A Research Paper By Adam Bower, Leadership Growth & Community Transformation Coach, IRELAND
Dr. Doug Austrom Interview: Explore His Perspectives on Where Community, Coaching, and Transformation Meet
This interview is with Canadian-born Dr. Doug Austrom, a lecturer at Kelley School of Business – Indiana University, an active member of The Mankind Project and The Socio-Technical Systems Roundtable, and he’s someone I am fortunate to call a coach, collaborator, and friend. Doug deeply cares about fairness, finding joy in lifelong learning, and liberating people so they can choose to be life-giving. He has brought these elements forward through his life’s work as an organisational transformation specialist to make a positive impact. I am fortunate to have sat down with Doug to understand and explore his perspectives on where community, coaching, and transformation meet.
Doug modestly laughs, ‘I don’t know, I have 35 years of experience or one year of experience 35 times’ and describes his life as a series of fortunate opportunities, where he’s bumped into many other great organisational thinkers and changemakers along the way. One was socio-technical expert Eric Trist, grandfather of The Quality of Life at Work Movement. Doug met Eric soon after finishing his psychology dissertation, and this meeting led him down a path of purpose, transformation, and learning how to coordinate human activity. The first workshop Doug ran explored ‘How do you truly build a customer-driven, customer-focused, customer-centered firm?’ and here he met his first client, Eli Lilly, and Company. Almost 40 years later, Doug still partners with this purpose-driven company as a contributor to their purpose to ‘proudly been caring with discovery to create medicines that make life better and works with clients worldwide.
Community Is Fundamental to Life
We begin our conversation pondering over a question, ‘How does one build an organisation fit for purpose?’
It is a multilayered question, and there are a few ideas Doug begins to connect here, framing his work as fundamentally being about people, seeing people as people and not as objects.
‘Organisations exist to serve customers. This is their primary purpose or Raison d’Etre. Shareholder value and profits are essential, but a by-product. Saying you’re in business to maximize shareholder value or profits is like saying you live to breathe. We need to breathe to live, but we don’t live solely to breathe.
But what does living look like then? The way we live today in mass society is a relatively new phenomenon in the course of human history. We existed as a species primarily in hunter-gather bands of 40 – 70 people making up a community – we are hard-wired to want to be living in a community, and to be fully healthy, we need to be living in a community.
We can learn a lot from biology and ecosystems, which are a community system of sorts; a community of species, some animals and plants, living interdependently and adapting together like one organism. Community is fundamental to life.
But all too often, our organisations are set up to operate not so much on the Organism/Community Metaphor but on a machine Metaphor, which has been the dominant organisational image since industrial society. Within this metaphor, people are implicitly viewed as interchangeable parts, and when you are set up like a machine, you tend to treat your customers like a machine too. It becomes difficult to serve customers purposefully when you feel like an object instead of a person. It doesn’t empower people.
What Does an Empowering Organisational Environment Look Like?
Doug recalls a study that Facebook undertook to explore the question, ‘What are the key things that employees want and value?’ This was across all levels, all functions, and all geographies, and Facebook came up with three C’s. The first C people want is a Career, including salaries, opportunities, progress, challenge and mastery, and a reasonable degree of autonomy too. The third C is a cause which is a purpose, but the middle C is Community.
‘As a human race, we still seek community in our lives, but too often, we’ve had to separate our community to be away from work, where we spend the bulk of our waking hours. Suppose we can create an environment where it feels and behaves like a community of reciprocity and mutual benefit. In that case, we become far more powerful, far more engaging, and ultimately far more purposeful.’
What Have You Learned Through Your Travels About How Community Building Works?
‘Years ago, I came across the Foundation for Community Encouragement; a not-for-profit that grew out of the work of Scott Peck, best known for his book The Road Less Travelled. He also wrote a book, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, describing the process of coming together. Peck believed community Building makes hope real again and makes vision manifest in a world that he considered had almost forgotten what it means to be human.
The Community Building process begins with Pseudo-community where people are generally polite to each other. Like the typical Team Building ‘Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing’ model – we get into this period of more chaotic discord where we get tired of the veneer of politeness not working, mutual frustrations bubble up, and then we get to a place of emptiness, in which we let go of our personas and the masks that we show up behind. When we put our masks down, there’s a level of openness and vulnerability. We can then achieve a notion of TrueCommunityand achieve meaningful things together. In this place, we can add a fifth dimension to the Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing – Transforming.
I see True Community as a process of mutual trust and respect. For a handful of years, I attended annual conferences in Knoxville, Tennessee. We would do this community-building process, with about 50 people in a huge circle, and the facilitators would start by sharing The Rabbi’s Parable. A story that speaks to how powerful, and extraordinary respect for self and others is in terms of true community building. In these types of sessions, you have to let go and assume positive intentions, which many of us have trouble doing because we still operate in a traditional corporate mindset.
After a couple of days, you get to this intense experience, almost like a high, because it is an entirely different way of interacting and being with each other. An extremely thoughtful independent scholar at one of those events called Parker Palmer. In his keynote presentation, he gently chastised us, saying what we thought we had as a community wasn’t real, sustained, or intentional because we all go back to our own everyday lives on a Monday.
Parker was right. The community takes the day-to-day work, which is more challenging to nurture on an ongoing basis, and this comes down to the quality of people’s relationships. It can be the same when we have coaching sessions or facilitate workshops in organizations. The real work begins when our clients leave our conversation. This takes practice.
We can apply these principles in organisations too. This notion of organisations as community organisations, as organisms, is incredibly powerful because we are far more likely to foster truly engaged behaviour, and different levels of connection operate with higher levels of basic trust. And so psychologically, it is just a far healthier space to be in rather than a space where we are constantly in fight or Flight Mode.
The Fight or Flight notion, as opposed to fundamental respect and trust for others still deeply embedded in our hardwiring. Because when we were in hunter-gatherer bands if you met somebody on the trail, you had a very short period to decide whether you could trust them. This still shows up in the crucial conversations we have with people today. These are the types of conversations where stakes are high and emotions are running high. We either go into Fight Mode, which leads to arguments and usually unproductive outcomes, or we flee; even if we are still in the room, we just tune out and leave. Learning to respect, truly connect, and appreciate each other opens up a whole new world of possibility.’
Organisational Fear Is an Interesting Challenge. Psychological Safety Has Been Explored in Depth by People Like Dr. Amy Edmondson, and It Is Fundamental for Creativity, Collaboration, and Innovation. I Was in a Conversation Recently Where We Discussed What Gets in the Way of Creativity. One View Came up as ‘Judging of Others’. Another View Came up as ‘Fear of Judgment. I Am Wondering, in an Organisational Context, if Is It Better to Focus On Coaching the Judger or on Coaching the Individual’s Fear. What’s Your View?
‘If we’re coming in with an attitude of judging, some of that’s already fear-based for the person doing the judging. Context is important.
If we are judging in an environment where there’s high trust and where there is an assumption of a positive intention, it is not going to be connected to fear, but instead connected to this implicit pact with each other that I’m not judging you; I am judging the idea. When we are judging the idea, we are rustling with ‘How does this possibility, this idea that you’re raising, address our common challenge or problem? How will it move forward to a solution?
When we are in a high-fear environment, judging separates people.
I saw a subtle but important reworking recently of some of these things start with an attitude of joining; there will always be time for judging.’
What Are the Coaching Implications When There Is Fear Embedded in the Culture?
‘Helping people see and become self-aware about how they are showing up from a place of fear as opposed to high trust is critical. I look at organizations today and see the dynamics manifesting as high fear, low trust, or low-fear, high trust. If fear or coercion is the dominant way that collective activity is coordinated, and coercive activities like psychological manipulation and compensation manipulation have been used historically as a way of keeping people always constantly on their toes and on edge, it is tough to shift to what the organisational sociologists call normative means of coordination like shared purpose, shared values and all the rest. People aspire to these normative means because they are so much more life-giving.
Irrespective of the system people are in when I am coaching, I am trying to help people see themselves, and if I borrow someone’s observation, I hope to give them the gift of choice between simply reacting out of fear and responding out of what is the higher self that they want to be in the moment.
360 feedback, where people receive feedback from their managers, peers, stakeholders, teams, and even family members, is a means that I have used often over the years to support people in building awareness of the fundamental issues they face and to understand ‘Am I operating out of fear? Or am I operating out of love?’
Fear is about keeping yourself safe, and on the social side, this shows up as people-pleasing, which ultimately doesn’t work because people see through it. You know, you’re doing it, and there’s still the underlying core of it protecting yourself or being hypercritical or being a perfectionist – all of these are strategies we learned from a very young age to survive in the world of giants – adults. Strategies that have helped us get as far as we have in our lives and our careers, but they also create their own kinds of separations between us and others because we are constantly being essentially fearful. When we are always looking for safety and security, we can’t operate out of a life-giving place of generativity.
To be truly effective, 360 tools require coaches to get into ‘Where is this coming from? Where in your life story have you learned or needed to protect yourself in this way? Where did you create this armor?’Returning to the community-building process work of Scott Peck, armor is the persona we show up with all the time. We are self-protective, so we are never genuinely being our authentic selves, instead, we are showing up in a way we think the world will most favorably respond to us. An effective coach can help clients understand why they are showing up from a place of fear and work with them to move forward and lay the foundations for the community.
If You Began Working With a New Organisation or Group of People and Had the Luxury of Choosing, Would You Focus On Coaching the Individuals First or the Group?
You can’t separate the two. In an ideal world, with the luxury of a Senior Leadership Team who is supportive of the agenda,I would focus on the individuals and then the teams in a close sequence so they work in parallel. Individual coaching can help us collectively understand where people are coming from, some of the underlying things driving them and how they show up, and what about those old stories that are no longer serving the individual.
Focusing on individuals becomes a ticket to teamwork because people are becoming more self-aware and understand more of the ‘How I am’ and ‘Why am I showing up in this particular way?’ Some people will go through the process to check the box because they feel they need to or had a fear of missing out.
Most companies will go to let’s change something about the organisation without understanding and addressing what it is that is keeping people stuck in their old story.
I encourage people to stop trying to change people and focus on changing the system. You know people are doing what they do because they’re smart. And it’s the things in the current systems, the drivers and enablers, causing them to make the decisions they do. It’s not that they’re resisting change. I mean, yeah, we don’t like to be manipulated or changed. To change whole organisations, we need to be able to start looking and locating things in the system that are working against the more effective, productive, positive behaviors. To do this, we can use methods like Appreciative Inquiry and engaging people in their dreams, hopes, aspirations, and best selves to transform people with the system. We can then build on our best and our strengths rather than always focusing on our gaps and weaknesses.
One thing you need to bridge the work between individuals, groups, and the organisation is a common language and work with groups of people to connect the dots so that you can create coherence. Understanding what each other is trying to achieve and creating an integral picture, so there is a common frame of reference and understanding – it’s a huge part of a community.
How Do You Approach This Type of Change Like ‘Best Self’ Without It Being Perceived as Some Sort of Evangelism?
If you are leading a change initiative with positive energy, enthusiasm for life, connecting people, and creating a place where people feel a sense of belonging, you have made a choice to be hopeful. You have chosen to believe that the way things have been don’t necessarily define the way they things have to be. We can evolve, improve, and be more life-engendering.
If you look underneath the hood at where people are coming from, there can be a certain kind of skepticism and cynicism. When people bring this forward, they’re making another choice. They’re choosing to live in a place that often is fear-based.
It is possible that at some point in their life, they may have also had that kind of energy, enthusiasm, and excitement for life. And their experience may have been that energy, enthusiasm, and exuberance have been betrayed, and they learned,‘No, you don’t want to show up that way. You can’t allow yourself to feel like that.’ Who knows, it might have been at school where that started for them. It may have been how they interacted with adults, parents, and significant others when they were younger; whatever happened, whatever was part of there their origin story. So how do you deal with it?
Peter Block’s ‘How to deal with Cynics, Victims and Bystanders’teaches us that we tend to want to argue, and we can’t because we will ultimately be arguing against ourselves. Cynics, Victims, and Bystanders have history on their sides. Suppose an organisation’s history is not generally feel good. In that case, genuine community and people are generally on edge; the excitement and enthusiasm people have brought earlier in their careers has probably been drilled out of them. In cultures like this, people are generally ground down over time. Anytime they have been super excited about something, it has been blocked -‘They said’,‘It won’t work here. We’re different or ‘They won’t let us’. It’s always they, they, they, so people land in a place of victimhood. In this place, when a Cynic, Victim, or Bystander comes across someone with energy and hopefulness, it can be scary.
All we can say in response is to frame along the lines of ‘I hear what you say; I absolutely understand that change is here and there are no guarantees. I am hopeful that we will be able to change paths and create a new organisation. I recognise all the challenges, and I choose to be not only hopeful but enthusiastic too.’
Choosing a language that will connect with people can help temper. I created an index called the PWI – Perceived Weirdness Index, which I often talk about. If I am way over here, and they are way over there, it just doesn’t work. It only works when you meet people where they are–chemistry is also important.
I am always hopeful. I gravitated to this kind of organisational change and coaching because I believe in the inherent goodness of people. Some people live in desperate places and I empathise with them. In saying that, you do need to be mindful of the energy one might bring forward, which brings the whole team down. These types of individuals mustn’t take over the emotional agenda for everyone. If it comes up in a public setting, it is critical to deflect the energy, like tai chi – by framing this as a choice, there can be another way, one with hope, enthusiasm, and acknowledging that hell yeah, it is going to be challenging.
This happens in organisational work as real-time coaching and needs leadership modeled to invite people to change their perspectives.
How Important Is a Sense of Community to a Thriving Leadership Team?
More often than one might think, in organisations people hear the words leadership team but have yet to experience what this means. When you spend time with a team, you can quickly get a sense of this; meetings are one-way, informational, and the manager is taking a dictatorial role. It makes collaboration and innovation nearly impossible in this kind of environment.
When we start thinking about a thriving community, people often think this means soft, fuzzy, singing Kumbaya, group hugs, that sort of stuff, and people really liking each other. That’s not what it is. It is, ‘How do we live together with a fundamentally different relationship?’
The foundation is that we truly see each other as human beings, not as objects or an adversary to manipulate, not as someone to forget or be ignored. But that fundamental distinction between ‘I /It’ and ‘I / Thou’. You can’t have a community unless there is that level of connection, truly seeing people as people, not as objects. And to me, that’s the fundamental kind of foundation for effective leadership.
A sense of community is not about people liking each other, but it isn’t about them respecting each other. It’s not about whether we’re all going to go drinking together, or we’re all going to be best friends, or we’re all going to have family parties every other weekend.
We have a community when we have a shared purpose, and even when I might know another person is never going to be my best mate, I know and respect what they are doing, I know how they’re contributing, I know how they’re holding themselves accountable, I can see they operate with authenticity.
So, how important is it to have a sense of community? A sense of community is not important. A sense of community is essential for leadership today, so our organisations can be truly collaborative and innovative. People can only get to this place by doing their individual work themselves, and then their group or team works together to establish formal and informal agreements and walk the talk. Seeing the positive impact here and people choosing to show up differently is life-affirming.