Please pardon my inattention to my blog. I have been writing elsewhere: a book of 34 short personal meditations side by side with photograpshs. It will be available as a free download here within a couple of weeks.
If you like, you can listen to me read the following post.
This morning I am thinking about leading work. As in, getting things done, delivering products, attending to the organization of tasks, their assignment, prioritization, scheduling, and delegation — and how this often is such a major contrast to “process work,” which is about how this work is personally led, others’ engagement and their own leadership, the capacities of people in groups to collaborate.
It is true that process-oriented folks, who naturally want to create a sense of shared ownership for the work, may sometimes have a very hard time understanding the outcome-based urgency of enterprise leaders who personally feel the responsibility and the pressure for deliverables. But surely there is a balance, and this thought can refine our understanding: there are the tasks, and there is the work that enables effective completion of the tasks. Outcomes and process are complementary by nature, but sometimes fight with one another — at least they fight in peoples’ minds. For example, there are plenty of organizations (in some of which I’ve tried to consult) where managers set absurd deadlines, literally pitting teams against one another and essentially trying to work people to death. Turnover may be high, but if enough money is there in the short-term enough people will stay long enough to be useful. On the other side are organizations that could definitely get more done if they were clearer and more communicative about expectations and consequences. In these organizations there is often a sense of entitlement and maybe nostalgia for “the way things used to be, when we were a family.” The choice of which way to go is a leadership choice that inevitably influences enterprise culture. And the point is that in both cases the process side is very weak. Killing people with unrealistic demands or creating a “soft” environment with no defined expectations are generally evidence that leadership is frightened of process, because process demands reflection, and reflection requires insight into one’s personal role in organizational effectiveness. There are a million variations on this theme, from the leader who seems to be friendly but is actually angry about others’ lack of performance, to the leader who abdicates all responsibility in favor of turning over the work to a team that now has the responsibility but, frustratingly, none of the authority. We create mazes for people and wonder why they aren’t performing as we would like. Out come carrots, sticks, and many forms of indirection, all tools that separate us from one another, and therefore deplete true effectiveness.
The antidote, it seems to me is in being realistic and clear about expectations but also being deeply supportive in terms of development. There can be goals for the work (e.g., executing such-and-such strategic initiative by year end), and there also can be goals for individual and team development (e.g., developing better interpersonal skills; improving team decision-making). But to get to the development objectives requires also that we overcome the sense of threat from leaving the comfort of immediate task orientation. You know you are in the midst of that threat when there is never time for the process of leader development or leaders complain they don’t have the skills to do it.
The mode I prefer in working with teams is this: we are not doing “team-building.” What we are doing is linking personal and team development to the accomplishment of specific objectives. If, for example, you have a team of people who want to save the world, then each of those folks will play a certain role in doing so — these are the tasks — but each also carries around personal “stuff” that stands to undermine the person’s capacity to accomplish their tasks. It’s possible to go very deep when working on this stuff for each person, and generally speaking, the deeper, the better. Not long ago, for instance, I was co-leading a workshop in which one of the people talked about her hesitancy to intervene in tough performance situations. As she unraveled the meaning of her hesitancy she related how at a former workplace she had been assaulted during an overnight retreat by a drunken male co-worker. This had been an incredibly traumatic experience for her, since she knew the man and had valued him as a colleague. Of course, there was an investigation and punitive action was taken against the offender, but later she became the target of ongoing blame from co-workers, as if the assault had been her fault. Blaming the victim is nothing new in sexual harassment situations, and for her the high-integrity response was simply to leave a job and a work environment she had loved. Her honest disclosure of the past at the workshop and new understanding of why she might be hesitant to take on conflict situations where blaming could occur was liberating both for her and the other workshop participants. They, of course, were completely supportive of her growth. She began to think about how to separate the realities of managing others from the realities of her own experiences.
It is true that without the right preparation and environment, expressions of this kind can be threatening. One person’s stuff calls up another person’s stuff, and for leaders who have not done their reflective work, or simply are very private about it, such encounters can be a little destabilizing. That’s a safety issue, and requires facilitation and positive leadership to create the best context. However, when the safety is present, wonderful learning can happen. I recall another group learning situation in which one of the members, a high-ranking person in the organization, shared that he had trouble dealing with employees who were “verbally faster than I am.” Once he expressed this, others in the group, his peers, shared their own fears about these situations, and together they were able to brainstorm some possible approaches. What a delight it was to watch this learning process unfold, based on the willingness to disclose and to be temporarily vulnerable. Such processes bring people together in community without focusing on building community itself. They free people from the stuff that is hanging them up so that they take on tasks with a sense that they are not alone and isolated, that help is always available. They own themselves and their work in new ways and increase their sense of personal power. They stop competing for credibility and stop worrying about being embarrassed or humiliated. They begin to see one another as fundamentally trust-worthy. And trust, because it is essential to liberation, leads to higher levels of performance. The whole process, it seems to me, overcomes a dominant theme in our American organizations, which is leader as “outcast.” The antidote for all of us is understanding that our self-proclaimed wounds and insecurities at bottom are our critical fictions, are stories we have created for ourselves about ourselves. Discovering their fundamental untruth, like being to blame for harassment, or having to be faster than one’s employees verbally, returns us through freedom to our own wholeness, and wholeness ultimately is what gets the job done.
And, yes, this does take time. Just as it takes money to make money, it takes time in process to create “the time” for completing the tasks. The reason this is so is that there is often plenty of time, but none of it devoted to the right tasks because these tasks call up the inner work that is being avoided.
This, to me, is fundamentally the leadership vocation called driving fear out of the workplace, this willingness to reach into ourselves for leadership growth in community with others. It is not a simple equation, but it’s a pretty darned good one. There’s a Greek aphorism that goes like this: “The fox has many tricks. The hedgehog has just one — one good one.” Well, I’m with the hedgehog.