I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. People on the US Coasts tend to not know where that is, and to not know much about it. I’m fine with that, in general. A current article in the NY Times about the Minneapolis bars/singles scene generated some commentary, and that sparked my thinking about perception vs. reality, in life and in work.
People almost never really see each other, and that is an essential attribute of life, and certainly of business. And that’s all right. Our whole selves are not really prime-time ready, not really palatable. We’ve seen comedies involving saying the exact thing one is thinking at every moment – doesn’t work very well. It’s OK to bring our best-constructed selves out to play, intentionally, for best outcomes.
And optimally, we recognize that what we see of others is a constructed picture. We translate and adjust accordingly.
In these current economic times, those translations and adjustments are even more necessary, and that’s what came to mind as I was thinking about New York’s perceptions of Minneapolis. The economy is enormously challenging for many, many people. It’s hard to know the best way to respond to that at every moment. In this piece I’m exploring ways to do that involving perceptions and reality-constructions.
My take on constructed realities comes mainly from two early fascinations: theater and magic.
Reality Constructs: Theater & Magic
At my first audience experience at Park Square Theater in the 70’s, I was completely fascinated. The space was so small, the actors were Right There, but inhabiting an entirely different paradigm. It was a vivid introduction to the fourth wall (that between audience and staged situation).
I became somewhat involved back stage in High School on the East Coast (where I lived briefly), and then in college, I again became involved in theater, this time in a company called Punchinello Players (second oldest student-run community theater in the US at the time, no longer exists). We did ‘Waiting for Godot’ and other great things, and some that weren’t so great.
Throughout these formative experiences, it was endlessly fascinating to go from the earliest ideas and strategies for putting on a show, through the whole process, to audience reaction and financial outcomes. Particular aspects: knowing the shared script, following the script, improvising in response to the unexpected – were all very useful to my development as a person.
One night there was a bat – a live bat (the building was quite old)- in the green room during the whole show at Punch. Back stage we were very quiet, and moved around as little as possible, in the hopes that the bat would remain still for the duration. And it did! Just like in Noises Off, the drama behind the scenes rivaled that in front of the curtain. And the adage really is true: ‘The Show Must Go On.’
Prior to all that though, when I was 9 or 10, I became fascinated with simple magic tricks. The most important thing was to understand the concept of mis-direction: making a conscious choice of what you want the audience to pay attention to, and acting in such a way as to make that happen. The magic trick of course needed to happen elsewhere.
In both cases, perceived reality is not true. Perceived reality is constructed in a way as to be mutually beneficial to both parties, and it is acted out according to plan, and at the end, both parties are happy.
East Coast & West Coast and… Minneapolis
I’m not upset about how folks on the coasts perceive us here in Minneapolis – it isn’t the truth. There’s no way it could be, most of them have never been here or anywhere but where they live (or the other coast). Their constructions of us are beneficial to them, and they don’t really cost us anything at all. It’s pretty much a win win.
When High School was finishing, and I was letting folks know I’d be coming home to Minneapolis to attend the U, they would say, “But why?? You’re here now; you don’t have to go back there! You can stay Here!”
Some of the messages were:
But you’re OK! We like you! You can stay – you don’t have to go back and be with those lesser-folks!
Now that you’ve seen what real life is like, how could you give it all up again and go back there?! Don’t you want what we have, here?!?
You must resist! Stay strong! Evolving takes effort. You’ve already made great progress. Just stay the course!
And other nonsense. They simply had no idea! They weren’t that different from folks back home, things weren’t hugely better, certainly not more civilized or evolved in any way, and what the conversation really consisted of was group-defined presumptions and superiority constructs – paradigms that fit for them, but were not accurate for me at all.
Their lack of accurate perception could have cause negative outcomes for me if I’d based my actions on them, but I didn’t and everything worked out just fine.
Constructed Reality and the Workplace
Mass media/stereotypical views of our communities are similar to the marketplace for workplace professionals – an aspect of life, but not a defining factor. It’s simply becoming extremely necessary to see the fourth wall, to spot the misdirection.
Constructed narratives are a crucial linchpin in the business world. Employer and clients each present one, and it’s usually carefully crafted. In the past, employment was thought to be an instance of simply providing one’s work skills, and being paid. I believe now it’s much more about providing a skill-set related narrative, and fitting that in to each work situation. While knowing, just like in theater, that it’s a shared process; and also constantly updating it. Passivity is not your friend.
During these challenging times, some people find themselves in the position of being able to take advantage of their workplace power to reduce costs, increase their comfort levels and so on. The other side of that coin is that others may receive less and/or have to work harder or under more difficult circumstances. I feel that these aspects are temporary, for a variety of reasons. But even so, actively seeking that particular best workplace mix for you is always useful.
I saw a tweet recently – things won’t get easier until you get stronger. I feel that the most true part of that is when we get stronger, it nearly always guarantees that things get a bit easier. And gaining strength – same as any other positive attribute – is always a useful goal. Even more so in times like these.
Some perceptions of the work world today are that it will consist almost entirely of short-term ‘stints’, as in this article by William Ellermeyer describes. I think there will always be more of a mixture, but the fact is employment no longer carries the long-term assurances it once did. Every person who wants to be working tomorrow, whether they are working today or not, as an employee or a contractor, needs to be learning about the marketplace in order to create their best script that most closely matches their skills and attributes to the optimal client/employer.
We have the choice to try and respond to changes in the marketplace in the way that is best for us and best for our customers and our community. Part of that involves perceiving things accurately – looking for the misdirection, seeing the paradigm that is being presented and the reasons for it.
For instance, take Facebook. It is presenting the image of a portal for people to have social relationships with each other. It is also selling the presence of consumer-social-space to advertisers. Seeing the inherent misdirection is useful in choosing one’s level of interaction with Facebook.
Each workplace consists of individuals, who are unique, and groups that have a particular culture, and activities that are organized in a certain way. Now especially, people in power want to do things according to their own paradigm. They may choose to present an incomplete view of that to co-workers and employees. Over time, additional information and actions may contradict that presented view. It is crucial to take in non-official information and create your own understanding, and to not be surprised by the difference between your understanding of your workplace, and the official ‘story’ in place. Don’t block things out because they are confusing or contradictory. Take in the information, try and construct a way in which it all fits, and try and match your role on stage to the real situation you are discovering. But understand you also still need to fit the official script as well.
Take in more information; adjust your actions today and your plans for tomorrow. Often. Become nimble. Separate wants from needs.
These days require new skills that prior times didn’t as much. It’s important to be honest with ourselves about what we are willing to do, and what we’re not willing to do. About what is important to us in a workplace – ethical context, work being done, staff attributes, managerial culture, geography, marketplace perceptions, long term strategies. And then using that value information in making all these active choices.
Meeting the Challenge
We have to know ourselves well to constantly determine whether we are willing/able to be a match for this or that situation; when the optimal work relationship is in place and when it has ended; what meets our needs best for the next period; and so on, on a somewhat constant basis.
We all have specific quality markers that define our work. In my case, accounting, I define quality as:
Adhering to GAAP and complying with all federal, state and local laws and business best practices; while instituting and maintaining transaction systems that fit the particular organization and are effective; in order to produce timely accurate information that meets the requirements of external parties and the informational needs of internal decision-makers.
I am going to continue to do that, even when the marketplace changes the workplace relationships and structures. Over the years through it all I continue to prioritize my most essential workplace actions, doing the rest as much as possible, and communicating about my work within the language of the marketplace today and my workplace relationships.
It requires constant re-thinking; comparing current demands not to how things used to be done, but to what optimally can work now. There is constant prioritization, value definition and horizon scanning. This article by Christine M. Riordan in the Harvard Business Review is an example of the constant re-formulating I’m talking about.
Back to the theater: the marketplace forces are similar to that bat I mentioned, perched on the mirror backstage during the show: it’s a hurdle. It has to be incorporated in to our actions, but it doesn’t have to exert undue control over the quality of our work or our well-being. We can still do our best and coordinate that process into the ever-changing workplace narrative.
The show goes on.
And Minneapolis continues to be its authentically wonderful, albeit imperfect, self – regardless of external simplistic perceptions of it.
Ed. Note:There is a likelihood of future revisions of this piece. I tend to do that for a bit, it’s what works best for me. For those of you who’ve already read this, it won’t take anything away or change it substantively: just will increase the clarity for those coming after you. The other thing is, I may add links – to external pieces, and to related pieces that I’m going to write in the future. If any of you reading this have opinions about notifying readers of that, I’d be interested. I could add links added to this section for instance, or in a separate page, or not at all. So any thoughts on that are welcome.