Freedom and the Opportunity to Achieve Personal Success
We work in a world that favors those who can deliver over those who seek to achieve personal success. Part of this is ‘what-have-you-done-for-me-lately’. Part can be put down to the (mistaken) idea that some things are intangible and can’t be measured. Another part is the cult of the entrepreneur, which can warp into just another hero leader neurosis.
And then there is our mania for productivity. ‘Can she get things done?’ ‘I need people who can make things happen.’ ‘What is her track record?’ So we start judging people on what they have achieved. We scan resumes. We check out LinkedIn. We ask for references. We search for confirmation that a person is a doer. In some cultures, this is part of the national myth. In some workplaces it’s all that really matters.
We hire with this in mind. And in so doing make some egregious errors in conflating the potential contribution of people with what they have done. We rarely stop to ask whether we are making the right requests of our staff, our businesses and, most importantly, ourselves.
Changing the Perception
We are wired towards self-confirmation. We do the things we can do well and call that progress. We organize our businesses to that end and fill them with people who believe the same. All the while painting ourselves into a corner. And we may be completely oblivious of doing so.
There is a growing movement of management professionals looking at how we manage our organizations. This movement increasingly looks at deep seated issues of human prejudice. The issue of gender bias in the technology industry is one such focus. This issue is a prominent example of a profound human issue. We shake our fists at gender discrimination because, on a human level, we reject the injustice of one group of people denied opportunities because of some accidental quirk of nature.
Men can do just as well as women in the tech industry. But we could solve that particular bias and still leave untouched the deeper human issue. Which is judging people on what they have achieved rather than what was within their potential to achieve.
Changing the Assessment
Consider a meeting where two people present reports. Both are delivered in the same medium (for instance, the unholy instrument of doom that is PowerPoint) and both have the same speaking time. But one is clearly more persuasive than the other. Her presentation was better and we can say that she ‘did a better job’. But if it turns out that she came from a wealthier background, benefited from better nourishment as a child, and better education as a young adult, are we right in assessing her work to be ‘better’?
If we discover that the person who made the worse presentation has in fact overcome far more obstacles on her life journey, should we not assess that she actually achieved more? Business is a microcosm of life and is it good and right of us to prefer those for whom things have come more easily?
The person whose presentation was better may have, upon close examination, led a less intentional life. Her path may have had fewer obstacles and might have been laid out before her in advance. Whereas the person with the lesser presentation may have committed themselves to a set of choices that lay outside of her social norm. The former may have lived an ostensibly richer life but be poorer for it, while the latter experiences the opposite.
As a change leader, which person would I prefer? The ‘successful’ person who prospered because of a wide native choice set or the ‘unsuccessful’ person who prospered in spite of a narrow native choice set? I’m going to put more time into the latter.
Because this is a person who made a stand to improve the circumstances of her life and has shaken her fist at the whim of the gods who placed her in a particular set of circumstances less amenable to easy success. I’ve achieved more with small teams of such ‘unsuccessful’ individuals than with large teams of the ‘successful’.
I would like to see a world where leaders paid more attention to the claims of people based on their freedoms and opportunities to achieve rather than the simple outcome of their achievement. Of course, I’m not the first to ask this of the world.
Mark Twain put it much more succinctly when he wrote, “My idea is to afford a realizing sense of the exceeding severity of the laws of that day by inflicting some of their penalties upon the King himself and allowing him a chance to see the rest of them applied to others…”
He was referring to his 1881 book ‘The Prince and the Pauper’. It’s a great tale and points out how the accident of birth can determine what follows with an iron logic few can shake. It ends well for Tom and Edward, but that’s because we needed a happy ending to such a sobering tale.
Changing the Outcome
It’s my belief that good business is productive, responsible, sustainable and humane. The first three get a fair amount of attention. But the idea of the humane business goes deeper than toying with holacracy and chucking out performance reviews.
It includes the importance of being open to the unique brilliance of individuals. It’s about being open to the idea that breakthrough opportunities aren’t restricted to hipsters, MBA’s, TED talkers, white males or whoever we happen to believe speaks the great wisdom of the moment. It’s about looking at the whole person.