Complex Creatures at Work


Despite our best attempts to reduce them to comprehensible, singularly driven simplicity in the stories we love to tell and listen to, real human beings are complex and contradictory in all contexts, including the workplace.

If we’re able to be honest with ourselves (which is surprisingly hard), we often find that none of our relationships are one-dimensional. We combine opposites in one relationship. Maybe we respect someone in some ways but also despise them in others. Often we feel repulsed by someone and at the same time powerfully drawn to them (which brings us the standard romantic comedy trope of the romance that starts with strong dislike). After all, the deeper someone connects us to ourselves, the more they connect us to our unconscious shadows. This makes it harder for us to accept ourselves in connection with them. And who can deny the love-hate relationship we often tend to have with our close family, finding them often deeply difficult to be with and yet deeply loving them at the same time?

This tension can have a particularly powerful impact at work, especially when it’s denied or overlooked, which it usually is. Conversations in the workplace often compel us to simplify. They demand clarity rather than ambiguity, reassurance rather than an embrace of the unknown and the fear associated with it. The acceptance of our contradictory natures is replaced with a pretence that we are all like characters in a mass market movie: we have simple, straightforward drives, whether visible or hidden, and when asked where we stand we are often expected to take one side, or the other.

Ambiguous truths

Let me give you an example. Recently, we had a change in our leadership in GrantTree (yes, even with holacracy, perhaps especially there, the term leadership definitely makes sense). I chose to step into a role that was empty, a strategy role with long-term impact. In a company meeting where this was being discussed openly, someone asked me what reassurance I could give about my level of commitment to the role (like many entrepreneurs, I have been known to get distracted easily, which is not a plus in this kind of role).

Now, the standard answer in a typical company would be to assert my deep commitment, declare I’m in this for the long run, swear my allegiance to the cause… in other words, give the kind of safe pep talk that people often expect when such a question is asked by someone taking on a leadership position.

But that would have been a lie, that would not have recognised the truth of who I am, and where I was with this decision, this commitment.

Instead, I gave people the truth: I don’t know what the future holds. Even as a founder, I cannot truthfully commit to stay somewhere for X number of years, because I cannot see the future, I don’t know what might happen, I don’t know what might change for me or others. Hell, I don’t know if I’ll still be alive in 10 minutes – how pretentious to pretend I can see the future and decide it in advance?

What I can offer is a commitment in the present moment: that today, I feel more committed to this role, to this work, than I have felt for a long time. That today, I believe that the purpose that we’re trying to achieve at GrantTree is worthwhile and stimulating to me. That today it seems to me that my work at GrantTree is an expression of the same sort of impact that I seek to have everywhere else that I go, so it would make little sense to me to let go of such a powerful vehicle for it. That today I care about GrantTree and that if I were to leave this role at some point, would want to do it in a way that minimised the damage to the company.

This was an ambiguous truth, but it was authentic. In my experience, this type of communication is woefully rare in relationships both personal and at work. I wish it weren’t so. When we pretend to be simpler beings with simpler motivations, we not only deny the richness of our own experience, but we also close down space for the experience of others. Conversely, when we express ourselves more fully, we create space for others to join us.

I wish that happened more often in all contexts, but my primary focus here is the workplace. So much is said about how important trust is to building strong relationships, and how relationships are the engine that makes a business work – yet in most workplaces, that trust is eroded by leaders every time they simplify their truth and claim to know what the future holds. Do you want your team to trust you? Treat them like the adults they are and tell them the ambiguous truth instead of serving them over-simplifications and half-lies.

And the same works in reverse of course: if your team are all wearing masks, pretending to be simplified versions of themselves, how can you really know them? And if you can’t know them, how can you trust them?

The willingness to be vulnerable in offering your authentic, ambiguous truth is fundamental to building the trust that a company relies on to function well.

Hidden Motives

Another place where I’ve observed the “simplification at work” causing damage is when discussing motives. Some time ago, someone had a proposal to make some changes to the company structure and they were asking for my input. When discussing the change I suggested that whether I thought it was a good idea depended on how much of the driver for this change was a hidden motive to get away from someone else in the company (who I knew they had an ongoing conflict with) by splitting a circle in two. In Holacracy, roles and responsibilities are divided into circles, which have jurisdiction over different parts of the business.

I was met with indignation. The person protested, “I don’t have hidden motives!” On the one hand, I was a little surprised: when I look at myself, I find that I usually have more hidden motives than visible ones. But on the other hand, as I have been discussing so far, this behaviour is such a natural feature of the work environment, the “I’m a fictional hero with clear motives” model of reality.

If hidden motives are considered a character flaw, people will not admit to them. In most workplaces, having hidden motives is bad enough to perhaps make you a liar – having hidden motives you’re not even aware of may mark you as deeply untrustworthy. How bizarre, given that we all share this ocean of subconscious motivation.

We all have hidden motives we don’t know about.

I would like us to embrace the fact that we all are full of hidden motives. It is a rare thing to truly know your own soul. I know I don’t. My invitation here then, is to welcome the fact that we are all bundles of contradictions full of dark corners, and with that, embrace the opportunity to discover those hidden lands within our selves together. Then we can make the workplace a highly effective playground to practice that old adage: Know thyself.

Even better: a workplace where people are willing to admit that they have hidden motives and to explore those together, is one that is likely to be far more effective in its goals of getting work done.

A call for opposites

We only truly make room for one thing when we accept its opposite. The deepest enjoyment of life often becomes possible only with the awareness of the inevitability of death. Relationships are all the sweeter and richer when we realise how tenuous and finite they are and so learn to truly squeeze the juice out of every moment. The true meaning of our human dignity is often to be found amongst the rubble of the most degrading events of our lives.

When we, at work, demand things to be simplified into one side of the polarities, when we expect everyone to be a fictional hero with a clear heart and simple motivations – instead of accepting that we’re all complex beings with deep shadows as well as burning lights – we choose to attenuate our aliveness at work, and with it, the powerful energy we bring to our actions.

It is hard enough to do this at my own company, but I have a wish that one day every workplace will be somewhere where we are welcome to explore all facets of who we are, and a deep belief that this is also the way to multiplying the impact of our work.

How do you feel about that?

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Daniel Tenner

AKA Swombat. Serial entrepreneur, tech geek and startup blogger, prolific HN commenter. GrantTree founder. His superpower: the ability to turn anything into a so-called “dan joke”.