Friday, 20 August 2010

Ten truths of leadership

Of course there’d have to be ten, not nine or 13 or a Tom-Peters list of around 37. Ten is nice and neat; makes a tidy package; one tattoo for the back of each finger to remind us as we type our emails.

A recent LinkedIn Group update featuring Ten Truths of Leadership  got me going. James Kouzes and Barry Posner have published another book on leadership. I guess they have to make a living. Their ten truths are true all right. No doubt about that. And yes they’re almost as old as the hills; Biblical even.

A leader who consistently achieved all of them would doubtless be absolutely inspiring.

But I doubt “Ten Truths” will change anything much. They will be tweeted and quoted and everything will go on pretty much as normal.

It’d be interesting to see how many leaders do consistently achieve even half of them, in the eyes of their supposed followers that is.

I’ve worked with many leaders who truly believed that they behaved or at least earnestly, consistently tried to behave like that. I used a very simple method to show them very clearly that they were dreaming.

I got them to record a work conversation with a peer or report, transcribe ten minutes from that tape into the right hand column of a page with their corresponding thoughts on the left hand column (an approach devised by Chris Argyris for his seminal work back in the 70s). Then we’d take a look at the variation between what they were thinking and what they actually said at that time. We invariably found significant contradiction, betraying that they were manipulative, controlling, closed minded, distrusting, and their ‘values’ conveniently flexible.

They were predictably aghast and embarrassed. I assured them that they were normal but that that norm isn’t acceptable in a successful contemporary learning organisation.

As we began the process of change, the biggest obstacle was that they knew, from hard experience,  that actually behaving as “Ten Truths” suggest is very risky because the first one to do it risks being done over by “the others”.

I assured them that unless the leader takes that risk, then no one else will. Then tentatively I coached them to risk new communication behaviours then reflect on the process and the results. Slowly they became more confident to break the mould; to become conscious of the gap between their espoused behaviour and their behaviour-in-action and with the help of their peers and reports, close the gap through changed communication behaviour.

It’s a slow process, but it consistently works where lists of truths consistently fail to make a difference.

Impatient? Go get a new leader. Tempt him with an obscenely high salary and benefits. He’ll likely screw you over just the same.


Saturday, 14 August 2010

Why good people behave badly in organisations

We behave badly because we’ve been trained to behave badly from about age 11 in industrial education processes for industrial work. We’re imprinted with that classroom model of authority, hierarchy, knowledge, expertise, compliance, manipulation, control and work, right from when we leave the nursery school for the conventional school classroom.

That imprint is then reinforced at every level of education and on into employment. No wonder we find it difficult to conceptualise, let alone be anything else. We perpetuate the model unthinkingly. There is a saying that education is what’s left after you forget all that you (explicitly) learned. Entrepreneurs typically leave formal education early.

That industrial concept of organisation is very sticky and there’s little reason to challenge or change it unless the world changes and innovation becomes the key to survival. Then it becomes imperative to access and maximise individual and collaborative potential that is unwittingly squandered, eroded and destroyed by industrial organisation and management.

To survive we need to dispel the climates of fear, cynicism and disengagement that so often prevail; break the cycle of bad behaviour that is so toxic for emotional and mental health and sabotages engagement and productivity.

We need to resolve our double lives: break the spell of industrial age thinking and open our work and institutional life to what we know from that life beyond work.

Since the industrial revolution, when work arguably became seriously separated from the rest of life, most working adults live second lives at church, school, or home.

The question isn’t so much whether we lead double lives but how can we translate our knowledge of that ‘other life’ into our work and institutional behaviour? That’s difficult because much of our organisational behaviour is driven by unconscious assumptions and reflex behaviours tacitly learned during ‘industrial’ schooling and tacitly confirmed by our experience since.

The roots of industrial age production and education are in the thinking and practices that became prominent in the 1940s through 60s and still dominate many business improvement books. Industrial organisations had many characteristics of machines. They were formed around machines. Machines have since replaced many of the jobs in those organisations.

The machine model of organisation, still appropriate in some contexts, is characterised by structures; job breakdowns; lines of communication, job delineation; objectification; linear causal thinking. There is a sense of un-emotional rigidity and inexorability about it. Performance failures are fixed by replacing parts (people) or in extreme, restructuring. The ‘system’ reigns supreme.

In the 70s a new image of organisation emerged: organisations as intelligent organisms with interdependent functions and organs, striving to survive, responding to stimuli, adapting to changing environment, evolving to fit niche environments, the fittest surviving.

In the 80s people became the focus in the notion of organisation as culture comprised of cultures. Values, attitudes, beliefs, rituals, artefacts, normalised and normative behaviours became the centre of attention.

The 90s saw a return to the machine metaphor but this time the machine is a computer and computer networks: a hi-tech version of the earlier industrial machine. “Process re-engineering” was all the rage. People were mysterious, unreliable repositories of knowledge which is best extracted, digitised, then stored and managed in computerised files and networked information systems. Restructuring resurges, sometime dressed as process re-engineering. People are nodes in networks.

In the new millennium the World Wide Web enabled an explosion in relationships, shaking knowledge structures. The notion of knowledge and organisations as webs of relationships takes form. Hierarchy dissolves in the web and industrial style surveillance and control is impossible (Contractor, 2002).

The image of organisation as a web of relationships begins to make sense. But still the sticky industrial structures and controlling behaviours persist. People see the seeming ambiguity, openness, absence of command structures, and reliance on relationships as risky.

Leaders must risk openness, admit not knowing, focus on the detail of interpersonal relationships, build trust in long term relationships for mutual learning and growth.

Most bosses would claim that they do this already. Ask their reports. Most reports would claim that they can be trusted with responsibility. Ask their managers. It’s time we all stopped blaming, shaming and justifying and collaborated to change -bosses first.

Start by seeking honest, open feedback about your own behaviour. Talk to people other than your direct reports. Then deliberately and openly attempt to change your behaviour. Invite observations of your progress. Then expect your reports to do the same. Help and encourage them. They will be sure that this is managerial suicide.

For more in this radical vein go to Steve Denning: Does asking smart questions make you a radical manager?

Contractor, N. S. 2002. New media and organising. In L. Lievrow & S. Livingstone (Eds.). The Handbook of New Media (pp. 203-205). London: Sage.

Tse, S. & Barnett, S. 2009. Recovery Oriented Services. In Chris Lloyd, Robert King, Frank Deane, and Kevin Gournay (Eds.). Clinical Management in Mental Health Services. Chapter 7, (pp. 94 -114). Blackwell: London.