Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Institutional corruption?

Remember institutional racism?  This term was coined in the 1960s in the US and widely adopted in the UK in the 1970s to describe a situation where an entire organisation, rather than just one or two individuals within it, collectively fail a particular group of people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. In the UK the term was used to describe the police after a number of high-profile events such those at the Brixton riots, Broadwater Farm and so on.

The idea is that, at least to some extent, the inappropriate behaviours and attitudes of individuals are so widely adopted within the group that they become social norms. Because they are so prevalent, no one questions them. Of if they do question them, their questions fall on deaf ears.

I guess it’s another example of group conformity in action.

Sometimes I wonder whether some organisations today suffer a form of institutional corruption. We all know the extreme examples: Enron, BCCI, Satyam, and so on. Companies where, ultimately, criminal behavior crashed the companies to the ground.

But isn’t corruption sometimes more subtle, and more pervasive?

A while ago, and this is going to begin to sound like an episode from Money Box, my insurance company sent me a renewal notice for my household insurance. Something made me check – and I discovered that they had increased the premium by 30% compared to last year.

When I called them, as soon as they heard the problem was “price”, they put me on to their “loyalty team”. When the salesman (sorry “loyalty consultant”) heard the price he quickly recomputed it and said they could offer the same service for a 0% increase instead.

Now my guess is that probably quite a few customers can’t be bothered to check what last year’s premium was and just renew automatically. Personally, I think that is pretty dubious behaviour for a business. Imagine how I might feel if I went into a shop and they tried to short-change me by 30%?

Wouldn’t I right to be aggrieved? Might it even be fraudulent or criminal?

When I enter into a relationship with a company I expect to be dealt with honestly – I want to trust that company and have them reward my trust. Would the shopkeeper who short-changed me by 30% retain my trust?

So going back to the idea of institutionalised behaviour, is it possible, then, that an entire company can be institutionally corrupt?

Is it possible that the salesman thinks of his role as an upstanding member of the “loyalty” team – when actually he’s in the “covering up our corruption” team?

That his managers and others in the company think that this kind of behaviour is so normal that it’s “commercial best practice”?

Is it possible that even the senior management and the CEO are so institutionally blind that they believe it right and proper to accept favourable compensation packages even while their employees are behaving in ways that are dubious or verge on the criminal?

Could this institutional corruption extend beyond the company to the whole industry? To other companies? To its regulators? To the media? Sometimes there’s not a critical voice to be heard, anywhere, of what some might think are corrupt practices – “this is just the way it is in this industry, it is just the norm”.

When the UK police were accused of institutional racism I can still remember the confused, questioning voices from their representatives: “You can’t be talking about us? We’re not racist”. It took a long, long time to really sink in.

The irony, is, of course, that as with the police force, or any other organisation, the public recognise this institutional racism, or corruption, or whatever it is, much sooner than those inside the organisation.

It feels wrong. But often the fact that everyone else is telling you its right makes it harder to put a name to it. It requires bravery to stand up and make that kind of statement.

Consciousness, even?

But businesses that are institutionally corrupt will lose customer loyalty in the long-run. My insurance company has already lost mine.


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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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Coherence and decision-making

On January 16th Professor Ben (C) Fletcher and I launch our new book:
Flex: Do Something Different.

How to use the other 9/10ths of your personality.

Here’s an extract on the topic of personal coherence, a concept that’s critical to conscious business.

Many people go through life saying one thing and doing another. Living one life but wishing for something else. Personal coherence is the mark of someone who has all parts of their life aligned. What they do and what they say are connected.  They are not held back by habits or personal limitations, and are totally at ease with themselves and their world.

Nonetheless, incoherence seems to be part of the human condition and the hallmark of the incoherent person is doing one thing and saying another. Here are a few everyday examples:

  • Craig chooses a foreign holiday but is upset when he can’t get his favourite beer and there are olives in the salad.
  • Pauline says she hates living in a mess but watches TV instead of doing the housework and is permanently untidy.
  • Julie was desperate for children but now that she has them she constantly complains about them and secretly prefers it when they’re not around.
  • Roger wears a safety helmet when cycling – then stops and has a cigarette.
  • The obese Simons family wear the latest sports clothing but never exercise.
  • Marty is obsessive about recycling but flies long-haul.
  • Almost 50% of the UK population buy fresh fruit and then throw it away.
  • Jim has renewed his wedding vows and is sleeping with his secretary.
  • Kath always tries to park as close as possible to the gym where she is going to an exercise class.
  • Sally and Richard worry about their children’s health but feed them a diet of junk food.

When people are incoherent there will always be some fallout or damage. Either to the individual or to others around them. Some of the examples above may seem rather flippant, but you get the message.

In reality people’s incoherencies can run far deeper than just a few surface behaviours. One consequence of a lack of personal coherence is that it leads to poor decisions and choices. The reasons for this include:

  1. Emotions. Emotions cloud logic and judgements. Reasoning powers seem to go out of the window for some people when the subject matter or conclusions involve emotionally laden outcomes. Emotions can also account for many of the flaws in thinking and reasoning that humans show.
  2. Habit. Inertia predisposes people to make the same choices they have made before instead of questioning their own choices. People may also have a stock of excuses to justify their decisions and behaviours.
  3. A narrow behavioural repertoire means a person will be insufficiently flexible and lack essential behaviours,and so is more likely to be distracted by the wrong options.
  4. Worrying about doing the right thing.  Being over-concerned about the reactions of others, or the ramifications a decision, can cloud judgment and make for poor choices.
  5. Fantasies of thinking. Some people live in a world of fantasy about themselves, their capabilities and how they behave. Fantasies obscure the best choices because they replace real information and insight with pretence. There are various kinds of fantasy that can get in the way of proper choices including:
  • The pretend-only fantasy. This happens when the person is not really 100% committed to a goal, decision or behaviour that is necessary to obtain the optimal outcome. Their words are empty and devoid of action. So the personal incoherence is compounded.
  • The commitment-without-expectation fantasy. A person might show all the signs of being fully committed, but does not really believe or expect to be successful. Their low expectations are usually met.
  • The hidden-effort fantasy. This is a very common cause of incoherence. It is the failure to fully consider the actual effort required to reach the goal. It is a failure to  take account of all the consequences of decision. Many people will apparently commit to a goal because they do not consider the unseen costs. So the person might commit to and expect to realise a goal but is not realistic about all that is going to be necessary to achieve it.
  • The others’-effort fantasy. This is a tendency to make a decision contingent upon other people instead of yourself. It is requiring others to do things to make something happen. This fantasy is very common with people who have low levels of self-responsibility.

Choices and decisions become easier and more obvious the more coherent you become. Coherence is about knowing all aspects of yourself – and having them all in harmony.  Our behaviour change technique, do something different, helps the harmonisation process and improves our choices. Decision-making is much easier, because it is only a lack of personal coherence that obscures the right choice.

 

 

 


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Taking charge

A recent news piece on BP’s behaviour in the Gulf of Mexico made me wonder about the use of the word ‘systemic’.

I know it’s probably not what was meant. But when I read this article, “systemic” started, to me, to sound like an excuse. A reason why BP and others didn’t do what they could have. Should have.

The first time I heard that word in relation to a disaster, or a scandal of some sort, it seemed to be properly used. Indicating that there are features of the system that make a problem likely to reoccur. That the problems are deeply entrenched in the design of the system, and that these conditions ensure that individuals often behave in certain ways. That we need to reform the system. Not just scape-goat individuals.

But now, and maybe it is me, it begins to sound as if the word is trotted out whenever a major disaster or scandal occurs to absolve any individual of responsibility.

“It’s the system’s fault, I couldn’t do anything!” comes the plaintive cry.

But as Margaret Mead said:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.

Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

And where does that small group of thoughtful, committed people start? It starts, of course, with the individual. One individual needs to take a risk, change their way of thinking, say something others daren’t.

An individual within a system is, I believe, the only thing that really can start to change a system. The individual is the catalyst for system-wide change. Somewhere, sometime, were there perhaps people in BP would could have said something and didn’t? Who went along with crowd-pressure and followed the herd mentality? When there was an opportunity to say or do something different?

What does this all have to do with you and your business?

Maybe you are in a business, running it or working at the front-line, and everyone blames everyone else? Maybe everyone is rubbish at their jobs. Maybe you don’t like the way the company is set-up or structured. Maybe your boss is an idiot. Maybe the reward systems are set-up to reward the wrong things. Maybe the company regularly does bad things, or allows poor quality work in the pursuit of short-term profit.

If any of those things is wrong with the system – please don’t blame others. Don’t blame “the system”. Take responsibility. Change yourself. Be the catalyst. Be the change.

Happy New Year.


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Go for it

Confidence, and self-confidence, are very important issues in the organisations where I work.

Lack of confidence can lead to all kinds of problems: sometimes it can freeze us  – we find ourselves completely unable to enter new territory. A simple example: having the confidence to sell a new type of product or service to a new type of client.

I think it was in a book by Jesper Juul that I first saw the distinction made between self-confidence and self-esteem.

Self-esteem, the way I read it, is about how I feel about myself, regardless of my skills or abilities.

Self-confidence, by contrast, relates to my view of my skills, my abilities, and my behaviours. If I think I am good at things I do – then I am self-confident.

Following this approach I can, if my self-esteem is good enough, feel good about myself even if I am demonstrably rubbish at something. And if I unfreeze and take the necessary steps, then I’ll learn and build the skills I need – growing my self-confidence.

Children, of course, learn new skills like sponges, and only at a certain age start to worry about their skills and abilities. By the time we are adults, many of us seem to be depending on our skills and abilities to maintain our self-esteem.

So that’s the theory. But how can I ‘operationalise’ this? (I love that word). What can I actually do that will help me become more fearless and act as if I have high self-esteem, even when I have zero self-confidence in a certain domain?

Three things come to mind:

  • Tell the truth. Maybe I am the only one, but a lot of my fears and worries are fears of being ‘found out’. Fear leads to inaction. Without action I cannot develop the self-confidence I need. So to avoid ever being put in a position where I will be ‘found out’ I find it useful to always tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

When I was younger, if someone said something I didn’t understand I might try to bluff my way through it. You can imagine the results. Anxiety and tension that only escalates as the situation gets more complicated because of my failure to understand a key point. Then scurrying away afterwards to research what I didn’t know.

A big waste of time. Today, if I don’t know I’ll say. That way I can put my energy into doing whatever I should be doing (like really listening) instead of wasting time watching my back.

  • Work as a team. Drop the commonly held expectation that you are somehow ‘serving’ the other person, in the sense of being inferior to them. I do believe in one sense that we always serve others. But often the worst way to serve another is to act as if they have some kind of hold over us and to pander to their demands.

Much better to treat other people as peers. The easiest way to do this is to change the language you use. If someone asks you a question, don’t always jump to answer it. Instead, use language that assumes you are working together in a team. Say “we”. Say “that’s an interesting question, I wonder what the answer is. Shall we work it out together?”

  • And finally, stay in the moment. Handle what’s in front of you “one step at a time”. Stop planning ahead. A year. A month. A day. Even a few minutes.

Instead, focus on your breath. On your body. Tap into your emotion. Feel the earth (the seat) beneath your feet (bottom). Look around. Listen carefully. Extremely carefully – to what is being said. And what your body is saying.

And respond to that, what ever it is. Don’t worry about what might happen – in the future. Bring your focus back to the present and respond to that. OK, so you don’t know the answer. What does that feel like? What’s happening to the other person? When you have an answer, respond. Take the next step.

Rinse and repeat.


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Business for personal growth?

I said in my last post that business was a powerful means to develop and grow people. I have been mulling this a lot lately, and have been wondering what it would mean if that was the entire purpose of business?

I can certainly see my own experience in that way. Working in business has brought me more challenges than pretty much anything else in my life. Firstly, the challenge of making a living. Secondly, learning to interact with all sorts of different types of people. Thirdly, doing all sorts of things I never would have imagined myself capable of.

Maybe that shows what a sheltered life I have led; but it truly has been challenging. Even balancing the demands of work with the rest of my life has stretched me physically, mentally and emotionally.

And yet at the same time it’s been a very safe place to learn. Scary at times, yes, but ultimately there has been little threat to life and limb.

Along the way I have also come to very much admire the people who run small and medium-sized businesses. It seems to me that they take more real risks than those in big business. In a well-salaried, very senior position in a large corporation, yes, you can learn a lot. And yes, you can lose your job. But you are unlikely to lose your house, or your personal reputation. You’re just too well cushioned by salary, savings and a network that protects its own.

Small business owners by contrast sometimes do lose everything, including their reputations with friends and family, and have to start again. There are few golden parachutes in the small business world.

But back to the purpose of business. I know what I am suggesting is not for everybody. Some people do simply want to make money out of business. Others want to do something really, really worthwhile. But for others, including myself, I think the goal is actually personal development and growth.

That may seem rather selfish. But I guess life ultimately belongs to each and every one of us. And we each have a choice to make, between what psychologists call hedonic and eudonic goals.

With the former we choose to make pleasure and joy our aim; and we avoid pain.

I understand the latter to be more about achieving a sense of fulfilment: a life well led, with real purpose and meaning, good relationships, good self-esteem and feelings of competence and self-control.

If this is your life goal, then why not make small business your training ground?

It will stretch you. You will need to learn new skills. You’ll need to become a specialist and a generalist – good enough at all things to be able to tell if you are wasting your own time and money.

You’ll need to be an expert in human relations. Money won’t always pave your way. So you’ll need to develop and rely on much more human strengths: passion, persistence, and the ability to persevere when others would give up.

You’ll need to learn new ways to lead – to help others discover their purpose and turn it into reality – often without recourse to coercive power.

And most of all it will force you to be really honest, to really be yourself; it’s hard to survive and thrive in small business if you adopt and hide behind a role. When things get tough you simply have to reveal yourself if you want to gain and build trust. Only honesty and trust will get you through the difficult times, and help you create something truly sustainable.

From this honesty and self-inspection you’ll also gain self-knowledge and self-esteem, and ultimately a sense of self-control and personal power.

Surely that’s worth shooting for?


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Asking the right questions

A friend of mine asked me the other day “What is strategy?”.

It’s a great question. It’s a question I remember asking one of my mentors over 20 years ago. We were working for a consultancy and together we had just completed a fairly significant strategy exercise for our client, one of the big six accounting firms. We were in the pub having a quiet drink to celebrate. Perhaps I was asking the question a little late?

And I admit now I didn’t understand his answer. Maybe I just wasn’t ready.

Now, twenty years later, I think I understand what he said. I think he was saying that strategy is in three parts:

  1. finding direction – developing vision, and mission, that sort of thing;
  2. choosing the route you are going to use to get there, and steering;
  3. doing it – implementing the strategy.

The first and last are relatively easy to understand, even if they are not easy to do. But the middle one is, in my opinion, the really tricky one.

Tricky because it requires different skills. Skills of analysis, connecting things, and seeing the big picture, to name but a few.

And even if you have access to these skills it requires something else, something that is sometimes in short supply in organisations: courage and confidence.

Courage and confidence to trust one’s instincts and ask what strategy is. Know that what other people call strategy probably isn’t. It may be tactics. It may mean simply blindly following a vision, without making any difficult choices.

Courage and confidence to stop whatever habitual busyness you have, and take a long cool look at yourself, your world and what is happening in it.

Courage and confidence to see clearly, despite the pressure that social systems put on us to conform and ignore reality.

Courage and confidence  to work with others and trust others, in such a way that a shared choice can emerge. The world is so complicated I really doubt whether strategy can be done alone.

Courage and confidence to go it alone. Effective strategy is usually a lonely path. You (and your colleagues) won’t be following the crowd.

Courage and confidence.

Setting direction takes courage and confidence too. It’s not easy to be what we most want to be.

Implementing your strategy takes courage and confidence too. To take the first steps. And the next steps, and the next. This requires tremendous effort – to overcome the inertia and resistance that exists in organisations of any size.

So maybe that is what strategy really is: courage and confidence?