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Honoring the Awesome in Every Person We Meet

Taking new connections to ever more positive places

Last week I shared my learning about Natural Law #18—“Everything is naturally related and interconnected”—and how important it is for us to create as many connections across all parts of our companies as we possibly can. Our long-term organizational health and our alignment with nature likely depends on it. More positive connections across the organization mean we’re more likely to have resilience, empathy, understanding, compassion, kindness, and love. And yet, as I reflected over the last few days on what I’d written, I had a belated glimpse of the obvious: not all connections we make end up being meaningful. Those that do though, can evolve into amazing things.

Nearly 40 years ago, I got my first post-college job. After applying first for two “better” positions at the same restaurant, I agreed to get going as a dishwasher. I had no huge aspirations. No dream of opening my own business, no plan to learn the industry from the “ground up,” no particular interest in food, nor any big existential emphasis on seeking out my “life’s work.” My mind was pretty singly focused on finding a way to pay rent so I could stay in Ann Arbor, mostly at the time in order to avoid having to move back home to Chicago.

Paul Saginaw, as many of you know, was the newly-arrived general manager at the restaurant. Not surprisingly, we met. A GM greets everyone, right? The typical course of action after that initial connection would likely be followed by a bunch of fairly superficial “hellos” and “thank yous,” sandwiched around a series of polite requests to do whatever it was a dishwasher was supposed to do. There might be an occasional offer of assistance, or some other casually friendly gesture. A cup of coffee here, a chat about sports scores there. Eventually I’d have found another job. And that, more than likely, would have been the end of it. That’s pretty much how most initial work connections go. No problems would have been created, but the absence of malice, we know, is not much of an aspiration. We would have, it’s clear all these years later, taken an unwitting pass on a whole lot of positive possibilities.

In his book Community, of which I wrote a great deal last week, Peter Block points out just how disconnected many of our lives have become. He’s writing about community at large, but I translate it immediately into our Community of Businesses:

One aspect of our fragmentation is the gaps between sectors… Each piece is working hard on its own purpose, but parallel effort added together does not make a community. Our communities are separated into silos; they are a collection of institutions and programs operating near one another but not overlapping or touching. This is important to understand because it is this dividedness that makes it so difficult to create a more positive or alternative future… The challenge in creating a place that works for all—for youth, people with disabilities, people economically or socially isolated—is our need for a way to overcome these inherent cultural forces.

We can create a place that works for all of us. We can help make that happen, Peter points out, in part by creating connections. And when we do, the connections will be most meaningful when we focus not on problems, but more positively, on possibilities. New dishwashers rarely take jobs with the belief that they’re going to bond with upper-level managers and later open a business with them. But that’s exactly what happened with me and Paul. In hindsight, it was one of those unexpected “cross-boundary” connections Peter has written about. The kind that has the potential to enrich our lives—both individually and collectively—and, in the process, contribute significantly to the strength, resilience, and richness of our organizational ecosystem. In the spirit of Natural Law #18—everything is connected and interrelated—it’s become clear to me over the last week that:

What emerges from any new connections we initiate will very much be a function of the beliefs held by the people who have just been introduced.

If we believe that a new connection of which we’re a part will go nowhere, then the appropriate course of action could probably just be to be polite and get on with it… and, pretty surely, that’s all we’ll get. Worse, if we get caught up in any number of our own biases or deep-rooted beliefs about individuals or groups of people, then we’re making up stories that stop us from moving forward. Most of us don’t even realize that’s what we’re doing. We get quietly comfortable with a status quo that we start to assume is “normal.” As psychologist Daniel Kahneman says, “The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct.” And as we know, we will almost always find evidence to support what we believe. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “People only see what they are prepared to see.”

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. If we come to new connections with positive beliefs, we have a good shot at making something special happen. As William James said, “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” I agree. If I approach every new human connection that’s made as if it could become something magical and marvelous, potentially even life changing in the most positive way, then I’m much more likely to take it past the pretense of politeness. Positive beliefs put me in a “starting position” from which I can, as Peter Block suggests, “value possibility and relatedness, over problems.” And when we do, I believe everyone will benefit.

What might those positive beliefs be? Well, there are any number of ways to phrase them, but for starters how about these:

  • 1. We believe leading with positive beliefs makes a positive difference.
  • 2. We believe each person is a creative, unique individual who can do great things in life.
  • 3. We believe our individual success can be assessed by how much we help those around us to develop and grow.
  • 4. We believe personal transformation and growth are imperative to our personal and organizational success.
  • 5. We believe everyone can excel at more than one thing.
  • 6. We believe each person comes to the ZCoB with the capacity to contribute and succeed.
  • 7. We believe strong relationships are key to our success.

Had I put my mind to it, I might have made up a list like that myself in the moment, but I actually took these from our new (hopefully back from the printer in the next few weeks) Statement of Beliefs. The fact that I found them so quickly (they’re even near the top of the list) is one more reason I’m so glad that we’ve spent the last few years quietly getting clear on a Statement of Beliefs for the ZCoB. (I’ll write more about why I believe a Statement of Beliefs could benefit your organization soon.) It’s not hard to see that if those are the roots “beneath the surface,” then what will later appear “above ground” are likely to become beautiful plants.

In reflecting on the list I just shared above, I don’t know that I’ve heard too many people overtly argue against beliefs like this. And yet, I often hear things that would lead me to believe that many people (consciously or not) actually believe otherwise. Generalized comments about “others” that denigrate or drive right past the uniqueness of the person about whom they’re actually talking about. All of which are ways to put people in boxes, and to demean. It’s what Wendell Berry calls “depreciating someone’s human value.” He says, and I agree, that in order to do ill, or to take advantage of another person, you have to mentally believe them to be lesser than yourself. It happens in companies, and it happens in broader cultures as well. In her insightful book Caste, Isabel Wilkerson writes:

To dehumanize another human being is not merely to declare that someone is not human, and it does not happen by accident. It is a process, a programming. … It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.

In the news we can see what happens when it’s done in extreme ways—countries go to war and entire classes of people are excluded. But it’s just as bad, I believe, if I do it quietly, behind closed doors, or on email. Our work is, instead, to appreciate, to humanize, to see what each unique individual has to offer. Committing publicly to those beliefs I’ve listed above will, I’m confident, help us hold to that positive course. Instead of putting people down, these beliefs lead us to seek their gifts. The individual, and the organization, are both sure to benefit. As Peter Block says, “Authentic acknowledgment of… gifts is what it means to be inclusive.”

New connections and a few positive beliefs, alone, I know will not guarantee good results. We gain a lot from our Mission Statementour 2032 Vision, and our Guiding Principles (also beliefs, but those that are about ethics). We need systems designed that support the connections we seek. We still need to bring great products and deliver great service to our guests, and to have profit and positive cash flow. What the beliefs can do though is meaningfully enhance the health of our culture. They can improve the health of the people who are part of our organization. They can strengthen connections, lead to more collaboration, and enrich our culture. Because as Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder of Local Futures, says, “When people are more connected with their community… it becomes clear that their well-being is dependent on those around them.”

Peter Block’s little book, Community, has pushed me, in a big way, to look to these small interactions as meaningful indicators of organizational health. I’m starting to see them more and more as one of the most magical parts of our work. Not every connection comes into its own, but when they do, it’s a beautiful thing to behold; a sign of health in our organization, and an indicator of good things still to come. Speaking of which, Tammie (my farmer-artist-significant other) made one of her signature Instagram videos the other day. In it she talked about the thousands of seeds she’s propagating to get ready for planning outdoors later in the spring at Tamchop Farm. In the film she shares how her favorite part of the growing work at the farm is when the seeds slowly start to sprout. When they push through the soil and emerge as unique, healthy plants. The beauty she sees in them at that early, statistically-off-the-radar, stage is akin to the wonder and awe I experience when I see someone in our organization start to make their way through our (often confusing, and I’d guess at times overwhelming) cultural soil and find a way to be themselves while still contributing positively and creatively to the work we’re trying to do.

In nature, the soil and plant health are enhanced greatly by the tiny, barely visible, below the surface, connections between mycorrhizal fungi. The mycorrhizal fungi communicate between each other, and essentially help manage the ecosystem from the ground up. By attaching themselves to roots (beliefs, in my ecosystem metaphor), they build important connections between plants. I’m starting to think that the easily-missed, “non-critical” (to a corporate mindset), and completely invisible on an org chart, relationships are a lot like Mycorrhizal Fungi. These “unorthodox” organizational connections and the Mycorrhizae are both easily overlooked, but they’re hugely important to the ecosystems of which they’re an essentially an invisible element. The connections each contribute help keep the ecosystem healthy. They quietly enrich the culture and the soil (in my ecosystem metaphor or equivalents). And as Toby Hemenway wrote “Feeding the soil engages us in a partnership that benefits all.… Life builds on life. Whatever we plant in this rich earth will have a far greater chance of thriving; whatever we hope to feed, whether wildlife, ourselves, or perhaps just our senses, will be deeply nourished. And serendipities we never hoped for—a surprising new wildflower, a rare butterfly, or sturdier plants bloom longer, fruit heavier, and grow in tough conditions—will grace our lives almost daily.”

Peter Block writes that:

The future is created one room at a time, one gathering at a time. Each gathering needs to become an example of the future we want to create… We structure these conversations so that diversity of thinking and dissent are given space, commitments are made without barter, and the gifts of each person and our community are acknowledged and valued.

Emma Goldman said much the same: “No revolution can ever succeed… unless the MEANS used to further it be identical in spirit and tendency with the PURPOSES to be achieved.” All of which tells me if I do my job well, that each new connection I make needs to honor the uniqueness of each individual. It needs me to engage with them to learn their story and to help them find a meaningful way forward through the maze of our organization (and every organization) as they enter. It would be easy, I know, to ignore them—no one expects leaders of large organizations to spend meaningful time getting to know people on the periphery. My belief though, is that it matters much more than most of us have been led to believe. Because, as Peter Block says, “Every time we gather becomes a model of the future we want to create.”

All of which means that I have a (freely chosen) responsibility to approach each new interaction as if I’m about to meet someone who could change my life and our organization for the better then I will pretty surely ask better questions, pay more attention, and follow up more effectively. Irish writer Manchán Magan, says:

There may be seven billion of us, but each is as central to existence as the other. [Understanding that] can lead us to an awareness of how we are an indefinable, uncategorisable, confluence of forces‚ a fascinatingly fragmented array of thoughts, feelings, senses, intuitions and aspirations as interrelated to the rest of existence as a raindrop, despite how separate we might feel. Ideas like this help remind me that I am rooted to this world at an elemental level and that this life is mine to create. Life is certainly dense with levels of experience… When we dare to tune in, or open up to it, certain things begin to show themselves.

If we approach each new connection we make as if it might be one of the best relationships of our lives, we can come at it in the way writer Julia Cameron describes as, “believing mirrors.” “Put simply, a believing mirror is a friend to your creativity—someone who believes in you and your creativity… potentiate each other’s growth, to mirror a ‘yes’ to each other’s creativity.”

If we did that every time we met someone new, it’s amazing what might happen, in our organizations, in our communities, and I suppose, if you want to think big, in the country. Many of those things, I believe, will be wonderful beyond our wildest dreams. John O’Donohue writes that, “Behind each face there is a unique world that no one else can see. This is the mystery of individuality.” By honoring every new human we connect with, as per our Statement of Beliefs, help them to be themselves, and increase the odds that they will go on to do great things in their life. And that, O’Donohue reminds us, is a pretty big deal. “The creation of the individual,” he says, “is a divine masterpiece.”

When we help create each other, we care. And when we care, wonderful things start to happen. Lives are enhanced, cultures are enriched, emotional resilience is increased, companies become healthier. As Peter Block writes:

The essential work is to build social fabric, both for its own sake and to enable chosen accountability among citizens. When citizens care for each other, they become accountable to each other. Care and accountability create a productive community.

For more on how impactful our beliefs are on our work and our lives, see The Power of Beliefs in Business. Or, keep it short and see Secret #40 “The Power of Beliefs in Business,” or Secret #41 “Leading with Positive Beliefs.”

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!