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.
March 13, 2012
About a month ago, I noticed on Twitter that fellow blogger, Todd Nielsen, was inviting guest bloggers from around the world for an International Leadership Blogathon that he was running in March. Each day, he would post an article from a different blogger on his own blog site. I duly contacted him and asked if he would be interested in a theme I was pondering and was delighted when he said yes.
I had read an article in my local paper that seemed to link employee salary expectations with retention and engagement. The article made little sense to me, so I had to re-read it. It seemed simple enough, but there was something missing for me. It had me considering how we need to take a bigger picture of recruitment and engagement at work, and to stop focusing purely on monetary reward. The article I wrote was published as part of Todd’s Leadership Blogathon and is called “Leaders Hold the Power to Engage”.
As always I welcome contributions and invite you build on what I write with your own experiences and comments.
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.
May 26, 2011
Thinking outside the square is required when our tried and tested ways of explaining the world no longer fit our experience. For example, performance management systems keep people on track with achieving their KPI’s, but they have limited use in generating genuine engagement at work. Year after year, surveys show that employees are becoming less and less engaged at work. The phenomenon that Roger Herman calls ‘warm chair attrition’ is here to stay unless we think bigger about how to generate workplaces where people feel compelled to come in every day. Despite stubbornly high unemployment, there is still a talent shortage, so you don’t want your good people to jump ship and leave behind the less capable to run things.
Not only is engagement about loyalty and low staff turnover, it is also connected to productivity. How do you get people to accomplish more in the same time but without increasing stress, lowering morale and compromising quality or safety? It’s definitely not done purely through KPI’s.
One key link between Human Resources and the bottom line is growing and developing transformational leaders-the ones who listen to people and can gauge how they feel. These are the people who overlay leadership onto a good set of management skills in ways which motivates people to engage more.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Is there a culture of autonomy and accountability woven into the fabric of our organisation? People want their work to be meaningful, they want to work for successful organisations and they feel satisfied when their contributions are valued. This implies a culture where regular and frequent conversations about performance are par for the course; where people are treated with respect; where initiative and creativity are encouraged and rewarded, not shunned or ignored.
- How do we show that we care about people? Transformational leaders understand that this is not just about caring for employees, but also about creating and nurturing a culture of caring for each other through the whole of an organisation. This is also not something we can just pay lip service to; it needs to be genuine caring.
- Do we have mechanisms whereby we can identify those people who are ‘naturally chosen’ by staff members, as potential leadership material? These people may have the ‘raw materials’, such as a caring attitude, good listening skills or ability to mentor others. We need to grow these people and invest in developing the other qualities they will need as they take up more visible leadership roles.
- How much do we invest in learning and development? People want to improve their capabilities to perform a wide range of tasks at work. This involves ‘soft skills’ training as well the technical stuff. If we are thinking about leader development, it’s probably important to remember that they will have had their fill of ‘hard’ or technical training and will require more ongoing, long-term development in the areas of communication, self-awareness and relationship management.
- Do we focus on developing the ‘people skills’ of our managers? It’s been said that people join good organisations but leave bad leaders. Managers direct, but leaders inspire, nurture, get genuinely interested in people and set good examples. Research into this area shows that about 2/3 of a manager’s job is related to ‘people skills’, with only 1/3 related to their technical know-how.
- What do we do when we ‘fail’? Are mistakes seen as opportunities to learn and find new ways of doing things? Remember the (probably apocryphal) story of Thomas Edison: when his assistants came to him bemoaning the fact that they had tried 500 ways of getting this new-fangled ‘light-bulb’ thing to work, but to no avail, Edison is reputed to have said, “That’s great! Now we know 500 things NOT to do. Keep going.”
Considering these questions leads us to bigger thinking about business, staff engagement and the bottom line. The problem we see is often not the real problem and bigger thinking can help us to uncover other truths that are screaming out for attention.