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At a time that some are calling the Great Resignation, organizations of every stripe seem to be struggling from the loss of their people. Airlines report shortages of pilots. Hospitals report shortages of nurses, technicians, and other personnel. Retailers say they can’t find enough workers to operate their stores. Technology companies are having trouble keeping their smart people.
No industry seems to be immune from the trend.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that every month millions of Americans quit their jobs. Resignation rates are highest among mid-career employees. A recent survey of 2,000 employed Americans found that 59% have given enough thought to quitting their jobs that they’ve already drafted their resignation letters. They just haven’t submitted them. Yet.
Although the Covid pandemic has certainly had an impact on this economic and social phenomenon, we can’t blame it all on the virus. At least not on that virus. It’s clear that millions of people are rethinking what’s really important to them. They’re looking more closely than ever at the dynamics in their workplaces. A lot of them are apparently unsatisfied with what they see.
Could part of the challenge be that people have lost their superpowers?
Yes, superpowers. Not the kind that make-believe figures like Spider-Man use on the big screen. But superpowers that can be employed by most anyone who mindfully taps into their human potential to discover (or re-discover) the capacity they had all along.
Does this sound silly? John Reid doesn’t think so. He’s founder and president of a consulting group with clients including the likes of EY (Ernest & Young) and Mitzubishi. He’s teamed up with three of his colleagues to write The Five Lost Superpowers: Why We Lose Them and How to Get Them Back.
As children, John and his colleagues believe, we have natural inclinations toward Curiosity, Resilience, Authenticity, Compassion, and Playfulness. But as we enter the “grown-up” world, we’re taught to dampen or sublimate those tendencies—all to our own detriment. The good news, the authors say, is that those innate “superpowers” can be reignited.
Rodger Dean Duncan: What is it about routine human experience that causes people to be unaware of—and therefore fail to use—the five superpowers you write about?
John Reid: In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises there’s a rich dialogue in which one character is asked, “How did you go bankrupt?” The other character replies, “Gradually, then suddenly.”
I do think that the erosion of these superpowers happen so slowly that we are quite unaware that they’re disappearing until we see them vividly in others. Much of the loss of these superpowers is a combination of the cultural messages we get and what gets rewarded (e.g., answers versus questions, fitting in versus being authentic).
Duncan: You quote psychiatrist Thomas Szasz as saying “Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily.” What dynamics do you see in the typical workplace that (perhaps unintentionally) discourage curiosity in adults?
Reid: There are so many such dynamics in and out of the workplace. Here are a few:
- The emotional need to be viewed as competent, therefore not asking questions and focusing on looking smart
- The emotional need for security/certainty resulting in viewing asking questions as taking a risk; better just to keep your head down
- The emotional need for belonging and fitting in, which can lead to groupthink and the false belief that everyone else seems to understand
- One-way communication vehicles that companies and managers use that discourage questions and confuse being heard with being understood
- People mistakenly valuing what they know (their technical expertise) over what they still have to learn
Duncan: What role does a free flow of question-asking play in the development of curiosity?
Reid: It is critical to curiosity. What we see in our work is that people tend not to ask good questions (those that require the other party to think) and often don’t actively listen for the answers anyway. If you are really listening, the speaker will tell you what your next question should be.
Duncan: To help people develop their curiosity superpower, you suggest that they put on what you call their curiosity C.A.P.E. Tell us about that.
Reid: Well, the book has a slight superpower theme, so naturally each of our recommendations in our tool belt follow the theming.
Cast a Wide Net
This is self-explanatory – and yet can be difficult. This is about reading and listening to sources with which you may not agree. Ouch. That is the hard part. The easier part is to read a lot – and particularly fiction.
Ask Better Questions
This is, as I mentioned earlier, asking questions that cause the other person to think deeply, evaluate or speculate. These types of questions send the message of real interest and therefore also tend to deepen relationships.
This is my favorite. It is so liberating to get over the idea of being “right” and replacing this with the idea that we all have our own perspectives. We tend to spend way too much energy defending our own and little time understanding how others get to theirs. It is compounded by “Us versus Them” thinking.
Explore and Exploit
We rush to exploit what we know, and we have—at some level—forgotten how to explore. Children are great explorers and are less interested in exploiting. As we become adults and enter the business world, it can tragically become all about exploit.
Duncan: The issue of resilience seems to be gaining more and more attention in the workplace and in people’s private lives. What’s the impetus behind this interest in resilience, and what’s the key to developing that superpower?
Reid: Good question. The impetus has a lot to do with the world in which we find ourselves. It’s said that ours is now a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous). Of course, Authoritarians do well in this world since they promise that we will not have to worry, because they alone can fix it. In this case we don’t have to do the hard work of being resilient because we are expecting someone else to take care of us.
However, for the rest of us, we need to learn what it takes to navigate in these times. Resilience is attractive because it’s something that we can learn and build. The idea of being more mindful, building a social support system and thinking about how (which can lead to identifying deceptive messages) can all be learned.
Duncan: Authenticity, is the third lost superpower you write about. How do you define authenticity, and what does it “look like” in terms of observable behaviors that increase a person’s effectiveness?
Reid: Simply put, and authenticity is hard to put simply … authenticity is showing up to a situation in ways that are genuinely aligned with who we are and what we value.
Authenticity can look like ease and confidence. It can look like mustering up the courage to share something hard. It can be admitting we are scared or unsure. And it can be holding someone accountable when they don’t follow through. Authentic behaviors demonstrate a consistency of beliefs and behaviors that instill trust. Being trustworthy is foundational to successful professional and personal relationships.
Duncan: What is it about our current political and social warfare climate that seems to place compassion out of vogue, and what can people do to regain this superpower?
Reid: Well, it is not out of vogue for people with whom we have a connection. If you are part of the “Us” group you are viewed as someone deserving of compassion, whose situation is unique. The problem is not having compassion for “Them” or “Others.” We tend to view them as homogeneous and deserving of their misfortune. To regain this, we need to lean hard, not into diversity, but into inclusion. Diversity is helpful to appreciate one another—but it is figuring out what we have in common that will expand the “Us” and make compassion more likely.
Duncan: Playfulness is likely something that never occurred to most people as a superpower. How does playfulness improve people’s effectiveness in environments where the work is as serious as, say, heart surgery or running a nuclear power plant?
Reid: Your question highlights the problem—what is the value of playfulness in the workplace and, more specifically, to serious work like heart surgery? It is a common reaction because, well, work is work and play is play. That said, there are a lot of simulations and games used in both of the fields you mention.
First, let’s remember the outcomes that playfulness offers: innovation, creativity, open-dialogue, engagement and reduction in stress. These are outcomes that would be welcomed in your two environments.
We are not talking about throwing frisbees around the operating room—just creating an environment, in the right context and time, to be more relaxed and open to new ways of thinking.
Duncan: How this idea of superpowers come to you?
Reid: First, I am almost pathologically opposed to single solutions to complex problems. So, I think things like Grit, Purpose and, to a lesser degree, Vulnerability, do a great disservice by offering what appears to be “the solution.” TEDTalks are built, disciples are created, and it risks taking on zealotry, simply stated. I wince when someone says they have “The Answer.” I always believe in complexity and think that there are many answers.
So, it therefore makes sense that I would go with five superpowers to hopefully meet the readers where they are and offer potential avenues.
In my own personal life, Curiosity has served me extremely well. And so I had mentioned for years that it was a “lost superpower.” I got the team of authors together and we identified four others that could stand alone, were defendable (based on research) and people could embrace.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.