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Shut up, and listen

Last night I attended an RSA and University of Brighton event on the question ‘What is the role of men in supporting women into leadership?’

This was a follow-up to a larger event a few months back entitled ‘How women lead’. That was a great session, with a lot of energy. Creating a follow-up must have seemed a very logical next step.

All the panelists seemed to agree that there is a problem: there are not enough women in leadership positions – in both public and private sectors.

And as Simon Fanshawe, OBE, pointed out ‘complex problems require difference and diversity’. Many of our most significant problems today, from the social to the environmental to the economic are complex problems, problems that require different ways of thinking and acting.

Some good points were made.

Fairly obviously, ‘structural problems’ prevent women acceding to leadership positions.

James Rowlands, Violence against Women Commissioner, illustrated the importance of language by telling us about ‘mansplain’ – the phenomena when a man in a group takes it upon himself to explain what a women just said.

There was talk of the ‘fat, white middle-aged man trap’ and of re-framing what it takes to be a senior leader.

Giles York, Chief Constable of Sussex Police, pointed out the importance of holding people to account. Walking the talk is more important than talking the talk?

So why didn’t we, the audience, hold the panel to account? What might have been the structural problems that prevented that?

Structural Problems?

Firstly, it was an all male panel. That was interesting. Don’t women have a say in answering the question ‘What is the role of men in supporting women into leadership?’?

Secondly, with one exception these appeared to be very traditional leaders: a consultant, two CEOs, and a Chief Constable. We didn’t get to hear much from James Rowlands.

Thirdly, the room was set up in traditional lecture style. Chair and panellists at the front, (hiding?) behind a table. They had water, and microphones, we didn’t. Were these signals of power, showing us exactly who was in charge?

But if we had been brave enough to deal with those ‘structural problems’ what might we have held the panellists to account for?

Reframing Leadership?

Might we have asked what does ‘reframing leadership’ mean?

One possible reframing is towards a more enabling style of leadership, one that involves listening more than speaking.

Business theorist Chris Argyris, amongst others, has spoken of the difference between ‘advocating’ and ‘enquiry’.

Advocating is when we hold a position and tell others about it, and essentially recommend what others should think.

Enquiry is radically different. Enquiry, as I understand it, is a place of vulnerability – of not knowing. Starting from that place of vulnerability and exploring a topic. Engaging in dialogue, back and forth, while really listening. Trying to empathise,  to understand another’s point of view.

And possibly, just possibly, updating our own.

A lovely Argyris quote: ‘People don’t listen, they reload’.

Not only were there ’structural problems’, but there also seemed to me to be a lot of advocacy. Again and again, the consultant, the CEOs and the Chief Constable, assisted by Penny Thompson (CBE, CEO of Brighton & Hove City Council) told us how it was, leavened by a few jokes, statistics and stories to help keep us entertained and in thrall?

Questions from the Floor?

Yes, there were some questions from the floor. But might we have asked whether these were part of the enquiry? Or just further advocacy?

I am not saying this happens with every question. But sometimes it is worth looking for the advocacy hidden in a question. ‘Does the panel think X, where X is what I think, and what I really want is for you to agree or expand upon what I have just said, confirming it and making me feel good’. Advocacy or enquiry?

Or ‘I’d be interested to know what the panel thinks about Y because that demonstrates how knowledgeable I am and I would love for you to talk to me later and even perhaps employ me to help with your problems.’ Advocacy or enquiry?

Yes, enquiry is difficult. For all of us. Families and school teach us about power, and they teach us about the importance of advocacy. Sometimes with force. Sometimes with violence.

When we’re anxious, in front of a crowd, maybe advocacy seems the easiest path? Perhaps it’s especially difficult for men in traditional leadership roles to be vulnerable? Maybe it means giving up power, and status, and position?

Reframing Leadership?

And maybe it takes real courage to ‘walk the talk’ – to reframe leadership, and to hold each other to account, to be vulnerable? Perhaps it means allowing vulnerability – in ourselves, as well as others?

Someone in the audience asked the question ‘What is the change we’re all afraid of?’ That is a great question, and I’d have loved to have heard a real discussion, and heard people’s views.

But I couldn’t see the chance, that particular evening. I was sad about that. It felt like a missed opportunity.

Where were the young women – Gen Y or Gen Z – in all this, I wonder? I would have liked to have heard from some younger people. Maybe they would have been able to give us some pointers, some good ideas?

Maybe they would have said that the role of men in supporting women into leadership is to make sure that a genuine dialogue takes place, to make sure that as well as appropriate language, there is equivalence of opportunity to speak? For all – the young, the old, the extroverts, the introverts, the women, and the men?

That’s obviously what I think. I’m advocating that position. But I’d genuinely love to hear some other views. I’d love to be contradicted, to hear I was wrong. Or maybe just not quite right, not in command of the full picture? Maybe I could add some new ideas, maybe I could throw out some old ones? Only then can I learn.

I am really encouraged that these conversations are taking place. But I agree with Giles York, we need to ‘walk the talk’, and hold each other to account.

Creating that kind of dialogue requires real leadership – it can seem hard to rearrange the furniture, to make a circle, to stop, and to listen.

Maybe that’s where the (young) women were? Talking together? And waiting for the men to shut up and listen?

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Is truthfulness a competency?

As human beings, we tend to ignore the elephant in the room because we fear the consequences. Truth is a time bomb; the fuse is lit, and when it goes off we’ll all get blown to bits. Really?… It could just be that when it blows there’s nothing more than a lovely colourful (and perfectly harmless) foam fountain. Why do we fear the worst?

Duncan Brodie, a former NHS Director I interviewed for Undiscussables.com a while ago, questioned the logic of a health service that effectively works a Monday to Friday schedule when those who depend on it (i.e. require medical treatment) typically do not conform to an office hours only schedule when falling ill. I’ve also talked before about the notion that what is undiscussable in an organisation is, in and of itself, often undiscussable, and idea that stems from the work of Chris Argyris.

Reading a pointed (as ever) and thought-provoking post by Roy Lilley at NHSManagers.net recently, what struck me is that the two states of undiscussability that Arygris describes may need defining separately.

The undiscussable undiscussable

A subject that is taboo and has yet to reach the stage that it can even be alluded to.

Sexual and physical abuse, whether that alleged to have taken place by Jimmy Saville or within the Catholic Church, often seems to fall into this category. The difficulty that those who have been abused have in having their stories heard, let alone believed, might suggest that this pattern is particularly difficult to break. In organisational/work contexts, they can arise also.

The discussable undiscussable

The taboo alluded to, hinted at, ‘known’, tantalisingly out of reach

Writing that heading I question my logic momentarily, and it is this category that Roy Lilley describes powerfully in another post re mortality rates in the NHS. Analysis of three years of data and four million patient outcomes have revealed a statistically significant increase in mortality rates the nearer to the end of a working week you have elective (i.e. non-emergency) surgery.

It’s a bit like ‘Area 51’, the US Military…. It’s an open secret. Everyone knows it’s there but the US Government pretends it isn’t. Just like MI5. Everyone knew about it but it took the British government until 1994 to admit it existed. And, The Stig, BBC’s Top Gear test driver; apparently everyone knows who she is.

Elephant in the Room, Open Secret.

This is the ‘classic’ elephant: the thing we all know is there but do not want to acknowledge and/or discuss, yet there is tacit agreement that it exists. The undiscussable undiscussable is different: there is no agreement, tacit or otherwise, of existence because the consequences of doing so are too high for some of those involved. Or because those who witness what is happening cannot bear the consequences of even acknowledging it (the bystander effect)?….

There is no easy answer, although I am drawn to two suggestions, both sparked by Lilley.

Data, data, data… Give me more data

The mortality rate issue above was revealed and discussed in sharper terms because not only was there data available, it has been used to make sense of complexity to reveal an underlying pattern. With data, you get to a conversation that takes you closer to a decision based on reality rather than the shifting sand of opinion.

Truthfulness is a competency

In the post on mortality rates, Lilley laid out a challenge for leadership in and around the NHS, in the context of the recommendations in the Francis Report calling for a new approach to leadership practice.

Truthfulness emerges as a key competence when an organisation is faced with the unachievable. Soldiering-on, to protect reputations and careers, not confronting the real issues leads to an environment fertile for fraud, fictions and fabrications. Obsfucation, cover-ups and smokescreens disguise the actualite and defer the inevitable.

Relative to the NHS, and given my own experience working with people within the UK health sector, I would agree. What is more, I am not aware of any psychometric tests, competency frameworks or similar that explicitly seek to inquire into the capacity of individuals in organisations to speak the(ir) truth, relative to role and context (suggestions welcome if there are). And…

A challenge to leaders and leadership development practitioners

My experience of working with(in) organisations and with leadership teams is that the desire for simple answers and certainty undermines those who make the case for slowing down to seek more data in order to establish what is real and not real, what is fact and not opinion. This desire for simple answers and certainty, delivered in as short a time as possible, places a primacy on an illusory form of truth. ‘Directness’ and ‘honesty’ are not the same as truthfulness, the essence of which is grounding in fact or reality, and means you are exposed to the possibility that reality may not be how you imagine it. So a couple of questions, relative to the taboos and challenges in your organisation:

  • To what extent do you know what is true (real), and based on what data?
  • To what extent are you prepared for the truth, whatever it is, or to speak a truth?
  • To what extent is your organisation ready for the truth?
  • What are the consequences, all of them, of speaking out and not speaking out?

Your move.

(Ed: This post was initially published on Undiscussables.com)