Throughout his career, Fred Kofman has coached some of the best minds in business today. He supported Sheryl Sandberg during her tenure at Google, and works now for Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, as vice president of executive development.

Kofman began his career at MIT, where, with a team of researchers led by Peter Senge, he explored what it takes to create a learning organization. What he learned then, and developed throughout the 20 years of consulting that followed, served as a foundation for the respected "Conscious Business” program he and Weiner put in place at LinkedIn.

Unhealthy Thought Patterns

Kofman found that there are some clear obstacles standing in the way of continuous learning for individuals, teams, and organizations. Although bureaucracy and other managerial processes sometimes stand in peoples’ way, their biggest problems are in their heads. Kofman found that because individuals have certain beliefs about themselves and others, unhealthy patterns of interaction sometimes emerge. His work has become helping people change those patterns, so they can be more effective, build better relationships, and make the company stronger.

“When the other person starts irritating you with that belief that opposes yours, you have an irrepressible urge to interrupt and jump in, to try to convince him that you’re right and he is wrong, and that he should stop thinking what he's thinking, which triggers his equally irrepressible urge to show you he is right and you are wrong,” says Kofman. “That can only end in a stalemate, where nobody listens to anybody else.”

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Once you realize you're caught in unhealthy patterns like this you can “change your mind.” For example, if you engage in an argument, start by truly listening to your counterpart and then summarize what you heard to check that what you got is what he or she intended to convey. This way, you not only demonstrate respect and create ground for discussion, you also ensure that you fully understand what you are disagreeing with.

From Victimhood to Responsibility

Another unhealthy thought pattern, according to Kofman, centers around how people blame work problems on factors outside their control.

“Why am I late? Because the previous meeting ran over. Why didn't I finish the report? Because my colleagues didn't give me the information. Why didn't I meet my quota? Because the customer changed his mind capriciously. Every one of us wants to appear innocent. We all tell the story of the victim at one time or another,” Kofman says.

The key here is to approach whatever arises as a challenge that demands a response. Instead of innocence, you achieve power, but the price is responsibility, or, as Kofman calls it, “response-ability.” By responding and learning from those challenges, you have the opportunity to reflect on how you're living (or working) and improve your life.

“The unhappiness and the suffering, as the Buddha said, is what opens the door to learning.... Understanding that doesn’t stop the dissatisfaction, but it takes the edge off. It creates a different spirit in the way you confront your challenges,” Kofman says.

Take the example of being late to an appointment. How do you explain your delay? Do you try to excuse yourself by focusing on external circumstances, such as traffic? Kofman says that by blaming something or someone else for being late, you actually disempower yourself. Instead, you can empower yourself by bringing yourself back into the equation. “I was late because I didn't allow extra time for traffic,” for instance. Now you can address the problem by leaving earlier.


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“Whatever you blame, you empower,” he says. “The price of innocence is impotence, because the price you pay for being innocent is that you have no power in the situation. You’ve given away your power to whatever you’re blaming for creating the problem. Unless you see yourself as part of the problem, you cannot see yourself as part of the solution.”

From Arrogant to Respectful

Another unhealthy thought pattern that causes people to struggle comes from their belief that they are stating objective facts, when they are really presenting their subjective opinions. Kofman says the ultimate arrogance is to think that the only valid perspective is your own. To grow professionally and personally, you must find the humility to contemplate your own beliefs critically, and give respectful consideration to the way other people see the world.

“You don't see things as they are,” Kofman says, “You see things as you are. Interpretations are in the eye of the beholder. For another person, the same world looks different because he has different concerns, different points of view, different life experiences, different interpretations of what happened. It's very difficult to cooperate without this radical respect for the multiplicity of perspectives. Yet we are naturally self-centered, disrespectful and arrogant because we think that we see things the way they are, and whoever doesn't see them that way is wrong.”

From LinkedIn to the World

Organizational change starts with leadership. A leader must act responsibly and respectfully first, and then the team will follow his or her example. When employees see their leaders behaving in a particular way, they realize that in order to thrive and grow in that company, they must act like their leaders.

At LinkedIn, Kofman works with the executive team to help them exemplify the principles mentioned here along with many others. Instead of demanding that people change, Kofman recommends that leadership teams communicate, “Here are the new standards for our culture. You have the right to demand that we act like this. Please challenge us if we don't.” After people see their leaders change, they will give these leaders the moral right to lead them to change.

It takes time and effort for a company culture to change, even if executives truly embrace these new ways of approaching business and each other. It can take many months or even years for leaders to overcome the inertia of bad behavior once it has permeated an organization.

LinkedIn employees who have finished the course have reported improvements in efficiency and satisfaction because of the way its leaders have embraced this philosophy of “wise and compassionate management,” as Jeff Weiner describes it. LinkedIn has also “softened the cultural crust” through a company-wide program in “Conscious Business.” The program has online components, group activities, and one-on-one coaching. After testing the program for a year, LinkedIn is making the material available to the rest of the world, so people everywhere can reap the benefits, too.

“We took exactly the same program, exactly the same videos, and we're posting them in our publishing platform, free for everybody to use,” Kofman says. “I hope the program will support not only the professional development of our members but also the work of leaders and learning agents in organizations. That's our mission: to connect the world's professionals to make them more productive and successful.”