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Go read my latest post published today on LinkedIn
It is trending on LinkedIn’s Leadership and Management channel
You can access all of my latest posts from my LinkedIn Author Page
Those clever people at LinkedIn have developed an exciting new blogging platform, please come and visit my author page on LinkedIn to access all my recent posts, comments, and updates to my previous posts:
We have looked at why speaking up is so crucial to collaboration and yet remains so rare in organizations today (refer to The Courage to Speak Up). We have also explored the reflective skills needed to guide our decisions of what to share and where to share it (refer to The What and Where of Speaking Up).
In this post, the final part in this three part series on speaking up, we explore the language and communication skills needed to speak up about contentious issues and to initiate difficult conversations. After all, it can take great skill to speak up in conflict situations without damaging our relationships or jeopardizing the ethics of contribution and norms of collaboration that we strive to encourage and support in our organizations.
Once we’ve decided to speak up, and we’ve determined the most appropriate audience for our openness, we still need to deliver the message. How often do the right words escape us when the emotional stakes are high? How often do our good intentions of disclosure in a difficult situation result in awkward admissions, fumbled feedback, or incoherent instructions? (1)
When we aim to build on and support ethics of contribution and norms of collaboration within our organizations, how we speak up is just as important as the decision to speak up in the first place. We can’t very well build healthy organizational cultures based on contribution and collaboration if our clumsy actions and use of language diminishes others. (2)
Stone, Patton, and Heen eloquently remind us that “Delivering a difficult message is like throwing a hand grenade.” When we face the dilemma of whether to raise a difficult issue and risk damaging a relationship, we wonder if we can do it so politely, and appeal so absolutely to rationality, that we can deliver our message without the anticipated emotional explosion. Unfortunately, we’re kidding ourselves: “Coated with sugar, thrown hard or soft, a hand grenade is still going to do damage.” (3)
The real challenge that we face is not so much How do we manage the damage we cause in speaking up? but How do we build more resilient relationships? When we focus on building healthier and more open and supportive relationships that can endure the inevitable battery that results when we must launch difficult conversations, these relationships can even grow in strength and meaning in the face of such adversity.
While relationship building is the subject of a future post, we’ll concentrate here on three aspects of communication that can strengthen our message and support our larger goals of building ethics of contribution and norms of collaboration:
LaFasto and Larson report that role clarity is one of the top six issues that team members wish they could discuss openly (4). Clawson suggests that clarity can empower the listener (5). Stone Patton and Heen also tell us that clarity is key (6). From their various perspectives, these researchers are all telling us that clarity has the potential for empowering rather than diminishing our communication partners.
Clarity of individual and team roles, clarity of how roles fit together, clarity of group norms and operating assumptions, clarity about personal beliefs and desires. Clarity is clearly important, but also insufficient. Consider the Drill Sargent barking orders: he is communicating clearly, but the resulting communication can diminish individuals and discourage open collaboration.
We are all subject to cognitive errors, including Naïve Realism, The Fundamental Attribution Error, and Questionable Cause. These errors lead us to believe, for example, that our perception of reality is both accurate and complete, leaving no room for a reasonable person to disagree with us (7). We are not even aware that we are making these errors for much of the time, nevertheless, the effect that they have is real enough – leading us to make assumptions about others that are just plain wrong and putting us at odds with our colleagues, who are also making poor assumptions about our own motives or sanity.
The conflict between dueling perceptions of reality can easily erupt into interpersonal conflict when we don’t question our assumptions and default to judgmental language. (8)
But the amazing thing about language is that while it can constrain our thinking, it can also free us: by forcing a change in our language we can enable ourselves and others to consider new ideas and form alternative perceptions (9). When we make the conscious effort to use descriptive rather than judgmental language, we stop arguing for a position. We open the door for ourselves and for our conversation partners to come in a share a space where we might both be virtuous and sane, even as we disagree with one another. (10)
Emotions are inevitable when the stakes are high, outcomes uncertain, and information about the situation is subjective (11). But many feel that expressing particular emotions (if any) in the work place is inappropriate (12). When these views are reinforced by the behaviors of influential leaders, they reinforce group norms and become cemented as a component of an organization’s culture. (13)
But can you remain authentic if you cut yourself off from your emotional response to a situation? What does anyone gain by denying or invalidating deep-felt emotions? (14)
Apart from the implications for social and psychological health, is it even practical for any of us to pursue the dehumanizing goal of becoming an emotional cypher? (15)
While a cultural norm built around suppressing emotions is arguably self-defeating, it also fails to reap the benefits that come from acknowledging and expressing emotions in the work place: “When we invite, instruct or tell a truth we see with passion, the commitment we feel is communicated to the listener and can ignite in them a similar passion or commitment.” (16)
Stone, Patton and Heen provide us with an outline of how we can skillfully share our emotions. “While the drawbacks of avoiding feelings are inevitable, the drawbacks of sharing feelings are not. If you are able to share feelings with skill, you can avoid many of the potential costs associated with expressing your feelings into your conversations and into your relationships in ways that are healthy, meaningful, and satisfying:
This outline, while deceptive in its simplicity, is nonetheless a very useful model if we are willing to invest the necessary time and energy in person reflection. For starters, we typically don’t know our own emotions as well as we might think (18). Next, since our emotions are reactions to our perceptions and we can question and influence our perceptions, with focus and effort we can also influence our emotions (19).
Finally, we need to recognize when our emotions disguise themselves as judgments if we wish to engage in productive conversations that seek to collaboratively uncover and deal with underlying problems (20). We’ll explore this aspect of collaborative problem solving in a future series of posts on the Courage to Share.
In these three posts, we have uncovered the crucial part speaking up plays in effective collaboration, and we have explored some of the reflective and interpersonal skills necessary to ensure that our openness translates into consistently virtuous personal contributions to our organizations and communities. Now we need to practice, practice, practice!
We also need to learn how to listen, which is the subject of the next post.
1. “Would-be managers and leaders often, sometimes unwittingly, abuse effective language principles and, in so doing, undermine their ability to manage and lead. They may use phrases that they learned at home, at school, in their neighborhood, or in their work that are counterproductive to their attempts to motivate, explain, describe, or evaluate. When this happens, miscommunication, misunderstanding, and confusion at a minimum, can occur. At worst, misusing language can cause outcomes and effects exactly opposite of those intended.” James Clawson, Empowering Language, University of Virginia, May 1991.
2. “Language plays a tremendous role in the process of empowerment… Empowering language edifies listeners; it leaves them with a larger sense of capacity, a larger view of the possible, a larger desire for achievement and growth, a larger boundary of influence, and a larger sense of self.” James Clawson, Empowering Language, University of Virginia, May 1991.
3. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page xxix.
4. “Problems of openness take thousands of different forms, but responses from team members point to some common themes. Here are the six categories of responses that occurred most frequently when team members were asked to identify one issue that they wished their team could discuss in an open way. 1. The communication climate… 2. Results… 3. Policies and bureaucracy… 4. Planning… 5. Role clarity… 6. Performance Issues…” Frank LaFasto and Carl Larson, When Teams Work Best: 6,000 Team Members and Leaders Tell What It Takes to Succeed pages 10-12.
5. “Empowering communicators speak clearly and clarify what they mean. Of course, this kind of communication requires that you be clear about what you believe and what you want. Without your beliefs and desires clearly in mind, you cannot be clear about what you want others to do. Gaining this kind of clarity may require long hours of self-analysis, thinking, meditation, and visioning. Some leaders are too ‘busy’ to do this kind of work, and as a result, their communications are weaker.” James Clawson, Empowering Language, University of Virginia, May 1991.
6. “How you say what you want to say will determine, in part, how others respond to you, and how the conversation will go. So when you choose to share something important, you’ll want to do so in a way that will maximize the chance that the other person will understand and respond productively. Clarity is key.” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page 195.
7. “We are all prone to naive realism, a term coined by psychologist Lee Ross, which is a person’s ‘unshakable conviction that he or she is somehow privy to an invariant, knowable, objective reality – a reality that others will also perceive faithfully, provided that they are reasonable and rational.’ So, when others misperceive our ‘reality,’ we conclude that it must be because they are unreasonable or irrational and ‘view the world through a prism of self-interest, ideological bias, or personal perversity.’” Amy Edmondson, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy page 64.
8. “Sometimes we jump to conclusions. We quickly reach an assessment of ‘okay’ or ‘not okay’ based primarily on our assumptions and a brief observation. These conclusions tend to be judgmental in nature. If these hasty conclusions motivate our behavior, our speech, our body language, or our facial expressions, we usually communicate an evaluation or a judgment.” James Clawson, Empowering Language, University of Virginia, May 1991.
9. “It constrains our thinking, reflects our basic values, and is the most common medium for the exchange of our thoughts and beliefs. The language we speak allows us to convey certain thoughts and causes us to be confused about how to convey other thoughts. Indeed, language can prohibit us from grasping and understanding certain concepts and can make other concepts available to us. With its power as the central vehicle for communicating goals, thoughts, plans, instructions, requests, and so on, in business settings, language is perhaps the most important management tool we have.” James Clawson, Empowering Language, University of Virginia, May 1991.
“It’s not enough, then, simply to imagine a different way of seeing. People must try through their actions – to create experiences that make a new way of seeing come true.” Diana McLain Smith, The Elephant in the Room: How Relationships Make or Break the Success of Leaders and Organizations page 174.
10. “When conclusions are based on descriptive data rather than judgments, they can empower and elicit changes in others’ behavior. Being able to distinguish between evaluative and descriptive statements is an important step to learning how to use empowering language.” James Clawson, Empowering Language, University of Virginia, May 1991.
“Reframing people’s differences in… descriptive, less toxic ways makes it much more likely that people can discuss their difficulties and give each other the benefit of the doubt…” Diana McLain Smith, The Elephant in the Room: How Relationships Make or Break the Success of Leaders and Organizations page 87.
11. “…conflicts typically heat up when three conditions are present: controversial or limited data that are subject to differing interpretations, high uncertainty, and high stakes. conversations can get especially heated when people hold different values or belief systems, or have different interests and incentives. This can make aspects of the conflict hard to discuss productively, because people often hesitate to mention the personal gain they anticipate from one of the potential decision outcomes.” Amy Edmondson, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy page 68.
12. “In the presence of strong feelings, many of us work hard to stay rational. Getting too deep into feelings is messy, clouds good judgment, and in some contexts – for example, at work – can seem just plain inappropriate… Better to stick to ‘Business.’ Or is it? The problem with this reasoning is that it fails to take account of one simple fact: difficult conversations do not just involve feelings, they are at their very core about feelings.” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page 13.
13. “Cultures basically spring from three sources: (1) the beliefs, values, and assumptions of founders of organizations; (2) the learning experiences of group members as their organization evolves; and (3) new beliefs, values, and assumptions brought in by new members and new leaders. Though each of these mechanisms plays a crucial role, by far the most important for cultural beginnings is the impact of founders. Founders not only choose the basic mission and the environmental context in which the new group will operate, but they choose the group members and thereby shape the kinds of responses that the group will make in its efforts to succeed in its environment and to integrate itself.” Edgar schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, page 219.
14. “In the short term, engaging in a difficult conversation without talking about feelings may save you time and reduce your anxiety. It may also seem like a way to avoid serious risks – to you, to others, and to the relationship. But the question remains: if feelings are the issue, what have you accomplished if you don’t address them?” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page 14.
15. “Unspoken feelings can color the conversation in a number of ways. They alter your affect and tone of voice. They express themselves through your body language or facial expression. They may take the form of long pauses or an odd and unexplained detachment. You may become sarcastic, aggressive, impatient, unpredictable, or defensive. Studies show that while few people are good at detecting factual lies, most of us can determine when someone is distorting, manufacturing, or withholding an emotion. That’s because, if clogged, your emotional pipes leak.” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page 88.
16. EMPOWERING LANGUAGE Professor James G. Clawson
17. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page 90-91
18. “Most of us assume that knowing how we feel is no more complicated than knowing whether we are hot or cold. We just know. But, in fact, we often don’t know how we feel… Feelings are more complex and nuanced than we usually imagine. What’s more, feelings are very good at disguising themselves. Feelings we are uncomfortable with disguise themselves as emotions we are better able to handle; bundles of contradictory feelings masquerade as a single emotion; and most important, feelings transform themselves into judgments, accusations, and attributions.” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page 91
19. “…our feelings are based on our perceptions, and our perceptions…are negotiable. As we see the world in new ways, our feelings shift accordingly. Before sharing feelings, then, it is crucial to negotiate – with ourselves…What is the story we are telling ourselves that is giving rise to how we feel? What is our story missing? What might the other person’s story be?… Are we able to see our own contribution to the problem? Are we able to describe the other person’s contribution without blaming? Are we aware of the ways that each of our contributions forms a reinforcing pattern that magnifies the problem?…” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page 100-101
20. “The difference between judgments about others and statements of our own feelings is sometimes difficult to see… They are motivated by anger or frustration or hurt, and the person on the receiving end understands very clearly that we are feeling something. Unfortunately, that person probably isn’t sure what we are feeling, and more important, is focused on the fact that we are judging, attributing, and blaming.” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page 98-99
In the previous post The Courage to Speak Up, we looked at why speaking up is so crucial to collaboration and yet remains so rare in organizations today. I suggested that both personal integrity and courage are necessary but insufficient to ensure that we make consistently virtuous contributions to our organizations and communities through speaking up. We also need two other skill sets:
This post examines two strategic aspects of speaking up: determining the ‘What’ and the ‘Where’ of sharing our thoughts.
Just tell the truth? If only it were that simple! As LaFasto and Larson observe, truth-telling is morally ambiguous at best: “We can use openness as an excuse for being caustic, insulting, psychologically cold and distant. In the name of honesty we can verbally slap each other around…” (1). Even when our motives are honorable, truth for its own sake is an insufficient justification for sharing: intentionally or not, we can do a lot of damage to our relationships in the name of truth (2).
If we hope to encourage and support an ethic of collaboration within our organizations, then the last thing we want to do is damage the very relationships that collaboration relies on (3). Yet avoiding difficult conversations just because they could lead to conflict is not the answer either (4).
So when we face a difficult issue, how can we be sure that our decision to be open and speak our mind is a morally appropriate and beneficial action? James O’Toole offers us a framework for testing whether speaking up can be considered virtuous in any particular situation:
Don’t read any further. Take the time to internalize this list: write it down on a card and carry it with you everywhere. Take it out and reflect on it whenever you face the decision of whether to be open and speak up about a contentious issue, or whether to start a difficult conversation.
By becoming proficient at reflecting on this framework during action, we define boundaries to guide us towards making more appropriate decisions on what to speak up about. Although counter-intuitive, these boundaries may actually free us to speak up more often. Amy Edmondson likens such internal boundaries to the guardrails on a bridge: although they act as barriers and restrict our movement, they also protect us; without them we’d be afraid to drive too close to the edge! (6)
Sometimes speaking up within our group has zero impact, and this leads us to an age-old moral dilemma: Where do we draw the line when our loyalty to our local group is in conflict with our responsibilities to a broader community?
Without a doubt, accepting membership to a group comes with an obligation of loyalty: we owe it to ourselves and to our colleagues to be courageous enough to express our views about the group willingly and persistently within the confines of that group.
Only after we have exhausted every possible avenue of communication and debate within the group should we consider the extreme measure of stepping outside to speak to a broader audience. Even then, we should only consider such ‘whistle blowing’ if we find that our responsibilities for protecting the well-being of the group and the broader community remain in serious conflict.
On this question of breaking group loyalty and speaking our minds to outsiders, James O’Toole recommends Aristotle’s own thoughts on virtue and anger: “The virtuous person…becomes angry at the right time, over the right issue, and to the right degree… [The] questions we might ask of ourselves to develop the moral muscles needed to allow us to meet those three criteria habitually:
Remember that card on which you wrote out the framework for testing whether speaking up is virtuous in any particular situation? Take it out, turn it over, and write down these four questions on the back. When your internal sense of conflict turns to anger and drives you toward extreme action, stop and reflect on this side of the card. Is your anger virtuous? Does it justify an escalation of your openness to a broader audience?
On the rare occasions that any of us find ourselves in the grim situation of needing to reference this side of the card, we should not kid ourselves about the personal implications. Breaking group loyalty is hardly ever considered praiseworthy, not by our colleagues, and not often by those in the broader community whom we hope to protect by whistle blowing (8).
Start reflecting on your past decisions to speak up: did your decisions meet the framework? Were your actions always virtuous?
These skills are not easily cultivated: they will take deep reflection and disciplined practice to master. Yet, when they are combined with personal integrity and courage, they are still insufficient.
The final post in this series on speaking up will explore the language and communication skills that are essential to speaking up effectively about contentious issues or initiating difficult conversations. It can take great skill to speak up without damaging our relationships or jeopardizing the ethics of contribution and norms of collaboration that we strive to encourage and support in our organizations.
Visit the final post in this series on speaking up: How to Speak Up
1. Frank LaFasto and Carl Larson, When Teams Work Best: 6,000 Team Members and Leaders Tell What It Takes to Succeed page 17.
2. “As every family knows, inappropriate or careless truth telling can be hurtful, and ultimately fatal, to relationships. In fact, great unintentional harm can be done when speaking truthfully.” Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, James O’Toole, Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor page 73.
3. “All the way back to Achilles and Agamemnon on the beaches of Troy, relationships have had the power to create or to destroy enormous amounts of human, social, and economic capital.” Diana McLain Smith, The Elephant in the Room: How Relationships Make or Break the Success of Leaders and Organizations page 8.
4. “Why is it so difficult to decide whether to avoid or to confront? Because at some level we know the truth: If we try to avoid the problem, we’ll feel taken advantage of…and we’ll rob the other person of the opportunity to improve things. But if we confront the problem, things might get even worse.” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page xxix.
5. Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, James O’Toole, Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor page 74.
6. “lf the guardrails are missing, you’re likely to drive as close to the center line as possible. It’s obviously frightening to drive near the bridge’s edge without rails in place. When teaming and learning, the equivalent is sticking to safe, tractable behaviors that shield you from possible punishment, while avoiding behaviors with interpersonal risk…” Amy Edmondson, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy page 145.
7. Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, James O’Toole, Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor page 76.
8. “To be sure, people who speak out sometimes get their day in the sun: Sherron Watkins of Enron, Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom, and Coleen Rowley at the FBI all ended up on the cover of Time as ‘Persons of the Year.’ But public recognition of a few people does not mean that speaking out is necessarily viewed as courageous or praiseworthy. Most individuals who go against their organizations or express their concerns publicly are severely punished. If they’re not fired outright, they’re usually marginalized and made to feel irrelevant.” Leslie Perlow and Stephanie Williams, Is Silence Killing Your Company? HBR, May 2003.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. (1)
“…just about everything worthwhile we’ve seen happen in teams originated in the mind of a single individual who then had the courage to express it.” (2)
“All too often, behind failed products, broken processes, and mistaken decisions are people who chose to hold their tongues rather than to speak up.” (3)
We all know that organizational success hinges on people collaborating effectively with each other, and the first step to effective collaboration is speaking up and sharing our thoughts (4). We all know this, and yet we each maintain personal filters that potentially limit our positive contributions within the workplace (5).
When our ideas and beliefs seem at odds with others, how often do we find ourselves deferring to authority and the status quo rather than speaking up and taking action? How often do we also observe others submitting to consensus rather than participating in the hard work of constructive conflict and leadership?
If your first reaction to this question is “Yes, I always stand up and say what I think when it matters!” then you are not alone. Unfortunately, it appears that the majority of us are deluding ourselves. As Amy Edmondson reports: “Although most people we studied thought of themselves as pretty straightforward, rather than hesitant or fearful, they still held back potentially important ideas at work. In this study, and several that followed, we showed that there is a remarkable paucity of directness in the workplace.” (6)
To reflect on whether you speak up enough, I propose a simple litmus test. Ask yourself these two questions:
If you are not happy with current outcomes in your organization, if you could have spoken up (but didn’t), and if the only thing that stopped you was a sense of cultural inappropriateness, then you aren’t speaking up enough.
Speaking up takes courage and demonstrates integrity (8). Yet no amount of heroic courage or flawless integrity will reduce the anxiety we each feel when we face the harrowing prospect of upsetting the status quo by voicing a contrarian view.
“Openness, unfortunately, is a painful process. Most of our experiences with openness are negative because they usually occur while managing contention. They deal with giving and receiving feedback, or trying to resolve differences or, in exasperation, finally stammering out some deeply guarded feeling.” (9)
While integrity compels us to speak up and courage empowers us to do so, it can also take great skill to navigate the pitfalls of communicating our beliefs in emotionally charged situations.
In addition to integrity and courage, we also need to develop two skill sets to ensure that we make virtuous contributions through speaking up:
We could each spend a lifetime of disciplined practice and persistent reflection towards mastering these skills. With this in mind, my next two posts will explore these skills and how we might start cultivating them in ourselves and others.
What could be more noble than spending time developing the very skills that we need to encourage and support a healthy culture of collaboration and make more consistently virtuous personal contributions to our organizations and communities?
Visit the next post in this series: The What and Where of Speaking Up
1. Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, James O’Toole, Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor page 46.
2. Frank LaFasto and Carl Larson, When Teams Work Best: 6,000 Team Members and Leaders Tell What It Takes to Succeed page 26.
3. Leslie Perlow and Stephanie Williams, Is Silence Killing Your Company? HBR, May 2003.
4. “Candid communication allows teams to incorporate multiple perspectives and tap into individual knowledge. This includes asking questions; seeking feedback; talking about errors; asking for help; offering suggestions; and discussing problems, mistakes, and concerns. Speaking up is particularly crucial when confronting problems or failures of any kind. When people are willing to engage with each other directly and openly, they are better able to make sense of the larger shared work and more likely to generate ideas for improving work processes.” Amy Edmondson, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy page 53.
5. “…imagine that while you are in a conversation with your boss, you consider fleetingly, ‘should I say something about this?’ In this almost imperceptible thinking process, you weigh the potential gain against the potential loss. You wonder, ‘If I do this, will I be hurt, embarrassed, or criticized?’…” Amy Edmondson, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy page 120.
6. Amy Edmondson, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy page 54.
7. “To break the walls of silence, sometimes we have to behave in ways that are not considered appropriate for our particular organization. Put differently, we must act deviantly – for example, by choosing to ask tough questions at a company meeting where employees normally just accept the decisions of top management. Although deviance often carries negative connotations, it is not synonymous with dysfunctionality. Deviance is, at heart, a creative act – a way of searching out and inventing new approaches to doing things. Acts of deviance can point to areas where organizations need to change and can result in fruitful alternatives. The chief thing to keep in mind here is that norms can have exceptions. By challenging a particular norm, we can play a role in changing it.” Leslie Perlow and Stephanie Williams, Is Silence Killing Your Company? HBR, May 2003.
8. “…If you believe that…you could be hurt but you speak anyway, then you are demonstrating courage. Typically, proceeding means being authentic. It means expressing the work-relevant thoughts and feelings on your mind without excessive self-censorship.” Amy Edmondson, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy page 120.
“When I refer to integrity, I have something very simple and very specific in mind. Integrity, as I will use the term, requires three steps: (1) discerning what is right and what is wrong; (2) acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost; and (3) saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right from wrong.” Stephen Carter, Integrity page 7.
9. Frank LaFasto and Carl Larson, When Teams Work Best: 6,000 Team Members and Leaders Tell What It Takes to Succeed page 43.
It’s usually pretty easy to identify an organization’s espoused values – these are what we tell each other and the outside world about our organization (and, by extension, about ourselves). We embed them in mission statements, strategic plans, visions, and policies. We broadcast them to the world via websites and printed documents. We hope that these values are inspiring and engaging for employees and customers alike.
But sometimes, we let our quest for inspiring vision take us too far from grounded organizational reality and into the ethereal realm of hyperbole. When we do, people inside and outside the firm perceive that our visions are clearly beyond our capabilities or not reflected in the way we choose to do business. Our organization loses credibility.
It’s easy to demonstrate this by lampooning Big Tobacco, where moral and ethical arguments for the entire industry are difficult to make:
Take, for example, Reynolds American (RAI), manufacturer of ubiquitous cigarette brands Camel and Pall Mall, among others (1). Its vision used to be: “the innovative tobacco company totally committed to building value through responsible growth.” As Tony Schwartz observed, how does a tobacco company grow responsibly? I believe that this is a good example of a non-authentic mission and an empty set of values. RAI’s website used to extol its core values of Principled, Creative, Dynamic, Passionate, on the same page that it disclosed that “Cigarette smoking is a leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States.” (2)
I guess that the leadership eventually saw the irony in all of this, and dumped the values page and replaced it with their vision page: “We will achieve market leadership by transforming the tobacco industry.” (3)
RAI has filled its vision page with 1300 words on its Guiding Principles and Beliefs surrounding Tobacco Use and Health, Tobacco Regulation & Communication, Tobacco Consumers, and Harm Reduction, which are also supplemented by its Commitment to Diversity and Statement on Our Efforts to Support Human Rights (3).
It’s a big page with lots of words, and almost 400 of these are devoted to RAI’s Support of Human Rights principles. I don’t want to trivialize the critical importance of Human Rights in any way. But, I wonder how necessary it is for us to understand that RAI “Support[s] and respect[s] the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights within their sphere of influence” when “more than 99 percent of [RAI's] total [RAI brand] tobacco sales revenue…is generated from the U.S. market”? Further, since “almost all [of RAI's] employees are American citizens based in the United States…”, surely RAI’s compliance with US laws would be enough to give most of us comfort that they are taking sufficient steps to “make sure they are not complicit in human rights abuses.”
So, why are they devoting almost a third of their vision page to this? I guess when you take out lofty core values such as Principled, Creative, Dynamic, Passionate, you have to put something back in. By the way, you can still find their previous core values on the helpful page about preparing for a job interview with RAI (4), and also on the page explaining employee responsibility, along with their old focus on responsible growth (5).
While it’s easy to poke fun at the absurdly difficult task of articulating inspiring and authentic values for development and growth of the tobacco industry, it’s more uncomfortable to turn our focus inward. What values and policies does your organization espouse that operational reality does not even come close to achieving? Does your organization take responsibility and do everything that a reasonable person would expect you to, given the words in your vision statements?
For example, consider just how cheaply you could implement an environmental sustainability policy for an office: you could switch to refillable pens and recycled paper (to reduce office consumables), and you could turn down the heat a bit and promote employee car-pooling (to reduce emissions). But are these efforts credible? Do employees accept responsibility for reducing your carbon footprint by carpooling, or do they wonder why you rent cheap office space on the outskirts of town instead of downtown where they could realistically consider public transport instead of commuting by car in the first place?
So, pick a big hairy issue which your values explicitly or implicitly try to tackle, and which remain at odds with your organization’s current operational reality. Is it a stretch objective that motivates change or is it a credibility gap? Remember: large gaps between vision and reality not only put the organization at risk of losing credibility with employees and clients, you also risk losing personal integrity, since you are complicit in both forming the visions and shaping the reality (6).
Don’t let your organization’s credibility gap turn into your personal integrity gap – are you doing enough to turn organizational values into operational reality?
1. Refer to Schwartz, T. 2010. “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working”, page 162.
2. http://www.reynoldsamerican.com/values.cfm accessed in 2010, this page is no longer available.
3. http://www.reynoldsamerican.com/vision.cfm accessed on 20 January 2013.
4. http://www.reynoldsamerican.com/Careers/interview.cfm accessed on 20 January 2013.
5. http://reynoldsamerican.com/employee.cfm?plank=employee-resp4 accessed on 20 January 2013.
6. Refer to my previous post, You’re always communicating something, even when you’re silent for a definition of integrity.
Most management practitioners now realize that the age old question of motivation has now morphed into a question of engagement (refer to my previous post, A History of Management Histories… (Goodbye ‘Modern Management’) for more on the context and history of this question).
This realization is reinforced by management writers and academics who have been telling us for some time now that engagement is a fundamental requirement for sustained organizational success:
A new book by Karen Martin, The Outstanding Organization, places Engagement as one of four ‘fundamental conditions’ that allow an organization to sustain consistently high value delivery over extended time frames;
W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne argued that Fair Process was essential to harnessing the energy and creativity of employees, and described engagement as one of the three ‘bedrock elements’ of Fair Process;
Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer have written much about their extensive research into the inner work life and how this research informs us about what impacts employee engagement on a daily basis (1);
Gary Hamel has described how “…management innovation really can help a company overcome the disengagement and malaise that is endemic in traditionally managed workplaces.” (The Future of Management, page 80-81).
Clearly, engagement is more than compliance-on-steroids, but as Karen Martin observes, “there is a high degree of confusion about whether engagement is an attitude, a behavior, an outcome, or all three” (reporting on a comment made by Kings College Professor David Guest, page 152).
Martin describes engagement as “…an outcome that results when an organization takes active steps with its employees to foster connections, to hand over control of appropriate aspects of the work environment, and to challenge the employee’s intellectual capacity and creativity in a way that benefits the organization, its customers, the employee, and society as a whole.” (page 152-153)
Kim and Mauborgne suggested that “Engagement means involving individuals in the decisions that affect them by asking for their input and allowing them to refute the merits of one another’s ideas and assumptions. Engagement communicates management’s respect for individuals and their ideas. Encouraging refutation sharpens everyone’s thinking and builds collective wisdom. Engagement results in better decisions by management and greater commitment from all involved in executing those decisions.”
But for my money, William Kahn provides the most compelling model for engagement. (I’m not alone in this view, given how often his 1990 paper is cited by others!)
Building on and extending the work of previous researchers, he posited that “People occupy roles at work… [They] can use varying degrees of their selves… in the roles they perform, even as they maintain the integrity of the boundaries between who they are and the roles they occupy.” Kahn defined engagement as “…the simultaneous employment and expression of a person’s “preferred self” in task behaviors that promote connections to work and to others, personal presence (physical, cognitive, and emotional), and active, full role performances.”
Regardless of your favorite definition, achieving employee engagement is inextricably linked to the ideas of collaboration and empowerment. If you want someone to give more of their true selves in the service of the organization, then there are a few questions that the organization’s leadership needs to ask itself first:
Not surprisingly, these questions are similar to those that collaboration researchers have asked of organizations and their team members who are trying to improve teaming outcomes (3).
So, the last question for you is this: Are you and your colleagues willing to work through these seven questions, and in the process, transform your organization to achieve enduring engagement?
(1) Refer, for example, to Amabile and Kramer:
How Leaders Kill Meaning at Work, The McKinsey Quarterly, January 2012.
The Progress Principle, Harvard Business Review Press, 2011.
The Power of Small Wins, Harvard Business Review, May 2011.
Creativity Under The Gun, Harvard Business Review, August 2002.
(2) Edmondson, A. The Competitive Imperative of Learning, Harvard Business Review, July 2008.
(3) Refer, for example, to:
Edmondson, A. Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy
LaFasto, F. and Larson, C. When Teams Work Best : 6,000 Team Members and Leaders Tell What It Takes to Succeed
The question of how to ‘motivate the workers’ has been a serious topic of management discourse since the time of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management. This question is an artifact of a bygone era: the dawn of work forces and production lines. Yet, after one hundred years of serious focused thought, this question persists as a valid topic for discussion today.
Why? Well, partly because Taylor was so successful in his efforts to organize and manage workers to achieve operational efficiency, his ideas of the rational-economic worker continue to influence underlying management operating assumptions today, even as academic management discourse has moved on. The most outdated of these assumptions (emanating from the division of labor along the production line) is that each employee, divorced from most of the steps required to manufacture a product, has no intrinsic motivation to complete his/her task and must therefore be extrinsically motivated by ‘management.’ (1)
The rise of complex work and the knowledge worker, however, has provoked the realization that most work today cannot be tightly scripted, externally monitored, and controlled by managers utilizing the traditional production line metaphor. This realization has prompted management practitioners to adopt newer ideas from academic management discourse and has caused the archaic question of motivation to morph into the currently popular question of engagement.
Since Taylor, management discourse has gradually ‘rediscovered’ that humans possess a fundamental need for self-actualization. “Products of disciplinary education and disciplinary society in general, [knowledge workers] have internalized a desire to do the job as a means of getting ‘ahead’ and require of management that it remove barriers rather than induce effort.” (Jacques, page 161).
As Schein has observed, “Being human is not just a physical property but also a cultural construction… At the organizational level, the basic assumptions about the nature of human nature are often expressed most clearly in how workers and managers are viewed. Within the Western tradition, we have seen an evolution of assumptions about human nature, as follows:
“1. Humans as rational-economic actors;
“2. Humans as social animals with primarily social needs;
“3. Humans as problem solvers and self-actualizers, with primary needs to be challenged and to use their talents;
“4. Humans as complex and malleable.” (page 143 – 144).
Some organizational cultures still cling to assumption 1, some incorporate assumption 2, others attempt to respond to assumptions 3 or 4.
However, while the language has changed, the question remains the same: how will ‘management’ align worker effort with the organization’s goals?
The Servant Leader is a popular concept today, seen as a way of ameliorating the worst aspects of authoritative management practices. This leader’s purpose is to assist the various individuals who make up an organization to achieve their full potential by removing the barriers to their development, collaboration, and execution of tasks.
In other words, the Servant Leader is singularly focused on the question of engagement: how to align each individual’s personal goals and need for self-actualization with commitment to and participation in achieving the organization’s goals. As honorable a purpose as assisting others can be, however, the Servant Leader’s true purpose remains the same as previous generations of managers: to achieve organizational goals. The only difference now is that the Servant Leader has replaced the Autocratic Leader’s use of command-and-control with the more subtle mode of encouraging deep commitment and driving participation through empowerment.
That’s not to say that the ‘Servant Leader’ hasn’t made some real progress: empowered workers in some organizations are “…able to make decisions about their immediate jobs or to participate in somewhat broader decisions about their own units” (Manville and Ober). But consider for a moment what an organization of deeply committed and singularly aligned and driven individuals would look like. Would there still be a need for the Servant Leader, or is the empowered work force now self-managed?
Jacques takes this line of questioning further: “Do ‘self-managing’ workers give themselves promotions? Do they set production goals or make production technology decisions? What are the limits of self-management? The completely self-managing worker or work group would become an independent contractor.” (page 166).
If Servant Leaders were to achieve their goals of engaging the entire membership of an organization through empowerment, what role would be left for them in this organization?
As Manville and Ober have observed, “…we have no working template for a truly democratic system of management – one suited to the knowledge worker’s need for and expectation of self-determination and self-government.” Instead, Manville and Ober looked outside of Management discourse for a model of how future organizations could operate. They found their compelling model in the distant past: the city-state of ancient Athens.
Manville and Ober rediscovered in ancient Athens a set of participatory structures, communal values, and practices of engagement that form a compelling model of how future organizations, engaging in the complex domain of the knowledge worker, could operate. Here, Manville and Ober argue that effective motivation of the modern knowledge worker potentially equates to that of the ancient Athenian citizen, but will require an incredible departure from popular understanding of how an organization should operate today:
“A set of clearly defined and universally understood processes and institutions—including councils, courts, assemblies, and executive offices—served to minimize hierarchy, inhibit the development of a ruling class, and engage citizens in governance and jurisprudence. In addition to taking part in local policy making, every adult male Athenian had the opportunity to attend the great citizen assembly… steered by a council of 500 citizens whose membership rotated annually… At some point in their lives, most of Athens’s 30,000 citizens had the opportunity to participate as a leader.
“For ancient Athenians, as for knowledge workers today, motivation came from a higher purpose – from a sense of shared ownership in their community’s destiny… Critical to the day-to-day integration of individual and community was… the shared belief that engagement in the life of the community was educational in the broadest sense: It gave each individual the chance to become better, to grow wiser, and to fully develop his talents. As a citizen, you owed the community your best effort; the community, in return, owed you every opportunity to fulfill your potential.
“To the Athenians… the practices of democracy were not just about ‘doing citizenship’ but also about ‘learning citizenship.’ They continually refined their understanding of the workings of democracy through their actions and interactions in public squares, in leadership roles, and in jury trials.” (Manville and Ober).
What an amazingly engaging place such an organization would be: a place in which we all participate in all manner of decisions, not just ones directly affecting us; a place where we are all truly supported to reach our individual potentials and participate as leaders in our own rights; a place where there is no need for negotiation and compromise between individual and community goals, because these are indistinguishable. But what will happen to all of today’s permanent managers? Will they relinquish hierarchical status and authoritative power willingly?
Our interpretations of ‘histories’ often tells us more about our own cultural assumptions, rather than the context in which they were written or even the events they were written about.
Consider, for example, the preface to The Order of Things in which Foucault discusses his reaction to a passage from ‘a certain Chinese encyclopaedia’:
“This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought – our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography – breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.”
I use the term ‘management’ in this post to refer interchangeably to the function of managing people and also as the name of that great diffused network of intellectuals, consultants, and practitioners who self-identify as being responsible for effectively organizing human effort.
Time differences are a logistical reality for today’s global businesses. But the time difference between many mature organizations and the societies in which they operate can be fifty years plus. No joke.
Consider the U.S. and Canada (1):
If industrialization in post-civil war America prompted the domestication of farmers, artisans, and independent shop-keepers into employees (refer to Jacques for more on this argument), then the great social reforms since WWII (civil rights movement, feminism, aboriginal reconciliation, de-stigmatization of disabilities, etc.) have emancipated the citizen.
People in free societies are no longer silenced by authority or self-censorship. Instead, they now demand, albeit with varying success, “to be seen, to be recognized, to be treated with dignity, to be listened to, and to participate in decisions that shape their lives.” (Clawson, emphasis added).
The broader cultures of the U.S. and Canada have generally moved on from the 1950s – that’s why the behaviors and espoused values of the characters of the television series Mad Men are simultaneously quaint and shocking to those of us born in and after the 1960s.
Yet the difference between what we are each willing to accept as appropriate treatment in broader society and in our workplaces can be palpable. As Hamel observes:
“In a democracy, the pace of change depends only tangentially on the vision and moral courage of those in power. Social campaigners, industry groups, think tanks, and ordinary citizens all have the chance to shape the legislative agenda and influence political priorities.
“The legitimacy that democracy accords to activists is based on a belief that every citizen has the right to be a policy innovator… [and] reflects a deep trust in the capacity of the electorate to choose wisely from among the many policy options…
“Rarely, though, do companies extend this sort of trust to their employees. Instead, they cling to the belief that institutional success depends disproportionately on the leadership qualities of the CEO and the senior executive team.” (page 168).
Luckily for the incumbents above us that seem to hold the same operating assumptions as characters out of Mad Men, most of us must be either too apathetic or too scared to participate as activists within our work places! Or am I being too quick to judge us all as lazy and timid? After all, it can be extremely difficult to recognize the broader patterns of cultural influence from inside the organization.
Just as fish may not be aware of the water they’re swimming in, you may not be aware of the pervasive influence that organizational culture has over you and your colleagues. Culture shapes behavior and provides a framework for interactions. It influences the language and subjects of conversations, it limits the thoughts you can form, and it suggests the values and assumptions you can hold (2). A group’s culture is influenced by its membership and particularly by its leaders. Conversely, culture also influences who can be recognized as members and as leaders of a group (refer to Schein for more on Organizational Culture).
From the outside, it is difficult to spot whether an organization has a progressive culture or is quietly preserving an already petrified one. But if you’re on the inside of one of these ‘traditionalist’ organizations, either the dust and mildew of century old management assumptions are chocking you, or you’re so used to shallow-breathing in this stale and toxic environment that you no longer notice it.
It’s time to shake off the stupor and become aware of the culture you’re breathing. The following tables may help (refer to Schein for a much more insightful and detailed treatment of recognizing the elements and influence of organizational culture).
The precisely calibrated and explicit statements of hierarchical status include:
Some of the likely underlying assumptions of prevailing authoritative cultures include:
The above artifacts and assumptions translate into the practices of how things get done in an authoritative organization. These typically include:
Flexible or vaguely defined structures, with an emphasis on relationships and personal commitments within autonomous teams:
Some of the likely underlying assumptions of a prevailing collaborative culture include:
The above artifacts and assumptions translate into the practices of how things get done in a collaborative organization. These can include:
If you are still unsure of whether your organizational culture is a vibrant open-air park, or a museum’s oppressive basement storeroom, consider the outlines I have suggested in the tables above and then ask yourself this question: “How does the work get done in my organization?” If the answer is “Orders come from above, usually accompanied by limited explanation,” then, as Jan Miner would have cried, “You’re soaking in it!”
Now, what are YOU going to do about it?
(1) – I have chosen the dominant mainstream English-speaking cultures of the U.S. and Canada as a convenient context for the purpose of this post. I am not dismissing the existence or importance of the diverse sub-cultures and semi-autonomous non-English speaking cultures that also exist within these countries. Nor am I dismissing the experiences of other English and non-English speaking western cultures, or other emerging and progressive cultures that may be following similar trajectories.
(2) – Refer to Clawson for a lucid treatment of how language can constrain thought and action, and how empowering language can help build collaborative behaviors.
(3) – Refer to Hamel’s descriptions of W.L. Gore, Whole Foods Market, and Google, for inspiring examples. Refer also to Edmondson, LaFasto, and Ancona for guidance on developing a greater focus collaboration within your own organization.
Consider the following hypothetical:
Sally is a valued member of Team 5, one of the teams within the business unit you manage. She is highly competent and well-liked by her co-workers. Unfortunately, you’ve just been informed by her supervisor that she intends to leave the firm next month. While it is difficult to find a positive side to this news, it will also be an obvious omission on your part if you don’t publicly acknowledge this pending loss, simply because it will become obvious when Sally is no longer around, but that’s weeks away …
You’re too busy to pay attention to everything that you’d like to within the business unit. You have to prioritize, and that means being selective about what messages and signals you send, and bad news is way down on your list of priorities. So, word of Sally’s impending exit is spread informally by word of mouth alone. Your rational decision to prioritize and be selective about your official announcements has just helped transform this ‘bad news’ into a ‘shared secret’ held by an ever growing community, starting with management, spreading to members of Team 5, and eventually to everyone else within the business unit.
Now imagine that in the space between Sally’s departure becoming a broadly held ‘shared secret’ and Sally actually leaving, you announce some positive news: due to rapid expansion in Team 5’s market share, you’re calling for expressions of interest from anyone wishing to join this team.
Snap! You have just been caught in a devious trap caused by your own previous silence: you are now signaling something that appears to ‘those in the know’ to be inconsistent with the shared secret they hold. You may not even be aware of the trap, since the inconsistency isn’t real from your perspective – you had already decided to grow Team 5 before you knew of Sally’s plans to leave.
But real or not, the effect is still the same: the extra weight of implied secrecy surrounding Sally’s impending departure makes it seem not only relevant to (and therefore in conflict with) the reasons you publicly provided for recruiting people for Team 5, but also more reliable than your public message. The conspiracy theorists among your employees may even take this inconsistency as evidence of deception on your part. You may not realize it at the time, but trust in your leadership has just been subtly diminished.
It’s human nature to avoid talking about bad news: whether that bad news suggests blame / culpability on the part of the messenger, or an organizational failing that makes us feel like we’re not part of the ‘A’ team, or even just rotten luck leading to a bad outcome we’d rather not dwell on.
Unfortunately, just as in the hypothetical, when we as leaders don’t publicly announce and openly discuss bad news, we not only lose the opportunity to manage and reframe the message, we also contribute to a corrosive culture of opacity and potentially damage trust in our own leadership.
Every action in an organization impacts organizational culture – it can either help build or erode the culture we want to achieve. As leaders, our actions have more influence than other team members, even though that influence may seem invisible at times, particularly when team members do not speak up. So when the omissions of a leader seem to support opacity, a culture of opacity (i.e. a culture that creates ‘taboo subjects’ and ‘shared secrets’) is reinforced.
When we don’t take the initiative to broadcast bad news, the news travels privately by word of mouth. It still becomes functionally ‘public’ in the sense that everyone eventually holds the knowledge, but in the absence of an explicit public acknowledgement, it joins the class of things that we do not openly talk about.
Critically, a culture of opacity does little to support the collaborative environments (i.e. which rely on openness) that many organizations strive to encourage – refer also to my previous post on Edmondson’s Teaming and my three part post on Competitive Advantage Through Transparency.
Apart from the deleterious effect on organizational culture, omitting public discussion of bad news can also erode our effectiveness as leaders.
When we fail to publicly announce a piece of bad news that a few people know about, chances are, that news will eventually spread, but it will be spread as a ‘shared secret’ which is not openly discussed.
Given our access to the information that has informed our actions, we may well be satisfied that we behave rationally, consistently and with integrity.
However, if we have been silent on an earlier matter that is perceived by others to be inconsistent with our current actions, we have unwittingly eroded others’ perceptions of our integrity and trust in our leadership. Too many such occurrences can lead to skepticism, and finally to cynicism – “the downsizing of hope” (as LaFasto and Larson put it, page 164).
There is really no way around it: like honesty, disclosure is the best policy.
The obvious and direct benefit of openly disclosing / announcing bad news is that we have the opportunity to manage the communication. With a bit of thought, we can sometimes reframe bad news into a message that supports and reinforces our organizational values and goals, by emphasizing the upside, or by putting the bad news into a broader, more positive, context.
One straightforward and authentic response to the above hypothetical is to publicly announce the loss that Team 5 and the organization as a whole will feel with Sally’s departure, celebrate what Sally has achieved while working with Team 5, and wish her the very best for the future.
We haven’t changed the knowledge that everyone will eventually hold (after all, everyone will eventually know that she is gone!), but we have broadened the context of the bad news by celebrating her achievements and simultaneously signaling pride in our colleagues and our teams, and reinforcing a culture of openness and candor.
We have also disarmed the trap by removing the connotation that this knowledge is somehow secret: it no longer holds the perceived relevance / higher value / reliability that secrecy implies.
It goes without saying that an effective leader is both visionary and motivator: an effective leader builds powerful visions which draw people in, and also has a knack for removing barriers to action and motivating people to work together to realize those visions. If that isn’t a tall enough order, we also expect our best leaders to outperform their peers as cognitive powerhouses, assimilating all the relevant information available, seeing patterns where others see noise, and reliably making the right decisions for the group they lead as well as for the broader community.
But there is a larger reason, beyond personal effectiveness, for a leader to be aware of and guard against their own cognitive errors: some argue that a leader’s moral failures often stem from cognitive failures rather than from volitional ones; in other words, a leader’s cognitive error can sometimes be considered a moral failure (for more on this argument, refer to Edwin M. Hartman’s review of Terry L. Price’s 2006 book Understanding Ethical Failures in Leadership).
“Well, that’s OK,” you might reply. “I’m an ethical person and I am fully prepared to take moral responsibility for all of my actions. I’m a strong believer in self-improvement, so I’ll read a few articles to get familiar with the kinds of cognitive errors the experts have identified, and then take extra care to avoid making them myself.”
That doesn’t seem like a bad approach, at first glance, and there is certainly a lot of advice out there on cognitive errors and biases. The following articles and books (in chronological order) offer a good starting point, for example:
Edmondson, “Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy,” Jossey-Bass, 2012, pages 60-67.
Kahneman, et. al. “The Big Idea: Before You Make That Big Decision…,” Harvard Business Review, 2011.
Lovallo, et. al. “The Case for Behavioral Strategy,” McKinsey Quarterly, 2010.
Stanovich, et. al. “Contaminated Mindware: Thinking Biases of the Cognitive Miser,” Rotman Magazine, 2010.
Roxburgh, “Hidden Flaws in Strategy,” McKinsey Quarterly, 2003.
Ross, “The Intuitive Psychologist and His Shortcomings: Distortions in the Attribution Process,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology Volume 10, 1977.
While doing some background reading to become a ‘local expert’ on cognitive errors is admirable, being aware of your own cognitive errors is easier said than done! For example, think carefully through the following puzzle (reproduced from Stanovich et. al.):
Jack is looking at Anne but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?
A) Yes B) No C) Cannot be determined
Did you answer C? If you did, you are not alone. Most of us (who, no doubt, also consider ourselves to be careful thinkers!) choose C. However, the correct answer is A: regardless of Anne’s marital status, someone is still looking at an unmarried person. Take a minute to think through this puzzle again, this time by testing in turn each of Anne’s two possible states: married or unmarried.
Stanovich et. al. use this example to highlight the difference between the two modes of thinking cognitive scientists call Type 1 (or intuitive) and Type 2 (or reflective), and how much more taxing the second mode can be. Type 1 thinking happens by default without our conscious attention. We use Type 1 thinking to complete many seemingly ordinary and familiar operations at once, for example: walking across a busy street, in step with a friend, while eating an ice-cream cone, and carrying on a conversation.
We choose to use Type 2 thinking when we wish to navigate an unfamiliar situation or solve a challenging problem. It takes a lot more effort to use Type 2 thinking, so we use it sparingly. Typically, we engage in Type 2 thinking to focus on one thing at a time, even while we are completing many other operations simultaneously using Type 1 thinking. But, even then, as the above example illustrates, we can still be caught out by not expending quite enough Type 2 effort to think a problem through clearly enough.
But the devilish problem with cognitive errors is not that we are all prone to make them, as many researchers have painfully pointed out. The real problem is that we are hardly ever aware that we are making such errors, particularly when we are engaged in Type 1 thinking, which is most of the time!
As Kahneman et. al. report: “…this also explains why the management experts writing about cognitive biases have not provided much practical help. Their overarching theme is ‘forewarned is forearmed.’ But knowing you have biases is not enough to help you overcome them. You may accept that you have biases, but you cannot eliminate them in yourself.”
So, if becoming a ‘local expert’ on cognitive errors is not going to help prevent you from making them yourself, what exactly is a leader to do?
This is the crux of the problem and, I believe, the biggest cognitive error that a leader can make: it’s a cognitive failure of scope to think of leadership only in terms of the personal qualities of the leader. While the myth of the isolated heroic leader is a conveniently simple mental model to hold (and also self-gratifying for the leaders who hold it!), it fails to recognize that leadership as a concept is essentially meaningless outside of the contexts of collaboration and organizational culture.
When we broaden our model of leadership to include the contexts of collaboration and organizational culture, a solution to the problem (of guarding against a leader’s cognitive errors) becomes apparent. As Kahneman et al. suggests, “…the fact that individuals are not aware of their own biases does not mean that biases can’t be neutralized – or at least reduced – at the organizational level… We may not be able to control our own intuition, but we can apply rational thought to detect others’ faulty intuition and improve their judgment. (In other words, we can use our System Two thinking to spot System One errors in the recommendations given to us by others.)”
To do this, we need to surround ourselves with collaborators in our leadership: people on our teams who are familiar with cognitive biases and errors, who are willing to scrutinize and question our actions and decisions, who will speak up and share their opinions, and, in this way, challenge us to sharpen our own thinking. Speaking Up in a supportive and constructive way is one of the prerequisites that researchers, including Edmondson and LaFasto, identify as fundamental to effective teaming and collaboration.
But it’s not enough to invite people to speak up about their concerns. Others will only speak up if we have consistently encouraged an organizational culture of openness and supportiveness.
LaFasto et. al. describe the impact of organizational culture this way: “It can encompass and saturate everything we do: how we communicate; how we make decisions; how we interact with one another; what we celebrate; and what discourages us… It shapes our ideas and perspectives. It can promote openness or silence. It can encourage risk taking or risk aversion. It can allow for differences or require sameness.” (page 158).
LaFasto et. al. also remind us that we need to do more than put words about teamwork in our mission statements: “Management cannot rely on an abstract dedication to collaboration. Team members must be continually reminded of its importance. Without a strong message from the top, collaboration can be easily treated as an organization virus, and all the systems and processes – and even some people – can act like antibodies. For those leaders who believe there is good business value in people working together collaboratively, there are no partial approaches. Collaboration must be an expectation that is wholeheartedly articulated and owned from the top down as the way of conducting business.” (pages 170-171).
Specifically, if we truly want to guard against our own cognitive errors, we need to overcome cultures which treat authority and hierarchy with reverence and silence (whether out of respect or fear) as an organizational norm, and constantly encourage team members to instead be respectful dissenters.
We need to build cultures that recognize collaboration and teaming as fundamental processes for decision-making as well as for action, and celebrate and reward the principled contrarian who points out our shortcomings and suggests alternative perspectives. Only then can we, as leaders, hope to consistently make good decisions and reliably take the correct course of action.
Regardless of the specifics of culture, we have all been socialized to pay closer attention to the people in a position of authority over us than to others. We may not even be aware of this during most of our daily dealings with others, but consciously or not, we generally watch our leaders more closely than our peers.
As leaders, we are aware of this to the extents that we carefully prepare our messages and curate our public personas. Many of us go beyond managing our premeditated formal communications delivered during meetings, through speeches, and through broadcast emails, to also manage (or minimize) our informal communications delivered through casual hallway and lunchroom exchanges.
Unfortunately (for leaders), people don’t just notice a leader’s deliberate words and actions (and consciously managed body language). People are also acutely aware of a leader’s response, or lack thereof, to any number of events which hold significance from the observer’s perspective.
The troubling realization for leaders is that we are each sending signals all the time, whether we mean to or not. Remaining silent or not taking action on an issue is no Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card for a leader, particularly if others perceive the issue to be significant enough to be visible to the leader and also to warrant a leadership response.
Even more troubling, the signals we are constantly sending through our words and omissions, our actions and inactions, may be interpreted by others in ways we cannot predict and have little control over at any given time.
Consider for example just one of the cognitive errors we are all prone to fall victim to, one that psychologist Lee Ross calls “naïve realism.” This common cognitive error stems from our tendency to believe what we experience is “…invariant, knowable, objective reality – a reality that others will also perceive faithfully, provided that they are reasonable and rational.” (Edmondson, p 64).
It seems that part of human nature is to assume by default that others share our views and values and see the same things we see, and see them the way that we do. Obviously, on reflection, we realize that this simply isn’t true, but it is still easy to be caught by surprise when someone we know well and usually agree with appears to assign a different level of significance to an event or suggests a different order of priorities.
Another common cognitive error is the “questionable cause” error in which we observe correlation but assume causation. For example, consider the announcement that a unit’s quarterly financial targets have been exceeded, closely followed by the announcement that a manager in the same unit has been promoted. Without further information, we easily fall into the assumption that the two events are causally related (although we hope that such promotions are based on a less arbitrary process than simply short term financial performance).
So what is a leader to do?
For starters, since we have an imperfect perception of reality and incomplete information about what others perceive, we need to understand and remain aware of common cognitive traps. (This will be the subject of a future post). We need to use this understanding to constantly test our assumptions about reality within and outside of the organization to help guard against our own cognitive errors.
Our hope is that, over time, we as leaders can influence and somewhat shape and align the values and world views of ourselves and others in the organization, and also align the organization’s espoused values with those of its membership, and vice versa. However, even if we appear to be surrounded by a soothing bubble of agreement, we should always assume that others in the broader organization do not necessarily see the same things we see, or assign the same significance to events or prioritize actions the same way we would.
Next, we need to remember that we are always communicating something to someone with every action or perceived inaction. Since we are consciously curating only a small portion of the signals we send, we have to make that portion really count. But that is easier said than done: the biggest challenge by far is to maintain a consistent message.
It goes without saying that as leaders, we need to be authentic: our actions and words should always complement each other and be drawn from our beliefs. There’s no point saying or doing something that conflicts with your beliefs since you’ll no doubt contradict yourself at some point in the future, even if your accumulated history of past actions do not belie your current inconsistency. (For more on authentic leadership, for example, refer to the Bill George article “Discovering Your Authentic Leadership” referenced in my previous post On leadership Though Revolutions).
However, there is more to being consistent than simply being authentic: leaders need to not only know and understand themselves, they also always need to act with integrity. Yale law professor Stephen Carter provides us with a precise definition of what it means to exercise integrity: “When I refer to integrity, I have something very simple and very specific in mind. Integrity, as I will use the term, requires three steps: (1) discerning what is right and what is wrong; (2) acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost; and (3) saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right from wrong.” (Integrity, p 7).
As James O’Toole observes: “Integrity comes naturally to leaders who, like Gandhi, know themselves and never have to wonder, ‘Now, just what do I believe in?’ That’s why Gandhi never had to remind himself what he had last said to this or that person, and why he could speak confidently without reference to a text or to notes.” (Transparency, p 62 ).
So, reflect long and hard about what you believe in and how your beliefs and passions compliment your organization’s espoused purpose and values. Obviously, if your values are at odds with those of your organization, you have a real problem!
Finally, take every opportunity to deliberately and unequivocally communicate your values and aspirations to everyone you can reach. Remember that you cannot over-communicate your message: you’re already signaling something to someone every minute of the day, even when you don’t mean to.
In parts one and two of this three part series, I described how professional services firms typically define themselves and choose to compete for consulting opportunities, as well as for the very talent required to deliver their services.
My analysis identified a few holes in the typical strategies professional consulting firms adopt, which isn’t surprising: Kim and Mauborgne observe that it is often an industry’s current blind spots, the unquestioned assumptions, that can form a blue ocean for the courageous few who choose to question them.
Across the professional services industry, there is a predisposition to opacity and hierarchical command-and-control structures, which blind firms to potentially huge competitive advantages in both the markets for consulting opportunities and for talent (particularly Generation Y and beyond).
A typical professional services firm could go on telling their potential clients to trust them, or they could invite their existing clients to publicly rate and review them and in so doing, evangelize their services to future clients. But this would mean going beyond the common goal of providing consistently excellent service, to also adopting a level of external transparency completely atypical for the professional services industry.
A typical professional services firm could go on telling their current and future employees that they offer flexibility and freedom, or they could begin a sustained campaign of management innovation to actually become industry leaders in employee engagement through transparency, flexibility and freedom. But, as Hamel warns, this will take a focused long-term effort in which a firm must question the efficacy of its current structures, practices and principles and choose to rebuild these around more democratic and transparent principles.
As Bennis points out, there is a general culture of mistrust within our broader societies: “As a culture, we obviously long for our public institutions, our corporations, and our other organizations to be open and honest about their dealings. We want to be confident that our leaders are telling us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth… We want to believe that, but we often do not. Despite the promise of transparency on so many lips, we often have the sinking feeling that we are not being told all that we need to know or have a right to know.” (page 93-94).
O’Toole: “The centrality of transparency to organizational health is well documented. In a hundred studies, the University of Denver’s Carl Larson found that “openness” is the primary predictor of the success in work teams. Transparency turns out to be in the long-term interest of all organizations. Indeed, it most often is in the self-interest of the very leaders who, paradoxically, refuse to listen to those who would bring them useful information.” (page 60).
My analysis suggests that by addressing both internal and external transparency as a professional services firm’s core cultural issue, it can earn greater employee trust and engagement, resulting in superior service delivery, in turn building external trust, which can ultimately only be bestowed by clients.
“This isn’t simply New Age Stuff,” Don Tapscott told CIO Insight magazine. “It’s about money and efficiency. When you have openness and candor, you drop transaction costs, you reduce office politics and game playing, you increase employee loyalty, you increase the effectiveness of collaboration and so on.” (Marcia Stepanek, Expert Voice, CIO Insight, quoted from Bennis, et al. Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor, p109)
The strategies I have suggested in this three-part post are not easy solutions, but they are lasting solutions: recognizing the potential of these strategies is no guarantee that a firm has the will or ability to rebuild its culture and systems. However, by questioning industry-standard underlying assumptions about how to compete for consulting opportunities and for talent, and taking on the formidable challenge of rebuilding organizational culture and systems to address both clients’ and employees’ yearning to trust the firms they do business with, any professional services firm can potentially access a blue ocean and leave their competition far behind to duke it out in the red oceans of commoditized services.
In part one of this three part series, I described how professional services firms typically define themselves and choose to compete for consulting opportunities. I also suggested how adoption of more externally transparent practices could lead to competitive advantage. In this part, I consider the other side of the market: how professional services firms compete for the very talent required to deliver their services.
The developed world is experiencing falling birthrates and rising rates of retirement, translating into an accelerating decline in the overall population of potential employees. As a result, the percentage of Generation Y, (born 1977 to 1997) will increase from 22% (2010) to approximately 47% of the workforce by 2014 (J. Meister and K. Willyerd, The 2020 Workplace, Harper Collins, 2010. Page 16).
Gen Y will be a challenge: “HR professionals say that these workers demand more flexibility, meaningful jobs, professional freedom, higher rewards, and a better work-life balance than older employees do.” (M. Guthridge, A. B. Komm, and E. Lawson, Making Talent a Strategic Priority, The McKinsey Quarterly 2008)
As these trends (shrinking workforce / dominance of Gen Y) continue, professional services firms will be left to compete for an ever diminishing pool of top talent. While their primary focus has been to compete with rival firms for better client relationships and consulting opportunities, looking forward they will also need to address the ever growing challenge of attracting and retaining talent.
Since top talent can access alternative products (i.e. careers, albeit before they commit to post-secondary school education), professional services firms need to not only consider factors that other local, national and international firms typically choose to compete on to attract today’s graduates and experienced talent, but also additional factors which will increase in relevance over the long term, as Gen Y come to dominate the talent market.
Based on research by Elizabeth Chambers et al. of the 19 factors influencing top talent in management roles, we can identify and categorize the factors important to professionals into three broad groups: ‘Brand’ (i.e. a firm’s reputation within the talent market); ‘Products’ (i.e. the jobs / career paths that a company offers); and ‘Price’ (i.e. compensation and lifestyle offerings) (E.G. Chambers, M, Foulon, H. Handfield-Jones, S. M. Hankin, and E. G. Michaels, The War for Talent, The McKinsey Quarterly, 1998).
The ‘Brand’ factors include:
The ‘Product’ factors include:
The ‘Price’ factors include:
While firms choose to compete on each of these factors to varying degrees, from the potential employee’s perspective there is very little real differentiation between firms overall, and particularly between national and international firms within any given profession. Since the factors that the more traditional firms choose to ignore are the very factors that Gen Y hold dearly (i.e. flexibility, meaning, professional freedom, higher rewards, and a better work-life balance), I argue that what little differentiation there currently is between these firms will become irrelevant over time as Gen Y comes to dominate the talent market.
But why do firms compete for talent so aggressively on some factors, but not others? I believe the answer lies in the fundamental assumptions professional services firms make about how a business should be structured and run.
Regardless of profession, professional services firms generally subscribe to the 20th century management model, which translates into employees having very limited self-determination within junior and mid-level roles.
How can a firm provide a higher level of autonomy and freedom to employees, without descending into anarchy and poor quality service? Gary Hamel suggests how we could question our firms’ current operating assumptions and rebuild their structures, practices, and rituals to support a much greater level of employee autonomy (G. Hamel with B. Breen, The Future of Management, Harvard Business School Press, 2007).
As reported by Hamel, Whole Foods, Gore, and Google are amazing examples of firms outside of the professional services market which have embraced democratic principles at their cores and have managed to achieve organizational resilience and employee engagement, maintained discipline albeit largely self-directed, and also solid financial results through the consistently good decision-making that stems from bottom-up authority.
One core democratic concept is transparency, illustrated through Hamel’s case studies. Transparent and inclusive dialogue is key to achieving engagement and a diversity of choices and viewpoints. Hamel argues that democratic principles will always trump autocratic principles over the long term when it comes to quality decision-making and quality of life for the majority of community members.
In other words, by rebuilding management structures, practices and rituals around democratic principles, a firm can greatly improve each employee’s sense of autonomy and freedom and in so doing, invite and sustain a much higher level of employee engagement, leading to improved overall results.
Such management innovations would also translate into a more compelling organizational culture, recognizable beyond a firm’s walls, and moving it well beyond its more traditional competition’s ‘soft’ offerings of environmental sustainability and social clubs.
As Bennis et al point out: “There is… a strong case to be made for democratizing the workplace and minimizing stratification. In idea-driven organizations – and which are not these days? – genuine, collegial collaboration leads to better morale, a greater likelihood of creativity, and greater candor and transparency.” (W. Bennis, D. Goleman, J. O’Toole, Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor, Jossey-Bass, 2008, page 27).
Also, if a professional services firm is willing to consider applying transparency principles to financial and remuneration data as Gore and Whole Foods have done, they also greatly improve their offering under the Security Factor (i.e. by reducing the perceived possibility of arbitrary treatment by the employer): transparency builds trust.
In this case, transparency also makes good business sense. As Bennis explains: “One place to see the transformative effect of transparency is at companies that practice so-called open-book management… the sharing of financial information with everyone in the company.” As evidence of the potential for improved business performance offered by open-book management policies, Bennis reports on a 2005 study in Inc. magazine which “…found that 40 percent of the firms on its yearly list of the five hundred fastest growing private companies employed the practice in some fashion – far more than in the business community as a whole.” (W. Bennis et al. page 108-109).
With all this in mind, I suggest a new way for professional services firms to compete for talent: by broadly adopting practices of workplace transparency and recognizing this as a key factor in competing for talent. By also developing more democratic structures, practices and rituals, a professional services firm could improvement their employment offerings under the factors of Autonomy and Freedom, Career Engagement, Culture and Values, and Security, well beyond the offerings of their more traditional rivals.
In this three part series, I will outline how adoption of a mindset and practices centered on transparency can lead to a compelling strategy within the traditionally opaque world of professional services firms. I will also discuss the implications of this strategy for leadership and collaboration practices, and for organizational culture.
In this part, I describe how professional services firms (e.g. accountants, architects, engineers, and lawyers) typically define themselves and choose to compete for consulting opportunities, and suggest how adoption of more externally transparent practices can lead to competitive advantage.
revolution Pronunciation: /rɛvəˈluːʃ(ə)n/
Is there really such a high demand for leadership thought? A quick search of ‘leadership’ in books on amazon will return over 56,000 results. If you were to buy all of these, you would have around five billion printed words on leadership to read.
Portrait used with the permission of
Tamea Burd Photography
“School of Fish”
“Glass Staircase in Manhattan”
“Blue Water Reflections”
“Picasso Triggerfish(Tropical Fish)”
“escalator in modern architecture”
“Stadium or Arena Seats
“What did you say”
by Gary Hamel with Bill Breen
Disengaged employees. Hamstrung innovation. Inflexible organizations. Although we are living in a new century, we are still plagued by the side effects of a management model that was invented roughly a hundred years ago. Yet history doesn’t have to be destiny – not if you are willing to go back and reassess the time-forgotten choices that so many others still take for granted.” p 142.
Hamel reviews the intractable problems that companies face today: How can we provide an employment proposition far superior to that of our competition so that we attract and keep the best? How can we provoke and support our talented workers to exceptional contribution? How do we find time for long-term initiatives when we are all flat out working on today’s deadline? How can we better mobilize talent for both the highest value allocation and individual self-fulfillment and personal growth?
by Roy Jacques
I found this book to be not only a useful introduction to the history of 20th century management practices, but also an illuminating critique of the unquestioned assumptions that we typically consider to be the bedrock principles on which all organizations must necessarily be based.
Jacques’ motivation for his line of inquiry is to understand what is limiting the effectiveness of our modern organizations, particularly given the continuous considerable efforts by organizations, their leaders, and business academics over one hundred years to improve organizational outcomes.
by Amy C. Edmondson
This breakthrough work brings together Edmondson’s own research along with a considerable survey of other academics’ work on teaming and organizational culture and makes the link between teaming and organizational learning capabilities crystal clear.
Through real world teaming examples across diverse industries, Edmondson demonstrates how optimal teaming behaviors, supported by appropriate organizational cultures and leadership promoting a collaborative learning environment, leads to the adaptable and resilient performance we aspire to achieve.