Change your IT systems? That’s possible. Change your entire business model? Hard, but also possible. Change your people and culture? How do you even start?
I dedicate my work to learning and understanding how people change, both as individuals and as groups. I’ve found that most methods are dominated by intellectual explanations based on the belief that if we explain to people that smoking is bad, they will stop smoking. But Humans are much more than errant software that needs to be corrected, we are living beings that draw our power not just from our mind, but from our emotions and identity.
From my experience, emotions and identity are far more important in determining whether a person successfully changes themselves than intellect. Just because you understand the need for change doesn’t mean you want to change. What is the difference that makes the difference in changing someone (including yourself)? My attempt to try and isolate the variables that are most important has led me to create something I call the “The Human Transformation Equation”, or the “ego equation” for short.
“The Human Transformation” equation tries to describe the percentage chance of a Human successfully changing themselves for the better. It proposes that the chances of a successful upgrade depend on 3 variables; fear, desire and ego. According to the equation, people successfully complete a significant transformation by activating their emotions and reducing their ego. The emotions engage people in the changing world, reducing ego help them to learn how they should change in response.
Activating both strong fear and strong desire generates emotional engagement in the present moment of your reality, the here and now. This is important because emotions provide the energy to change; if you don’t feel scared or excited about something, you are unlikely to engage yourself to change even though you intellectually understand the need for that change. Understanding does not trigger action, emotions trigger action (that is why we evolved them!). Fear is important because it comes from understanding that threats are real; it is because we are afraid of predators that we run away from them and that is a generally a smart thing to do. People who say they do not feel fear are typically not engaged with what is really going on. I often meet leaders to discuss Industry 4.0 and digital disruption and I’m astonished at how comfortable/complacent they are, there is very little fear. It’s terrifying that nobody is terrified. However, the truth of the matter is that people are privately afraid but they are not comfortable sharing and discussing fear. When was the last time your c-suite sat down and discussed with their people their fears and anxieties? What I realised is this, “they are not brave, they have simply forgotten the meaning of death” (thanks Ghaul from Destiny 2). Acknowledging, feeling and respecting fear is critical for the survival and success of any system, whether that is a Human or a company (or anything else). Fear is very valuable data, it should be used for maximum effect, not “pretended away” by refusing to acknowledge and discuss it. From my experience, most people who change themselves acknowledge the role that fear plays in keeping them focused on the need to act now in the present rather than delay into the future. Fear is an powerful signal that alerts us to important changes in the world, however, only being driven by fear creates a very negative environment which is neither effective nor sustainable.
Whereas fear is the force that moves us away from things that we believe will harm us, desire is the force that pulls us towards things that we believe will help us. The point is this, if we are only motivated by fear, then we are always running away from things but never towards anything that we desire. Running away reduces the intensity of ours fears but because we are not pursuing our desires, we just end up slightly lost and confused. The malaise that comes with simply neutralising the negative is why we need desire in the equation because people who feel “neutral” don’t change much either (why should they? There is no emotion to drive them to change).
Desire provides us with direction because it moves us towards something that matters to us. Pursuing our desires allows us to express our truth into the world and generates the positive creative, emotional and social energy that is necessary for sustained success. For example, you might be afraid that AI will take your job and this might motivate you to act to upskill yourself. However, if you only act out of fear you will not have a clear idea of what “good” looks like for you. Instead, you will become lost chasing after a thousand different so-called solutions because you haven’t set a desire of what you actually want to become. The consequence of this is that people feel they are always going from negative to neutral but never really into a sustained positive. The reason we created the Leadapreneur concept is to give people something to aim for. The positive desire to become a leadapreneur is a positive, energising force that is similar to how the “Ironman” race inspires thousands of people to undergo a 3.8 km swim, 180km bike ride and a 42km marathon. Taking on these extraordinary challenges and becoming an Ironman isn’t about running away from your fears and mid-life (quarter life?) crisis, it’s about transforming yourself into a certain kind of person, a healthy and happy one. In the same way, becoming a leadapreneur is not about cancelling out your negative fears, it’s about becoming a certain kind of positive person, a confident and engaged agile digital innovator who has the skillset and mindset to succeed in Industry 4.0.
Some people have asked me if fear is really necessary and the answer is “yes!” If you were not afraid of anything, and only desirous, then you would rapidly get into trouble. Imagine if you saw your favourite restaurant and just ran across the street with no fear, you might get lucky once but consistently running across roads without checking for traffic is going to end badly. Fear is a vital force in ensuring we remain safe as we pursue our desires, Human flourishing is achieved when we find the right balance of fear and desire for ourselves.
One of the insights of the equation is that a person’s change potential is maximised by activating both their fear and their desire. We should rightly be afraid of technological progress impacting our job security, but simply worrying about it won’t help us change in the same way that worrying about cancer stops us smoking cigarettes. You need a positive desire and a negative fear to energise you to really change yourself. You might not quit smoking because you fear for your health, but you might quit if you decide you want to become an Ironman and pursue that lifestyle. The fear of cancer combined with the excitement about becoming a tough triathlete creates a powerful emotional intensity that can empower you to change yourself. In the same way, the fear of AI taking jobs and the excitement at becoming a leadapreneur motivates many people to work with us to upgrade themselves for industry 4.0.
The overall point here is that Human transformation requires substantial emotional energy and this energy is maximised by intelligently balancing fear and desire. In Leadapreneur’s case, we work to help people understand and fear the threats of Industry 4.0 but we also believe in inspiring them to become leadapreneurs. Getting this emotional balancing act right for every individual is a key task in enabling Human transformation at scale… you might be able to get one person to feel afraid and excited, but how do you do that for dozens, hundreds or even thousands? You focus on reducing people’s egos.
I’ve had a tough time learning to master my ego, and I’m still very much a student of this difficult endeavour. Ego is your self-interest, it’s the force that makes you think the world revolves around you, that people are talking about you and that it’s all about you. We build our egos to defend ourselves from the perceived wrongs and dangers of the world around us. Like a strong city wall, we feel safe behind our powerful ego because people respect and fear us (or so we hope and believe). Though it may make us feel safe, a big ego has the unfortunate consequence of limiting our growth (see diagram). The stronger our ego, the less inclined we are to be vulnerable, to be wrong, to listen, to surrender and follow.
Ego is at the bottom of the equation because the larger a person’s ego, they less likely they are to actually change themselves. If you have a big ego, then you think you’re pretty awesome, so why would you change yourself? I’m not saying that big egos are bad (often they are very fun and sometimes they can be effective), but I am saying that big egos prevent substantial personal transformation. Further complicating matters is the fact that big egos are often hidden under false humility aka. “humble pieces of shit” who create soft exteriors to mask a vast inner ego, behind cultural traditions e.g. saving face in Asia and/or delusion e.g. Westerners trying to safe the world because they can’t deal with their own reality of saving themselves (for my sins I flew to Bolivia to paint an orphanage for a lot of money and did a terrible job so I deeply understand this mentality). The trick of the ego is to always blame everything else but the ego for failures and to claim success for everything that goes well. People with large egos like to believe they are critical for success and never to blame when things go wrong. Thus, the larger the ego, the smaller the chance of a person being changing themselves.
Personally, I have come to believe that our egos are like eggshells, they are important to birth us into the world but the wonder of life takes place outside of the egg. To truly transform and upgrade ourselves, we need to break through our egos and explore the world beyond like a new born chic. However, this is of course terrifying and so we resist doing this. One way to help people deal with their very legitimate fears of going beyond their egos and being vulnerable is to create a “safe-space” for them to do so.
I first heard about the idea of a “safe-space” as it was mocked in various memes and derided by reporters as Millenial “snowflake syndrome”. I admit that I too succumbed to the temptation to mock what I didn’t understand but now I feel I can appreciate why a “safe-space” matters. If we don’t feel safe to be vulnerable, then we don’t lower our defences and open ourselves to change. If you don’t feel safe, then you won’t change. It’s that simple. From my experience, most workplaces are definitely not “safe spaces” that encourage personal vulnerability. Many professionals I meet feel like they are locked in endless “ego-warfare” and this only gets worse the higher up the hierarchy you go. I don’t believe it’s because people are stupid or have bad intentions, instead, I see people getting trapped in cultures where we unconsciously behave in certain ways and this prevents us from learning and growing. Since personal transformation drives professional transformation, high-ego cultures inhibits professional transformation because people never feel safe enough to really open up. As a consequence, they never really change. At Leadapreneur, we believe it is so important to create a safe-space that we invest substantial effort into creating “low-ego” social environments. This helps everyone can quickly lower their egos and start focusing on their own transformation journey.
We can now see how the “Human Transformation” equation works. Your emotions provide the energy that drives your personal transformation; the stronger they are the more energy you will have to change yourself. The ego component determines the ability of the person to learn new things, the more you lower your ego, the more likely you are to learn the really important new things that will significantly transform you. Based on these insights, we can now insert some numbers into the equation to understand Human transformation with more nuance:
To maximise the chances of successful personal transformation, you need high fear (3 points) and high desire (3 points) and a low ego (1 point)
3x3/1 = 9 out of 9 or 100% chance of that person changing themselves.
However, most of the corporate environments I experience have the opposite; low fear (1 point) and low desire (1 point) combined with high ego (3 points)
1x1/3= 0.33 out of 9 or 3% chance of successful transformation.
To me, this neatly explains why so many people, especially senior leaders struggle to change; they are not emotionally engaged in the changing world and their large egos prevent them from developing the humility and vulnerability they need to truly change. Give it a try for yourself, what is your current state of emotions and ego?
In summary, people change when they are emotionally engaged in the need for change and feel it is safe for them to start changing. To maximise the chances of Human transformation, activate the emotions of fear and desire and create journeys that cause people to lower their egos and embrace the power of vulnerability. I’ve consistently witnessed the success of this equation when I see people engage with their emotions and reduce their ego on their quest to become a leadapreneur. It isn’t easy, but that’s the point, the greater the challenge, the greater the opportunity to grow.