- Heifetz, Ronald A. Leadership Without Easy Answers The Belknap Press 1994
- Are flaws in decision making causing conflict and poor alignment--a quick diagnostic
- We have a consensus!....?
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|Neil Baker Consulting and Coaching||
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This article addresses a question I’m asked frequently by leaders: How can I foster an environment of empowerment when I have to make decisions at times which may cause some people to feel disempowered and distressed?
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Whitmore, John Coaching for Performance Nicholas Brealey Publishing 2009
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In this article you will learn why coaching is so important to effective leadership and how to coach when it feels like there is No Time.
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Having trouble motivating others?--a quick diagnostic
Active telling--the art of assuring people listen to you
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It is nearly automatic to feel that resistance is about the people resisting—that resistance is IN the resistors.
When caught in this perspective, we tend to focus on our “messaging” (the content of what we are saying) in order to convince them or motivate them or get them to buy-in. This approach creates substantial risk that people will feel we are trying to change them leading to push back or passive compliance with a negative impact on results.
There is a more effective way but it requires a shift in perspective. We need to see that it is not true resistance is IN others.
A common concern of even very successful leaders I work with is lack of sufficient confidence about giving and receiving feedback in the midst of day-to-day work.
This is not surprising because feedback is inherently uncomfortable and risky. But, providing timely, effective feedback is essential if we are after the highest team capacity for transformation. Confidence in taking this on is enhanced by working with the following five barriers.
1. Lack of a motivating, compassionate purpose for feedback.
To counter discomfort, it helps to have a motivating, compassionate purpose. For example: “Feedback is not about correcting bad behavior. Under stress, everyone will, at times, act in ways counter to norms. The purpose of feedback is to help everyone be at their best.”
2. Lack of sharing and assuring mutual understanding of different perceptions.
Relational problems usually set off the nearly automatic tendency to leap from limited data to strong but often flawed conclusions. Effective, respectful feedback depends on stepping back from such certainty. Instead of just “giving feedback,” the initial aim should be to stay open and elicit and assure mutual understanding of each person’s view even if in disagreement.
3. Lack of exchange of information specific enough to enable problem solving .
Feedback is too often given in global generalizations. Then, the chances are high for provoking defensiveness and not getting to specific information which enables problem solving. For example, a client of mine was told by a colleague: “You are a very negative person.”
Resisting her impulse to react, my client asked for a specific example and was told: “When I asked you for help yesterday, you said ‘No’ and walked away.” Such “negativity” had not happened before. My client apologized and they agreed not to use quick hallway conversations to ask for help.
4. Lack of shared norms for feedback.
Shared norms promote helpful feedback. Examples are: (a) Avoid global generalizations; (b) Use "I" statements and offer feedback as perceptions, not as The Truth; (c) Give descriptions of words and behaviors from specific work situations; and (d) Seek each person’s perception.
5. Lack of sufficient leadership engagement in giving and receiving feedback.
A key objective is to develop feedback-rich team interactions. To do so, leaders have to model giving and receiving feedback--especially receiving it. Do you often ask how others have experienced interactions with you? All leaders make mistakes at times. Do you acknowledge them?
Effective, timely feedback is not easy. It requires reformulating what feedback is all about. It reqiures universal respect and compassion. It requires constant practice. Working with the five barriers increases confidence and helps to embed feedback in daily leadership practice.
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When facing difficult relational problems at work, it is natural and nearly automatic for us all to want to diagnose what is wrong and come up with THE right solution as soon as possible.
It is very common to leap quickly to strong but faulty conclusions. One example is attributing relational problems to personality issues or lack of skills. Actually, situational issues are far more often the primary cause of difficult behavior.
Situational complexity and stress are inherent in organizational life. These factors easily provoke differing viewpoints and experiences among the people involved. Relational problems arise most frequently when these differences have not been adequately heard and understood. Pushing for a solution prior to such understanding runs a substantial risk of negative reactions and push back.
Resisting the rush to diagnoses and solutions and taking the time for “dialogue and discovery” usually leads to much more success. By engaging in dialogue, a process of hearing and understanding different viewpoints, new perceptions and solutions emerge surprisingly often.
While there are no recipes or scripts, the following three steps provide guidance.
1. Reflect—recognize and manage leaps to conclusions in yourself
2. Dialogue—first, set aside finding solutions in order to build mutual understanding
3. Decide—seek agreement to meet again (expect multiple conversations for resolution)
The first step can be the most difficult. When the stakes feel high, at times we all have unproductive habits of reaction. These take practice to change and, sometimes, coaching.
The productive habit we need to continuously strengthen is counter-intuitive: we need to slow down the rush to solutions and take one small step at a time through dialogue and discovery. This enables the chances for the best success for both task and relational goals.
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Not only are there hundreds of thousands of books on leadership and associated topics but they offer a bewildering variety of frameworks, models, and terminologies.
On the one hand, this is a very good thing. Having served as a leader for many years, I have been deeply appreciative of many great approaches.
But, as a leader, I usually faced a huge number of issues every day. It was hard to recall more than a few strategies in the moment.
So, all through my career I have sought one short list of strategies for easy reference that would be powerful in problem-solving across many types of situations.
Could it be possible to create such a list? Find out more in the Resource Guide for In-the-Moment Leadership Strategies available for subscribers only. Click on the button below to subscribe for free monthly articles and obtain a link to the Guide as well as other resources.
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The worst mistakes I made over 24 years as an organizational leader were how I told things to people.
I know excellent leadership depends on great listening—I was a natural with that. Each moment of listening is a step forward in building commitment.
But, early in my career, my way of telling too often led to pushback or withdrawal into silence—it was like three steps backwards with commitment.
A recipe for people not really listening
At that time, I was driven by a need for success which led to a need to convince people of my ideas. So, I worked hard to present ideas in a powerful and inspirational way, minimizing weaknesses and flaws. I was well-prepared and could quickly counter any perceived limitations or risks.
The trouble was that people almost always had concerns—few organizational actions are risk-free. Too often, my quick retorts made them feel not listened to. This would provoke debate we could not resolve well or silent discontent which slowed or blocked the actions I wanted.
A paradox of skillful telling
As I sought research and advice about telling, I discovered that even the most inspirational speech is lucky if it gets even 20% of people on board! (1) The large majority of people have to talk their way toward commitment over multiple conversations.
Paradoxically, people are more likely to pull together around an idea if they are able to freely express and explore concerns. Also, people need to be able to talk things over to figure out how an idea connects to what is important to them.
I even had to face the humbling reality that my best ideas had holes and flaws. In complex systems, no one person has the full picture and everyone has a perspective to learn from. It was very hard, but I gradually learned to link success with actually seeking out negative reactions.
A method for skillful telling
To tell effectively I first prepare myself by remembering “My best ideas are just theories to be tested and improved upon.” Then I proceed with a cycle of Ask-Tell-Ask (2):
Several cycles of Ask-Tell-Ask get a lot out on the table. People are more likely to feel taken seriously. Concerns can get then converted into issues for problem solving and action.
Risks and traps in active telling
I call this approach active telling because, like active listening, it is two-way—the goal is to assure mutual understanding and exploration of ideas even if there is disagreement.
I have experienced first-hand several risks and traps. Watch out for the inevitable lure back into convincing others. Also, I have learned to be careful that helping others feel heard does not lead to premature abandonment or revision of my ideas. The reverse can happen--dealing with negativity can easily pull us all, at times, into getting more rigid and discounting feedback.
Human affairs are never perfect. There is no guarantee these methods mean people will really listen to you. But, the chances for getting to true commitment are much higher.
(1) Baker, Neil The Impact of a Visionary Speech.
(2) Adapted from multiple sources including Miller, William R., Rollnick, Stephen Motivational Interviewing The Guilford Press 2012. See the tool on active telling for full list of references.
Success sometimes depends on where you look.
Results from my survey of 420 healthcare leaders published in the Physician Leadership Journal in March 2016 suggest that relational barriers to improvement are very common but are all too frequently overlooked or inadequately addressed.
You can read the article at Hidden in Plain View.
Since publication, a follow-up survey of 293 additional healthcare leaders adds to the story.
New data suggests an opportunity for action.
80% of the leaders in the new survey reported their organizations specify norms and values to guide behavior and communication. But, it appears that the norms and values are not used as often as needed--such as to give feedback to address problematic communication getting in the way of collaboration. In these situations, only 10% of the leaders indicated feedback happens very frequently and only 30% of the leaders indicated it happens even half of the time it is needed.
One likely cause is that giving and receiving feedback is quite uncomfortable—even for people with advanced communication skills. It is very easy for anyone, at times, to not take action.
Also, it is quite easy to fall into thinking of norms as correcting “bad” behavior which further inhibits feedback. Stress and complexity will cause everyone at times to act in ways inconsistent with team norms. Feedback is not about scolding bad behavior but giving necessary reminders to help everyone more consistently act at their highest level of relational skills.
How do you move beyond the discomfort of feedback?
You can’t--feedback just is uncomfortable.
But you can decrease discomfort by steady practice. This takes courage, determination, and hard work. You could act now by creating or revisiting norms with teams and protecting time in meetings to review what is and is not working.
Or, more simply, you could start by reading about relational issues (see references below) and reflecting about what you believe makes for good work relationships--i.e. get clear on your own norms. Practice watching for inevitable times you do not act consistently with your own norms. Test giving and receiving feedback with trusted colleagues.
If you find yourself not moving forward, consider getting consultation and coaching. Our task is to keep relational issues from becoming hidden in plain view. Achieving the highest quality of teamwork and the best results are at stake.
Resources for team norms and feedback.
Eliciting and managing different perspectives is very important.
In complex systems, no one person or group has sufficient information and perspective to accurately define problems or to design the most creative and effective solutions.
One right answer rarely exists. Different perspectives must be brought together through high quality communication.
Also, the best results arise when people decide to do work out of desire and interest, or intrinsic motivation, as opposed to compliance. Intrinsic motivation arises not through being convinced but through being able to talk about the work and its rationale and contribute to solutions.
But, such open and widely distributed talk about different viewpoints and concerns is very hard to do.
The complexity, pressures, and high stakes of daily life in organizations result in a strong drive to quickly come up with answers to problems. This can shut off adequate communication and cause misdirection, errors, conflict, and passive compliance all of which can hurt results.
Dialogue is a method to elicit different perspectives and manage them skillfully.
Definition of dialogue
Open, honest conversation which elicits commonalities and differences and manages them skillfully to:
Key practices for dialogue:*
You can start to use these practices right now. Every conversation is an opportunity to advance mutual understanding and problem solving. The most important enabling factor for dialogue is the first practice—setting aside, on a temporary basis, the push to get to solutions in order to really listen to people.
Example 1: In complex systems, slowing down simply to ask questions is likely to progressively lead to more accurate definitions of problems, better solutions, and higher motivation. It is helpful to think of one dialogue about one issue as potentially spreading out over multiple interactions including even a 5 minute hallway conversation.
In your next hallway conversation or in a meeting with an individual or team, consider these questions:
Example 2: If you are in the middle of a conflict, ask if others could set aside the attempt to resolve it just to explore what each person is observing and experiencing. Being able to elicit and explore disagreements rather than debate them not infrequently leads to a whole new understanding of an issue entirely different from what was originally expected.
Make every conversation count toward involving people in identifying and solving problems that they care about.
*To obtain the tool and reference list In-the-Moment Reminders for Dialogue available to subscribers only, subscribe for free monthly articles and blogs by clicking on Subscribe.
(Based on work from The Harvard Negotiation Project, especially the book by Roger Fisher and Scott Brown: Getting Together: Building Relationships as we Negotiate Penguin Books 1988)
Difficult interactions and conflict occur frequently in organizational life.
One common trap in such situations is to assume that if we act rationally, fairly, without blame, and with calm emotions, then others will or should automatically follow our lead with their behavior.
But, the stress of interpersonal difficulties causes everyone, at times, to fall into unproductive relational patterns.This can happen even when people have the best of intentions and skills. Starting with expectations that everyone will always act according to their best values puts us at substantial risk for disappointment or anger and then falling into our own problematic communication and behavior.
Even when we are able to achieve working together in a productive way, the chances are this capacity will fluctuate depending on the stress level.
It is better to assume that, under stress, reciprocal good will and behavior usually require ongoing hard work if they do occur at all.
Being unconditionally constructive is a powerful but highly demanding way to stay in a leadership role in tough interactions. It means always acting in ways that raise the chances of improving the ability to work together no matter what others do.
This practice does not guarantee agreement or shared values. It means that we try to find constructive ways to manage differences even if others are not.
This practice is also not about how to be ‘good.’ It is about how to be effective. (Fisher and Brown). There is not much chance for a very good outcome if all the participants in an interaction choose to fall victim to a contagion of counterproductive behavior.
Key practices of being unconditionally constructive include:
Being unconditionally constructive does not mean abandoning what we care most about or giving in to placate or to be nice. In fact, a very important practice is to sustain clarity about our own goals, values, needs and concerns and also to communicate them clearly.
Being too quick to abandon or revise our best interests in reaction to the other party’s unconstructive behavior without careful reflection ends up being harmful to the partnership in the long run due to regret, frustration, or feelings of being coerced.
All difficult interactions present us with a choice. We can choose leadership through being unconditionally constructive and raise the chances for success as well as improving relationships. Or, we can abandon the leadership position and raise the chances of acting in destructive ways, making relationships more dysfunctional, and failing.
As humans, we are hard-wired to leap to assumptions in ways which create tension with others, especially under the pressure of stress and complex problems.
This hard-wiring derives from ancient parts of the brain which evolved early on to generate automatic survival reactions--flight, fight, or freeze.
Difficulties in modern social situations can activate these pathways and drive us in nanoseconds, outside of our awareness, to faulty interpretations not infrequently accompanied by strong emotions. This happens to everyone. We cannot stop our brains from this quick process. But, we can modify it. One way is through stopping, even for a few seconds, to observe the mind.
The Ladder of Inference (1,2) is a tool to make visual these rapid movements of the mind and help us pause for reflection before we take action. The bottom rung of the ladder represents all the observable data in a situation. Our hard-wiring leads to rapid selection of part of the data and then "up the ladder" to judgments or assumptions, and finally to conclusions and action at the highest rung. Such actions are at risk for being unproductive or counterproductive for work relationships and problem solving.
The Ladder can be divided into as many as 7 or more steps to represent schematically the brain's information processing. There is not one right number of steps. I use four because that is all I can remember in the midst of conflict which is when I use the tool to mentally orient myself. In the example shown above, my brain causes me to get very negative about a colleague, Chris.
If we keep the ladder in mind in the midst of conversations, we can step back to observe our own thinking. We can shift to asking questions which move our thinking back to data and experience opening us to more choices for communication and action. We can ask:
I can then use these same questions with others if I have sensed they have moved up the ladder.
Research from Gervase Bushe (3) suggests that about 80% of conflicts at work occur because people have not checked out their experiences with each other--i.e. moving down the ladder with each other to share observed data and experience. When such sharing does occur, the conflict often either goes away or the issues are entirely different from what was expected.
Though simple in concept, sharing experience in this way can be very demanding because we may be gripped by strong emotion or the stakes may feel high or we may just have a strong need to be "right" at that moment. Then it can be hard to own our contribution to the tension. Slowing down to reflect requires a good deal of self-regulation of emotion and thought.
The Ladder of Inference reminds us to treat our strongest conclusions as just theories to be tested. Our first conclusions are all too likely to put us at risk for becoming part of the problem.
(1) Attributed to Chris Argyris and Donald Schon. See a brief history of the development of the Ladder of Inference in
Diana Mclain Smith The Elephant in the Room, 2011, pgs. 275 - 276
(2) Thanks to the American Academy on Communication in Healthcare for the Ladder of Inference image.
(3) Gervase Bushe Clear Leadership, Davies-Black, Nicholas Brealey Publishing 2010
Respect is not a passive state of being--it requires ongoing attention, intention and action. And, it is essential for outcomes.
As John Kotter notes "You have a better chance of winning over the other party if you truly hear them out and consider their needs as well as your own. The success of this principle is rooted in respect." (Harvard Business Review Blog, January 5, 2011)
In one of the most extensively studied models of transformational leadership, "individual consideration"-- when employees feel leaders are truly concerned about them, that their well being is important, that they are involved in two way exchanges of ideas--is a factor that, alone, leads to improved outcomes and employee satisfaction. (Bass et al, Transformational Leadership: Second Edition, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2006)
Respect cannot be considered a one-time action. In organizational life, the decks are stacked against sustaining an environment of respect no matter the level of skill and good intentions of leaders. At times, in everyone, the constant stress and complexity of business environments provoke innately human and automatic habits of mind that lead to rejecting what is uncomfortable or unfamiliar, and becoming fixated on one's own ideas as certainties. (William Isaacs Dialogue, 1999)
When these habits start to take over, people will tend to fall into debates over who is right as opposed to mutual exploration of ideas. Then, an environment of respect starts to deteriorate.
An ongoing practice of respect is required to counteract these tendencies. Some of the elements that are part of such a practice:
(a) Suspend certainty and become curious about what others think, feel, and believe and why.
(b) Shift from a communication pattern of debate (right vs.wrong) to one of mutual exploration
of ideas even if in disagreement.
(c) Constantly use active listening to assure others feel understood even if what they are saying
runs counter to one's own beliefs--use paraphrasing and "teach back" to check understanding.
(d) Make a staunch commitment to seeing others as worthy of being engaged in partnership.
(e) Offer absolute acceptance of legitimacy of concerns even if in disagreement--e.g. ""I see why
this matters to you." or "I can see where you are coming from." or "I can see how you came to
(f) Develop an ever deepening understanding of what language and action is experienced by
others as respectful vs. disrespectful.
(g) Stand firm on and communicate one's own perspectives but in a way that allows different
beliefs and does not provoke defensiveness or withdrawal--e.g. "This is the way I see it." as
as opposed to "This is the way it is."
A mind set that helps to sustain respect is to always treat people as teachers--"what is it that they have to teach you that you did not know?" (Isaacs, 1999)
(1) Check your theory of motivation. "Having trouble motivating others?" is a trick question. You can't motivate others--at least if you want intrinsic motivation (defined as when people are fully willing and embrace a change out of interest and commitment).
Adults make their own choices. Trying to coax or arm-twist is likely to cause them to withdraw or just comply which leads to poor outcomes in complex tasks. Intrinsic motivation arises through partnership and collaboration. People have to "talk their way" toward taking on a change. The leader's task is to create the environment for collaborative relationships which can support robust conversations about change.
(2) Check your state of reactivity. If you are impatient or frustrated, you are likely to be in a reactive state and at risk for coaxing and arm-twisting. Find a way to get curious about others--use the five factors listed below to guide your questions. Find your way to trusting and respecting different decision-making processes.
(3) Check the context and state of relationships. For example, if you have previously fallen into pressuring others to change, it will take time to build trust as you shift to a collaborative approach. What other factors in the environment are influencing consideration of a particular change?
(4) Ask others questions to explore five factors for engagement with intrinsic motivation.
When considering a change, motivation does not usually happen overnight. Even with the most charismatic, inspirational speech, you are lucky if you inspire no more than about 20% of people to action. Most people need ongoing conversations, individual consideration, and collaboration to take new directions.
It may seem strange to link vulnerability with results because vulnerability is so often associated with weakness.
As defined by Brene Brown through her research, vulnerability is inherent in life--we cannot avoid "uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure." Our choice is how we "own and engage with our vulnerability." (1)
"To be vulnerable with others" means choosing to say what we really think and feel. It is about engaging in open, honest, and transparent communication. This means taking risks: of showing imperfection; of being wrong; of losing popularity; of losing status.
In organizations, an "open and trusting environment" has been linked with financial performance--"fostering trust among managers and employees so that they are open to sharing information, providing and receiving honest feedback, and having difficult conversations." These are factors which enhance an organization's ability to "align, execute, and renew." (2)
Vulnerability does not mean "letting it all hang out" or emotional catharsis. (1) It demands appropriate openness that does not provoke defensiveness and withdrawal but builds partnership.
An organization will likely have a difficult time establishing group norms for safe conversation unless leaders "go first"--that is, unless leaders are active participants. Taking the lead in being vulnerable is hard to do but "the best cure for the fear of being burned is opening yourself up to being burned. Sometimes it's even okay to get burned because you realize it's not fatal." (3)
How safe is it to be vulnerable in your workplace? One indication is the way leaders talk. Listen for statements like: "I don't know; I need help; I am not sure but I feel we need to take the risk; It failed but I learned a lot; I made a mistake; I apologize; My idea may be completely off-base but I want your reactions; What can I do better next time?; I played a part in that." (1)
These statements may seem like weakness but this kind of vulnerability actually "sounds like truth and feels like courage...Truth and courage may not be comfortable but they are not weakness." (1)
(1) Brown, Brene Daring Greatly, Gotham Books, 2012
(2) De Smet, Aaron et al The Missing Link: Connecting Organizational and Financial Performance McKinsey and
Co., February 2007 (downloaded at McKinsey.com)
(3) Lencioni, Patrick The Five Temptations of a CEO Jossey-Bass, 1998
"The single most important skill to have in working through any problem is the ability to give constructive feedback. Why? Because most often problems are expressed as criticism of someone's actions." (1)
The stakes for feedback are higher on teams because "learning what several people expect of you is far more difficult than learning what one other person expects and needs." (2) In effective teams, everyone helps each other to perform his/her role to meet expected outcomes--in Schein's words, "perpetual helping." But, feedback is the key mechanism for this helping. It is a means of constant course correction.
Because of the nature of personal exposure with feedback, the environment of trust on teams is essential. As Schein states, "What we think of as respect or trust is basically the feeling that you will not be humiliated or embarrassed even if your behavior deviates from the norm and is viewed as unhelpful. Instead you get task relevant information that allows you to figure out how to become more helpful in the effort to achieve goals." (2)
Helpful feedback is an art and skill which only develops with intentional practice. Practice gradually normalizes the discomfort of feedback.(3) Over time, a feedback-rich culture can make feedback less a source of anticipated discomfort and more a source of desired learning.
Key components of productive feedback include (from references 1 and 2):
(a) prior setting of team norms and work process specifications
(b) specific, concrete, behavioral descriptions related to achieving goals (not good vs. bad)
(c) avoidance of labels, generalizations, and characterizations (e.g. "You are lazy.")
(d) using "I" statements and owning feedback as perceptions as opposed to "Truth"
(e) asking for the other person's perception in response
(f) stating genuine positive regard along with the feedback wherever appropriate
(1) Schein, Edgar Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help Berrewtt-Koehler Publishers,Inc., 2009
(2) Scholtes, Peter R. et al The Team Handbook, Third Edition Oriel Incorporated, 2003
(3) Brown, Brene Daring Greatly Gotham Books, 2012
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