alfreddepew

What about fierceness on the job?

In business, communities, organizations, Realtionship on September 2, 2009 at 5:13 pm

We certainly don’t want any fierceness there.

Or do we?

I love working with start up companies. There’s a freedom and wild abandon that is thrilling. New ideas, disagreements, counter ideas fly across the table fast and furiously. There’s often a sense of nothing to lose and everything to gain. Creativity is the only way out because it was the only way in. Everything is up to question, re-examine, challenge, improve, or toss out …. At this stage of the game, change is exciting and energizing. Everything seems urgent. No one knows exactly what she’s doing, and yet everyone is willing to try—and fail. Curiosity is the driver, not fear. There’s nothing quite like this kind of camaraderie. Each day is a leap of faith, and with each successful leap, trust deepens, bonds grow strong, and in this way the new venture moves forward, sometimes like a leopard, stealthy and deliberate; other times like a mouse, running in circles, close to the ground.

No one is walking around on eggshells. Not yet. That comes later.

Think about it—the company has proven itself and now has a track record. Then it attracts bigger and bigger investors. The company is established, a known quantity. It has a recognizable brand. The public trusts it. And something inside the organization changes. People grow more cautious, tactful (and tactical). Meetings lose their creative edge. Things are running more smoothly because there is less and less difference of opinion. We’re all on the same page. Or we appear to be. This slowing down and deepening is a natural stage in a company’s development. But at some point the growing cautiousness begins to serve not only the status quo but certain patterns and power dynamics which have emerged—also natural. What’s new is the emotional field in meetings. More harmonious, perhaps, but also a bit duller, flatter. With more restless boredom under the surface. People say less in meetings and more at the water cooler, and leadership hears what people think they want to hear, not what they need to hear.

There’s a radical truth-telling I associate with fierceness. I think of my friend Agnes back East. We could always depend upon her to stir things up at faculty meetings in the college where we both taught. People referred to her as The Contrarian. She opposed almost every plan of the Administration—on principle. That was her role. And as often as we clenched our teeth when she started to speak, we were grateful. Nervous, but grateful. For she performed an important duty. She raised the hard questions that most of us were too chicken to ask. And she kept on asking them during a time when we were under the leadership of a petty tyrant who would brook no “insubordination.” (Think Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter books.) Didn’t phase Agnes for a moment. She went right on asking hard questions and naming oppression and any other kind of jackass foolishness she saw. In the end she managed to resurrect the defunct Faculty Forum and call us to govern ourselves as we had said we’d intended to in the beginning.

She was heroic. And a pain in the ass.

The point is somebody’s got to do it. Somebody has to occupy the role of trouble maker. That energy has to go somewhere and more often than not, that energy is fierce. Fierceness has truth in it—often a truth most of the organization doesn’t want to hear. The energy of fierceness gets more and more marginalized as an organization matures. The disturber can become a scapegoat. And even if that person leaves the organization or the team, someone else steps in to occupy the role. The Disturber, the Contrarian, the Squeaky Wheel—whatever name you give the role and however skillfully it is occupied—it is often the doorway in a system through which something new and essential is trying to emerge.

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