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Building trust must not become a gimmick – it’s a necessity

Our distrust towards authorities is rife – and justified, whether it’s the MP expenses scandal, the phone hacking scandal, the Catholic Church scandal or the inauthentic reactive style of our political leadership, such as the sudden annulment of ex-RBS chief’s knighthood in a hasty attempt to appease public outrage at his successors’ bonuses.

Frantic cover ups or perpetual dishonesty are either exposed or suspected, in a digital age where social media and the availability of information fuel our scepticism.

Distrust extends to the corporate world too; a recent Edelman survey found that whilst only 29% of people believe the Government is doing the right thing, only 38% trust businesses and surprisingly only a few more – 42% – trust non-governmental organisations.

If this is a time where a top-down approach to communication and leadership is proving ineffective, how can those at the top gain trust?

The answer lies in changing the question slightly – leaders will only be trusted when they are seen to lead with authenticity and trust themselves. After all, how can trust be built when the authorities don’t seem to entrust and respect us with the truth, or truly believe in their actions? The emphasis must be on leading by example, so leading with trust, from the top.

This is a tough time for managers too, particularly middle managers; new CIPD research found that 49% feel they are under excessive pressure either everyday or once or twice a week, only 44% are satisfied with their work-life balance, and 29% consider it likely they could lose their job as a result of the economic down turn (compared to 21% of non-managers and 15% of senior managers). Considering such findings, it’s perhaps no surprise that middle managers are also the category most likely to be job hunting, with 29% looking to move organisations (compared to 21% across the workforce).

Managers under pressure can be scared of unleashing their staff, micromanaging instead of trusting, criticising instead of giving constructive feedback, or believing that being overbearing is the way towards respect and productivity. This environment can lead to quick fixes and cost cuttings over a genuine long-term commitment to staff engagement and development, with strong management at all levels.

Managers may be tempted to pin their staff engagement efforts onto gimmicks, such as prizes and competitions, employee of the month awards, daily feedback reports or fun morale building activities. Whilst nothing is wrong with any of these, if they aren’t accompanied by honest, engaged and effective management they’ll seem cynical and empty; disengagement will only be reinforced.

An organisation that wants more from its managers, needs to trust and empower its managers. This will in turn lead to managers leading by example, able to affect trust and empowerment across the workforce.

  • Do managers take pride in their work and the business?
  • Do managers understand the business’s goals and vision?
  • Are managers provided with the information and resources they need to understand their role and manage their team effectively?
  • Are manager’s feedback and ideas sought and genuinely heard?
  • Do managers have formal development programs (rather than training and coaching merely used to firefight problems as they arise)?
  • Are managers carefully selected for interpersonal skills as well as technical ability? If not, is development provided?
  • Are managers’ flexible working requests granted, or at least welcomed?

Managers visibly and actively engaged in the organisation have already made the first step to earning their team’s trust. Whilst other measures – such as those above, adapted to non-managers – are legitimate steps to engaging and motivating teams, they’ll fall flat if unaccompanied with motivated managers.

Trusted and empowered managers are not only the first step to building the trust of the workforce as a whole. They are the foundation needed for motivation, creativity and innovation to grow.

With both the ability to respond to competition and talent retention ever important, businesses must remember that – just as customers will generally change loyalties due a company’s representative rather than the company itself – staff leave managers, not companies.

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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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A Chance Meeting

He had an idea. He felt it was very exciting because it was different and could even be important. But he didn’t know what to do about it. He didn’t talk to other people about it because he had learned that when he told them about it, they saw little in it for themselves, but a lot in it for him.

Many of them just cut him down, directly or through faint praise, explaining how they could see that it wouldn’t work even if he couldn’t. That left him feeling silly.

Even worse were the few who saw his idea and encouraged him, but they were no closer to knowing what to do about it than he was, so that left him feeling bad too. Smart enough to think up something, but not smart enough to know what to do about it, huh?

One day, by chance, he found himself in the company of another man on a journey.

After a while, this man asked him what his interests were. He was too shy to give a truthful answer, muttering abstractions and generalities that didn’t mean much. Doing otherwise always ended badly.

But on this occasion the other man seemed able to read his hesitancy and be interested in what lay behind it. He gently persisted with his question as though he desired to learn something of his travelling companion. It was almost as if he was saying: ‘This is our opportunity. The Universe is large, but will still be richer for what we can make of this time. There is nothing to fear’.

Eventually he caved in. He told his companion his idea showing the excitement he felt as he talked about it. The companion listened intently then asked some questions to make sure he had understood what he had heard. Then he commented on how important and valuable the idea was, but agreed it was hard to see what to do.

They travelled in silence for a short distance then the other said: ‘You have been thinking about this for a long time. You must have ideas about how it can be done. I’d very much like to hear, if you are willing to reveal them.’

At this he became very nervous again because the words he had to speak sounded ridiculous from such as himself, who had never moved in the circles of making such lofty things happen. But again it was as if the other man ecould read this and gently drew him out.

And as the ideas poured out of him and were met with approval rather than ridicule, his confidence grew and he spoke with greater clarity and force. His companion grew more and more impressed and started to share the sense of excitement.

They were nearing their destination. The companion said: ‘You knew all the time how to proceed and now you have laid it out. I know people who would be pleased to support you. If you would allow it, tell me your name and I will arrange for them to contact you.’

He said: “They just call me EM”.

The companion said: “Doesn’t that mean Everyman in your language? It’s funny, that’s what they call me too. Lot of us about aren’t there?”


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Google Friday

Google quite famously encourage their staff to set aside their day-to-day work every Friday to explore new ideas, new technologies. I’ve known this for years and always thought what a great way to develop new products it was. Talking to Craig Hanna the other day, what I came to realise was that the biggest plus for Google is not in the form of New Product Development (NPD) but in the learning that takes place. The interesting thing (maybe I’m wrong here – maybe I don’t know enough about Google Fridays yet) is that it seems to be the employees who choose what to learn i.e. it’s a bottom up approach not top down. To what extent does that happen currently in organisations?

More than we think maybe? If informal learning accounts for 70% of total learning and peer to peer 20% then that only leaves 10% for formal training and that’s quite often bottom up e.g. “I’d like to go to this event boss”. But I still can’t help feeling there’s an opportunity being missed here. Maybe Google’s approach is successful because employees get to work on real problems? Maybe it’s the level of empowerment, the fact that they get to choose the area in which they learn? Maybe it’s the level of collaboration it encourages?

Maybe the job of organisations is not to train their staff but to remove the barriers to learning. If 70% of learning takes place informally, who are we kidding if we think we can control what our employees learn? Our employees network includes pretty much anyone who has an internet connection, so maybe we should focus our effort on using that network to the full and not worrying about it?

As long as our vision, our values, our objectives etc are clear and we have staff that believe in them then surely we should trust them to identify their own learning needs and in an ideal world, share their experiences with their network. It might even save us a few quid in the process.


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Elvis was right

This post is to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Cluetrain Manifesto.

I listened recently to philosopher Peter Singer talking at the RSA. The talk was all about boundaries. At the end I must admit I thought “wasn’t that all just common sense?”.

It took a little time for the power of his words to settle in.

He spoke about the boundaries we create in our lives – between other people and ourselves, even between animals and ourselves. He linked three much discussed issues: global poverty, animal rights, and climate change together, pointing out that each was really about boundaries. Boundaries between us and others far away, us and animals, and us and future inhabitants of the earth.

His suggestion, as I understood it, is that sometimes these boundaries are false or over-estimated. And sometimes they turn into barriers. And that these barriers can cause us to act irrationally – for example, to fail to transfer even a small amount of our income to solve problems of poverty; to treat animals in sometimes appalling ways; and to continue to destroy the planet with obvious disregard for those who follow us.

Another potentially dangerous boundary, I’d suggest, and one that often becomes a barrier,  is the one between customers and companies.

When we allow it to become a barrier we create products and services that harm the planet. And we cut ourselves off from the value and joy we could be giving to each other through exchange,  innovation and commerce.

Thesis 29 of the Cluetrain Manifesto runs as follows: Elvis said it best: “We can’t go on together with suspicious minds.”

Surely, suspicious minds are at the root of the thinking that turns a boundary into a barrier?

We fear what we don’t know. We fear what might happen. We lack trust. And the truth is we often don’t take the steps needed to build that trust.

I am not sure that we can ever completely remove suspicion. It serves a biological purpose, I am fairly sure. But we can become more conscious of it. We can take actions to reduce it. To develop and grow its antidote: trust in others.

  • We can become more conscious of it by looking for examples of media, both old and new, that stereotype. We can challenge or avoid them.
  • We can watch the stereotyping, and labelling and judging behaviour, in ourselves. How often, when confronted by someone who says something we disagree with, do we label that person: “he’s a jerk”; “he’s stupid”; or, simply, “he’s weak”?
  • We can feel our fear – simply by focussing on an emotion, sometimes we can reduce it’s power.
  • We can challenge our beliefs. We can get out there and meet and talk to people. Even people we wouldn’t ordinarily talk to. To prove to ourselves how our stereotypes and suspicions are so often wrong.

It’s one of the great things about new media and the Internet – it has the potential to break down barriers between people, between creator and audience, and between customers and companies.

But to make that potential real we need to see more clearly, and to act, to take steps, to overcome our suspicion.

PS Next in the list is Kevin MacKenzie, at mack-musings.blogspot.com. You can see the full list of posts in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Cluetrain Manifesto here.