Want to Win Some Gold Stars?

At the end of this year, Milonica and I will celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary. I’ve been reflecting on the learning experience these 35 years have been, and I notice that there are some parallels to our learning experience as members of organizational teams. Marriage is, obviously, a one-of-a-kind human institution – a sacrament – and it has unique dimensions that stand all on their own. But marriage also contains a treasure trove of learning that is directly useful to reflect upon for other areas of life.

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One of the things that I’ve learned from my marriage to Milonica over these decades is that, well, people change. I am not writing today for the purpose of giving marriage counsel (or, for that matter, to address the subject of divorce) but I will say that perhaps the most lame excuse I have heard over the years for divorce is precisely this point. “I guess we just changed,” couples have said to me, to which I have replied, “well of course you did!” To be alive and aware and interesting – to merely be conscious – is to change. Blaming a broken marriage on change would be roughly analogous to explaining that you quit your job because it involved work.

About half a marriage ago I joked that I had already been married to 5 different women. Of course, the 5 women I had been married to by that point were all named Milonica. My point then, as my point now, is that the woman I married had changed. And then changed again. I don’t make that joke any more, as the count has gotten pretty large by now.

And, fair enough, I have changed too. In fact, if you had shown me a film, back when I was 22 years old and newly married, staring the 56-year-old self that I am today, I may have been both shocked and disturbed by the prospect that I would become what I have quite happily become.

We change. We learn. New things become possible that did not used to be even thinkable. We accumulate experience and hopefully gain perspective and even wisdom in the process.

A close look at the data on job satisfaction shows that a common reason great employees leave their work is that they want an opportunity to be stretched, to grow, and to become something new. Many leaders think of workers as hirelings who have solved a problem by fitting themselves into the workforce puzzle, thus filling a spot that needing filling. How wonderful to have someone who fills a spot! When we have such a person, we don’t have to worry anymore about that particular gap in our puzzle.

But this is a short-sighted view, and maybe cold-hearted, too. Sure enough, great employees are always providing relief by picking up the slack and taking care of things that the boss no longer needs to worry about. Great workers are a treasure because they pull their own weight and cover the bases and allow their leaders to focus elsewhere on the challenges and opportunities that must be addressed.

But a great worker is a human being in motion. That person is growing and changing and learning and adapting. A great worker will not remain the same, and a long employment “marriage” requires that we both make room for a person to change and indeed encourage it.

Marriages get in ruts. Managers also get in ruts. We get comfortable with the way things work. And if it’s working, then why fix it. Read these words through either the lens of marriage or the lens of management, and you’ll find use in them. It is important, when we stare across the breakfast table or the assembly line, that we make room to discover that the person staring back at us might have some surprises up her sleeve. And the courageous leader, like the courageous mate, leaves room in the relationship to discover new things, to change up the routines and expectations, and to gain new ground.

I am deeply thankful for the long learning journey of my marriage to Milonica. I did not say that I always like the learning that takes place, or that the journey is nice and smooth. I said, rather, that I am thankful, because the journey is good.

Here’s a fact of life, which is as true in intimate human relationships as it is in impactful organizational relationships. If the relationship is good and excellent and fruitful and vibrant, then change and learning and adaptation will be nearly continuous. We are given periods of time when we may catch our breath, certainly, times to rest at a place of achievement, moments of accomplishment when we can pause to look back with satisfaction and to celebrate. We are allowed such times, and indeed we must from time to time pause and rest and stand perfectly still.

But what we are not allowed to do is lock our breaks and dig our heals permanently into the ground, shouting, “No more change!” If it is good, it will keep changing.

Here’s a question to consider asking someone who is special or valuable to you. “In order for this (working) relationship to keep being great for you, is there anything that needs to change?” Extra gold stars to you if you ask that question, and mean it!

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