Divine Productivity: Rethinking our highest purpose in virtual leadership

What is the highest aspiration for us when we collaborate remotely in a work environment? Here is a provocative answer for you to ponder.

Divine Productivity - Rethinking our highest purpose in virtual leadership

I recently gave a presentation on Divine Productivity as the guest speaker on a webinar. The context was “virtual leadership”, which is the distinct skillset needed to successfully run teams that are geographically distributed. Using tools like WebEx and Skype is not the same as being face to face.

The client was Black Gazelle, a consultancy specialising in virtual leadership training. You can read my 2014 interview with the founder, Dr Ghislaine Caulat, here. If you wish to contact Ghislaine please write to ghislaine.caulat@black-gazelle.com.

The ideas are a synthesis of my work over nearly 20 years, from roles at Sprint in the USA, Chief Analyst at Telco 2.0, Strategy Director at BT, and Co-founder at the Hypervoice Consortium. They include my more recent insights from writing about crime and corruption in the technology and media industries.

I would like to share these thoughts with a wider audience, since I believe they frame a more general shift in consciousness — not just at work, but also in our lives in general.

Imagine for a moment…

It is the last conference call of the day, and you are about to walk out of your home office to see your loved ones. What would make you the proudest of your work? What would make you into a “hero daddy or mummy”?

This talk will offer you a framework to answer that question. There are three increasingly better ways of responding. They will provoke you to raise your aspiration in both your professional and personal communications.

However, to get to the last one we will have to make a detour through the
“worst possible” answer.

Paradigm 1: High productivity

Being “productive” implicitly says you are as valuable as what you produce. It is a work paradigm that is logical in its nature. This is the default way of thinking about collaboration technology today.

As computers join us in conversation, in order to raise productivity we might choose to make all of our voice conversations storable and searchable. We could cross link what we say with the notes we write, the presentation slides we show, the spreadsheets we share — and “bookmark” special moments in our conversations. This might even yield a new medium — “hypervoice” — in a similar way that the Web is hypertext.

5G, smart cities, and virtual assistants are marketed as being in this same logical “high productivity” paradigm. Automation will take away effort and make us more productive — so a robot assistant might arrange the time for us to meet up, rather than us sending each other emails.

The downside of this paradigm is the Amazon warehouse work environment, or the modern call centre, where everything is monitored and controlled to improve productivity. It makes humans into the tools of others, and can become a “psychopath heaven” in terms of management ethos.

We see a manifestation of this in virtual leadership:

  • Who has to get up at 4am for the call (but is sick)?
  • Who gets to decide what is recorded (but might abuse it later)? How is consent obtained for “clever” new productivity tools (and is this forced)?
  • What is the real agenda of this call (or is it hidden)?
  • Can I leave if I want to (or am I imprisoned in a virtual space)?

If we try to maximise “high productivity” then the end game is potentially Orwellian in nature. The most bullying and exploitative leadership behaviours are often rewarded, since they are the most “productive” at extracting productive labour. The resulting work environment is oppressive: well ordered but painful.

Is this the best we can do? Definitely not!

Paradigm 2: Blissful productivity

If a relentless focus on high productivity makes people feel bad, maybe we should make them feel good instead? In the alternative paradigm of “blissful productivity” you are as valuable as how you make people feel — both yourself and others. We switch the logos of “high productivity” for pathos.

This idea isn’t merely hypothetical. Prof Edward Castronova has commented that “There is a mass exodus to virtual worlds”, which are “virtual work” environments that feel good. At least 500m gamers spend at least 3 billion hours a week doing activities that superficially look like the kind of teamwork we do on conference calls.

They do this because of “epic wins” — moments of exceptionally great positive feelings. Game designer and author Jane McGonigal notes “There is no unemployment in the World of Warcraft.” This kind of work — “blissful productivity” — feels so good that people are willing to pay to do it.

We could make blissful productivity more common in our “ordinary” world of paid employment. How so? We could use technologies like sentiment analysis, biofeedback, and gamification to engineer a more comforting virtual workplace. Yet the same question as before raises itself: at what cost?

The downside of “blissful productivity” is that it can be the ideal work environment for narcissistic abusers. They use their charm and social engineering to make people feel good — so as to get their way.

Technology amplifies some behaviours, and attenuates others, so maximising “good feelings” is potentially risky: it arms sociopaths with tools to covertly manipulate others. The worst case is we end up in a world like Aldous Huxley described in his dystopian classic Brave New World: one which is pleasurable, but not meaningful.

So is Orwell vs Huxley the best we can do? Definitely not! But to do better, we first have to understand the limiting framing we have unconsciously introduced in our pursuit of better productivity.

A detour through evil

Carl Jung stated that “In order to know the light, we must first experience darkness”. There is a paradox in that to gain wellbeing and happiness, we have to fully identify with our own shadow. If we are interested in the highest possible aspiration, we must therefore study the blackest possible shade.

There is an academic discipline that few seem to have heard of, but is of great importance. “Ponerology” is the formal study of evil, and includes the nature of psychopaths and their culture of pathocracy. It offers us a critical clue to the root cause of many of our productivity problems.

Evil sells us on the idea we are less than “infinitely worthy” as human beings —i.e. we are not “divine”. It then exploits the “divinity gap” to get us to engage in behaviours we otherwise might reject. If only you will use and abuse these co-workers, you’ll make your team goals and get your end of year bonus…

The collective ends then justify the mistreatment means of the individual.
The “greatest trick of the devil” is to fool us into discounting beliefs and behaviours that fall short of divine. This is our clue: both of the previous two paradigms framed the value of the individual as being finite. You “maxed out” prematurely based on what you produced or how you made people feel.

Paradigm 3: Divine (“loving”) productivity

In the Divine Productivity paradigm all humans are innately infinitely valuable, and this is not contingent upon anyone producing or doing anything. It is one in which ethos dominates logos and paths: a fundamental reattachment and realignment of value around the human.

It works via a paradox, taking the “via negativa” (removing something unwanted) rather than the “via positiva” (adding something desired). We don’t use cunning digital technology to “add benevolence” to our collaboration, but rather “take away evil” to make unacceptably bad experiences less common.

It can be achieved through a combination of people, process, and technology:

  • A new “pastor” role in our collaborations has its attention on suffering, injustice, and bullying. As leaders we have to become alert to how psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists are helped or hindered by our collaboration tools.
  • The “contract” for the conversation — like a ”meeting invite” — can be redesigned so that consent and control is distributed. For example, if a woman feels she needs to put makeup on to feel comfortable on a video call, is video truly necessary? How should she be able to express her preference for audio only?
  • A divine person is sovereign over both their body, as well as the data that is imprinted from our body, such as our voice. They cannot be separated, they are both “you”. New “Guardian Avatar” technology can protect our sovereign identity, root out sociopathic behaviour, and help us to resolve power differentials.

In a Divine Productivity paradigm, this Guardian Avatar technology can ensure ethical use of intimate data like call recording. For example, a “robolawyer” will negotiate terms for call storage, retention and use — ensuring that our personal needs and policies are fully met.

The underlying false trade

This shift to seeing other people as being of infinite worth, rather than finite, is simple and profound. In order to enact this understanding in the real world, we have to recognise that our current productivity paradigm invites us to make a false trade.

We are today often presented with a choice of “service to self”(master/harvester/thief) vs “service to others” (slave/altruist/charity). You set the meeting to be when it suits you, or you are a taker of whatever you are given — because you feel powerless.

The resolution is to break the trade: service to all. The subtle difference is EVERYTHING. It demands that we make explicit the power differentials and control processes built into our technology and culture. Yet embedded power is the “big taboo” at work — far worse than politics, sex and death!

We need a fresh conversation over how power is wielded, and what the underlying belief system is about the worthiness of people. By engaging with this taboo there is an opportunity to reengineer our feedback and management systems. If the early 2000s asked you “how was the audio quality?” after each call, the 2020s can solicit feedback on “how was the ethical quality?”.

Beyond productivity

This sets the stage for a high-trust co-creative learning and working environment. Rather than hoarding notes, recordings and mind maps, we can feel safe to share without coercion. For the real prize is to recognise that what we care most about in virtual leadership isn’t productivity at all — but rather loving human relationships.

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