Tag Archives: Organizational Effectiveness

Arrogance…Something to Leave Behind

arrogantI’ve come to understand that each time we say ‘yes’ to something, we are saying ‘no’ to something else. It’s the way things get balanced out, I suppose. This kind of balancing act almost always comes up at the beginning of a New Year when so many of us make promises to ourselves about what we want to change. Usually the promises are about personal things, habits or attitudes we’d like to leave behind in favour of something new, better and more progressive.

But, organizations would do well to take this kind of inventory from time to time too.   After all, it is attitude and habit that dictates, if not what gets done, certainly how it’s carried out. So a kind of organizational culture check every so often would not go amiss, if only to keep an eye on values alignment.   Values “drift” can happen easily in the busyness of the day and give way to less useful behaviours.

In particular, I’m thinking about arrogance… the great time waster.

We are all guilty of taking positions of arrogance. It does not discriminate. When it shows up, it has a way of impeding real progress; of serving only the few at the expense of the many; and of making fools of those who put their own importance ahead of everything else.

Witness this exchange.

*It is an actual radio conversation between a U.S. naval ship and Canadian authorities, off the coast of Newfoundland in October 1995.

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Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision

Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision

Americans: This is the Captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No. I say again. You divert YOUR course.

Americans: THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS LINCOLN, THE SECOND LARGEST SHIP IN THE UNITED STATES’ ATLANTIC FLEET. WE ARE ACCOMPANIED BY THREE DESTROYERS, THREE CRUISERS AND NUMEROUS SUPPORT VESSELS. I DEMAND THAT YOU CHANGE YOUR COURSE 15 DEGREES NORTH, THAT’S ONE FIVE DEGREES NORTH, OR COUNTER MEASURES WILL BE UNDERTAKEN TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF THIS SHIP. 

Canadians: This is a Lighthouse. It’s your call.

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There you have it folks, a prime example of arrogance at work.

So, as we approach another new year, my wish for organizations and people everywhere, including me, is that we strive to leave behind our arrogance to make room for more productive values and perhaps a more peaceful existence.

It couldn’t hurt. What say you?

 

*Radio conversation released by the Chief of Naval Operations, 10/10/95

 

 

 

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Filed under Leadership, Leadership Values, organizational culture, Organizational Effectiveness

The Importance of Being Purposeful

This is a refreshed version of a post I wrote in March, 2010

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why-am-I-hereWhen I first came to Vancouver to take up my new role as a Human Resources Consultant with a major bank, my boss and I agreed that I should go on a road trip and meet with as many corporate banking employees as possible. It was sort of an orientation thing for me and perhaps provided a chance for everyone else to give me the “once over”. Coming from Toronto, it seemed I was automatically not to be trusted.

On one occasion, I was to talk with a number of Corporate Account Managers. My intent was to get to know them as individuals; to learn about their ambitions; their challenges; and how we might better support their efforts. It is entirely possible though that I did not adequately declare my goal, because the first person I encountered, pulled his chair very close to mine; stared sharply into my face and said, “I make money for the bank. What do you do?

Aside from the obvious attempt to intimidate me, his question was meant to suggest that as a person who made no direct contribution to the bottom line, whatever my purpose, I was an expense to the organization and consequently, of less value.

This is not an uncommon perspective to take, especially in large organizations. But at the time, I couldn’t help but think  there was something gravely missing from this outlook.

It occurs to me now that “making money for the bank”, while an admirable outcome, did not tell me anything about what this fellow saw as his purpose. And, for me at least, there is something lost when a person seems to view his primary raison d’être as making money.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I like money as well as the next person and there is a primal need to earn it and manage it prudently. But, the purpose of most jobs, or even most businesses is probably not principally about money. It is more than likely something else, something that has to do with providing a service. Making money is an outcome of that. The amount of money earned is usually determined by the quality and consistency of the service delivered and the ability of those who deliver it, to engender loyalty among a growing constituency.

But sometimes I think we forget. We take our eye away from our fundamental purpose and allow ourselves to get fixated on the dollars. And that’s when we risk running afoul of ourselves. We become greedy. We get our priorities out of order. And then we get into trouble.

For instance, there continue to be number of “recall” situations in the automobile industry. Somewhere along the line, I suspect the affected companies have strayed from their fundamental purpose, which to me goes something like; Make good, reliable cars & keep people safe, or something to that effect. It doesn’t have to be complicated. People just have to know what it is and be able to access it when they need to re-focus.

And that is where good leadership is key. People need to know why their jobs exist; whom they are there to serve; and how it all fits together.

I think this is so because…

It helps us in making good decisions and prioritizing appropriately.

If we train ourselves to ask the question; How will doing this, (or not doing this) help me to serve my purpose? The answer will often give us the information we need to move forward.

It helps us when we tackle problems.

Often problems can start to build on each other and become so complex that we get lost in them. When this happens, it sometimes helps to get back to the basic questions like;  What is my main purpose and who am I here to serve?

It helps us stay connected to the overall purpose of the organization.

Knowing why our jobs exist and how they fit into the bigger picture makes it easier to stay focused on what’s important.

It gives value to every role in the organization, not just a few.

If you nurture a culture that identifies the purpose and value of each job in relation to the overall vision and to each other, everyone in the organization has an opportunity to feel important.

It promotes good stewardship.

If we are clear about our purpose, it is that much easier to recognize and fulfill our responsibilities to those we serve.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Oh, and here’s an afterthought for you to chew on…or not.

I tend to be an idealist and often write about the way things “should be” but I find myself having to acknowledge that some people actually see “making money” as their primary purpose, and no kind of proof to the contrary could convince them otherwise. 
However, for most of us anyway, a purpose like that is too fragile and volatile to sustain and build on over time with the consequences of the ups and downs such a purpose suggests being way too heavy for most people to endure.

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Filed under Establishing Direction, Leadership, Leadership Development, Organizational Effectiveness

Trust: If You Build It, They Will Come…and Stay

4260129042_e5e2586547

Trust. It’s a small word and yet, it holds the key to success in just about every walk of life. And, it’s one of those things that is often hard earned yet easily destroyed. That makes it precious.

From a corporate perspective, we all pretty much know that building trust in organizations is key. But what does it look like when it’s in action? Well,

here are some ideas around what we might see in an organization that has successfully built high levels of trust.

As a Boss, people are open and candid with me. They trust that I’m not in the business of shooting messengers or punishing anyone for giving me straight and honest information about myself or anything else for that matter. People working with me, are not afraid to be creative or try new things. And, when they make mistakes, they own up to them and are willing to share their lessons with others. As a boss too, I strive for transparency in my dealings with others and that means I talk to them, ask for their opinions and listen to their advice. I feel well rewarded and highly regarded.

As part of a team, I don’t waste time engaging in gratuitous political maneuverings. I focus instead on building solid and positive relationships with my colleagues for my benefit, and for the team. I trust them to do the same. I make sure I fulfill my responsibilities to the team and the organization and take pride in both what I produce and what the team produces. My team and I enjoy working together and pitch in to do whatever work needs doing, even if it is technically “not my job”. I always get the credit I deserve for the contributions I make. I feel that I belong.

As an individual contributor, I make sure that I understand my role in the organization and if I am unsure, I ask someone who can teach me. Similarly, if I have knowledge that someone else does not have, but needs, I am not hesitant about sharing what I know. I trust that sharing will give us all the power we need to do our jobs well and succeed. I feel competent and important.

As a sales person, I believe in my product. My clients’ needs come before my own. Many of my clients have been with me for a long time. I continue to work to earn their ongoing loyalty. I am not afraid to approach my boss if I think my client has needs that could be met differently. I offer my ideas freely. I have earned my clients’ respect. I do not feel the need to compete with my colleagues except in a way that challenges us all to do better. I feel productive and successful.

As an organization, we continue to experience growth in our business. Our client base is strong and increasing. Our employees are actively engaged in building and supporting our business. We value their contribution and make every effort to acknowledge their accomplishments in a variety of ways that have meaning for them. We feel confident about the future.

Okay, so some of this might sound a bit utopian. I mean, I used to have a boss that hid around corners at lunch hour trying to catch people taking more than their allotted time for lunch. While hopefully, bosses who behave like that are going the way of the dinosaur, I suspect a lot of work has yet to be done to build the kind of trust it takes to bring all of the scenarios I describe to life.

Nonetheless it is perhaps something to strive for because the price of under-valuing, (or worse, not doing), the work of building trust in organizations is very high indeed.

I am reminded, strangely, of a little clip from the movie City Slickers where Jack Palance’s character, Curly, talks about the “one thing” that holds the secret of life. Here it is:

When it comes to the secret of successful organizations, I tend to think that the “one thing” is trust.

What do you think?

*Note: originally posted in February 2010

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Filed under Building Relationships, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Organizational Effectiveness

Getting Back to Work ~ What Motivates Us

KtLtMO3rJd42s9nvpRuZ6D7b_500I hate to say it…but I will. Summer is coming to a close. It feels a little sad saying adios to the hazy, crazy, sometimes lazy days of summer. And yet, to me, there is always a ‘new start’ feeling about September. I guess it must be that, for most people, summer vacation is over and it’s time to get back to work.

Some of us will approach this prospect with enthusiasm and some, well, some will spend time singing the back to work blues.

As a leader, it is reasonable to assume that you would prefer the enthusiasm option to the blues option. But, like everything else, you’ll likely have to work for it.

So here’s a reminder from Daniel Pink about what truly motivates people to do their best work, (post vacation or otherwise) and it has nothing to do with money. In fact, according to Pink, (and intuitively, I agree) there are three things that, in combination, will charge our batteries and get us happily moving forward. Here they are:

Autonomy ~ freedom to,( independently or with others of our choosing), work creatively and produce something we can be proud of.

Mastery ~ opportunities to learn, grow and build on our interests, knowledge and abilities

Purpose ~ Connecting to something greater than ourselves that we can believe in and strive to fulfill.

Here is a wonderful RSA Animate production called Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. It is ten minutes long but, for any leader, is worth the time to see because it gets to the heart of what motivates us.

This presentation suggests to me that to keep the effects of lethargy (whenever it may arise) from diminishing our activity and blurring our focus, we must find ways to emphasize or integrate the principles of autonomy, mastery and purpose into our everyday work life.

With this in mind, here are some questions for you, as leader, to consider:

Autonomy:

  • Given the nature of your business, how might you provide opportunity for people to work autonomously?
  • How flexible are you when it comes to work arrangements?
  • What would happen if you were to make each person’s operational framework larger and allow more independence? What might it look like?
  • What would you need to make it work? What would you have to do to fill that need? What would others have to do?

Mastery:

  • What opportunities do you provide for people to get better at what they do?
  • How do you approach development planning?
  • How do you acknowledge accomplishment?
  • What value do you place on curiosity, risk and learning?
  • What are you willing to try, to allow your people a chance for growth and greater contribution?
  • If you were to take what you are doing now to increase peoples’ level of mastery and multiply it by two, what would it look like? What do you anticipate would be the outcome?

Purpose:

  • What purpose does your organization serve?
  • Does everyone in your organization know it? Understand it? Believe in it?
  • How often do you remind people of your organizational purpose?
  • How do you help them make the connection between what they do and how they contribute to the fulfillment of the purpose?

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There will of course be other questions that come up for you but the point is, there are times when this notion of achieving a working environment that values autonomy, mastery and purpose requires some active consideration.

I just happen to think that the autumn is one of those times.

What do you think?

*Please Note: This post was originally published in 2011

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Filed under Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, motivating & Inspiring

Leadership…And All That Jazz

This week, I’m offering you a refreshed version of a post I wrote in 2010. Not to be immodest but it is one of my favourites. I love jazz and I think it a perfect metaphor for leadership. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

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jazz-piano-record-producer-9-13-2012-2011Warren Bennis once said, ‘I used to think that running an organization was equivalent to conducting a symphony orchestra. But I don’t think that’s quite it. It’s more like jazz. There is more improvisation”

I must confess. I really like the symphony orchestra metaphor, simply because it is, well, beautifully uncluttered. But, as much as I would like to think it possible for all things to be in harmony at all times, I know the reality to be a lot messier, or jazzier, metaphorically speaking.

In fact, it is perhaps the jazz of life, (that stuff that requires spontaneity and improvisation), that transforms the vanilla of a well-ordered enterprise into something spiced with possibility and potential for greatness.

So it is with leadership.

In leadership, there are times for following a well-planned strategy. And, there are times when doing so isn’t going to work. The landscape has a way of changing rapidly, often requiring leaders, as creative beings, to rely on instinct to successfully navigate unexpected challenges or opportunities and explore unknown places.

At those times, improvisation is a useful tool. However, as with jazz, improvisation on its own will not create a joyful noise. It must somehow find its way back to the primary melody no matter how far afield it may go.

In leadership, the primary melody lies in the organizational vision, its purpose and the values and principles it operates from. How far afield we are willing to go to realize the vision and fulfill the purpose is usually dependent on a number of things like:

  • How much we know
    The more curious we are and the more we seek to learn about the immediate environment, our markets, our politics and the world, the better equipped we are to make spontaneous decisions that will serve our purpose, either now or in the future.
  • How much we are willing to risk
    When it comes to risk, those who extend themselves too far, risk losing sight of their core purpose and those who don’t explore at all, risk missing opportunities for growth that go beyond their current expectations. Being clear about how much we are willing to risk can help us determine the extent to which we are willing to improvise.
  • How much we believe
    If we have our organization’s core purpose and future vision etched on our brains and hearts, the likelihood is that we will also feel more at liberty to play with improvisation without fear of getting lost.
  • How much we imagine
    Just as jazz music is highly interpretive, the extent to which we use our imagination in leadership often determines the kind of organizations we build and the ability of the people working in those organizations to improvise effectively.

I believe there is a vital role for improvisation in organizations. Our appetite for spontaneity will of course vary but if we are wise, we will allow room for it. It could make the difference between mediocrity and excellence.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

Oh, and just for fun, here is Oscar Peterson providing a fine example of what can happen when improvisation blends beautifully with the primary melody.

 

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Filed under Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Vision, organizational culture, Organizational Effectiveness

Leadership and Human Nature

flowerIn October, 2012, Superstorm Sandy was top of mind for a great many.  Not only was it a catastrophic storm for thousands of  people, it served to remind us, once again, that disasters pull people together like no other phenomena.

I say this, not to be flippant, but to call to attention how the best in good people seems to rise to the top whenever the worst things happen. It’s almost like our greater brain kicks in and we gain full access to whatever stores of resilience, resourcefulness and generosity we have inside us.

It would be great if we could bottle it, wouldn’t it?  Perhaps then we could take a spoonful whenever we begin to forget what’s important.  After all, in life or death situations, things have a way of shifting our view, away from politics, bottom lines and winning at all cost toward something decidedly more genuine, more human.

So what is it we forget about people when we are not in crisis that we would do well to remember and respect? And, how would doing this serve to improve our leadership efforts?

The answers to those questions require more than this one person’s scrutiny but when I think about it, I’m reminded of a few truths about being human, like:

Necessity is the mother of invention ~ When we feel an urgent need, we are driven to seek a solution that will fill it.  That necessity drives change.  For most of us, before we are willing to change, we have to both see and feel the need for it. The role of leadership in this is both to help people feel the urgency and to believe that the pain of change will be worthwhile in the end.

People are more resilient than they are typically given credit for ~ While, firm structures are important during times of uncertainty, so is faith in peoples’ ability to adapt and contribute to bringing about a new order of things. In leadership is it wise to remember that in general, human beings are not that fragile.   We fare much better when we are regarded, not as part of the problem but as part of the solution.

Caring for and about others is in our DNA ~ In crisis, our list of priorities tends to look different from the list we might draw up in more stable times.  Specifically, the safety and welfare of people always seem to come first when things are truly scary.  Everything else falls away.  Regrettably, when we are not in crisis, it is easy to forget that and shift focus to other, more financially or politically rewarding pursuits.  I suspect though that when leaders actively care for the people who follow them, the financial and political aspects of organizational life don’t suffer at all.

When we know the score we have it in us to be patient~ With a few exceptions, those who have suffered, and continue to suffer hardship from this latest blast from Mother Nature seem to have borne the discomfort and inconvenience of power outage and fuel shortage with stoic resignation.  People expected to lose electrical power.  Likely too, they expected to have to line up for batteries, gas and other supplies.   I  think that people who are not in crisis also appreciate it (and are much more patient with themselves and each other) when they know what to expect.  Patience allows for clear thinking. Clear thinking allows for greater productivity and problem solving. From that perspective, keeping people informed pays off.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Note: This article was originally posted in 2012

 

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Filed under Change Management, Leadership, Leadership Development, organizational culture, Organizational Effectiveness

Leadership and the Importance of Observation

observe-look-magnifying-glassIn Western Society, we’re big on jumping into action. Sometimes it leads to big things too. At other times though, chaos is our only reward for leaping into busy work before spending any time at all finding out what’s actually going on.

Here’s an example:

Many moons ago I was part of a team-building course in Toronto. At one point, we were divided into groups and marched outside to tackle a project that involved climbing poles and traversing from one pole to the other with only the aid of ropes and some safety tackle. Our goal was to successfully overcome the obstacles put in our way and complete the course in the best possible time.

We failed miserably. Not only did we not complete the course, we failed to overcome most of the obstacles as well.

With booby prize shamefully in hand, we reviewed what we might have done differently. And, in thinking about it now, apart from doing just about everything wrong, we simply didn’t spend enough time in “O”.

“O” stands for observation. It is part of a mental process that Edgar Schein refers to as O.R.J.I. in his book Process Consultation- Lessons for Managers and Consultants.

Here’s how it works.

Typically, when faced with a predicament, the human psyche follows a pattern.

We Observe and get a picture of what is going on.

We React emotionally to our understanding of what’s happening.

We Judge, and draw conclusions based on our understanding and how it makes us feel and then:

We Intervene, making decisions and taking action based on what we see, feel and conclude.

In the case of my deplorable “team” experience, we spent perhaps a nano second really looking at the challenge before us or trying to understand it. We asked no questions of either the coordinators or each other. We did not inspect the obstacle course or make any kind of effort to evaluate the resources available to us, human or otherwise. The loudest voice took the lead. The action oriented ones chomped at the bit to get out in the field and DO something. And, the reflectors, being completely overwhelmed by the noise and confusion registered what can only be described as insipid protests about making a plan first, an offering that, not surprisingly, fell on completely deaf ears

So, instead of looking like this: “ORJI” our process looked more like this: “oRJI”

Not surprisingly though, staying in Observation is hard. When problems are pressing, emotions can work in opposition to rational thought, often wanting to take over at the most inadvisable and inconvenient times.

So, here are a few thoughts about how to delay a move to action long enough to establish that the information you are working from is accurate.

Gather facts about the nature and scope of the problem

This means suspending, at least initially, feelings about what’s going on long enough to get some solid data.

Take time to determine the resources and skills available to you

In the case of our team exercise, we spent no time at all determining who knew what or who could do what. As a result, a number of individual egos launched themselves into the project without knowing anything about the skills they had at their disposal or how they could best be used.

Determine what you might be assuming about the situation and the people involved in it.

Giving some time to validating assumptions is never a waste. Assumptions almost always hinder the process of getting at the true nature of a problem.

Make room for many questions and a variety of voices.

This is simply about listening to every voice, be it soft or loud. And, sometimes it is the dissenting voice that holds the clue to a solution.

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The bottom line here is, great teamwork relies on giving time to observation and critical thinking. Launching into action without thought might look good initially but will most certainly require more backtracking and remedial work than you likely have time for. And sometimes, it makes the difference between success and failure.

That’s what I think anyway? What do you think?

Note: Originally published in August, 2012

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Filed under building awareness, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leading Teams

Four Reasons for Insisting on Civility at Work

While we all  decry bullying, some may believe that civility is a minor consideration at work, especially when we are constantly plagued by looming deadlines and demands. Who has time to be polite? Who has time to say please and thank you or stop to consider the effect our behaviour is having on those around us? And, why should we care as long as we’re getting the job done?

Well, I think we have to care and we have to make time. In fact, to me, good manners and consideration for others should be embedded in the culture of every organization. Here are at least four reasons why:

Successful collaboration is not possible without it.

Collaboration is a key word in today’s workplace. When we work together to achieve a common, mutually beneficial goal, it is often the case that impatience will raise its’ ugly head and start goading us into saying things we might not otherwise entertain. It is at these times when a good dose of civility is required. Rude and self-indulgent remarks simply get in the way of achieving a satisfactory outcome. In this context, I like what Wikipedia has to say about civility. “Civility gives us the means to disagree without being disagreeable” That kind of says it all doesn’t it?

How people treat each other inside the organization will reflect, for good or ill, outside the organization

This just makes good sense. Those who work in an atmosphere where good manners are the norm will, for the most part respond to their customers and others, in kind. There’s nothing complicated about that. And, for some reason it is my guess that customers are more willing to part with their money if they feel they are being treated with respect.

People make their best effort when they feel acknowledged and important

I started my work life in the mailroom of a bank. My job was to open mail and deliver it to its intended recipients in a department of approximately three hundred people. Many department managers either completely ignored me or made me the unfortunate recipient of rude, bad tempered remarks. A few however, received their mail with good grace, responding with a well-placed thank you and a smile. When this happened, I actually felt I was doing something of value. It was a small gesture but always with a big result and a willingness on my part to do more for those managers who had taken the time to acknowledge my existence, despite my lowly placement on the hierarchical ladder.

Civility is key to building relationships and reputations through Social Media

Today, workplaces extend beyond our walls and borders through technology. Every day, we send e-mails, text messages and tweets to people, some of whom we have never met face-to-face. To me, civility is an important part of communicating through this media. After all, when we say something on e-mail, Facebook or Twitter it is captured forever. We can’t take it back. And, it shapes the image we create of ourselves which can either reflect who we really are or cast a shadow over us that is difficult to overcome

Some people might pride themselves in their ability to rattle others with rude behaviour. They say things like, “This is who I am. Get used to it”.

But civility is not about who we are. It is about how we choose to behave. And, insisting on good manners simply makes sense. It matters.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

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When Empathy Leaves the Room

Empathy is a word being highlighted as an essential part of successful 21st Century organizations and a key element of good leadership. I think it is safe to say that we wouldn’t get too many arguments about that. And, I think that for the most part we also understand what the word empathy really means.

To  me though,  there is a great difference between understanding what empathy means on a between-the-ears basis and achieving an appreciation deep enough to more easily put ourselves in another person’s place and respond appropriately.

You may ask, why is it important to go deeper?  Well, let me try to address that question by describing a place where empathy did not live. I’m not sure if it ever lived there but if it did, somewhere along the way, it simply left the room… probably in disgust.

It was in the early seventies. I was a clerk for the foreign exchange Trading section of a major bank. I didn’t normally spend all of my day in the Trading Room. In fact, my desk was usually on another floor but, on this one occasion, the computers were down and I was required to actually sit in the Trading Room recording transactions manually and balancing them at the end of the day.

The Foreign Exchange Trading Room was a highly charged place. Split second transactions made the difference between profit and loss, win and lose. The atmosphere constantly buzzed with activity. I was there for a week and my job was mundane enough to afford me the luxury of sitting, mostly unnoticed, as the Traders went about their jobs and interacted with each other.

The Chief Trader was a middle-aged, somewhat round, somewhat balding fellow with a big booming voice and an ego to match. He shouted a lot. He swore a lot. His temper was unprecedented. I watched as he blasphemed and cursed his way from one end of the day to the next. I watched as he threw his telephone viciously against the console of his desk and launch himself into a full-blown temper tantrum because someone had failed to yield to his demand.

I watched as some in the room became withdrawn, trying to get through the day without being a target for a sarcastic or derogatory remark. I noticed too, those who followed the Chief Trader’s lead and behaved obnoxiously and without thought toward each other and people who entered the room simply to deliver things or take things away.

In among all of this toxic air was Elsie. Elsie was the Gold Trader. Her permanent desk was in the Trading Room along with the others. There were two other women in the room but Elsie was the eldest. I expect she might have been about fifty. Small and refined and perhaps a little plain (by Trading Room Standards anyway), she went about her work with diligence and in quiet dignity. During my stay in the Trading Room, hardly a day went by when someone did not make a deeply embarrassing remark toward Elsie, especially about her age and appearance. Elsie seemed to bear all of this abuse, allowing the words thrown at her to roll off her back. But looks are indeed deceiving and the words were wounding. No one seemed to understand or care how Elsie might be feeling. They expected her to go along with the “joke”. And she did. None of us really knows what it must have cost her.

The other two women in the room chose to behave like the men. They swore a lot too. They too, made sarcastic remarks to each other and to anyone else who was in range. People outside the Trading Room thought them hard and bitter and perhaps they were, but I suspect they were just trying to survive because they had no hope of ever being understood.

My time in the Trading Room ended with my feeling a great sense of relief. There were a lot of dysfunctional things going on in the room that week but I think the source of them all could easily be attributed to the fact that the working environment was devoid of any kind of empathy. And, when empathy leaves the room, it has a way of taking dignity, respect and civility with it.

In these times, there are rules and edicts meant to govern and guard against the kind of behaviour described here but, to me, 21st Century leaders can really only be truly successful if they are willing to stand in another’s shoes as a matter of common practice; seek to feel, understand and simply care, without the prod that such rules produce.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

 

*Note: This is a refreshed version of the original post written in 2010

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The Language of Leadership in the 21st Century

I’ve always loved language. Admittedly, my facility in it is sadly limited to English, a few French words and phrases, body language (on a good day) and oh yes, a little pig Latin. But, what I love about language is its power to shape ideas, create images, evoke emotion and give birth to new habits and traditions.

In organizations, language also has the power to determine what matters. For instance, the language of the 20th Century stressed, among other things, the importance of control, competition, individual targets, winning, losing and results. And while many of these words allude to activities that continue to be important, there is other language creeping into the 21st Century landscape that will affect our behaviour and change the way we go about things.

To some, this language is associated with the softer side of life. In the past, It has often been derided and dismissed as being too ethereal or without merit in the workplace. But, as this new century unfolds, language like this will re-shape what matters and reveal its harder edge as we put it into practice.

So, what specifically am I talking about? Well, no doubt you will have heard and used the words. But because I often think it’s easy to use words without really understanding what they mean or how they might be used in any sort of practical way, I thought I’d have a go at bringing them into the light if only for the sake of provoking your own thoughts about their applicability in these highly challenging times. Words, after all, have a way of being open to interpretation and I’m sure you will have yours. But, for what it’s worth here are mine:

The first word is Empathy. To me, empathy in action looks like this. You and I are sharing our viewpoints over a particular issue. It is a difficult conversation. What I’m hearing from you sounds foreign and unlikely and yet I want to make sense of what you are saying. So I stop. I let my ego and my belief that I am right go, and I step into your shoes. I do that by asking questions and exploring the issue from your perspective. I seek to see what you see. In so doing I search for what you might be feeling and when I find it, I begin to understand what it’s like to be there. In short, empathy is about understanding. But just to be clear, it is not necessarily about agreeing.

Here are some other key words that come to mind:

Inclusion is about creating an environment where people feel they belong; are valued and respected. Including people means asking their opinions frequently; trusting them to take the lead in situations where their strengths will better serve the purpose; acknowledging their contributions sincerely and often.

Self-awareness is about knowing our own strengths, weaknesses, behaviours and attitudes well enough to understand our impact on those around us and how effective, or perhaps ineffective, it is in certain situations.

Cultural awareness is about the values, beliefs and perceptions that are part of the organization and the people who work in it. Organizations with an enduring culture will be ones that align their activities and practices with their values and beliefs. These values and beliefs are brought alive through action and thought; in their approach to the customer; in their hiring practices and in the kind of business they choose to conduct.

Diversity is about achieving a real appreciation for the heterogeneous nature of the world and it’s people. To me, embracing diversity means appreciating, understanding, valuing and using our differences to enhance the work and create something greater than we might otherwise do by behaving divisively and out of ignorance or fear.

Openness is about being truthful and giving people the information and resources they need to do their jobs. It also reminds me of the critical need to be receptive to new ideas from a variety of sources and people. In the last century, information was often used as a power tool by a few against the many. Today, I think that power is at its most effective when it is collectively held and willingly shared.

Adaptability in this century will be key to not only successful organizations but ones that simply seek survival as well. This is about learning to accept change as an every day occurrence as opposed to an event that must be planned and carefully managed. It speaks to the necessity to be continually reading, questioning and challenging the current environment. Today becomes yesterday in the blink of an eye. I think that those who learn fast and change faster will do better in these times than those who don’t.

Collaboration speaks to the need to work together for a common purpose. The 20th Century organization was rife with silos and walls that provoked, or perhaps encouraged, internal competition and rivalries. Now it’s time to build bridges between people and lines of business; to eschew hoarding behaviour and learn to share ideas and resources for a purpose that will be of service to everyone involved

These are just eight words that I think, when put into action, will define leadership, and organizational life, in the years to come. There are, of course, others. But, my point is that the more we use this language, and seek to understand its meaning and application, the better equipped we will be to meet the challenges that this century presents.

What do you think? What words come to mind for you when you think about leadership today? What do they mean to you? How will they affect the way we work?

Note: This post was originally published in October 2010

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Filed under Building Relationships, Change Management, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, organizational Development, Organizational Effectiveness