Six takeaways from Workplace (R)evolution in Cedar Rapids

Highlight reel via Diversity Focus on YouTube

The first Workplace (R)evolution event, organized by ICAD Group, Diversity Focus, Kirkwood Community College and the City of Cedar Rapids, attracted more than 150 attendees to share learning on workplace health, culture and diversity.

Here were some of my main takeaways from the day – what were yours?

Are you a manager or a leader?

Chuck Blakeman, author of “Making Money is Killing Your Business” and “Why Employees are Always a Bad Idea,” kicked off the day by talking about the concept of the “participation age.” It will be a long and messy transition away from the values of the industrial age, he said, but in this emerging age, people will seek meaning, not just money at work.

It’s a profound transition, especially for managers of employees with these new motivations.

Blakeman said the traditional manager treats employees like children – monitoring them at all times, which implies that they wouldn’t be smart enough or responsible to do the work on their own. Blakeman encouraged attendees to be a leader, not a manager – setting a vision, but acknowledging that employees have their own initiative, creativity and skills, and giving them the freedom to execute.

This ties into the TEAM Centered Workplace concept, unveiled by the event’s sponsors, ICAD Group, Diversity Focus, Kirkwood Community College and the City of Cedar Rapids.  By focusing on trust, enjoyment, accountability and managing the whole person, the TEAM concept hopes to provide a framework for workplaces to increase collaboration and employee autonomy. (Find more resources on TEAM from ICAD here.)

Your brain can be a jerk.

Steve Robbins, noted speaker on diversity and inclusion and the luncheon keynote of Workplace (R)evolution, shared a story about his fear of flying. To make himself less nervous, he always sneaks a peek at the pilot before boarding a plane. Usually, he saw older, white males. One day, he saw a woman – and he panicked.

Sometimes, the message around diversity is that having prejudices makes someone a bad person. But Robbins’ story illustrates that everyone has prejudices (even diversity experts) – it’s just how the brain works.

Robbins’ speech mixed cognitive science with real-world examples, illustrating how deep-rooted impulses from the “ancient brain” can lead to poor decision making and fear of change. The brain sees patterns where there are none (which leads to stereotypes), takes shortcuts to save energy (leading to quick decisions – which may not be the best decisions), and prefers the familiar (leading to closed-mindedness).

He also noted that the brain interprets social pain, from feeling excluded, the same way it interprets physical pain. Think of the implications in the workplace – if someone (or some group) feels left out, can they do their best work?

Robbins encouraged the crowd to consciously step out of their comfort zones and experience new things, to take time to make decisions, and to entertain new ideas – which doesn’t mean those ideas must ultimately be accepted.

“Be less certain, and be more curious,” he said.

(For more on the science and suggestions in Robbins’ speech, read Kiran’s post here.)

“Diversity is when you have more than one person in the room.”

I thought this definition of diversity, from Robbins, was poignant. While there are deep-rooted stereotypes and social structures working against certain groups (so saying ‘everyone is diverse!’ might be overly simplistic in some situations), I think the idea of being open and kind toward anyone you encounter can take us pretty far.

Robbins noted that as a person moves through the day, they might switch several times from feeling like an insider, to being an outsider, and back again.

And while we tend to regard people who are outsiders with suspicion (again – the brain’s appreciation of familiarity), it’s helpful to remember that at any given point, you are also “the other.”

The true measure of caring is in how you treat strangers and outsiders, Robbins said.

“You are the only one who can overcome your own obstacle.”

Another very touching speech came from Michael Kutcher, brother of actor Ashton Kutcher and a national advocate for cerebral palsy.

He recalled getting frustrated during a childhood game of HORSE, when Ashton made a shot that would be nearly impossible for Michael because of impaired motion on his right side. When he started to complain, Ashton reminded him that no one else could make the shot for him – “you are the only one who can overcome your own obstacle.”

Similar to Robbins’ message of embracing all types of difference, Kutcher noted that everyone has their own challenges and obstacles to overcome in life – and without knowing what someone else is going through, the best policy is to be kind.

Kutcher said he felt the need to hide his disability, before learning to appreciate what he has and speak up for others.


No “pickles” allowed

You’re probably sensing a theme by now – empathy, openness, kindness and trust were the major overtones of the day.

These are all lessons we probably learned in kindergarten – so why are they so hard to practice in the workplace?

Emcee Joe Tye, CEO and head coach of Values Coach, Inc., pressed attendees to let go of complaining, negative, or just plain sour thoughts – which he calls “pickles.” The pickle pledge is: ‘I will turn every complaint into either a blessing or a constructive suggestion.’

The video below, from Tye, explains:

We can lean on each other

This is somewhat true after every conference, but I was left wondering: How do we keep this momentum moving forward?

As everyone returns to their normal work routine, with co-workers who weren’t at the conference, how do we avoid falling back into our old habits?

Something a few people talked about was the idea that real change takes time.

Blakeman encouraged managers to give employees a year or more to adjust to a culture change, since it changes everything they have been taught about being an employee.

In a session about health care, Duane Smith of True North said it took eight years to ramp up their health care program to 95 percent.

The TEAM framework is one way to implement the lessons of the day. I would love to hear about other ideas.

As speaker Lisa Shufro said, “Let’s take a step into what’s possible.”