The Power of Deep Democracy

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I recently experienced my first Deep Democracy workshop as a participant and it was a real eye-opener.  It is simple yet powerful, and has the potential to create real transformation, not just routine actions for improvement. It was born out of  South Africa’s transformation from apartheid to democracy, and is used by leaders and facilitators from all walks of life. The process enables voices to be heard that are often left unheard, and mines the inherent wisdom hidden within the system by resolving tension and conflict.  (see Deep Democracy).

The process invites people to step into different perspectives or roles, some of which they may not be in agreement with.  The conversations that emerge from these different perspectives are illuminating. New information is surfaced, new possibilities emerge and collective wisdom that has been buried within the system is given an opportunity to reveal itself.

At a time when people all around the world are questioning what is real, what is true and what is fake news, the very meaning of democracy is under challenge. Who runs things? Is it the politicians?  What is the role of the media? And what about the technology giants, such as Facebook, Google and Amazon?  Where do we go to seek our answers and who can we rely on to reveal the truth about what is most important for us?  Continue reading

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What if people just don’t care?

You are a manager. You are responsible for getting the best from your team. You will be held to account if deliveries don’t happen, if deadlines are missed and if budgets overrun. But of course, you are a good manager and those things rarely happen.  You know how to engage, motivate and inspire your people. Don’t you?

We’ve all had those conversations with people where you’ve had to lay out what’s on the line.  Why it’s so important this time – again!  And, on the whole, those cosy chats work. People walk away from those sessions, and they get on with it. They pull out all the stops and you can all go down the pub and enjoy a few drinks to celebrate the team’s (and your!) success once again.

But, what if it just doesn’t matter to them that much? What if they don’t care?  Or, they just don’t care enough?  What’s the right conversation to be having with that person now?

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Is The Appraisal System Dead?

If, as is reported, as many as one third of U.S. companies have abandoned the traditional appraisal system (ref:The Performance Management Revolution), and the signs are that more and more are joining the revolution, what is the future of performance management? How will companies ensure that people do what is expected of them in the future? How will managers know who’s good and who’s not? How will they advise on development, or decide who to sack and replace?

Major players such as Dell, Microsoft and IBM, as well as previous champions of the
forced ranking system such as GE, are at the vanguard of new approaches to retaining and developing talent.  These companies are responding to many issues and criticisms which have been levelled at traditional performance management systems. In some organisations they have become enormous consumers of people’s time. With  the move to
flatter organisational structures and virtual or globally dispersed teams, supervisors have had to contend with larger and larger teams. The answer to this problem in some companies has been to turn the job of performance management over to ‘specialist’ people creativitymanagers, who do little else other than manage the entire cycle, quarter after quarter. Ranking, levelling, forced distributions, identifying rising stars, identifying laggards, assessing delivery against stretch targets, calculating the distribution of the bonus pot, and starting the whole cycle again.  This has become an industry in its own right, and one that delivers no core benefit to the customer or the shareholder.

A number of factors have played a part in driving the shift we are now seeing.  Continue reading

Mining for Treasure

You could be excused for wondering whether leadership has gone out of fashion right now. Whether it be politics, business or sport, wherever you look, there appears to be a vacuum at the top, and much discrediting of those leaders who remain.

What could be going on?  Well, I think one of the problems is that we are mixed up about
what we want from our leaders. Perhaps we expect too much of them. Should they have all the answers? Should they be all-seeing and all-hearing? Is it reasonable to expect them to set strategy, direction, plan, implement, review, report and make key decisions, as well as dispense wisdom to all who seek it?   Of course not.  But, despite recognising this as impractical, and even unhealthy, as a society we are still encouraged to demand unequivocal and unwavering surety from our leaders.

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At this time, perhaps more than at any time in the past, we need a different set of skills from our leaders. We live in a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world where knowledge is distributed more widely than ever, where more information is instantly available than at any time in history, yet despite all that information, decision-making has never been more difficult. Those who come out of the charismatic ‘all-knowing’ school of leadership present us with dangers. Continue reading

The Case for Humble Inquiry

“Humble Inquiry is the skill & art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity & interest in the other person.”  ~ Edgar H. Schein

                               

Doing and telling are valued more in western, industrialised societies than asking and relationship building.  We hire and promote people who can get the job done. Asking for help and admitting that you don’t know are considered taboos to striving and ambitious people.

However, one quality of great leaders that comes out consistently close to the top in studies of leadership is the ability to master ‘humble inquiry’. Leaders who ask questions, who do not pretend to know answers, and who recognise that their people are the real experts, inevitably command greater respect and are considered to be more effective leaders.

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And why should this be so? Well, consider the charismatic, know-it-all boss who operates by telling. They may command a type of respect, possibly grounded in fear or concerns of inadequacy.  But, will people be prepared to approach them with problems, issues or concerns?  If relationships have not been established that make it easy for people to share problems, there is a danger that critical information could be withheld, even safety critical or life-and-death information may be held back.

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When conflict works

It seems to me, from reflecting on the Olympics, that truly great performances benefit from having someone else to ‘bounce off’. On occasions this can be achieved by colleagues in the same team pushing each other to ever higher levels, as evidenced by the Jamaican sprinters, Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake. It may also be achieved by fierce but respectful rivalry, where the standards of excellence set by one player forces the other to have to raise their game to heights they would not otherwise have to. The phenomenal standards of performance displayed by the world’s top tennis players is evidence of this. It is debatable whether Nadal would ever have reached the level of peak performance he has, if he was not asked some extraordinary questions on the tennis court by Federer. Djokovic has since had to take his game to even greater heights to become World number one. Whether friendly or fierce rivalry, in elite sport, the tensions, pressures, and challenges set, help motivate participants to keep raising their game.

But it is not only sport that can benefit from rivalry, conflict and challenge. Used effectively, disagreements and tensions can be hugely important in driving up standards in all walks of life.

This is illustrated most powerfully in this short clip of Margaret Heffernan, describing the inspiring story of Alice Stewart, an epidemiologist who struggled against the medical establishment to prove that x-rays on pregnant mothers were responsible for childhood cancers. During a long, and often lonely battle, to prove her case, Alice relied heavily upon a colleague, who was quite the opposite from Alice in many ways. His job, as a statistician and as a friend, was simple. To try to prove Alice’s data and results wrong. His job was to create conflict around her theories. Subjecting her work to this level of challenge and scrutiny, provided Alice with greater confidence about the validity of her theory, and helped her to find the energy to persist against formidable opposition.

So, how willing are we in the business world to be so open to this level of ‘voluntary’ challenge and conflict? To what extent are we willing to invite disagreement in the interest of true collaboration?  Continue reading

From Conflict to Collaboration

Inter-personal or group conflict is an inevitable consequence of people working together in teams.  In fact, conflict can be a good thing, as it is a sign that people care and are passionate, and, if those energies are channelled correctly, they can be a great source of diverse ideas and solutions.

Too often however, conflict results in negative and damaging outcomes. It can hurt morale, suppress individual effectiveness, and, ultimately, destroy team productivity. Left untreated, it results in a downward spiral of negativity, emotions and blame.

A helpful starting point is to understand some of the theory, and to recognise that people have different (and preferred) styles of dealing with conflict.  There is no one style that will work best in every situation, but once you have an understanding of the different styles, you have the opportunity to step back and think about the most appropriate approach (or perhaps mix of approaches) that will suit the current situation. And, having a raised awareness of your own ‘natural’ style is a good first step to helping you learn and adapt when necessary, so that it does not remain your only style.  (For a deeper treatment of this area, see the work of Ralph H. Kilmann and Kenneth W. Thomas)

The list of styles identified through their work are:

  • Avoiding – Acting in a  way that does not address the conflict directly. This style is typified by delegating controversial decisions, accepting default decisions, and not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. It can be a viable style to adopt when the issue and the relationship are of very low importance, but it should be used with extreme caution.  Avoiding a serious issue may make the conflict intensify, possibly damaging relationships further.
  • Accommodating – Involves accepting the other party’s position or interest at the expense of your own.  People who naturally adopt this style are not assertive but highly cooperative. It may be appropriate when the issue matters more to the other party and when peace is more valuable than winning. It can, however, be counter-productive as you may be seen as weak, especially if used repeatedly. Furthermore, constant ‘accommodating’ may lead to increased stress.
  • Competing – Working to have your position or interests take priority over those of the other party.  People who tend towards a competitive style take a firm stand, and know what they want, usually operating from a position of power (whether position, rank, expertise, or persuasive ability). It can be useful in an emergency when a decision needs to be made fast; or when defending against someone who is trying to exploit the situation selfishly. However it can leave people feeling bruised, unsatisfied and resentful when used in less urgent situations.  It is also not a useful style when it is important to generate diverse ideas or multiple solutions.
  • Compromising – Involves each party giving and getting a little in terms of position and interests.  People adopting a compromising style seek solutions that will to some extent  satisfy everyone. This approach depends on everyone being prepared to give up something. It can be useful when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground, when equal strength opponents are at a standstill and when there is a deadline looming. It is unlikely to work successfully for issues of principle and may cut off opportunities for collaborative problem solving.
  • Collaborating – Parties attempt to meet all or most of the interests underlying their respective positions.  Collaborators can be highly assertive, but unlike the competitor, they cooperate effectively and acknowledge that everyone’s input is important. This is the most useful style when it is important to bring together a variety of viewpoints to get the best solution; when there have been previous conflicts in the group; or when the situation is too critical  for a simple trade-off.  It is most effective for generating ‘high-quality solutions’ but requires a very high level of trust between parties, and relies on the use of  considerable interpersonal skills (e.g. it is vital  to confront issues directly without threatening the other party). For some situations it may not be appropriate due to the fact that it can take considerable time and effort to implement.

‘True’ Collaboration is an often misunderstood and overused term.  It has been fashionable for companies to Continue reading