In today’s hustle culture, it can be so easy to forget how, at the end of the day, we are all humans in the workplace. This episode’s guest has made it his mission to bring humanity back by putting love to work as a business strategy. Joining Darrin Tulley is Jeffrey Ma—the Director of Product Development at Culture+, co-creator of the Seneca suite of products and services, host of the ‘Love As A Business Strategy’ podcast, and WSJ Best Selling Author of Love as a Business Strategy. In this conversation, Jeff shares with us what love means to him, why it is important in business, and how it highlights the value of building relationships with the right people and purpose. He also talks about the definition of a growth mindset and how you can get people excited to contribute, connect, and learn. As more and more businesses put more effort into their culture, we need to make sure that we go beyond the buzzwords. Jeff tells us more about this by diving deep into beliefs, servant leadership, and vulnerability. Tune in to learn more about this unique and essential business strategy.
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Love As A Business Strategy: Bringing Humanity Back To The Workplace With Jeffrey Ma
I am thrilled to welcome Jeff Ma to the show. He is the Director of Product Development at Culture+, Co-creator of the Seneca Suite of products and services, Host of the Love as a Business Strategy Podcast, and a Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of the book Love as a Business Strategy. Jeff and his team are hyper-focused on helping people find a workplace culture that allows them to be their whole selves, in fact, their best selves.
Jeff is leading the development of various products and tools crafted with a culture of love at its center. Pushed by his own introspection, feedback from his colleagues, and a lot of uncomfortable practice, Jeff shifted headfirst into a new mission he shared with his team, bringing humanity back to the workplace. Tuning into this episode to know what love means to Jeff and how he and his team got to this place by putting love to work as a business strategy in everything they do.
Also, let’s learn a more expansive view of growth mindsets from Jeff through unlearning and welcoming a new perspective as part of our own evolution. Jeff also vulnerably shares a moment about his dad that initially shaped his view on life with an unforgiving slant and loss of trust and then how he later used grace to fill his heart full again leading to a light-up moment that turns life right-side up with forgiveness and positivity. We also dive into topics like culture, leadership, beliefs, and vulnerability that you might enjoy. Remember, tune in not to change into someone else, and listen for the learnings to help you reconnect as your best authentic self.
Welcome, Jeff. I’m excited to have you on the show. I’m interested to hear about your journey. It’s pretty cool to see you. You used to be in the gaming industry. You’re now a bestselling author. You’re a proud facilitator. You’re doing so many cool things. Now it looks like you’re bringing humidity back into the workplace and you’re doing this with love. I even noticed that on your LinkedIn profile, you talk about, “I love what I do.” I saw a post about your daughter having a little bit of a chuckle about how she perceives what you do. I’d love to hear and our audience would love to know what you do that you love.
First of all, thank you for having me. I think that doing what we love is something that from a very young age we’re ingrained to like, “You can grow up and you can be anything you want. If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” I’ve outgrown that statement. I feel like I could love art, drawing, and creating things with my hands but what makes me love what I do is who I do that with and for and what I do with that work.
I could spend every day of my life being paid to draw but I could hate it because I could hate what’s being done with that. I could hate the people who are asking for it. I think we’re taught to do what we love and focus on our craft, then lose sight of the importance of building the relationships around us and surrounding us with the right people and purpose.
I love what I do because I get to go out and meet people such as yourself and others that are open-minded and want to learn. We share a vision and a purpose for the world. That greater purpose gives me that drive and that passion. On top of that, I get to talk and I love talking. I love being able to share and being able to hear others and this cross-pollination of perspectives is such a powerful thing. Being able to use that to get people to shift their minds and change their views of the world is such a satisfying thing for me. Thank you for having me on the show. Hopefully, somebody reads this and gets something out of it. That’s all I ever want.
That’s great. I love how you say you get to do this. What an opportunity to share your passion and the work that you’re doing connecting this to love. I think your daughter had mentioned you getting to hang out with your friends.
That’s all she sees. She comes in, while I’m on any call and sees a grid of people’s faces. We’re laughing and joking all the time. She thinks that I get paid to do that. I’m going to hate to break it to her the reality of it later in her life but we’ll let her keep thinking that for now.
That’s awesome as you’re connecting with friends. It is true. Sometimes, my kids are like, “What do you do?” I’m looking at a screen, we’re just connecting and smiling and laughing. It’s like you said, we’re connecting with different people and this is a great opportunity to learn what folks are doing out in the world and how they’re making an impact. I find it interesting you’re using the word love. How did that come about for you? When did that start to enter into your ability to say, “We need to put love to work.” I think that’s a phrase I’ve read that you’ve quoted around the work you do. How did love be such a factor for you?
When we first started down and when I say we, I mean myself, the co-authors of our book, Love as a Business Strategy but also the entire organization that I’ve gone through this journey with. I’ve been working at Softway now, also Culture+ for a decade and it’s been an up-and-down journey. Around 2015 and 2016 is when the business took a sharp turn for the worst financially and had to have a bit of a reckoning.
Our CEO, Mohammad Anwar, had a personal revelation abound what it might look like to run a business and be successful in leadership in general. It was around that time when we had to do some bad layoffs. Not only were they bad for the morale but the way in which we did it was also very inhumane. It’s very impersonal, very cold, calculated, and sudden. It left a very bad taste in everybody’s mouth. Basically, we were all waiting for the end. Mohammad went, funny enough, to a football game. He was there for the University of Houston Cougars, his alma mater. He’s a huge fan. He went just to take his mind off of things because there was so much going on. He feels like he’s not right for this job and he’s reached the bottom. He’ll still tell you to this day this was the lowest point of his life.
He went to this game where his team was having a miraculous season but now facing their toughest opponent, a ranked Memphis Tiger game for their tenth win. It was the fourth quarter and his team was down twenty points. Everyone was leaving because ESPN said that, at this point, they had a 0.1% chance of winning something like that. It’s hopeless. Everyone is filing out trying to beat the traffic and something inside of Mohammad told him to stay and watch, hang and support his team until the end. That’s still one of the greatest comebacks of Cougar football history. They won by one point with 30 seconds left on the clock with a third-string quarterback and all these other great storylines. If you’re not into sports, don’t worry.
The point of this story comes after the game when Mohammad tuned into the post-game press conference. This rookie coach, Tom Herman, at the time, Rookie season had turned this team around and the reporter asked him, “What was it that led to this win? How did your team not give up? How do they fight and come back?” It was what he said that changed Mohammad’s life and then domino effect all of our lives and what we’re doing now. He said it was love and he used the word love.
I don’t know if Tom Herman knows the impact he had that day in that speech but that word changed Mohammad’s life forever because he hadn’t been using that word. He obviously hadn’t been considering any of that. Our culture up to that point had been about as corporate as we could make it intentionally because that’s the way the world works but he said love. It’s not this “I love you, bro. I love you, dog” kind of love but it’s this “You have my heart in your hands. I hold you, support you, fight for each other, not for ourselves but for one another” type of love.
Mohamed had this moment where he was like, “Do I love my team?” He realized the answer was no and he set about on this journey to rectify, discover, and understand that more. That’s a journey that’s now expanded and extended to myself. I joined him along the way and since then, we’ve been championing this use of the word love. When we say love, we don’t mean mushy, Rom-Com, your hot best friend is your soulmate and you don’t find out until the end of the movie kind of love.
We’re talking about real, almost like tough love. We’re talking about how you would love someone you care about. Tell them what they need to hear when no one else will say it. That type of relational love. We find that to be the difference maker in everything. It turned our company around, our careers around, and our purpose around.
As we’ve shared and spread this message, what we’re hearing is that we’re on the right track. I think the world is slowly starting to see more of this. If you said the word love in the workplace maybe a decade ago, you would have gotten kicked out of whatever room or meeting you were in. Now people perk up to it. They want to know more, want to hear more, it’s a little provocative, a little different but it’s also welcome and it’s refreshing. We’ve stuck with it and this is something we’re very committed to.
It’s a powerful four-letter word for sure. I love the connection too, regarding the Houston Cougars comeback. There was no chance of giving up and there was the hope and the possibility there and the vulnerability. Not only did the coach share that with the media, yet to Mohammad took that and recognized himself and the courage to admit, “Am I loving this way? Am I being my best self? Am I being my authentic self?” That turnaround is an amazing leader in action, willing to lead with love and serve with heart. We hear these phrases, servant leadership, authentic leadership, and caring for others.
I love that you’re not only sharing this in your book and your podcast. This is the way you all are working in your different companies. I think there are a few different groups that you work with. I’d love to hear how that came about because as you mentioned, this helped to evolve your thinking and your offerings. I’d love to see from you and for the audience to know how did this come together and how is this being portrayed now in the marketplace? How does that fit with our audience?
It’s wild. When Mohammad went through his own personal transformation, he didn’t ask anything of anybody else around him. He started with himself. He started doing all these different things like serving people. If anyone was staying late, he would stay back and be there. Make sure they had something to eat and they were taken care of. He would quietly go about doing all these things that try to show and demonstrate love. It was very powerful.
He never came and said, “I’m doing this and you all need to do it too.” He just started. There came a point where the rest of the leadership team, myself included, had no choice but to look at ourselves as well because we were like, “If Mohammad is doing these things, what are we doing?” We realized that he wasn’t the only problem. He wasn’t the end-all-be-all solution either. We had to get involved.
One of the things we did was we decided that we needed to revamp our leadership. We needed to address the toxicity that we were producing and our mindsets. This wasn’t like a collective of all leaders. This is like a few leaders leading the way but also Mohammad helping spearhead this effort. We essentially decided to do this retreat. We’re like, “We’re going to do retreat and put together some activities and some mindset-expanding curriculum for ourselves to address our leadership, perspectives, and self-awareness.”
We didn’t see our own flaws. We went and had that wonderful experience, getting raw, vulnerable, and open. It was tough and we left it feeling rejuvenated. It’s not like everything is great. It was the opposite. We felt like so much work had to be done but in a great way. That was his catalyst. We had no name for what we did. We just called it a leadership retreat but we took that and we started practicing it. Again, not everything was fixed overnight and people were on different journeys from that point but we had this new understanding or shared agreement beyond that. Fast-forward, now we’re turning the ship around. We’re working with a very large customer. We’ve been working with them for years. They’ve known us this entire time but they take notice.
I’m talking about a Fortune 500 company that we work with. This group of middle managers that we work with all the time takes notice. They start telling us openly, “We love having meetings with you guys. We don’t even care what it’s about. It’s more fun and more productive. How do we do that? My meetings aren’t like that and I want my meetings to be like that. I want my teams to work like that.”
We share with them what we’ve done for ourselves and they’re like, “That’s amazing.” A few months later, they come to us. Remember, we’re a technology company at this time. I forgot that context. We’re purely technology and some creative work and some stuff like that but not culture. They come to us and they say, “We want you to pilot a program for our leaders.” These are middle managers saying, “We want to bring you in front of our leaders.” It’s a very large organization and very conservative. Very risk-averse but they’re willing to bring us in and say, “We want you to do what you did for yourself for us.”
We’re like, “It’s very flattering but no. We have no experience doing that. We don’t know where to start,” but they insisted. They said, “We’ve gone to the other companies. We’ve gone to the other consultants, the large groups that do this and we have all their mugs and their T-shirts, their swag but we don’t do anything differently. We want to try something different. We believe you can do it.” That started it all.
We created what’s called Seneca Leaders. At that moment, we had a two-week period where none of us slept at all. We put it all together. We figured out what we wanted to do and how we wanted to lead it. We called it a radical experience for a modern leader. We made it a two-day event that was meant to remove them from wherever they are and get each leader to look at themselves differently and have a major shift.
We didn’t call it training. We didn’t call it a course. It was an experience. It was the beginning of everything because from there, it was a huge hit. We ended up then traveling the world and giving this to 1,400 other leaders around the world representing 50+ countries and the message never changed, whether we went to Asia, South America, and Europe. We used the word love. We said the exact same thing, even when people told us not to. They even said, “Be careful with the word love over there.” We said, “Thanks for the warning but we’re going to stick to what we know.”
Sure enough, humans all understand love. Humans all understand human things like that. Anyway, this is the birth of Seneca Leaders, which is now what we essentially still do. We’ve refined it. It’s a one-day experience now but it’s also evolved, grown and we learned along the way. That’s the start of everything because on top of all the products we do and all these other consulting, creative, and marketing kinds of things that we can help with, our main thing is still Seneca Leaders.Humans all understand love. Humans all understand human things like that. Click To Tweet
It’s proven time and time again that people love this experience. This experience helps change people. It started as this thing of working on ourselves and through a client empowering us. We stumbled upon our new calling. Once we developed that and realized that more people want this and people keep asking for it, we created Culture+ around that. We had our mission in place to bring humanity back to the workplace.
I love the shirt (you are wearing) that says, “Culture+.” That’s cool. For folks that are reading, Jeff pointed that (out on his shirt). It’s fun. I love the evolution. This comes from the word love again. I agree with you. I used to think the word was squishy or something you couldn’t share until I had my own awakening. I realized that I’m missing the love in the workplace. I’m missing being my best self, my authentic self, caring for people like the way I should and can and want to. I’m taking that forward in how we evolve and how we transform as individuals, leaders, and humans.
They’re sharing this as a way that you all have transformed into something pretty amazing with how you’re helping other cultures show that this is real. This isn’t a set of words. A lot of people get certain words like joy, happiness at work, lead with love as maybe soft, not tangible, or doesn’t lead to the outcomes I want as a leader. What I’m hearing you say and I’ve seen this directly myself. In fact, if they’re missing, you’re not going to get the results that you hope for.
You’re going to limit yourself and people are going to limit their capabilities and they’re going to limit what they bring to work and their creativity. You’re showing what is possible, how to be more open, creative, be more curious, and even vulnerable. I think you’ve shared the word vulnerable a few times. It’s one of those core beliefs that you have and the teams have. I’d love to know you personally. For you, Jeff, what are some of these beliefs that you’ve had? Maybe it’s from your gaming or growing up in your childhood. How does this get to where you are now?
It’s so interesting because this journey started a while back like I mentioned but I think the world has changed so much since we started. We were talking about all these things before when they were these foreign, less accepted topics. Now you have Brené Brown and vulnerabilities front and center. Psychological safety is a known phrase when before, it was like, “What are you talking about?” Also, servant leadership and all these concepts.
I think we get hung up on buzzwords nowadays. It’s very interesting if you look at what every business wants to address culture now. They want to make efforts and invest money and everything into fixing, building, or correcting, whatever it is in their culture. It’s such an interesting space we currently are in, where there’s this awareness of all these different terms. However, I find at least in my experience that there’s not always an actual understanding of what those terms are meant to be or represent. My favorite example is psychological safety. Everybody wants it but the second you say the word psychological safety in a room, all of the psychological safety leaves that room.
Many words are like that. Servant leadership is a buzzword but people get so focused on like, “Am I proving myself to be a servant leader?” Not thinking about what the purpose of the heart of truly serving someone else looks like. There’s this gray area that comes up when it comes to these terms. That’s why it’s so challenging to talk and work culture with people. The encouragement I always give people is to start with self-awareness for yourself. It doesn’t matter about what. You don’t have to focus on one specific area but start to connect what you think you look like to others, what you think other people see you as and connect the difference between that and what other people may see you as or go confirm what other people may see you as.
This is the journey that I think people don’t take enough time to go explore. It’s very easy to hear, “I need to practice vulnerability. I need to practice these things,” and you go, study up on them, look at tips, and it becomes a strategy. There’s this thing about practicing humanity in the workplace that comes from a truly human place, which is, connected to feelings and emotions. Also, coming from a journey of true growth in yourself and that’s not easy.
It’s not meant to be something you can decide to do and flip a switch and you’re there. I think that is one of the most challenging things for myself and for anyone I work with and talk to, to start grasping when it comes to vulnerability, which is where your question started. You have to understand that vulnerability is not meant to be easy. It’s a sign of courage. It takes courage to achieve. I won’t generalize but many people I’ve worked with say, “I’ve been given feedback that I need more vulnerability or I’ve read about vulnerability. I want to have more vulnerability.” This word is used over and over.
To achieve that one singular goal, they’ll go about sharing their personal life with people and almost sometimes too much. Sometimes going off and being brutally honest about everything. That’s great. Some of that takes courage and some of those are good steps. When I look at becoming more vulnerable, I look at how you seek that uncomfortable feeling. I don’t mean for the sake of being uncomfortable but there’s a reason why some things are harder to share and some things that aren’t.
It could be easy for me to share some of my childhood dramas. If I share it, it doesn’t mean I’m being vulnerable. That’s not where vulnerability comes from. Vulnerability literally comes from those places where we don’t want to share it or we don’t feel like we’re comfortable and safe to share it but we’re going to in order to put ourselves out there. For ourselves to show that we are open and we want to connect. That purpose is sometimes lost in that journey. I always say, “Seek that uncomfortably,” like where are things uncomfortable and go towards it. Dig a little deeper as to why and see where the opportunity is there.
I love the seeking to understand the why and going deeper. As I hear you talking through this, I think about intentionality. As we talk about some things being brutally honest or sharing certain stories that may appear to be vulnerable, what are we doing it for? Are we doing it to get people to feel sorry, get manipulated, or to buy in? Are we telling these stories because we want to share? There’s something here like you said. We want to connect to or grow together.
I appreciate your distinction there. As a group, it seemed like your group went through those raw ups and downs. As a culture, you folks were very transformative together sharing. I’m sure there were moments of emotions that were pretty deep and put you into action mode. I think that’s something that’s important for us to recognize too. There are times for us to come out stronger and better. We have to go through some troubling times and some darkness. It doesn’t mean we can’t break through, seek joy, or seek to get better because the goal is to get better from all those things.
I think you also believe in the growth mindset where we try to learn around every corner of the good and bad moments of our life and try to figure out what is the message and how we move forward. It ties nicely into the level of thinking around what we share vulnerability, courageously, and everything we’re talking through. It’s pretty critical, especially as a leader. One more thing. As I recall meeting with a group of leaders, I’d asked them to say, “How do you connect with your people?”
This group at a different company said, “We’re not allowed to talk and know our people.” I’m thinking, “They need to meet Jeff and the team in Love As A Business Strategy.” The connection is lost. How do you get people to bring their full selves in? How do you get people excited about contributing to something bigger to connect, grow, learn, and have that growth mindset? That’s hard if you’re not reinforcing and sharing and getting into the element of trust for each other.
A growth mindset is top of that list. I was mentioning earlier buzzwords that get missed a little bit sometimes. I think it’s so important because I am literally living my everyday life trying to embrace a growth mindset. It’s one of my goals. It’s my personal challenge to myself. The important thing to understand if you’re trying to follow along growth mindset is that it is not as much about learning as you think. People hear a growth mindset and they’re like, “I got to be always growing and learning because it’s got the word growth in it. It just means hear new ideas, study, go on YouTube, read a book, and keep growing.” That’s important. Alvin Toffler had a quote. He said, “The illiterate of the 21st Century won’t be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn unlearn and relearn.”
If I were to rewrite that quote, I would just simplify it to, “A growth mindset is unlearning.” That’s the block that gets in the way of a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. When you only focus on what can I continue to grow, gain, and learn, that’s great. That’s a learning mindset but a growth mindset needs to have a, “I’ve been doing this for twenty years one way and it always worked but let me challenge my thinking here. Let me allow this new college graduate with some crazy idea. Let me welcome that idea in. Let me take it seriously. Let me think about whether this can be done completely differently. Could I be wrong? Is there a chance that I’m wrong here?”A growth mindset is unlearning. Click To Tweet
That’s so hard for people to do. It’s so hard for people who have proven track records, especially the older we get and the more in leadership positions that we get. It feels like we’re not allowed to be wrong as leaders because people depend on us to be right. That’s where a growth mindset is practiced, where you are willing to be wrong like you look for it. You’re like, “I want to be wrong here. I feel like I would love to be schooled in this matter, even though I think I know the answer.” Being able to unlearn these things is the missing gap some people have when they say they want a growth mindset. To practice it, you have to challenge the very things that you currently don’t even think about. You don’t even think about second-guessing yourself on some of these things. That’s where you should start.
I think that’s a great perspective. Thinking about how we innovate and discover new things, it truly is exploring what we know and challenging what we know to make it better or like you said, replace it. When you think about rewiring habits or changing the way we’re presenting ourselves or even being vulnerable enough to say, “I got that wrong. I’ve recognized that when I’ve done that as a leader, I’ve gotten the most credibility back and I didn’t expect it.”
As you said, we’re supposed to have the answers. We’re not be allowed to say I don’t know or not being inclusive in that way. I feel like the more I do that, the more trust I’m building. The more I’m learning and growing because it’s one of the elements in my own book. I talk about open-minded curiosity and the ability to crave your willingness to adapt to new things and build on that or to change your way of thinking. To me, that’s the ability to do those things together. I appreciate very much what you’re saying. I applaud that very much because you’re right. A lot of big growth mindset tends to be learning and growing. That’s a great distinction.
How about you, Jeff? Are there moments that you recognize in your life that either was a life-lasting good or bad or something you had to unlearn that you’re willing to share? Again, not to be vulnerable yet you have to do it in the way you defined it. Something that you feel has been showing up for you now that you’ve grown. Part of what we’re trying to share with our audience is, “We all have to overcome certain challenges, life lessons, or certain memories.”
Hopefully, we’re taking those learnings as a way to overcome, to relearn unlearn, as you said, and position ourselves to do better or do differently in the future. I’m curious if there’s anything that shows up for you that reminds you of what you’re doing now or what you learned over time that’s helping you deliver what you’re most passionate about.
One of the reasons I am so passionate about growth mindsets and that type of topic is my own journey. It centered around my father. I looked up to him a lot growing up. He was having extramarital affairs when I was in my early twenties. I was away from home and this news broke. It made me look at the world differently after that point.
Being someone that I considered ever faithful, loyal, strong, and a role model for me, having that moment shattered a lot of realities for me. I was still young enough to be molded by that quickly, even though, at that time, I dealt with it by saying, “We’re all adults. I’m glad that this didn’t happen when I was younger. This is for the best. Everything is okay.” However, it deep-seated, to simplify it, a lot of fixed mindsets in me about the world.
I saw the world differently. I saw the world as much more cold and calculated. It showed up in my leadership style and the way I showed up in the workplace for sure. For much of my early career, it was, “Let’s get the work done. I don’t want to get to know you. I don’t want to know what is going on. It doesn’t have anything to do with what we get paid to do.” That was very much my mindset going in. I was very strong-willed in that. I was risk-averse. I didn’t want to have any tough conversations. I don’t want to get into any of those altercations. I want to get the work done, keep to myself and not deal with a lot of that.
Weirdly enough and interestingly enough, a lot of that stemmed from how I generally viewed the world and people. I looked at people as unchangeable. I viewed my dad like my dad’s actions in that moment had invalidated everything he was before that as a kid. All the good things he did as a father and all the good memories I had with him were wiped clean because he was defined by this moment now. I viewed the world that way.
If you worked with me and you made a mistake, I was like, “You’re dead to me. I can’t trust you next time because that’s who you are. You’re either smart or you’re dumb.” We’re born that way. That’s how I started approaching the world. It wasn’t in a very conscious way. This is just my leadership style. If people had a problem with it, I would say, “This is who I am. Sorry, you got to deal with that. It’s your problem. I am who I am. I’m getting results. If you don’t like it, step aside.”
My moment came a few years ago when my son was born. My firstborn child, Cody. At this point, I wasn’t having much of a relationship with my dad anymore. They’d been divorced and I didn’t want to deal with that but I felt it proper to invite him to his grandson’s first few moments in this world of being blood-related. It was almost an obligation I felt to invite him. It’s also my first time seeing my dad in a very long time.
He was in the hospital holding his grandson and it was a light-up moment where I saw my father as something completely different. I saw him as a human in that moment. In that brief moment, I saw him as a grandfather, a father, and a person with feelings. I imagine my son, the one that had just entered this world, growing up to be my age and feeling some way about me and feeling the way I feel about my dad.
I can’t imagine what I would do wrong but even if I did that, I would hope my son could forgive me or not hate me or whatever it is. Whatever mistakes I make. It broke my heart to have that sudden flood of emotion in that hospital room. It was a moment that sticks with me for a very long time because it started a journey. Not only of my relationship with my dad but also how I even view the world.
It helped me look at my dad as not just a summation of his mistakes and mistakes he’s made. He’s human. He’s fallible and not always perfect. Neither are you, neither am I, or neither is anybody. I started giving myself more grace. I started giving other people more grace and started looking at my mindset as, “I’m a work in progress, so let’s treat life that way.” It set me down a different path. All the things that I talk about now are stemming from that place because it’s a more loving way to look at the world.No one is just a summation of the mistakes they have made. We are human. We are fallible and not always perfect. Click To Tweet
My life has been so much better for it. The way I parent, I’m a husband, I work, and I’m a friend are all affected by that mindset. I am a very different person now, which anybody can say after becoming a parent. For me, it was a little more than that too. I gained a son and a father back in the same day. That is why I push for people to fight for their growth mindsets so passionately because it can change everything all in a moment.
That’s a beautiful story and I appreciate you sharing. It’s vulnerable. I think there are a lot of people that could probably relate to the relationships with their parents and the frustrations or they’ve given up. The grace that you’ve given your dad and yourself is powerful. I’m not sure if it’s fully forgiving him yet. I will often refer to forgiveness as something that’s powerful too, in general, because it relieves some of the pain we have. It doesn’t mean it goes away. It doesn’t mean there are no imperfections still in any relationship or our memories, yet it gives us the power to move forward and to grow as your story outlines beautifully and how you’re sharing with that and showing your son that it’s going to change over time.
The beauty and the love that we have for each other and the humanity of how we treat each other and how you’re bringing humanity back in the workplace. I think all that stems back to some of this thinking and some of the transformation you’ve had in your business and in your career as well. It stems back and I appreciate you sharing. It’s so powerful for the audience to know what can happen when we put ourselves out there. You gave humanity a chance in my mind and it gave you much love back.
You hit the nail on the head. It is for me a lesson around a growth mindset but there’s this concept of forgiveness that is not talked about enough, in my opinion, in the context of the workplace. From what I’ve seen, most of our unforgiveness is with the people we work with. If you talk to any of your friends and you’re out having a beer, they’re complaining about work. It’s not usually the work. It’s the boss or the co-worker. If you think about it, a lot of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can trace back to business decisions that are impacted by unforgiveness, large or small. Even just, “I don’t like working with that person.”
We don’t bother to nail down why or what happened. Maybe it’s not even their fault. Maybe they just remind you of somebody else you have unforgiveness for. Regardless, the feeling of unforgiveness and holding on to something that’s unsaid drives our bottom line more than we realize or allows to accept in the business. We prevent people from taking on projects they probably deserve. We don’t give people enough chances or we don’t give raises and recognition all from this place of very hidden.
I’m not trying to claim that we’re evil people out here with vindictive vendettas. However, the reality is without an actual focus on it, we have these subconscious, unconscious decision-making and biases that come out from our unforgiveness. We don’t talk about it. The six pillars we talk about in the book. This is the one that I love to harp on because you’ve probably heard all the other ones before, inclusion, empathy, vulnerability, trust, and empowerment.
You’re going to hear those words in the workplace all the time nowadays but why are we talking about forgiveness? Without that one, none of the other ones can move forward. We can’t talk about trust. There’s no forgiveness. I’m not going to be vulnerable or have empathy for you if I cannot forgive you. I think it takes intentionality. It’s so hard. I always tell people, you got to choose your hard because saving money is hard and being broke is hard too, so you got to pick one. When it comes to forgiveness, putting yourself out there, seeking forgiveness, giving forgiveness, and having tough forgiveness conversations is hard but working with that looming underneath is also hard and I would argue harder. I can’t stress forgiveness enough.
You talk about trust in your story on how that was broken and that helped to mend itself throughout there and the ability to have compassion and forgiveness. You did it with grace and it’s a great message. You’re right, in the workplace, when someone wrongs you, you lose that trust and if someone is not following through or giving you some feedback. If we’re not looking at what the purpose is, understanding what that connection is may be to get better or if we think someone wronged us, that’s all we’re looking for. We’re looking for a pattern. “They’re going to do it again. They said it again.” That’s all we’re looking for. We’re not looking for the good, what kind of problem, the attention, the greater purpose, or the picture. It limits our abilities.
Humans are wired in this very inconvenient way. When we lack information, we fill in the blanks and we’re very good at it. It’s like how we protect ourselves. It’s how we get smarter, evolve, and deal with the dangers of the world. We create these work environments where talking beyond the task at hand has become unnecessary, taboo, unneeded, or no time for it. What do we do? All we have is the data we have.
We have so-and-so did this, they were late on doing this, or they said this in a meeting. That’s it. Everything else is a blank to fill in. We start saying, “Darrin hates me. Darrin is out to get me. I can’t believe he made that decision. That directly impacts me without talking to me about it first.” On your end, Darrin, you’re just like, “I’m trying to get the work done too. I’m making the best decision I can with the stuff I have in front of me now.”
You may not even think about how it impacts someone else. We don’t have the conversation that would be normal and human to be like, “Darrin, why did you do that? It pissed me off.” You’re like, “It’s not what I intended to do.” We don’t have those conversations because it’s like, “The boss said this. He said that and we’re going to move on.” We all smile, nod, and go to the next meeting. We’re all very cordial and we slowly hate each other. We cannot stand each other. “I don’t even want to be in a meeting with you because of all these decisions you’ve made that are out to get me.” It’s crazy.
That’s the world that so many of us actively live in every day. There’s so much frustration. I’m frustrated looking at it because I’m like, “If we had this culture of this expectation to talk about these things, why not? Why shouldn’t we be saying you hurt my feelings and you upset me with that thing you did?” That’s the only way we fill in these blanks with the facts. That’s the only way we stop drawing our own conclusions.
Having that level of openness and visibility about what’s going on is critical. I think there’s got to be a level of common purpose or common level of appreciation and support for each other, genuine care and interest, those type of things for that to happen. I got a lot when you’re saying head nods. I always talk about that as a passive-aggressive behavior. Everybody says, “Yes,” and they’ll walk away. They don’t want to do anything or don’t want to do it or they’re complaining. Rather than saying, “Let’s talk about what this means. Why are we doing this? Why did that come across that way to me? Let me understand more about where you’re coming from.”
I think it’s everybody’s responsibility to ask questions through inquiry. It doesn’t mean we have to yell at each other or be mean to each other. We could do this in a compassionate way. To me, like you said earlier, how were treating each other with love. It’s still treating each other with an understanding to say, “I want to learn more about that. I’m not sure I agree.” You’re not overstating your point yet you’re interested and curious to learn more. Anybody that talks tentatively that way would be willing to share more as a leader or willing to learn more as an employee. At least I would. That’s what my belief is. I know you talk a lot about culture and whose responsibility is culture anyway, would you say, Jeff?
Yours. There’s this idea that’s grown that I hate around how we even use culture as a noun, the way we say, “Google is culture. Uber is culture. Your company or my company is culture.” The culture does not belong to a company. It is not something that you can go and consume. It feels that way so often. It’s like, “That company has got a great culture. I’m going to go join that company so I can have that culture.”
It does not make any sense because culture is nothing more than how we treat each other. It’s how we behave around each other. By that very definition, we are responsible for culture and we affect culture whether we mean to or not. Culture is a collaboration. It’s an action. It’s a verb that we come together to build every day. Every single day, every single interaction builds or breaks down culture. You have this culture vulture mindset where I can come and consume this great culture or whatever it is. Most of the time, that’s the perks and benefits you’re consuming. It’s not even the actual culture. There’s this passiveness associated with culture that is part of the movement I’m trying to push for. Whether you like it or not, you’re contributing to culture, so let’s make that intentional.
It starts with getting uncomfortable again. It starts with having so much comfort in our workplace that those smiles we give each other, it’s comfortable and harmonious. Someone says something in my example earlier, Darrin, you make a decision that I don’t like. It’s easy and comfortable to say, “Sounds good. It was a great meeting. We’ll see you guys next week. See you Monday.” Everybody leaves feeling great. No, not me, and maybe not other people. Probably nobody but we all leave with that smile and that comfort.
I say, “That’s not honest.” I encourage people to always choose honesty over harmony. Take the route of honesty because you have less to lose than you think. It sounds very hard because it is but once you get it out there, you’ll see what happens. When honesty is spoken out into the world, people suddenly see you differently. You suddenly see each other differently and the room differently. It’s okay to have, “Darrin, I want to know why you did that because it doesn’t make sense to me.”Always choose honesty over harmony. Take the route of honesty because you have less to lose than you think. Click To Tweet
Coming from the right place, not just, “Darrin, that was a jerk move. I don’t like you.” I’m talking about real curiosity to understand one another and it changes everything. It changes the dynamic. It helps us understand our place better. Now you’re talking about culture that is being practiced together and building together.
I would challenge you a little bit on what you said. When you said taking honesty over harmony. I think the honesty needs to be there. There can be harmony too when it’s understood and people are working towards common goals. They’re working toward growing together and understanding why without blaming and saying it’s not the responsibility because I agree with you about the culture piece too.
Culture doesn’t happen to us. Culture is what we create and what we contribute. Everything you said, I love that. I also believe in the work you’re doing with Love as a Business Strategy. Your book and your podcast are helping people do those things where we could have honest discussions and crucial conversations and create harmony through love.
I’d love to learn a little bit more about your book, how that’s structured, and how that is being perceived and received. I love what you have on the website. You have different workbooks and elements that people can continue to grow off of that. Secondly, I’d love to hear how this has turned into your passion on the podcast and how you’re connecting with people, and what you’re learning through that as well.
I love to share it all. I’ll try not to inundate everybody. The Love as a Business Strategy has been out a few years now. It’s a bestselling book in several different publications, like Amazon, Wall Street Journal, etc., but can pick that up anywhere. It goes through our story. I highlighted a little bit of Mohammad’s piece at the front of this hour but it follows it in detail. We wrote it in a way as to not be a business book.
You’ll find it in the business section but it’s written as a story. Through and through, it is our story of what we learned, usually the hard way, a cautionary tale in a way. It covers our journey and the six pillars that we’ve come up with. We now revolve everything around Inclusion, Empathy, Vulnerability, Trust, Empowerment, and Forgiveness.
It talks about how we practice it and how we fail at practicing but how you can also potentially leverage those things. That’s what Love as a Business Strategy the book is. Hand-to-hand with the book, we’ve been doing the podcast, Love is Business Strategy, which I host. It does a lot of what we’re doing here. It’s such an easy topic to talk about, to be honest, because there’s a little bit of love everywhere and there are places that there’s always somewhere that could use more of it.
The aim of the podcast is to bring on humans that have experience, whether it’s expertise and a PhD in something or leadership experience in businesses that have or don’t have what they’re looking for and everything in between. I’m looking to share those experiences, stories, and dialogue to help expand. It’s very similar purposes and missions but something I’m very passionate about, which is that conversation. In those, I’ll be doing a lot less talking. If you turn into those and you’re tired of my voice, don’t worry. The guest gets to talk a lot more on my show.
I appreciate everything sharing too. It’s wonderful. What you’re doing is you’re paying what you’ve learned forward out to the world. You’re a gift. Your team is a gift. Mohammed and the team are a gift with Love As A Business Strategy and everything you’re doing as a proud facilitator. I know it’s something you’re doing there as well. I’m sure you’re helping to connect different leaders with how they can transform their cultures and themselves through reflection and the actions they can take. One of the things I’m curious about with everything you’re doing is what do you perceive for yourself as a superpower and how does that show up?
I do believe that everybody has a superpower. I love to find those around me. That’s a great question because I don’t enough ask myself that question. I’m always looking for other people. If I had to name one, it’s the passion I have to impact a change in mindset in people. It’s a double-edged sword. I can be very overbearing with friends and family especially. If you have a conversation with me, I’m always going to look for a way to change your mind.
Not everybody loves that but if I had to pick the superpower, that’d be it because I’m going to challenge you. If you’re in front of me complaining about somebody else, I’ll be talking about you and you’re going to hate that. You’re going to be saying, “No, but they did this and they did that.” I’m like, “How did that affect you? Why did you react that way? What can we do about it? What conversations could you be having? Why are you telling me? Why are you not talking to them?” I’m looking to push people that way at all times. It’s my superpower but the jury is still out on whether I’m a superhero or supervillain.
That’s funny. It seems like you’re expanding your mindsets. I feel like folks might need different perspectives. You’re adding folk’s ideas to think about. I don’t think you’re telling people. I think you’re helping people to learn to get to a place where they might see the full picture. Maybe it won’t be as hard on them, so I see you as a hero. I see you as a super-connector. It’s one of your gifts.
I’m not sure yet about all the games you have behind you and your screen and how that connects in. Maybe that’s for a future episode. It’s something that you shared with me in the past as far as what those are because I wasn’t sure but for our guests, you describe them, Jeff.
They’re board games. I’m sitting in my office and I’m hiding from my kids. This is my board game shelf. I collect board games that are 250 or so. It’s various different board games. It says a little bit about myself. I’m a little strategic. I like to gamify things. I like to make sure that all the pieces fall into place whenever things are in play but it’s also a hobby and a background for Zoom calls.
That’s fun. Is there anything else, Jeff, you’d want to share with the audience as far as how they should start to think about their first steps on the journey to help change their culture and how to help bring their authentic selves to work every day?
Yes, we are a business, so we sell this stuff and we talk about this stuff but it is more than that to all of us. It is a true mission, so I’m happy to connect with people, LinkedIn, LoveAsABusinessStrategy.com, and all the different avenues to reach out and connect if you have questions or whatever. This is not a business thing for us when it comes to connecting with humans, hearing stories, and helping. I’d love to help if you just want to chat. I offer that to your readers.
On the business end of things, that very Seneca Leaders program that we started this entire journey with, we still do and offer that. If you’re looking to have that for yourself, for your team, for your company, or whatever, you can also reach out. I’m happy to connect with these readers and offer discounts around those as well. To talk about all that stuff, I’m always happy to work in this space with anybody. I open up that door for anybody to come and meet me there.
That sounds amazing. I’m going to sign up.
I’ll give you a discount. You’re in.
Jeff, I admire everything you’re doing. I have a love for the work and the vulnerability, the passion you’re bringing, and love for you and the team, Love as a Business Strategy. It’s a gift that you’re bringing out to the world and all the leaders in our audience here. I’m honored to get to know you and I’m grateful for your time. Thanks for joining us.
I appreciate it. Thank you so much, Darrin.
I love hearing Jeff’s stories and his views. They’re filled with such purpose and intentionality. He’s helping us expand our minds and bringing us new perspectives to consider. A few takeaways from this episode, for us to reflect on and experiment with are the following. The first thing is to see challenges not to think culture gets consumed as one we contribute to. What action can you take now to start making your workplace a little better? Perhaps more joyful, inclusive, or even loving.
Start now, don’t wait. It’ll be worth it. Jeff also profoundly encourages us to unlearn or be wrong about something and get better from admitting and growing from that. I challenge you and I’m going to practice this with myself to be present with someone in a conversation or a dialogue and to listen closely to unlearn something I had a view on or an opinion about it and see if I was wrong or see how I can expand that view or perspective to make it better because I guarantee we’ll grow. I love the perspective and challenge that Jeff gave us on this one.
Lastly, Jeff shared his light-up moment about his dad. When Jeff had a newborn son, he invited his dad back into his life to hold his newborn in his hands. I love how he gave grace, which rewarded him back with this light-up moment where it turned his life right side up. I invite you to take five minutes now to think about a light-up moment in your life that changed your perspective and put you into action or change your mindset to look at something with greater meaning and purpose. If nothing comes to mind, I invite you and challenge you and dare you to be ready for it because it will change the rest of your life. It’ll light you up, literally. Thank you for tuning in. Remember, take small steps each day to ignite your happy, authentic self and live your possible.
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About Jeff Ma
Jeff Ma is the Director of Product Development at Culture+, co-creator of the Seneca suite of products and services, host of the ‘Love As A Business Strategy’ podcast, and WSJ Best Selling Author of ‘Love as a Business Strategy.’
Coming up through a decade in the gaming industry, Jeff eventually found his niche in project management and agile coaching at Softway. As he continued working with teams and clients in scrum and agile environments, however, he started seeing the stronger underlying importance of culture in truly high performing teams. Pushed by a combination of his own introspection, feedback from his colleagues, and a whole lot of uncomfortable practice – Jeff shifted head-first into a new mission that he shares with his team: to bring humanity back to the workplace.
Nowadays, he’s hyper-focused on helping people find a workplace culture that allows them to be their whole selves – their best selves. Jeff is leading the development of various products and tools that are crafted with a culture of love at its center. As a co-facilitator of Seneca Leaders and the other experiences in the Seneca suite, he is also connecting and transforming leaders around the world directly – helping them improve their mindsets, behaviors, and leadership capabilities.