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?
October 10, 2012
Absolutely, undoubtedly, unequivocally, yes! Such a leader is a vanguard leader. We were recently in conversation with a CEO who wondered aloud if there is a place for someone like him; someone who, in my estimation, expresses how he feels, lets other know how they impact on him, curiously seeks feedback on his own performance (with a view to acting on it) and strives to do what needs to be done in a way that is aligned with a personal value system orientated to fairness, meaningful work and concern for the well-being of others. This man is, in my view, in the vanguard of how a CEO should be. (He’s also a real person!) I can understand why he might occasionally doubt himself because he likely looks around at other people called “CEO” and doesn’t see himself mirrored back. The times, however, they are a-changing.
Lots is written about the kind of leaders we require for the 21st century. I have no desire to replicate what is out there, however what I see in this man who “wears his heart on his sleeve” is an amalgam of responsible leadership, authentic leadership and congruent leadership and I believe it is worth setting these out. I believe the three are essential in order to surmount the challenges with which the current age presents us. The terrain the modern leader needs to navigate is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). How can we best develop ourselves as leaders to navigate this well, so that we leave our workplaces, the people within them and the world in a better place than when we found it?
Responsible leadership, to my mind, is about being responsive to what is around you; thinking about the wider system. As Christopher Avery sets out, being responsible goes further than being accountable. Being accountable, as Christopher says, is backward-looking, in that we can account for our actions. Being responsible is forward-looking, in that we seek to take account of a wider system. When we read about responsible leadership or corporate responsibility, we think of triple bottom lines or sustainability: how will our actions affect others now and into the future? In other words, we are responding to an assessment of the bigger picture; what ripples will our actions (and non-actions) create. This is vital if we intend to bequeath a planet worth inhabiting for future generations. While I’m a little loathe to throw morals into the mix, I’d say that a responsible leader is one who would align themselves with a “Do no harm” kind of morality into their work. Extending this, a responsible, vanguard leader is a systems steward. A vanguard leader understands that a truly effective business will come about when the organisation (the system) is healthy. Sick cultures enact sick behaviours. The systems steward will be responsible for ensuring that there are healthy policies and procedures, a healthy flow of information, a healthy openness to innovation, healthy relationships, a healthy culture of learning, development and continuous improvement. Being responsible for the hygiene of the wider system will ensure longevity and ‘good growth’.
Being a vanguard leader is absolutely about being responsible. It is absolutely about being a systems thinker; taking action when the wider system is taken into account and stewarding their business towards health.
Authentic leadership, for me, is bringing your whole self to work. As Bill George and others say in Discovering your Authentic Leadership, you need to be who you are, not emulate someone else. Authentic leaders know who they are because they are on a lifetime journey of self-discovery. Discovering our authentic leadership requires a commitment to discovering who we are.
Being a vanguard leader is absolutely about being authentic. It is absolutely about knowing who we are, letting people know who we are and not simply being the angry, unhappy guy or gal who gets s**t done.
Congruent leadership is based on personal values, beliefs and principles. Congruent leaders also place a high value on building and maintaining good relationships with others. Congruent leaders are guided by a higher purpose. They become conscious of the value systems out of which they operate and work to align these with their words and their actions. Such folks are also open to discovering their blind spots, areas where their values, actions and words are not aligned, and to making the appropriate adjustments so that they can operate in a principled manner.
Being a vanguard leader is absolutely about being congruent. It is absolutely being aware of our values and principles, communicating those and behaving in ways which are aligned with them.
Vanguard leadership is the confluence of responsible leadership, authentic leadership and congruent leadership. This is the promised land. We are on the way, but in our wider society we are not there yet. Some leaders, like that CEO I mentioned, are well on the way, however. For folks like this, it can be a little isolating.
When we look around and find ourselves a little alone, how can we sustain ourselves?
If we are in the vanguard, we are at the forefront of a movement. As I said, the times, they are a-changing and I confidently predict that 100 years from now, this kind of leader will be ubiquitous. If, in our current era, however, we are striking out into new territory, this means we may have times when we doubt ourselves, feel isolated or wonder if we are deluding ourselves. If you are a leader who enacts responsibility, authenticity and congruence in your working life, what would be useful in order to sustain yourself if there are relatively few living and breathing models of vanguard leadership? In the world we have inherited from the Industrial Age, we are conditioned to look for gaps, rather than strengths. That conditioning starts early on at school. The workplaces we enter reinforce this deficit mentality through the performance management systems we apply to ourselves and others. Even if we don’t want to focus our energies on what is dysfunctional, we are seemingly compelled to look at what’s not working, rather than what is. If we unconsciously take this approach with ourselves, especially when we look around and find few people like us, it can dent our confidence. We can begin to assume we are less capable and less effective than we actually are. We may distrust or disbelieve positive feedback or fail to see the positive impact we have on others and the wider system. We can also devalue ourselves; finding ourselves attributing less value to the qualities inherent in a vanguard leader than to those qualities in what we might believe a “real CEO” to possess. This seems quite natural to me, given our conditioning. We need to develop a self consciousness in order to remain strong.
As Daniel Goleman writes in “The New Leaders” (2002), emphasis on our gaps often arouses the right prefrontal cortex of our brains. This gives rise to feelings of anxiety and defensiveness which typically demotivate and interrupt self-directed learning and the likelihood of change and development. The effect of this is that the very qualities that identify a vanguard leader get lost in the process.
So it is essential that if we are in the vanguard, we develop a strong self-companion Role. One of my favourite expressions comes from a friend in Scotland. If I was doing something silly, she’d joke, “Have a word with yourself.” Even though she was teasing me, she probably has no idea how useful I have found this advice over the years. From a Role Theory perspective, developing a good self-companion means just that, having an intimate relationship with ourselves; being able to have a conversation with the aspect of ourselves that says, “Keep going, you’re on the right track. Others don’t get it yet, but you are really onto something here.” Now, once again, I’m loathe to bring morals into the conversation, but I think it’s important to place a caveat on this. I’m pretty sure Hitler and Stalin had a similar Role within them. An truly effective self-companion, however, will not urge us to barbarity. Bear in mind, we are a complex system of inter-related and inter-connected Roles. The self-companion will be the one that interacts with the rest of us and spurs us on. By the “rest of us”, I mean the other roles I saw present in that CEO I mentioned at the beginning of this article: strongly orientated to thinking bigger, strongly orientated to the well-being of others, strongly orientated to leaving a legacy of health, roles I can hardly imagine Hitler or Stalin possessing in any great measure. I’m fascinated by those two despots and how they did what they did, but in all the documentaries I’ve watched, I’ve never observed anything remotely like humility, openness to feedback or care for humanity in their Role systems.
We can consciously warm ourselves up to the thinking, feeling and behaving necessary to fully integrate a strong sense of self-worth. If this Role is embryonic in us, we need to be quite conscious of growing it, much the same way we needed to be conscious of learning to drive until it became second nature. We had to actively think, “Clutch, gear, release clutch while depressing accelerator…..” Similarly, we may have to be awake to growing the habit of being a good self-companion. What self-talk or affirmation would be useful to build ourselves up? What emotional state would be most useful to warm up to? Think of a time when you were full of self-confidence; how can you transfer some of that goodness to your current situation?
“The world has the habit of making room for the man whose words and actions show that he knows where he is going.”
It is just as vital to find peers. In your head, heart and gut, you know you are doing right by yourself and others, but sometimes we also need to see ourselves mirrored by our peers. If you are at the forefront, you are, by definition, ahead of the pack. In one sense, you are peerless. Not entirely, though. There are others out there. We need to apply ourselves to finding these folk. When we do something that seems a little different or we feel that we don’t quite measure up to what a “real CEO” is, we need to find others who are similarly “weird”. Seek out others who are supportive, encouraging, caring and interested.
Referencing Goleman again, study after study has demonstrated that positive groups make positive change. Senior executives reported feeling that many people around them had an investment in them staying the same, not growing and developing. Finding a trusted peer group of other vanguard leaders, whether that is through a local Vistage group that is resonant with our desire to cultivate new leadership styles or a virtual peer group of leaders interested in being responsible, authentic and congruent, will keep us on track and reduce the isolation of being a little “weird”. A peer group is a powerful motivator.
Any thoughts on this? Comments, insights and conversation most welcome.
September 8, 2012
“Many people live in the hallucination that they can truly lead other people without being able to lead themselves and this is pure fantasy. It is much easier to try to change other people and not being willing to change ourselves. This exercise of authenticity is very much needed if we truly want to inspire, touch and move the brains and the souls of those around us.” So writes Mario Alonso Puig, Fellow and Doctor, Harvard Medical School in the recent World Economic Forum report, Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership.
I’m initially a little hesitant when I read something that uses the word “model” because of the meaning we still tend to attach to that word “model” in our consumerist societies. New models of leadership, huh? (For this, I have been too often disappointed and end up reading some fast food version of what it means to be a leader: barely nutritional, highly addictive and something which passes through the system quickly.) Part of that hallucination to which Puig so eloquently refers is, I believe, related to a world in which we think we can continually “get” and “consume”. Gimme gimme gimme, make it quick, make it punchy, make it easily digestible. Don’t need to really soak it in, it’s just going to come out the other end anyway because, like a lot of fast food, I’m going to be hungry again in a little while and whatever is to hand will do. What’s the next leadership model I need to (rapidly) familiarise myself with, then?
This WEF report, however, sets out more than just a model. It’s a descriptive, and rather compelling, vision of what it could mean to be a leader and also points the way to how we could regard leader development in a VUCA world. When the world we navigate is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, how do we respond? As the report states, integral to effective leadership is the inner journey leaders must embark upon. This is not about tips and strategies, rather it is something to which there are no short-cuts. Developing self-knowing can sometimes feel elusive. Just as we get to grips with one thing, it can seem to vanish, unlike technical information, for which there is a manual.
There are concepts and phenomena that are becoming more ubiquitous and mainstream such as “emotional intelligence“, “mirror neurons“, “flourishing” and all those other really interesting things that science and rigorous research are demonstrating have some truth to them. Any leader who wishes to remain relevant and become more effective would do well to familiarise themselves with some of these, however knowing about them and actually applying them to oneself are two different things. There is a world of difference between a seminar that describes emotional intelligence and an experiential workshop in which you immerse yourself in stretching your abilities to relate with people and in which you practice reversing roles with others. You will gain information from the one, but the insights gained may not result in changing who you are. You will become different as a result of the other.
In answer to the question, “What is the best model of leadership?” I would suggest, it depends. Not terribly helpful I know, but it depends on who you are and that question is one to which you are far better placed to answer than me. We will all find various models or tools of more or less use. We will all find different descriptions of leader behaviour of more or less relevance. One thing is sure: learning who we are is essential if we are indeed “to inspire, touch and move the brains and souls of those around us” and the effectiveness of a model is, I suggest, going to be directly correlated to the level of self-knowing that the person attempting to apply it has achieved.
Models are all well and good but I believe the chief question to address is not “What is the best model?” but “How can I become more authentic?” or “Who am I and how do I bring the real me to my role as a leader?” In my time, I’ve encountered people who are not in formally-recognised “leadership” roles, but who exercise themselves with this question daily and exhibit what I would call excellent leader capabilities. This is the kind of thinking I infer from the WEF report: that leader development is not just for those in management roles, but in a social economy, leader capabilities are people capabilities. All kinds of people who bring a kind of authenticity and real human-ness to their work indicate the good stuff that more CEOs would do well to take heed of. There have been the internet provider’s customer service representatives who answer my grumpy phone calls and who manage to both help me solve my technical problems as well as ease my frustrations and keep me as a customer. That’s leadership. There were the hotel reservation staff who actually listened to my concerns and went the extra mile, and before I even check in have provided me an experience of customer service that makes me feel like I’ll be staying there again and again. That’s leadership.
A model of leadership ought, in my view, be descriptive, rather than prescriptive. In a world still dominated by “I want”, “What can I get?” and “Just give me the 10 top tips,” we need to be careful of limiting our development as leaders to descriptions of one aspect of this without also taking on board that the task at hand is self-discovery. Fine to learn a new top tip, but we have to avoid reducing leadership to a set of behaviours or a set of attitudes. Layering these on without also looking inside will be inauthentic. Who are you really, underneath all that make-up? Authentic leadership and being an authentic leader seems to me much more about being the leaders we want to be, not modelling ourselves in accordance with the latest trend, which could be akin to wearing someone else’s clothes which are slightly ill-fitting and in which we never really feel comfortable.
“Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life. There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning.” Peter Senge
Part of discovering who we want to be as a leader implies doing something that nobody else has done in the entire history of the universe: being you. I sometimes joke that a really useful personality metric would be one that has not four or 16 or 30 types of people, but seven billion. Certainly, we have more that unites us than separates us; certainly we share 99% of our genes with mice, but the chemistry of all the roles we enact in our lives synthesises into one and only one unique living entity.
I have made the point in a couple articles that we humans learn best when in the company of other humans. I have also made the point that it is nonsense to teach children that they must “do their own work”. I am not contradicting myself when I advocate for discovering oneself and being the unique leader you want to be. It is a interesting paradox that humans do learn best with cooperating with others and interacting with others, but that we need to expend our own energy and leave our own comfort zones if we are to learn anything. Doing our own learning, however, does not mean isolating yourself from the input and assistance of others. We do learn by watching what others do and adopting some of their ways of being, adapting them to fit our personal values. Adopt, adapt and improve. We learn by giving and receiving feedback from others.
When Ackoff said, “If each part of a system is made to operate as efficiently as possible, the system as a whole will not operate as effectively as possible. The performance of a system depends more on how its parts interact than on how they act independently of each other,” he could have also been referring to each of us as individual systems within larger systems. Maximising our intellect without doing the work on ourselveswill not make us better leaders. As the WEF report says, part of learning how to manage in a VUCA world is related to growing “head” and “hand” skills. These are given greater impact when growing the “heart” skills. They are inextricably linked. If I was to ask you which was the most important organ in your body, you might struggle to answer. None are more important, all are essential and they all need each other in order to have a healthy and well-functioning body. Same thing applies. No use learning the latest tips for having robust performance conversations if you are shy of real encounter with another human being.
If self-development is a journey you wish to undertake, I would signpost a few things:
It’s divergent. All the answers don’t become apparent all at once. It’s unpredictable. If you are someone who needs to always know “why” before you do the next thing, you will need to learn how to manage your frustration. For myself, I have had to develop greater equanimity in the face of confusion. Breathing helps. I often wish I could show the same patience towards myself that I have with others, but there’s more grist for my mill. Sometimes the “why” is the last thing to come (if at all). Doing something which uses the word “toolbox” is probably not ideal because what you’ll learn about yourself cannot always be listed as an inventory beforehand.
It’s messy. If you are someone who needs to be in control, you will also need to learn how to manage your anxiety. Self-awakeness involves seeing things that we may not always like about ourselves and embracing them as part of who we are. It involves “crossing the threshold of your doubts and fears,” as Puig also says. I’ve had to develop greater balance in myself in order to help with this one. Recently, I received feedback about something and I literally felt wobbly. Nature and walking (or even better, walking in nature) helps me with this one.
It’s developmental. If you need “step 1, step 2, step 3″, you will probably need to let that go. Letting a two-year old take you for a walk would be good training for that. It’s not a linear “from A to B” sort of thing, it’s more like from “EH??” to “Be”: a meander from one interesting thing to another. The “heart” journey is one on which each step builds on the previous ones and each step reveals the next thing to head towards. You can’t plan this journey, but you can set your bearings to head in a direction. Developing more “flow” has helped me to meet this one. Travelling in Uganda, India and Nepal in my late 20s taught me about flow. I remember looking down from my hotel balcony onto a Mumbai street when I first arrived and it literally looked like a river flowing. You dive in and go with it or get exhausted trying to swim upstream.
Because the landscape is uncharted and confusing, this inner journey really can be quite unsettling. I recently challenged someone inadvertently on a belief they have of themselves. They knew that in a social workplace, it is important to be a good listener and empathic towards others. I could hear that they “got it” intellectually. When they said, “Of course I’m really good at empathising with my staff and understanding where they come from,” I naively asked, “How would you know that?” They blushed, the smile turned to worry and something seemed to unsettle them, almost like they had uncovered something they hadn’t encountered in themselves before. Rather than become defensive or brush it off, they boldly decided to dig a little deeper. Brave soul. We need courage to acknowledge our shortcomings (or at least acknowledge that we might have some!).
Using your powers for good? How would you know? Too many folks in business still operate out of an “egosystem” mentality and not an “ecosystem” mentality (thanks to Otto Scharmer of MIT). I still hear managers say to me, “I need to be in control of what happens around here.” Really? If we continue to operate unconsciously out of mindsets that are not conducive to a healthy system, what hope for business? Self-discovery involves becoming awake to our prejudices (Theory X anyone?) and our personally constructed glass ceilings.
Do you believe you are being supportive, empathic and compassionate? How would you know?
Do you think you know yourself? How would you know?
August 15, 2012
I’ve written relatively little over the past few months and am feeling for the lack of it. When I first set out to write this blog, my intention was to use it as an aid to digestion; that is, to assist me to synthesise the thoughts, feelings and experiences that come about in my work in the field of personal and organisational transformation. I’m honoured that my scribbles have been of value to others as well!
While I’ve been missing the thinking and reflecting that goes on as I write, I have made use of another opportunity for reflection. I have been doing some major house renovations of late and have found the meditative work of sanding endless window frames or staining the entire outside of the house, while physically exhausting, extremely fun. A good part of the fun came in having “nothing” to think about. I had hours to just reflect, with few limitations of time or demands of day-to-day busy-ness. It took as long as it took.
I realise that it was a luxury to have so much time to reflect on some of the big questions of life; I’m not independently wealthy and don’t foresee a period when I’ll have so much time away from the busy-ness of work. However, it reinforced in me the importance of building in time to unplug myself and ask the big questions:
- Who am I?
- What am I doing?
- Why am I doing it?
- What do I value?
The parallel for the business world, I suppose, is when senior leaders get away from the office so they can ‘work on the business, not in it’. Get away from the demands of email and phone (though it’s somewhat self-defeating when they spend their retreat constantly checking their smartphones), change focus from the day-to-day operational stuff and think bigger about the business. Similar questions get covered: Who are we? What business are we really in? Why are we doing what we do?
If business is to succeed in the 21st century, the same big questions need to be asked by the people themselves. It is not good enough for people to persist with the same old Theory X mindset. More and more, people are looking for more from work than just a pay cheque. While it is not so unusual these days to read about the relevance of personal growth and growing self-awareness in the context of work, it is more unusual to see a business culture that is actually orientated to providing people the means to derive meaning, mastery and autonomy from what they do every day. I would go as far as to say that increased self-awareness in the modern workplace is not an optional extra; it is fundamental to improving effectiveness, increasing satisfaction and maximising joy at work. It also behoves businesses to place value on people developing self-awareness because self-actualisation and effectiveness go hand in hand.
If this is the age of the self-awareness, why do businesses still pay for training about stuff, but shy away from investing in something where people learn about themselves, who they are, what makes them tick, what they value, which seem to me the things that would be of most benefit in unleashing true potential at work.
When someone says the word self-awareness, something in my head switches and I hear “self-awakeness”. To me, awareness of myself is being awake to myself. While total awakeness to my thoughts, feelings, values, drivers and motivations may be elusive, I am most likely to get close to it when I my line of sight is less obscured by the minutiae of daily life, requests from others, deadlines, emails, barking dogs and so on. If can take away as many of the filters that cloud my self-vision, I can get close to seeing myself as a camera might, warts and all. Why would I want to do that? Short answer: to be free, to be happy. When those executives at their away-day retreat announce at the beginning of the session that they need to keep their phones switched on because “people in the office will need to be in touch with me”, I have a Walter Mitty moment. An image of the universe flashes into my mind and I think, “It’s been here 13.9 billion years, this solar system for 4.5 billion…. and YOU are insignificant….the people in the office will get along just fine without you.” What I mean by this is: why not unplug yourself from the matrix and find out just a little bit more about who you are and why you do what you do?
When I do what I do in my work, I challenge people. I don’t give answers. This can be frustrating for someone who just wants me to use my external eye and tell them what’s going wrong. Speaking with a client recently, I joked that he is both the cause of and the solution to his frustrations at work. He smiled. I made a similar point in an earlier article about systems (the cause of and solution to a business’ problems). The point I was trying to make was that we are often the most significant authors of our frustrations and misfortunes and I was less likely to know his inner workings than he was. I could, however, act as an auxiliary who would help him probe, wherein he might find solutions.
With a little more self-awakeness, we can begin to uncover the solutions to the things that stump us, and then generate a little more freedom for ourselves. While I believe it is true that we are subject to the systems of which we are part, we cannot completely abdicate ourselves to them. A little self-awakeness can help us reduce some of the blindness we have to ourselves and the systems in which we operate. Over time, we become innured to the effects of our workplace cultures, our family systems and our social groupings. Because it’s just “how things are done”, we become infected with the same virus everyone else in the system is infected with. How refreshing it is to become unentwined from unhealthy systems; it releases us (even if just a little) to make choices about how to think, feel and act.
If we are more awake, however, we feel the pain of inhuman, unfair or violent systems more keenly. Our values and aspirations come into conflict with the day-to-day behaviours and attitudes that exemplify the system. So why bother? I, myself, sometimes say in moments of exhaustion or frustration, “I wish I could just un-know what I know about myself and be content with a job selling shoes.” Not that there is anything wrong with selling shoes; I’ve actually done it myself and learnt a lot about how to shop for my own footwear. What I intend is that developing self-awakeness is like taking the red pill in the film The Matrix. While it expands consciousness so that we are able to see more of “the real world” or our real selves, it can be challenging. Stripped of delusion, devoid of frippery and fancifulness, developing awakeness to ourselves can sometimes leave us feeling raw and vulnerable. We see both the light and the shadow. Once known, it is hard to un-know ourselves and plug back into the matrix in blissful ignorance. The pay-off, however, is worth it. Knowing our values, being familiar with our Achilles’ heels, getting in touch with our prejudices, all give us the power to do something about them. The knowing of ourselves frees our capabilities to know and serve others.
Do you take a daily blue pill, waking up each day believing what you want to believe about yourself?
…..or do you take a daily red pill, staying in wonderland and finding out just how deep the rabbit hole goes?
For anyone who deals with people in any aspect of their work, this is a key benefit. When we know how we relate to power and authority, when we know how we embrace or shy away from closer communion (read collaboration) with others, when we know where we lack confidence, we can actually DO something about it. We can actually learn how to deal with angry people or ineffective staff or dissatisfied customers. Real and significant learning of interpersonal skills is ensured when we find out about ourselves. Our intrapersonal skills are inextricably linked to our interpersonal skills. Self-awakeness is essential if we are to get by in this world. It’s vital if we are to get by and get on in our work.
One essential discipline is reflection. This article comes about as a result of an intense period away from my usual work and immersing myself in the meditation that is house renovations. Once the cacophony of daily life is quietened, we can begin to see ourselves and in the privacy of our minds, we can eventually just observe our thoughts, feelings, values and attitudes.
Another discipline is openness. Oftentimes, self-awakeness comes when someone has the courage, the caring and the wherewithal to tell us something that we do not see about ourselves. We can also develop the ability to invite feedback. This requires a certain level of openness and equanimity. The root of equanimity is “having an even spirit”. Being able to hear things about ourselves and make good use of this information requires us to develop composure. Uncovering our blindspots requires, also, a willingness to admit that we have them. If you say to me that you like getting feedback from others because it helps you improve, I will believe that when you demonstrate this, not simply tell me. So when I say in response, “….but you don’t like getting feedback,” and you reply “That’s not true,” the irony is not lost on me. If you fail in your attempt at equanimity, you fail to make good use of the feedback because you cannot see that first blindspot and you are likely to struggle when people really tell you how you impact on them. Practice and demonstrate openness to information about you by responding with something like (lose the passive-aggressive attitude…..people see it, feel it and smell it….do it genuinely or not at all)
- “Wow, what gives you that impression?”
- “Really, I had no idea, tell me what you see me do (when I get feedback).”
- “Hmmm, what is it I say or do that makes it seem I (don’t like feedback)?”
….O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us….
If you are not familiar with traditional Scots, it goes: “…Oh, would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us! It would from many a blunder free us…” That clever Rab Burns was onto something. Feedback from others, when given and received with love and compassion, can go a long way to uncovering hidden gems.
Another useful habit is to get regular supervision. Anyone who has worked in the fields of counselling, therapy or social work will be familiar with this. A supervisor is not someone who tells you what you should do; they are a person with super vision. That is, they hold a bigger picture for you to see. Ideally, they are external to your business and they listen to you, tune in to you and point the way to things it could be useful to look at: either about yourself or the system in which you work. They are someone who is “on your side”, but doesn’t collude with your prejudices. They are a “trusted other” who challenges you, supports you and reveals you to you. A supervisor is not a coach. A supervisor will be someone who saves you from the perils of asymmetric insight. Anyone who works with people would do well to access good supervision and in these days of the social economy, who doesn’t work with people?
The thing about learning about ourselves is that we can’t get it from a book. We are the content, not a bunch of information about stuff. We get it from reflection and synthesis: making meaning of our experiences, relationships and interactions. We get it from others who care about us enough to tell us what impact we make on them. We get it from disinterested supervisors who have our growth and best interests at heart.
As always, I welcome and look forward to comments that add to and build on.
July 18, 2012
In “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, Big Daddy bellows in exasperation, “Ain’t nothing more powerful than the odour of mendacity.” Recently diagnosed with cancer and fed up with the secrets and lies of family life, he begins to see that there is nothing lost in airing the truth. Perhaps many of us when faced with the finality of a situation in life realise that there was much left unsaid that, had it been expressed, would have been to everyone’s benefit. Had we acknowledged our trepidation and named the elephants in our various rooms, standing up for integrity and truth, we might have cleared the air of the stench of mistrust and enjoyed a much more honest life. In fact, in a recent article, the number one regret of the dying was identified as: ”I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
In light of the many recent revelations of systemic corporate greed and mendacity, I have wavered between despondency, fury and hope. Should I give in and hone my deceptiveness skills: both to myself and others? Should I play the game just because others will be disappointed if I don’t or, at the risk of incurring their wrath, express my misgivings, doubts or hesitation? Should I just give up hope that we will find people worthy of the title “leader”? Should I join those manning the barricades of the Occupy movements? Alternatively, should I remain hopeful that those who fiddle while Rome burns will soon be swept aside in a tide of genuine democracy and that our organisations, businesses, communities will be driven by the people within them rather than some out-of-touch elite? Should I rejoice that, at last, some of those in positions of power are naming corporate greed as systemic and not simply driven by “a few bad apples”. Are people finally getting it? It is a human dilemma: conform or be crushed by a corrupt system.
Furthermore, as Fintan O’Toole suggests, “All the evidence from the many scandals of recent years is that it is not sociopaths who create rotten cultures. It is closed, arrogant, unaccountable cultures that turn ordinary people into sociopaths.” Deming said as much some years ago.
So many times over recent weeks as I read of the fraudulent practices of GlaxoSmithKline, the UK Conservative Party, the New Zealand Immigration Service, Barclays Bank and most recently, HSBC, have I found myself remembering Deming’s comment that 95% of possibilities for improvement sit with the system and only 5% lie with the individual. I also hear myself muttering that a bad system will defeat a good person, every time. EVERY TIME. We are seeing this before our eyes.
I received a subscription email that propounded the notion that we thrive when our ratio of positivity to negativity is high. I have no beef with that notion. However, it went on to link to articles in the press that “demonstrated” how things are looking up and we are back on the road to recovery and everything is alright, if we would only stop feeling negative about things. Made me want to vomit. There is a word for folks like this: Pollyanna. I know people like this, some of them apparently working in the real world of organisational life with a view that if we only just thought lovely things, it would all be OK. The truth is: the world, including the business world, is in a parlous state. No amount of positive thinking can erase the fact that some of the world’s major industries and corporations are systemically sick. No amount of soma will make me blind to the fact that those in positions of power remain inert in the face of corporate malpractice, environmental degradation and growing inequality. No amount of media distraction will divert me from the evidence that our democratically elected “leaders” are in the pay of lobbyists and their corporations who answer to nobody, bar their shareholders. I’m not just having a moan and I’m no Eeyore; I have a good life and count myself exceedingly fortunate that my worries are mostly first world problems. Think you have worries? Enter your annual salary in the global rich list website and see where you place relative to others in the world. If you are reading this, life is probably pretty good for you, on the whole.
However, we are an important juncture in human history. Our institutions have lost the trust of those they purport to serve. Many of our businesses are resorting to gamifying their marketing in an effort to soma-tise potential customers. Many of our workplaces are likewise trying to hypnotise people that their meaningless work is fun fun fun.
I take heart that there are businesses like Morning Star, who base their organisational effectiveness on self-management and not some lumpy hierarchical management structure that insists “it knows best”. I take heart that the Beta Codex Network, of which I’m an associate, is out there, promoting a saner and more humane (and frankly, much more sensible) way of structuring organisations by advocating for radical transformation, rather than tinkering round the edges, to achieve real effectiveness, meaning and joy at work.
I am entirely sure I am not alone in my disdain towards fraudulent business practice. The aptly named Bob Diamond, ex-CEO of Barclays Bank infamously told British Members of Parliament last year, “There was a period of remorse and apology for banks and I think that period needs to be over.” However, as Andrew Rawnsley has written recently, “he was wrong: plenty more remorse and apology would be appropriate, and welcome; but much more importantly, the values, culture and practices of finance, as they have developed since the ‘Big Bang’ reforms of 1986, must be torn down, and a smaller, humbler, simpler world of banking built in their place.”
To be honest, I’m not interested simply in apology and remorse. These things are worthless without some kind of follow up. If someone apologises, I expect an associated change in behaviour and attitude that demonstrates the apology was genuine, heartfelt and indicative of real responsibility-taking. I’m mostly interested in what Rawnsley suggests with regards a tearing down of the values, culture and practice of finance. I’m similarly interested in a transformation of business. I’m interested in businesses selling products and services that are actually worthwhile. I’m interested in businesses that actually provide interesting and meaningful work for people. I’m interested in businesses that run on the premise that people are humans, NOT resources. I’m mostly interested in business that operates with transparency, honesty and humility. Not just a PR job that makes us think these are the values, but that these are the values that are REALLY lived throughout the business; even, if not especially, by those who manage it. Even Bob Diamond, in a BBC lecture last year, said, ”Culture is difficult to define. But for me the evidence of culture is how people behave when no one is watching.” Couldn’t have put it better myself.
Business leaders are not going to changes things simply because they come under fire in the media or are told that it is wrong. They already knew it was wrong and they did it anyway. The structures of how business is managed create the sick cultures in which they operate. Cultures are not transformed by mere criticism nor by symbolic public witch-hunting.
It is clear to me that the fraudulent practices that have recently come to light are systemic. The “few bad apples” defence, as Andrew Rawnsley has written, will not wash. What happened, happened because the system allowed it, condoned it. Those who make the rules not only fell under the thrall of high finance, they were well and truly in its pockets. As he goes on to say, a college student, with no previous convictions, was imprisoned for six months for stealing a £3.50 pack of bottled water during last year’s London riots. Yet there is serious doubt whether it will be possible to prosecute banksters who perpetrated a massive con involving sums which would buy many millions of bottles of water.
Just as “a few bad apples” does not placate those who watch these scandals with disgust, the opposite also does not give comfort. The suggestion that there are individually decent and compassionate people within these rotten systems and that this should give us hope things will change, is just as false. The system is responsible for 95% of what goes on in it. The system must be reformed, transformed, root and branch. Utterly. Totally. Absolutely. It is the system.
Surprised at these revelations of corporate fraud? Not much. The systems which brought the financial crisis and scandalous corporate behaviour to bear have not changed. The same dynamics are in place, the same values intact, the same practices perpetuate. The question that Plato posed in his tale of the Ring of Gyges was whether a moral person would remain moral should they become invisible. To all intents and purposes, the practices of bankers and the nod-and-wink agreements made over lobbyists’ drinkies are invisible and mysterious to most of us. Let loose to do as they please in the 1980′s, what would constrain banksters to behave in a moral fashion? Reliant on corporate donations, what would cause politicians to change the immoral rules which their paymasters rely on?
Public enquiries, the odd sacking, stripping a Fred Goodwin of a public honour or the symbolic prosecution of a Bernard Madoff, while just, are simply public relations band aid solutions to deep seated problems. If the system remains intact, people will continue to act within its rules, treacherous though they may be. Having said that, those who stewarded those rotten cultures must be removed to make way for those who have the nerve to re-boot their systems and establish morality within business and government. Rotten cultures, as Will Hutton has observed, do not emerge from thin air. They emerge from structures which encourage and condone rotten behaviour. Similarly, moral cultures will also not arise out of thin air.
To be truthful, I’m not depressed by recent revelations of this institutionalised fraud and business improprieties. To me, they are the lancing of the boil that needed to happen. It is a wake-up call to actually look at the system and craft new ones for the 21st century. Vince Cable, UK Business Secretary, pointed to the Swedish business bank, Svenska Handelsbanken as a model of how things could be. Like Cable, I am a long-term optimist and a believe that these scandals will eventually lead to better systems.
Trying to apportion responsibility for these scandals on a few rogues ignores the reality that the systems within which these folks operated are broken. News International, Barclays Bank, GlaxoSmithKline, the New Zealand Immigration Service, HSBC. The politicians of all hues whom we elect to represent and stand up for our interests are overly chummy with the financiers, the corporates and the media who are being tagged with the epithets ‘immoral’ and ‘deceitful’. Are we really all in this financial crisis together? I think not.
My hope is that all these dishonest practices will eventually herald the time of the moral business. It is time for the way we do business to be re-booted. It is time to start doing the right things, not the wrong things righter.
What is the moral business?
A moral business orientates itself to its customers, its staff, its environment, its community and its shareholders, not just its shareholders. A moral business orientates itself to doing good, not just for those at the top whose enormous bonuses ensure their collusion with a system that is focussed more on quick profit than innovation-generating benefit for the wider economy. A moral business takes hold of the bigger picture and takes a long-term view of what business success means. In other words, it will see that deifying shareholder return is not how to run an organisation that serves all of its stakeholders, nor contributes to sustainable human development.
I don’t believe that anyone seriously gets into business to do wrong or sets out to be intentionally deceitful or immoral; I have a higher view of humanity. But when we find ourselves in sick systems, we struggle to swim against their tide. If we want our businesses to do the right thing, maybe it’s time we put our foot down and started naming some of those elephants. Let’s also look out for those leaders who have the courage of their convictions to do the ‘hard thing’ and reform capitalism.
Mendacious times, indeed.
April 29, 2012
Bizarrely, if you went into most school classrooms in the industrialised world, you would still hear teachers say or imply, “Sit down, stop talking, do your own work.” I say bizarrely, because this notion that we will excel in our lives only if we do what we’re told, mind our own business and draw solely on our own thoughts, ideas and knowledge just seems unnatural. It has come from the old days when schools were set up as places to train youngsters for a life of isolating wage slavery. Our education systems were designed, in other words, as mirrors of adult workplaces and apart from reading, writing and arithmetic, the key lesson was “fit in or f**k off”; if you want to get ahead, play the teacher’s game, learn what THEY want you to so you can pass their tests (usually information about stuff, rather than insight about self, life and the world) and don’t challenge authority, i.e. get used to working within rigid and nonsensical hierarchies. I may be generalising, of course; I had the odd teacher at school who encouraged me to actually think, make meaning of what I was learning and formulate my own opinions, but broadly speaking, most of my school lessons were dull as dishwater. I even had one history teacher whose lessons consisted of getting one of the students to write 10 words on the blackboard (yes, it was black, not white) which we then, silently and working on our own, had to find the definitions of in our history books and when we had done, we could just sit and do whatever we liked. That was his idea of teaching history. No word of a lie, that was what my history class was like day in and day out. He never questioned us on what meaning we had made of “The Gettysburg Address” or “appeasement”. He never chaired debates that made us think and question, he never gripped us with stories of life in First World War trenches, he never inspired us to find connections between the Protestant Revolution and the modern world, to my mind, he never actually taught anything of real use to me. However, the school system seemed more than happy with his performance because we all managed to get reasonable scores on the tests he would set us, and year after year, there he was, back in his classroom faced with another group of students. Oddly, his were probably the best lessons to prepare us for the mindless busy work that is expected of people in many businesses.
How much of this sort of thing still goes on in workplaces? Mindless, silo-ed busy work that seems unconnected to anything bigger or meaningful. What’s the alternative? Systems thinking shines some light, I believe. Systems display certain characteristics which are applicable to business. Businesses, after all, are systems. As Deming has said, “A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system”. Businesses are not machines, despite what many manager behaviours would have you believe. They are self-organising, living, breathing, dynamic; not a bunch of separate and isolated parts that can be relied on to do their best in isolation. Albert Low in “Zen and Creative Management” stated, “A company is a multidimensional system capable of growth, expansion, and self-regulation. It is, therefore, not a thing but a set of interacting forces. Any theory of organisation must be capable of reflecting a company’s many facets, its dynamism, and its basic orderliness.”
Deming also said, “A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system. …A system must be managed. The secret is cooperation between components toward the aim of the organisation.” So what is required of leaders in the modern age if they are not to be the controllers? The clue is there in Deming’s quote: when he says the system must be managed, the role of the modern manager is not about rigid plans and KPIs, it’s about nurturing cooperation, fostering connection between all the myriad and diverse elements in the system. The other bit about having an aim is another clue. The manager who wishes to unleash the full potential of their business will ensure that there is a clear line of sight to the purpose of the business. People will know WHY the business is in existence and will feel connected to achieving that purpose. Furthermore, the manager will be less concerned with an individual’s results and more about the value they add to the whole. Hard to KPI that one, though, so it’s left in the too-hard basket.
Systems are naturally self-organising; I do not have to plan and strategise my digestive system to do what it is already organised to do. I also do not have to push or control my digestive system to do its job because it is already set up in a way that leads it to do what it is naturally organised to do. Workplaces, because they are systems, will also self-organise when released of mechanistic and unnatural constraints. In fact, all systems either self-organise or die. If constraints are placed around a system which restrict its natural self-organising tendencies, it will be lifeless. How can leaders expect people to engage in their work if their workplace is dull, lifeless and overly-controlled? Businesses and the people that work within them are not machines, nor parts of machines, that can be shoved into action by external forces, much as Henry Ford would have liked to believe that. It is part of a leader’s role to put the conditions in place which do not hinder the natural self-organising tendencies of the systems in which they operate. What does this actually mean?
This means fostering a culture orientated around values. That means they are not just put in a nice frame and hung in some dusty corner of the building; they are the lifeblood of how people do things at work. They are values which people can tap into and make real meaning of. It is therefore absolutely essential that those who manage the business relate work conversations to the values and that they live them whole-heartedly.
This means fostering a culture of real learning. When a system is open to new information, energy or resources, it will inevitably shift. Being open to learning keeps the system dynamic and vibrant. It will continually re-organise itself, incorporating the new learning. Leaders need to focus their efforts on establishing ways of doing things which help the organisation respond to change by learning and renewing itself. A strong and vigorous system will have a strong orientation to learning and a business that does not open itself to new learning will have a much shortened life-span.
This means fostering conversation and connection. If my history teacher had done this, I might have made more meaning of the things I was reading in my history book. It is counterintuitive in today’s world that you would expressly ask someone NOT to collaborate, NOT to share ideas, NOT to talk. We know enough about how systems operate that it is crazy to let fragmenting silo mentalities reign. Please, do NOT sit still, do NOT stop talking, do NOT do your own work.
This means assisting the business to maintain a coherent sense of identity. Strong businesses are the ones that have a strong sense of identity. The ones that last and navigate more successfully through troubled waters are the ones with a stable value core and the capacity to live their values congruently. Identity is maintained and strengthened at the level of values and purpose, not at the level of tasks. Once again, real leverage is not where old-style managers would have you think (better planning and tighter control) but within the deeper recesses of the system: values and beliefs.
As always, comments that build onto what I’ve written are welcome. I’m always keen to hear from other minds and to expand on the thoughts I set down.
April 17, 2012
The last thing a fish notices is the water. I’ve said it before, and once again am reminded of it in my work with clients. How do managers ever effect real change when they are steeped in the same fetid water that holds the rest of the system back from better performance? I’m in the privileged position of being able to come in as an external consultant and see things that those who work there have long since stopped seeing, feeling and smelling. It doesn’t take long when you join an organisation to “go native”, i.e. to become infected by the patterns and behaviours of the culture of the organisation and stop seeing them as ineffective or even bizarre. I wrote an article some time ago that described how organisational cultures replicate themselves and it’s always affirming when I hear a manager tell me the same story in an effort to describe how they ended up in their situation.
Similarly, it’s easy for a culture to lose sight of its strengths. Just as quickly as we stop seeing what is bizarre and take it as normal, we also overlook the capabilities and relationships that already exist and take them for granted, failing to build on them and use them to our best advantage.
One manager and his 2IC have got a pretty good picture of the kind of culture they wish to create, and get a little frustrated when they are stymied in their efforts by people who have been there for many years. The vision they have includes improved customer service, increased initiative-taking on the part of the staff and a workplace orientation to both performance AND friendliness (no, the two are not mutually exclusive) …..in short, it’s a picture that will ensure longevity. There is plenty in it for staff to work in this new way. They will have greater long-term job security, they will have greater autonomy and less micro-management from the boss, they will have more appreciation from more satisfied customers. However, because “it’s always been done this way”, there is resistance. I’m reminded of the old adage, “People don’t resist change; they resist being changed.” Initially, the manager was stuck in confrontation and faced with bloody-minded laziness with some of the staff, who would creatively find ways to avoid doing anything different. I encouraged him to think differently and take a different tack.
Systems thinking focuses on transformational change. This requires being able to see the organisation from a bigger picture perspective. Tiny incremental steps and tinkering around the edges will not effect the changes that many folks are looking for. They don’t shift the culture as effectively because these tiny changes will continue to be overwhelmed by the predominant culture which is working hard to maintain itself. For this manager, this means not fighting the resistance. Rather than go head to head with belligerent staff who don’t like the changes, taking some distance is having more effect. He is behaving in a way which is congruent with how he will behave when the new culture takes hold. In response, staff are having to shift how they respond to him. As the manager ceases to micro-manage and gets on their backs less, the staff are left wondering what is going on. As a result, they are taking a little more initiative and just doing what he has been haranguing them to do for ages. They are realising that if they don’t do the job he is now leaving them to do, there will be a consequence, of which they will have been the author. He is becoming more careful about choosing his fights, as it were, and granting the staff more space to do what they know how to do really well. He then follows up with regular performance conversations where he and staff can reflect on how much work is getting done and how effectively this is happening, always mindful of getting staff to do more of the talking. He is slowly beginning to see the old culture of “manager dependency” shift to one where he has more time to do his job, rather than chase other people to do theirs.
Another group are in the process of re-organising themselves so that they are working more effectively. They have inherited a departmental structure that is not fit to achieve what they wish to achieve. They focus their gaze on what is not working, their detractors and the things which get in their way. I remember when learning to ski being told not to look at the queue of skiers at the bottom of the lift and instead to look at the clear space where I could stop safely. I forget how many times I had to crash into people before I actually learnt to look at where I wanted to go, instead of where I didn’t. Again, as an external consultant, I can see as plain as day how much in the way of strengths and resources this group of highly capable professionals already have, which, if deployed with greater awareness, could actually help them surmount the obstacles they struggle with. I can see how much alignment they have around common values and beliefs. While there is an impatience in some members of this group to just “get on with the work”, the manager and several key others are giving pause. This is so that they, as a whole group, can get a really good picture of what resources they have, where they are headed and what their purpose is. Once this is solidified in people’s minds, they will be better able to carry out the work they are itching to engage in. They will focus their energies on what they do well and what alliances they have, rather than what they don’t have or what the barriers are. They will have greater clarity of purpose. They will have clearer lines of accountability and shared authority. They will have a group which responds to its customers, both internal and external, with greater authenticity and less burnout.
Systems thinking focuses on values, purpose and meaning. It’s important, as a leader, to learn how to see systems and to guide others to see the bigger picture as well. The patterns that occur within a workplace are a reflection of the inner workings of that workplace-its values and beliefs. A leader who wishes to effect change will first get a real grasp of how the system works and encourage others to do likewise. In many cases, a thing observed is a thing changed. Look for patterns; not much that goes on in this world is a one-off. What do these patterns say about the organisation? What are the values and beliefs that are being enacted? What relationships does the system have which are life-giving, not energy-sapping? What, if any, core beliefs or principles does the system live by? Systems thinking leaders, like the manager of this group, will help the system develop and maintain a sense of identity and optimism. Effectiveness comes out of shared values and purpose, shared identity and relationships, shared interests and information; not hierarchical imposition. The focus is not so much on efficient individuals as an effective whole system; a living, breathing entity.
A systems thinking leader will train his or lens on the vision for the future, ensure others have a clear line of sight to this vision and trust that the actors within the system will achieve the kind of collaboration and assembly required in order to achieve the system’s objectives. This requires a shift in how managers view themselves. It requires them to trust the people that work there. It requires them to foster learning, values and relationships, not micro-management and control. It requires managers to stop seeing themselves less as “Doers-in-chief” and more like orchestra conductors or a ship’s navigator. This implies that a manager, if they wish to develop greater leadership, will need to develop personal capabilities that allow them to be in ambiguity with greater ease. They will need to be more comfortable letting go of power and control. They will need to trust people and value difference.
Obviously, there is much more to add to this topic and these are simply the reflections that have been darting about my mind these last few days. I value comments and contributions that build on the thoughts I set out. I look forward to hearing from you.
October 26, 2010
Inspired by a really interesting conversation with a friend, I’m pondering on what creates a cultural shift in an organisation. While a culture shift will be catalysed by and affected by many, many factors, the impact of values on such a shift is giving me pause for thought.
To me, the word ‘culture’ very simply conjures up ‘how we do things around here’. This would apply to a nation, an ethnic group, a family group or an organisation. Every group has a culture, or a set of things that happen, and underlying these are a set of values. Values, being the drivers of attitudes and behaviours, are sometimes unconscious, however they still shape the cultural norms; they are they ‘why we do things’, if you like.
So I’m reminded of the story of the wet monkeys…..Put three monkeys in a cage; suspend a bunch of bananas from the middle of the cage, with a step ladder underneath; when the first monkey goes up the ladder towards the bananas, someone outside the cage hoses all the monkeys down with ice cold water; keep doing this every time a monkey goes for the bananas, so they learn that ‘it’s important not to go for the bananas here’…..now take one monkey out and put in a fresh one…..by now the value is in place-’it’s important not to go for the bananas here’. So when the new monkey goes for the bananas, you won’t have to hose them with water, the other two monkeys will simply attack-’WE DON’T DO THINGS LIKE THAT HERE’. The fresh monkey will not understand why, but will quickly learn that ‘it’s important not to go for the bananas here’. Take another of the original monkeys out and place another fresh one. This time, when the fresh monkey goes for the bananas, even the one who wasn’t hosed with water will attack because he knows that ‘it’s important not to go for the bananas here’. Repeat this until all that are in the cage are monkeys who have not been hosed with water. They will still follow the cultural norm of ‘not going for the bananas’. They don’t know why-they just don’t. See how values can be unconscious and still be strong drivers of behaviour?
So if you want to create a cultural shift in your organisation, how do you get that to happen? I reckon it comes by creating a picture of the new culture you are trying to create and drilling down to the values that will drive that culture. Say you want to shift to a more ‘customer oriented culture’. Simply asking people to do some things differently may not create that real, deep cultural shift. Bring out the values (for example, one could be ‘it’s important to know what our customers think and feel about us’) and let people explore whether they can opt into those values. You may lose some people, but others will come on board who are aligned with the values of your new paradigm….which is what you want, isn’t it?
August 29, 2010
Are your organisational values lived ….or simply laminated? A well-known Kiwi brand prominently displays its values on a huge sign just behind the service counter. When one of those values is something like ‘great customer service’, what am I supposed to make of the organisation when the person behind the counter is chatting on their mobile when I’m waiting for service?
How many other organisations spend hours and dollars coming up with a glorious list of values, only to have them go unnoticed, unheeded and un-lived? It’s easy to become cynical about such exercises when you go into a workplace and what you actually FEEL is ‘dull’, ‘stress and overwork’, ‘life-draining’, ‘depersonalising’. I’m pretty sure that nobody will have come up with those as the organisational values.
Sure, a lot of values statements encapsulate those things which organisations and the people within them aspire to. But aspirations don’t magically come to pass just because we want them to or because we ‘visualise’ them being true. The hard work of turning your workplace into a ‘best place to work’ comes on a daily basis. It’s similar to how you have to work at keeping fit and healthy. In the same way that you don’t get ‘fitness credits’ (i.e., “I don’t have to work out this week because I had 4 workouts last week”), you don’t get ‘values credits’ (“I had lots of integrity last week, so I can afford to be a little deceptive this week”). Each and every person in the organisation needs to be attentive to bringing the values alive….every day.
It’s not easy work; it requires increased self-awareness. It requires us to stop ourselves every so often and ask, “Is what I’m doing and how I’m doing it RIGHT NOW in line with the values I aspire to?….and if not, what do I need to shift in myself?…..my attitude? my behaviour?” It requires us to take a cold hard look in the mirror and wonder why we are doing something or how we are doing it. Challenging ourselves to live our lives in a congruent way, in a way that matches our aspirations and desires, is invigorating. It’s worth it!
Let’s see….what challenge will I rise to this week?