“It’s a bigger risk. . .you’re putting yourself out there”

I’ve been following the transformation effort by the Big Dude, aka AOTUS David S. Ferriero, closely because the way I left his agency’s employ in 1990 led me to develop an interest in leadership, management, and communications.   In an article from 1998 that I saved in my files at work in 2000 and found yesterday during a reference inquiry search, Christie Tong described a workshop exercise in which she played Pachelbel’s Canon in D.


She described in “Are You an Architect of Trust?” how she asked participants to describe an opening scene to an imaginary movie that came to mind while listening to the music.

“After the music stopped, I asked for volunteers to describe the scene they envisioned.  Utter silence.  After a day and a half with these managers speaking up easily, I was struck by the difference.  I asked them why that was.  ‘It’s a bigger risk,’ one manager responded.  ‘It’s a lot different than discussing the strategic objectives or the P&L’s. . . you’re putting yourself out there.'”

In this case, someone finally broke the ice.

“When one of the managers did replay the scene he’d envisioned to the group, the room went up in energetic applause.  They were captivated and moved by it.  Being an Architect of Trust is about putting yourself ‘out there,’ being willing to trust others first.  It requires courage.”

That caught my eye when I first read the article in 2000 and really made me think now, in 2011.

One reason I liked David’s recent post on Introversion at AOTUS blog so much was that it was refreshingly candid.  I found that he put himself “out there” the way he wrote it.  For AOTUS to come out and say he was an Introvert just isn’t something you see very often in Washington.  Fedland can be cautious, with many actions very carefully calculated, vetted, and taken only after time consuming risk assessment.  Sometimes, often, even, it has to be that way.  But in blogging, when you’re aiming to be a transformational leader, it’s not just the Introvert who may have an advantage.  Sometimes, the risk taker does, as well.

I have a tendency to put myself “out there” in some situations but not in others.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn’t!  Being willing to trust others first depends on your life experiences and what you’ve learned from them.  I’ve trusted situations and people I later thought I should not have trusted, or at least not at so great a level.  (I’m actually re-thinking trust levels in a relationship with someone I know right now.  I’ve done that in the past.  I’m sure I will have to do it again with other relationships in the future.  I’m human!)    But I’ve also trusted people and my instincts about situations where going with my gut paid off well.

Tong wrote in 1998 that “We have put a premium in our corporations on intellect (IQ), information, and technical competence, and underestimated the role of trust and emotional intelligence (EQ) in impacting employee productivity and bottom-line results.”   She laid out a blueprint for becoming an Architect of Trust.  Elements included: (1) Leadership authenticity; (2) Emotional intelligence; (3) Climate building; (4) Walking your talk.

What she wrote about climate building caught my eye when I re-read the article last night while thinking about the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  Tong mentioned Ryan and Oestreich’s Driving Fear Out of the Workplace, about which I’ve written here at Nixonara.  She observed:

“In interviews with hundreds of professionals in different companies, 70% of the people interviewed said they had hesitated to speak up in their workplace because they feared some type of repercussion.  The repercussions feared most in descending order were:  loss of credibility or reputations, lack of career or financial advancement, damage to relationship with boss, and loss of employment. . . .

Managers with the best intentions–those who would never allow speaking up to be a career limiting move–are still faced with the reality that these fears exist for people.  Mangers are ‘guilty by association’ simply by being part of ‘management.’  Because this is true, a manager must be very intentional about driving out the long-established legacies of intimidation so that everyone can participate meaningfully and contribute their unique points of view.”

Good advice, of course.  Especially the part about how fear of damage to professional relationships can control behavior.   It definitely can!   A challenge for agency heads is that these things don’t lend themselves to metrics in performance measurement.   Moreover, it can be very challenging to figure out what is going on in workplace groups just as it is outside the workplace.  In “The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight,” David McRaney recently wrote at You Are Not So Smart about why and how people wear masks, why they often engage in “othering,” and how groups form, bond, and interact.

McRaney began his essay with a description of a group of warring boys, then mentioned the movie I recently wrote about at my blog.    He pointed to something that makes it hard to gauge what is going on with friends and especially with colleagues in the workplace.

“If you haven’t, go watch The Breakfast Club and come back. The idea is this: You put on a mask and uniform before leaving for work. You put on another set for school. You have costume for friends of different persuasions and one just for family. Who you are alone is not who you are with a lover or a friend. You quick-change like Superman in a phone booth when you bump into old friends from high school at the grocery store, or the ex in line for the movie. When you part, you quick-change back and tell the person you are with why you appeared so strange for a moment. They understand, after all, they are also in disguise. It’s not a new or novel concept, the idea of multiple identities for multiple occasions, but it’s also not something you talk about often.”

According to McRaney, you see this in social media, as well.  (As an aside, I very much appreciate Paul Wester’s kind response to a comment I left at NARA’s Records Express blog yesterday!  Officials such as he are dealing with extra challenges right now in the Washington area yet he took the time to reply.  Very cool, very cool, indeed.)    McRaney laid it out this way:

“Social media confounds the issue. You are a public relations masterpiece. Not only are you free to create alternate selves for forums, websites and digital watering holes, but from one social media service to the next you control the output of your persona. The clever tweets, the photos of your delectable triumphs with the oven and mixing bowl, the funny meme you send out into the firmament that you check back on for comments, the new thing you own, the new place you visited – they tell a story of who you want to be, who you ought to be. They satisfy something. Is anyone clicking on all these links? Is anyone smirking at this video? Are my responses being scoured for grammatical infractions? You ask these questions and others, even if they don’t rise to the surface.”

Some people are more self-conscious and strategic in use of social media than others.  McRaney asserted that “In a world where you can control everything presented to an audience both domestic or imaginary, what is laid bare depends on who you believe is on the other side of the screen.”

This definitely can be a factor in Fedland, where the climate for candor, innovation and breaking out of stereotypes can be most unforgiving.  I pointed this out in the very first comment I posted at AOTUS’s blog, when I quoted an interview we at NARA’s Nixon Presidential Materials Project did with Roy L. Ash.  (Not going to look for the link this morning; the Big Dude’s blog is just too hard to navigate.  I could Google for David’s first post, which is how I linked to it the last time I mentioned it.  But I can’t stop and take the time right now, gotta wrap it up and move on.  May add it in later!)

McRaney’s essay includes an interesting section on what tests show about how people perceive themselves and their friends.   And when they think they themselves and their friends are being most real!   I hide as much as anyone.  My usual workplace persona is smiling, as at left.  But sometimes, I’m actually feeling something else, LOL.   (The photo I’ve labelled “disappointment” was snapped as I was trying to open a package.  Probably one of those clam-type plastic ones, ha.)

Some of the results of the studies that McRaney discussed may have implications in the workplace, as well.   In some areas of the National Archives, I knew some present day managers and executives as friends before they rose in rank.   At times, I can tell when they are wearing masks in their new roles!  I, too, wear a mask in similar situations, at times.

My Fedland experiences suggest that the reverse is harder–figuring out the real person behind someone you first meet as a senior official.   The higher up in rank someone is, the more likely they are to shield key elements of themselves.  But not always!  Indeed, Tong emphasized Leadership Authenticity.  She wrote that Architects of Trust “must first clarify our core values and convictions and determine ways to give voice to those in our work.  It means combining personal passion with organizational purpose.”

Lots of moving parts in human interactions.  All of which makes watching the Big Dude’s NARA transformation effort, the filling of the red boxes on the org chart, and the development of workplace relationships all the more interesting!

[Written this morning at home; proofread and published in final during my lunch break on personal time]

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