If the daily conversations I have with executives at the world’s largest companies is any indication, the reaction to this statement would be: never. Or, if you’re lucky, your work might have been purposeful and thrilling in the early days, when you were still new and figuring things out and the future seemed open.
But most people admit that the purpose of our work quickly disappears after
- all of your ideas got shot down because “that’s not how we do things,” or
- your last annual review knocked you for not “living the company values” in very specific (non-you) ways, or
- your expected promotion was blocked because you didn’t have the right advanced degree.
It’s hard for our work to fill purposeful and thrilling when we’re so often thwarted.
That question came to my mind after hearing this Fast Company Creative Conversation podcast featuring actor Jeff Daniels.
Speaking about his latest role as the chief of police of a small Rust Belt town, in Showtime’s American Rust, Daniels said this: “I knew that I hadn’t played this guy before … So, you say ‘yes,’ and you figure it out on the way there. And that’s the thrill of working without a net.”
Not only do most people never have the opportunity to work without a net (to take on an exciting new challenge) they rarely work without a straitjacket.
In the ways we learn, work, lead and conduct business, our individuality is so suppressed that we’re seldom allowed to experiment—and probably would be too afraid to do so, anyway. Because as much as leaders say they want innovation, that’s not what’s measured or rewarded.
MORE FOR YOU
In the words of an emerging leader: “I’ve had a lot of experience where the focus is on the results and there’s no possibility of thinking outside the box. Everything is a pre-determined routine.”
A senior leader at a global corporation told me: “We have paralyzed our people. We have leaders so stuck in standardization that we have to have meetings before meetings, to discuss what we’re going to discuss in the upcoming meeting.”
This suppression is so deeply felt that even when someone tries to unleash the individuality of those, she/he leads, people are just too scared.
Gustavo Canton, Starbucks analytics leader, shared this example: “I am working with a consulting firm, and I told them that I’m not just their client—I consider them to be part of my team. I told the account manager to tell the team members they can ask me anything, they can spend time one-on-one with me, they can reach out to me anytime. But it seems like they don’t believe me. It’s such a struggle, because they have been programmed by their own structures to just execute on the request of the client. This idea that ‘we’re part of the same team and I can go and spend time with the leader’ is foreign to them.”
This level of suppressed individuality is our most significant roadblock as we tackle the urgent challenges facing our institutions today, including how to:
- Lead or advance within hybrid remote teams
- Thrive in perpetual uncertainty
- Fulfill our promises of diversity and inclusion
- Elevate our commitment to health and wellbeing
The temptation is to try to solve for each separately. But all four are linked and can be addressed when we recognize that they all share the same major obstacle: suppressed individuality.
We are at a precarious point. We’ve made some big changes during the pandemic, and we’ve made some big promises during the social unrest. Whether or not we can sustain those changes and fulfill those promises comes down to what we do from this point forward.
Are you suppressing people? Here’s a quick test:
- Have you ever told someone: “That’s not how we do it”? That keeps people from feeling free to experiment or share their thoughts and ideas.
- When you’re hiring, do you judge people by whether or not they would be “a good fit”? That forces people to pretend to be just like you, rather than be who they are.
- Look at the ways you measure success: do you reward perfection and/or punish mistakes? If so, you will never experience people at their fullest capacity—because they realize it’s better to play it safe rather than risk a mistake.
If you continue with status quo suppression, you will continue to hold people back right when you need them the most.
This is why the most important skill today is learning how to unleash individuality. This is the leadership skill that unlocks all others.
Learn more at my organization’s third annual Leadership in the Age of Personalization Virtual Summit to learn how unleash individuality that will address these 5 critical questions:
- Who do you let in?
- How do you see those you let in?
- Who do you let them be?
- What do you let them do?
- How do you let them do it?