Posts Tagged ‘leadership’
This is the third and final installment in a blog series that I have been writing about positive practices that leaders can use to improve the well-being as well as the performance of their teams. You can catch up on this series by clicking through the posts about empathy and kindness. Last but not least, this final post is about gratitude.
Many leaders do a fairly decent job of saying thank you to someone who has performed a much-needed task, or achieved a noteworthy outcome on a project. The basics of social skills and common courtesy will get most leaders that far. When I talk about employing gratitude as a leadership practice, however, I’m talking about something more than the occasional kudos. I’m talking about an intentional, consistent practice of infusing gratitude into how you are as a leader, not just what you do. Gratitude, then, becomes an attitude, not just an act. Here’s what I mean.
Imagine that it is 7pm on a Friday and you are still in your office. (This won’t be a stretch for many of you who are reading this post.) You are eager to get to your weekend plans and are starting to feel a tad worn out, maybe even a little resentful, about the stack of deliverables that are still on your desk. The more you think about the work you still have to do, the more shallow your breathing becomes and the more stressed you feel. You decide to sweep those reports into your briefcase and take them home so you can at least get out of the building. You’ve cleared your email as best you can; sorted out what priorities will need your top attention on Monday; the only thing left to do is turn off the computer and close the door. This is when I encourage you to stop and take just 15 minutes to do one more thing. I know, I can hear the groans from here – one more thing?! Yes.
Take 15 minutes to reflect on the most positive outcome of the week that one or more of your team members helped to achieve. This doesn’t have to be a world record. This can be small, but significant to their ongoing development – possibly something that only you know they are working on. It can be about a micro shift in behavior that you noticed and want to see more of. Whatever it is, write down a few lines to capture what happened and why it made an impression on you (and possibly others). Once you get started, you may find that other examples from other team members start coming to mind. Write down those examples too. Don’t limit yourself to your own team, either. What comes up when you think about a department you interact with regularly? Are there any moments, large or small, that you feel grateful about this week? Capture as many examples as you can in this short block of time that you’ve set aside.
Now, you may think my next recommendation will be to write a thank you email or handwritten note to a team member to thank them for what they did. That is definitely one action you could take that may be meaningful to the person(s) on your team. Expressions of gratitude like that tend to have a multiplier effect, too. The more you do it, the more others may do it, which builds an appreciative culture that positively impacts how people feel about coming to work each day. Before taking that action though, my recommendation is that you just stop, reflect on the positive strides that you noticed around you during the week, and allow yourself a moment to experience gratitude about those efforts.
Next, notice what you’re feeling as you reflect on these efforts with gratitude. Notice your breathing – even your heart rate. Notice your body language. Has it shifted from a stressed position with your shoulders nearly to your ears to a more relaxed, open position? Finally, notice your mindset compared to 15 minutes ago when you were desperate to leave your office. That stack of deliverables may still be waiting, but as you reflect on your team’s efforts with gratitude, what comes up? Do you feel a little more encouraged than resentful now? You may even catch yourself smiling as you visualize some of the actions that you wrote down. Given that our thought habits serve as the origination point for the eventual emotions and behaviors we exhibit, changing the way we think about something can have a profound impact on how you show up as a leader with others. Employing gratitude as a practice can help you to shift from a mindset of overwhelm into a mindset of positivity, appreciation, and renewed commitment to what your role calls for each day.
This brief 15-minute gratitude break is something you can do at any point in your day, not just at the end. One benefit to pausing then is that it helps to shift the busy, perhaps even frantic feel to the week into something more positive and productive. I don’t know about you, but that is my preferred onramp to the evening or weekend! If there is anyone waiting for you at home once you’ve left your office, I also predict that they will appreciate you taking a few moments to shift your mindset and your energy before you walk through the door.
It may take a few rounds of this practice until you truly allow yourself to slow down enough to experience a shift, but my prediction is that once you do it, you may actually start to look forward to it. For those of you who are not paper and pencil journaling types, there are also several applications out there to make it easy to record these short thoughts on your tablet, smart phone, or other devices. Above all, remember this: research shows that the simple act of pausing to surface feelings of gratitude produces a positive physiological impact that affects cognitive function and improves workplace performance (Check out Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance by Kim Cameron for more). Put simply, practices like this create conditions that enable us to perform better because we feel better.
So, here are the leadership practices we’ve explored in this series.
E = Develop empathy.
K = Extend kindness.
G = Practice gratitude.
There are many other practical yet powerful practices that you can employ as a leader to create a positive, productive climate in your workplace. In the meantime, remember that the simple acronym I made up for this set of leadership practices – EKG – centers around your ability to share more of your heart with your team, not just your head. It doesn’t matter which practice you start with. You might start by finding a point in your day or your week when you are willing to try this 15-minute gratitude practice consistently and see what you notice. Whatever you decide to start with, please write to me about it. I’d love to hear how it goes for you.
As leaders and HR professionals, we frequently have the amazing opportunity to work with our clients on their improving their leadership skills. Maintaining a strategic focus, treating the people well, and meeting or exceeding business results are leadership indicators that most leaders would agree are vital to their success.
I’ve had the opportunity to hear Pat Donahoe, Postmaster General for the United States Postal Service, speak on several different occasions. Whenever he opens the floor for questions, people inevitably ask him the same question. “Pat, what’s the number one thing you would suggest it takes to become a top leader?” Every time, Mr. Donahoe answers, “Listening.”
Hmmm. Listening. Do you mean that thing we’ve been doing for our entire lives? The thing that has allowed us to relate to someone else, share successes as well as challenges, and then set out upon a course of action based on what we understand? Yes. That very thing. Then why is it so hard to do? Why is it so hard to be fully present when we’re communicating with someone else? Why do we let our internal dialogue so strongly influence our interpretation of our external interchange?
I recently saw this depicted in an amazing way. I was working with an audience, and in the audience, many of the participants were either visually impaired or blind. We were going to use a video, and the point of contact mentioned that she had an “audio enhanced” version of that video. Not really understanding what that meant, I quickly agreed to use her version. She had used it successfully with similar audiences, so I thought it was the best option.
If you’ve never experienced an audio enhanced video, it takes a little getting used to. A rather robotic sounding voice interjects and describes what’s going on in the background, specifically to allow those with visual impairments to get a fuller picture of the interchange. It works very well, in most cases, to allow those with visual difficulty to understand what’s going on. For those of us who are sighted, it’s a great experience. I’m sure you’re familiar with movies with subtitles where you can see what’s being said.
Here, you hear what’s being done.
The most memorable moment in that video, for me at least, was a vignette where someone was prattling on and on about something that seemed insignificant. The robotic voice said, “Thought bubble: blah, blah blah” precisely at the same time when the actors on screen were clearly not listening to each other. I chuckled, along with many of the others.
How different would your conversations be if the people you were talking to could actually read your thoughts? Surely we’ve all thought “blah blah blah” when we’re on hold trying to speak to a customer service rep or doing something that may seem mundane, but what if, and I mean if, the person you’re speaking to has something that’s very important to say. Not something that you’ve heard before, yet something that you really need to hear? How do you suspend distractions to give them your full presence? It takes practice; it takes work, and it takes intention.
For the next week, strive to be fully present when someone comes to talk to you. Give them the gift of your attention in a way that you perhaps never had before. Don’t check your approved electronic device; turn away from your computer. Give them your full, unadulterated presence.
You’ll be surprised at what you might find out.
In my last blog post I offered a leadership move I call EKG that combines three key practices – empathy, kindness and gratitude – as a way to devote more attention to the human side of change in your organization. These practices are effective at any time, but they have the potential for even greater impact when an organization, and the people in it, experience change. I appreciated the emails that readers sent me offering examples of how they had demonstrated the first practice, empathy, with great success. See? You’re changing the world already! Time to add on the next practice: kindness.
“Kindness is free.” – Tom Peters
Some of the words that people use to describe kindness are grace, benevolence, generosity and compassion. Tom Peters also provides some examples of the power of kindness within healthcare, an environment that is all about demonstrating care and concern for others. You can read more about it here: http://www.tompeters.com/dispatches/011942.php. There are few work environments that are more closely linked to the importance of demonstrating caring and kindness, given the literal impact it can have on someone else’s well-being. In fact, stop and think a moment about your team and your colleagues in general. Given these common descriptors, would you describe these people as kind? If so, what are some examples of the things you see them doing and saying that make you think that about them? When you think of these things, notice how you feel physically. My hunch is that you feel a little less on edge just by thinking about these people and the way their kindness shows up each day.
Now, as a leader, turn this question toward yourself. Do you think your team and your colleagues would describe you as kind? If not, it may be that you’re not showing this side of yourself and your leadership style enough. It is common for busy leaders to get so engaged in the ‘real’ work they are called to do that they overlook opportunities to intentionally demonstrate care and kindness to the people around them. This doesn’t mean they are uncaring. In today’s fast-paced world, it likely just means they are busy. A busy calendar is no excuse, however. Leaders have to find a way to prioritize the human side of their ‘real’ work in order to foster engagement across their team and their organization overall.
If you watch the television show Undercover Boss you see some examples of ‘extreme caring’ every week. I’m not saying that you need to start handing out big bonuses, college funds, or extra vacation days, as terrific as those gestures are. I’m talking about simple expressions of genuine kindness that leaders can do every day. The only cost to you is the time and intention it takes to pay a compliment, offer an encouraging word, or perform a small task for someone without being asked to do so. Here are two examples for you to consider.
A little encouragement goes a long way. One of the hardest types of change for organizations involves the implementation of new systems. People are attached to the previous system (even if it was found lacking) and they are often flat-out resistant to the new system for fear that they will no longer be able to do what they used to do. As hard as it is to experience this as a user of the system, who do you suppose could use some encouragement during a scenario like this? The designated project manager and/or the department that is sponsoring the change! It takes about five minutes to send an encouraging email that acknowledges the effort being made and maybe, just maybe, your appreciation for that effort. You’d be surprised at how a small gesture of kind acknowledgement can make a big difference in the way the other person feels about the project they’ve been asked to implement. As Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Individual kindness fosters corporate kindness. Sometimes it only takes one person to role model kindness in a way that inspires others to follow suit. We see this all the time when natural disasters hit or a neighbor’s house burns down. Someone starts a fundraising drive, or a potluck parade, or within faith communities, a prayer chain. The next thing you know, a virtual army of compassionate people are united in response to the initial event. The same thing happens in workplaces all the time when a colleague experiences a loss or a health crisis, but leaders don’t have to wait for a crisis in order to start a wave of kindness.
Take time to think about the individuals you work with each day. Drawing on the empathy that I talked about in my previous post, what do you notice about those around you? Do they seem energized and upbeat, or a little worn out? Has your team been working full-out toward an ambitious deadline? If your environment is experiencing change, you may notice people acting a little more stressed than usual just because they are trying to adapt at the same time that they are trying to act. One leader can make a difference at times like this by looking for ways to ease the burden on others. Bring in cupcakes or some other treat if that works for your office’s culture. Institute no-meeting days so people will have one entire workday that is theirs to use as they see fit. You might even implement no-email zones in the evenings and weekends as a way to intentionally acknowledge and honor your team’s personal time. This is an idea that comes from Tony Schwartz’s book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, where he presents a compelling case about the four core needs that we frequently neglect in pursuit of performance. His book is full of practical ideas that leaders can use to demonstrate kindness and pay more attention to these core needs, resulting in greater performance outcomes over time, according to research.
The bottom line about kindness is that it is more than just a nice thing to extend to those around you. Kindness adds fuel to the important engine that drives organizational performance. Combined with empathy and gratitude – the next part of this EKG equation – kindness promotes goodwill at the same time that it fosters good work. What opportunity will you take to demonstrate kindness in the coming week? Write and tell me about it!
There are scores of helpful courses, articles and books by multiple firms on how to lead during times of change. (Full disclosure: the company I work for is one of those firms.) Many of these resources focus on strategy and tactics, while others focus more on the human emotions that leaders must also pay attention to. Thankfully, that human side of leadership and change seems to be gaining more attention. This is good news for the workplace, and quite possibly, the world as we know it. Change seems to be the rule more than the exception, which means we’d all be better off if we learned to deal with change – and each other – more effectively.
Suggesting that the world can be changed through a greater focus on the human side of organizational life may sound a tad grandiose. But when leaders pay as much attention during change to the emotional engine in their organization as they do to their strategy and execution plans, they can foster a spirit of well-being that kick-starts the change initiative and transcends the workplace. That is a win for all of us even if we don’t work in the same organization. Think about it: what type of post-workday conversation would you rather participate in? Would it be the one that is full of positive energy and optimism? Probably. Unfortunately, too many of these conversations go like this: “Well, you’ll never believe what they dropped on us at work today.” As a leader, the way you implement change in your organization can have a direct impact on the dinner table dialogue and the sense of well-being for everyone on your team. Research about the impact of positive psychology by thought leaders such as Dr. Martin Seligman bears this out. Check out his recent book, Flourish, to read more about this for yourself.
So, presuming you are a well-intended but busy leader, what steps can you take to devote more attention and intention to the human side of change within your organization? You can start with something I explain to my executive coaching clients as an EKG. No, this isn’t a medical procedure for your heart, but it does involve your heart and the hearts of those around you. EKG stands for empathy, kindness, and gratitude.
Think back to the last time a friend or family member approached you about some changes they were going through at work. Did they excitedly tell you about something their boss or company did during that time to show them how much they cared about him or her as a person? This is a simple yet underutilized aspect of leadership and human relations in general. Leaders promote well-being and engagement by demonstrating empathy. You might try a statement similar to this one with someone on your team who has stepped up to help during a time of change:
“I realize that the new system we’ve implemented is taking some extra time for everyone to get used to. I really appreciate the time you’re taking to learn the system and coach others on it. Your patient willingness to help has reduced the stress level for more than one of your colleagues! I know your effort reduces the time you’re able to spend on other projects you really enjoy though, and it also impacts your own personal time when you work late to catch up or help a colleague. What can I do to support you and give you some of your time back as we all continue to work through this change together?”
Of course, demonstrating empathy involves more than the right words offered at the right time. Leaders also need to listen deeply as their team members express what’s going on for them. They also need to follow through on whatever they offer by way of support. Not following through is one of the quickest ways to break trust – a vital part of the fuel in the emotional engine that chugs away in organizations every day.
When it comes to empathy, Daniel Goleman said it best in his book, Primal Leadership. He writes, “Empathetic people are superb at recognizing and meeting the needs of clients, customers, or subordinates. They seem approachable, wanting to hear what people have to say. They listen carefully, picking up on what people are truly concerned about, and respond on the mark. ”
Check back here in a few days for my next post about the next factor in an EKG: kindness. In the meantime, what opportunity will you take this week to demonstrate some empathy with those you lead? Please post a comment so we can all learn from you!
It is a generally accepted principle that an organization over time cannot be much better than its leadership. There may be temporary, heroic flashes on the front lines, but for sustainable, renewable performance, leadership is essential.
The reasoning is that effective leadership sets the stage for performance and alignment of activity. Without clear context, the narrative of what is supposed to happen, agreement on the values in use, what matters, what makes sense and all those other functions of leadership people are left to their own devices, and anything from confusion to chaos can result.
Now let’s switch gears for a moment.
When people talk about “performance management” in the federal government, what comes to mind? The press is full of stories of non-performing employees, bureaucrats who administer red tape, embrace process over results, and any other number of criticisms and dings. Everything from productivity, to work ethic to innovation all get called into question.
The idea seems to be that employees need their performance managed. That’s the assumption that I suspect many people make.
But there’s more to the picture than meets the eye.
How do we talk about performance management for leaders?
And since we now know that things like emotional intelligence, engagement, open communication, transparency, truth-telling and the ability to craft a compelling narrative around the “why” of work really, really matter in leadership, how do we regard or manage the performance of leaders who are more about high control, secrecy, command, politics, inner circles, vision of nothing except (in the private sector) making a fortune, or manipulation?
Of course, the mushrooming use of the 360-degree assessment is one foot in the door, but I suspect the whole notion that leaders are held accountable for their performance on the job – and in the process, not just in the results – is something of a surprise for many.
In this context, an article last year in Government Executive on how senior executives in the federal government evaluated political appointees was fascinating reading. The appointees earned a “C” average. More than 30% of the respondents gave the appointees a “D” or “F.”
The story reads: “Obama officials lack functional and agency-specific knowledge, according to survey respondents. Many believe appointees don’t understand human resources and procurement rules, saying they presume the ‘institution is there as an obstruction’ and attempt to ‘break organizations.’
“Appointees have ‘unbelievably poor communication with career employees,’ one respondent commented. Almost 40 percent of managers gave appointees Ds or Fs on collaboration and communication with their staffs. Some ‘have a divide-and-conquer strategy, and there are way too many industry fingers allowed in decision-making,’ a respondent noted. At another agency, a manager said the result has been ‘politicization of normal agency functions.’”
You can only wonder how the people the survey respondents were talking about feel about these results. In my experience, leaders hearing such criticisms usually go to defenses. This is all unconscious activity, but it’s quick, and often well-grooved. They will talk about how others don’t “get it,” they have complainers and whiners on their hands, the culture has too much deadwood, etc.
Which raises the question, whose accountability is that?
Moving beyond simplistic and naive power-based notions of “I set the rules” to acceptance of everyone’s performance really mattering – including at the top – is one of the dimensions of the new story of leadership emerging in our lifetimes. The disconnect between poor performance in leadership and accountability for that is just one more issue organizations are grappling with as they find their way into this new and very different story.
Ed Frauenheim has written a tremendous blog on workforce.com that everyone who feels busy should read.
To be fair, he is actually summarizing work done by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, who wrote in the January issue of the McKinsey Quarterly. But he does a nice job, and here is what he (and they) are saying:
Organizational life, work, pace and culture have stumbled into a condition that they call Strategic Attention Deficit Disorder (yes, SADD). It is characterized by leaders careening from one priority to another, always jumping to the next thing. In the process, they demoralize the workforce and “kill meaning” at work.
This only matters if you care about motivation and people feeling that what they do makes sense. If you don’t mind low morale and employee perceptions that work is meaningless, then you can disregard the piece.
Here’s the kicker: What seems to be driving at least some of this is one of the latest, recycled buzzwords of “agility.”
Who can argue with being agile? We all have to be this way – at times.
The problem is that it has become code for constantly shifting priorities that confuse employees, and who learn to see the pattern of “here today, gone tomorrow,” as the organization grasps for the next new thing. Maybe it will be operational excellence. Or customer-centricity. Or core competency.
Seriously, we can go back in the literature and pull these things out at any time – although it is best to wait until most of the organizational memory is erased around the initiative. (The one that still has not been dead long enough to remove the memories is TQM, and its key word: “empowerment.” When you use those terms with a government group, there is usually a groan, and this dates back to the 1980s.)
The desire for the silver bullet – that one, key linking piece that will forever resolve all the problems, anxieties, confusion and pain – will never go away, I suspect. It’s why a bazillion books have been written on leadership and organizations. Everyone is looking for The Answer.
It also speaks to how our brains work. We are hard-wired to notice what is bright and shiny, something exciting and new. We want to be sure we don’t miss the boat, or incur a threat. So we give a lot of air time to whatever is new, even while not really following through on what is already in place. So agile becomes fragile.
My friend Katherine McGraw calls the age in which we live “global speed-up.” I believe a symptom of the age is SADD, and wise leaders will recognize the problem and perhaps slow the ever-accelerating merry-go-round to ask some new questions.
One of those might be how to get the workforce really behind and supporting whatever the new initiative is. The answer? Engage them in the process. This creates a commitment that makes change efforts more likely to succeed.
Many people like to make New Year’s resolutions. That’s fine, and sometimes they actually keep them.
There are two things that are good to know about these things. First is that courtesy of neuroscience, we now understand much more about why it is better to gradually, progressively and steadily move toward change than to engage in a big bang on day one. *(It has to do with brain rewiring.) Second, you can make a resolution on any day of the year, particularly when you have learned something new. Don’t have to wait until the 31st.
So why only 11? Why not 12, or 10, or at least some round number? That’s because I invite you to submit your personal favorite — the one that is most powerful for you. And remember, the door does not swing shut at the end of the year; you can submit a resolution for change anytime you want!
Here are 11 good ones for supervisors, managers and leaders, from my seat.
1. I will take an extra minute to listen to people.
2. I will ask people for input on things that affect them.
3. I will become better at noticing what emotions I am experiencing – especially the negative ones – and instead of automatically, instinctively operating out of them, ask myself, “How do I want to show up? What would be best long-term?”
4. I will not read or type emails while employees are trying to talk with me.
5. I will ask employees the most motivating question: “What do you think?”
6. I will let my manager know what people are thinking and feeling, particularly during change, rather than sugar-coating or withholding.
7. I will make time to think strategically about what is happening at work, and carefully examine the need for reactive, tactical responses that seem to consume so much of every day.
8. I will work to understand things as employees understand them.
9. I will admit mistakes and share what I learned from those.
10. I will give feedback for only one reason – to help the employee do better next time.
11. I will examine my intentions in conversations, decisions and work.
I have never recommended a book in a blog posting before, but that’s about to change, and for a very good reason.
Sometimes in a good life, you come across a theory, model, idea, course, book or conversation that fundamentally changes the way you see the world. You may have a sense that the scales have fallen from your eyes, that you understand reality in an entirely new and profoundly more accurate and powerful way, that this new way of thinking explains a whole lot more than anything else to-date. And you may feel that knowing what you now know, that there’s no turning back. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, the secret is out, and you are changed.
This is Mark Addleson’s new book, Beyond Management: Taking Charge at Work.
I have read who knows how many books on organizations, management and leadership, and many more articles. This book is different, and it is different in a way that is exciting, disturbing and profound. It lays out what we need to understand about organizations if we are to move beyond a tired, exhausted, dysfunctional and counter-productive mental model of what work is.
Full disclosure: I had the privilege to sit in Mark’s class at George Mason University a few years ago when he laid out over several months, point to point, his argument on what is happening in organizations, and what needs to be done. I have to tell you that due to the design of the Master’s program I was in, these lectures were often on Friday night until 10:00 PM. If you’re like most people, there are many things you can think of that you would rather be doing on a Friday night than listening to a lecture on organizations and work. And I have to tell you I often left the lecture hall electrified by the power of Mark’s discoveries and explanation.
So, what’s the ”juice?” What is Mark saying, and why is it so important? Here we go:
• Work has shifted from factories to knowledge work. Instead of a steady, reliable production line, we have today problem-solving, change, ambiguity, conflict, alignment of interests, creativity, collaboration, confusion, clarity, evolving and most fundamentally, trying to make sense of the world and our place in it. “What should we do now? What is the best idea? How can we position ourselves to do something great?” These are the questions of knowledge work.
• Management models are still pretty much what they were for the factory. Hierarchy, a culture of “telling” rather than “asking,” defining outcomes without employee input, and high control are all hallmarks of the factory. They also demotivate virtually all employees.
• As a knowledge worker, you already understand the profound difference between work you do when you are motivated – “switched on” – and demotivated –“phoning it in,” or “going through the motions.” Because your real value is a function of what comes out of your brain, the state in which you work really, really matters. High motivation, excitement, energy and creativity creates beautiful work products. (Knowledge work is much more art than science. Even scientists doing their best work talk about being immersed in the flow of the activity, the genius of a new idea, or the elegance of a theory. It is anything but rote production work.)
• You can’t really “manage” or command creativity. You can’t schedule a meeting at which people will generate insights at 3:45 on a Thursday. You can only foster it and create conditions in which it is most likely to happen – support, encouragement, good working arrangements, and recognition, for example. Already, we see the logical limits of command and control.
• A key part of Mark’s book is to differentiate from the practice of work and “the view from the top.” Being inside the work is to be engaged in all those questions listed above. Trying to understand the client’s perspective, figuring out how to organize around a seemingly impossible request, asking a colleague for an idea on how to change something in the work, communicating, collaborating and generating ideas. Mark’s contention is that most of this is invisible to those running organizations. Instead, they look at what he calls the “D’s.” These include such things as data, dollars, deliverables, and directives. These are all abstracted, reified objects – they are not the work itself. The work itself happens on the telephone when hearing about a surprise in a project, when conflict erupts, when it becomes clear people had really different ideas, when you create information in a way that allows a client to make a good decision. The view from the top regards these often as interruptions to the real work – remember, it is steeped in a production mentality. The deep fantasy is that everything runs like a clock, with no time-outs for the real stuff of knowledge work. (I have heard it said before: “What is work besides solving problems?”) If you think about the tension between a musician and his or her record company, you start to get a glimpse into this divide. The record company would love a predictable schedule of releases that sell millions. The artist is trying to get “out there” what is “in here.” This is creativity, imagination, beauty. It’s not so schedulable. Organizations are only starting to begin to grasp what this all means. It will require a new business model.
• The smartest, most advanced companies already understand this changing paradigm, and are acting on it. Google, Pixar, Harley-Davidson, Zappos and many other much smaller companies seem to be “getting” what work today really means. Taking much more a whole systems view (including customers, communities and other stakeholders), they are rethinking what happens in work, and what it means for leadership. Most others are still fighting last year’s war with a production and factory mental model. Input, throughput, output.
At the risk of doing it injustice, I will say this is a sinfully abbreviated summary of just some of Mark’s key points. If any of the points above resonate, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of the book.
You have probably felt at some points in your life that you were in a pattern, with the same things happening over and over. They may have been good or bad, but you felt the recurring theme.
This has been my life over the last two months. I’d like to identify what I’ve experienced, mainly because I believe it’s a sign of the times. I’ll explain at the end what leaders can do about this phenomenon – if they have the will.
I am accustomed to hearing the following story – we hear it at many client sites – but the consistency of it this autumn really struck me. It runs something like this:
• Our leadership doesn’t communicate with us.
• Our leadership is not interested in our ideas.
• Our leadership sees our role as simply executors of their will.
• Our leadership regards different ideas as hostile and threatening.
• Our leadership knows morale and engagement are low, and either blames us or ignores the data.
• Our leadership manages by threat and fear instead of encouragement and reward.
It has truly been like being in the movie Groundhog Day. As I have listened to participants in leadership development sessions, I have felt as though I could finish their sentences. In every case, where I thought they were headed with their comments was correct.
Before addressing what to do about this, it is fair to raise the question of how in the world things got to this point.
Actually, things have been this way for a very long time, but as people hear new models of leadership – based on shared values, connection, communication, accountability (for everyone) and meaningful results (to name just a few attributes) – the contrast becomes more stark, more painful. One clear marker of this is Generation Y, which generally wants to have nothing to do with the tired, worn-out models of leadership – if you want to call it that – bulleted above.
There is a palpable yearning for a new way to work out there, and leadership in many organizations is tone-deaf to it.
So while it’s actually not that new, I believe it’s intensifying, for several reasons.
First, organizations everywhere are under attack. Government agencies, banks, the cable company, your local retailer . . . they are all operating under conditions that are very different from just 10 years ago. Competition, consumer expectations, technology, social change, and globalization are all shifting the landscape.
Most people, in most organizations, in unguarded moments will admit to feeling overwhelmed, under siege, pulled in a thousand directions, working harder and harder and harder . . . and they’re not sure why.
Certainly, the acceleration simply to increase shareholder return has left many employees feeling empty. Human beings are wired for meaning, and so just chasing more money can feel meaningless. Steve Jobs once famously said that Apple’s massive market capitalization was interesting, but it wasn’t really the point. Great products were the point – and what produced that market capitalization.
But beyond the factors in play mentioned above, here is what is really happening in organizations that is producing such a profound alienation.
In any historical movement, as a new model or theory or way of living/working/being arises, the old guard intensifies its insistence on the status quo as the only legitimate way of living/working/being. Sensing the questioning, criticism and potential for something new and untested and not well understood, the decision-makers redouble their efforts to “stay the course.” Just do more of whatever has been done.
This reaction is easy to understand. A new model of leadership that emphasizes transparency, openness, feedback that runs both ways, willingness to listen, empowerment (I apologize for using this word if you suffered through any of the TQM initiatives in the 1980’s. I know how painful it was to have hopes raised and then dashed as organizations realized the cost of what they thought they were buying), shared values and meaning are so fundamentally at odds with the mind-set of “Because I’m in charge, I set the rules.”
I am sorry to tell you that this mindset is much more common, and entrenched, and intensifying that you may want to believe. The assault is underway, and the rear-guard actions are obvious to see.
This manifested in one example of a besieged executive who had received massive negative feedback on his leadership style. His response? “I don’t care what they think, and I don’t want to hear what they have to say.” I am always in favor of this mindset in battle, or in an emergency, when there is no time to hold a focus group or ask people how they feel about how things are going.
But seriously, folks, if you are trying to run an organization where people give their best, are connected to the mission, to each other and to meaningful results that make a difference in others’ lives, I have to tell you, this refrain just doesn’t work. It gets you begrudging compliance from a demotivated and disengaged workforce that did not believe enough in its own talents to leave and find a better place to work. Talent walks.
(It is also interesting to explore the reactions of leadership to high and unwanted turnover. You can easily see how defensiveness and blind spots collude to explain away the exit interview data.)
The fact is, the values systems in place with old-style leadership and a new form of leadership are so fundamentally at odds that some people believe it will take the dying off of the current generation of leaders in order for a new mental model to take hold. This is explicitly stated as the case in Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. There may be many leaders who can’t make the shift. That doesn’t mean it’s not important to try to engage them in a new way of working, but in practical terms some will get it, and others just aren’t ready, and won’t.
So what is to be done?
This is a message for leaders. Apart from the communication role others may play in trying to help leaders see new things in new ways (I call this the Vertical Channel of communication, in which information flows up and down), this is directly targeted at those frustrated with their organizations, wondering where the accountability is (we hear this one a lot), wondering why people seem disconnected from the work, puzzled by the turnover, and so on. Here is what you can do:
• Ask the most important question of all: “What do you think?” Give people a chance to explain their reality, their perceptions, their ideas. This is tremendously motivating, and shows you actually care about what they think.
• Get out of your office. We know that in a largely unconscious process, you fill up the day with meetings and commitments so that you have no free time – a problem in itself in terms of renewal and sustainability – and you then plead that you don’t have time to communicate with employees. Dr. Phil would ask, “So how’s that working for you?”
• Define, really, the mission and values. Don’t write something on posters to go up on the walls that will invite cynicism and eye-rolling. If you can’t cogently and succinctly describe the mission, the so-what? of the organization, you’re in trouble. The mission is what people work for after they can eat, have shelter, transportation and high-definition cable TV. Ditto with values. They have to be real. Pompous, artificial, self-serving values are deal-killers. No one can get behind a value such as “Take the customer for all they’re worth,” yet that is the operating model in many private-sector organizations.
• Let go of the 50-pound weights you take home on your shoulders every night. Again, in a largely unconscious process (by this I simply mean unthinking), many leaders feel it’s all on them. Since they’re the only ones who can do it, or do it the right way, it’s a big weight. What about an organization where the best ideas come forward freely, shared meaning-making occurs – where people address, “What makes the most sense?” — and people are made accountable for execution? The operative model today was described by Jim Collins as “The genius with a thousand helpers.”
There are many more ideas, but the real point is that the will, the desire have to be there. It is a profound shift of values and the most basic, fundamental assumptions and sense-making for many. If your mental model is “I’m in charge so I don’t really care,” then good luck, because you’re going to need it.
If, however, you are open to the possibility that there may be a better way to work, you can get on the road doing the four things above. It’s a noble quest, and a modest start. See where it leads.
Recently, I was in two separate meetings where the discussion was about the leadership of organizations receiving statistical, hard-data evidence of problems in leadership, or another path to take to get work done. One of the organizations had done multiple studies.
The leadership’s response was very interesting.
In one case, the leaders decided to get very scientific about the stats that represented major red flags about the organization’s leadership. They looked at the data from multiple angle, tried to correlate messages across the multiple studies, parsed language (“too negative” was one phrase). They inspected the data, a lot.
The inspector mode is an often unconscious reaction to uncomfortable information. You study it further, and then further, and then some more. You may have heard the term “paralysis by analysis.” Sometimes in 360-assessment data that are heavily negative, individuals want to question validity, reliability, statistical significance and just about anything else they can find to throw sand in the bull’s eye.
The other thing that gets paralyzed in these cases is employees. Having contributed their perspectives multiple times and hearing or seeing nothing constructive back, they often throw their hands up.
It culminated in a comment from one leader, who reportedly (full disclosure — this is second-hand) said, “I’m tired of hearing about it. I just want people to get the job done.” In this case, the inspection created fatigue that eclipsed the messages in the data. There is something very self-fulfilling about such an approach.
Second story: The other organization had studied how a group of employees perform when given the option to telecommute. Productivity, responsiveness and quality all went up by significant amounts. When a recommendation was made to expand telecommuting based on the results, the response of the leadership (which I was told doesn’t trust the employees) was “There are lies, d#$%^%$& lies and statistics.”
In other words, you can prove the case all day long, but if it collides with a view, mental model, belief or perception, then the facts don’t really matter. There is all kinds of work that has been done in the areas of cognition and emotion that explains this phenomenon. Filtering, bias and perceptual errors abound.
How do you react to information that may rock your boat? What is your response to feedback? How do you treat the messenger? Do you go to Inspector mode, say the information doesn’t support your pre-conceived notions, or do you stop to ask yourself one vital question of leadership: “Is this true?”