October 23, 2013
I’m often fascinated by how people, when they walk through the door of their workplaces, adopt behaviours akin to the symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome. Despite knowing in our hearts and in our guts that much of how workplaces operate is nonsensical and even anti-human, we maintain the charade that it’s the best way of doing things. As Alan Moore points out in No Straight Lines, industrial systems were not designed with human needs at their heart, yet we still organise workplaces along such lines. We go along with the deceit that doing things in a mechanistic, command-and-control way is the right way to do things.
A living system such as a family or a business operate with a number of norms which remain largely unspoken. Just as families have an idiolect, a set of values and beliefs and ways of doing things ‘properly’, so do organisations. These unwritten and unspoken rules maintain the status quo by ‘training’ people how to act and unless new information enters the system, it will continue to operate as it always has. Species adapt to their environment in order to be successful. The same is, of course, true for us. At work, we often adapt by adopting an alter-ego in order to be successful. When we take up employment in an organisation, we will eventually adhere to the ‘correct’ ways of doing things in order to survive there, even if they jar with our personal beliefs. That, or we will end up having to leave.
We are, in effect, hostages to the culture of our organisations and we very often exhibit the signs of Stockholm Syndrome. According to Dr. Joseph Carver, four conditions serve as the basis of Stockholm Syndrome:
- Perceived threat to survival and the belief that one’s captor is willing to act on that threat
- The captive’s perception of small kindnesses from the captor within a context of terror
- Isolation from perspectives other than those of the captor
- Perceived inability to escape.
In the context of the modern workplace, these four conditions might look like:
- Perceived threats: making waves and challenging the norms could damage your chances of promotion/a pay rise/job security or see you sidelined in the heady world of office politics
- Small kindnesses: ‘Positive feedback’ at your annual performance review/individual bonuses/promises of advancement
- Isolation from other perspectives: ‘Best practice’/This is how it’s done here/Defensiveness and justification/Exhaustive and overly prescriptive policies and procedures
- Perceived inability to escape: you have a hefty mortgage/kids/student debt and there aren’t many other well-paid jobs out there, are there?
It is worth mentioning the words of Robert Jackall: “What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you.” He lists the basic unwritten rules in the contemporary workplace as:
I know many are attempting to retool organisational life so that it is more respectful and inclusive but if the same old hierarchical structures and mentefacts remain in place, not much has changed very deeply. If Jackall is right, those five rules delineate the forces that act upon a system (workplace culture) to shape behaviour of those within it. Not so great for participatory leadership and fellowship in the workplace.
How can we go about generating new ways of ‘doing organisations’?
One way that I find especially valuable is Sociodrama. This cutting-edge human technology has inherent in it a systems approach to organisations which develops our capacities to see a bigger picture. It also provides the stage whereon we can develop capacities for purposeful collective action.
It’s vital, I believe, that we begin to see. We need to be able to see the ‘stuck state’ that many businesses and institutions are in. We need to see the hidden conflicts, competition to climb higher up the ladder, plays for personal power at the expense of others that are the fruits of hierarchical structures. We need to be able to see the casual incivility and interpersonal violence that comes from spending our days in anti-human systems that (no matter how it’s dressed up) treat humans as resources. We also need to see the strengths and opportunities that live within a system; it is from these that novel, creative and more effective ways of working will begin to emerge. Really important in all this is that we are not the only ones that see this and the effects that they have on ourselves and others; that we shift from “Me” to “We” and do it in community with others, otherwise we may be thought of as foolish or find ourselves isolated.
The practical method of Sociodrama allows people to collectively uncover what may have been previously unseen. It also creates the opportunity for people to have conversations about the unwritten and unspoken rules that keep them hostage, but which have not been previously named or discussed. It begins by weaving together a group feeling and establishing the focus of the group’s work. As the “Sociodramatic question” coalesces, the group will work in action together, with the assistance of a capable Director, to explore the many elements of the system which are related to this focussed question. Examples of Sociodramatic questions that have focussed some of the work I’ve done in businesses include:
- How can we work in a more collaborative, less silo-ed way?
- How can we grow a culture of ‘betterment’?
- How can we as “leaders” in this business, become more able to have the “difficult conversations” that need to be had?
I think the two key words in these questions are “How” and “We”. A shift in a set of behaviours or attitudes will come about meaningfully in a system when it’s done collectively. When the Sociodramatic question crystallises, it is as a result of the group’s work; they warm up to and engage themselves in the purpose of the workshop. What follows comes about because it is an act of will on the part of each individual.
In Sociodrama, as with all Morenian action methods, the group develops action-insight and begins to identify things which may have been hitherto unknown or unaddressed. Some of these insights are related to the dynamics between the various parts of the system. Some of them are related to the rules, spoken or unspoken, that influence how the system works. Some are connected to things that work well and others, to things that are not working so well. In effect, the group begins to behave like the boy who cried that the Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. The clarity of vision that comes from Sociodrama can assist us to free the hostages; this clarity is a first step, at least.
From here, the next phase is to work cooperatively to create something new which can alleviate or deflect some of the less desirable forces that influence the system. Typically, one person will struggle to effect change in a system. But collectively, members of a group can create structures and start inter-relating in ways that transform the system and to grow greater participative fellowship in the workplace. Sociodrama has as one of its aims, to warm us up to a state wherein we are able to intervene in our own social systems. The Sociodrama Director will approach the work not as an expert or guru with the “right” answers, but as the Auxiliary, there to help the group warm up to this state of spontaneous, co-responsible creativity.
Towards the end of the process, the group spends some time making sense of the Sociodrama, with a focus on the initial Sociodramatic question. As meaning-making beings, we humans need to make some sense of the experiences we have. An action method such as Sociodrama cannot help but change how we think about what works best. When a group experience such as Sociodrama brings up new insights and generates something innovative between us, we need to reflect and shape a collective understanding, as best we can. When our collective understanding of ‘how things work’ shifts and we have a collective understanding of ‘what works best’, we can commit to changing how the work works. From Sociodrama, we can derive deep learning and transformation. As Lao Tzu is quoted: ”If you tell me, I will listen. If you show me, I will see. If you let me experience, I will learn.”
My experience is that Sociodrama generates greater freedom to counter the effects of our personal Stockholm Syndromes and to do this in community with others. Ultimately, why shouldn’t work work for everyone? Everyone.
R. Weiner, D. Adderley, K. Kirk (eds.) Sociodrama in a Changing World. (2011), Lulu.com
J.L. Moreno. Who Shall Survive? (1953), ASGPP, McLean, Virginia
P. Sternberg, A. Garcia. Sociodrama: Who’s in Your Shoes (2000), Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT.
I have been interested in the furore that has followed Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banning workers from working from home. I’ve also read that Hubert Joly, the new chief at struggling retailer Best Buy has also just scrapped their Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) for their corporate employees. Corporate staff who, until now, have been allowed to telecommute, as long as they got their results, will now be required to work at the corporate headquarters, though some managers will still have discretion to accommodate some workers. Joly’s intention is to shift the culture to one of greater accountability. A Best Buy spokesman said, “It makes sense to consider not just what the results are but how the work gets done.”
Think about it for a minute.
Like many, the initial assumption I leapt to was that here were those awful authoritarians: new in the job, trying to make their mark, trying desperately to cling to hierarchical power and going about it rather clumsily. Isn’t the modern thing to show respect to workers and give them autonomy? As long as they achieve their outputs, we don’t have to regulate their movements, right? On further reflection and having read about the possible motivation behind the Yahoo ban, I can see it might make some sense. What if, say, she was looking at Yahoo as a systems thinker and taking action on the system? What if, say, she wasn’t trying to do the old-fashioned thing of managing the people? I enjoyed the sub-heading of an article in the Guardian about Mayer’s decision: “Marissa Mayer shows she knows little about managing people with this offensive memo to Yahoo employees.” Perhaps. Perhaps she actually knows a lot about managing people and knows that it’s a waste of time. Perhaps she knows that in order to get greater effectiveness in an organisation, you actually don’t spend your energies on managing the people, but you work on the system. Maybe, as another Guardian article sets out, she is focussing on what matters for Yahoo at this moment in time and space.
Think about it.
HR consultants and originators of ROWE Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson wrote in an open letter to Mayer, “We don’t think you deliberately meant to send a message to Yahoo employees that you are an Industrial Age dictator that prefers to be a baby sitter versus a 21st century CEO that can lead a company into the future. Or did you?” Good question. Again, let’s suspend judgement and consider the shift in policy. Could be that Mayer is one of those Industrial Age clock-watchers. Might be that she is looking to make a change to Yahoo’s ecosystem in order to get more creativity and innovation going.
I don’t have any special insights into what Mayer was thinking, but I watch what she is doing and am reminded that in a world still dominated by the command-and-control, someone who is acting like a systems thinker might sometimes look as if they are doing the old thing. That is because we haven’t enough “systems thinking stuff” going on to know what that actually looks like. How, for example, would we know if a manager’s tantrum comes out control-freakery or quality-freakery? Looks like the same tantrum, might use some of the same shouty words, but might actually come from a “we are doing crap work” mindset, not a “you are an idiot and I need to whip you into place” mindset. I’m also not suggesting that Mayer is some kind of enlightened goddess; she is as flawed as the rest of us and perhaps her way of going about the shift in working practices was a little graceless. I only want to say, let’s suspend our judgements until we examine a little more closely what might be behind her bold move, and observe if the shift in policy does, indeed, generate greater innovation and collaboration at Yahoo.
Interestingly, in a recent interview, Zappos’ Tony Hsieh said:
“Research has shown that companies with strong cultures outperform those without in the long-term financially. So we’re big, big believers in building strong company cultures. And I think that’s hard to do remotely.
We don’t really telecommute at Zappos. We want employees to be interacting with each other, building those personal relationships and relationships outside of work as well.
What we found is when they have those personal connections that productivity increases because there’s higher levels of trust. Employees are willing to do favours for each others because they’re not just co-workers, but also friends, and communication is better. So we’re big believers in in-person interactions.”
So am I. I know from experience that I get a real buzz from real-life interactions and that in most cases, I find a lost mojo when I’m doing my thing in the room with someone who’s available to me and we are giving each other our attention.
One of the things to be mindful of is that a one-size-fits-all approach is not the way to go. Just because whatever it is that works for Zappo’s and Google is good for them, it doesn’t mean that other businesses should necessarily follow suit. A good systems thinker will become intimately familiar with their system and do what works for that system. One of the exceptions that Guardian writer takes is that having to work in the office is inconvenient. She describes how she manages her time and gets her articles written. All good, I say. Once again, it’s important to look at the details of what is happening. In the case of a solo journalist, perhaps it would seem madness to compel her to sit at a desk in an office when she could produce quality journalism sitting at home. If the job was to co-write an article, however, I wonder if being side-by-side with the co-writer might produce even better quality work than each one working remotely, emailing the work back and forth. Just an idea. The point is that we need to know what the work is…..and to consider how best to get it done.
Think about it….
Google’s workplaces are famously enviable, but I would suggest that it’s the smart thing to do to focus on the purpose, not simply on making a “fun place to work”. How did Google’s offices happen? Someone designs them. Someone engineers the physical spaces and what is in them. To make it a fun place to work? Well, yes and no. I would suggest that that someone did not simply design something that is “fun” for fun’s sake. That kind of workplace is often mocked in the popular press or programmes like The Simpsons as funky and cool, but there is a hint of “…but they probably don’t do much work there”. I would suggest that some good thought has been given over to the design of the system at Google: the working processes as well as the community that will carry them out. What does a business like Google require? Creativity and innovation. “The philosophy is very simple,” Craig Nevill-Manning, Google’s Manhattan engineering director said. “Google’s success depends on innovation and collaboration. Everything we did was geared toward making it easy to talk.” In order to get this, what would be the optimal way of engineering these things? Draw on nature, be conscious that systems are self-organising and thrive on variety, and that, at the same time, they can be nurtured. The ecosystem within which such fruits could flourish can be designed. Google started with a philosophy. They have a purpose and a way of thinking as to how to make that purpose come to life. They are enviable because they have been designed with the work in mind, not on fun; I believe the “fun” is, in one sense, a by-product. In any case, as Teresa Amabile, a business administration professor at Harvard Business School says, “I’ve found that people do their most creative work when they’re motivated by the work itself.”
According to John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University, studies show that people who work at home are significantly more productive but less innovative. He says “If you want innovation, then you need interaction,” he said. “If you want productivity, then you want people working from home.” That, to me, seems slightly simplistic, but I get the point. Also, Tony Hsieh seems to find that productivity and working together in a shared workspace are linked, so there you go. In any case, you don’t simply institute a ROWE because it’s what people want and seems to be one of those lovely perks that makes people happy. You do something like that if it helps to create the ecosystem that best nurtures the work. You craft a system that is best designed to meet the purpose of the business.
All of this speaks to me because at the heart of the work I do is sociometry. The term was coined by Dr. J.L. Moreno and its basic tenet is that “the quality of an outcome is directly related to the quality of relationship between the people trying to achieve that outcome.” The sociometry, or quality of relationships, within a business, affects the system and the system affects the sociometry. It’s a reflexive relationship. Sociometry and systems thinking are intertwined. I encourage managers to see their role as supportive of those they purport to manage, rather than as controllers. I encourage them to see their role as ensuring people have the resources, information and relationships they need to get on with their work. That last bit sometimes challenges managers because as John Seddon describes, we train managers (if at all) to be good people managers. When I say “ensure people have the relationships they require”, I don’t intend they manage people or try to keep them happy. Odd, huh? I intend the kind of picture that Google have: to engineer and nurture a system which facilitates people interacting with each other. In an older article, I suggested that a good leader is a good sociometrist. Yes, leaders (people) need to develop their relationship capabilities. They also need to develop the bigger picture abilities that facilitate productive and purposeful working relationships to flourish all over the place.
Some have misinterpreted sociometry as “developing skills to get on better with people so I can get them to do what I want them to.” No. Sociometry is an active exploration of the inter-relationships that exist and an uncovering of what is not seen between people, so that they can, together, create new patterns of behaviour with each other. The result is that people work better together. I believe that working on the sociometry is part of working on the system. One of the insights that came to a client of ours recently, as a result of our work with their sociometry, was that they need to redesign their physical space so that they get more of the interactions that lead to the kind of innovation that sits at the heart of their business. In their commitments to action, I see a mirror of the kind of community that Google have created.
In the modern economy, where much of the work that we do is knowledge based, relationships and networks are core. Google’s approach is to engineer serendipity. I enjoy oxymorons. Like spontaneity training. How can you possibly engineer happy accidents? Well, we can’t make happy accidents happen, but we can nurture the ecosystem within which they are more likely to happen.
Attending to the interpersonal also cannot be underestimated. Part of this is examining how people relate to each other and what “elephants” might sit in the room between them. Dealing with these “elephants” is at the heart of sociometry. People learn about themselves and the dynamic of the groups to which they belong. They cooperatively learn how to grapple with the complexity and uncertainty of modern business life. This occurs when a skillful sociometry practitioner assists them to discover what is happening between them and work out new structures of relating.
If creativity and collaboration are core to the business, we can craft workplaces where people are drawn together and interact about the work they are doing. We can design spaces and ways of working where people are more likely to be stimulated to innovate together. Maz Iqbal, in a comment on a recent article of mine wrote, “The pragmatist changes the structure of the system so that the desired behaviour is called forth.” Yes. He also provided a link to the work of Jeppe Hein, an artist who has created some wacky park benches which he designed to encourage more exchange between users and passers-by, giving them a much more social quality. As well as engineering the physical environment, we can also “engineer” the interpersonal by attending to the sociometry. Both of these are conscious systems interventions, both add value and set a business towards achieving its purpose.
February 10, 2013
Know how you have an experience and some song lyrics pop into your head that seem to have been written especially for it? ”Expert textpert, choking smoker, don’t you think the joker laughs at you?” Parallel process. Happens to me all the time when I’m working. I suddenly notice that what the client is doing, what they act out, is exactly what I’m being drawn into and I respond out of a parallel mindset. I might have thought of “..caught in a trap…I can’t walk out…” but I’m not an Elvis fan. And I’m working with a business that is stuck because of a highly dependent culture. The creativity of the people is not being unleashed as it could be. And how do they relate to me? As the expert: dependent for the “expert advice”. And what do I do? Show off some daft diagram like some kind of expert.
I’ve been stuck on the phenomenon of inertia lately (no pun intended). Fascinated as I am by physics, I have been noticing this phenomenon in the area of how people operate both individually and in teams. Not wanting to teach anyone to suck eggs, inertia states simply that any object that is stationary will remain so unless acted upon by another force and any object that is in motion will remain so unless acted upon by another force. What I see in many situations is people and organisations bound by inertia. Without wanting to place a value judgement on inertia per se, in many of these cases, there is a “stuckness” which is unsatisfying for the person or business concerned and something new is needed to get them out of their rut.
In our work, we apply the concept of a “conserve”. Jakob Moreno set out a cycle of spontaneity, creativity and cultural conserve. Spontaneity sparks creativity which leads to the creation of a conserve. Conserves abound in our world. Handel’s Messiah. The Mona Lisa. Gangnam Style. Bugs Bunny. Antiseptic. The internet. Artefacts and menefacts that come about as a result of a creative act, spurred on by the spontaneity state that arises in us when we warm up to it. This new thing becomes the conserve off of which the next creative act springboards into life, so, for example, Web 1.0 was the jumping-off place for Web 2.0, the iPhone 3 begat 3GS which begat 4 which begat the 5. As long as the conserve is viewed as the starting place for the next thing, it’s all good, but if the conserve becomes too conserved, it can become a rut. Artefacts and mentefacts. Mindsets are just as much a conserve as any creative act.
As I’ve written earlier, I’m on a health kick this year. Moreno believed that one key to health was creativity. When I think about how living systems tend towards entropy, this makes sense to me. If organisations are to counteract the “heat-death of the universe” (thanks to @thinkingpurpose for that expression), they need to add more stuff into the system. Businesses, like each of us individually, can get stuck in ruts, subject to inertia. If we don’t inject something new into our systems, we carry on as we have been. Creativity is a superb way to bring in new stuff. The Morenian method sets out to challenge people to be more creative by developing greater spontaneity, which is the spark that sets creativity alight. Furthermore, the method calls on people to work together to develop new role responses to life’s challenges, rather than remain in isolation and continue to operate out of a limited repertoire of responses.
I mentioned four synchronous conversations with four different clients in a recent article. Synchronous because all four identified some things that they are sick and tired of and ready to shift. One of these things they are trying to grow is a greater sense of WE and, hand in hand with that is a move away from their cultures of dependency. The two are inextricably linked for these four businesses. If we get greater WE and we act out of mutuality and interdependency, rather than silos and dependency, we can unleash something new and mitigate for the inexorable slide towards extinction and ultimate disorder. We need both: WE-ness and mutuality.
What’s wrong with a culture of dependency? From the perspective of those who lead these businesses, this is manifest by the guys at the top saying to me, “If I didn’t look over their shoulder/do it/nag, it wouldn’t get done.” They don’t like this. They relate to me their concern that people aren’t bringing all of their creativity to work. For these businesses, a culture of dependency means that people don’t take initiative. It means that the managers have to cajole, berate or get grumpy. It means that people take up little responsibility, let alone accountability, for in their cultures of dependency, accountability lies with the bosses. In other words, they are left with a mentefact of Industrial Age organisation. “The boss has the answers, the boss knows best, if something went wrong, it wasn’t my fault, it was the boss’s fault .” Blaming and excuse-making reigns in a dependency culture. ”You didn’t get me the right tools.” ”You didn’t tell me the right way to do it.” ”If you’d given me the afternoon off yesterday, I wouldn’t be so tired today.”
To head towards the responsibility-taking, initiative-taking culture of WE, something needs to work on their inertia which keeps them in cultures of dependency. Looking at structure and relationships would help. I’m pondering next steps with one client who, when I simply showed this diagram:
…took up a defensive position, seeming to lecture me on how important structure was, otherwise there would be disorder (failing to see that both pictures illustrate a structure, just that the one on the right was weird and alien). With regards this particular organisation, one thought that popped into mind was, “..and disorder would be a BAD thing??” The second thought that popped into mind was, “…and explain to me how you would class the way things run around here as ‘order’”. When I stopped thinking facetious thoughts, I took a step back and noticed that the response was exactly what the hierarchical system in which they exist would expect them to say. I had a little flash to that awful, car crash of a reality programme, “The Hotel Inspector”. Some poor unfortunate hotelier, whose business is going down the gurgler, calls in an expert, someone who has years of top hotel experience, to help them turn their business around. The expert comes in, berates the unfortunate for doing it all wrong, gives them advice on what they need to do instead and goes away for a few weeks to see if they put it into practice. As I watch, I’m on the side of the expert, purely because for dramatic tension (presumably because TV producers can no longer afford to pay proper dramatic writers and actors for decent TV any more), they choose a hotelier who is utterly hopeless. For added tension, the besieged hotelier proceeds to argue with the expert. So I wonder, “Why on Earth did you ask for expert advice if you just wanted to rebut everything they said?? Why on Earth did you invite them in to your establishment if all you wanted to do was justify why you were right and they were wrong??”
See what I’m getting at? A business calls you in to be the “outside eye” and make some observations about their organisation and its culture and when you make an observation (an observation, mind, not advice), they are stuck in the mindset that defines their current culture (inertia again) to explain why anything outside their normal ken is just fantastical. There are ways and ways to introduce that “something new” into the system, however.
Now, I’ve made mention in previous articles that I write to help me digest and reflect on experiences I have in my work. My thinking is already a little clearer than it was when I started writing this one, and if even one reader is still with me, thank you immensely for bearing with my narcissistic reflections. The way forward with this client is to take a much more softly, softly approach. They are 2D creatures and can’t make sense of this 3D blob that’s appeared before them. There is a process of slowly uncovering what they don’t yet see about themselves. This follows on very nicely (I love synchronicity) from Dan Oestreich’s comments on my previous article: “Genuine learning implies… birthing new consciousness; looking and really seeing…and therein lies a problem….as raw conscious awareness can be painful.” And what do we human animals do when we are in pain? We fight, we flee or we freeze. The CEO who took such exception to my simple diagram (even though I’d indicated no preference, harboured no advice, pointed out no likeness) saw himself and his organisation in the mirror. And it hurt.
His response was a perfect response from someone at the head of a culture infused with dependency. Defer or defy. That’s what you do with an authority figure. Either defer utterly to authority or defend yourself from the authority’s complete idiocy. In this instance, I was the “authority” in his eyes. Someone from outside with some so-called expertise. Dependency: I’ll wait for the leader to tell me what to do, even though I’m a free-thinking, intelligent human animal who manages to run all other aspects of my life without referring to someone else for permission. OR If it goes pear-shaped, it’s because the leader didn’t tell me how to do it, didn’t tell me how to do it properly, didn’t tell me to stop doing what I was already doing.
So I am sitting with this phrase rolling around my head, “Sociatrist, heal thyself.” I care deeply about this particular organisation, they do some amazing, truly life-changing work in their world. I like the CEO immensely, I have known him for over 15 years. If I am to be of any assistance, I need to role reverse much better with him and the others in his senior team. I need to notice my response to his response and observe the parallel process at play. You know the old adages, “You teach best what you most need to learn,” “Your work is your work”, etc etc. In my first facetious thoughts, I am tuning into the dependency in the air and doing what those awful Hotel Inspectors do. If I really care about making a difference, I need to come alongside my client in a way which assists them to gently see themselves better and warms up THEIR spontaneity to a new creative act. If I didn’t care about this client, I could continue to bully them into seeing things they aren’t yet ready to see. I see a dependency culture. If I am to be with them as they shift it, I need to become more aware of myself and what my role is in that. Do I relate to them as some kind of expert? Maybe I did when I flashed that diagram. In their eyes, it might have looked like that. That’s not what a organisation caught in the inertia of dependency needs.
So, I am left to ponder my own warm up, how to I warm up my own spontaneity to my own creativity and meet them quite differently next time. Having said what I’ve said, I do believe that cultures of dependency in organisations are not healthy. I will continue my work with this client for as long as I can. But I need to be more cognisant of myself and how I approach them so I don’t trigger a dependency response in them. It is so easy to fall into the trap of being the expert, exacerbated by a business that is bound by its own inertia and can’t see another way yet.
…..and do you know what the team asked me at the end of this session? ”So, are there some things about us you need to tell us?” Not going to fall into that. I want to companion them, to assist them to observe themselves and not to do the dependent thing. They are highly talented and creative individuals. With a little nudging, they can shift to a place where they make observations of themselves. So easy to give in to the invitation to be “the expert”. It’s not what the world needs now.
February 3, 2013
Why would the whole of the Universe be a complex, self-organising and interdependent system, and a business be a top-down, controlled machine? Why would the entire Universe be subject to the laws of Nature, and business, not? It’s almost as some businesses they think they exist in some bubble, where the laws of nature are turned away by some bouncer: “You can’t come in here with that gravity. Second Law of Thermodynamics? Not in here, sunny Jim.”
My favourite programmes on telly are the ones about the universe and how it came to be. One I was watching recently had a theme of complexity and order: how order arose out of the chaos of the Big Bang and formed some of the most beautiful sights in our solar system, such as Saturn’s rings. The narrator kept describing the wonders of the solar system as complex and marvelled at how it organised itself over many billions of years, subject to the forces of nature. As I watched, I was making connections to life here on Earth. The point he made in the final minutes of the programme was that we are part of the same complex and wonderful solar system and subject to its same laws. I made the link to organisations, to one client in particular and to one particular phenomenon of systems (you can’t tell a systems thinker to stop being a systems thinker in their free time, sorry). I had a moment of thinking how many who “run” businesses think they are immune from laws of nature, or certainly behave like they do, acting out of old myths like some kind of Flat-Earther.
Complexity, ambiguity, dynamic change and uncertainty are not the new normal; they have been around since the Big Bang. They are part of the fabric of the universe. We have just been (unconsciously) shielding ourselves from the forces of nature by pretending we weren’t a part of it. From the days of lords and serfs to the time we set out on the “scientific management” path, we have applied top-down control mechanisms on people to get them to work, like so many bits of a wind-up clock. Many are finally acknowledging that complexity, ambiguity and so on are part of the fabric of organisational life. Accordingly, we must adjust our ways of doing business to take account of these phenomena of Nature.
Just as, 1000 years ago, we “KNEW” that the Sun went around the Earth, just as we “KNEW” the Earth was flat, just as we “KNEW” that trepanation was a good cure for headaches , many organisations seem to “KNOW” that top-down command-and-control mechanistic structures, with a select few pulling the levers, are the best ways to run things. I believe that if we don’t “unknow” some of the nonsense we still unconsciously adhere to, the forces of Nature will present us with some unpleasant surprises. Even if we continue to “KNOW” that our business is a machine, it does not make it any less true that it is a living system, and thus subject to the laws of living systems.
A client who I described in a previous article was reflecting on 2012 recently and observed that they had made some progress in their business over the year. By progress, he meant that
- people were beginning to take up more responsibility and initiative without having to wait for the boss to tell them what to do
- there was more discussion amongst the staff as to how to manage some of the day-to-day challenges they meet and less referring to the boss for the “answer”
- mistakes were being used as entry points to examining business processes and working out how they could be improved
- they had a clearer idea of their collective purpose and how important relationship is to achieving that purpose
- the leaders were devoting more of their time to ensuring the conditions and structures of the business were optimised so that people could get on with their jobs (and less time micro-managing operational tasks).
Thrilling stuff. He also reflected on how shifting the focus away from “behavioural problems” as isolated events and onto the business as a whole living system seemed to have injected some new life (his words, not mine) into the business: that they were actually going somewhere. Here was an example of the practical benefits of applying systems thinking to overcoming business “stuckness”. They started the year stagnating, with things getting worse, they injected some new learning into the system, they are now moving to another level of effectiveness.
Here’s the link to that TV programme and this client’s business: entropy. As a living system, my client’s business is subject to the same laws that pertain to the rest of the universe. One of these is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a corollary of which is entropy. Entropy, crudely speaking, is the tendency towards death. Social entropy, which applies to organisations, is a ”measure of the natural decay of the structure or of the disappearance of distinctions within a social system.” (Krippendorff) As the whole of the universe tends towards randomness, or death, so do all the elements within it. This is not to take a fatalistic approach and say “Why bother doing anything, then?” There are forces that also act to retard entropy. Like with other living systems, some energy needs to go into the pot in order to counteract it. My cup of hot tea will naturally cool down as heat is transferred away from it, but I can re-heat it by applying energy in the from of a microwave oven.
What does entropy look like in the business world?
How do we counteract entropy?
If a business is succumbing to natural entropy and feels like it’s losing track or going nowhere, how can we reheat it? Let’s look to Nature. How do other living systems in Nature counteract entropy? They bring in more stuff. Living systems find loopholes to counteract entropy. In the context of the natural world, this shows itself as adaptation. In the context of business, this means learning. Closed systems that spend their energy simply on maintaining themselves in survival mode eventually spend themselves out. If a business is spending too much of its time on hunting for food, and not enough on learning new ways to hunt for food, it will succumb to entropy. Vibrant and open living systems naturally tend to greater complexity, experiment often, are driven to what is possible and seek new opportunities which destabilise them until they restablise in a renewed way. They look for more stuff to put into the system to renew it.
“Systems thinking is a response to the failure of mechanistic thinking in the attempt to explain social and biological phenomena.” Lars Skyttner
Purpose, not anatomy
If something is not working, look at the bigger picture: purpose, relationships and interconnectedness of the elements. Because entropy (a phenomenon of living systems) is affecting the business, taking a systems thinking approach will be the path to finding its counter-measures. Merely looking at the anatomy of a business is not going to help us solve 21st century problems. As Skytnner writes, the emergence of a holistic approach came about in an effort to provide us “an outlook to see better, a network to understand better and a platform to act better.” This is something that is dear to my heart. Systems thinking gives us a real-life, practical way to actually craft the way we do things better and more effectively, not simply some intellectual exercise that sounds lovely.
Systems thinking is not a prescription or method, it’s more of a perspective or way of approaching problems. Systems thinking can help us to look for patterns within businesses, to see fundamental structures and their impact on the elements (the people, the departments, the sub-groups) within the business as well as on the relationships between those elements.
When living systems, such as a business, get to a certain point, they begin to entropy. Unless something new is added to the system, it will tend towards death. If we continue to apply the same-old, same-old solutions to address this problem, we are not bringing anything new into the system. ”Something new” requires learning. Learn what is working well. Learn what is not working well. Learn where the connections are within the business. Learn where the disconnects are. Learn from the customer.
A business will not have sustainable life unless it is infused with energy from outside itself. For a business to operate as a closed system, starving itself of innovation and creativity of its own people or ignorant of its customers and environment, entropy takes over. It will tend towards death. A “she’ll be right”, “it’ll sort itself out” attitude will lead to greater mess, greater randomness, and without new energy in the system to help deal with the mess, it will die away. Things do not sort themselves out. If I don’t maintain my house, it’ll eventually crumble over time. This is a real example of how the Second Law of Thermodynamics affects us. A hot cup of coffee will tend, over time, to lose heat. A living system starved of nourishment will eventually cease to exist. A business led by managers who see their role as nothing more than “competent supervision” will tend towards disintegration and eventually have a “Kodak moment” (not the picturesque kind). To be successful, a business must adapt to its ever-changing environment and to its own ever-changing internal dynamics that emerge out of the interactions between all the elements within in. A successful business must gain nourishment from outside its steady state: from innovation and creativity, from market information, from ongoing learning. When a business applies systems thinking, it can find new ways to renew itself.
Businesses that will do well in this networked age will overcome the natural phenomenon of entropy by becoming open to what could be and taking steps to do something different. They will learn to think bigger. They will see learning and renewal of their business processes as part of their new culture of continuous improvement. They will see the business as a living system and not a machine. They will see mistakes as opportunities for learning and renewal, rather than through the old lens as a “disciplinary issue”.
When Harold Jarche says work is learning and learning is the work, I think he’s suggesting that for a business to thrive, it must place learning at the heart of everything it does. Purposeful learning. Learning that is not “training” as we have visioned it up till now. Any training that is disconnected from the people is not sufficient. Learning that is not about the work is not sufficient. Real 21st century learning must change how we think, behave and interact with each other, as well as what we know. It must be relevant to purpose, activity and relationships. Not just one of those: all three. A business, which is a living system, requires relevant learning in order to subvert that thing which happens to all living systems: entropy.
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 28, 2012
Part II (Thinking Bigger)
I reckon that we cannot truly appreciate Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte” by examining the individual dots he used to compose this masterpiece. It is not the sum of all its dots; it is the poetic relationships between them all that bring the scene to life.
In Part I of this article, I referred to worldviews: the beliefs and assumptions that shape us and our world. We can consider a worldview, or paradigm, to be a kind of intellectual bubble within which we live. When I said that systems thinking as a worldview is entirely different from analytical thinking, I did that for a reason. Any new paradigm, or worldview, will include and transcend some elements of the old. Some of the what was inside the old bubble will also sit within the new one, but there is still an essential “un-same-ness” between the old bubble and the new bubble. If we are systems thinkers, we don’t lose the ability (or valuing of) analytical thinking; we are, however, extending ourselves in our abilities to apply both when applicable. There may be something of a butterfly’s “essential being” that existed when it was a caterpillar, but I think we’d all agree that “caterpillar” and “butterfly” are two entirely different things. ”Butterfly” is not merely “Caterpillar 2.0″; it is “butterfly”, incorporating some elements of, and transcending “caterpillar”, if you like.
With enough pressure of new knowledge, research, evidence and lived experience, our old paradigms reach the limits of usefulness and we are pushed to transcend our ways of thinking and being. So while analytical thinking and systems thinking are entirely different worldviews, there are, of course, elements of analytical thinking that we can see in the systems thinking bubble. In an effort to emphasise the point that systems thinking is not just a jazzier version of analytical thinking, I may have been a little simplistic in saying they are entirely different animals, but that’s the curious thing about mindsets. To my mind, it’s not about choosing which one we prefer, it’s about evolution. We are here to continually extend ourselves and once we “get” how everything in the cosmos is inextricably linked, we cannot unknow that. When we really feel that in every cell of our beings, our worlds irretrievably change. It’s like Neo in “The Matrix”; he realised he was “The One” once he saw what those green squiggles running down the computer screen meant, he couldn’t go on pretending that it was just a bunch of nonsensical squiggles. They were still squiggles; that hadn’t changed…..but their meaning had changed. After his set of beliefs had changed, he had transformed.
So systems thinking, for those who haven’t had their “Neo moment” yet, may look and sound like analytical thinking 2.0 (but it’s not, I tell you!). For those who have had their “Neo moment”, it’s a way of seeing the world that includes and transcends analytical thinking to take us to a more sophisticated kind of thinking, because linear, analytical thinking is not sophisticated enough to help us to deal with the challenges that face us in the 21st century. It’s time to stop looking at the world and our workplaces from an old mindset.
So why does this matter?
My own view is that growing our ability to be systems thinkers is an imperative: for individuals, for businesses and organisations, for humanity. It is a question of whether we will survive and thrive or atrophy and die away. It might be tempting, while we languish in our prison of “analytic thinking”, to remodel the prison in an effort to make it more comfortable, but it will still be a prison. Our world is in crisis and our workplaces are in crisis and we urgently need to think bigger about how we address these crises because our old ways of looking at things have reached their useful limits.
Simply put, looking at something from an analytical viewpoint, we take it apart in order to understand it (the parts are primary, the whole is secondary). However, when we take an interconnected system apart, it loses its fundamental properties. I like a description Russell Ackoff has used: a car’s essential property is to get us from A to B. We won’t be able to understand how it does that by taking it apart. A car is not the sum of its parts; it is the product of the interactions of the parts. Systems thinking, as Peter Senge writes, “is a discipline for seeing wholes….a framework for seeing inter-relationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots’”. For me, systems thinking is fundamentally about thinking and behaving as if everything in the cosmos is connected to everything else. Applying this to businesses, we can best understand them and surmount our stucknesses if we look at how all the elements interact, not by looking at the individual bits and pieces in isolation. Out of this central belief flow a number of other beliefs and assumptions which make up my worldview about work:
- There are no one-offs; there are patterns of things. If I don’t see a pattern, it just means I haven’t found it yet.
- Because everything is connected to everything else, our workplaces are complex systems, not linear machines. This means that cause-and-effect (linear, analytical thinking) is more useful as a backward-looking descriptor of what happened, than as a forward-looking predictor of what might happen.
- The system is more influential on performance/success/outcomes than individuals.
- Networks, relationships and devolved power are more effective at achieving a business’s purpose than mechanistic command-and-control hierarchies.
- Working on “symptoms” or problems is unlikely to address underlying, systemic origins of the problems.
All of these guide how I approach my work. Rather than take out my microscope and zoom in on a “part of a business”, I look at the whole thing and examine it holistically. In a lot of conversations I have with business leaders, I hear about business “problems”. You know the old saying, “We cannot solve problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.” Well, it’s not just a cool-sounding thing that Einstein is supposed to have said; it’s a fundamental shift in how we look at business issues and how to find solutions for the challenges businesses face. In quite a lot of what I read on the internet, I see old (analytical) thinking being dressed up as something new and improved, but all the new-and-improved-ness won’t make any difference if the old mental model remains the same. For example, I see people offering up the latest tips and tricks on how to “hire better” and failing to see “hiring” as part of a wider system of peoplecapabilitytalentengagement. It all sounds just lovely, but it’s just a re-wording of what’s already been said and it reduces “hiring” as if it can be isolated from the rest of what is going on in the business. Yet, managers still behave like this. Mao’s fiasco with the sparrows is still being replicated in businesses all over the place. It matters because applying an analytical mindset to concerns which are essentially systemic is like dealing with the liver failure of an obese alcoholic by simply transplanting a new liver into his body and not addressing the wider lifestyle concerns that caused the liver to fail in the first place.
How does systems thinking work?
It’s about working with things as integral wholes. It’s about thinking bigger. Water is inherently wet. We cannot understand water’s wetness by breaking it down into its component parts; oxygen and hydrogen. Neither of those elements has an inherent quality of “wetness”. Similarly, with businesses, we cannot get a truly comprehensive understanding of them simply by breaking them down into their component parts. Everything is connected to everything else and we are limited in our abilities to manage them effectively if we isolate “problem parts”. Making a holistic assessment of the system will give us a bigger picture view that highlights strengths, inter-relationships, tensions, the forces at work (both from within and without the system) and areas of hope (where intervention can be applied).
In my experience of applying systems thinking and making interventions in a whole, integrated system, we make work work from an entirely different viewpoint, not by “fixing” individual issues but by exploring symptoms and phenomena of a whole living entity. The issue of engagement, for example, cannot be properly addressed, in my view, by breaking it down into “hiring and recruitment”, “retention”, “remuneration”, “performance management” and looking at these parts individually. Gamification, for instance, is not an antidote to falling engagement to my mind; it’s like putting a band-aid on a lesion in the hope that the cancer will be cured.
Engagement is part of a system which is a synthesis of how a business hires, how it views human motivation, how it shares knowledge, how it encourages cooperation, how it facilitates learning and development…..everything connected to everything else. When taking a systems thinking approach, the interventions are often surprising, seemingly counter-intuitive and not linear or cause-and-effect.
Systems thinking requires us to be more comfortable with interconnectedness, uncertainty, emergence and dynamism. We need to set ourselves free of the expectations of predictability, cause-and-effect and certainty. I read a slightly tongue-in-cheek definition of systems thinking on Twitter which pretty much sums it up: “resources by which it is possible to become less completely clueless about stuff rather than deludedly certain”. Paradoxically, it will allow us to know more about what is going on, but we may be less certain about it.
Acting as if the business is a whole means we will radically revise how the business does business.
The idea that we can tackle business problems by breaking them down permeates all aspects of the workplace. A more humane, integrated and organic worldview is at our disposal. In the arena of peoplecapabilitytalentengagement, for instance, we can see how it influences what we do. We isolate bits and try to fix them. Here is just one example:
How do we hire people? Hire for competencies? Hire because they look nice? Hire because they interviewed well? Hire because they come out great on all those psychofiddle-faddle tests? For a kick off, examining your hiring practices might be a red herring anyway, because it’s only part of a wider system of “people, capability, talent”. Why focus on “hiring” when Deming’s 95% rule says that the system is where we should place our attention. Think bigger about peoplecapabilitytalentengagement: do you need to see CVs?…do you interview (and how do you do this?)….do you carry out an orientation (or is it more like an initiation?)….how do people grow and learn?…..what is your “exit interview” process like?…why do people stay? There might be things that go on when people are hired to make sure they fit into the culture, but if the culture is sick, in some senses it doesn’t matter who you hire. They’ll eventually get shoe-horned into your sick culture whether they are good or bad (and if they don’t fit in, it says more about your system than the “bad” hire!). The system will affect their ability to work well. What I’m saying is that if there is a pattern of people not performing well, why put hiring practices under the microscope? Think bigger and look at the whole.
If you notice that retention is low, this is just a pattern that points to something bigger and more hidden. To my mind, psychometric quizzes are just another “band-aid on cancer”. If we leap to the conclusion that we are making hiring mistakes, we may not have asked the right questions about performance…or learning….or meaningful work….or….. Hire anyone. Hire people you think are wrong. You might even take Bob Marshall‘s advice, which I quite like, and try hiring without relying on a traditional CV as your safety blanket (the #noCV alternative). I tend to go along with Bob when he says that “job interviews suck”. How you hire doesn’t really matter until and unless you discover that the bigger questions you are asking about the whole of the business are the right ones. In a nutshell, is “How do we hire people?” the right question?
We need to get ourselves unstuck from disabling thought patterns that stifle creativity and re-learn more expansive patterns of thinking. Systems thinking is a fundamental change to business orthodoxy. The assumptions we hold about the business of business mostly orient us to measure things that don’t matter and attack problems that are only really indicators of a systemic pattern. We try to find answers for questions that are often irrelevant. Time to think bigger.
…more to come in Part III.
October 16, 2012
As a sociatrist, I’m passionate about people in business developing greater ability to stand in each others’ shoes. It’s one of the cornerstones of the work we do at Quantum Shift and is central to nurturing greater health in organisations. This is often given the name “empathy”. I bristle a little, however, when I hear someone say, “I can have empathy for them, but…..” What’s that expression? Everything before the “but” is bulls**t. I go along with Professor Simon Baron Cohen’s idea that empathy sits along a spectrum. I also go along with Martin Buber’s suggestion that the point on the spectrum at which we start treating people as objects is when we are capable of cruelty. At the same time, I would extend this to say that we can go beyond empathy and develop the ability to role reverse with others. There is an embodied knowing that comes via the act of role reversal, beyond mere thought and cognitive understanding, which facilitates a deeper ability to live in someone else’s skin. Getting this at a head, heart and gut level changes our world beyond what we thought possible. It becomes harder to switch off our empathy and behave as if people are mere resources when we have a full experience of what it’s like for them. Personally, I also find that I am more able to stop myself mid-sentence when I hear myself saying, “I understand where they’re coming from, but….” and upon reflection, widen my perspective on the other person a little more. Role reversal helps to unshackle us from the (mostly unconscious) chains we keep ourselves in, with regards our views of other people.
In some circles, it is increasingly accepted that empathy is a key capability of a leader. Even in the face of research, some still ignore this. However, there is a growing tide of evidence that empathy is a core skill for the modern workplace. Empathic ability is positively correlated to better performance as a leader. It facilitates much improved working relationships and in the modern workplace, we often don’t get to choose who we work with. An increasingly diverse workforce creates challenges for us and in order for us to get things done, we need to learn how to get on with a greater variety of working styles, viewpoints and personalities. Getting a deep, felt sense of what it’s like for someone else grants us greater ability to make decisions, be inclusive, resolve conflicts and share responsibility.
I was deeply touched to read of a young man, conservative, self-confessed homophobe and Christian, who decided to live his life for one year as a gay man. He was moved by a Christian friend’s experience of being kicked out of home when she came out as a lesbian and decided that he really wanted to understand what it was like to be gay. This was no mere thought experiment; he was determined to truly walk in the shoes of a homosexual man. By immersing himself in the experience, which included coming out to his family, he developed a profound understanding of what it was like to actually be a gay man. He came out of the year with his faith reaffirmed, along with the belief that gay people need equal rights. I would attribute his insights to the fact that for one year of his life, he gave up his position and fully took up the role of another.
“The challenge of understanding another person and what it takes to truly feel understood by another is at the hub of human social existence”, according to Dr. Dani Yaniv at the University of Haifa, in his 2012 paper, “Dynamics of Creativity and Empathy in Role Reversal: Contributions from Neuroscience.” We are utterly and inextricably linked to all human life. That goes for business, too. Yet how easy it is to dispense with another’s viewpoint if it doesn’t match ours or disregard another’s experience if it’s too far from our ken or to dispose of someone’s creative contributions if they come from a value or belief system we think is irrelevant. I will put my hand up and say I am guilty of these things at times; there are moments when I wish I could have shown more equanimity, generosity of spirit and caring. I’m flawed; there, I’ve said it. Send me back to the factory to be re-programmed.
While it is an interesting paradox that we can never really know what someone else is experiencing, we can develop the ability to role reverse, thus allowing our knowing of others to deepen and unfold. We generate in ourselves a creative empathy that brings new ways of being with people. When we role reverse, we are wholly someone else just for a moment and left to learn from what we discover. Having had a mind-body experience of another’s world, our lives and the lives of others are changed forever, sometimes subtly or, in the case of that young Christian man, quite dramatically. Like that young man, our view of others is expanded, with our own selves intact. We are able to transcend ourselves through the act of role reversal.
Role reversal leads us outside our own experience and world view and into those of another. We cannot unlearn what we have learnt when it’s a visceral, whole person experience. We can, if we really apply ourselves, pretend not to know what it’s like from another’s point of view, but having truly given ourselves to the experience of another’s existence, this would require in us to take up a role of particularly selfish and uncaring dimension. What would be the use of that?
When it comes to empathy, it’s often easier to find it for people with whom we share some values or beliefs. As I referred to in my interview with Dan Oestreich, role reversal takes us beyond empathy, however. When we really get stuck with someone, when they “push our buttons”, it can be hard to find a way to understand that person. Their behaviours and attitudes mystify us and, left unaddressed, we can begin to characterise them by what we see as their faults. We do ourselves and others a disservice when we reduce someone to a bunch of “bad” behaviours. Doing this leaves the salesperson or customer service rep, for example, in a poorer position when they are not able to understand another person’s circumstances accurately. When we see another person’s behaviours as coming from a real and value-based place, we become freer to meet their concerns.
A manager we once worked with in the course of a leader development process described an employee she referred to as a “bad egg”. This manager, I’ll call her Stacey, had the wherewithal to know that this employee, whom I’ll call Emily, was not an intrinsically bad person, but that some of their behaviours at work made it particularly challenging to work alongside. What Stacey wanted to learn was a greater ability in herself to work with Emily. That was the first step: engaging her will. Stacey had made a conscious decision to bring her relationship with Emily into the domain of this workshop and declare that she wanted things to be better. She also recognised that there was something she could do differently in herself that would shine a light on how to approach her relationship with Emily. So, with Stacey, we set up a scenario between her and Emily. This was the second step: mustering the courage to examine the situation. As we began the re-enactment of the scenario, there was a moment when I directed Stacey to reverse roles with Emily. That is, she physically sat in Emily’s chair and adopted Emily’s role. For a moment, Stacey gave up herself and behaved as if she was Emily. This was the third step: giving up herself and becoming the other. There was no acting involved; she was being Emily. When she reversed roles and returned to her primary self, she looked at me and quietly said, “It’s gone.” When I asked her what she meant, she said that she longer viewed Emily as a “bad egg”. She became quite reflective at this point and I could see that she had had a sea-change in her attitude towards Emily. Some weeks later, at a subsequent session, I asked her how she was going with Emily and for a moment, she had to pause to recollect that she had had some issues with her, then said, “Oh, it’s fine now.” She had worked out, from her own creativity, how she could relate to Emily differently, having had the experience of being Emily. This, again, was no thought experiment. Stacey had immersed herself in the role of Emily, giving up her own values and beliefs, knowing that for the purposes of learning something new, she could safely give herself up momentarily and then to return to being herself, her awareness expanded.
This interpersonal process of role reversal facilitates a deep understanding of others that we struggle to achieve via a cognitive thought experiment. Once known, it cannot be unknown. It reveals the bigger picture (the wider system) to us in ways an intellectual exercise cannot. Once seen, it cannot be unseen. Once developed, the ability to role reverse also cannot be faked. It is a whole body capability which takes us beyond empathy.
Developing the ability to role reverse helps to free us to truly serve others; not as “dry” acts of duty, but as genuine service. How much easier it is to be the kind of leader that people need us to be when we are doing it out of an act of our will, not out of obligation. How much more effective we are as customer service officers if our default setting is applying our abilities to really “getting” the person we are dealing with. How much more satisfying it is as a salesperson to engage with another and know intimately what they are looking for.
Understanding others at work is not discretionary.
To my mind, role reversal is not a “tool”; it is not used selectively. It is something which is integrated into who we are and how we express ourselves in relation to others around us. It colours all our interactions and is not a thing to be switched on and off as it suits us. Even rhesus monkeys operate empathically. In an experiment, they were taught to pull a chain to obtain food. When they were shown another monkey receiving an electric shock every time they pulled the chain, they stopped pulling it. One monkey went without food for 12 days. I wonder what Milgram would say about that?
What do you say about that?
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……
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.
January 18, 2012
I admire people who are good with words. A wordsmith such as Neil Hannon, one of my favourite song writers, deploys words to great effect whether he is making a biting commentary on the financial game-players who were instrumental in causing the 2008 Great Recession, telling a story of a lonely woman of advancing years or sharing his optimism about life with his baby daughter. In their younger years, highly articulate and eloquent people such as Hannon learnt exactly the same letters of the alphabet that I learnt, and over their lifetimes have learnt how to do something quite special with them. There are only 26 letters in the alphabet. Once you’ve learnt those 26 letters, you can’t learn any more. People who are good at expressing themselves through language have developed their capabilities to use it in highly creative, skillful ways. In order to become one of these folks, you don’t need to learn more letters of the alphabet; you learn other things to do this. You don’t see aspiring writers attending courses in order to learn more letters; you see them attending creative writing courses that put them in touch with their human creativity, associating with other writers and applying their innate creativity to the use of a finite set of grammatical and syntactical rules and conventions (while also sometimes challenging or bending these rules in spontaneous ways).
Developing people in the workplace is a little similar. Entry level managers, for example, will need to learn the basic tools of management in order to provide competent supervision of their teams and tasks, however good leadership comes about when this manager applies themselves to growing their personal capabilities so that they can apply management knowledge in inspiring and motivating ways with greater vision, impact and influence.
For many of you in a leadership position, you probably don’t need more top tips or knowledge about your job. You probably don’t need much more information about ‘stuff’; you would probably enjoy developing something else, something deeper that frees you up to apply the knowledge and information you have already acquired with greater ease and finesse. It’s one thing to know about emotional intelligence, for example. It’s quite another thing for you to apply this elegantly in a living, breathing workplace with real life people in real life situations.
I say all this by way of stating one of my wishes for 2012: that more organisations wake up to the idea that, rather than sending people on more training courses that treat them like receptacles for yet more tools, tricks and tips, they should be investing in developing the users of these tools. Rather than trying to fill people up with more information and knowledge, they could look for opportunities for them to learn how to apply what they already know in spades, with greater fluency, creativity and responsiveness to the real needs of their organisations and its stakeholders. I wish that rather than send someone to another seminar about emotional intelligence, that they invest in some kind of learning that allows them to become more aware of themselves, to reflect and to actually rehearse better emotional and people skills. I wish that rather than sending a salesperson on another sales training that tells them yet again how important it is to listen to clients and customers, that they invest in something where these salespeople can develop the “role” of Effective Listener by practicing and reflecting on their abilities to listen well to people. I wish that rather than send customer service staff away to learn lists of things to do when dealing with customers, that they are provided with flexible learning processes that allow them to grow the whole range of human attitudes and behaviours required in order to provide the ultimate customer experience. I wish that rather than send that shy or reticent manager on another course to learn about “difficult conversations” with their staff, that they seek out the opportunities for this manager to develop the “role” of Robust Guide and actually get to the bottom of why he doesn’t do it (even though he knows what he is supposed to be doing) and to break through those inhibitors by rehearsing and refining some new behaviours and attitudes.
All of this is possible, it is not pie in the sky. I see such things happen before my eyes. This is my call for greater emphasis on “role development” and less emphasis on “training” in workplace learning and development. The word “role” is already known to you. However, in my work, I apply a very particular meaning of it with reference to capability development. In the work I do, a role is defined as the living expression of a person in any moment they are alive. A role is a holistic concept and consists of three components: thinking, feeling and behaving. Far too much in the way of workplace training with behaviour change as its end result does not address the whole person. We are whole people and to leave out any of these three components will not necessarily make for genuine and long-lasting shifts in behaviour.
We all amass a vast repertoire of roles in our lifetimes and they arise in response to another person or situation. Many of the roles we enact in our daily lives are ones which we have become quite habituated to enacting. In many cases, these habituated role responses are pretty adequate, but in a number of cases, particularly when the environment is more unpredictable and changeable, we go into a role which does not quite fit the bill. In many of these cases, more information or knowledge will not make a difference to our abilities to respond more adequately; developing our role repertoire, however, will.
To illustrate, complete this sentence: think of X (a person in your workplace, or maybe even yourself) who sometimes struggles with Y (a task or duty at work). X has all the information and knowledge they require in order to Y, but something still gets in the way. When thinking of what X needs to learn, it is helpful to not reduce this simply to “They need to learn how to Y better.” That assessment is too mechanistic and stops well short of the real learning need. Such a simplistic assessment can lead to the wrong prescription.
There will be “roles”, or personal capabilities, that unlock their ability to Y. I have spoken to too many salespeople who keep getting sent on the same old, same old sales courses year after year in order to help them boost their sales figures, and year after year, there is no significant shift in their performance. In many cases, what gets in the way of optimum performance is not the lack of sales knowledge; it is under-developed listening abilities or an under-developed ability to put themselves in the shoes of their clients or under-developed confidence or under-developed something-else. I have spoken with too many managers who get sent on courses to learn about having “difficult” conversations with their staff, but, again, in most of these cases, these courses do not create a shift in behaviour because they already know what they should be doing; what they could do more of is confidence or the ability to set boundaries or even the ability to be calm and centred. Telling someone to be calm and centred will not necessarily make it happen.
A lot of this waste in the L&D budget comes about because what is seen is the failure to perform the task at hand effectively. This, however, is merely the symptom of something deeper that needs addressed. We can only really see behaviours and we really only measure performance that is measurable. What do you do when the thing that needs developing is not so easy to see or measure? The important thing is to make a really thorough assessment of the learning need. It is also important to engage with a process that will allow people to learn holistically, so that the shifts in visible behaviour are real, deep and long-lasting and are related to shifts in the person as a person.
Making better decisions about the L&D budget has other ripple effects. Even in the midst of economic turmoil, I still read about skills shortages in some industries and organisations. Despite high unemployment, some businesses still say they can’t get the right people. If we look at who is already in the business and make better assessments of what they really need to learn in order to boost their performance, we can go some way to improving staff engagement as well as the bottom line. Taking a “role development” perspective on L&D can assist businesses to attract and retain the people they need. Investing in developing people as people, not as resources that do things, shifts the culture and unlocks opportunity, creativity and innovation.
What’s your wish for 2012?