The Structure of Belonging (Peter Block)

Whenever people show up by choice, you have to acknowledge it because most of our lives we show up by mandate, by invitation, by enrolment. So, you are hear which means that you care about something a lot.

I like what you do for a living. I like what I do for a living…training and development. This profession still works. Whatever our intention is, the experience has to fit with the theory. Any workshop, any conference where the experience does not match the theory is just talk.

The Circle
We still line people up in chairs. I like the circle. The circle is a symbol of community and connection. It is inconvenient. Some of you have to turn around, and there is no place to put your water bottle. The circle carries the intention that you came here to make contact with each other. I often feel that these sorts of conferences are interrupted by lectures and small group exercises.

Our business is “the restoration of humanity”
The physical space is enormously powerful, if you have the intent…What business are we in? And in my mind, it is the restoration of humanity. That is if you look at the way our systems work, if you look at the way our institutions are structured, they are designed for consistency, control and predictability. They are designed for the bottom line, whatever that is. They are economic units, and even if they are not-for-profit, they become in their structure patriarchal ways; it’s narrow at the top and wide at the bottom. And so…all of these conditions “extract our humanity” from us.

The worse thing you can happen to a line manager is for them to be surprised. The place fell part the building collapsed, half your staff is gone, and performance is zero, and their response is, “Well, I’m not surprised.” Their biggest fear is that they be surprised; let the world go to hell as long as I am not surprised.

The modern economy extracts our humanity
Given the fact that systems are designed for scale and speed, the whole system world is about faster (get it to scale), automate as fast and as much as we can, and outsource anything which is not our core business, which is everything. Given these conditions, given that mindset of what a modern economy is about, it extracts our humanity. It extracts relationships. We automate relationships. This is just the way it is. It is not an argument. It is not a complaint. This is the life and we are headed more and more in that direction. Our role then, as learning and development practitioners is to somehow help this sort of a world restore and recovery its own humanity. And you do it for two reasons. One, because it works – everything we know about high performing systems is all about relatedness. It is not about access to information; it not about intelligent kind of technology. Everything we know about what organizations are more responsive, more agile, more resilient – whatever modern word you are using right now; it has to do with relationships. The other is that our humanity matters. It gives us something to care about.

We stay interested because it is hard to do. You are going against the stream. It is a lonely function. We package its outcomes. We package it as productivity. We package it as results. But, why are you in this field? You are not going to make a lot of money, and you are not going to be very powerful. So, if you joined this profession for power and wealth, well you blew it!

So, there is a deeper reason, and I think it is that institutions need us for that reason, and I don’t think we sell ourselves well by selling the “bottom line.” By selling cost, by selling scale, by selling automation, by selling speed, by selling productivity – they know how to do that. I think that what will sustain us over time is to say “Look it, we want to balance out the world we live in.” “We want to balance out the predatory nature of an economy like this; of a world like this, and people know it.” We used to do a lot if individual training years ago and people would say “It changed my personal life but it didn’t change my workplace at all.” These corporate cultures are very change resistant. I remember at a large telecom company we trained over 5,000 people with no change in the culture at all.

All transformation has two elements. One, it is a shift in thinking, so if I care about transformation, I have change my mind. The second is a change in narrative, in the conversation. The notion is the way to restore our humanity and to help systems rediscover themselves- is represented by the circle. The circle comes out of a foundation of relatedness. It is the symbol for this and also the symbol of community. One of the side effects of patriarchal world is that it isolates us from each other. The speed, scale, predictability, control all isolate us.

The Annual Performance Review
Then we have the artifacts of such as the annual performance review, which has nothing to do with learning and everything to do with sovereignty. The reason I do a performance review is to let you know, once a year, that I own you. And you know that is true, because would I take it home? Not likely. Would you take it home and say to your partner (Cathy, in my case)? “It’s time for your annual performance review…Not likely.” “And, Cathy, I’m just doing this for your sake; for your growth; for your development; for your self-expression. So would you mind going off and thinking by yourself, as I am modern about this, about how you have let down and disappointed the family?” And when we have the discussion; I am trained, I know how to ask open-ended questions. I know how to make eye contact now. I know how to lean forward to indicate interest. “So, Cathy, why don’t we start by how you have let us down?” Or, I say “Let’s do both. Let’s do a club sandwich. We’ll start with what you did well, what you did poorly, and then end up with what you did well.” And at the end of the conversation I say, “Just one more thing, Cathy. Would you mind signing this document, just in case of possible future legal action.”

The process is a metaphor for the systems world. Of course, you try to make this process as human as possible, but what is interesting about this annual performance review process is that it is about sovereignty, as if I know because I am a boss and you don’t know because you are a subordinate, which is an interesting kind of colonial thought. Any time I show up and say, “I know and you don’t” is an act of colonization, packaged in love. This is most interesting! I do this because I love you. You hear managers say, “I love people.” “I grow people.” “I am a people person.” “I am a gardener of human souls.” “I clear the ground. I fertilize it.” This is patriarchy covered with the image of the patina – the euphuism of love and caring. And, unfortunately, Human Resources has been the delivery vehicle for that kind of really, manipulation.

Leaders are not central
So, this is a way through that. The shift in thinking is this…I have to decide where “cause” resides.  In the conventional beliefs, we think leadership is everything. Leadership is “cause” and the institution is “effect,” and that is why leadership training is a way to make a living that has endured over five decades; because we have this myth that somehow leaders have got it together. It is a myth. Change does not happen from the top. I have never seen it happen from the top. Now, if you ask the top if change happens at the top, they say absolutely. If you ask consultants if change happens at the top, they say absolutely, because it is an easier sell. But if you actually see what’s happening, it always starts in the middle somewhere. So, the notion that leaders are central – we have to let go of that notion. Leaders are not cause, they are effect. And when someone complaints about their supervisor to me, my thought is to ask them, “Why they are creating their supervisor in that fashion?”

Confront people with their freedom
So, suppose we decided that employees create bosses? Suppose we decided that followers create leaders? Suppose we thought that citizens create the governments that we like to complain about? Audiences create performances. Listening creates speaking. So, this is the inversion. If I care about a future that is distinct from the past; if my job is something more than pleasing my managers because half of what they ask for won’t help them, we have to find a way to shift one’s thinking.

So, if I want an alternative future in some way, then I have to shift my thinking and the core of that is to take it to the point where I reverse cause and effect; because it takes my attention to some other place. You become a community organizer inside your own system; within your own world. You decide that employees and managers need to get off their entitlement. We need to stop treating employees as children. Stop asking them, “How are you feeling?” “How is your boss treating you?” “Does your boss listen to you?” In essence, we need to confront people with their freedom. And, I think this is something we can do. So, to me, when we ask people those sorts of questions, we are colluding with their “child-ness.” So, the idea of a transformation is to go from good parenting to partnership. I want to treat employees as they are co-creators of this future. We know that systems are self-organizing and that employee engagement works.

I am giving you a methodology by which we act as though we are here to create partners, communities and connection among equals regardless of the level kind of thing that exists. The methodology needs to be at the narrative level.

A New Story
So, if I want to create a future that is distinct from the past, what that means, operationally, is that I need a new story. The story I have that got me this far is not going to get me forward one more inch. I think I was born and everything else I made up! I’ve got a whole story and after a while, you realize that it is “just a story.” I can see that my story is just the means – a social construction that I produced to try and make sense of what happened to me. So, if I get that, then it is easy to let go of that story and say, “It took me here, and I am grateful.  What is the new story that I want to live into?” So, all transformation is linguistic. That is why conversations matter. It is not just overcoming my isolation; it is also that I will live in an alternative future the moment I am prepared to enter into an alternative conversation. And in that alternative narrative, I can get specific about the nature of that narrative.

Possibilities versus problems
The old narrative is that “life is a series of problems to be solved.” The mindset is demonstrated by the billboard sign: “Next ten miles – one darn thing after another.” Let’s talk about problems. Let’s talk about needs. And I make a living by doing a “needs analysis” and I identify the ‘gap’ “Here is where you are now. Here is where you want to be. Here is the gap.” The gap mentality! The alternative is “possibility”…”Why don’t we talk about the possibility that we came here to produce rather than the problems we came to solve?” Solving problems makes tomorrow a little bit better, but it doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t shift anything fundamental; it just makes tomorrow a little cheaper, a little smoother, a little kinder perhaps. And so you say why don’t we start to talk about the possibilities we came here to produce?

The other conversation is how do I take ownership for what I am complaining about? Most of the time I am in a conversation about what is wrong with other people. Most of my life I have been waiting for the transformation of somebody else. Every single client I have had all these years always started with the same question, “How do we fix those people? How do we get them on board? How do we enroll them? How do we get the middle to do this? How do we get the bottom to do that?” I love the question, “How do we get them onboard? I think, “What makes you think you are in the boat?” And so, that question is a defence against transformation. Because it says that we in the room did not create the world we want to change.

And so if you care about transformation, about community that works, you say, “How do we have conversations about what we are doing to create the very thing we want to see change?” It is an ownership conversation. It is the conversation that supports the idea that I am an agent. It gives me agency. If I talk about how top management needs to change – it’s not that I am wrong. They do need to change. The things that I complain about, I am right about. Those people don’t get it. They should be on board. They don’t walk their talk. They don’t work as a team. They don’t have a clear vision. They don’t know where they are headed. All that is true; it is just that conversation has no power. It means nothing. At then end of that conversation, it is about me feeling more helpless than when I came in to it. So, if I care about the antidote, I’ll ask, “What have you done to help create the very thing you are complaining about?” For example, the current “No” vote in the United States is an escape from freedom; an escape from citizenship: “I don’t know what you are doing, but you are the problem and I am going to change you.” It is a content-free platform.

The third conversation is about dissent. High-control systems don’t like dissent; they want loyalty. They want people to be “onboard;” to hear ourselves say “I am a team player.” “I am a ‘can do’ type of guy. I want to hear solutions, not problems.” So, all of this is a denial of the power of refusal. If I want to create an alternative future, I have to create a community, a circle where “No” is legitimate. And most of us feel that if we stand up, we will get shot. And so, you have to start thinking that the enemy of the future is “lip service.” It’s not opposition. Opposition is easy. Be grateful for it. People think “Your nuts,” and I respond with “Good point.” People say, “This is not the kind of leader I am looking for.” I respond, “I agree with you. How do you think I feel? People want me to be dynamic!” People ask, “Peter, when are you going to get going?” I reply, “I am going. This is as hot as I get!” For years I have tired to be more dynamic and eventually I just said, “To heck with it.”

So, dissent is the beginning of a conversation of commitment. I have to create space for “no.” Let’s consider a marriage proposal and two different responses: A: “Will you marry me?” B: “No!” A: “Good. Now we can talk.” Scenario Two: A: “Will you marry me?” B: “Yes, I have been waiting for you all my life!” In Scenario Two, that couple is in deep trouble. They are not going to have an honest conversation until it is too late. So, dissent…I have to create space in the narrative for people to say “No” as the beginning of a conversation. Without that, I have no commitment. All I have is loyalty and compliance.

The other one is the notion of people making promises: I have to make commitments that are barter. The question “What’s in it for me?” is the wrong question. If someone asks you “What’s in it for me?” then the answer is “Nothing comes to mind at the moment.” I did not come here to buy you, lease you, or purchase you, with a promise. I don’t want to lease you for pay. There is no relationship between pay and performance. We know that. But it is a wonderful story. It is an old narrative. It is a patriarchal narrative. And so the alternative is to say to people is to ask, “What is the promise you are prepared to make with no expectation of return?” Now, that creates a different future. That creates people who are agents and producers.

Gifts versus deficiencies
The last conversation is the one of gifts versus deficiencies. We make a living too much on deficiencies. You can’t get money for anything unless you can prove there is something wrong. Even in training and development we are “deficiency” minded. Every questionnaire I take surfaces for me, “what is wrong with me?” They treat me as if I am not enough.  I have been working on myself for years, decades. The problem is that I have been working on the same stuff I was working on forty years ago: I finish other people’s sentences. I don’t know why. It’s not nice, and I have worked on it for forty years. I just think I can finish sentences faster. It’s my contribution to the modern world! “I own the period, and you are going to get it soon!” It’s horrible. Every relationship I’ve had. Every wife I’ve had. All tell me the same thing. The feedback has been consistent. It has been specific. It has been timely. It is backed up by data and instrumentation. And yet, I am still finishing people’s sentence. So, maybe at some point you say that working on deficiencies is not productive! It is just interesting.

 So, I have concluded – and not that it is necessarily right – just the inversion of thinking – that working on deficiencies sustains them and makes them stronger and is a defence against an alternative future. And so, the alternative is to be “gift-minded.” The way with humanity and the way that commitment gets brought into the world is through gifts. Why don’t we have a conversation about what our gifts are? The task of leadership is to bring the gifts of those in the margins into the centre, and to be gift-minded. Nothing is more powerful in creating an alternative future is to confront people with their gifts, because people are blind to their gifts. I can’t figure it out on my own. The only time, in my culture, that gifts are spoken about is on two occasions. On retirement: now that you are leaving, here’s what we appreciate about you. And when someone dies, all debts are forgiven. The problem with that conversation is that I am going to miss it – just by a couple of days! I won’t be there. So, the idea is to take and make that part of the normal discourse of how we come together. My sense of my strengths is thin. I have a thin narrative about my gifts.  I have a thin narrative about the grace given to me. I have a fat narrative about my weaknesses. You want me to talk about my deficiencies; I can go on for a week!

So, for me, the transformation, the building of community most powerfully gets expressed by confronting people with their gifts. If you say something nice to people, they run: “You brought out in me. My sister is better at that than me. I got lucky, etc.” So, these are elements of an alternative narrative. It is not a new vision for most businesses. They know what business they are in. They kind of know what they want to do and where they are. The narrative, the conversation about how we speak to each other when we come together is what keeps us frozen in this patriarchal, speed, scale, automated, outsourced world.

Changing the Conversation
Our role is to help people change the conversation. If it is the same conversation of speed, scale, automate, outsource – we won’t produce anything new. If I want to demonstrate my value to the organization, I have to help them engage in a conversation they are not used to having. I can’t just step into the ones they are habitually having all the time. If they say they don’t have time, it has nothing to do with time. Because when the boss’ boss’ boss calls, everyone has time. Time is a choice. Time is a fiction. Lack of time is an excuse for a lack of commitment. When someone says they don’t have time, I ask, “What doubts or reservations do you have about going ahead with this?” I never buy time as a reason not to do something. It is always an absence of commitment. The same is true for money.

The more I express my doubts, the less they own me. So, you need to constantly help people express their doubts to each other, because if they get named, they loose their power. When people express doubts to you, you don’t have to answer. The other thing about the new narrative is “I don’t know” is a beautiful answer. “It is a mystery to me.” “How are we going to get higher performance with lower costs?” “Nothing comes to mind at the moment.” “I don’t know.” Leadership training should begin by telling leaders to say, “I am clueless.” All of this is the construction of a different narrative.

The Small Group
The small group is the unit of transformation. If you want to impact a culture or introduce a new project, the small group is the vehicle through which that will happen. It is citizens. It is employees. Whoever is in the room with you where you start having conversations, in groups of three, four or five about commitment, about possibilities, about doubts, about dissent, and about gifts. It is about having those conversations that creates an opening for something new to occur in the culture. The small group is where that happens. The small group is where everybody’s voice gets heard. If people’s voice is not heard, they cannot care or commit to what we are up to. You cannot create a culture of accountability without voices being heard. You can’t make people accountable. What happens when I let go? How many grippers can I have? How many chains can I afford? And the concept that watching increases performance is jus silly. People freeze when they are being watched. So, accountability comes when people’s voices are heard, and the small group is the unit of transformation.

Good Questions
The conversation is the point and the conversation gets evoked by questions. Questions are more powerful than answers. If people have an answer, they are trying to sell you something. So, you say we are going to create a series of conversations in small groups using good questions. Now, good questions have a certain quality. One is they are ambiguous. “What do you like about what you just saw?” “What is the gift you just received from each other in the last ten minutes?” Great questions because no one knows what they hell you are talking about!  “What are the cross-roads you are at this stage of your life?” “What is your contribution to the very problem you are complaining about?” “What doubts and reservations do you have about this?” “What did you say ‘No’ to yesterday that you no longer mean?” The great questions are ambiguous. They are personal. And they are anxiety-provoking.

The Stranger
The other thing that makes the small group powerful, and builds community – community being the experience of connectedness and trusting each other – is that you always want people to sit with strangers. “Like-mindedness” is the enemy of an alternative future. The electronic world is about like-mindedness; it is a defence against an alternative future. I need the stranger in the conversation in creating an alternative future. The stranger gives me surprise. The people who know me are not good for my transformation. To the people who know me, I have become predictable; I am their project. The people who know me make it harder for me to shift. So, as the facilitator, you are always grouping people with those who know each other the least. Through this emphasis on the stranger, what you are bringing into the world is the possibility of hospitality. Hospitality is the welcoming of strangers. Walls represent the fear of the stranger; treating the stranger as the ‘other;’ as if they are dangerous or are going to take something that is mine. Part of building community is creating space for hospitality in the world.

Be curious, not Helpful
The other thing about the small group is to admonish people not to be helpful to each other. Help is a means of controlling other people. Advice says I know what is best for you. Substitute curiosity for help. If our project is to humanize and to build a sense of community and connectedness within systems that aren’t naturally bent that way – even though people are built that way — as a person, I am longing to overcome the isolation, but the culture I work in is designed not to support that. If I am going to do that, then I have to get people connected, and stop controlling them and each other. Stop knowing what is best for each other. Ask each other, “Why does that matters to you?” I am interested in what things mean to you. I am not interested in what you are going to do about it. Action now means tomorrow will be like yesterday, so you postpone action. Action is important, but not just yet. Postpone it for these conversations of curiosity – “Why does this matter to you?” This is the methodology. That is why every moment is a mixture of methodology and metaphor.

The Ground Rules for a Small Group
1. Choose someone you don’t know and form your group of three.

2. Don’t wait to be chosen. (Most of us are waiting for an invitation that will never come.)

3. Sit with your knees less than 9 inches from your neighbour.

4. Don’t be helpful to each other. (Substitute curiosity for advice.)

It doesn’t matter why we are meeting. Somehow, in the course of that gathering, people have to break into small group. Here is the question: “Share with each other what is shifting for you as a result of showing up here today?” OR “What is the cross-roads you are at, at this stage of your life?” OR “What is the commitment that led you to show up today?”(I am not interested in people’s opinions or in too much analysis).

If we do this, we will engage in a narrative based on gift-mindedness rather than power. A narrative based on abundance rather than scarcity. A narrative based on cooperation rather than competition. It brings a balance into the world. The world comes in expecting patriarchy, so you try to reconstruct how people gather. The questioning is the declaration of intent, and people will choose the level in which they will be comfortable.

However, remember that you can’t leave people in a small group too long, as they become tribal. You have to bring them back to the whole. You need to have people show up and care for the well-being of the whole. High control systems eliminate the care for the whole. When they come back to the whole, don’t ask them to report on what happened or put their comments on flipcharts. You ask people, “What struck you about the conversation you just had?” This question creates space for lightning to strike. Lightning is the image and symbol of transformation of wakening, of awareness.

When someone asks say, “What does curiosity look like?” Say, “Thank you.” The wish for definition is a defence against entering it. You don’t want to define things as this reinforces the parent-child approach. The old narrative is that if you get curious, we won’t achieve the bottom line. We have made humanity and outcomes hostile to each other. From good outcomes comes smart humanity. We get nervous about the bottom line in this culture of scarcity and we are not enough.

Closure with the Small Group
The way to get completion, to get closure in the process is to talk about gifts. For me to understand my gifts, I need you to figure that out in the particular. I don’t need a strengths assessment or a questionnaire, because then I am delegating insight to third parties. Now, they are useful because they get us started.

Every time we are in a small group, before they leave, we need a conversation about what was useful about us being together today. Most of the time the conversation is about what we can do better next time we are together. Well, there won’t be a next time. We will never meet like this again. This notion of what we can do better next time reinforces patriarchy. It reinforces scarcity. It reinforces the notion that we are not enough. If I want a culture of abundance, it will only come through what I did with you in the last five minutes that was useful, because maybe with a little luck I will do it again. This works in every culture, in every place in the world. Don’t be seduced by all this talk about, “You don’t understand the culture here.” Don’t tell me there is a culture in the world that does not care about intimacy, about freedom, about possibility. So, just tell each other, “Here is what you did in the last ten minutes that touched me, that moved me, or that was of value to me.” If someone says something nice to you, just say “Thank you.”

This represents my notes from attending Peter’s keynote address at the 2010 Canadian Society for Training and Development National Confernece (November 18, 2010). Peter Block is an author, consultant and citizen of Cincinnati, Ohio. His work is about chosen accountability and the reconciliation of community. Peter is the author of several best selling books, the most widely known being Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used (1st edition 1980, revised 1999).