manifests itself in things like customers, revenue, product, and just about anything but people. People are complex, utterly unquantifiable and difficult to measure, and dealing with them requires far more uncomfortable conversations and movement toward our emotional edges than any business metric. And yet it is the people, and the relationships between those humans beings that work at a business, that matter most to our success or failure in this business, and for our careers more generally.
It is for this reason that we at Socialwire recently decided to take a right turn and make a risky move. This move was a commitment to uphold certain values above anything else. Focusing on these values will inevitably mean having more difficult conversations, more putting ourselves out there, and more risk, but we are so sure this risk will pay off that we are willing to make that bet.
It was with this mindset that we decided to prioritize our values above all else. We went offsite for a couple days to explore four values that we identified as core to how we want to operate: Authenticity, Accountability, Passion and Empathy. We used our offsite to put definition around them, and to practice them with each other, and then we formed into four committees, and assigned each committee the task of creating a living document for each value — a sort of Bill of Rights — that would include definitions, examples, and rituals that we as a company could execute to help keep our values top of mind and part of everything we do. We are still in the early innings of this great cultural experiment, but I wanted to share some of our first learnings.
Our Authenticity committee proposed a new ritual that we do before every meting: we start with five minutes to go around the table and have each person say whatever thoughts are keeping them from being present at that moment, and what they hope to get out of the meeting — an authentic moment to say what’s going on for you as a human being instead of letting it seep out of you in less
constructive ways like frowning, inattention, or passive-aggressiveness.
This ritual has been transformational. There is no need for a “closed laptops” policy because it is literally impossible to perform this ritual without snapping into the present moment. If someone is feeling like this meeting is going to be a waste of time, they have an opportunity to say that they don’t know why they are having the meeting instead of spending the hour working on their emails. The meeting’s leader has been given a gift — without this authentic revelation, she might have only sensed distraction and lack of attention from her audience — now she has a chance to address the issue head-on and capture people’s full engagement by re-iterating their goals.
Our Accountability committee helped us understand how accountability is truly the building block of trust among our people. They taught us that accountability doesn’t always mean getting your work done on time, it is often demonstrated by how people deal with situations when they will not get their work done on time — i.e., by pro-actively setting expectations with their stakeholders.
The committee recommended that every team in the company from sales to operations adopt a sprint model similar to our engineering, with a planning meeting where tasks and timelines are assigned to people, followed by a retrospective meeting where we hold ourselves accountable and address anything that needs to be changed in the next sprint. Our business team just adopted this, and productivity has already made leaps and bounds.
Our value of passion stemmed from our belief that when humans spend more than half their waking hours at work, we owe it to ourselves to find a way to be passionate about what we do. Many companies take a work-hard, play-hard approach, which did not ring true for us. Passion for us means a commitment to giving people the choice to work on the things for which they have intrinsic motivation, and the opportunity to discover their passion by working on different things.
The Passion committee focused their recommendations on ways to ensure that managers are attuned to the motivations and passions of their direct reports. They recommended a more structured agenda for 1:1’s to ensure that we are unearthing the passions of our people, and they created a framework that helps align people, projects and passion.
Empathy, the ability to put one’s self in another’s shoes and feel what they feel, is perhaps the single most important driver of effective communication in a company, and yet is often the most lacking in a corporate environment. People often view empathy as weakness, and something that has no place in a hierarchical environment. Ironically, the people that demonstrate the least empathy are those that would benefit the most from it. Those who crave efficiency and speed may think on the surface that empathy is a ti
me-consuming process that belongs more in a therapist’s office than in the workplace. But what we are finding is that empathy engenders authenticity, and can help more quickly identify problem areas between managers and their reports or between different teams. Empathy has helped us reduce friction, and create the very efficiency and speed that we desire. As we defined authenticity, it became clear that a major part of the definition needed to be the creation of a diverse environment that welcomed authenticity from others — and the biggest driver of authenticity would be open-mindedness and empathy from the recipients.
A Bigger Impact
We are trying to create a diverse environment and do not want our values to re-enforce homogeny, and yet we recognize that our values are not for everyone. There are people out there that are not comfortable with difficult conversations, people that don’t want to disagree with their manager, or managers that don’t want to learn from their people. People that agree with our values but need practice will do well. People that do not share our values will not last long. We know this is an experiment and that we will make mistakes, we will learn from them, and together we will grow as an organization and as individuals.
My hope is that we can pioneer this model internally, and then have it start to spill over into all of our relationships with the outside world. We have already seen how these values can help us in our relationships with our clients, our investors, and our vendors. One of our employees said recently that he has been practicing some of our values in his personal life, and has experienced sort of a renaissance in his relationships. If we can accomplish this with 18 people fanning out to their networks of friends, colleagues and associates, I would love to see what kind of change we can bring about in the world with hundreds or thousands of people.