I didn’t know much about culture!

They say ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast!’ They say it with such conviction, often as a precursor to their own philosophy on leadership and the future. They say it often, almost as much as I have said it.  I have sat through countless meetings with senior executives who claim high expertise and command of the topic, and we all seem to nod and smile in anticipation of the great work we will do together.

And then I began reading, not HBR or a clutch of online articles and trendy business magazines but hard, empirical research; and I have been self-muzzled. I don’t cough out that slogan anymore. I swallow back the one liners and pop MBA catch phrases and admit ignorance. But the more I read and learn, the more it makes organisational culture and the work within that space unexpectedly rich, diverse and certainly more complicated. As an advertising executive shared with me recently; ‘without strategy, culture is just a party and a fussball table’.  Spot on, and also just laughing at the surface of the topic.

No matter the levels of ignorance, it seems many leaders seem to be asking the same questions; how do we create the best culture? What type of culture do we need? How do we implement successful culture change? Who will best fit our culture? And on and on they ask.

All these questions are pertinent but also based on a handful of flawed and torpedo-like assumptions. 1. That a culture can in fact be changed, or deliberately created; and 2. That culture is a singular, organisation-wide phenomena.

Research offers the more useful assumptions, 1. Culture is always present and can vary across an organisation; 2. It is almost impossible to change, and 3. We don’t yet understand who or what influences its genesis over the life cycle of an organisation.

Nonetheless, it seems that the rising interest in organisational culture has much to do with its association to a unique competitive advantage, and thus some form of enduring relevance. That is an important insight, and is based on the following, research backed findings:

  1. A culture’s dimensions are difficult for competitors to imitate;
  2. A culture possesses rare and unique qualities;
  3. A culture is cumulative and generates upward momentum;
  4. A cultures sources are interconnected to form part of a whole;
  5. A culture can be renewed faster than eroded

What exactly does that all mean? In the course of my next batch of blogs, I will be sharing a perspective on culture that may be more useful than what you currently think you know. Stay tuned!

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If the President were a Psychologist

‘Constructive Disruption!? Read the banner advert.

What an odd idea, I heard a lot of people saying.

It was the title of a recent Consulting Psychology Conference (and I may have had something to do with it). It was designed to challenge psychologists to assert their relevance and voice in the post-apartheid reality. It urged experts in emotion, cognition, behaviour, the conscious and unconscious to lift their spectating selves (and behinds) off their seats and get involved. The whole profession was challenged to justify why it has allowed its silence to be screaming so loudly.

As the speakers filled the room with research, perspectives, questions and ideas, the debate gravitated towards activism and the urgent need for psychologists to provide insight into what we see in the South African discourse, and begin to counsel the nation to health.

More than just a smattering of delegates proposed a radical new role – psychologists should become non-partisan lobbyists and Politicians – yes Politicians! That sentiment was broadly supported and when a summary of research into a typical South African reality was shared, it galvanised the idea. The study focused on unemployed people of a sprawling informal settlement. The findings showed that the vast majority of over 30 year olds had little belief they would ever find work and most had given up trying. The bulk of them felt increasingly alienated and under-supported by the very community they lived in. They were outcasts and excluded, seemingly condemned by their employment status and were increasingly angry about that.

A juxtaposition of responses to this rising discontent emerged. First there was the politician’s response – throw quick fixes, promise them jobs, provide them with small contracts, extend the social wage, condemn the living conditions, seek their vote, blame someone else and promise change.

Then the Psychologists response – speak to the unemployed, listen to them, empathise with them and share their lived experiences with other community members. Then seek to understand the hindrances to job access both physical and emotional. By doing that, discover how dozens of NGO’s and government supported projects can offer these people some form of work, and realise that few of the unemployed people that were being interviewed knew they even existed and those that didn’t, couldn’t find them or contact them. Psychologists Solution – build community led support groups that make the links to employment opportunities and do so with empathy and care. Nett result – Change lives. A true story.

It all sounded quite intuitive to the audience seated in that conference hall, but it further highlighted how often we have overestimated the levels of psychological awareness among the general population, and especially many of our leaders. Do they understand the consequences and manifestations of anger, anxiety, self-worth and dignity? Do they understand projections and social psychological dynamics of belonging? Have they prepared themselves to avoid capitalising on in-group/out-group dynamics? Do they know what to do to heal centuries of psychological abuse? Do they understand how scapegoating and blame erodes national trust, and thus our collective relatedness and future? It is highly likely that there are spin-doctor’s, PR professionals, advisors and political heavy weights who know exactly what to exploit in our psychology to gain favour and power; and it’s usually a pivot around fear. So what could the alternative be?

If I were a psychologist as president, I would like to think that I would focus on creating a national sense of belonging and engendering a sense of common identity that is shaped by a compelling and exciting shared view of the future. I would seek the synergies in our diversity and always ask the question – what more can we learn from each other to make us a champion nation? I would focus more on all the behaviours we want repeated over and over again, and pontificate less on what is always right or wrong, and a little more on what is appropriate for the context and the time. I would profess that there are multiple versions of the truth and celebrate the discovery and sharing of what makes each and every person unique, rather than different. I would role model tolerance and demonstrate care. I would communicate by listening, and listening and listening, and in the end I hope I would celebrate the contributions of even my most ardent critics. I would make sure we get things done and put every citizen at the heart of what we do.

What more would you do?

The Pulse of Organisational Development is…

Greetings from a conference venue packed with shiny suits, touch screen displays, overflowing bowls of sweat, and just one big, red and inviting Heartstyles Heart (for those of you that don’t know, this is a character development tool that is currently deepening all the work I do – www.heartstyles.com)

We are exhibiting at this conference for the second time, and I wanted to share the shift in momentum and interest that I have observed from colleagues in the field.  Thus far this conference has been a fascinating check on the pulse of the field of organisational psychology, psychometric assessment, leadership development and coaching, and in the main I have been disappointed. The persistent desire to place an ‘=’ sign against every person and assumption about people, has made the field seem more narrow and irrelevant than ever.

The palpable anxiety around the full human experience has been counter balanced by an obsession with measurement and prediction and the ability to sell anything that ranks, ticks, orders and even condemns people. It was a worthwhile reminder that the field emanated in this country from the mining industry – exploiting resources seems to be in its DNA – and not much seems to have changed.

In this field there seems to be no space for the magical, for the unearthed potential, for curves of growth and learning that shift and meander like all organic things do. There is an avoidance of the blurry and unpredictable expressions and sources of emotion. I also haven’t seen so many black leather jackets in one room since a Michael Jackson ‘Bad’ concert.

But there have been glimmers. As if stumbling across an elephant swimming at sea (that actually did happen recently – but rather go with the metaphor), there has been surprise and intrigue at what we do with Heartstyles. Without fail, each person that hears of our unashamed celebration of humanity and heart in the workplace – grabs an info sheet and leaves me their name wanting to know more. From miners, to retailers, bankers and consultants, they all light up, as if we have given them permission to go with their intuition and embrace what really matters – seeing people as people and allowing them to question the reductionist approach to everything else being peddled in the hall.

Its as if we were permission givers to celebrate potential and humanity within the lines of the balance sheets and organisational organogram. I must say, it felt good, and we seemed more relevant than ever!

 

 

The Coach and her Porsche

She arrived in a Porsche and wore her status with comfort and celebrity swag.

That was how he described the moment he first noticed her as his small, matchbox-like rental pulled up next to her. To his surprise, he next saw her striding across the conference stage to own the podium.

‘She was a coach!’ he exclaimed. At this point the professor lifted his eyebrows close to his hair line and dropped his mouth so deep he almost swallowed his chin. I have become used to that sequence of facial expressions when it comes to coaching and Psychologists. It’s controversial but I am not that interested in the petty turf wars.

It seems the Prof was most affronted by the idea that coaches speak so openly about their ROI – evidently the topic of Porsche lady’s conference key note.  As a Clinical and Organisational Psychology Professor, he was challenged by the ease with which some coaches even believe they could ascribe their efficacy to themselves. And then the pearls came.

According to his understanding of the research, the personal attributes of an individual counselor, therapist or coach in defining the outcomes of a process are have less impact than the context, environment, life stage, clarity of need, desire, motivation levels and quality of rapport and and and. With that in mind, how could a coach or therapist claim an ROI that links directly to their inputs and efforts? Especially because it seems more external variables are to be considered. As a result sometimes poor coaches achieve success and great coaches seem to fail. So let’s focus on one aspect of the coaching relationship – Rapport.

I call it ‘Temporary Accelerated Trust’, and here are the facts. When time is invested in genuine rapport building (note it says ‘Genuine’) confessions and admissions of culpability among suspected terrorists were four times more likely than in low or no rapport engagements. Criminal detainees were also 14 times more likely to disclose information earlier in an interview, with 50% providing some self-incriminating statements and approximately one quarter of the detainees fully disclosing their guilt. From the realm of Terrorists and Criminals, rapport is basically the essential ingredient. It could be that the ability of a coach to build rapport, drives success more than anything else, and that without any training, an individual who can build rapport might out perform a qualified coach who can’t.  Could it be that the ability to listen, match and mirror, to be warm and quickly find common ground matters most?

That type of research should build humility, and I think it is all important – the training, the attributes, the context etc. The more we understand all these influences the more skilfully we can navigate the engagement.

In time, I believe the fields of Psychology and Coaching will converge, and those that can provide support towards sustainable and observable behaviour change will claim their relevance in organisations. We may also extend our definition of ROI and focus it on human to human engagements that supports functionality and effectiveness, care and kindness and all those inherently human qualities that we see too little of in today’s world.

If that is what coaching can offer the world, then each coach deserves to drive a Porsche and own center stage.

We trust behaviours more than intent!

‘Trust me, it will all be OK.’

‘Trust me, my intentions are good.’

‘Trust me, just trust me’

Usually all said with a glint in the eye and a warm, nodding smile.

It seems trust is preoccupying not only my thoughts but my work too. Trust me, it must be important then (I write that with a grin).

Interesting how often we use the word, and yet may not fully understand what it means.

A cohort of leaders with whom I have worked for a number of years were recently discussing a series of events that transpired at a work function. The leader decided to take the management team to a fancy restaurant to celebrate recent results. Some team members made the most of the occasion with a bottle or three of wine. Others expressed their concern that those behaviours were not consistent with the values of the business, and set an inappropriate example. In my presence the conversation simmered, and both sides gathered their support. It was becoming real and dropping to the level of depth and insight that the team needed to explore (Trust and Conflict require attention in that team).

The leader then dropped the mute bomb, ‘You just have to trust my intentions’. Silence.

That was followed by a stern rebuke ‘We need to be careful about the perceptions we have about behaviour and rather focus on the facts about the behaviour.’

For a few moments I was impressed and genuinely beguiled by the seemingly coherent jumble of big words.  Then confusion. So what was he saying?

Partly I heard blame for something that someone did wrong. Maybe that impression came from the stare he aimed at the person who started the debate.

I basically heard him state that his intent should ‘just be trusted’ because it was more representative of the truth. And that is what made no sense because the assumptions we make about someone’s behaviour IS our truth, and the only way to shift that perception is to change the behaviour, or seek to understand directly from that person what their behaviour was intended to communicate. Boom.

My interpretation (maybe cynical but I believe well informed), is that he wanted the group to always give him the benefit of the doubt without having actually earned that right. That was a big mistake because it immediately closed any further conversations about the various perceptions and assumptions that his behaviours created. No matter what others may interpret from the behaviour, he expects everyone to assume positive intent. La la land theme song.

And then to the blame. Do you know that over 90% of all managers believe that a blame culture is the greatest destroyer of trust? What they mean is that when there is an error, a mistake or a less than desired outcome, if a leader hones in and loads blame onto an individual only, it sends tectonic reverberations through an organisation. Trust shatters.

In contrast, the leader who chooses to explore all the conditions that enabled the mistake or failure, starting systemically and ending with the individual, is likely to solve the causes and bolster trust.

To summarise. I won’t just trust you because you say so. I will have no idea what your intentions are unless you tell me, and in the absence of that, I will interpret your intentions through your behaviours and habits. As much as you might want me to trust your intent, your behaviour matters more, and leaks your true intent. And finally, when you single out individuals as the primary cause of discontent, I trust your judgement even less.

Here is a tip.

Be consistent and demonstrate your intent through your actions. Seek causes for what goes wrong from all the places where it might have started and depersonalise your perspective with curiosity and not blame.

Then, and only then, may I trust you.

Do we really know enough about People to develop them?

I froze. My cardboard coffee cup hung, mid-sip from my lips. The electric black and red slide projected across the whiteboard, drew all my attention. It was slick, the font slammed the desk with authority and the silky smooth tones of the presenters lured me in. Then panic. I was presenting next, and my attempt at answering the brief was, well…brief. The show continued with text books worth of frameworks and warm and fuzzy data. Confidence oozed across the boardroom table, and even I, sitting in my spot on the edge of the furthest bend from the screen, felt awed and intimidated. Had I got the brief so wrong? Had I finally been exposed as the imposter in the room?

It ended. And we all breathed.

Our eyes turned to the professor, sitting with a quizzical frown in the corner of the room. His leather jacket’s high collar hugged his neck, and took a decade off him.  His eyes squeezed like a finger on a trigger and then boom!

The question that followed shattered all the gloss off that porcelain presentation.

‘So where is Psychology in that impressive Industrial Psychology show?’

With the melting speed of butter in a pan, the snappy statements and bold predictions of success disappeared in confusion and concern. The presenters slumped.

‘huh?’

‘You are Psychologists’ continued the cool academic, ‘so where in this presentation have you formulated a psychological perspective on the case study? All I see is an HR diploma, masquerading as an Industrial Psychologist, and pulling random frameworks and processes into a series of phrases and expected outcomes. It’s coherent, but makes no sense.’

The room went silent. I smiled on the inside, more out of relief than arrogance.

My training in Clinical Psychology was finally going to be relevant. I had begun to develop an aversion to the constant shrug of my shoulders and shake of my head when asked whether I knew that model or that framework in Industrial and Organisational Psychology speak.

The Professor continued.

‘If you cannot have a layered view on the psychological impact on people, real humans, then what is your role in organisations?’

The debate flowed, and what ensued was a startling series of admission and discoveries.

The long and short of it, is that too many people in HR and Industrial and Organisational Psychology, are under-equipped and unsure of their knowledge of Psychology and behaviour. They seem to evade emotion, and grasp for two dimensional processes, maps and diagrams to order their anxiety. The nett effect is the following:

  1. Too little enquiry and robust exploration of the ‘real’ brief. Often times just taking issues at face value.
  2. An uncertainty about psychological theory and evidence to frame their understanding of what drives behaviour.
  3. The development of a transactional relationship with leaders and leadership teams that reinforces a deterministic view on people and which makes it seem as if all people can be shaped, pushed and prodded through a process to change. Box ticked.

There is more, but in essence, I have learnt one key lesson. For too long I have steered people away from knowing that I am a Psychologist. I imagined people would recoil at the news. To be fair, at times they did, but if my world is focused on supporting individuals and teams to choose alternative behaviours that drive higher levels of effectiveness, then I had better understand emotion, cognition, habit, mental models, neuroscience, the mind, dysfunction, defence mechanisms, health and more. Without understanding that, it seems unlikely much will change.

The way things stand (this is going to sound harsh) many practitioners in the people field, do not understand people that well at all. They do know a lot, and intuitive feel and perception counts, but in many cases they are like computer hardware technicians, trying to work with the operating software. They experiment and fumble from button to button, and then we wonder why things change but stay the same, or why the profession is viewed with scepticism and low credibility.

It’s time to claim Psychology, and a deeper, informed understanding of people, as our primary differentiator in the people development game.

As the Prof kept asking with a smile ‘What is your psychological perspective?’

The Science of Trust – Part 2

A client of mine; an esteemed, silver-haired hotelier; once told me the secret to his success. He didn’t quite put it that way, but his message suggested as much. He proudly claimed that mastering the black and white aspects of service enabled comfort in the grey and that service excellence to humans was all hidden there. I liked that, but haven’t necessarily applied it to many aspects of my work.

In a field that seems fogged up in grey, I tend towards the black and white, often to further my legitimacy. Problem is, I often begin to believe my simplistic view of the world.

Let’s look at the idea of trust as an example of extraordinary colour that sits within the grey. This is a post aimed at me.

When you dip into the literature, Trust becomes a suitably complex topic of review, and superbly grey. Here are a few examples of what I mean.

Perspective 1: Some articles describe a clear difference between trust and distrust and although you might think they are opposites, some theorists don’t see them as opposite ends of a continuum. In fact, both trust and distrust are seen to be positive and negative. For example, high levels of trust may lead to group think which may lead to the exclusion of difference and thus potentially lead to unethical practices and discrimination. That is pretty negative. It is also important to admit that it is distrust on the other hand that drives processes, systems and structure. That could be seen as quite positive.

Perspective 2: Other research proposes that there are 4 co-existing reference points of trust. On the one end, High Trust which is defined by hope, faith, confidence, assurance and initiative, and on the other end Low Trust which is represented by no hope, no faith, no confidence, passivity and hesitance. Then there is Low Distrust which is defined by no fear, the absence of skepticism, the absence of cynicism, low monitoring and non-vigilance, and High Distrust which includes fear, skepticism, cynicism, wariness, watchfulness and vigilance. Mmmm.

Perspective 3: Trust can be divided into two types – Affective Trust and Cognitive Trust. The first is focused on an emotional state and connection with others, whilst the other is focused on competence and capability. These types of trust can be distinct from each other, and so we could have a high level of Cognitive Trust, but a low level of Affective Trust, and vice versa. More grey. I love it.

It may be too much grey for me to make sense of. On one level I get it, it’s actually all saying the same thing, but on another level, what I am beginning to appreciate is that a black and white view of what trust is, may be too narrow.

So what does that all mean? Well, it is all very valuable, and I have to ask myself how this all fits with my evolving thinking on the building blocks of trust, especially in teams.

Perspective 4:

1. Be reliable, do what you said you would, be on time, deliver, just be plain old boring and dependable. This is a powerful trust builder.

2. Be Honest – or as I often say ‘Appropriately honest’, and more significantly don’t be dishonest.

3. Keep as many of the Background Conversations, or and chit chat into the Foreground. Involve the people you are talking about, speak up when the time is right and don’t break away into reckless corridor and side conversations.

4. If you master the first three right, then you might have earned the right to some Vulnerability. This doesn’t come first as many team builders would like you to think.

Get these all right and I believe you will build a high trust, low distrust relationship that is comfortable with the positive contributions of Distrust and cautious of the blind spots of Trust; and enhances Affective and Cognitive Trust.

Shew…

The Science of Trust – Part 1

Last week a CEO asked me ‘if anything had really changed in the people development space over the past 15 years?’

The declining angle of his eyebrows and gaze gave away his real question ‘is there anything that you could tell me, that I don’t already know?’

I love a challenge.

I responded with deep knowing in my belly and firmly stated that the answer was most certainly ‘No!’

He smiled.

‘So what can you tell me about all the things that haven’t changed?’ he asked.

Again, the smirk in his tilting lips masked the real question ‘So why have we not mastered all the basics we have known for so long?’

Again, as if spurred by a rush of adrenaline, I boldly stated ‘in the end, it will always be about relationships, and the pivot of Trust that they are built on. We simply continue to struggle marrying the demands of our work with the sensitivity of nurturing lasting connection’.

For an accountant in a global fund management business, he unexpectedly nodded his head in sage like agreement.

I think I passed.

There is a common thread to this conversation that I regularly have in boardrooms.  All the teams that I work with want to master relationships. They seek to understand the meaning of trust, what it is, how to build it and what to focus on to be more deliberate about it. It’s so fundamental to all relationships and yet we don’t always understand how to build, guard and shape it.

How do you understand the fundamentals of Trust?

The silent majority may rule

‘It would never happen’ is what they said. They laughed and ridiculed. ‘

Too much is at stake’ they warned. ‘We would wind back the clock,’ they guffawed.

‘Surely not!’ they protested.

And then it happened, exactly what shouldn’t have, and we all had to face the fact that there was a majority of people who remained silent for most of the time, until it actually counted. Literally.

How did we miss that, and was it possible that the turmoil and uncertainty that has plagued society ever since, could have been avoided?

To many the answer is simple, just reverse the Trump and Brexit effect, and we go back to a world in order, with predictability and altogether simpler.

I think not.

These rifts have always been there, dormant and hidden in the hearts and minds of large majorities of people. With lip biting and behind-closed-door-rantings, those sentiments have been alive and yet ignored, and wished away as a minority view. The facts now tell a different story.

I am as fascinated about how the world will respond to this, as I am to reflect on what this dynamic might tell us about the silent majority in organisations. I am not that interested to know who supports which political point of view, but am curious to understand how a dominant view or status quo, might make it ill advised, uncomfortable and difficult for people to express alternative thoughts and narratives. What may be even more relevant to organisations that attempt to perform and execute on their strategy and mandate, is how this silent majority might enact their point of view. If they can’t say it, how will they behave it? Will they do it overtly or without obvious detection?  Equally, how will the holders of the dominant view, possibly the few who hold the most power, respond? At what point might it be too late to arrest a significant rift?

It strikes me that people remain silent for a couple of reasons. Either they wish to protect a secret thought or idea, or no one is listening. My sense is the silent majority might fall into both camps, and so here are a few questions to ponder:

  • What does this mean for leaders in a volatile and ambiguous world?
  • How do leaders of a dominant view allow alternative perspectives in without judgement and exclusion?
  • How do they enhance their depth of listening, to read more than just words?
  • How well do leaders understand the deeper psychological dynamics of change, and threat and survival?
  • How can leaders hold the tension between multiple views of the truth?

In my observations, leaders who are most tuned into their own psychological blueprint and who understand why they behave the way they do, are best equipped to have empathy and curiosity towards those that may sit in the silent majority. They feel less threatened by multiple interpretations of the truth and are not easily shaken by the opposing views to their own. They lean towards the unspoken and taboo, and invite it in to be named and explored. In short, they confront reality, and with that as their foundation see more of what is, rather than what they wish it to be.

That seems to be a critical condition for success.

How Cultural Rift can tank your business

Here’s a story about the relationship between a small office and its head office. It is inspired by true events and triggered by the insights from an article on ‘cultural rift’.

There was once a successful people development business that had an impressive reputation in its market. It attracted national clients and thereafter a pool of highly skilled facilitators and coaches. Soon, international corporations came knocking. Those were the good days and they lasted over a decade. To spur further growth, the shareholders decided to open an office in another city. It was a different market place, much slower, more loyal to its incumbent suppliers and rather indecisive. An influential pool of high caliber coaches and facilitators chose to live there too, and this new office became their home. Penetration into the new market was initially slow, but with the credibility of the brand and people associated to it, growth became rampant. The economy was being battered by head winds, but the new office endured. It should have been a happier time, but it wasn’t because a rift began to emerge between the two offices. Animosity and friction escalated. The primary source of conflict was a perceived mismatch of values. The home base valued business performance, profitability and sustainable processes, while the newer office valued innovation, deeper relationships and the community of people that served the brand. These didn’t have to be mutually exclusive, but they became barriers to harmony and synergy, and after five solid years, it fractured the business. The exodus of key people followed. It became nasty and personal. An unfortunate end.

It turns out that this sequence of events is quite common. In fact, it should be something all organisations seek to understand and navigate. In effect, each organisation has a dominant culture that holds within it numerous subcultures. These subcultures are created by variances in leadership styles, functions and geography. They are normal and inevitable.  They can offer many advantages to an organisation if they are considered as a valuable component of the whole. However, if these variances are seen as counter culture or as a threat, then a destructive, downward spiral follows.  The first signs of a cultural rift include a shift in the sentiment among employees of the sub culture who begin to feel unwelcome and without a sense of belonging. A demanding and domineering primary culture will attempt to force control and hierarchy. Resistance from the subculture follows.

If however these variances are embraced as potential contributors to a new organisational future, or seen as a more diverse set of identities, then numerous benefits are proven to be the result. Research bears this out.

If only the Head Office had embraced the diversity, innovation and community of its offshoot, and the newer office in turn had appreciated the rigour, structure and safety of a guiding and solid hand, then these supposed irreconcilable differences could have been drivers of exciting opportunities. Too often, due to ignorance, these cultural variances are viewed as rifts, rather than exciting sources of creativity and emerging future relevance.