JOHN STEPPER – CRYSTAL BALLING WITH LEARNNOVATORS
ABOUT JOHN STEPPER:
John Stepper helps organizations create more open, collaborative cultures – and helps individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
WOL is an approach to building relationships that makes you more effective, gives you access to more possibilities, and helps you feel better. John’s book and Working Out Loud Circles help people develop new habits and a new mindset. The WOL movement, now spreading in over 20 countries and a wide range of organizations, was featured in a recent TEDx talk.
ABOUT THIS INTERVIEW SERIES:
Crystal Balling with Learnnovators is a thought-provoking interview series that attempts to gaze into the future of e-learning. It comprises stimulating discussions with industry experts and product evangelists on emerging trends in the learning landscape.
Join us on this exciting journey as we engage with thought leaders and learning innovators to see what the future of our industry looks like.
1. Learnnovators: First things first, John! Please accept our heart-felt congratulations on successfully championing the ‘working out loud’ movement that has started impacting people in a big way. Our first reflection on this topic is: The way you explain the concept is amazingly simple. “Working out loud is about using conventional wisdoms about relationships combined with modern ways to reach and engage people. It’s a way of reaching your goal by building meaningful relationships with people that can make you progress towards that goal.” Though this explanation makes it sound like a natural and spontaneous manifestation coming from humans because they’re social animals, the reality is far from how it should be. We are eager to know where the basic disconnect lies. Why are we inhibited by interacting with others? What is the underlying psychological reason for this?
John: The cause of the disconnect comes down to a kind of fear. As social animals, we’re also wired for status, and we’re constantly on the lookout for threats. Our interactions with others, particularly new people, can trigger fears and uncertainty in the immediate-term. So even if we know that developing a broad and diverse network is good for us in the future, the sense of a possible threat (loss of status, rejection, etc.) inhibits us from reaching out.
2. Learnnovators: Could you please elaborate on circumstances that inspired you to start the ‘working-out-loud’ initiative?
John: It took the risk of a lay-off to show me that I had been playing career roulette and didn’t even know it. I saw that I had little control over the situation, and I noticed that others also had little control. Whenever a boss changed or a group was part of a reorganization, people were always afraid, waiting for someone else to decide their fate. It seemed grossly unfair, bad for the individual, and bad for the organization.
So I decided to do something about it. I wanted to help give people more of a voice, more control over their reputation and their access to opportunities. That was the first step towards developing the practice of Working Out Loud.
3. Learnnovators: You say that working-out-loud is not as much about exposing our work as it’s about building relationships. You add that relationships are THE key and to nurture them, we should happily practice a bit of reciprocal altruism. Could you please explain this a bit?
John: I focus on relationships for two reasons. First, we’ve known for a long time (at least since “The Strength of Weak Ties” was published in 1973) that our access to new ideas and possibilities is via other people, particularly people who have different information from ours. Second, building relationships appeals to our intrinsic need for connection and belonging to something bigger than ourselves.
“Reciprocal altruism” is the reason why generosity is one of the five elements of Working Out Loud, and why it’s the basis for deepening relationships in the practice. We are wired for reciprocity. (Robert Cialdini’s book, “Influence,” drives this point home.) But we don’t need to view our contributions as transactions – “I’ll buy you coffee if you do me a favor.” Instead, we can freely offer small gifts to people in our network and know that, over the course of the entire network, there will naturally be a benefit to us too. That’s reciprocal altruism, and it’s liberating. It allows you to be genuine in making contributions, and avoid feeling manipulative.
Making your work visible is one set of contributions you can make among many. But it’s not an end in itself, it’s a means to deeper relationships.
4. Learnnovators: One of the key challenges of any new initiative is helping people feel the need for it. Looking at the ground reality, majority of people are happy doing their bit of work, catching their personal deadlines and being off work at the end of the day. Working out loud for them is ‘macro’, something that doesn’t immediately concern them, doesn’t put their sustenance at stake and therefore doesn’t bring out that urgent vigor to do something extraordinary. This state of mind is probably best qualified by the 1-9-90 rule. How do we break this inertia and help them thirst for something extraordinary?
John: I don’t think it’s something you break. Rather, the onus is on us to make the practice simple enough that it appeals to someone’s intrinsic needs for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Universally, people feel the need for a bit more control, a sense of competence or learning, and a sense of connection to other people. That’s enough to attract an initial wave of early adopters. After that, you can use social proof, including the feedback from that first wave, to attract the second wave, and so on. Over time you might change the environment to make it easier to practice – e.g., by having Working Out Loud as part of the corporate training offerings. You might have some executives modeling the behavior, demonstrating that it’s safe.
Now, you won’t get everyone and shouldn’t try to convince everyone. Rather, start with early adopters and just work on the next most likely group, so that the practice can spread in concentric waves.
5. Learnnovators: The interesting thing about the working-out-loud initiative is that it’s built on autonomy… which means that people hold themselves accountable for every decision they make. Having said that, how critical is the role of a facilitator who will guide them in making the right moves while working out loud?
John: I purposefully tried to make that role simple. The facilitator is more of a coordinator, someone who cares enough to organize things and be sure to read the guides. Other than that, the facilitator is a peer in all other ways, doing the exercises and offering contributions just like everyone else. They don’t manage the group in any way.
Now it is true that some extra training would help Circle members handle common situations that might arise, such as someone struggling to make progress or someone who’s unsure how to approach someone. For that, I’ve written a Circle Coach’s Guide that I use in organizations, in a kind of train-the-trainer process. That increases the average effectiveness of a Circle and helps them spread. Having trained Circle Coaches in different cities or divisions, for example, can help the practice take root in those places more readily.
6. Learnnovators: As we understand, working-out-loud works best when people feel the need to increase their personal competence levels and get a sense of connecting to something bigger than themselves. It’s this need for personal growth that triggers their intrinsic motivation to interface with others. But, they are also working towards accomplishing the organization’s goals. How do we sync these two? Because, as you say, if they are working towards achieving goals that aren’t their own, then there’s no intrinsic motivation.
John: Inside organizations, people naturally tend to pick a work-related goal or seek to improve basic skills. But even those that don’t pick something explicitly work-related will, by the small steps practiced throughout their Circle, develop the skills, habit, and mindset they can apply to any goal.
Something I do to make it easier for people to build work-related relationships is to customize the Circle guides to refer to the goals, examples, and technology of the organization. Defaults matter, and having instructions that make it extremely easy to practice as work will nudge more people to choose work goals simply because it’s easier.
7. Learnnovators: You recommend that the working-out-loud practice be converted into a life-long experience… where people keep themselves at it, nurturing their trusted environments, and fine-tuning their approach as they go along. Does this mean that we are not looking at achieving short term goals with this practice?
John: It’s not either-or. You can use the practice to be more effective and reach short-term goals. And…the more you practice, the more you deepen your habits and inset, and the more it spills over into other parts of your work and life.
8. Learnnovators: At the outset, working-out-loud looks like a simple formula for building meaningful relationships with people who can help us progress towards achieving our goals. What’s the role creativity and innovation play in making it work?
John: It’s empathy that brings out creativity and innovation. When you’re thinking of other people, and of what you might contribute to help others, that’s a creative process, and one you get better at with practice.
9. Learnnovators: We do feel vulnerable sharing our thoughts – especially those creative ones – with others. And, we are constrained by the constant fear that we might inadvertently reveal confidential stuff. How do we address these and bring about a healthy working-out-loud environment?
John: One of the biggest barriers to Working Out Loud is the resistance in your head. With practice, you learn to tune into that resistance and, when you feel it, to shrink the change so you can start with something that feels safe.
For example, your first contribution needn’t be about you at all. You can start with the universal gifts of recognition and appreciation, something that’s easy to offer and that everyone likes to receive. The guides then help you take small steps to offering larger contributions if you want to. The key is to take a step, and let the power of the Progress Principle unlock the next step, and the next.
10. Learnnovators: Is there a design hierarchy that goes with the WOL practices? That is, is there a top-down arrangement whereby the organization creates an atmosphere for people to form their circles and work towards achieving their personal (and organizational) goals? Alternatively, is there any possibility of people taking up their own WOL initiatives without any support from their organization?
John: Now that Circles are spreading in dozens of organizations, there does seem to be a pattern. Quite commonly, it all starts with a single person deciding to form one or more Circles. They don’t need budget and they don’t ask permission. They just find a few colleagues who might be open to this sort of thing, download the guides, and start. In most cases, the early adopters have such a positive experience that they tell others, a second wave forms, and now they start collecting feedback from people.
Then comes a shift. The people in the first few waves use the feedback they’ve collected to get management support of some kind. This could be in the form of an official event I’ll attend or other activities to encourage the spread of the practice. In some cases, HR will get involved in sponsoring the event or perhaps include it in official training offerings. Or they’ll commission customized guides. These kinds of things make it easier for more people to feel safe to join a Circle without the fear of getting into trouble in some way.
11. Learnnovators: You talk about empathy training working as an aid to a successful WOL initiative… where people get exposed to ways in which they can respond to others’ queries / thoughts… where people get trained on how they can draft their e-mails as part of the WOL exercise for instance, so these correspondences are seen by the concerned recipients? Could you elaborate a bit on how this training works?
John: Resistance about what to say or how to say it can be enough to prevent people from acting. The guides can help people get past some of that by providing examples they can relate to and practice with. Circle members can augment the written guides with their own opinions, and also provide local knowledge on what to do or not do.
Simply putting yourself in the position of the recipient – “What might they think as they read this?” – can be of huge benefit. Doing that out loud with a group can further open you up to new perspectives and refine your practice.
12. Learnnovators: How do Working Out Loud circles work? How close does the 12-week schedule bring people to their intrinsic motivation?
John: A Working Out Loud circle is a small peer support group that helps you make progress towards a goal by building relationships related to that goal. Circles meet for an hour a week for 12 weeks. By the end, each of you will have developed a larger, more diverse network as well as habits and a mindset you can apply towards any goal.
The small steps in the Circle Guides are based on the idea of “guided mastery” from the psychologist Albert Bandura, who helped people change even extreme behaviors in a short period of time. I coupled that idea with peer support so people had the structure, shared accountability, and encouragement they would need to persist.
When I ask people for one word that describes how they feel after going through the Circle process, the most common responses are “confident,” “positive,” and “open.” Although people make progress at their own pace (and that may vary wildly), almost everyone who completes the process feels like they have more control and are more optimistic about their future.
Learnnovators: Thanks so much for sharing your valuable insights and experiences, John. We wish you the very best!
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