On December 10, 2021, I had the honor of giving a commencement speech to the graduates of the Human Dimensions of Organizations Program at the University of Texas. Here is the text of my speech.
Graduates, friends and family, my colleagues. It is an honor to have a chance to speak here on this wonderful occasion.
If you wrote a movie about a global pandemic prior to 2020, the heroes of the movie would be people in STEM fields. At the start of the outbreak, medical professionals would treat the sick. Scientists would sequence the genome of the novel virus. Bioengineers would develop a novel vaccine using cutting-edge technology. And the credits would roll as the first people got their shots—signaling the end of the threat.
One of the things that life experience teaches us is the limitations of our narratives. In the actual pandemic that began in 2020, the first vaccines were administered midway through Act I. As it turns out, the heroes we need aren’t just from the STEM fields. We need heroes who understand people in order to go beyond partisan divides to ensure that everyone gets vaccinated and takes other precautions. We need heroes to find ways to reduce barriers to getting the vaccine to people in every country in the world and not just the wealthiest nations. We need heroes to help people stay resilient in the face of what seems like a never-ending series of variants and other setbacks.
But, of course, all of you that we’re honoring today already knew that. By committing yourself to the last 15 months of study in the Human Dimensions of Organizations program, you recognized that understanding people is crucial for your future success. Today, you are graduates of the HDO Masters program. Congratulations on your hard work, your engagement with your classes, and completing the research on your capstone projects.
While I have you all here as a captive audience, though, there are three more things I’d like to tell you. After all, you are about to take the knowledge and skills you have developed here to venture off to be the heroes we need.
First, let’s go way back to the very first week of the program in August of 2020. I spoke to several of you about your initial ideas for your final project and introduced you the concept that “The best capstone project is a completed capstone project.” I’m glad you took that advice to heart and did what you needed to do to finish.
But, that lesson is one you need to carry forward to everything you do. Human behavior is complicated, and you will never foresee everything that can go wrong with a plan that involves other people. Instead, you have to become adept at getting plans initiated and fixing them as they go along.
I have always found it strange that if you roll out a plan and then have to make changes people think you did something wrong—but nobody gets frustrated when a new piece of software needs an update a week after buying it. Remember—software is far less complicated than people. That means you have to set the norm that the plans you implement will change as you learn more. Your marker of success is where you end up, not where you start.
Second, your hard work has put you in a position to be better able to influence the lives the people around you. You have learned concepts that describe how people are motivated, so you can recognize what is driving their behavior. You have explored the qualities of leadership that create trust. You have worked on your ability to construct persuasive arguments.
All of these tools are ethically neutral. You can influence other people to do great things or terrible ones. You can persuade others to serve the broader community or just their own interests. You can build solid neighborhoods in which people lift each other up, or you can undermine people’s faith in each other.
Make the ethical use of influence a centerpiece of your work. As an example, I have initiated a practice in the teams I lead to make conversations about dilemmas a regular part of our work flow. As you may know, in the construction industry, they start meetings with a safety moment in recognition that lapses in safety can lead to fatal accidents. Analogously, I start team meetings with an ethics moment in which we watch a video or discuss a problem someone is facing. In this way, the team gets used to grappling with thorny problems before they become newspaper stories. It helps to send the message that ethics is as important in our workplace as safety is on a construction site.
Third, teach what you know to other people. We live in a world in which far too few people understand the humans around them. We simply don’t teach much about individual behavior, group interactions, cultural influences, or leadership as part of our standard curriculum. That means you now know a lot more about these topics than most of the people you work with.
There are times when the knowledge and skills you have are more valuable when only you have them. This is not one of those times. The more that you can teach others about how to work together effectively, to solve problems among coworkers or with customers and clients, and to resolve conflicts, the more open that your colleagues are going to be to your continued advice.
You will find that you teach in many different ways. You might actually give a class to a group of people you work with. But, you can also teach through day-to-day interactions with your colleagues. Use the concepts you have learned here explicitly in your discussions. Model the kind of behavior you want from others, but then call it out. Don’t expect that people will pick up on the things you’re doing without being told. It is ok to engage in a version of “see what I did there?” as part of your work.
The result of all this effort is that you will build a better market for your knowledge by giving as much of it away as you can.
So, that’s it. My last lesson. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Use your power wisely. And the best way to wield that power is to give it away.
And before you head off to celebrate with your family and friends, remember that we’re always here for you. It has been a great joy for me to have graduates of the program come back and take seminars or just grab a cup of coffee and talk about what they’re working on. The HDO program has built an amazing community of alumni, and today you join their ranks. I look forward to hearing about all the ways in which you are the heroes that are needed in your communities.