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John Stepper: “Instead of people waiting for instructions, we need for them to act!”

Photo: John Stepper

Photo: John Stepper

A podcast interview with John Stepper

How to give everyone in the company a voice and allow their expertise to be sought by other colleagues? In this blog post we are bringing you an exciting podcast conversation with John Stepper, creator of the Working Out Loud movement. This is a special episode for Europe’s biggest HR event of the year, the Zukunft Personal Europe 2018, where John will be one of the key-note speakers.

“Working Out Loud is an approach leading to the purposeful discovery of opportunities. Its combined elements are like superpower. A lot of people don’t know that they have it, or not comfortable using it.”

You can listen to the conversation on iTunes, Acast and other podcasting apps. What follows here are excerpts from our conversation with John, edited for length and clarity.

Asking questions

John Stepper: My mission, my ikigai, the reason I get up in the morning is to help people realise more of themselves and their potential. For some people, this might be just a small step. For others it may mean that they are more effective and able to do things that they did not imagine they might be able to do so. Other people might just feel better. They might feel they are in more control over what is happening in their work and their life. This is my mission, to help people, one individual at a time, one Working Out Loud Circle at a time, and collectively one company or organisation at a time.

Agnes: What is Working Out Loud? And, what kind of shifts can be achieved by applying it?

John Stepper: To be clear, it is nothing new. This is ancient wisdom. It is to your benefit to build relationships, to build a network, because its via other people that you have access to ideas, opportunities, to other resources. This is a method to help you build those relationships. Relationships that matter, that can help you someway, explore a topic, get better at what you do and discover other possibilities. How do you actually practice something that is new? How do you develop a set of practices, behaviours, and a mindset that helps you build relationships that matter? Relationships that help you become more effective, more connected and also help you increase your odds in work and life that you come into contact with things that can help you with new opportunities. Working Out Loud, as a topic, is just a modern way to reach people and build relations and relationships that can help you in some way; and then a method, the Working Out Loud Circles is a structured approach to doing that.

Agnes: What are the 5 elements that you have identified as the key components of this method?

John Stepper: What I realized was when I gave talks about social internet, Working Out Loud and building relationships – till I was blue in the face – is that they did not change anything. It is behaviour that really matters. You don’t change behaviour just by giving a talk with some powerpoint slides. So, what is it that would help actually people practice this? What would help people develop these skills? It is not a set of tricks. What I wanted to create was something a bit more comprehensive than that. More of a mindset and set of habits.

The five elements are this. First, at the heart of Working Out Loud are Relationships. It is because via other people that we access ideas, knowledge and resources. This we have known for a long time, ever since The Strengths of Weak Ties (a paper published by sociologist Mark Granovetter) in 1973, which studied social networks pretty much for the first time.

We have also known for a long time that the way to build meaningful relationships is through contributions over time. Through Generosity. It is a collaboration and cooperation strategy that has evolved over millions of years. It is not a dog eat dog world. It is not every man from south. Those are alligators. Those are beings that existed for hundreds of millions of years. For humans and many mammals we have developed pro-social behaviours, so that there is natural give and take between people who feel related, which is for the good of the group. So, everybody wins. That is a very human strategy that evolution has proven to be the most successful.

'People are not used to sharing what they are working on. But when you do this, it builds trust and a sense of relatedness.' John Stepper Click To Tweet

When it comes to generosity, what do you contribute, sometimes it is the simple things, or universal thing like attention and appreciation. Those are things that everybody wants and everybody has to offer. This also includes the third element Visible Work, which is about the fact that people are not used to sharing what they are working on. Why? Who’s been helpful? What have they learned? It is not to be popular, it is not to be famous, it is not to show how awesome you are, it is to be helpful. When you do that, this will be the part of giving and taking that builds trust and a sense of relatedness.

Last two elements are Purposeful Discovery and a Growth Mindset. Purposeful discovery means that you have some kind of goal in mind, which does not have to be specifically a big purpose. Smaller goals, like if you’d want to learn about something in which you are interested in, orient your activity. With whom you are trying to build relationship with, or what kind of contribution you want to make.

A growth mindset is based on the work of Carol Dweck (researcher at Columbia, author of Growth Mindset). It is simply about the idea of you not having a fixed view of yourself or other people. It is about effort and learning that allows you to take small steps and experiment, which is all about feedback and learning. What I love about the last element is that idea of developing a growth mindset. I saw that at the halls of Daimler, and saw that in the halls of my son’s elementary school. It is such a fundamental thing that human can learn, but we are not necessary borned with it.

The parallel in between the two are no coincidence, because it is really in the last 30 years that we are figuring out what makes people what they do, and it is not grades nor punishment. It is helping them develop these kinds of mindset that leads to more experimentation to curiosity, to outreach, and that leads to both increased innovation and reduced duplication of efforts as well as mistakes, but also personal fulfillment.

Agnes: How do the Working Out Loud Circles work? Do you have an example of a company that has applied the Working Out Loud approach?

John Stepper: I have been experimenting with this over the last ten years. I started with evangelising with talks, that I have mentioned at the beginning of this interview, which did not lead to too much change. So, I did a lot of research on behaviour change, including experiments on myself like try to change my own habits and behaviours.

At the end, what it goes down to are two things. One. If you want to change your behaviour it takes deliberate practice over time. That means there is an element of repetition when you are trying things, and you must be getting feedback on the way. Deliberate practice over time. There is just no substitute for that.

Working Out Loud Circles to go trough the natural ups and downs
The second component is peer support. You don’t have to have it, but it greatly increases the odds, because it gives you structure, shared accountability, emotional and other relevant support to go through the natural ups and downs of any change process. So, that you can make it through the weeks or months that you need to deliberate practice. When we put those two ideas together, the idea of guided mastery (or deliberate practice) over time and peer support, we form the Working Out Loud Circle, which is a group of four or five people who meet for an hour in a week for 12 weeks following instructions each week to take a step. Participants must pick a goal, list people whom might be related to this goal in some way, and over the 12 weeks you learn by doing, you learn a network related to the goal you care about by making contribution over time. The interaction can take place through emails, in person, social networks, but by the end you got a bigger network, better communication skills and you are more comfortable in some of the modern ways to reach and engage with people.

'Over the 12 weeks you learn by doing, you learn a network related to the goal you care about by making contribution over time.' John Stepper Click To Tweet

Agnes: Why it should be in any company’s interest to have these Circles in house? How do people pick goals? How can one set goals that are related to their work? Are there interlinks between their personal and professional growth? How does this relevant to the development of the organisation?

John Stepper: To be clear, in the beginning my ambition, and aspiration, was to help individuals, because what I saw in my own 30 years working for big companies was this tragic waste of potential. Both individual potential, but also collective. Why would companies care? Why have Bosch and Daimler spread the Working Out Loud Circles and integrated them into their onboarding program? Why has BMW made it part of their diversity program? The reason is that it is just a 21st century skill, which everybody needs. If I am trying to accomplish something, who inside or outside the company can help me? Who has got the necessary knowledge or resources that can be useful to me? How do I find them? How do I build some kind of connection that increases the chances of information exchange cooperation or collaboration?

Everybody needs to do that in a company. Maybe 10, 20 or 30 years ago we didn’t need it so much because we had a plan, we had clear instructions which cascaded down in the hierarchy, and if everybody just did what they were told it would work. And that model worked beautifully for a hundred years and what each of these companies are recognizing is that it is a VUCA world, it is much to volatile, and fast paced that we cannot afford the time it takes to come up with a plan and carve up instructions, because things will change by then. So, now instead of people waiting for instructions, we need them to have a greater sense of agency, we need for them to act. This is why these companies would like to spread it. Typically this is part of a culture change, digital transformation or innovation program. It can also used in onboarding employees where it helps new people be connected more quickly.

'On the one hand I am grateful that we helped anybody. Yes, it is a miracle to be at the Zukunft Personal Europe 2018 in Cologne. And yet we have just started, we have just scratched the surface.' John Stepper Click To Tweet

The next kind of challenge we are about to face is how can we scale this so that it appeals to different people in different cultures, in different kinds of work environment, so not just in the office, but people in manufacturing, hospitals or schools etc. at different stages of people’s lives. That is what I am going to work on for the rest of my life. It is how can we reach and help more people get a little bit more from work and life whatever more means for them.

Agnes: What would be your one advice John to a CEO, or a C-level executive, in terms of how to make their work environment and workplace a better place? Where should they start developing all the important pillars of the Working Out Loud movement?

John Stepper: Every company that I have worked with have a culture change program of some kind. That tells me that they recognize the need for some shift from the classical top-down control way of operating within organisations, for something that is more network based. Not chaos or anarchy necessarily, but to a state where people have more agency and have to do more on their own. What I would tell every management is that to make that shift from what we have been doing for a 100 years to what’s effective now in 2018 you are going to have to give people the space, the opportunity, to experience for themselves in a safe and confidential way.

There is a resistance in the organisation, there is a resistance in people’s head, that this might not be right. Most of these culture change programs fail. Please, if you are in management, and it does not have to be necessarily a Working Out Loud Circle, consider giving people the chance to experience this New Way of Working for themselves until they have a set of habits and a mindset that make that new way of working the new normal.

How can you get started? To get a deeper understanding about the practice we recommend you reading the Working Out Loud book, or visiting the official website of the movement.

If you haven’t already, give the Working Out Loud idea a shot! The most pragmatic way to put WOL into practice is for you to form, or join, a Working Out Loud Circle at the Zukunft Personal Europe in September in Cologne. More about this soon on the blog.

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1 Comment

  1. WOL seems to be a great method to develop communication skills and behavior by contributing in a network with people on defined subject and in a defined structure.
    Facilitators need to guide and motivate people and organisations to experience the synergies of these WOL groups.

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