As I rushed home to catch Andre Agassi in the final stage of his transformation from tennis celebrity to endearing human being at the US Open last month, I was looking forward to the tennis, but dreading the commercials.
Yet much to my surprise, one of the ads spoke to me with the power and precision of a 130 mph ace about a phenomenon that universally limits human potential—labeling.
In the ad, we see an attractive young woman (Maria Sharapova) entering the Waldorf Astoria in New York, walking through the lobby, emerging from her room after a change of clothes, getting into a cab outside the hotel, and arriving at Arthur Ashe stadium.
She moves with a straightforward, I-know-where-I’m-going demeanor past doormen, desk clerks, elevator operators, business men, security guards, etc., and each person she passes sings, in his or her own cracking, out-of-pitch voice, Stephen Sondheim’s tribute to being female from West Side Story, “I Feel Pretty”.
We need the capability of being surprised at what a co-worker or colleague can do, particularly one we think we have figured out. We need to move past gender labels to gender assets and common strengths. We need to start looking with awe at another person’s capabilities so we can all become more effective in the workplace.
They are singing what they are thinking: there goes a pretty woman. There is nothing in their thoughts about her being a top-seeded champion. It’s all about what’s on the surface—until she steps on the court and slams the ball across the net. Then we see a packed stadium stunned into silence and hear John McEnroe utter the only word spoken in the ad, a simple, heartfelt, “Wow.”
There are a number of ways to slam a ball over the net. In Leadership and the New Science, Meg Wheatley propels thinking about leadership in organizations into a new dimension by connecting it with the startling discoveries of quantum physics.
In quantum physics, what you’re looking for affects what you see. Expectations determine outcomes.
If you do an experiment in which you expect matter to behave like a particle, it will behave like the solid stuff we always think of when we think of matter. If you do an experiment where you expect matter to behave like a wave by radiating energy in all directions like light or a radio signal, it will behave like a wave.
Physicists have concluded from this that matter is neither a particle nor a wave, but both.
Yet it is impossible to catch matter being both at the same time. It acts like one or the other, depending on which one you’re looking for.
Rather than being dismayed by the strangeness of a universe in which things have a dual nature, Meg Wheatley embraces it as a “more interesting world,” one where “people stop being predictable and start being surprising.”
In this world, she writes, “relationship are not just interesting … they are all there is of reality.” There are no solid facts, no polar opposites, no need to choose between competing identities, as in the everyday world where we are always making choices between things like “being pretty” and “being powerful”. In the world of quantum physics, there are only “bundles of potentiality.”
We need this at work. We need the capability of being surprised at what a co-worker or colleague can do, particularly one we think we have figured out. We need to move past gender labels to gender assets and common strengths. We need to start looking with awe at another person’s capabilities so we can all become more effective in the workplace.
Labels suppress potentiality. If you decide the new manager is incompetent, or too young, or too inexperienced, his or her ability to lead immediately collapses, just as the people who see Maria Sharapov only as a pretty woman cause the tennis champion to disappear.
In order to see potential and be surprised by it, we must recognize our part as observer in shaping the reality we see.
“Quantum matter develops a relationship with the observer and changes to meet his or her expectations… There is no objective reality; the environment we experience does not exist ‘out there’. It is co-created through our act of observation, what we chose to notice and worry about.” (Wheatley)
The good news is that we can change the assumptions that shape our observations and bring other potentialities back.
CHANGING OUR TUNE
The journey toward a better quality workplace where we respect each other’s gifts and help each other grow and develop begins with a conscious decision to step into a new world which allows a multiplicity of thought, word and action. Here are some starting steps:
- Observe what goes through your head after an encounter with someone you find challenging. Are you humming “Macho Man”, or the tune from the Marlboro commercials after your boss shoots down your idea in front of others? Or “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead’ when you hear through the grapevine that a certain department head’s days may be numbered? Is the song you are singing based on unresolved experiences which affect how you, as the observer, shape your interactions with someone? Is there something you can do to change your tune?
- Do some soul-searching. How often do you go along with the prevailing stereotype or negative opinion of someone at work? Do you give in to the pop culture norms of trashing the people you work with? Take for example the Monster.com ads that suggest your co-workers are all monkeys or jackasses. The people who label their colleagues as animals in one job are very likely to find the same jungle or barnyard in the next position they move to. The need to label is indicative of our own limited capacity to improve our situation. It has nothing to do with the limitations of others. It’s a cop out.
- Practice being surprised. I always tell people who are starting a new job to spend at least two months respecting what the other people are doing. You can do this even if you’ve been with a company a long time. Going to work for a day with the focus of seeing how others contribute is a very powerful exercise. I heard a wonderful example of this the other day. A young female client who is in a partnership with an older man observed that she was surprised to discover that her partner’s decisiveness, which had sometimes been difficult for her to deal with, was a good counterbalance to her tendency to be too process-oriented.
Whether your label is one-dimensional, like “pretty woman”, or judgmental as in “my boss is a jackass”, it has much more to say about you than it does about the other person. We don’t live in the linear world of the “rugged” individualist any more, but in a “vast web of life” where relationships drive everything and what you see is what you get.