Monday, May 03, 2010

Reframing Change: How to Deal with Workplace Dynamics, Influence Others, and Bring People Together to Initiate Positive Change by Jean Kantambu Latting and V. Jean Ramsey

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Hardcover: 226 pages

• Publisher: Praeger, 2009

• Price: $34.95

• ISBN-10: 0313381240

• ISBN-13: 978-0313381249

So many how-to books out there today—how to be better at this or that, how to learn this or that skill. One would think by now humankind would have achieved perfection. No argument here: we are far from perfect, and we have a lot to learn. Or, if at heart we all pretty much know what is missing, what we need to do—let’s just call it the Golden Rule of treating others as we would wish to be treated, delivered in countless variations—it is a message that bears repeating an unlimited number of times and perhaps in an unlimited number of perspectives. After all, the same message delivered another way may be just what any one of us may need, and the moment in time that any one of us is truly receptive to that message is constantly in flux, too.

So, yes, we have here another book about how to be better human beings and how to get along better with each other in the workplace. And I’m going to recommend this one. Not only for the workplace, but for anyplace, because I found its approach and conclusions are just as relevant to our personal lives as our work lives. Indeed, I had to wonder in reading it why the authors would limit its scope to workplace only. This is valuable stuff, wherever you might wish to have more fruitful interactions with your fellow man and woman. It could even be read as sound parenting advice.

Authors Jean Kantambu Latting and V. Jean Ramsey are equipped to speak with authority. Latting is an organizational consultant and co-director of Leading Consciously. She is professor emeritus of leadership and change in the graduate school of social work, University of Houston in Texas. Ramsey is also a co-director of Leading Consciously, and is professor emeritus of management at Texas Southern University.

The book reads something like talk therapy, bringing the reader into a workshop or seminar of others who are working to handle various workplace obstacles and challenges. Each chapter is filled with transcripts of discussions and conversations with groups and individuals, handling situations that the reader will recognize as similar to one’s own. These are common issues cropping up anywhere where people work together—the dynamics of diverse personalities and work styles, intertwined with personal problems and issues that seep into our work lives. Lest this devolve into too much group talk, however, short paragraphs called “Curious About the Research?” are regularly interspersed, bringing the science to the talk. The research cites studies and substantiating figures, often piquing curiosity to extend one’s reading to learn more.

The best advice is simple advice, not to be confused with easy-to-take advice. Thus, I’m sure, the need for the same basic messages to be conveyed to us over and over again. The approach taken by these authors is wonderfully simple and on target. The transcribed discussions unfold as surely do the questions and arguments in most readers’ minds. What do you mean, the change has to begin with me? Yes, but he started it! It’s obvious that I am right, and she is wrong. And so on. The authors have obviously heard them all, and here they all are.

The premise of the steps for positive change suggested in this book is that the reader is a person of integrity. Integrity is defined as a pattern of behavior that is consistent with one’s values. Discord, guilt, anger, defensiveness, all that bag of negativity in human interaction, opens up whenever we act in discord with our values. There’s the hint we should never ignore: sense any of these cropping up and look to realign your behavior with your values. Time to make conscious change.

“Demanding that others change often increases resistance and ends up pitting people against one another. Self-change in more likely to plant seeds leading to broader-based change in the work setting—change that may be more sustainable. No matter how powerless you feel in a given situation, you have choices. The ability to choose is a major source of your power to make a difference.” (pg.8)

Assuming we readers are a nice sort, interesting and willing to be persons of integrity, the book prescribes clear steps on how to live a life of integrity, in or out of the workplace. Testing assumptions is a good place to start. Even when we think we are being rational and clear, we may not be aware of just how many prejudices and biases and assumptions are entering into our thinking. For instance, a great many of us like to think that we are above average. If that were indeed so, averages would be quite different. We can’t all be above average in all that we do. It’s a good place to start: strip away the ego for a moment and examine the face in the mirror. Right may not always be exclusively on our side. Remember that Golden Rule, that most ancient of self-help mantras? Consider the other side may have a valid viewpoint, too. Another human tendency is to fill in the blanks, the unknowns, with our own assumptions, and this is where truth often becomes degraded.

Putting yourself in another’s shoes is always a good idea. How to do that, the authors suggest, is by “being in the question.” Assumptions fade when we open ourselves to ask questions rather than make hard and fast statements.

“Being in the question is wondering what things mean instead of assuming you already know. It involves treating your first thought as a hypothesis rather than a statement of truth … As such, it takes more work—and humility—than being in the answer. It requires searching for alternative explanations for others’ behavior.” (pg. 22)

Among our frequent assumptions are that others have the same background as we do. Being aware of cultural differences is essential in an ever more tightly knit global community. The authors remind us that cultural differences extend beyond national or ethnic origin, but involve also social group memberships that may result from our biology, gender, age, sexual orientation, hierarchy, economic class, occupation, geographic location, and many other factors.

Clearing emotions is the next step. While the authors warn against suppressing emotions—this can never lead to positive change or understanding—they also warn that thinking through a cloud of emotions can fog our path to resolving misunderstandings. Bringing up, thoroughly examining, then setting aside our emotions are steps that must be taken first; there are no shortcuts. Understanding and facing an emotion is not the same as acting on it. In fact, understanding and facing our emotions first and foremost is the only sure way to prevent acting out.

Having cleaned house, we can begin to build effective relationships. Powerful listening is an important building block for intimacy and the ability to work together as a team (can you see why I think this book would work equally well outside of the workplace?). When one listens, it is crucial to not substitute one’s own version of events, to not put down the other person or immediately toss aside their viewpoint without consideration, or to downplay the other’s perspective. Positive feedback opens people up, and we can offer it—even when we are in disagreement—in many ways. We give feedback with our body language, with the tone of our voice, with our lack of focus. We shut others down when we are sarcastic or critical. We also shut down open communication when we use humor that is hurtful to others.

When we are in a situation where change is needed, powerful listening lays the groundwork. “Three things are required for individuals to hear your feedback and be willing to change. First, they must believe change is necessary. Second, they must believe it is an improvement … Third, they must believe they’re capable of making the change.” (pg. 80)

Change cannot be forced. It is a choice that we must each make for ourselves, and that we must feel we are freely choosing for ourselves.

Bridging differences is then the next step, and here the authors stress how power, or being dominant in a relationship or group, causes a kind of blindness, or tunnel vision. Diversity is crucial, but the authors clarify: “Diversity alone is insufficient. Simply adding differences to your group or organization and then pretending those differences don’t exist won’t get the job done … people must feel their contributions matter. Yes, diversity can bring conflict and tension, but it can also be productive.” (pg. 126)

Research shows that “bringing people with different perspectives together often results in increased creativity, innovation, and performance. The key is in learning how to manage the conflict and to learn from one another.” (pg. 127)

When encountering differences, we sometimes make mistakes, act badly, hurt others. We may discriminate against others different than ourselves, or even exploit those over whom we are dominant, or in a position of power. At these times, we are in discord with integrity, i.e., we are not living according to our values. Guilt can be a powerful force for change, alerting us that we are doing wrong and that we must make amends, take the steps necessary to resolve the wrong.

An especially interesting chapter addresses self-deception. Just as it is human nature to think of ourselves as often somehow better or smarter, more valid, than others, it can also be a human weakness to seek blame and so seek out rationalizations for ourselves when we have done wrong. Self-betrayal, the authors write, is when we act outside our integrity, against our own values, and “then, to justify your actions, you figure out reasons to magnify the other person’s faults and your own virtues. In so doing, you deceive yourself.” (pg. 150)

Rather than blame-shifting to ease our own discomfort, we must look honestly at ourselves, but also at the other, doing our best to understand why they are as they are, even if that state is abhorrent to us. Trying to understand another’s perspective, the authors stress, is not the same as agreeing with them. Everyone wants to be heard, even the wrongdoer, and in being heard, we have actually allowed the first step toward change. (The authors here also make an important distinction for those who are in battering or abusive relationships, in or out of the workplace, as not being responsible for the bad behavior of the other.)

“People do not resist change, they resist being changed. People want to change on their own terms, not someone else’s.” (pg. 173)

Perhaps this book’s most valuable statement is that the commonly held “wisdom” that people resist change is actually constantly disproved when we take a look around us. Life is, by its very definition, to be in a state of constant and unabated change. People, workplace environments, relationships of all kinds, actually thrive on change. Think of change as growth, and you understand that change is necessary for any living thing. We must only respect what it is that makes us afraid, causes resistance … often just another name for being protective … and we unleash all manner of positive change.

This, then, is that core idea of “reframing change.” It may not always be easy, but it is often necessary and often good. We feel a deep need for change when our environment becomes uncomfortable, and discomfort always has reason. Recognizing “small wins” along the way, giving ourselves and others positive feedback, being conscious and emphatic to our differences, all lead to achieving a better and more productive workplace.

~for The Smoking Poet, Spring 2010 issue