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Fear gets in the way

May 10, 2010

About 10 years ago, I picked up my first Margaret Wheatley book and knew fairly quickly that there was something unique about the wisdom I held in my hands. She wasn’t just spewing out old ideas about leadership and organizational structure – she was daring to paint a different picture.

This past weekend, I finished reading A Simpler Way, and can I just say – Wow. I don’t know if there’s a single page that doesn’t have something underlined on it and/or notes in the margins.

If you haven’t spent years of your life working in various organizational structures that have the ability to drive you up the wall with their bureaucracy, short-sightedness and lack of beauty, you might not find this book particularly interesting. But if you’re stuck in a system that regularly makes you think “isn’t there a better way?”, then this may be the book for you.

Meg Wheatley and her co-author believe that there IS a better way – a simpler way. She believes that if we look at the scientific order of things, we can see that nature draws us toward organization and structure BUT it does not draw us toward the kind of organization most of us are stuck in. It draws us toward organization that is mutually beneficial, creative, organic, messy, and beautiful.

Wheatley believes that much of the way we organize is based on a flawed view of evolution. If we base our world view on “survival of the fittest”, then much of the way we structure our organizations (and our lives) is bounded by fear. Build an organization (or a life) based on fear, and you need to put rules, policies, procedures, and strategic plans into place to keep people in line. Spend most of your time keeping people in line, and you’ll lose their creativity and passion.

If, on the other hand, we recognize that nature’s true way of evolving leads species to co-exist peaceably (and often in mutually beneficial ways), we begin to realize that our own innate desires and movement is toward positive growth for us and our organizations. We begin to fear less and create more.

In the book, the authors share a story of some scientists who made some new discoveries on Galapagos Islands that didn’t fit with Darwin’s theory on survival of the fittest. When there was a limited food supply for a few different species of finches, the finches evolved so that some with longer beaks learned to source food that was deeper in the cacti that they all fed on. Instead of fighting for the same food source, they worked it out so that they could co-exist in the same space.

That thought was revolutionary for me. We are MEANT to work together, to create together, to evolve together. It just makes so much sense! We are not meant to feed off each other’s failure or to compete for limited resources.

This morning, while the ideas of the book were still fresh in my mind, I got an email from our HR manager, reminding the managers that we need to submit “annual performance appraisals” for all of our staff. I have always chafed at this responsibility, and after reading the book, I started to understand why. It is based on a negative framework. Rather than starting from something positive, we put boxes around our staff and tell them they have to meet these standards of performance.

I replied to the email suggesting perhaps we could re-name them “annual growth reviews”. (Any better ideas?) Sure, it’s just a simple word change, but it will help me change my perspective. (After all, I work in a non-profit organization that’s all about helping people get access to food – seems like we should forge a different path than most organizations!)

It’s time to kick fear to the curb and see what we are cabable of creating together.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Dovelily permalink
    May 11, 2010 9:04 am

    Work together for the common good? DON’T live in fear? What radical concepts, lol. Will definitely be adding this book to my reading list!

  2. May 12, 2010 6:58 am

    Are these the kinds of reviews where everyone has to invent phony goals for the next year? I didn’t much care for those.

  3. May 12, 2010 3:06 pm

    I recently printed an article I found online titled “Yes, Everyone Really Does Hate Performance Reviews”. The first line is “it’s time to put the performance review out of its misery”. It’s obvious everyone hates them (except HR). The managers are cleary uncomfortable and disdainful of them, the employees are stressed out and ticked off by them and it’s just stupid, stupid, stupid to create such an environment. I was going to anonymously put a copy of the article in HR’s mailbox but I never did. They are so married to performance reviews that it wouldn’t do any good anyway. It’s a mindset that is hard to eradicate. I can’t wait to read “A Simpler Way”. Thanks for the recommendation. Maybe I’ll put a copy of that in HR’s mailbox!

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