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Book review: Community

Community: The Structure of Belonging

By Peter Block

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. $29.95

Vote early and vote often. I’m running for president. I announced my candidacy the morning after a changing of the guard was announced at work.

This will be a high-tech, high-touch campaign. You’ll get to watch YouTube clips, download free ringtones (“I’m Jay Robb and I endorse this call”) and become my new best friend on Facebook.

Look for me to press the flesh at summer festivals and neighbourhood barbecues where, with my shirt sleeves rolled up and tie loosened, I’ll be kissing babies, flipping burgers and tossing around footballs.

True, I’m short on presidential experience. And there’s my lack of stamina for 18-hour workdays, my inattention to detail and an occasionally inappropriate sense of humour.

But check out my crowd-pleasing and vote-getting election platform.

Among my list of campaign promises are a PowerPoint prohibition and a partial ban on meetings.

No more death by PowerPoint and no more mandatory meetings where doing a no-show can be a career-limiting move.

I’m not your dad. You’re not my kids. We’re all adults who can figure out what’s relevant, what’s important and what’s the best use of our time.

Besides, the freedom to balk and bail out of boring and badly run meetings may force presenters to shape up and stop taking their long-suffering audiences for granted.

Now, not so long ago, I would have pledged a total ban. I once believed all meetings were time-wasters. As an international man of action, I preferred to be at my desk troubleshooting, problem-solving and saving the world. I’d give you a solution before you even had a chance to tell me the problem.

Yet lately, I’ve been getting invites to a new and improved kind of meeting at work and in the community. Instead of being lectured at and lulled to sleep, we’re having conversations. We’re talking about possibilities instead of problems.

Strengths, gifts and assets instead of weaknesses, shortcomings and liabilities. And we’re asking a remarkably reaffirming, restorative and refreshing


What can we create together? In short, we’re having the sort of conversations that author Peter Block says build community. And with community comes a sense of belonging and a shared accountability and commitment to put the greater good ahead of narrow self-interest. This creates the momentum needed to move our community and our workplaces forward.

“The need to create a structure of belonging grows out of the isolated nature of our lives, our institutions and our communities,” says Block.

“The absence of belonging is so widespread that we might say we are living in an age of isolation.”

Creating community takes leadership, although not in the way we currently know it, practice it and crave it.

Too many of us hero-worship larger-than-life leaders who can deliver us from evil, take us to the promised land, make the tough decisions and do the heavy-lifting that we’re not prepared to do ourselves.

And when our fearless leaders prove mortal, disappoint and fail to live up to expectations, we start searching for the next great leader. Block says this isn’t the way to build community.

“It lets citizens off the hook and breeds citizen dependency and entitlement,” says Block.

“It undermines a culture where each is accountable for their community.”

Instead, we need leaders who use their power and position to convene meetings that bring folks together, especially people from the margins.

Once we’re in the room, leaders then need to ask the right questions and actually listen to what’s said and not spoken.

“Leadership begins with understanding that every gathering is an opportunity to deepen accountability and commitment through engagement.

“Questions are more transformative than answers and are the essential tools of engagement. Questions create the space for something new to emerge.”

With engagement comes a shared sense of accountability and a mutual commitment to change the world. With engaged employees and citizens, the impossible becomes possible. Without engagement, you go nowhere fast and communities and organizations stay stuck.

“While visions, plans and committed top leadership are important, even essential, no clear vision, nor detailed plan, nor committed group of leaders have the power to bring this image of the future into existence without the continued engagement and involvement of citizens,” says Block.

“The world does not need leaders to better define issues, or to orchestrate better planning or project management. What it needs is for the issues and the plans to have more of an impact, and that comes from citizenship accountability and commitment.”

Smaller is better when it comes to bringing people together and having conversations that matter. This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s lived through an all-staff meeting where big change is on the agenda and anxiety levels are off the charts.

There may be strength in numbers but there’s also a depressing lack of civility and common sense.

“The power of the small group cannot be overemphasized,” says Block.

“Something almost mystical, certainly mysterious, occurs when citizens sit in a small group, for they often become more authentic and personal with each other than in other settings.”

Block’s chapter on how to run better meetings is worth the cost of the book. He suggests making people feel welcome the moment they step into the room. Restate the invitation. Make a connection before delving into content. Learn how to handle late arrivals and early departures. Bring the room to life and bring life into the room. Think of yourself as an interior designer. Change the room and you’ll change the culture, says Block.

So before blaming the state of affairs in the community and in your organization on the politicians at city hall and the suits in the corner office, ask yourself what you’re prepared to create together.

I’d suggest you get started by holding a meeting or joining one of the many conversations that are happening across Hamilton.

Stand and deliver

Great webinar here on how to design and deliver great presentations.

Book review: Smart people swayed into doing stupid things

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior

By Ori and Rom Brafman

Doubleday, $25

It's Monday night and I'm about to do something stupid and ironic.

Instead of reviewing a book about irrational behaviour, I add my own chapter. I go for a bike ride. As my wife points out, "it's dark. It's going to rain. What are you, an idiot?"

Sadly, yes. By my second lap around Bayfront Park, the sky's one monster-sized cumulus nimbus cloud. On the third lap, sheet lightning turns to bolts. Thunder starts rumbling. The temperature drops. The wind picks up. The air smells like ozone.

Now, rational folks would think "a thunderstorm's coming so I'd better head home". But I think "I've pedalled all the way here. I'm only halfway through my regular route. I can't turn back now."

Besides, I'm not alone. The park's full of anglers catching carp. Brave bathers doing the Sheila Copps splash.

Exhausted parents and their tireless kids. Couples in love. And a bunch of partygoers crowding the path directly ahead of me.

I brake way too hard and, for the first time in 35 years of bike riding, sail over the handlebars. I crash at the group's feet. "Dude!" they say, like I've just auditioned for the next Jackass movie. "Are you all right?" someone asks, in a tone that reminds me of the one my parents used when a disoriented senior showed up on my folks' front porch, asked to use the bathroom and then refused to come out until her daughter came knocking during a frantic neighbourhood canvas.

I'd answer the amused onlookers if not for what feels like a 1,500 pound gorilla sitting on my chest. I can't swear. Can't crack a joke. Can't get up fast enough and pretend I do this all the time.

Back on the bike, I think about doing the loop around the Canada Marine Discovery Centre and the HMCS Haida. But I'm not that irrational. So I head home one-handed. The rain starts falling as I peddle alongside the Desjardin Canal. And then gale force winds turn the rain into walls of water not unlike the ones that hammer you on the whirlpool jet boats at Niagara Falls. I'm not sure whether I'll get killed by a tornado or the lightning that's crashing around Cootes Paradise.

Soaked and safely home, I do an hour's worth of work and try to call it a night. But the gorilla shows up again and starts twisting, jerking and squeezing my arm. So off I go for a six-hour wait, X-rays, a splint and some Advil. I'm not sure what hurts more. The sprain and hairline fracture or yet another "I told you so" story that will only get better with each retelling.

The Brafman brothers — one's an organizational expert and the other has a Ph.D. in psychology — rhyme off the psychological forces that derail rational thinking and lead otherwise rational people to do stupid things. "We're all susceptible to the sway of irrational behaviours. But the better understanding the seductive pull of these forces, we'll be less likely to fall victim to them in the future."

These forces include loss aversion, value attribution and a diagnosis bias. "We experience the pain associated with a loss much more vividly than we do the joy of experiencing a gain." In short, we overreact to perceived losses. And the more meaningful a potential loss, the more loss averse and more irrational we become. Anyone who's tried to push through organizational change knows this sway all too well.

Commitment is another closely linked sway. We stick with the tried-and-true and refuse to let go, even when we know things aren't working. Few of us are willing to admit defeat.

Put loss aversion and commitment together and you get biz school students shelling out $204 for an ordinary $20 bill.

Harvard Business School prof Max Bazerman runs the $20 auction in his negotiations class. The auction has two rules.

Bids must be made in $1 increments. And the runner-up must honour her bid while getting nothing in return. Bidding starts fast and furious. Everyone wants to make an easy buck. Most students see where the train's headed and stop bidding at the $12 to $16 mark.

Yet without fail, the two highest bidders lock themselves in. Bidding passes the $20 mark, hitting $50, $100 and the record-setting $204. "Now, neither one wants to be the sucker who paid good money for nothing," explains the Brafmans about otherwise smart students behaving irrationally. "They become committed to the strategy of playing not to lose."

In all the years Bazerman's run his auction, he's never lost a dime (he donates all proceeds to charity). "Regardless of who the bidders have been, they are always swayed. The deeper the hole they dig themselves into, the more they continue to dig."

Irrational behaviour cannot only leave you paying $100 for a $20 bill. Take our diagnostic bias. When meeting new people, we default to mental shortcuts and make snap judgments that can distort objective data. While this may not be a big problem at dinner parties, it can cause you no end of grief during the search for new hires. Most managers serve up unstructured "first-date" questions during job interviews that lead to less than objective and accurate first impressions.

Why's this a problem? Researchers have found only a small correlation between first-date style job interviews and future job performance. "You've got a very limited time exposure, applicants put on their best show, managers put on their best show, and — not surprisingly — you just don't see the realities of the person in 20 minutes," says professor and job interview researcher Allen Huffcutt.

Instead of first-date questions, ask Joe Friday, just-the-facts questions. "The idea is to focus on relevant data and squelch any questions that invite the candidate to predict the future, reconstruct the past, or ponder life's big questions," say the Brafmans. Stick to questions that yield important and objective insights directly related to performance.

Better yet, administer aptitude tests and ask for work samples. Once you've got your shortlist of top candidates, use interviews to sell prospective employees and get them excited about joining your ranks.

There's a whole lot more here and the Brafmans do a great job of taking some of the mystery out of why otherwise rational people do some truly stupid and unpredictable things, whether it's on-the-job or on a bike trail during a thunderstorm.

One more reason to live in Chicago…

Fast Company magazine has named Chicago and London its 2008 cities of the year.

Fun facts about Chicago:

  • 29% of downtown Chicago residents have graduate degrees — that's 3.3 times the U.S. average.
  • 30 Fortune 500 companies have headquarters in metro Chicago, second only to New York.
  • If you agree to build green, you get an expedited building permit — 3 weeks instead of the usual six months.
  • The green roof on top of City Hall has more than 100 plant species and produced 500 pounds worth of honey last year.
  • In 2007, Chicago ranked 7th in estimated population growth — the only non-Sunbelt city to crack the top 10.

Or as author Alex Kotlowitz writes "The real Chicago isn't so easy to keep up with. It's constantly reinventing itself. Jumpy. Agitated. Impatient. It's as if the place is trembling. Move aside. Dont' linger. And if you're going to dawdle, get out of the way. But what any Chicagoan will also tell you is that the past is very much present. It doesn't go away. It shouldn't. In fact, that's Chicago's lure and its beauty: its ability to take what was and figure out what could be."

Can you say the same about where you live?

Book review: Follow the leader (or not)

Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders

By Barbara Kellerman

Harvard Business Press, $32.95

I'm not laughing. And I'm not having fun.

Five minutes ago, I was having a great time. I'm at a volunteer appreciation dinner and learning the hard way there's no such thing as a free meal.

Printed at the bottom of the menu is a teaser about tonight's keynote speaker. She's a laughter consultant. I vaguely remember watching something on TV or YouTube where hundreds of otherwise normal people meet in a park and laugh. No stand-up comedy. No jokes. Just spontaneous laughter. Kind of creepy.

While scarfing back butter tarts and brownies, I ask the executive director if we'll be doing a group laugh before the night is done.

"Why, you'll just have to wait and see," says the executive director, which is code for "of course we are and you're not allowed to leave".

Plates are cleared and the keynote speaker swings into action. We're taken back in time to the mid-1980s for a quick recycling of Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Relieved and giddy at not having to get out of my seat, I enthusiastically tell the folks at my table that one of the habits is about sharpening the saw. "Good for you," my tablemates say. "That's very interesting."

The speaker then sets out a seven-day regime of loving ourselves and starring in our life's movie. "I'm thinking of casting George Clooney," I tell my tablemates. "That would make your wife very happy," they say.

And then it happens. Two words are spoken that no introvert ever wants to hear at a public event. Audience participation.

Stand up, says the keynote speaker. Stand up and prepare to laugh like you've never laughed before. Sadly, this is a dry event. Happily, there's a cash bar at a different event in the next room over. Sadly, I have $2.23 in my pocket and my wallet is under the driver's seat in my minivan parked across the street.

So we laugh. And laugh. And laugh. We walk up to fellow volunteers and laugh in each other's faces. And if that wasn't bad enough, we have to laugh and dance. We're told to dance like penguins, hysterical penguins who've found gallows humour in climate change and melting ice caps. The only funny thing is that my manic penguin moves mimic the three times in my life when I've actually tried dancing in public.

The minutes crawl by and then go off somewhere to die. Slowly, I work my way to the back of the room and try without success to live in the movement and shift paradigms.

I've never been good at playing reindeer games, ice breakers and team-building exercises.

But that's not to say I'm a lousy follower. Give me a good leader and a great cause and I'm there, ready and willing to help however I can. As much as I don't like playing games, I absolutely hate sitting on fences. What can I do to help is the right question. Something should be done is always the wrong answer.

According to author Barbara Kellerman, that makes me an activist-type follower. The Harvard School of Government lecturer has defined five types of followers based on their levels of engagement.

Isolates are completely detached. They don't know or care about leaders or causes. "By knowing nothing and doing nothing, isolates strengthen still leaders who already have the upper hand," says Kellerman.

Bystanders know what's going on but choose not to get involved. They're withdrawn and disengaged from leaders and group dynamics.

Participants are in some way engaged. They clearly support their leaders, groups and organizations of which they're members. They care enough to try to have an impact.

Activists are heavily invested, feel strongly about their leaders and act accordingly. They're eager, energetic and engaged.

Diehards are deeply devoted and have an all-consuming dedication to their leaders or a cause.

The engagement of participants, activists and diehards cuts both ways. Disappoint these followers or get out of alignment with their values and they'll pull their support or refocus their energies on removing you from office.

Good followers get personally involved and support good leaders. Bad followers do nothing, support bad leaders or go out of their way to trip up ethical leaders who are serving the greater good.

According to Kellerman, we overestimate the significance of leaders and underestimate, dismiss and devalue followers. "Undeterred by the fact that leaders and followers are inextricably enmeshed, each defined by and dependent on the other, we continue to dwell on the first and dismiss the second."

Leadership development is a multi-billion dollar industry. Chances are, your workplace offers leadership training but nothing on how to be a more effective and engaged follower. And when was the last time you went to a summit or community group think for followers instead of the usual suspects from leadership ranks?

But the balance is shifting from superiors to subordinates thanks to the authority-challenging cultural revolution of the 1960s and the information technology revolution that's still in full swing. Today, anyone anywhere with a laptop and wireless Internet access can connect with like-minded followers and champion or challenge leaders.

"Those who lack obvious sources of power, authority and influence are not usually helpless. Many can and do find ways of being heard. In the real world, followers have an impact. They have an impact if the role they play is a supporting one, or if they break rank, or even if they do nothing. Thinking leadership without thinking followership is not merely misleading, it is mistaken."

This is one of the best books so far of 2008 and well worth the read on two counts. One, Kellerman shows you why and how to be a better follower at work. And two, you'll rediscover why you have a moral responsibility to be a better follower in your community. Imagine what could happen if the 63 per cent of registered voters who couldn't bother to cast ballots in the last municipal election decided to get involved? If we're serious about making Hamilton an even greater place to live and work, can we really afford to have 213,955 disengaged isolates and bystanders?