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Part 4 – Leading Discomfort

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That uncomfortable moment when we both wonder ‘who is leading this? I hope it is not me’

The transformation of organisations to adapt to new digital networked economy and to leverage future of work behaviours creates new discomfort for leaders. Leadership is not the art of making things good or having the right answers. Leadership is the art of enabling others to work together through discomfort.

We have examined the role of discomfort in the future of work. We have looked at the personal implications of discomfort and our need to engage with reality. Now let’s look at what this enduring discomfort means for leadership.

Leaders Aren’t Magicians

We can’t expect leaders to be magicians. The world is too complex and too fast paced for hierarchal or any leaders to have all the answers. Our work is increasingly intertwined in systems, stakeholders and interpersonal dynamics. Each of these brings complexity that makes the work of leaders hard and prevents quick fixes and simple patterns of action.

Worse still many employees and many organisations have an outdated expectation that the role of leader is to make a team safe, to make work simple and easy and to provide security and protection. Those expectations are unable to be met in the modern environment of work. Connections to the outside world cannot be cut without imperilling performance. Once we let the network world in to our work it brings change, risk and complexity. For many leaders, the greatest source of discomfort is that the expectations of their power far outweigh their actual influence on people, work and outcomes.

Embrace Discomfort & Enable Others

Leaders need to embrace their own discomfort and help their teams to productively navigate the environment and their emotional states in work. A key first step is for leaders to have honest conversations about the expectations around work, to understand the challenges and to callout that discomfort, like change, is not only likely but inevitable.

When managed in this way, discomfort can be a productive source of energy for change and a unifier of teams and stakeholders. Rather than suppress discomfort, people can leverage discomfort as a trigger for change, as a rationale for action and as pressure for sustaining the work. Focusing attention on the accountability for improvement in a group and helping the group engage with that work is a leader’s work, far more than providing answers.

Leaders need to work to make discomfort feel safe for action and interaction. Creating psychological safety despite the discomfort of work is essential to team performance. Leaders need to encourage employees to embrace a more human approach to work that includes not just their technical expertise but their social and emotional expertise as well.

Great leaders create others who can inspire and enable action and share that capability widely across their organisations and communities. One of the greatest drivers of performance is increasing the number of people who can help others to work through discomfort.

Work Together

When we are uncomfortable, it can seem easier to withdraw to safety. People will pull back into their own domains as if that offers safety. The nature of modern work requires connection and collaboration. Leaders are critical to role model this behaviour and help others see the benefits of working together. Building new capabilities and new practices for connection, sharing and collaboration is essential.

Often we need to work together across the reach of a leader’s authority. Great leaders are those who can find shared interests and help facilitate this wider stretch collaboration. This work is how we gain a shared context and learn together how we address the big problems of our organisations and our societies.

Lastly, leaders can help teams achieve enduring change in their work by changing their relationships across the organisation. Those relationships might be long settled or tied up in cultural expectations that are difficult to adapt. Everyone needs to be encouraged to reflect on these human relationships and how they contribute to better interactions, performance and outcomes.

This post is part of a multi-part series exploring discomfort in the future of work. Future posts will examine how organisations, leaders and individuals can manage this discomfort. These posts are part of a process of working out loud to explore these uncomfortable concepts so feedback is welcome.

Part 1: The Role of Discomfort.

Part 2: The Personal Discomfort

Part 3: Engaging with Reality

Part 3: The Discomfort of Working with Reality

Learning is a common source of discomfort in the future of work. A related source of discomfort is that many future of work practices force us to focus on reality – whether that is the reality inside our organisations, the world of our customers and communities or wider society. We cannot learn to sit with discomfort until we embrace the fact that discomfort is a part of that reality.

Hope is not a Strategy

Embracing discomfort demands we stop the delusion of wishing for change and waiting for something better to come along. We can’t rely on a hope for an improvement. We can’t wish discomfort away. We can’t rely on the actions of others. We can’t wait and see.

Wishful thinking prevent us from being present with our discomfort. Wishful thinking prevents us from learning. It mitigates the prod of discomfort we need to learn and to act differently.

Too often inside the comfortable confines of an organisation, you will hear discussions that reflect wishful thinking that ignores the demands of the uncomfortable reality outside:

  • our customers are different to those of our low-cost digital competitors and will continue to pay a premium for our service
  • our brand, distribution channels, product or approach is unique
  • our strategy is not showing results now but has always delivered in the long run
  • our employees are loyal
  • millennial employees will help us…
  • the customer dissatisfaction or employee disengagement is a flaw in the methodology or a lack of accurate representation of reality
  • community concerns are the work of a vocal minority
  • they just don’t understand and their views will improve if we communicate more

If we are to engage with the reality of the situation we need to start to to address the needs of our organisation, our employees and our communities in a realistic way. Today.

The Passion for Packaged Solutions

Leaders love a quick fix to discomfort. They are often willing to ignore reality to have the sensation of having acted to address the discomfort. Prodded by discomfort, they want to wish it away by immediate action. These actions include:

  • Buy a new piece of technology
  • Launch a program or initiative
  • Hire a new team
  • Implement a new process or methodology; or worse
  • Seek quick wins, which are usually neither quick nor wins but are merely comforting activity for its own sake

In our digital networked world, many of the issues causing discomfort in organisations are systemic or human issues. Pre-packaged solutions may help ameliorate these human or systemic issues at the edges or temporarily, but they do not help create enduring solutions. Organisations and their leaders need to engage in the reality of change over time to tackle this kind of discomfort through building new human capabilities, improving the system through adaptation and through engagement of the participants in the system. If they don’t, we have an ever rotating menu of quick fixes being implemented and failing.

Learning from Inclusion and Diversity

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The value of working out loud is it can help reveal to you blindspot. In the classic 2×2 of a Johari window, a blindspot is those things that are not known to you but a are clearly known to others. Yesterday on twitter, Rachel Happe helped me highlight a blindspot in this discussion of discomfort.

Presenting discomfort as a permanent experience is no surprise to Rachel’s list of those who we have ignored as leaders. There is real capability to lead and influence change in those who have been marginalised by the reality of power structures. I have seen this in my work with Change Agents Worldwide.

My blindspot was I had planned this post from the perspective of an advocate for diversity and inclusion but had not included the perspective of these other voices.  I wanted to write in this post about the importance of diversity and inclusion for organisations as a way to engage with the reality of their world and the reality of the communities around the organisation.

The research is clear that diversity and inclusion improves performance. One potential reason is that it brings new perspectives, new capabilities and new conversations into the organisation to improve learning and adaptation to the world. Those conversations can be uncomfortable. That discomfort is one of the barriers to diversity and inclusion as leaders fall for the illusion that comfort and ‘cultural fit’ in teams improve effectiveness by removing these difficult and at times uncomfortable conversations.

The insight of Rachel’s tweet is that the productive discomfort of diversity and inclusion is not created. That discomfort is a sharing of the existing experience of marginalised who struggle to find authority and to make positive change to better fit the organisation to society. Genuine community engagement is not easy and should not be. A strong civil society or a strong organisation includes all views and manages debate and conflict. Inclusion requires a real sharing of power, voice and agency. Our organisations and our society will be better if we engage with that reality.

The next post will be on the role of leaders in discomfort.

This post is part of a multi-part series exploring discomfort in the future of work. Future posts will examine how organisations, leaders and individuals can manage this discomfort. These posts are part of a process of working out loud to explore these uncomfortable concepts so feedback is welcome.

Part 1: The Role of Discomfort.

Part 2: The Personal Discomfort

Part 2: Personal Discomfort in the #FutureofWork

The Organisation Man, and it was mostly a man, wore a suit, travelled to work each day in the same organisation, had a boss who he looked up to, had meetings, made telephone calls, and pursued the individual task of moving paper from the in-tray to the out-tray. At the end of the day around 5pm the Organisation Man went home. Our vision of this stereotypical 1950s style experience of work is a vision of a comfortable and predictable existence with a steady career escalator to provide the gradual rewards. Many still long for this level of certainty and safety in work, even if they don’t long for the gendered roles.

Our Future of Work Worker isn’t just an employee. They juggle a portfolio career as employee, parent, volunteer, consultant, contractor, entrepreneur, and director. They wake to a flurry of overnight messages, emails and updates. Before breakfast they are taking calls from colleagues and customers. The plan for the day is shattered by the 9am standup and he or she struggles to learn what they need to, know just in time to do what needs to be done all day. Meetings, agendas, locations and more are reshuffled on the run and instant messaging and video calls pepper the interludes. When others leave and the calls and emails start to slow, the worker catches up on missed messages, prepares for the next day, has a late video call, prepares another presentation, solves a crisis or two and juggles a late change. After family and dinner, another part of the portfolio demands attention. Late in the day with a sense that there is more to do, more to know and that progress is elusive, the worker collapses into bed ready to begin again. From bed to bed, comfort is not even a thought.

We have embraced change, complexity and uncertainty as the heart of human work. We have to embrace the discomfort that comes with it.

The Work of Learning

Harold Jarche uses the phrase “Work is learning and learning is the work”. We have optimised so many aspects of work to emphasise the continuous and networked nature of learning. The practices we have embraced as future of work practices all have a shared core of not just learning, but networked collaborative learning: agile, lean startup, design thinking, collaboration, flat organisation structures, transparency and more.

We learn when we are out of our comfort zone. We must accept that the nature of work as we move forwards is primarily outside the comfort zone, in the zone of discomfort where learning is paramount. The comfortable predictable repetitive work is that which is being consumed by lower priced competition – outsourcing, offshoring, and automation.

At a personal level, we must embrace the discomfort and focus on the opportunity to learn and to grow rapidly. As noted in Part 1, we also need to look for work and learning opportunities that deliver the positive characteristics of Flow. The discomfort is not going away. We must at least gather the benefits of learning, growing capabilities and the richness of our new networked interactions with others. Working out loud can play a key role in helping us to manage this transition to a more uncomfortable mode of work and learning.

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Consciously Incompetent

People embracing Working Out Loud like many future of work practices must battle with discomfort. Whatever our level of expertise or the stage of our career, there is a good chance we are competent for the process centred expectations of our work. Recruitment, selection and talent management processes are usually highly effective in delivering process competence. Induction, on boarding and experience in a role tailors this individual capability into unconscious competence in the process of each role.

Adoption of new future of work practices forces a return to conscious incompetence. The practice feels alien. Work seems harder, slower and ineffective at first when the skills in these practices are new. Conscious incompetence is deeply uncomfortable in organisations that place a high emphasis on competence and performance. For many people, this discomfort or the associated fear and distrust become too great a barrier to persist with a new practice. Adaptation is lost when discomfort is avoided.

Worse still most future of work skills come in practices, not processes. The learning process has no end point. Mastery remains a quest. There is no moment when endless comfort returns. We need recognise that in a rapidly changing, complex and uncertain world we will always be a little incompetent. We always have more to learn.

Being Present with Discomfort

Our Future of Work worker must learn to be present with discomfort. Discomfort is not going away. It cannot be stopped. Discomfort can be embraced, leveraged and mitigated.

Managing one’s own discomfort requires the courage to face and accept that discomfort for the benefits it will deliver in learning. Managing discomfort requires some compassion for yourself and for others who are experiencing their own discomfort, because increasing there’s will only increase yours in a networked collaborative world. Compassion also requires you to know your tolerances and when to retreat, relax or protect yourself and others. Managing discomfort requires hope or at least acceptance. Most importantly of all managing discomfort requires a community.

To tackle the continual challenges of learning in the future of work, we need to embrace the reality of our situation and explore the potential of learning, mastery and connection to others to provide the rewards of growth and achievement.  The next post in the series will look at the need to embrace the reality of discomfort individually and collectively.

This post is part of a multi-part series exploring discomfort in the future of work. Future posts will examine how organisations, leaders and individuals can manage this discomfort. These posts are part of a process of working out loud to explore these uncomfortable concepts so feedback is welcome.

Part 1: The Role of Discomfort.

 

 

Part 1: Discomfort in the #FutureofWork

When we talk about the future of work, we talk about managing learning, creativity, uncertainty and complexity as human roles. The processes, the predictable and routine will be automated. What we do not discuss enough is that with this shift comes an explicit embrace of discomfort. We need to value discomfort in our organisations.

The Role of Discomfort

We aren’t always comfortable in a business context to use emotive language. One reason we tend to slip past discussion of discomfort in the future of work is that we tend to use rational logical language like uncertainty and complexity to discuss the work context. These are terms with precise, businesslike and emotionless language. We don’t explicitly pull into view the emotional flip side that comes with a human experience of these states.

  • What does uncertainty feel like: uncomfortable, frightening, doubtful, etc
  • What does complexity feel like: uncomfortable, overwhelming, challenging, etc

The concept of Flow from positive psychology highlights that we can create positive experiences from challenge, but only when we focus, experience our capabilities rising to match the challenge and get feedback on our progress. In many demanding modern workplaces with thousands of electronic daily distractions, these conditions are not being met, while the uncertainty,complexity and pace of change continues to rise.

Many of the practices advocated as part of the future of work attempt to bake an increased level of discomfort into work. The theme generally is that it is better to have a small difficult conversation early rather than suffer a failure or breakdown later. The list of practices that encourage or increase the frequency of uncomfortable conversations is long: purpose, values, agile, lean start-up, holacracy, working out loud, collaboration, transparency, design thinking, etc.

What we need to embrace is the role that discomfort comes with a strong focus on learning. The value of humans in complex and uncertain activities is collaborative learning. Each of us learns when we are out of our comfort zones. When we are out of our comfort zones together, the quality of our interactions becomes critical.

Ending the Parent-Child Relationship of Employee Comfort

Increasing discomfort in the workplace crashes straight into our traditional paternalistic approach to employee engagement. The goal is defined as creating a positive, engaged employee committed to the goals of the organisation and prepared to offer discretionary efforts internally and externally. Uncomfortable thoughts need not apply. The implicit or explicit promise of much employee engagement literature is that the role of the employer (fulfilled by senior management) is to make employees comfortable – provide a clear vision and purpose, simplify processes to make them easier, provide security of benefits and career, provide consistently rewarding work, and lead effectively.

Lead effectively is perhaps the most dangerous phrase in that list because so much of our leadership expectation is hierarchical and modelled on a benevolent parent. Leadership in any human context is not parenting. In a future post we will consider effective leadership for uncertainty and complexity. Without that clarity, we continue to see leaders who feel that their responsibility should be to take away uncertainty, to reduce complexity and to remove discomfort. By taking the work on themselves, these leaders dramatically increase their own discomfort, fail in their roles and fail their employees. Avoiding the work only makes the situation worse for all involved.

We need to accept that discomfort is not going away in our workplaces. The organisation and its leaders cannot take on the responsibility of removing the adverse affects of a changing environment of work. Removing employees entirely would be an easier challenge (and one many employers seem to embrace). Rather than removing discomfort the challenge for any organisation embracing the future of work is how to manage discomfort and how to ensure that it is productive for employees and the organisation.

This post is part of a multi-part series exploring discomfort in the future of work. Future posts will examine how organisations, leaders and individuals can manage this discomfort. These posts are part of a process of working out loud to explore these uncomfortable concepts so feedback is welcome.

Part 2: Personal Discomfort in the Future of Work

The Narcissism of Employee Engagement

Much has been said about the crisis of employee engagement across organisations. Many organisations actively work to foster employee loyalty and discretionary effort. Little changes.  One driver is the narcissistic self-regard of many employee engagement efforts.

The Narcissistic Organisation

Narcissism is defined in psychology as an extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration. When we examine employee engagement discussions in organisation, much of the discussion reflects this trait. Whether this characteristic is a trait of the leaders of these organisations or even a good thing has been widely debated elsewhere.

I have been a part of many discussions that follow these themes:

  • The organisation not the employee is central:  The discussion revolves around the organisation its purpose, roles, benefits and processes, not employee’s broader purposes, lives or circumstances
  • The discussion is unreal: The only facts in a discussion are the satisfaction survey results. Much of the rest of the discussion is belief, assertion and opinion with little to ground that in the real world employees experience.
  • Employees should admire the organisation: Support for an employee’s issue with the organisation is a signal of disloyalty by the supporter. Failure of employees to admire the organisation is not a cause for reflection. It is usually a communication issue. There is little discussion of reciprocity of admiration or engagement by the organisation.
  • The organisation knows the fix: An engagement survey might use employee feedback to identify issues. Minor communication, role, benefit or process changes might be required but these will be determined by management based on survey outcomes, often without discussion of why or how to address the issue.
  • Need for Change is minor and peripheral: Employees need to be fixed. If the issue is not failure of employees to understand, it is failure of their leaders to communicate the benefits of the organisation. The core ideas, beliefs and processes of the organisation are beyond reflection.

Narcissist have terrible relationships. The constant demands for admiration and the lack of consideration for others is wearing. Narcissists struggle to see these issues because of their self-absorption. If our organisations approach employee engagement in this spirit it is no surprise we have made little traction for change.

Engagement is A Human Relationship

Employee engagement is a characteristic of a relationship between the employee and their colleagues. That relationship occurs in a whole series of conversations, interactions and experiences across the community in the organisation. How the organisation is viewed is simply an outcome of these human relationships.

We cannot change employee engagement without bringing that entire community actively into the discussion of the problems, the rationales, the needs and the solutions. Changing the dynamic of employee engagement requires organisations to make some key changes to their process of considering engagement:

  • Start in the real world: Nothing changes if employees feel the organisation is an unreal place and discussions don’t connect to their reality of the work and their lives beyond the organisation. The whole real world impacts their view of the organisation.
  • Involve everyone:  There is no ‘organisation’ without its people. Bring everyone into the discussion. Make sure the goals and solutions you pursue make sense to everyone.
  • Give employees the loyalty and regard you desire: Don’t ask for what you can’t reciprocate. If there isn’t a relationship, don’t try to pretend. It won’t work.
  • Have a conversation in a relationship: Let both parties talk. Widen the discussion to cover the whole relationship and its impact on others.
  • Connect the conversation beyond the organisation: The power of discussions on purpose and the organisational connection to customers is that they help ground engagement in the meaningful work of employees to help others.  They make the organisation focus on real issues.  An outside-in focus also changes the frame and can u

 

Work Out Loud on Priorities

The changing nature of work accelerates the demands on everyone. Both employees and managers are coping with busier schedules, more messages, more decisions and more challenges on a daily basis. If you are helping a manager focus on letting them do what they do best – set priorities. Don’t dumb down the decisions or you risk disempowering yourself.

This week I spoke to a client who was working for a busy senior manager. In an effort to make life easier for the manager, the client was breaking decisions down into small parts and getting quick sign-off one step a time. Despite how easy this process seemed, the relationship was growing difficult and the manager wasn’t always happy with the process.

As we explored this situation it became apparent that what the manager liked to do most of all was set priorities across the whole sweep of my client’s work.  The manager had hired someone that had the skills and experience to succeed. He expected small decisions to be made quickly and the work executed well.  The manager was looking to shape the work and ensure that it was on track and delivered in the right way. He didn’t want to make decisions all the time, even easy ones and especially not ones that were so carefully packaged there was no way to say anything other than yes.

In our efforts to make matters easier for senior managers, it can be easy to make the process too simple. Managers don’t want to be managed. They want to do what they do best which is tackle complex challenges, manage multiple priorities and shape the deliver of work. If we simplify the decisions too much we are depriving them of this opportunity and also depriving ourselves of the chance to make the simple clear cut decisions.

Working out loud on the priorities in your work with a senior manager can be a way to satisfy their need to understand the whole context, help with complexity and manage priorities. It also empowers you to get on with the obvious work. Focus on the priority calls and ask managers to assist you with these. Little straightforward decisions are best made by the person with most knowledge, which will always be you.

You Don’t Have A Strategy if You Don’t Have the Work

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The commonest error in plans to develop social collaboration in an organisation is the most obvious error. Too many plans aren’t focused on the work. You don’t have a strategy for realising the value of collaboration in your organisation if it doesn’t focus on the work of your organisation.

Early Friday morning last week was the #ESNChat tweet chat. Rita Zonius and Dion Hinchcliffe were discussing a question about the plans for developing ESNs. Dion reiterated an important point – adoption or other abstract goals don’t matter.  Your business is in business and needs your employees doing something meaningful.

One Success Measure

The only measure of success that really matters to your business is the value that you create in your social collaboration.  Value doesn’t have to be measured wholly in monetary terms but for a great majority of businesses value will have clear measures and commonly direct financial elements. Value creation, broadly defined, is what separates successful businesses from the pack.

Your organisation exists to fulfil some purpose. The strategy that is in place in your organisation sets out how you will maximise the value of the work to realise that purpose. If social collaboration in your organisation is not directly connected to this strategy and the value to be created for purpose, then everyone in your organisation has the right, and the obligation, to (a) question why it matters and (b) ignore it.

Measuring value in collaboration is hard. This challenge is greater when organisations are often sceptical of new ways or working or chains of benefits. Usually the benefit realisation happens away from the platform and is measurable only in other systems. Many proponents of social collaboration choose to ignore the hard to measure benefits and focus on easier to track goals, like adoption, satisfaction, sentiment, engagement or measures created specifically for the organisation’s collaboration plan. The danger of failing to align the measures of social collaboration to the measures of the meaningful work of the organisation is the danger of irrelevance.

Parallel Paths

The most damning criticism of many social collaboration networks showing high degrees of adoption and engagement is that they are a “parallel universe” to the real organisation and its interactions.  In this parallel universe, the hierarchy is levelled, leaders are proactively engaging people in conversation, employees are empowered to speak up and discuss their whole lives and great strides are being made in engaging employees and advocating for social issues. In the office, not so much.

In this scenario, the lack of accountability for real work outcomes has allowed the collaboration network to drift into play-acting an ideal organisation. Without real work there are no hard decisions and no ugly compromises. Without real work, it is easier for everyone to get along. You only need a little bit of fantasy to undermine the interactions of an entire network.

When a collaboration network is focused on supporting the real work interactions that network is bound to what goes on across the organisation.  There is a greater chance that the discussions in the network will reflect the issues, the challenges and the interactions that happen in the corridors of the conversation, for good and for bad. Getting tough work challenges into a collaboration network, as ugly as they may be, enables the network to help address and improve them.

Many organisations like the idea of a utopian network that shows them their better side. Role modelling is a valuable purpose. However, role modelling only works when the interactions are real.  The network can only contribute to making those interactions better, if the work is being done in some way across the network. Without the work, there can be no greater value.

A better network for social collaboration does the hard work to fulfil the organisation’s strategy. You don’t have a strategy for your social collaboration if you don’t have that work and aren’t measuring its value.