Sunday, June 9, 2013
I had an experience in customer service excellence that can be transferred to not only leadership and organisational behaviour but probably to just about all walks of life.
My son recently took me to a local café on the south end of the Gold Coast. There are lots of cafes in this area trying to make a living from a dense population of locals and tourists. Given that it is hard to make a mess of poached eggs and bacon, and coffee, competitive advantage has to be more than the food that is dished up, presuming they have the basic competency. My offspring told me that the café we were entering was extremely popular. In fact, he said that it was frequently very busy, difficult to get a seat sometimes, while three others in the immediate vicinity would be empty. And such was the case today.
Sitting out of the chilly winter breeze sipping my decaf it was easy to see why it was a popular place for coffee, cheesecake and croissants. As an owner run establishment the customer service was first rate. We were greeted like long lost friends, there was chat about this and that (my son is a regular), and we had: eye contact; smiles; real listening; positive verbal and non-verbal communication; and a sense of being important. And it wasn’t just us, but every person that came in. Nothing was too much trouble, from the cranky child, the elderly citizen who needed assistance to get in with their walking frame, to the dropped and very broken plate.
Now this is a simple message and I would have thought that most coffee shop owners and retailers in general would get. But, as we all know, this is not the case and bad service is de rigueur all over the world. I think I get the reason why. It is hard work and it is difficult to find and train staff who are capable of doing this. Much easier to just be the way you are at the time, not bother to make and effort and otherwise sink or swim. Those poached eggs had better be just better than the ones you can find next door.
This experience can be extrapolated to leadership and, in fact, to success in most forms of life. Our ability to influence others is dependent on the relationship we build. And a strong relationship depends on excellent interpersonal skills. I won’t go into these because I am sure you know what they are. Some people are naturally good at developing relationships and some were not born with this gene or the personality characteristics that make it easy. But the skills can be learned and applied with a bit of effort, which in fact may be the problem-that it needs effort.
As a psychologist I have been able to teach people with Asperger’s Syndrome and other autistic problems to communicate more effectively despite their affliction that makes any empathic relating extremely tricky. But they can learn to fake it and it works. Sometimes I have had to fake it when I have been feeling low or my head has been full of problems. And, as the mindfulness people will tell you, the more you make the effort, despite yourself, the more you start to feel better and you start to lift.
Relationship building and maintaining is critical to leadership success, and to success in life in general. I feel that too many people take it for granted, cannot maintain the effort, or just can’t be bothered. It shows in their employee engagement scores, in productivity and in the quality of the product, whatever it is.
I have an exercise that I sometimes ask workshop participants to do that I guarantee will have a positive effect on their lives. I ask them to go home and hug their partner, non-sexually, and focus only on the person, nothing else and just hug. Turn your phone off first! Sit and have a nice coffee or glass of wine with your partner and just listen rather than wait to speak for an hour every day. Relax and take time out with them. We often take the other for granted and forget the basics in life-the things that matter, which are our relationships. Trust me, everything else is rather meaningless in the end.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you hug your staff or colleagues, or sit and have wine together gazing into the limpid pools of their eyes. But the analogy is clear I think. If you want success then it takes time and effort to relate to others. Simple but not so easy.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
I recently attended a conference in Prague and had the pleasure of listening and getting to know Luis Suarez. No, not the footballer, but a Luis who works for IBM and who has some crazy ideas about social media, email and Twitter. You can look him up on YouTube under his name but make sure you add ‘Social Media’ otherwise you’ll be looking at videos showing the other Suarez scoring goals for Liverpool or about his potential transfer to Barcelona.
What the social media Suarez has done is to get rid of email and use an internal social media site inside his organisation for communication within and Twitter for communication without. His main reason for doing this is to enhance learning and communication in IBM, which he believes is inhibited by email. If people want to discuss something in private he suggests they use the telephone although it seems to me they could use email for that. The internal social networking site involves everyone and people can chat, post information, send links to interesting sites, discuss issues and make decisions. It is what we do with email but it is open.
Luis claims the results are astounding in terms of creativity, sharing, participation, decision-making and learning. I can attest to the latter because I have taken to using Twitter and it is amazing the amount of information, connections and, indeed, learning that is available out there. As he told me when I expressed my doubts because of the rubbish stuff you get on Twitter, ‘You have to choose your tribe’. And he is right. I communicate largely with education people and we share and talk about learning stuff. If I want the social chit-chat I use Facebook and I keep the two separate.
I am not surprised about Luis’ claims. For years I ran strategic planning exercises for organisations. The key problem areas that came up were always, yes always, poor communication, lack of information and low participation. Nowadays we are calling this employee engagement- a term I think is most apt. And the literature confirms that employee engagement is, by and large, poor in most of our organisations. Something many CEOs are not aware of or perhaps don’t think it’s important. Well, low engagement is costing them lots of money.
We know that open systems function much more effectively than closed systems, especially in a turbulent or even chaotic environment, which we are definitely in right now (have been for 30 years but people often don’t notice). Open systems are aware of their environment, monitor it and are able to react to changes. To this end, they organise themselves internally by making sure that everyone in the organisation is: engaged with the organisational vision; able to provide feedback about what is going on in their area of expertise; is an ambassador for the organisation; is active in decision-making; has all the information they need to do their job to a high level; recognise expertise and enable it; and tend to be flat in terms of decision-making. The essence is that an organisation is organic and that every part of it (every person) creates an opportunity for adaptation.
Most managers find this a difficult concept. It is much easier to centralise information and decision-making in the hands of a few. It is just too hard to get people together, to manage democratic participation, to harness all the forces in the organisation. Delegating this to a series of line-managers makes it more impossible because of control issues, even though intuitively is seems the right thing to do.
Using the Louis Suarez approach makes it easier. The only thing standing in the way is, wit, will and fear. The fear that management will lose control, that the crazies out there will have a voice, that it is time consuming and messy, that only senior managers have the good ideas. Let me tell you that it is the crazies in your organisation that are most likely to have the ideas that create success. If a manager has neither the wit nor the will then they should not be in a management position.
None of these are good reasons for not adopting an open systems approach. And now we have the technology to make it easy. If that’s too hard then think of all the massive corporate mistakes made over the previous 100 years by organisations that could have been avoided had they been able to think outside of the box and not had concentrated decision-making. And then think of Apple- not without flaws but an open system, at least for now.
Thursday, May 2, 2013
At a couple of conferences recently I had the opportunity to talk to people about our (with my good friend Chris Kenyon) relatively new concept of self-determined learning, or heutagogy. I am reliably told by one of my mentors that I should refrain from using that last tongue twister because it puts people off a bit and talk about learning. Instead. So, I’ll do that very thing. I won’t rave on about self-determined learning here because interested readers can find all about it by Googling the term heutagogy, or visiting the Heutagogy Community of Practice Website at: http://heutagogycop.wordpress.com. You might like to have a look at the blog postings that describe some applications in detail.
In any case it is how people really learn that interests me, no matter what we call it. And, the most recent evidence from neuroscience research and from many global observations by people is that our educational and training systems are deeply flawed (as I mentioned in a previous blog post here). Much of the ‘teaching’ in classrooms and training venues does not take into account what we know about how people really learn. A lot of what we do in organisational training is fundamentally a waste of time, money and effort if the object is learning. You can read the evidence for this if you’re interested at: http://heutagogycop.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/providing-a-compass-neuroscience-heutagogy/
However, the implications of recent advances in understanding how the brain works for how we educate and train can be summarised as:
▪ involve the learner in designing their own learning content and process as a partner;
▪ make the curriculum flexible so that new questions and understanding can be explored as new neuronal pathways are explored;
▪ individualise learning as much as possible;
▪ provide flexible or negotiated assessment;
▪ enable the learner to contextualise concepts, knowledge and new understanding;
▪ provide lots of resources and let the learner explore;
▪ differentiate between knowledge and skill acquisition (competencies) and deep learning;
▪ recognise the importance of informal learning and that we only need to enable it rather than control it;
▪ have confidence in the learner;
and recognise that teaching can become a block to learning
I have conducted a number of workshops for organisations using self-determined learning principles and the outcomes are outstanding. What happens is that participants take away things that they can use in the workplace and that are relevant to them. That is because the workshop is learner-centred rather than presenter-centric. Coupled with individual coaching, if possible, the outcomes are even better. Most of all learners learn when they are ready and as a result of experience, not when teachers think they are ready.
At these conferences I showed a picture of a new fire engine that had been recently delivered. Actually it was an old one, from before the turn of the 20th century-I was trying to get a laugh with a bit of irony. But it could be a piece of computer equipment, a new widget maker or a gadget for baking cakes.
The question I asked of the participants in these conferences was how would your average teacher/training package/program/lesson plan/curriculum go about teaching how to use this new piece of equipment. The answer is fairly clear and would be much the same if you were an accredited trainer or a university professor (who is likely to be even less trained as an educator).
Most responded that the sequence of events would be: talk about how the equipment works using some nice slides and a movie of it in action; there might be some discussion about its uses and something about safety; perhaps some group work with the manual might follow; limitations and so on; the instructor then might take the group outside and demonstrate how the machine works. After this everyone gets to practice and then be assessed as to their competency and get ‘singed off’.
Another way of doing this, the huegagogy way, is to drop the manual on the seat of the fire engine and let the group get on with it. The ‘teacher’ will hover discretely in the corner and make sure no-one hurts themselves or the equipment. Maybe they will act as a resource when asked.
What you find in this situation is that some people will read the manual and others will experiment (inductive versus deductive thinkers). Each will help each other. They will work it out, mostly together.
This is how we naturally learn. Kids are brilliant learners before they go to school and unlearn how to learn. Even though about 70% of useful learning at work occurs informally, we don’t know how to harness it. Hence, it is often not maximised. Another opportunity lost.
It is time to rethink how we conduct training programs in workplaces and how to get the best value for the training dollar.
Sunday, April 14, 2013
Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, virtually and in person, a number of exciting people. Revolutionary thinkers in fact when it comes to how we think about things like learning, education systems and leadership. At the same time we have a politician in Australia who wants more ‘chalk and talk’ in schools and less of the fancy stuff. I suspect he also thinks that the birch works. It is this chasm between expert and someone with an opinion that has stimulated this blog. The fireflies versus the rest.
In fact, I have to admit that it has been a source of great irritation to me that people with absolutely no expertise in an area are allowed to either determine policy, channel funding or practice. The field of education and learning is just one example. The other that comes to mind is management/leadership. But let me stick to learning since that is on my mind right now, although what I am about to say also relates well to the other.
I want to omit school teachers from what I am about to say. They are at least required to achieve accreditation after acquiring a body of knowledge and a set of competencies as well as, hopefully, capability in their profession. I also think that teachers are grossly undervalued and underpaid. We should be attracting the brightest and best to entrust our next generations.
Notwithstanding that, most of the assumptions that underpin learning and educational systems are deeply flawed and I have recently written about this in a post at: http://heutagogycop.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/providing-a-compass-neuroscience-heutagogy/. So I won’t labour the point except to say that there is scientific evidence to back up an issue that has been made by countless others such as Russell Ackoff, Fred Emery, John Dewey, and Kozol, to mention just a few. There are numerous current thinkers who are active in the world of studying learning who have come to the same conclusions and are seeking to make radical changes to our educational systems. They are bright lights in a sea of darkness, however.
What gets up my nose is that opinion and belief about learning and education, held by people who do not know the field at all, is allowed to hold sway over evidence. Outside of school teaching, it seems that anyone is allowed to ‘teach’ at university, technical schools or to run training programs in the public and private sector. Politicians with no understanding at all, other than their own schooling, seem to know all there is to know about how people learn. No qualification or demonstrated competence is required. And, as I mentioned above the same can be said for management, where the main requirement is to convince a selection panel or your boss of your ability to manage. Mostly great practitioners (engineers, educators, accountants, whatever) are promoted on the basis of their ability at their craft, not management competence. They are also allowed to teach for the same reason.
If Bob or Mary wants to become an electrician or plumber it is expected that they will obtain the required competencies to practice, to sell their wares. The same can be said for a host of professions or jobs. It is unlikely you would let someone operate on your water works without having undergone the right sort of training and achieved a high level of ability at the craft. Many professions are regulated and registration is dependent on keeping up to date in the field. Demonstrated incompetency is punished.
There are some obvious assumptions that can be made from this observation. One is that learning or education is not seen as worthy of requiring competence or knowledge. Presumably it is not a profession. Another is that there is no body of knowledge underpinning how people learn that is worth obtaining. In other words, anyone can do it. Anyone can drive policy. Anything goes.
This is clearly nonsense to those that care and that is the rub. There are major changes needed in the way in which education is conducted in our universities, our technical colleges, and in our organisations. We need a major rethink about schooling and how we stifle creativity and capability in our children. That governments are insisting on testing children throughout their schooling to measure the effectiveness of schools and teachers is an outrage and based on not one ounce of decent evidence that it will make a positive difference.
Educational systems are deeply conservative and driven by politicians and bureaucrats who are conservative. They find innovation offensive. They are frightened to death of evidence that demonstrates that common dogma, long held holy cows, their beliefs are in fact wrong. So they ignore it. Conservative people inherently do not like change and, sadly, they are found in the places that drive and implement policy.
I suppose the innovators and those with liberally wired brains should get themselves into positions of power and make the changes needed. When this does happen we see dramatic things happen and there are wonderful examples of this in the literature and in most people’s experience. Sadly, though the liberal minded are less likely to find themselves in positions where they can make a difference. This is out of preference and also the difficulty that they find climbing the slippery slope in an inherently conservative world of management.
So, the enlightenment remains a steady drip with the promise of eventually reaching the tipping point that is needed for innovation to diffuse more rapidly. In the meantime we struggle on with dysfunctional educational systems and organisations, with a smattering of bright lights amid the gloom. The fireflies of change.
Saturday, April 6, 2013
I have been conducting, over the past 10 days or so some workshops in Prague and it has been a great experience. A magic city and great people. A frequent question was about how to motivate people. Of course, this is a question that many managers ask especially in relation to poor employee engagement, which has well known negative effects on productivity and quality.
There are a couple of nuances regarding this question that are interesting. Clearly the problem is seen as the unmotivated person and, somehow, there is something wrong with them. This may, of course, be true. It constantly astounds me how people will stay in a job or relationship for that matter even though they are clearly unhappy. It is just too hard for them to make the choice to change, to move on. Why would you want to work at anything if you are not engaged to a reasonably high level? Time to move on.
We, as a species, are notoriously bad of taking control of our emotions. There is some great evidence from positive psychology and cognitive behavioural psychology that we can improve how we feel, and therefore our motivation. This involves making a decision to change how you feel and then following some simple steps: getting out of bed is a good start, putting on nice clothes, grooming nicely, holding back the shoulders, smiling (even though you don’t feel like it), responding to people enthusiastically, and talking positively to yourself. In short, fake it! The evidence is that you start to feel better after a while and you no longer have to make such an effort. Importantly people start responding positively to you, which creates a positive feedback loop.
This is a skill that some managers could learn too in order to apply, purposefully, the skills of transformational leadership that are pretty well known.
Which brings me to the main point in this blog and that is that motivating someone or a team requires a more long-term effort. One of the things that directly creates disengagement in an employee is a negative relationship with their manager. Thus, building positive relationships with employees is critical to motivation. This doesn’t mean we all have to be best friends. But it does mean doing things like not micromanaging (enabling autonomy), providing purpose and being at least a little inspirational, and providing the opportunity for developing skills (see Daniel Pink on TED). We also need to be empathic, to listen, to try and relate from the frame of reference of the other rather than self, to keep control of our emotions, to be optimistic and enthusiastic, to be self-aware, be assertive, and to provide opportunities for growth and the future.
This requires a good deal of hard work and will not produce results overnight. But it will work. If you have employees who cannot seem to get motivated then it is time to have a meaningful conversation. This requires another set of skills around coaching and finding a way to help people to change. If this is unsuccessful then perhaps this job is not the one for them: perhaps there are other horizons to seek. This should be the last resort but not seen as failure but the inevitable consequence of a bad fit.
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
I’ve been studying leadership for more years than I care to remember and I’d like to make a few observations that are not mainstream. Firstly, the literature is full of words that describe the attributes that leaders are supposed to have. In fact, as a doctoral student of mine once revealed, there are pages and pages of them: he called them ‘weasel word’s. Another observation is that hardly anyone talks about bad or mediocre leaders, just leaders and the odd person that really stands out as wonderful. Sure Hitler was a bad person but he was a powerful charismatic leader: it is not that kind of bad I am referring to but the bad as in incompetent.
Most of the characteristics or behaviours applied to leadership appear, in my view, to be those things that are essential for successfully negotiating life without difficulty in most endeavours involving people, and that includes intimate relationships. These behaviours are: trust; the ability to learn; being a team player; self-reliance; self-control; self-awareness; self-actualisation; the ability to converse; managing change; empathy; assertiveness; flexibility; being positive towards others; optimism; relationship skills; and self-confidence. Then there are some personality characteristics that are specific to certain situations and affect personal effectiveness.
I think that anyone who manages life well or easily will, to a greater or lesser extent, exhibit these behaviours. And anyone who wants to be a good leader needs these attributes as a minimum set of competencies. Bad leaders don’t do these things well and mediocre leaders are, well, mediocre. Some people really find these skills difficult to learn and there are those that probably can’t learn them.
The additional attribute, to my way of thinking, that a good leader needs to possess, has to do with the ability to motivate others. Motivation is always mentioned as a leadership attribute, buried in the list with all the others, so I know that this is not something new to you.
But I think it is the leadership mojo: the thing that makes the difference. Great leaders know how to motivate people and expend a great deal of energy doing it. Sometimes there are good leaders who are brilliant motivators when they are flawed in some of the essentials mentioned above.
Neuroscience and biology tell us that predicting what motivates others and being able to get on with them based on that understanding is a critical survival skill. It enables us to relate and to work as teams. However, in some people this ability appears to be better developed in some than others and these people make leaders.
Motivation in leadership consists of a number of factors such as providing purpose, enabling people to do what they do well and leaving them to it (autonomy), being participative and democratic, providing people with the necessary skills to perform their work, and providing intrinsic as well as extrinsic rewards. While fear is a poor motivator a lot of people need to be accepted by leaders and seek approval, and will respond when there is a risk of disapproval. Others are less dependent and are self-motivated. Thus good leaders respond to individual motivators.
Successful leaders know how to motivate. Whether the mojo is able to be learned or not is an interesting question. Being born with the charismatic gene certainly helps.
Thursday, February 21, 2013
Metaphors are terrific change agents
There are multiple realities all of which have meaning to someone.
Your truth is no more reliable than anyone else’s
Multiple truths can create all sorts of dysfunction
It is important to listen with one ear
If you can stay awake for the first 20 minutes of the movie, Life of Pi, it morphs into an interesting film. Mind you, it could do with a shot of adrenalin from time to time to keep the heart going but it gets to its destination in the end. The book of the same name is beautifully written. Because of that it much more captivating. Books seem to get lost in translation to a movie, given they have to fit the story into the attention span of the average moviegoer. It’s such a passive medium compared to how a book massages your mind: makes you work.
But this blog is not dedicated to critiquing movies. Mind you, I’ve always wanted to be a restaurant, book, movie or travel critic and it’s nice to indulge myself. There is a language and a style that critics can use that would be seen as socially unacceptable in most civilised circles: or at least get you a bleeding lip down at the local pub. It is a style that is suggestive and with more reading between the lines than a treasurer’s budget speech. It is fun to play with words, language and see what you can do with it.
Without going into too much detail, a young boy, Pi, gets shipwrecked and survives in an open boat for 227 days. During the investigation of the sinking of the ship he tells his story of initially escaping the ship with a Bengal tiger, a zebra, a hyena and an orang-utan. The zebra has a broken leg and is eventually eaten, the hyena kills the orange-tan, and the tiger kills and eats the hyena. In the end only Pi and the tiger survive, as he finds ways not to be eaten by the tiger. Needless to say he learns lots of things about himself during his adventure. The tiger eventually wonders off into the jungle when they finally hit land. The investigators don’t like this story. So he tells another where he escapes with his mother, the cook and a sailor with a broken leg. He tells how the cook kills his mother and the sailor, and that he eventually kills the cook. Clearly the characters and animals are interchangeable in the two stories: Cook-hyena; orange-tan-mother; sailor-zebra; tiger-Pi himself.
For me, there are two dimensions to this story, other than the obvious one of learning about yourself when confronted with adversity. The first is the wonder of metaphors and how we can learn so much from them. I was disappointed that the metaphor was explained in the movie by a dorky journalist. For me, metaphors should not be explained but left to the listener to make sense of. I use metaphors all the time to help people change their behaviour and they are immensely powerful. Metaphors contain embedded messages and the listener can decide whether or not they want to accept it or not. Because it is indirect the receiver doesn’t have to use any of the defence mechanisms to protect themselves, as people do when they are told something they don’t want to hear. It is up to them and is often effective in getting people to think differently. Choosing the right metaphor or sets of metaphors is important-I have a collection of them, stories, kids stories and so on. Stories don’t have to be true although they must not be about you, but about a third person removed that you ‘knew’. Perhaps this is worth a blog on its own-let me know if you’re interested.
The second dimension is that reality is in the eye of the beholder and we interpret it in myriad ways. I cannot tell you the number of times that I have had people tell completely different versions of events about their relationship, their experience in the workplace or whatever the situation is. Their stories can be so different you would be forgiven for thinking the players were even in the same universe let alone the same few feet.
This is brought into start reality when it comes to conflict involving relationship breakdown such as in a marriage or in a workplace, or in workers’ compensation cases between employee and employee, for example.
When I started out as a nurse, fairly young and naïve, it was rather easy to get caught up in the world of the client to whom you are listening. You are their carer, they are your client and there is an obligation to advocate for them. We become caught up in their reality. Studying psychology and also some rather sobering experiences taught me some valuable lessons.
I was horrified when I discovered that a partner or another relative could give a completely different set of experiences from my client. In later years I have come to expect in my work with organisations for several people to have completely different memories of their experience. In fact, these days I’m surprised when there is any agreement at all.
So, I learnt early in my career as a psychologist to listen intently with one ear. The other ear is listening for the other version, the other story or stories, the unspoken. Such is the world of cynicism that psychologists inhabit.
This is not to say that people cannot be trusted. Apart from the small percentage of psychopaths and similar personality disorders most people mean well. We are all narcissistic to a degree, have a tendency to fudge the truth towards our own benefit, need to protect our sometimes fragile egos with all sorts of defence mechanisms, are competitive and rely on beliefs rather than facts. But generally we don’t mean others too much harm except when the chips are down and we are under extreme threat. Humans are also capable of doing really nice things to each other and so called lesser species. Our distortion of reality is not a conscious or a deliberate activity.
A second, related issue has to do with how the listener chooses to interpret or perceive what another says or does. Inevitably this gets distorted too by the listeners predilections, beliefs, values, and experience. This is a human frailty that the media, advertisers, and spin doctors and use to great effect every day: spinning our experience to their own ends. I spend a lot of time checking what others seem to think it was that I meant or said. Not difficult and worth the effort.
I think this reality issue has reinforced by my obsession with group processes, systems thinking and communities of practice. Therein, we can use ancient tribal concepts of listening to the stories of others and seeing how others interpret them. We can see when our thinking is out of kilter with that of others. In a group we get more effective and rational decision-making, for information sharing, for perspective giving, and for experience sharing.
When you think of it, it’s a wonder we manage to get anything done given we are all seeing the world and what happens in such completely different ways.