April 17, 2013
One of these counter-intuitive truths is that “when you manage costs, your costs go up. When you learn to manage value, your costs come down.” There is the business case for systems thinking, if one was needed.
Thanks go to David Wilson through his fitforrandomness blog for bringing a presentation by Seddon to my attention. Makes great watching and listening. There is so much to learn from this talk on so many levels, but when I was watching the video, I kept making the link to management, leadership and new thinking. New thinking to me means a new set of assumptions about organisations and how they get things done.
I think Seddon accurately describes quite a lot of what happens in organisations today; doing the wrong things righter. We have managers who set targets for activity, who then focus people on meeting activity targets. Managers approach their work as target setters, people inspectors, people managers; when targets aren’t met, the managers try to manage individual performance. As he says, modern managers are trained (if at all) to do one-to-one, which he calls a therapy model. I would say he’s not far off the mark. If we are teaching people to be good people managers, we are training their gaze to the 5%, rather than the 95%. This is not to say there is no place for more empathy, respect and humanity in the workplace, far from it. However, in terms of getting things done, in terms of being more effective, treating people well is not the answer on its own. If the system is still set up for people to meet targets rather than work towards achieving purpose, we may just have a lot of lovely workplaces where people are still meaninglessly ticking boxes and shuffling bits of paper. If the system is still command-and-control, commanding and controlling with a smile will not make much difference to organisational effectiveness and betterment. Command-and-control with a smile is like putting a cherry on a turd. Yes, we still need control in organisations, but not as we have understood it up till now. Not managers controlling people, but, as Seddon says, people having control over their work. We need management that focuses on systems, not the people.
Loathe as I am to isolate just three of Deming’s 14 points (because he meant for all 14 to be taken on board together, not as a pick-n-choose menu), when he said:
Eliminate work standards (quotas). Substitute leadership.
Eliminate management by objective. Substitute leadership.
Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.
…… I believe he means substitute. Put something in place of another. Put leadership in place of targets, quotas and numerical goals, individual performance management, inspection and supervision of people. I understand it to mean that we stop doing targets, individual performance management and all that other stuff that aims to control what people do. As Deming also says, management by objective ensures mediocrity and stifles innovation. There you go, another counter-intuitive truth that Seddon speaks of, and a modern-day heresy. I think it’s important to really consider what kind of management would actually serve organisations better, and we need to get clearer on what leadership means, too. I will add that I don’t think it’s making it a semantic exercise, calling managers “leaders” and getting them to keep doing the same old stuff. The picture I have is that managers start doing management differently AND they start doing leadership as well.
My understanding is that when people like Deming and Seddon advocate for the elimination of targets and performance appraisals, they are not suggesting that we eliminate management. It can be confusing sometimes because so much is written about management and leadership and, as John Kotter and others have already observed, the two terms are often used interchangeably when they mean different things. For example, when Deming says in his 14 points, “substitute leadership”, one could easily misinterpret that to mean he is pooh-poohing management. He is not; he is pooh-poohing management by numbers. Organisations still require management. Deming himself said, ”A system must be managed. It will not manage itself.” In our current paradigm, however, we misconstrue management to mean managing people: getting people to work to targets, inspecting them and chastising them when they miss a target. Old-style management focuses mostly on the people, Deming’s 5%. The 95% is the system; I’ve seen managers who manage the system and it’s far more effective at making the work work for everyone. I see management as the set of tools and processes that people apply in their work that allow them to provide the services or make the products that the market is asking for. Every organisation will have these tools and processes, but I think the point that Seddon and other systems thinkers try to impress upon people is that, by and large, those tools and approaches to managing are oriented to managing the wrong things. I see this in my work, too. So trying to integrate Seddon’s talk and Deming’s work and my own experiences, I would say that we do away with old-style management practice and replace it with the kind of management that works on the system….AND institute leadership. Management and leadership, different things. Both necessary. Complementary. Both/and, not either/or.
So what would a manager’s work look like if they were doing system-y management things, rather than control-y, target-y management things? How would someone in a senior management role occupy themselves, then, if they didn’t have all those “HR issues” to deal with? I feel privileged to say I used to work in a place many years ago, where the senior managers did this system-y stuff, rather than the controlling stuff. I say privileged because it’s more than just a lovely thought experiment for me, and at the same time, I still need to sit and think about how to approach the work I do. I want to be careful that I don’t come across to clients that I’m inferring they should drop the “management” ball and focus solely on developing their leadership.
Interestingly, when the two senior managers of my old workplace moved on, they were replaced with people who didn’t get systems thinking. Even more interestingly, the reputation of this organisation has gone downhill, they are struggling to survive, they are struggling to attract contracts, they are seriously struggling to retain good staff. The place has turned into a paper-shuffling nightmare with little room for autonomy, innovation or real learning. People feel stifled and it’s not a nice place to be anymore. Still….as far as the new managers are concerned, it’s working MUCH better than before; after all, they have everything under control, they have the people under control (…if they only knew) and everything that can be counted is being counted.
So, it’s not about getting rid of management in favour of leadership; organisations need both. The role of someone in a management position, however, is to provide the kind of support that people need in order to do their jobs well, not to keep tabs on them while they do it. Taking away targets does not mean living in lovely fluffy, cloud-land. It doesn’t mean, for example, that people stop having fierce conversations with one another. It’s just that they stop being fierce about which numerical targets people haven’t reached yet and which behaviours they need to stop and, instead, are fierce about quality. Quality freakery, not control freakery.
If we get managers to take up that system-y support role (making sure everyone has what they need blah blah blah), we can get rid of the target-y stuff. I like the roundabout/traffic light analogy. If the traffic people build a roundabout, they are implying, “We trust that drivers have all the information, experience and training they need to make the right decisions about who goes next.” The role of the traffic mangers, then, is to ensure that the system is built and maintained that promotes good flow and that people have learnt what they need to about responsible driving etiquette. Their job is not to keep tabs on individual drivers. Traffic lights, however, infer that drivers don’t need to do anything but what they’re told. Red means stop, green means go and amber means speed up or else you’ll have to wait for the next green. They then set up cameras to inspect whether or not people are breaking the rules and if they do, they get a fine in the post.
So management is about making sure people have all the knowledge, information, learning, resources and relationships necessary to get the job done and that the system is designed to make the stuff or provide the services that the market actually wants. If you haven’t yet, watch that Seddon video to hear some good examples of what shouldn’t be happening and what is starting to happen differently, illustrating how costs come down as the work gets done better for the benefit of the “market”.
So what is the leadership stuff? In my old workplace, the senior managers managed like systems thinkers (working on the system, not on the people) and they also role modelled leadership stuff. Leadership is often associated with providing a vision. Once again, the assumption is often that the few people “at the top” will craft that vision and then apply a bunch of management techniques (individual performance management, targets, standards) to get people to do stuff. I believe there is a disconnect. Why should the senior managers have the joy of working to achieve a grander purpose while all the workers get to see is their activity targets? Even if those “at the top” put together a vision, it will not necessarily come to fruition just because we tell people, “This is what you have to do.” I believe it comes to fruition when everyone in the business is a part of it, when everyone connects with it, when everyone is enlisted into it. I will do something really well if my will is engaged in it, not just because I have to. Best way of engaging my will? Include me in something bigger and bolder than a numerical target. In any case, if I’m a good boy, I may just try to meet my target and go no further or I may try to find creative ways to play with the numbers so it looks like I’ve met my targets.
To get leadership, I believe we need to emphasise purpose: what are we here to achieve for our “market”? Depending on the organisation,the market is someone buying our products and services or a social housing tenant who needs repairs done or a patient who needs good treatment. If targets are set, then, as Seddon suggests, the people work as if their purpose is to meet the targets. I believe organisations have other, more useful things as their purpose. I’ve used the example before of grave-diggers. The activity they engage in is digging and tending graves. However, I believe they are part of a wider system whose purpose is to assist families through bereavement. It is not just semantics; it makes a difference to how they carry out their work. It also makes a difference if they are connected to that purpose because rather than have to be carrotted or sticked to do their jobs well, they can see how they add value to the purpose, how they add value to those they are there to serve. The purpose, then, is not about meeting targets for how many graves they have to dig or tend. They already know how to do that well and don’t need beaten to make it happen. If the managers spend their time working on the system to make sure the grave-diggers have everything they need to do their jobs and the processes are clear, they can let them get on with it, and if there is leadership, everyone will be connected to purpose: making a difference to families in distress.
As Gregory Gull says, leadership must transcend self-interest. That, to me, seems self-evident. If someone is “doing leadership”, they are cognisant of those around them and the wider system. Operating purely out of self-interest is self-defeating in the long run. Good leadership is about seeing possibility; having the vision of how things could be. It’s about making a difference to others; having a deeper sense of why everyone really comes to work. Gull also says that leadership is related to one’s personhood, not one’s position. I believe the same. Good leadership development is good personal development.
I agree with John Kotter, that there are very very few organisations that have sufficient leadership. They may have managers who have re-styled themselves as “leaders” because it’s just what you call yourself these days. Without a shift in thinking, however, what we end up with a bunch of “leaders” still applying old management tools and looking for the people to blame when things don’t get any better.
Am I adding anything to the wider conversation? Not sure, but pondering and reflecting on all these things has helped me to get clearer in myself. As I’ve said before, I primarily write for myself; to help me integrate and seek to be of some use to clients. I do, however, welcome comments that build on this conversation and which may give me pause for further thought.
October 21, 2012
Part one (A Way In)
There are two fish tanks, sitting side by side. The fish in tank #1 glances over and notices tank #2. He shouts across to the fish in tank #2, “Hey, how’s the water?” The fish in tank #2 shouts back, “Wow! Yea…water….I’ve never really noticed it before! It’s great, how’s yours?” Tank #1 fish shouts back, “Much the same!”
Two points about this:
One…much like the fish in tank #2, most folks are mostly unaware of the water in which we swim. I’d go as far as to say that this “unawareness” extends to the fact that we are even in water. However, the water is there, even if we are not aware of it. This “water” is the worldview, or set of assumptions and beliefs, that colours how we live our lives. We are often unaware of these deep assumptions or how influential they have been in determining how we do business, education, economics and so on. They have been our reference points when we crafted schools, businesses, financial systems and so on.
And two…..tank #1 fish looks at tank #2 and for all intents and purposes, believes that life is just the same over there. It looks the same and tank #2 fish speaks the same language and appears to have the same habits and behaviours, so it’d be reasonable to assume it’s just the same. It has a (mostly unconscious) experience of living in water, never really pays it much attention and presumes that water is water is water. What tank #1 fish doesn’t know is that life in tank #2 is entirely different from life in tank #2. That’s because tank #1 is full of fresh water and tank #2 is full of salt water.
Like the fish, we are often blind to both “what is” and “what could be” or “what else is”.
Why bother with systems thinking?
Analytical thinking is hitting the laws of physics and has been found wanting. The analytical mindset is at the foundation of our educational systems, our political systems, our financial systems and the business of business, all of which are reaching the end of their effectiveness in a world characterised by increasing complexity, volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity. This is being felt by many, but the awareness of what underlies it is lagging behind, so in an effort to ameliorate chronically low employee engagement, increasingly low voter turnout at elections, poor customer loyalty, or low attainment at school, we deploy little tricks or try to invent new “tools” or “techniques”. However, all the tools and techniques in the world are useless to really address these issues if they come out of the same old mechanistic, analytical mindset. A more sophisticated mindset is required first. A new kind of thinking, not a new trick devised out of old thinking, is required.
A transition is occurring, however. As analytical thinking has reached its use-by date in many spheres of life, something new is forming. We are in between the old and the new. As Vaclav Havel says it beautifully, “Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself–while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble… ” (Thanks to David Holzmer for bringing that quote to my attention.)
When we are in transition from one way of seeing the world to a new one, we are bereft of words to describe the new thing. Sometimes, we don’t even find new descriptors, even if our understanding shifts. We still call it a “sunrise”, even though Copernicus worked out that it’s the Earth, not the sun, that moves. Nobody would reasonably believe in this day and age that the sun is “rising”, but we are stuck with the word. In this transition period, we are being pulled away from an analytic way of viewing the world by the inexorable forces of increasing complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. We could try, Canute like, to behave as if we can keep them at bay. An analytical mindset would drive us to eliminate complexity and uncertainty, but just because we don’t want to see they’re there, doesn’t make them go away. Just because we believe that things aren’t as ambiguous as they are, doesn’t make it so. Spending more energy to control events doesn’t make the world less volatile, it just makes us more tired.
There is another way to see things
Like the two kinds of water in the fish tanks, systems thinking is not slightly different from analytic thinking; it’s entirely different. The challenge of communicating these differences lies in some part with the fact that we have a finite vocabulary. People who are bound by their analytical mindset hear the words and hang a meaning onto them from an analytical perspective and perceive that systems thinking is a new and improved version of what we’ve already got. We all ascribe a meaning to a word that comes from our own experience, regardless of what another person intends. Ask a person in Scotland what “supper” is and they’ll say it’s a wee snack you eat before bed at about 9 or 10 in the evening. Ask an American and they might say it’s the big meal you eat at 5 or 6 in the evening. Same word, different meanings. I’m sticking my neck out here, but I believe many folks often cannot grasp the fundamental differences between the two, perhaps saying to themselves, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck, just a prettier one. Duck 2.0.” No. Systems thinking is not simply a re-packaging of long-held assumptions. The fish in tank #1 cannot have any conception at all of what it’s like in tank #2 until he actually inhabits tank #2. So he believes that “life feels like this” for tank #2 fish and he bases this on the fact that “this is what life feels like”.
If you are a systems thinker, you might sometimes feel you are going a little crazy. We still live in command-and-control land and our assumptions haven’t caught up to the realities of the world. If you have begun to act and talk like a systems thinker, you may be treated a little like the court jester. Actually, I’d say it was closer to the boy who declared the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. Nonetheless, this is what it’s like being a systems thinker. You see and say things that others think are a little crazy. Alternatively, people hear your words, but you realise after a while that they are processing them with an analytical mindset and so misunderstand the whole thrust of thinking systemically. We are all prisoners of our own flat-earthisms, after all. So you are either side-lined because your ideas seem a little far-fetched (“If there is no hierarchy, how do you control people????”) or what they think they understand is not what you intend.
“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Robert McCloskey
I described an experience in a previous article, of watching someone attempt to draw an organisational diagram of their business while also describing it verbally, and it jarred. I was watching someone writing something on the whiteboard that didn’t match what he was describing, much like watching TV with the sound off while listening to music. The difficulty they had, it emerged, was how to depict something for which we haven’t yet got any conventions for depicting. When we haven’t yet got the devices to describe something that is emergent, we will shoehorn it into an outdated model and use words like “productivity” when that’s not what we mean at all. This makes sense; we haven’t caught up with ourselves. The ancient Egyptians drew what we would essentially call “stick figures” and it wasn’t until we discovered “perspective” that our visual depictions began to look more like the actual people we saw.
Gary Hamel said it beautifully: we are prisoners of the familiar. In our efforts to advance to a new way of doing business, it is no good to simply remodel the prison; we need to tear it down. In effect, what that person was describing was a business that functions as an organic system (an emergent and self-organising process) but he was drawing a hierarchical tree diagram (a rigid structure). They have radically transformed their business but our abilities to describe this haven’t caught up yet. It was like drawing a robot while describing a human body. This mirrors how modern management still views their role and their relationship with the businesses they purport to manage.
Unconsciously acting out of the flat-earthism that is an analytical mechanistic worldview, managers approach the business as if it was a machine, rather than as an organic system. One major difference between machines and organic systems is that machines do not operate for their own betterment; they operate for the betterment of their masters. If we continue to view business from this mechanistic perspective, by extension we view the people within them as mere machine parts, there to do the bidding of those in “control”. Isn’t work meant to be for the betterment of everyone: customers, staff, suppliers, shareholders and the community (not just shareholders)? Machines do not (yet) have built-in capacity for continuous learning and improvement of its own functioning, but self-0rganising systems have inherent in them, a drive towards continuous improvement. Managers tend to relate to a business as a thing to control, not a self-organising entity to steward and nurture. Machines are designed with efficiency in mind, but efficiency does not equate with effectiveness. Effectiveness is related to having purpose and robots don’t have a higher purpose. They just do what they’re told.
The fundamental principles of systems thinking seem simple enough. Everything is connected to everything else. Most folks would say that makes sense. The key importance is knowing it and behaving as if it was actually true.
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.
December 9, 2011
In the last few weeks, I have come across two fascinating pieces, both of which stimulated some thinking about organisational life. One was about empathy, the other about psychopathy in bosses. I have drawn on these two in the writing of this article and I hope that you will find some value here.
In my past, I have worked with a few clients who had been clinically diagnosed with Anti-Social Personality Disorder, the more accurate term for psychopaths, and I know how challenging it can be and the fragmentation people like this create around them. While I stress that I am not qualified to make a clinical diagnosis of Anti-Social Personality Disorder, and I would strenuously caution anyone else who is not qualified against doing so, there are some hallmark behaviours which can only be ignored for so long.
Scientists believe that about 1% of the general population would fit a diagnosis of Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD). Studies show that as many as 4% of bosses would fit this classification. When we think of the word psychopathic, we tend to think of mass murderers and serial rapists, however, a psychopath may not necessarily be the Hannibal Lecter of our nightmares. The thing that most clearly identifies this kind of person for me is a lack of empathy for others.
Professor Simon Baron Cohen discusses empathy and says it has two components: cognitive and affective. The cognitive component is the drive to identify another person’s thoughts and feelings; the affective component is the drive to respond appropriately to another person’s thoughts and feelings. Professor Baron Cohen indicates that if you have one without the other, that wouldn’t be empathy. The psycopath might be able to do the first part, they might be able to recognise their victim has pain, but they might not have the appropriate emotional response of wanting to alleviate their distress. He goes on to say that empathy is on a spectrum. Philosopher Martin Buber suggested that the point along the spectrum at which you start treating a person as an object is when you become capable of cruelty.
As Professor Baron Cohen suggests, calling humans ‘resources’ seems to be somewhere down the left hand (lower) side of the bell curve of empathy. We have inherited, from the Victorians and Industrial Revolutionaries, a notion that people are resources to be deployed in the pursuit of profit. The moment when you shift from seeing people from an I-Thou perspective to an I-It perspective is when you switch off your empathy. I-You is where you recognise the person’s subjectivity. I-It is where you treat someone as a piece of furniture. Zero empathy is not good for the person, nor for the people around the person.
Professor Baron Cohen goes on to say that empathy is the most valuable of human resources. After much reflection, I would say that in the realm of business life, I would concur. Without it, I cannot see how organisations will thrive in the 21st century. With it, we have a basic foundation of resolving conflict and creating workplaces where people can find meaning, joy and genuine engagement at work. Without empathy and its expression, an organisation may survive, but the risk is that it is found wanting by those it wishes to engage and becomes irrelevant. A key point about empathy is that you cannot fake it, and those who work for a psychopathic boss know that.
Once again, while I caution against diagnosing the boss as a psychopath, here some of the things you would typically see in a low empathy manager.
- It is never their fault. Their default mode is to deflect conversations away from themselves. They minimise the effects of their improper actions and blame those on the receiving end (“They shouldn’t have spoken to me in that way.”).
- You are never right and you can never win. Add in the fact that they are the boss and any challenge you make to what you feel is unfair, a personal attack or unethical will be met with more undermining. They know that they are the boss and believe that they can do anything they like and they know it. When, on the odd occasion, someone calls them to account, they are clever enough to divert attention away from themselves and blame others for failures and mistakes.
- They run the business like it’s their personal fiefdom. They take the approach that you can either fit in or **** off. If you don’t like it, there is the door. Sadly, I have spoken to too many people who are living proof of the adage, “People join good organisations, but they leave bad managers.” In the current climate, however, people will be more reluctant to leave even an anti-social boss, lest they find themselves one of the growing number of unemployed.
- They sabotage, undermine and disempower as a matter of course and they lack remorse. They defend their anti-social actions and comments as being “for the good of the business”, but there is no such thing as a benevolent psychopath. If they are running the business as their personal fiefdom, that which is different from them is perceived and acted upon as a threat.
- They hold a skewed picture of the business. Lower self-awareness and a distorted view of self can lead them to maintain the fallacy that everything is just fine. They will maintain the illusion that it’s one big happy family, that everyone comes in and does their job and nobody complains. The ones that do complain are probably viewed as ‘difficult’ and the boss will do what they can to undermine and disempower. The tension between the boss and these recalcitrant workers is palpable and because the boss is a seasoned manipulator, they will deftly skew others’ picture of this person.
- They often successfully feign care and concern for others. These types of bosses are clever. They know that strong people skills are the currency of good leadership these days. On the receiving end of such inauthentic caring, however, you can feel it. It’s just hard to put your finger on.
- They disguise their anti-social behaviour with sophisticated language and reasonable justification. They have a charm that they can turn on and off as the situation suits them. On their journey to a leadership position, they have found it useful along the way to learn the sophisticated kind of language used to cover up and obfuscate, so their anti-social behaviours are hard to pin down.
- They display an easy contempt for people they don’t like or agree with. They tend to have poor ability to inhibit angry outbursts. They shut people and conversations down that differ from their world view.
- They put people down on a personal level. They lack caring and display a blithe indifference to the fact that they manage human beings with feelings, lives and stories to tell.
A psychopathic boss’s casual use of interpersonal violence can be breath-taking. In some cases, it washes over us because it’s so outrageous that we can hardly believe that someone, the boss no less, would behave in this consistently disrespectful manner. It’s not until we walk away and we recover ourselves that we realise that the wrenching we felt in our gut was to do with them. I have spoken with people who have been victims of a boss such as this, and they consistently report that it took some time before it dawned on them how inappropriate their boss was behaving towards them. We also like to think that we don’t come into contact with people like this; after all a psychopath is a mass murderer, right? We also tend to associate the words and actions of a bully with the sort of thing that goes on in school playgrounds and can’t imagine that we, now grown adults, would be on the receiving end of it.
If someone is determined to go against the psychopathic boss, they may quickly find themselves on the wrong end of dismissal. Because the boss knows they are the boss, they will find some way to manage you out, perhaps by placing such unrealistic conditions on your employment that they are unattainable or by isolating the ‘miscreant’ by setting them up to fail in the eyes of their peers. This way, they have some evidence to point to why this person just had to go. Some people who cannot see their way through end up leaving, but these are probably the people that the psychopath calls trouble-makers and will feel vindicated upon their departure. They will maintain that it was better for the business that they went and will be happier with a more compliant or acquiescent replacement.
I generally take a holistic view of people and try to see past unsavoury behaviours in order to seek out the personal value systems that underlie them, by way of finding a starting point for strengths-based development work. In other words, I like to give the benefit of the doubt. This has not always stood me in good stead and on a few occasions, I have erred on the side of generosity; it is on these occasions that I have eventually had to relent in the face of repeated anti-social acts towards myself or others and given way to the reality that the person in question was indeed, deeply lacking in empathy and care for others. While it can be tempting to reduce someone to a few of their ‘bad’ behaviours, I would still encourage you to start with generosity: give the benefit of the doubt. Goodness knows that the world could do with greater understanding of our fellow humans. Very few of us are truly selfish ‘bad eggs’ and I still hold that it is worth giving the benefit of the doubt in the first instance. Furthermore, it can be incredibly frustrating to be misrepresented based on a few forgivable misdemeanours in the workplace and to not be given the opportunity to apologise, put things right and make genuine efforts to adjust behaviour.
As frustrating as it is to be in the firing line of a low empathy boss, there are some things that we can do:
- Trust your gut. A common thread for those with a psychopathic boss is that they feel like they can’t trust their instincts about what happens to them at work. This is one of the things that these creatures create in those around them. Like Ingrid Bergman in “Gaslight”, you are probably not going mad.
- Talk with someone you trust about your experiences. Bounce your experiences off someone. Get things off your chest, it does you no good to store up your frustrations and stress. A trusted friend can also reflect back whether you are seeing things accurately of if you are making mountains out of molehills.
- If necessary, get some legal or HR guidance. Some common advice is to document everything. Check with a professional and get some guidance as to what you should be doing to protect yourself.
- Maintain habits that keep you grounded and connected to yourself. Get a massage, go for a walk in nature, play a musical instrument, meditate, whatever works for you.
As always, I welcome your comments and look forward to hearing how you have dealt with an anti-social boss at work.
August 9, 2011
As the old saying goes, if you have only a hammer, you see only nails. Frankly, I’d much rather have the plumber who opens his or her toolbag and has the whole range of tools necessary, rather than the one who brings only a hammer and uses it for everything. It’d be a pretty botched job if they did. Not only that, I’d much rather the plumber who not only has the full tool bag, but also that he or she is proficient at using all of them.
There is a parallel for personal capabilities. We are systems of ‘roles’, that is we have a whole myriad of capabilities at our disposal. They all interact and interconnect with each other. So when you are having a conversation with your staff about their performance, you use not only your ‘clear communicator’ role, but you also call on your ‘relationship manager’ role (you want to ensure that you have a good working relationship after the conversation), your ‘wise change agent’ role (you want to make sure you provide some coaching or mentoring if required) and your ‘lover of people’ role (you want to let your staff know what they are doing well and applaud them for the unique contribution they make to the business). Obvious, I know.
Rarely do we call on just one of our capabilities at any one time. Because we are interconnected systems of roles, it is therefore hard to justify simply ‘playing to your strengths’ and leaving the rest to good luck. I’ve seen many folks in senior positions do just that. Many people use what they’ve got and try to get by. They overuse a role or roles to mask what they haven’t got. Alternatively, they overuse a role at the expense of another which they have, but which is underdeveloped, so this becomes a default setting. Read my earlier post on personal glass ceilings, this is what I’m talking about.
A manager I know struggled to get two teams to work more closely together; not for the sake of it, but because their lack of cooperation was leading to poor outcomes, late delivery on deadlines and dissatisfied clients. She had superb relationship skills and would have endless conversations with each of them, trying to get them to collaborate more. She requested, she coaxed, she enticed, she pleaded. She tried to persuade, she tried to appeal to their better natures, she discussed. All of this was to little avail and she was beginning to feel like a nag. Want to know the thing that got them to work closer together? It wasn’t her communication or relationship skills, both of which she had in spades. It was her ‘big picture thinker’ role. When she set out the big picture of what was happening, each team got more interested in the other. They saw how interconnected they were and that if one fell down, the other followed. Rather than “Could you guys please fill out those client job sheets fully?” it was “When you guys fill out these forms fully, this team over here has a better picture of what they are required to do and won’t have to waste time coming back to you with endless questions and they also will also provide a finished product that is in line with the client’s needs, is on time and will get the client to come back for more.”
Seems simple I know. But it was the quantum (tiniest) shift that made the quantum (biggest) shift, not only in terms of their outputs, but also in terms of inter-team relations (and the manager’s stress levels). She had tried and tried to use the capabilities she was good at, but when she extended herself in an area which was less developed, she got what she was after. No longer would she then have to rely on her hammer, she could use the right tool for the job. She wouldn’t have to just get by on her good relationship skills.
The point here is, there is a danger in resting on your laurels. You will limit your career, your sense of personal satisfaction and yourself if you decide that you’ve learnt enough or that you can just get by on what got you to where you are in your career. I know of one or two people who are a stone’s throw from nabbing a C-suite position, but have made a (probably unconscious) decision that professional development is just for their staff and not for themselves. ”I didn’t get where I am today by learning how to be a more consultative boss.” Fine.
Hope you enjoy the view as your staff member leafrogs you to become your CEO.
May 19, 2011
I’ve been noticing just lately that this word ‘feedback’ keeps coming up. Specifically, it’s being used in the context of letting someone know something about their behaviour or attitude. This isn’t an uncommon word and in workplaces everywhere, people are being encouraged to give ‘feedback’ to each other…..Managers to staff….co-workers to co-workers….in fact, people all over the place to other people all over the place.
Years ago, a wise and much-loved teacher of mine remarked that he never used the word ‘feedback’ when sharing information with someone about their performance. He likened it to the kind of feedback that you get from the speaker on your sound system—grating, dissonant noise. Since that time, I have found myself bristling every time I hear someone say something like, “Can I give you some feedback about what you just did?” or “I think I need to give my staff some feedback about that last project.”
I have to say I tend to agree with his take on the word. I have worked with a fair number of Managers who have to conduct performance reviews with their staff and they talk about giving feedback. And I suspect that is more or less what it sounds like to their staff—grating, dissonant noise. Consider the person about to enter the Manager’s office for a performance review. Consider the thoughts and feelings that will be going through them. Consider the slightly sweaty palms, the slightly shallower-than-normal breathing, the increased heart rate….all signs of nervousness or anxiety. All limbic responses to potential threat or danger; the Manager is not about to leap out from behind a chair and maul them to death, however the limbic system does not operate on a level or reason or logic. However, when the limbic system starts to kick into action, it does cause our more evolved ‘thinking brain’ to operate at less than optimal levels and we don’t take information in clearly. The staff member sits down and the Manager begins a friendly conversation, however the hormones rushing through the staff member’s body have not entirely dissipated. All they hear is grating, dissonant noise—feedback.
So, I hear you ask, am I suggesting that staff shouldn’t have performance conversations with their Managers?
After all, don’t people want to know how they’re doing? And don’t organisations have a responsibility to ensure that people are working to an agreed standard? Of course, emphatically yes to both questions.
I would suggest, however, that it is not the giving of this information that is sometimes flawed; it is HOW it is delivered. I suspect that there are many people who experience any kind of conversation about their performance as a little challenging. Indeed, a comment on how we’re doing will naturally elicit some kind of emotional response inside; we are not automatons. So it behoves the giver of the information to place themselves in the shoes of the receiver and consider how to pass on this really useful information. It is important to consider time and place. Most importantly, it is important to consider the relationship.
I like to think of traffic lights when I share information with someone about themselves. If the light is red, I hold back. In other words, if I don’t feel I’ve done enough work on building a good, trusting relationship, I will be very careful what I say: not because I’m shy of telling people what I think, but because I want the words to actually be heard clearly and not come across as grating, dissonant noise. If the light is amber, I’m getting there, but I can’t be as forthright as I would if the light was green. With a green light, we can let someone know how they are doing in a manner that is honest and open, knowing that they are not feeling threatened or defensive, because we have spent a sufficient amount of time, energy and consideration in building a positive working relationship with them.
April 26, 2011
Horrified again to read of some old dinosaur spouting rubbish about women in the workplace and why he prefers not to hire them. He implies that if you are a woman, don’t bother, because that simple fact alone means that you will not progress very far in any career you attempt to pursue, since you are likely to be most interested in having babies anyway. The old glass ceiling. You can see the folks above you, you know most of them, you’ve worked with quite a lot of them, some of them even used to call you ‘boss’, but this is as high as you go, sorry.
In the modern workplace (apart from the one where that old dinosaur is CEO), the limits of achievement and progress are most likely not defined by your gender, your sexual orientation, your ethnicity or your beliefs. I know that sort of discrimination still goes on, I read stories about it in the papers and get annoyed that it still happens in this day and age.
I reckon that for most of us, though, we have the potential to be the demolition experts for our own glass ceilings. We all have one; sometimes it’s really low and made of glass that is easily shattered. We may have so much that we have to develop in ourselves, but our openness to learning means that we can easily embark on a path of growth. We open ourselves to learning how to listen to others better. We avail ourselves to learning opportunities that stretch us as people and grow our self-awareness. We enhance our negotiation skills……and as we learn all these things, we keep raising our glass ceiling so that the limits to our potential grow as we do.
But sometimes the glass ceiling is really high and made of thick bullet-proof glass. For this one, think high achievers with low self-awareness; these folks go through living the (largely) unexamined life. They’ve had what it takes to get so far up the corporate ladder but can progress no more because what is required to get to the top spot is greater self-knowledge and the accompanying capabilities that go with it; unfortunately, the glass ceiling for these guys is so thick because of the almost pathological aversion to any kind of self-development. Of course, he doesn’t realise that he’s not going to get to that C-suite because of something he needs to learn. That’s the thing with glass ceilings; sometimes we can’t see them clearly, so we don’t see how they impede us OR how to get past them OR what WE can do about them.
I have been working with leaders at all levels of organisations for a number of years now, both in a group context and a one-to-one coaching context. What I see these folks enact at times is a living, breathing example of why they can only progress so high in their careers. When a Manager responds to one of my questions in a timid manner, I know that there is something in the area of confidence that they need to further develop before they will be seriously considered for that promotion. When another Manager speaks about their staff in a hateful and derogatory way, I realise that there is something in the area of genuine interest, caring, valuing and (dare I say it) loving of others that he needs to grow more of, before he will be given responsibility for that larger team. When I hear of how a Manager fails to make themselves available to their staff for assistance and guidance, I know their glass ceiling is made up of something in the area of learning how to coach and mentor.
How do you know what kind of glass your glass ceiling is made of? Take a cold, hard look at yourself. Getting feedback from others is another way. What do you do well, that you can build on? Then, what areas do you need to develop? If you reckon that you should be moving up that ladder a little faster, perhaps it’s worth finding out how you are limiting yourself.