January 24, 2013
There is something in the air. Call it my natural human tendency to find patterns in things, but two recent conversations with two different clients in two different cities have reminded me of two other completely different clients in two completely different countries. The parallels are striking. It could be my bias towards systems thinking, but it has reinforced my belief in unus mundus, the underlying unified reality that interconnects all things.
What is the common thread? All four of these businesses are sick and tired of being sick. And tired. Like, really tired. All four are nearing their “breaking point.” That is, they have tried just about everything they know to shift workplace behaviour and engagement. They are running out of options as to how to get people to take up personal responsibility. All four of these clients are right at the threshold of making significant shifts in how they do their business. The scales are falling from their eyes and they are seeing their businesses as whole entities and not viewing symptoms of ineffectiveness as separate from the whole or problems to be solved piecemeal. They are ready to get to grips with new ways of dealing with their problems. The clever onion behind the thinkpurpose blog writes, “When you change what you think about how the work works, then you will begin to change how you act, this will change the way work is set out and happens and how people act in the work place.” These four businesses are right at the place of changing how they think about what works.
Essential to seeing their business as whole entities is being able to see the webs that weave everyone together. Frustrated with old ways of trying to get people to do things, they are beginning to acknowledge that simply dealing with individual performance is futile. They understand that the system impacts too much on individual performance to waste their efforts solely on individuals. They know that the quality of their outcome will be directly correlated to the quality of relationships that they forge. As David Wilson writes in his blog, fitforrandomness ”Imagine assessing the robustness of the electricity grid with data on power stations but not on the power lines connecting them.” In order to assess the strength and fitness of an organisation, we need to examine both the individual elements that make up that systems as well as the relationships between them. To work with only the individuals within a business without also working on their connections is a nonsense. It’s both a delicate and a heroic undertaking.
What’s wrong with what they’ve got now? Not much, it turns out. They have a lot going for them. They have senior teams with an enormous amount of experience and technical ability. They are personable and friendly. They believe in the purpose of their businesses. They are robust and intelligent. Put the senior team in a room together, however, and they aren’t sure how to work truly collectively. Put oxygen and hydrogen in a bucket together and they don’t miraculously coalesce and become water. Some energy needs to go into the bucket to create H2O.
I’ve written before on the power of WE in business. Bringing in the theme of my last article about developing consciousness, there is something that can catalyse this WE-ness for business. Many aspire to it, but we often get stuck when it comes to actually doing it. How do we become a WE? It’s not enough to go away and make commitments to each other. Just like a marriage, it’s not just what happens on the wedding day when you promise some things to each other that makes it a good marriage. The good marriage comes about through a shift in consciousness from “you and me” to WE. A good partnership comes about because each party understands that what you want as an individual and what I want as an individual may not necessarily deepen nor be for the good of our relationship. A good, mutual partnership comes about because effort and energy have been invested in strengthening that web that weaves us together.
A shift in consciousness is required. That is, greater awareness of what we are currently doing in order to move towards the thing we want to be doing. Is how you relate, behave and engage with one another assisting you to create the WE? In working with one senior team, we coached them to become observant of themselves in order to create this new consciousness. This requires them to develop the role of Observant Team-Player. For many of us, we operate out of a “selfish” mindset. In other words, we look at what we do and how we do it with a view to doing our best. We sometimes lose sight of the fact that others are trying to do the same, and sometimes this means that we might be working at cross purposes. I’m doing my best, you’re doing your best, but in our “doing-my-best-ness”, we haven’t worked out how to synthesise this into a “WE are doing our best”. In common parlance, this is operating in silos.
Here’s what it might look like. In our regular team meeting, I contribute to conversations on the agenda, but I do this while wearing one of two hats: my personal hat or my operational hat. I am both trying to be a good person and trying to optimise the work, but from MY perspective. Wearing my personal hat, I am saying (unconsciously, of course):
- “How do I make myself look good?”
- “How can I get people to notice me?”
- “How can I garner praise?”
- “How can I get people to like me?”
- “How can I prove I’m valuable?”
All human things, these.
Wearing my operational hat, I contribute things which demonstrate my technical abilities and knowledge. If I’m a financial guy, I will speak on any of the agenda items from a financial perspective. If I’m a marketing guy, I will speak about things from a marketing perspective. All necessary and important. I may contribute little or nothing to conversations that I believe have “nothing to do with me”. Doing this, however, may not develop the sense of “team-ness” that we all need to synthesise together if we are to achieve our common purpose. If I keep speaking from my operational perspective, I may be reasonably successful in achieving the operational purpose of my silo. Remember, though, that optimising one part of the system will lead to sub-optimisation of the whole, so if I do MY very best and if everyone is doing THEIR very best in their silos, it doesn’t follow that the whole will be doing its very best.
There is something missing.
If I participate in the meeting wearing only my personal or operational hats, I miss the opportunity to develop the life of the whole team. I need to put on my team member hat. When I wear this, I become conscious of myself, I become conscious of when I have an impulse to speak and what I feel moved to say, I observe others’ contributions and I make an assessment as to whether what is going on is furthering the life of the group. Is what I say coming from a “Me” perspective, a “Me-doing-my-work-well” perspective or a “WE” perspective? When each member of a team has developed the ability to observe the dynamics of the team, they will learn how to interrupt someone who is “fighting their corner” if they are doing it to the detriment of the effectiveness of the whole. If they feel that someone is warming up to speak out of their silo, they will challenge people to stop and consider what they are about to contribute: “Is what you are about to say going to progress the life of this team as a whole?”
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
If I’m operating with my WE hat on, I will see that all of the agenda items pertain to me in some way, because they pertain to the effectiveness of the whole business. Furthermore, if I can’t work out how it pertains to me, there is an opportunity to find out how it does. Because it does. Trust me. If I’m wearing my WE hat, I will see that my technical expertise is best applied when in concert with everyone else’s and vice versa. Having said all this, I bring all my hats to meetings, I can’t simply focus my efforts on developing a good team feeling. The expanded consciousness that gets us to WE incorporates and transcends everything we already know and do.
For one of these businesses, who is more than ready and willing to do this “WE” thing, they have an idea of what they want to become, but don’t know how to do it consistently. This is not unusual, in my experience. They haven’t yet had enough moments of “felt experience” to be able to say they’ve got there, but what they have tasted so far makes the effort worthwhile. While a lot of businesses have talked about teamwork and the team effect for years, the investment required in order to really achieve it has been patchy. Investment in catalysing this team effect is like energy is to the hydrogen and oxygen in the bucket. Sometimes, it seems that we find ourselves in fantastic teams and it feels great, but I would suggest this is sometimes down to good luck. We spot each other, we have each other’s back. Relationships are genuinely mutual and go beyond “what can you do for me and what can I do for you.” Such teams go beyond collaboration. They cooperate. No quid pro quo. We have a consciousness of operating out of a mindset that furthers the life of the whole. Just as an architect may sacrifice the optimisation of one room of a house in order to achieve a more satisfying whole, we may quite easily sacrifice something that is of special interest to us for the benefit of the whole. When we are operating as a WE, we have stopped thinking about people as bodies to do transactions or deals with, we enjoy being with each other and we achieve more as individuals because of the chemistry that is created by the whole.
Getting to WE is not an event, it’s a process. It doesn’t happen in a moment, it happens over many moments. It’s not “step 1, step 2…” Like other mindfulness disciplines, it takes practice, attention and commitment. I find it heartening that it’s finally in the air and that some businesses are taking the steps to get there.
January 16, 2013
So the world didn’t end on December 21, surprise, surprise. Here we are in 2013, all systems still intact. I have heard some speak of the Mayan December 21 end-of-all-things-prediction not so much an end of the world, but more of an end of one cycle and the beginning of another. An end of things-as-they-were. Let it be so. Endings can be good and healthy.
I don’t do New Years’ resolutions per se, but I have resolved in myself to focus this year on health, from its broadest perspective. I will endeavour to place attention on the health of those around me, the health of the organisations with which I work and the health of those within them. I will place, firstly, attention on my own health, because leadership is an inside job. We must be healthy ourselves. I view health as an holistic phenomenon: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social and relational. This is not merely the absence of dis-ease, but a progressive and thoughtful movement towards greater freedom and happiness. This will come about, I believe, through greater consciousness: a journey, therefore, not a destination. Becoming more aware, in moments, of what is going on for me and others and when it feels unhealthy or unnatural, to seek to do something different. Striving to live this moment freshly and not relying on old default responses.
Often, I suspect, this will involve taking a Cynical approach, though not from the modern understanding of cynicism (disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions), but coming from the ancient Greek philosophy of striving to live a life that is in tune with what it means to be naturally human. It seems the time is right to adopt a Cynical approach to life; it emerged in ancient Greece as a way of offering the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. Uncertainty. Sound familiar? While I’m in the process of simplifying my life a little, I’m not about to dispose of all my worldly goods as the original Cynics did, sleep in bathtubs and wander the streets with my dogs on a piece of string, but I take inspiration from the attitude of happiness as being linked to living a life in tune with Nature. The healthy life. Challenging false judgements of what is valuable and worthwhile, questioning customs and conventions of how things are done. I cannot do this without extending consciousness. This is why I do the work I do. This is why clients work with us: they are seeking something different, something that challenges their status quo. Same old, same old (or a pretty repackaging of the “same-old”) won’t create the deep, systemic transformation they require.
Like the Cynics, I believe the world belongs equally to everyone, that opportunity for happiness and freedom is for everyone; not just for those in “power”, those they deem as worthy or those who believe that money = power. Genuine democracy, having a voice, having agency in one’s life, actively participating in making decisions which affect us. In life, in work, all over the place. This is a challenge to current convention. In my experience, the best customer service comes from people who are being authentic and human and have the freedom to do so. In my experience, the best leadership comes from those who take an interest in their own learning and encourage others to do the same. In my experience, the best and most humane workplaces happen when everyone is accepting of everyone else in their same-ness and their difference, living and letting live. It is also my experience that none of these things happen by chance or good luck. They come about with consciousness.
Some of what I believe goes against Nature and humanity is the (largely unconscious) acceptance of and acquiescence to systems which are unhealthy. It comes through in an attitude that humans are resources, that corporations are somehow “people”, that the reason for getting up in the morning is to make more profit (even at the expense of a rainforest, a community, an ecosystem or some other inconvenient obstacle). I know some may find this irksome, but there is nothing I’ve found in any of the teachings of any of the great historical sages, seers, or prophets that advocates or emphasises owning things for oneself at the expense of others. As far as I have understood, I’m not aware of anything written by, attributed to or uttered by the Buddha, the Christ, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela, Rumi or Lao Tse that delineates capital accumulation as the road to enlightenment and a better life. I know what you’re thinking: I’m some sort of dangerous liberal, commie, socialist, atheist, pinko abortion-loving anarchist out to destroy freedom and democracy. Or I’m one of those well-intentioned, but muddle-headed, hybrid-car-driving, tree-hugging vegans who still say, “Peace and love, man.” Nothing of the sort. I do, however, go along with Hilary Wainwright and Richard Goulding who write in “Co-ops help bring economics back to the people,” that “we live in a time when the economics of profit are facing a profound crisis of legitimacy, while retaining a deathly grip on the apparatus of the state.” Something has to give. Zizek has spoken about getting close to a zero-point; what he terms “soft apocalypse”. Our ecological, social and economic systems are near breaking point and if we wish to retain all the benefits of a humane society, something different is called for. A new game.
This new game must be, if it’s for the good of everyone, co-created by everyone. It’s no good getting a room full of good-hearted people in a room, asking them individually to put forward their plan for a better world and then vote for the most popular. This is the point. This is how we got here. We have to do this together. We have to make these decisions together. Furthermore, we have to do this togetherness thing by bringing the best of ourselves to the party. Patriarchal businesses who still operate out of the “Manager-Knows-Best” mindset perpetuate the disengagement and dissatisfaction in those who work there, no matter how benevolent they may attempt to be and no matter what they try to put in place to mitigate for them. Get out of the way and let people bring their whole selves to work. Give people a bit of credit. AND…..if we are to create a real sense of “WE”, it behoves us all to invest ourselves in growing greater consciousness and our ability to be with each other. My “why”, therefore, is to push for greater self-awareness and consciousness in the world. This will come about with self-discipline, continued learning and a genuine commitment to diversity and engaging others.
Here’s another challenge to current convention: I have no faith that a system of capitalism (conscious or otherwise) will lead to an age of enlightenment. A system operates with a set of rules which maintain its equilibrium. In other words, a system will strive to perpetuate itself. I struggle to see how a system of capital accumulation that operates to ensure its continuation can be for the greater good of Nature and humanity. Fraudulent banksters, tax cheats, self-interested lobbyists and an obscene corporate bonus culture all spring out of a system whose rules say, “This is how you play the game. It’s called capital accumulation.” The ones who pay the price are the ones who haven’t learnt how to play the game well enough. Time for us to play a different game, one that allows everyone to play and demands that the play is fair and equitable. We are not here to serve the economy, it should serve us. Becoming more conscious of what we do that colludes with an inhumane system is a first step in creating something new. Furthermore, becoming conscious of what I do that colludes with my own un-health and that of others and their businesses is a first step to creating something more life-giving.
They say you can’t polish a turd, but you can certainly roll it in glitter. Nowadays we don’t just buy a product, but we buy our redemption from being naughty consumerists because they donate $1 to a starving child in Africa or promise only to use FairTrade commodities. We are no longer just consuming, but we are fulfilling a series of ethical and moral duties, right? I’m not saying this is bad in itself; I am as deeply moved as the next person by images of poverty and injustice and want it to end. I can also understand why some might think I’m being cruel because as Oscar Wilde wrote, it is much easier to have sympathy with suffering than to have sympathy with thought. So for me to take a dim view of built-in philanthropy smacks of mean-ness because I really should just appreciate the good that some of these modern businesses do, shouldn’t I? Why not help a starving child? Why not, indeed? I would much prefer a world where starvation was impossible. My point is that the system which dresses itself up as the provider of charity is the same one that necessitates the need. Oscar Wilde recognised this in his day, too. The remedy is part of the disease. My vision is one where the ills of the world (including the modern workplace) are not merely alleviated, but that they are inconceivable. It is possible. Having centuries ago passed through the age of the aristocracy, we could not now conceive of contemporary serfdom. My view, therefore: capitalism will not save the world, conscious or otherwise. Consciousness will, though. Watch and listen to Zizek.
This is the same thinking out of which spring my beliefs that meaning, mastery and autonomy are keys to generating satisfaction and engagement, that Theory Y is much more than a lovely sounding “theory”, that cooperation is far more effective and humane than competition, that learning how to reverse roles with people is good for them and us, that people are not their behaviours and that performance is a systems issue, not an HR one. We know some things that will make work work better for everyone. We need to be conscious of how we perpetuate the old ways and to be conscious of being different.
If December 21 was indeed the end of things-as-they-were, I believe that consciousness will be the foundation of the new thing. Herein lies our work. It is not good enough to rail against unfair or inhumane systems. While, as a systems thinker, I perceive the interconnectedness of us all, I am also cognisant of the fact that the human family is composed of a number of individual elements. These are each of us. We can make a difference in our lives and the lives of others by growing self-awareness and becoming more conscious of our place in the web of life, how we impact it and how it impacts on us. Who are we? What drives us? What gives us joy? How can we nurture mutually satisfying relationships with others? What are my Achilles’ heels and how can I find out? Who will help me uncover that stuff about me that I am blind to? Growing consciousness, extending self-awareness; these are not easy things, these are not necessarily painless things. They are, however, indispensable if we want a better world. We have a part to play. I have a part to play. Hence my focus on health.
Being a great leader, a great colleague, a great customer service representative, a great whatever starts with consciousness. They are all inside jobs. It is not accidental. It requires a conscious choice to develop greater self-knowing, to be honest and gutsy in our conscious self-reflection and taking conscious steps to learning and developing. If, as Zizek says, the most radical horizon of our imagination is global capitalism with a human face, we have a lot of work to do. Putting out fire with gasoline? Or, together, setting the conditions so that the fire couldn’t start in the first place?
December 2, 2012
Interesting what can spark an idea and create insight. Staring at the full moon the other night, I found myself marvelling, yet again, that we’ve been there. That led me to consider the languaging: “We’ve been to the moon.” We? We’ve been there? In fact, from Armstrong to Cernan, only 12 white American men have actually set foot on the moon, yet we often include ourselves in this achievement. It is notable that this landmark is considered to be a milestone in human achievement and so we talk about it in collective terms. It came about after JFK set a vision and “we” went along with him. A vision.
There are other achievements that you’ll hear people include themselves in. We defeated Nazism. We eradicated smallpox. We developed penicillin. How did we manage this?
So what happens to us when we go to work and lose this ability to see the “we”? Folks who, in their ordinary lives, are motivated, thoughtful, generous to their fellow human, energised and enthusiastic about life in general seem to leave all that at the door. What is in the air conditioning that infects folks when they come to work and causes them to narrow their gaze and lower their expectations of what is possible? Many workplaces still operate in silos, effectively causing the various departments to compete with one another. It’s like your heart competing with your liver to see which is the best or most important organ in your body. Utter nonsense.
We did some work with the leadership team of a finance company some years ago. Half of them managed the sales side of business and the other half the administrative side of the business. I witnessed them openly expressing sentiments like: “If only your admin people would understand this: they wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for us salespeople,” and “If only your salespeople would understand this: they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs if our admin folks weren’t in the back room doing all this really important work.” Our work was cut out for us. I’ve heard similar things echoed in other businesses….and the silos stay grumpy and resentful of each other, losing sight of the bigger picture. I wonder, however, if they have got hold of the bigger picture.
Hierarchical, command-and-control structures draw out the competitor in us. We effectively have businesses running internal competitions, hoarding information, playing politics, who’s the best in the company. Divided by lack of a clear common vision, we miss what is right in front of our noses: the other people here are potentially on the same side.
I’ve previously mentioned our work in a manufacturing firm, assisting team leaders to reduce silos and develop greater confidence in themselves. They developed two key things during the course of our work: improved relationships and the bigger picture of what they were all there to achieve together. When they reduced the isolation they felt from each other, they stopped seeing others as “out to get them”. When they developed the ability to think bigger, to see their “part” of the manufacturing line as integral to the whole, they began to perceive one team’s difficulties, one person’s difficulties, as their own. These two together were the sparks that catalysed shared problem-solving, shared decision-making, shared achievement and they started to celebrate the success of each “part” as essential for the achievement of the whole.
Martin Luther King declared, “I have a dream,” not “I have a plan.” Surely, for business, too, the starting point is the vision. We wouldn’t have got to the moon without JFK’s bold vision. He uttered some simple words that caused hearts to swell. Businesses, likewise, can set out compelling visions that cause people to think, “I’m up for that.” When there is a compelling vision, we have something around which we can gather together. We can feel part of something bigger than ourselves; something meaningful.
Sociometric principles and practices point to a way of creating something shared in business. One of the tenets of sociometry is that we have more in common with each other than divides us; however, much of those things that bind us lie hidden and unspoken. Action sociometry aims to make the covert, overt, so that we discover how connected we actually are. This reduces isolation and gives us confidence that we can together resolve our shared challenges and common difficulties. Another thing that sociometry teaches us is that the quality of an outcome is directly related to the quality of relationships between the people who are attempting to generate that outcome. It is the work, therefore, of leaders and those who consult to businesses to break down the isolation of modern work and to develop the sociometry to grow greater cooperation and collaboration.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” African proverb
Is “maximising shareholder return” the best that businesses can come up with? If we now know that humans seek meaning from their work, what could possibly drive someone towards a vision as narrow as that? I would hardly call “maximising shareholder return” what Sinan Si Alhir named as a history-making effort: intrinsic meaningfulness for universal benefit. Where is the higher purpose in that? Where is the universal benefit in that?
Working with the three senior leaders of a cemetery, I asked them, “What is your purpose?” and they paused. As if I was asking them an exam question to which I knew the right answer, one of them hesitantly responded, “To provide good customer service?” I half-jokingly said, “Why don’t you all go work in the local hardware shop then?” They looked at me quizzically. Eventually, after a little discussion between them, they decided that their purpose was to assist families going through a bereavement. At this point, they all three got excited. Grim work, I know, running a cemetery, however, they had finally hit the nail on the head. It was as if they had suddenly realised why they come to work and they had hit upon their real purpose. It wasn’t just scheduling burials or organising graves to be dug. They were providing an essential service to others, one that nobody else could carry out. From here, the conversation flowed. They spoke with each other as if they were on the same team, rather than trying to manage what used to look like competing demands and interests. Also, they began to see a clearer way to delineating the kinds of behaviours and attitudes they wanted to see in their workplace. If everything was about achieving that higher purpose, they could see how to enlist everyone into achieving it. They have found their “We”.
As Louise Altman has written, “WE focussed workplaces bring out the best in their employees–at every level.” Maz Iqbal also described the success story that is John Lewis in the UK. Masterful at employee engagement, customer experience and organisational effectiveness. The collective spirit on which Lewis’s was founded is the driver of its continued success, even in the depths of recession. Collectively, they exist to create happiness for its 81,000 partners (every employee is a part-owner of the business) and to serve customers with flair and fairness. You feel it if you shop there. While I’m not a fan of shopping, I find it a pleasure to shop at John Lewis.
It is this sense of “we” that John Lewis has achieved over 148 years that we need to develop in the world and in more of our workplaces. It starts with the vision. Something bigger than shareholder return, though, please. Drill down and find out: What is it that we are all here to achieve? What is our purpose in coming together and how can we all contribute to that? And it happens with good sociometry–deeper relatedness at work. When people know who others are, how they belong and how much they have in common with others, as humans, it becomes easier to know we are “WE” and not just “you” and “I”.
Go on…..call me a hippy.
….or just see it as good business. Want robust employee engagement, organisational effectiveness and customers that love you? Find your purpose and strive for good relationships.
November 25, 2012
Don’t ask a systems thinker for advice on managing performance or staff engagement. They will probably say something pretty fruity and you’ll wind up frustrated by how fervently they trash conventional wisdom on the subject. Of course performance, engagement, recruitment, they’re all connected, so your systems thinking friend will sound like a fruit loop because they’ll see the whole picture and proceed to suggest that you are asking the wrong questions, when all you wanted to know is “how to get people to do stuff”. You go to them as a sounding board because there is something you like about the way they think; when you’ve talked previously, they come up with ideas that seem counter-intuitive at first, but are actually surprisingly on the money. However, when it comes to a sticky situation you are actually dealing with, you don’t want to hear them bang on about the system, the system, the system. Isn’t that just lovely sounding theories that academics spout? (…wouldn’t work in the real world) In an effort to get them to answer your simple question, you keep repeating “Yes, but they are SUPPOSED to fill out their daily task logs,” quietly tearing your hair out while they insist it’s not a behavioural problem; it’s a systems issue.
One of the most important things I learnt from my past life as a therapist is that if you want behaviour change in an individual, you work with them as a whole being and you work with their whole system (family, friends, peers, environment). You don’t focus on their “problem behaviours”. Similarly, if you want behaviour change in an organisation, you work on it as a whole. You don’t focus on the dysfunctional parts or the underperforming individuals. In my present life as a sociatrist, I apply my understanding of systems to organisations and organisational change, not merely the individuals within them.
We can’t blame individuals for doing what the system expects them to do. As disturbing as Milgram’s experiments were, one thing I observed (and I may be entirely off the mark here) is that people behave in ways which surprise themselves and which sometimes go against what they know to be right and true. We do this when our environment, our system, sets up conditions which compel us to behave in particular ways. The system also punishes us for not doing what it wants us to do, just to keep us in line. We do what we’re told.
What we need if we want organisational transformation, if we want more effective organisations, if we want people to find the work they do meaningful: we need to work with the whole system. A buddy of mine in England recently observed that most people seem uninterested in effectiveness. Sad but true, I fear. Still desperately clinging on to “scientific” management mythologies, many folks just seem to want the numbers to add up and people to do what they’re told. A scary prospect if your business has just appointed a new global CEO who is a bean-counter by background and disposition and whose single-minded purpose is to show the shareholders that they are getting richer every quarter. Calling a performance issue a “behavioural problem” comes out of a mechanistic worldview. Yuck.
There is hope, however. Some managers are on the threshold of doing something quite different….if we would just hang in with them. They know in their gut that doing the same old, same old is not going to make a real difference. I’ve been working with a manager and his two off-siders, all three of whom lead their business. I’ve been coaching them to see the bigger picture and assisting them to open their thinking about why things don’t go the way they’d like. This, to me, is phase one of the organisational transformation they are seeking to effect. Phase one: eliminating systems blindness. Our sessions usually begin with each of them discussing what so-and-so hasn’t done yet again or what what’s-his-name is still doing, despite that one-to-one chat urging them to stop it. I let them get some things off their chest and jot down a few salient things that I pick up. As I listen, I make connections in my head and find the patterns they are describing. These patterns are descriptors of the system. After a little while, I might say something like, “Haven’t we heard all this before?” They smile. Then they frown. What they are slowly learning to do, however, is to see the behaviours as indicators of the wider patterns at play.
The patterns I’m observing in how they describe the staff illustrate a workplace culture characterised by:
- things done at the last minute without much fore-thought
- poor self-discipline with regards working practices
- low self-reponsibility
- poor following up of commitments and promises
- getting easily side-tracked
- being reactive, rather than proactive
- a “she’ll be right” mentality (a common expression in New Zealand meaning, it’ll all be fine in the end, don’t worry about it)
- inconsistency in work practices
- an overly laidback attitude towards work
- a “can’t do” attitude
Behaviours at work are tempered by the systemic norms; you could also say it’s the “culture”. You can read this in many places on the interweb: the system is responsible for performance. Don’t blame people for doing what the system asks and similarly, stop rewarding individuals for good performance. The system drives performance.
Reward for good performance may be the same as rewarding the weather forecaster for a pleasant day. Deming
I’m utterly convinced (from my experience) that the organisational changes they want will come about when they focus their attention and their energies on the system and not on the individual behaviours of individual people. So when I share my observations with the three of them, they nod and smile and say, “That’s exactly what they’re like; that absolutely describes the culture.”
I then enquire as to what they’ve tried, in order to put a stop to the things they don’t like. Again, I listen for patterns. With all good intentions (for they are really lovely people), they tell me things like:
- “Well, I was going to schedule another one-to-one meeting and go through their KPIs again, but something urgent came up.”
- “I had it written in my diary but I couldn’t remember which page I’d written it on.”
- “I’ve confronted him about it before but it didn’t make a difference, so I couldn’t see the point of following him up again.”
- “He knows what he’s supposed to do, he’s been here for 10 years, I don’t see why I should have to tell him again and again.”
- “They’re like a bunch of children; you have to keep on at them, otherwise nothing gets done.”
- “Yes, I had a chat with him and said I’d meet again a week later to see how he was getting on, but I let it slip.”
- “He was fine for a week after I talked to him, but he’s slipped back and I don’t know how I can get it across.”
After they report what they’ve tried, I ask them to reflect on how similar their patterns are to the patterns they bemoan in the staff: inconsistent, side-tracked etc etc…. Again, they smile. Again they frown. They (fortunately) find it mildly amusing that they are doing much the same as the staff. Here is when I reinforce the idea of systems. They are part of the same system and that very same system will be exerting itself on them. In our conversations, they are becoming more adept at seeing. I mean really seeing.
Remember, Deming said that a system cannot understand itself. It’s not just true because Deming said it. It’s true because it’s true. It doesn’t matter how frustrating we find it, but the systems to which we belong will be exerting their influences on us. We struggle to know this. We struggle to know how much. We find ourselves at times frustrated with ourselves, as well as others. It takes an outside eye, a disinterested party, an objective mirror, to help us to see what we can’t. They’re called blind spots for a reason. Obvious to me, previously hidden to these three leaders, their system is screwy, not the people within it.
These three lovely, well-intentioned leaders have warmed up to the current phase of their work together. Phase two: creating the vision of what you want. Now they are aware of this thing called “culture”, and that it impacts on them and that no one person is to blame for doing what the system urges them to do, they are excited to create a vision for the culture they want. They are beginning to see the wood for the trees and are more able to make connections to the elements within the system that maintain its status quo. They are excited. I ask them naive questions like, “What is your purpose?” “What does your business exist for?” ”How would you like it to be here?” and they eagerly discuss things that they feel should be so obvious but when asked directly, need to stop and really think about it.
Lately, rather than see themselves as victims to all those awful things the staff do, they are excited to recast their roles as stewards of the system. They get the paradox of systems thinking: they are in it and subject to it, and at the same time, if they can begin to manage their systems blindness with the help of an outside eye, have the power to do something about it. They are seeing themselves less and less as managers-who-need-to-be-in-control and more as leaders-who-guide-the-culture. They are more infused with hope for the future. The things over which they do have control (policy and procedure manuals, resourcing, their own attitudes, their individual relationships with staff members) are the influencers which they can apply to generate the culture they believe will be more effective and, in the long run, more efficient.
Rather than trying to find new ways to get people to do what they want them to do (re-sharpening their sticks or coating their carrots with glitter), they are thrilled to devote more and more time in our sessions to the thing they want, rather than the multitude of things they don’t. They are thinking bigger: about themselves, about the staff and about the business.
Systems thinking, for me, is not merely an academic exercise. It is real world. It changes lives and workplaces.
Next steps for these three? Well, it’s emergent, a work in progress. We’ve had some ups and downs. We’ve had times when they felt a little like they were banging their heads against a brick wall. At this stage, however, they are hopeful, they are positive and they are now talking more about modelling and leading the change they want to see. (Didn’t some famous peace-loving figure from history say something about that?) They are truly interested in being different themselves. They are considering how to steward a culture of self-responsibility, flexibility and “can do”, learning from mistakes and “just enough” structure….and for me, they are approaching phase three: grappling with the “how-to”.
In truth, it is an absolute pleasure.
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.
September 23, 2012
Fresh from running a workshop on responsible leadership, I’m feeling buoyant that the participants entered into the conversation with gusto and were open to the idea that humans engage in their work because they seek out meaning, mastery and autonomy. To a large extent, I was not only preaching to the converted but taking the lead from them. Their work is based on a developmental, strengths-based worldview and they do it because they see the real difference that it makes to their clients. When I proposed that McGregor’s Theory XY and the work of Daniel Pink was providing us with a compelling case for re-visioning how we “do” leadership, there seemed to be general approval. They seemed thrilled that there has been significant theory and research on what makes work work. One person excitedly told the story of her previous workplace that had got to a crisis point, completely revamped its management practice and leadership approach by adopting a Theory Y attitude and turned their business around. Similarly, we at Quantum Shift are working with a client who also views people through a Theory Y lens and is in the middle of a deep transformation of how their business is organised and the light at the end of the transformation tunnel is clear and bright.
Then my heart sinks a little as I read in this morning’s New Zealand Herald, an article entitled “Fear, greed and vanity are excellent staff motivators.” I couldn’t resist reading, it tempted me in, much as those faux science documentaries in which the narrator at some point intones mysteriously, “Was Darwin wrong?” This invariably causes me to exclaim, “NO!” in frustration at the thrall in which ancient myths and fairy stories still grip us. To give the writer of that piece his due, he does start his argument with “in my opinion”, however we are on shaky ground if we base management and leadership of our organisations purely on opinion. Haven’t we learnt that research and study goes a long way to correcting long-held beliefs that get in the way of good practice?
He closes his article by saying, “…all other things being equal, an engaged workforce is more productive than a disengaged one – but the pyramids were built with the whip. We should not forget that.” Reminds me of that quote by Deming, “Beat horses and they will run faster….for a while.” While it may be that the pyramids were built with the whip (although I learnt when I was in Egypt recently that new archaeological discoveries are showing that it was not slave labour that built the pyramids after all), it also used to be the case that children were used as chimney sweeps, women were burnt at the stake for witchcraft and leeches were considered cutting edge medicine. While everyone is entitled to their prejudices (for that’s all Theory X is as far as I’m concerned), it’s more than a little frustrating when someone is given air time in the business column of a national newspaper to reinforce something backed by no evidence, bar his experience as a company liquidator. Theory X is one which is being challenged by contemporary research into what motivates people. If we take as long to update our perspective on this as we did to acknowledge that the sun is the centre of the solar system, I predict that it will take until the year 2110 before we find workplaces everywhere have at last unleashed people’s genuine desire to do something meaningful and that work will have long since ceased to be paid-for slave labour (or that we need gamification to help us pretend otherwise).
In the meantime, we still have conversations about how to motivate employees. Way back in 2006, a piece appeared in the Harvard Management Update entitled “Stop Demotivating your Employees”. It came out of some research that showed that when people join organisations they are initially enthusiastic, but that they very quickly lose motivation due to management behaviours and styles. This research, by the way, was conducted with 1.2 million employees at 52 businesses, so it’s not simply the opinion of the three authors. The question, then, is not about finding ways to motivate and engage people. It’s about letting them get on with it, stopping demotivating them.
Central to this is re-visioning the role of a manager. Much of what a manager does gets in the way and leads to situations where they then ponder how to motivate and engage. As Bob Marshall puts it in “Lay off the Managers”, we need management, but much of what managers do is dysfunctional. If we do away with the old Theory X prejudice and embrace the science behind Theory Y, the flow on from this is that the job of managing will look and feel quite different. Some of the things that go on in some of the businesses to which I consult include:
- Policies and procedures that try to mitigate for every possible contingency and overwhelm people with the sheer scale of information they are required to know before actually doing their jobs.
- Micro-managers who need to oversee not only what people do but how they do it.
- Command-and-control hierarchies that centralise decision-making away from the point at which the decisions could more ably be made.
- Managers who hoard power and operate out of a need to be in control of things (and when they can’t, sabotage the hard work of others).
As Deming states in this short video clip, “one is born with intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, dignity, cooperation, curiosity, a yearning for learning.” These are crushed out by “forces of destruction” throughout our lives. He wonders out loud, “Why crush them out? Why not nurture them?” Indeed. He goes on to say that mere change will not do it. ”We cannot just remodel the prison.” He is talking about transformation, not mere patchwork, not tinkering round the edges.
Backed by research, I believe that Theory Y is in an ascendancy, albeit a slow one (cf. Copernicus). Symptomatic of this, many managers have cottoned on to this new-fangled thing called “engagement”. It seems that some studies have shown that businesses with motivated and engaged staff are far more productive and effective at what they do. That’s pretty compelling. So in the name of creating happier workers, some go through a PR makeover, adopting some kind of newspeak so that people think things have actually changed. That, or they induce people and customers to “like” them by trying to make the same old work seem more fun and interesting. I’m not so sure this is transformation.
Deming talks about transformation as a new kind of reward, but not one that gives you points on a leader board, an extra staff party or an incentive bonus in your pay packet. He talks about restoring the individual. This kind of transformation will unleash the power of human resourcefulness contained in intrinsic motivation and which people are born with. That’s meaning, mastery and autonomy for you Daniel Pink fans. Or self-actualisation for you Maslow fans. Dispensing with extrinsic motivators and transforming business to release people’s intrinsic motivation can lead to less competition and greater cooperation which, in time, will lead to greater innovation, greater service, greater material reward for everyone, joy in work, joy in learning. There is the new kind of reward. Everyone will win in this transformation.
It truly boggles my mind that folks like the author of that NZ Herald article would consider themselves as hardworking and motivated by success yet presume others are inherently lazy, selfish and greedy. Certainly, these are human qualities and ones which we all possess in some measure. We are not slaves to them, however, and in my experience, under the right conditions, we will just as easily bring out the best of ourselves. Under the kind of conditions that model and condone laziness and selfishness, however, I can understand why would people would fail to engage themselves fully. Genuine transformation of business, therefore, is essential; this means a real systemic shift in attitudes and beliefs about people. Getting the “right conditions” for people to flourish is a pre-condition for them to bring their whole selves to work.
In my understanding of McGregor’s Theory Y, those marvellous things he outlines will come to fruition under the right conditions. This is important. The conditions must be right for people to flourish just as soil must be fertile in order for plants to flourish. If you salt the earth, nothing will grow; if you behave like Stalin (while spouting Theory Y newspeak for good PR), your people will disengage or leave or both. As I said, the question to be asking, then, is not “How can I motivate my staff?” but “How do I need to be so that I don’t demotivate people around me?” Some of it is related to transforming how the business organises itself, but this is inextricably linked to transforming ourselves: our beliefs and attitudes about human nature and how we relate to people.
What is required of us then?
Listening to people. Adopt the practice of genuinely listening to people. Acting on what you hear is part of this, too. Come at conversations with the mindset that they will tell you something you don’t already know, something which may challenge your own beliefs or something which may teach you a lesson. Turn off that inner monologue and consider their reality is just as valid as yours.
Enabling them to get on with it. There are a number of enabling behaviours I set out in a previous article, “Leaders: get out of the way”. I would strongly suggest it is more than behaviour change; once again, it is personal transformation that flows out of a meaningful shift in our beliefs and attitudes.
Acknowledging people. This is not about praise. Managers who steal the credit for good work are demotivators. Acknowledging means giving people their due and recognising the contributions they make to the whole. It means noticing when people have been of good service to others. It means assisting people to see that their unique contributions and who they are add something invaluable.
Facilitating the easy flow of information and unimpeded access to the proper resources to do the job. At a very basic level, a manager would do well to see themselves as the one who eases and unblocks information flow. Hoarding information is an act of the power-hungry.
Enrolling people into a vision of something greater than the sum of everyone’s daily tasks. Declaring a clear purpose for the business, apart from increased shareholder return or higher profit. Keep hold of a single-minded purpose and make sure everyone has a clear line of sight to it. What is your business contributing to the well-being of the world?
If the author of that NZ Herald article was moved to write what he did because he has witnessed indolence and selfishness in the workplace, I would suggest that it has as much to do with the kind of cynicism people bring to work when they witness their managers exhibit the same cynical behaviours and attitudes. That Harvard Management Update found that people start a job full of enthusiasm, which, like Deming, I would say is our default setting. The rot sets in when systemic inhumanity within the business infects them and their natural motivation is crushed. I would also suggest it has much to do with organisations which have not put “the right conditions” in place that would allow creativity, autonomy and responsibility to flourish. It’s also to do with managers and leaders who hold on to an obsolete view of human nature. So it’s no surprise to me that a company liquidator would encounter people who do their best to be their worst.
September 8, 2012
“Many people live in the hallucination that they can truly lead other people without being able to lead themselves and this is pure fantasy. It is much easier to try to change other people and not being willing to change ourselves. This exercise of authenticity is very much needed if we truly want to inspire, touch and move the brains and the souls of those around us.” So writes Mario Alonso Puig, Fellow and Doctor, Harvard Medical School in the recent World Economic Forum report, Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership.
I’m initially a little hesitant when I read something that uses the word “model” because of the meaning we still tend to attach to that word “model” in our consumerist societies. New models of leadership, huh? (For this, I have been too often disappointed and end up reading some fast food version of what it means to be a leader: barely nutritional, highly addictive and something which passes through the system quickly.) Part of that hallucination to which Puig so eloquently refers is, I believe, related to a world in which we think we can continually “get” and “consume”. Gimme gimme gimme, make it quick, make it punchy, make it easily digestible. Don’t need to really soak it in, it’s just going to come out the other end anyway because, like a lot of fast food, I’m going to be hungry again in a little while and whatever is to hand will do. What’s the next leadership model I need to (rapidly) familiarise myself with, then?
This WEF report, however, sets out more than just a model. It’s a descriptive, and rather compelling, vision of what it could mean to be a leader and also points the way to how we could regard leader development in a VUCA world. When the world we navigate is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, how do we respond? As the report states, integral to effective leadership is the inner journey leaders must embark upon. This is not about tips and strategies, rather it is something to which there are no short-cuts. Developing self-knowing can sometimes feel elusive. Just as we get to grips with one thing, it can seem to vanish, unlike technical information, for which there is a manual.
There are concepts and phenomena that are becoming more ubiquitous and mainstream such as “emotional intelligence“, “mirror neurons“, “flourishing” and all those other really interesting things that science and rigorous research are demonstrating have some truth to them. Any leader who wishes to remain relevant and become more effective would do well to familiarise themselves with some of these, however knowing about them and actually applying them to oneself are two different things. There is a world of difference between a seminar that describes emotional intelligence and an experiential workshop in which you immerse yourself in stretching your abilities to relate with people and in which you practice reversing roles with others. You will gain information from the one, but the insights gained may not result in changing who you are. You will become different as a result of the other.
In answer to the question, “What is the best model of leadership?” I would suggest, it depends. Not terribly helpful I know, but it depends on who you are and that question is one to which you are far better placed to answer than me. We will all find various models or tools of more or less use. We will all find different descriptions of leader behaviour of more or less relevance. One thing is sure: learning who we are is essential if we are indeed “to inspire, touch and move the brains and souls of those around us” and the effectiveness of a model is, I suggest, going to be directly correlated to the level of self-knowing that the person attempting to apply it has achieved.
Models are all well and good but I believe the chief question to address is not “What is the best model?” but “How can I become more authentic?” or “Who am I and how do I bring the real me to my role as a leader?” In my time, I’ve encountered people who are not in formally-recognised “leadership” roles, but who exercise themselves with this question daily and exhibit what I would call excellent leader capabilities. This is the kind of thinking I infer from the WEF report: that leader development is not just for those in management roles, but in a social economy, leader capabilities are people capabilities. All kinds of people who bring a kind of authenticity and real human-ness to their work indicate the good stuff that more CEOs would do well to take heed of. There have been the internet provider’s customer service representatives who answer my grumpy phone calls and who manage to both help me solve my technical problems as well as ease my frustrations and keep me as a customer. That’s leadership. There were the hotel reservation staff who actually listened to my concerns and went the extra mile, and before I even check in have provided me an experience of customer service that makes me feel like I’ll be staying there again and again. That’s leadership.
A model of leadership ought, in my view, be descriptive, rather than prescriptive. In a world still dominated by “I want”, “What can I get?” and “Just give me the 10 top tips,” we need to be careful of limiting our development as leaders to descriptions of one aspect of this without also taking on board that the task at hand is self-discovery. Fine to learn a new top tip, but we have to avoid reducing leadership to a set of behaviours or a set of attitudes. Layering these on without also looking inside will be inauthentic. Who are you really, underneath all that make-up? Authentic leadership and being an authentic leader seems to me much more about being the leaders we want to be, not modelling ourselves in accordance with the latest trend, which could be akin to wearing someone else’s clothes which are slightly ill-fitting and in which we never really feel comfortable.
“Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life. There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning.” Peter Senge
Part of discovering who we want to be as a leader implies doing something that nobody else has done in the entire history of the universe: being you. I sometimes joke that a really useful personality metric would be one that has not four or 16 or 30 types of people, but seven billion. Certainly, we have more that unites us than separates us; certainly we share 99% of our genes with mice, but the chemistry of all the roles we enact in our lives synthesises into one and only one unique living entity.
I have made the point in a couple articles that we humans learn best when in the company of other humans. I have also made the point that it is nonsense to teach children that they must “do their own work”. I am not contradicting myself when I advocate for discovering oneself and being the unique leader you want to be. It is a interesting paradox that humans do learn best with cooperating with others and interacting with others, but that we need to expend our own energy and leave our own comfort zones if we are to learn anything. Doing our own learning, however, does not mean isolating yourself from the input and assistance of others. We do learn by watching what others do and adopting some of their ways of being, adapting them to fit our personal values. Adopt, adapt and improve. We learn by giving and receiving feedback from others.
When Ackoff said, “If each part of a system is made to operate as efficiently as possible, the system as a whole will not operate as effectively as possible. The performance of a system depends more on how its parts interact than on how they act independently of each other,” he could have also been referring to each of us as individual systems within larger systems. Maximising our intellect without doing the work on ourselveswill not make us better leaders. As the WEF report says, part of learning how to manage in a VUCA world is related to growing “head” and “hand” skills. These are given greater impact when growing the “heart” skills. They are inextricably linked. If I was to ask you which was the most important organ in your body, you might struggle to answer. None are more important, all are essential and they all need each other in order to have a healthy and well-functioning body. Same thing applies. No use learning the latest tips for having robust performance conversations if you are shy of real encounter with another human being.
If self-development is a journey you wish to undertake, I would signpost a few things:
It’s divergent. All the answers don’t become apparent all at once. It’s unpredictable. If you are someone who needs to always know “why” before you do the next thing, you will need to learn how to manage your frustration. For myself, I have had to develop greater equanimity in the face of confusion. Breathing helps. I often wish I could show the same patience towards myself that I have with others, but there’s more grist for my mill. Sometimes the “why” is the last thing to come (if at all). Doing something which uses the word “toolbox” is probably not ideal because what you’ll learn about yourself cannot always be listed as an inventory beforehand.
It’s messy. If you are someone who needs to be in control, you will also need to learn how to manage your anxiety. Self-awakeness involves seeing things that we may not always like about ourselves and embracing them as part of who we are. It involves “crossing the threshold of your doubts and fears,” as Puig also says. I’ve had to develop greater balance in myself in order to help with this one. Recently, I received feedback about something and I literally felt wobbly. Nature and walking (or even better, walking in nature) helps me with this one.
It’s developmental. If you need “step 1, step 2, step 3″, you will probably need to let that go. Letting a two-year old take you for a walk would be good training for that. It’s not a linear “from A to B” sort of thing, it’s more like from “EH??” to “Be”: a meander from one interesting thing to another. The “heart” journey is one on which each step builds on the previous ones and each step reveals the next thing to head towards. You can’t plan this journey, but you can set your bearings to head in a direction. Developing more “flow” has helped me to meet this one. Travelling in Uganda, India and Nepal in my late 20s taught me about flow. I remember looking down from my hotel balcony onto a Mumbai street when I first arrived and it literally looked like a river flowing. You dive in and go with it or get exhausted trying to swim upstream.
Because the landscape is uncharted and confusing, this inner journey really can be quite unsettling. I recently challenged someone inadvertently on a belief they have of themselves. They knew that in a social workplace, it is important to be a good listener and empathic towards others. I could hear that they “got it” intellectually. When they said, “Of course I’m really good at empathising with my staff and understanding where they come from,” I naively asked, “How would you know that?” They blushed, the smile turned to worry and something seemed to unsettle them, almost like they had uncovered something they hadn’t encountered in themselves before. Rather than become defensive or brush it off, they boldly decided to dig a little deeper. Brave soul. We need courage to acknowledge our shortcomings (or at least acknowledge that we might have some!).
Using your powers for good? How would you know? Too many folks in business still operate out of an “egosystem” mentality and not an “ecosystem” mentality (thanks to Otto Scharmer of MIT). I still hear managers say to me, “I need to be in control of what happens around here.” Really? If we continue to operate unconsciously out of mindsets that are not conducive to a healthy system, what hope for business? Self-discovery involves becoming awake to our prejudices (Theory X anyone?) and our personally constructed glass ceilings.
Do you believe you are being supportive, empathic and compassionate? How would you know?
Do you think you know yourself? How would you know?
June 24, 2012
One of the most satisfying contracts I’ve had involved working with a group of team leaders on a manufacturing line back in 2005. We had an introductory tour of the factory floor before we engaged with them and I saw what you would expect to see on an assembly line. Articles being put together in sequence in order to turn out a finished product. Repetitive, time-pressured, loud and VERY hot. Upon meeting with this group and getting to know them, I was astounded to learn that most of them had been with the company for over 10 years, the longest serving being about 25 years. Much to my shame, I will admit that my astonishment was based on a prejudice I had about repetitive work: that it is personally unrewarding, it provides little room for personal development and offered little real challenge to those who carried it out. I never imagined that in this day and age, people would voluntarily choose to stay in a job that involved doing much the same thing, day in and day out, for mediocre financial reward. How wrong I was and how much I learnt from these folks, and their company, about satisfaction and engagement. We were contracted to do some development work which would assist them to grow, not just as team leaders, but as people. This should have given me a clue that this manufacturing company was different from most workplaces.
My memories of this arose thanks to Bob Marshall’s recent post, The Games People Play. The first line really grabbed me: “Gamification bugs me.” I, too, feel uneasy about gamification. I recalled this factory floor and the people who made it run and remembered that engagement at work is not about making it all fun fun fun. While I’m certainly no puritan and I accept that work is better if it’s fun, I would suggest that trying to dilute the meaningless of some jobs by gamifying it is missing the mark entirely. Sure, people are more productive when they’re having fun, but I contend that fun is not about “silly dress-up day” or paper airplane contests. I googled “how to make work fun” and I was disappointed (but not too surprised) to see it was all stuff aimed at brightening up your day, bringing humour into the workplace and having fun, but I couldn’t see anything that was related to actually changing the business on a deeper level so that the work itself became engaging. I believe that gamification sits within the old mindset of those who ascribe to Theory X: that people are inherently work-shy, unmotivated and uncreative and need to be motivated by the old carrot and stick. In other words, if you reward a behaviour, you get more of it or if you punish a behaviour you get less of it. Trying to turn dull, silo-ed work into a game is just another bright shiny thing, to my mind.
Just as genuine engagement is not about trying to window-dress tedium with toys, neither is engagement about enticing people with pots of money. That manufacturing company did not apply the carrot and stick to get people to stay engaged. They did something bigger. Firstly, to borrow a phrase from Daniel Pink, they paid people enough so that they took money off the table. I’ll add that they don’t earn a fortune, but they earn enough so that it’s not an issue. Once money was dispensed with as a motivator, they applied themselves to growing a workplace where people can achieve something even better, something that Daniel Pink and others assert creates real engagement: meaning, mastery and autonomy (MMA). I recommend watching this compelling ten-minute clip of Daniel Pink discussing motivation at work, where he sets these ideas out.
As Pink states in that clip, the science shows that we humans care about mastery very very deeply. The science shows that we want to be self-directed. THE SCIENCE SHOWS. I don’t think I’m making it up when I say that people want to be successful in their lives. People want to do something they feel is connected to something bigger than themselves. People want to learn and to keep learning to do better. People want to feel in control of what goes on in their lives and to have real input into workplace decisions that affect them. People want all these things from their work and unless businesses change, the gamifying fad will quickly lose its lustre as people wake up and realise that nothing has really changed. And nothing will have really changed for the business either; they’ll have to find the next bright shiny thing……unless they take the courageous path and transform how they do business.
There are no shortcuts and no magic bullets to creating engagement. Now, though, in the mistaken belief that there is, some businesses are trying to divert people’s attention from repetitiveness and routine and make work fun. Everything has to be fun fun fun. Was Huxley right when he foretold how the human race would be kept placid and compliant by a daily dose of soma? For soma, read gamification.
In a lot of cases, when I see some kind of game element embedded in a retention or marketing strategy, what I actually hear is, “What I sell/ask people to do is intrinsically dull so I’ll use a little smoke and mirrors to get you to engage with my product/my service/my company/your job.” If the premise is that people enjoy playing games more than they enjoy work, then trying to gamify boring work is looking at the symptom, not the cause. And if your product or brand is lacklustre and uninspiring, gamifying it will not change its intrinsic dullness.
I don’t want to come across as some old fuddy-duddy. I enjoy games. I have games on my iPhone and I enjoy an boys’ night with beers and PS3. When I’m in the world of Angry Birds or Assassin’s Creed, I find what any good game developer knows makes a good game: autonomy, mastery and meaning. I also find MMA in a cryptic crossword, so it’s not a new phenomenon. But I find these things within the world of the game. It is specious logic to say, then, that just because an engaging game will have these three ingredients, that you can generate these three things in your customers or employees by turning what you do into a game.
When we wake up in the morning, how magnificent if our first thoughts are “I wonder what I can learn today?” or “I wonder how I can enhance someone else’s life today?” or “I wonder what joy I can find in my day today?” or even “I wonder if I will experience some things, good or bad, that stretch me or challenge me today?” NOT ”I can’t wait to get to work so I can earn more badges, points or move up the leaderboard,” or “Oh great! It’s cupcake day.”
We want meaning in our daily lives.
We want to master something in our daily lives.
We want to be self-directed in our daily lives.
Turning routine chores or repetitive tasks into some sort of game may make the hours pass by quicker, but it does not provide meaning to this work. But somehow, that manufacturing company found ways for people to find MMA in their repetitive assembly line work. How did they do it? Short answer: they changed the business. Even back in 2005, what I saw was evidence of a culture of engagement, participation and continuous improvement. They haven’t stopped manufacturing the same product they had manufactured since the 1800s. They changed (and continue to change) how they ran the business. To me, they are a living response to Deming’s quote, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” They are interested in surviving and thriving, so they have embarked down the path of business transformation. The culture they are careful to steward is one that emphasises effectiveness and ensures that people who work there gain meaning, mastery and autonomy from their work. Any systems thinker would say that these things are all connected.
- People on the factory floor are encouraged to see the bigger picture. Even though they may be responsible for one part of the assembly line, the focus is on the effectiveness of the whole. The focus is kept on the quality of the whole finished product, the customer and the company brand. Because they see that they are contributing to something bigger than the efficiency of their small part, they do this rather old-fashioned thing and take pride in their work. Poor quality work is a concern for the whole business, not just one part. Talking to some of those people from the factory floor back in 2005 and I found they actually cared how effective everyone else was because they knew it affected them too.
- People have the opportunity to challenge themselves. They are encouraged to move to other parts of the assembly line, to learn about other processes that go on and to develop themselves technically. People who show leadership potential are encouraged and supported to extend themselves, take greater responsibility and receive leadership development in the form of mentoring and formal learning. The business provides opportunities for people to learn (and to fail). Even while monitoring high standards, this business views “failure” as an opportunity for the whole business to learn and re-tool itself. The whole of the business, the factory floor included, is infused with the ethic of continuous improvement.
- People are encouraged to participate. Workers’ fora, genuine consultation, devolved decision-making all happen. This business knows that the best problem-solving will happen amongst the people it directly affects, with the input (but not the coercion) of management.
Trying to turn repetitive work into some sort of game in order to increase engagement is just Snake Oil 2.0. It misses the point. It’s trickery to try to get people engaged in something which instrinsically adds nothing to their lives. It sits within the old carrot and stick school of motivation, which sits nicely alongside Theory X.
Gamification, or trying to change behaviour at work by turning everything into a game, is a practice rooted within the Theory X assumption that is just not true, but that most organisations operate under. I’m sticking my neck out, obviously, by using that word “true”. However, when Copernicus challenged the “truth” of an Earth-centric universe, his “heresy” was actually true. It just took a while until it could be proven and then another little while for people to believe it. I am satisfied enough with the work of people such as Douglas McGregor, Martin Seligman and Daniel Pink to say that Theory X is just plain wrong. It is more true to say that people will instead self-motivate under the right conditions. To me, however, the right conditions are not built on flimsy gamification.
Theory X and Theory Y are not polar opposites. They are two different beasts. ”Carrot and stick” and MMA do not sit at opposite ends of a continuum of motivation in the same way that doorknobs and breakfast cereal do not sit at opposite ends of a continuum. They are entirely different things related to entirely different paradigms. As Bob Marshall says, gamification is doing the wrong things righter. It is tinkering with a bad model.
If you think that what you do is essentially un-engaging, stop trying to dope people up with their daily dose of soma and take a good hard look at how you structure your business instead. Great work is fun. We feel good when we do well. We feel good when we are enabled to do well, too.
Why not craft a work culture where MMA is inherent in the company structure? Why not take up real leadership and transform what you do and how you do it so that it is truly something people want to engage with? Why not make your product or service so bloody good that people actually want it?
June 17, 2012
I speak with managers who describe their frustrations at dealing with people they call “stupid”. They get angry at people who are clumsy and fail to learn from mistakes, who don’t share their passion for the work, who are slow and indifferent, who try to get away with the barest minimum of effort, who exhibit little curiosity or desire to learn. I’m no apologist for willful sabotage, maliciousness or indolence at work, but there is another way of looking at these behaviours and attributes. When I similarly find myself getting impatient with people who don’t live up to my standards of work, I have to remind myself that perhaps they are not deliberately performing poorly. If we hold on to the idea that workplaces are machines and the people within them just parts of the machine, then I suppose it makes sense to label “inefficient” ones as stupid. Also, if we still hold on to the idea that we can use words like “efficient” to describe humans at work, we will continue to get angry at their individual performance. My suggestion is not to get angry at “stupid” people, but to think bigger. Think bigger by eliminating blindness to the system; see how the system will affect people’s performance at work. Think bigger, also, by viewing people you lead as humans, not resources.
People such as Maslow and Glasser posited that we are driven by some basic needs. Without getting into a critique of the details of Maslow’s or Glasser’s work, the essence is similar. We behave in ways that attempt to meet our needs for:
- survival (food, shelter, clothing)
- belonging (love, affection, relationships)
- significance (power, self-esteem, competence)
- personal development (fun, learning and fulfillment)
- freedom (autonomy, independence, self-mastery)
It beggars belief that, if a manager is willing to acknowledge that they, themselves, are driven by these needs, they would hold an entirely different view of those they purport to manage. The work of Harvard Professor Douglas McGregor has something to add here. His XY Theory describes what motivates humans at work. In “The Human Side of Enterprise”, he proposed that a manager will view workers in one of two ways: that they are inherently averse to work and that rigid systems of control are required in order to get them to do what you want them to do (Theory X) or that they are naturally ambitious and, given the right conditions, they will be self-motivated and contribute willingly to the success and effectiveness of their workplaces (Theory Y). Whether a manager ascribes to Theory X or Theory Y will influence their style of management; authoritarian and controlling or enabling and facilitative. McGregor set out Theory XY over 50 years ago, however some managers are still possessed with the idea that people are inherently lazy and are solely motivated by threats, intimidation and reward schemes. Time to update. Even in the realm of dog training, many of us long ago disposed of Barbara Woodhouse’s old ‘choke chain’ as inhumane and unnecessary. As Deming observed, you can beat a horse to make it go faster, but only for a short while. Threats and micro-managing might work on some level, but eventually the business will hit the laws of physics and diseconomies of scale will kick in. Time to dispose of the view that managing is simply about getting people to do what you want them to do.
I find Theory X and Theory Y of great relevance to the challenges of the 21st century. Continuing to see the world through Theory X leads to a tayloristic style of management, which has become increasingly redundant. It is a theory which says that humans are only as creative as they need to be to find a work-avoidance scheme. It says that a prime motivator is money or fear of loss of money. To my thinking, it breeds cultures of cynicism, selfishness and short-termism. If we now believe that slavery is an abomination, why would we continue to believe that paid-for slavery is acceptable? Furthermore, why would any leader who wants their business to succeed in the modern world want to believe the worst about people?
Even Frederick Taylor knew that workers have a vested interest in their own well-being, but if we view motivation according to Theory X, we will naturally translate some ‘well-being-maximising’ behaviours as “malingering”, “loafing” or “getting through the day”. If the system is screwy, why blame people for playing by its rules? If you emphasise measurements on an individual’s performance, as opposed to their wider contribution to something bigger, why be surprised when people just do the “bare minimum”? If you fail to steward a culture which values diversity, creativity and contribution to the whole, why scorn people for being disengaged from the purpose of the business?
Theory Y holds that people look for meaning in their lives and in their work. It maintains that under the right conditions, people will find joy in their work. Under the right conditions, people will also use their work as a vehicle to express their creativity and realise their potential. I will borrow this quote (thanks to Louise Altman) from Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, “For me, my role is about unleashing what people already have inside them that are maybe suppressed in most work environments.” Makes good sense to me. He seems to know what goes on in most work environments and is interested in updating what goes on at work.
I note how Theory Y says that people will be autonomous and responsible given the right conditions. Here is where a leader’s responsibility lies: in stewarding the right conditions. How can a leader contribute to putting the right conditions in place? One of these managers I regularly talk with (I’ll call him Manager Y) has cottoned on to the idea that humans and human systems are complex beings that cannot be analysed or managed from an outdated, mechanistic paradigm. He has become more interested in creating the right conditions so that frustration decreases while effectiveness increases. He has been updating his view of himself and his job, so he is more orientated to leading people than managing ‘stuff‘. He has acknowledged that he is succeeding in creating the right conditions because he has changed who he is and how he is. He has courageously decided to look at himself and how his role responses to people used to create the ‘wrong conditions’ for people to work effectively. In this, he has undertaken to develop new roles for himself.
One of the roles he has refined is that of Boundary-Setter. Like most of us, he has always been aware that systems and processes are necessary at work, but his attitude towards them was a little skewed. To his mind, systems and processes equated to an authoritarian style of management. He was uncomfortable with the idea that he might be one of those types of managers, so he compensated by managing people on an ad hoc basis. He has realised, however, that systems and processes are not a bad thing. The modern manager enacts their Boundary-Setter role and applies systems and processes with a lighter touch than in the old days. Effective systems and processes are not arbitrary nor exhaustive. Done effectively, they are the boundaries within which people can operate comfortably and safely. Useful systems and processes will be robust, simply communicated, easily understood and not so restrictive that they inhibit autonomy or individual creativity. Manager Y was labouring under an idea that systems and processes might be too confining, however, in an attempt to become less of a hard-nosed, taylorian manager, threw the baby out with the bath water, dispensed with a consistent set of guidelines and ended up being seen as a push-over. Now, he is growing consistency balanced with personal responsibility. Just like Goldilocks’ porridge, businesses need systems and processes that are “just right”.
Another role Manager Y has been developing is Appreciator-of-People. This role thinks, feels and behaves in ways which promote self-esteem and confidence in others. He knows for a fact that people know exactly how to do their jobs. He knows for a fact that they are capable (for he has seen it in the past with his own eyes, so neither he nor they can pretend they don’t know what they’re doing). His starting point has now shifted from “they’re lazy and they need me to stay on their backs” to “they know what they’re doing, how can I get out of their way?” This significant shift in his attitude means that he now demonstrates trust and respect.
In the role of Trusting Auxiliary, Manager Y is honing his capabilities around supporting and coaching. He is letting people have more space to do their jobs and after a short, initial period of adjustment, people are filling this space with responsibility-taking and team-based problem-solving. He continues to have regular catch-ups with his team, but has changed the tone of those. No longer is he one of the Spanish Inquisition endlessly asking why something didn’t get done. Instead, he asks what gets in the way of people working well or how he can assist. This is no mere lip-service exercise. Herein is how he has changed who he is because he has adopted a genuine curiosity and naiveté to his questioning. People know if you are questioning them to catch them out or if you are questioning them to find the answer to a question. People know if you ask them a question which you have already answered in your head. He also starts with what they are doing well, rather than what they’re not doing well enough. This means that people are becoming less fearful about discussing mistakes because his approach is orientated to learning, not punishment.
Just as I will keep banging on about coaching people from a strengths-based mindset, I will keep banging on about how important it is for leaders to re-cast themselves as Systems Stewards. In this role, Manager Y has found his job less burdensome because he is concerning himself less with micro-managing and making sure things “get done” than he is with creating boundaries of effective work behaviour, doing that big picture “vision stuff” (daydreaming, looking into the future, wish-listing, strategising, networking and influencing) and making sure that communication channels are open and transparent.
Let’s please stop seeing people as inherently lazy, irresponsible and inefficient and, instead, take Tony Hsieh’s or Manager Y’s approach and see them as complex humans with a natural drive to learn, self-actualise and thrive. If we must continue using things like Key Performance Indicators, let’s keep them in perspective. They are just that: merely an indicator and a limited one at best. It indicates, it points to: it doesn’t give the full picture of what is going on. It indicates that something you are narrowly measuring is either doing OK or it is not. An indicator such as this does not, however, indicate whether a person’s performance is related to a badly-led culture. It does not indicate whether someone is fully supported and resourced to do their job effectively. It does not indicate whether someone’s intrinsic human needs are being realised. Time for an update.
May 28, 2012
Business leaders: when I use the word “culture”, do you screw up your face and say “Love and peace, man”? I’m no aging hippie; in any case, I was born 10 years too late to be part of that movement. Business culture is no wiffly-waffly discretionary add-on. It’s central to effectiveness and business improvement. I do admit a fondness for better communication, greater self-awareness, lots more empathy and way less fear in the workplace (man), but this comes out of a firmly held view that there is huge scope for workplaces to be more humanised, which will have a huge impact on effectiveness. I also have a firmly held view that a real leader is one who seeks to steward the business culture; not find things to measure so they can prove how useless people are. My thinking about “culture” comes out of the intellectual rigour that is Systems Thinking.
To illustrate the power of culture, have a look at what is going on for Rebekah Brooks. Former editor of both The Sun and News of the World tabloids and former chief executive of News International, Brooks is reported as feeling astonished at the treatment she is receiving by prosecuting authorities in the UK, in the aftermath of the phone hacking scandal that caused Rupert Murdoch to shut down The News of the World. She is quoted as saying, “Whilst I have always respected the criminal justice system, you have to question (do you Rebekah?) whether this decision has been made on a proper impartial assessment of the evidence. Although I understand the need for a thorough investigation, I am baffled by the decision to charge me.” Her husband goes on to say that she is the subject of a witch-hunt. Good word, that.
After reading about this, I was left wondering if anyone who ever had NI “journalists” camped outside their home for days on end in the pursuit of some salacious tittle-tattle felt hounded or witch-hunted or if those whose phones were hacked felt anger or bafflement at the invasion of their privacy? I also wonder if anyone who worked for News International ever felt compromised by the culture of the system? Or felt compromised by the practice of relentlessly stalking some celebrity or politician in pursuit of juicy gossip (usually not in the public interest, but more often in the public fascination)? Or felt compromised by the use of elaboration, insinuation or hyperbole in order to create prurient effect? I wonder if anyone who worked for News International has ever felt fearful about speaking up about unethical, unfair or unreasonable practices (such as phone hacking) within that business? I suspect they did.
Did Brooks really think that she wouldn’t be subject to the forces of the system which she presided over? The inquiry investigating the phone hacking has even heard that Brooks herself had her phone hacked. Surprising? Not much. In a system that, according to a former News of the World employee, was permeated by fear and riven with unethical practices, should she really be baffled that she felt its harsh bite? This same employee alleges lying, fabrication and blackmail and goes on to say that while he couldn’t justify his actions, the culture at the News of the World was somewhat to blame. Makes sense to me.
While I feel sympathy for anyone who is hounded and unfairly spotlighted, it is no surprise to me that Rebekah Brooks would be subject to the very same system forces that The Sun or News of the World’s “victims” were. I don’t say this out of schadenfreude; to my eyes, I simply see this as part of the whole. Not for nothing do we have expressions such as, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” or “Those who judge will be judged.” She is unfortunately, feeling the effects of the very same system. If you set up and maintain a system which is corrupt, hostile and defined by fear, you will also feel its effects.
What could stand in the way of someone challenging a sick or ineffective culture? Should they overcome their systems blindness and open their eyes to a system’s dysfunction, why might someone continue to do the “dumb” thing?
“A bad system will defeat a good person, every time.” Deming
In many businesses, the fear is palpable. Managers at all levels behave in ways that communicate, either directly or by implication, that people should not challenge the boss, challenge the status quo or give honest feedback. I’ve seen businesses where people fear doing or saying anything that might damage career prospects, where they worry about being excluded from decision-making because their ideas might seem a little too crazy and therefore an inconvenience to conventional thinking or where they are concerned about being judged for having an idea that is not clever enough. They see managers as task-masters as opposed to leaders who are there to assist them.
“Your people are doing their best, but their best efforts cannot compensate for your inadequate and dysfunctional system.” Scholtes
While I entirely accept that people need to know what is expected of them in their work so that they can make a valuable contribution to the business’ objectives, putting emphasis on measuring individual performance without attending to the culture will be detrimental to the whole. Even though a leader can legitimately challenge someone’s performance, there will be a line that they cross when a challenge is perceived as a threat. Even if fear, threats or intimidation manage to get people to achieve their KPIs, eventually the culture will undermine their efforts anyway.
“Beat horses and they will run faster….for a while.” Deming
Greater self-awareness on the part of the leader is essential, therefore. When you issue a challenge, does it come out of irritation? Or do you play the role of Investigator, seeking to uncover what may be behind poor performance: inadequate resources or information? fragmented workplace relationships? a need for training or development? lack of clarity? undefined vision? All of these things sit within the remit of the leader to address and an investigative approach will uncover what needs attending to in the system.
Be very careful how you generate greater effectiveness. Be very careful, also, to do things which proactively generate a culture of trust and collaboration. While most of us like to think we are peaceful people, if we join a system characterised by fear, we will eventually come down with the same sickness as everyone else and begin respond to people from a fear-based paradigm. Managers in such a system will therefore become driven by fear and abuse their authority. Drive out fear. Leaders must become more self-aware. They must notice how they respond and relate to people. They must be better able to notice themselves and understand how they inculcate fear in the culture. Before leaping on an individual about their performance, look at the culture you steward:
- Do you think that people limit themselves to saying what they think you want to hear?
- How clear are people as to what is expected of them?
- How well-resourced are people so that they can do their jobs? Do they have the information and networks in place that mean they can get on and do it? How would you know? If people require further training or development, what opportunities do you provide for them?
- How do you respond to “failure”?
- How competitive or political is your business? How much do you witness (or know of) backstabbing, damning with faint praise, belittling or undermining? (…and how much do you do this?)
What are you supposed to do about it? I hate 10 top tips; life is way messier than that. There are some directions you could head towards though. This is the stuff of culture.
- Make sure everyone knows the game you are all playing together. Ensure people have a clear understanding of the “why” of the business. Ensure people know exactly what is expected of them, the business has robust (but not too restrictive) systems and processes and that they have all they need to do their jobs. This is your job.
- Model trust in others. How are you going to drive out fear unless you embody trust. If you don’t trust people, take up some personal development. Can they trust you?
- Be curious, not punitive. In the face of “failure” or “dysfunction”, take up the role of Investigative Consultant, not the Sheriff; if Deming was correct, there are adjustments to the whole system that will probably lead to longer-lasting improvements. How do you respond to failure? Responding to people and situations with greater equanimity will go a long way to driving out fear. Struggling to develop curiosity and equanimity? Take up some personal development and deal with your anger issues.
- Be patient. Shifting a system does not happen overnight. While you might get “good behaviour” for a short while after tearing strips off someone, making adjustments to the whole system will not necessarily generate immediate results. However they will be longer lasting and much more significant for the business. Having trouble with being patient? Take up some personal development.
- Look for patterns. Not much in this universe is a one-off. If you can’t see the pattern, you just haven’t seen it yet. Address systemic patterns, take out blame, think bigger.