Gratitude > complaints

Appreciate what you have. Such a simple lesson, yet one so hard to live by. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the wants and desires and lose sight of what is already in front of you. As the stoic philosopher, Epictetus once wrote

He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.

This is as true as ever in our era of instant gratification. But how can you help yourself not to give in to your desires? To not complain about the state of things and crave for what could be? A few years ago, I did the Complaint Free World challenge. It’s straightforward but hard on the verge of impossible. Start a timer. Whenever you catch yourself complaining about anything — reset the timer. Keep doing that until you’ve gone for 21 days straight without complaining. Simple, right?

I can’t remember if I managed to finish the challenge. But I vividly remember how illuminating it was to realize how much I complained. I consider myself solution-oriented, happy, and non-complaining per default. But the first few days of the challenge felt like I voiced complaint after complaint. It was a great reality check!

Since a couple of weeks, I’m trying a similar yet different practice. Whenever I catch myself complaining, I immediately counter it with something that I’m grateful for. Preferably something within the same topic. For example, if I catch myself complaining about the weather, I counter it with something about the weather that I’m grateful for. It’s less daunting than the challenge, and I like how it also makes a difference to other people. When they hear me complain, they’ll hopefully hear me be grateful a moment later.

Leader-to-leader

Leader-to-leader is easiest explained by contrasting it with leader-to-follower. It’s common for people to unconsciously divide people into leaders and followers and make assumptions about what each group can do. These assumptions will influence the way we think and act and have an impact on performance.

In the “leader-to-follower” model, leaders tell followers what to do. The leader becomes the bottle-neck and the single point of failure. Given time, it’s a sure-fire way to make enthusiastic and engaged employees disengaged and disillusioned.

The “leader-to-leader” model recognizes that everyone has the ability and potential to lead. Some people lead groups of other people, some people lead themselves and their actions. It taps into each individual’s potential in an organization and reduces dependency on any one person. It allows senior leaders to step back and encourages junior and middle leaders to step up.

The leader-to-leader model requires three components to work: control, competency, and clarity. Control is the root component, with the other two acting as supporting pillars. Without competence and clarity, decentralized control will quickly bring chaos.

Control

To decentralize control is a core feature of the leader-to-leader model. Each individual needs the freedom and authority to decide why, what, and how they’re going to work. The goal is to delegate decision-making as far as possible in the organization. 

  • As a person in a traditional leadership role: Give up control by delegating. Make it clear that even while you’re giving up control, you are maintaining responsibility. 
  • As a person not in a traditional leadership role: Don’t expect “a leader” to solve your problems for you. Think of yourself as a leader of your specific domain, and act like it. A practical change to make is to rephrase “Can I…?” to “I intend to…!” when you have found something that needs to change.

Competence

Every person at every level must have the technical competence to make the right decision at any given time. Things will quickly fall apart if people are given control without having the required knowledge and resources. 

  • As a person in a traditional leadership role: Make sure that people you delegate to have the skills required. Be explicit about your expectations and talk about the skills needs of the person you delegate to. 
  • As a person not in a traditional leadership role: Look closely at the responsibilities you are given. Do you have the skills needed to handle them? If not, be explicit with what skills you need to develop. This is not a failure. Finding and closing gaps in our skillset should be a celebrated accomplishment.

Clarity

For people at all levels to make effective decisions, they must be aligned with the organization’s purpose. They need to have a complete understanding of the goals and decision-making criteria. 

  • As a person in a traditional leadership role: Make sure that the purpose, goals, and decision-making criteria are known to everyone. Communicate about them often and clearly. Have explicit conversations with your people about them. 
  • As a person not in a traditional leadership role: You need to fully understand the purpose, goals, and decision-making criteria that you are to operate within. If you’re unsure about any of the three, act as a leader and go find them.

Work with the garage door open

I have an affection for work done in the open. I love how OSS projects morph and take shape in front of everyone who’s interested. I love how an open-minded conversation can totally re-frame a project. I love the tension and inspiration that comes with putting your work on display. Not the output of the work but the actual, messy work.

Down the street from my house lives an elderly gentleman who’s a true jack of all trades. He fixes cars, repaints old furniture, does woodworking, and gardens. He does it all in front of his huge garage, with both doors wide open. And he’s quick to strike up a conversation with anyone who seems interested. His work makes the neighborhood a friendlier and happier place. And I think that the neighborhood makes him a friendlier and happier person.

I have befriended many of my neighbors in similar ways. Fixing things around the house, doing a work-out on the driveway, or playing with the kids on the street. Exposing myself and the work I do has led to conversations, that in turn has led to both dinners and friendships.

When we open up our workspace to the public it becomes approachable. It turns into something that other people can take part in, ask questions about, and have opinions on. It’s the creative opposite of opening up your garage to show off the old Camaro that you finished renovating.

It’s obvious that we should bring the same practices to the workplace. We should put the work we do on display for everyone to see. Especially when the work is still taking shape. That’s when we can allow people to ask questions, have opinions, and influence our path. The closer we get the mark the work as done, the more rigid it becomes. When you roll that Camaro through the doors it’s too late for me to mention that article I read about repairing vinyl. And it’s too late for me to even try to understand how you have managed to turn a banged-up old car into the piece of art that sits on your driveway. By then, we’ve lost that opportunity to connect.

So whatever you’re working on right now, I encourage you to share it. Open up your garage door. Someone might walk by and glance at what you’re doing. They won’t care if it’s messy in there. The truth is that they’ll appreciate it. They might appreciate it enough to ask you a question. Or to tell you a story. To connect and learn.