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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.
I woke up this Sunday and I had a terrible nostalgia for the days where my morning question was not:
“What have the politicians done to entertain us today?”
All around the world politics has become far too similar to a reality television show. The politicians, the media and our focus is on the daily conflicts, dramas and stupidities. The media environment and the demand of the media audience is far less concerned about leadership (other than the theatre of a leadership contest) than the entertainment of the political show. We have forgotten that the exercise of power for the betterment of society is more important that a following.
Politics is not alone in this confusion. Thought Leadership and other forms of punditry also shows a similar confusion. The accuracy or effectiveness of advice to better society now matters less than the ability to entertain and accumulate an audience. Platitudes and gross simplifications play better than difficult messages or a call to hard work.
Here We Are Now, Entertain Us
Conflict has always entertained humans. Conflict is the key to all our storytelling. Threat based narratives help us understand our tribes and bind together in times of adversity. We can see why politicians and pundits rely on them heavily. Inspirational narratives tend to appeal to our ego, our desire for ease and the uniqueness of our community and suggest the inevitability of our future success as long as we continue to follow the advice of the storyteller. We are suckers for entertainment as the makers of content for our mobile phones are well aware. Politicians, thought leaders, media commentators and even corporate executives are just meeting the market demand.
Increasingly, in the age of mobile devices, entertainment is a solo activity. We have lost much of the collective experience of entertainment that was the standard experience of previous generations. That lack of collective context weakens the foundations of community and hinders collaboration. We need shared context and trust to come together to make change happen. Trust is an outcome of the work and the experiences we share together. If we are each following our own personal entertainment guru, there is a fragmentation of that larger shared community.
As social technology and far better media tools creep into corporate life, we have also seen the rise of the executive as entertainer. Senior management can now engage and cultivate a following internally through collaboration tools and externally through social media and even traditional media roles. For some the dynamic changes from leading to entertaining. Rather than advocating for change and conflict within the organisation, it is easier to demonise an Other, such as a competitor, an external stakeholder or abstraction like errors or waste and demand the attention of a following without pushing people to change themselves. These executives are far less likely to demand challenging change of people themselves for fear that they lose part of their following or that they lose status to someone who promises a more compelling external enemy or an easier life.
We Need Power
We need to do more than meet a market demand for entertainment. We need power to push us beyond the limitations of our own efforts and our own imagination. We need the power to step outside of our individual potential and collaborate with others. The exercise of power in this way is called leadership.
A comment in a recent article on the often hidden role of power in design practice put the issue in a way that helped me see the connection:
The definition of power: the ability to influence an outcome
This quote starkly highlights the connection of power and leadership. We can often confuse power with its past abuses or the privilege that vests it undeservedly or unevenly in others. We can prefer our power to be responsive to the needs of the community. However, as Adam Kahane has pointed out in Power and Love, it is wishful thinking to wish power away or to demand that leaders are only responsive.
Leadership is about influence. Leadership is about achieving outcomes together with and through the work of a community. Without any resulting outcome, all you are doing is entertaining the community with a show. Bringing people together to help address complex social issues is going to take the exercise of power.
We need leadership because we need the action of small self-governing communities of change. That work is the power that matters now. We cannot rely on the politicians, the thought leaders, the senior executives or the experts to deliver us. We will have to do the work of change ourselves.
One of the challenges is the modern economy and its new far-flung connectedness is that there can be a tendency to presume trust in relationships. We need to be clear that trust is a vital part of our commercial and social activities. The role of leaders is to help create, sustain and grow trust in their networks and communities.
Trust Arrives on a Tortoise and Leaves on a Horse – Proverb
I start with a high degree of trust in people. I always presume a positive intent and I am willing to be generous with my time and efforts. A recent experience caused me to reflect on how important that trust is in a relationship and how we need to continue to invest in building trust in our relationships.
An social network acquaintance asked me many months ago to help their new product by letting them use some of my content. I laid out some simple terms of that use, in particular that they take some actions to let me approve the content in context. Nothing happened for months. Suddenly, last week I was told that the product was going live. My trust in my acquaintance collapsed and our relationship became very difficult quickly.
Without trust, the interactions took on different colour for both parties and matters became tense. Everything eventually fell apart. What had begun as a good natured collaboration ended up as a frustrating and angry experience in the absence of trust. Did I overreact? My acquaintance seemed to think so. However, the simple step of acting promptly on an agreement could have maintained trust and avoided the issue. Failure on a relatively small issue can often have the biggest impact on trust, because we want to trust those who look treat the small things seriously too. What is a small thing to you, may well be critical to me. Little doubts are warnings of larger concerns.
Trust in the API Economy
We have grown used to the API Economy, extending trust to remote connections and even starting to leverage trustless ways of interacting and working. In this context, we can forget the vital role that trust plays in frictionless commerce and interactions. Without trust, costs and the emotional burden of interactions increase. Those additional costs might be the costs of coordination, management of performance, sharing of information, monitoring or verification. The emotional toll of lack of trust is seen in interactions coloured by doubt, suspicion, self-centred thinking and a raft of negative emotions from fear to anger. We can absolutely execute standardised transactions without trust, particularly when they are supported by a robust API-like platform to help manage the quality, transparency, accountabilities and risks required. However, we cannot achieve our best complex, collaborative or creative work together without trust. The costs of lack of trust are too high and the potential opportunities are lost as people focus on self-interest and self-preservation.
APIs are just like my reaction to a change in the terms. An API rejects anything that doesn’t meet the agreed parameters. APIs are not designed for flexibility, novelty or agility. They are designed for seamless transaction. They don’t rely on trust to bridge gaps as things change.
As we focus more of our economic and social relationships into the API Economy and its network of platforms, it is important to remember that trust always resides in the human brain. Platforms can provide tools to support human trust and they can provide proxies for human trust. They cannot deliver it. The role of network participants and in particular leaders is to create, foster and develop trust. This work is what helps turn a network into a community. Leaders play a critical role in making trust an expectation in a network and their work influencing others can shape behaviours and their consequences across the network.
I recently did a podcast with Tathra Street on making leadership safe for humans. Tathra has an series of interviews on the idea of Human Centred Leadership. In our 30 minute conversation, we discussed my leadership lessons, how work is changing, the demands of digital culture, working out loud and more.
The discussion was great but sadly the audio quality did not hold up to the content of the discussion.
We don’t need to be told that work is busy. Pressures are everywhere. Finish one task or one meeting and there is a good chance that the next few challenges are piled up ready to go. We rarely get the time to reflect as we power through our work, unless we allocate time or are forced into reflection by the questions of others.
Without reflection, we all struggle to focus and question our priorities, our relationships and our performance. The value of coaching is that it can create this space in our work week and help make our work far more effective. The power of questions from others is that they force us to reflect, to consider a wider perspective on our work and can break the patterns that form in our busy thinking.
Great leaders coach. They know how to ask simple questions of their teams that foster reflection on goals, priorities, alignment of work and the effectiveness of work. Creating a supportive coaching environment in a team enables people to reflect on how to improve more often and more effectively. Great leaders encourage peer coaching too.
Peer coaching is a powerful technique and one that can happen in the flow of work. Taking the time to ask each other “How did we do? What can we do better or different next time?” is all that it takes to create more reflection in our work. We don’t work alone the insights and observations of others can help us become more effective. Working out loud, purposefully sharing our work with our peers, invites our peers into our work and facilitates this reflection.
In the coaching work that I do, I find asking the simple questions clarifying goals, the situation and opportunities to do things differently creates a space for a new and powerful conversation. The time invested can have dramatic returns by clearing blockages, building new collaborative networks and focusing the effort of work. Often the improvement opportunities are obvious when someone has time to reflect on how they can do things differently.
An added benefit of the time to reflect through coaching conversations is an increase in accountability in organisations. Regular coaching conversations with a leader, a coach or peers, create personal accountability to translate improvement opportunities into action. Knowing that someone will ask “what have you done differently?” helps us reflect continuously on how well we are delivering on our plans.
Reflecting with the support of others is the heart of learning and performance improvement. How are you fostering a coaching culture to benefit your performance and the performance of the teams around you?
Simon Terry is a coach and consultant who helps individuals and organisations to make work more effective. Reach out to discuss how more coaching can foster reflection for you and your organisation.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere – Martin Luther King Jr
I don’t fear for safety
From the simplicity of evil
or complex works of good.
Beyond the neat edge
of my experience,
security is a privilege.
Fears that I don’t share
are still unendurable,
My enclosed experience hints
at other works and wheels,
a shared system of society.
All that produces this world,
the light and dark, actors, victims
and passive accomplices.
We are interconnected –
This condition, this system,
this change is mine too.
As your organisation adapts to the future of work, your models of leadership need to change. Leadership needs to be as adaptive as the the organisation you are seeking to create. Otherwise the potential of your people and the business will be lost.
You can’t command experiments. You can’t control networks. You can’t command customer collaborations. You can’t command engagement or purpose. You can’t control transparency. You can’t command autonomy.
Organisations that implement new agile ways of working need new leadership models. Activity based working, digital workplace tools, collaboration solutions, innovation hubs, agile projects and product management and lean continuous improvement all require leaders to work in ways that build the capability of people, manage the whole system and value the contributions of others over a leader’s rank and expertise.
As you change to the future of work, change what leadership means in your organisation. Build the leadership capabilities in leaders and the whole team to prosper in new ways of working. Make your leadership as adaptive as your organisation.