Change Thinking

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Despite all the business change knowledge uncovered during the last 50 years, many seasoned change management professionals still aren’t adequately prepared to serve those trying to navigate their way through today’s turbulence. Change Thinking is an effort to have an exchange with, and be part of, a community of practitioners committed to raising the level of their game and that of the field of change execution.

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Expressing Your Opinion on Character Without Being Pushy

I am continuing my series on answers to questions practitioners have asked about my two recently published series on character and presence.

So far, I’ve answered questions on whether character is amenable to intentional modification, why the “character/presence package” is both important and difficult, and what it means for a change practitioner to be “asleep at the wheel.”

In this final post, I’ll answer several questions dealing with how to be definitive when expressing your character, while not becoming closed-minded or appearing to push your own agenda.

Q:  At times, you seem adamant about your views on character and presence. At other times, you seem to leave the topic open for interpretations other than your own. Does this mean you are unsure about your own perspectives on this topic?

A:   I think your question accurately depicts where I am regarding how character and presence fit in our role as professional change agents—I am both confident about what I’m stating and equally sure that, at some point down the road, my current views will appear naïve, if not downright wrong, to me and probably to others.

I hold these two stances as equally true at the same time by subscribing to a philosophical view on character and presence, as well as relying on what my experience has taught me about it. When the two don’t align, my experience usually takes precedence, but that doesn’t mean my philosophical view is negated.

Let me explain. I believe that often what appears to be two or more contradictory alternatives are actually multiple solutions addressing different aspects of the same phenomenon. For example, I have been very explicit in the blog that I believe character is uncovered, not “developed” in the typical sense of the word. This view is based on my experience. Yet, philosophically, I can see that it is possible for character to mature both by intentionally modifying it to suit external standards and by exploring and accepting what is already there.

By endorsing this “both-can-be-true-but-I’ll-stand-on-what-my-experience-tells-me” stance, I don’t mean to negate the philosophical side in any way as whimsical. In fact, for something to be philosophically true for me means I hold it in high regard…it often represents an aspiration I might strive for. In this case, I’m using the term philosophical to say that, although my experience points in a different direction, it would be the height of ignorance and arrogance to declare that there is only one way character can unfold and it just happens to be consistent with how I see things.

Philosophically, I respect that life is essentially a mystery that neither I nor any other human being will ever fully comprehend. For this reason, I’m committed to leaving plenty of “breathing room” on either side of any conclusion I draw. At the same time, I’m comfortable declaring when parts of life appear understandable to me by applying certain lenses through which to interpret my experience.

Philosophically honoring what I can’t comprehend doesn’t preclude me from stating emphatically what my experience has revealed as true for me within my current frame of reference. (The bold font is to emphasize that it is only the truth as I see it and is not to be confused with THE truth everyone should adhere to—and that it remains true only as long as my frame of reference doesn’t shift.)

In this case, I have 40-plus years of experience to support my belief that character is to be owned, not constructed. As a result, that bias is firmly established in my frame of reference. Yet, it is important that I remind myself (and anyone who places any value on my perspective) that our profession is generations away from earning the right to be confident that we truly understand all the key variables associated with humans in transition.

Q:  If you are less than completely sure you are right about character and presence, how can you advocate that others incorporate your views into the way they practice the craft?

A:   I don’t see my function as determining what is or should be true for change professionals who read or listen to my views. I’m here to report, as accurately and honestly as I am able, what is true for me in the moment. My intention is to help change professionals make informed decisions about what they will hold as true for themselves regarding how they approach their work.

I’m a resource for people who want to access the lessons I’ve drawn from my experience that seem to work for me. I’m not a good match for those seeking formulaic answers or gurus who have it all worked out for everyone else.

If people are looking for someone who claims (or implies) to have all the answers related to how change agents should conduct themselves, I’m not the one they should be listening to anyway. In addition, my intended audience is comprised of practitioners who appreciate that I measure the number of years of doing this kind of work in decades and not years, but who also respect how little any of us really knows about what contributes to mastery in this field.

Some of the questions posed to me have been about the impact of character and presence on our passion for this work.

Q:  As Joseph Campbell would put it, you seemed to have found “your bliss”—your calling in the change-related work you do. I enjoy being a change practitioner, but I don’t yet feel it is a calling for me…at least, not in the way it appears to be for you. Is the alignment of character and presence part of the bliss equation?

A:   You may not have intended it this way but when I hear “equation” in your question, it sounds like you might be looking for a logical set of “To Dos” that, if performed correctly, will decode whatever has been blocking your path to change agent bliss. Whether you meant to convey that or not, in my experience, it doesn’t work that way.

First, being fortunate enough to find a professional “path with heart” is an act of grace, not the result of a set of activities well pursued. I’m talking about grace that is on the other side of any simplistic willingness and ability criteria we might place on an unfulfilled desire for something.

I strongly feel that you don’t get a vote on this. The best you can do is to keep yourself open to the possibility that change execution might one day evolve into a passion rather than a vocational interest for you.

And, by the way, the fact that it hasn’t yet landed on you as a passion isn’t an indication of what is to come. Grace comes to you—you don’t employ it. You can, however, decrease your chances of it showing up. Failure to remain open to what might unfold can be a show-stopper for grace. Another one is impatience. Be open to the possibilities in life and have the patience for them to appear in their own time. That’s about all you can do to facilitate the process. After that, it is out of your hands.

Posted on: June 25, 2013 05:27 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Falling Asleep at the Wheel

I recently published two series outlining why I think character and presence are so important to change facilitators seeking mastery in our profession. Since releasing those series, I’ve heard from a number of change professionals who want to explore how the way they “show up” impacts the outcomes of their efforts. Several themes have emerged in their questions, so I thought I would share a few of these in this series, along with my answers.

So far, I’ve addressed questions about whether character is amenable to intentional modification, and why the “character/presence package” is both important and difficult.

Another category of inquiry that has come my way deals with our tendency to “fall asleep” rather than face the daunting task of coming to terms with who we are and its place in practicing the craft.

Q:  Would you elaborate on your statement in one of your posts: “We fell asleep and began dreaming that we were other than who we are”? What does “going to sleep” mean within the context of character and presence?

A:   Many change agents perform their assigned duties in environments where they aren’t viewed as valuable assets. They may be treated cordially by the executives they serve, but they aren’t thought of as key resources who are vital to the leader’s success or the organization’s viability. Some of these practitioners are not only undervalued; they are “unrecognized.”

One of the most powerful affirmations someone can bestow on you is the gift of deep recognition—distinguishing you from others, identifying something special in you (particularly when it can’t be easily articulated), grasping the real value you bring to situations, acknowledging your unique perspectives or insights, knowing when to appropriately leverage your distinctiveness, and openly expressing appreciation for the contribution you make.

There are two levels to this kind of recognition. All of the above (distinguishing, identifying, grasping, leveraging, and appreciating) can be applied to what you do as a professional change agent, or they can be directed toward who you are as you go about your work. You can also be authenticated in this way at both levels. It can feel awkward, if not humiliating, to go unrecognized for what you do, but it can be even more disheartening to feel those to whom you are in service hold little deep recognition of you as a person and disregard how you show up as a crucial part of the value you bring to the implementation process.

Most change professionals are aware of and intentionally seek out client relationships where they are endorsed for what they do. The currency for this kind of affirmation is called “expertise.” When practitioners are respected for what they know or do, we say they have a built a strong reputation based on their expertise.

Being designated an expert in the facilitation of organizational change is highly sought after. In fact, without it, securing meaningful job positions or assignments in our field is virtually impossible. Garnering admiration for the contributions you make by showing up in the way you do is a less common experience for most practitioners. Many have gone their entire careers without this kind of validation.

When there is little or no recognition for who you are, the negative repercussions spread in both directions—clients receive less value from the practitioner than they should and the practitioner becomes less invested in the client’s situation than they could be. Over time, this cycle of less client value leading to less practitioner investment compounds on itself, resulting in a lose/lose situation for all concerned.

One of the long-range implications for practitioners in this scenario is the tendency to “go to sleep” rather than experience the alienation and distress associated with not being valued for who they are. Unless a change agent has no regard whatsoever for the people or organization involved, going unrecognized is a lonely and painful experience. From a psychological standpoint, it can be much more demoralizing to be ignored than to engage in open conflict. Even brief exposure to environments like this can drain the life out of practitioners, but with extended periods of working in these conditions, they run the risk of disenfranchising their very souls.

Unfortunately, many change agents practice their craft in these kinds of circumstances. For some, it means periodically enduring an uncomfortable assignment while not being acknowledged for who they really are. For others, their entire professional experience has been void of any deep recognition for the contribution they could be making if their presence boldly reflected their true character.

Faced with these circumstances, practitioners often anesthetize themselves without realizing it to avoid the pain. Some use alcohol, drugs, or superficial relationships to induce this numbness. Others bury their discomfort in their psyche and learn to function on autopilot. They participate in change-focused dialogues and related activities, but without any mindful awareness of the deep personal recognition that is missing. Here is the unconscious logic trail:

  1. There is no pain if there is no foul.
  2. There is no foul if I have no expectation of being recognized.
  3. If I have no expectation, I have no awareness of what is possible.
  4. There is no awareness if I am oblivious to the way that who I am could be of value to clients.

Being asleep means you lack the mindfulness about how bringing forward your full essence could be a benefit to clients. It also means ensuring that the presence you project is one with which clients are comfortable. There is no place for conflict with this kind of slumber because tension heightens awareness, whereas contentment has a tranquillizing effect. Being a provocateur or in any way offering views or feedback contrary to what clients expect or want to hear is unacceptable and inconsistent with keeping ourselves anesthetized.       

Falling asleep means forgetting that we each have a unique center that is worthy of expression and that failing to offer it is an unprofessional act of withholding value from clients. It means we lose sight of our responsibility to use all possible means to serve clients, including accessing our own authenticity as an intervention asset. 

This lack of conscious awareness is so filled with victimization we no longer even register when we water down what we offer clients in order to keep them appeased and contented. We fall asleep when we fail to open a passage to our inner nature and we convince ourselves we can fake what others want from us instead of honoring our true spirit. This is when we start dreaming we are someone other than who we really are. The dream turns into a nightmare, however, if the sleep state is sustained too long and we lose the ability to pull ourselves out of the comatose condition called “comfortably numb.”

We awaken when we reacquaint ourselves with what it is about who we are that we have lost contact with. We can wake up in two ways:

  • When we are reminded of how painful it is to not stand on our own truth, or
  • When we are reminded of the gratitude we feel because we have been graced with the courage and discipline to stand on our truth.

Either pain or gratitude can serve as an effective doorway to awareness. Without one or the other to keep our equilibrium off balance, however, we tend to get lulled into complacency.

Q:  Why has the who we are side of being a change agent been so neglected?

A:   A case can be made that not only have we as individual practitioners fallen asleep, but that our entire profession has gone comatose.

One indication of this is that who we are has taken a back seat to what we do when considering what it takes to be properly prepared for this kind of work. Topics such as character and presence and bringing our full selves forward aren’t typically thought of as something we have to be educated or coached in. This has led to a mindset that is heavily skewed (if not totally consumed) toward “technical” instruction (what methodology to adopt, what concept to apply, what technique to employ, what intervention to engage, etc.). Little, if any, attention is given to helping practitioners see that their greatest contributions depend on combining what they do with who they are.

Learning what to do is “table stakes” in our profession. Without a set of properly applied concepts, frameworks, and tools to guide the implementation process, one is considered either a novice or an incompetent change agent. However, optimizing one’s full potential as a practitioner requires bolstering what to do with who to be.

I feel strongly that, as a professional community, we cannot afford to continue neglecting this aspect of our work. Specifically, there are three lines of pursuit within our ranks that we should raise awareness of:

  • Exploring, acknowledging, and embracing our innate character
  • Aligning our character and presence to project our authentic selves to clients 
  • Securing clients who value the character and presence “package” we convey

Next: How to express your character definitively while not becoming closed-minded or appearing to push your agenda.

Posted on: June 18, 2013 02:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Finding Clients that Resonate With Your “Character/Presence Package”

I recently published two series outlining why I think character and presence are so important to change facilitators seeking mastery in our profession. Since releasing those series, I’ve heard from a number of change professionals who want to explore how the way they “show up” impacts the outcomes of their efforts. Several themes have emerged in their questions, so I thought I would share a few of these in this series, along with my answers.

In my last post, we looked at whether character is amenable to intentional modification, or whether it just “is what it is.” In this post, I’ll look at questions about the “character/presence package.”

Q:  You say that once practitioners have embraced character and aligned presence, they must find clients who will value their “character/presence package.” That’s fine for an outside consultant who has a solo practice with no one telling him or her where the next engagement is, but I don’t live in that world. For the last few years, I have been an internal change facilitator inside a large multinational firm, and before that, I was part of the change management practice for one of the major professional services firms. In both situations, I didn’t choose clients—they were assigned by my boss. “Express your character through authentic presence and work for clients who appreciate who you really are” sounds great, but how am I supposed to apply it when who I work with is defined by others, not me?

A:   Creating a line of sight from embracing who you really are, to the authentic conveyance of that to the outside world, to engaging clients who resonate with the presence it generates isn’t easy or risk-free under any circumstances. So if you are serious about standing on your truth as a change professional, my suggestion is to stop looking for a stress-free way of making that happen. “Comfortable” and “safe” have nothing to do with the pursuit of being who you really are and making a living at the same time.

Choosing to live your life, versus the one someone else has in mind for you, isn’t for the faint of heart. You can’t ask, “How do I find a sheltered environment out of harm’s way so I can be straightforward with clients about my unique talents and perspectives and not face any risk?” Instead, the question is, “How do I find the strength and determination to authentically express my character/presence package even when doing so isn’t always understood and/or valued?”   

Yes, there are some significant struggles to face when functioning as an internal practitioner, but they are impediments, not insurmountable barriers, to bringing your full self forward. It boils down to this—either come to terms with what must be done where you are or take the plunge and be your own boss.

You essentially have six options:

  • Raise awareness: Stay where you are but find ways to show your boss how much more valuable you would be if you were allowed to be who you really are.
  • Claim your sovereignty: Remain where you are but take responsibility for staying in an environment that doesn’t support you being fully yourself with clients.
  • Be a victim: Remain where you have a boss who is unsupportive of you being fully who you are, and continue to complain.
  • Go back to sleep: Stay where you are, but stop aspiring for character/presence/client alignment.
  • Establish a new footing: Find another boss (in the same or a different organization) who is supportive of matching up your character/presence package with clients that will value you for being you.
  • Go out on your own: Establish a new consulting firm or a private practice where you can make your own decisions about who to work with.

A word of caution about the last bullet, for those of you who have spent your entire change career with a boss. (And that can be either as an inside change agent for a company/agency or inside a consulting firm serving those companies/agencies.) If you’ve never operated without someone else giving you direction as a change practitioner, you might fall prey to the romantic notion that being your own boss is the ultimate freedom that allows you unrestricted access to do whatever you want. Ask any entrepreneur who has ever taken the plunge and you’ll learn that being the captain of your own ship is no free ride. You still have a master to serve—it’s just shifted from the person above you on the org chart to your own monthly overhead cost to feed your family and stay in business.

When you report to a boss, there are fewer decisions to make but also (generally speaking), fewer burdens to carry. What you get with your own autonomy is the latitude to make your own decisions as long as you are able/willing to pay for the implications. Said another way, when someone else sets the standards, the cost is high if you don’t have the leeway to relate to clients as you would always like. When you set the standards, the financial risk is high for being truly who you are with clients. Either way is pricey, but the question is, “Which exorbitant fee do you want to pay?” 

My point is, don’t think you are out of the woods just because you decide to venture out on your own. Even independent practitioners who operate autonomously can find excuses to shy away from doing whatever is necessary to be who they are. Many of them say, “I’ll do it when I can, but I have to eat.” Here, the justification for not living up to the standard isn’t someone else, it is something else. It’s not the boss, it’s the harsh “economic realities.”

The excuse, “It can’t be done unless you are on your own” is a convenient myth many internal practitioners use for justifying the difference between their stated aspirations and the reality they live. Everyone has an alibi. Why? Because matching character, presence, and clients is not just tough, it’s hazardous duty in the sense that there can be some significant political and/or financial implications for staying grounded in your true nature. It’s the opposite of playing it safe, yet this is the way it is played when you are committed to the belief that bringing your full self to engagements is what is in the client’s best interest as well as what will be fulfilling for you. Both of these are important for long-term success as a professional change agent (which, by the way, is how you feed your family).

Being who you really are with clients isn’t an alternative to being a successful practitioner; it is a way of being a successful practitioner.

Q:  You’re making it sound very difficult to align character with presence and then find clients who are drawn to your particular combination. Aren’t you concerned that people will get turned off when you describe such a high bar?

A:   From the onset of my writing about the importance of being who we really are when in the role of change facilitator, I said the topic wasn’t something all practitioners would have an appetite for, nor would I be attempting to make the issues appear less demanding or less perilous than they are:

  • I don’t expect most people in our profession to have an interest in this perspective—the majority are focused on “what to do,” not “who they are” as they do those things. This isn’t meant as an indictment; it’s just an honest reflection of how our profession has evolved. The value created in our field is thought to be primarily methodology-based rather than ontology-based…it’s about what is known and done, not how to “show up” to leverage what we know and do toward an optimum client impact.

  • There are considerable demands associated with making who we are as important as what we do. It not only calls on the practitioner to invest himself or herself in introspective discovery work to reclaim aspects of character that have been muted or disregarded, it also requires keeping a vigilance for the right match between client predisposition and the character/presence package being offered.

    The most challenging requisites for operating this way are finding the courage and discipline to stay true to this course on a consistent basis. I’m not referring to a set of naïve, idealistic platitudes like accepting every part of your character, conveying a presence that is unfailingly aligned with your true nature, or never working with clients who fail to recognize or value who you are. This isn’t about some pseudo-zealousness directed toward unrealistic perfection. It’s about the resolve necessary to face the hard realities of what we say is vitally important for both our clients and ourselves.

    Courage and discipline are critical elements for practitioners committed to maintaining a balance between knowing what to do and how to show up:

    • We must have the courage to maintain an unvarnished alertness for the good, the bad, and the ugly:

      1. what our character is revealing (not just what we like, but what we don’t like as well)

      2. what our presence may be hiding

      3. what happens when we take on clients who don’t understand or appreciate the benefit to them of us bringing forward our full selves

    • The discipline to make an informed decision each time we become aware of a gap separating 1 and 2 or 2 and 3. The rigor here isn’t so much about what determination to reach but to ensure that all the gaps lead to some kind of mindful resolution. Here are some options: ignore the gap, defer dealing with it until conditions are more suitable, develop a strategy for closing it, start taking action to close it, recognize that this is the tenth time you have started with the same strategy or have come up with a new one, etc. Do whatever you are ready to do but do something—take responsibility for the gap by acknowledging it and making a conscious choice about what to do or not do next.

Next: Questions that deal with how we “fall asleep” rather than face the daunting task of coming to terms with the concept of who we are and its place in practicing the craft.

Posted on: June 12, 2013 01:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Answering Your Questions About Character and Presence

A few months ago, I published two series outlining why I think character and presence are so important to change facilitators seeking mastery in our profession. Here is a brief summary:

  • The “character” (our true nature) we bring into client relationships is the heart of who we really are as change practitioners. It is this essence of our uniqueness, not what is in our bag of intervention tricks, which ultimately determines whether we generate meaningful benefits for clients.
  • Our interior character, however, needs a voice in order to be expressed to the exterior world; the “presence” we convey is that voice.
  • Even though presence is what we use to interface with clients, the path to optimizing our effectiveness as change professionals is through “cultivating” our character—surfacing and honoring aspects of who we really are that have been covered up or negated.
  • To be successful as an advanced change practitioner, it is important to do three things:
    • Deeply explore your character so you can understand and accept who you are
    • Embrace the presence you broadcast as a natural reflection of your core and an expression of your unique gifts
    • Seek out clients who value your character/presence package, instead of trying to artificially mold yourself to fit the expectations of the various people who might come your way

Since releasing the two series, I’ve received a number of written inquires and had several live conversations with change professionals wanting to explore how the way they “show up” impacts the outcomes of their efforts. The depth of interest I’m seeing around this subject is worth noting.

I’m particularly struck with how many people strongly resonate with this topic—the responses have been quite remarkable. Many of the questions posed are extremely personal. (“How do I find the courage to express who I really am with my clients?”) In addition, most people want to know about practical application. (“Authentically expressing who I really am to my clients as well as my boss is attractive, but I also have to pay the bills…what do you suggest?”)

There is something unfolding here that I don’t fully understand, but I think it warrants some attention. I don’t assume my recent writings about character and presence generated the interest. Instead, I think the attraction and curiosity means the need for this kind of examination has been smoldering beneath the surface for some time.

The distinction between what we do and who we are appears to be a boundary that is especially intriguing to many in our field. This can’t be because it’s new territory—it isn’t. Although the subject is intellectually stimulating, that can’t explain the enthusiasm, either. Finally, the attention I’m seeing this issue receive is far from esoteric. The exchanges I’ve had with people are about the realities of how their character and presence affect client relationships and their own sense of well-being as practitioners.  

The energy stirring around this issue is intense and deep. For many people, this query is prompting potent, emotional introspection. That in itself isn’t so unusual; we’ve all experienced personal events or circumstances that provoked self-examination. What is significant, I think, is that this internal reflection is being induced by professional triggers, not private ones. Said differently, the very individual nature of this interior scrutiny is being spurred by a desire for greater exterior professional effectiveness.

I have seen some exceptions, but generally speaking, the practitioners with an appetite for this conversation aren’t entry-level change agents still trying to gain a foothold on the basics of our profession. They are practitioners solidly grounded in the fundamentals of change execution and yet, they are seeking even greater influence with those they serve. More specifically, they are scanning for something beyond what can be attained by applying knowledge and skills alone.  

These practitioners know how to diagnosis and intervene, so their search for greater impact has led them to delve within themselves rather than look for the next framework or process to add to their already considerable “technical” proficiencies. They have discovered that there is a point where mastery in this field isn’t just about the tools in their kit—it also involves the substance of who they are as human beings and how they reflect that in their client relationships. For them, advancing to the next stage of capability has become a function of what’s in their hearts, not their heads.

I want to provide as many opportunities as possible to continue probing and questioning our various perspectives about this subject. Therefore, I’m using this blog is a vehicle for my exploration into this space. I invite you to use it to express your views as well.

In this light, several themes have emerged in the questions practitioners have been asking me about all this. I thought I would share a in this series, along with my answers.

The first theme centers around whether character is amenable to intentional modification, or whether it just “is what it is” and we can only use what we have as wisely as possible.

Q:  I always thought developing one’s character involved altering something fundamental, but you take the position that it is more about accepting who we really are and leveraging it rather than trying to refashion the core of who we are. How did you come to this way of seeing character?

A: My view on this is based less in theory than on my experience. I’ve been a professional facilitator of organizational change for four decades. Before that, my work was in the area of counseling psychology. Throughout that time, I can’t think of a single situation where I witnessed someone who substantively changed the essence of who they are, or the core nature of someone else.

Early in my career, I accepted the conventional notion that character could be purposely “developed”—that is, there were activities, processes, or practices that, when engaged properly, could create or eliminate specific features of our own character or that of someone else. Then I began to notice that these kinds of results were not actually taking place among the people whose character I had been asked to help change. (Initially it was while counseling people seeking fundamental shifts in themselves or their spouses/children. Later, it was with sponsors or change practitioners who had asked for guidance to address issues at the core of who they were as human beings that were impairing their effectiveness.)

Because I saw so little character change resulting from my own work, I started paying closer attention to what others were describing when they discussed success at causing change in someone’s fundamental nature. It became more and more clear to me that the modifications they were describing were not parallel to what I considered character. The shifts were not at the core level of a person’s foundation of being.

More observation and pondering on all this helped me come to a very personal realization—nothing I had ever done to myself or that had happened to me had actually varied in any significant way the essence of who I had been all my life. Is my character different today from what it was twenty years ago? Absolutely. I can find no evidence, however, that the difference can be attributed to an action I or anyone else took as a deliberate effort to create the specific outcomes that resulted. Did my character evolve? Yes. Was it by intentional design? I think not.

I concluded that character did unfold or evolve, but not as a function of being intentionally “developed” as this term is typically used (i.e., altered by design through applying certain actions that accomplished specific outcomes). Character is amenable to maturing into more advanced versions of its basic nature, but it can’t become something less than or more than its inherent state.

So, my views on whether a practitioner’s character yields to change is grounded in my personal observations and experience. I can’t corroborate the claim by some that people somehow are able to make substantive additions to or deletions from their basic nature (by their own actions or those of others). On many occasions, I have been part of change endeavors where a practitioner’s character emerged very differently than was apparent earlier. However, to say these people started displaying features of their character that either didn’t exist before or had become newly formed is beyond what I can substantiate or that I believe to be true.

Q:  As change professionals, we see people advance themselves in new ways all the time. How does that match with your view that the essence of who we are doesn’t change?

A:   I agree that since we are in the business of facilitating organizational transformations, we are exposed to an abundance of real and meaningful change in people. The point I’m making is that I believe close examination reveals most of these shifts are not at the level of character.

For example, all of us have witnessed plenty of behavioral and mindset adaptation in our clients. There is an abundance of evidence that intentionally modifying human behavior (our own or someone else’s) is amenable to successfully engineered outcomes. Though much more challenging to pull off, under the right conditions, even mindsets can be deliberately reshaped. Generally speaking, short of outright brainwashing, these endeavors are more encouraged than forced, but nonetheless, a person’s or group’s frames of reference and priorities can be intentionally adjusted, if not transformed. As impressive as these kinds of reconstructions can be, however, I don’t believe they are adding to or subtracting from someone’s baseline character.

Without a doubt, our behavior and mindsets are certainly linked to our character, but they are not synonymous with it. Nonetheless, most people confuse thinking/doing modifications with ontological alterations. Our character is about our beingness, not the mindsets and behaviors we display. This confusion leaves many practitioners inappropriately focused on trying to mold their appearance (projected presence) to increase client effectiveness instead of cultivating their character.

Q:  So you are saying that, most of the time, what we might think of as a shift in character is actually a revision of mindset or behavior, not at the level of who people really are?

A:   Yes, but there is another layer your question raises. It is true that a great deal of what is attributed to character change is actually mindset and/or behavior change, yet neither of these come close to the biggest misperception. What is an even more common misreading with far greater impact is what comes about from “masking” character. As I’m using it here, masking is the conscious or unconscious lessening or negating of who we really are in order to gain acceptance by others. This isn’t about confusing one kind of change for another; this is intentionally or unintentionally creating a façade to disguise our real selves.

At the center of who we really are is our character, which is conveyed to others through the presence we project. In most situations, what passes as a shift in character is more likely than not a practitioner’s efforts to hide who he or she really is by bringing forth an artificial presence intended to gain favor with clients.

Q:  How extensive is masking within the change practitioner community?

A:   Masking is a blight that runs rampant among change agents. It is so pervasive within our professional community that many practitioners have never known any other way of operating. Of course, masking is widespread in all walks of life, but the focus of this writing is on change facilitators, so I’ll keep the spotlight here. For most people in our field, masking their character with a presence that is hopefully more acceptable to clients is ubiquitous to the role…it is considered an inescapable reality of our profession.

Based on my years of training and coaching change practitioners, I can safely say the vast majority routinely portray their observations, insights, ideas, etc. in ways that are significantly watered down, if not completely compromised, from their true understanding of situations. Although this is often done with conscious volition; masking is more typically an unconscious act—we are so used to assuming that hiding who we are is the only option available that we engage it without even being aware of doing so. From my perspective, masking is the universal default modus operandi for most of our professional colleagues.   

Q:  When people go through experiences that markedly change them in ways that others notice are sustained over time, doesn’t that mean their basic character has been altered?

A:   Not necessarily. Bonsai is a Japanese art form that involves shaping woody-stemmed trees or shrubs in containers to produce small replicas that mimic the shape and style of mature, full-size trees.

The technique of bonsai dramatically alters the size and appearance of the trees to which it is applied, but it doesn’t change the kind of tree it is. For example, before bonsai treatments, a Japanese maple would have had a specific trajectory to its natural growth pattern. After years of carefully “developing” the tree, it may be almost unrecognizable compared to other similar trees that were allowed to follow their normal growth disposition, and yet, it is still a Japanese maple. The process of bonsai stunted, twisted, pruned, negated, graphed, amended, and/or rechanneled the tree’s basic tendencies, but its character remains that of the young sapling it was early in its life. The tree is what it is, regardless of the circumstances in which it finds itself.

The same can be said for people. They stunt, twist, prune, negate, graft, amend, and/or rechannel themselves (or someone else does it), which may result in new mindsets and behaviors that in no way resembles their fundamental nature. Yet, the essence of who they really are remains intact. Their basic nature might be concealed by engineered alterations, but their beingness endures, despite the mutation or cloaking. Their presence can be altered to project any contrived image they choose, but the core of who they are will abide.

Posted on: June 04, 2013 09:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
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