Welcome to our interview with Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson. Simon and Maria are co-authors of Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, and co-founders of Holonomics Education.
Holonomics is a strategy and innovation consultancy based in São Paulo. Their mission is to help our clients to implement great customer experiences, powerful and effective strategies, and develop purposeful, meaningful and sustainable brands. The company was founded with the mission of helping businesses and organisations to implement the Holonomics framework and platform.
Co-founder and CEO Worldwide of Holonomics
Simon is the co-author of the books Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design and Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter.
Maria Moraes Robinson
Co-founder and CEO Brazil of Holonomics
Maria is an internationally recognized educator and keynote speaker in strategy, change management, sustainability, human values and the Balanced Scorecard methodology.
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Welcome Simon and Maria, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of Exploring Forward Thinking Workplaces 2.0.
How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Simon: This is one of the key points we address in our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter. What we do is to work at the level of mental models, to ensure that everyone in the whole organization is valued.
People nowadays are focusing more on finding the purpose of the company, but the issues of status, power, competition, etc. still remain. All of these things exist in large organizations, so one of the foundations of Holonomics are the universal human values of peace, truth, love, right action, and non-violence.
The study of human values in education has been the focus of Maria’s work for many years. Once you have this foundation in place, then other things start to become possible. Without these values being acted, present and lived, you can’t instigate work across whole organizations.
Maria: We work on the level of consciousness. This means asking questions such as “Why am I doing things the way I am?” Our aim is to help organizations improve relationships between individuals, so we ask people if they are happy with the quality of their relationships, with themselves as well as with others, and if they are happy with the results of the work they do.
So, we start to develop inside of people the consciousness about what they are doing in their workplace. We ask questions such as “Why do I wake up every day to come to work?”, “Am I happy with the results of my work?” and “If the quality of my relationships were improved, could I be doing something better?” Asking effective questions is the start of the process of putting these values into action. Quite often a company has a list of values that is displayed on the wall of their offices. There is a mission, there are the values, but in fact in day after day work, people are not putting this mission and these values in practice. Our approach is to always begin in a manner which allows people to start being more conscious about what exactly they are doing.
Simon: It’s a great question how you work with a whole organization because you need a wide variety of techniques. At the higher levels of an organization, we find many different methodologies and practices, Balanced Scorecard for example. One issue we find in the implementation of Balanced Scorecard is a lack of appreciation and understanding of its underlying systemic nature. Something like a Balanced Scorecard is a fantastic tool. It’s highly systemic but when you treat it almost as a linear process whereby with a prescriptive order of templates to fill in step-by-step, you completely miss the underlying logic, the underlying values and the systemic vision which this type of methodology truly brings.
In our book Holonomics, we refer to the concept of the dynamic way of seeing. This relates to the amplification and expansion of our consciousness so that we can see more and understand more. Only then can we start talking about what systems thinking means. How can we understand the organization as a living system as well as having rules, regulations, and processes? When you amplify the consciousness, help people to see more, help people to value everyone in the whole organization, and understand what the contributions of everyone are, then we can start to create and facilitate powerful interventions.
The other thing we discuss in Holonomics is the concept of ‘lived experience.’ The reason is that leaders and executives in organizations are often very convinced that the way in which they construct reality is the correct one. It’s very difficult for someone in a senior position in an organization to enter into the lived experience of people whose lives and daily realities are extremely far from their own, so one of our approaches is to use gamification. We create gaming events where these issues can be addressed without people at higher levels in an organization being threatened or challenged by changing their mental models. By entering a gaming environment, we can naturally slip into storytelling, which is a very natural and unforced way to take people into the understanding of other people’s perspectives without being forced. By avoiding a confrontational approach, our interventions can have a far greater impact than they otherwise would.
What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Maria: The key point is engagement. Normally organizations have a mechanistic way of thinking. They think that they have to implement some methodology or program to make people more engaged. It is not about bringing something from the outside into a business, but in fact, it’s about starting with a look at what is inside each person. Engagement means that I want to wake up and go to work, and I am happy to do that. I have enthusiasm with what I do, and so again we have to work with meaning.
In many cases we are helping organizations and leaders to introduce dialogues which explore the meaning of work with their teams, exploring questions such as “why are you doing what you are doing?”, “why are you important for the organization?” and “where does your work contribute to the strategy?” Engagement is related to meaningful work, meaning why I am doing what I am doing, so leaders need to invest the time and effort to help people understand the contributions of their work to the overall strategy of the company, which will result in them being more fully present and engaged at work.
When I lead a course, or I am providing consultancy to a company, I normally ask those present “How much of you do you think comes to work?” Normally people say 30%. At first, they may say that they don’t know how to answer. So I prompt them with by asking them to imagine everything they are, everything they would like to do, everything they can imagine in their creativity, and reflect on how much of these aspects is coming to work every day. In general, people say 30% or 40%, so I then have to start to work with these people and ask what is happening, asking questions such as “Why does such little of you come every day?”
Simon: It’s interesting since sometimes we don’t realize which types of companies are doing this transformational work and where the change is happening since the literature on sustainability often relies on a small number of well-cited case studies such as Unilever or Patagonia for example. Maria facilitated one workshop in São Paulo on this theme for a major European bank which has offices and locations around the world. This workshop for the Brazilian division of this international bank was on happiness for their female executives. Discussing happiness and especially the concerns of women in a banking environment can be challenging, but there were people in the bank who said, “No, this is something we want to address.” There were a lot of female executives who enjoyed going into this event.
Maria: We provoked an extremely interesting discussion because it can be common to see in organizations many people whose daily experience at work is only one of continual problems, and these are problems which they identify as being outside themselves — “It’s my boss, it the environment, it’s the market, it’s the clients, it’s always the third person.” The person has the difficulty in seeing themselves, and what they are doing, why their relationships are not so good and why things are happening to them.
So I often help to coach executives to help them explore how they can change the way they see the world here and their lives in order to really evaluate in a more mindful manner what they are doing, if they wish to continue doing it or not, and if they wish to change something in their lives.
What do people really lack and long for at work?
Simon: We define sustainability as the quality of our relationships. This helps us to talk about sustainability in a very broad sense, and it allows us to start dialogues and conversations with people who would normally be turned off by talking about climate change, recycling or whatever they imagine sustainability to be. Three big themes we’ve been addressing recently are authenticity, vulnerability, and humility. Humility is very powerful, but if you come from the previous leadership paradigm, which is all about being an alpha male, it is almost impossible to understand how humility is associated with power. When you have humility, you can see more of a situation, you have a deeper more inclusive perspective, you develop more meaningful relationships with people. Sometimes people lower down in an organization are consciously aware that they could be doing things better, they could be contributing, they may see aspects of their part of the business which need to be improved, but they’re not listened to. Sometimes the message that comes back to Maria and I is “if only the leadership could be a little bit humbler.” When leadership teams start to show a little more humility and start listening it has a dramatic effect.
Maria: Another aspect which I ask people to reflect on is how they can develop curiosity, better able to evolve and discover new things. In those company cultures, which have a strong degree of command-and-control, people are given responsibility for specific tasks and feel that normally there is no space to allow them to contribute more or to engage in truly meaningful conversations where they feel able to articulate their fears and be their fully authentic selves. In this kind of environment, it’s not possible to evolve and be happy. Business environments where people are very careful in what they say and always holding back on what they want to can be very stressful because individuals are unable to be themselves and are not able to relax. Experiencing this day after day consumes a great deal of energy and impacts on our emotional states.
What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
Simon: I would say the most important question a leader can ask their people in an organization is “What is it that I am not seeing?” Half of our book, Holonomics is dedicated to what we call the dynamics of seeing. Unless you can open up someone’s way of seeing, they’re just not going to see the problem. They won’t see, be mindful of the impact of their words. You can’t instigate profound change without changing the way of seeing. What’s different and what’s quite powerful about Holonomics is that we’re also very inspired by certain philosophies, phenomenology, hermeneutics. What’s listening? It’s all about the way of seeing and the way of understanding meaning in the world, how are you going to have meaningful experiences?
We have several exercises, many of which are in the book, which we take executives through, to help them to experience the dynamics of seeing and reflect on how they see and construct reality. After we’ve gone through these exercises, then we’ve been able to open up the space where leaders can understand the importance of the question, “What is it that I’m not seeing?” If you just ask someone what they are not seeing, they’ll just answer that question with their traditional and protective mindset, “Well, of course, there’s nothing I’m not seeing.” If a leader has humility then it becomes a very powerful question.
Maria: Normally it’s something that we work with. Normally in our hierarchical organizations after a time, the person who is at the top can’t see what is happening in relationships to their clients, and they can’t see what’s happening in the organization. If leaders don’t have an authentic dialogue, people will take to them only one part of the story, and normally the good part, never the bad part. Sometimes it can be as if they are in a separate cell while still having to make decisions with this lack of information about the company. The strongest question is “What am I not seeing that I should do?” It can be the case that leaders do not ask this question to those of us working in consultancies. Normally they want to hear only that which they wish to hear. When you start to say the difficult things, the reaction can be one of saying “No, it’s not bad.” If leaders in their elevated positions who normally take this stance were able to ask this one question, then if they were able to discover that which they were not previously seeing, it would be very powerful.
Simon: With our work, we don’t separate consultancy from coaching. You have to coach leaders into the question of what they cannot see, in order that they can appreciate the full power of the question.
What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?
Simon: That’s a great question and one which very much depends on the culture of an organization since many are still driven with a command-and-control mindset where deep questioning is not encouraged. In many businesses and organizations, the most important question has to one that employees can only ask about their leadership teams, rather than directly to their leadership team. The question Maria and I always ask of people in leadership positions is “Are they being coherent?” This question of coherence lies at the heart of our tool, the holonomic circle, to help organizations implement what we call “customer experiences with soul.” At the very center of the circle is the trinity of what I say, what I do and what I mean. We define authenticity as the maximum coherence between what someone says, what someone means and what they do. Nowadays, I think, especially a lot of younger people, they want more coherence from the leadership. They want more connectivity; they want more engagement, and they’re looking for coherence. Even when I view this now, when I look at leaders, I don’t just look at the words they say. I don’t just look at the purpose that they claim to be living. I look for coherence between what they say, what they mean and what they do. I also look for this coherence when we are approached to create partnerships, or when we are asked to get involved in a project or a network.
We’ve been introducing our tool for some time now, and it is interesting to see how this central insight resonates with people. Maria presented it in a company last week, and someone said, “Wow, this tool really captures what you mean by the soul of an organization.” If we wish to introduce more soul into an organization it has to start with the coherence of its leaders.
Maria: If I could choose one word to define good management it would be ‘coherence.’ An example of incoherence in leadership is when someone decides upon the actions or directions the company should take but without investing in the knowledge to fully understand the problem. Leaders often expect others to understand the new strategy and how to do new things without themselves putting in the effort to master the knowledge, skill sets and behaviors which they wish to see in others.
Normally, because of the hierarchical nature of organizations, orders come top down. The middle management, for instance, they are in a very difficult position, because they have to understand what the leaders above them want, and they have to translate it to the operational people. Normally, because they have the ambition to move up in the hierarchical structure, they don’t question the leadership team. They only accept the orders, and they believe that if they do ask certain types of question, they may think that they will be perceived by the leaders as weak or that they don’t understand, so normally they don’t ask clarifying and probing questions.
Normally, when I am with this middle management, I work with them to bring these feelings out. It is important to ask people if they do have a culture where it is possible to question leaders, and if not, to look at how to nurture one. Much of the time a leadership team are not asked to contemplate how they are interacting with middle management.
Simon: So, it is vital to nurture a cooperative type of culture, rather than a combative culture. A constructive culture, where you can ask constructive questions.
Maria: Nowadays I’m saying to people that they should be a little more daring because I often see a lot of apathy inside organizations, where everybody waiting for someone else to do something. If everybody took this position in the organization, then nothing will change. People should start to dare a little, to ask deeper questions, even if their culture is not so favorable to this type of dialogue.
What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?
Simon: The one question that I’m conscious of asking myself regularly is, “Am I really being authentic?” I do see things happening that I don’t agree with and in these situations, Maria and I have decided not to get involved in certain projects and activities. When you are fully in your power you can walk away from requests which although masquerading as opportunities are anything but.
One of the things that people say about us, time and again, is that they can’t see a difference between who we are as people and our professional selves. I take that as a compliment. People just cannot see a separation and this is a result of our great desire to live authentic and coherent lives.
This, for me, is my compass. We have decisions to make every week, and we have to say, “Are we going to do this or this?” We can’t do everything. We have to decide what the most authentic thing for us is and what is the most long-term and sustainable path.
Maria: For me, it’s authenticity. People should start asking themselves, “Am I fully here? Are we putting our values into practice? What do we believe? Are we entirely in the current moment? When we are fully present in the current moment we can check if we are being fully authentic in everything that we are talking about.
Humility and vulnerability are both very powerful attributes because there are times when we do not have answers, there are times when we may not know things, and in times of confusion we can feel fear. At these times people may feel as if they wish to run away from a situation.
Simon: Fully authentic leaders do not run away from uncomfortable situations. They can stay within the situation to find resolutions.
Maria: Yes, because we have to deal with these things all the time in our lives regardless of the position or situation we are in. I always am paying attention to the quality of the relationships I have with everyone I have a connection with, and also what is happening in my life. Why is one situation difficult or not pleasant? I always ask myself what I could do better to improve it?
Simon: You take personal ownership.
Maria: Yes. I believe that this is the most important thing. We are responsible for what is happening in our lives. I do believe in that. When we become accountable for our lives, we become more authentic and although this may not immediately resolve a difficult situation, our experience of that situation is entirely different.
Simon: When leaders develop this level of authenticity in themselves, then they can inspire others in the organizations to become more authentic, coherent, which in turn leads to the emergence of a far more productive and healthy culture. When this emerges, then the everyone across the whole organization becomes more involved and engaged in their work and that of their colleagues, and this is when an organization is then able to design customer experiences with soul, an experience which is truly able to express the purpose of the company.
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