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Conscious Leadership: The Challenges of Empowerment

Laziness is my primary motivator when empowering others. If a thing is worth doing, I believe it’s worth getting someone else to do it.

This, however, is not as self indulgent as it might seem. I know that as a leader one of the first things I need to learn is to let go and trust others to get on with it.

I have not always been very good at this. However, over the years I have learnt why my old, more controlling ‘I’ll do it for you’ ways don’t really work and why empowering others is essential.

First off, lets look at confidence. My mother’s “Let me do that for you darling” – while I’m performing some simple task like making a cup of tea – is probably meant as an act of kindness. How I actually feel it is: “I am an idiot that can’t be trusted to make tea, despite the years of apparent evidence to the contrary.”

This not only irritates me but it also kicks my confidence, as it’s a tacit implication that I’m incompetent. There’s a subtlety to it though because cognitively I know I’m not, however I still irrationally feel it at some level and feelings tend to beat thoughts.

Learning is another key benefit of empowerment. In today’s fast moving, customer-centric world it is essential that everybody learns, and learns fast. Best of all is when they are so confident and engaged they take responsibility and drive their own learning.

When it comes to learning new things Mum is very much of the school of “probably shouldn’t try as it’s likely to be too difficult”. For me this is less than ideal. When I’m learning, what I really want is lots of encouragement and belief, as this helps me push through the self doubt.

Challenge is also very important to us. Solving something like a crossword puzzle or winning a video game is all the evidence we really need for this. Overcoming challenges helps us grow our self belief (or confidence) and it usually gives us a little frisson of excitement, and a sense of deeper resilience.

So why is empowerment so important? In my quest for a work free life, it is fairly obvious that once I let someone do something little – like a task I have handed them – then I  can give them more and more responsibility – until ultimately they are acting more like a leader themselves.

Effective leaders actively offer responsibility by distributing leadership power among the people that need it, allowing leadership to occur where it is needed most, often in the front line of business.  Most importantly this helps get a lot more done. It’s also likely to help teams be happier, more engaged and show more initiative.

It’s also probably helpful to think of leadership more as how you enable others to do what they need to do and then get the hell out of the way.

Although this is obvious in theory it can be quite hard to get right in practice. If you’re a control freak, for example, not only are you likely to be killing off your team’s motivation and innovation but you are likely to need more than a little help overcoming this urge.

A good and challenging place to start is delegation, and to get good at that. The more you are able to do this the more you are getting closer to allowing others around you to lead.

Inexperienced or untrained managers are most at risk of sabotaging themselves and their attempts to delegate.

The problem is, even if you are a ninja level engineer with technical insight gifted seemingly from the gods, management requires a totally and utterly different skill set and will exercise very different personality traits and emotional muscles, including some you might not have developed yet.

Many organisations miss this obvious fact and expect people to just figure it out, without proper investment in management training or personal development.

Not knowing how to be effective as a manager (common in those newly promoted to management) and without any help from those around them, before long the freshly challenged become frustrated and revert to what they do know – in this case “engineering”. They then start interfering with the “engineering” people in their teams are trying to do – showing them how they are doing it wrong and how the new boss can do it better.

As I said above, the thing most likely to undermine my confidence, motivation and general goodwill is poorly veiled criticism over my shoulder. Every “suggestion”, implies that I’m doing something wrong and thus can’t be trusted to perform the simple thing in front of me. And so I disengage.

Psychologically, I’m in a “double bind”: I’m feeling things are wrong even though I can see my way is working or valid. So I stop trying – because I’m wrong either way. I’ll go and look at what my friends on Facebook are doing instead.

Challenge is also removed – if my manager does take over and do my work for me. I lose the opportunity to learn. And, of course, I now believe he thinks I’m an idiot, so trust between us is destroyed.

It is worst of all when this exists at the top of hierarchies. Perhaps we are genetically predisposed to look up the hierarchy for tips on how to behave. So if someone senior is guilty of micromanagement, this crime can infuse the organisation below them like an unwanted inheritance.

An antidote follows. Let’s imagine the team player we’re delegating to is called Bob and he reports to me. Here is a way to set up delegation, broadly in line with the approach espoused by the late Stephen Covey. This is a mechanism that should catch any possible derailment and put the task back on track.

Bigger picture: I help Bob understand where he and what he’s doing fits into the bigger picture. What the organisation he is part of is trying to achieve. This taps into Bob’s sense of purpose and connects the task he’s achieving with that broader purpose. The context also helps him understand the implications if he does not get it done.

Ownership: I give Bob total ownership of the task. It’s up to him to get it done. This is so he is clear that no one else is responsible for achieving the desired outcome. No one is going to pick up his toys or tie his shoelaces for him. The buck stops with him. Essentially this is an invitation for him to “step up to the plate” of responsibility.

Expectations and Results: I also make sure Bob is very clear about what kind of results are expected. This will be helped if Bob already understands the bigger picture. It’s even better to ask Bob to consider the position of the other stakeholders and figure out what a good outcome for all might be.

For example, Bob might decide he needs to finish the project on time with a high quality, technically robust solution, and on, or under, budget.

Booby Traps: If there are some big obvious pitfalls in front of Bob then it’s only fair to warn him of these in advance so he can try to avoid them.

Support: If Bob is experiencing any problems, is unclear or struggling with the task, or if the delivery of the project is in jeopardy, I make it clear I am available to support to him to get through it, or to re-agree expectations. But I definitely am not going to do it for him.

Mistakes: Bob will undoubtedly make plenty of mistakes, we all do. This will help him learn and become more resourceful and do his job better, especially if all “mistakes” as are treated as learning opportunities. Not with punishment or disapproval, but with encouragement and support.

Feedback: Feedback should be a gift not a weapon. If given as a gift your teams will grow, develop and make you look good. If used as a weapon then your groups will regress, be generally unhappy and perform badly – they will be fearful of taking risks or “getting it wrong”. This kills innovation, creativity and energy.

Finally, having set all this up, you now need to live by the rules you’ve created. Again this is  basically because “monkey see, monkey do”. Other people will do as you do, not as you say. Any ambiguity also creates “wriggle room” – space to allow people to wriggle out of their responsibility. However, if you are consistently well boundaried and do what you’ve said you will do, the opportunity for others to wriggle will be minimised.

Good luck!

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What is progress?

Out walking the other day I noticed that the skyline at Newhaven near where I live has now been split by the large (230ft?) chimney of a new incinerator.

A hundred years ago this might of been progress. Under the conditions then, it might have been appropriate. Like the building of our Victorian sewers, massive construction projects designed to improve public health or get rid of waste would presumably have been a good idea.

But today this sight makes my heart sink. Even ignoring the defiled view, to me, building that incinerator is not progress. It is a retrograde step.

This is a plant that will simply burn waste to produce further waste which then must be sent out in to the atmosphere or put in landfill.

And rather than a real dialogue with the people who live nearby, it seems to me many objections and suggestions were ignored. The idea of a zero waste strategy, for example – based on reducing waste at source and throughout the production cycle – doesn’t seem to have been taken very seriously by the “powers that be”.

By contrast, Ovesco, another local initiative, has been raising money for a community-owned solar power system. The idea is to put 544 photovoltaic panels on the roof of a large local building and generate renewable electricity. And, perhaps most interestingly, anyone with £250 to invest can join in and share in the returns from the project. An experiment in sustainability, and in the participation of local people.

The Ovesco project, for me, is progress.

Of course, these are very personal views. So, what makes me, personally, label one project “progress” and the other not?

Simply, for me, it is all about the vision I hold. My personal vision.

And what is vision? For me, vision is about what I see coming down the road towards me.

If I have no vision of the future, then I am interested only in what is happening to me right now.

With a negative vision, a future where the world is polluted, and a hard place to live in, then an incinerator makes perfect sense. It deals with a short-term problem. Creates some jobs in the short-term. Contributes a little to economic growth.

With a positive vision, a future where businesses and people work together in harmony to create a world where many of our energy needs are met through renewables, then the Ovesco project makes perfect sense. It allows us to experiment and learn – about renewables and how to work together as a community.

This suggests some questions: Do I need a vision? Can I choose a vision? And what should I choose: a negative or a positive vision?

Part of our nature as humans means that many of us are very present-focussed and are pretty unconcerned about the future. That is great in many ways – after all pleasure and happiness all occur in the present – not in the future.

But if we have no vision, I believe things may just happen to us, and we may miss an opportunity to influence them.

If we allow ourselves a negative vision, we create the conditions for that negative world to come about. That kind of view leads to acquiescence and a lack of action. And then we may just find ourselves getting something we don’t really want, deep down.

And, by contrast, if we learn to cultivate a positive vision perhaps we’ll start taking steps to bring it about.

By “cultivate” I really mean “learn to look”. As Shakespeare wrote, the world “is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so”. If we look carefully, consciously, we can see signs that indicate where things are heading. By selecting those that seem positive to us, and acting on them – finding allies, and taking simple, practical steps – I believe we can draw that world closer, and make it more likely to come about.

That, for me, is progress.


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Do less, do it differently

Can’t remember how I came across this piece in the Harvard Business Review magazine.

But whoever sent it my way: thank you. It reminded me why I struggle with the idea of “time management”.

It’s an interview with David Allen and Tony Schwartz. David offers the Getting Things Done approach, which I tried a while back but discarded. Tony runs the Energy Project which I have much more time for.

David seems to be all about lists and mental activity. While Tony’s approach is much more holistic – focusing on physical, emotional, mental and spiritual domains. That’s obviously more up my street.

David seems to be mainly interested in getting more done in the available time. Through lists.

My argument with that is that it seems to me that life is much more about what I do. Than doing more of it.

Tony seems to be at least partly interested in getting the right things done (a la Stephen Covey: “put your ladder up the right building”).

And he is spot on to focus on habits and breaking them, I think. (Take a look at the work of Ben Fletcher and Rilke’s Room if you want to know how to actually break some habits.)

My argument with Tony, if I had one, would be that, for me, life is more about how I do what I do. About the quality of my experience.

Why is everything about energy and productivity? Occasionally, isn’t simply enjoying life more important?

I suspect that both people are highly energetic, highly capable individuals. Maybe being energetic and productive is what they most value. Good for them. But we’re not all like that.

But thanks both, you’ve reminded me to take the day off. To be a bit more idle that I might have otherwise been. To enjoy the day a little more.

Maybe you’ll do the same. Or read more if you like: