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Business Lessons from the AT (Appalachian Trail) Part 5

~Distinction, drive, learning, culture, and you

In a recent LinkedIn post from Dr Nora Gold she shares an interesting infographic about empathy. Most of what we see, observe, and think we know of others is on the outside but there is always more below the surface. Empathy, one of the pillars of emotional intelligence, is the key to creating high-performing teams whether you’re in a boardroom, on a factory floor, or crossing a mountain pass.

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Mischief, Anthony, and I became quick companions and several days later, when my son and I were low on food, Mischief was also relieving his pack of extra weight and had food to give away, it was unexpected, fortuitous “trail-magic.” Shamefully, I have a confession. Before we embarked on our journey it’s likely I would have hiked fast past someone like Mischief in my everyday world with little regard, considering him too different from myself to share anything in common with or even be a person of substance and depth, no longer.  Learn more about Chris at Mischief on the Trail. I checked on his progress this week and he’s in Vermont, one state away from achieving his goal, way to go Chris!

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Learning. Jackrabbits and Turtles

In organizations, and even on the trail, there are fast movers and slow ones, and all of them are learners. I call the fast learners Jackrabbits and I think of the slow ones like turtles. Within each ecosystem (the organizational one and the trail one) there is an accumulated wealth of knowledge I call “the code.” I think of the code like a cloud of information; learned practices, knowledge and behavior floating above the organization and its environment, everything the organization learns, knows, and shares gets deposited there. In the course of daily activities, members act and interact on a field of play in the course of work (or on the trail), and they take from and contribute to this codified accumulated bank of knowledge, the code.

Regarding our different learners, fast and slow, the late researcher James March discovered something remarkable about them. Of the two types of learners (fast and slow), the slow learners contributed far more to the codified cumulative knowledge of the organization and the group than the fast learners did. Fast learners by comparison contributed little to nothing while still taking the knowledge they needed from the code to be successful. This is surprising when it’s considered that fast learners and movers are frequently celebrated as being high performers, promoted, and given awards and accolades while slow learners and conscientious mistake makers who openly share their struggles are seen as underperforming and problematic mistake makers, detrimental, and often made negative examples of, punished, or pushed out of the organization, when their learning contributions are the greatest. This sends a troubling message to organizational members who work and try hard regarding learning, sharing, contributing, and communication within a culture. Despite this the path of the turtles in all of us is worthwhile, it’s noble, strategic, and courageous. Don’t be afraid to be a gritty learner and cultivate a growth mindset, you’ll catch up to the jackrabbits once they exhaust themselves. Above all, remind yourself, their leapfrogging isn’t personal, they know not the effect they have on others or their organization. And as for fast hikers, they’re ok too.

The context of acronyms

We all know that person who speaks fluent “acroneese.” They effortlessly string acronyms together into impenetrable non-sensical prose akin to a foreign language and almost as understandable. There’s also that person who uses so much industry-laden jargon that only an expert could decipher it. This happens so often in the scientific community in academic papers in fact that it’s now patently ignored. This is a problem however because if these papers contain any scientific breakthroughs, they often go unrecognized as few can understand the research or its contribution. Far too often, people who intentionally conceal information and data in too much jargon and acronyms have an agenda, and it’s not the proliferation of ideas or learning. Self-aggrandizement, attention-getting, control, they may not be interested in sharing, helping, or saving time (one of the primary purposes for acronyms), they may just want to dominate the subject, control the situation and outcomes, or get attention. When this happens tools originally designed to serve everyone, helping the organization to be more successful, become weaponized and everyone loses.

In the military, the use of jargon, acronyms, and even call-signs (the military equivalent of a trail name) was created to do multiple things. Streamline communication, combining groups of steps into one activity, or protecting individuals’ identities from enemy forces in times of war when radio communications are open to being intercepted are just a few reasons. Call signs and exclusive jargon can also bolster esprit de corps, promote bonding, and create camaraderie. But culture-enhancing tools like these should be used correctly and thoughtfully and need to belong to everyone or they can have a reverse effect and your culture will suffer. Years ago, I was part of a civilian company that employed a large number of veterans. In an attempt to duplicate the spirit of their former units some of the company members began to refer to each other by their former military call-signs in an official capacity. But the civilians in the company who had never served in the military didn’t have call-signs and weren’t offered similar nicknames or didn’t want them. The result? A once unified culture became fractured, and a portion of the members felt left out and grew resentful. Worse still, no leaders noticed.

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Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski is a graduate of George Washington University in Human and Organizational Learning and has been researching and studying leadership, learning, and change for over 20 years. Eric has been on all sides of the leadership fence from leader and manager to employee and servant and has practiced leadership and served leaders in some of the most coveted and challenging places in the world. With an early professional history as a technical expert, Eric has gone from being a technical SME (subject matter expert) to being a people SME and considers the human mind, human behavior, and consciousness to be the next great frontier for discovery. It is in this realm where he combines his technical subject matter expertise with his human sociological and organizational expertise for the betterment of individuals, organizations, their processes, and humanity. With additional interests in emotional intelligence or "EQ", servant leadership and followership, neuroscience, complexity science, creativity and ambidextrous organizations, Eric has been driven to finding the right balance of qualities, efforts and behaviors in order to not only build better high performing and learning teams but also create a better world in which to live, love, and grow. Eric lives on the Western shore of the Chesapeake Bay close to Washington DC with his wife, daughter, and Chow dog Wamu. Eric is the author of The Rise of the Ambidextrous Organization and Leading Ambidextrous Organizations, Part 1,2,3 (E-Books).

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