January 16, 2013
So the world didn’t end on December 21, surprise, surprise. Here we are in 2013, all systems still intact. I have heard some speak of the Mayan December 21 end-of-all-things-prediction not so much an end of the world, but more of an end of one cycle and the beginning of another. An end of things-as-they-were. Let it be so. Endings can be good and healthy.
I don’t do New Years’ resolutions per se, but I have resolved in myself to focus this year on health, from its broadest perspective. I will endeavour to place attention on the health of those around me, the health of the organisations with which I work and the health of those within them. I will place, firstly, attention on my own health, because leadership is an inside job. We must be healthy ourselves. I view health as an holistic phenomenon: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social and relational. This is not merely the absence of dis-ease, but a progressive and thoughtful movement towards greater freedom and happiness. This will come about, I believe, through greater consciousness: a journey, therefore, not a destination. Becoming more aware, in moments, of what is going on for me and others and when it feels unhealthy or unnatural, to seek to do something different. Striving to live this moment freshly and not relying on old default responses.
Often, I suspect, this will involve taking a Cynical approach, though not from the modern understanding of cynicism (disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions), but coming from the ancient Greek philosophy of striving to live a life that is in tune with what it means to be naturally human. It seems the time is right to adopt a Cynical approach to life; it emerged in ancient Greece as a way of offering the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. Uncertainty. Sound familiar? While I’m in the process of simplifying my life a little, I’m not about to dispose of all my worldly goods as the original Cynics did, sleep in bathtubs and wander the streets with my dogs on a piece of string, but I take inspiration from the attitude of happiness as being linked to living a life in tune with Nature. The healthy life. Challenging false judgements of what is valuable and worthwhile, questioning customs and conventions of how things are done. I cannot do this without extending consciousness. This is why I do the work I do. This is why clients work with us: they are seeking something different, something that challenges their status quo. Same old, same old (or a pretty repackaging of the “same-old”) won’t create the deep, systemic transformation they require.
Like the Cynics, I believe the world belongs equally to everyone, that opportunity for happiness and freedom is for everyone; not just for those in “power”, those they deem as worthy or those who believe that money = power. Genuine democracy, having a voice, having agency in one’s life, actively participating in making decisions which affect us. In life, in work, all over the place. This is a challenge to current convention. In my experience, the best customer service comes from people who are being authentic and human and have the freedom to do so. In my experience, the best leadership comes from those who take an interest in their own learning and encourage others to do the same. In my experience, the best and most humane workplaces happen when everyone is accepting of everyone else in their same-ness and their difference, living and letting live. It is also my experience that none of these things happen by chance or good luck. They come about with consciousness.
Some of what I believe goes against Nature and humanity is the (largely unconscious) acceptance of and acquiescence to systems which are unhealthy. It comes through in an attitude that humans are resources, that corporations are somehow “people”, that the reason for getting up in the morning is to make more profit (even at the expense of a rainforest, a community, an ecosystem or some other inconvenient obstacle). I know some may find this irksome, but there is nothing I’ve found in any of the teachings of any of the great historical sages, seers, or prophets that advocates or emphasises owning things for oneself at the expense of others. As far as I have understood, I’m not aware of anything written by, attributed to or uttered by the Buddha, the Christ, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela, Rumi or Lao Tse that delineates capital accumulation as the road to enlightenment and a better life. I know what you’re thinking: I’m some sort of dangerous liberal, commie, socialist, atheist, pinko abortion-loving anarchist out to destroy freedom and democracy. Or I’m one of those well-intentioned, but muddle-headed, hybrid-car-driving, tree-hugging vegans who still say, “Peace and love, man.” Nothing of the sort. I do, however, go along with Hilary Wainwright and Richard Goulding who write in “Co-ops help bring economics back to the people,” that “we live in a time when the economics of profit are facing a profound crisis of legitimacy, while retaining a deathly grip on the apparatus of the state.” Something has to give. Zizek has spoken about getting close to a zero-point; what he terms “soft apocalypse”. Our ecological, social and economic systems are near breaking point and if we wish to retain all the benefits of a humane society, something different is called for. A new game.
This new game must be, if it’s for the good of everyone, co-created by everyone. It’s no good getting a room full of good-hearted people in a room, asking them individually to put forward their plan for a better world and then vote for the most popular. This is the point. This is how we got here. We have to do this together. We have to make these decisions together. Furthermore, we have to do this togetherness thing by bringing the best of ourselves to the party. Patriarchal businesses who still operate out of the “Manager-Knows-Best” mindset perpetuate the disengagement and dissatisfaction in those who work there, no matter how benevolent they may attempt to be and no matter what they try to put in place to mitigate for them. Get out of the way and let people bring their whole selves to work. Give people a bit of credit. AND…..if we are to create a real sense of “WE”, it behoves us all to invest ourselves in growing greater consciousness and our ability to be with each other. My “why”, therefore, is to push for greater self-awareness and consciousness in the world. This will come about with self-discipline, continued learning and a genuine commitment to diversity and engaging others.
Here’s another challenge to current convention: I have no faith that a system of capitalism (conscious or otherwise) will lead to an age of enlightenment. A system operates with a set of rules which maintain its equilibrium. In other words, a system will strive to perpetuate itself. I struggle to see how a system of capital accumulation that operates to ensure its continuation can be for the greater good of Nature and humanity. Fraudulent banksters, tax cheats, self-interested lobbyists and an obscene corporate bonus culture all spring out of a system whose rules say, “This is how you play the game. It’s called capital accumulation.” The ones who pay the price are the ones who haven’t learnt how to play the game well enough. Time for us to play a different game, one that allows everyone to play and demands that the play is fair and equitable. We are not here to serve the economy, it should serve us. Becoming more conscious of what we do that colludes with an inhumane system is a first step in creating something new. Furthermore, becoming conscious of what I do that colludes with my own un-health and that of others and their businesses is a first step to creating something more life-giving.
They say you can’t polish a turd, but you can certainly roll it in glitter. Nowadays we don’t just buy a product, but we buy our redemption from being naughty consumerists because they donate $1 to a starving child in Africa or promise only to use FairTrade commodities. We are no longer just consuming, but we are fulfilling a series of ethical and moral duties, right? I’m not saying this is bad in itself; I am as deeply moved as the next person by images of poverty and injustice and want it to end. I can also understand why some might think I’m being cruel because as Oscar Wilde wrote, it is much easier to have sympathy with suffering than to have sympathy with thought. So for me to take a dim view of built-in philanthropy smacks of mean-ness because I really should just appreciate the good that some of these modern businesses do, shouldn’t I? Why not help a starving child? Why not, indeed? I would much prefer a world where starvation was impossible. My point is that the system which dresses itself up as the provider of charity is the same one that necessitates the need. Oscar Wilde recognised this in his day, too. The remedy is part of the disease. My vision is one where the ills of the world (including the modern workplace) are not merely alleviated, but that they are inconceivable. It is possible. Having centuries ago passed through the age of the aristocracy, we could not now conceive of contemporary serfdom. My view, therefore: capitalism will not save the world, conscious or otherwise. Consciousness will, though. Watch and listen to Zizek.
This is the same thinking out of which spring my beliefs that meaning, mastery and autonomy are keys to generating satisfaction and engagement, that Theory Y is much more than a lovely sounding “theory”, that cooperation is far more effective and humane than competition, that learning how to reverse roles with people is good for them and us, that people are not their behaviours and that performance is a systems issue, not an HR one. We know some things that will make work work better for everyone. We need to be conscious of how we perpetuate the old ways and to be conscious of being different.
If December 21 was indeed the end of things-as-they-were, I believe that consciousness will be the foundation of the new thing. Herein lies our work. It is not good enough to rail against unfair or inhumane systems. While, as a systems thinker, I perceive the interconnectedness of us all, I am also cognisant of the fact that the human family is composed of a number of individual elements. These are each of us. We can make a difference in our lives and the lives of others by growing self-awareness and becoming more conscious of our place in the web of life, how we impact it and how it impacts on us. Who are we? What drives us? What gives us joy? How can we nurture mutually satisfying relationships with others? What are my Achilles’ heels and how can I find out? Who will help me uncover that stuff about me that I am blind to? Growing consciousness, extending self-awareness; these are not easy things, these are not necessarily painless things. They are, however, indispensable if we want a better world. We have a part to play. I have a part to play. Hence my focus on health.
Being a great leader, a great colleague, a great customer service representative, a great whatever starts with consciousness. They are all inside jobs. It is not accidental. It requires a conscious choice to develop greater self-knowing, to be honest and gutsy in our conscious self-reflection and taking conscious steps to learning and developing. If, as Zizek says, the most radical horizon of our imagination is global capitalism with a human face, we have a lot of work to do. Putting out fire with gasoline? Or, together, setting the conditions so that the fire couldn’t start in the first place?
November 12, 2012
Sometimes you read something that really strikes a chord. I recently saw this quote from Kurt Vonnegut: ”We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” In other times, I would read this and it would simply seem like a poetic truism, but I’m currently experiencing a number of shifts in my personal situation which made me read that quote as if it was written just for me. These shifts are creating a fair amount of uncertainty and bringing up all the associated emotions that go with it. In times like this, it is useful for me to remember that trying to control what is going on in my world will not lead to the best outcomes and in fact, that I need to call on the kind of resources that will best keep me going in times of uncertainty. These resources, in my experience, are more related to responsiveness rather than planning, innovation rather than inertia. While some of my uncertainty is environmental, some of it is by choice: I have jumped off a cliff. It would be rather contrarian of me, therefore, to complain about some of my current uncertainty as I am its author, and for good reason, so the thing for me to remember is a lesson from one of my old teachers: “It’s sometimes not so important what you do; it’s what you do NEXT.”
If we are falling from a cliff, either because we’ve jumped or because circumstances have pushed us, what we need is the ability to be in the moment, thus summoning up all our creativity to learn how not to hit the ground. Our brains are hard-wired to cause us to respond to uncertainty in predictable ways. As Thayer et al write, there is “an evolutionary advantage associated with the assumption of threat” and that our “‘default’ response to uncertainty, novelty, and threat is the sympathoexcitatory preparation for action commonly known as the fight or flight response”. Essentially, because we have inherited a certain vigilance to our environment, when faced with uncertainty, we unconsciously prepare for the worst. While useful for survival if we are about to be attacked by a lion, it’s hardly the most progressive state to be in if we want to thrive. This goes for businesses living in uncertain times as well as individuals.
More people are joining the precariat, a new class of people, not in the traditional Marxian sense of “class”, but a section of the populace bound together by the increasing uncertainty in their lives. If, in the face of uncertainty, more people are living their lives in a state of vigilance, fear and worry, how can this not affect business? When more of what is going on in the business world is unprecedented, how can businesses pretend that we will magically go back to “business as usual” once all this financial mayhem goes away. We won’t; things are irrevocably changing. In the fog of transition, the only certainty is uncertainty.
When the business of a business is pretty predictable, as it was in the Industrial era, there is less need to focus on resilience or responsiveness. In the old days, business could undertake planning exercises and be reasonably safe in the knowledge that the functioning of the business would be able to successfully execute its plans and that the environment would not impinge too greatly on those plans. In the modern era where knowledge is “a core commodity and the rapid production of knowledge and innovation is critical to organisational survival” (Bettis and Hitt, 1995, ‘The new competitive landscape’), business needs to get to grips with the reality of uncertainty and decreasing forecastability. Businesses also need to remember that they are living systems within wider living systems. Global environmental, political, economic and financial challenges all impact on a business’s ability to succeed.
There is much out there which indicates that we are living in a VUCA world. Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. While, for some, this may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, I would contend that the world has been thus for much longer, but that what we have been learning in recent years is allowing us to see what we previously may not have. Systems thinking, for example, is giving us mental constructs with which to make a little sense of a sometimes confusing world. If dealing with uncertainty requires us to embrace it, as some suggest, the question remains, “How do we do that?” It can seem a little glib to simply say, “the world is uncertain, embrace it!”
If, on the way down from that cliff, I succumb to my anxiety, it is impossible for me to be spontaneous. Anxiety and spontaneity sit at opposite ends of a spectrum. Without my spontaneity, I have no spark for my creativity and it is my human creativity which will assist me to come up with new enabling solutions.
Creativity and innovation at work are not just about coming up with new products and services. They are about how we respond to each other, our customers and the business environment. Creativity, however, is strategically linked with spontaneity. As Dr. J.L. Moreno writes in “Who Shall Survive?” (1953), an “individual may have a high degree of creativity but be entirely without spontaneity, a creator ‘without arms’….Spontaneity can enter the creatively endowed individual and evoke a response.” He goes on to say that there have been many more Michelangelos than the one who painted the Sistine Chapel, but “the thing that separates them is the spontaneity which, in the successful cases, enables the carrier to take full command of his (or her) resources, whereas the failures are at a loss with their treasures.” Furthermore, “spontaneity operates in the present, now and here; it propels the individual towards an adequate response to a new situation or a new response to an old situation.”
How do you respond to something novel?
When we encounter something unexpected, do we push ahead with our plans? Do we assist others to embrace uncertainty or do we attempt to keep things as planned so that we don’t unsettle people? For example, in developing people’s abilities to have workplace conversations about performance, we emphasise that there is no “step 1, step 2″ procedure for carrying these out. This unsettles some folks. For one thing, such conversations can be pretty emotionally charged, especially if someone is calling someone else’s under-performing at work. How will they react? What will I do if they get angry/defensive/start crying? For another thing, no conversation can be scripted unless you are an actor on stage. Even in this situation, actors develop the ability to be responsive to what others say to them and how they say it, otherwise we see a bunch of individuals reciting memorised lines, which is not how good drama unfolds on stage. Even though they know what comes next, a good actor will be alive to the present moment and deliver their lines as if they are hearing what the other has said for the first time. Responsiveness.
We can ready ourselves for a challenging conversation, partly by rehearsing what we want to say, but we also need to be ready to respond to what the other person says to us. We encourage people to think bigger about these conversations as one of many elements in their relationship. They are a process within a bigger process, not a stand-alone event. For this reason, we don’t provide tools and techniques, we offer spontaneity development. As I quoted previously, Dr. J.L. Moreno said spontaneity is the capacity to offer a novel response to an old situation or an adequate (i.e. good enough) response to a new situation. Any workplace conversation or relationship would benefit from developing this capacity. Tools, tricks and tips are not sufficient in order to navigate the complex spaces we inhabit at work. They are useful to a point, but the application of these in a mindful and purposeful manner needs to come from the individual. In order to deploy all the knowledge and skills that this individual at their ready disposal, the individual needs to be in a state of readiness; this is the spontaneity state. When we are warmed up to a spontaneity state, we bring out all we have developed and learnt and sythesise them in an appropriate and effective manner to come up with a novel response to a familiar situation or a “good enough” response to something we have never met before. We don’t struggle to remember useful tips, we don’t get anxious about what we are about to say or do, we don’t fail to bring out what we know we know. We flow in response to uncertainty, sometimes producing something that surprises even ourselves. Creativity.
Progressiveness is more than just coping
In many businesses I encounter, the tried and tested no longer seems as effective. Perhaps the conventional marketing wisdom or sales tactics no longer bring in results like they used to. They’ve tried sweeteners, good cop-bad cop, management directives, staff socials and everything else they can think of, but loyalty and engagement seem to be on the wane. As Andrew Zolli describes, we are being called on to develop capabilities that are about “rolling with the waves, instead of trying to stop them“. Accommodating them rather than building bigger storm walls. I have previously described my experience of first arriving in India and realising while looking down on a Mumbai street that it was a river and that in order to get by, I’d have to go with its flow rather than try to swim upstream.
Politicians concerning themselves with the interests of the precariat talk about building a new progressive agenda. I like that word: progressive. It fits with a model of human functioning that I apply in my work, both for individuals and for businesses. Whether we are the authors of our uncertainty or it is the product of our environment (or a little of both, as I’m currently experiencing), our response to it is key. The enabling solutions lie in finding ways to (re)gain a sense of agency in our lives. Agency, mind; not control. The model I apply comes out of the work of the work of Lynette Clayton and has been refined by Max Clayton: we operate out of Roles which are fragmenting, coping or progressive.
In every living moment, we respond to our world by taking up a Role. We learn Roles from the day we are born until the day we die, as we are constantly meeting new situations. The term “fragmenting” corresponds to “dysfunctional”, reflecting the inner experience of acting in this manner. Fragmenting Role responses are backward-looking, fear-based, stuck, regressive. Coping Role responses are those which have served us well in the past and have become almost habitual but which are more oriented to surviving rather than thriving. Progressive Role responses are those which move us forward. Each of us has a motivating force which takes us forward in our lives and the Roles we enact that take us there are progressive. In times of uncertainty, it seems sensible that we would operate out of our coping or fragmenting Roles; this is related to that hard-wiring. The ones that are most life-giving and useful to us, however, are the progressive.
Once again, we will find it easier to enact out of our progressive Role systems if we can warm up to our spontaneity. Our progressive Roles are the ones which will enable us to thrive in the face of uncertainty. Embracing uncertainty, then, is an exercise in consciousness. Zolli talks about soldiers, ER workers and first-responders training in contemplative practices to assist them to remain resilient. If our hard-wiring is constantly on the alert and tells us that the uncertain is a threat, mindfulness can help us to short circuit that hard-wiring.
What is required is consciousness.
So we don’t like uncertainty? Tough. Just because we don’t like it, doesn’t mean we don’t have to deal with it. The question becomes, “How can I manage myself in the midst of uncertainty?”
So what am I doing about my current uncertainty? Well, after a few particularly challenging days, I’m writing about it. This activity is helping me to be mindful: of myself and of my resources. These are plenty. Some are intrapersonal, some are interpersonal and some are supra-personal. I’m remembering that if I languish in anxiety, I’ll find it harder to keep going. I’m remembering the moments in my life when I have felt spontaneous. I’m remembering my mother’s recent email telling me to trust in my strengths and that I’m a very capable person. I’m remembering to take exercise and eat my greens.
To quote an old friend of mine, worry doesn’t get the cat fed.
October 10, 2012
Absolutely, undoubtedly, unequivocally, yes! Such a leader is a vanguard leader. We were recently in conversation with a CEO who wondered aloud if there is a place for someone like him; someone who, in my estimation, expresses how he feels, lets other know how they impact on him, curiously seeks feedback on his own performance (with a view to acting on it) and strives to do what needs to be done in a way that is aligned with a personal value system orientated to fairness, meaningful work and concern for the well-being of others. This man is, in my view, in the vanguard of how a CEO should be. (He’s also a real person!) I can understand why he might occasionally doubt himself because he likely looks around at other people called “CEO” and doesn’t see himself mirrored back. The times, however, they are a-changing.
Lots is written about the kind of leaders we require for the 21st century. I have no desire to replicate what is out there, however what I see in this man who “wears his heart on his sleeve” is an amalgam of responsible leadership, authentic leadership and congruent leadership and I believe it is worth setting these out. I believe the three are essential in order to surmount the challenges with which the current age presents us. The terrain the modern leader needs to navigate is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). How can we best develop ourselves as leaders to navigate this well, so that we leave our workplaces, the people within them and the world in a better place than when we found it?
Responsible leadership, to my mind, is about being responsive to what is around you; thinking about the wider system. As Christopher Avery sets out, being responsible goes further than being accountable. Being accountable, as Christopher says, is backward-looking, in that we can account for our actions. Being responsible is forward-looking, in that we seek to take account of a wider system. When we read about responsible leadership or corporate responsibility, we think of triple bottom lines or sustainability: how will our actions affect others now and into the future? In other words, we are responding to an assessment of the bigger picture; what ripples will our actions (and non-actions) create. This is vital if we intend to bequeath a planet worth inhabiting for future generations. While I’m a little loathe to throw morals into the mix, I’d say that a responsible leader is one who would align themselves with a “Do no harm” kind of morality into their work. Extending this, a responsible, vanguard leader is a systems steward. A vanguard leader understands that a truly effective business will come about when the organisation (the system) is healthy. Sick cultures enact sick behaviours. The systems steward will be responsible for ensuring that there are healthy policies and procedures, a healthy flow of information, a healthy openness to innovation, healthy relationships, a healthy culture of learning, development and continuous improvement. Being responsible for the hygiene of the wider system will ensure longevity and ‘good growth’.
Being a vanguard leader is absolutely about being responsible. It is absolutely about being a systems thinker; taking action when the wider system is taken into account and stewarding their business towards health.
Authentic leadership, for me, is bringing your whole self to work. As Bill George and others say in Discovering your Authentic Leadership, you need to be who you are, not emulate someone else. Authentic leaders know who they are because they are on a lifetime journey of self-discovery. Discovering our authentic leadership requires a commitment to discovering who we are.
Being a vanguard leader is absolutely about being authentic. It is absolutely about knowing who we are, letting people know who we are and not simply being the angry, unhappy guy or gal who gets s**t done.
Congruent leadership is based on personal values, beliefs and principles. Congruent leaders also place a high value on building and maintaining good relationships with others. Congruent leaders are guided by a higher purpose. They become conscious of the value systems out of which they operate and work to align these with their words and their actions. Such folks are also open to discovering their blind spots, areas where their values, actions and words are not aligned, and to making the appropriate adjustments so that they can operate in a principled manner.
Being a vanguard leader is absolutely about being congruent. It is absolutely being aware of our values and principles, communicating those and behaving in ways which are aligned with them.
Vanguard leadership is the confluence of responsible leadership, authentic leadership and congruent leadership. This is the promised land. We are on the way, but in our wider society we are not there yet. Some leaders, like that CEO I mentioned, are well on the way, however. For folks like this, it can be a little isolating.
When we look around and find ourselves a little alone, how can we sustain ourselves?
If we are in the vanguard, we are at the forefront of a movement. As I said, the times, they are a-changing and I confidently predict that 100 years from now, this kind of leader will be ubiquitous. If, in our current era, however, we are striking out into new territory, this means we may have times when we doubt ourselves, feel isolated or wonder if we are deluding ourselves. If you are a leader who enacts responsibility, authenticity and congruence in your working life, what would be useful in order to sustain yourself if there are relatively few living and breathing models of vanguard leadership? In the world we have inherited from the Industrial Age, we are conditioned to look for gaps, rather than strengths. That conditioning starts early on at school. The workplaces we enter reinforce this deficit mentality through the performance management systems we apply to ourselves and others. Even if we don’t want to focus our energies on what is dysfunctional, we are seemingly compelled to look at what’s not working, rather than what is. If we unconsciously take this approach with ourselves, especially when we look around and find few people like us, it can dent our confidence. We can begin to assume we are less capable and less effective than we actually are. We may distrust or disbelieve positive feedback or fail to see the positive impact we have on others and the wider system. We can also devalue ourselves; finding ourselves attributing less value to the qualities inherent in a vanguard leader than to those qualities in what we might believe a “real CEO” to possess. This seems quite natural to me, given our conditioning. We need to develop a self consciousness in order to remain strong.
As Daniel Goleman writes in “The New Leaders” (2002), emphasis on our gaps often arouses the right prefrontal cortex of our brains. This gives rise to feelings of anxiety and defensiveness which typically demotivate and interrupt self-directed learning and the likelihood of change and development. The effect of this is that the very qualities that identify a vanguard leader get lost in the process.
So it is essential that if we are in the vanguard, we develop a strong self-companion Role. One of my favourite expressions comes from a friend in Scotland. If I was doing something silly, she’d joke, “Have a word with yourself.” Even though she was teasing me, she probably has no idea how useful I have found this advice over the years. From a Role Theory perspective, developing a good self-companion means just that, having an intimate relationship with ourselves; being able to have a conversation with the aspect of ourselves that says, “Keep going, you’re on the right track. Others don’t get it yet, but you are really onto something here.” Now, once again, I’m loathe to bring morals into the conversation, but I think it’s important to place a caveat on this. I’m pretty sure Hitler and Stalin had a similar Role within them. An truly effective self-companion, however, will not urge us to barbarity. Bear in mind, we are a complex system of inter-related and inter-connected Roles. The self-companion will be the one that interacts with the rest of us and spurs us on. By the “rest of us”, I mean the other roles I saw present in that CEO I mentioned at the beginning of this article: strongly orientated to thinking bigger, strongly orientated to the well-being of others, strongly orientated to leaving a legacy of health, roles I can hardly imagine Hitler or Stalin possessing in any great measure. I’m fascinated by those two despots and how they did what they did, but in all the documentaries I’ve watched, I’ve never observed anything remotely like humility, openness to feedback or care for humanity in their Role systems.
We can consciously warm ourselves up to the thinking, feeling and behaving necessary to fully integrate a strong sense of self-worth. If this Role is embryonic in us, we need to be quite conscious of growing it, much the same way we needed to be conscious of learning to drive until it became second nature. We had to actively think, “Clutch, gear, release clutch while depressing accelerator…..” Similarly, we may have to be awake to growing the habit of being a good self-companion. What self-talk or affirmation would be useful to build ourselves up? What emotional state would be most useful to warm up to? Think of a time when you were full of self-confidence; how can you transfer some of that goodness to your current situation?
“The world has the habit of making room for the man whose words and actions show that he knows where he is going.”
It is just as vital to find peers. In your head, heart and gut, you know you are doing right by yourself and others, but sometimes we also need to see ourselves mirrored by our peers. If you are at the forefront, you are, by definition, ahead of the pack. In one sense, you are peerless. Not entirely, though. There are others out there. We need to apply ourselves to finding these folk. When we do something that seems a little different or we feel that we don’t quite measure up to what a “real CEO” is, we need to find others who are similarly “weird”. Seek out others who are supportive, encouraging, caring and interested.
Referencing Goleman again, study after study has demonstrated that positive groups make positive change. Senior executives reported feeling that many people around them had an investment in them staying the same, not growing and developing. Finding a trusted peer group of other vanguard leaders, whether that is through a local Vistage group that is resonant with our desire to cultivate new leadership styles or a virtual peer group of leaders interested in being responsible, authentic and congruent, will keep us on track and reduce the isolation of being a little “weird”. A peer group is a powerful motivator.
Any thoughts on this? Comments, insights and conversation most welcome.
September 23, 2012
Fresh from running a workshop on responsible leadership, I’m feeling buoyant that the participants entered into the conversation with gusto and were open to the idea that humans engage in their work because they seek out meaning, mastery and autonomy. To a large extent, I was not only preaching to the converted but taking the lead from them. Their work is based on a developmental, strengths-based worldview and they do it because they see the real difference that it makes to their clients. When I proposed that McGregor’s Theory XY and the work of Daniel Pink was providing us with a compelling case for re-visioning how we “do” leadership, there seemed to be general approval. They seemed thrilled that there has been significant theory and research on what makes work work. One person excitedly told the story of her previous workplace that had got to a crisis point, completely revamped its management practice and leadership approach by adopting a Theory Y attitude and turned their business around. Similarly, we at Quantum Shift are working with a client who also views people through a Theory Y lens and is in the middle of a deep transformation of how their business is organised and the light at the end of the transformation tunnel is clear and bright.
Then my heart sinks a little as I read in this morning’s New Zealand Herald, an article entitled “Fear, greed and vanity are excellent staff motivators.” I couldn’t resist reading, it tempted me in, much as those faux science documentaries in which the narrator at some point intones mysteriously, “Was Darwin wrong?” This invariably causes me to exclaim, “NO!” in frustration at the thrall in which ancient myths and fairy stories still grip us. To give the writer of that piece his due, he does start his argument with “in my opinion”, however we are on shaky ground if we base management and leadership of our organisations purely on opinion. Haven’t we learnt that research and study goes a long way to correcting long-held beliefs that get in the way of good practice?
He closes his article by saying, “…all other things being equal, an engaged workforce is more productive than a disengaged one – but the pyramids were built with the whip. We should not forget that.” Reminds me of that quote by Deming, “Beat horses and they will run faster….for a while.” While it may be that the pyramids were built with the whip (although I learnt when I was in Egypt recently that new archaeological discoveries are showing that it was not slave labour that built the pyramids after all), it also used to be the case that children were used as chimney sweeps, women were burnt at the stake for witchcraft and leeches were considered cutting edge medicine. While everyone is entitled to their prejudices (for that’s all Theory X is as far as I’m concerned), it’s more than a little frustrating when someone is given air time in the business column of a national newspaper to reinforce something backed by no evidence, bar his experience as a company liquidator. Theory X is one which is being challenged by contemporary research into what motivates people. If we take as long to update our perspective on this as we did to acknowledge that the sun is the centre of the solar system, I predict that it will take until the year 2110 before we find workplaces everywhere have at last unleashed people’s genuine desire to do something meaningful and that work will have long since ceased to be paid-for slave labour (or that we need gamification to help us pretend otherwise).
In the meantime, we still have conversations about how to motivate employees. Way back in 2006, a piece appeared in the Harvard Management Update entitled “Stop Demotivating your Employees”. It came out of some research that showed that when people join organisations they are initially enthusiastic, but that they very quickly lose motivation due to management behaviours and styles. This research, by the way, was conducted with 1.2 million employees at 52 businesses, so it’s not simply the opinion of the three authors. The question, then, is not about finding ways to motivate and engage people. It’s about letting them get on with it, stopping demotivating them.
Central to this is re-visioning the role of a manager. Much of what a manager does gets in the way and leads to situations where they then ponder how to motivate and engage. As Bob Marshall puts it in “Lay off the Managers”, we need management, but much of what managers do is dysfunctional. If we do away with the old Theory X prejudice and embrace the science behind Theory Y, the flow on from this is that the job of managing will look and feel quite different. Some of the things that go on in some of the businesses to which I consult include:
- Policies and procedures that try to mitigate for every possible contingency and overwhelm people with the sheer scale of information they are required to know before actually doing their jobs.
- Micro-managers who need to oversee not only what people do but how they do it.
- Command-and-control hierarchies that centralise decision-making away from the point at which the decisions could more ably be made.
- Managers who hoard power and operate out of a need to be in control of things (and when they can’t, sabotage the hard work of others).
As Deming states in this short video clip, “one is born with intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, dignity, cooperation, curiosity, a yearning for learning.” These are crushed out by “forces of destruction” throughout our lives. He wonders out loud, “Why crush them out? Why not nurture them?” Indeed. He goes on to say that mere change will not do it. ”We cannot just remodel the prison.” He is talking about transformation, not mere patchwork, not tinkering round the edges.
Backed by research, I believe that Theory Y is in an ascendancy, albeit a slow one (cf. Copernicus). Symptomatic of this, many managers have cottoned on to this new-fangled thing called “engagement”. It seems that some studies have shown that businesses with motivated and engaged staff are far more productive and effective at what they do. That’s pretty compelling. So in the name of creating happier workers, some go through a PR makeover, adopting some kind of newspeak so that people think things have actually changed. That, or they induce people and customers to “like” them by trying to make the same old work seem more fun and interesting. I’m not so sure this is transformation.
Deming talks about transformation as a new kind of reward, but not one that gives you points on a leader board, an extra staff party or an incentive bonus in your pay packet. He talks about restoring the individual. This kind of transformation will unleash the power of human resourcefulness contained in intrinsic motivation and which people are born with. That’s meaning, mastery and autonomy for you Daniel Pink fans. Or self-actualisation for you Maslow fans. Dispensing with extrinsic motivators and transforming business to release people’s intrinsic motivation can lead to less competition and greater cooperation which, in time, will lead to greater innovation, greater service, greater material reward for everyone, joy in work, joy in learning. There is the new kind of reward. Everyone will win in this transformation.
It truly boggles my mind that folks like the author of that NZ Herald article would consider themselves as hardworking and motivated by success yet presume others are inherently lazy, selfish and greedy. Certainly, these are human qualities and ones which we all possess in some measure. We are not slaves to them, however, and in my experience, under the right conditions, we will just as easily bring out the best of ourselves. Under the kind of conditions that model and condone laziness and selfishness, however, I can understand why would people would fail to engage themselves fully. Genuine transformation of business, therefore, is essential; this means a real systemic shift in attitudes and beliefs about people. Getting the “right conditions” for people to flourish is a pre-condition for them to bring their whole selves to work.
In my understanding of McGregor’s Theory Y, those marvellous things he outlines will come to fruition under the right conditions. This is important. The conditions must be right for people to flourish just as soil must be fertile in order for plants to flourish. If you salt the earth, nothing will grow; if you behave like Stalin (while spouting Theory Y newspeak for good PR), your people will disengage or leave or both. As I said, the question to be asking, then, is not “How can I motivate my staff?” but “How do I need to be so that I don’t demotivate people around me?” Some of it is related to transforming how the business organises itself, but this is inextricably linked to transforming ourselves: our beliefs and attitudes about human nature and how we relate to people.
What is required of us then?
Listening to people. Adopt the practice of genuinely listening to people. Acting on what you hear is part of this, too. Come at conversations with the mindset that they will tell you something you don’t already know, something which may challenge your own beliefs or something which may teach you a lesson. Turn off that inner monologue and consider their reality is just as valid as yours.
Enabling them to get on with it. There are a number of enabling behaviours I set out in a previous article, “Leaders: get out of the way”. I would strongly suggest it is more than behaviour change; once again, it is personal transformation that flows out of a meaningful shift in our beliefs and attitudes.
Acknowledging people. This is not about praise. Managers who steal the credit for good work are demotivators. Acknowledging means giving people their due and recognising the contributions they make to the whole. It means noticing when people have been of good service to others. It means assisting people to see that their unique contributions and who they are add something invaluable.
Facilitating the easy flow of information and unimpeded access to the proper resources to do the job. At a very basic level, a manager would do well to see themselves as the one who eases and unblocks information flow. Hoarding information is an act of the power-hungry.
Enrolling people into a vision of something greater than the sum of everyone’s daily tasks. Declaring a clear purpose for the business, apart from increased shareholder return or higher profit. Keep hold of a single-minded purpose and make sure everyone has a clear line of sight to it. What is your business contributing to the well-being of the world?
If the author of that NZ Herald article was moved to write what he did because he has witnessed indolence and selfishness in the workplace, I would suggest that it has as much to do with the kind of cynicism people bring to work when they witness their managers exhibit the same cynical behaviours and attitudes. That Harvard Management Update found that people start a job full of enthusiasm, which, like Deming, I would say is our default setting. The rot sets in when systemic inhumanity within the business infects them and their natural motivation is crushed. I would also suggest it has much to do with organisations which have not put “the right conditions” in place that would allow creativity, autonomy and responsibility to flourish. It’s also to do with managers and leaders who hold on to an obsolete view of human nature. So it’s no surprise to me that a company liquidator would encounter people who do their best to be their worst.
September 8, 2012
“Many people live in the hallucination that they can truly lead other people without being able to lead themselves and this is pure fantasy. It is much easier to try to change other people and not being willing to change ourselves. This exercise of authenticity is very much needed if we truly want to inspire, touch and move the brains and the souls of those around us.” So writes Mario Alonso Puig, Fellow and Doctor, Harvard Medical School in the recent World Economic Forum report, Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership.
I’m initially a little hesitant when I read something that uses the word “model” because of the meaning we still tend to attach to that word “model” in our consumerist societies. New models of leadership, huh? (For this, I have been too often disappointed and end up reading some fast food version of what it means to be a leader: barely nutritional, highly addictive and something which passes through the system quickly.) Part of that hallucination to which Puig so eloquently refers is, I believe, related to a world in which we think we can continually “get” and “consume”. Gimme gimme gimme, make it quick, make it punchy, make it easily digestible. Don’t need to really soak it in, it’s just going to come out the other end anyway because, like a lot of fast food, I’m going to be hungry again in a little while and whatever is to hand will do. What’s the next leadership model I need to (rapidly) familiarise myself with, then?
This WEF report, however, sets out more than just a model. It’s a descriptive, and rather compelling, vision of what it could mean to be a leader and also points the way to how we could regard leader development in a VUCA world. When the world we navigate is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, how do we respond? As the report states, integral to effective leadership is the inner journey leaders must embark upon. This is not about tips and strategies, rather it is something to which there are no short-cuts. Developing self-knowing can sometimes feel elusive. Just as we get to grips with one thing, it can seem to vanish, unlike technical information, for which there is a manual.
There are concepts and phenomena that are becoming more ubiquitous and mainstream such as “emotional intelligence“, “mirror neurons“, “flourishing” and all those other really interesting things that science and rigorous research are demonstrating have some truth to them. Any leader who wishes to remain relevant and become more effective would do well to familiarise themselves with some of these, however knowing about them and actually applying them to oneself are two different things. There is a world of difference between a seminar that describes emotional intelligence and an experiential workshop in which you immerse yourself in stretching your abilities to relate with people and in which you practice reversing roles with others. You will gain information from the one, but the insights gained may not result in changing who you are. You will become different as a result of the other.
In answer to the question, “What is the best model of leadership?” I would suggest, it depends. Not terribly helpful I know, but it depends on who you are and that question is one to which you are far better placed to answer than me. We will all find various models or tools of more or less use. We will all find different descriptions of leader behaviour of more or less relevance. One thing is sure: learning who we are is essential if we are indeed “to inspire, touch and move the brains and souls of those around us” and the effectiveness of a model is, I suggest, going to be directly correlated to the level of self-knowing that the person attempting to apply it has achieved.
Models are all well and good but I believe the chief question to address is not “What is the best model?” but “How can I become more authentic?” or “Who am I and how do I bring the real me to my role as a leader?” In my time, I’ve encountered people who are not in formally-recognised “leadership” roles, but who exercise themselves with this question daily and exhibit what I would call excellent leader capabilities. This is the kind of thinking I infer from the WEF report: that leader development is not just for those in management roles, but in a social economy, leader capabilities are people capabilities. All kinds of people who bring a kind of authenticity and real human-ness to their work indicate the good stuff that more CEOs would do well to take heed of. There have been the internet provider’s customer service representatives who answer my grumpy phone calls and who manage to both help me solve my technical problems as well as ease my frustrations and keep me as a customer. That’s leadership. There were the hotel reservation staff who actually listened to my concerns and went the extra mile, and before I even check in have provided me an experience of customer service that makes me feel like I’ll be staying there again and again. That’s leadership.
A model of leadership ought, in my view, be descriptive, rather than prescriptive. In a world still dominated by “I want”, “What can I get?” and “Just give me the 10 top tips,” we need to be careful of limiting our development as leaders to descriptions of one aspect of this without also taking on board that the task at hand is self-discovery. Fine to learn a new top tip, but we have to avoid reducing leadership to a set of behaviours or a set of attitudes. Layering these on without also looking inside will be inauthentic. Who are you really, underneath all that make-up? Authentic leadership and being an authentic leader seems to me much more about being the leaders we want to be, not modelling ourselves in accordance with the latest trend, which could be akin to wearing someone else’s clothes which are slightly ill-fitting and in which we never really feel comfortable.
“Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life. There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning.” Peter Senge
Part of discovering who we want to be as a leader implies doing something that nobody else has done in the entire history of the universe: being you. I sometimes joke that a really useful personality metric would be one that has not four or 16 or 30 types of people, but seven billion. Certainly, we have more that unites us than separates us; certainly we share 99% of our genes with mice, but the chemistry of all the roles we enact in our lives synthesises into one and only one unique living entity.
I have made the point in a couple articles that we humans learn best when in the company of other humans. I have also made the point that it is nonsense to teach children that they must “do their own work”. I am not contradicting myself when I advocate for discovering oneself and being the unique leader you want to be. It is a interesting paradox that humans do learn best with cooperating with others and interacting with others, but that we need to expend our own energy and leave our own comfort zones if we are to learn anything. Doing our own learning, however, does not mean isolating yourself from the input and assistance of others. We do learn by watching what others do and adopting some of their ways of being, adapting them to fit our personal values. Adopt, adapt and improve. We learn by giving and receiving feedback from others.
When Ackoff said, “If each part of a system is made to operate as efficiently as possible, the system as a whole will not operate as effectively as possible. The performance of a system depends more on how its parts interact than on how they act independently of each other,” he could have also been referring to each of us as individual systems within larger systems. Maximising our intellect without doing the work on ourselveswill not make us better leaders. As the WEF report says, part of learning how to manage in a VUCA world is related to growing “head” and “hand” skills. These are given greater impact when growing the “heart” skills. They are inextricably linked. If I was to ask you which was the most important organ in your body, you might struggle to answer. None are more important, all are essential and they all need each other in order to have a healthy and well-functioning body. Same thing applies. No use learning the latest tips for having robust performance conversations if you are shy of real encounter with another human being.
If self-development is a journey you wish to undertake, I would signpost a few things:
It’s divergent. All the answers don’t become apparent all at once. It’s unpredictable. If you are someone who needs to always know “why” before you do the next thing, you will need to learn how to manage your frustration. For myself, I have had to develop greater equanimity in the face of confusion. Breathing helps. I often wish I could show the same patience towards myself that I have with others, but there’s more grist for my mill. Sometimes the “why” is the last thing to come (if at all). Doing something which uses the word “toolbox” is probably not ideal because what you’ll learn about yourself cannot always be listed as an inventory beforehand.
It’s messy. If you are someone who needs to be in control, you will also need to learn how to manage your anxiety. Self-awakeness involves seeing things that we may not always like about ourselves and embracing them as part of who we are. It involves “crossing the threshold of your doubts and fears,” as Puig also says. I’ve had to develop greater balance in myself in order to help with this one. Recently, I received feedback about something and I literally felt wobbly. Nature and walking (or even better, walking in nature) helps me with this one.
It’s developmental. If you need “step 1, step 2, step 3″, you will probably need to let that go. Letting a two-year old take you for a walk would be good training for that. It’s not a linear “from A to B” sort of thing, it’s more like from “EH??” to “Be”: a meander from one interesting thing to another. The “heart” journey is one on which each step builds on the previous ones and each step reveals the next thing to head towards. You can’t plan this journey, but you can set your bearings to head in a direction. Developing more “flow” has helped me to meet this one. Travelling in Uganda, India and Nepal in my late 20s taught me about flow. I remember looking down from my hotel balcony onto a Mumbai street when I first arrived and it literally looked like a river flowing. You dive in and go with it or get exhausted trying to swim upstream.
Because the landscape is uncharted and confusing, this inner journey really can be quite unsettling. I recently challenged someone inadvertently on a belief they have of themselves. They knew that in a social workplace, it is important to be a good listener and empathic towards others. I could hear that they “got it” intellectually. When they said, “Of course I’m really good at empathising with my staff and understanding where they come from,” I naively asked, “How would you know that?” They blushed, the smile turned to worry and something seemed to unsettle them, almost like they had uncovered something they hadn’t encountered in themselves before. Rather than become defensive or brush it off, they boldly decided to dig a little deeper. Brave soul. We need courage to acknowledge our shortcomings (or at least acknowledge that we might have some!).
Using your powers for good? How would you know? Too many folks in business still operate out of an “egosystem” mentality and not an “ecosystem” mentality (thanks to Otto Scharmer of MIT). I still hear managers say to me, “I need to be in control of what happens around here.” Really? If we continue to operate unconsciously out of mindsets that are not conducive to a healthy system, what hope for business? Self-discovery involves becoming awake to our prejudices (Theory X anyone?) and our personally constructed glass ceilings.
Do you believe you are being supportive, empathic and compassionate? How would you know?
Do you think you know yourself? How would you know?
August 30, 2012
I overheard a conversation recently where someone said in all seriousness, “In the new way of doing business, cooperation beats competition.” I was amused by the irony of the statement. We are infused with a competitive mindset from our earliest days on this planet, so it makes sense that the language in that statement would reflect this. In transition from one world view to another, we can sometimes only describe what we mean by using linguistic devices that belong to the old. The sentiment, however, rings true for me. Cooperation is, indeed, the way forward. Competition is often the way to get stuck. We are so embedded in competitive capitalism that it is almost impossible to think outside of it.
With the Olympics and Paralympics fresh in mind, competition in its most obvious form looks like a 100m race. Competition in its least sophisticated form looks like the schoolyard bully. Competition in its nascent form of classroom indoctrination looks like rewards and punishments for behaviour, memorisation ability and conformity or lack thereof. Competition in the “educated”, capitalist form of the workplace looks and sounds like subtle putdowns and power games. It is, as Bob Marshall eloquently put it, “promotion commotion”, it is incentives and bonuses, it is passive-aggressiveness, it is anti-social bosses, it is one-upmanship. We also get it in our political systems. ”Big-willy politics” as Simon Jenkins puts it, is the most dangerous form because it appeals to paranoia and prejudice, not reason and humanity. Popular culture brims with competition as lazy TV producers churn out cheap entertainment, mistaking treasure hunts and cooking programmes overdubbed with suspenseful music for drama. The judges even use language which implies death (pay the ultimate price) if the meringue is not crunchy enough. In saying that, I’m not implying competition per se is bad; I would suggest, however, that we default to a mindset and way of behaving which in many cases is counter-productive.
Unsurprising that such behaviours are unseen, condoned or unchecked because the dominant mode of running business is still hierarchical, command-and-control. Inherent in this mindset is competition. Bigger, better, more. A system based on power accumulation will elicit competitive behaviours. Businesses do this with each other and people within organisations do it at a micro-level. Our capitalist, consumerist social structures lead us to operate as if work is a transaction and humans are resources. It is not and they are not. This mindset facilitates a switch in how we view people, from an I-Thou perspective to I-It. According to Professor Simon Baron Cohen, when we switch from an I-Thou perspective to an I-It perspective, we lose empathy for people. Their only value, then, is as a resource that will help me make more profit, advance my position, make me look good, give me some inside information, connect me with someone else I “need” and so on. My belief is that neither organisations nor the humans of whom they are composed (for the success of both are inextricably linked) will flourish unless we begin to practice greater cooperation.
I’ve seen too many vision statements that aspire only to “be the best blah blah in Australasia” or “the #1 provider of such-and-such in our sector” The all-hallowed “market” seems to operate quaintly like suitors in the 18th century vying for the hand of the lovely maiden. Who has the best prospects? Who has the biggest house? Who has the most well-connected family? Watching a costume drama, how our hearts sink when Lady Penelope chooses the dastardly capitalist or the arrogant fop over the one she truly loves. It draws comment in the 21st century when people choose partners for their “prospects” rather than for love, connection, companionship and trust. Why is the organisational world still playing this rather outdated little game?
From our earliest days at school, we were admonished for “copying” others’ work. The “right” way is to be quiet and “do your own work”. Humans are social animals and are at their best when cooperating with others. Competition is a virus which continues to breed unchecked, despite there not being much in the way of substantiated evidence or research that it is more effective than cooperation; quite the contrary. Research suggests that cooperation leads to higher achievement at school, provides health benefits (calmness and freedom from intense stress) and is correlated with increased creativity and success in the workplace.
Schools are ranked, ostensibly to provide a useful means with which to decide resource allocation, the result being, however, that principals, teachers and PTAs compete to maintain a nonsensical status that sometimes relegates the interests of children in classrooms. This system of ranking is multi-layered. From our earliest days at school, we are caught in this competitive treadmill, receiving rewards for being outstanding; for standing out. It’s an outward focus: how am I better (than them)? How am I different (from them)? The thing is, we are already different by the mere fact that we are who we are. In the business world, it becomes, “What’s my unique selling proposition?” I’ll tell you mine: that I’m me. That’s why I make such a big deal about growing self-awareness. Self-actualising is not a journey to work out what I’m not or to work out what makes me different from others; it’s a journey to work out who I am. Why focus outward and try to find a unique selling proposition? This seems “olde worlde” to me. The focus and locus of control is outside, not within. If our sense of self-worth is dependent on how unlike others we are, it is fragile. USPs, to me, imply a competitive mindset but nobody can really, truly compete with a person or a business that has a really clear idea of who they are, what they do and what they value. We increase satisfaction in life when we grow self-awareness, not when we get stuck in the hamster wheel that is “keeping up with the Joneses”. 21st century business finds success when competition as the prime modus operandi is supplanted with cooperation.
“When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.” Lao Tzu
Accentuating a cooperative way of being does not mean sinking into groupthink or losing critical abilities. Team or group conversations in which everyone agrees with everyone else is not cooperation. Business can be a hive of searing conversation if everyone participates with a view to contributing to the whole, building on others’ input. It’s like the “yes game” that actors and improvisors play. Someone makes an opening gambit (an offer) and others play along (accept their offer), bringing creativity and a sense of community. No one person’s contribution is better than another’s and people play, not with the idea of being the best, but of co-creating something purposeful and fresh. Consider the difference between these two scenes:
- “What’s wrong with your foot?”
- “Oh. It’s just that I saw you limping.”
- “My foot is fine. I wasn’t limping, this is how I normally walk.”
- “What’s wrong with your foot?”
- “Caught it in a bear trap.”
- “Really? Have they started laying bear traps in the staff room?”
- “Yea, it’s meant to keep out the bears, they’ve been raiding the staff fridge again.”
- “I wondered who kept eating my yoghurt.”
This is, of course, a light-hearted illustration, but the relationship dynamics are real. In scene one, the person who makes the offers (you have something wrong with your foot, you are limping) struggles to get any traction in the dialogue as both offers are rejected. In scene two, their offers are accepted and the other person builds on to them, with the result being the two create something that neither could have created without cooperation. Workplace conversations often sound like scene one, coming across like the Monty Python argument sketch, people in opposition to one another, getting stuck.
“That wouldn’t work.”
“Thanks for that idea, have a listen to mine now.”
“I think you’re coming at it the wrong way.”
“What you fail to see is….”
What we get with this non-cooperative, or competitive, modus operandi, is missed opportunities, and an overall decrease in human achievement. Cooperating with others stimulates our creativity. Cooperation opens doors to ideas and solutions that we might never have come across on our own, trying to be the star pupil.
As a practitioner of systems thinking, I take note of a highly relevant article which identifies different kinds of systems with reference to their levels of cooperation or competition: eco-, bio- and mechanical. Mechanical systems (machines being the most obvious example) require very high levels of cooperation, otherwise the machine just doesn’t work. Machines, however, are highly predictable, low in complexity and are designed to do exactly what they are designed to do. If a part breaks, you fix it and the machine will carry on functioning. Bio-systems are higher in complexity and rely on very high levels of cooperation. The human body is a perfect example. In order to flex your arm, your triceps and biceps must work in concert. While they are opposing each other in their movement, they are not in competition. Bio-systems might be said to be at just the right balance between order and chaos. They have evolved just enough “in-synch-ness” so that they work as unified systems and meet the challenges of life, however, there is enough plasticity to allow for growth and development in response to a changing environment. The components of a bio-system work in concert until age or disease cause certain components to (appear to) compete in order to preserve the integrity of the whole.
Eco-systems are highly complex and are composed of interactions between multiple bio-systems and mechanical systems. Two types of eco-systems abound on planet Earth: biological and social. Biological eco-systems (flora and fauna, for example) tend to be highly competitive, with species or members of the same species competing for limited resources to survive. Social (or human) eco-systems are just as natural as any coral reef. However, humans have the advantage of being able to overcome the constraints of scarcity that other eco-systems do not. We have no natural predators, save ourselves. The thing that binds our human systems are our evolved cognitive and emotional abilities, which we can deploy as we relate to each other. We have highly evolved relationship capabilities that other eco-systems do not, however we seem to dispense with these at the merest hint of a perceived threat to our existence. We do not have to sleepwalk through time as if we were a coral reef, mindless and thought-less and slave to the natural competitive instincts that go with being an eco-system. I repeat: we have no natural predators, save ourselves. We humans need to become more self-awake and curtail some of our less-evolved competitive ways. Competitive politics is a clumsy way to govern ourselves and and unregulated markets are human disasters.
The workplace is not a jungle. It is not a battlefield. We need to apply ourselves to behaving more like bio-systems: work in concert for the good of the whole. We’ve had competitive practices instilled in us for so long that we need to become conscious of how we work with others. In a complex and networked workplace of the 21st century, we need to learn and stretch our cooperative abilities and to inculcate cooperative practice on a daily basis until it just becomes the way things get done. The fact is that we are interdependent. Why not start acting like it? Why not start acting like this is a world of “we”, not “me”?
Act cooperatively. Let’s play the “yes game” with people at work. When discussing things, let’s become aware of opportunities to listen, to “add in” and to “build on”, rather than simply counter what others have to say.
Learn to transcend self-interest. No quid pro quo. Let’s practice “building on”, sharing and contributing for no other reason than to do it and build community with others.
Cultivate an attitude of conviviality. Con-vivere = live together. Let’s become aware of those moments when we could do something different and behave as if we are happy to share this planet, this town, this industry sector, this office-space with others. Our survival as a species depends on it. Our survival as co-workers depends on it. Business survival depends on it. (….or become a hermit.) In fact, beyond survival, I’d say that we thrive on it.
Build coalitions, not empires. Let’s stop pretending that this is a medieval battle for territory; it’s not. Market competition appeals to our primitive narcissistic paranoia; no-one is out to get us. (We have no natural predators, save ourselves, remember?) Let’s stop pretending that there is such a thing as intellectual property; it’s an illusion. Information and knowledge are for sharing, not hoarding. Status and accolade or synthesis and creativity: which will take us further?
We have no natural predators……
August 15, 2012
I’ve written relatively little over the past few months and am feeling for the lack of it. When I first set out to write this blog, my intention was to use it as an aid to digestion; that is, to assist me to synthesise the thoughts, feelings and experiences that come about in my work in the field of personal and organisational transformation. I’m honoured that my scribbles have been of value to others as well!
While I’ve been missing the thinking and reflecting that goes on as I write, I have made use of another opportunity for reflection. I have been doing some major house renovations of late and have found the meditative work of sanding endless window frames or staining the entire outside of the house, while physically exhausting, extremely fun. A good part of the fun came in having “nothing” to think about. I had hours to just reflect, with few limitations of time or demands of day-to-day busy-ness. It took as long as it took.
I realise that it was a luxury to have so much time to reflect on some of the big questions of life; I’m not independently wealthy and don’t foresee a period when I’ll have so much time away from the busy-ness of work. However, it reinforced in me the importance of building in time to unplug myself and ask the big questions:
- Who am I?
- What am I doing?
- Why am I doing it?
- What do I value?
The parallel for the business world, I suppose, is when senior leaders get away from the office so they can ‘work on the business, not in it’. Get away from the demands of email and phone (though it’s somewhat self-defeating when they spend their retreat constantly checking their smartphones), change focus from the day-to-day operational stuff and think bigger about the business. Similar questions get covered: Who are we? What business are we really in? Why are we doing what we do?
If business is to succeed in the 21st century, the same big questions need to be asked by the people themselves. It is not good enough for people to persist with the same old Theory X mindset. More and more, people are looking for more from work than just a pay cheque. While it is not so unusual these days to read about the relevance of personal growth and growing self-awareness in the context of work, it is more unusual to see a business culture that is actually orientated to providing people the means to derive meaning, mastery and autonomy from what they do every day. I would go as far as to say that increased self-awareness in the modern workplace is not an optional extra; it is fundamental to improving effectiveness, increasing satisfaction and maximising joy at work. It also behoves businesses to place value on people developing self-awareness because self-actualisation and effectiveness go hand in hand.
If this is the age of the self-awareness, why do businesses still pay for training about stuff, but shy away from investing in something where people learn about themselves, who they are, what makes them tick, what they value, which seem to me the things that would be of most benefit in unleashing true potential at work.
When someone says the word self-awareness, something in my head switches and I hear “self-awakeness”. To me, awareness of myself is being awake to myself. While total awakeness to my thoughts, feelings, values, drivers and motivations may be elusive, I am most likely to get close to it when I my line of sight is less obscured by the minutiae of daily life, requests from others, deadlines, emails, barking dogs and so on. If can take away as many of the filters that cloud my self-vision, I can get close to seeing myself as a camera might, warts and all. Why would I want to do that? Short answer: to be free, to be happy. When those executives at their away-day retreat announce at the beginning of the session that they need to keep their phones switched on because “people in the office will need to be in touch with me”, I have a Walter Mitty moment. An image of the universe flashes into my mind and I think, “It’s been here 13.9 billion years, this solar system for 4.5 billion…. and YOU are insignificant….the people in the office will get along just fine without you.” What I mean by this is: why not unplug yourself from the matrix and find out just a little bit more about who you are and why you do what you do?
When I do what I do in my work, I challenge people. I don’t give answers. This can be frustrating for someone who just wants me to use my external eye and tell them what’s going wrong. Speaking with a client recently, I joked that he is both the cause of and the solution to his frustrations at work. He smiled. I made a similar point in an earlier article about systems (the cause of and solution to a business’ problems). The point I was trying to make was that we are often the most significant authors of our frustrations and misfortunes and I was less likely to know his inner workings than he was. I could, however, act as an auxiliary who would help him probe, wherein he might find solutions.
With a little more self-awakeness, we can begin to uncover the solutions to the things that stump us, and then generate a little more freedom for ourselves. While I believe it is true that we are subject to the systems of which we are part, we cannot completely abdicate ourselves to them. A little self-awakeness can help us reduce some of the blindness we have to ourselves and the systems in which we operate. Over time, we become innured to the effects of our workplace cultures, our family systems and our social groupings. Because it’s just “how things are done”, we become infected with the same virus everyone else in the system is infected with. How refreshing it is to become unentwined from unhealthy systems; it releases us (even if just a little) to make choices about how to think, feel and act.
If we are more awake, however, we feel the pain of inhuman, unfair or violent systems more keenly. Our values and aspirations come into conflict with the day-to-day behaviours and attitudes that exemplify the system. So why bother? I, myself, sometimes say in moments of exhaustion or frustration, “I wish I could just un-know what I know about myself and be content with a job selling shoes.” Not that there is anything wrong with selling shoes; I’ve actually done it myself and learnt a lot about how to shop for my own footwear. What I intend is that developing self-awakeness is like taking the red pill in the film The Matrix. While it expands consciousness so that we are able to see more of “the real world” or our real selves, it can be challenging. Stripped of delusion, devoid of frippery and fancifulness, developing awakeness to ourselves can sometimes leave us feeling raw and vulnerable. We see both the light and the shadow. Once known, it is hard to un-know ourselves and plug back into the matrix in blissful ignorance. The pay-off, however, is worth it. Knowing our values, being familiar with our Achilles’ heels, getting in touch with our prejudices, all give us the power to do something about them. The knowing of ourselves frees our capabilities to know and serve others.
Do you take a daily blue pill, waking up each day believing what you want to believe about yourself?
…..or do you take a daily red pill, staying in wonderland and finding out just how deep the rabbit hole goes?
For anyone who deals with people in any aspect of their work, this is a key benefit. When we know how we relate to power and authority, when we know how we embrace or shy away from closer communion (read collaboration) with others, when we know where we lack confidence, we can actually DO something about it. We can actually learn how to deal with angry people or ineffective staff or dissatisfied customers. Real and significant learning of interpersonal skills is ensured when we find out about ourselves. Our intrapersonal skills are inextricably linked to our interpersonal skills. Self-awakeness is essential if we are to get by in this world. It’s vital if we are to get by and get on in our work.
One essential discipline is reflection. This article comes about as a result of an intense period away from my usual work and immersing myself in the meditation that is house renovations. Once the cacophony of daily life is quietened, we can begin to see ourselves and in the privacy of our minds, we can eventually just observe our thoughts, feelings, values and attitudes.
Another discipline is openness. Oftentimes, self-awakeness comes when someone has the courage, the caring and the wherewithal to tell us something that we do not see about ourselves. We can also develop the ability to invite feedback. This requires a certain level of openness and equanimity. The root of equanimity is “having an even spirit”. Being able to hear things about ourselves and make good use of this information requires us to develop composure. Uncovering our blindspots requires, also, a willingness to admit that we have them. If you say to me that you like getting feedback from others because it helps you improve, I will believe that when you demonstrate this, not simply tell me. So when I say in response, “….but you don’t like getting feedback,” and you reply “That’s not true,” the irony is not lost on me. If you fail in your attempt at equanimity, you fail to make good use of the feedback because you cannot see that first blindspot and you are likely to struggle when people really tell you how you impact on them. Practice and demonstrate openness to information about you by responding with something like (lose the passive-aggressive attitude…..people see it, feel it and smell it….do it genuinely or not at all)
- “Wow, what gives you that impression?”
- “Really, I had no idea, tell me what you see me do (when I get feedback).”
- “Hmmm, what is it I say or do that makes it seem I (don’t like feedback)?”
….O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us….
If you are not familiar with traditional Scots, it goes: “…Oh, would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us! It would from many a blunder free us…” That clever Rab Burns was onto something. Feedback from others, when given and received with love and compassion, can go a long way to uncovering hidden gems.
Another useful habit is to get regular supervision. Anyone who has worked in the fields of counselling, therapy or social work will be familiar with this. A supervisor is not someone who tells you what you should do; they are a person with super vision. That is, they hold a bigger picture for you to see. Ideally, they are external to your business and they listen to you, tune in to you and point the way to things it could be useful to look at: either about yourself or the system in which you work. They are someone who is “on your side”, but doesn’t collude with your prejudices. They are a “trusted other” who challenges you, supports you and reveals you to you. A supervisor is not a coach. A supervisor will be someone who saves you from the perils of asymmetric insight. Anyone who works with people would do well to access good supervision and in these days of the social economy, who doesn’t work with people?
The thing about learning about ourselves is that we can’t get it from a book. We are the content, not a bunch of information about stuff. We get it from reflection and synthesis: making meaning of our experiences, relationships and interactions. We get it from others who care about us enough to tell us what impact we make on them. We get it from disinterested supervisors who have our growth and best interests at heart.
As always, I welcome and look forward to comments that add to and build on.
People do dumb things. Or rather, they fail to do smart things, even though it’s obvious to everyone else what the right thing to do is. They also do dumb things even if they also know in their heart of hearts that it’s dumb. I’m including myself in this, of course. While I like to think I’m the master of my own destiny, I know I’m not an island and am subject to the vagaries of the systems I’m a part of.
I consult with a number of people who sometimes despair at the dumb things their managers do. They throw their hands up in frustration at the dumb things their company asks them to do. In saying this, however, I am not leaping to the conclusion that people are dumb. There will be many factors as to why we don’t do the smart thing. Upton Sinclair, for example, said, “It is difficult to get a man (or woman) to understand something, when his (or her) salary depends on his (or her) not understanding it.” We endure anti-social bosses or mindless busy-work or bizarre hierarchies because in a lot of cases, making sure we pay for food on our tables and a roof over our heads takes precedence over what our hearts or guts tell us. Sad but true and I’ve been there myself.
My thoughts come out of a synthesis of some conversations I’ve had with clients of late. Even in the face of good hard evidence, we still do dumb things. There has been enough analysis of the global financial crisis, for instance, to indicate that letting loose the dogs of war on the floors of the world’s financial exchanges was, in hindsight, dumb. By grossly unregulating global financial systems, the conditions were set for the crash to happen. Sir Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, said recently that they should have “shouted from the rooftops” their concerns about the impending catastrophe before 2007-08. Apparently, he saw something coming, but was too timid to tell anyone. But now with crystal clear 20:20 hindsight, you’d expect those with the power and authority to do something about modifying those conditions to actually do something about it, wouldn’t you? If they saw how everything is connected to everything (and if they really cared), you’d expect those who can see what happened and the hardship it has created for people far and wide to adjust the regulations so that it doesn’t happen again, wouldn’t you? You’d expect those with the capacity to shift the culture away from short-term greed and entitlement, to take the bull by the horns and reign in financially and socially irresponsible behaviour, crafting a system founded on greater accountability and sustainability. Wouldn’t you?
I’ll be pleasantly surprised if they did, but I wasn’t at all astonished to hear the UK Minister of Defence saying that consumers must accept responsibility for their part in the financial crisis. Sure, it’s true that the banks were not the only ones who were behaving badly. Governments did it, consumers did it. Not to excuse anyone and at the same time, not to blame anyone, who set the conditions? Who set up a system that not only condoned, but encouraged and modelled unreasonable borrowing? Who unregulated the financial systems? Who let the dogs out? I think if we had leaders worth their salt, they’d take a good look at themselves and realise that the responsibility and the authority now rests with them to change the rules of the game. It is dumb to blame people for playing by the rules you set for the game.
While managers do dumb things, they sometimes inherit dumb (read: not fit for purpose) systems. Here’s where the leader’s responsibility sits. When faced with a dumb system, we can either:
- blame someone else and say “It’s just how we’ve always done things around here. What can you do?”
- pretend we see nothing and carry on doing the same dumb thing until the laws of physics hit us hard. The words “sub-prime”, “derivatives”, “Lehman” and “Brothers” might be springing to mind.
- actively set out to create a system or a culture that is fit for purpose, that is humane and that allows people to learn, do meaningful work and bring themselves to what they do
In the same way it is dumb to blame consumers for the financial crisis, it is unfair to say your manager is being dumb when they are doing what the system is set up for them to do. To paraphrase Deming, “Every manager supposes that he (or she) is doing their best, (however), their best is embedded in the present system of management.”
It is often the system of management that is dumb, not the people within it.
It’s an interesting paradox that every manager will be subject to the forces that act upon and within the system they operate, while at the same time, systems thinking suggests that the job of a manager is to manage that very same system. To borrow from Homer Simpson: “Ah, the system. The cause of and solution to all of our problems.” This is especially challenging because, just as a system cannot observe itself, it is hard for a manager who is within the system to get a good big picture view of it. It is also hard for a manager who lives the effects of the system to extricate him or herself from it. For example, in a business where people struggle to keep to deadlines, senior managers will often struggle with the same thing. In a system characterised by crossed lines and miscommunication, managers will similarly experience the same frustrations as everyone else while at the same time causing said frustration in others, sometimes failing to see themselves behaving in the same way. If the senior leaders cannot see this dynamic, it will continue to be a blind spot and, unseen, will remain unaddressed.
When Deming said that “the prevailing style of management must undergo transformation,” I believe he was pointing the way to a sea-change in what managers believe their jobs to be: from “Doer-in-Chief” to “Steward of the Culture” or “System Steward”. By taking up the role of Steward, I believe leaders will be much better placed to take the bigger picture view that is required in order to effect the transformation of the system. The place to exert influence is not at the level of what people do (their tasks and function), but at the level of values and mindsets. A leader who sees themselves as Chief Doer will orient their management practice more to what people DO. If they take up the role of Steward instead, they will diagnose the working of the whole, not viewing the business as a bunch of bits, some of which appear to be working well and some which appear to be dysfunctional. One particular manager who I believe to be a really effective Systems Steward would say that without his big picture perspective, the appearance of a well-functioning “part” may only be smoke and mirrors.
Not for nothing do they say that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Culture is the thing out of which emerge the results, so the systems leader will focus their attention on the cause and not try to manage the results. No amount of intense planning can mitigate for the cultural, or systemic, phenomena which impact far more on what gets done and how it gets done. Once again, the point of leverage is not at the “doing” level; it’s at the culture level. One of the challenges of a Systems Steward is to identify the most likely drivers for real change from a bigger picture perspective and to develop and nurture organisational processes and patterns that support a healthy and effective culture. An overly deterministic and linear results-based management style will not achieve this. Establishing a set of guiding principles and values, formulating and communicating a vision and direction, promoting ongoing learning and setting rough boundaries within which the business will operate are the way ahead if a manager wishes to behave as a Systems Steward. I’m watching that manager I just mentioned doing these things and it gives me heart.
A Systems Steward attempts to overcome systems blindness, that inability to see what we are currently mired it. One of the symptoms of systems blindness is that people within a business fail to see or misinterpret key relationships within the business. In other words, staff begin to mistrust senior management, senior management begin to mistrust middle management, sales staff begin to mistrust administrative support staff and so on. This occurs because, when afflicted with systems blindness, people lose sight of one of the key binding agents: relationships. Don’t underestimate the amount of attention that should be put into positive working relationships throughout the system. Once established, they also need to be maintained. Always.
A leader who acts as Systems Steward will also aim to assist the system reconnect with itself, help it understand itself better. This can be facilitated by ensuring that processes related to feedback, information sharing and knowledge management are in place and functioning well. These things lie at the heart of transformation and ongoing renewal. If relationships are the connective tissue of a business, information and knowledge are its nutrients.
Are you a Systems Steward type of leader? Do you know any Systems Stewards in business?
What experiences have you had of systems blindness?
As always, I welcome comments.
April 29, 2012
Bizarrely, if you went into most school classrooms in the industrialised world, you would still hear teachers say or imply, “Sit down, stop talking, do your own work.” I say bizarrely, because this notion that we will excel in our lives only if we do what we’re told, mind our own business and draw solely on our own thoughts, ideas and knowledge just seems unnatural. It has come from the old days when schools were set up as places to train youngsters for a life of isolating wage slavery. Our education systems were designed, in other words, as mirrors of adult workplaces and apart from reading, writing and arithmetic, the key lesson was “fit in or f**k off”; if you want to get ahead, play the teacher’s game, learn what THEY want you to so you can pass their tests (usually information about stuff, rather than insight about self, life and the world) and don’t challenge authority, i.e. get used to working within rigid and nonsensical hierarchies. I may be generalising, of course; I had the odd teacher at school who encouraged me to actually think, make meaning of what I was learning and formulate my own opinions, but broadly speaking, most of my school lessons were dull as dishwater. I even had one history teacher whose lessons consisted of getting one of the students to write 10 words on the blackboard (yes, it was black, not white) which we then, silently and working on our own, had to find the definitions of in our history books and when we had done, we could just sit and do whatever we liked. That was his idea of teaching history. No word of a lie, that was what my history class was like day in and day out. He never questioned us on what meaning we had made of “The Gettysburg Address” or “appeasement”. He never chaired debates that made us think and question, he never gripped us with stories of life in First World War trenches, he never inspired us to find connections between the Protestant Revolution and the modern world, to my mind, he never actually taught anything of real use to me. However, the school system seemed more than happy with his performance because we all managed to get reasonable scores on the tests he would set us, and year after year, there he was, back in his classroom faced with another group of students. Oddly, his were probably the best lessons to prepare us for the mindless busy work that is expected of people in many businesses.
How much of this sort of thing still goes on in workplaces? Mindless, silo-ed busy work that seems unconnected to anything bigger or meaningful. What’s the alternative? Systems thinking shines some light, I believe. Systems display certain characteristics which are applicable to business. Businesses, after all, are systems. As Deming has said, “A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system”. Businesses are not machines, despite what many manager behaviours would have you believe. They are self-organising, living, breathing, dynamic; not a bunch of separate and isolated parts that can be relied on to do their best in isolation. Albert Low in “Zen and Creative Management” stated, “A company is a multidimensional system capable of growth, expansion, and self-regulation. It is, therefore, not a thing but a set of interacting forces. Any theory of organisation must be capable of reflecting a company’s many facets, its dynamism, and its basic orderliness.”
Deming also said, “A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system. …A system must be managed. The secret is cooperation between components toward the aim of the organisation.” So what is required of leaders in the modern age if they are not to be the controllers? The clue is there in Deming’s quote: when he says the system must be managed, the role of the modern manager is not about rigid plans and KPIs, it’s about nurturing cooperation, fostering connection between all the myriad and diverse elements in the system. The other bit about having an aim is another clue. The manager who wishes to unleash the full potential of their business will ensure that there is a clear line of sight to the purpose of the business. People will know WHY the business is in existence and will feel connected to achieving that purpose. Furthermore, the manager will be less concerned with an individual’s results and more about the value they add to the whole. Hard to KPI that one, though, so it’s left in the too-hard basket.
Systems are naturally self-organising; I do not have to plan and strategise my digestive system to do what it is already organised to do. I also do not have to push or control my digestive system to do its job because it is already set up in a way that leads it to do what it is naturally organised to do. Workplaces, because they are systems, will also self-organise when released of mechanistic and unnatural constraints. In fact, all systems either self-organise or die. If constraints are placed around a system which restrict its natural self-organising tendencies, it will be lifeless. How can leaders expect people to engage in their work if their workplace is dull, lifeless and overly-controlled? Businesses and the people that work within them are not machines, nor parts of machines, that can be shoved into action by external forces, much as Henry Ford would have liked to believe that. It is part of a leader’s role to put the conditions in place which do not hinder the natural self-organising tendencies of the systems in which they operate. What does this actually mean?
This means fostering a culture orientated around values. That means they are not just put in a nice frame and hung in some dusty corner of the building; they are the lifeblood of how people do things at work. They are values which people can tap into and make real meaning of. It is therefore absolutely essential that those who manage the business relate work conversations to the values and that they live them whole-heartedly.
This means fostering a culture of real learning. When a system is open to new information, energy or resources, it will inevitably shift. Being open to learning keeps the system dynamic and vibrant. It will continually re-organise itself, incorporating the new learning. Leaders need to focus their efforts on establishing ways of doing things which help the organisation respond to change by learning and renewing itself. A strong and vigorous system will have a strong orientation to learning and a business that does not open itself to new learning will have a much shortened life-span.
This means fostering conversation and connection. If my history teacher had done this, I might have made more meaning of the things I was reading in my history book. It is counterintuitive in today’s world that you would expressly ask someone NOT to collaborate, NOT to share ideas, NOT to talk. We know enough about how systems operate that it is crazy to let fragmenting silo mentalities reign. Please, do NOT sit still, do NOT stop talking, do NOT do your own work.
This means assisting the business to maintain a coherent sense of identity. Strong businesses are the ones that have a strong sense of identity. The ones that last and navigate more successfully through troubled waters are the ones with a stable value core and the capacity to live their values congruently. Identity is maintained and strengthened at the level of values and purpose, not at the level of tasks. Once again, real leverage is not where old-style managers would have you think (better planning and tighter control) but within the deeper recesses of the system: values and beliefs.
As always, comments that build onto what I’ve written are welcome. I’m always keen to hear from other minds and to expand on the thoughts I set down.
March 30, 2012
I have been inspired by Paul Slater’s excellent article this week, Getting Teams Working, to reflect on some work I’ve been doing recently with a team. A good chunk of my training and experience has been in group dynamics and there is direct relevance of this body of knowledge to organisational life. In the workplace, there is some growing awareness of group dynamics as a key influencer of organisational effectiveness. Many people are now familiar with Bruce Tuckman’s group development model: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning; and it is good that people who manage teams of people are opening their eyes to the processes that go on when humans gather together, for whatever purpose. Despite our best efforts, there is something mystifying that seems to get in the way of team effectiveness and it can be useful to look “underneath” at the dynamics and unexpressed assumptions out of which we operate.
Perhaps less well-known in this sphere is the work of Wilfred Bion. Bion trained in medicine and went on to develop an interest in psychoanalysis, eventually immersing himself in the study of groups and group process. He was commissioned into the British Army during World War II, working in military hospitals. Here he devoted himself to finding ways to treat post-traumatic stress and devised ways of working with these patients in a group context. Out of his work in group dynamics, he went on to write “Experiences in Groups” (1961) which became a seminal work in the field of group psychotherapy, providing a basis for the application of group theory in many other fields.
I think it’s important to remember that there are, indeed, many models of group development, Tuckman’s being perhaps the most well-known, and that these are more descriptive than prescriptive. What I mean by this is that these models are not stages we “take groups through” but they are phenomena that groups experience naturally. The various models are simply different lenses through which to observe these group phenomena and once observed, we can begin to make sense of the undercurrents that affect our teams and groups. From here, we can develop some capabilities within ourselves to respond more ably to what goes on in our teams.
All of those models have some validity in my eyes, but for me, the work of Bion seems to have been the one that has most unlocked some of the mystery of what goes on in groups. Anyone who manages teams, whether that be a project team or an ongoing team within a business, will have found that the work of that team sometimes seem to be sabotaged by things seemingly unrelated to its work. This is sometimes put down to “personality clashes”, politicking or competing professional interests. While this sometimes may be the case, there is another lens through which we can see underperformance or ineffectiveness in teams. I am currently working with a team who are embarking on a transformation process which may eventually entail some reorganising of their workloads, responsibilities and lines of authority and accountability. The manager has undertaken to initiate a process involving every member of this team contributing to shaping its form, so that they end up with a team structure that is fit for its purpose, rather than soldiering on with a structure that they have inherited from the past and which is proving to be ineffective and unwieldy. This process is, unsurprisingly, generating a little uncertainty in the team members.
Transition and change naturally provoke feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Once again, we are dealing with feelings, whether we like it or not. As Louise Altman writes frequently on her excellent blog The Intentional Workplace, emotions are there; it is nonsense to pretend otherwise. Even if we try to hide our heads in the sand and focus purely on work outputs, what goes on underneath will impact on a team or organisation’s ability to be effective. I recommend having a look at Louise’s article, 5 Reasons Business Can’t Afford to Ignore Psychology for Another 100 Years. In it, she suggests that business can no longer afford to dismiss the impact of emotions on our abilities to work well and to be well. To continue treating people as resources and automatons a la Henry Ford (“Why, when I only want to hire a pair of hands, do I get a whole person?”) is very simply, unsustainable.
So if you are willing to peer underneath the functioning of your team, you will be treated to a fascinating display of raw human-ness. Above the surface, what we can see, is what Bion calls the “work group”. This is the stated and overt reason teams form. Groups and organisations come together to pursue sensible and realistic goals and this “work group” is what keeps people on task. Below the surface is what he calls the “basic assumption” groups. They are the unspoken assumptions about how the group operates. Bion asserts that teams sometimes fall into what he calls madness; this is the skewed functioning that arises in response to anxiety and uncertainty.
Bion observed three kinds of “basic assumption” groups: fight-flight, dependency and pairing. The “madness” of which Bion spoke and which he describes with these three “basic assumption” groups, is the anxiety that arises from change, unpredictability and volatility. In response to a VUCA environment, team members will adopt one of these basic assumptions, and the ensuing behaviours will interfere with the team’s ability to achieve its work goals effectively.
If a group is operating from a fight-flight assumption, people behave as if the primary need is self-preservation. Threatened by change, people resort to either fighting something (or someone) or running away from something (or someone). A team leader will observe scapegoating, aggressiveness or unreasonable defensiveness amongst the group or alternatively, avoidance behaviours such as tangential conversations, overuse of humour as a distraction from serious issues, lateness to meetings or anything else that circumvents the work at hand.
If the group is operating out of dependency mode, the primary aim is to achieve certainty or safety. In other words, when things are unclear and changeable, the group strives to regain some sense of security. A dependency basic assumption says that protection will come in the form of one person and they become overly dependent on that one person to “fix” it or make it better. They abdicate responsibility and look to the identified leader, who is of course omniscient and omnipotent, to sort things out. A team leader who observes dependency behaviour will be greeted with acquiescent silence in response to a work-related question, a “just tell me what to do and how to do it” attitude or excessive flattery and “people-pleasing” behaviours. Conversely, the group may “rebel” against the leader; counter-dependency is the flip side of the same coin and the leader may feel like he or she is subject to mass mutiny, with their every decision, suggestion or initiative being rejected.
Pairing derives from the underlying assumption that the group will be saved by the pairing of two of its members, who together will metaphorically create a new messiah. Effective team functioning is frozen in the hope that two people will create the kind of leadership to take them to the promised land of “everything is OK”. This may take the form of a number of pairs emerging within a team or the whole team sitting back while one pair comes to their rescue. Team leaders will observe a pair of allies spending lots of time having private conversations which, unbeknownst to him or her, will be characterised by “S/he doesn’t know what s/he’s doing; if only s/he’d do it our way, things would be ticking along nicely.” During team meetings, the team leader will notice these two folks sharing knowing glances with each other, the unspoken message being, “See? S/he’s doing it again.” ”There you go, that’s what we were talking about earlier.” ”Told you s/he would say that.” It may be that these two do things at work that are outside the remit of the “work group” but they believe they are justified because they actually know best. Something in your gut tells you that these two are undermining you in some way, but it’s hard to put your finger on it.
When a group operates out of one of these basic assumption, it is important to remember that it is doing so unconsciously and is not aware of what is happening. The team becomes subject to the forces of its own dynamics and is immune to the logic and reason of external realities and work expectations.
When we first begin to observe these “basic assumption” behaviours, it can be tempting to resort to labels and become rigid or formulaic in our responses. There is nothing more frustrating than someone armed with a little psychological knowledge and adopting the mantle of Team Psychologist. Unfortunately there is no stock response to a team behaving out of one of these basic assumptions. There are no top tips or easy-to-apply strategies. Apply a lens so that you can make more sense of what is happening, but then go on to reflect. Each team has the right to its own character and its own story. When these underlying, unconscious processes take hold and begin to rope the leader in, and I believe they do inevitably, the trick is to learn how to respond with grace and humanity. Learning to keep going while “under fire” takes practice, resilience and lots of personal reflection on the part of whoever is in a position of leadership. Humans, when gathered together, are subject to deep psychological forces. If we are to keep our heads, we need to become aware of “what is ours” and what is a group phenomenon. Reflection is one of the best practices to help overcome the sense of frustration or overwhelm when we become affected by what goes on in our teams.
Becoming the kind of leader who courageously grapples with the dynamics of groups and teams requires ongoing interest and curiosity, magnanimity and humour. Attending to your team’s dynamics requires you to foster good relationships and open communication, tolerance for difference and collaboration. Therein lies the work of the 21st century leader.