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Flat Learning, Vertical Learning, and Leadership Development

17 Dec

I want to contrast a couple of ways to think about learning; one that informs much of what we do, and another that I think ought to inform more of what we’re doing. The first way is to think of learning as flat, linear, time-limited, and cognitive. The second is another way to think of learning as vertical, longitudinal, all-encompassing, and continuous.

In the “flat” model, learning is essentially a two-step process: ingest information, and then, sort of magically, learn. The emphasis in the learning design and assessment is on the definition, provision, organization, and repetition of the information. Less emphasis is placed on what the learner does with that information, or on the larger contexts in which the learning happens. Learning is seen as happening in discrete, isolated bursts: a course, a workshop, a webinar. Little thought is given to how these bursts connect with the person living through them. This learning is, as it were, shallow, or almost extrinsic: it’s not really expected to penetrate to the core of the individual and change the way they understand themselves or the world, for example.

In the “vertical” model, the bursts of flat learning are still there: but they are understood to be playing out against the backdrop of a deeper, more meaningful, longitudinal change in the individual, one that encompasses all their faculties: cognition, yes, but also emotion, motivation, behavior, self-understanding, mindset, and so on. In this model growth isn’t measured in terms of external content, but rather in deep, intrinsic, qualitative changes, increased ability to handle complexity, new ways to make meaning: and these changes percolate through and connect all the aspects of the person, ultimately appearing as long term behavior change. This learning is at a deeper level: learning here registers specifically as changes in understanding the self and the world.

The flat model has advantages: it is discrete, convenient, seems measurable, feels professional, fits into systems. And it works for a lot of things. But it is also imperative to understand the deeper learning that is going on. Some challenges cannot be solved by anyone without a particular level of vertical development; no amount of “flat” learning alone will address them. Among them are the particular challenges of leadership.

As you move up the hierarchical ladder of leadership roles, you are increasingly called on to display sophisticated understandings of the complexity of the world. Content or particular technical skills in discrete processes are helpful, of course, but what becomes more and more necessary is the ability to marshal your own and others’ full faculties–including motivation, emotion, cognition, behaviors–build systems of meaning across disciplines, and construct ways to understand and make decisions in emergent, ambiguous, and diverse contexts.

This vertical development often slowly happens in the background in life; we sense it happening, especially as we look back over where we’ve been and think about the ways we used to understand things. It explains a lot of tension between people in the workplace: that between workers expecting direction, and managers expecting initiative, for instance. Just working in leadership roles and making your way through the succession of problems you face there is a kind of support of this longitudinal, qualitative development. But that’s an inefficient and unpredictable support. As with any process, it can be improved with reflection, self-awareness, consistency, and by looking for ways to “see into” what is going on. You can manage and track vertical growth in people and teams as you already manage any other workplace system. And the overhead is minimal.

So how do you “see into” and more efficiently support this necessary growth in your leaders? That I’ll talk about in my next post! But here’s the short answer: a very special kind of formative assessment paired with a more-than-lip-service culture of learning or reflective practice. And a coach.

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Instructing and Coaching, in Coaching

27 Oct

I was recently asked about the tension between “instructing” and “coaching” in a coaching context. My impromptu thoughts.

Using an instructive approach can efficiently give context, direction, a sense of definiteness, reassure a worried coachee, and may be the most comfortable coaching paradigm for people at certain orders of development. I’m thinking of linear thinkers, perhaps, who “want answers.” It might also be OK for a more advanced thinker, a gifted autodidact, or a fellow teacher or coach, who is comfortable with the development environment, addicted to creating their own learning cycles–who just needs a hint of the path and they’re off to the races. Instruction seems necessary if you’re in a situation where you have a limited time and you have some fixed goal you need to meet in that time (though I can’t imagine any coach seeking out such constraints). The downside is that there isn’t much room for the coachee to participate in the meaning-making; little co-learning; which means less learning for the coachee and the coach, too (!). Your coachee will be mostly “recording” data during the session in order to (hopefully) reflect, process, and apply later; and maybe as a coach you’re not operating at your growth edge either–you maybe be a bit of an automaton rattling off wisdom. So you lose some learning opportunities. There is a consequence to the relationship, too, because an instructional style can be a distancing move.

The coaching approach is preferable if you want to create a space for working and learning together, to partner in understanding what is going on in the general assessment and to conceive of, develop, implement, and build on applications of the knowledge in that assessment in the coachee’s social context. Coaching is also a better transition to a self-sufficient coachee: you’re thinking with them, and going through experiments and applications with them.  Because they’re more actively involved, they’ll have a better chance of building habits, skills, and awarenesses that can continue after the coaching sequence is over.

I think you will ultimately blend both approaches as a coach. There are parts of even an extreme-coaching-style coaching process that require a kind of meta-narrative that can feel like instruction (here’s what we’re going to do), and there are also parts where you need to step out of coaching and give context (here’s what this means; this is what I say to folks when we get to this part). And even if you’re leaning instruction, it would be unusual that you don’t invite some kind of input and engagement from the coachee. No matter how much you are in control, it would be strange not to respond to or allow to develop a question or, better yet, spontaneous recognition on the part of the coachee, and that’s coaching.

An additional thought: I think it is actually very difficult to resist instructing, to get out of the comfortable seat of your knowledge and control and be available to the coachee’s perspective . . . or perhaps it is better to say to be suspended between your knowledge and the moment and the coachee’s perspective. Edgar Schein calls the problem “content seduction,” and advocates against it in his recent book Humble Consulting. This is the master move that gifted and experienced teachers and coaches learn at some point, but I don’t really see people doing that right out of the gate, and it feels like it requires a developmental stage. 11 on the Lectica scale, or 4 on Kegan.

Which style am I inclined to use? Coaching with instruction in reserve. My plan is usually to frame the session around key points and themes that emerge from the data we are gathering. I float these points for discussion when it feels natural–often I don’t need to, because the points tend to float themselves, because the coachee sees them, too–and then I approach them each from a perspective of mutual inquiry. “I noticed this. Does this seem interesting to you, too? What is your take? How shall we think about this?” There will be places I will need to instruct. What does a particular term mean? Where are we in whatever process we are following? What is our next step? So I’m prepared to say something at those points. (Although often I don’t need to: even the instructive pieces seem to “say” themselves.)

Four Ways to Think About Workplace Learning

15 Jun

I’ve been talking lately to people who are charged with supporting learning in their business, as part of a new (to me) genre of professionals sometimes called Directors of Learning, or Chief Learning Officers. I’ve asked myself how I would go about designing support for learning in an organization, if I were in their shoes. Here are the results. I would think about four things: kinds of learning, location of learning, the activity continuum, and the zone of learning.

1. Kinds of Learning

Technical Learning

Of kinds of learning, I think of three: technical, adaptive, and systematic. Technical learning constitutes all those fixed skills, knowledges, procedures, and competencies in which what you are learning is relatively fixed and known. You have to learn a discrete set of information or to do things in the right way. It could be about facts, steps, or cultural norms. A particular equation. A software program. A way of participating in a discussion. The knowledge particular to your profession. It’s content you master. Stuff to add to the “container of you.”

Adaptive Learning

Adaptive learning, drawing on Ronald Heifetz, is different. It’s learning in which you yourself grow or change. The “container of you” gets bigger, better able to handle complex, ambiguous phenomena. In adaptive learning you discover and rewrite your assumptions about the world. Adaptive learning focuses more on the “you” part of you, or what’s there underlying the technical knowledge. Adaptive learning is more difficult, messy, and personal, and makes you acknowledge and address all sorts of anxieties, tensions, worries, and self-limitations. I would guess most workplaces are thinking about technical learning. But I would be impressed if many go beyond technical to embrace adaptive learning.

Innovation

Just to show you how important adaptive learning is, I note that innovation is usually adaptive learning. That is, we’re not hardwired to innovate, and it’s not a technical skill (though it has some technical components); to be able to innovate, we have to change the way we see the world to allow it to be an ok, and not deathly-scary task: we have to learn to be ok with taking risks, failing, ideating like crazy, restraining evaluation, etc.

Systematic Learning

Systematic learning is when you attempt to understand things at a systems-level: as complex and recurring processes, like ecosystems or steam engines. On one level, just trying to see what is going on in your workplace as combination of systems–financial systems; systems of time and investment of time; systems of feelings, emotions, trust, or morale; decision-making systems; environmental systems–is already using systematic learning. The even more interesting application, though, is to the learning processes themselves. This is where you understand individual and collective learning (and their interaction with performance) as interlocking ecosystems, each with natural laws, growth, change, inputs, outputs and so on. This is probably the ultimate goal of any learning officer in a company: to have the learning systems of the company be as visible and as well attended to as well as are, say, finances.

Assessments

Under systematic learning, I want to mention learning assessments, or the ways to know what is being learned. Without them you can’t “see” how you’re doing, so that you can make adjustments. If you can’t see and make adjustments, you don’t have a system that you can manage or understand. (It’s there but you have not found it yet).

2. Location of Learning

Location has two values or poles: Engaged and Disengaged.

Disengaged and Engaged Learning

Disengaged learning is learning outside of the context in which it is meant to be applied. Engaged is learning in the context. For example, you can read Ted Williams’ book about hitting a baseball, you can get someone to throw you a ball so that you can take a few swings, and you can play in a real game. Those are three steps along the path from disengaged learning to engaged learning.

The traditional view of learning is that it is disengaged. And much is. But engaged learning can be some of the most effective. If you cast your mind back over your life of learning, and you dig out one or two examples of where you feel you learned the most or the best, the chances are they will favor the engaged end of the spectrum. Engaged learning can take a lot of forms: apprenticeships, internships, mentoring, debriefs, just-in-time learning, difficult conversations, “gamified” work.

Doing and Learning

You may think that engaged learning just sounds like work, or like “doing.” Well it is. It’s a false dichotomy to think that learning isn’t doing. You have to do to learn. Yet there are also ways you can “do” that aren’t requiring much learning, where you’re essentially repeating things you mastered long ago. In my opinion, as an individual and an organization, you want your “doing” to have as much learning in it as you can. If you’re not learning a lot in the doing, that particular doing is probably ripe for automation.

3. Activity Continuum

Your learning will fall somewhere on a particular continuum I call the activity continuum. At the left end of the continuum is a kind of traditional, reductive, linear, conduit way of thinking about learning. On this end of the continuum we see learning as a kind of passive thing: we are transferring fixed discrete “things” to the learner. At the other end it’s active: the learner is understood to be doing or reflecting or making-meaning or becoming in some new, meaningful way. The poles can be seen to cohere across technical, adaptive, and systematic learning.

In the realm of technical learning, at the left pole, you will have a kind of simple, old-school lecture, or a handout. At the right pole you will have much more engagement, and probably less traditional content, more meta-cognitive thought going on, and more game-like or real-world structure. You can read a book about how to play Worlds of Warcraft or you can work through the tutorial. The tutorial falls towards the right pole. Similarly, in adaptive learning, you can learn about yourself, or you can actually work on your own behavior change. My favorite adaptive learning method, Immunity to Change, famously includes both poles. Also, systems can be understood to fall towards the passive or the active side of the continuum. There can be systems that are reductive and conduit-like, like the basic use of a learning management system (as a document repository). And systems that are dynamically changing, like something in a virtuous cycle of improvement, such as bamboo. The bamboo plant gets sun and nutrients and grows; the larger plant gets more sun and nutrients and grows more.  Eventually it’s a forest, an ecosystem.

I recommend inching towards the right pole wherever you can, but a few instances of left-pole thinking are ok. The problem is that our default is overwhelmingly left-pole, and that is an issue. (Why do we favor passive learning? Probably because it’s easier for the teacher . . . but I digress).

4. Zone of Learning

Thinking about the “zone” of learning is inspired by Vygotsky’s idea that there is a space, like a sweet spot, where you will learn best–a particular growth edge that, if you find it, will be simultaneously most compelling for you, encourage your best learning, and give you the most positive feedback, resulting in you wanting to learn even more.

This idea argues for designing learning that is tailored as much as possible to where the learner is. It requires we be able to assess where people are, and be able to adjust the learning content and experience to fit their needs. Of course the challenge in the workplace is that we will be unlikely to have the kind of master teachers, curricular experts, learning designers, and psychologists who can really make this kind of thoughtful analysis and then design learning activities to it. There are new sorts of automated assessments that can begin to help us, so some hope exists that we’ll be able to do a little bit along these lines soon. And, in any event, it is still worth asking, for any learner, what is the appropriate “zone” for their learning? If we tend towards one-size-fits-all (which is often the case), does this work for everyone? Are there basic things we can do to start to accommodate differences? What are the differences?

Another way to come at this challenge is to trust the learner. Oftentimes a self-aware learner knows best what they should be studying next. I give a personal example: I am an intermediate trombone player. I am actually more interested at this point in hearing people just a step or two ahead of me play, than I am in hearing virtuoso performers, as much as I like the latter. Why? Because the top edge of my learning zone at the moment is advanced intermediate, not virtuosity. I will learn better, grow more, and have more positive feedback with the more relevant goal.

Having Feelings and Saying Things

17 May

Let’s talk about vague feelings, specific feelings, and messages, and let’s think of these three things as steps in a linear process. My thesis is that mastery of this process helps you understand yourself better and create a better workplace.

Moments of discomfort are to be seen as Delicious Gifts

Interacting with people will make you regularly feel uncomfortable in some way. Very regularly: multiple times a day. Maybe even every single interaction we ever have leaves a little bit of unresolved ickiness of some kind or other, usually low-grade, though sometimes quite powerful. Oftentimes we just sort of bury this residual ick, for a variety of reasons, but primarily because we sense that dealing with it will be inconvenient or disruptive. Sometimes we sit and stew on it forever but do little more than stew.

I propose here that we should do neither: not bury these feelings, nor stew on one forever and do nothing about it. Instead I say we should choose a feeling now and then and drill into it to see what we can find out, and then think about what we can do about it.  Far from being inconvenient, I have come to see these little moments of discomfort as openings, epistemological opportunities, learning vectors, ways “in” to a deeper understanding of ourselves and the relations between us and others. But it does take a bit of work to unpack things, so you can’t do it every time you feel something. (But you could do it once a day, through the use of a diary, perhaps! I digress.)

Step One: Pick a Moment of Discomfort

Let’s not just talk about it, let’s try it out. Select a feeling from the feeling waiting room of the veterinarian’s office of your mind and let’s see where we go. But which should you pick? It really doesn’t matter much, as long as it is a feeling of vague discomfort arising from an interaction. Sometimes the feelings pick you: some kind of discomfort sticks with you and doesn’t seem to be going away. Maybe you’re having a hard time not thinking about it. Ok, work with that one, then. But maybe you don’t have a particular moment of unease rising of its own accord to the surface. In that case, do a lightweight scan. Cast your mind back over the last day or two, be on the lookout for things that felt slightly weird, and see which events and interactions pop out. Your mind will serve up something, and there usually is a reason for it, if it does. Go with that. Maybe you’re having a hard time coming up with something, though? Cast your mind back and find nothing? In this case, just wait, but pay attention to how you’re feeling as you go through the day. It is only a matter of time before you have something to work with.

Step Two: Define your feeling

Now you have a feeling. It’s probably vague, or ambiguous, or a combination of a lot of feelings. Your job is to try to sift out what is going on. What you are really feeling? It may take a moment or two, or even a few days or weeks, depending. But if you stick with it, eventually you will get a sense of clarity about what you’re feeling. And it will likely change as you understand it better. Where you thought at first you were mostly mad, you might discover, upon further investigation, that you are also feeling some sadness and, say, shame, or fear, or embarrassment (all common at work, sadly). One way to figure out what you’re feeling is to sort through a mental rolodex of common feelings and ask yourself if they apply. Am I nostalgic? No. Am I feeling betrayed? No. Am I feeling indignant? Yes. Am I feeling anxious? Yes. Etc. One of my mentors uses a “feeling deck,” a stack of playing cards each containing a separate feeling. You sort through them and pick out the ones that apply. You will likely discover things about yourself as you do this. Naturally, you will wonder, “why am I feeling this particular feeling,” as which point a realization about who you are or what you care about may occur or recur to you. Don’t be surprised if you are amazed at your own depths or shallownesses. Also don’t be in a rush. As in step one, if you aren’t able to get a sense of clarity about the feeling right away, don’t worry. Put it aside and come back later; you’ll eventually feel like you’ve got it more or less pegged.

Step Three: Think about your message

Now comes the part when things get interesting. The more your feelings come into focus, the more you’ll likely see that there is an opportunity to talk to somebody hidden in them. There is a sort of message in a bottle in embryo woven in among them, and if you so choose, you can pluck that letter out and drop it in the mailbox. As your feelings originally arose from an interaction with someone, that someone is probably still involved in some way. And as your feelings were uncomfortable, then there is probably some lingering issue or tension that can be addressed or discussed or acknowledged. (Note: I say can be, I don’t say has to be). It’s worth asking yourself for whom you might have a message, what the message is, and how you would say it, if you were to chose to say it. Another helpful question: what do you want or need? Yes, you probably do want or need something, and that’s ok to articulate, especially to yourself. Finally another helpful question: what would be a good outcome? As you imagine yourself talking to whomever it is, and you think about what might come of such a conversation, what end state would feel right to you, or right enough? (Hint: that’s what you should aim for, if you ever get around to discussing things with people).

Step Four: Really do think about your message

I say “if you ever get around to discussing things with people,” because you will likely not want to deliver your message. You will likely even try to avoid thinking about your message. I’ve noticed this often in myself and others. Analyzing our feelings is kind of fun; you find out more about yourself and what’s going on for you. You discover nooks and crannies you never realized you had. But as soon as you turn your thoughts to saying something, it gets real. It’s not just about you; it now implicates how you relate to others. Delivering your message will affect the world around you, alter your relationships, change things, threaten the status quo. That’s so scary that you may sort of shut down, or enter into a self-protect mode, or, like the famous danger-sensing tomato, jump out the window of the car of your thoughts. All to avoid simply thinking about talking to someone. This is quite normal, and to this I say stick with it. You don’t actually have to talk to the person, but thinking about talking to them is very helpful. Almost as good as doing the thing itself. And, after all, sometimes it might actually be best not to deliver your message; it may legitimately be too risky. I’m not in your context; I can’t know–but people who are in your context can help you decide what your message is and whether it is a good idea to deliver it–a trusted colleague, a coach, a mentor. Regardless of whether you do deliver the message, planning out what you would say is an important step. It has benefits. It’s a natural closure; it trains in you a bias for action and communication; you’re learning not to quit on the feelings until you have carried them through to a productive end; you’re more able to respond in the moment the next time something happens; and, perhaps best of all, you become more adept at talking about your feelings and needs in all circumstances (and inviting others to do the same). Why is this last point important? See below.

Epilogue: This is how you create a learning organization

I will just add a tantalizing bit at the end. All the while you’ve been reading this post you have perhaps been imagining that what we’re talking about is a kind of personal growth exploration, or a relationship-development method, or some kind of couples counseling thing. Important, perhaps, but touchy-feely, and maybe not appropriate to the hard, mean, intellectual, bottom-line focus of the workplace. But to that I say, nay! This is the most appropriate thing you can be doing in a serious workplace. A workplace that wants to survive and flourish (which investors expect, I think), has to be able to learn and grow in a changing world. Learning and growing in an organization looks just like this blog post: somebody takes stock of their feelings, and delivers a difficult message. That is the elemental component of which the molecule of learning organization is made: in fact, you might say being about to normalize this activity defines a successful organization.

Conviction, Assertions of Truth, and Legos

12 May

Chris Argyris was rightfully annoyed by what he called “conviction,’ a word he used to describe what he saw as the (misguided) approach of most students in business school. Faced with a business decision, these students were expecting to exert influence primarily by conviction. That is, by feeling more strongly or passionately about whatever approach they were advocating, or by looking more fixedly into the eyes of their fellow deciders, or by being more furious or menacing, they were planning to get their way.

Of course there are problems with this. Not that it’s bad to believe in yourself. But if your plan with respect to guiding an organization is about how you’ll project your feelings, you’re not really thinking with sufficient complexity about the various and necessary components of a group decision-making process. You’re not thinking about: how you’ll gather and share data; how you’ll evaluate that data and the inferences you make about the data; how you’ll frame the problem; how you’ll develop options to solve that problem; how you’ll select from among those options; how you’ll set some expectations for success; what you’ll do if your first option isn’t working out; and so on.

In short, you won’t have a process around working with people to get to the truth and do the right thing. You won’t be building a thinking culture. You won’t be thinking with others. You perhaps don’t plan to engage others at all. You plan to influencecoerce, control others before they do it to you. This is, sadly, the essential theory-in-action behind many human engagements. It’s not a good method. Among many problems with it, you can’t build a longterm relationship based on coercion. And a longterm relationship is the point.

What I propose is, on the other hand, to spend your time figuring out how to put aside conviction. To not see yourself as a salient army emerging from a fortress to assault others and instead start to make yourself a thing that connects with others, a thing that serves as the ground for the connection of others, a thing that doesn’t need a fortress in the first place.

How do you do that? One ideaL avoid the assertion of truth. If you’re in a context that requires group decision-making, don’t say “x is true; we need to do y.” Instead say something like “I think x may be true, and I suggest we might try y; what do you think?” The semantic change is minor; the effective difference is huge. You’re still important, still telling people what you think the group should do, being forthright, etc., but you’re intentionally constructing the expression of your thought so that it invites the thoughts of others to snap on to it, as if it were a Lego brick. That’s the trick: make your shared thoughts be shaped like Lego bricks. Two bricks make a better thought than one.

Why should you not assert truth? Here’s why: it sets up a vicious pendulum of control flips. When you assert a truth as absolute you add a kind of social charge to it. Your ego is attached. I, your colleague, know that I can’t disagree or complicate or change or add to that idea without confronting your right to assert a truth, without challenging your existence. I have to make a calculation: is adding my information worth pissing you off, or insulting you, and all the drama that entails? In most cases people won’t want to deal with the fallout; so they let things slide. Until things get so bad that it costs less to confront you than to continue the course you imposed; at which point they assert a contrary truth, and control flips and you find yourself in the position they were in, and so on ad nauseum. You can imagine the crazy strategic moves and counter moves that would arise from leaders doing this, your organization careening all over the map like a car oversteering on an icy road. Conviction fuels this vicious pendulum.

But! Simply Lego-bricking your thought short circuits all these bad things. If you invite my thought at the beginning, there’s less social charge, I feel more comfortable adding my thoughts to yours, we get an idea that’s broader in perspective, and I buy in. We’re less wedded to a particular course. Our individual egos are not linked 1:1 to any action path. Instead our group ego is linked to a decision-making process. We’re more comfortable changing course more quickly, because no one person will lose face. We might make mistakes, but we recover more quickly, we don’t oversteer, and the car careens less. Instead of a crazy zig-zag, we might inscribe an elegant curve across the landscape of business glory.

 

Talking about the Rules

24 Apr

I was reflecting on a social media post by a successful IT leader the other day; it was a list of his rules to live and work by. He had talked about them enough over the course of his career that people had asked him to write them down. (As an aside, I’ve found other cases of people asking leaders to codify their life instructions; it seems to be a fairly common event.)

These particular guidelines were very good; the work of a thoughtful, caring, dedicated colleague and leader. Things anyone wise would take to heart. My own reaction centers not on what the guidelines said but on the way the guidelines came about. Upon their genesis, which seems arbitrary.

In any group of humans working together a set of rules develops over time that define who we are and what we do. How we talk to each other, who gets more authority, what skills are valued, what behaviors are off-limits, etc. You might say these rules exist on a kind of consciousness continuum. Some are visible: talked about, written down, and even posted on a wall, like an office sign that says “no smoking.” But most rules are invisible. We don’t talk about them much, nor do we write them down, and they may not even be thought about consciously. These hidden rules are perhaps the more powerful and meaningful rules, and they are not always pretty. They might contradict more visible rules, or otherwise be something you aren’t particularly proud to say out loud. For example, one deeper rule might be “we actually do smoke; we just do it when the boss is out, and we open the windows and turn on the fan to hide the fact.”

One of my interests has long been to help make these deeper rules visible, discussable, and changeable. To give people the conscious tools to acknowledge and adjust (if they wish) their workplace culture, improve their interpersonal relations, even revise their own deeply personal decision-making.

That’s why the IT leader’s list caught my eye. His list is his way of saying “these are the rules I think we should follow” or “let’s change the rules to these.” This move is good in a lot of ways: our leader is perceptive enough to sense what is going on around him; he is reflective and imaginative enough to think about how things ought to be; he sees the world as a place that can be improved (plastic in the original sense, of “moldable”); he thinks he and his colleagues have the power to make changes; his proposed rules are in the service of improving the lives of others; by making a list, he shows that he knows there are rules; etc. All good.

And what would be better still, although admittedly harder, would be to engage the other members of the organization in the creation of such a set of rules. To invite them into a space where they could contribute in the perception, acknowledgement, and adjustment of the way they worked together. If one person on their own has good ideas about how to fix things, wouldn’t more people have better ideas still? If you could get your colleagues productively engaged, a lot of benefits would accrue, among them two key ones: you might get their buy-in to helping you enact the new rules thereafter, and you might empower them to keep on talking about and improving cultural rules forever. Which is probably the ultimate goal: to leave behind a culture that has the tools to continually improve itself.

Getting more people involved is easier said than done, I admit. Why? Well, one of the most important rules is like the movie Fight Club: we don’t talk about the rules. Our identities and social status are wrapped up in them as they are. If we mess with the rules, it’s not clear what will happen. If I am to start being honest about what needs to improve, for example, things might come up that I don’t want to change. Maybe I will be asked to get better, and maybe I won’t be able to! Very scary. Power dynamics also have a rule-reinforcing effect: we are, in general, famously reluctant to tell our supervisors what we are really thinking and feeling, and vice versa. Easy to get a group of reports to talk candidly about the rules of their relationship with their boss if she is not in the room. Harder to get to the same level of honesty with her there. But a level of semi-radical openness is what you need to surface and rewrite the rules.

The IT leader might be the only person in his organization who can safely produce a list of rules as he did. The worst case scenario for him is that his staff may politely ignore his list. There is rather more risk for a person at a lower organizational level to spontaneously propose changes like these.

Having said all this, it’s not too late for this leader’s list. You could use it, once made, to open up a conversation, even if you hadn’t involved people theretofore. It could itself be the entry into engagement; if you could get interested staff in a room, put them at ease, and build some trust, you might ask them what they felt about the IT leader’s guidelines. Which resonated with them, which didn’t, etc. You might get them to articulate one or two rules they felt were important in their own lives and work. You might get them to think about what role unspoken rules play in their organization. And so you might have the start of an effective rule-changing conversation that could both help you improve things in the short term and build the skills in the staff to continue improving things in perpetuity.

Language Shifts and The Snowplow

14 Apr

I was thinking today about the influential book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work by Lisa Lahey and Bob Kegan. It suggests ways that slight shifts in tone or nuance or perspective can more or less instantly transmute a difficult or problematic context into a productive one.

The shifts come in the realm of language. Lahey and Kegan suggest you can move easily from a way of talking that’s less productive to one that’s more productive. There are multiple pre-fabricated language movements you can make. My favorite example? Complaint.

With very little effort, the language of complaint (limiting) can be modulated into the language of commitment (inspiring). How? Well the leverage point or hinge is to know that both languages have buried in them a sense of values, a longing, an ethics, a desire for a certain way of life, a need to be connected or valued. In the language of complaint these virtuous components are kind of hidden or implied, but in the language of commitment they are the message itself.

For example, let’s say I don’t feel like my boss gives me enough opportunities to take charge of a project, to show what I can do, to stretch, to lead. If I focus on how bad that makes me feel, and if I don’t talk to her about it directly–“My boss won’t let me try anything new, she doesn’t value me, etc”–that’s the language of complaint. But the point here is that wanting to be trusted with leadership roles, that’s a positive thing, that’s a virtue buried in the complaint–and that’s worth talking about. It shows a path towards a different kind of relationship with your boss, one your boss might even like. Or at least be willing to try out with you. Rephrasing in terms of commitment would look something like this: “Hi boss! I would really like to have a chance to lead a project. I feel I can do a good job for the organization, and it would feel good to see the organization supporting my growth. I realize there’s some risk here because I’ve not led a project before. Can we discuss it?”

The second option, though it has the same, as it were, problem-DNA (not getting to lead a project) as the original phrasing, has a different solution-DNA: it posits a completely different world view. One where organizational and individual growth are both possible. As opposed to one where the organization is seen (by the complainer) to proscribe the individual’s development possibilities.

The shift is as simple as using different words! Ok, it’s more complicated than that. Of course, you’re thinking, there is a different way of thinking going on in the two languages. A different way of thinking, a different way of being with people, a different comfort with risk, a different role for the self, a different assumption about what should happen at work . . . a lot of things. It is a language shift, because you are changing the words you use. But much more is shifting, too. In this way it reminds me of downhill skiing pedagogy. When you learn to downhill ski, you are often taught (among other things) to just look where you want to go–that is, you turn your head to face the place you want to go–whereupon your legs and feet and hips and skis and the slope all align as it were magically to get you there. This language shift is like that. You shift your words, and the rest clicks in. The point is you get there.

I will speak to one other point, which seems important, if tangential. One of the things governing the language of complaint is fear; the language of commitment exposes fear to sunlight, and that can be scary. When we complain, something is bothering us. We don’t feel good. But, importantly, there’s the potential of a worse feeling resulting from any action that keeps us from doing anything about it. In our example, the complainer doesn’t like not being trusted to lead. But if he talks about it with the boss, he might find out that the boss really doesn’t think he’s capable. That would be hard to bear. Worse still, if he asks to lead, he might get to lead! And then there’s a chance he might publicly fail. And that would be the hardest to bear of all. Hard enough to bear that even the specter of the possibility of having to experience it keeps the complainer comfortably tucked in his language of complaint, even though it’s no fun either. It’s a known and manageable discomfort.

It would take quite a little bit of introspection for our complainer to catch himself in this loop and work his way out; Lahey and Kegan’s “language” shift offers him an easy get-out-of-jail-free card. He can look back from having successfully led a project and wonder how he got there.