Matt is a high achieving, high potential leader at a fast growth company. His job requires him to pull together the efforts of multiple groups – marketing, sales, operations – to achieve the company’s quarterly goals. It’s a process that naturally creates friction as he asks colleagues to make adjustments and compromises, not all of which are welcome or convenient.
Matt’s bosses put him in this role because he can be, well, assertive. They know it’s a tough job but that Matt is results-oriented. Failure is not an option. A little friction doesn’t bother the bosses as long as the noise doesn’t get too loud.
In Matt’s work life, a pattern has emerged. It all starts with Matt arriving in a whirlwind, fresh off a breathless commute on crowded expressways. He walks from the parking garage to his office, and there waiting for him is Maya, his assistant. She tells him that a fire is burning, that the CEO and Matt’s boss want to see him. Pronto.
They call Matt into a hastily convened meeting in the hipster board room. There’s a performance problem and they need it fixed so that the company can hit the quarterly targets they promised the all-powerful analysts on Wall Street.
The execs turn to Matt expectantly. He knows what this means. While he didn’t create the problem, it’s now his big smelly bag of dirt.
“Figure out a way to make this happen,” they say as they are hustled from the room by a frantic-looking executive assistant whose unenviable job it is to keep this crew on schedule.
“Oh,” the CEO says as he’s leaving the room, “keep the reasons for this move quiet. We don’t want to have any leaks to the Street.”
Matt starts running the numbers immediately in his head. His brain is a big, fast processor legendary in the company for its ability to grind through data and get to solid answers. By the time he’s hit the restroom and gotten back to his office, he has a pretty clear picture of what needs to happen.
It’s going to be ugly because the moves he will suggest directly contradict what many employees were asked to do last week. Nothing makes people crazier than rapid changes of direction that lead to dumping a week’s work in the garbage. But that’s life in the fast lane.
It’s right here where Matt faces a choice: leave his soul locked firmly in his glove compartment or let work be a laboratory for his soul. Let’s imagine what happens depending on which choice he makes.
Option 1: Business as usual
Imagine a day where Matt just goes about his business with his soul stuffed safely in the glove box of his Mercedes. When he hits his office, Matt is all action. He starts by whipping off emails to several people around the organization, asking them to re-direct their actions toward the new directive from on high. Since speed matters, he skips a few levels in this communication, in several cases bypassing his peer group to get to their people who actually do the daily work. Since confidentiality matters, he’s light on the reasons behind this hard right turn.
It only takes a few minutes for the first email response to come back from one of the troops. The message is simple: “Ummm… Huh? Seriously? Why are we doing this?” Matt sends off a curt email that mostly says, “Get moving. Because I said so.”
Not long after, Matt gets his first email from Atul, a peer who runs a key marketing function. Edited for content, the message is direct: “WTF?” Atul doesn’t understand why the sudden change of direction – and he disagrees with it. With a teeny bit of energy.
Though Atul doesn’t mention it directly, Matt is pretty sure the folks in the trenches are complaining that the directives are going to make them waste a whole bunch of work. In an attempt to mollify their troops, Atul and other peers are pushing back. They’re miffed that Matt has gone around them and in the process stirred up problems in their teams.
Matt can feel the irritation rising. Like a quarterback running the play given him in a long-yardage situation, Matt doesn’t think it’s worth wasting time bitching about it. The play clock is running. Get to the line of scrimmage. Run the play. See what happens. Then get ready to run the next play. We can peer at the game film later. Right now, it’s time to get moving.
As he reads the steady stream of emails on his phone between meetings, he mutters to himself, “Quit complaining! We’re in this mess partly because you didn’t execute your part of the original plan. We can’t control it – so just run your part of the play. And don’t worry, it will change again in a couple of weeks. So get the hell over it.” Of course, he doesn’t say this directly to his colleagues, but it’s the script playing in his head.
In an unrelated meeting that afternoon, the topic bubbles up with a couple of peers. They challenge Matt on whether the current U-turn makes sense. With blunt force analytical trauma, he puts them right back on the defensive with equal parts data and passion. After the first 30 seconds of his barrage, his teammates switch to sullen resignation.
As he’s driving home, Matt takes a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing that he had man-handled the messy challenge given to him by the CEO. He takes no particular joy in pissing people off. But given a less-than-perfect situation, he had made the best of it. And he knows he has cemented his reputation as a get-it-done guy with the CEO, never a bad brand to have.
In three other cars and on one commuter train heading out of the city, his colleagues are going home bewildered and frustrated. One of them says to herself, “I want to believe there’s a good person inside Matt. But I don’t see it very often.”
Option 2: Matt sees work as a laboratory for the soul
Let’s run that same day with Matt’s soul smack dab in the middle of the story. Although Maya sees Matt come through the door at the same time of day, what she may not see is that he spent a very crucial fifteen minutes in his living room at home before heading to the office. During that time, Matt pulled out a black notebook and did a brief inventory of the day before.
He played back the interactions and challenges he faced. He asked himself what was going on inside him at key moments in the day, how his thoughts and internal reactions (aka *feelings*) shaped his behavior for good and bad. He made a mental note to thank one colleague for going above and beyond the call of duty, and apologize to another for a careless comment he made.
In his Mercedes SUV on the way to the office, Matt consciously chooses to back off the speed. He allows people to cut in front of him. He goes in a slower lane instead of weaving to find the optimally fast route. He knows that he’ll arrive at work within 2-3 minutes of the same time no matter how aggressively he drives. He also knows that hurry is one of the great destroyers of the soul.
Driving peacefully – or at least as peacefully as you can on a major city’s expressways in rush hour – costs you a few minutes. In exchange, it forces you to remember what’s important and it allows you to slow your own thoughts down. It’s also a good way to practice putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, imagining what might be going on in someone’s life to make them drive like an idiot. He chooses to wish the best for other drivers instead of giving them the one-fingered salute.
In the hurriedly arranged meeting with the CEO, Matt listens carefully. His big processor whirs into action. He can see several alternatives but they all involve difficult trade-offs. There’s no way around that.
It doesn’t take long for Matt to decide on the best course of action – or maybe the least worst course of action. Matt knows that what’s being asked of him will irritate several of his colleagues. Before launching into action, he checks back in with his boss.
“Here’s what I think we need to do,” he says, jumping to a whiteboard. “It’s going to piss some people off but I think it’s the best way to get the result you’re asking for.” His boss listens and gives him that look that says, “Do what you have to do.”
Matt is tempted to leap into the fray. Instead, he makes a quick mental list of the top three colleagues who will likely be affected by his plan. He shoots off a few texts, asking for an impromptu one on one meeting with each.
His first meeting is with Atul. Matt lays out what he can of the situation. Then he quickly comes to the point. “If I’m in your shoes, this plan is going to suck a little because your team is going to feel like we’re yanking them around. Can you think of any better way to do this?”
They talk for a while, each asking the other questions. Matt tries hard to listen, to slow his mind down for these crucial five minutes, to unplug the part of his mind that says, “I have all of the answers already.”
Unconsciously aware that he’ll be replaying this meeting the next morning in his little black book, Matt observes Atul carefully, almost as an independent third party in the room. He notices small facial expressions that he would have missed in the old days. This slower pace helps him remember that Atul’s mother is in the hospital, a detail he could easily have forgotten in the heat of the moment.
Finally, Atul pauses for a moment. He’s clearly not happy but he appreciates that Matt is taking the time to ask his opinion – and to acknowledge the situation is suboptimal – before moving forward.
“No. I don’t like it. But I can’t see a better way.” He pauses for a minute. “Can you at least tell my team why we’re making this change?”
“What I can tell them is that we need to change the mix of our marketing emphasis. I can’t really give them more detail than that. I think you know why. I’m really sorry.”
Atul gets it. It’s not his first day on the job. He nods his head. “OK. Let’s do the best we can. Just copy me on the email. And if you get big pushback, let me know before you drop the hammer.”
“Of course.” Before leaving, Matt shares how he’s planning to message his emails with Atul and gets a few pointers on how to position the information that will minimize the stir below them.
The rest of the meetings go pretty much the same way. No one is doing cartwheels. But they all appreciate that Matt looped them in and showed that he had thought about how this move would affect them and their teams.
Matt now moves into action. He writes his emails to the junior teams, taking the extra minute to read them over while imagining his colleagues seeing them. He makes a few adjustments and hits send.
Despite his hard work, Matt gets a few emails and texts back from team members questioning the move. He feels the irritation beginning to rise inside, especially given the fact that he had taken the step of talking with his peers. But he takes a deep breath and resists the urge to fire off a nasty-gram. In a couple of cases, he gets up from his desk and walks across the office to speak to those who were pushing back, trying to acknowledge their concerns while gently sticking to his guns.
At the end of the day, Matt drives home and thinks back on the day. He’s largely thankful – for the opportunities he has, for the relationships he’s built, even for the challenges he faces since he knows they’re pulling the best from him.
He makes a mental note to thank two people at work for little moves they made today toward working together and away from the normal dog-eat-dog approach. Yes, there are a few things he’d take back and one or two apologies to make tomorrow. But all in all, he sees progress in how he reacted to events beyond his control. He still got the plan in motion.
To be fair, Matt’s soul-centered approach has costs. He spent more time up front bringing his colleagues along. He invested time before that paying attention to his thoughts and reactions – and practicing the fine art of slowing down. These actions made small differences in this one day. But this is the long game he’s playing, at work and with his soul. Many small steps in the right direction gets you up the mountain.
The next morning, he’ll start the day in his living room with his little black notebook. He’ll have good things to write down. He’ll refocus for that day.
Step back from those two scenarios and look at what choosing Option 2 will mean for Matt. His relationships at work will be less guarded and more straightforward. He’ll spend less time calculating and playing the angles and more time getting work done. He’ll have more relational credibility in the bank for the day when he has to ask for a favor, something we’re all bound to need eventually. He’ll more easily see someone like Atul as a real human being with understandable human issues. When he realizes that part of Atul’s reaction may be caused by a personal issue like his mother being the hospital, Matt won’t feel like so much of a jerk. In a counterintuitive way, Matt will end up being more efficient in the long run even if there are moments where a slower approach will frustrate him.
The benefit doesn’t stop there. Using work as a laboratory for the soul almost always translates to the rest of life. Matt’s family will benefit from the exercise he’s giving to his muscles of observation, empathy, and humility. He’ll be able to tell his wife and kids that he’s wrong without gritting his teeth so much.
And of course, Matt will benefit in his relationship with himself. He’ll know deep down that he’s not just a tool for his bosses – what I call a Useful Asshole – to get dirty work done. He’ll know that he’s a secret agent of good in a world that needs an army of them. Maybe best of all, he’ll begin to become forgetful of himself and experience the joy of focusing on others. He’ll take that mission very seriously while not taking himself seriously at all.
I could end there, but I want to make sure you don’t miss something very important. Option 2 is not about more clever techniques to get others to do what you want, or methods for being popular at work. Yes, you probably will be more productive and your relational stock will likely rise.
But Option 2 is fundamentally about seeing work as one of the greatest opportunities for inner transformation any of us ever has, as a laboratory for the soul. Treat work with that kind of reverence and it’s hard for things to turn out wrong.