Posts Tagged ‘self-awareness’
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 an HR Development professional, I get the opportunity to meet a variety of people in a variety of settings. My work has taken me to almost every state in the US, as well as a handful of countries in Western Europe. These opportunities always present me with experiences that I learn from on many levels, not the least of which is how people view themselves, how they introduce themselves to others, and how much they share.
One of my recent favorite ice breakers (yes, I hear the collective groan out in the blogosphere), is to have participants introduce themselves by using a word or phrase that begins with each letter of their name.
For example, for “Scott,” I would say something like, “My name is Scott. ‘S’ represents that I’m from the South, Alabama specifically; ‘C’ stands for the fact that I’m a huge fan of college football, especially the Auburn Tigers; ‘O’ means that I enjoy outdoor activities; ‘T’ means that I’m love live theatre, and have performed in numerous productions over my life; and the other ‘T’ means that I value the time that we’re going to spend together for the next few days.” That pretty much sums up a lot of information about me and my interests.
While this ice breaker seems quite simple on the surface, what I find really interesting is what people choose to reveal about themselves. For many, the organization’s culture dictates the amount of personal information that people share. In a low trust environment, participants are typically very guarded. They’re answers are brief, to the point, and concise. They’re choosing to protect themselves by not revealing a lot about themselves. Again, low trust, or organizational change, leads people to be self-protective.
In high trust environments, however, people are much more open. They share stories rather a descriptive word or phrase. They share experiences, and somehow find a way to integrate the letter into part of the experience. Sometimes, they just say what they want to say, and beg for forgiveness for “breaking the rules.” I totally welcome that.
I also find that the first two or three people who volunteer to introduce themselves really set the tone for the rest of the group. If the pioneers are very open, most others will follow. If the pioneers are guarded, that behavior follows as well.
The purpose of the ice breaker is to help people begin to see how connected we all really are. We may look different, have different experiences, have grown up differently, and have had different life experiences. However, we all do have something that connects us. We’re all people who are on a path…and for a few short hours, we share that path together.
So… At the end of the day, how would you answer this question? What should I know about you?
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.
I often compare the emerging, new story of supervision and leadership to the loading of a huge new program on your computer. You know — the blue status bar creeps slowly across the screen, so you go get a cup of coffee rather than staring at it for a long time.
This new story loading onto the computers we call ourselves and our organizations is contrasted thus:
• Commitment versus compliance
• Initiative versus status quo
• Communication versus need-to-know
• Engagement versus apathy
• Listening versus just telling
• Connectedness versus fragmentation
• Spirit versus emotional void
• Caring versus not caring
• Excitement versus depression
• Winning versus just getting by
The blue status bar just lurched forward a bit with the news that the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is going to widen the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) out to all federal employees. It currently goes to about one-third.
(Caution: Descending into the survey results can result in a lot of time going by. The results are endlessly fascinating, and OPM has brilliantly made the data available in a way that can be sliced and diced across multiple dimensions, such as age, gender, supervisory status, HQ versus field, etc.)
OPM Director John Berry said the survey is becoming more important in how federal agencies address their challenges.
Now, let’s just stop here for a moment and have a pulse check.
One interesting thing that we run into from time to time in our work is supervisors’ and leaders’ reactions to hearing the concept that they are going to receive feedback from employees reporting to them. This is often in the form of the 360-degree assessment, an instrument that is rapidly growing.
There is simply no way to comprehend the sanity or utility of such an idea if you believe supervision and leadership are about control, command, only telling, using power to punish dissenters, and most of all, that the “people stuff” in work is irrelevant.
Sorry to tell you ladies and gentlemen, this mental model is much more common than many people think. Old habits die hard.
And so, here we are in 2012 with the federal government tripling the size of one of the most powerful surveys by which the workplace, supervisors and leaders are evaluated. It’s only been around 10 years, and now it’s being rolled out to all employees.
There is an expression command-and-control types use whenever employee perceptions, recommendations or even actions come into the mix. “The lunatics are running the asylum.”
This is a dark, depressing expression on several levels. It name-calls – a very primitive defense against uncomfortable things — and it compares work to an asylum. Some other expressions you have probably heard include, “When I want your opinion I’ll ask for it,” or “That’s not your area.”
I have often said that we are living in a fascinating time. The old story of leadership is slowly, agonizingly slowly, headed toward the door, mainly through the room called retirement. Showing up in its place, and championed by Generation Y, is an entirely new mental model around what leadership and supervision are.
The voice of employees is about to get a lot louder.
One of the marks of great art is that it stands up to repeated exposures, and in fact becomes more meaningful with each encounter.
Psychological Type – the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – is like that. It is ironic that some people take the indicator in a compressed session, then forget much of what they learned, including their own Type. (A sports fan once told me he thought he was an ESPN.)
The reality is that since Type is essentially about learning about yourself, and others, the learning is never over, and in teaching a class in Type last week I came to renew my appreciation of the power and significance of the Indicator and the Jungian theory upon which it rests.
One indication of the impact of the learning came from one woman who at various times during the class would let out a guttural expression along the lines of “Wow!” or sounding something like “Mhh hhh hhh.” These exclamations got closer and closer together in time, and it was like timing contractions in labor.
She, and the others, reported very significant insights into themselves, most notably that they realized – sometimes for the first time – that it is OK to be who they are. That’s pretty big.
For my money, much of learning about Type is coming to understand what is unconscious. That just means we aren’t really aware of something. I was reminded of this when I got home, right before a dinner party was supposed to start, and walked into a kitchen that looked like World War 3 ½ had been conducted in it. My wife was in a panic.
In such situations, we go with what we know. We respond in an automatic, patterned way that is usually unconscious. Here’s how the mental functions in Type would engage:
• Sensor: What are the details here? How many minutes until the door bell rings? What is the state of the enchiladas, and what specific tasks remain?
• Intuiter: What happened? How did this situation come to be? Is there a pattern here? (Answer: Yes, but it’s gotten a lot better over the years.)
• Thinker: What is the most logical way to get the dinner on the table?
• Feeler: How is Linda doing amidst all this and how I can support her?
The point about Type is that it creates choice. Rather than just go with the usual go-to move in such situations, awareness of Type means you can think about what will be the best response. For example, if Linda were near tears, a Feeler response might be best. If it was all about execution, the Thinker’s approach might be best. Intuition might be better after the fact to process what happened and figure out how to ease the stress a bit in the future.
My response was to first open a cold, heavily hopped beer, and then ask what I could do. I don’t know if that is what Jung called individuation (integration and balance in Type), but the dinner was excellent.
Back to the class: One other interesting thing occurred during the session. One person was disclosing some very important and personal information. This was intimate content, and reflected a lot of vulnerability and trust in disclosing it. It was not everyday conversation.
What I noticed was that while this very tender information was being shared, one person was texting.
There is a bumper sticker that says “Hang up and drive.” Folks, when someone is talking about a topic that is personal, significant and even emotional, hang up the phone and pay attention.
There is a great old story about a great old drummer named Bernard Purdie, who, if you’ve not heard of him, played on records by James Brown, Frank Sinatra, BB King, Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis and Steely Dan.
Bernard has a beautiful sense of time. When you hear him playing a simple beat, you want to move. (For an example of that, click on the following link.)
The story goes that when Bernard was hired for a session, he would come in, set up his drums, and then before beginning to play, would also put up two signs, one on each side of his drum set.
One sign read: “You done it.”
The other sign read: “You done hired the hit-maker, Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie.”
That’s pretty bold.
If you watch the video clip above, you’ll understand why he was so bold. If you watch this video clip below, you’ll hear Walter Fagen and Water Becker (they are Steely Dan) talking about Bernard’s signs.
“Boldness” is a word used in coaching that turns out to have some real significance. Boldness is about confidence, belief, passion and conviction.
It may be easier to understand by its opposite: lack of confidence, lack of belief, lack of passion and lack of conviction.
Boldness comes from processed experience. That means that not only have you lived something successful, but you have thought about it, and consciously concluded you have reason to be bold about something. (Sometimes people are very good at something, but taking a page from the “aw, shucks. It’s just little old me” playbook, they downplay or minimize their contribution. Not recommended.)
A key with boldness is to find where it naturally occurs in your work. Where do you find your voice? What gives you energy? Where does fear dissipate?
Where can you put up your own signs?
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.