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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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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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Systems Thinking and Conscious Business

Today one of my sons told me he had been trying out the text-to-speech option on the Kindle. He thought it funny it couldn’t speak properly – all it does is read the words with no intonation or sense of meaning.

This led to a discussion of the difference between a series of words and a sentence. The computer can read each word individually but has no sense of the bigger thing – the sentence. Nor of the next bigger thing, the paragraph. Nor the next – the chapter, or indeed of the whole book.

It is very clear that a book is much more than all the words in it added together.

Take a piece of paper and draw 5 boxes. Arrange them in the rough shape of a circle. You can see the boxes. You can also see the circle. But where exactly is the circle? It doesn’t really exist in one sense – there are no lines on the paper which make up a circle. The circle only exists as an emergent property of the individual boxes arranged in a particular way.

2 + 2 = 5. Or in this case, 1 + 1 + 1+ 1 + 1 = 6.

These examples illustrate something that is central to thinking about business in a “systems” way.

This has little to do with IT systems, by the way; nor systems in the sense of processes that are used to deal with issues methodically or “systematically”. We’re using a different meaning of the word – this is systemic not systematic thinking.

These examples illustrate that businesses are complex systems. They are made up of “just” the individuals that work in them, but they are also much more than that. They are all the relationships between the people as well. And the relationships externally too.

And they are even more than that. They are wholes, and also part of a bigger whole. They’re integrated and connected into that bigger whole in ways that may even be difficult for us to comprehend.

This may all sound rather ethereal.

But it has some very practical implications.

For example, when trying to improve profitability in a company managers are often tempted to play around with metrics or KPIs. Adjust a few simple things like how hard people work, and surely profitability will increase?

I’m afraid it just isn’t so. A business is a complex system, and playing with one low level metric is just as likely to make things worse as it is to make things better.

Much better to think systemically. I have blogged before about Donella Meadows and her (fairly) famous list of the best points to intervene in a complex system. Be it a business or any other system.

According to Meadows, the least powerful are the ones we most often think of, presumably because they are easy to grasp and grapple with: constants, parameters, and numbers. Often we rearrange these “deck chairs” while the ship is sinking.

Transparency – who sees which information – comes in at number six from the top.  Transparency is a core part of developing a conscious business. It does work to radically change behaviour – and is certainly much more powerful than changing low level metrics themselves.

But the really powerful levers (in Meadows’ view, and mine) are:

  • The goal(s) of the system.
  • The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises.
  • The power to transcend paradigms.

Consider that a business that chases short-term profitability has a different goal from one that is interested in profitability over the long-term.

Asking questions like “what is a business for?”, or “what does competition actually mean?” is the kind of activity that can lead to a shift of paradigm or mindset.

And realising that how we see things changes everything is the ultimate lever. That, of course, is what consciousness is all about.

PS To get started in systems thinking I’d really recommend the late Dana Meadows book Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Or try the Systems Thinking wiki. Or more recently I really enjoyed The Gardens of Democracy if you want to explore how (eco) systems thinking relates to areas beyond business.


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It’s no good being conscious in your business if some topics are un-discussable…

Being conscious in business, or life in general, involves taking risks, and it is surprising how common it is for us to shy away from those conversations that, whilst hairy, may be exactly what is needed.

I spent last weekend in Phoenix, Arizona (niiiiice), where I met up with 25 other practitioners who take a complexity-based approach to organisational change and development. All of us are certified Human Systems Dynamics Practitioners, which a) lets us use extra letters after our names, and b) gives us more long words to bamboozle and confuse clients with if we don’t watch it. The purpose of the conference was to help the group develop more tightly coupled relationships in order to grow our practice, and foster collaborative working. Overall it was a success, and I walked away having both learned stuff (good), met some top people (excellent), and added a number of things to my ‘to do’ list (not so good).


One moment stands out for me as being the point at which the conversation shifted from being useful to generative. Or to put it another way, when we shifted from being polite to each other and got down to what mattered…

Playing with similarity & difference

At the heart of all relationships is a dance between sameness and difference: the more similar we are, the better the ‘fit’ and the greater likelihood we want to  work or play together; the greater the number of differences, chances are we move apart and/or end up in conflict. So far so obvious. What is less obvious, yet typical of what happens in many relationships, particularly in organisations, is what is left unsaid, unspoken, unnamed and ultimately becomes un-discussable. I have touched on this theme before (Intent(ion): the missing link?…, Is Gordon Brown’s ‘bullying’ behaviour a symptom, not the problem?, Collaboration: 10 tips for success, with a relational bias), and the un-discussable is not something that is easy to bring up. To suggest to anyone, particularly in a group context, that there may be something that they are avoiding talking about can evoke fear, anger, shame or simply plain discomfort. It requires, as a minimum, courage and curiosity on the part of the person raising the question, and a level of trust that can hold the impact of that intervention and any resulting. The rewards are huge if you can go there, and here’s why.

About an hour into the conference, we were invited to go into small groups to explore how we were same and different, and what this might mean for the relationships in the room and the weekend as a whole. My group of three contained some meaty differences, which we explored, and it led to one person noticing that she wasn’t sure how safe it was to share aspects of her self and her values that marked her out, in her view, as different to the majority. Whether this was true or not is not the point.  The discovery and potential rich learning lay in the (shared) realization that the group felt somehow un-safe and that some topics felt taboo.

Pick a door, any door…

This moment was a beautiful decision point for us. Many groups/organisations face these without realizing it, and, I believe, more often than not opt for safety. I can understand why, but we didn’t. Back in the big group, our feedback was framed around a central question:

“What is un-discussable in this group?”


Heart in mouth, I illustrated this by sharing how I felt (feared) my (Brighton, UK, liberal) values might mark me out as different from my US hosts, and how our relationship would change the more I revealed those differences.

Nothing is un-discussable, the only thing that changes is consequences…

From that initial risk-taking, something amazing happened. Person after person revealed questions/thoughts that they hold been holding back. In our case – and it will not be the same for every group or context – the territory we ended up exploring was primarily the questions and issues people felt unsure about raising in the context of the work we were there to do. There was some talk about how we were different individually, but as a group our focus was on the work. The trust in the room, and relational awareness of the people involved, was such that we held our differences lightly, and respected them. This particular exchange set the tone for the weekend, and got us quicker to where we wanted to go than would have been possible otherwise, in my opinion and it is important to say that.

Do I believe there were places we didn’t go, questions that were not raised? Yes, I suspect there were, if for no other reason than I get curious when a group of people spend so much time together without getting into any decent arguments! And that may say more about me than the group.

So the question for you is …

What are you not discussing in your organisation, team, group, board? How are your similarities and differences driving the conversation, and what is stopping you from saying what is really on your mind and gets in the way of work? For me, a relational approach leavened with models and methods from complexity works wonders. What works for you?


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Solving ourselves

I read a great blog post recently by Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project about giving and receiving feedback.

He uses the term ‘deconstructive’ – a term I have also seen used in the book ‘Seven Languages for Transformation‘ by Harvard Professors Kegan and Lahey to describe both feedback and conflict.

The idea is much older than that, of course, and runs as a theme through much work on dialogue – including that by Bill Isaacs (Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together – one of my favourite books), who refers back to David Bohm. It is also central to the ideas of Chris Argyris and many others. In fact, I am pretty sure the idea can be traced back and back, probably to ancient thought including Taoism and beyond.

So what does it mean? Putting it into a modern context, the starting point for me is how we perceive ourselves and our relationships.

If we see ourselves as unitary figures, each with our own problems and failures, and if we adopt a critical mindset, then deconstructive criticism doesn’t make much sense. Surely our aim is to point out the failings of others and fix their problems? To be constructive – in other words to help and support them as they “grow”.

Extend that a little, and add in a little sympathy for the human condition, or perhaps guilt at our own imperfection, and the idea is now that we need to find our own flaws and figure out how to eradicate them.

But take a different perspective. Start with the idea that everything is how it should be. That people as individuals and the relationships they inhabit are fine, just fine. In fact, they are perfect – in the sense that they are in balance, in a perfect homeostasis – like everything in nature.

Take a different perspective – that we are not unitary figures, but that we are all connected, that we are part of complex systems, in fact, part of a single complex system. Unboundaried parts involved in a complex interplay, perhaps one that cannot even be understood by us – not simply cogs in some giant machine.

Then what deconstructive means is to try to understand our own role in that system. To understand how what we say and do, and even what we think and feel, joins together with what others say and do, and think and feel, to create a particular result.

Deconstruction is about stepping away from blame, stepping away from a position of superiority, or, equally, of inferiority. Away from a position of condescension, or of false innocence. Of stepping away from knowing.

I am probably misinterpreting it but doesn’t the Bible say that knowledge is the root of all evil? I know for sure that my own tendency to think I know the answers is the biggest block to my understanding. It is only when I start to suspend my certainty in my own knowledge and beliefs that some sense may start to creep in.

As Tony Schwartz, and Kegan and Lahey, and all the others point out, giving feedback to others from a position of knowledge is fundamentally flawed.

What works better is to examine our own role in the systems we inhabit. How is what we are doing, thinking, feeling affecting the results we get?

This is how problems can be helpful – not because we can identify them, solve them, eradicate them. But because problems teach us something about how we are. I can learn how superior I can be. And that might just help me start the process of starting to solve myself.