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How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work

by Rogert Kegan and Lisa Lahey Do you flee from employees who are complaining? Do you know what to do with their own work related complaints? Kegan and Lahey provide a framework, a technology of change, using language structure as both the diagnostic tool and the solution.
The contribution of this model is that it is easy to jump in. No previous experience is needed, no admonition to read all instructions to make sure all the proper contents are available, before beginning. The purpose of this model is to discover why commitments are not always kept, or why we complain without doing anything about it, or why we might sabotage our own success. A real contribution of their approach is that unlike many Change Management models which suggest various forms of brute force to advance the desired culture shift, they suggest that the resistance itself is a useful source of data. As some managers have discovered, a generally reliable generally capable employee who occasionally complains with vigor can be a source of very useful information. This book takes that principle and applies it to a model that can be used step by step, for an individual and an organization. The premise is that underneath the complaint is a commitment. In order to bring the model to life, a format as well as conversational examples are provided. Complaining contains the seed of a whole different language form... in part because it is passionate. The first transition is from the Language of Complaint to the Language of Commitment, which is transformational because it is anchored in principle-oriented purpose directed work. Language of Complaint to the Language of Commitment Its great to discover that complaints can actually have real value. The way we ordinarily use complaints doesnt provide much information, but in fact complaints are rich with information. Language Personal Responsibility Looking at the complaint we are asked to consider if we might play some small part in contributing to the problem. Even if were doing great things to overcome it, even if other people are in fact to blame. But how could we ourselves be making it worse. Its here that the book suggests we notice the comparison to New Years resolutions, or empty promises to ourselves. In other words, there is still some distance to go. The major gift of personal responsibility language is it focuses us where we have the maximum influence. Competing Commitments The language of competing commitments help reveal the element of self-protection that may be at work. Its effectiveness lies in harnessing the power, rather than trying to suppress the power of complaint or ignore the natural and appropriate

tendency we have for self protection. Assumptions The beliefs we have adopted over time become big assumptions that hold us. The condition of assumptions, some would call beliefs, are that we hold them as truth. It creates certainty. The problem is, these assumptions may not still be helping us, they may not even be true, and more importantly they have lain dormant and unexamined. Appreciation & Admiration If we remember to praise someone, it often has the vague and bland dimensions of good dog. In order to maintain and improve social relationships at work, offer appreciation from your perspective. Explain directly to the person, publicly or privately, why you valued their ideas, contributions or efforts. Otherwise, you are putting yourself, without invitation, in the role however approvingly of judge. You are so generous might not really be true of the person, or might not match his sense of himself, but if you mean, I really appreciate the amount of time and information you gave to us on such short notice. It enabled us to deliver this proposal ahead of schedule. Application The book walks through several examples, applying the model and sharing those real life cases. The first step, after developing the four columns outlined above, is to observe the Assumption in action. This act of detached and curious observation is recommended to raise awareness of how the assumption shows up in many facets of ones life. The assumption, they assert, may have once been true, and may even still be true in some situations. It is likely that it is applied where it is no longer useful or even accurate. The next step in awareness is to see where it might not be true, where the assumption could be challenged, could come into doubt. Again the steps are moderate. They involve just raising awareness. And the next step is a safe, modest test of the assumption. One wonderful example is of a woman who says to her son, no Im not available to do that for you right now. The assumption, in this case making oneself indispensable, rarely is the assumption flat-out wrong; more often we come to question its global, undifferentiated quality. The process enables observing the assumption at work, rather than having it operate under the radar screen, to help or hinder, support or sabotage, without being able to be seen. For those willing to dig further, the next step is to write the biography of the Big Assumption. Ongoing Regard This expression comes with the challenge (maybe even recommendation) to begin every meeting with direct, specific non-attributive admiration or appreciation. By non-attributive they mean that you are not the judge, to attribute, say generosity or thoughtfulness, but rather the recipient of some advantage which was particularly valued by you. Thats the nature of the appreciation, and the language structure of the sentence they recommend.