In the last few weeks I’ve had some really great conversations with people outside of work, conversations that have really lifted my spirits and served as further reminders how important networks are to maintaining personal values, purpose and resilience. These were informal meetings with all sorts of people- someone I’m mentoring through a professional development programme, a tenacious digital marketer, a group of people expanding service design in government, a technologist doing awesome things for public good and someone flipping the script on racial equality (how fortunate am I to have all these rad people in my life?) Independently, and maybe inevitably, all of these conversations at some point included discussions about battling inertia and status quo with employers, clients or stakeholders, how isolating that can be and all the different ways we were keeping ourselves sane and creative.
At every one of those meetings I talked about the idea of Onlyness, something I found out about on the podcast Call Your Girlfriend and described by its creator Nilofer Merchant as ‘…that thing that only that one individual can bring to a situation. It includes the journey and passions of each human. Onlyness is fundamentally about honoring each person: first as we view ourselves and second as we are valued. Each of us is standing in a spot that no one else occupies. That unique point of view is born of our accumulated experience, perspective, and vision.’ Sounds great! Dignity, respect and equitable value applied to everyone’s unique experience. But the environments most of us work in are not egalitarian and they don’t work like networks do. So what does that mean for Onlys? These are the aspects of Onlyness I’ve been meditating on the past few weeks:
Fit in or belong?
So many of us don’t bring our full selves to work because it’s more comfortable to fit in than to search for belonging. The idea you want to share or pursue, the new approach you want to take or maybe a values based refusal of something feel impossible to open up if you think it means you might not fit in. There is a tension between having to first fit into a group you want to influence and asserting your ideas from your place. How to navigate that? Is hiding your full self worth trading for a sense of belonging and keeping integrity in your purpose?
Nilofer suggests a way through that tension is by keeping an invisible network around you. Power through by leveraging supportive people on passive back channels. Dip in, check in but reach out to someone when you need to. Nothing new here but most of us don’t do this or we only do it when there’s a crisis happening.
Onlyness argues that everyone in a team or an organisation should have a seat at the table and that sharing everyone’s unique stories, ideas and solutions can accelerate innovation. By assigning stewardship of conversations or ideas to people with ‘established credibility’ or ‘most relevant experience’, the best idea or most beneficial solution can get missed. Do we want to work in places that allow only certain people to have ideas and see them through? If we don’t have the means to really make a choice about where we work, can we help ourselves by finding our tribe inside the place?
Relationship destruction point
At the core of Onlyness is community and self-worth. ‘Most of us have been conditioned to believe the outside world gets to decide if we have value to add.’ It’s so true! Ugh. The starting point for all of this is knowing your contributions and ideas are valuable, no matter where you’re sitting on the ladder. When you’ve got some confidence, look around and ask yourself if you’re in the right place. Walk away from people who don’t believe in you- you don’t belong there.
This is a talk Nilofer gave at Google about Onlyness. Check it out and let me know what you think.
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