Friday, October 28, 2016

Zen and the Art of Culture Change: No Ship. No Bottle. No Problem.

I recently attended Human Synergistics’ 2nd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference in San Francisco. The presenters were professors, HR leaders, OD consultants, as well as CEOs and operating leaders.

Corporate culture was presented and discussed from all angles:  what it is, how to measure it, how to change it, how to keep it aligned whether you are in a start-up, in high-growth mode, or retrenching.

For my money, the highlights of the conference were the opening and closing presentations by Dr. Ed Schein.  Maybe this is not surprising as he, literally, wrote the book on topic of this conference.  Schein’s Organizational Culture and Leadership was originally published in 1985 and is on its 5th edition.  Someone actively researching an issue for so long is bound to have some of the best insights.

With the recent financial industry scandals as a kind of backdrop, all the presenters were clear:  culture matters.  But it is also a hard construct to define, hard to measure, and hard to successfully intervene on.  Dr. Schein captured this feeling best when he said, “Organizational culture is a bottomless pit of questions and problems.” 

Schein’s statement, which got a great laugh from the audience, reminded me of a famous quote:   “When I hear the word culture, I release the safety on my Browning!”

When I hear the word culture, I release the safety on my Browning!
~Hanns Johst~

Though the culture referred to in this quote had to do with arts, letters, and scholarly pursuits, I am sure many who deal with organizational culture can relate to this feeling.

Now why is culture a bottomless pit of questions and problems?   It probably starts with how difficult it is to define.  The presenters talked about culture as seemingly any and everything from a kind of organizational personality, to a set of aspirational operating principles, to something that can be graphed.

Dr. Schein clearly shares in the frustration:  “I have no patience for words that don’t mean anything.”  Though he wasn’t referring at the time to culture per se and though he wrote an entire book about culture, I got the sense, especially in light of some of his follow-up statements that culture is probably one of those words he doesn’t have much patience with anymore.

Until I came to IBM, I probably would have told you that culture was just one among several important elements in any organization's makeup and success — along with vision, strategy, marketing, financials, and the like... I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn't just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.
Lou Gerstner, Former CEO IBM
Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance

As the Gerstner quote captures, culture is something we have to pay attention to…but it still poses a quagmire of challenges.  What are executives and practitioners to do? 

Dr. Schein didn’t leave us twisting in the wind.  He shined a light on a clear path out of the briar patch. His sagacious advice was to have conversations without using the word culture and without referring to culture problems. 
Here is how:  start by being very specific about the organizational problem, defined in terms of KPIs, that needs to be addressed:  what employee, customer, or shareholder outcome is not where it needs to be?
Once the problem is specifically defined, ask, what behaviors, present or absent, are contributing directly to this problem?  Or, alternatively, what behaviors or lack thereof are preventing us from addressing the problem?  What behaviors would allow us to solve the problem?
Schein went on, “When you know what you want to quantify and why, the role of measurement in support of your intervention efforts become bell clear.” For those keeping score at home, this is a real win as bell-like clarity is rare in the area of corporate culture.

Before giving my take on the importance of Schein’s recommendations, please allow me a brief aside.
I had the great good fortune of earning my black belt in Aikido from Sensei William Gleason in Boston.  Aikido often presents its practitioners with an interesting conundrum:  How do you defend yourself against the strikes, grabs, and attacks of someone bigger and stronger than you?
Aikido is not Judo and Sensei Gleason would constantly implore us:  “Don’t try to move the man [attacker].  Move yourself.”  When bigger and stronger guys attacked him, he “moved himself” and they ended up airborne like tossed rag dolls.  As he was launching these bigger guys, he would often be smiling and reciting one of his favorite Zen koan-like metaphors: “How do you get the ship out of the bottle?  No ship.  No bottle.  No problem.”

“No ship.  No bottle.  No problem.”  ~Sensei William Gleason~

Here is my take on what Dr. Schein’s was saying:   You don’t start with culture.  You don’t want culture definition, culture measurement or culture change for the sake of themselves. 

You start with the Why.  What is the output related problem the business needs to solve? If you determine that the culture of the organization may be contributing to the problem, then the culture needs to change.  But, and this is key, you don’t change that culture by first trying to defining it broadly and measuring it broadly. 
Why?  Because you don’t need to:  No ship.  No bottle.  No problem.

If you have to change the culture, you change it by narrowly focusing on changing the behaviors of the leaders that are affecting key organizational outcomes.

Why is this better?   First, strategically, it is linked to outcomes.  You are connecting a behavior that needs to change to an outcome the organization has to achieve.  Change efforts can easily run out of gas when they are not connected to big, important corporate objectives.  Starting with outcomes obviates that.

Second, with this approach you’re as focused as a fighter pilot.  You are only trying to increase or eliminate a handful of behaviors.
Finally, while you can’t see culture, you can see behaviors.  Because we can see them, we can define them.  And if there is something we can clearly define, we can easily measure and intervene at the behavioral level.

I am guessing Dr. Schein’s stone-simple approach probably forced a few people to recalibrate their approaches, but just to make sure he closed with this squib:  “Change agents who think corporate culture change is hard might be doing it wrong.” 

That remark got a big laugh too, but the peals of laughter here had a more nervous, I-resemble-that-remark, quality.

If you are like me, you might be left scratching your head a bit about these two comments by Dr. Schein that caused all the laughter.  On the one hand culture is “a bottomless pit of questions and problems.”  On the other, if you think this is hard, you “might be doing it wrong,” which makes culture change seem like not such a problem.  
Aren’t these two ideas, juxtaposed, a little paradoxical?

Maybe.  But maybe too they’re just the sound of one hand clapping.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Downside of High EQ: Where is the handle of Your Psychic House?

Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner. ~ Lao Tzu ~
There is no denying that the world could use a booster shot of Emotional Intelligence (EQ). All of us having more ability to read the emotional states of others, more awareness of our own inner states, more awareness of how our behavior is viewed by and affects others, more emotional fluidity...please...bring it on!

High EQ sounds really good. But the way things seem to work in this world is that assets are always offset by liabilities in some form. What could possibly be the liability of high EQ?
EQ is a multifaceted capability. Oversimplifying it, there is a "self" dimension and an "other" dimension.

The self dimension includes abilities such as being aware of and able to report on one's own emotional states, the ability to compartmentalize emotions to maintain focus and equilibrium when needed, the ability to move fluidly between emotional states, etc.

A big part of the "other" dimension includes being sensitive to and aware of others' emotional states, being able to read facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice
Moreover, people with high EQ on the "other" dimension seem to be not only sensitive to but genuinely curious and interested in the feelings and states of those around them. High "other" EQ also includes understanding how one is seen and experienced by those around you.

If the self and other dimensions are both high and balanced, there will probably be few problems. But if one dimension is too strong relative to the other, that is where troubles can form.

For example, someone who is able to compartmentalize their emotions well, but is less equipped to read and interpret the feelings of others, should not be surprised to get the "tone deaf" label in their 360 feedback report. Moreover, that ability to "push through" despite the feedback and feelings around them can foment resistance and, in the extreme, some form of backlash.

What about an imbalance in the other direction? What if you're highly tuned into the needs and feelings of others, but unable to compartmentalize in order to maintain an even keel?

If you're like this, when the environment and those around you don't align to your needs and expectations, you can get judo-thrown by your own reactions, emotions...left bloodied by an attack of of your own Inner Critic. It is often the case that the external feedback wasn't even that bad. It is what was done with that stimuli internally that caused the real problems...the proverbial "inside" job.

Someone highly attuned the reactions of others that lives/works in an environment short on positive support should know they are living near the edge. On any given day or at any given moment, you can't count on how you are going to feel about yourself and how you will perform. This is because your inner world view is highly dependent on the people and environment around you. You've effectively outsourced your well-being, equilibrium and confidence into the hands a minimum...unreliable, but worse often vagarious...“others.” 
I tell my clients with this issue that if they want to stop living on the edge, they have to get the handle of their psychic houses on the inside.
I tell my clients with this issue that if they want to stop living on the edge they have to get the handle of their psychic house on the inside. When the handle is on the inside, Life/the environment/someone cannot just metaphorically whip open the door to your head and heart and, through what they say or do or don't say or don't do or what happens or doesn't happen, affect how you feel about yourself.
When the handle is on the inside, external circumstances and others have less influence over your mood, your confidence, your sense of self-worth. You control when you open that door and what feedback gets in. You make sure it gets processed in a more measured way so it can be integrated as opposed to overwhelming you.

How do you get the handle of your psychic house on the inside and give yourself more ballast? There are two key strategies, both very effective, but very different from each other.

The first starts with just recognizing that you have this tendency. You know you can get whipsawed by external events and you take steps to prepare. Forewarned is forearmed as it were.

The late Muhammad Ali used to say that he would never get knocked out by a punch he saw coming: he could turn his head to take enough off it that it would not knock him out.

Strange as it sounds, that's your objective too: to not get knocked out by punches you see coming. Muhammad Ali was ducking punches thrown by someone else. Most of the punches you're ducking are being thrown by your Inner Critic. And by now, no one should know better than you that your Inner Critic has a wicked right.
And by now, no one should know better than you that your Inner Critic has a wicked right.
There are a range of options here for staying on your feet. Steps such as shifting your focus to what you want to learn as a result of, for example, putting hours into writing a report vs. doing it for an "atta boy" that may never come... following your thoughts more closely and developing strategies to break-set when particular self-talk starts to spiral...maintaining daily practices that help you find and tap into your own, self-referenced power...are all efficacious countermeasures.

The second strategy for getting the handle of your psychic house on the inside is to shift your focus to a bigger game. Here the counsel is to develop a larger mission and a vision for that mission...for your department, for your team, for yourself. With your mind and heart on bigger objectives, some less than stellar feedback about a presentation or some offhand comments don't have that destabilizing effect.

Living in Silicon Valley, I work with a lot of entrepreneurs. Everywhere you turn in their start-ups, there seem to be problems as far as the eye can see. I never ceased to be amazed at how, founders especially, seem to look right past them. Asked about it, the responses seem to center around keeping the focus on a preferred future...a down-the-road version of the company that does not have these problems.

Yes, you could call this a form of compartmentalization, referenced previously as a key element of EQ. But it is compartmentalization, not as a strategy or means of its own, but as a byproduct of focusing on a bigger game and not losing that focus when the results are not what you had hoped.

This is part of what I imagine enabled Martin Luther King, in the face of blinding prejudice and horrific acts of racism to see a brighter future and reiterate the phrase "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice," versus being completely broken by the continuous stream of injustices all around him.

So yes, more EQ. But also mindful of the equilibrium between the self and other dimensions of it. Moving the handle of your psychic house to the inside through the two strategies outlined here is a way to address that equilibrium.

Wells Fargo and the Avalanche

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. Stanislaw Jerezy Lec
The recent story about the fraud committed by Wells Fargo employees caught my eye.

According to the story over 2MM unauthorized credit card transactions and openings of checking and savings accounts occurred, all unbeknownst to its customers.

Wells Fargo's criminal activity does not interest me. Fraud in the financial services industry today is like mass shootings: both are so frequent, it is hard not to become inured.

The woman who headed the unit responsible for the fraud, Ms Carrie Tolstedt, recently announced her retirement and is walking away with a package estimated to be close to $125MM.

That doesn't interest me either. CEOs committing crimes, defrauding investors, mismanaging resources and walking away with millions...prosaic actually.

I'm a management consultant. What caught my eye is the statements issued by Wells Fargo and made by their CEO, John Stumpf, indicating that the problem rested solely with the employees involved in the illegal activity ("bad actors" in the vernacular) and further stating, categorically, that they do not have a culture problem at Wells Fargo.

Uh, Mr. Stumpf...yes you do.

When thousands of employees cheat hundreds of thousands of customers and make millions of dollars doing it, you have a culture problem.

When the leader of the unit responsible for these illegal activities 1) receives roughly $ annual pay...for the five years that preceded the public news of the fraud, 2) is cited in public documents for her "high cross-selling ratios" and 3) is held up as "a standard bearer of our culture" and a "champion for our customers," you have a culture problem.

When a separate class action law suit from some of the former 5000 employees who were fired over the last five years alleges they were fired not for illegal activity, but for not meeting cross-selling goals and for not going along with the "aggressive sales tactics," you have a culture problem.

When a company is caught in flagrante delicto...with its britches around its ankles for the last five years...and issues public statements stating that they do not have a culture problem and that its "entire culture is centered on doing what is right for our customers," you don't have a culture problem, you have a serious culture problem. And the CEO's very response hangs Christmas lights on the underlying reality.
Like the snow coming down the mountain...
That landed on Wounded Knee.
Nobody wants to take the weight...
the responsibility.
Prince (2002) From the song Avalanche on One Nite Alone Solo Piano and Voice [CD]
My friend Diana Chapman has co-authored a book called The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership. If you are interested in leadership, high performing teams, and organizational development/effectiveness, it would be impossible to recommend her book highly enough.

One of the 15 principles is Taking Radical Responsibility. According to Diana, the entire game changes for individuals, couples, teams, and companies when they take...not accept...take responsibility for the situations they find themselves in.

No snowflake in an avalanche is responsible. When a large number of snowflakes land on steep and slippery slopes, avalanches are likely to occur along with the concomitant potential for great destruction. And the steep and slippery slope that caused the avalanche at Wells Fargo is...unequivocally...their corporate culture.

How do you define/create culture? Larry Bossidy the former General Electric executive and former Chairman and CEO of Allied Signal gave the most parsimonious definition of culture I have ever heard: "Culture is the behavior of leaders." Period.

I am sure there is still a lot to sort out about the Wells Fargo story. But five years ago, employees started to get fired for either cheating grandpas and grandmas out of their money (bad news for Wells Fargo...because it means that the management team knew about the behavior for a long time) or for not cheating grandpas and grandmas out of their money (also bad news for Wells Fargo...because that means the management team was essentially incentivizing fraudulent behavior).

You know what happened six years year before Wells Fargo employees started to get fired? John Stumpf became CEO. Coincidence? I say, smart money is on the sidelines.

As night follows day, corporate settlements follow corporate crimes. In this case, Wells Fargo settled for $185MM. Like the boards and management of many companies, they settled to avoid admitting wrong doing, to get the story behind them, and to perhaps avoid criminal prosecution and jail time. CEO Stumpf, so far, has skated away.

But if Mr. Stumpf does not accept responsibility for the culture he helped create...if he and his management team do not have blindingly candid dialogues about what they can learn and how they can grow and change from this...and if they don't use the insights from those conversations to fix what is broken about the culture at Wells Fargo, this will be Mr Stumpf's last management assignment. It may be his last assignment either way.

I'm someone who counsels leaders on how to take the steps needed to help their teams create and sustain long term excellence for all their constituencies. As such, I am a student of leadership behavior, both laudable and deplorable.

What Mr. Stumpf and his team do that interests me.

Your First 90 Days: The Predictable Results from Being "Heads Down"

People say the darnedest things.

When taking a new job, they often tell their friends and family not to expect much of them because they are going to be "heads down for the next 90 days."

Let me get this out of the way:  what a terrible idea that is.

When you take a new job, being heads down is likely to result in not seeing the valuable information that can help you course correct.  Without those course corrections, missteps are also likely and the consequences to your organization and your career can be costly.

I hear you out there, "Dennis, lighten up.   It's just an expression."  But is it?  There is a lot to learn in a new job, often a lot of new people to meet, and sometimes other locations and customers to visit. 

Getting up to speed as quickly as possible requires a big time investment.
Moreover, people are really anxious to impress in a new job.  They are anxious to prove they are dedicated and hard working so they often come in early and stay late.  They also are anxious for some early wins, so again they put in long hours trying to figure out where the leverage is.

There is objectively a lot to learn and do and when combined with people's desire to make a good impression the result is a first 90 days calendar that looks blocked tighter than a Moroccan rug.

Whenever there is the slightest break in the action, say, at an airport waiting for a flight, out comes the phone or iPad to catch up on world news or sports scores or scroll through Facebook so you can live vicariously through people who appear to "have a life."

Where is the time for reflection?  Where is the time to augur the signs and forecast your trajectory?
Would you ever go on a journey to an unfamiliar place and not use your GPS (which is constantly updating your location) or a map or read the signs to determine if you were still on track? You would not.  Further, isn't driving heads down, whether texting or doing something else, causing more accidents now than drunk driving. 

How could anyone think it would be good to be heads down as we navigate new jobs?

Here is a stone simple suggestion with big dividends.  Block at least 30 mins on your calendar every week for your first three months to actually be heads up, looking around to reflect on where you are.  This is 30 mins a week spent, not taking in new information, but reflecting on the information you have already taken in.
This is 30 mins a week spent, not taking in new information, but reflecting on the information you have already taken in.
Here are some questions to guide your reflections:
  1. Where are you vs. the plan you had for your First 90 Days plan? Ooops...if you don't have a 90-day plan, get one.  It may be too late for it to be your first 90-days plan, but it is always a good idea to layout what you want to accomplish in 90-120 day chunks.
  2. Big picture...are you still excited about the opportunity?  If not, you may be in the weeds and not thinking big enough about what is possible.  Beyond sorting through the myriad problems you are facing, sketch out something great that could be possible here.  Don't worry about how to get there, just have an exciting preferred future that you can dream about to help sustain your energy.
  3. What did you learn in the last week that surprised you or seemed inconsistent from what you had thought before you started?  Don't ignore outliers!  Pay attention to surprising results/outcomes or interactions.  In behavioral economics research, it has been shown time and time again  that the best problem solvers are constantly trying to disconfirm their pet theories.  You will increase your chances of doing this if you note those outliers and integrate them into your worldview.
  4. Where does your support seem strongest?  Weakest?  A difficult lesson for many leaders to learn is that what you know and the right answer/direction are often less important than who you know and the answer/direction that you can marshal support for.  This does not have to be the stuff of backroom, political, Game-of-Thrones intrigue.  It can be as innocuous as thinking through all the stakeholders, their needs, and how you plan to influence them.
  5. Self-management:  How well are you managing yourself?  Are you in control of your calendar?   Are you sleeping enough?   Other research has determined that a week of sleeping 4-5 hours a night induces a physical and mental impairment that is the equivalent of a blood alcohol level of 0.1 percent.  In other words, with a week of missing 2-3 hours of sleep per night you are operating legally drunk!  How can this be a good idea, even in the short-term?
  6. Is there anything you are avoiding?  I saved my favorite question for last.  It is completely understandable to look the other way on some things.  It can often be exhausting to face the truth all the time and there are only so many big problems you can tackle at once.  But asking yourself if there is something happening that you "hope goes away" ensures key issues won't slip out of focus.  Smart money says the issue isn't going away on its own and struthious avoidance behavior has a poor track record as a problem solving strategy.
There are more questions, but this is enough to get you started.  This reflection time on "where you are" is absolutely critical when you take a new job.  The probability of and consequences for the organization...and your career...ending up in the ditch are too great.

Since the urgent often seems to have a insidious way of driving out the critical, you many need to get some help here.  Just as Odysseus tied himself to the mast, you may need to get support in the form of a significant other, a trusted colleague or friend, an HR business partner, or an external coach who can help you block out the time and ask some reflective questions.  But find the time you must if you don't want to end up in that dog-pile of other heads down folks.

Feel free to weigh in on the consequences of being head's down, approaches to onboarding, or your own strategies for keeping your head up.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Personal Growth, Velleity, and Playing Bass for the Allman Brothers Band

I am a bit of a logophile.  I subscribe to's Word of the Day because I really enjoy it when I can capture the essence of something with a single word.

That happened for me the other day when's Word of the Day was velleity: a mere wish, unaccompanied by the effort to obtain it. 

This perfectly describes a younger version of me and a probably two decade fantasy of mine to be the bass player for the Allman Brothers, the house band that played in my head throughout college.

For ten of those years, I actually owned a bass but, believe it or not, had no idea how to play it.  I was in college and then a doctoral program and it just was not a priority to learn.  I kept dragging that bass and amp around with me everywhere moved.

After graduate school, my peregrinations took me to Boston and I decided to sit down and have a little talk with that bass.  The conversation was of course with myself...the bass, a mere Wilson the volleyball in the Tom Hanks movie Castaway.

The conversation went something like this:  "I am going to take lessons and practice you every day for six months.  After that, if I still can't play or don't enjoy it, I'm selling ya."

I took those lessons.  I practiced.  And lo and behold, I started to get some traction.  Eventually, I even played in some Jazz and Motown bands. All the while, I continued to harbor the thought about being the Allman Brothers' bass player.

But truth be told, I never practiced enough and was never that good.  Playing bass for the Allman Brothers was a velleity...purely wishful thinking...with no commitment and no real effort behind the thought.

There is nothing wrong with a little woolgathering.  Dreams and fantasies like that are enjoyable to try on...I guess you could call it old school Virtual Reality.

But if you are in the business of helping individuals and organizations change, you have to be on the lookout for it.

As a coach,  I talk to prospective clients about things they want to change or achieve.  The first screen for me is to see if even a velleity is present.  I try to sniff out if there is any desire to change or if they are just contacting me because the think they should or because the organization is raising concerns. Believe it or not, sometimes velleity doesn't even exist.  In those situations, coaching would be a bunch of wasted words.

If there does seem to be at least some desire to change and we both decide to work together, I continue to watch and listen closely to see if I can hear strains of Ramblin' Man playing in the background.  Is the follow through there on the tasks and exercises we talk about? Again, despite paying good money for the help, in many cases, there is not.

Asking clients about what is getting in the way often precipitates a hue and cry about how busy they are.  But a quick review of their calendar finds all kinds of discretionary activities that could have been used for the ostensible objective they say they want to achieve.

The best coaching occurs in the context of a burning desire to fix or achieve something. Further, it does not go on forever.  You get in together.  You work towards the objective.  And you get out.

Coaches are not personal trainers...they aren't there to supply the motivation.  Maybe in short bursts they can provide encouragement and some accountability, but that is not a recipe for successful long term change.  When it feels like you're dragging a piano uphill and are working harder than your client, you have to stand back and assess what is really happening.

But it is even better to try avoid that situation all together.  I've learned to tell prospects who want to change some work related behaviors that if they want me to coach them, there is a prerequisite.  I tell them they are going to have to do a 360 and present a thematic summary of their strengths and weaknesses along with their action plan to all the people who completed the 360 for them. In short, they're going to have to go public.

When what I get back is silence or dissembling, I politely bow out and give them the names of other competent coaches.

But when they agree to it, and take that required step, the changes they seek are accomplished much more quickly and easily.  There are probably many reasons why that is, but one of them is certainly because their volition has reached the level of being willing to make a public commitment about what they want to achieve. As anyone but an English teacher would say, that's not nothin'.

When that willingness to publicly declare is not there, it's gut check time for all involved.  On the other hand, when it is, you should get ready to make hay.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Why More Complaining Might Be Good for You

You've have seen the signs around the office...the word whining or complaining circled with a red slash through it.  The message couldn't be one is interested in whatever is bugging you.

Sometimes the admonitions go further..."Stop complaining and start doing something."  Or "Don't bring me problems without solutions."

And of course there is our actual and the archetypal Mother's favorite:  "If you don't have anything positive to say, then don't say anything at all."

Despite the contempt with which it is viewed, I think complaining gets a bum rap.  As an executive coach, I find myself regularly advising my clients to complain.  In fact, I would guess that giving clients permission to complain is one of the top ways coaches help their clients.

Here are three reasons complaining can be so valuable:

#1 It reveals something you might not have know was there.  We spend a lot of time trying to fit in, be reasonable, see the other side, get along, toe the party line, etc.  So much so that we can easily lose touch with how we really feel about an issue, an interaction, or a course of action.

This is especially true when you are feeling stuck about something, going round and round about what you think is happening or what you need to do. In those situations, there is often "an edge" around and finding a way to go over it invariably leads to insight.

Giving yourself even two your office by yourself or in your say out loud whatever is really on your mind will almost always reveal not only an angle you were not aware of but in some cases a depth of feeling you didn't know existed either.

#2 It gives you a sense of the relative importance of your values.  When you give yourself the freedom to complain, you find out not only what you care about, but what you care most about.  Given everything that is important why is this particular issue standing out at this time for me?

While your concern may not be able to be addressed on the particular issue or situation in front of you, it does allow you to consider other ways you could address the underlying theme you seem to care about.  Did leadership cancel an employee-centered event again due to budget concerns?  How can you organize something for the employees that does not cost as much but still provides something of value to them? 

#3 As a leader, it gives you some insight about the culture of the company or your team.  Letting yourself speak freely reveals what is not being said.  And there is often a reason it is not being said:  the culture/norms are against it.

You might find yourself saying you are sick and tired of how customers are allowed to twist in the wind.  Why isn't that talked about openly?   Maybe a profit focus dominates or the leadership team is made up of "emperors with no clothes" but no one is allowed to say it because of the inevitable blow-back.  This might give you ideas for how to work with others to shift the culture over time or, if that task seems to daunting, ideas about the kind of organization you would be better suited in.

Some Tips on Complaining

So I am recommending you try to complain more. The reaction I usually get from my clients is one of complete shock, accompanied by a nervous but excited laughter.  They often say, "You're kidding.  You want me to what?"  They love this assignment, because no one...ever...invites us to complain.

Given the vitriol that is so much a part of social media, complaining does not seem as if it is anything people need help with.  Nonetheless, consider these recommendations.

First, and of course, I am not recommending that you bend the ear of everyone you meet about your issues.  If you did, it would not take long for them to be complaining about you.  This is something you generally want to do on your own. Often I have my clients do it with me, but if it is an assignment I want them to complete between meetings, I tell them to go someplace where they will not be heard and let it rip.

Second, I always advise them to be completely unreasonable when they are complaining.  In fact, it won't really work unless you allow yourself to really get into the point of whining or maybe even swearing.  You aren't doing those things for the sake of doing them or for affect...after all, you're doing this alone. You are doing whatever you need to do to access the depths of your feelings about what is going on.

Getting unreasonable also helps you figure out what reasonable might look like.  To this end, I sometimes suggest that my clients use their phones to record their jeremiads so they don't have to have some part of their brain paying attention to what they are saying, they can just focus on getting the issues and emotion out.

Finally, it is often helpful to have someone sort through the resulting flotsam with you.  There will be some legitimate issues in there that really should be addressed with an employee or the team or management.  But there will also be some of your hobby horses, punctilios, and pet peeves in there as well.  In the employee kitchen, yes, you wipe the sink and clean up extraordinarily well after yourself.  However, not everyone has your standards on that front and unless you work for Chipotle, I am guessing it is not key your company's success.  You might need to just burn your wood and get over issues like that.

Once the wheat has been separated from the chaff and you have uncovered the depth of your real concerns, the next step will be to figure out what to do about it.  You can google a previous post of mine, Cover the Ground You Stand On:  Getting Clear on Your Position in a Conflict which gives some ideas about what to do with what you learn.

Feel free to complain about this post or anything else in the comments.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Facilitation, Fascism, and the Avoidance of Actual and Metaphorical Fatalities

Many years ago, before I had much experience with facilitation, I remember reading an article on effective facilitation techniques.  I have forgotten the whole thing except for the guidance on how to handle "difficult participants" who take up too much airspace or who won't let go of some point they want to make.  

There was some guidance in the article on paraphrasing the point being made and then something about creating a "parking lot" list for topics that should be discussed after the meeting.  But if that didn't work, the advice was to go over and stand next to the difficult participant and make eye contact as if to say, "You're off topic and ruining the vibe.  Knock it off." By the way, even though I read this article a couple decades ago, a quick search reveals quite similar advice being recommended by
Articles on facilitation are a bit like the instructions the flight attendants provide before you takeoff.  They don't have much to say about smooth flights...they don't suggest stuff to read or how you might want to look out the window at key points during the flight or the best in-flight entertainment to chose.  The instructions primarily center on what to do when things go south... "in the event of a water landing" oxymoron if there ever was one given how different water and land are...and how to deplane using slides, which sounds like it might be fun, but smart money says will be anything but.
I was reading that article, not because I was worried about conversations that might go well.  I was worried about how to handle conversations that get mired or spin out of orbit.  And to my rookie eyes, that looked right:  if there is a disturbance, a couple nudges and then use the bully pulpit to squash it.
Now with years of facilitation experience, I know that article was actually advocating a kind of fascism. The facilitator decides for the group or through some a prioriagreement with the leader or perhaps even the group itself that people behaving in a certain way and/or certain topics are a disturbance to the main agenda and moves to reinstate order. 
When you sign up to be the facilitator of an event, here is a key question to ask the leader:  what do you want facilitated?  Am I facilitating the accomplishment of the agenda or am I facilitating the interaction of the perspectives and polarities of the group to ensure the best decisions are reached in the short-term and ensure the health of the group and the participants in it for the long-term?  
When you sign up to be the facilitator of an event, here is a key question to ask the leader:  what do you want facilitated?  
Said another way, are you signing up to be the leader's police force, ensuring the agenda is adhered to almost no matter what is encountered along the way?  Or are you signing up to help the group and all the sides and perspectives interact with each other, which hopefully won't, but might include scuppering the preset agenda in the service of emerging wisdom and group health?
Before I go on, it sounds like I might be advocating that one is better than another.  I am not.  Both have their place, but it is important that you and the participants are clear about your role.
Also, in the event it sounds as if I might be disparaging the police, I again assure you I am not.  The police in society play a critical and difficult role doing what we ask them to do:  enforce the rules we have created.
Let's focus on that briefly.  When our societal rules are being violated and a real police officer stops you,  she doesn't say, "Do you think this law is serving society as a whole?"   Do you think it might discriminate?" "Do you think it would be better for everyone if there were a different set of laws we lived by?"  They don't discuss and debate societal decisions, they enforce rules.
Enforcing laws is a big part of what we ask our police to do and often what we want our facilitators to do.  We want them to facilitate the accomplishment of the agenda.  The topic on the agenda is important.  We don't have much time for debate other than the merits of the choices.  We believe we simply can't afford to deviate, even if there are consequences.
On the other hand, someone hired to facilitate an interaction of divergent views, would be aware of the ground rules and the agenda, but helping the polarities engage would be a high priority.  A facilitator like this would encourage debate, not try to squash it...encourage dissent, not for the sake of dissent, but so that a decision that best balanced the needs of all the stakeholders could be made in the short term and so that the group stayed healthy and engaged for work and decisions down the road.
A meta-orientation for this kind of facilitation is to never assume you know what decision/outcome is best. This kind of facilitation trusts that lasting benefits emerge for individuals and the whole when all the sides are respected and allowed to interact.   A facilitator like this knows that there is potentially important wisdom in a disturbance, in a point that won't go away, in "difficult participants." 
Consider the decision to launch the Space Shuttle Challenger in freezing temperatures in January 1986.  Armed with data that described the possibility of a catastrophic failure due to the O-rings on the booster rockets hardening at low temperatures, the engineers from NASA's contractor, Morton Thiokol, argued vociferously for hours to delay the launch.  NASA leadership responded with, "I am appalled by your recommendation" and "My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch — next April?"  The relentless pressure from NASA caused Thiokol leadership to "put their management (read as: future revenue) hats on," to overrule their own engineers, and to give NASA to green light to launch. 
A facilitator like this knows that there is potentially important wisdom in a disturbance, in a point that won't go away, in "difficult participants." 
I am guessing the Thiokol engineers were regarded as "difficult participants" by both Thiokol management and NASA leadership. No one stood with them.  No one encouraged them to stick with their counter-to-the-primary-agenda views. Their warnings were a disturbance to the agenda, they were silenced, lives were lost, and it was twenty-two years before a civilian was sent into space.  
I am not saying facilitation would have saved those astronauts and that mission. But I have seen time and time again that encouragement and support for the minority position in a group discussion has a profound effect on the decisions made and on the group itself. (Another post of mine, Women in Leadership:  Not Just Long Overdue, but in the Nick of Time discusses how female leaders are better at creating open environments and engaging disparate views and how important that will be in a world increasing in speed and complexity.)
Even that language..."difficult participant"...should be closely examined. Difficult to whom or to what?   Difficult because it is different from the dominant position of the group/agenda or difficult because it is a good point that we do not know how to deal with and would rather not think about?
Fortunately for all, most group facilitations do not involve life and death decisions.  But make no mistake, consequences derive from how alternative views are handled.  If your views are disrespected or disregarded, what do you think happens to your level of engagement and effort coming out of that meeting?  When you see problems on the horizon next time, are you likely to bring them up?  People rarely die, but energy, spirit, and engagement are routinely killed by unconscious and ineffective facilitation.
People rarely die, but energy, spirit, and engagement are routinely killed by unconscious and ineffective facilitation.
If you are there to ensure the successful accomplishment of the agenda, there is nothing wrong with that.  However, you are the prototypical wolf in sheep's clothing and it is just best to be clear about it with the entire group.  Get the leader to say:   "We know we are stepping on toes.  We know we are ignoring dissenting views.  We know we might be flying blind.  We know we need to dedicate time in the near future to discussing how to avoid having to force things through like this next time.   We are committed to fixing this."  There are no guarantees, but this could help. 
If you are being asked to actually facilitate the interactions of the polarities, then the most important thing you can do is to be the one person in the room who can stand in the middle of the tension and believe in the wisdom of what is trying to emerge.  From there, go way beyond merely recording alternative viewpoints. Actually help those holding the minority position to come out even stronger.  
I can say unequivocally that this will help on multiple levels...seen and unseen.