17 November 2019
By: Tomas Malmsten

Above my pay grade

We as individuals create self-deceptions to make life easier to deal with. So do organisations. I've worked for many organisations who have said they hold to a set of values but they do not conduct their work in accordance with them. When I challenge them on the topic I am often met with hostility or a blank face.

What I am finding is that when organisations behave like this it creates a destructive environment to work in. My tolerance level for such things is pretty low and when I find that others don't listen it usually ends with me leaving. I know I am not alone in this. Many that I've met who are good at their job seem to act the same way. Since it is easy for us to get another job we move on. The work involved in making an organisation, where most of the people in the organisation are complicit in the self-deception, understand that they do not live by their values is just too much work to be worth it. But I usually find it worth to at least try.

How to do this depends largely on which context I'm in. When I'm on the floor, as part of a team, with little or no ability to influence decision makers higher up the change I work with the team. I've coined this approach "Above my pay grade". This is since no matter how hard I try to change those in power they will not listen. They see such meddling as above my pay grade.

In such a context I only have the ability to influence the people close to me. The other people on the team. If I am successful I can help the team find their way back to the enthusiasm and pride most have felt at some point in their career. It may also affect others, especially other teams who are close by. If we are lucky the ripple effects may actually influence the organisation at large. But that takes time.

The key to be successful is to gain peoples trust and create a safe place where people dare challenge how they perceive the world around them. Without this psychological safety most people will not be able to open up and become vulnerable enough to stop deceiving them self. Remember that self-deception is a survival instinct. When the truth becomes too painful to live with but we have no option but to stay we start deceiving ourselves to survive.

I've found that I do this best by being a good listener. If I can hear what someone is really saying and challenge their assumption in a non-confrontational way. They need to make the realisations that they deceive themselves. This is the only way they will be open to change. It is not entirely unlike leading from behind. Or as Lao Tzu puts it in Dao De Ching (translation by Stephen Mitchell), verse 17:

The Master doesn't talk, they act.
When their work is done,
The people say, "Amazing:
"we did it, all by ourselves!"

(I did the singular they replacement of he)

This is not an easy thing to accomplish, and I'm no professional, but I practice it as well as I can.

This is in contrast to pushing the truth on others. What I say may be true but others will not be prepared to hear it from me. The harder I push, the harder they will resist change. Because change will only come from within. Not from outside.

Tags: Ponderings Agile