July 18, 2012
In “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, Big Daddy bellows in exasperation, “Ain’t nothing more powerful than the odour of mendacity.” Recently diagnosed with cancer and fed up with the secrets and lies of family life, he begins to see that there is nothing lost in airing the truth. Perhaps many of us when faced with the finality of a situation in life realise that there was much left unsaid that, had it been expressed, would have been to everyone’s benefit. Had we acknowledged our trepidation and named the elephants in our various rooms, standing up for integrity and truth, we might have cleared the air of the stench of mistrust and enjoyed a much more honest life. In fact, in a recent article, the number one regret of the dying was identified as: ”I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
In light of the many recent revelations of systemic corporate greed and mendacity, I have wavered between despondency, fury and hope. Should I give in and hone my deceptiveness skills: both to myself and others? Should I play the game just because others will be disappointed if I don’t or, at the risk of incurring their wrath, express my misgivings, doubts or hesitation? Should I just give up hope that we will find people worthy of the title “leader”? Should I join those manning the barricades of the Occupy movements? Alternatively, should I remain hopeful that those who fiddle while Rome burns will soon be swept aside in a tide of genuine democracy and that our organisations, businesses, communities will be driven by the people within them rather than some out-of-touch elite? Should I rejoice that, at last, some of those in positions of power are naming corporate greed as systemic and not simply driven by “a few bad apples”. Are people finally getting it? It is a human dilemma: conform or be crushed by a corrupt system.
Furthermore, as Fintan O’Toole suggests, “All the evidence from the many scandals of recent years is that it is not sociopaths who create rotten cultures. It is closed, arrogant, unaccountable cultures that turn ordinary people into sociopaths.” Deming said as much some years ago.
So many times over recent weeks as I read of the fraudulent practices of GlaxoSmithKline, the UK Conservative Party, the New Zealand Immigration Service, Barclays Bank and most recently, HSBC, have I found myself remembering Deming’s comment that 95% of possibilities for improvement sit with the system and only 5% lie with the individual. I also hear myself muttering that a bad system will defeat a good person, every time. EVERY TIME. We are seeing this before our eyes.
I received a subscription email that propounded the notion that we thrive when our ratio of positivity to negativity is high. I have no beef with that notion. However, it went on to link to articles in the press that “demonstrated” how things are looking up and we are back on the road to recovery and everything is alright, if we would only stop feeling negative about things. Made me want to vomit. There is a word for folks like this: Pollyanna. I know people like this, some of them apparently working in the real world of organisational life with a view that if we only just thought lovely things, it would all be OK. The truth is: the world, including the business world, is in a parlous state. No amount of positive thinking can erase the fact that some of the world’s major industries and corporations are systemically sick. No amount of soma will make me blind to the fact that those in positions of power remain inert in the face of corporate malpractice, environmental degradation and growing inequality. No amount of media distraction will divert me from the evidence that our democratically elected “leaders” are in the pay of lobbyists and their corporations who answer to nobody, bar their shareholders. I’m not just having a moan and I’m no Eeyore; I have a good life and count myself exceedingly fortunate that my worries are mostly first world problems. Think you have worries? Enter your annual salary in the global rich list website and see where you place relative to others in the world. If you are reading this, life is probably pretty good for you, on the whole.
However, we are an important juncture in human history. Our institutions have lost the trust of those they purport to serve. Many of our businesses are resorting to gamifying their marketing in an effort to soma-tise potential customers. Many of our workplaces are likewise trying to hypnotise people that their meaningless work is fun fun fun.
I take heart that there are businesses like Morning Star, who base their organisational effectiveness on self-management and not some lumpy hierarchical management structure that insists “it knows best”. I take heart that the Beta Codex Network, of which I’m an associate, is out there, promoting a saner and more humane (and frankly, much more sensible) way of structuring organisations by advocating for radical transformation, rather than tinkering round the edges, to achieve real effectiveness, meaning and joy at work.
I am entirely sure I am not alone in my disdain towards fraudulent business practice. The aptly named Bob Diamond, ex-CEO of Barclays Bank infamously told British Members of Parliament last year, “There was a period of remorse and apology for banks and I think that period needs to be over.” However, as Andrew Rawnsley has written recently, “he was wrong: plenty more remorse and apology would be appropriate, and welcome; but much more importantly, the values, culture and practices of finance, as they have developed since the ‘Big Bang’ reforms of 1986, must be torn down, and a smaller, humbler, simpler world of banking built in their place.”
To be honest, I’m not interested simply in apology and remorse. These things are worthless without some kind of follow up. If someone apologises, I expect an associated change in behaviour and attitude that demonstrates the apology was genuine, heartfelt and indicative of real responsibility-taking. I’m mostly interested in what Rawnsley suggests with regards a tearing down of the values, culture and practice of finance. I’m similarly interested in a transformation of business. I’m interested in businesses selling products and services that are actually worthwhile. I’m interested in businesses that actually provide interesting and meaningful work for people. I’m interested in businesses that run on the premise that people are humans, NOT resources. I’m mostly interested in business that operates with transparency, honesty and humility. Not just a PR job that makes us think these are the values, but that these are the values that are REALLY lived throughout the business; even, if not especially, by those who manage it. Even Bob Diamond, in a BBC lecture last year, said, ”Culture is difficult to define. But for me the evidence of culture is how people behave when no one is watching.” Couldn’t have put it better myself.
Business leaders are not going to changes things simply because they come under fire in the media or are told that it is wrong. They already knew it was wrong and they did it anyway. The structures of how business is managed create the sick cultures in which they operate. Cultures are not transformed by mere criticism nor by symbolic public witch-hunting.
It is clear to me that the fraudulent practices that have recently come to light are systemic. The “few bad apples” defence, as Andrew Rawnsley has written, will not wash. What happened, happened because the system allowed it, condoned it. Those who make the rules not only fell under the thrall of high finance, they were well and truly in its pockets. As he goes on to say, a college student, with no previous convictions, was imprisoned for six months for stealing a £3.50 pack of bottled water during last year’s London riots. Yet there is serious doubt whether it will be possible to prosecute banksters who perpetrated a massive con involving sums which would buy many millions of bottles of water.
Just as “a few bad apples” does not placate those who watch these scandals with disgust, the opposite also does not give comfort. The suggestion that there are individually decent and compassionate people within these rotten systems and that this should give us hope things will change, is just as false. The system is responsible for 95% of what goes on in it. The system must be reformed, transformed, root and branch. Utterly. Totally. Absolutely. It is the system.
Surprised at these revelations of corporate fraud? Not much. The systems which brought the financial crisis and scandalous corporate behaviour to bear have not changed. The same dynamics are in place, the same values intact, the same practices perpetuate. The question that Plato posed in his tale of the Ring of Gyges was whether a moral person would remain moral should they become invisible. To all intents and purposes, the practices of bankers and the nod-and-wink agreements made over lobbyists’ drinkies are invisible and mysterious to most of us. Let loose to do as they please in the 1980′s, what would constrain banksters to behave in a moral fashion? Reliant on corporate donations, what would cause politicians to change the immoral rules which their paymasters rely on?
Public enquiries, the odd sacking, stripping a Fred Goodwin of a public honour or the symbolic prosecution of a Bernard Madoff, while just, are simply public relations band aid solutions to deep seated problems. If the system remains intact, people will continue to act within its rules, treacherous though they may be. Having said that, those who stewarded those rotten cultures must be removed to make way for those who have the nerve to re-boot their systems and establish morality within business and government. Rotten cultures, as Will Hutton has observed, do not emerge from thin air. They emerge from structures which encourage and condone rotten behaviour. Similarly, moral cultures will also not arise out of thin air.
To be truthful, I’m not depressed by recent revelations of this institutionalised fraud and business improprieties. To me, they are the lancing of the boil that needed to happen. It is a wake-up call to actually look at the system and craft new ones for the 21st century. Vince Cable, UK Business Secretary, pointed to the Swedish business bank, Svenska Handelsbanken as a model of how things could be. Like Cable, I am a long-term optimist and a believe that these scandals will eventually lead to better systems.
Trying to apportion responsibility for these scandals on a few rogues ignores the reality that the systems within which these folks operated are broken. News International, Barclays Bank, GlaxoSmithKline, the New Zealand Immigration Service, HSBC. The politicians of all hues whom we elect to represent and stand up for our interests are overly chummy with the financiers, the corporates and the media who are being tagged with the epithets ‘immoral’ and ‘deceitful’. Are we really all in this financial crisis together? I think not.
My hope is that all these dishonest practices will eventually herald the time of the moral business. It is time for the way we do business to be re-booted. It is time to start doing the right things, not the wrong things righter.
What is the moral business?
A moral business orientates itself to its customers, its staff, its environment, its community and its shareholders, not just its shareholders. A moral business orientates itself to doing good, not just for those at the top whose enormous bonuses ensure their collusion with a system that is focussed more on quick profit than innovation-generating benefit for the wider economy. A moral business takes hold of the bigger picture and takes a long-term view of what business success means. In other words, it will see that deifying shareholder return is not how to run an organisation that serves all of its stakeholders, nor contributes to sustainable human development.
I don’t believe that anyone seriously gets into business to do wrong or sets out to be intentionally deceitful or immoral; I have a higher view of humanity. But when we find ourselves in sick systems, we struggle to swim against their tide. If we want our businesses to do the right thing, maybe it’s time we put our foot down and started naming some of those elephants. Let’s also look out for those leaders who have the courage of their convictions to do the ‘hard thing’ and reform capitalism.
Mendacious times, indeed.
May 28, 2012
Business leaders: when I use the word “culture”, do you screw up your face and say “Love and peace, man”? I’m no aging hippie; in any case, I was born 10 years too late to be part of that movement. Business culture is no wiffly-waffly discretionary add-on. It’s central to effectiveness and business improvement. I do admit a fondness for better communication, greater self-awareness, lots more empathy and way less fear in the workplace (man), but this comes out of a firmly held view that there is huge scope for workplaces to be more humanised, which will have a huge impact on effectiveness. I also have a firmly held view that a real leader is one who seeks to steward the business culture; not find things to measure so they can prove how useless people are. My thinking about “culture” comes out of the intellectual rigour that is Systems Thinking.
To illustrate the power of culture, have a look at what is going on for Rebekah Brooks. Former editor of both The Sun and News of the World tabloids and former chief executive of News International, Brooks is reported as feeling astonished at the treatment she is receiving by prosecuting authorities in the UK, in the aftermath of the phone hacking scandal that caused Rupert Murdoch to shut down The News of the World. She is quoted as saying, “Whilst I have always respected the criminal justice system, you have to question (do you Rebekah?) whether this decision has been made on a proper impartial assessment of the evidence. Although I understand the need for a thorough investigation, I am baffled by the decision to charge me.” Her husband goes on to say that she is the subject of a witch-hunt. Good word, that.
After reading about this, I was left wondering if anyone who ever had NI “journalists” camped outside their home for days on end in the pursuit of some salacious tittle-tattle felt hounded or witch-hunted or if those whose phones were hacked felt anger or bafflement at the invasion of their privacy? I also wonder if anyone who worked for News International ever felt compromised by the culture of the system? Or felt compromised by the practice of relentlessly stalking some celebrity or politician in pursuit of juicy gossip (usually not in the public interest, but more often in the public fascination)? Or felt compromised by the use of elaboration, insinuation or hyperbole in order to create prurient effect? I wonder if anyone who worked for News International has ever felt fearful about speaking up about unethical, unfair or unreasonable practices (such as phone hacking) within that business? I suspect they did.
Did Brooks really think that she wouldn’t be subject to the forces of the system which she presided over? The inquiry investigating the phone hacking has even heard that Brooks herself had her phone hacked. Surprising? Not much. In a system that, according to a former News of the World employee, was permeated by fear and riven with unethical practices, should she really be baffled that she felt its harsh bite? This same employee alleges lying, fabrication and blackmail and goes on to say that while he couldn’t justify his actions, the culture at the News of the World was somewhat to blame. Makes sense to me.
While I feel sympathy for anyone who is hounded and unfairly spotlighted, it is no surprise to me that Rebekah Brooks would be subject to the very same system forces that The Sun or News of the World’s “victims” were. I don’t say this out of schadenfreude; to my eyes, I simply see this as part of the whole. Not for nothing do we have expressions such as, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” or “Those who judge will be judged.” She is unfortunately, feeling the effects of the very same system. If you set up and maintain a system which is corrupt, hostile and defined by fear, you will also feel its effects.
What could stand in the way of someone challenging a sick or ineffective culture? Should they overcome their systems blindness and open their eyes to a system’s dysfunction, why might someone continue to do the “dumb” thing?
“A bad system will defeat a good person, every time.” Deming
In many businesses, the fear is palpable. Managers at all levels behave in ways that communicate, either directly or by implication, that people should not challenge the boss, challenge the status quo or give honest feedback. I’ve seen businesses where people fear doing or saying anything that might damage career prospects, where they worry about being excluded from decision-making because their ideas might seem a little too crazy and therefore an inconvenience to conventional thinking or where they are concerned about being judged for having an idea that is not clever enough. They see managers as task-masters as opposed to leaders who are there to assist them.
“Your people are doing their best, but their best efforts cannot compensate for your inadequate and dysfunctional system.” Scholtes
While I entirely accept that people need to know what is expected of them in their work so that they can make a valuable contribution to the business’ objectives, putting emphasis on measuring individual performance without attending to the culture will be detrimental to the whole. Even though a leader can legitimately challenge someone’s performance, there will be a line that they cross when a challenge is perceived as a threat. Even if fear, threats or intimidation manage to get people to achieve their KPIs, eventually the culture will undermine their efforts anyway.
“Beat horses and they will run faster….for a while.” Deming
Greater self-awareness on the part of the leader is essential, therefore. When you issue a challenge, does it come out of irritation? Or do you play the role of Investigator, seeking to uncover what may be behind poor performance: inadequate resources or information? fragmented workplace relationships? a need for training or development? lack of clarity? undefined vision? All of these things sit within the remit of the leader to address and an investigative approach will uncover what needs attending to in the system.
Be very careful how you generate greater effectiveness. Be very careful, also, to do things which proactively generate a culture of trust and collaboration. While most of us like to think we are peaceful people, if we join a system characterised by fear, we will eventually come down with the same sickness as everyone else and begin respond to people from a fear-based paradigm. Managers in such a system will therefore become driven by fear and abuse their authority. Drive out fear. Leaders must become more self-aware. They must notice how they respond and relate to people. They must be better able to notice themselves and understand how they inculcate fear in the culture. Before leaping on an individual about their performance, look at the culture you steward:
- Do you think that people limit themselves to saying what they think you want to hear?
- How clear are people as to what is expected of them?
- How well-resourced are people so that they can do their jobs? Do they have the information and networks in place that mean they can get on and do it? How would you know? If people require further training or development, what opportunities do you provide for them?
- How do you respond to “failure”?
- How competitive or political is your business? How much do you witness (or know of) backstabbing, damning with faint praise, belittling or undermining? (…and how much do you do this?)
What are you supposed to do about it? I hate 10 top tips; life is way messier than that. There are some directions you could head towards though. This is the stuff of culture.
- Make sure everyone knows the game you are all playing together. Ensure people have a clear understanding of the “why” of the business. Ensure people know exactly what is expected of them, the business has robust (but not too restrictive) systems and processes and that they have all they need to do their jobs. This is your job.
- Model trust in others. How are you going to drive out fear unless you embody trust. If you don’t trust people, take up some personal development. Can they trust you?
- Be curious, not punitive. In the face of “failure” or “dysfunction”, take up the role of Investigative Consultant, not the Sheriff; if Deming was correct, there are adjustments to the whole system that will probably lead to longer-lasting improvements. How do you respond to failure? Responding to people and situations with greater equanimity will go a long way to driving out fear. Struggling to develop curiosity and equanimity? Take up some personal development and deal with your anger issues.
- Be patient. Shifting a system does not happen overnight. While you might get “good behaviour” for a short while after tearing strips off someone, making adjustments to the whole system will not necessarily generate immediate results. However they will be longer lasting and much more significant for the business. Having trouble with being patient? Take up some personal development.
- Look for patterns. Not much in this universe is a one-off. If you can’t see the pattern, you just haven’t seen it yet. Address systemic patterns, take out blame, think bigger.
February 29, 2012
“Empower” is a word that is coming into greater usage by many who manage people. I like to think this is a sign of how much the modern manager is acknowledging the importance of authority and accountability being more diffuse in the workplace and that old-style hierarchies have outlived their effectiveness. I have noticed sometimes, however, that when I hear someone use the word in particular contexts, I bristle slightly, so I have done some thinking as to what that’s about. Without wanting to get into a whole semantic debate about what it means exactly (because like many words, it is tinged with our own subjectivity), I think there is a mindset to which the word alludes. Naturally, I also bring my own experiences and understandings to the word, so I am not presuming to set out the definitive meaning.
When I hear someone talking about empowering staff or their team and they describe what they mean, the word that springs to my mind is “enable”. The two terms are often used in dictionary definitions of each other and sometimes listed as synonyms. While they are closely related and sometimes interchangeable, I see a subtle but very important difference between the two when it comes to workplace authority and accountability. I think there are some nuanced differences that illustrate different types of leader behaviour in a workplace that is becoming increasingly “democratic” and where power is shifting from the top to become more spread throughout teams and organisations.
In a world of networks and interconnectivity, I believe that nobody can empower us; we do that ourselves. Nobody who took part in the January 25 movement in Tahrir Square was empowered by Mubarak and his cronies, they took it upon themselves to take to the streets and demand something different. In the world of work we can also empower ourselves, not in a “let’s man the barricades and overthrow the dictator” kind of way, but more in a “I’m bringing all of myself, my creativity and my initiative to work” kind of way. I believe this is a call for leaders to get out of the way. We hire people for their expertise and capabilities so please, let them bring their whole selves to work and let’s get out of their way. If some managers didn’t play the kind of power games that demotivated people, they could spend less time wondering how to increase motivation and engagement and more time with a gentle hand on the tiller, keeping an eye on the big picture, providing the means and opportunity for people to work well and letting people get on with what they hired them for. This is not to say that leaders should ditch their responsibilities and just let people do whatever they want, but that the activities of a leader should be more focussed on ensuring that everyone who works for the organisation has a clear line of sight to the vision and that they are provided the means with which to contribute to this big picture. A leader should develop the capability to tune into people and work out which ones need more guidance and coaching, which ones need a lighter touch, which ones work best with frequent encouragement and which ones need clearer structure and discipline, which ones thrive on autonomy and initiative-taking and which ones work best when given more direction; in other words, find out how you can best be of service to the individuals and teams who you lead and don’t take a cookie cutter approach with everyone. This, for me, is not about empowering though.
I bring my understanding of the word “empower” from my days as a therapist when I was working with clients whose lives were characterised by a deeply felt lack of power, or potency, in their lives. They were not the star of their own life stories, in other words. They were subject to decisions made by child protection authorities or social service authorities or parental authority or some other kind of powerful person or statutory body which held sway over important aspects of their day-to-day lives. While it is true that so many people in their lives were the agents of disempowerment, it seemed to me that to presume that I could empower them was just the opposite side of the same coin. For many people, bosses at work also hold this position. In my role as a therapist and in my current role as a change facilitator, it seems a little paradoxical to me that I would be in a position to empower anyone. Empower, to me, presumes that the one who empowers has the power to begin with and grants it to the other; it reinforces a paradigm of power and control to which the other person is subject. If I am the granter of power, there is still a power imbalance. This relationship presumes that I hold some kind of hierarchical authority over you and that, only by my good grace, are you exercising any authority. While I am in the position of granting power, I remain in the position of taking it back. I came to see myself as more of an enabler and facilitator, so that the other person could develop the resources within themselves to take up greater potency in their lives. For someone to gain authentic power, it was important that they were the agents of their own empowerment and that I get out of the way of them doing that.
In that world of therapy and personal growth, the term “enable” has come to take on a pejorative meaning. It is often used to describe those who permit unhealthy behaviours to carry on. For example, someone who enables an alcoholic is someone who doesn’t confront them or provides the means for them to carry on abusing alcohol. An enabler is considered someone who provides the means or opportunity for someone to engage in their addiction and thus carry on with their destructive behaviours or attitudes. While I agree that it means to provide the means and opportunity to do something, I see it from its etymological meaning of to “put in ability”. Rather than call it enabling, I would classify those manager behaviours that inhibit each person taking responsibility for themselves as colluding. If you are rescuing, lecturing, shaming, controlling, punishing, needlessly micromanaging or living in denial about what staff do, you are probably not enabling nor empowering in my book.
Even though the two words, empower and enable, are often used interchangeably, it is important for me to be clear in my mind of the subtle differences that make a big difference to how we relate to people. The one, empower, emphasising power and a world view that hierarchies hold greater sway than relationships and interactivity between nodes on a network; the other, enable, emphasising capability development and a world view that, when fully able, people can put their abilities to good use.
Empower seems limited to the granting of authority, which can be rescinded when it suits the holder of power, while enable seems much broader to me. It encompasses what someone does to ensure that others have the requisite capabilities and skills to carry out a job well, to take up their own power (potency) and when necessary, showing them the door to gaining new capabilities and skills. It seems to be more akin to equipping and supplying than conferring power. Once equipped, the enabler can then get out of the way and let the person access their own power to get on with it.
I would say the following activities count as enabling, or “getting out of the way” behaviours:
Setting boundaries: clarifying limits of authority and accountability so that people know what they are responsible for and what they are not. It may be necessary for a leader to delineate where various bucks stop, but once boundaries are set, people can be freed up to exercise initiative. Set boundaries too tight and you end up micro-managing. Set boundaries too loose and you get confusion and anxiety. Like Goldilocks’ porridge, they should be just right.
Managing team dynamics: shining a light on relationships and networks and encouraging their connection and interaction. The enabling manager knows that teams sometimes need a watchful eye to assist them with potential conflict or difference. The enabling manager will not, however, need to be an interloper, speaking on behalf of people or protecting people from each other.
Showing trust and belief: behaving in ways that let people know you trust them to get on with it. It is true that for some folks, work is just a thing to earn money and is not a source of personal satisfaction or meaning. However, for those folks who are looking for a sense of achievement, trust them to work things out for themselves. It is important to set out the parameters of what needs to be achieved, but trust folks to do it in their own way. If you want to tell someone what to do and exactly how to do it, why not just get a robot? Let people prove themselves and stretch their initiative muscles.
Being available: for advice, guidance, information, as a sounding board. Letting people get on with it does not mean abdicating your interest or your involvement in what goes on from day-to-day. Having an open door also does not mean being there to solve every operational problem to the extent that you never get your own work done.
Communicating respectfully: communication should be open and mutual. This includes being authentic with people and letting them know how their actions affect you and others, being humble and encouraging them to do the same with you, keeping open lines of mutual feedback.
Coaching people to learn from mistakes: when someone makes a mistake, an enabling manager will work with the person to work out what went wrong, why it went wrong and ensure that they have the capability and awareness to prevent a repeat. Punishing or blaming may not teach someone what they need to learn so it doesn’t happen again. A plan for professional development, however, will.
Encouraging problem-solving: letting people bring their creativity to work. None of us is smarter than all of us, goes the adage. Given the means and opportunity, people and teams will apply themselves to solving the problems that affect them, rather than default to a chain of command that doesn’t have all the answers. Encourage a culture of creativity, collaborative problem-solving and engagement in the issues that affect everyone’s working lives.
Don’t get between people and their work. Let work be a place where people can extend themselves, be themselves and learn for themselves. Get out of the way please.
February 23, 2012
In the world of business, it is now almost a given that developing relationship skills are fundamental to success and achievement. Genuine collaborative relationships are proving more agile and effective at achieving good results than hierarchical ones. However, much of the business world still operates as if employment was a transaction and not a mutual relationship. Many folks also operate as if their associates, collaborators and customers are resources to be mined. I believe that business is more than a transaction; in the modern economy, businesses do not just succeed on the back of their relationships, in many cases the business IS their relationships. If we view others, whether they are employees, customers or associates, merely as transactional objects, it will be difficult to hold a picture of them as real human beings with needs, wants, feelings and viewpoints, and correspondingly to treat them as such.
Relationships are central to the work I do. Uncovering and developing strong social connection underpins the methodology I apply with clients, with a key deliverable being closer working relationships, and I would be remiss if I didn’t attend to my own relationships to the best of my ability. I know from my experience and my training that the quality of an outcome is directly related to the quality of relationship between the people attempting to create that outcome. I would say that I am highly observant of how people relate to me and others and relationships occupy a lot of my thoughts, perhaps to the point of being hyper-sensitive to interactions between myself and others, as well as amongst other folks. I’m an avid people watcher and I think that relationships make the world go round.
One of my core beliefs is that people are not resources to be mined: for information, for their custom, for advice, for leads and contacts, for anything. Some of you may have worked out from comments on previous articles or Twitter that I love Radiohead. Lead singer Thom Yorke released a solo album a few years ago and the opening line of the first track goes, “Please excuse me but I have to ask, are you only being nice because you want something?” Ever felt that someone in your network or workplace was treating you like that? Taking a cynical approach and asking politely when it suits you is not the same as cultivating and nurturing relationships over time. Taking a consumerist approach and telling someone that you want to catch up only when you have need of them is not the same as valuing them. Letting your staff know that they are doing a good job only when you want them to be receptive to you is not the same as caring about them. Sending your “valued” customers an email with a special offer only when you need to drum up some new business is not the same as being attentive to them. Everyone knows that you don’t get far these days without being kind or polite, however, kindness and politeness are not the only ingredients to good relationships. People see through attempts to butter them up when the only time you are nice or make contact is when you want something.
Maintaining good relationships in our work requires some effort on our part. Whoever we relate to in our work, whether that’s customers or colleagues, I suspect we make the most impact on them when we make a meaningful, personal emotional connection with them. In order to do that, we need to deploy more than kindness. We need to get to know a little about what makes them tick. Empathy, or even more effective, role reversal, will help us to identify more deeply with others. When we make the effort to place ourselves in the shoes of others, our worlds change forever and when we get a deep sense of another’s thoughts and feelings, we cannot help but relate to them in a gentler and more generous manner.
It is hard to reverse roles with someone if we don’t have some modicum of caring for them. Why would we want to see things from another’s perspective unless we cared? This also requires some effort. Developing genuine caring for another is more than seeing them as someone who could be useful to us; it means we care for their success and well-being even when we don’t “need” them. If we add people to our networks like some sort of people collectors, they will sense this. The adage of “digging your well before you are thirsty” is not about storing people up like some kind of resource for the future; it is about growing mutually satisfying connections so that you are part of an active network that brings health and happiness to the whole. More studies are showing that we thrive on caring for others; my belief is that this is more than liking someone’s comment on Facebook or following them on Twitter. Caring is an active verb and if such studies are correct, it is good for everyone when we demonstrate care.
It is important to remember that authentic care, the kind that stimulates the “helper’s high” is a self-less care. Stephen G. Post, PhD, a professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine says that “this profound state of joy and delight that comes from giving to others….doesn’t come from any dry action — where the act is out of duty in the narrowest sense, like writing a cheque for a good cause. It comes from working to cultivate a generous quality — from interacting with people.” He’s talking about altruism. I don’t think it’s crazy to think that we might do something self-less for a customer, a colleague or an associate once in a while.
What emerges over time when we actively show our care for others is trust. Trust is one of the most valuable currencies in business. Do our customers really trust us to deliver what we promise? Do our work colleagues trust us to follow up on commitments and to back them, so that they can do their work well? Do our associates trust us to share and collaborate generously? I don’t think I’m going too far to say that it wouldn’t hurt us to go the extra mile for people only because they will feel good about it. You can’t force trust, but authentic caring will necessarily nurture it.
While there is no “step 1, step 2″ failsafe method for growing good relationships at work, I’d say that kindness, role reversal, caring and trust are key ingredients. There are also some guidelines I find useful to remain conscious of in my work.
Keep relationships current. It can be hard to maintain business relationships these days. It is easy to get busy and let them go by the wayside. It is important to realise, however, that relationships are not an add-on to business; they are central to business. Devoting time exclusively to nurturing relationships should be seen as part of the work we do, not something that we do only when we have the time. You don’t get fitness credits; in other words, just because you exercised a lot in your twenties doesn’t mean that you can expect to be fit into your forties if you don’t maintain a fitness regime. Similarly, you don’t get relationship credits. True, someone may think well of you, however, we cannot ride on those favours we did or that really interesting conversation we had 4 years ago. We need to continue to nurture relationships. I’m advocating that we view relationships as more than simply “investments”; something we turn to on a rainy day. I believe that relationships are worth nurturing purely as good things in themselves, and if, one day, there is some mutually beneficial business that comes out of them, all good.
Relationships should be mutual. Like any personal relationship, a business relationship should be of benefit to both parties. How quickly do we turn off people who always seem to take without giving? How do we feel when people only call on us for help, but when we ask for theirs they are too busy or not interested? If we are good at relationships, we think of others often; not only what they can help us with, but what we can offer them.
Rupture and repair. Just like when you go on a first date, you get a first impression of a new colleague or associate and similarly, customers get an impression of you. If your first impression of them is good, you get the tingles and you want another date. If their first impression of you is good, they will be happy to see you again. Over time, we see things in others or others see things in us which are a little distasteful or we get let down or we sense that we have let them down. The key thing to remember is that relationships are a function of time and that when there is a rupture, we can repair. Customers want a response that communicates that you care they’ve had a bad experience with you and that you want them to have a better experience. Associates and colleagues want to hear you say, “I think I stuffed up and I want to put it right,” and they want to see you follow through with some kind of repair.
I will close with a proverb that I have learnt over the years I’ve lived in New Zealand. It is a traditional Maori proverb and it goes like this:
He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!
What is the most important thing in the world?
It is people! It is people! It is people!
November 22, 2011
A poll in October of 2011 put the approval rating of the US Congress at just 9%. When Rasmussen pollsters asked Americans if they approved of the US going communist, a full 11% said they were OK with that; two points ahead of Congress. To put that into context, during Watergate Richard Nixon’s approval rating was 24%. BP, during the Gulf oil spill, hit 16 %.
To me, these figures illustrate the erosion of trust in those who set out to lead us and, I suspect, an erosion of faith in the systems that puts those leaders there. It’s not just a crisis of democracy, it’s a much wider crisis of leadership: in government, in business, in churches. The expenses scandal in the UK. Widespread sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests and covered up by bishops. Credit ratings agencies giving the thumbs up to banking systems at the heart of the global financial crisis. Bankers gifting themselves ever larger bonuses with the taxpayer money that bailed them out. Politicians and police exposed as bed-fellows with News International as the cruel depths of their phone hacking emerges. So-called ‘democratic’ world leaders sitting close-lipped on genuinely popular uprisings in Egypt and Syria unless it suits them. In response, first the indignados and then the occupy movements around the world mobilise in an effort to give voice to their myriad frustrations with ‘the system’ because they see little joy in working within the systems which already exist, seen as corrupt, untrustworthy and anti-democratic. The faith that people have lost is not simply in the people who purport to lead; it is in the actual systems.
In this article, “America is Better Than This,” Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas comments on the spectacle of the US Congress classifying pizza sauce as a vegetable in deference to the fast food lobby, who wish to continue serving it to America’s schoolchildren. Loomis is quoted in the article as saying, “…if they can’t get it right on pizza sauce, how can they do something on the deficit, or healthcare?” Politics has, for many folks, been reduced to a source of entertainment rather than a channel through which to effect real change in our societies. ’Election promise’ has long become a byword for mendacity. In New Zealand, the incumbent National Party, led by Prime Minister John Key, is seeking a second term in the upcoming general election, having raised Goods and Services Tax only 18 months after undertaking not to do so during the election campaign of November 2008. This, despite Prime Minister Key stating during the 2008 campaign, “I intend to campaign on trust. I intend to be a Prime Minister that earns the trust of New Zealanders and I’m going to keep that trust.” Loomis has a good point: if we can’t trust those in positions of leadership to act with integrity and common sense on small matters, how on Earth can we trust them with larger concerns?
In our quest for authentic leadership, those who aspire to lead or purport to lead need to understand that the issue is not ‘the issues’; the issue is ‘trust’. I don’t care if you have a solid understanding of economics or IT; my real question is “Can I trust you to lead?” Just as importantly, can I trust a system that put you there? If the system continually puts people in positions of power who abuse it, many are asking, isn’t it time we had a new system? This is the promised land that the systems thinkers among us have been dreaming of. The ‘something new’ that seems to be emerging, the new paradigm of leadership, is not one of hierarchies or command and control. It is one of networks, relationships and action. It is of ‘leader-full’ systems, rather than leaders of hierarchies. Old style leaders and leadership systems are fast becoming irrelevant before our very eyes. Leadership in the 21st century is going to be more about relationships and influence, interconnectedness and networks, trust and authenticity. Leadership, as a phenomenon, will emerge from the dynamic between people, and this may not necessarily conform to an organisational hierarchy. Many old-style thinkers look at the occupy movements and scratch their heads because they genuinely can’t make sense of it: “Where are their leaders?” “What are their demands?” They don’t get that this new paradigm will be populated by ‘leader-full’ networks, empowered to take action themselves rather than via ‘representatives’.
These leader-full networks will be populated by people exercising authentic leadership: being themselves; bringing forward their own sets of knowledge and capabilities; exercising their own brand of action. Central to this will be engendering trust throughout the network, maintaining good relationships and purposeful influence. It won’t happen because you tell me that I can trust you. It will happen because you behave in a trustworthy manner. Remember that 85-90% of people’s attention goes on a leader’s informal, unconscious communications. The traditional activities that we attribute to a ‘leader’, as shown in the formal, conscious box below, only garner about 3-5% of people’s attention. Even today, about 80-85% of a typical leader’s effort goes into that category of communications that are least noticed. (Acknowledgements to Marcus Child for sharing this model with me.)
tone of voice
aims and objectives
vision and mission
use of measurements and statistics
A new manifesto of trust
Want me to trust you? Be a man (or woman) of your word; not a man (or woman) of words. Words don’t cut it. I’ve been lied to too many times. I want to see trustworthy action. Let’s instigate a manifesto of trust. It could say something like this:
- I will strive to build and maintain good relationships with all.
- If I make a promise or a commitment, I will strive to keep it;
- If I break a promise or ‘drop the ball’ with my commitments, I will front up and be accountable and I will work to put things right.
- No excuses, no blaming, no avoiding, no sweeping under the carpet.
- No wriggling out of embarrassing conversations or trying to change the subject.
- I will endeavour to be real with people; no obfuscation, no power games.
- I will strive to develop myself: this means becoming more self-reflective and more open to others’ feedback about me.
While John Key and others in our political classes will try to garner trust simply by saying, “You can trust me,” true leaders know that trust follows trustworthy behaviour. That’s it really. In any election campaign, all the stuff about the economy, education or health is important, but as we listen to election messages, the key thing to consider is, “Can I actually trust you? How can I believe what you are telling me (about the economy, education and health)?” When I hear the expression, “Let me be really clear about the facts,” I know that what follows is more likely to be distortions.
In the realm of customer service, trust doesn’t come because you’ve won some customer care award or you have the biggest share of the market. It comes because when I interact with you, I feel that you are really listening to me and giving me your undivided attention. I get the unshakable sense that you are taking my concerns seriously and that you are not following some sort of customer service script. I trust you when you treat me like an intelligent human being and don’t patronise me with your “Have you tried turning it off and turning it on again?” attitude. At the same time, help me to understand, rather than blind me with your jargon. I might trust you if I felt you weren’t just using language to pull the wool over my eyes.
In the realm of the workplace, I will trust you when I feel that you value my contributions and that you encourage others to do the same. I will trust you when you are constant. A psychologist friend of mine had a mantra which went, “The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.” While I don’t agree with that entirely , there is some truth in it. My trust in you will build over time, when you are repeatedly and consistently authentic and trustWORTHY. You will not necessarily gain my trust simply because you have set up some simplistic ‘trust games’ during our one and only staff training day.
Resist the urge to get indignant. Perhaps this is your default response: “How DARE you! It sounds as if you don’t trust me.” Rather than throw it all back onto me, as if my lack of trust in you is somehow an indication of a defect in me, why not go away and think about what it is about your actions that might somehow engender mistrust. If you have a track record of not following through with commitments, then my mistrust is probably well-placed.
I’ll close with a note about cynics, because in the face of broken trust, it is easy to become cynical about people. Cynicism has, however, taken on a negative connotation in modern society, where it was once thought to be a virtue. Cynics were of an ancient Greek school of philosophy. The example of the Cynic’s life (and the use of the Cynic’s biting satire) would dig up and expose the pretensions which lay at the root of everyday conventions. Cynicism offered people the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. The ideal Cynic would evangelise; as the watchdog of humanity, it was their job to hound people about the error of their ways. (Wikipedia entry on Cynicism)
In these mendacious times, in a changing world where trust is becoming the chief currency, nothing wrong with a little healthy cynicism, eh?