My friend, Mike, toured a Toyota plant a 5-6 years ago. He remembers the group came upon a group of workers addressing a problem. The workers assigned to that task had a problem and had flipped on their "andon" light -- a signal they needed help. Other workers had come to help. When the problem was resolved, the helpful workers returned to their stations, the andon was set to its original "go" position, and work continued. Watching the scene, another man on the tour blurted, "That would never happen at my plant." Startled and curious, Mike asked, "What do you mean? Why not?" The man thought for a second or two, then said, "First, someone would need to ask for help. Second, someone would need to give help. We have a sink-or-swim culture. You either know what you are doing, or you figure it out -- or you don't. I can't imagine our guys, especially the guys who have been with us awhile, ever doing something like that."
I can see the merits of a sink-or-swim culture. People are hired to do a job. They have experience, so they should know what to do. Either they can or they can't. When challenges arise, they will either figure out how to get the job done the right way -- or find their way to the door. You get some help when you are new -- orientation and training -- and some forgiveness for rookie mistakes. But you aren't new for long.
Mike's story raised a different line of questions for me. What is it about needing "help" that is so awful for some of us? Why would we expect someone not to need any at all? And why are we so quick to refuse help when offered?
In his course, "The Life Code," Derek Rydall gives a great explanation of how we become how we are -- and the role that ego plays in keeping us the same. To paraphrase, we come in to the world with a 'clean slate' -- our brain has the basic operating system loaded but that's about it. As we have experiences, we create a map of the world we live in. This map shows us where the good is, where the danger is -- where we are safe and where we are not. We also develop a tool kit for survival. Our survival kit is designed to handle the specific challenges of the map we've drawn. For example, I learned that being smart was rewarded and kept me safe -- so I developed tools and skills for doing well at school. To have talent was fine -- as long as you were not prideful about it, so I developed tools both for performing and for self-deprecation. No matter how brilliant a performance, I could always find fault in myself.
Over time, our ego develops. Your ego is basically your self-image -- who you think you are and aren't. Your ego's job is to keep you safe and out of harm's way. It excels at its job. It knows you intimately, so your ego knows what tools to pull from the survival kit when you approach the edges of your map; it also knows what buttons to push to keep you from exploring too far outside the lines.
In the Toyota example, the manager described a barrier for his employees around asking for, receiving, and providing help. How did you experience "help" as a kid? What does your map say about help?
I grew up in a household with six other siblings. We were highly encouraged to be able to do tasks on our own -- as a practical thing to free up mom. Plus, if I could tie my own shoes, I got outside faster and was less likely to be left behind by my older brothers. I was praised for helping mom and others. That continued to primary school. The kids that asked for help -- or needed "extra help" -- were in special reading and math groups. Sometimes they had to miss recess. And even though teachers encouraged us to ask questions, they weren't always excited to answer them. They seemed most relaxed and happy when we were quiet and working independently, without the need for their help. More than one report card said I needed to quit helping the other kids with their work.
To this day, my "map" has a dark cloud over the concept of help. If you ask me if I "need help" my brain returns an automatic no. I do better if I'm asked if I "want help"; my brain is less quick to reject the idea. I remember a time in junior high I was standing in line for school pictures. Back then they used actual film; we had one shot at it -- possibly two if the photographer caught something. That morning I couldn't find my good barrettes, so I'd settled for some old, ugly, green plastic ones. I'd fought with those barrettes in the bathroom for 10 minutes to get my hair to stay well enough for the photo. I needed the barrettes to hold my hair without being visible in the photo. While in line, a classmate behind me tapped me on the shoulder to tell me my barrettes were crooked. (She was trying to help.) I snapped at her, "I know! It's fine!" and turned back around. Thirty seconds later, back in my right mind, I tried to apologize for biting her head off. Today I wonder what my reaction created or reinforced in her map about the concept of help.
My parents are traditionalists -- so we learned to fight our own battles. If I complained to dad that I wasn't getting to play the position I wanted on the softball field, he told me to work harder. He did not go visit my coach like parents do today. As a result, I have "work harder" in my survival kit. Working harder looks like studying, learning, practicing -- staying at it until I get it. Ignore the pain, push, strive. These are not bad traits to have. The tools we have in our survival kits have served us well. We've survived. But other tools didn't get put in there -- and could be helpful to develop and add. Like knowing when to quit. Or listening to my body and taking care of it when in pain -- instead of taping up that ankle, downing more ibuprofen, and pushing through.
It still takes a lot for me to ask for help, probably because I don't have great examples of getting the help I needed. Back in my last corporate job, I struggled to adapt to my new role and manager. I couldn't seem to pin down her expectations. If I asked a question, she'd start from the beginning -- as if I didn't know anything. I felt small and demeaned. I quit asking questions and vowed to work harder. Working harder didn't help. I asked her manager (a VP) for help, but he sided with her -- telling me how wrong I was and how great she was. I went back to my office, deflated, and on my own. Yes, you guessed it, I worked harder. Within a year I was doing better, getting positive feedback, and back to making my manager look good. But I was also exhausted and unhappy. I had survived -- I did it myself! -- but I was not thriving. On the outside I was doing everything right; on the inside I was a mess. My survival kit had gotten me through -- but I left the company anyway.
I know now that my manager was doing what she knew to do, based on her map and survival kit. I needed help, but not the help she was giving me. At the time, I did not know I had over-developed and over-used the tools in my survival kit. And I did not recognize that relying on those tools meant I'd missed out on opportunities to develop other skills and tools -- other aspects of my character. I felt both broken and justified in my anger and resentment toward her. But she was the same as me (human) -- and that's how we clashed. We were, as Derek says, both professionals at what we knew and amateurs at everything else. Who know what great work we could have done together if I knew then what I know now.
As a coach, I see this happen in organizations all the time. Last week I learned of a manager who is struggling. He has been in his position for almost one year. It's a difficult management position in a complex organization, not to mention the strong personalities on his team. He had a positive impact when he first arrived, but results have declined the past 3-4 months. Now the C-Level is questioning whether he is the "right guy". He has doubled-down, pledging to prove he is the right guy. He's entered survival mode, head down, digging deep for tools in his survival kit, determined to win the fight.
This manager needs help. Stuck in the storming phase of individual and team development, he needs help to find the right foothold, so he can start the climb back up. To his credit, he has asked for help. His manager responded to the best of his ability, but the help offered was not what he needed. What I needed back then -- and what this manager needs now -- is a coach. He needs someone not related to his performance review to help him navigate. He needs a safe place to re-think his map and develop some new tools. The storming phase highlights gaps in character, but our ego blinds us to the truth about ourselves, preferring to blame others instead (it's safer than admitting fault). The ego doesn't want us to change; it likes us the way we are. It knows how to keep us safe there, even when we're feeling anything but safe. Success requires us to face the truth about ourselves -- to see the gaps in our character and to work on them. A good coach can help.
In ninth grade school softball I had to fight for my position -- and for the first time I spent significant time sitting the bench. That summer season, I spent a lot of time with my coach, riding with him to tournaments and games, asking questions and learning the game. He had me review stats, think through batting line-ups and consider pitching choices. After games, we'd talk about what went well and what didn't; he helped me see some bad habits I'd developed in my swing and my hitting improved over time. He took an interest in my success. To succeed, I had to first humble myself and surrender -- be open to new ideas, make changes, and keep at it even when I wasn't getting the results I wanted right away.
I feel for that manager who is fighting for his life right now. I know his pain. Chances are they will re-organize this manager into a smaller role, he will stay for a time, then he will leave for another opportunity. When he thinks about his relationship with this company and his manager, he'll remember most how he felt hung out to dry. How he was essentially left alone to sink-or-swim, wanting desperately for someone to notice he was drowning. All involved are working from old maps and survival kits.
None of us are perfect -- we all have room for growth when it comes to character. Leadership -- life! -- is a character building experience. Life is a process of remembering we are creative, resourceful and whole -- that we have everything we need built in, but we haven't accessed it all yet. Some has yet to emerge. Leaders have the unique opportunity to support others' emergence. The first step in that process is self-awareness, and more self-awareness, and more self-awareness. When it comes to continuous improvement, leaders go first -- reinventing themselves again and again.
This is what it means to make change a way of life.
For more information, check out Emergence by Derek Rydall.
Photo credit: Copyright: belchonock / 123RF Stock Photo