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A revolution in organizing that began 40 years ago is still underway. We are moving from command and control to collaboration, from organizing based on a few leaders telling everyone what to do to dispersed leadership, with managers, professionals and teams authorized to make their own decisions. The combination of information technology and new forms of organizing have resulted in an explosion in innovation in how we structure organizations, all intended to increase the capacity for people to collaborate – to harness the intelligence, knowledge, and commitment of everyone in the system. Yet, few of these innovations have lived up to their promise. Studies of successful, innovative work systems show that most of them revert back to command and control within a few years.

At Clear Learning we believe the key to building sustainable collaborative teams and work systems is the ability of individuals to maintain partnerships with other individuals. Partnership is a relationship between two or more people who are jointly committed to the success of whatever process or project they are engaged in. We believe that most people want to be in partnership with their boss, their subordinates, their colleagues, customers and suppliers – they want to be working with others who are committed to their mutual success. Sustaining collaboration is not a motivation problem, it's a skill problem.

We think the core skills required are the ability to talk skillfully about the partnership and learn from the collective experience of those in the partnership. There are two things about how the human mind works, and one thing about how we typically manage anxiety, that make it challenging for two or more people to learn from their experience and sustain or improve their partnership. Clear Leadership teaches people how to overcome those challenges

1 We Create Our Own Experience

Ask five different people what happened at any event and you will get five different answers. Some will be more similar and some will be more different, but the point here is that everyone is having a different experience. The evidence is overwhelming that experience comes both from outside the person (what a person sees and hears) and a range of mental, biological, historical and cultural processes inside the person. This explains why people can have very different memories of the same event. In a very real sense, everyone creates their own experience.

When people think about learning from their collective experience the most common image is a discussion about something that happened in the recent past in order to decide what to do similarly and differently in the future. But if everyone creates their own experience and everyone is having a different experience, this is much more complicated than it first appears. What typically happens when people try to learn from their collective experience is an implicit discussion of who had the "right" experience. In a collaborative relationship, everyone's experience is "right", so attempts to have learning conversations either go nowhere, or the boss asserts his or her experience as the right one. This solves the problem of what to discuss and analyze but it creates a bigger problem. Employees who have a different experience from their boss, but are forced to accept the boss's experience as the "right experience" reduce their sense of responsibility for the success of their mutual endeavor. Overtime, any sense of partnership by employees goes out the window in a process that is invisible to the boss and which most can't explain.

2 We are Sense-Making Beings

The second key mental process that gets in the way of sustained partnership is sense-making. Humans are compelled to make sense of people who are important to them and when they try to make sense of other people's behavior they almost always make up a story about the other's experience. They fill in the gaps of what they know about the other's thoughts, feelings and wants so that their actions make sense. Crucially, they rarely go to the person they are making sense of to ask questions to try and understand them. Instead people talk to third parties to try and make sense of what they think they are observing. This is especially true if they are trying to make sense of unproductive or unpleasant interactions.

Together, these two processes of experience and sense-making lead to a dysfunctional condition we call Interpersonal Mush. Interpersonal Mush is a description of an interaction between two or more people based on stories they have made up about each other but not checked out. For a number of reasons, the stories made up about others at work tend to be more negative than positive so that over time, interpersonal mush becomes more and more toxic. This has a number of negative consequences for organizations. We think it is what ultimately destroys partnerships. Clear Leadership is a set of skills for clearing out the mush and finding out what is real.

3 We are Anxiety Avoiding Beings

The third contribution to the challenge of learning from collective experience comes from how most of us learn to take responsibility for other people's experience and hold other people responsible for our own experience. Most people accept that each of us creates our own experience yet talk and act as if others are creating their experience (e.g., "you make me so angry"). This is called fusion and it is a method for managing anxiety. When you are fused with others, you train them in what thoughts, feelings and wants are OK to say out loud, and which ones are not, so they won't say anything that makes you anxious. Whenever you try to change someone's experience (don't think that, think this; don't feel that, feel this; don't want that, want this) before you really understand it, you are probably operating out of your fusion and your primary motive is to get rid of a knot in your stomach or some other unpleasant feeling.

It's rare for people to not have some fusion, and it is strongest in our personal lives with family and friends. At Clear Learning we have developed training processes that help people recognize, get a grip on and reduce the fusion in their working relationships so they can have skillful conversations about their partnerships and learn from their collective experience.

To build organizations where partnership flourishes we have to work with, rather than against, these normal human processes. People are not going to stop creating their own experience and they are not going to stop trying to make sense of each other. The problem is that we don't acknowledge these processes and make them visible. They aren't things we talk about. Until we talk about them we can't manage them. Clear Leadership is a set of skills and attitudes that has made over a thousand managers able to make these processes visible, make it possible to discuss them in ways that build partnership and lead to continuous improvement in relationships, teams and organizations.

Michael Covert, CEO
Palomar Health
San Diego, CA
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