Archive for April, 2011

Treasures, Anguish & Triumph

April 27, 2011

 

 

“We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.”

Nobel Peace Prize winner, educator, author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel is described as  a “messenger to mankind.” In the preceding excerpt he offers unexpected perspective on talent management. His reflection suggests we might best consider these “assets” one soul at a time.

 Aspirations & Expectations

We live in a competitive global knowledge economy. Knowledge workers are central to this system –   when they soar, their employers can thrive. Both theory and practice recognize that aspirations and expectations of employees are crucial to their productive engagement. Regardless of sector, talent engagement and development are vital features in human capital management.

It is obvious most people work for economic reasons. But, all people have lives with psychological, social, spiritual and physical dimensions. Research indicates that “meaningful work” is highly dependent on the quality of relationships with supervisors and colleagues. When managers use their power to include, enable, challenge and reward they tacitly acknowledge the whole individual. Simple, authentic inquiries about hopes, achievements or risks can build trust. They can also reveal the insights Wiesel mentions.

 Mutual Reliance

In general, most people find satisfaction if their work makes sense and there’s clarity about how success is defined. They also need to understand their responsibilities as part of a larger, cogent scheme. A mutual reliance or interdependence is another aspect of healthy culture and a functional organization. People seek autonomy, complexity and a connection with what they do and results. These conditions and experiences don’t  happen  often enough.

 Soaring Returns

We all have a chance to contribute to a workplace that is meaningful. Discover the treasures, anguish and triumphs of the people you interact with each day. Share some of yours. The effort will yield important returns.

 –Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also n author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See : www.pwkinc.com

Making Progress: Costs and Risks

April 17, 2011

 

Before effective treatments were known for pneumonia and whooping cough, children died frequently in hospital wards. Every morning, hospitalized children would wake and ask about missing  friends: “Where did Charlie go?” The nurses’ common refrain was “He went home.” It was understood that home meant they’d died. The only way to preserve hope was to deny reality.

This poignant story is in Margaret Heffernan’s book, Willful Blindness. Across multiple sectors, cultures, and over time, she provides some thoughtful insights.   

 Shortcuts Are Costly

The Holocaust, Enron and MCI meltdowns, Madoff’s rip-off, Wall Street malfeasance, slavery and the Catholic Church’s sidestep of abusive priests  were all  man-made disasters. Why? Each reflected huge moral shortcuts. Harm was known but many preferred to ignore it. Daring to question an institution or a person can mean a loss of security. It is risk-taking.

 While denial can be a great coping strategy, it ought to be stricken from the quiver of accountable managers and leaders. It makes people and organizations “sick.” It has big costs. If your aim is creating change, there are many “uncomfortable truths” that require attention. To improve organizational performance and support growth, acknowledgement and action are essential.

 Big Progress

Big change can happen. The Marshall Plan is a historical example. It recast a large multi-country region and it’s future through the right work by and with important allies. George Kennan, a diplomat and architect of the Plan wrote about his agony and frustration in this change work. The effort to birth a great and bold plan was very, very difficult.

 More recent examples of important and intentional development efforts are creation of the European Union and reconciliation in South Africa . Step one is a close look at reality —  to understand and define  the current status. Sighting a feasible way forward depends on it. Heffernan writes that “unanimous decisions are incomplete…there is too much power…obedience…and conformity.” She counsels , if just one solution is visible, look again.

 The New Normal & Best Tactics

The high stress created by information overload, an excruciating fast pace, tremendous competition and/or an urgent mission does not excuse distance from moral reflection.  The preceding description of context is the new normal. And, it is present in any workplace or community. An analysis of the perilous implications from past ignorances can inform better tactics. Consider these :

  •  Look for what you cannot see. Many have said we didn’t foresee the catastrophe of 9/11 happening because were  weren’t looking for it. The information about it was present but we didn’t pay attention to it. Intentionally work to distinguish the trivial from the serious.
  •  Trust your intuition. It is well known that one indicator of useful critical thinking is discomfort. Your intuition provides inklings and suspicions – give it credit.
  •  Act sooner rather than later.  Before the stakes get big and stakeholders are deeply invested is the best time to raise questions. A failure to intervene early can feed the momentum of bad choices.

 Look, test, then act. People , organizations, communities  are desperate for leadership. Demonstrating integrity, the courage to meet the demands of reality, is directly connected to effectiveness.  Securing progress and sustainable results means you see both the risks of denial and the power of the truth.

Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See : www.pwkinc.com

See, Speak, Hear No Evil

April 5, 2011

In frustrated whispers we’ve all heard these truthful asides:

“I work in a goat rodeo.” “He simply cannot do the work.”  “The grantees have so few skills…” “This place is in such disarray.”

The facts are many people navigate multiple, parallel realities at work. It’s the reason Dilbert’s cartoons are so popular. So often, they’re accurate. And too often, the social dynamics of inter-personal relationships limit the potential of both individual satisfaction and organizational performance.

 The foibles and follies of dealing with people and their behavioral inconsistencies make our work lives interesting and difficult. In Robert Kurzban’s  new book, Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite, he explains why hypocrisy is the natural state of the human mind. As an evolutionary psychologist, he writes that people have “modular minds,” specialized units in the brain have been designed through natural selection. These units are focused on one outcome: survival.

Parallel Realities and Image

Behavior examples of modularity include strategic ignorance, self-deception and hypocrisy. Strategic ignorance, like the other behaviors, can create big problems at work (and in your personal life). At work everyone  faces  many decisions all day long. These are choices that often translate to who will you hurt or help. Too often, people intentionally avoid moral decisions about fairness. The upfront cost of avoidance is less, very often, than the cost of creating opposition. Through  side-stepping, or passive inaction, people  prefer to “act” as though they “hear no evil and see no evil.” 

Despite the moral implications and however irresponsible — these behaviors can be explained as obviously practical options. Unfortunately, these choices model behavior that gets replicated.  It’s how we generate unhealthy culture which enables dysfunction in teams and organizations. Denial of this context just perpetuates it. With tragic consequences, the   “Emperor (who) has no clothes” can live a very long  life.

 Bigger Than Self

Sociality is a vital part of human life. Because of this, competition inside organizations needs discrete attention. It also means reframing the challenges and opportunities for your team and your organization is central to collective impact.  Finding common understandings, assumptions and shared goals are critical. Establishing expectations for values like transparency, candor, authenticity, urgency and distributed knowledge is part of the recipe. In the end, modeling these values matters most. If people and organizations persist simply with the multiple realities provided by our modular minds the inevitable focus is self-survival. However, high performance requires a different, collective intention.

Recognize  and Reconcile

What specific actions can a manager take with this common challenge?

First: Ask many more questions. Set a target for yourself. Make it a goal – every day – to ask   three more questions in each meeting or exchange with staff.  Commit to discovery. This will help you uncover perspectives, see common themes and identify prevailing realities.  Seek counter-points and ask opinions from those who are willing to share more than the proverbial company line. Recognizing how others view their work and the situation is an important step in your reality.

Second: Work toward reconciliation of multiple perspectives. Commit to dialogue that airs a range of opinion. Act as a convener. Aim for the imperative – how it should be. Help others see their assumptions and biases. Actively build bridges and find points of coordination so others see the value of alignment and integration. Make it acceptable and safe to speak truthfully. Demonstrate trust by lauding people who are willing to offer constructive critique.

Renowned organization effectiveness expert and author Jim Collins echoes this perspective: “Level 5 leaders are ambitious first and foremost for the cause, the organization, the work – not themselves – and they have a fierce resolve to do whatever it takes to make good on that ambition.” It is possible to build a vibrant culture that aggressively serves a mission (or margin).  Eventually the whispers will wane. 

Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See : www.pwkinc.com


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