I have been interested in the furore that has followed Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banning workers from working from home. I’ve also read that Hubert Joly, the new chief at struggling retailer Best Buy has also just scrapped their Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) for their corporate employees. Corporate staff who, until now, have been allowed to telecommute, as long as they got their results, will now be required to work at the corporate headquarters, though some managers will still have discretion to accommodate some workers. Joly’s intention is to shift the culture to one of greater accountability. A Best Buy spokesman said, “It makes sense to consider not just what the results are but how the work gets done.”
Think about it for a minute.
Like many, the initial assumption I leapt to was that here were those awful authoritarians: new in the job, trying to make their mark, trying desperately to cling to hierarchical power and going about it rather clumsily. Isn’t the modern thing to show respect to workers and give them autonomy? As long as they achieve their outputs, we don’t have to regulate their movements, right? On further reflection and having read about the possible motivation behind the Yahoo ban, I can see it might make some sense. What if, say, she was looking at Yahoo as a systems thinker and taking action on the system? What if, say, she wasn’t trying to do the old-fashioned thing of managing the people? I enjoyed the sub-heading of an article in the Guardian about Mayer’s decision: “Marissa Mayer shows she knows little about managing people with this offensive memo to Yahoo employees.” Perhaps. Perhaps she actually knows a lot about managing people and knows that it’s a waste of time. Perhaps she knows that in order to get greater effectiveness in an organisation, you actually don’t spend your energies on managing the people, but you work on the system. Maybe, as another Guardian article sets out, she is focussing on what matters for Yahoo at this moment in time and space.
Think about it.
HR consultants and originators of ROWE Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson wrote in an open letter to Mayer, “We don’t think you deliberately meant to send a message to Yahoo employees that you are an Industrial Age dictator that prefers to be a baby sitter versus a 21st century CEO that can lead a company into the future. Or did you?” Good question. Again, let’s suspend judgement and consider the shift in policy. Could be that Mayer is one of those Industrial Age clock-watchers. Might be that she is looking to make a change to Yahoo’s ecosystem in order to get more creativity and innovation going.
I don’t have any special insights into what Mayer was thinking, but I watch what she is doing and am reminded that in a world still dominated by the command-and-control, someone who is acting like a systems thinker might sometimes look as if they are doing the old thing. That is because we haven’t enough “systems thinking stuff” going on to know what that actually looks like. How, for example, would we know if a manager’s tantrum comes out control-freakery or quality-freakery? Looks like the same tantrum, might use some of the same shouty words, but might actually come from a “we are doing crap work” mindset, not a “you are an idiot and I need to whip you into place” mindset. I’m also not suggesting that Mayer is some kind of enlightened goddess; she is as flawed as the rest of us and perhaps her way of going about the shift in working practices was a little graceless. I only want to say, let’s suspend our judgements until we examine a little more closely what might be behind her bold move, and observe if the shift in policy does, indeed, generate greater innovation and collaboration at Yahoo.
Interestingly, in a recent interview, Zappos’ Tony Hsieh said:
“Research has shown that companies with strong cultures outperform those without in the long-term financially. So we’re big, big believers in building strong company cultures. And I think that’s hard to do remotely.
We don’t really telecommute at Zappos. We want employees to be interacting with each other, building those personal relationships and relationships outside of work as well.
What we found is when they have those personal connections that productivity increases because there’s higher levels of trust. Employees are willing to do favours for each others because they’re not just co-workers, but also friends, and communication is better. So we’re big believers in in-person interactions.”
So am I. I know from experience that I get a real buzz from real-life interactions and that in most cases, I find a lost mojo when I’m doing my thing in the room with someone who’s available to me and we are giving each other our attention.
One of the things to be mindful of is that a one-size-fits-all approach is not the way to go. Just because whatever it is that works for Zappo’s and Google is good for them, it doesn’t mean that other businesses should necessarily follow suit. A good systems thinker will become intimately familiar with their system and do what works for that system. One of the exceptions that Guardian writer takes is that having to work in the office is inconvenient. She describes how she manages her time and gets her articles written. All good, I say. Once again, it’s important to look at the details of what is happening. In the case of a solo journalist, perhaps it would seem madness to compel her to sit at a desk in an office when she could produce quality journalism sitting at home. If the job was to co-write an article, however, I wonder if being side-by-side with the co-writer might produce even better quality work than each one working remotely, emailing the work back and forth. Just an idea. The point is that we need to know what the work is…..and to consider how best to get it done.
Think about it….
Google’s workplaces are famously enviable, but I would suggest that it’s the smart thing to do to focus on the purpose, not simply on making a “fun place to work”. How did Google’s offices happen? Someone designs them. Someone engineers the physical spaces and what is in them. To make it a fun place to work? Well, yes and no. I would suggest that that someone did not simply design something that is “fun” for fun’s sake. That kind of workplace is often mocked in the popular press or programmes like The Simpsons as funky and cool, but there is a hint of “…but they probably don’t do much work there”. I would suggest that some good thought has been given over to the design of the system at Google: the working processes as well as the community that will carry them out. What does a business like Google require? Creativity and innovation. “The philosophy is very simple,” Craig Nevill-Manning, Google’s Manhattan engineering director said. “Google’s success depends on innovation and collaboration. Everything we did was geared toward making it easy to talk.” In order to get this, what would be the optimal way of engineering these things? Draw on nature, be conscious that systems are self-organising and thrive on variety, and that, at the same time, they can be nurtured. The ecosystem within which such fruits could flourish can be designed. Google started with a philosophy. They have a purpose and a way of thinking as to how to make that purpose come to life. They are enviable because they have been designed with the work in mind, not on fun; I believe the “fun” is, in one sense, a by-product. In any case, as Teresa Amabile, a business administration professor at Harvard Business School says, “I’ve found that people do their most creative work when they’re motivated by the work itself.”
According to John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University, studies show that people who work at home are significantly more productive but less innovative. He says “If you want innovation, then you need interaction,” he said. “If you want productivity, then you want people working from home.” That, to me, seems slightly simplistic, but I get the point. Also, Tony Hsieh seems to find that productivity and working together in a shared workspace are linked, so there you go. In any case, you don’t simply institute a ROWE because it’s what people want and seems to be one of those lovely perks that makes people happy. You do something like that if it helps to create the ecosystem that best nurtures the work. You craft a system that is best designed to meet the purpose of the business.
All of this speaks to me because at the heart of the work I do is sociometry. The term was coined by Dr. J.L. Moreno and its basic tenet is that “the quality of an outcome is directly related to the quality of relationship between the people trying to achieve that outcome.” The sociometry, or quality of relationships, within a business, affects the system and the system affects the sociometry. It’s a reflexive relationship. Sociometry and systems thinking are intertwined. I encourage managers to see their role as supportive of those they purport to manage, rather than as controllers. I encourage them to see their role as ensuring people have the resources, information and relationships they need to get on with their work. That last bit sometimes challenges managers because as John Seddon describes, we train managers (if at all) to be good people managers. When I say “ensure people have the relationships they require”, I don’t intend they manage people or try to keep them happy. Odd, huh? I intend the kind of picture that Google have: to engineer and nurture a system which facilitates people interacting with each other. In an older article, I suggested that a good leader is a good sociometrist. Yes, leaders (people) need to develop their relationship capabilities. They also need to develop the bigger picture abilities that facilitate productive and purposeful working relationships to flourish all over the place.
Some have misinterpreted sociometry as “developing skills to get on better with people so I can get them to do what I want them to.” No. Sociometry is an active exploration of the inter-relationships that exist and an uncovering of what is not seen between people, so that they can, together, create new patterns of behaviour with each other. The result is that people work better together. I believe that working on the sociometry is part of working on the system. One of the insights that came to a client of ours recently, as a result of our work with their sociometry, was that they need to redesign their physical space so that they get more of the interactions that lead to the kind of innovation that sits at the heart of their business. In their commitments to action, I see a mirror of the kind of community that Google have created.
In the modern economy, where much of the work that we do is knowledge based, relationships and networks are core. Google’s approach is to engineer serendipity. I enjoy oxymorons. Like spontaneity training. How can you possibly engineer happy accidents? Well, we can’t make happy accidents happen, but we can nurture the ecosystem within which they are more likely to happen.
Attending to the interpersonal also cannot be underestimated. Part of this is examining how people relate to each other and what “elephants” might sit in the room between them. Dealing with these “elephants” is at the heart of sociometry. People learn about themselves and the dynamic of the groups to which they belong. They cooperatively learn how to grapple with the complexity and uncertainty of modern business life. This occurs when a skillful sociometry practitioner assists them to discover what is happening between them and work out new structures of relating.
If creativity and collaboration are core to the business, we can craft workplaces where people are drawn together and interact about the work they are doing. We can design spaces and ways of working where people are more likely to be stimulated to innovate together. Maz Iqbal, in a comment on a recent article of mine wrote, “The pragmatist changes the structure of the system so that the desired behaviour is called forth.” Yes. He also provided a link to the work of Jeppe Hein, an artist who has created some wacky park benches which he designed to encourage more exchange between users and passers-by, giving them a much more social quality. As well as engineering the physical environment, we can also “engineer” the interpersonal by attending to the sociometry. Both of these are conscious systems interventions, both add value and set a business towards achieving its purpose.
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.
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.
October 16, 2012
As a sociatrist, I’m passionate about people in business developing greater ability to stand in each others’ shoes. It’s one of the cornerstones of the work we do at Quantum Shift and is central to nurturing greater health in organisations. This is often given the name “empathy”. I bristle a little, however, when I hear someone say, “I can have empathy for them, but…..” What’s that expression? Everything before the “but” is bulls**t. I go along with Professor Simon Baron Cohen’s idea that empathy sits along a spectrum. I also go along with Martin Buber’s suggestion that the point on the spectrum at which we start treating people as objects is when we are capable of cruelty. At the same time, I would extend this to say that we can go beyond empathy and develop the ability to role reverse with others. There is an embodied knowing that comes via the act of role reversal, beyond mere thought and cognitive understanding, which facilitates a deeper ability to live in someone else’s skin. Getting this at a head, heart and gut level changes our world beyond what we thought possible. It becomes harder to switch off our empathy and behave as if people are mere resources when we have a full experience of what it’s like for them. Personally, I also find that I am more able to stop myself mid-sentence when I hear myself saying, “I understand where they’re coming from, but….” and upon reflection, widen my perspective on the other person a little more. Role reversal helps to unshackle us from the (mostly unconscious) chains we keep ourselves in, with regards our views of other people.
In some circles, it is increasingly accepted that empathy is a key capability of a leader. Even in the face of research, some still ignore this. However, there is a growing tide of evidence that empathy is a core skill for the modern workplace. Empathic ability is positively correlated to better performance as a leader. It facilitates much improved working relationships and in the modern workplace, we often don’t get to choose who we work with. An increasingly diverse workforce creates challenges for us and in order for us to get things done, we need to learn how to get on with a greater variety of working styles, viewpoints and personalities. Getting a deep, felt sense of what it’s like for someone else grants us greater ability to make decisions, be inclusive, resolve conflicts and share responsibility.
I was deeply touched to read of a young man, conservative, self-confessed homophobe and Christian, who decided to live his life for one year as a gay man. He was moved by a Christian friend’s experience of being kicked out of home when she came out as a lesbian and decided that he really wanted to understand what it was like to be gay. This was no mere thought experiment; he was determined to truly walk in the shoes of a homosexual man. By immersing himself in the experience, which included coming out to his family, he developed a profound understanding of what it was like to actually be a gay man. He came out of the year with his faith reaffirmed, along with the belief that gay people need equal rights. I would attribute his insights to the fact that for one year of his life, he gave up his position and fully took up the role of another.
“The challenge of understanding another person and what it takes to truly feel understood by another is at the hub of human social existence”, according to Dr. Dani Yaniv at the University of Haifa, in his 2012 paper, “Dynamics of Creativity and Empathy in Role Reversal: Contributions from Neuroscience.” We are utterly and inextricably linked to all human life. That goes for business, too. Yet how easy it is to dispense with another’s viewpoint if it doesn’t match ours or disregard another’s experience if it’s too far from our ken or to dispose of someone’s creative contributions if they come from a value or belief system we think is irrelevant. I will put my hand up and say I am guilty of these things at times; there are moments when I wish I could have shown more equanimity, generosity of spirit and caring. I’m flawed; there, I’ve said it. Send me back to the factory to be re-programmed.
While it is an interesting paradox that we can never really know what someone else is experiencing, we can develop the ability to role reverse, thus allowing our knowing of others to deepen and unfold. We generate in ourselves a creative empathy that brings new ways of being with people. When we role reverse, we are wholly someone else just for a moment and left to learn from what we discover. Having had a mind-body experience of another’s world, our lives and the lives of others are changed forever, sometimes subtly or, in the case of that young Christian man, quite dramatically. Like that young man, our view of others is expanded, with our own selves intact. We are able to transcend ourselves through the act of role reversal.
Role reversal leads us outside our own experience and world view and into those of another. We cannot unlearn what we have learnt when it’s a visceral, whole person experience. We can, if we really apply ourselves, pretend not to know what it’s like from another’s point of view, but having truly given ourselves to the experience of another’s existence, this would require in us to take up a role of particularly selfish and uncaring dimension. What would be the use of that?
When it comes to empathy, it’s often easier to find it for people with whom we share some values or beliefs. As I referred to in my interview with Dan Oestreich, role reversal takes us beyond empathy, however. When we really get stuck with someone, when they “push our buttons”, it can be hard to find a way to understand that person. Their behaviours and attitudes mystify us and, left unaddressed, we can begin to characterise them by what we see as their faults. We do ourselves and others a disservice when we reduce someone to a bunch of “bad” behaviours. Doing this leaves the salesperson or customer service rep, for example, in a poorer position when they are not able to understand another person’s circumstances accurately. When we see another person’s behaviours as coming from a real and value-based place, we become freer to meet their concerns.
A manager we once worked with in the course of a leader development process described an employee she referred to as a “bad egg”. This manager, I’ll call her Stacey, had the wherewithal to know that this employee, whom I’ll call Emily, was not an intrinsically bad person, but that some of their behaviours at work made it particularly challenging to work alongside. What Stacey wanted to learn was a greater ability in herself to work with Emily. That was the first step: engaging her will. Stacey had made a conscious decision to bring her relationship with Emily into the domain of this workshop and declare that she wanted things to be better. She also recognised that there was something she could do differently in herself that would shine a light on how to approach her relationship with Emily. So, with Stacey, we set up a scenario between her and Emily. This was the second step: mustering the courage to examine the situation. As we began the re-enactment of the scenario, there was a moment when I directed Stacey to reverse roles with Emily. That is, she physically sat in Emily’s chair and adopted Emily’s role. For a moment, Stacey gave up herself and behaved as if she was Emily. This was the third step: giving up herself and becoming the other. There was no acting involved; she was being Emily. When she reversed roles and returned to her primary self, she looked at me and quietly said, “It’s gone.” When I asked her what she meant, she said that she longer viewed Emily as a “bad egg”. She became quite reflective at this point and I could see that she had had a sea-change in her attitude towards Emily. Some weeks later, at a subsequent session, I asked her how she was going with Emily and for a moment, she had to pause to recollect that she had had some issues with her, then said, “Oh, it’s fine now.” She had worked out, from her own creativity, how she could relate to Emily differently, having had the experience of being Emily. This, again, was no thought experiment. Stacey had immersed herself in the role of Emily, giving up her own values and beliefs, knowing that for the purposes of learning something new, she could safely give herself up momentarily and then to return to being herself, her awareness expanded.
This interpersonal process of role reversal facilitates a deep understanding of others that we struggle to achieve via a cognitive thought experiment. Once known, it cannot be unknown. It reveals the bigger picture (the wider system) to us in ways an intellectual exercise cannot. Once seen, it cannot be unseen. Once developed, the ability to role reverse also cannot be faked. It is a whole body capability which takes us beyond empathy.
Developing the ability to role reverse helps to free us to truly serve others; not as “dry” acts of duty, but as genuine service. How much easier it is to be the kind of leader that people need us to be when we are doing it out of an act of our will, not out of obligation. How much more effective we are as customer service officers if our default setting is applying our abilities to really “getting” the person we are dealing with. How much more satisfying it is as a salesperson to engage with another and know intimately what they are looking for.
Understanding others at work is not discretionary.
To my mind, role reversal is not a “tool”; it is not used selectively. It is something which is integrated into who we are and how we express ourselves in relation to others around us. It colours all our interactions and is not a thing to be switched on and off as it suits us. Even rhesus monkeys operate empathically. In an experiment, they were taught to pull a chain to obtain food. When they were shown another monkey receiving an electric shock every time they pulled the chain, they stopped pulling it. One monkey went without food for 12 days. I wonder what Milgram would say about that?
What do you say about that?
August 30, 2012
I overheard a conversation recently where someone said in all seriousness, “In the new way of doing business, cooperation beats competition.” I was amused by the irony of the statement. We are infused with a competitive mindset from our earliest days on this planet, so it makes sense that the language in that statement would reflect this. In transition from one world view to another, we can sometimes only describe what we mean by using linguistic devices that belong to the old. The sentiment, however, rings true for me. Cooperation is, indeed, the way forward. Competition is often the way to get stuck. We are so embedded in competitive capitalism that it is almost impossible to think outside of it.
With the Olympics and Paralympics fresh in mind, competition in its most obvious form looks like a 100m race. Competition in its least sophisticated form looks like the schoolyard bully. Competition in its nascent form of classroom indoctrination looks like rewards and punishments for behaviour, memorisation ability and conformity or lack thereof. Competition in the “educated”, capitalist form of the workplace looks and sounds like subtle putdowns and power games. It is, as Bob Marshall eloquently put it, “promotion commotion”, it is incentives and bonuses, it is passive-aggressiveness, it is anti-social bosses, it is one-upmanship. We also get it in our political systems. ”Big-willy politics” as Simon Jenkins puts it, is the most dangerous form because it appeals to paranoia and prejudice, not reason and humanity. Popular culture brims with competition as lazy TV producers churn out cheap entertainment, mistaking treasure hunts and cooking programmes overdubbed with suspenseful music for drama. The judges even use language which implies death (pay the ultimate price) if the meringue is not crunchy enough. In saying that, I’m not implying competition per se is bad; I would suggest, however, that we default to a mindset and way of behaving which in many cases is counter-productive.
Unsurprising that such behaviours are unseen, condoned or unchecked because the dominant mode of running business is still hierarchical, command-and-control. Inherent in this mindset is competition. Bigger, better, more. A system based on power accumulation will elicit competitive behaviours. Businesses do this with each other and people within organisations do it at a micro-level. Our capitalist, consumerist social structures lead us to operate as if work is a transaction and humans are resources. It is not and they are not. This mindset facilitates a switch in how we view people, from an I-Thou perspective to I-It. According to Professor Simon Baron Cohen, when we switch from an I-Thou perspective to an I-It perspective, we lose empathy for people. Their only value, then, is as a resource that will help me make more profit, advance my position, make me look good, give me some inside information, connect me with someone else I “need” and so on. My belief is that neither organisations nor the humans of whom they are composed (for the success of both are inextricably linked) will flourish unless we begin to practice greater cooperation.
I’ve seen too many vision statements that aspire only to “be the best blah blah in Australasia” or “the #1 provider of such-and-such in our sector” The all-hallowed “market” seems to operate quaintly like suitors in the 18th century vying for the hand of the lovely maiden. Who has the best prospects? Who has the biggest house? Who has the most well-connected family? Watching a costume drama, how our hearts sink when Lady Penelope chooses the dastardly capitalist or the arrogant fop over the one she truly loves. It draws comment in the 21st century when people choose partners for their “prospects” rather than for love, connection, companionship and trust. Why is the organisational world still playing this rather outdated little game?
From our earliest days at school, we were admonished for “copying” others’ work. The “right” way is to be quiet and “do your own work”. Humans are social animals and are at their best when cooperating with others. Competition is a virus which continues to breed unchecked, despite there not being much in the way of substantiated evidence or research that it is more effective than cooperation; quite the contrary. Research suggests that cooperation leads to higher achievement at school, provides health benefits (calmness and freedom from intense stress) and is correlated with increased creativity and success in the workplace.
Schools are ranked, ostensibly to provide a useful means with which to decide resource allocation, the result being, however, that principals, teachers and PTAs compete to maintain a nonsensical status that sometimes relegates the interests of children in classrooms. This system of ranking is multi-layered. From our earliest days at school, we are caught in this competitive treadmill, receiving rewards for being outstanding; for standing out. It’s an outward focus: how am I better (than them)? How am I different (from them)? The thing is, we are already different by the mere fact that we are who we are. In the business world, it becomes, “What’s my unique selling proposition?” I’ll tell you mine: that I’m me. That’s why I make such a big deal about growing self-awareness. Self-actualising is not a journey to work out what I’m not or to work out what makes me different from others; it’s a journey to work out who I am. Why focus outward and try to find a unique selling proposition? This seems “olde worlde” to me. The focus and locus of control is outside, not within. If our sense of self-worth is dependent on how unlike others we are, it is fragile. USPs, to me, imply a competitive mindset but nobody can really, truly compete with a person or a business that has a really clear idea of who they are, what they do and what they value. We increase satisfaction in life when we grow self-awareness, not when we get stuck in the hamster wheel that is “keeping up with the Joneses”. 21st century business finds success when competition as the prime modus operandi is supplanted with cooperation.
“When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.” Lao Tzu
Accentuating a cooperative way of being does not mean sinking into groupthink or losing critical abilities. Team or group conversations in which everyone agrees with everyone else is not cooperation. Business can be a hive of searing conversation if everyone participates with a view to contributing to the whole, building on others’ input. It’s like the “yes game” that actors and improvisors play. Someone makes an opening gambit (an offer) and others play along (accept their offer), bringing creativity and a sense of community. No one person’s contribution is better than another’s and people play, not with the idea of being the best, but of co-creating something purposeful and fresh. Consider the difference between these two scenes:
- “What’s wrong with your foot?”
- “Oh. It’s just that I saw you limping.”
- “My foot is fine. I wasn’t limping, this is how I normally walk.”
- “What’s wrong with your foot?”
- “Caught it in a bear trap.”
- “Really? Have they started laying bear traps in the staff room?”
- “Yea, it’s meant to keep out the bears, they’ve been raiding the staff fridge again.”
- “I wondered who kept eating my yoghurt.”
This is, of course, a light-hearted illustration, but the relationship dynamics are real. In scene one, the person who makes the offers (you have something wrong with your foot, you are limping) struggles to get any traction in the dialogue as both offers are rejected. In scene two, their offers are accepted and the other person builds on to them, with the result being the two create something that neither could have created without cooperation. Workplace conversations often sound like scene one, coming across like the Monty Python argument sketch, people in opposition to one another, getting stuck.
“That wouldn’t work.”
“Thanks for that idea, have a listen to mine now.”
“I think you’re coming at it the wrong way.”
“What you fail to see is….”
What we get with this non-cooperative, or competitive, modus operandi, is missed opportunities, and an overall decrease in human achievement. Cooperating with others stimulates our creativity. Cooperation opens doors to ideas and solutions that we might never have come across on our own, trying to be the star pupil.
As a practitioner of systems thinking, I take note of a highly relevant article which identifies different kinds of systems with reference to their levels of cooperation or competition: eco-, bio- and mechanical. Mechanical systems (machines being the most obvious example) require very high levels of cooperation, otherwise the machine just doesn’t work. Machines, however, are highly predictable, low in complexity and are designed to do exactly what they are designed to do. If a part breaks, you fix it and the machine will carry on functioning. Bio-systems are higher in complexity and rely on very high levels of cooperation. The human body is a perfect example. In order to flex your arm, your triceps and biceps must work in concert. While they are opposing each other in their movement, they are not in competition. Bio-systems might be said to be at just the right balance between order and chaos. They have evolved just enough “in-synch-ness” so that they work as unified systems and meet the challenges of life, however, there is enough plasticity to allow for growth and development in response to a changing environment. The components of a bio-system work in concert until age or disease cause certain components to (appear to) compete in order to preserve the integrity of the whole.
Eco-systems are highly complex and are composed of interactions between multiple bio-systems and mechanical systems. Two types of eco-systems abound on planet Earth: biological and social. Biological eco-systems (flora and fauna, for example) tend to be highly competitive, with species or members of the same species competing for limited resources to survive. Social (or human) eco-systems are just as natural as any coral reef. However, humans have the advantage of being able to overcome the constraints of scarcity that other eco-systems do not. We have no natural predators, save ourselves. The thing that binds our human systems are our evolved cognitive and emotional abilities, which we can deploy as we relate to each other. We have highly evolved relationship capabilities that other eco-systems do not, however we seem to dispense with these at the merest hint of a perceived threat to our existence. We do not have to sleepwalk through time as if we were a coral reef, mindless and thought-less and slave to the natural competitive instincts that go with being an eco-system. I repeat: we have no natural predators, save ourselves. We humans need to become more self-awake and curtail some of our less-evolved competitive ways. Competitive politics is a clumsy way to govern ourselves and and unregulated markets are human disasters.
The workplace is not a jungle. It is not a battlefield. We need to apply ourselves to behaving more like bio-systems: work in concert for the good of the whole. We’ve had competitive practices instilled in us for so long that we need to become conscious of how we work with others. In a complex and networked workplace of the 21st century, we need to learn and stretch our cooperative abilities and to inculcate cooperative practice on a daily basis until it just becomes the way things get done. The fact is that we are interdependent. Why not start acting like it? Why not start acting like this is a world of “we”, not “me”?
Act cooperatively. Let’s play the “yes game” with people at work. When discussing things, let’s become aware of opportunities to listen, to “add in” and to “build on”, rather than simply counter what others have to say.
Learn to transcend self-interest. No quid pro quo. Let’s practice “building on”, sharing and contributing for no other reason than to do it and build community with others.
Cultivate an attitude of conviviality. Con-vivere = live together. Let’s become aware of those moments when we could do something different and behave as if we are happy to share this planet, this town, this industry sector, this office-space with others. Our survival as a species depends on it. Our survival as co-workers depends on it. Business survival depends on it. (….or become a hermit.) In fact, beyond survival, I’d say that we thrive on it.
Build coalitions, not empires. Let’s stop pretending that this is a medieval battle for territory; it’s not. Market competition appeals to our primitive narcissistic paranoia; no-one is out to get us. (We have no natural predators, save ourselves, remember?) Let’s stop pretending that there is such a thing as intellectual property; it’s an illusion. Information and knowledge are for sharing, not hoarding. Status and accolade or synthesis and creativity: which will take us further?
We have no natural predators……
August 23, 2012
The cosmos is a complex, and sometimes confusing, place.
Every three or four months, the planet Mercury goes retrograde. What this means is that if you track its movement in the sky, it will appear to move backwards for about 3 weeks and then it continues its forward course. In ancient Greece, the planets used to be seen as erratic and unpredictable relative to the stars, hence the word ‘planet’ (‘wanderer’). The ancient Greeks found ways to describe this retrograde motion that fit within the old geocentric view of the cosmos. They concocted mathematical descriptions to help them make sense of what they observed, given the evidence they had, but which are now seen as wrong. This bizarre planetary behaviour was not acknowledged to be an illusion until Copernicus suggested that it was a matter of perspective, i.e. it is the Sun that is the centre of the Solar System, not the Earth. Copernicus stated that the apparent retrograde motion of the planets arises not from their motion, but from the Earth’s. He resisted publishing his work because he did not wish to risk the scorn to which he would expose himself on account of the novelty and incomprehensibility of his theses, and even after being published, his ideas took quite some time to be generally accepted. Only over half a century later with the work of Kepler and Galileo did the first evidence appear that backed his theory. Not until after Newton, over 150 years after Copernicus, did the heliocentric view become mainstream. Who would now maintain that the Earth is the centre of everything?
Technology had a part to play in this shift in perception. The impact the telescope had on science was profound. Amazing how, when things are seen differently, whole mindsets shift. If we look at the night sky with the naked eye and observe Orion’s belt, we will see three stars: Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. If, however, I look through a different lens (specifically, a telescope), I can tell you that Mintaka is, in fact, two stars. Faced with this information, you could
- reject what I say because you’ve always known that Orion’s Belt consists of three stars and that’s just the way it is
- suspend your belief and try to get your hands on a lens like mine so you could check it out yourself
- accept what I say and simply update your thinking
Viewing something through a new lens can cause a stir. Galileo and his telescope provided us with so much new information that we had to update our thinking and beliefs about the cosmos. Something similar is going on in the world right now. Many beliefs about the business of business are being stretched. It seems that most businesses are still holding on to outdated ideas, despite information now available which challenges these ideas.
Business does not work like that either, much as some would believe.
I was recently in a meeting where someone was describing how their business works while drawing an organisational tree diagram on a whiteboard. As I watched and listened, it was like watching TV while listening to my iPod. What I saw and what I heard did not match. I suspect there are many businesses like this. They have a hierarchical tree diagram to illustrate lines of reporting (or the way things are supposed to be), but lines of accountability and decision-making were pulling towards a more networked reality. The dissonance between the old thinking and the new more effective thinking is beginning to wake people up to the fact that something has to change. I have advocated for more diffuse power structures in organisations and to me, it seemed like that is what is occurring quite naturally in this particular business. This makes sense to me, as systems are naturally self-organising. The HR person present at this meeting piped up, “Of course, the informal structures and relationships are what really make things happen here,” and I was left bewildered why this business, which is in the midst of a significant transformation to a flatter and more cooperative way of working, would try to shoe-horn this far more effective organisational process into an outdated organisational structure.
When we are in a transition from one state to another, we cling on to what we know. We are prisoners of the familiar. The “new” is sometimes so new that we don’t have the language to describe it accurately. As we transition from a world of results-orientation, cause-and-effect, predictability, silos and planning to one of continuous improvement, complexity, ambiguity, cooperation and emergent design, we are in a quandary as to how to articulate where we are headed without giving the impression that it’s just a jazzier version of where we left. It’s not. Often, for example, when I try to describe what I do and how I do it, I sense that people are hanging my description onto what they currently know about learning and organisational transformation. ”Oh, I see, you do leadership training.” ”I get it, you teach EQ.” ”Hmm, you do role plays.” No, no and no. In command-and-control land (and still infected by the Mechanism Virus), people, understandably, will not get what I’m talking about. When I talk about managers re-visioning their function from Doer-in-Chief to Systems Stewards, I mean it; it’s not just semantics. It’s part of a sea change in the whole view of what makes work work.
We live in networked times, this is true. Now, more than ever, business is about relationship. There is a shift in mindset required in order to really do business effectively. I believe it is happening now. We are right in the middle of it. Work is not what it was and will never be that way again.
Harold Jarche uses the metaphor of the blind men describing an elephant, writing that “we are blind men unable to understand the new realities of work”. He goes on to suggest that tearing down the “artificial disciplinary walls” that we have erected out of our now useless mechanistic mindset would be a good place to start growing better functioning organisations. I tend to agree with him. Sticking with outdated models and trying to manipulate them to do something that they actually cannot do is a waste of our energy. We live in networked times and the tensions that this has created on our antiquated structures are revealing them to be increasingly irrelevant. As Jarche states, with a networked, cooperative mindset, it is possible.
We need to re-imagine how we do HR. No more treating humans as a resource to be managed. We now know more than enough about human motivation, group dynamics and psychology to deserve something radically different in how people are treated.
We need to re-imagine how we do professional development. No dull, lifeless training seminars that few pay attention to and in which fewer actually learn something useful. The 70/20/10 rule of thumb is far more reflective of the reality of work. Some serious thought should be given to that ‘formal 10%’ component too: I believe it is far more beneficial to modern business to attend formal learning events that generate real, significant and long-lasting shifts in perceptions and develops the users of the “tools”, not merely adding tips and information to a “tool-kit”.
We need to re-imagine how we do workplace relationships. No more power games. No more silos. In a social economy, social skills are vital. We need to develop greater self-awareness and compassion for others. Caring and compassion are not things to learn about; they are essential capabilities we need to learn.
We need to re-imagine how we do customer service. No bland corporate speak. No making excuses for poor service. No gamification to tart up a dull, lifeless product. What’s wrong with developing some good interpersonal capabilities and growing real relationship with customers?
We need to re-imagine what leadership means. It’s not about booting out the old CEO and replacing him (it’s usually a him) with someone who operates out of the same mindset. It’s not about a change of leadership style. It’s about a root-and-branch transformation of what leadership actually means.
As Russell Ackoff stated, “Thinking systemically also requires several shifts in perception, which lead in turn to different ways to teach and different ways to organise society.” How long till the old illusions disappear and the new mindset becomes mainstream? What will it take?
April 5, 2012
Some time ago, a client of ours excitedly commented that she thought what we did felt like team-building with intellect. Even eight years ago, there was something in the comment that betrayed a disdain and fatigue for team-building exercises that are fun and engaging, but lead to nothing of real substance back in the day-to-day life of the workplace. While the purpose of the work we did was not around team-building, the way that we weave sociometry and relationship building into everything we do means that one major spin-off from the work is closer working relationships. When considering taking a group of people at work through some kind of team-building process, it is important to keep the purpose of this process clear in our heads. What kind of relationships are required in order to do the job? What is the context in which the relationships will sit and how can we optimise the links around the common purpose? How much mutual accountability is actually necessary?
To expand a little on my previous article, I’d like to say a little more about teams in the workplace. In that article, I suggest that the dynamics of a group will impact on its ability to work effectively. I realise that I may have been a little relaxed about using the words “group” and “team” interchangeably, however there is an important distinction to be made between the two. I fear the word “team” has been so over-used in the workplace that this distinction has been lost and assumptions made about the necessity for team-building. In my last blogpost, I referred to the work of Wilfred Bion and set out his observations of what happens in groups of humans when unconscious process gets in the way of group effectiveness. As I wrote, humans gather together in groups for a purpose and when the dynamics of the group kick in, they can undermine this purpose and throw the group off course. My assertion was that it is important for anyone who manages a group of people, often called a “team” in our workplaces, to be aware of some of these hidden dynamics so that they can develop greater resilience to keep going with grace and humility. One point of clarification here is that every team is a group, and therefore subject to these hidden dynamics; not every group, however, is a team. Nor, necessarily, should they be.
When I hear someone talking about taking their crew on a team-building day, my heart sinks, as, I suspect, do the hearts of many of those folks in the team who will be subjected to a day of fun, laughs and throwing a cush-ball at each other. I’ve spoken to many people who’ve been on these events and there is a theme that runs through their comments: “What does that have to do with my work?” Certainly, creating an environment where people can get to know each other better while enjoying themselves will create some bonds, but there are some assumptions behind these away-days. The complaint that these events have little to do with the day-to-day requirements of work is valid. Often, there is little attention to the transfer of learning back to the workplace, but this is partly to do with the structure of team-building events; reflection and meaning-making should always be built in to any kind of activity where learning is the aim. It is not enough to assume that just because people have successfully built a raft together, they will transfer their efforts back to the office. I’m not saying that all such events lack this transfer, but many folks I know were left wondering what the point of it all was.
One of the biggest assumptions that needs to be addressed, however, is the one that people who work together should perforce invest themselves in developing a true, high-performing team. In most workplaces, what people call “team” is, in fact, a “working group” and this may be sufficient for the requirements of the people and the organisation. It requires a mighty investment of time, energy and commitment to develop the close-knit structure that Katzenbach and Smith would call a “high-performing team”. While organisations may aspire to be peopled by high-performing teams, the reality is that for many of these businesses, the cost involved in getting there may be prohibitive, both in terms of time and financial resources. It also requires an act of will on the part of the members of these high-performing teams.
I will illustrate with some personal experience. In my own lifetime, I have been fortunate enough to have worked in a high-performing team, as observed by Katzenbach and Smith, and I will describe in more detail below what you would have seen if you were a fly on the wall in my workplace. My second example took place some years ago. We were called in to work with a group of people in a large organisation whose manager said they needed some team-building and that he aspired after them to be in the high-performing category. But then, what manager wouldn’t say that?
The first example has left an imprint on me that will last my lifetime. Many years ago, I worked for a community therapy agency which engaged in some of the most difficult therapeutic work around. It required a high level of professional knowledge and skill, as we were working in the area of trauma and abuse, as well as a high level of personal development in order to deal with the effects of vicarious traumatisation. The work was systemic, and therefore multi-disciplinary, in nature, in other words, it involved the person’s wider system including family and extended family, school and/or workplace, recreational activities, government agencies and other health providers. This was not work done in silos. We were a diverse and cross-functional team and cases were handled collaboratively at weekly meetings. Because of what was required of us in order to do the work effectively, there was a strong need to attend to our own team development. Apart from the actual work we did, we also devoted a significant amount of time to building and nurturing our team. In a working month, I would guess that we would have spent at least eight hours together purely on maintaining team “hygiene”. We reflected on our relationships with each other and the impact of those on our abilities to work well.
Katzenbach and Smith came up with a simple and clear definition of team: “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” Many groups in the workplace might say that they fit these criteria, however I’m not so sure that they are in the high-performing category. Beyond this definition, I believe, there is a spirit or essence which identifies groups as high-performing (HP) teams. An HP team will be leader-full; various members will, at times, take up leadership. Each person will, in different moments, bring forward their specialist expertise around particular topics or issues or take the lead in facilitating some decision-making or drive the team to grapple with something they feel is significant. HP teams work have a deep commitment to the vision of their organisation and strive towards objectives they set themselves and that are in line with this bigger picture, rather than simply achieve work outputs mandated by the hierarchy. HP teams are characterised by open discussions and collaborative problem-solving; working groups attend efficient meetings. HP teams have robust, honest discussions and have highly developed interpersonal skills to manage through these sticky times. HP teams are genuinely mutually accountable whereas working groups take individual accountability; in an HP, everyone (and I mean everyone) takes an active interest in the achievement of the team’s objectives and behaves in a way which demonstrates their inextricable connectedness. All of these were true in the team I belonged to, however, the one thing that really identified my team as an HP team to me was this: everyone looked forward to coming to work so that we could be with each other and, together, meet the challenges of the work. In the many working groups I’ve belonged to, while there were some really enjoyable working relationships, they were based more on personal affinity and we all came to work because we had to.
The second example I described above would sit in the category of my professional blunders. I learnt so much from that work, one of the main things being that not all working groups need or want to invest what it takes to become a genuine team. It is a never-ending piece of work that the team unanimously needs to sign up to. In hindsight, what that manager who contracted us was looking to achieve was some closer working relationship, as it was a relatively new team, however their work did not actually require them to be more than an efficient working group. For a team to achieve high-performing status, they will likely go through a challenging process after which they have developed a deep caring for each other and a strong collaborative ethic such that the achievement of the whole far outstrips the achievement of the individuals working separately. It is sometimes a bumpy ride and not for the faint-hearted. Upon reflection, the nature of the work of this team was such that they did not need to (nor wish to) invest themselves in a process whereby they would have an HP team. Their work simply required that they be a friendly and efficient working group who understood what the organisation wanted from them.
Katzenbach and Smith set out a team performance curve and identified several types of team. The diagram below illustrates this.
For those who are interested, I will leave explanation of these team categories to the London Management Centre, who describe them very eloquently. In this post, I simply wish to make the point that when considering team-building, consider first the needs of the business, the readiness and willingness of the team members to engage in a journey of closer relationship and the time and money that are required to grow a truly high-performing team. One thing I know for sure, we cannot rely on an outdoor pursuits event to be the solution to building a solid HP team.
March 14, 2012
So what do you do when you have a senior team who walk out of an all-day strategy meeting, brimming with enthusiasm for the new ship you are steering and diaries now full of actions to undertake, only to come back three weeks later having completed none of them? What do you make of their excuses that they just didn’t have the time; that they were too busy with the day-to-day stuff to devote any time to the big picture strategy stuff? How do you get them to spend less time and energy doing operational stuff and more on crafting a culture that will support and guide others to do that? Do you find yourself wondering how they got to leadership position in the first place? I’ll tell you how. The system put them there and it’s the system that also gets in their way. It’s the system. What gets in the way of them doing these things they say they are utterly committed to, but never manage to do? It’s the system. As Senge suggests, it’s likely not down to their incompetence or their lack of motivation. The difficulty lies in not being able to see the source of the obstructions clearly; and if we cannot see the origins of our dysfunction, how can we possibly correct them? More importantly, perhaps, is the question, “Why would you bother trying?” because without this vital ‘big picture’ understanding of your system, it will continue to subvert your efforts and you will end up in a crumpled, exhausted heap feeling yourselves failures.
We are so infected by the culture of our organisations that we lose awareness of it. Ask a fish what they think of the water and they will say, “What water?” In the same way that a fish is unaware of water, we are largely unaware of the influence the systems in which we live exert upon us. Deming said, “A system cannot understand itself….transformation requires a view from outside.” Too true. So these senior executives with years of experience, bright and enthusiastic individuals all of them, are behaving like they do because of the context in which they exist. So how can we create something different? How can we create a culture where the guy or gal at the top doesn’t get to the point of blaming inaction on people’s incompetence? I would suggest that it comes when the underlying structures, the system itself, are reformed and when authority and accountability rest throughout the whole of an organisation, not via a clunky hierarchy.
In a previous article, I suggest that so-called “leaderless” organisations are actually leader-full. This is no idealistic fantasy-land, but a deep and significant shift to a systemic view of the world that emphasises networks, relationships and interconnectedness over the hierarchies of an outdated mechanistic world view. If we can shift our mindset from one of job descriptions, hierarchies, rigid policies and procedures and consequences for “bad behaviour”, we will see a whole new world open up before our eyes. However, as Gary Hamel wrote so eloquently in his Harvard Business Review article, “First, Let’s Fire all the Managers,” we are prisoners of the familiar. I can recall the world before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Before that electric November night, it was almost inconceivable that it would come down, let alone overnight and as a result of people power. Similarly, we find it a little hard to imagine a world of new possibilities where organisations are driven by self-management principles and hierarchies are redundant. I’m talking about possibilities of full and active engagement in the work of the business; possibilities of power and authority being exercised by individuals and teams throughout businesses and not just those at the top of some clunky chain of command; possibilities of creativity and initiative being unleashed in all corners of the business.
I will leave you to read Hamel’s article for he writes so articulately that I wouldn’t presume to replicate him here. All I wish to press home is the point that Senge, Hamel and many others too numerous to mention, but no less visionary, make: we have come to a point in our history when we need to radically shift our ways of organising ourselves. However, we haven’t got to the promised land yet, so we sometimes struggle to imagine what it will be like and how we’ll get there; it does almost seem out of our reach.
If we take Senge’s observation about poorly designed systems on board, then it follows that we must devote ourselves primarily and totally to crafting systems which are fit for purpose if we wish to have successful businesses. Many of our businesses adhere to outdated structures of authority and accountability that are no longer fit for purpose, however, it is hard to know how to start re-organising when we haven’t even arrived at this new world yet. What are these new structures meant to look like? There is a glimpse within Hamel’s article, so I urge you to read it in its entirety.
He uses Morning Star as a case study of how to build a business that ensures consistently high performance driven by the full and voluntary engagement of everyone who works there. Success comes not only from their excellence in product and service, but perhaps most importantly from the way they actually run their business. If you land on the homepage of their website, the only hint that you are looking at something ground-breaking is perhaps in the words “world’s leading tomato ingredient processor”. This is an understatement, for not only do they supply 40% of the US tomato paste and diced tomato markets, they are pioneers of how to run a leader-full business where everyone carries out the functions of management and leadership. Peer behind their bland looking “About Us” page and look in detail at their Organisational Vision and Colleague Principles. Here you have no humdrum list of platitudes and corporate-speak that nobody gave much thought to when writing and everyone gives even less devotion to when at work. This is actually how they run their business.
For many businesses, the road to this new land of mutual accountability and responsibility may be long and bumpy. Two essential items to pack for this journey towards Self-ManagementLand are intentionality and commitment. The good people at Morning Star didn’t get there by accident; it was intentional. Because our current paradigm is so prevalent, we have to apply ourselves with great intent to thinking and behaving differently. We must remain awake to the fact that old structures will reinforce old thinking and draw us back to old behaviours. For more diffuse authority and accountability to come about, we must re-create our structures root-and-branch. We can’t simply rely on an annual leadership off-site event or some new worker consultation committees to catalyse the change, leaving the pre-existing structure in tact; this is merely tinkering around the edges. In the end, the hierarchy and its watchdog, bureaucracy, will stifle initiative and creativity, and reverse any changes that were attempted because, in the end, these changes could only ever be half-hearted without deep structural change. While I wouldn’t suggest that any company throw out its entire structure overnight and start to build one based on self-management principles from scratch, I am saying that genuine, conscious and consistent efforts must be made to shift the locus of control from a top-down hierarchy and place greater authority and accountability in the hands of all staffers. Hamel gives four concrete suggestions as to how this might be done in his HBR article.
Margaret Wheatley, in “Leadership and the New Science” says, “In a quantum world, everything depends on context, on the unique relationships available in the moment. Since relationships are different from place to place and moment to moment, why would we expect that solutions developed in one context would work the same in another?” Surely, in this quantum world, with everything depending on context, a new paradigm of organisational leadership is required. Rigid hierarchies and the stultifying bureaucracies that prop them up are no match for real-time relationships and feedback loops, peer accountability and continuous education.
The way to get there has already been signposted; look at Morning Star.
February 23, 2012
In the world of business, it is now almost a given that developing relationship skills are fundamental to success and achievement. Genuine collaborative relationships are proving more agile and effective at achieving good results than hierarchical ones. However, much of the business world still operates as if employment was a transaction and not a mutual relationship. Many folks also operate as if their associates, collaborators and customers are resources to be mined. I believe that business is more than a transaction; in the modern economy, businesses do not just succeed on the back of their relationships, in many cases the business IS their relationships. If we view others, whether they are employees, customers or associates, merely as transactional objects, it will be difficult to hold a picture of them as real human beings with needs, wants, feelings and viewpoints, and correspondingly to treat them as such.
Relationships are central to the work I do. Uncovering and developing strong social connection underpins the methodology I apply with clients, with a key deliverable being closer working relationships, and I would be remiss if I didn’t attend to my own relationships to the best of my ability. I know from my experience and my training that the quality of an outcome is directly related to the quality of relationship between the people attempting to create that outcome. I would say that I am highly observant of how people relate to me and others and relationships occupy a lot of my thoughts, perhaps to the point of being hyper-sensitive to interactions between myself and others, as well as amongst other folks. I’m an avid people watcher and I think that relationships make the world go round.
One of my core beliefs is that people are not resources to be mined: for information, for their custom, for advice, for leads and contacts, for anything. Some of you may have worked out from comments on previous articles or Twitter that I love Radiohead. Lead singer Thom Yorke released a solo album a few years ago and the opening line of the first track goes, “Please excuse me but I have to ask, are you only being nice because you want something?” Ever felt that someone in your network or workplace was treating you like that? Taking a cynical approach and asking politely when it suits you is not the same as cultivating and nurturing relationships over time. Taking a consumerist approach and telling someone that you want to catch up only when you have need of them is not the same as valuing them. Letting your staff know that they are doing a good job only when you want them to be receptive to you is not the same as caring about them. Sending your “valued” customers an email with a special offer only when you need to drum up some new business is not the same as being attentive to them. Everyone knows that you don’t get far these days without being kind or polite, however, kindness and politeness are not the only ingredients to good relationships. People see through attempts to butter them up when the only time you are nice or make contact is when you want something.
Maintaining good relationships in our work requires some effort on our part. Whoever we relate to in our work, whether that’s customers or colleagues, I suspect we make the most impact on them when we make a meaningful, personal emotional connection with them. In order to do that, we need to deploy more than kindness. We need to get to know a little about what makes them tick. Empathy, or even more effective, role reversal, will help us to identify more deeply with others. When we make the effort to place ourselves in the shoes of others, our worlds change forever and when we get a deep sense of another’s thoughts and feelings, we cannot help but relate to them in a gentler and more generous manner.
It is hard to reverse roles with someone if we don’t have some modicum of caring for them. Why would we want to see things from another’s perspective unless we cared? This also requires some effort. Developing genuine caring for another is more than seeing them as someone who could be useful to us; it means we care for their success and well-being even when we don’t “need” them. If we add people to our networks like some sort of people collectors, they will sense this. The adage of “digging your well before you are thirsty” is not about storing people up like some kind of resource for the future; it is about growing mutually satisfying connections so that you are part of an active network that brings health and happiness to the whole. More studies are showing that we thrive on caring for others; my belief is that this is more than liking someone’s comment on Facebook or following them on Twitter. Caring is an active verb and if such studies are correct, it is good for everyone when we demonstrate care.
It is important to remember that authentic care, the kind that stimulates the “helper’s high” is a self-less care. Stephen G. Post, PhD, a professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine says that “this profound state of joy and delight that comes from giving to others….doesn’t come from any dry action — where the act is out of duty in the narrowest sense, like writing a cheque for a good cause. It comes from working to cultivate a generous quality — from interacting with people.” He’s talking about altruism. I don’t think it’s crazy to think that we might do something self-less for a customer, a colleague or an associate once in a while.
What emerges over time when we actively show our care for others is trust. Trust is one of the most valuable currencies in business. Do our customers really trust us to deliver what we promise? Do our work colleagues trust us to follow up on commitments and to back them, so that they can do their work well? Do our associates trust us to share and collaborate generously? I don’t think I’m going too far to say that it wouldn’t hurt us to go the extra mile for people only because they will feel good about it. You can’t force trust, but authentic caring will necessarily nurture it.
While there is no “step 1, step 2″ failsafe method for growing good relationships at work, I’d say that kindness, role reversal, caring and trust are key ingredients. There are also some guidelines I find useful to remain conscious of in my work.
Keep relationships current. It can be hard to maintain business relationships these days. It is easy to get busy and let them go by the wayside. It is important to realise, however, that relationships are not an add-on to business; they are central to business. Devoting time exclusively to nurturing relationships should be seen as part of the work we do, not something that we do only when we have the time. You don’t get fitness credits; in other words, just because you exercised a lot in your twenties doesn’t mean that you can expect to be fit into your forties if you don’t maintain a fitness regime. Similarly, you don’t get relationship credits. True, someone may think well of you, however, we cannot ride on those favours we did or that really interesting conversation we had 4 years ago. We need to continue to nurture relationships. I’m advocating that we view relationships as more than simply “investments”; something we turn to on a rainy day. I believe that relationships are worth nurturing purely as good things in themselves, and if, one day, there is some mutually beneficial business that comes out of them, all good.
Relationships should be mutual. Like any personal relationship, a business relationship should be of benefit to both parties. How quickly do we turn off people who always seem to take without giving? How do we feel when people only call on us for help, but when we ask for theirs they are too busy or not interested? If we are good at relationships, we think of others often; not only what they can help us with, but what we can offer them.
Rupture and repair. Just like when you go on a first date, you get a first impression of a new colleague or associate and similarly, customers get an impression of you. If your first impression of them is good, you get the tingles and you want another date. If their first impression of you is good, they will be happy to see you again. Over time, we see things in others or others see things in us which are a little distasteful or we get let down or we sense that we have let them down. The key thing to remember is that relationships are a function of time and that when there is a rupture, we can repair. Customers want a response that communicates that you care they’ve had a bad experience with you and that you want them to have a better experience. Associates and colleagues want to hear you say, “I think I stuffed up and I want to put it right,” and they want to see you follow through with some kind of repair.
I will close with a proverb that I have learnt over the years I’ve lived in New Zealand. It is a traditional Maori proverb and it goes like this:
He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!
What is the most important thing in the world?
It is people! It is people! It is people!
December 15, 2011
…is love sweet love. As Burt Bacharach and Hal David said, that’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. At the risk of sounding a bit ‘soft’ as the holiday season approaches, I have been reflecting on some recent conversations along with some experiences I’ve had through 2011 and wish to emphasise the importance of developing what are often called ‘people skills’ in our businesses and organisations. As Dr. John McGurk states in this rather excellent November 2010 study, “Using the Head and Heart at Work,” people skills are rarely neutral, that is, they have the power to influence in positive, as well as negative, ways. I don’t believe I need to make the case for superlative ‘head’ or ‘hand’ skills at work; those cases have long been won. Instead, I will bang on yet again about the need to hone our ‘heart’ skills. It is by deployment of our ‘heart’ skills that we facilitate more effective application of our ‘head’ and ‘hand’ skills at work. Now that our workplaces are becoming more and more relationship- and collaboration-based, the urgent need to develop greater ‘heart’ at work is before us.
I know most of you will probably feel that you have plenty of love and caring in your personal lives. However, we spend a huge chunk of our waking hours at work, usually with people that we haven’t chosen. We also have opened our eyes to the fact that we actually want our businesses and organisations to be places where we feel valued and appreciated, where we feel we are making a difference to others, where we can be human. It is a nonsense to hold on to an Industrial Age notion that we should leave our whole selves at the door when we enter our workplaces and simply offer up our brains or hands to be deployed as some manager’s resource. We want to care and we want people to care about us.
There is growing evidence that doing good for others and showing caring for others is also good for us. Two large studies have shown that older adults who volunteer live longer than non-volunteers. Indeed, altruistic emotions seem to override the effects of cortisol, our stress hormone. A recent study has also shown that helping and caring for others increases levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone that helps us develop trusting relationships. If we have reduced cortisol and increased oxytocin when we are compassionate and caring towards others, if we feel good because of the unselfish good we do, it boggles the mind why we still endure workplaces that cause us to feel bad or where our good deeds go unnoticed. However, as William Glasser is noted as saying, we cannot change others; we can only change ourselves; if we change ourselves, others cannot help but respond to us differently.
If you believe that we get back what we give out, why not be mindful of opportunities to care for others with whom we work? One note about this do-good effect, though. Those studies which show improved well-being when we are compassionate towards others also indicate that this comes out of unselfish good deeds, not ‘dry’ acts of duty for others. Just as your boss won’t guarantee higher levels of engagement by faking care, consultation or listening, we can’t fake generosity. It requires genuineness and authenticity on our part; not simply clicking “Like” on Facebook.
For those of you who watched the video clip on empathy by Professor Simon Baron Cohen in my previous blog article, you will have heard about the monkeys who help other monkeys in distress. A bunch of rhesus monkeys were taught to obtain food by pulling on a chain. When a monkey was shown another monkey receiving an electric shock every time the chain was pulled, they stopped pulling the chain. One monkey in this experiment went without food for 12 days. That monkey in particular would put some bosses I know to shame. Empathy at work is not discretionary, as it may have been for Victorian mill owners. If leaders want engagement, it requires something more than an annual Christmas bonus or staff party. It’s not just down to the bosses though. We all have a part to play in making our workplaces more human, too. We get back what we give.
So with this mounting evidence of how good it is for us to do good, let’s not play the “you go first” game. I suspect that care, concern and compassion for others at work is a self-reinforcing cycle. We do good, we feel good, we are motivated to continue doing good; and others feel good when we care for them, they begin to care for us more. I know that the opposite can certainly become a negative spiral as well. Make the first move.
Keep going on your path of self-awareness. Our interpersonal abilities spring out of and are inextricably linked with our intrapersonal abilities. In other words, the greater our self-knowledge and ability to identify, name and process our own emotional life, the greater our capability to recognise and respond to the emotional life of others. We can go on and on learning about ourselves. A massage therapist will learn the technique of palpation: feeling the body’s tissues for areas of tightness. With greater practice and experience, the therapist will develop greater acuity to feel smaller and smaller areas of tension that a beginner will not notice. We can similarly grow greater acuity to notice our own feelings, many of which we are unconscious to in our daily lives. As we acquaint ourselves with ourselves, our eyes also open to the smallest facial expressions, the subtlest body language and most obscure meanings in the words and acts of others. Tuning into ourselves helps us tune into others, thereby increasing our ability to care. Focus on your body right now: what is it telling you?
Notice others. Finely tune your awareness of what is going on for other people. Many of us like to pride ourselves on our abilities to work hard and get things done and we overlook the impact of our stresses and challenges. Too many people ‘suffer in silence’ at work and in some cases, people even leave organisations because they get burnt out. Some take the approach that if they couldn’t stand the heat, it was best they went, but most of the cases I know of are where highly competent, engaged and dedicated people left because they felt isolated and couldn’t sustain themselves any longer. It is these folks we need to watch out for. If we fine tune our awareness of others and do simple things to let them know they are appreciated, it will make an enormous difference to them. When people talk about how overworked they feel or how stressed they are by a deadline or a heavy workload, we don’t have to step it to try to fix it for them, but listening to them and letting them know they have a trusted person to offload can let them know they are not alone and they have support. Think about your co-workers: who needs some support right now?
Listen to others. We are busy, this is true. We often hear others, but much of what they say goes in one ear and out the other and in many cases, we don’t even look at the person talking to us. If we take the time to really listen to others, we have the power to make a difference to them. Ask anyone who volunteers on a telephone helpline. Listen to their words and listen ‘between the words’. Good listening comes from being present to what the person says as well as how they say it. It involves noticing what they don’t say and how they do this as well. It primarily involves turning off our inner monologue so that we do more than simply wait our turn to open our mouths. Think about a recent conversation you had: how much did you really listen? What might you have missed?
Develop the habit of gratitude. I was reminded of the power of gratitude by a close friend of mine recently. It caused me to bring to mind the people for whom I am grateful in my life; both for being a part of my life, as well as for the kind acts they show me. Imagine what that did to my physiology, my heart and my mind. I can tell you that his suggestion to focus on gratitude certainly intruded on the grumpiness I was sitting with at the time. As with altruism, developing an attitude of gratitude has been shown to increase our own well-being, reduce our stress and anxiety levels and encourage kinder behaviour towards others. I have heard of one business which has recently started the practice at their team meetings of each person thanking one other person in the team for something they did through the week. It has made it an even nicer place to work; everything we know about engagement points to a friendly culture being an essential ingredient. If there is a boss who wants to argue that caring for others at work is pointless, I will give them this Manager’s contact details. Think about your workplace: who or what are you grateful for?
All this stuff may sound a little ‘touchy-feely’, however, more of us are coming to acknowledge the power of these small differences that make big differences in people’s working lives. From a bottom line perspective, more is also known about the power of engagement. Engagement comes about because managers, leaders and others within organisations develop our capabilities to be human with other humans. People engage when they know that who they are as a person is noticed, supported and encouraged; when they know they are not a cog in a machine.
Two final thoughts about this subject; to paraphrase a famous advertisement for the RSPCA, real compassion, authentic caring and genuine altruism at work are not just for Christmas, they’re for life. What attitude can you change or habit can you inculcate in 2012 that will improve your working life and the working lives of others? And the last words go to Bacharach and David, expressed beautifully by Dionne Warwick. He goes on to say that love is “not just for some, but for everyone”. Who can you show more care for at work?
This article is dedicated to my father, Jack Wenger, who died on December 18, 2009. What I know from the people who worked with him as their Manager, he was a much loved boss who cared very much about the welfare of his people.