Sunday, 14 June 2009

Leading learning for change feels risky.

You may understand, even know how destructive defensive communication (blaming, shaming and justifying) is for learning to behave differently as an organisation. If you do and you’re an enlightened manager, you may exhort others to cease blaming, shaming and justifying; to express perspectives openly; to have the courage to tell the truth as they see it. But that doesn’t work.

Someone, a leader, has to noticeably; outrageously do it: dare to openly speak the unspoken, discuss the un-discussable; be deliberately, robustly candid; and genuinely encourage others to be the same by actively listening and acknowledging their perspectives.

Usually this doesn’t happen until there’s some sort of crisis: the stock answers and standard procedures clearly aren’t effective; apparently no-one really knows. Then individuals are more likely to speak out. And they are more likely to be heard.

Last week, for perhaps the 1st time in several years, I dared do it in my “own” organisation: the one that’s my main employer. Believe me; it’s very different from advising or coaching someone else to do it, or doing it in someone else’s organisation.

It was with some trepidation that I published my frustration at a recent incident. Once I’d published in the group discussion forum there was nothing I could do to influence the response. I had given away control. That’s scary! I waited anxiously.

I suspected that some would be pleased I’d spoken; some would take it as personal criticism; some would wonder what I was trying to say and some would think I was an idiot.

I guessed that some would respond to me privately; a few publically, but that most, if they responded at all, would limit their response to off-line private conversations within their various groups.

At one point after some personal off-line response from senior managers, I was considering killing the initiative. But it was too late. The “cat was out of the bag and amongst the pigeons”.

On reflection I remembered my purpose and my previous experiences and observations of how the best learning opportunities can be found in critical incidents and the heightened emotions that follow; when norms are disturbed; when individuals are perturbed.

So I girded my loins and continued with my communication strategy. I framed my frustration as the opening phase of a story: the brutal facts; the bad news. Then I painted the vision: the glorious envisaged future. Finally I pointed to our strengths and opportunities and proposed my strategy to get there: by risking open communication; speaking the unspoken, discussing the un-discussable; participating in robust, candid conversations about the guts of what we do.

I used our real-time actual shared experience as the basis for learning and change; I risked open communication; I encouraged others to candidly contribute their perspectives and acknowledged them when they did. I’ll look for more opportunities to continue the story, new incidents, new feedback, and new perspectives.

That, in my knowledge and experience is leading learning for change.

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