Issue 213 - December 2020
The American poet and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, said "There is no rule more invariable than that we are paid for our suspicions by finding what we suspected." Physicists, philosophers, and psychologists are probing ever deeper into the murky realms of reality. It's becoming ever clearer that our perceptions really do create our reality. That's especially true in leadership.
This issue features a powerful new book by historian and author, Rutger Bregman. The Guardian describes him as "the Dutch wunderkind of new ideas." Humankind: A Hopeful History provides new perspectives on 200,000 years of human history. My review below highlights a number of its key points counterbalancing so many negative views on the "reality" of human nature.
Bregman digs deep into the origins of many negative assumptions about humanity. His research and historical perspective show core values and assumptions that stunt leadership effectiveness and cause so many organizations and nations to fail.
This also explains why some extraordinary leaders are so effective at building thriving, highly effective organizational cultures. As you'll see in this issue, The Fish Tank Factor creates a very different reality. Based on trust, a growth mindset, and treating people as responsible partners, highly effective leaders build nurturing environments where everyone thrives. Countless studies show the reality of those approaches lead to much higher performance for investors, customers, communities, employees, and the environment.
We don't see the world as it is; we see the world as we are. What are your assumptions about the reality of human nature?
How many of these assumptions describe the reality of humankind:
From the beginning of civilization, countless philosophers, religious leaders, rulers, academics, and politicians held these beliefs. Many still do. These pessimistic views of humanity have created, and continue to spread, untold misery and needless suffering. What if this isn't reality at all? What if these widely shared beliefs are warped views of human nature?
Rutger Bregman's new book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, disproves assumptions like these with deep research showing a more factual picture of reality. He probes deep into famous sociology and psychological studies to uncover fraud and deeply flawed methodology, painting humans as selfish, aggressive, panicky, hateful, power-hungry, and easily manipulated or intimated.
Bregman writes, "Quite a few religions take it as a tenet of faith that humans are mired in sin. Many a capitalist presumes we're all motivated by self-interest. Lots of environmentalists see humans as a destructive plague upon the earth. Thousands of opinions; one take on human nature." Humankind provides a powerful, evidence-based negation of these destructive views of humanity. He explains, "If there's one thing I've sought to do with this book, it's to change the meaning of the word 'realism.' Isn't it telling that in modern usage the realist has become synonymous with the cynic -- for someone with a pessimistic outlook?"
My copy of this insightful new book is full of yellow highlights. Here are a few points that really stand out:
It's so easy to believe many of those opening statements -- especially with news and social media feeding our negativity bias to increase their views, clicks, and likes. I highly recommend Humankind: A Hopeful History as a thoughtful antidote to the poisons of cynicism, pessimism, and negativity.
A few favorite excerpts (so many to choose from) of my review of Humankind: A Hopeful History.
...to stand up for human goodness is to take a stand against the powers that be. For the powerful, a hopeful view of human nature is downright threatening. Subversive. Seditious. It implies that we're not selfish beasts that need to be reined in, restrained and regulated. It implies that we need a different kind of leadership.
... cynicism is just another word for laziness. It's an excuse not to take responsibility. Because if you believe most people are rotten, you don't need to get worked up about injustice. The world is going to hell either way.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But evil doesn't live just beneath the surface; it takes immense effort to draw it out. And most importantly, evil has to be disguised as doing good.
The premise of so-called reality shows, from Big Brother to Temptation Island, is that human beings, when left to their own devices, behave like beasts....But take the time to look behind the scenes of programs like these and you'll see candidates being led on, boozed up and played off against each other in ways that are nothing less than shocking. It shows just how much manipulation it takes to bring out the worst in people.
Across the board, their results were the same. The experiments revealed that even at the tender age of eighteen months children are only too eager to help others, happily taking a break from fun and games to lend a hand, helping a stranger even when you throw a ball pit into the mix. And they want nothing in return.
When modern economists assumed that people are innately selfish, they advocated policies that fostered self-serving behavior. When politicians convinced themselves that politics is a cynical game, that's exactly what it became.
A few years ago, researchers at the University of Massachusetts analyzed fifty-one studies on the effects of economic incentives in the workplace. They found 'overwhelming evidence' that bonuses can blunt the intrinsic motivation and moral compass of employees. And as if that wasn't bad enough, they also discovered that bonuses and targets can erode creativity.
A British study recently found that a vast majority of the population (74 per cent) identify more closely with values such as helpfulness, honesty and justice than with wealth, status and power. But just about as large a share (78 per cent) think others are more self-interested than they really are.
If we believe most people can't be trusted, that's how we'll treat each other, to everyone's detriment. Few ideas have as much power to shape the world as our view of other people. Because ultimately, you get what you expect to get.
In a weird way, to believe in our own sinful nature is comforting. It provides a kind of absolution. Because if most people are bad, then engagement and resistance aren't worth the effort.
Every day, we make each other smarter or stupider, stronger or weaker, faster or slower. We can't help leaking expectations, through our gazes, our body language, and our voices. My expectations about you define my attitude towards you, and the way I behave towards you in turn influences your expectations and therefore your behavior towards me.
In his book, The Excellence Dividend, Tom Peters writes, "In an Oscar acceptance speech, the late director Robert Altman said: 'The role of the director is to create a space where the actors and actresses can become more than they have ever been before, more than they've dreamed of being.'"
You've likely had a limiting boss, teacher, sports coach, or parent who stunted your growth. And you've likely had someone who saw greater potential -- perhaps more than you saw in yourself -- and helped you grow.
This has been called The Pygmalion Effect. In his Harvard Business Review classic "Pygmalion in Management," J. Sterling Livingston draws upon the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who carved a statue of a beautiful woman that was later brought to life. George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion (which was the basis for "My Fair Lady") used a similar theme. In the play, Eliza Doolittle explains, "The difference between a flower girl and a lady is not how she behaves, but how she is treated." Livingston presents a number of his own studies, as well as other research, to prove that "If a manager's expectations are high, productivity is likely to be excellent. If his expectations are low, productivity is likely to be poor."
Dov Eden, leadership professor and author of Pygmalion in Management: Productivity as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, reports, "The Pygmalion Effect is great science that is under applied. It hasn't made the difference it should have in the world, and that's very disappointing."
The goldfish analogy illustrates the impact of expectations and beliefs. If you buy a little goldfish and keep it in a small bowl, it will grow a few inches for the rest of its life. Move that same fish to a large aquarium, and it will double or triple in size. Put the goldfish in a large pond, and it can grow up to a foot long. The key factor determining the size of the fish is the size of its environment.
Many managers see people as they are and treat them according to what they see. He or she would take a small goldfish and keep it in the little bowl because it would be inefficient and wasteful to put it in a larger environment. Strong leaders see people as they could be and coach them to grow that potential.
Are you a small fishbowl manager or large fish tank leader? How do you know? You can use our Fish Tank Factor mini quiz for a quick self-assessment. A far more accurate way to assess your coaching skills is a 360 assessment.
Less effective managers often focus on fixing weaknesses. Highly effective leaders draw out and build on strengths. As organizational psychologist and executive coach, Doug MacKie writes in his book, Strength-Based Leadership Coaching in Organizations: An Evidence-Based Guide to Positive Leadership, "Both coaching and positive psychology share certain assumptions in their focus on the positive, the belief that people want to learn and most importantly that individuals contain within themselves, the solution to their own challenges."
Leaders bring hope, optimism, and positive action. That's really tough to do while social distancing and facing an uncertain future. We multiply misery if we allow the pessimism plague to infect us as well.
To counter Headline Stress Disorder and strengthen resilience, I actively scan a list of resources for research, articles, and tips on leading ourselves and others through these turbulent times. I post those articles every day.
Let's shorten our social media distancing. Follow or connect with me:
Together we can Learn, Laugh, Love, and Lead -- just for the L of it!
The items in each month's issue of The Leader Letter are first published in my weekly blog during the previous month.
If you read each blog post (or issue of The Leader Letter) as it's published over twelve months, you'll have read the equivalent of a leadership book. And you'll pick up a few practical leadership tips that help you use time more strategically and tame your E-Beast!
I am always delighted to hear from readers of The Leader Letter with feedback, reflections, suggestions, or differing points of view. Nobody is ever identified in The Leader Letter without his or her permission. I am also happy to explore customized, in-house adaptations (online these days) of any of my material for your team or organization. Drop me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with me on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or my blog!
Let's leverage our leadership strengths to work together and get through this challenging time.
In this Issue:
Please forward this newsletter to colleagues, Clients, or associates you think might be interested -- or on a 'need-to-grow' basis.
Did you receive this newsletter from someone else?
©2020 Jim Clemmer and The CLEMMER Group