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).
September 23, 2012
Fresh from running a workshop on responsible leadership, I’m feeling buoyant that the participants entered into the conversation with gusto and were open to the idea that humans engage in their work because they seek out meaning, mastery and autonomy. To a large extent, I was not only preaching to the converted but taking the lead from them. Their work is based on a developmental, strengths-based worldview and they do it because they see the real difference that it makes to their clients. When I proposed that McGregor’s Theory XY and the work of Daniel Pink was providing us with a compelling case for re-visioning how we “do” leadership, there seemed to be general approval. They seemed thrilled that there has been significant theory and research on what makes work work. One person excitedly told the story of her previous workplace that had got to a crisis point, completely revamped its management practice and leadership approach by adopting a Theory Y attitude and turned their business around. Similarly, we at Quantum Shift are working with a client who also views people through a Theory Y lens and is in the middle of a deep transformation of how their business is organised and the light at the end of the transformation tunnel is clear and bright.
Then my heart sinks a little as I read in this morning’s New Zealand Herald, an article entitled “Fear, greed and vanity are excellent staff motivators.” I couldn’t resist reading, it tempted me in, much as those faux science documentaries in which the narrator at some point intones mysteriously, “Was Darwin wrong?” This invariably causes me to exclaim, “NO!” in frustration at the thrall in which ancient myths and fairy stories still grip us. To give the writer of that piece his due, he does start his argument with “in my opinion”, however we are on shaky ground if we base management and leadership of our organisations purely on opinion. Haven’t we learnt that research and study goes a long way to correcting long-held beliefs that get in the way of good practice?
He closes his article by saying, “…all other things being equal, an engaged workforce is more productive than a disengaged one – but the pyramids were built with the whip. We should not forget that.” Reminds me of that quote by Deming, “Beat horses and they will run faster….for a while.” While it may be that the pyramids were built with the whip (although I learnt when I was in Egypt recently that new archaeological discoveries are showing that it was not slave labour that built the pyramids after all), it also used to be the case that children were used as chimney sweeps, women were burnt at the stake for witchcraft and leeches were considered cutting edge medicine. While everyone is entitled to their prejudices (for that’s all Theory X is as far as I’m concerned), it’s more than a little frustrating when someone is given air time in the business column of a national newspaper to reinforce something backed by no evidence, bar his experience as a company liquidator. Theory X is one which is being challenged by contemporary research into what motivates people. If we take as long to update our perspective on this as we did to acknowledge that the sun is the centre of the solar system, I predict that it will take until the year 2110 before we find workplaces everywhere have at last unleashed people’s genuine desire to do something meaningful and that work will have long since ceased to be paid-for slave labour (or that we need gamification to help us pretend otherwise).
In the meantime, we still have conversations about how to motivate employees. Way back in 2006, a piece appeared in the Harvard Management Update entitled “Stop Demotivating your Employees”. It came out of some research that showed that when people join organisations they are initially enthusiastic, but that they very quickly lose motivation due to management behaviours and styles. This research, by the way, was conducted with 1.2 million employees at 52 businesses, so it’s not simply the opinion of the three authors. The question, then, is not about finding ways to motivate and engage people. It’s about letting them get on with it, stopping demotivating them.
Central to this is re-visioning the role of a manager. Much of what a manager does gets in the way and leads to situations where they then ponder how to motivate and engage. As Bob Marshall puts it in “Lay off the Managers”, we need management, but much of what managers do is dysfunctional. If we do away with the old Theory X prejudice and embrace the science behind Theory Y, the flow on from this is that the job of managing will look and feel quite different. Some of the things that go on in some of the businesses to which I consult include:
- Policies and procedures that try to mitigate for every possible contingency and overwhelm people with the sheer scale of information they are required to know before actually doing their jobs.
- Micro-managers who need to oversee not only what people do but how they do it.
- Command-and-control hierarchies that centralise decision-making away from the point at which the decisions could more ably be made.
- Managers who hoard power and operate out of a need to be in control of things (and when they can’t, sabotage the hard work of others).
As Deming states in this short video clip, “one is born with intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, dignity, cooperation, curiosity, a yearning for learning.” These are crushed out by “forces of destruction” throughout our lives. He wonders out loud, “Why crush them out? Why not nurture them?” Indeed. He goes on to say that mere change will not do it. ”We cannot just remodel the prison.” He is talking about transformation, not mere patchwork, not tinkering round the edges.
Backed by research, I believe that Theory Y is in an ascendancy, albeit a slow one (cf. Copernicus). Symptomatic of this, many managers have cottoned on to this new-fangled thing called “engagement”. It seems that some studies have shown that businesses with motivated and engaged staff are far more productive and effective at what they do. That’s pretty compelling. So in the name of creating happier workers, some go through a PR makeover, adopting some kind of newspeak so that people think things have actually changed. That, or they induce people and customers to “like” them by trying to make the same old work seem more fun and interesting. I’m not so sure this is transformation.
Deming talks about transformation as a new kind of reward, but not one that gives you points on a leader board, an extra staff party or an incentive bonus in your pay packet. He talks about restoring the individual. This kind of transformation will unleash the power of human resourcefulness contained in intrinsic motivation and which people are born with. That’s meaning, mastery and autonomy for you Daniel Pink fans. Or self-actualisation for you Maslow fans. Dispensing with extrinsic motivators and transforming business to release people’s intrinsic motivation can lead to less competition and greater cooperation which, in time, will lead to greater innovation, greater service, greater material reward for everyone, joy in work, joy in learning. There is the new kind of reward. Everyone will win in this transformation.
It truly boggles my mind that folks like the author of that NZ Herald article would consider themselves as hardworking and motivated by success yet presume others are inherently lazy, selfish and greedy. Certainly, these are human qualities and ones which we all possess in some measure. We are not slaves to them, however, and in my experience, under the right conditions, we will just as easily bring out the best of ourselves. Under the kind of conditions that model and condone laziness and selfishness, however, I can understand why would people would fail to engage themselves fully. Genuine transformation of business, therefore, is essential; this means a real systemic shift in attitudes and beliefs about people. Getting the “right conditions” for people to flourish is a pre-condition for them to bring their whole selves to work.
In my understanding of McGregor’s Theory Y, those marvellous things he outlines will come to fruition under the right conditions. This is important. The conditions must be right for people to flourish just as soil must be fertile in order for plants to flourish. If you salt the earth, nothing will grow; if you behave like Stalin (while spouting Theory Y newspeak for good PR), your people will disengage or leave or both. As I said, the question to be asking, then, is not “How can I motivate my staff?” but “How do I need to be so that I don’t demotivate people around me?” Some of it is related to transforming how the business organises itself, but this is inextricably linked to transforming ourselves: our beliefs and attitudes about human nature and how we relate to people.
What is required of us then?
Listening to people. Adopt the practice of genuinely listening to people. Acting on what you hear is part of this, too. Come at conversations with the mindset that they will tell you something you don’t already know, something which may challenge your own beliefs or something which may teach you a lesson. Turn off that inner monologue and consider their reality is just as valid as yours.
Enabling them to get on with it. There are a number of enabling behaviours I set out in a previous article, “Leaders: get out of the way”. I would strongly suggest it is more than behaviour change; once again, it is personal transformation that flows out of a meaningful shift in our beliefs and attitudes.
Acknowledging people. This is not about praise. Managers who steal the credit for good work are demotivators. Acknowledging means giving people their due and recognising the contributions they make to the whole. It means noticing when people have been of good service to others. It means assisting people to see that their unique contributions and who they are add something invaluable.
Facilitating the easy flow of information and unimpeded access to the proper resources to do the job. At a very basic level, a manager would do well to see themselves as the one who eases and unblocks information flow. Hoarding information is an act of the power-hungry.
Enrolling people into a vision of something greater than the sum of everyone’s daily tasks. Declaring a clear purpose for the business, apart from increased shareholder return or higher profit. Keep hold of a single-minded purpose and make sure everyone has a clear line of sight to it. What is your business contributing to the well-being of the world?
If the author of that NZ Herald article was moved to write what he did because he has witnessed indolence and selfishness in the workplace, I would suggest that it has as much to do with the kind of cynicism people bring to work when they witness their managers exhibit the same cynical behaviours and attitudes. That Harvard Management Update found that people start a job full of enthusiasm, which, like Deming, I would say is our default setting. The rot sets in when systemic inhumanity within the business infects them and their natural motivation is crushed. I would also suggest it has much to do with organisations which have not put “the right conditions” in place that would allow creativity, autonomy and responsibility to flourish. It’s also to do with managers and leaders who hold on to an obsolete view of human nature. So it’s no surprise to me that a company liquidator would encounter people who do their best to be their worst.
June 17, 2012
I speak with managers who describe their frustrations at dealing with people they call “stupid”. They get angry at people who are clumsy and fail to learn from mistakes, who don’t share their passion for the work, who are slow and indifferent, who try to get away with the barest minimum of effort, who exhibit little curiosity or desire to learn. I’m no apologist for willful sabotage, maliciousness or indolence at work, but there is another way of looking at these behaviours and attributes. When I similarly find myself getting impatient with people who don’t live up to my standards of work, I have to remind myself that perhaps they are not deliberately performing poorly. If we hold on to the idea that workplaces are machines and the people within them just parts of the machine, then I suppose it makes sense to label “inefficient” ones as stupid. Also, if we still hold on to the idea that we can use words like “efficient” to describe humans at work, we will continue to get angry at their individual performance. My suggestion is not to get angry at “stupid” people, but to think bigger. Think bigger by eliminating blindness to the system; see how the system will affect people’s performance at work. Think bigger, also, by viewing people you lead as humans, not resources.
People such as Maslow and Glasser posited that we are driven by some basic needs. Without getting into a critique of the details of Maslow’s or Glasser’s work, the essence is similar. We behave in ways that attempt to meet our needs for:
- survival (food, shelter, clothing)
- belonging (love, affection, relationships)
- significance (power, self-esteem, competence)
- personal development (fun, learning and fulfillment)
- freedom (autonomy, independence, self-mastery)
It beggars belief that, if a manager is willing to acknowledge that they, themselves, are driven by these needs, they would hold an entirely different view of those they purport to manage. The work of Harvard Professor Douglas McGregor has something to add here. His XY Theory describes what motivates humans at work. In “The Human Side of Enterprise”, he proposed that a manager will view workers in one of two ways: that they are inherently averse to work and that rigid systems of control are required in order to get them to do what you want them to do (Theory X) or that they are naturally ambitious and, given the right conditions, they will be self-motivated and contribute willingly to the success and effectiveness of their workplaces (Theory Y). Whether a manager ascribes to Theory X or Theory Y will influence their style of management; authoritarian and controlling or enabling and facilitative. McGregor set out Theory XY over 50 years ago, however some managers are still possessed with the idea that people are inherently lazy and are solely motivated by threats, intimidation and reward schemes. Time to update. Even in the realm of dog training, many of us long ago disposed of Barbara Woodhouse’s old ‘choke chain’ as inhumane and unnecessary. As Deming observed, you can beat a horse to make it go faster, but only for a short while. Threats and micro-managing might work on some level, but eventually the business will hit the laws of physics and diseconomies of scale will kick in. Time to dispose of the view that managing is simply about getting people to do what you want them to do.
I find Theory X and Theory Y of great relevance to the challenges of the 21st century. Continuing to see the world through Theory X leads to a tayloristic style of management, which has become increasingly redundant. It is a theory which says that humans are only as creative as they need to be to find a work-avoidance scheme. It says that a prime motivator is money or fear of loss of money. To my thinking, it breeds cultures of cynicism, selfishness and short-termism. If we now believe that slavery is an abomination, why would we continue to believe that paid-for slavery is acceptable? Furthermore, why would any leader who wants their business to succeed in the modern world want to believe the worst about people?
Even Frederick Taylor knew that workers have a vested interest in their own well-being, but if we view motivation according to Theory X, we will naturally translate some ‘well-being-maximising’ behaviours as “malingering”, “loafing” or “getting through the day”. If the system is screwy, why blame people for playing by its rules? If you emphasise measurements on an individual’s performance, as opposed to their wider contribution to something bigger, why be surprised when people just do the “bare minimum”? If you fail to steward a culture which values diversity, creativity and contribution to the whole, why scorn people for being disengaged from the purpose of the business?
Theory Y holds that people look for meaning in their lives and in their work. It maintains that under the right conditions, people will find joy in their work. Under the right conditions, people will also use their work as a vehicle to express their creativity and realise their potential. I will borrow this quote (thanks to Louise Altman) from Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, “For me, my role is about unleashing what people already have inside them that are maybe suppressed in most work environments.” Makes good sense to me. He seems to know what goes on in most work environments and is interested in updating what goes on at work.
I note how Theory Y says that people will be autonomous and responsible given the right conditions. Here is where a leader’s responsibility lies: in stewarding the right conditions. How can a leader contribute to putting the right conditions in place? One of these managers I regularly talk with (I’ll call him Manager Y) has cottoned on to the idea that humans and human systems are complex beings that cannot be analysed or managed from an outdated, mechanistic paradigm. He has become more interested in creating the right conditions so that frustration decreases while effectiveness increases. He has been updating his view of himself and his job, so he is more orientated to leading people than managing ‘stuff‘. He has acknowledged that he is succeeding in creating the right conditions because he has changed who he is and how he is. He has courageously decided to look at himself and how his role responses to people used to create the ‘wrong conditions’ for people to work effectively. In this, he has undertaken to develop new roles for himself.
One of the roles he has refined is that of Boundary-Setter. Like most of us, he has always been aware that systems and processes are necessary at work, but his attitude towards them was a little skewed. To his mind, systems and processes equated to an authoritarian style of management. He was uncomfortable with the idea that he might be one of those types of managers, so he compensated by managing people on an ad hoc basis. He has realised, however, that systems and processes are not a bad thing. The modern manager enacts their Boundary-Setter role and applies systems and processes with a lighter touch than in the old days. Effective systems and processes are not arbitrary nor exhaustive. Done effectively, they are the boundaries within which people can operate comfortably and safely. Useful systems and processes will be robust, simply communicated, easily understood and not so restrictive that they inhibit autonomy or individual creativity. Manager Y was labouring under an idea that systems and processes might be too confining, however, in an attempt to become less of a hard-nosed, taylorian manager, threw the baby out with the bath water, dispensed with a consistent set of guidelines and ended up being seen as a push-over. Now, he is growing consistency balanced with personal responsibility. Just like Goldilocks’ porridge, businesses need systems and processes that are “just right”.
Another role Manager Y has been developing is Appreciator-of-People. This role thinks, feels and behaves in ways which promote self-esteem and confidence in others. He knows for a fact that people know exactly how to do their jobs. He knows for a fact that they are capable (for he has seen it in the past with his own eyes, so neither he nor they can pretend they don’t know what they’re doing). His starting point has now shifted from “they’re lazy and they need me to stay on their backs” to “they know what they’re doing, how can I get out of their way?” This significant shift in his attitude means that he now demonstrates trust and respect.
In the role of Trusting Auxiliary, Manager Y is honing his capabilities around supporting and coaching. He is letting people have more space to do their jobs and after a short, initial period of adjustment, people are filling this space with responsibility-taking and team-based problem-solving. He continues to have regular catch-ups with his team, but has changed the tone of those. No longer is he one of the Spanish Inquisition endlessly asking why something didn’t get done. Instead, he asks what gets in the way of people working well or how he can assist. This is no mere lip-service exercise. Herein is how he has changed who he is because he has adopted a genuine curiosity and naiveté to his questioning. People know if you are questioning them to catch them out or if you are questioning them to find the answer to a question. People know if you ask them a question which you have already answered in your head. He also starts with what they are doing well, rather than what they’re not doing well enough. This means that people are becoming less fearful about discussing mistakes because his approach is orientated to learning, not punishment.
Just as I will keep banging on about coaching people from a strengths-based mindset, I will keep banging on about how important it is for leaders to re-cast themselves as Systems Stewards. In this role, Manager Y has found his job less burdensome because he is concerning himself less with micro-managing and making sure things “get done” than he is with creating boundaries of effective work behaviour, doing that big picture “vision stuff” (daydreaming, looking into the future, wish-listing, strategising, networking and influencing) and making sure that communication channels are open and transparent.
Let’s please stop seeing people as inherently lazy, irresponsible and inefficient and, instead, take Tony Hsieh’s or Manager Y’s approach and see them as complex humans with a natural drive to learn, self-actualise and thrive. If we must continue using things like Key Performance Indicators, let’s keep them in perspective. They are just that: merely an indicator and a limited one at best. It indicates, it points to: it doesn’t give the full picture of what is going on. It indicates that something you are narrowly measuring is either doing OK or it is not. An indicator such as this does not, however, indicate whether a person’s performance is related to a badly-led culture. It does not indicate whether someone is fully supported and resourced to do their job effectively. It does not indicate whether someone’s intrinsic human needs are being realised. Time for an update.
February 8, 2012
Carbon is intensely heated and pressurised beneath the surface of the Earth to create a diamond; essentially it’s a lump of coal that has been pressure cooked for thousands of years. Dust, smoke and ash scatter evening sunlight and we see a stunning red sunset; so it’s basically air pollution. An oyster takes a piece of microscopic grit and forms a pearl; it’s really an irritant that the oyster is trying to protect itself from.
Far be it from me to shatter the romantic associations we place on sunsets, pearls and diamonds, but they do, in fact, originate from stuff which we would not normally consider to be lovely or desirable. Every magnificent and serene wonder in the universe arose out of the chaos and turbulence of the Big Bang, hardly a peaceful nor benign process. In the realm of human learning, our most prized gems often arise out of the midst of our most difficult or challenging circumstances. It’s not a cliche for nothing: “What doesn’t kill me will make me grow stronger.” At the same time, if we are bereft of personal resources, whether that be internal strengths, strong relational connections with others or a satisfying connection to something ‘higher’, we will find learning and change more threatening than life-giving. It is worth bearing these two points in mind if you manage staff performance: 1) the seed of excellence lies in the heart of inadequate performance; and 2) we cannot drive people to higher performance if they are not aware of what they are already doing well. We do not learn something new out of nothing.
An old supervisor of mine used to use the phrase ‘grist for the mill’ when I would talk about some undesirable behaviour in a client. His reframe of a behaviour or attitude has stood me in good stead for many years. Not only am I trained in a strengths-based methodology, but my outlook on human beings is one that says we are inherently good and that our behaviours are aimed at generating positive outcomes. That said, best intentions do not always result in the best outcomes for everyone concerned, but this is more likely down to human clumsiness, shortsightedness and fallibility than willful nastiness, laziness or under-handedness. The less-than-functional is merely grist for the developmental mill; raw material out of which the treasure can emerge.
Thankfully, for more and more people, it seems entirely sensible that we look at workplace performance through a strengths-based lens. Why performance manage someone purely from a deficit paradigm, i.e. what is not going well? While we do have to address poor performance, there is a paradigm out of which we can learn to operate which is progressive, esteem-enhancing and effective.
Just as counter-productive as the deficit paradigm is the head-in-the-sand paradigm. Many who operate out of this world-view would say that they are optimistic and positive. What this mindset propounds is that you don’t look at the dysfunctional; accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. While I’m all for emphasising the positive, if we behave like Pollyanna, we miss the whole picture. Taken to an extreme, there are managers who are overly optimistic, believing that, in the end, it’ll all be alright. Being overly positive can lead you to ignore evidence of some ‘grit’ in your system. The head-in-the-sand paradigm says that if you just accentuate the positive, the problems and difficulties will work themselves out. Wrong. ”Things” do not “work themselves out“. I know there are CEOs and other leaders out there who hold a version of this viewpoint. They believe themselves to be positive and optimistic and I’ve no doubt whatsoever that they lead blessed and joyful lives. However, I’ve heard a self-professed optimist say ”Why would I want to put any of my energy into the staff who are causing the most problems? I prefer to spend my time on staff who are really performing.” From here, you are one step away from: ”Why would I want to spend any time or effort on developing the poor performers?” ”Why wouldn’t I get rid of the difficult ones and hire people who are willing to just fit in; there are plenty of people who would be so grateful to work here.” This, to my mind, is not being positive. It is an over-developed desire to see the positives to the extent that you fail to see the whole picture. If you put your head in the sand, you are not only blind to weaknesses, but you are blind to the developmental opportunities and the potential pearls amongst your staff.
So both the deficit paradigm and the head-in-the-sand paradigm are limited: they only look at part of someone’s performance. To view the world from a strengths-based perspective, we look at the whole: what is working well and what is not working well. A strengths-based paradigm is also a systems thinking paradigm. It is one that sees the wholeness and connectedness of people. We are not machines with a bunch of moving parts that can be taken out and replaced when they fail; we are complex systems in which the whole is far greater than the sum of our individual cells. So in a performance conversation with staff, we need to view their failings in light of their whole being. There are some things they do well, there are other things that they don’t excel at, but they are inseparable. Like finding the diamond in the rough, the potential lies hidden.
Even though we know how good it feels to focus on what we do well, drawing attention to others’ weaknesses in workplace performance is not a habit easily unlearnt. Through our early years, many of us have learnt to place too much value judgement on ourselves and to classify many things about us as inherently good and worthwhile or inherently bad and undesirable. However, learning to see the world through a strengths-based lens has some bottom line benefits. A 2002 survey by the Corporate Leadership Council questioned nearly 20,000 employees in 29 countries and found that when their managers emphasised strengths, this resulted in a 36% improvement in performance as opposed to a 27% decline in performance when the emphasis was on weaknesses.
Taking a strengths-based systems view to human performance includes developing a person’s ability to self-reflect so they aware of themselves, what they do well and what needs improvement. Asking a person to reflect on themselves is the starting point for any conversation about performance. Making a performance analysis by using a simple, yet powerful three-fold progression of questions means that the person expands their view of themselves and is more capable of being autonomous, confident and engaged at work. Firstly, ask someone to recall what they do well. Once they have done this, let them know what you observe in them that is excellent. Secondly, ask them to reflect on what they do too much of. Remember I said earlier that I believe all human behaviour is aimed at creating a positive outcome. Sometimes, there is something that we are good at that we apply too much, and this can get in the way of ideal performance. It is not intrinsically bad, yet in great quantity is counter-productive. Salt is a good thing to add to soup but too much will ruin the flavour. Again, let the other person know what you see them do too much or too often. Finally, turn the focus to what the person does too little of. Once they have done this, add more information from your perspective. Keeping this simple and structured will provide the person with a full and manageable picture of themselves. Out of this analysis you will have a distillation of information that shows the way to a development path.
To my mind, in a strengths-based worldview, a performance conversation is not one-sided. Unless a staff member is going through some sort of formal disciplinary process, it seems to me that conversations about performance are just that: conversations. Both parties contribute. Both parties have rights and responsibilities. Both parties have the right to be heard, to be respected and to be believed. Staff are responsible for being fully present in these conversations and participating. Staff are also responsible for developing an open attitude to learning and change. It is no good becoming defensive in the face of uncomfortable feedback or leaving the manager to make all the analysis. A staff member who is not able to reflect on their performance is the staff member begging to be micro-managed and I know of no employee nor manager who truly desires that. A manager is responsible for developing the habit of noticing performance, both good and bad-all the time. It is most useful when both staff and manager are clear about performance standards and achievement throughout the year, not simply at annual performance review time. Keep good performance on track by giving real-time feedback. I have spoken to too many people who are in the dark about their performance because their manager just saves everything for that once a year appointment, if at all. Furthermore, performance conversations should not be scripted or determined solely by the performance review document. It should be a human to human encounter in which both parties are able to contribute.
Finally, do something after performance conversations. If you are a manager who has regular conversations with staff, you are likely to follow up anyway, but particularly after one about work performance, make sure something happens, whether that is a coaching session, a decision to undertake training, another review or whatever seems appropriate. This bit is really important. What arises from performance conversations is that grist for the developmental mill; within the heart of poor performance lie the seeds of excellence. Knowing that you have a culture of performance, where it’s just something that gets talked about regularly, means that people can reasonably expect there to be a professional development path that continues to unfold. Ideally, this will be specific to each person, since each person’s needs will vary. Whatever you do, though, make sure that you do discuss what is not going well and that you do something to ameliorate it. It’s a paradox of strengths-based performance management: you want to change the poor performance but you must start by looking at the good, and when you eventually identify the inadequate, you have the raw material for greater excellence. If we don’t acknowledge what is outstanding, we don’t have the stable platform from which to grow and develop; and if we don’t examine what is poor, we just end up with a touchy feely nicey nice culture where we stagnate. We need to find the grit in order to learn something new. What is the irritant? What is the source of dissatisfaction? What is getting in the way of excellence?
January 27, 2012
W. Edwards Deming is quoted as saying, “Experience by itself teaches nothing.” In a fast-paced world where we are bombarded with more and more stimuli and we are called upon to carry out multiple tasks, this is truer now than ever before. Our lives are filled with more and varied experiences which, by themselves, leave us with nothing more than information. Sometimes we get to the end of our very busy days and the most we have made of it was, “I was run off my feet all day,” and we let go the opportunity to reflect on what it all meant to us and our lives. Are we doing what makes us happy? Are we spending our lives doing something meaningful to us? Are our lives enriched by the myriad of interactions and relationships we hold? Are we making a difference? If we were asked, we could probably recall the things that happen to us daily, but it is not sufficient to merely recollect if these experiences are to have enormous value to us. In our working lives, which are becoming more unpredictable and and revolve less around the carrying out of rote routine tasks, we are exposed to a veritable banquet of new experiences and interactions. Within these experiences lie the building blocks of our transformation.
To build on a previous article, while we certainly need to be open to new information and experiences, we need to do something purposeful with them. Often in my work, I have cause to reflect on the value of reflection. Just as every story has a beginning, a middle and an end, so do life’s little episodes. There is a beginning phase, called the ‘warm up’, the middle phase, where the action occurs, and then there is the last phase, in which meaning is made of the experiences in the action phase. This last phase is where the reflection happens. Reflection is essential in order for the significance of the action to be realised. All too often, we get to the end of the action phase and we hurriedly move on to the next thing. It’s all do, do, do.
I often liken it to digesting. If it weren’t for our digestive system, we would find ourselves either unable to take in any more food or passing food straight through our bodies without the benefit of extracting the nutrients that we need to build and grow. A banquet table filled with food has no significance to us until we take the food into our bodies and let our enzymes go to work. Only when this has occurred and our cells are making use of the nutrients is the food of any real use to us. Experience is much the same; only when we have digested it and made conscious meaning of it does it provide us with sustenance and the building blocks for growth.
One of the most skilled experiential trainers I have ever had the privilege to work with, John Bergman, once said, “I provide people with experiences. I know they’ve had one because I can watch them having it. What I don’t know is what they’ve learnt from it. The reflection afterwards is the most important bit.” Thankfully, I read more people writing about the importance of transfer of learning in the workplace. Whether you are running a training course, carrying out some one-to-one coaching, facilitating a business simulation with a bunch of senior execs or teaching people to apply social media in their work, it behoves you to facilitate and guide some reflection on what you have been asking people to learn. Real learning is integrated into who we are as people. Otherwise, it’s not learnt. Unless we digest and make meaning of something new, it will pass right through us. It’s not an added extra; it’s an integral part of the learning process.
In setting up a learning programme with a new client, I have sometimes been asked, “What will the ‘take home’ be?” If I’m honest, I would say, “I don’t know.” I could tell you what my agenda will be. I could tell you what exercises I will get people to do. I could tell you what I’d like people to learn. I could tell you that I have a great experiential process that will show sales staff the way to providing better customer experiences. However, I think we are well past the time when we can assume that just because someone has sat in a training room that they will have learnt what the trainer or their boss or the HR Manager wants them to learn. Certainly, businesses require people to learn things that will assist them to excel at their jobs and, certainly, businesses want this elusive thing called ROI and certainly, businesses want to spend their L&D budgets on something purposeful that will provide benefits to the people and the business. That said, spending L&D money is no guarantee of learning or development unless the learning programme (whether that’s a series of coaching sessions or an e-learning programme or leadership development programme) has reflection and integration built in to the programme. So what’s the take home? That can depend entirely on how much reflection and integration I ask of people in the session. If there is none, I’m leaving the ‘take home’ to chance; perhaps some of the people are already good at reflecting and meaning-making, perhaps some of them are not.
Developing the role of Astute Reflector, however, is not only applicable in the context of formal learning; far from it. More of what we need to absorb and integrate comes from our daily experiences and interactions at work than from ‘formal’ learning situations. Bringing the learning into work is more than a zeitgeist catch-phrase; it’s about how you view everything that you do, everything that happens to you, every conversation you have. Is your working day just a series of things to ‘get through’ or are you making the most of your daily experiences, pleasant and not so pleasant, as learning fodder? Do you get to the end of a busy week with a sense of indigestion because you haven’t processed and made meaning of the week’s events? We need to shift our thinking so we see that everything that goes on at work is about learning. There are some compelling benefits that can come to us from developing the role of Astute Reflector in our lives.
We become better at learning from mistakes. When our Astute Reflector role is well-developed, we regularly stop and debrief, either by ourselves or with others, to examine what went well and what didn’t go so well. Once we have made this conscious, the chances of us repeating our mistakes begin to fall dramatically.
We distill the ingredients for success. Rather than leaving good performance to chance, becoming conscious of what works well also shows us the way to consistent excellence. This isn’t about finding the one or two things that work well and sticking to them, for ongoing reflection is the thing. However, we can improve our chances of future success if we have actually stopped to reflect.
We see patterns that were previously hidden. When we reflect, we connect the dots with other experiences in our lives. This begins to show up patterns. If you are a systems thinker, you will hold that everything is connected to everything else. Reflection illuminates those connections, from where we become more conscious of values, habits and attitudes which serve us well and those which don’t.
In his excellent article on mastering the art of self-reflection, Adam Chalker lists three kinds of reflection: reflection-on-action, reflection-in-action and critical self-reflection. I believe that all three of these are indispensable abilities of the role of Astute Reflector.
If we inculcate the practice of reflection-on-action, we habituate ourselves to asking questions such as:
- What was I trying to achieve?
- What did my actions and responses create: in myself, in others, in the wider system?
- What did I do well? What did I do too much of (that got in the way of excellence)? What did I do too little of?
- What does that remind me of (from the past)?
Growing the ability to reflect-in-action means that we become more able to notice ourselves while we are doing something and, if necessary, shift our attitudes or actions. It’s a bit like reading a map while we are on a journey, checking to see if we are heading where we want to go. If we wish to develop this habit, we can ask ourselves:
- What am I actually doing right now?
- How are people responding to me?
- How am I feeling right now?
- Am I heading in the right direction? If not, what change of course is required?
I’ve written before on the need to develop more critical self-reflection and self-awareness. This is taking a cold, hard look at ourselves and asking the challenging questions:
- What lies do I tell myself?
- What am I pretending not to see about myself?
- Am I doing something which truly brings meaning and joy to my life?
- How do I enact power? Is it personal potency or power over others?
- Do I like who I am?
Once again, these are not discretionary matters to consider only if we have the luxury of time; the role of Astute Reflector is core to the world of work today. Charles Darwin knew about the value of learning when he said, “It’s not the biggest, the brightest, or the best that will survive, but those who adapt the quickest.” Making it a habit to ask, “So what?” expands our awareness, helps us to fine tune our abilities and increases our sense of potency in the world. Best of all, it costs nothing to grow the role of Astute Reflector and maximise your day-to-day experiences. Cost of training programme that teaches you nothing new: $2000. Becoming more reflective and conscious: priceless.
November 8, 2011
“More important than science is its results; one answer invokes a hundred questions. More important than poetry is its results; one poem invokes a hundred heroic acts.” J.L. Moreno
Some years ago, one of my teachers said, “It’s not so important what you do; it’s more important what you do NEXT.” What he meant was that if you are going to undertake to do something, you should be prepared to handle what unfolds as a result of your actions. This is pertinent for organisations who choose to measure customer experience, carry out staff surveys or gauge culture or capability.
With this in mind, I’d like to expand on a point I made in one of my previous articles. Many organisations have cottoned on to the practice of measuring and surveying in order to get some kind of readout on culture, attitude or behaviour. Measuring is a good way of exposing OD gaps or establishing the L&D needs of an organisation. It is also a good way of getting a snapshot of how responsive an organisation is to their customers or how well they are doing with regards staff engagement. There are many kinds of metrics, measuring all manner of organisational phenomena. I’ve encountered a few of these in my time and find them endlessly fascinating, but then I can be a bit of a nerd sometimes.
As I mention in my previous article, it is true that in some cases, a thing observed is a thing changed. This is not always the case, however. Carrying out staff surveys or measuring phenomena such as customer experience or staff engagement is only the first step. Once you have found the sources of your problems, I would suggest that there should be some sort of action plan to deal with them. This may seem blindingly obvious to many of you, however in my time, I have seen far too much confusion and inaction in response to measures and surveys.
For my company, the first step in any engagement with clients is a comprehensive analysis of their system, and a few of our past clients have been tempted to go no further than this. Because we apply a strengths-based methodology to our analysis, people come away with a greater sense of what is functioning well and what capabilities they already have at their disposal. It is usual at this stage for clients to say to themselves, “Wow, we are doing better than we imagined,” but that is often because in our society, we are so habituated to focussing on what is going wrong that when the ‘health’ is instead highlighted, it comes as a bit of a surprise.
No system is perfect, however, and in our systems analysis, we also uncover the hidden causes of their dysfunctions and for some clients, they have believed that this ‘seeing’ was sufficient; this could be likened to going to the doctor to investigate some recurring physical symptoms, say chronic lethargy, and upon discovering the underlying cause, doing nothing in response. ”I’m just relieved to know what it is,” is something I’ve heard more than once. This is, of course, normal human behaviour; if someone is in the ‘pre-contemplative’ stage of making a change, the associated thoughts will be “There is nothing wrong,” or even “I’m sure it’ll sort itself out.” We humans are masters of self-deception, even in the face of hard fact and evidence. Even though we know what is good for us, we still sometimes exhibit behaviours which fly in the face of good sense and reason.
Beyond my own nerdishness and fascination with statistics and measurements, I can see the importance, in some instances, of measuring things in organisations. It is vital that this is done purposefully, though. A robust and strategic measure can be the confirmation of something which is felt intuitively, and which catalyses an organisation into corrective action. A clear, simple metric, such as a good 360, can also be a spur for individuals to change something about themselves. Nothing like a cold hard look in the mirror to jump start us into doing something different.
Or not. As I say, there is nothing like human behaviour to prove that logic and good sense does not always prevail, and this is also the case for organisations. Do any of these scenarios seem familiar?
We’ve measured, we’ve got the results, but why did we bother measuring in the first place? It is essential that both the metrics and the subjects of measurement are well thought out, and that it is not done simply as some slavish knee-jerk response to a perceived trend or fad. I have seen injudicious surveys carried out which arose from no identified need or strategy and which ended up wasting the organisation precious resources. Perhaps because “everyone else is doing it”, HR was charged with carrying out some kind of culture survey or staff engagement survey. Be sure there is an identified need in the organisation. Measure if you are seeking data; and when you get the data, do something purposeful with it. Blindingly obvious, I know.
We’ve measured, we understand what the results mean, now let’s see how things change over the next year. If you are going to measure, be prepared to do something in response when the results come in. The experts in measuring usually provide reports that outline and interpret the data and go on to make suggestions as to what to do next, but because their expertise is in measurement, they often do not know how to follow up, beyond coming back next year to measure again. You cannot count on change occurring simply because they have reported that your managers need to be better at listening to staff. There is a strong likelihood that, if you do nothing, when they come back next year to re-measure, things will have not changed very much. Ensure that you follow up with some sort of action plan. Blindingly obvious, I know.
We’ve seen the results of the survey and now we must do something about it. Many New Zealanders take pride in what they call their “#8 wire mentality”. Put simply, it translates as, “We can fix it ourselves.” While this may have been a real strength in years gone by, it is now a significant weakness. New Zealanders are not the only people who pride themselves on self-reliance, though. Many of us like to think that we’ve got it all in hand and that we don’t need to ask for help. Really? You may be the CEO or the CHRO, but it does not follow that you are actually capable of developing listening skills in your managers or that you know how to get your salespeople to really put themselves in their customers’ shoes. Admittedly, resources are pretty stretched these days and kudos to leaders who attempt to follow up on survey results themselves, but holding a two-hour staff meeting in which you tell people to improve is no guarantee it will happen. Right tool for the right job, get a professional in. Blindingly obvious, I know.
We’ve measured but we don’t like those results. Let’s not measure again. If you don’t like the answers, don’t ask the questions again. Sad to say, but I know of organisations who actually operate like this. In one of them, the senior executive team all undertook a 360 survey and when the results were in, they were so shell-shocked that they decided that they would never do an exercise like that again. Needless to say, by the time we came along some months later, they were not interested in engaging my company’s services because by then, the thought of shifting attitudes or behaviour was simply too scary or too hard. Again, this is normal human behaviour; we get overwhelmed when we look in the mirror sometimes and resolve never to look again. There are subtle shades to this approach: “Those results are invalid because those guys who did the measuring are no good anyway;” “Those results are invalid because our industry sector is really special and unique and their measures don’t take that into account;” “Those results are invalid because I told them what to measure and what not to measure and they didn’t do what I told them.” Don’t ask the question if you think you might find the answer distasteful. Blindingly obvious, I know.
What other scenarios have you encountered with regards measurement and surveys and what innovative responses have you seen?
September 20, 2011
“Moreno declared that instead of looking at mankind as a fallen being, everyone is a potential genius and like the Supreme Being, co-responsible for all of mankind. It is the genius we should emphasize, not the failings.” So spake Zerka Moreno, Jakob’s widow and co-developer of Morenian action methods.
All too often in our world and in our workplaces, we focus on the failings, the deficits and the gaps; what is not working. Leaders struggle with what the organisation is not achieving, with ‘bad behaviours’ they want changing, with relationships that are dysfunctional. This is, of course, natural. Once again, as I’ve said in my earlier blog posts, we still operate from a mechanistic world view. Even if you have a grasp of systems thinking, our world, by and large, is structured within a mechanistic paradigm and so we are all still infected by its virus; we have been operating this way for so long that it’s hard not to. It’s in grained in us. In other words, if we see things as machines, we treat them like machines. If my car is ticking along nicely, I barely give it a second thought. It’s only when the CV joints start clunking or the tyres are a little flat that I make an intervention. Generally speaking, it doesn’t get much attention unless something is going wrong, and when it goes wrong, I pay it attention. Otherwise, if it ain’t broke, I don’t fix it.
Considering this, many organisations default to such a mechanistic perspective when considering leadership development. If they see signs of ‘brokenness’, they will put some kind of intervention in place to fix what looks like the ‘problem’. This, however, is not leadership development. Knee-jerk responses to ‘problems’ are rarely developmental, nor strengths-based in nature because the approach is about fixing something, rather than growing something.
Your starting point when viewing leadership development from a more systemic, strengths-based perspective, would be, “We aren’t doing as well as we should. How are we going to work out what needs developing?” Naturally, if there are some indications that your organisation is underperforming, some correction is required. But before making any prescriptions, it is necessary to explore the situation as deeply as possible. When approaching this, here are some useful guidelines.
First, don’t prejudge what the intervention will look like. Complex adaptive systems are just that: highly complex. The solution required may not be the one you think it is when you begin to address the situation. The solution required may, in fact, surprise you.
Second, it’s important to point your lenses first to what you are trying to create or achieve and what you’ve already got, rather than what you see as being broken. It’s a subtle, but important shift in gaze. Focus on purpose, not on activity. It is tempting to rush to the problem areas because these are the ones that have your attention. They are the source of your discontent. Just as when you have tension in your shoulders, getting a massage in that area may loosen it up and alleviate it temporarily, but it may not address the real source of the problem which could lie in your lower back. If you dive straight into ‘fixing’ what appears to be the problem, but is more likely a symptom of something awry in your system, you may not get an optimal outcome. Because our workplaces are complex adaptive systems, there will be many hidden interconnections and dynamics at play which lead to the dysfunctions which you can see. Conversely, your system also holds many of the ingredients of the solution, which too remain hidden.
Third, and really importantly, before you put any intervention in place, stop first and take time to get as big a picture of your system as possible. A thorough strengths-based analysis of the wider system is required in order to uncover the ‘unknown unknowns’. When what you see is underperformance and unmet targets, there is naturally a sense of urgency to put something….ANYTHING in place to mitigate for this. Don’t rush into it. Take a comprehensive snapshot of your organisation’s functioning. This will increase the likelihood that you make the correct intervention. So instead of analysing simply what is going wrong, think bigger and seek answers to questions such as these:
- What are we are trying to create here?
- What have we got? i.e. How is the business working right now?
- What are the relationships that we require in order to get the thing we are trying to create?
- What are our relationships like right now?
- What capabilities does the organisation need in order to achieve our purpose?
- How amply do we have a shared understanding of each other’s roles, responsibilities and accountabilities (to each other and to the business)?
- How willing and able are we to make changes in ourselves and in our working relationships in order to get the business to our destination?
- What are the enablers and barriers to making changes in how this organisation operates?
June 9, 2011
Reflecting on a Guts of Leadership programme we have just completed, I have been going through a range of thoughts and feelings. Immediately after was a sense of a job well done and satisfaction derived from participants’ comments that they had made some really significant shifts in themselves. It is always good to know that I have been of service to others and that they have found value in what I do.
Next came the more in-depth analysis. It is sometimes hard to accurately describe what goes on in the Guts of Leadership because we are working developmentally. That is, there is a structure within which people have opportunities to develop the ‘next thing’ in their leadership journey, however this structure does not entail a bunch of powerpoints or lectures or pre-programmed talks about ‘stuff’; we work with what arises in the course of conversations that emerge within the group. We warm people up to the point where they begin to tell their OWN stories of what THEY find challenging or where THEY get stuck or when THEY felt less than adequate. By the time we get to this stage, there is sufficient trust in the group to be able to tell these stories without feeling that they will be deconstructed and left in a dribbling heap on the floor, however, there is something to be said for having a good hard look in the mirror to find the things that are less than adequate.
I reckon people can do this when the approach used is strengths-based. Inherent in the methods we use at Quantum Shift is this strengths focus. I know this is an expression that is not uncommon, but I think that sometimes there is a misconception as to what it actually means. What a strengths-based approach is NOT is one where people are just put on pedestals and told how great they are. It is NOT one where people ignore dysfunction. It is NOT one where honest feedback is shied away from. It is certainly not lovely and warmly fuzzy. If people are there to learn, they want something to change, and effecting change in ourselves inevitably involves some discomfort. I still, however, after all these years of applying the methods I use, get little twinges when people say that they have found the process easy. I wonder if I should be more chastising and harsh. Will these people be disappointed if they haven’t had a good ole’ whippin’? Should we set up self-flagellation exercises?
Comments from one recent participant sum it up for me. ”It was challenging without feeling challenging.” This gives some idea of what goes on when a strengths-based approach is applied.
If people are to change, it must be an act of their own will and this occurs when they become aware of themselves and what could be better. After all, dissatisfaction could be said to be one of the most productive human emotions because it is the one that gets us off our behinds and actually doing something about it. To start with the dysfunction, though, can be counter-productive. How motivated will we be if the first thing we look at is ‘what I’m not doing so well’? What happens to our self-esteem? What happens to our drive?
It is always best to focus initially on what is good. When people become aware of what they do well, their self image is enhanced and other problematic areas of their lives feel easier for them to manage. They approach their less well-developed aspects with greater verve. What this participant was saying was that he was able to face up to a number of things that he needed to grow in order to really take steps toward being the leader he wants to be, and that this was facilitated by being immersed in a process that, first and foremost, underlined the things he was already doing well. After all, there is not much that we have learnt in life that wasn’t built on something else we already knew.
While I’m 100% sure that leader development only occurs when people have got a really good picture of what they need to change in THEMSELVES (and therein lies one of the biggest challenges), I’m just as sure that this is best facilitated when people are built up, and not slapped around by harsh criticism.
May 23, 2011
Most of us have had moments in our working lives when we don’t live up to our own expectations.
*Think of the manager who is unnecessarily harsh in a performance appraisal when she intended to be encouraging and motivating.
*Think of how we prematurely reject new ideas from others when we intend to be inclusive and open to creativity.
*Think of how we escalate a conflict situation with a co-worker when we intend to reach resolution.
As Homer Simpson would say…. DOH! We take ourselves by surprise……and when we go away and reflect on our behaviour, we wish the floor would open up and swallow us or there was a rock to crawl under. For some time afterwards, we cringe whenever we think of it and berate ourselves saying, “What was I thinking? I can do better than that!” We certainly don’t entertain the possibility that there was anything good in what we did.
And yet, even in those very worst of working moments there is the seed of something good, if we take the time to find it. No matter how small: an intention; a positive attitude; a good opening line; a calm demeanour; there will be something that we already do well, and that we can build on as we learn how to get the whole performance we are looking for. I know what you are thinking: “What a bunch of new age, PC nonsense! It’s this sort of thinking that is sending the economy to the dogs!”
However, to fail to recognise strengths is akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water. It is demoralising, demotivating and just plain false to think we have to start right from the beginning again. As Dr. Max Clayton states, “…there tends to be an over-emphasis on the inadequacies of people….When people become aware of what is (good) in their functioning,…problematic areas of their life become easier to manage.”
Learning how to shift a behaviour or attitude in ourselves, therefore, is most effectively done using a strengths-based learning approach. A strengths–based approach to learning is simply one that builds on what you already can do: your current talents and capabilities are the spring board that takes you from good to great. Common sense you might say, and yet really, how common is it?
So why not focus on what is working, rather than on what is not?
At Quantum Shift, a strengths-based approach is inherent in the methodology we use. At the heart of the method is the premise that each of us has within us the role of the creative genius; the seed or potential to respond creatively and appropriately to any situation we experience. As we grow up, we use our creative genius to work out how we will respond to the challenges life brings and we develop a whole range or repertoire of other roles in support; and we continue to do this until the day we die. Our ability to respond well across many contexts and situations is dependent on the roles we have at our disposal; and because we develop our role repertoire directly by experience, this means every experience is a learning opportunity, a chance to grow our role repertoire.
Below is a simple method you can use to help you learn and build on the strengths you have already developed. This exercise is always easier if you can enlist someone to help you out. Bring to mind a recent interaction or conversation with another person at work, where you would like to have done it differently (or better). Re-enact this specific incident or moment with your ‘helper’, so they get to see and experience what occurred even if it is only from your perspective. Remember it is YOUR performance that is at the heart of matter, so what YOU did is the key to the situation.
FIRSTLY, ask the question: What did I do well? It is all too easy to go to what you did badly, but it is essential to start with what went well. This is where the other person is invaluable as they are more dispassionate and therefore more likely to see the good as well as the bad. List everything you can observe, no matter how small; you are building your self-awareness as you do this.
SECONDLY, ask: What did I do too much of? Sometimes we do things so well that they become habitual or overly comfortable default settings, and we over-use them, at the expense of other things that might get us the outcome we are looking for. There is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ in what we did, but we over-used it to the point that it got in the way of an ideal outcome.
THIRDLY, ask: What could I have done more of? What other things could I also have done in this moment that would have got the outcome I wanted? What resource within myself did I under-use?
Making this analysis is vital in order to develop a new behaviour or attitude. Reflecting in this way allows us to free up our creative genius and grow something new from what we already have and who we already are.