December 2, 2012
Interesting what can spark an idea and create insight. Staring at the full moon the other night, I found myself marvelling, yet again, that we’ve been there. That led me to consider the languaging: “We’ve been to the moon.” We? We’ve been there? In fact, from Armstrong to Cernan, only 12 white American men have actually set foot on the moon, yet we often include ourselves in this achievement. It is notable that this landmark is considered to be a milestone in human achievement and so we talk about it in collective terms. It came about after JFK set a vision and “we” went along with him. A vision.
There are other achievements that you’ll hear people include themselves in. We defeated Nazism. We eradicated smallpox. We developed penicillin. How did we manage this?
So what happens to us when we go to work and lose this ability to see the “we”? Folks who, in their ordinary lives, are motivated, thoughtful, generous to their fellow human, energised and enthusiastic about life in general seem to leave all that at the door. What is in the air conditioning that infects folks when they come to work and causes them to narrow their gaze and lower their expectations of what is possible? Many workplaces still operate in silos, effectively causing the various departments to compete with one another. It’s like your heart competing with your liver to see which is the best or most important organ in your body. Utter nonsense.
We did some work with the leadership team of a finance company some years ago. Half of them managed the sales side of business and the other half the administrative side of the business. I witnessed them openly expressing sentiments like: “If only your admin people would understand this: they wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for us salespeople,” and “If only your salespeople would understand this: they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs if our admin folks weren’t in the back room doing all this really important work.” Our work was cut out for us. I’ve heard similar things echoed in other businesses….and the silos stay grumpy and resentful of each other, losing sight of the bigger picture. I wonder, however, if they have got hold of the bigger picture.
Hierarchical, command-and-control structures draw out the competitor in us. We effectively have businesses running internal competitions, hoarding information, playing politics, who’s the best in the company. Divided by lack of a clear common vision, we miss what is right in front of our noses: the other people here are potentially on the same side.
I’ve previously mentioned our work in a manufacturing firm, assisting team leaders to reduce silos and develop greater confidence in themselves. They developed two key things during the course of our work: improved relationships and the bigger picture of what they were all there to achieve together. When they reduced the isolation they felt from each other, they stopped seeing others as “out to get them”. When they developed the ability to think bigger, to see their “part” of the manufacturing line as integral to the whole, they began to perceive one team’s difficulties, one person’s difficulties, as their own. These two together were the sparks that catalysed shared problem-solving, shared decision-making, shared achievement and they started to celebrate the success of each “part” as essential for the achievement of the whole.
Martin Luther King declared, “I have a dream,” not “I have a plan.” Surely, for business, too, the starting point is the vision. We wouldn’t have got to the moon without JFK’s bold vision. He uttered some simple words that caused hearts to swell. Businesses, likewise, can set out compelling visions that cause people to think, “I’m up for that.” When there is a compelling vision, we have something around which we can gather together. We can feel part of something bigger than ourselves; something meaningful.
Sociometric principles and practices point to a way of creating something shared in business. One of the tenets of sociometry is that we have more in common with each other than divides us; however, much of those things that bind us lie hidden and unspoken. Action sociometry aims to make the covert, overt, so that we discover how connected we actually are. This reduces isolation and gives us confidence that we can together resolve our shared challenges and common difficulties. Another thing that sociometry teaches us is that the quality of an outcome is directly related to the quality of relationships between the people who are attempting to generate that outcome. It is the work, therefore, of leaders and those who consult to businesses to break down the isolation of modern work and to develop the sociometry to grow greater cooperation and collaboration.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” African proverb
Is “maximising shareholder return” the best that businesses can come up with? If we now know that humans seek meaning from their work, what could possibly drive someone towards a vision as narrow as that? I would hardly call “maximising shareholder return” what Sinan Si Alhir named as a history-making effort: intrinsic meaningfulness for universal benefit. Where is the higher purpose in that? Where is the universal benefit in that?
Working with the three senior leaders of a cemetery, I asked them, “What is your purpose?” and they paused. As if I was asking them an exam question to which I knew the right answer, one of them hesitantly responded, “To provide good customer service?” I half-jokingly said, “Why don’t you all go work in the local hardware shop then?” They looked at me quizzically. Eventually, after a little discussion between them, they decided that their purpose was to assist families going through a bereavement. At this point, they all three got excited. Grim work, I know, running a cemetery, however, they had finally hit the nail on the head. It was as if they had suddenly realised why they come to work and they had hit upon their real purpose. It wasn’t just scheduling burials or organising graves to be dug. They were providing an essential service to others, one that nobody else could carry out. From here, the conversation flowed. They spoke with each other as if they were on the same team, rather than trying to manage what used to look like competing demands and interests. Also, they began to see a clearer way to delineating the kinds of behaviours and attitudes they wanted to see in their workplace. If everything was about achieving that higher purpose, they could see how to enlist everyone into achieving it. They have found their “We”.
As Louise Altman has written, “WE focussed workplaces bring out the best in their employees–at every level.” Maz Iqbal also described the success story that is John Lewis in the UK. Masterful at employee engagement, customer experience and organisational effectiveness. The collective spirit on which Lewis’s was founded is the driver of its continued success, even in the depths of recession. Collectively, they exist to create happiness for its 81,000 partners (every employee is a part-owner of the business) and to serve customers with flair and fairness. You feel it if you shop there. While I’m not a fan of shopping, I find it a pleasure to shop at John Lewis.
It is this sense of “we” that John Lewis has achieved over 148 years that we need to develop in the world and in more of our workplaces. It starts with the vision. Something bigger than shareholder return, though, please. Drill down and find out: What is it that we are all here to achieve? What is our purpose in coming together and how can we all contribute to that? And it happens with good sociometry–deeper relatedness at work. When people know who others are, how they belong and how much they have in common with others, as humans, it becomes easier to know we are “WE” and not just “you” and “I”.
Go on…..call me a hippy.
….or just see it as good business. Want robust employee engagement, organisational effectiveness and customers that love you? Find your purpose and strive for good relationships.
November 4, 2012
Part III (Going Further)
In Part II of this article, I suggested that if we remain wedded to a mis-placed set of thoughts and beliefs about business, we will end up asking the wrong questions. We cleverly ask these questions from within our old intellectual bubble, coming up with “new-and-improved” solutions to problems, however we only end up doing the (same old) wrong things righter. What happens if we apply bigger thinking to business challenges, though? So there is this thing called systems thinking, so what?
If we think bigger about business problems, we can make a fundamental shift in effectiveness. I often use our shift in thinking from a geocentric to a heliocentric view of the solar system as an example of the difference that a paradigm shift can have on our lives. So Copernicus said the sun was the centre of the solar system, so what? What did that mean in a very practical sense? Copernicus challenged the prevailing orthodoxy of the time, which was central to Church doctrine. Kepler, Galileo and Newton followed on, demonstrating with science that Copernicus was right. So what? Just try and tell me that the scientific revolution that followed on didn’t make much of a difference to the average person’s life. Think of the ripple effects. The scientific revolution…..science gives us the means to challenge the prevailing institutions of governance…science encourages us to think for ourselves….science revolutionises medicine, technology, art and culture, architecture, food production…..
Similarly, systems thinking is revolutionising how we organise work and how business does business. There are examples of how applying systems thinking is making business more responsive to customers, more satisfying and meaningful for people who work there and more effective at what it does.
How do we organise ourselves? Command-and-control hierarchies are so 19th century. They are about controlling the business. As this example from Portsmouth City Council demonstrates, a really effective business will be driven by its customers. Business decisions will be made at the point where it interacts with the customer. Often, important decisions are made by those in a managerial role, distant from the customer. ”Managers know best” is one of those nasty underlying assumptions on which we base the role of a manager and influences how we organise work. If I’m most effective at work, I should be responding to market demand, not management diktat.
Taking a systems thinking perspective on how a business does business can illuminate the need for transformation; for actually doing something radically different. Much as Owen Buckwell did at Portsmouth City Council, asking the right questions from a bigger picture perspective will highlight what lies beneath some of the seemingly intractable “stuckness” in getting to real effectiveness. Government inspectors routinely gave the Council glowing reports, however Owen knew that things weren’t right. How did he know? ”Noise” in the system that didn’t come from the conventional ways of measuring the work. Customers were constantly complaining and Owen was unsettled enough to ignore the positive government reports and instead seek to uncover what his “market” was actually saying. These government inspectors measured customer satisfaction, for example, by asking questions such as, “Did the tradesman smile when you answered the door?” and “Did workmen clean up after their work?” They didn’t ask, “Was the problem completely rectified?” or “How many times did the tradesman have to come back to fix something that wasn’t fixed properly at the first visit?” They were there to provide a service to ratepayers and Owen recognised that this wasn’t happening satisfactorily, so he began to ask the right questions of the customer. They got the big picture of how the business was performing, which they needed in order to radically transform how they did business. Owen also had an inkling that people came to work to a good job and he was right. By handing more operational decisions to those who carried them out, he found that job satisfaction increased. He took action on the system, not on the people, and shifted how they do business from command-and-control (doing what government inspectors want) to a systems approach (what the customer wants). In the end, they meet government targets “by coincidence”, but more important to Owen is that they are providing the most effective service to ratepayers.
How do we approach performance management? Typically, performance management is about asking the wrong questions. In any case, if we think bigger about it, individual performance management is pretty useless, by and large. This next example demonstrates Deming’s 95% rule: the best place to look for improvements is the system, not the individuals within it. Work on the system, not on the people. If we continue to rely on analytical measures of performance and mechanistic means to make it happen, we will not unleash the kind of thinking and creativity (from everyone) that business needs if it is to survive. Once again, do we tend to ask the right questions when it comes to performance management?
Taking a systems thinking approach can uncover root causes of seemingly intractable blockages within a business. It broadens our perspective and can release us from the kind of inertia that keeps us doing the same things again and again with little significant change. Take a client of ours who realised that the problem with performance management was not “performance management”. While consistently figuring highly in “best places to work” surveys, they had a recurring problem with “poor performance”, specifically, that people didn’t feel the organisation dealt with poor performance very well. In many other aspects, the people felt it was a great place to work, but that something had to be done to manage those who underperformed. In some cases, it got so bad that people were “managed out” of the organisation, much to their surprise. Nobody had told them that they were underperforming until it was too late and relationships had sufficiently soured to the point that they were irretrievable. Listening to this “noise” in the system led the HR Manager to take a systems thinking approach and rather than focus on the individual managers who were not dealing with individual underperformers, the root cause was identified as lying within the culture; it was a systemic issue.
A dominant theme in staff surveys was the friendliness of the place. Digging a little deeper, it seemed that most folks thought that “friendliness” and “performance orientation” were mutually exclusive. In other words, we can either have a friendly place to work or a workplace that focusses on effective performance; herein lay the barrier to regular and frequent conversations about performance at work. The systemic belief that addressing work performance would undermine friendly working relationships meant that it didn’t happen often or well enough. Our work was to assist a shift in the culture to one where “friendly and positive working relationships” were inextricably linked with “performance orientation”. Rather than dealing with the “problem” of managers who don’t deal with poor performance, the focus was on shifting the whole system so that by the end of our work, everyone was having robust, strengths-based conversations about performance all over the place without damaging positive working relationships. About half way through our year-long project, we joked with the executive management team, who were grumbling that their staff were now challenging them on their performance, that they would get what they asked for.
In both of these cases, systems thinking forces us to look at the whole, not the individual parts. It is the job of the modern manager to re-vision their function from one of “controller” to one of “steward”. The focus is on purpose, values and meaning. What does this business exist to achieve or create in the world? What values will guide us in doing this? How is this meaningful for the people who work here? It is the role of managers to ensure that the correct conditions exist for these things to be realised, not to tell people what to do.
Julian Wilson, owner of aerospace company Matt Black Systems uses a beautiful analogy in a MIX article on re-designing their business. To rescue a dying species, old thinking tells us that we should invest ourselves in an intensive breeding programme. New thinking says that we should focus our efforts on ensuring the environment in which the species exists is provided proper stewardship so that nature can take its course and allow the species to flourish. Eliminate the things in the environment which endanger the species, nurture those things which allow it to thrive.
If, as Daniel Pink suggests, people are truly motivated by the search for meaning, mastery and autonomy, these will come to us in an environment where the conditions allow these to thrive. Eliminating adminis-trivia and management power games is a start. This does not mean we leave people to do as they please. Leaders need to re-vision their roles as stewards of the culture. It is the culture, or the system, where managers can exert most influence and create the most opportunities for effectiveness, learning and transformation.
A lot of what is currently going on in businesses is not being talked about because it’s not part of the mainstream discourse. Something is no longer working. We feel it and we feel there should be another way. Systems thinking provides us new lenses to see deeper and wider. We must stop ourselves from repeating old mistakes and develop our abilities to think bigger so that we can go further. Hand in hand with this, we need also to develop greater ease with the complexity we will see before us and greater confidence to deal with being a little less certain about things. The effects of the system are there, whether we decide to look or not.
….and if you are someone who appreciates the power of systems thinking when others think you crazy, it can be useful to remember the words that Galileo reputedly uttered when forced by the Inquisition to recant his crazy notion that the Earth moved around the sun: Eppur si muove (and yet it moves).
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 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?
June 24, 2012
One of the most satisfying contracts I’ve had involved working with a group of team leaders on a manufacturing line back in 2005. We had an introductory tour of the factory floor before we engaged with them and I saw what you would expect to see on an assembly line. Articles being put together in sequence in order to turn out a finished product. Repetitive, time-pressured, loud and VERY hot. Upon meeting with this group and getting to know them, I was astounded to learn that most of them had been with the company for over 10 years, the longest serving being about 25 years. Much to my shame, I will admit that my astonishment was based on a prejudice I had about repetitive work: that it is personally unrewarding, it provides little room for personal development and offered little real challenge to those who carried it out. I never imagined that in this day and age, people would voluntarily choose to stay in a job that involved doing much the same thing, day in and day out, for mediocre financial reward. How wrong I was and how much I learnt from these folks, and their company, about satisfaction and engagement. We were contracted to do some development work which would assist them to grow, not just as team leaders, but as people. This should have given me a clue that this manufacturing company was different from most workplaces.
My memories of this arose thanks to Bob Marshall’s recent post, The Games People Play. The first line really grabbed me: “Gamification bugs me.” I, too, feel uneasy about gamification. I recalled this factory floor and the people who made it run and remembered that engagement at work is not about making it all fun fun fun. While I’m certainly no puritan and I accept that work is better if it’s fun, I would suggest that trying to dilute the meaningless of some jobs by gamifying it is missing the mark entirely. Sure, people are more productive when they’re having fun, but I contend that fun is not about “silly dress-up day” or paper airplane contests. I googled “how to make work fun” and I was disappointed (but not too surprised) to see it was all stuff aimed at brightening up your day, bringing humour into the workplace and having fun, but I couldn’t see anything that was related to actually changing the business on a deeper level so that the work itself became engaging. I believe that gamification sits within the old mindset of those who ascribe to Theory X: that people are inherently work-shy, unmotivated and uncreative and need to be motivated by the old carrot and stick. In other words, if you reward a behaviour, you get more of it or if you punish a behaviour you get less of it. Trying to turn dull, silo-ed work into a game is just another bright shiny thing, to my mind.
Just as genuine engagement is not about trying to window-dress tedium with toys, neither is engagement about enticing people with pots of money. That manufacturing company did not apply the carrot and stick to get people to stay engaged. They did something bigger. Firstly, to borrow a phrase from Daniel Pink, they paid people enough so that they took money off the table. I’ll add that they don’t earn a fortune, but they earn enough so that it’s not an issue. Once money was dispensed with as a motivator, they applied themselves to growing a workplace where people can achieve something even better, something that Daniel Pink and others assert creates real engagement: meaning, mastery and autonomy (MMA). I recommend watching this compelling ten-minute clip of Daniel Pink discussing motivation at work, where he sets these ideas out.
As Pink states in that clip, the science shows that we humans care about mastery very very deeply. The science shows that we want to be self-directed. THE SCIENCE SHOWS. I don’t think I’m making it up when I say that people want to be successful in their lives. People want to do something they feel is connected to something bigger than themselves. People want to learn and to keep learning to do better. People want to feel in control of what goes on in their lives and to have real input into workplace decisions that affect them. People want all these things from their work and unless businesses change, the gamifying fad will quickly lose its lustre as people wake up and realise that nothing has really changed. And nothing will have really changed for the business either; they’ll have to find the next bright shiny thing……unless they take the courageous path and transform how they do business.
There are no shortcuts and no magic bullets to creating engagement. Now, though, in the mistaken belief that there is, some businesses are trying to divert people’s attention from repetitiveness and routine and make work fun. Everything has to be fun fun fun. Was Huxley right when he foretold how the human race would be kept placid and compliant by a daily dose of soma? For soma, read gamification.
In a lot of cases, when I see some kind of game element embedded in a retention or marketing strategy, what I actually hear is, “What I sell/ask people to do is intrinsically dull so I’ll use a little smoke and mirrors to get you to engage with my product/my service/my company/your job.” If the premise is that people enjoy playing games more than they enjoy work, then trying to gamify boring work is looking at the symptom, not the cause. And if your product or brand is lacklustre and uninspiring, gamifying it will not change its intrinsic dullness.
I don’t want to come across as some old fuddy-duddy. I enjoy games. I have games on my iPhone and I enjoy an boys’ night with beers and PS3. When I’m in the world of Angry Birds or Assassin’s Creed, I find what any good game developer knows makes a good game: autonomy, mastery and meaning. I also find MMA in a cryptic crossword, so it’s not a new phenomenon. But I find these things within the world of the game. It is specious logic to say, then, that just because an engaging game will have these three ingredients, that you can generate these three things in your customers or employees by turning what you do into a game.
When we wake up in the morning, how magnificent if our first thoughts are “I wonder what I can learn today?” or “I wonder how I can enhance someone else’s life today?” or “I wonder what joy I can find in my day today?” or even “I wonder if I will experience some things, good or bad, that stretch me or challenge me today?” NOT ”I can’t wait to get to work so I can earn more badges, points or move up the leaderboard,” or “Oh great! It’s cupcake day.”
We want meaning in our daily lives.
We want to master something in our daily lives.
We want to be self-directed in our daily lives.
Turning routine chores or repetitive tasks into some sort of game may make the hours pass by quicker, but it does not provide meaning to this work. But somehow, that manufacturing company found ways for people to find MMA in their repetitive assembly line work. How did they do it? Short answer: they changed the business. Even back in 2005, what I saw was evidence of a culture of engagement, participation and continuous improvement. They haven’t stopped manufacturing the same product they had manufactured since the 1800s. They changed (and continue to change) how they ran the business. To me, they are a living response to Deming’s quote, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” They are interested in surviving and thriving, so they have embarked down the path of business transformation. The culture they are careful to steward is one that emphasises effectiveness and ensures that people who work there gain meaning, mastery and autonomy from their work. Any systems thinker would say that these things are all connected.
- People on the factory floor are encouraged to see the bigger picture. Even though they may be responsible for one part of the assembly line, the focus is on the effectiveness of the whole. The focus is kept on the quality of the whole finished product, the customer and the company brand. Because they see that they are contributing to something bigger than the efficiency of their small part, they do this rather old-fashioned thing and take pride in their work. Poor quality work is a concern for the whole business, not just one part. Talking to some of those people from the factory floor back in 2005 and I found they actually cared how effective everyone else was because they knew it affected them too.
- People have the opportunity to challenge themselves. They are encouraged to move to other parts of the assembly line, to learn about other processes that go on and to develop themselves technically. People who show leadership potential are encouraged and supported to extend themselves, take greater responsibility and receive leadership development in the form of mentoring and formal learning. The business provides opportunities for people to learn (and to fail). Even while monitoring high standards, this business views “failure” as an opportunity for the whole business to learn and re-tool itself. The whole of the business, the factory floor included, is infused with the ethic of continuous improvement.
- People are encouraged to participate. Workers’ fora, genuine consultation, devolved decision-making all happen. This business knows that the best problem-solving will happen amongst the people it directly affects, with the input (but not the coercion) of management.
Trying to turn repetitive work into some sort of game in order to increase engagement is just Snake Oil 2.0. It misses the point. It’s trickery to try to get people engaged in something which instrinsically adds nothing to their lives. It sits within the old carrot and stick school of motivation, which sits nicely alongside Theory X.
Gamification, or trying to change behaviour at work by turning everything into a game, is a practice rooted within the Theory X assumption that is just not true, but that most organisations operate under. I’m sticking my neck out, obviously, by using that word “true”. However, when Copernicus challenged the “truth” of an Earth-centric universe, his “heresy” was actually true. It just took a while until it could be proven and then another little while for people to believe it. I am satisfied enough with the work of people such as Douglas McGregor, Martin Seligman and Daniel Pink to say that Theory X is just plain wrong. It is more true to say that people will instead self-motivate under the right conditions. To me, however, the right conditions are not built on flimsy gamification.
Theory X and Theory Y are not polar opposites. They are two different beasts. ”Carrot and stick” and MMA do not sit at opposite ends of a continuum of motivation in the same way that doorknobs and breakfast cereal do not sit at opposite ends of a continuum. They are entirely different things related to entirely different paradigms. As Bob Marshall says, gamification is doing the wrong things righter. It is tinkering with a bad model.
If you think that what you do is essentially un-engaging, stop trying to dope people up with their daily dose of soma and take a good hard look at how you structure your business instead. Great work is fun. We feel good when we do well. We feel good when we are enabled to do well, too.
Why not craft a work culture where MMA is inherent in the company structure? Why not take up real leadership and transform what you do and how you do it so that it is truly something people want to engage with? Why not make your product or service so bloody good that people actually want it?
February 29, 2012
“Empower” is a word that is coming into greater usage by many who manage people. I like to think this is a sign of how much the modern manager is acknowledging the importance of authority and accountability being more diffuse in the workplace and that old-style hierarchies have outlived their effectiveness. I have noticed sometimes, however, that when I hear someone use the word in particular contexts, I bristle slightly, so I have done some thinking as to what that’s about. Without wanting to get into a whole semantic debate about what it means exactly (because like many words, it is tinged with our own subjectivity), I think there is a mindset to which the word alludes. Naturally, I also bring my own experiences and understandings to the word, so I am not presuming to set out the definitive meaning.
When I hear someone talking about empowering staff or their team and they describe what they mean, the word that springs to my mind is “enable”. The two terms are often used in dictionary definitions of each other and sometimes listed as synonyms. While they are closely related and sometimes interchangeable, I see a subtle but very important difference between the two when it comes to workplace authority and accountability. I think there are some nuanced differences that illustrate different types of leader behaviour in a workplace that is becoming increasingly “democratic” and where power is shifting from the top to become more spread throughout teams and organisations.
In a world of networks and interconnectivity, I believe that nobody can empower us; we do that ourselves. Nobody who took part in the January 25 movement in Tahrir Square was empowered by Mubarak and his cronies, they took it upon themselves to take to the streets and demand something different. In the world of work we can also empower ourselves, not in a “let’s man the barricades and overthrow the dictator” kind of way, but more in a “I’m bringing all of myself, my creativity and my initiative to work” kind of way. I believe this is a call for leaders to get out of the way. We hire people for their expertise and capabilities so please, let them bring their whole selves to work and let’s get out of their way. If some managers didn’t play the kind of power games that demotivated people, they could spend less time wondering how to increase motivation and engagement and more time with a gentle hand on the tiller, keeping an eye on the big picture, providing the means and opportunity for people to work well and letting people get on with what they hired them for. This is not to say that leaders should ditch their responsibilities and just let people do whatever they want, but that the activities of a leader should be more focussed on ensuring that everyone who works for the organisation has a clear line of sight to the vision and that they are provided the means with which to contribute to this big picture. A leader should develop the capability to tune into people and work out which ones need more guidance and coaching, which ones need a lighter touch, which ones work best with frequent encouragement and which ones need clearer structure and discipline, which ones thrive on autonomy and initiative-taking and which ones work best when given more direction; in other words, find out how you can best be of service to the individuals and teams who you lead and don’t take a cookie cutter approach with everyone. This, for me, is not about empowering though.
I bring my understanding of the word “empower” from my days as a therapist when I was working with clients whose lives were characterised by a deeply felt lack of power, or potency, in their lives. They were not the star of their own life stories, in other words. They were subject to decisions made by child protection authorities or social service authorities or parental authority or some other kind of powerful person or statutory body which held sway over important aspects of their day-to-day lives. While it is true that so many people in their lives were the agents of disempowerment, it seemed to me that to presume that I could empower them was just the opposite side of the same coin. For many people, bosses at work also hold this position. In my role as a therapist and in my current role as a change facilitator, it seems a little paradoxical to me that I would be in a position to empower anyone. Empower, to me, presumes that the one who empowers has the power to begin with and grants it to the other; it reinforces a paradigm of power and control to which the other person is subject. If I am the granter of power, there is still a power imbalance. This relationship presumes that I hold some kind of hierarchical authority over you and that, only by my good grace, are you exercising any authority. While I am in the position of granting power, I remain in the position of taking it back. I came to see myself as more of an enabler and facilitator, so that the other person could develop the resources within themselves to take up greater potency in their lives. For someone to gain authentic power, it was important that they were the agents of their own empowerment and that I get out of the way of them doing that.
In that world of therapy and personal growth, the term “enable” has come to take on a pejorative meaning. It is often used to describe those who permit unhealthy behaviours to carry on. For example, someone who enables an alcoholic is someone who doesn’t confront them or provides the means for them to carry on abusing alcohol. An enabler is considered someone who provides the means or opportunity for someone to engage in their addiction and thus carry on with their destructive behaviours or attitudes. While I agree that it means to provide the means and opportunity to do something, I see it from its etymological meaning of to “put in ability”. Rather than call it enabling, I would classify those manager behaviours that inhibit each person taking responsibility for themselves as colluding. If you are rescuing, lecturing, shaming, controlling, punishing, needlessly micromanaging or living in denial about what staff do, you are probably not enabling nor empowering in my book.
Even though the two words, empower and enable, are often used interchangeably, it is important for me to be clear in my mind of the subtle differences that make a big difference to how we relate to people. The one, empower, emphasising power and a world view that hierarchies hold greater sway than relationships and interactivity between nodes on a network; the other, enable, emphasising capability development and a world view that, when fully able, people can put their abilities to good use.
Empower seems limited to the granting of authority, which can be rescinded when it suits the holder of power, while enable seems much broader to me. It encompasses what someone does to ensure that others have the requisite capabilities and skills to carry out a job well, to take up their own power (potency) and when necessary, showing them the door to gaining new capabilities and skills. It seems to be more akin to equipping and supplying than conferring power. Once equipped, the enabler can then get out of the way and let the person access their own power to get on with it.
I would say the following activities count as enabling, or “getting out of the way” behaviours:
Setting boundaries: clarifying limits of authority and accountability so that people know what they are responsible for and what they are not. It may be necessary for a leader to delineate where various bucks stop, but once boundaries are set, people can be freed up to exercise initiative. Set boundaries too tight and you end up micro-managing. Set boundaries too loose and you get confusion and anxiety. Like Goldilocks’ porridge, they should be just right.
Managing team dynamics: shining a light on relationships and networks and encouraging their connection and interaction. The enabling manager knows that teams sometimes need a watchful eye to assist them with potential conflict or difference. The enabling manager will not, however, need to be an interloper, speaking on behalf of people or protecting people from each other.
Showing trust and belief: behaving in ways that let people know you trust them to get on with it. It is true that for some folks, work is just a thing to earn money and is not a source of personal satisfaction or meaning. However, for those folks who are looking for a sense of achievement, trust them to work things out for themselves. It is important to set out the parameters of what needs to be achieved, but trust folks to do it in their own way. If you want to tell someone what to do and exactly how to do it, why not just get a robot? Let people prove themselves and stretch their initiative muscles.
Being available: for advice, guidance, information, as a sounding board. Letting people get on with it does not mean abdicating your interest or your involvement in what goes on from day-to-day. Having an open door also does not mean being there to solve every operational problem to the extent that you never get your own work done.
Communicating respectfully: communication should be open and mutual. This includes being authentic with people and letting them know how their actions affect you and others, being humble and encouraging them to do the same with you, keeping open lines of mutual feedback.
Coaching people to learn from mistakes: when someone makes a mistake, an enabling manager will work with the person to work out what went wrong, why it went wrong and ensure that they have the capability and awareness to prevent a repeat. Punishing or blaming may not teach someone what they need to learn so it doesn’t happen again. A plan for professional development, however, will.
Encouraging problem-solving: letting people bring their creativity to work. None of us is smarter than all of us, goes the adage. Given the means and opportunity, people and teams will apply themselves to solving the problems that affect them, rather than default to a chain of command that doesn’t have all the answers. Encourage a culture of creativity, collaborative problem-solving and engagement in the issues that affect everyone’s working lives.
Don’t get between people and their work. Let work be a place where people can extend themselves, be themselves and learn for themselves. Get out of the way please.
February 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!
November 22, 2011
A poll in October of 2011 put the approval rating of the US Congress at just 9%. When Rasmussen pollsters asked Americans if they approved of the US going communist, a full 11% said they were OK with that; two points ahead of Congress. To put that into context, during Watergate Richard Nixon’s approval rating was 24%. BP, during the Gulf oil spill, hit 16 %.
To me, these figures illustrate the erosion of trust in those who set out to lead us and, I suspect, an erosion of faith in the systems that puts those leaders there. It’s not just a crisis of democracy, it’s a much wider crisis of leadership: in government, in business, in churches. The expenses scandal in the UK. Widespread sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests and covered up by bishops. Credit ratings agencies giving the thumbs up to banking systems at the heart of the global financial crisis. Bankers gifting themselves ever larger bonuses with the taxpayer money that bailed them out. Politicians and police exposed as bed-fellows with News International as the cruel depths of their phone hacking emerges. So-called ‘democratic’ world leaders sitting close-lipped on genuinely popular uprisings in Egypt and Syria unless it suits them. In response, first the indignados and then the occupy movements around the world mobilise in an effort to give voice to their myriad frustrations with ‘the system’ because they see little joy in working within the systems which already exist, seen as corrupt, untrustworthy and anti-democratic. The faith that people have lost is not simply in the people who purport to lead; it is in the actual systems.
In this article, “America is Better Than This,” Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas comments on the spectacle of the US Congress classifying pizza sauce as a vegetable in deference to the fast food lobby, who wish to continue serving it to America’s schoolchildren. Loomis is quoted in the article as saying, “…if they can’t get it right on pizza sauce, how can they do something on the deficit, or healthcare?” Politics has, for many folks, been reduced to a source of entertainment rather than a channel through which to effect real change in our societies. ’Election promise’ has long become a byword for mendacity. In New Zealand, the incumbent National Party, led by Prime Minister John Key, is seeking a second term in the upcoming general election, having raised Goods and Services Tax only 18 months after undertaking not to do so during the election campaign of November 2008. This, despite Prime Minister Key stating during the 2008 campaign, “I intend to campaign on trust. I intend to be a Prime Minister that earns the trust of New Zealanders and I’m going to keep that trust.” Loomis has a good point: if we can’t trust those in positions of leadership to act with integrity and common sense on small matters, how on Earth can we trust them with larger concerns?
In our quest for authentic leadership, those who aspire to lead or purport to lead need to understand that the issue is not ‘the issues’; the issue is ‘trust’. I don’t care if you have a solid understanding of economics or IT; my real question is “Can I trust you to lead?” Just as importantly, can I trust a system that put you there? If the system continually puts people in positions of power who abuse it, many are asking, isn’t it time we had a new system? This is the promised land that the systems thinkers among us have been dreaming of. The ‘something new’ that seems to be emerging, the new paradigm of leadership, is not one of hierarchies or command and control. It is one of networks, relationships and action. It is of ‘leader-full’ systems, rather than leaders of hierarchies. Old style leaders and leadership systems are fast becoming irrelevant before our very eyes. Leadership in the 21st century is going to be more about relationships and influence, interconnectedness and networks, trust and authenticity. Leadership, as a phenomenon, will emerge from the dynamic between people, and this may not necessarily conform to an organisational hierarchy. Many old-style thinkers look at the occupy movements and scratch their heads because they genuinely can’t make sense of it: “Where are their leaders?” “What are their demands?” They don’t get that this new paradigm will be populated by ‘leader-full’ networks, empowered to take action themselves rather than via ‘representatives’.
These leader-full networks will be populated by people exercising authentic leadership: being themselves; bringing forward their own sets of knowledge and capabilities; exercising their own brand of action. Central to this will be engendering trust throughout the network, maintaining good relationships and purposeful influence. It won’t happen because you tell me that I can trust you. It will happen because you behave in a trustworthy manner. Remember that 85-90% of people’s attention goes on a leader’s informal, unconscious communications. The traditional activities that we attribute to a ‘leader’, as shown in the formal, conscious box below, only garner about 3-5% of people’s attention. Even today, about 80-85% of a typical leader’s effort goes into that category of communications that are least noticed. (Acknowledgements to Marcus Child for sharing this model with me.)
tone of voice
aims and objectives
vision and mission
use of measurements and statistics
A new manifesto of trust
Want me to trust you? Be a man (or woman) of your word; not a man (or woman) of words. Words don’t cut it. I’ve been lied to too many times. I want to see trustworthy action. Let’s instigate a manifesto of trust. It could say something like this:
- I will strive to build and maintain good relationships with all.
- If I make a promise or a commitment, I will strive to keep it;
- If I break a promise or ‘drop the ball’ with my commitments, I will front up and be accountable and I will work to put things right.
- No excuses, no blaming, no avoiding, no sweeping under the carpet.
- No wriggling out of embarrassing conversations or trying to change the subject.
- I will endeavour to be real with people; no obfuscation, no power games.
- I will strive to develop myself: this means becoming more self-reflective and more open to others’ feedback about me.
While John Key and others in our political classes will try to garner trust simply by saying, “You can trust me,” true leaders know that trust follows trustworthy behaviour. That’s it really. In any election campaign, all the stuff about the economy, education or health is important, but as we listen to election messages, the key thing to consider is, “Can I actually trust you? How can I believe what you are telling me (about the economy, education and health)?” When I hear the expression, “Let me be really clear about the facts,” I know that what follows is more likely to be distortions.
In the realm of customer service, trust doesn’t come because you’ve won some customer care award or you have the biggest share of the market. It comes because when I interact with you, I feel that you are really listening to me and giving me your undivided attention. I get the unshakable sense that you are taking my concerns seriously and that you are not following some sort of customer service script. I trust you when you treat me like an intelligent human being and don’t patronise me with your “Have you tried turning it off and turning it on again?” attitude. At the same time, help me to understand, rather than blind me with your jargon. I might trust you if I felt you weren’t just using language to pull the wool over my eyes.
In the realm of the workplace, I will trust you when I feel that you value my contributions and that you encourage others to do the same. I will trust you when you are constant. A psychologist friend of mine had a mantra which went, “The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.” While I don’t agree with that entirely , there is some truth in it. My trust in you will build over time, when you are repeatedly and consistently authentic and trustWORTHY. You will not necessarily gain my trust simply because you have set up some simplistic ‘trust games’ during our one and only staff training day.
Resist the urge to get indignant. Perhaps this is your default response: “How DARE you! It sounds as if you don’t trust me.” Rather than throw it all back onto me, as if my lack of trust in you is somehow an indication of a defect in me, why not go away and think about what it is about your actions that might somehow engender mistrust. If you have a track record of not following through with commitments, then my mistrust is probably well-placed.
I’ll close with a note about cynics, because in the face of broken trust, it is easy to become cynical about people. Cynicism has, however, taken on a negative connotation in modern society, where it was once thought to be a virtue. Cynics were of an ancient Greek school of philosophy. The example of the Cynic’s life (and the use of the Cynic’s biting satire) would dig up and expose the pretensions which lay at the root of everyday conventions. Cynicism offered people the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. The ideal Cynic would evangelise; as the watchdog of humanity, it was their job to hound people about the error of their ways. (Wikipedia entry on Cynicism)
In these mendacious times, in a changing world where trust is becoming the chief currency, nothing wrong with a little healthy cynicism, eh?
November 16, 2011
In an increasingly connected and interactive world, where your customers can directly engage with you via social media, where you can measure and survey in order to take your organisation’s pulse, one essential role for us all to develop is The Open Receptive Learner. This role encapsulates those capabilities related to receiving, processing and making meaning of feedback. I’ll break my own rule about the use of the word ‘feedback’ because it is a useful shorthand, however, I still maintain my aversion to it and I still cannot seem to shake my old teacher’s suggestion that feedback is that dissonant racket that comes out of a speaker system.
It is valuable to consider this aspect of leader development and customer service because, in the Knowledge Age, the more responsive we are to all kinds of information, the better we will be at dealing with change, uncertainty, emergence and complexity. I will add that The Open Receptive Learner is but one in an interconnected and complex matrix of ‘responsiveness’ and ‘self awareness’ roles, but those other roles can be the subject of another article.
If you have a well-developed role of Open Receptive Learner, you will be comfortable hearing things about yourself that have been hitherto unknown, you will be open to the notion that there may be some truth in what others tell you about yourself and you will give their comments due consideration, you will receive feedback with curiosity rather than defensiveness and you will endeavour to synthesise feedback in a way that causes you to expand your view of yourself. What this looks and feels like: when you are enacting this role, you may respond to others’ feedback by asking further naive questions in an interested tone of voice, in order to gain greater insight into yourself; when you are enacting this role, you may notice that can ably quieten your internal voices that want to react to feedback with justification or argument; when you are in this role, you may notice your body language conveys a relaxed, yet alert, demeanour as you demonstrate genuine curiosity and interest in what the other person is saying.
We solicit feedback when we ask for it directly, when we conduct some sort of culture survey or a leadership 360 or when we invite customers to interact with us on social media. Even solicited feedback can cause us to respond out of denial, narcissism, arrogance or fear, notably when we hear something unexpected or that is less than complimentary. While it’s not ideal, it’s understandable, as we are all human and we all have an amygdala which goes off like a car alarm, unable to distinguish between real and perceived danger. Some of us have just been wired over our lives to be more vigilant than others. If this is the case, we have human technologies at our disposal to rewire this default response. What we have been learning in the last decade or so from neuroscience also tells us that we are far more ‘plastic’ than we used to believe.
What about when we receive unsolicited feedback? We use expressions like, “I felt like I was being blindsided”, “I would never have seen that coming” or “That came out of nowhere”. This is similar to when we attempt to change lanes on the motorway and suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, we hear this loud honk and at the last minute, seeing where the desperate honking is coming from, swerve back into our lane to avoid a crash with the other car that did not, in fact, appear out of nowhere; we simply did not see it. This can be related to a phenomenon called inattention blindness. If you have ever seen a magician or illusionist, you will be familiar with how they use this natural tendency in order to entertain, and it is now becoming the stuff of documentary TV channels as we become increasingly interested in how our brains function and how to develop greater self awareness. The most well-known example of inattention blindness was used as a public service advertisement in the UK, trying to get drivers to become more aware of cyclists.
In essence, inattention blindness is when we are unable to see something even if it is plain sight. When combined with another human phenomenon, asymmetric insight, we will go through our lives with skewed pictures of ourselves. If we embark on a journey of self-knowledge, we will make some headway in mitigating for these cognitive distortions. However, we cannot know all there is to know about ourselves simply by developing the role of Self-Reflector. We require input from others and it is the height of arrogance to believe that information and feedback from others is to be dismissed blithely.
However, herein lies a major conundrum. If inattention blindness is the inability to see something that is in plain sight and if we all suffer from it, we can accept that it is important to be open to feedback from others. Intellectually, we can accept that there will be things about ourselves that are in plain sight, but to which we will be blind. What if, however, the thing that is in plain view of everyone except ourselves, is that we are bad at taking feedback; that our limbic fight/flight/freeze mechanism is so overpowering that we are simply not able to take in any feedback that has just the merest whiff of unpleasantness. It’s a negative loop. What if the feedback is that we are bad at taking feedback? Your emotions go from zero to 60 in an uncontrollable nano-second because your amygdala has somehow got the wrong end of the stick. It’s just information, but it’s received as a danger and you over-react. In the words of Radiohead, “Just ’cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there. We are accidents waiting to happen.” Damn limbic system.
With this in mind, how do we go about developing the (under-developed) role of Open Receptive Learner if we have already come to the firm conclusion that we are open to feedback but our defensive shields are permanently on red alert? If you believe that you are good at receiving feedback, how would you know? If your amygdala is wired such that it detects danger at the slightest hint of criticism, you will be its slave when someone attempts to say, “You are not terribly good at hearing feedback about yourself,” and it floods your body with hormones, inhibiting and distorting the ability of your neocortex to take in and process information. This essential piece of information is unlikely to get through, thereby scuppering your efforts. It’s unconscious self-sabotage.
My intention in this article is not to create despondency, rather I wish to pose a pertinent question that all of us interested in self-development must come to grips with. I believe that pondering questions such as this is not simply an intellectual exercise, rather it is exercising our self-awareness muscles. In an age when the depth and quality of our self-knowledge is so core to how we are at work, with our peers, our staff, our customers and with our communities; this is no whimsical self-indulgence. It is part of preparing ourselves for the greater uncertainty and ambiguity that characterises the Knowledge Age.
Warm up to the role of Open Receptive Learner
Here is a process that may assist you to become better at receiving feedback. If you are in a leadership position, it is probably true that the higher up the ‘food chain’ you are, the less you will know about your business and what its staff really think of you. If you are genuinely interested in knowing more about yourself and your organisation and encouraging more frank feedback to come your way, bring to mind someone you know who has this role well-developed. We’ll call this person X. You have seen them do it or they have a reputation for doing it. You hear people say things like, “I feel so comfortable telling her what I think, she is such a good listener, even when I’m saying difficult things,” or “I get a really good sense that he listens to what people tell him about his performance. He seems really interested in knowing what people think about him.”
When you are about to engage in a feedback-type conversation with someone, think to yourself, “What would X do?” and be in the role of that person. What emotional state would they likely be in, what kind of words or phrases would they use in the conversation, how would they be physically? As you develop your Open Receptive Learner, you will need to stay conscious of warming up to this role, just as you had to stay fully conscious of ‘clutch, engage gear, depress accelerator, slowly release clutch’ until driving was second nature to you.
Alternatively, if you find yourself blindsided by someone’s feedback, STOP. If you find it difficult to stop the inner voices, to keep breathing, to bring your heartbeat back to a normal rate, it could be useful to investigate mindfulness training. Practicing the discipline of mindfulness will go a long way to assisting you to gain greater self-control in your life.
As usual, I look forward to comments on this article. Go well.