How To Rely On Another, by Design
Q: My big question is, it took me a decade of being in a nurturing organization to actually realize who I was and how I needed work to be. I led from a place of building great, which is to say learning, cultures. That achievement made me profoundly happy, not in the sense of every day being awesome, but in the sense of feeling bedrock stability for my life. How do I hold onto that as I move into a new job in a totally different environment? How do I make that something that’s portable? Because I’m terrrrrrified that it’s contextual.
Hey there Terrrrrrified,
Can I admit something to you?
When my business partner recently exited, I had a similar emotional response to yours. I feared that without his incredible talents as my editor, this project (the one you’re reading right now) would…fall apart.
I’ll never write ANYTHING good, EVER again, I thought.
(Reader, hear the Gone With The Wind drama?)
It took way more than a minute to see how this wasn’t helpful. I was decentering my own value, my onlyness, with this anxious approach.
Much like you are doing, too.
GAZING FROM MY WINDOW TO THE STREETS BELOW
It always seems easier, maybe just safer, to think of ourselves, our own work in the “I.” Like a rock. Or an island. Separate, alone, safe.
So I get why you want to be “portable.” Then, you only need to rely on yourself.
But that’s not the reality. Most (if not all) of the management lit says high-performance is not just personal but also social, not just individual but also group-based.
Your question shouldn’t be: “is my success contextual (or not)?’.
But instead: how do I create or shape the right context for my work?
Maybe, even more specifically, how do we effectively rely on others?
HAVE NO NEED OF FRIENDSHIP; FRIENDSHIP CAUSES PAIN
When I started thinking of replacing my editor, I first thought of other editors who have worked with top-notch publications as he had.
As I started to text or DM with folks, I noticed that each of those interactions felt off. They were interested in productivity measures (how many hours will it take) and financial measures (how much do I earn per hour) but not asking about shared goals.
In fact, one person kept sending me article after article of things she had written but never asked about the substance of our work together. For example, she wasn’t asking about the work I’ve done so far on being fully alive at work, maybe finding things that were missing from her point of view. That would have let us explore how a “column” project becomes part of a larger effort.
She was narrowly focused on her part. As if she could make a one-sided friendship. Or a one-handed handshake. Or some other 3rd thing that, by definition, is impossible.
Without a 2-way exchange, she would end up working for me, but not with me.
TOUCH SOMEONE, AND SOMEONE TOUCHES ME
I wrote out why great essays matter. “The true beauty of a well-told story is not the conclusion but the alteration of the mind; this is why I write about how to be fully alive at work in story form, using an advice column format. Building on questions asked, adding my own struggles. So we relate. Once you ask a question, you create space for an answer. Once you hear a story, you are forever changed. Once an insight is felt, the insight is transferred.” I might be a prescient thinker, but I value and help to be an amazing storyteller, I wrote.
I wrote out what I loved when working with great editors. How I often write sidebar comments like, “this guy is such an asshat, how do I say that here.” And the editor says, um, just like that. Which is to say, my best editors help me find my own voice, my own truth. And then they fold it into the essay. This is not to say it’s all about me. They need to bring to it an opinion, as my first reader. They say what lands for them. What wows, kapows. And also, they ask me questions, which are still unclear to them. This lets me see what I might have missed or dig deeper and find the right words to describe what else is possible.
And also what I hated when working with prior editors. How I shouldn’t have to text someone every single fucken week, finding yet another creative emoji to go along with the ping of, hey, where’s that thing you promised you’d deliver. How caring work shouldn’t be so one-sided. I want and need a partner, not some man-child to tend to.
And then I named the absolute worst thing about working with me. In some ways, you already know what this is, Terrrrrrified. I shared it when I first started this exchange. I realized that if I was going to be someone another person could actually rely on, I had to own my own shit in the mix. How I can get anxious and fearful, deeply worried about what I’ve written is not nearly good enough. How I can show up with an essay saying how it’s a total pile of crap. It sometimes is, fersure, but most times it is just me crying out in pain, of needing another. Full of the fear of relying on another.
I’VE BUILT WALLS
Naming all this helped, Terrrrrrified.
Because we cannot find the way, we fit together until we can name how we have needs.
I had to own that being abandoned by both my parents at an early age has always made me hesitate to need anyone, rely on anyone. It makes me crazy anxious. But, by owning all of my onlyness — both the light & the dark, I can come to the exchange in full(er) integrity.
Mutuality cannot exist without personal integrity.
And, as it turned out, a long-time friend said, hey, I’d love to work with you.
She has been talking about being a CCO (chief content officer). Given that every leader in the Social Era needs to get people to engage in a shared idea (vs. direct people to do specific work), she’s been saying her vision is to be this thought partner & collaborator with an exec. Which she sees as more than an ‘editor” or “community builder” or “storyteller,” but some combination of all of this. So she joins (behind the scenes) for a 3-month trial period to see if her onlyness is well-used here.
Our first debrief? About being opinionated. She was deferential to me instead of just telling me what she thought. And I said no CCO is worth a dime without being opinionated. And she was able to see how this was affecting her day job, too.
Some more of the wall came down.
WELL, I’VE HEARD THE WORD BEFORE
From the very womb, we are not alone. We rely on one another.
As much as that scares us, it is also what makes us.
So go and name what it is you need and don’t hide anything. That’s your next step. Make your own list: what exactly do you need to rely on others for.
And that’s how we come full circle. It’s not about how we work for each other, but how we work with each other. But, with this piece, we add the needed precondition. That until we know what we need each other for, how we need to rely on another (and who may fail us), we don’t actually know how to work with one another.
And, so, Terrrrrrified, success is not portable. But it is buildable, shareable, mutual.
To design this organizationally, some resources:
- Why we underperform if shared goals are not clearly stated and agreed upon. Via MIT, Fall 2013 [link], a solid theoretical framework, if you like that kind of thing.
- I prefer Pentland’s way of structuring group dynamics (link).
- And, this piece about how to design/structure shared norms is, IMO, perfection itself. (h/t to Tim Kastelle, a valued member of this crew we’re in).