March 14, 2012
So what do you do when you have a senior team who walk out of an all-day strategy meeting, brimming with enthusiasm for the new ship you are steering and diaries now full of actions to undertake, only to come back three weeks later having completed none of them? What do you make of their excuses that they just didn’t have the time; that they were too busy with the day-to-day stuff to devote any time to the big picture strategy stuff? How do you get them to spend less time and energy doing operational stuff and more on crafting a culture that will support and guide others to do that? Do you find yourself wondering how they got to leadership position in the first place? I’ll tell you how. The system put them there and it’s the system that also gets in their way. It’s the system. What gets in the way of them doing these things they say they are utterly committed to, but never manage to do? It’s the system. As Senge suggests, it’s likely not down to their incompetence or their lack of motivation. The difficulty lies in not being able to see the source of the obstructions clearly; and if we cannot see the origins of our dysfunction, how can we possibly correct them? More importantly, perhaps, is the question, “Why would you bother trying?” because without this vital ‘big picture’ understanding of your system, it will continue to subvert your efforts and you will end up in a crumpled, exhausted heap feeling yourselves failures.
We are so infected by the culture of our organisations that we lose awareness of it. Ask a fish what they think of the water and they will say, “What water?” In the same way that a fish is unaware of water, we are largely unaware of the influence the systems in which we live exert upon us. Deming said, “A system cannot understand itself….transformation requires a view from outside.” Too true. So these senior executives with years of experience, bright and enthusiastic individuals all of them, are behaving like they do because of the context in which they exist. So how can we create something different? How can we create a culture where the guy or gal at the top doesn’t get to the point of blaming inaction on people’s incompetence? I would suggest that it comes when the underlying structures, the system itself, are reformed and when authority and accountability rest throughout the whole of an organisation, not via a clunky hierarchy.
In a previous article, I suggest that so-called “leaderless” organisations are actually leader-full. This is no idealistic fantasy-land, but a deep and significant shift to a systemic view of the world that emphasises networks, relationships and interconnectedness over the hierarchies of an outdated mechanistic world view. If we can shift our mindset from one of job descriptions, hierarchies, rigid policies and procedures and consequences for “bad behaviour”, we will see a whole new world open up before our eyes. However, as Gary Hamel wrote so eloquently in his Harvard Business Review article, “First, Let’s Fire all the Managers,” we are prisoners of the familiar. I can recall the world before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Before that electric November night, it was almost inconceivable that it would come down, let alone overnight and as a result of people power. Similarly, we find it a little hard to imagine a world of new possibilities where organisations are driven by self-management principles and hierarchies are redundant. I’m talking about possibilities of full and active engagement in the work of the business; possibilities of power and authority being exercised by individuals and teams throughout businesses and not just those at the top of some clunky chain of command; possibilities of creativity and initiative being unleashed in all corners of the business.
I will leave you to read Hamel’s article for he writes so articulately that I wouldn’t presume to replicate him here. All I wish to press home is the point that Senge, Hamel and many others too numerous to mention, but no less visionary, make: we have come to a point in our history when we need to radically shift our ways of organising ourselves. However, we haven’t got to the promised land yet, so we sometimes struggle to imagine what it will be like and how we’ll get there; it does almost seem out of our reach.
If we take Senge’s observation about poorly designed systems on board, then it follows that we must devote ourselves primarily and totally to crafting systems which are fit for purpose if we wish to have successful businesses. Many of our businesses adhere to outdated structures of authority and accountability that are no longer fit for purpose, however, it is hard to know how to start re-organising when we haven’t even arrived at this new world yet. What are these new structures meant to look like? There is a glimpse within Hamel’s article, so I urge you to read it in its entirety.
He uses Morning Star as a case study of how to build a business that ensures consistently high performance driven by the full and voluntary engagement of everyone who works there. Success comes not only from their excellence in product and service, but perhaps most importantly from the way they actually run their business. If you land on the homepage of their website, the only hint that you are looking at something ground-breaking is perhaps in the words “world’s leading tomato ingredient processor”. This is an understatement, for not only do they supply 40% of the US tomato paste and diced tomato markets, they are pioneers of how to run a leader-full business where everyone carries out the functions of management and leadership. Peer behind their bland looking “About Us” page and look in detail at their Organisational Vision and Colleague Principles. Here you have no humdrum list of platitudes and corporate-speak that nobody gave much thought to when writing and everyone gives even less devotion to when at work. This is actually how they run their business.
For many businesses, the road to this new land of mutual accountability and responsibility may be long and bumpy. Two essential items to pack for this journey towards Self-ManagementLand are intentionality and commitment. The good people at Morning Star didn’t get there by accident; it was intentional. Because our current paradigm is so prevalent, we have to apply ourselves with great intent to thinking and behaving differently. We must remain awake to the fact that old structures will reinforce old thinking and draw us back to old behaviours. For more diffuse authority and accountability to come about, we must re-create our structures root-and-branch. We can’t simply rely on an annual leadership off-site event or some new worker consultation committees to catalyse the change, leaving the pre-existing structure in tact; this is merely tinkering around the edges. In the end, the hierarchy and its watchdog, bureaucracy, will stifle initiative and creativity, and reverse any changes that were attempted because, in the end, these changes could only ever be half-hearted without deep structural change. While I wouldn’t suggest that any company throw out its entire structure overnight and start to build one based on self-management principles from scratch, I am saying that genuine, conscious and consistent efforts must be made to shift the locus of control from a top-down hierarchy and place greater authority and accountability in the hands of all staffers. Hamel gives four concrete suggestions as to how this might be done in his HBR article.
Margaret Wheatley, in “Leadership and the New Science” says, “In a quantum world, everything depends on context, on the unique relationships available in the moment. Since relationships are different from place to place and moment to moment, why would we expect that solutions developed in one context would work the same in another?” Surely, in this quantum world, with everything depending on context, a new paradigm of organisational leadership is required. Rigid hierarchies and the stultifying bureaucracies that prop them up are no match for real-time relationships and feedback loops, peer accountability and continuous education.
The way to get there has already been signposted; look at Morning Star.
March 13, 2012
About a month ago, I noticed on Twitter that fellow blogger, Todd Nielsen, was inviting guest bloggers from around the world for an International Leadership Blogathon that he was running in March. Each day, he would post an article from a different blogger on his own blog site. I duly contacted him and asked if he would be interested in a theme I was pondering and was delighted when he said yes.
I had read an article in my local paper that seemed to link employee salary expectations with retention and engagement. The article made little sense to me, so I had to re-read it. It seemed simple enough, but there was something missing for me. It had me considering how we need to take a bigger picture of recruitment and engagement at work, and to stop focusing purely on monetary reward. The article I wrote was published as part of Todd’s Leadership Blogathon and is called “Leaders Hold the Power to Engage”.
As always I welcome contributions and invite you build on what I write with your own experiences and comments.
February 29, 2012
“Empower” is a word that is coming into greater usage by many who manage people. I like to think this is a sign of how much the modern manager is acknowledging the importance of authority and accountability being more diffuse in the workplace and that old-style hierarchies have outlived their effectiveness. I have noticed sometimes, however, that when I hear someone use the word in particular contexts, I bristle slightly, so I have done some thinking as to what that’s about. Without wanting to get into a whole semantic debate about what it means exactly (because like many words, it is tinged with our own subjectivity), I think there is a mindset to which the word alludes. Naturally, I also bring my own experiences and understandings to the word, so I am not presuming to set out the definitive meaning.
When I hear someone talking about empowering staff or their team and they describe what they mean, the word that springs to my mind is “enable”. The two terms are often used in dictionary definitions of each other and sometimes listed as synonyms. While they are closely related and sometimes interchangeable, I see a subtle but very important difference between the two when it comes to workplace authority and accountability. I think there are some nuanced differences that illustrate different types of leader behaviour in a workplace that is becoming increasingly “democratic” and where power is shifting from the top to become more spread throughout teams and organisations.
In a world of networks and interconnectivity, I believe that nobody can empower us; we do that ourselves. Nobody who took part in the January 25 movement in Tahrir Square was empowered by Mubarak and his cronies, they took it upon themselves to take to the streets and demand something different. In the world of work we can also empower ourselves, not in a “let’s man the barricades and overthrow the dictator” kind of way, but more in a “I’m bringing all of myself, my creativity and my initiative to work” kind of way. I believe this is a call for leaders to get out of the way. We hire people for their expertise and capabilities so please, let them bring their whole selves to work and let’s get out of their way. If some managers didn’t play the kind of power games that demotivated people, they could spend less time wondering how to increase motivation and engagement and more time with a gentle hand on the tiller, keeping an eye on the big picture, providing the means and opportunity for people to work well and letting people get on with what they hired them for. This is not to say that leaders should ditch their responsibilities and just let people do whatever they want, but that the activities of a leader should be more focussed on ensuring that everyone who works for the organisation has a clear line of sight to the vision and that they are provided the means with which to contribute to this big picture. A leader should develop the capability to tune into people and work out which ones need more guidance and coaching, which ones need a lighter touch, which ones work best with frequent encouragement and which ones need clearer structure and discipline, which ones thrive on autonomy and initiative-taking and which ones work best when given more direction; in other words, find out how you can best be of service to the individuals and teams who you lead and don’t take a cookie cutter approach with everyone. This, for me, is not about empowering though.
I bring my understanding of the word “empower” from my days as a therapist when I was working with clients whose lives were characterised by a deeply felt lack of power, or potency, in their lives. They were not the star of their own life stories, in other words. They were subject to decisions made by child protection authorities or social service authorities or parental authority or some other kind of powerful person or statutory body which held sway over important aspects of their day-to-day lives. While it is true that so many people in their lives were the agents of disempowerment, it seemed to me that to presume that I could empower them was just the opposite side of the same coin. For many people, bosses at work also hold this position. In my role as a therapist and in my current role as a change facilitator, it seems a little paradoxical to me that I would be in a position to empower anyone. Empower, to me, presumes that the one who empowers has the power to begin with and grants it to the other; it reinforces a paradigm of power and control to which the other person is subject. If I am the granter of power, there is still a power imbalance. This relationship presumes that I hold some kind of hierarchical authority over you and that, only by my good grace, are you exercising any authority. While I am in the position of granting power, I remain in the position of taking it back. I came to see myself as more of an enabler and facilitator, so that the other person could develop the resources within themselves to take up greater potency in their lives. For someone to gain authentic power, it was important that they were the agents of their own empowerment and that I get out of the way of them doing that.
In that world of therapy and personal growth, the term “enable” has come to take on a pejorative meaning. It is often used to describe those who permit unhealthy behaviours to carry on. For example, someone who enables an alcoholic is someone who doesn’t confront them or provides the means for them to carry on abusing alcohol. An enabler is considered someone who provides the means or opportunity for someone to engage in their addiction and thus carry on with their destructive behaviours or attitudes. While I agree that it means to provide the means and opportunity to do something, I see it from its etymological meaning of to “put in ability”. Rather than call it enabling, I would classify those manager behaviours that inhibit each person taking responsibility for themselves as colluding. If you are rescuing, lecturing, shaming, controlling, punishing, needlessly micromanaging or living in denial about what staff do, you are probably not enabling nor empowering in my book.
Even though the two words, empower and enable, are often used interchangeably, it is important for me to be clear in my mind of the subtle differences that make a big difference to how we relate to people. The one, empower, emphasising power and a world view that hierarchies hold greater sway than relationships and interactivity between nodes on a network; the other, enable, emphasising capability development and a world view that, when fully able, people can put their abilities to good use.
Empower seems limited to the granting of authority, which can be rescinded when it suits the holder of power, while enable seems much broader to me. It encompasses what someone does to ensure that others have the requisite capabilities and skills to carry out a job well, to take up their own power (potency) and when necessary, showing them the door to gaining new capabilities and skills. It seems to be more akin to equipping and supplying than conferring power. Once equipped, the enabler can then get out of the way and let the person access their own power to get on with it.
I would say the following activities count as enabling, or “getting out of the way” behaviours:
Setting boundaries: clarifying limits of authority and accountability so that people know what they are responsible for and what they are not. It may be necessary for a leader to delineate where various bucks stop, but once boundaries are set, people can be freed up to exercise initiative. Set boundaries too tight and you end up micro-managing. Set boundaries too loose and you get confusion and anxiety. Like Goldilocks’ porridge, they should be just right.
Managing team dynamics: shining a light on relationships and networks and encouraging their connection and interaction. The enabling manager knows that teams sometimes need a watchful eye to assist them with potential conflict or difference. The enabling manager will not, however, need to be an interloper, speaking on behalf of people or protecting people from each other.
Showing trust and belief: behaving in ways that let people know you trust them to get on with it. It is true that for some folks, work is just a thing to earn money and is not a source of personal satisfaction or meaning. However, for those folks who are looking for a sense of achievement, trust them to work things out for themselves. It is important to set out the parameters of what needs to be achieved, but trust folks to do it in their own way. If you want to tell someone what to do and exactly how to do it, why not just get a robot? Let people prove themselves and stretch their initiative muscles.
Being available: for advice, guidance, information, as a sounding board. Letting people get on with it does not mean abdicating your interest or your involvement in what goes on from day-to-day. Having an open door also does not mean being there to solve every operational problem to the extent that you never get your own work done.
Communicating respectfully: communication should be open and mutual. This includes being authentic with people and letting them know how their actions affect you and others, being humble and encouraging them to do the same with you, keeping open lines of mutual feedback.
Coaching people to learn from mistakes: when someone makes a mistake, an enabling manager will work with the person to work out what went wrong, why it went wrong and ensure that they have the capability and awareness to prevent a repeat. Punishing or blaming may not teach someone what they need to learn so it doesn’t happen again. A plan for professional development, however, will.
Encouraging problem-solving: letting people bring their creativity to work. None of us is smarter than all of us, goes the adage. Given the means and opportunity, people and teams will apply themselves to solving the problems that affect them, rather than default to a chain of command that doesn’t have all the answers. Encourage a culture of creativity, collaborative problem-solving and engagement in the issues that affect everyone’s working lives.
Don’t get between people and their work. Let work be a place where people can extend themselves, be themselves and learn for themselves. Get out of the way please.
February 17, 2012
I’ve devoted a number of my posts to the topic of leader development. In this post, I’d like to say more about what I mean by leader development because my thinking doesn’t come from a view that leaders are solely those at the top of organisations. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, when I talk about leaders and leadership, I’m not simply thinking about businesses that organise themselves around hierarchies, far from it. The thing about leader development is that it is people development. My belief is that the new age we are currently on the cusp of will be dominated less and less by hierarchies and more by relationships and collaboration and this calls us to develop ourselves accordingly. This new construct is still forming, but many businesses are feeling the power that comes from interconnectedness; a kind of people power that hierarchical organisations would only dream of, if they could just let go of an Industrial Age paradigm about human groups.
In recent months, there has been a fair amount of analysis of the so-called “leaderless” movements of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements around the world. The Occupy movements seem to be dissolving both in number and in our consciousness. Much of what I have read seems to indicate that their breakups rest on the fact that they lacked coherent leadership and their failure to clearly articulate their demands. In a lot of ways, there is some truth to this. However, one thing I see in these movements is seeds of a new kind of community in which leaderless actually means leader-full. We are just flexing our muscles.
I was pleased to attend a workshop by Etienne Wenger some years ago, in which he set out his thinking around Communities of Practice. He defines Communities of Practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” His model is applied in the area of social learning, however I would say his thinking is applicable much wider to include social and organisational change. For Wenger, learning is central to human identity and he sees its primary focus as social participation. His model shows that a CoP will have three elements that bind them together: domain, community and practice. Domain is a shared area of interest, i.e. this is not just a loose network of people who like each other. They have a common purpose, e.g. software developers or wine enthusiasts. Community emerges from the active participation of every member of the CoP; sharing of information, offering help and building relationships. There are no tourists in a CoP, there is active engagement. The practice is the set of capabilities or skills the members enact that indicates they are fully fledged members of the CoP. Over time, members develop a shared repertoire of tools, knowledge, language and strategies that indicate they not only have a common interest, but they actually do something in common, e.g. they take turns to hold wine tastings or they work together on developing new iPhone apps.
How is this related to leadership?
Our current understanding of what leadership means is still largely drawn from conventions of how organisations have been structured in our recent history. This makes sense; if we have some ways of behaving that are driven by our beliefs, until our beliefs shift, our behaviours will pretty much remain static. Organisations are only just coming to glimpse the kind of structures that are much more fit for purpose, Communities of Practice being just one. We have a very long inheritance of organisational structure from our industrial and military past and for a long period in our history, this suited the needs of an industrial society. Organising human endeavour with a leader at the top and a rigid hierarchy below has meant that we tend to think of leaders only as those with leadership title or those at the so-called “top”. Leaders make decisions, leaders are accountable, leaders lead while others follow. This structure naturally lends itself to a command and control way of thinking and behaving and in the days of the early industrial revolution, this suited the needs of businesses. The tasks involved in driving a successful business were best organised with the head telling the rest of the body what to do and how to do it. We didn’t need huge amounts of creativity and autonomy to reside in the lower structures; all they needed to do was what they were told because the higher-ups had the end goals in their sights. Similarly, militaries need that command and control structure in order to carry out their role effectively. We couldn’t have foot soldiers deciding how they wanted to go about their job, otherwise we wouldn’t have the kind of strength and order a fighting force needs; it needs to be single-minded, not multi-minded. So, in essence, form followed function.
Even in the early days of Christianity, orthodoxy took hold and dispensed with the more liberal, personal forms of spirituality. For example, Gnosticism, a movement based on personal religious experience and transcendence arrived at by internal, intuitive means, was vilified as blasphemous and dangerous, and the Church, with the Pope as its head, became the final arbiter for all matters moral, social and spiritual. With the leader in place, there was no need for individuals to ponder about their morality; as long as they did what the priest/bishop/Pope told them to do, they would have happy and ordered lives, with the added bonus of a similarly joyous afterlife. No need to question, no need to work it out for yourself. The Protestant Reformation injected a new brand of thinking into the mix, with believers thinking that they could perhaps have a direct line to God, rather than through the mediator-priest. Even so, the predominant social structures in place at the time meant that eventually, most Protestant churches eventually defaulted to some form of leadership hierarchy, and those that didn’t were considered fringe movements.
In the same manner of form following function, industrial/military societies have organised their education systems to provide adequate preparedness to enter a largely hierarchical workforce. No real need to teach critical thinking skills, no real need to provide opportunities for meaningful personal growth, as long as you could read, write and add up. Of course, I’m generalising, but on the whole, industrial/military societies provided, and to a shockingly great extent, still provide sausage factory schooling. Because these three influences (the industrial, the military and the social/spiritual) were so pervasive, it makes complete sense that they were so instrumental in setting up a worldview that still largely holds sway today.
The world is rapidly changing however.
In a recent TEDx talk, former UK Liberal Democrat Party leader Paddy Ashdown sets out some interesting, if not particularly new, ideas about a new world power structure emerging. While his talk focusses more on global governance and international power shifts, some of the points he makes are salient and relevant to all kinds of leadership and organisation. If we consider that leadership and power are inextricably linked, we can look to the Occupy movements as some indication of where we might be headed. Power, in the sense of potency to act, is becoming more diffuse, whether governments like it or not. In response there will naturally be reaction, but I believe the tide is surely turning. While the Occupy movements may not have catalysed immediate changes to global financial or economic systems, I believe they signal a new kind of active involvement in society and growing desire for power to be spread more widely.
Ashdown suggests that we are coming back to an age where global governance is carried out via treaties. He quotes Lord Palmerston saying, “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” This is ringing true in the world of business. The BizDojo in Auckland, New Zealand is but one example of professional people coming together in a pragmatic way to share expertise, collaborate on one-off projects and create a fresh new business community. These knowledge workers know that rigid vertical hierarchies are not the best way to organise themselves. The strength comes from the power of their networks. To quote Ashdown again, “In the modern age where everything is connected to everything, the most important thing about what you can do is what you can do with others.”
So what does this have to do with leadership then?
Remember I said that our traditional notions of leadership have come from the hierarchical ways we have organised ourselves. If our power structures are shifting, so will leadership. While the Occupy movements have been called leaderless by most commentators in the media, I’m not so sure. Leaderless if we look at the movements through old lenses, true; there was nobody at the “top” because there was no top. I think this new social construct will call upon us to shift our ideas as to what a leader is. In a previous blog, I suggested, for example, that a customer service employee who connects with a dissatisfied customer, preventing them from going to your competitor, is exercising just as much leadership as the person with CEO on their door. Leader development is people development and people development is leader development.
Power is certainly spreading out to the people. With more diffuse power, we will all be called upon to exercise leadership. Strong and effective Communities of Practice consist of people with a wide repertoire of personal characteristics and capabilities that in the old days, might have sat with a privileged few. Everyone exercises some form of leadership, however the new paradigm of leadership is not about managing hierarchies, but about influencing, collaborating and relating.
Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom’s book, The Starfish and The Spider, paints a potent picture of decentralised organisations. Decentralised systems, they say, “have no clear leader, no hierarchy and no headquarters. If and when a leader does emerge, that person has little power over others.” However, I contend, they do exercise influence. This points to a key leadership capability that we all require more of as the old makes way for the new. People at work will not only require some kind of professional skill set or technical expertise, but they will also need a well developed set of personal capabilities, those which we term “emotional intelligence”. This is not limited to freelancers or small business owners, but to anyone working in the Knowledge Economy. I believe that many businesses will see the benefits of reorganising with a more diffuse power base that unlocks the leadership and creativity of more of those who work within them.
In this article in December’s Harvard Business Review, Gary Hamel poses the question, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could achieve high levels of coordination without without a supervisory superstructure?” I think he’s on to something. With highly developed leader capabilities all over organisations, leadership (the practice) will emerge from the interactions and relationships between leaders (the people). Again, I’m intending leaders to be those with authority and accountability. It then behoves organisations and individuals to devote themselves to sound capability development of the kind I hinted at earlier. These would include developing greater empathy, greater abilities to listen, greater abilities to collaborate, greater abilities to problem-solve with others, greater abilities to self-manage and, of course, greater self-awareness. As Paddy Ashdown says, the most important bit about the structure then becomes your docking points-your connections with others; not your hierarchy.
Finally, I think it’s important to recap a point I have made in previous articles, that is, that a new paradigm of organisations will not simply do away with the old. The new construct will include and transcend the current one, so we will still find that some organisations work best with a hierarchical structure or a command-and-control style of leadership. However, they will be best applied when they fit the purpose of the organisation. I suspect, for example, that local emergency management structures will require a command-and-control style of leadership in crisis situations. I, for one, would prefer that a highly efficient response team deals with a natural disaster or fire to one that organises itself on the basis of peer consultation.
I have set out just a few of my thoughts and reflections in this article and, as always, am keen to read what you can add and build onto what I have written. I’m no expert, and I suspect there isn’t one anyway. We are in immersed in the unknown right now and the New Normal will come about from all of our contributions.
December 15, 2011
…is love sweet love. As Burt Bacharach and Hal David said, that’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. At the risk of sounding a bit ‘soft’ as the holiday season approaches, I have been reflecting on some recent conversations along with some experiences I’ve had through 2011 and wish to emphasise the importance of developing what are often called ‘people skills’ in our businesses and organisations. As Dr. John McGurk states in this rather excellent November 2010 study, “Using the Head and Heart at Work,” people skills are rarely neutral, that is, they have the power to influence in positive, as well as negative, ways. I don’t believe I need to make the case for superlative ‘head’ or ‘hand’ skills at work; those cases have long been won. Instead, I will bang on yet again about the need to hone our ‘heart’ skills. It is by deployment of our ‘heart’ skills that we facilitate more effective application of our ‘head’ and ‘hand’ skills at work. Now that our workplaces are becoming more and more relationship- and collaboration-based, the urgent need to develop greater ‘heart’ at work is before us.
I know most of you will probably feel that you have plenty of love and caring in your personal lives. However, we spend a huge chunk of our waking hours at work, usually with people that we haven’t chosen. We also have opened our eyes to the fact that we actually want our businesses and organisations to be places where we feel valued and appreciated, where we feel we are making a difference to others, where we can be human. It is a nonsense to hold on to an Industrial Age notion that we should leave our whole selves at the door when we enter our workplaces and simply offer up our brains or hands to be deployed as some manager’s resource. We want to care and we want people to care about us.
There is growing evidence that doing good for others and showing caring for others is also good for us. Two large studies have shown that older adults who volunteer live longer than non-volunteers. Indeed, altruistic emotions seem to override the effects of cortisol, our stress hormone. A recent study has also shown that helping and caring for others increases levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone that helps us develop trusting relationships. If we have reduced cortisol and increased oxytocin when we are compassionate and caring towards others, if we feel good because of the unselfish good we do, it boggles the mind why we still endure workplaces that cause us to feel bad or where our good deeds go unnoticed. However, as William Glasser is noted as saying, we cannot change others; we can only change ourselves; if we change ourselves, others cannot help but respond to us differently.
If you believe that we get back what we give out, why not be mindful of opportunities to care for others with whom we work? One note about this do-good effect, though. Those studies which show improved well-being when we are compassionate towards others also indicate that this comes out of unselfish good deeds, not ‘dry’ acts of duty for others. Just as your boss won’t guarantee higher levels of engagement by faking care, consultation or listening, we can’t fake generosity. It requires genuineness and authenticity on our part; not simply clicking “Like” on Facebook.
For those of you who watched the video clip on empathy by Professor Simon Baron Cohen in my previous blog article, you will have heard about the monkeys who help other monkeys in distress. A bunch of rhesus monkeys were taught to obtain food by pulling on a chain. When a monkey was shown another monkey receiving an electric shock every time the chain was pulled, they stopped pulling the chain. One monkey in this experiment went without food for 12 days. That monkey in particular would put some bosses I know to shame. Empathy at work is not discretionary, as it may have been for Victorian mill owners. If leaders want engagement, it requires something more than an annual Christmas bonus or staff party. It’s not just down to the bosses though. We all have a part to play in making our workplaces more human, too. We get back what we give.
So with this mounting evidence of how good it is for us to do good, let’s not play the “you go first” game. I suspect that care, concern and compassion for others at work is a self-reinforcing cycle. We do good, we feel good, we are motivated to continue doing good; and others feel good when we care for them, they begin to care for us more. I know that the opposite can certainly become a negative spiral as well. Make the first move.
Keep going on your path of self-awareness. Our interpersonal abilities spring out of and are inextricably linked with our intrapersonal abilities. In other words, the greater our self-knowledge and ability to identify, name and process our own emotional life, the greater our capability to recognise and respond to the emotional life of others. We can go on and on learning about ourselves. A massage therapist will learn the technique of palpation: feeling the body’s tissues for areas of tightness. With greater practice and experience, the therapist will develop greater acuity to feel smaller and smaller areas of tension that a beginner will not notice. We can similarly grow greater acuity to notice our own feelings, many of which we are unconscious to in our daily lives. As we acquaint ourselves with ourselves, our eyes also open to the smallest facial expressions, the subtlest body language and most obscure meanings in the words and acts of others. Tuning into ourselves helps us tune into others, thereby increasing our ability to care. Focus on your body right now: what is it telling you?
Notice others. Finely tune your awareness of what is going on for other people. Many of us like to pride ourselves on our abilities to work hard and get things done and we overlook the impact of our stresses and challenges. Too many people ‘suffer in silence’ at work and in some cases, people even leave organisations because they get burnt out. Some take the approach that if they couldn’t stand the heat, it was best they went, but most of the cases I know of are where highly competent, engaged and dedicated people left because they felt isolated and couldn’t sustain themselves any longer. It is these folks we need to watch out for. If we fine tune our awareness of others and do simple things to let them know they are appreciated, it will make an enormous difference to them. When people talk about how overworked they feel or how stressed they are by a deadline or a heavy workload, we don’t have to step it to try to fix it for them, but listening to them and letting them know they have a trusted person to offload can let them know they are not alone and they have support. Think about your co-workers: who needs some support right now?
Listen to others. We are busy, this is true. We often hear others, but much of what they say goes in one ear and out the other and in many cases, we don’t even look at the person talking to us. If we take the time to really listen to others, we have the power to make a difference to them. Ask anyone who volunteers on a telephone helpline. Listen to their words and listen ‘between the words’. Good listening comes from being present to what the person says as well as how they say it. It involves noticing what they don’t say and how they do this as well. It primarily involves turning off our inner monologue so that we do more than simply wait our turn to open our mouths. Think about a recent conversation you had: how much did you really listen? What might you have missed?
Develop the habit of gratitude. I was reminded of the power of gratitude by a close friend of mine recently. It caused me to bring to mind the people for whom I am grateful in my life; both for being a part of my life, as well as for the kind acts they show me. Imagine what that did to my physiology, my heart and my mind. I can tell you that his suggestion to focus on gratitude certainly intruded on the grumpiness I was sitting with at the time. As with altruism, developing an attitude of gratitude has been shown to increase our own well-being, reduce our stress and anxiety levels and encourage kinder behaviour towards others. I have heard of one business which has recently started the practice at their team meetings of each person thanking one other person in the team for something they did through the week. It has made it an even nicer place to work; everything we know about engagement points to a friendly culture being an essential ingredient. If there is a boss who wants to argue that caring for others at work is pointless, I will give them this Manager’s contact details. Think about your workplace: who or what are you grateful for?
All this stuff may sound a little ‘touchy-feely’, however, more of us are coming to acknowledge the power of these small differences that make big differences in people’s working lives. From a bottom line perspective, more is also known about the power of engagement. Engagement comes about because managers, leaders and others within organisations develop our capabilities to be human with other humans. People engage when they know that who they are as a person is noticed, supported and encouraged; when they know they are not a cog in a machine.
Two final thoughts about this subject; to paraphrase a famous advertisement for the RSPCA, real compassion, authentic caring and genuine altruism at work are not just for Christmas, they’re for life. What attitude can you change or habit can you inculcate in 2012 that will improve your working life and the working lives of others? And the last words go to Bacharach and David, expressed beautifully by Dionne Warwick. He goes on to say that love is “not just for some, but for everyone”. Who can you show more care for at work?
This article is dedicated to my father, Jack Wenger, who died on December 18, 2009. What I know from the people who worked with him as their Manager, he was a much loved boss who cared very much about the welfare of his people.
December 9, 2011
In the last few weeks, I have come across two fascinating pieces, both of which stimulated some thinking about organisational life. One was about empathy, the other about psychopathy in bosses. I have drawn on these two in the writing of this article and I hope that you will find some value here.
In my past, I have worked with a few clients who had been clinically diagnosed with Anti-Social Personality Disorder, the more accurate term for psychopaths, and I know how challenging it can be and the fragmentation people like this create around them. While I stress that I am not qualified to make a clinical diagnosis of Anti-Social Personality Disorder, and I would strenuously caution anyone else who is not qualified against doing so, there are some hallmark behaviours which can only be ignored for so long.
Scientists believe that about 1% of the general population would fit a diagnosis of Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD). Studies show that as many as 4% of bosses would fit this classification. When we think of the word psychopathic, we tend to think of mass murderers and serial rapists, however, a psychopath may not necessarily be the Hannibal Lecter of our nightmares. The thing that most clearly identifies this kind of person for me is a lack of empathy for others.
Professor Simon Baron Cohen discusses empathy and says it has two components: cognitive and affective. The cognitive component is the drive to identify another person’s thoughts and feelings; the affective component is the drive to respond appropriately to another person’s thoughts and feelings. Professor Baron Cohen indicates that if you have one without the other, that wouldn’t be empathy. The psycopath might be able to do the first part, they might be able to recognise their victim has pain, but they might not have the appropriate emotional response of wanting to alleviate their distress. He goes on to say that empathy is on a spectrum. Philosopher Martin Buber suggested that the point along the spectrum at which you start treating a person as an object is when you become capable of cruelty.
As Professor Baron Cohen suggests, calling humans ‘resources’ seems to be somewhere down the left hand (lower) side of the bell curve of empathy. We have inherited, from the Victorians and Industrial Revolutionaries, a notion that people are resources to be deployed in the pursuit of profit. The moment when you shift from seeing people from an I-Thou perspective to an I-It perspective is when you switch off your empathy. I-You is where you recognise the person’s subjectivity. I-It is where you treat someone as a piece of furniture. Zero empathy is not good for the person, nor for the people around the person.
Professor Baron Cohen goes on to say that empathy is the most valuable of human resources. After much reflection, I would say that in the realm of business life, I would concur. Without it, I cannot see how organisations will thrive in the 21st century. With it, we have a basic foundation of resolving conflict and creating workplaces where people can find meaning, joy and genuine engagement at work. Without empathy and its expression, an organisation may survive, but the risk is that it is found wanting by those it wishes to engage and becomes irrelevant. A key point about empathy is that you cannot fake it, and those who work for a psychopathic boss know that.
Once again, while I caution against diagnosing the boss as a psychopath, here some of the things you would typically see in a low empathy manager.
- It is never their fault. Their default mode is to deflect conversations away from themselves. They minimise the effects of their improper actions and blame those on the receiving end (“They shouldn’t have spoken to me in that way.”).
- You are never right and you can never win. Add in the fact that they are the boss and any challenge you make to what you feel is unfair, a personal attack or unethical will be met with more undermining. They know that they are the boss and believe that they can do anything they like and they know it. When, on the odd occasion, someone calls them to account, they are clever enough to divert attention away from themselves and blame others for failures and mistakes.
- They run the business like it’s their personal fiefdom. They take the approach that you can either fit in or **** off. If you don’t like it, there is the door. Sadly, I have spoken to too many people who are living proof of the adage, “People join good organisations, but they leave bad managers.” In the current climate, however, people will be more reluctant to leave even an anti-social boss, lest they find themselves one of the growing number of unemployed.
- They sabotage, undermine and disempower as a matter of course and they lack remorse. They defend their anti-social actions and comments as being “for the good of the business”, but there is no such thing as a benevolent psychopath. If they are running the business as their personal fiefdom, that which is different from them is perceived and acted upon as a threat.
- They hold a skewed picture of the business. Lower self-awareness and a distorted view of self can lead them to maintain the fallacy that everything is just fine. They will maintain the illusion that it’s one big happy family, that everyone comes in and does their job and nobody complains. The ones that do complain are probably viewed as ‘difficult’ and the boss will do what they can to undermine and disempower. The tension between the boss and these recalcitrant workers is palpable and because the boss is a seasoned manipulator, they will deftly skew others’ picture of this person.
- They often successfully feign care and concern for others. These types of bosses are clever. They know that strong people skills are the currency of good leadership these days. On the receiving end of such inauthentic caring, however, you can feel it. It’s just hard to put your finger on.
- They disguise their anti-social behaviour with sophisticated language and reasonable justification. They have a charm that they can turn on and off as the situation suits them. On their journey to a leadership position, they have found it useful along the way to learn the sophisticated kind of language used to cover up and obfuscate, so their anti-social behaviours are hard to pin down.
- They display an easy contempt for people they don’t like or agree with. They tend to have poor ability to inhibit angry outbursts. They shut people and conversations down that differ from their world view.
- They put people down on a personal level. They lack caring and display a blithe indifference to the fact that they manage human beings with feelings, lives and stories to tell.
A psychopathic boss’s casual use of interpersonal violence can be breath-taking. In some cases, it washes over us because it’s so outrageous that we can hardly believe that someone, the boss no less, would behave in this consistently disrespectful manner. It’s not until we walk away and we recover ourselves that we realise that the wrenching we felt in our gut was to do with them. I have spoken with people who have been victims of a boss such as this, and they consistently report that it took some time before it dawned on them how inappropriate their boss was behaving towards them. We also like to think that we don’t come into contact with people like this; after all a psychopath is a mass murderer, right? We also tend to associate the words and actions of a bully with the sort of thing that goes on in school playgrounds and can’t imagine that we, now grown adults, would be on the receiving end of it.
If someone is determined to go against the psychopathic boss, they may quickly find themselves on the wrong end of dismissal. Because the boss knows they are the boss, they will find some way to manage you out, perhaps by placing such unrealistic conditions on your employment that they are unattainable or by isolating the ‘miscreant’ by setting them up to fail in the eyes of their peers. This way, they have some evidence to point to why this person just had to go. Some people who cannot see their way through end up leaving, but these are probably the people that the psychopath calls trouble-makers and will feel vindicated upon their departure. They will maintain that it was better for the business that they went and will be happier with a more compliant or acquiescent replacement.
I generally take a holistic view of people and try to see past unsavoury behaviours in order to seek out the personal value systems that underlie them, by way of finding a starting point for strengths-based development work. In other words, I like to give the benefit of the doubt. This has not always stood me in good stead and on a few occasions, I have erred on the side of generosity; it is on these occasions that I have eventually had to relent in the face of repeated anti-social acts towards myself or others and given way to the reality that the person in question was indeed, deeply lacking in empathy and care for others. While it can be tempting to reduce someone to a few of their ‘bad’ behaviours, I would still encourage you to start with generosity: give the benefit of the doubt. Goodness knows that the world could do with greater understanding of our fellow humans. Very few of us are truly selfish ‘bad eggs’ and I still hold that it is worth giving the benefit of the doubt in the first instance. Furthermore, it can be incredibly frustrating to be misrepresented based on a few forgivable misdemeanours in the workplace and to not be given the opportunity to apologise, put things right and make genuine efforts to adjust behaviour.
As frustrating as it is to be in the firing line of a low empathy boss, there are some things that we can do:
- Trust your gut. A common thread for those with a psychopathic boss is that they feel like they can’t trust their instincts about what happens to them at work. This is one of the things that these creatures create in those around them. Like Ingrid Bergman in “Gaslight”, you are probably not going mad.
- Talk with someone you trust about your experiences. Bounce your experiences off someone. Get things off your chest, it does you no good to store up your frustrations and stress. A trusted friend can also reflect back whether you are seeing things accurately of if you are making mountains out of molehills.
- If necessary, get some legal or HR guidance. Some common advice is to document everything. Check with a professional and get some guidance as to what you should be doing to protect yourself.
- Maintain habits that keep you grounded and connected to yourself. Get a massage, go for a walk in nature, play a musical instrument, meditate, whatever works for you.
As always, I welcome your comments and look forward to hearing how you have dealt with an anti-social boss at work.
November 22, 2011
A poll in October of 2011 put the approval rating of the US Congress at just 9%. When Rasmussen pollsters asked Americans if they approved of the US going communist, a full 11% said they were OK with that; two points ahead of Congress. To put that into context, during Watergate Richard Nixon’s approval rating was 24%. BP, during the Gulf oil spill, hit 16 %.
To me, these figures illustrate the erosion of trust in those who set out to lead us and, I suspect, an erosion of faith in the systems that puts those leaders there. It’s not just a crisis of democracy, it’s a much wider crisis of leadership: in government, in business, in churches. The expenses scandal in the UK. Widespread sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests and covered up by bishops. Credit ratings agencies giving the thumbs up to banking systems at the heart of the global financial crisis. Bankers gifting themselves ever larger bonuses with the taxpayer money that bailed them out. Politicians and police exposed as bed-fellows with News International as the cruel depths of their phone hacking emerges. So-called ‘democratic’ world leaders sitting close-lipped on genuinely popular uprisings in Egypt and Syria unless it suits them. In response, first the indignados and then the occupy movements around the world mobilise in an effort to give voice to their myriad frustrations with ‘the system’ because they see little joy in working within the systems which already exist, seen as corrupt, untrustworthy and anti-democratic. The faith that people have lost is not simply in the people who purport to lead; it is in the actual systems.
In this article, “America is Better Than This,” Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas comments on the spectacle of the US Congress classifying pizza sauce as a vegetable in deference to the fast food lobby, who wish to continue serving it to America’s schoolchildren. Loomis is quoted in the article as saying, “…if they can’t get it right on pizza sauce, how can they do something on the deficit, or healthcare?” Politics has, for many folks, been reduced to a source of entertainment rather than a channel through which to effect real change in our societies. ’Election promise’ has long become a byword for mendacity. In New Zealand, the incumbent National Party, led by Prime Minister John Key, is seeking a second term in the upcoming general election, having raised Goods and Services Tax only 18 months after undertaking not to do so during the election campaign of November 2008. This, despite Prime Minister Key stating during the 2008 campaign, “I intend to campaign on trust. I intend to be a Prime Minister that earns the trust of New Zealanders and I’m going to keep that trust.” Loomis has a good point: if we can’t trust those in positions of leadership to act with integrity and common sense on small matters, how on Earth can we trust them with larger concerns?
In our quest for authentic leadership, those who aspire to lead or purport to lead need to understand that the issue is not ‘the issues’; the issue is ‘trust’. I don’t care if you have a solid understanding of economics or IT; my real question is “Can I trust you to lead?” Just as importantly, can I trust a system that put you there? If the system continually puts people in positions of power who abuse it, many are asking, isn’t it time we had a new system? This is the promised land that the systems thinkers among us have been dreaming of. The ‘something new’ that seems to be emerging, the new paradigm of leadership, is not one of hierarchies or command and control. It is one of networks, relationships and action. It is of ‘leader-full’ systems, rather than leaders of hierarchies. Old style leaders and leadership systems are fast becoming irrelevant before our very eyes. Leadership in the 21st century is going to be more about relationships and influence, interconnectedness and networks, trust and authenticity. Leadership, as a phenomenon, will emerge from the dynamic between people, and this may not necessarily conform to an organisational hierarchy. Many old-style thinkers look at the occupy movements and scratch their heads because they genuinely can’t make sense of it: “Where are their leaders?” “What are their demands?” They don’t get that this new paradigm will be populated by ‘leader-full’ networks, empowered to take action themselves rather than via ‘representatives’.
These leader-full networks will be populated by people exercising authentic leadership: being themselves; bringing forward their own sets of knowledge and capabilities; exercising their own brand of action. Central to this will be engendering trust throughout the network, maintaining good relationships and purposeful influence. It won’t happen because you tell me that I can trust you. It will happen because you behave in a trustworthy manner. Remember that 85-90% of people’s attention goes on a leader’s informal, unconscious communications. The traditional activities that we attribute to a ‘leader’, as shown in the formal, conscious box below, only garner about 3-5% of people’s attention. Even today, about 80-85% of a typical leader’s effort goes into that category of communications that are least noticed. (Acknowledgements to Marcus Child for sharing this model with me.)
tone of voice
aims and objectives
vision and mission
use of measurements and statistics
A new manifesto of trust
Want me to trust you? Be a man (or woman) of your word; not a man (or woman) of words. Words don’t cut it. I’ve been lied to too many times. I want to see trustworthy action. Let’s instigate a manifesto of trust. It could say something like this:
- I will strive to build and maintain good relationships with all.
- If I make a promise or a commitment, I will strive to keep it;
- If I break a promise or ‘drop the ball’ with my commitments, I will front up and be accountable and I will work to put things right.
- No excuses, no blaming, no avoiding, no sweeping under the carpet.
- No wriggling out of embarrassing conversations or trying to change the subject.
- I will endeavour to be real with people; no obfuscation, no power games.
- I will strive to develop myself: this means becoming more self-reflective and more open to others’ feedback about me.
While John Key and others in our political classes will try to garner trust simply by saying, “You can trust me,” true leaders know that trust follows trustworthy behaviour. That’s it really. In any election campaign, all the stuff about the economy, education or health is important, but as we listen to election messages, the key thing to consider is, “Can I actually trust you? How can I believe what you are telling me (about the economy, education and health)?” When I hear the expression, “Let me be really clear about the facts,” I know that what follows is more likely to be distortions.
In the realm of customer service, trust doesn’t come because you’ve won some customer care award or you have the biggest share of the market. It comes because when I interact with you, I feel that you are really listening to me and giving me your undivided attention. I get the unshakable sense that you are taking my concerns seriously and that you are not following some sort of customer service script. I trust you when you treat me like an intelligent human being and don’t patronise me with your “Have you tried turning it off and turning it on again?” attitude. At the same time, help me to understand, rather than blind me with your jargon. I might trust you if I felt you weren’t just using language to pull the wool over my eyes.
In the realm of the workplace, I will trust you when I feel that you value my contributions and that you encourage others to do the same. I will trust you when you are constant. A psychologist friend of mine had a mantra which went, “The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.” While I don’t agree with that entirely , there is some truth in it. My trust in you will build over time, when you are repeatedly and consistently authentic and trustWORTHY. You will not necessarily gain my trust simply because you have set up some simplistic ‘trust games’ during our one and only staff training day.
Resist the urge to get indignant. Perhaps this is your default response: “How DARE you! It sounds as if you don’t trust me.” Rather than throw it all back onto me, as if my lack of trust in you is somehow an indication of a defect in me, why not go away and think about what it is about your actions that might somehow engender mistrust. If you have a track record of not following through with commitments, then my mistrust is probably well-placed.
I’ll close with a note about cynics, because in the face of broken trust, it is easy to become cynical about people. Cynicism has, however, taken on a negative connotation in modern society, where it was once thought to be a virtue. Cynics were of an ancient Greek school of philosophy. The example of the Cynic’s life (and the use of the Cynic’s biting satire) would dig up and expose the pretensions which lay at the root of everyday conventions. Cynicism offered people the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. The ideal Cynic would evangelise; as the watchdog of humanity, it was their job to hound people about the error of their ways. (Wikipedia entry on Cynicism)
In these mendacious times, in a changing world where trust is becoming the chief currency, nothing wrong with a little healthy cynicism, eh?
October 25, 2011
Sad to say, but there are still many managers like that. They say they want real engagement from staff and customers, yet their behaviours convey quite the opposite: that they just want automatons, warm bodies that do what they’re told and take what they’re given. After all, automatons are less ‘messy’ than people, they are less unpredictable and more reliable, aren’t they?
So which is it? Do you want people, with all their foibles and flaws, or well-behaved automatons?
You may be the boss but you can’t have it both ways. What this means is that you cannot say that you want my creativity, my sharp thinking, my feedback and my participation and at the same time, infer by your actions towards me that, actually, you are not interested; that you’d rather I just did as I was told and kept my mouth shut. You cannot say you want me to be innovative and turn me on and off like some kind of light switch as it suits you. You cannot tell me that my contributions are valuable and then behave in a manner that demonstrates contempt for me when I contribute. These things you say you want are not “skills”; they are part of my make-up. They are woven into the fabric of my being. You want them or you don’t. You cannot tell me you want all of me at work, but then place conditions and caveats around that. You want me or you don’t.
It may shock you to know this, but your response to me is all about you. It is about your unconscious default position when you feel threatened, scared, inconvenienced, anxious or overwhelmed. I know you want the best for me and the organisation, but how you go about that sometimes betrays your own lack of development and self-awareness. So my message to you is: be very careful what you wish for.
- Do you really want creativity and a culture of innovation? Be prepared for others to have ideas that you have not already had; that is the point. Be prepared for me to say things that you might find counter-intuitive, but please do not shut me down. Please do not tell me you don’t want to discuss my ideas. They are only ideas and will not hurt you. Please don’t feel threatened by new ideas or the people that brought them. If you do, this is a leadership issue and you should probably have a word with yourself and develop some capabilities. In yourself.
- Do you truly want my engagement and alignment with the wider organisation? You will get my full engagement and attention when I know you are constantly listening to me. By listening, I mean you shut off your internal voices and prejudices and open both of your ears, all of your heart and mind and actually listen to what I have to say. I will know you have been listening when you make references to things I have told you or when I am visibly acknowledged. This will generate trust, which will cause me, quite naturally, to engage with you and your vision. It’s not rocket science, but if this seems hard, do something about your ability to really listen to others; it’s another leadership issue.
- Do you really want teamwork and collaboration throughout the business? If you want me to work well with others, to value their contributions and to build on what others bring, model this yourself. While it’s hard to measure, most of us have had experiences in our lives where we were part of something bigger than ourselves; where the whole was greater than the sum of the parts, as the old cliche goes. It’s a cliche for a reason; because it’s a human truth. Even grumpy old Henry Ford said, ”Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” And if you find managing the divergence and unpredictability of teams and their personalities overwhelming, this is another leadership issue. Immerse yourself in some development (NOT training) around dealing with surprise and team dynamics.
- Do you truly want feedback; from your customers, from your suppliers, from your associates and from your staff? Opportunities for feedback are continual and limitless. The thing about getting information back is that it then behoves you to do something about it. It can be a little scary to see and hear how others truly perceive you because it may clash wildly with your self-perception. In fact, chances are there will be something that jars, so be prepared for this. I will know you genuinely value my feedback when things change as a result of what I tell you, so be prepared to act upon the information. If you care enough about me, you will at least give my feedback the respect and consideration it is due and, if you hear it as if it is the truth, it may shine a light on something of enormous value to yourself and your business. If you experience feedback as white noise, this is a leadership issue and you should probably develop some capability around standing in others’ shoes.
If you have answered ‘yes’ to those four questions, where do you suppose these things will come from? They will emerge and develop out of the dynamics of people, not the dynamics of machines. Poor old Henry Ford didn’t quite understand this, but he was of a different age. If managers are to learn anything in the Knowledge Age, it is how to manage themselves in unpredictable, complex systems. Henry Ford thought he really only needed hands, but if he was running a business today, he would see that successful organisations are the ones that deploy whole people.
Furthermore, if you ask for these things, if you invest in developing these things, be prepared to get them. Be also prepared for the messiness that comes with them. When working with a client to catalyse a culture shift around having more robust conversations about performance throughout the business, we warned them at the outset that they would get what they asked for; and lo, when these conversations became more prevalent, there were some on the senior executive team who were less than pleased to be on the receiving end of some powerful feedback themselves. If innovation, engagement, teamwork and feedback (and all that comes with them) are inconveniences or they threaten your sense of control, do some work on yourself.
That last bit is really important: while you are growing and nurturing a culture where these things come to life, while you are actively providing opportunities for people to develop their own capabilities, you must continue to develop yourself. Notice your own responses to people as they bring their ideas, their passions and their ‘messiness’ to work. If you find, for example, that your default response when people propose ideas contrary to your own is to shut them down and pull rank, you probably require further capability development.
Remember, that of a leader’s behaviours, it is the unconscious and informal that people watch and derive most meaning from. If your words say one thing, but your actions say another, people will lose trust in you and realise quickly that you are not truly interested in the whole contribution they make to the organisation. Down goes engagement when staff understand that you just want their hands and not the rest of them. Similarly, if you tell your customers that you want to hear their feedback, but nothing changes as a result, you lose the trust of your customers. Down goes the customer experience when they understand that you just want their money and not their hearts and minds.
So which is it? Do you want me? Or do you just want my obedience?
October 10, 2011
Confucius is quoted as saying, “When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming his equal. When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine yourself.”
Self-awareness has been uppermost in my mind of late, thanks to some stimulating conversations and experiences I’ve had in the course of my work. I was listening to a CEO recently, speaking about the importance of creating greater engagement at work. They spoke about the importance of providing regular feedback to their people, being positive and strengths-based in their approach to people management, how vital it is to ‘get out of the way’ of their staff so that they can do what they do best and being available for support and coaching when the situation required. Listening to this, one would reasonably assume that we were in the presence of one of those great leaders; one of those CEOs everyone aspires to be. From the tone of the speech, here, also, was a person who had already got how essential it is for someone at C-level to be engaged in some sort of self-development; to have the kind of humility that a truly great leader possesses. Here was the kind of leader whom people find irresistible. Or so you’d think.
I had some inside information, however. As I listened, what came to me were two words I have recently come across: asymmetric insight.
Were this person’s staff in the room, they would have thought we were being treated to a stand-up comedy routine. I am privileged to know a number of this person’s direct reports and as far as they are concerned, many of the blockages and obstacles that the organisation is currently facing sit in the CEO’s chair. A lot of what this person was advocating was what was sorely lacking in their own behaviour.
I came away feeling a little sad for this CEO and their staff. An already strong organisation could shift into the ‘high-performing’ category if the leader developed greater insight into themselves and their functioning at work. Greater insight would shine a light on opportunities for their self-growth. Knowing this organisation and its people as I do, it would not take a mammoth effort on the part of the CEO either. They are so nearly there. What is required is a quantum shift; quantum being a word which is used to describe the smallest thing and the largest thing. From my experience, it is usually the smallest shifts in individuals or teams that create the biggest and most significant ripple effects in performance and culture.
It is often an insight into ourselves that is the first step on the path to shifting our attitudes and behaviours. How accurate and complete is our insight, though? There is an illusion called asymmetric insight that sometimes gets in the way. According to studies by Pronin, Kruger, Savitsky and Ross, “people, it is hypothesised, show an asymmetry in assessing their own interpersonal and intrapersonal knowledge relative to that of their peers”. We tend to believe that: 1) we know more about others than they know themselves; 2) we know more about ourselves than others could know about us and; 3) we know others better than they know us. It is asymmetric insight that this CEO was displaying. The self-image and the perceived level of personal awareness did not match the universal view of others with whom they work closely.
There is a good description of how this illusion plays out in this excellent piece about the Amanda Knox trial in The Guardian. It describes how “there is a fundamental asymmetry about the way two human beings relate to one another in person. When you meet someone, there are at least two things more prominent in your mind than in theirs – your thoughts, and their face. As a result we tend to judge others on what we see, and ourselves by what we feel.”
The source for this bias seems to stem from the unshakable belief that what we observe in others is far more revealing that our own similar behaviours. What is not part of this equation, however, is the fact that we all have blind spots. Furthermore, the fact that they are our blind spots means that we cannot even see what they might be about. That is the point. We are blind to them.
I suspect that the illusion of asymmetric insight creates a complex reinforcer against change. If I know myself more deeply than you know yourself, so the thinking goes, then any feedback you have for me is probably less than reliable. If you tell me that I am not as competent as I think I am, you are probably not to be believed because I know more about myself, and you, anyway. You also know far less about me than I know about you, so how could you possibly know that I need to improve: you have less insight than I do. See? No need to do anything different, no need for change. And if I’m your CEO, you are unlikely to press the issue, so I win. Now get back to work and I’ll keep making sure I send YOU on all these training courses. You need them more than me, after all.
Sometimes, even evidence and hard fact doesn’t get through. I may have a trail of formal complaints about my bullying behaviour, but documented evidence and witness statements mean nothing. It’s clearly about them, not me. They need to lighten up.
If you are a regular reader of the Harvard Business Review, you will likely be sold on the idea that authentic leadership comes about by growing self-awareness through on-going and courageous self-exploration. The biggest hurdles that leaders face in gaining greater self-awareness, though, are human things like denial, narcissism, arrogance and fear. All natural things, these. Heavens preserve me from people who pretend they don’t exhibit any of these at some times in their lives.
If you have the slightest idea that there might perhaps be the tiniest discrepancy between your self-image and how others experience you, you may be interested in these courses of action:
- Ask for and act upon feedback regularly and often. You will need to devote some time and energy developing trusting relationships with those who work closely with you. This means your peers, your direct reports and your superiors. All of these people will have information about you that you may find enlightening. If you demonstrate over time that you are actually interested in hearing their feedback, they will be more and more forthcoming about it. If you ask people what they think and become defensive or attacking, they will quickly get the message that feedback is unwelcome. It is one thing to say “I’m open to hearing your feedback about me,” it is another thing to model this openness.
- Develop strong networks. Leading can be lonely. The illusion of asymmetric insight will distort our views of ourselves. Growing strong networks of support people, both formal and informal, will keep your feet on the ground. One of my favourite stories is The Emperor’s New Clothes. Do you surround yourself with people who name the uncomfortable truths about you?
- Be curious about yourself. Be courageous. A useful model to apply here is the Johari Window. Many of you will already be familiar with this matrix. In my view, life is a never-ending quest to diminish the ‘blind self’ and enlarge the ‘public self’. When you think you know something about yourself, ask yourself, “How do I know that I know?”
If, however, you are entirely confident that you are fine, your behaviours are completely congruent with your words, your self-knowledge is ample, I’ll just leave you with a quote from Rumi. You might want to quote it to people who do need some self-development and are less self-actualised than you.
“O, happy the soul that saw its own faults.”
October 4, 2011
I’m privileged to be assisting two clients who are putting in great effort to grow cultures of leadership. I’m not sure if it’s a question of synchronicity that these two clients, separately and independently, have realised that the best way to breathe life into their visions is by nurturing a culture where every person, not just those with a title, is prepared to take up leadership. Perhaps they have been around long enough to know that leadership (getting things done) is an emergent dynamic; an ongoing conversation, if you like; within their organisation, and not just a set of competencies enacted only by those who manage others. Maybe they have been fortunate enough to work with other leaders who acknowledged that there are many in an organisation who have moments of being the navigator; even though there is just one captain; and that navigation is also leadership.
Or maybe they have dogs.
I have two dogs, both endless sources of comedy moments. They also have a deep knowing of leadership hard-wired into them. Dogs are pack animals and they know (not in any kind of conscious way, of course) that survival depends on effective leadership and working together. They need to know who the Alpha is and where everyone else fits within the pack hierarchy. When I learnt to speak ‘Dog’ years ago by reading The Dog Listener, I realised that if I’m to be the Alpha, I will need to convey this using language that dogs understand.
As well as learning how to speak Dog, I also learnt one other really vital lesson. This is the biggie. This is probably one of the most important things that all leaders need to get; and I don’t just mean people with a leadership title, I mean anyone who wants to be leading and influencing.
You. Are. Always. On.
I watch my dogs constantly and I have noticed they are also watching me constantly. Constantly. They need regular reminding (or reassurance) of who is in control. They need to know that it’s OK to take a nap or to play with each other and cut loose because Big-Dog-That-Stands-On-Two-Paws is managing things, is watching for danger, is looking relaxed.
So what are they taking notice of? Everything. Everything means something. When BDTSOTP’s eyes are not widened in fear and his forehead is relaxed, it means there is no imminent danger. When he yawns or his musculature is loose, it means ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. When Comedy Dogs bark at a bird in a nearby tree (clearly this is a danger and worthy of a noisy heads-up) and BDTSOTP joins in with loud-noise-coming-from-mouth, it means ‘Keep Making a Fuss’. In the heat of the moment, I sometimes forget that dogs, even these two clever Border Collies, do not speak English. So everything means something, but my shouting at them to be quiet, in English, does not result in quiet dogs. What I am trying to convey comes across as more barking, to their minds, so they keep going. Gary Larson made this point beautifully:
Leaders’ behaviours are scrutinised as carefully as my Alpha Dog efforts by my Comedy Dogs. Some leaders acknowledge this, but in a slightly skewed manner. They believe that the overt behaviours are the ones that matter. They neglect the less obvious, more unconscious behaviours. Everything means something. What message does it send out when the executive leadership team endorses a values statement that highlights ‘Integrity’ as a key organisational value, yet is seen to be mendacious and under-handed in its affairs? As I’ve suggested in a previous blog post about living values, congruence and alignment happens every single moment in every single day.
At Marcus Child’s recent presentation at the Auckland All TEC Day, he highlighted this phenomenon. Essentially, leader behaviours can be classified as formal or informal, conscious or unconscious. Formal, conscious behaviours include things that we would typically attribute to what a leader does: speeches, announcements, vision and mission statements and the like. Approximately 80-85% of a typical leader’s time and effort dedicated to communicating with their teams is spent doing this formal, conscious stuff.
In the informal, unconscious category of behaviour sits things like body language, facial expression, attitude, energy, style, emotional connection and the like. None of this would feature in a job description or KPI’s, but they are part of the whole person who is the leader. Perhaps because none of this is documented or part of a leader’s KPI’s, only about 5-7% of a typical leader’s time and effort in communicating with others goes towards these behaviours.
Guess which ones people notice? All of them. All the time. Like my dogs.
However, just like only some of what I do is actually paid attention to and understood by my dogs, only some of what a leader does (or doesn’t do) is understood and paid attention to by employees. Employees seem to pay only about 3-5% of their attention to the formal, conscious leader behaviours. Something like 85-90% of their attention goes to the informal, unconscious behaviours of their leaders. Notice the skew? More attention paid to the behaviours that leaders attend to less. Less attention paid to the behaviours that leaders attend to most.
My point, again, is that you are always on. People are noticing what you say and how you say it, what you do and how you do it, as well as what you don’t say or don’t do.
Because this stuff is unconscious, it is through an ongoing process of self-awareness raising that you become more conscious of your behaviours. The question for many people these days is not “Do I want to be a leader?” Because of the relationships you have in your organisation, or the expertise you have gained over the years, or the influence you exert or even your job title, the question is more likely to be, “What kind of leader do I want to be?” You are already a leader; pretending otherwise is folly. People are watching you. Constantly. And they are watching the stuff that you probably pay least attention to yourself. Whether you like it or nor, you are always on.