This blog is adapted from the
article published in The Professional Manager Journal of the Post Graduate
Institute of Management of Sri Lanka in the 3rd Issue – January
I pay a tribute to Prof. Uditha Liyanage who invited me to write this article and facilitate sessions on Leadership and Values to graduating MBA students where I introduced emotional intelligence and mindfulness.
Another tribute to my mentor and training maestro – Robert Vandewall of Sage Training who invited me to jump into the deep end of training and facilitating in 2001 in Colombo, Sri Lanka – patiently guiding and mentoring me and having fun doing it.
The biggest challenge for an organizational coach-consultant-trainer is that no one organization is the same. However, there is a common thread in the human condition and the kinds of issues and problems most organizations face. This article takes a journey through a typical external intervention for an organization seeking more efficiencies, better performance and improved bottom line through a lens of the science and art of leadership learning.
The focus is on the leaders, as they set the stage and the tone for the culture for the collective team to perform and meet client requirements.
A leadership transformation to influence organizational culture, morale and manage performance from a traditional hierarchical way to a team centered one requires a ‘deep-tissue’ change in the individual.
As a student of philosophy, history, organizational development and human behavior - I am constantly researching, inquiring and engage in practices such as mindfulness meditation to explore how our mind works - as leadership is about mindset.
I study psychology from eastern, western and indigenous perspectives delving into Vedic and Buddhist philosophies, nature and science-based narratives, as well as original teachings of Christianity and Islam - the concept of God, as all these play an important part of an individual’s life.
From this esoteric end, I also keep track of the latest discoveries in neuroscience, epigenetics and the biology of learning in relation to leadership and management theories and practices. Any intervention with organizations and individuals arise from this base, as I seek to go back to the root cause(s) of a typical challenge – whether its low morale or productivity.
This process brings to the surface our ‘unconscious incompetence’ - to realize that our frame of reference with anything is generally limited to our conditioning from life’s experiences and the culture we are immersed in. Anything outside this frame may give rise to fear, as it is simply not within the comfort zone or frame of reference.
My role is to gently help leaders come to this realization with compassion. The more I research, learn and engage in this area with diverse organizations and people, it makes for a rich action learning and appreciative inquiry.
This is a process of co-learning and inquiring as I help leaders and
organizations put a mirror on self - to be mindful about their impact with
every word that they utter and their actions.
The story illustrates how personal transformation requires courage and a will - first to put a mirror on self for inner inquiry, reflection and transformation - to help facilitate organizational change at the root, which is a deep and risky process. What underpins that is how open the leader is to change self in the way power is wielded and how emotions are managed through the process.
This requires an understanding of how the brain is wired - and what motivates and drive us. Then we need to acknowledge our multiple intelligence(s) and emotions along with the spiritual base which provides a foundation of purpose and integrity for everything we do.
“My people are not taking responsibility and not accountable” says an owner-CEO of a medium sized manufacturing company. This is causing costly mistakes for the business and beginning to hurt the bottom line.
This seemingly simple statement opens a Pandora’s box of what ails most organizations in the world. The CEO goes on to ask me to design a training program to help the managers become motivated and take more responsibility, as the company is not performing to deliver desired results.
Next, I delicately form questions to assess the CEO’s leadership style. My task is to assess how much of this style is contributing to the situation. Digging deep enough could reveal that the current leadership style, which has worked very well as the company grew, is now becoming a burden as it matures.
My role is
to further investigate the causes and I suggest focus
group meetings with different levels of the organization including the front-line
workers gain more insight.
Talking to many people allows me to assess their morale, emotional well-being and stress at work, and any mis-alignments in perceptions about the organization and the leadership style.
I first build their
trust to be open by talking about my philosophy about work-life balance and the
meaning and purpose to life we all seek - what matters at the end of the day. I also assure them of the confidentiality in how I will use the information - for the common good of the organization.
As we spend 2/3rds of our time at work, how important is it to be motivated and happy to come to work, feel safe, perform and make it meaningful?
Using the Johari’s Window as a basis to understand conscious and unconscious bias that helps self-awareness and understanding of others, I divulge information about myself and explain some of my own blind-spots that I am working on. That way I gain their trust and confidence to create a safe space for them to express freely.
I ask open-ended questions such as these to guide a discussion;
- How do you feel working for this company?
- How do you think others (managers, colleagues) perceive the work you do in the company?
- Do you feel safe, appreciated and valued for the work you do?
- Do you feel your expertise and ability is used to the maximum, and do you feel challenged ?
- How could interpersonal relationships improve at work?
- What areas and processes could improve to get a quality product out the door?
- If this company ceases operations how would that impact you?
Eventually a lively discussion ensues about their feelings, leadership style, delegation, teamwork, communications, processes, systemic and hygiene issues.
Having spent time with a cross section of the different levels, it seems that the CEO is operating with Douglas McGregor’s harder version of Theory X, which assumes that workers are generally lazy, have little ambition, prefer to be led and resist change. The CEO controls, threatens, even punishes when things do not meet expectations. This is self-fulfilling as if one expects people not to take responsibility and need to be directed, they will conform to that expectation.
Often, this results in poor teamwork and cross-functional cooperation - especially at the level of department heads, who do not have the freedom to act with a micromanaging CEO. Any issue or conflict gets sorted through the CEO’s intervention.
The CEO seems unconscious of the impact the Theory X style has on a maturing organization. No one had advised the CEO that the record of past success in running the business in their own way may not be appropriate anymore.
Managing more than Leading
This hierarchical style lends itself to the CEO managing, even micromanaging the business and not leading.
Leadership is about being a visionary, thinking long-term, focusing on external PEST factors (political, economic, social, technological and environmental – all uncontrollable) and being strategic to internally, motivate and inspire the team to grow - to be independent by creating an appreciative and a positive culture. It is to instill a sense of pride and belonging - nurtured as a part of a cohesive team on a purposeful mission.
To achieve this the CEO’s leadership/management split needs to be around 80/20 but in this case, it is the other way around. The CEO is often involved in solving the team’s problems - getting engrossed in processes, micromanaging and firefighting to meet orders.
CEO has very little time to self-reflect, watch for signs of low morale and stress and look outwards at the changing world. In micromanaging the business there is no time to listen, coach, guide, train, create the conditions and inspire people to take pride in their work by providing a safe environment to achieve business goals.
Beneath the surface there are undercurrents and intrigue, as managers jockey for position to win favor, telling stories that the CEO thinks provides insights about the internal workings and relationships - in fact - telling what the CEO wants to hear. Stories are spiced up to curry favor leading to gossip and divisions resulting in dysfunction with a clash of interests.
Habits and Conditioning
Being hierarchical is not unusual given the baby boomer conditioning and culture of the CEO. Formal education conditions most to focus on the rational and logical, to judge and analyze, ignoring the importance of emotional and relationship intelligence – to manage self and others, to be intuitive and creative.
This leads to poor human interaction, silos and a lack of trust between the team, so the organization becomes ‘overbounded’, highly concentrated and regulated (Bolman & Deal – 2003; p196).
Finally, when I go back with my recommendations and a draft plan for an intervention that includes the CEO, there are two reactions. One is to show me the door and the other is to take a risk and play.
To play - the initial focus is on the CEO and the senior management team and the roller coaster ride begins.
There is never a simple solution for an organization as it is populated with a host of different people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. Then there is the question of politics and power plays.
The CEO has the ultimate power, but where are the other informal power centers in the organization?. That could be anywhere, even at the bottom of the hierarchy.
Politics naturally arise out of interdependence, divergent interests and power relations, but we could make it the scapegoat for the lack of accountability, selfishness and incompetence. Clash of interests arises from poor leadership and dysfunctional relationships, which makes politics and conflict a natural condition of an organization.
In this context, throwing myself into this ‘lion’s den’ is a risky and a dangerous proposition.
The process, even with a framework and a plan may take a life of its own, as it is executed in an experiential and interactive manner – giving them the ownership, with me as a facilitator interspersed with educating and guiding.
If we are to solve the CEOs perceived problem and enable a transformation, the need is to unlearn old habits and relearn new ways of working. It is risky and requires everyone to get out of their comfort zones. This is significant as humans loathe change, even if the ship is going down, albeit slowly.
Therefore, I approach this challenge from a different angle. I go back to basics of human biology in terms of what makes us tick and how we learn.
We acknowledge that we are emotional beings where our mind and body are connected through our physiology.
I focus on the Kolb’s learning cycle (a four-step learning process - concrete learning, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation)[i] - to understand how we learn as a biological being. Effective learning is achieved when a learner progresses through each stage, not necessarily in sequence. Let us explore the learning cycle.
The Learning Cycle
Learning happens with a combination of being educated and a concrete experience. As the diagram depicts, learning cycle is complete only when an experience, leads to reflection, developing an abstraction, testing this abstraction and moving on with another experience.
James E Zull, in his book The Art of Changing the Brain, links the Kolb learning cycle to biology focusing on the cerebral cortex where the experience happens through the sensory cortex (feelings, eyes and ears), creating the abstract concept in the frontal integrative cortex, active testing in the motor brain. He states that the learning cycle arises naturally from the structure of the brain and it begins with our senses. (pp 17-18)
Neuroscience has unlocked many of the brain’s mysteries using the latest brain imaging tools. We can see which part of the brain gets activated when we are fearful, sad, happy or joyful - for instance.
My challenge is to help the CEO unlearn the Theory X style and move towards Theory Y where according to McGregor (Davis; 1972), “the essential task of management is to arrange organizational conditions so that people can achieve their own goals best by directing their efforts towards organizational rewards”.
The CEO has to stop treating the team as ‘children’, thinking them immature and impulsive with limited self-knowledge - to help move them towards a mature level of self-awareness and self-control (Bolman & Deal , 2003; p119).
This way the
CEO’s and organizational requirements may align with employee self-interest and
I have to get the CEO’s agreement to move towards this process of inner transformation. Intellectually, the CEO realizes the need to change attitude and behavior, yet conditioning and habitual actions may be difficult to transform.
This contradiction is illustrated by Argyris and Schon (1974, 1996) where they distinguish between espoused theories where managers explain their own behavior and theories in use – what they actually do. Often, a manager’s self-description is unconnected to their action.
In this case, the CEO perceives self as open, rational and respecting others and espouses so - but in the feedback from the team - the style and actions are controlling and autocratic, bordering on bullying.
There is a gap between the self-perception, action and how others perceive the CEO.
Typically, the CEO calls for the management team to take initiative and be creative, but the managers are torn by the conflicting signals when they take action - make decisions and get punished for mistakes. This leads to a credibility gap for the CEO where people have become cynical.
Peter Senge (1990) says of learning in organizations; “We learn best from our experience, but we never directly experience the consequences of our decisions” (p23).
As organizations are complex and linear - linkages are severed, often the cause is remote from the effect. The CEO does not see that the current behavior is demoralizing people resulting in poor performance. The management team do not feel safe providing honest feedback to the CEO. This is a great loss, as the CEO does not have an opportunity to learn from the consequences of the current leadership style and actions.
For this reason, I initiate an intervention with the management team including the CEO.
My intervention has two motives;
1. CEO’s transformation to become more open to let go and trust the management team and build their esteem through coaching and advising.
2. The team’s transformation to become more trusting to be confident and daring to work as a cohesive team with the CEO - to look beyond their own responsibilities and processes, accept more responsibility to become more whole-system oriented and strategic.
This requires a combination of a team centered leadership training, individual coaching of the CEO and the management team members.
The expected outcome of this intervention is for the CEO to let go the hierarchical style and the management team to accept and share responsibility to manage and the lead the organization.
Kolb calls this process of changing data - the sensory experiences into knowing - “transformation of experience”. Through this intervention, we seek a transformation of experience from the CEO and the management team.
According to Zull, this transformation has three stages (pp33);
1. Transformation from past to the future
Our experience is in the past, so we rely on the past too much. However, we have to let go of the past and presence[ii] to create the future.
2. Transformation of the source of knowledge from outside ourselves to inside ourselves
We rely too much on outside experiences to give us knowledge and understanding, but we have our own ability within us to generate this knowledge in our brain, if we are emotionally intelligent, mindful and intuitive. This is about taking ownership for our knowledge, transforming from being a receiver to an active creator of knowledge.
3. Transformation of power
We can take charge of our own learning rather than depending on others. We have to take responsibility, be mindfully aware and inquiring to do this.
This transformation will move us to become independent and creates “deep learning” that is life changing.
Undoing our Conditioning from the Traditional Teaching/Learning Culture
The traditional “chalk and talk” teacher centered education system has subjected us to a process where we use only a part of the brain located in the back of the cerebral cortex. We have been passive learners receiving information and memorizing them. This process was also driven through fear of punishment. This is the very culture that continues into adulthood and prevails in many organizations.
I remember with dread how my grade 5 Sinhala language teacher (in Sri Lanka) forcing us to memorize poems - as missing one word would result in a whack on the head with a short cane. I memorized poems out of fear and did not learn it with meaning and understanding. If the teacher helped us to analyze and link the poem’s relevance to our life and the world around us, I may have learned it for the love of learning, put it in context and remembered it.
In terms of the brain - I was only receiving information - remembering but not integrating it. I was not given an opportunity to test this out by analyzing, acting, modifying, creating and controlling – to translate what I learned from the poem to my real life. This would have been experiential and much more beneficial.
Doing that is to engage the frontal cerebral cortex to complement the back cortex, to enable experiential learning and integrating to my practice in living life.
Sage Training and Experiential Learning
I follow the dictum which was introduced to me by my business partner and mentor, Robert Vanderwall[iii] through his actions as he walked the talk;
I cannot teach you anything
I can only help you to learn
Tell me and I forget
Show me and I remember
Involve me and I understand[iv]
Over the years, Robert and I had been discussing the importance of experiential learning in personal and organizational transformation. We established the Sri Lankan arm of Sage Training in 2001.
When Robert came to Sri Lanka on a holiday in 2000 from Australia, we organized an experiential learning workshop for members of the Chartered Institute of Marketing – Sri Lanka Chapter.
|Building a Raft and Testing it as a Team|
Most participants had not done anything like this since their childhood and at first looked at the activities as child’s play.
The penny had dropped, by the time of the debriefing session. Most people spoke of opening-up another part of their brain to meet the challenges - brainstorming ideas, thinking outside the box to be creative, taking risks, working as a team, managing emotions and the communications process - respecting each other, building trust to manage power plays, seeing the end result - all resulted in rich personal learning as individuals and as a team.
The participants had a chance to activate both the frontal and the back cerebral cortex. Not only did they get information about how teams work through theory - they actioned them out through the activities by being involved in the doing and leaning for better understanding.
Glue that holds all this together is our emotions. A primal need of a human is for autonomy and to be in control. This is a survival instinct. The brain wants to be safe and happy and according to Zull (2002 p 49), we use a fear system and a pleasure system. It is here that our primal survival (sometimes called reptilian) nature arises.
Humans survive by thinking, planning and deciding to constantly evaluate dangers and opportunities around us. Our nature is to learn, as its crucial for our survival through cognition - control, manage fear and the need for pleasure to understand and get results.
Being too stuck on the survival mode could prevent us from being creative and innovative when the need arises. That is where we have to transcend the thinking and planning brain by being mindful and aware – to stop the thought process, gain the space to become aware of other possibilities.
The creative process is encouraged when we have safe spaces and opportunities to learn experientially - make mistakes and grow. This is the essential principle in which we facilitated the organizational and leadership programs.
Getting Back to the Story - A Safe Environment for Learning
My task then is to create a process to provide a safe environment for the CEO and the team, to understand fears and insecurities on the way to find a common positive ground to work towards transformation - by letting go of the past systems, processes and behaviours.
The goal is for the CEO to let go and delegate to the management team in a sequenced and paced process, based on individual capability, capacity and maturity – so the team takes more control of their process and decisions.
The first intervention I propose for the CEO and the management team is a 2-day residential program, typically called Team Centered Leadership. This is an opportunity for everyone to experientially learn about each other in a fun and enjoyable environment through theories of leadership, teamwork, communications complemented by a host of challenging and notionally dangerous outdoor activities.
This helps the CEO and the team to seek common ground in a safe environment. We also assess the company’s vision, mission and values as this alignment is crucial for success.
A values exercise enables the team to identify what each espoused value means in terms of behaviors and whether there is a dissonance between them at an individual and a team level.
This sets the stage for some open and frank discussions about issues that creates the dissonance, dysfunction and disharmony in the organization.
Through this process, I work closely with the CEO - as a sounding board, coach and advisor to alleviate doubts and fears as the transformation happens.
In parallel, I start coaching the individual management team members on leadership and managing, as their transformation to learn and grow into their true roles as responsible manager/leaders.
Through this two-way process, I help the CEO connect better with the management team – to enable a more open relationship based on trust and integrity to transcend the traditional transactional relationship of the past.
There are also shorter facilitated team sessions along the way to address immediate fears and issues during the transformation process.
Open Communications and Building Trust for Transformation
The CEO has to assure the team that an open conversation on the reality of life will not be used to vilify people by “shooting the messenger”, but to humbly accept to collectively seek solutions, by everyone taking responsibility.
The interventions end with a commitment to commence a process of change - both ways - from the CEO and from the management team. Typically, two to three issues are chosen to to work through as a team and solve - to move forward with the transformation in a more open manner.
The goal of initial interventions are to set a foundation to reduce the gap between the management team with the CEO - getting closer at a personal level, learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses, expectations, hopes and fears in a non-threatening and a fun environment - while focusing on actual projects.
This underpins transforming the leadership philosophy that combines rational logical intelligence with managing emotions based on a spiritual base of purpose and integrity.
The team agrees on a code of conduct, to become professional, treat each other as adults, be proactive and assertive in managing affairs and when in doubt speak openly to communicate.
The team is encouraged to be mindful as they are a part of one system - about their words or actions as they have an impact on everyone in the organization.
This interdependency requires everyone to be open and inquiring - putting a mirror on self with mindful awareness - to manage emotions better in acting and communicating.
All this can become a feel-good intervention if life goes back to normal of the status-quo when they get back to work. The CEO has to take responsibility to lead the way to inspire and keep the change process alive.
This is most difficult as it requires the CEO and the team to get out of their comfort zones and spend time outside the daily responsibilities, to review and re-caliber to keep this inner and outer change process alive.
CEO Leading from the Front
One way of assuring the team of CEO’s intentions is to focus on the issues arisen from the workshop and immediately solve the low hanging fruit issues.
For instance, if there is a call to delegate certain responsibilities, based on the manager’s capability - the CEO may hand over and live by it, even if certain mistakes may be made by the manager.
Having an external coach for the CEO through this process can make this difficult process of letting go easier.
The CEO needs to become a coach and mentor to patiently ensure that the manager steps into the new role of responsibility and learn to grow.
This sends a powerful message to the team, who will be assured that change is possible and will join this seemingly risky process. Their transformation is to take more responsibility and be proactive.
This is a slow process that requires patience from everyone. This can be kept alive both internally and possibly with continued external consulting and coaching interventions. After a month of a new behavior, chances are that change will become more permanent.
The Courage and the Will
This requires a huge will and courage from the CEO to let go responsibilities to delegate - the business must go on with customer orders met to a quality standard while nurturing the management team, as they take on more and more responsibilities.
This requires a thoughtful and a systemic approach where having an external coach for the CEO - a sounding board is useful in this transformation.
In the process, there is bound to be a management team member or two who cannot rise to the occasion. They will need coaching themselves from the CEO and possibly, external help. If they do not rise to the opportunity and cannot change, they may have to be moved from those positions.
The CEO’s role is to continue to stay positive, set the agenda and the vision, reinforce the mission and values - look to the future, invest in the people, empower, delegate, encourage and inspire people to take risks, learn and move forward.
The greatest test is to assess the reaction when the team makes a mistake. Does the CEO help learn from it and move on with patience and dignity or does the CEO lose composure to become unskillful through a stern reaction?.
Having an external coach for the CEO helps this process, as it is lonely at the top. The Management Team’s role is to take responsibility, be accountable, take risks, learn from mistakes, work as a team, be honest, give feedback to the CEO, trust each other and when in doubt, always communicate. This requires an emotional openness.
This foundation sets the stage for an appreciative culture of openness, to evolve a Human Resources philosophy based on the vision, mission and values of the organization.
A sound Human Resources policy will ensure that the process of looking after people continues through interventions. This way they will continue to align their individual needs to organizational needs.
The CEO has to consider the workforce as an investment and not a cost. These organizations attract better people, who want to learn, take on more challenges, help themselves and see the business to grow.
Evolving a Learning Organization
This is a start of a process towards transforming towards a learning organization.
Peter Senge defines a learning organization as one that has the ability to learn faster than its competitors. Senge says (1990), “Its just not possible any longer to ‘figure it out’ from the top, and have everyone following the ‘grand strategist’. Organizations that will truly excel in the future will discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels of the organization.”
All this stems from understanding the basic biology of our brain and how we are wired for our emotions, as everything we do comes from a place of fear or pleasure.
We are more naturally wired for empathy and compassion, but our competitive difficult world has us fighting for survival where fear reigns.
The only way back to our real nature is through introspection, reflection and practices such as meditation. Then a generous and gracious outlook could be possible. When this is founded on integrity - as leaders, we will ensure and protect our people’s dignity in our actions. This can lead to our people taking more responsibility and being accountable, as they may have a sense of pride in what they do.
Finally, for a consultant-trainer, there is no magic wand to change people or their behaviors. The role of the consultant is to facilitate the understanding of our basic human nature and to assist in a personal transformation, which may lead to a collective change in the way an organization is led and managed.
Ultimately, the test is the bottom line where the numbers will tell the tale - whether an improvement has taken place. Experience shows that this kind of transformation works well when there is a measurable target set in place in parallel. All that has to be led from the top by the leader walking the talk.
Davis, Keith., Human Behavior at Work (1972), McGraw-Hill Book Company; New York
Senge, Peter M., The Fifth Discipline (1990), Random House; London
Zull, James E., The Art of Changing the Brain (2002); Stylus; USA
Bolman Lee G., Terrence E .Deal., Reframing Organizations (2003). Jossey-Bass; USA
[ii] The book ‘Presence’ (Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, Flowers) which has introduced this concept from a western perspective, but this is very much a Vedic and Buddhist concept of being present and mindful for the moment.
[iii] Robert Vanderwall established Sage Training in Australia in 1995 and together we established the company in Sri Lanka in 2001.
[iv] Xunzi (Xun Kuang), a Confucian philosopher who lived in the third century B.C.E.