It rained cats and dogs for the four days we were together. I can’t recall ever having been so wet for so long. Eight people who had never met each other before crammed into a small tent. We cooked our food from rations and made audacious strategic plans by candlelight while trying to keep the coffee grains out of the rain puddles. We had paid to do this—serious money, in fact. It was a hardcore 4-day leadership training that we had signed up for.
The training consisted of solving a number of outdoor challenges in competition with other teams. The challenges to be solved where not the training as such—collaboration under adverse circumstances was the point of it all.
It's a long time ago—more than 25 years to be honest—but I can still recall lots of details. More than anything I can distinctly recall the other team members, despite the fact that I had never meet them before and have not seen them since. But from time to time one or the other will show...
I don't mean developing vision and strategies by setting Big Hairy Audacious Goals—because none of that makes much sense just now.
In the current climate, the key to your leadership is how well you are able to hold the space.
Let me explain:
Operating in a complex environment per definition means that the core challenge is uncertainty.
Depending on our personal temperament, we handle uncertainty differently. For most of us, a bit of uncertainty is thrilling. It spices up our life. The butterflies in one’s stomach on a first date—who would have been without that? But, the will I have food on the table tomorrow feeling—if you have ever tried it—is not something you are ever eager to repeat.
When we are overwhelmed by too much uncertainty, it triggers fear, as well as our fight-flight-freeze response. As a consequence, only vital functions are operational. There are no resources left for creativity, problem solving and all that good stuff that we...
I see quite a few posts on social media that express the hope that this will soon be over and that we can return to normal—so do I, of course.
But the problem is that hope is not a strategy for coping with the complex issue that we all face: What to do next?
Most of us in our managerial and team leader roles are used to navigating in a relatively ordered environment. Things are generally simple or complicated. But even when things are complicated, there are principles, with the causes and effects more or less mapped and understood.
If it gets overwhelmingly complicated, we call in experts, consultants and other good people to help us understand whatever it is that we are struggling with, but we are still navigating in a relatively ordered and predictable environment.
Now, that has all changed.
Collectively, we have taken a step into deeper uncertainty in the direction of chaos—that alone is enough to scare the life out of most of us.
There is no longer order and no...
When we are faced with a new situation, we automatically run through a quick inner checklist that has four questions:
Why, who, what and how.
The sequence of the four questions is always the same. We need answers to them in that order. It’s hard for us to totally focus on the next one if we are missing answers to the previous questions.
It's not as if we speak these questions out loud, especially not the first two. We sense them—our radar scans for answers.
The classic beginner’s error managers make is that they jump in and show team members how they want something done, totally skipping the first three questions. Then, they scratch their head in frustration as they realize the job is not getting done the way they hoped. “How many times do I have to tell them this?”
Slightly more experienced managers will skip just the first two questions and go straight to what and then on to how. It's a bit better but not by much.
You see, we all...
“Why all this fuss about relationships?”
“Yes, Mike, I do understand we need to get on with each other, but honestly, work is work, and these are not my friends. Can we move on now, please?”
That attitude works well when the world is simple and orderly. We develop best practices, manuals and SOPs. Who needs relationships? Just work to the script. The instructions are clear.
The problem is the world is probably not as simple as it used to be.
Here is a great model from Ralph Stacey:
As you can see, as long as the world is predictable and we agree on what is going on, things are simple. Simple things can be managed.
But moving out along that path where things get more uncertain and we agree less and less on what is going on, we discover that things get complicated, eventually complex, and ultimately become totally chaotic.
Well, a computer is complicated, but it is possible to figure it out. A bowl of...
A few years ago, Google published their studies on how teams with a high degree of psychological safety outperform teams that have lesser degrees of safety.
This led to many learned articles on what psychological safety entails and how to achieve it. Often, it sounds quite complicated, but not always. I wrote a simple version here.
The research breaks psychological safety down into four key components:
In simple terms, that means it's important that everyone feels included, that you set clear expectations, and that you try and limit the surprises. There shouldn't be an excessive focus on authority and positions. Finally, the ultimate motivator for your team is if they get to have a say in how they do their work, not what they do—that's a management decision—but how they do it.
But we can actually...
For a team to truly perform well, there must be excellent relationships among all team members. We covered that in the previous issue.
On a five-person team, there are 59,048 other possible relationship combinations. Person A gets on with Person B, but not with Persons C, D and E. Person B gets on well with Persons C and E, but not so much with the rest, and so on. With weak connections, the team under-performs.
My key point here is to make you more aware of how important the quality of individual relationships are in delivering a top performance.
I mentioned previously that mechanical systems are per definition stable and organic systems are per definition unstable. By unstable, we mean that the system is in a constant flux—always in transition from one state to another.
One aspect of the instability in a five-person team is the quantity and quality of connections—the relationships—between team members.
Two people can have three types of relationships—good,...
You have heard it ad nauseam—the bit about the whole being larger than the sum of its parts. We use it to describe the benefit of systems or why teams are better than just individuals working in groups.
So let's just recap: When do “things” become a system?
A system is the result of connecting things that are different.
Note that the critical words here are connection and diversity.
A box of nails does not constitute a system. All the things are exactly the same and they aren’t connected even if they are in the same box.
A computer is a system and so is a management team. One is mechanic and the other is organic. We’ll come back to the implications of that later.
But what we seem to forget is that it’s not a given that the whole will be more than the sum of the parts. Sometimes—quite often actually when we talk about teams—the whole turns out to be considerably less than the sum of the parts.
"Tell me, what do people actually ask you to coach them about,” she asked. I was having a lovely conversation with an old friend who I had not seen in a while and we were catching up on how our lives had developed. I tried to give her a few examples of what I thought were very different issues of what I’m working with.
Later that week, I was reading something by Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler and came across this:
All problems are interpersonal relationship problems.
Then, it hit me—reflecting on what I had discussed with my friend and also thinking through other examples. They may call it different things, but by far, most of the coaching challenges that I work on are about relationships.
Relationships with colleagues, bosses, across departments or even customers—even relationship with themselves—
—the common denominator in all of this has to do with how to work better with others.
Why do so many people struggle with this and why is it so...
Would it be fair to say that an important part of leadership has got to be the ability to lead others?
Yet, in a survey published by Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), only 45% of leaders are rated proficient at this by their boss.
Wait a minute, are you saying that more than half of the European leaders out there aren't considered by their boss to be good at leading other people?
If that's not shocking, then it's at least seriously thought-provoking.
But the sad fact is that it correlates well with the Gallup surveys that say that more than 60% of our workforce are not particularly engaged in their job while 23% are actively disengaged. To a large extent, engagement is a function of leadership.
These are depressing stats. To me, it just confirms that there's a serious challenge out there to improve our leadership capacity.
CCL recommends three ways to improve that situation: