Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Dealing with Ambiguity: A Critical Leadership Capability

There is a revolution in the air that seems to be escaping our nations leaders and managers in politics and all manner of organisations alike. The more conservative among them are even more myopic to what is happening, given their tendency to view change as akin to the black plague. As David Price in his new book, ‘Open’, points out there has been a radical shift in the way people obtain information, learn, collaborate and organise themselves. This has all been brought about by the internet and its progeny such as social media.

People now can use their inherent capacity to learn (an ability they had in spades until they went to school) to develop their knowledge and skills in pretty well any area of endeavour. And they do. They find out how to manage their disease, how to use a lathe, growing great orchids, build some shelves in the shed, cook a fabulous vindaloo lamb, the list is endless. All done without necessarily enrolling in a course, without going to a guru. Instead they bring the gurus to them. It’s all there with a few strokes of the keyboard and a search engine. Recently, I learned how to turn a bowl on a lathe from watching YouTube clips made my experts around the globe.

Groups form at will through media such as Twitter to talk about issues of interest. My own Twitter ‘tribe’ consists of a coterie of educational practitioners from all around the world. We share information and talk about what interests us through our blogs, Slideshare, YouTube, Vimeo and other amazing communication tools. Louis Suarez (not the footballer) talks about how to run highly effective and engaged teams through the power of internal social media. There are now numerous examples of how vast crowds of volunteers to deal with disaster situations and protesters to effect political change through community action can be recruited in only a few hours if not minutes using social media.

What this demonstrates to me is that people are intrinsically motivated given the right conditions and that they can self-organise. The internet has managed to create the conditions that enable people to achieve their best.

We have known this for a long time but it is largely ignored for a number of reasons that I won’t go into here. People function best at work or any endeavour for that matter when they have autonomy, clear goals, the freedom to be creative, the capacity to obtain requisite skills and capability, information, participation in decision-making and strategy, variety, meaningfulness or purpose, support and respect, and a desirable future. People can self-organise in groups and effectively project manage them. All of these factors contribute to engagement, which is know to increase productivity, effectiveness, innovation and quality.

Our current management systems in many organisations do not cater well for the sort of ambiguity that is needed for these factors to be realised. Rather, they are controlling, rigid, and designed to repress rather than unleash potential. The research has shown that employees in these sorts of organisations are disengaged and productivity and effectiveness suffers dramatically.

It takes leaders/managers with specific abilities to be able to develop and function with an organisational culture that is ambiguous. They need to be low on the need for control, high on openness to experience, have a mature tolerance to mistakes, not be overly perfectionistic, have high emotional stability, be able to learn, be collaborative and have excellent interpersonal skills, among other things.

If I were designing a job application for a new manager or leader (or maybe any employee for that matter) it would have, ‘The capacity to manage ambiguity’, as the number one required attribute.

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