You Cannot Lead without Inquiry (Update)

BLOG UPDATE:  This article was originally posted in February 2012, and I am delighted to see that Hamza Kashgari, the young Saudi writer who inspired the article, has eventually been released from his prison sentence in Saudi Arabia. If you missed the original story, Hamza was imprisoned for expressing views deemed blasphemous by the authorities.  

(see Freedom House article on his release here)

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POSTED Feb 20, 2012      Too many people in positions of authority operate from a position of fear. Fear of not knowing, fear of being found out, fear of looking incompetent, fear of losing what has taken them years to attain.  This is true in companies, public service and politics. People who are in these positions are rarely stupid.  Being smart is usually a big factor in them getting to where they are. But, once they are there, something seems to kick in which is profoundly ‘anti-learning’. To paraphrase the great Chris Argyris, “Smart People find it tough to Learn”.

Today’s story in ‘The Nation’ of Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old journalist, who faces potential death for daring to question, shines a powerful spotlight on the fear with which ‘leaders’ operate. As a species we progress by learning.  We are problem solvers, we are cognitive thinkers, we naturally question, challenge and inquire. It is by doing so that we have overcome the multitude of obstacles that have stood in the way of our evolution over millenia. But, we do not and cannot stand still. To do so would consign the human race to extinction, probably through self-destruction. More than ever before, we requireenormous learning on a global scale. We need creativity and innovation, we need it networked and con-joined, we need collaboration, we cannot afford to shut down any avenues of possible learning. We need advances, leaps of logic, and ‘open and questioning minds’ that will take our species forward together to solve the biggest problems we have ever had to deal with – drought, famine, economy, conflict, climate change, energy, pestulance, AIDS, malaria, and the list goes on.

Shutting down inquiry, especially in our young people, is a fast-track to obsolesence. It may preserve the ‘Leaders’ position in the short term, it saves face, it avoids embarrassment, it re-asserts authority and quells insubordination, but all at the expense of ‘learning’.  The best Leaders through history have demonstrated that they contnue to change, they recognise that the circumstances that surrounded them while getting to where they have reached are continously changing, and so must they. They adapt, they are flexible in their approach, and they continuously learn. They do this by continuing to ask questions.  They do not fear that they will be seen as incompetent in doing so. They encourage others to do the same, they create a safe and open space for inquiry, because they know that this is the surest way to keep learning.

I wish Hamza well in his fight for justice and his right to learn.

Chattering lizards

“The reason why so few people are agreeable in conversation is that each is thinking more about what he intends to say than others are saying”.
Francois de La Rochefoucauld

How many unproductive conversations do you hear people having on a daily basis?  How many of those do you get involved in?  What do you see going on that makes them unproductive?

I’m talking about situations where the parties involved in a dialogue actually do want the conversation to be effective, and the outcome to be productive. This is, after all, the primary way in which business, commerce, negotiation, consultation and relationships work.  

So why do so many conversations not work successfully?  Well, as you might expect, it is down to the way our brains work. When people raise issues, concerns or simply want to share a point of view with another person, they typically display a set of predictable behaviours which show up in a number of ways. The underlying motivations driving these behaviours can be summarised as:-

  • A need to maximise one’s own comfort / while minimising the other person’s discomfort
  • A desire to win / and not lose (i.e. to get your way)
  • A need to maintain control 

These needs ‘leak out’ into conversations in a variety of ways, but, most typically as:-

  • Leading Questions (designed to lead other people to get to the conclusions you have already arrived at)
  • Piling (loading points and/or questions on top of one another to emphasise your argument)
  • Over-advocacy (over-zealous control of the arguments without providing space for discussion)

When these strategies are being deployed by people, what is actually going on in their brains?   Continue reading

What gets in your way and blows the conversation?

Because we are human we have a number of fairly predictable reactions and behaviours in given situations.

All people, regardless of culture, gender, experience, job or position in the hierarchy, operate according to the same set of principles when under even fairly mild levels of stress. [For a more detailed treatment of this area I refer you to Chris Argyris’ work on double-loop learning ] 

  1.  We seek to maximise comfort and minimise negative emotions that means both our own and also the other person with whom we may be interacting at the time. 
  2. We will, at the same time as aiming to maintain a position of comfort, still aim to maximise our chances of winning and avoid losingin other words, we typically want to get our point across, and let others see where the problem lies or solution should come from
  3. And third, we seek to maintain controlwe typically try to put out a feeling of rationality and self-control (even when it is lacking) and aim to maintain control of where the discussion or outcome is going so that we can ‘steer’ others to the outcome we want

All of this adds up to a heady mix of potential problems in our everyday dealings with people – especially when stakes are raised, when emotions rise and when threats start to emerge.  The ways in which these principles and values emerge in our behaviour can differ from person to person – sometimes overtly and sometimes beneath a veneer of control, respectability and respect.  The underlying purpose of these strategies is to avoid vulnerability, avoid risk, and avoid appearing incompetent.

But, before you go away with an overly pessimistic view of the human race, don’t worry. First of all, this is natural, and is, to a large extent, a strategy that has helped us survive as a species through our evolution.  These strategies were necessary in the primeval world our ancestors navigated, but they are deeply defensive strategies, and rooted in a desire for self-preservation.  When they show up in our everyday lives, in meetings, in performance reviews and in relationships, they undermine our effectiveness and get in the way of building productive relationships, they are “anti-learning”, and damage the chances of constructive outcomes.

The good news is that we know about these de-railers and how and when they show up, and we can do something about it.

Fundamentally the approach to overcoming these is simple….. Continue reading

Why do we bother with Employee Surveys?

When corporations wanted employees who did only what they were told, employee surveys may have served some purpose. They were rooted in the traditional command-and-control structures, and, no doubt, provided management with a barometer for employee feeling. They may even still provide useful information on improvements to the staff canteen , or how to better manage the car park.  But, can employee surveys provide anything useful in businesses that espouse employee empowerment and forward-thinking organisational learning? I am not convinced they can.

They encourage behaviours that leave employees and management in their traditional places. They do not encourage accountability by employees, and they compel management to feel that they need to fix the things that employees tell them need fixing.  Neither of these results is healthy and neither does anything to transform businesses or organisations into genuine learning systems. In fact, what we get is individual defensive reasoning and Continue reading

You Cannot Lead without Inquiry

BLOG UPDATE:  This article was originally posted in February 2012, and I am delighted to see that Hamza Kashgari, the young Saudi writer who inspired the article, has eventually been released from his prison sentence in Saudi Arabia. If you missed the original story, Hamza was imprisoned for expressing views deemed blasphemous by the authorities.  

(see Freedom House article on his release here)

**********************************************************

POSTED Feb 20, 2012      Too many people in positions of authority operate from a position of fear. Fear of not knowing, fear of being found out, fear of looking incompetent, fear of losing what has taken them years to attain.  This is true in companies, public service and politics. People who are in these positions are rarely stupid.  Being smart is usually a big factor in them getting to where they are. But, once they are there, something seems to kick in which is profoundly ‘anti-learning’. To paraphrase the great Chris Argyris, “Smart People find it tough to Learn”.

Today’s story in The Nation of Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old journalist, who faces potential death for daring to question, shines a powerful spotlight on the fear with which ‘leaders’ operate. As a species we progress by learning.  We are problem solvers, we are cognitive thinkers, we naturally question, challenge and inquire. It is by doing so that we have overcome the multitude of obstacles that have stood in the way of our evolution over millenia. But, we do not and cannot stand still. To do so would consign the human race to extinction, probably through self-destruction. More than ever before, we require Continue reading

Reflection and Learning


The importance of Reflection is clear. This is where LEARNING happens. For reflection to be successful the reflector needs to be open to his espoused theory and theory-in-use gap being exposed and crawled over. I suspect that many people may retrospectively “close this gap” (cognitive dissonance?) and thereby not acknowledge it. Doing this closes the door to learning. This is where the power of the techniques used and espoused by Chris Argyris come through – the power of disorienting people and leaving them feel exposed ‘in practice’. This then opens things up for learning. i.e. by Shining a Light or Focusing Attention sharply on the area.

Read more about Chris Argyris and his double-loop learning theories by clicking on the title of this blog post.