A brief chat about conscious business…
This is a great piece of research from CASS Business School. It shows that employee owned companies are at least as resilient as non-EOB’s in good times but have a huge advantage in hard times such as recession, outperforming non-EOB’s in growth, turnover, profits, productivity, etc.
It’s short, to the point and there are graphs and picture to make it easier to digest. So why not have a read…
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.
After reading the ‘Get Started’ page of this site I was struck by how much the point “providing a safe place for human development and growth” resonated with me.
It’s probably not surprising as I’ve spent the best part of my career in learning and development but what drew me in was the term ‘a safe place’ and I thought it would be interesting to explore this a little further.
I would argue that feeling safe is a fundamental condition for optimal learning and development as it allows individuals and teams to explore their potential and try different approaches without fear of reprisal.
One of the key roles for great mentors, coaches and teachers is to create a feeling of safety that allows others to step outside of their comfort zones and try something new in order to develop and grow.
Sometimes, I worry about the trend to continually justify and measure improvement at both the individual and organisational level as this measurement in itself can result in the safety net disappearing.
For example, I remember a French teacher from school who was a stern character and ruled her pupils through fear. At the beginning of each lesson she would pick on a student to stand up in front of the class and test them on the vocabulary homework she had set the week before. This fear of being publicly humiliated in front of your peers meant that most of the time we did our homework well and when it came to exam time she got her results with nearly all the class passing.
A good result you may think. But unfortunately I have spoken to my classmates over the years and she has left a dread for French in all of us and I don’t know of one of us that went on to study the subject at A level.
So, all in all, not much of a legacy for a teacher.
This memory, for me, reinforces the idea that building safe, trusting relationships is probably the most important part of encouraging development and leaving a great legacy for the future.
Claire is a learning and development professional and runs Hove-based Learning Consultancy Partnership.
Apparently Covey’s “…most recent book – The 3rd Alternative – is an articulation of how “soft stuff is the new hard stuff”. So says Douglas R. Covant in an introduction to an extract from the book on Strategy & Business:
In my 35-year corporate journey and my 60-year life journey, I have consistently found that the thorniest problems I face each day are soft stuff — problems of intention, understanding, communication, and interpersonal effectiveness — not hard stuff such as return on investment and other quantitative challenges…..The soft stuff will forever be the hard stuff, but leveraging 3rd Alternative thinking can make the soft stuff significantly easier to resolve productively.”
As a long time Covey fan and careful re-reader of his work this doesn’t seem to me to be such a big shift in Covey’s thinking. But I’d join with him in wanting to re-label the “soft” as the hard.
It is an unfortunate twist of fate I think that we call the “soft” stuff that because it is anything but.
ROI and other quantitative things are hard too, of course. If you think anything else you are kidding yourself.
But I’d go even further. There’s one bit of the so-called soft stuff that is even harder.
That is understanding that our own development is the real key to growth.
Not the ‘soft skills’ required to get other people to do things (which is, sadly, how many managers understand ‘soft skills’). But our own self-understanding and awareness.
So, how about a complete re-categorisation of all things to do with (conscious) business:
* hard – ROI and other quantitative things
* harder – ‘people skills’
* hardest – one’s own personal development and a relationship of growth with oneself
In times of uncertainty, many people long for definite answers and clear leadership.
There are times when such an approach is warranted, but history has shown that all too often after short-term gains, long-term oppression and regression arise.
If business is to become more conscious, it cannot be forced but must be evoked from within people. Pull not push. And if we believe that humans are both limited and ‘built for growth,’ we have to consider how these factors shape our approach to increasing such consciousness.
I think that key to this is the use of questions rather than the provision of answers. By adopting this method, we are helping each other think more. Hard work at times, but in the long term I’m convinced it will produce better results.
So a key issue is to learn to ask not just questions but the right questions. To do this, we must apply the ‘questions are more important than answers’ approach to ourselves. It doesn’t matter how good an ‘answer’ is, if it is an answer to the wrong question it is at best useless, and at worst regressive.
Let’s ask ourselves what evidence we have that asking questions is such a good way to encourage growth. Here are some reasons:
1 Coaching – the best coaching I have received has been when I have been asked questions. My initial reaction was, “Hm, I paid for answers to my issues not questions!” But as the wise coach persisted with questions, my own ability to think about possible solutions developed, and most importantly, my belief grew that I could think differently, take action and see some change in my situation and that of my business.
2 Knowledge v Wisdom. – we seem to live in a society that is rich in knowledge but poor in wisdom. I think that in good measure knowledge comes from an ‘answers’ approach, wisdom from a ‘questions’ one.
3 Socrates – one of the founders of Western philosophy, a major contribution of his was the Socratic Method, whereby a series of questions are asked not only to draw individual answers, but also to encourage fundamental insight into the issue at hand. This is shown (at length…) in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates is the questioning mouthpiece for the message of that work.
4 Jesus – Christians claim that Jesus was God himself. So surely, he would have the ‘answers’ and would give them to us. Well, he certainly did give some very clear answers, but the Bible records him asking people nearly 300 questions. If such an approach was good enough for him, …
5 Pascal – a great quote from him: “All of man’s problems stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room.” We want noise and answers, rather than quiet and questions.
6 Delegation – if done properly, this costs in the short-term, but pays dividends in the long-term. I have found Ken Blanchard’s situational leadership model helpful in thinking about management and delegation, and the use of questions is a key part of this approach, particularly at the later stages of development.
Apart from the Situational Leadership model, I have also found the following helpful in trying to become someone who leads more with questions:
1 Kipling’s six honest serving men.
2 Covey’s seek first to understand.
3 Read, read, read.
4 Expose yourself to new ideas by developing weak as well as strong links.
By continually adopting a ‘questions’ approach, we shall develop our own and other people’s thinking ‘muscles.’ It is harder work in the short-term, but will produce better results in the long run. It can also help us all break out of stuck thinking.
As Steve McDermott has said in one of my very favourite books (How to be a Complete and Utter Failure in Life, Work and Everything: 44 ½ Steps to Lasting Underachievement), the quality of our life will be in direct proportion to the quality and depth of questions we ask ourselves on a regular basis.
What do you think?
Quora sent me a link to an interesting topic the other day: As first time entrepreneurs, what part of the process are people often completely blind to?
There are many good answers, but mine would be: Manage Yourself.
What I mean is look after yourself physically, mentally and emotionally.
I have seen entrepreneurs and other business people make themselves ill. And clearly if they are physically unfit, developing and growing a business becomes hard if not impossible.
I have seen entrepreneurs suffer much mental distress. They have made poor decisions, blamed other people, and failed to take the right action at the right time.
I have seen entrepreneurs stay unaware of their emotional selves. And in doing so they have often inadvertently pushed away those who would help them under other circumstances.
What’s more I have done all these things myself. And therefore I know that I was completely blind to these things at the time.
Hey ho. Onward and upward.