Tag Archives: leadership

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.

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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.

 

3 Ideas on Improving Learning Transfer

12 Apr

Ever run into this problem: you find yourself energized by a workshop, seminar, or retreat, but when you get back to work, the energy fizzles, and the things you committed to do never happen?

Part of this could be an adaptive learning challenge, akin to the famous New Year’s Resolution phenomenon—that is, there might be a part of YOU that doesn’t want you to make the particular change. To the extent this is the case, you’ll need some kind of process to surface that part of you, so you can convince yourself that it is ok to change. Immunity to Change does a good job of this.

But part of this falls into another thorny, perennial, ubiquitous challenge: Learning Transfer. When you have a Learning Transfer problem, you are learning things in one context that don’t carry over to another. Much of consciously-designed, work-related learning falls into this trap.

I think a lot of traditional learning has learning transfer issues, too, but you can’t see them as easily because time elapses between school and job, or because the things you are learning in school don’t correlate to work experience directly, or because you don’t expect them to correlate directly. You’re not necessarily thinking, as you’re in an English Literature course, “this can help me at my job (which I might not yet even have) in these particular and discrete ways.” You would be thinking something like that in, say, a management seminar.

I digress. The point of this post is that three thoughts occur to me as ways to come at the Learning Transfer problem. I offer them for your consideration.

  1. Make it look like work

You can reduce the tendency for a learning transfer problem by making the learning look like work. The more it resembles work conditions, the less likely there is to be a kind of surface tension between learning in one place and doing in another. You might call this the “transplant” analogy: the idea that the “body” of work will less likely resist a new organ that it recognizes.

Questions arise, of course. If you’re at an offsite retreat, part of the point is to be away from work. How do you make that look like work? Right, I get that. I suggest you might focus on the outcomes. Make the things you produce in the learning dovetail smoothly into work. If, for example, coming out of the learning you decide to take on some new project, have your plan developed so far that it can be implemented the second you’re back at work with no obstructions. Have the people, their roles, their next actions all worked out. Have the people BE at the learning session. Make sure whatever other things they are currently doing are moved out of the way. In other words, reduce the various things and thoughts that can come between the learning and the application of the learning. To say it in another way, have the foreign language of the learning outcomes be articulated in your comforting work dialect.

  1. Make it happen at work

To take the above idea one step further, you could just design the learning to happen at work, right in the thick of your actual work conditions. After all, the body won’t reject an organ that never had to be transplanted in the first place. Instead of designing a learning opportunity as an external, stand-alone event (or accepting events conveniently designed by third parties), you could do your best to make of it something that organically arises within your own work ecosystem. On your campus, taught by your colleagues, outcomes clearly integrated into the work activities you intend them to affect. Perhaps the best way to do this is come at it this way: instead of thinking “how can I take this external thing and insert it in my work,” you might ask “how can I change work so that learning as powerful as these external events is a routine and ongoing part of normal operations”? In answer to the second question I think you will quickly imagine a variety of things, like making learning a discrete and measurable part of the job description, listing it as part of the the work team’s charge, hiring and supporting dedicated learning staff, honoring people who are learning, allowing what is learned to change what you do and how you do it, and so on. You might be thinking “but we learn all the time at work, what about that?” This is generally true, but do we acknowledge, honor, or scaffold it? Or align it with organizational goals, as if learning were really one of our main outputs? Do we think of learning as a core currency of our work, a reason we are together, the primary justification for the enterprise? We could.

  1. Make the hidden workplace “rules” discussable

Perhaps the best way to address the learning transfer problem, though, is not to make the learning less noticeable to the workplace’s immune system, or to change work to make it a natural and organic learning environment, but, a contrary angle: to make the learning, or, more specifically, the hidden workplace reactions to it, more visible. Part of the reason what you learn won’t transfer is that people don’t want it to. The workplace is a society, and it has a status quo. And in the status quo there are rules for what you do and don’t do. They control much of what happens, but they aren’t, usually, a topic for conversation. But they could be. Let’s say you’re up for a managerial role for the first time. Your organization sends you to management training. You’re ready to be a manager, and have lots of thoughts about how to get going. So far, so good. When you get back, however, your peers have to be willing to accept you engaging in your new managerial behaviors for you to be successful: there’s role for them in your learning transferring to the work environment, which they are a big part of.  In other words the rules for what you personally do, and how people interact with you, have to be rewritten.  My point is simple: you can make these rule changes more likely if you make it permissible to talk about the hidden rules. If in some safe, trust-building way, you are able to surface the rules and get people to acknowledge them, that’s a start. If you can get them to be open to making changes, that is even better. You might say something like this: “I want to try out being a manager. I know I’ve never done this before, and this changes whom I am at work and how we will interact. I will need your help making this work. You need to be ok with it. Are you ok with that? Do you have concerns? Can we talk about it?”

On “The Very Superior Boss”

24 Jun

“The Very Superior Boss” is an entry in Abraham Maslow’s Eupsychian Management: A Journal (1965, Richard D. Irwin and The Dorsey Press)In it, Maslow doesn’t enumerate the characteristics of superiority, instead he focuses on the strife-filled relationship between the high-functioning leader and the rest of her team.

Maslow sees problems when someone who already knows or can quickly find the answer is thrown in with people who need to work out the answer through the various slow processes of communication, postulation, trial, and error. On the one hand, the business won’t make speedy decisions and the manager will herself suffer the excruciating pains of impatience and self-suppression if she waits for people to figure things out.  On the other hand, she will breed resentment and render her staff less capable than they are if she always tells them the answer, and she won’t ultimately be preparing them to lead themselves (or to live in a post-her world).  A third, stranger problem arises from an attempt to reconcile the first two–to artificially speed up the team’s processing by a kind of trickery, making it seem like they’ve solved the problem when really the leader has been perhaps not-so-subtly putting words and thoughts into their minds and mouths the whole time.

Another way to view the tension, says Maslow, is as between short-term results and long-term growth.  If the organization needs to “last past the death of the supervisor,” says he, “then greater patience is required and greater participative management, more explanations, more giving out of facts, more discussion of the facts and common agreement upon the conclusions.”  And he notes, “this is the only way to train good managers and good leaders in the long run” (145).  

The problem is similar to the one between beautiful or gifted parents face: having to stop being beautiful and gifted themselves to let their children develop.  Maslow associates it as well with the problem all creative children have in general: feeling “apart” from others; and in this way he suggests the problem is not just about a power-struggle, but also arises from basic differences of perspective or cognitive processing.  Important in his view of the tension is the fact that people often dislike or suspect intelligent or gifted people, even when these people are their best leaders; similarly, insecurity leads people to seek, and like, leaders who give clear and consistent answers, whether or not this consistency is related to intelligence or to pathology.

As a partial solution, Maslow calls for a shift of focus from the self of the leader to the situational context: asking what sort of decision-making or development is necessary to the group, and then integrating the related style of leadership. Which might very well mean giving people leaders they don’t particularly like.  As another partial solution, he suggests, interestingly, that the superior boss might just separate herself from the team, in order to let the team figure out how to solve problems on its own.

Ultimately, though, the tension is irresolvable:

This is of course, an extremely difficult problem, a profoundly human and existential problem, which in truth has no good solution even in theory. The fact is that great superiority is unjust, undeserved, and that people can and do resent it . . . . I don’t know of any good solution to this situation which demands honesty but in which honesty and truth must necessarily hurt.  (148)

The quote above might not leave you feeling great, but the idea that a slight reorientation of our focus–from “leader” to “context”–a reinsertion of the separate element into the soothing suspension–holds the potential of reducing some of the pain of the tension between us and others–that’s helpful and healing.  We might decrease the pain a little more by thinking of the separating “superiority” not so much as the boss’ intrinsic better-ness but more that she is at a particular place on one of many development tracks–and it just so happens that she is further along than us on that track, but nothing prevents us from moving in that direction, or in being further along than she in some other area.

Of course a person able to see things through B-Cognition would breathe the universal context, and would be OK with someone else’s betterness, in fact would appreciate it, particularly if it emerged clearly from their essence, but not many of us do that.

In any event, everyone can probably connect with this conundrum. I imagine we’ve all seen the three problematic aspects Maslow mentions, from both sides, too.  As both the person with the answer and the person without the answer at some point, in some way, whether the “superiority” be related to work-based problem-solving; experience, skills, or performance of some kind; or something more like emotional stability, comfort with ambiguity, and so on. Who hasn’t been in a situation where she or he had to bite their tongue while others slowly processed something? And who hasn’t discovered the disheartening feeling associated with being asked questions when you know the questioner already has a particular answer in mind. Of course, much of education traditionally has engendered this feeling.  Perhaps the third, or “trickery” experience is less common, but I have been guilty of it myself–and I can support Maslow when he says it never works.

We probably identify, as well, with the problem of seeking an “all-knowingness,” or a sense of conviction and consistency, in our leaders, because we’re scared or nervous in some way, when what might do us better is a little bit of ambiguity, consideration of multiple perspectives, some emotional and intellectual struggle of our own. Trying something without firm conviction now and then.

Finally, the suggestion that benign superior bosses, who see themselves as a blockage in their team’s development, might simply leave now and then is beautify in its simplicity, and I’ve known leaders who I think have done this well, though I suspect many leaders would scratch their heads at the idea.  “I’m not leading if I’m not there, I need to see what they’re doing if I am to control it, etc.,” they might say.  On the other hand, as Maslow points out, healthy people do not exhibit the need to control other people.

The Disruption Percentage

16 Oct

I’ve been thinking about the right balance of learning and performance at work. Or the balance of disruption and consistency of action, or of painfully self-aware norm-forming and happy living within established norms.

I say disruption because I think significant learning–adaptive, as opposed to technical–is disruptive. Especially at work. At some level you are re-thinking an assumption, a rule, an understanding, a belief, and while you are in between the old rule and the rule you replace it with, you are uncomfortably aware of two alternate interpretations of the world, and you can’t float along with autopilot engaged, as we all prefer.

This disruption isn’t that big a thing when you’re in school. On the one hand, you’re used to it, because you’re reforming rules constantly. On the other, you’re not that far away from your early years, when your whole existence was a messy and constantly discombobulating attempt to understand what was going on around you. And the school environment reinforces you. You’re learning things with a peer group. You’re helped by an expert who’s led people your age through the ideas you’re facing time and again. All your time is essentially set aside for you to learn, and society is happy with you doing it. But perhaps most importantly, there’s a certain philosophical remove from what you’re learning. It isn’t yet you. Whether you really get Moby Dick or Astrophysics isn’t going to deeply affect what you think about yourself and who you are and threaten whether you can pay your mortgage and send your kids to school.

Not so at work. Here learning is harder and more disruptive, because what you’re learning is a sapper’s tunnel to your identity. The rules and norms and behaviors and beliefs that are changed in workplace learning are linked to our image of ourselves as professionals, to our sense of belonging to a social group, to our belief in our power to influence people, to protecting ourselves from shame, and then through the transverse theory of the paycheck, they’re linked as well to our sense of financial and familial stability. Our workplace norms in a sense pay our mortgages, put food on the table, get us a Bosch dishwasher, etc. These thoughts are all connected in one big constellation of dark matter stars, and it’s a way we deal with living in an uncertain world.

If you start to question workplace beliefs and rules, you trigger this system. “If what I have been doing,” people will think to themselves on a certain level, “and what people around me have done for years, and what I painfully learned the hard way to do, etc., isn’t totally right, then . . . uh oh . . . I might not be able to do the new thing expected of me,, I might loose face in the workplace, I might loose influence over the world around me, I might be exposed to shame, I might not be able to pay my mortgage, I might not be able to get food, and there goes the Bosch dishwasher, etc . . .”

That’s what I mean when I say learning is disruptive, especially at work.

But of course we have to learn. To change, to adapt. As individuals, as teams, as organizations, as a society. In a world of constant flux, that is the one constant, everyone is agreed. You can either figure out a way to activate or initiate your own learning and change in some controlled and regulated system, like a prescribed burn, or you can wait and have external change, which you can’t control, wash over you like a tsunami, or wildfire.

The idea of the learning organization is basically the former–instead of thinking that we can achieve a stable state, to refer to Donald Schon’s book Beyond the Stable State, we accept that our context is always changing, and we try to find and bake in ways to help ourselves constantly and consistently learn and change. If external change obligations come along, fine, we’ll take advantage of them; if not, we won’t sit around eating pistachios, we’ll concoct our own internal change obligations.

So given that learning and change at work are disruptive and highly anxiety-provoking, how do you do that? How do you manage to do them regularly, consciously, intentionally? Clearly you can’t change everything everyone is doing or question everything everyone is believing all at once. Without some amount of consistency of behavior and expectations, the organizational identity dissolves. We don’t know why we’re here and what we’re doing. Chaos ensues.

I like Edgar Schein’s idea. The leader of the learning organization, he says, in my beloved chapter 20 of Organizational Learning, has to simultaneously assuage his team’s anxieties and prompt people to learn and change in some particular area. “We’re ok in general, but in this little bit, we need to do something differently,” she would say. We have to, that is, finesse a kind of propping up of the existing norms, while we rewrite some of them. It’s about a balance, or a percentage. We have to reinforce our status quo in, say 80% of our work, while we help people deconstruct and reform the status quo in the other 20%. It’s like a rolling blackout, but it’s not a blackout, it’s a spotlight.

But what would the right percentage of learning–the disruption percentage— be? I think the 80/20 rule probably works just as well as any other. I come at it from the opposite angle–If you take the reciprocal of work, when we’re learning full-time, in college, say, and you look at the ratio of learning to performance, you come up with something close to the 80/20 rule reversed. The average college student, say, works 10 hours a week, and has four classes, each roughly 10 hours a week, when you add up class time and homework. That’s a 20/80 work/learn rule, and we can induce from it that full-time work could be the opposite and do OK. In addition, it’s the percentage Google has seized upon in its famous workplace learning initiative.

Of course you’ll ask, percentage of what? Of time, of units worked, of number of work “categories”? I think you can use whatever metric you settle on with your team to organize what you do. It’s a rule of thumb, after all.

The point is to be humble in the breath and scope of your norm-changing initiatives, but be bold in the consistency and continuousness which which you inexorably promote them.