23 May 2014

Academic Freedom is Not the Issue - It's Poor Leadership

There was a general consensus, at least among the usual suspect commentators, that University of Saskatchewan’s recent conflagration over the firing of professor and Dean of the School of Public Health, Robert Buckingham had an inherent duality. On one hand, Professor Buckingham had the protection of tenure that enabled him to speak out about a dubious plan to consolidate the Schools of Medicine, Dentistry, and Public Health into one, super health-care school. On the other hand, now former university president, Ilene Busch-Vishniac made it very clear that, “Leaders [i.e. senior academic administrators and managers] have opportunities to express personal opinions in leadership discussions. Once decisions are made, all leaders are expected to support the university’s directions.” According to Professor Buckingham, President Busch-Vishniac told the deans and vice-presidents that their tenure would be in jeopardy if they spoke out against the cost-cutting decision to consolidate the three schools.

Professor Buckingham did just that in an open letter entitled, “The Silence of the Deans.” He was summarily fired both as dean and as professor, contravening the long-held tradition of tenure in which a professor has job protection against losing his or her position based on what they say, write, or research. A firestorm ensued. The university administration quickly backtracked on the loss of the tenured position, but not on reinstatement of his deanship. The Provost, Brett Fairbairn, was made the scapegoat and resigned over the incident. The president, claiming that “I came here to accomplish some things. I think we've been making some progress on them,” refused to step down. In at least one radio interview on CBC’s As It Happens, she was (in my opinion) rather glib and somewhat revisionist about the incident and circumstances. However, the damage to the university’s reputation continued to expand with the university’s students protesting, academics around the world widely condemning the move, and the whole kerfuffle attracting the notice of the provincial government.

Wednesday evening, the university’s Board of Governors lowered the boom on President Busch-Vishniac and summarily dismissed her (although, in a move that was rather poetic I think, said that she could be rehired as a professor).

I believe the Board of Governors moved swiftly on both the urging of the government and the wider academic community in order to salvage the university’s reputation. However, it points to a possible sea change in contemporary management and leadership. Traditionally, there was an implicit (sometimes explicit) mentality of noblesse oblige among managers, and especially senior managers and executives (who today are euphemistically called “leaders”). They made decisions and everyone else was required to comply or face dire consequences, irrespective of the merit of the decision, or its logic, ethics, practicality, expected consequences, or effects be they intended or unintended. This mode of operations is established in an instrumental, industrialized view of organization that considers its people as replaceable machine components, and therefore expendable. (I contend that it originally came from the very first, pre-modern, administrative bureaucracy, the Catholic Church, stemming from the time of Pope Gregory VII).

No longer, it seems. The expectation that managers and workers will simply fall into line with decisions of top executives may be going the way of the telegraph, wired line telephone system, and daily milk delivery. Today’s organizations whose dynamics are based on emergent interactions among multiple relationships require inclusive participation, active listening among multiple constituencies, and consensus-building processes that enable true leadership to occur. To enable individual autonomy and agency in an environment that encourages collective responsibility in an environment of mutual accountability. Simply put, absent a culture of silencing fear (which is, sadly, all too prevalent among many modern organizations), senior managers can no longer expect to order their subordinate managers and employees around without consequences. In the case of University of Saskatchewan and the decision to "TransformUS" by consolidating three health-related schools against the advice of their respective deans, and silencing all dissenters through overt threats to their livelihood, the leadership failure happened long before Professor Buckingham's firing. Executives can no longer exert such arbitrary - dare I say regal - power. They may not meet the dire end of former-President Busch-Vishniac at University of Saskatchewan. Nonetheless, they will be entirely unable to fulfil their mandate of accomplishing whatever the organization intends to accomplish, never mind the more lofty objectives of leadership, innovation, and creating great environments of engaged workers.

22 April 2014

Research at Adler

Blogging over the past number of months has been... well... confined to Twitter to be perfectly honest. Positive progress at Adler continues at a breakneck rate in all areas, from recruitment to new degree development, through curriculum evolution, and more. A particular point of pride for me is the great advances Adler has made in laying the groundwork to be considered a hub of significant applied psychological research. This is considerably more than the university model of "recruit some students and run an experiment to prove a hypothesis." We're talking about research that has the potential to affect real lives, real families, and real communities, potentially influence public policy, and certainly inform psychological care. We've initiated critical, qualitative inquiry and research design as a mandatory first-year course (that I personally teach with great enjoyment because of our terrific students!), and augmented it with parallel quantitative methods training.

Here are some examples, grouped by broad theme, of student research that has recently been approved by Adler's Research Review (Ethics) Committee:

On Psychology and Newcomers:
  • Experiences with Counselling – For Individuals within the South Asian Community. 
  • The Difference Between Newcomers Who Seek Help As Opposed to Who Don’t in Terms of Stigma Towards Mental Health. 
  • Psychological Effects affiliated with systemic barriers experienced by newcomer women in Toronto. 
On Family Connections and Dynamics:
  • Sexual offender’s perceptions on early life experiences: role, gender and forms of attachment between mother and father. 
  • A Glance at Attachment bonding in families with children with Disruptive Behaviours.
  • The effect of family ties on the resilience of homeless youth.
  • Patriarchal versus Matriarchal Dominant Households, and the Influence on Behavioural and Moral Mindset of Offspring.
  • Self-Help: Impact and Efficacy on Marital Discord.
  • How do prosocial video games influence the behaviour, family dynamics and interpersonal relationships of a child with behaviour issues?
  • Parental perception of iPad use in preschoolers.
 And, simply interesting and important:
  • A qualitative analysis on the experience of pregnancy loss in women after 24 weeks gestation.
  • The Experience of Alzheimer’s Disease: Through the Caregiver.
  • The Communication of Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus to Children: A Pilot Study.
  • Investigating the effects of gender and online support for individuals experiencing anxiety.
  • Affective, anxiety, and perfectionistic response to positive and negative feedback: A qualitative study of gender, interpersonal, and societal factors in individuals with perfectionism.
I am really looking forward to reading the results of these interesting research projects, and eagerly anticipating Adler's (future) first, formal, research conference. 

17 December 2013

Advice for the Leader-lorn: Help! I'm Trapped in a Government Bureaucracy!

Advice for the Leader-lorn is a periodic column that responds to leadership-related queries from the contemporary workplace. I invite your questions.

Today's question comes from a civil servant located somewhere in Canada:
I am a team leader at [a government department which may be provincial or federal, to protect the correspondent's identity] and recently participated in a leadership development program within the organization. Our first week of the program was kind of a revelation to me and I've since delved into anything having to do with leadership. After viewing your video, I was inspired to try and change my little part of the organization from BAH to UCaPP. My current position is the first step into a supervisory position within the public service, so you could say that I am quite low on the proverbial totem pole. My goal is to focus on what I am in charge of, as there is very little that I can control.
So I am coming to you in the hopes that you could spare a few minutes of your time to either point me in the right direction, share some advice, direct me towards some reading material, or blatantly tell me that there is no hope and to move on to something else!
I always find it interesting to meet recently appointed, especially low-level (potential) leaders filled with Quixotic enthusiasm for the contribution that they truly believe they can make. Please don't interpret what I am about to share with you as coming from someone with a jaded, I've-seen-it-all cynicism, although there is the very real possibility that my comments could be interpreted no other way. There is an unfortunate reality that organizational transformation is not - cannot - be a grassroots initiative unless the organization itself has that attribute of bottom-up, inclusive change "baked in" to its in-use values and practices. Governments tend to be an extreme case of organizational inertia due to its unique - and very contemporary - incarnation of bureaucracy that introduces a political control layer over top of what is already staunchly stifling bureaucratic processes.

Bureaucracies exist in order to remove human judgment from decision making and replace judgment (and often good sense) with systemic procedures and routines. There can be good and valid reasons to do this, especially when one understands organizational imperatives and operating systems from the ground of post-industrial age 20th century. (More on this in this paper on Enabling a Culture of Innovation that I presented at the Conference Board of Canada National Councils of HR Executives meeting in June, 2013.) What governments at all levels began doing in the mid-1980s was to add a layer of political control via these procedures that created a hybrid form of bureaucratic control that had never before been seen, and has since become the de facto operating mode of governments. The current Harper Federal Government is perhaps more efficient - if not overt - at it than most others have been, but in reality is no different in kind than the David Peterson Government in Ontario was at the time.

In particular, government bureaucratic machinery (by which I mean the civil service) have become extremely effective and systematic about stifling innovation and the type of independent procedural, process, and approach thinking that is a requirement for culture change. In particular, one of the key characteristics of a UCaPP-consistent organization is that it promotes and encourages Individual Autonomy and Agency, Collective Responsibility, and Mutual Accountability among its members. Can you really see that sort of transformation occurring in any government? Indeed, I often say that contemporary leadership is about enabling a conducive environment so that people come together to share common experiences from which an alternate future becomes possible. Most very large organizations (that are not on the brink of ruin or the destruction of their historically stable industry or market) truly advocate and encourage alternate futures. They need good managers to maintain, more or less, the status quo. They actually shun true leadership.

Do not lose your inspiration to create engaging environments that are indeed conducive to culture transformation. Organizations in general are dying for want of such inspiring leadership. More important, people are living their lives in silent (or not so silent) frustration in the depths of despair and cynicism because their workplaces are for most intents and purposes, intolerable, toxic, or simply stultifying. The world needs more true contemporary leaders.

09 December 2013

On Attributes of Creating a Great Leadership Environment

"He draws people out of their comfort zone,” he said, “but he does it subtly, challenging them with his openness and his commitment to change. He ends up making them rise to the occasion. He doesn’t just synthesize and sell a solution. He finds opportunities in the larger body of players to create circumstances where change can happen.”
- Former Bill Clinton Chief of Staff, John Podesta, speaking about Barack Obama, quoted in Ron Suskind's book, Confidence Men.

Consistent with my contention that contemporary leadership is about creating environments where people come together to share an experience from which an alternate future becomes possible.

28 November 2013

The Dark Side of Leadership

I'm in the process of developing a new Certificate in Innovation Leadership that Adler will offer in 2014 in conjunction with HRPA. It comes from several talks I've done over the past several months on Enabling an Environment of Innovation. While doing some research on enabling factors, I came across an interesting study published last year in the Academy of Management Journal entitled The Dark Side of Leadership: A three-level investigation of the cascading effect of abusive supervision on employee creativity.

The primary results of this extensive study by Dong Liu (Georgia Institute of Technology), Hui Liao (University of Maryland), and Raymond Loi (University of Macao) are not that surprising. They found that abusive behaviours by top leaders tend to cascade downwards to be emulated by lower-level managers and group leaders. They also found that abusive behaviours significantly and negatively affect employees' creativity and hence, innovation throughout the organization. This result is corroborated by extensive literature indicating that intrinsic motivation is critical to promoting innovation; nothing kills intrinsic motivation among people more effectively than abuse.

What was particularly interesting to me was how motive attribution affected the results. The authors tested two attribution reasons: promotion, that is, whether abusive behaviour was perceived by subordinates as the way to get ahead in the organization; and injury, that is, whether abusive behaviour was experienced simply as malicious intent to cause harm.

If promotion was the attributed reason for abusive behaviour, the cascading effect of higher-level abusive behaviours was enhanced. In other words, if underlings perceived that abuse was the way to get ahead because those higher up behaved that way, they were more likely to adopt similarly abusive behaviours, as compared to those who perceived that their superiors were simply mean bastards. On the other hand, attributed promotion had a somewhat mitigating effect on the creativity-killing aspects of abusive behaviours. In other words, if people perceived that the abuse was the result of organizationally sanctioned success behaviour, employee creativity was destroyed less than perceived meanness.

The bottom line is, if you're seeking innovation in your organization, you must have no tolerance for abusive behaviours. Period. However, if you are an abusive person, ensure that your victims believe that you're only doing it to get ahead.

[And yes, for the irony challenged among my readers, that last statement was indeed satirical.]

Now, one might say that organizations should never tolerate abusive behaviours. Sadly, I have first-hand knowledge of several organizations that are officially named among Canada's so-called Best Places to Work (don't get me started), in which the organization culture has been described as toxic, and employees regularly leave without a job to go to, choosing unemployment over continuing abuse. Among these companies' espoused values? Innovation. Go figure.

28 June 2013

The Agenda on "Knowing in Common"

I was on The Agenda with Steve Paikin yesterday reflecting on the question of what do we need to know in common in order to fully participate as citizens in both our country and our world? As The Agenda episode tag says, "Much emphasis is placed today on keeping students engaged by allowing them to follow their interests. How will that affect the viability of a common curriculum in schools increasingly reshaped by the internet?"
By the way, here's my top five list of what we need to know by the end of high school in a reimagined curriculum. I am assuming basic literacy and numeracy, of course, plus the skills of written and oral expression, the ability to write a cogent argument and engage in thoughtful dialogue about its merits, context, meaning, and applicability. So, let's call these five basic skills:
  1. A working knowledge of physical and chemical science - the fundamental processes of how stuff exists, interacts, and transforms in the natural and built world. This covers matter from the very small (quantum) to the very large (cosmological),
  2. A working knowledge of biological and ecological science - the fundamental processes of how we (and other creatures) physically exist, operate, interact (on a material basis) and transform. Among the ideas here are to gain an appreciation for natural, organic balance for individual health and the health of the natural environment.
  3. A working knowledge of the history of the four major inhabited continents, North and South America, Europe, and Austral-Asia. Among the intentions here is the notion to study history in parallel rather than linearly, so that, for instance, the War of 1812 in North America is understood in the contexts of the war between England and France, the effects on First Nations, as well as the typical context of (Upper and Lower) Canada and the US. Understanding that places other than North America and Europe actually have history that affect and contextualize current global events has been long overlooked.
  4. A working knowledge of the cultural production of the four major inhabited continents, including literature, music, and visual/material arts, plus the ability to produce same (including music).
  5. A working knowledge of the fundamental philosophies that have informed human history, including the Abrahamic religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, the various African beliefs and philosophies, plus a selection of some of the more influential philosophers' work from the four continents. The idea here is to gain an appreciation of how various cultures approach questions such as: How did we get here? Why are we here? and How should we be in the world?

06 May 2013

How Do You Define Work?

danah boyd poses an interesting question over on LinkedIn: "How would you define work in a networked world?" The article is a thought-provoking read and worth the time for the issues it raises.

Here's what I had to say in the comments in response:

Labour became an Industrial Age concept, enshrined in Western modernity, as the product of the "doers" as opposed to the "thinkers" in an organization. It hearkens back to medieval service to the Church, revised and revamped in a post-Enlightenment context to essentially become service of the masses to the privileged. When Marx (and all the subsequent labour process theorists like Braverman, etc.) wrote about alienation of the worker from his/her labour, indeed it was the identification of this "in service to the privileged" aspect from which he charged the proletariat of the world to unite and cast off their chains.

In the latter part of the 20th century, the Boomer generation (largely) conceived of the notion of "work-life balance," once again reproducing Marx's alienation concept in the distinction between one's "work" and one's "life." Life is not so much what happens when you're making other plans, but rather it's what happens when you've returned home from your daily commute to the glass-and-concrete, high-rise salt mines.

Today, the idea of work-life balance gives way to the contemporary generation's experience of "work-life integration." This reconceives our relationship with the stuff we do for material sustenance noting that we have only one life, parts of which we engage with for economic remuneration and parts of it we engage with for remunerations of different sorts (like psychological/social, identity, knowledge, etc. - essentially the Valence Theory relationships). Thus one could say that there is no work for the person with integral awareness of their life (to borrow from Marshall McLuhan). In that sense, danah, most of the time you don't work in the traditional sense. Rather you engage in a whole bunch of activities of your choosing, some of which you get paid for, and ALL of which (or close to all) you integrate in knowledge, socio-psychological affect, identity construction, as well as material benefit.

From Understanding Media, an interesting insight that might inform the conversation (and not to be taken literally, and remember, this was published in 1964): "'Work,' however, does not exist in a nonliterate world. The primitive hunter or fisherman did no work, any more than does the poet, painter, or thinker of today. Where the whole man is involved there is no work. … In the computer age we are once more totally involved in our roles. In the electric age, the 'job of work' yields to dedication and commitment, as in the tribe."

31 January 2013

Recognition Rewards and the Compliance Culture

It’s an exercise I use in leadership facilitation to illustrate the difference between organizational cultures of commitment and compliance. Imagine you’ve been invited to meet the one person in the world you’ve always dreamed of meeting. More than that, you’ve been asked to pick that person up at the airport, chauffeur them to the corporate office, host them for the day, and have dinner with them in the evening. A full day, one-on-one with your all-time hero(ine)! On the morning of that fateful day, you wake up extra early, get yourself ready with the perfect outfit, and head out to the airport. On the way… BOOM!… you have a car breakdown. What do you do? Because you are not going to spoil the day, you would likely ditch your vehicle, call a cab, meet your celebrity on schedule and have an outstanding day. A week later, since you did such a fine job with the celebrity, your boss invites you to do the same thing again but with the one person you would least like to spend even five minutes with. On the day, you hope your alarm clock fails (it doesn’t), you don’t bother to even do your hair, and on the way to the airport, car breaks down again. Do you call a cab? Do you flag down a passing motorist? No, you call in: “Sorry boss. Car broke down. Can’t make it.”

The first instance is about commitment; the second, compliance.

It’s the commitment culture to which great leaders strive. It’s that special environment in which people feel valued and appreciated, where anything is possible because everyone pitches in to make those alternative futures indeed become possible. In a commitment culture, mutual recognition and appreciation are baked in to such an extent that they are simply the ways in which individuals treat each other every day. On the other hand, in a culture of compliance, external mechanisms are required to ensure that people are compliant with what the enterprise demands of them. Unlike a commitment culture in which intrinsic motivation provides the primary impetus, compliance culture necessitates sometimes elaborate systems of carrots and sticks - extrinsic motivators - that attempt to align individuals’ actions with what are often imagined abstractions of mission-oriented behaviours.

Which brings us to recognition rewards. In some corporate cultures, it has become common practice to award tangible acknowledgement of contributions above and beyond the call of duty, as it were. Someone who works long hours on a high-profile project is given a cash bonus, or significant-valued gift card, or a company-paid night on the town with their spouse or other important-person-in-their-life. It is a way of acknowledging the extra value that the person contributed – often on their own time – to the success of something that is important to the company. What could be wrong with that?

Too often, in my experience, such recognition rewards are artefacts of an organization that has developed a highly task-oriented, compliance culture. Relationship and people-orientation has become so foreign that simple and authentic gratitude is beyond the capability of most people. Because the organization’s members are systemically incapable of expressing sincere gratitude, the recognition reward becomes a routinized, corporate surrogate for recognition of a job well done. In a dysfunctional, unhealthy culture, bribery is a proxy for true appreciation.

In the larger context, recognition rewards highlight the difference between compliance and commitment. In a culture of commitment, this bribery-recognition would not be necessary (although additional, creative forms of augmented compensation are certainly appreciated, even in a commitment culture). In a culture of compliance, such carrot-and-stick encouragement mechanisms are essential to enforcing the requisite conformity to management-dictated behaviours. In a culture of commitment, literally anything is possible.

29 January 2013

Tactility and the Inverse Performance Review

’Tis the season for Oscar announcements, breaking New Year’s resolutions, and perhaps among the most dreaded of annual rituals, the Performance Review. I wrote recently about Appreciative Performance Remediation, and here at Adler we too are setting up for our own Appreciative Performance Reflections done in the context of a 3-person reference group (rather than being reviewed by their direct supervisor or manager alone, or in the context of the now-cliché 360 appraisal).

When an organization is guided by vision, a method of evaluation and assessment that involves oversight and supervision (which literally means the same as “over” “sight”) makes some semblance of sense. Vision is a one-way sense that demands distance and separation of the viewer from what is being viewed. Objectivity is the intent, and that unfortunately necessitates that which is being viewed – that is, the employee – to become an instrumental object in the organization’s “eyes.”All of that is consistent with the instrumental consideration of employees in an Industrial-Age-informed workplace.

On the other hand, an organization that chooses tactility as its guiding sensory metaphor – navigating according to the question, whom are we going to touch and how are we going to touch them today? – has a different realization. Tactility is a two-way sense: you cannot touch without being touched. In a workplace informed and inspired by tactility, there is an opportunity to introduce a reciprocity aspect to the annual performance reflection. If the organization is going to ask its members, “how well did you accomplish what we’ve asked of you; how well were you able to bring your best to contribute to the organization’s success?” then the individual has the right to ask of the organization’s leadership, “how well did you do what was expected of you to support my success?”

Recall what 21st century leadership is about: “enabling a conducive environment where people engage to create a shared experience in which an alternative future becomes possible. In an organization informed by tactility, it is not only legitimate and appropriate, but necessary for the individual to assess the leadership, asking, “how well did you enable that engaging shared experience? How much more likely is that alternative future this year as compared to last year? How effectively were resources deployed to create an environment most conducive to enabling me to bring my best towards our collective success?”

Fair game, I say: If organizations are bent on annually reviewing the performance of its members, the members have an equal right and obligation to act appropriately in undertaking an inverse performance review.

10 January 2013

New Course: Developing and Leading High-Performing Teams

We are very pleased and excited to officially launch our first course in the new Faculty of Leadership and Organization at Adler Graduate Professional School. Beginning in February and running to the first week of May, we are offering the unique opportunity to study with one of Canada's leading academics and practitioners in the field of Developing and Leading High-Performing Teams, Dr. Marilyn Laiken.

Dr. Laiken is Professor Emerita at OISE, University of Toronto, where she served as Chair of the Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology. Now a member of Adler's Faculty of Leadership and Organization, Dr. Laiken is bringing one of her most popular courses - one that she has taught to wide acclaim for over twenty years - to Adler and its students.

Developing and Leading High-Performing Teams: Theory and Practice is part of our forthcoming Certificate in Leadership and Organization, Development and Coaching that will be starting in September, 2013. We are providing a "sneak preview" of that certificate program by offering this course as a special, stand-alone offer for a special price running on alternate Thursdays from February 7 through May 2. Full details are on the program flyer.

As part of this special offering, we are opening registration to qualified members of the public. If you are in a leadership or managerial position, if you work with or as part of multi-disciplinary teams, or if you simply want to be more effective in workplace collaboration, this course is for you.Subject to individual graduate school requirements, this course may be eligible for graduate-level transfer credit towards a master's or doctoral degree. Please consult with your individual school registrar for eligibility requirements and documentation.

We are tremendously enthusiastic about this offering - and space is very limited because of the unique experiential dynamics of this course. To register, please email us at studentservices@adlearn.net, or call 416-923-4419 and speak to one of our Student Services representatives directly.

03 December 2012

Appreciative Performance Remediation

I happened to see an interesting post on my Facebook timeline that originated from a posting on Dharma Comics:
I was recently told of an African tribe that does the most beautiful thing. When someone does something hurtful and wrong, they take the person to the center of town, and the entire tribe comes and surrounds him. For two days they’ll tell the man every good thing he has ever done.

The tribe believes that every human being comes into the world as Good, each of us desiring safety, love, peace, happiness. But sometimes in the pursuit of those things people make mistakes. The community sees misdeeds as a cry for help.

They band together for the sake of their fellow man to hold him up, to reconnect him with his true Nature, to remind him who he really is, until he fully remembers the truth: “I Am Good.”
This tribal practice offers some important ideas for organizations facing the challenge of “performance remediation” and its many euphemistic incarnations with respect to dealing with problematic employees. It is essentially the basis of Appreciative Management practices.

Traditional performance reviews involve “checking the boxes” against achievement and development goals that are more-or-less arbitrarily set in an annual exercise (that is mostly dreaded by managers and employees alike). Such practices are based in a control and regimentation mentality that assumes that all achievements can be quantified (that is, they are measurable), that they can be translated into specific, observable “action,” and that they conform to deadlines (“timely”). Given the complexity that defines most that happens throughout contemporary organizations, such goal-setting exercises that to not recognize the fact of emergence are not really very “smart.”

Even worse is that the reward and punishment mechanisms that surround and support such performance management regimes more-often-than-not lead to abusive and non-productive behaviours that tend to diverge from the organization’s tactility – whom it intends to touch and how it intends to touch them – in favour of achievement of goals that are abstractions of what seemed like good ideas at the time. It is particularly authoritarian mechanisms of discipline and control that become problematic.

In contrast, Appreciative Management practices are inherently strengths-based and founded in continual reinforcement and support of “catching them doing it right”—especially important when part of doing “it” right involves organizational members autonomously determining what are the right things to be done.

Particularly, when traditional organizations are moved to discipline (or the very many euphemisms thereof), Appreciative Management approaches are far more effective in sustainable correction of problematic behaviours. When the “tribe” reinforces an individual’s strengths, and the good that they are and can bring to organizational environments, we see remarkable turnarounds in both direct behaviour and sustainable engagement and commitment.

21 November 2012

Employee (Dis)engagement

Back when I was doing my research that led to the development of Valence Theory, I came across a curious phenomenon among two of my participants, both senior leaders – CEOs, in fact – of their respective companies. In many instances, they said nearly the same things but their intention and meaning were almost exactly polar opposites of each other. For example, both spoke about consultation and collaboration with employees, yet one’s intention was to impose his beliefs, worldview, and sense-making on employees who held dissenting opinions. The other leader consulted and collaborated – especially with those who held opposing views – to discover what she was missing in her own understanding of business situations. One leader was confident in what he knew to be “true.” The other, actively sought out to fill the gaps in what she didn’t know that she didn’t know. In McLuhan language, same figures with different grounds (contexts) yields different meaning; meaning being the interplay of figure against ground.

I’m reminded of this idea that we can construct very different meanings from a given observation depending on the ground or context against which the observation is interpreted. Take employee satisfaction surveys, for example. Every leader wants to believe that her or his employees are engaged, satisfied, willing to go the proverbial extra mile or kilometre, and would happily stay even if offered a somewhat better job elsewhere. Leaders want to score high when employees consider whether their company is a Great Place to Work. They survey employees regularly, solicit feedback from workers at every level, and herald high scores through self-congratulatory email blasts thanking staff for their great teamwork, support, dedication, and loyalty in the face of adversity and constant change. What could be wrong with that?

And indeed, all may be well in the state of the company. Equally – thinking back to the example of the two leaders saying the same thing from completely opposite intentions – all may not be as well as the survey results might suggest on the surface. Here are some telltale signs that great results in an employee satisfaction survey might be masquerading some serious, systemic problems:
  1. Response rate is low or delayed: Most such surveys require a minimum response rate from workers to be considered valid. Those sponsoring the survey monitor responses and strongly encourage managers to get their employees to respond, especially as the deadline draws closer. Generally speaking, people are more reluctant to share bad news and eager to provide good. A delayed response – a “hockey stick” shaped response graph – might indicate underlying dissatisfaction.
  2. Small granularity of samples: If response units are fewer than ten people, it’s often easy for a manager to figure out who are the naysayers (or non-responders); framed another way, those who are not “good team players.” In an environment in which employment safety with respect to reprisal, career limitation, or risk of firing is a concern – especially when there is a culture of “no bad news” (see below) – employees will give neutral to mildly positive responses rather than share their true feelings. It’s a tough job market out there!
  3. Functional favouritism: Especially in companies that favour one function over another – engineers and developers in a tech company, sales people, researchers in knowledge-based organizations – satisfaction results may be skewed by overwhelmingly high scores among those who enjoy privilege who also tend to dominate in numbers as well. When average-to-mediocre results are clustered in particular functional areas, there is useful information that management is missing.
  4. No bad news, a.k.a. Emperor’s new clothes: Employees quickly learn whether honest opinions – especially those that express disagreement with the senior leaders – are welcome or not. They learn whether dissenters experience reprisals via lack of promotion or salary raises, limited access to funding or opportunities, or whether they become members of madogiwazoku “the window ledge tribe” of people who are stripped of responsibility and forced to spend their days in triviality until they resign (assuming they can find alternative employment). In such environments, employees know that there is no percentage in telling the emperor s/he has no clothes. It’s much easier, not to mention safer, to tell him/her what she wants to hear.

Sadly these conditions and others create conditions in which leaders are unable to hear and observe what is really going on right under their noses: compliance rather than commitment, apathy instead of innovation, putting another one over on the boss as opposed to providing inspired guidance.

The bottom line: High employee satisfaction and engagement survey results are meaningless if they are not understood in the context of the real environment in which they are taken.

20 August 2012

Video Trailer: Adler's Certificate in Leadership & Organization, Development & Coaching

What an exciting program we have planned beginning January, 2013. Our new Postgraduate Certificate in Leadership and Organization, Development and Coaching is officially announced and registration is open. Have a look at the video trailer and imagine yourself enrolled in this dynamic program. Better yet, imagine yourself as a 21st century leader, with expertise in Organization Development Fundamentals, Critical Perspectives, Complexity Theory and Applications, High-performing Teams, and Professional Practice (coaching/business strategy/consulting). “Your future will never be the same!”

16 August 2012

How to Become a Bad Boss

Over at the HBR Blog, there’s an insightful post about the top ten things you should do if you want to become an INEFFECTIVE leader. (The authors don’t actually frame it that way, but it’s good… err… bad guidance nonetheless.) From “most to least fatal” here are the killer ten:
  1. Failure to inspire, owing to a lack of energy and enthusiasm. 
  2. Acceptance of mediocre performance in place of excellent results. 
  3. A lack of clear vision and direction. 
  4. An inability to collaborate and be a team player. 
  5. Failure to walk the talk. 
  6. Failure to improve and learn from mistakes. 
  7. An inability to lead change or innovate owing to a resistance to new ideas. 
  8. A failure to develop others. 
  9. Inept interpersonal skills. 
  10. Displays of bad judgment that leads to poor decisions.

For all leaders, it’s worth taking a few minutes to pause and reflect on which of these might hit home (and if you happen to notice that you’re in a bit of denial, that is probably another red flag, too).

15 August 2012

Officially Announcing: Adler’s Postgraduate Certificate in Leadership & Organization, Development & Coaching

After many months of challenging and interesting effort, involving great collaboration with many from among Adler’s multiple constituencies, we are very excited to announce our new, Postgraduate Certificate in Leadership and Organization, Development and Coaching, which we affectionately call “C.LODC”. This is the first offering from the Faculty of Leadership and Organization at Adler Graduate Professional School that begins its first class January, 2013.

The underlying philosophy of the “L&O” faculty is that contemporary leadership is about enabling a conducive environment where people engage to create a shared experience in which an alternative future becomes possible. That environment itself is necessarily complex, reflecting the reality of all organizations throughout today’s massively interconnected world. Enabling that environment for the type of participation required for true engagement among people from diverse backgrounds and experiences necessitates a respect and appreciation for difference and paradox—a leader being able to hold the “tension of the polarities” of two (or more) disparate experiences in her or his mind. And, it requires both a foundational understanding of how we arrived into our current situation, and practical ways to approach organizational and people challenges, many of which are brand new for our times.

Our certificate program is specifically designed to address these needs. Comprising five courses taught over twelve months in our central Toronto location, current and future leaders will gain a new understanding of what it means to truly lead (not merely manage) in the 21st century. In designing the certificate, we selected courses from the curriculum we are submitting to the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities for a proposed master degree (obligatory disclaimer: accreditation of a future master degree is subject to government approval and cannot be assured). That curriculum has been called innovative and unique in the world by academic and practitioners reviewers whom we invited to review our design. Needless to say, we are very excited about being able to exercise some of our courses.

As we say on the C.LODC website, “Adler’s Postgraduate Certificate in Leadership and Organization, Development and Coaching is a unique program for those who would become unique leaders. We invite you to join us beginning January, 2013 for this exciting innovation in contemporary leadership education. Your future will never be the same.”

Space is necessarily limited. And, we’re offering a special, discounted price of $6,750 for the inaugural year (regular price is $9,000). Come download an application for one of the few spots remaining in this great, new program. Indeed, your future will never be the same!

Update (20 Aug 2012): Here’s the great video trailer for the program:

06 August 2012

Advice for the Leader-lorn: When to Skip the “Skip Level”

“Advice for the Leader-lorn” is an irregular series in which Dr. Mark answers your leadership questions. If you have a thorny leadership situation that you’d like Dr. Mark to address, send your question to Dr. Mark.

Today’s question comes from A.Y. who writes: “I’ve recently come into a company in a Senior VP position. It didn’t take me very long to observe that morale among the managers and staff isn’t up to what it might be. In fact, people seem to be pretty demoralized. In my last company, we used “skip-level interviews” with staff to hear what was really going on two or three levels down in the hierarchy. I’d like to do the same here, but the moment I mentioned the idea, people turned pale, fumbled for their Blackberries, and excused themselves to head to a meeting (and people here absolutely hate meetings!). I get the feeling that jumping in to this program may not be the best idea right now, but I’d still like to know what’s really going on. How should I proceed?

Your powers of observation serve you well, A.Y. You’ve saved yourself a lot of time filled with awkward moments, and your staff painful facial muscles as they feign smiles and pleasantries. Skip-level interviews can be an effective means of hearing “the truth,” unfiltered by layers of management well-trained in obfuscating corporate-speak. But as actor Jack Nicholson famously reminded us, “the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” And many employees can’t handle delivering the truth, especially when the implications of the uneven power relations are not perfectly clear as being safe.

Your previous company seemed to have made good use of skip-level interviews, the opportunity for more senior leaders to reach down into their organization and spend some quality, one-on-one time with employees farther down the reporting hierarchy. It’s likely that the organization culture was one of openness and safety. No one there had ever experienced reprisals from their direct manager (or manager’s manager) for reporting anything other than a rosy picture of complete competence. The culture was probably a strong learning culture in which reflective learning accompanied every decision—without witch-hunts, post-mortems, or the type of inquisitions meant to ensure that “this (whatever may have gone sideways) will never happen again.” In a culture of Appreciative Management with Positive Leadership, all levels of the organization expect to hear frank exposition of what’s really going on from everyone, irrespective of their level of responsibility or seniority, and positively reinforce that openness and honest. I would go so far as to say that in such a culture, skip-level interviews are likely unnecessary, since everyone typically knows what’s “really happening” anyway, through regular check-ins in an environment of individual autonomy and agency, collective responsibility, and mutual accountability.

The reactions you’ve received at your new company suggest that it may be too soon for a person with legitimated authority – you – to embark on a program that requires a high degree of trust and safety to be effective. Everyone knows that it’s not safe to talk to strangers, and in the context of that organization’s culture, you are still a stranger. My invitation to you is to begin slowly in your quest for knowledge. There are likely those who are organizationally close to you whom you can ask first for frank opinions about what needs to change to improve the work environment—your admin assistant (if you have a person in that role) or other person in a relatively lower-level position. Follow through on your promises to them and you begin to build trust. Next, hold a mini-town hall meeting among those people’s organizational peers and listen deeply to their experiences of the organization. Find an opportunity to give them autonomy and agency in enacting the changes that will make their roles more effective and more satisfying.

After that, spread out to those of higher hierarchical rank who are connected to the ones who are beginning to trust you, again listening deeply, granting autonomy where possible, taking the opportunity for action whenever you can. By all means, recognize and reward those who speak the truth – especially difficult truths – and invite a strong “culture of inquiry” to emerge. Rinse and repeat until you notice that people are regaining the colour in the faces and putting away their Blackberries when you approach. Only then will you have gained sufficient trust and established the requisite safety for skip-level interviews to succeed.

Except by then, you won’t need them to know what’s really going on.

13 June 2012

Owner Capitalism. The New Absentee Landlords

I’ve never quite subscribed to the fictitious idea that contemporary shareholders of public companies are truly “owners.” They may own the company’s stock, and by virtue of placing a bet on an arcane future outcome based on an alchemic expectation (and actual delivery) of future profits, relative degree of satisfaction or disappointment (irrespective of actual success), and what Apple or Google have recently announced (or perhaps literally, the price of tea in China), may be entitled to a financial reward from time to time. But that reward is more akin to a bet at the craps table in the casino called Bay Street, Wall Street, NASDAQ, or similar. The overwhelming majority of company stock purchases are simply about money making more money based solely on the movement of money. Aside from angel investors and venture capitalists investing in start-ups, long gone are the days when a so-called investor is authentically investing in the success of the enterprise, as opposed to the financial return of the supposed investment itself.

This premise is the basis of a new book by Yvan Allaire and Mihaela Firsirotu, A Capitalism of Owners, reviewed today in the Globe and Mail.
In an era where companies must be flexible and strive for change, the authors say corporate leaders face a stressful paradox. The more competitive the markets for goods and services, the more businesses need time to adapt, innovating and putting in place new strategies (as Ms. Nooyi was attempting) without speculators breathing down their necks.

“Yet, in these very times of a raging competitive battle, contemporary financial markets, the supposed ‘company owners,’ pile on widely held publicly listed companies, bullying them for short-term results and then exit the stock en masse, leaving the place to speculators, financial jackals, and buzzards,” the authors note.

Note the phrase “supposed” owners. Under capitalism, ownership belongs to the holders of shares. But the authors question whether today’s stockholders are share owners or share flippers, speculating on the market. They note that in the 1960s, a share was held, on average, for seven years by its owner. Today, on the New York Stock Exchange, shares are held for less than a year – roughly the level at the time of the 1929 market crash, the authors note. Other major exchanges have seen a similar transformation.
Exactly my point. Taking a more theoretically grounded approach to the analysis, I would argue that, according to Valence Theory, most shareholders are not even members of the organization; how on earth could they be considered “owners” qualified to participate in decision making? Indeed, the company’s customers have stronger, more pervasive ties to the organization and would theoretically be better qualified to contribute to good decision making on behalf of all constituencies.

We all know the problem with absentee landlords. Owner capitalism is equivalently problematic, and far more pernicious in its effects on society in general.

08 June 2012

And the Researcher Impact and Effectiveness Award Goes to: Marina Gutman!

Regular readers will know that when I refer to “effectiveness,” I specifically mean, “are we enabling and creating the effects we intend among our various member constituencies?” Effects occur along the various valence relationships—Economic, Socio-psychological, Identity, Knowledge, and Ecological. In my own work, I apply this guidance specifically towards the challenges of contemporary leadership and transforming the cultures of 19th and 20th century organizations to become organizations consistent with the 21st century. But similar reasoning can be applied towards any other functional aspects of an organization: finance, operations, sales, human “resources” (which I would reframe as “resourcefulness”), and most of all, marketing. In fact, marketing has always been more about effects than goals or specific outcomes (which are more accurately considered as emergent consequences of marketing effects). Marketing asks the simple question, what effects do we, as a brand, want to have on consumers—both those who currently are, and those who are not yet, “ours.”

Exceptional marketing goes one step beyond that, recognizing that valence analysis creates an equivalence between consumers “out there,” and employees - say brand managers, for instance - “in here.” This realization, in turn, necessitates turning great data analysis into great storytelling both inside and outside (because, in valence-oriented organizations, there is no inside or outside; we’re essentially all on the same ’side!). It is the rare marketer indeed who truly understands and embodies this realization. How rare you ask? So rare, that the Market Research and Intelligence Association has held the award for Client-Side Researcher Impact and Effectiveness open for three years since its inception waiting for just such a marketer.

I am so very proud of my dear friend (and dance partner), Marina Gutman, who is the very first recipient of this award. In creating and awarding this honour, the Association
recognizes a member, employed at a client-side researcher corporate member of the Association, for outstanding achievements over the past year which have served to elevate the stature of marketing, survey and public opinion research and market intelligence at senior decision-making levels of his or her own organization. The nomination received for this award this year was absolutely compelling in terms of the nominee’s stellar impact and effectiveness within her organization, and the respect and influence she has garnered for the research function at senior decision-making levels. A brief excerpt from the nomination tells the story well:

Through strategic guidance, research prowess, outstanding relationships with research partners, and sheer will and passion, this individual has been able to elevate the stature of marketing research and decision-making from only very basic key performance indicator tracking to best-in-class levels. Her work is now being held up as an example for the other two business units at Coca Cola Canada [!], and is being widely used in organizations such as Nielsen and Millward Brown as best demonstrated practice and in training materials for developing researchers. She excels at identifying and focusing business questions, then building comprehensive research plans to operationalize them. She is an expert project manager capable of managing a huge workload with a limited budget and often even more limited timelines. Her exceptional relationships with her research partners enable her to pull off miracles regularly. Perhaps her most differentiated skill, however, is her ability to “tell the story” simply and concisely in plan business language, not “research-ese.”
I’ve seen the entire nomination brief and it left me in awe. Among the things that impressed me was Marina’s ability to market to brand teams with true effectiveness, creating the desired effects of transformative change in the way the organization and its managers think about, and act on their brands, resulting in satisfaction ratings for decision analyses catapulting from 40% to 100%. This translated into stellar brand performance and repositioning (against a well-entrenched competitor), highly successful new product launches, and perhaps most near and dear to the heart of an old OD pro (and prof) like me, “a critical strategic thinking partner to the business teams offering an unparalleled level of strategic thinking which both challenges and inspires them.” I really like that “challenges and inspires” part!

Congratulations, Marina! Well done, and so well deserved!

05 June 2012

How - Not Who - Do You Hire?

Like most people whose digiSelf has a presence on LinkedIn, I receive the periodic “Jobs You May Be Interested In” email. Not that I’m actively looking to relocate at the moment (fans of the proposed M.LODC program can breathe again!), but there’s the whole “make me an offer that I can’t refuse thing,” too. In this week’s edition, there was a notice for a “Senior Manager, Leadership Development Strategy” position at Scotiabank. Reading through the description, I came to the conclusion that I would be eminently qualified, and completely unhireable for that position.

Let me explain: First, I lack the number one desired qualification, namely, “at least 5+ years experience within the financial services industry.” Reframing this qualification suggests that leadership within the financial services industry is somehow uniquely different than leadership within any other industry segment. In other words, according to Scotiabank’s standpoint, leadership is fundamentally instrumental in nature as opposed to transcending the instrumental to become – as I argue – environmental. Moreover, this Scotiabank position is intended to, “oversee the Bank´s approach to Executive Recruitment.” (As an aside, I think their choice use of capitalizations is interesting in the way it transforms certain abstractions into proper nouns; but I digress.) It is clear that the “Bank” considers hiring somewhat more traditionally, as an instrumental exercise to find the right candidate who best meets the job description and requirements. Or, expressed another way, an exercise to find the machine component whose specifications most closely match those preconceived by the industrial machine itself.

Clearly, I would be a disaster in that role. For me – and for UCaPP organizations – recruitment and hiring is far less about the candidate directly, and much more about the aspirational intentions of the organization itself.

Say what?

Let’s unpack that last idea: According to Valence Theory, organizations are fundamentally emergent entities that arise from the relationships (of which there are five) among the people (or more generally, the member constituencies). Change the people and you necessarily change the nature and quality of the relationships. Therefore, each new hire irrevocably changes the organization. Although it seems relatively obvious that if you change, say, a major persona at a relatively higher hierarchical level in the organization – the CEO or a senior director, for instance – you’ll create a change in the organization, it is also true that introducing any personnel change effects emergent, transformational change – most often subtle change – in the organization. The so-called ripple effects of changing even a hierarchically low-level position introduces the potential for large systemic transformation throughout the complex system that is the organization.

Here’s a somewhat, but not entirely, contrived example that illustrates the point: An organization hires someone for an entry-level position who happens to be really enthusiastic about softball, or cycling, or possibly even salsa dancing. That person takes the initiative to organize social events that feature their interest which, in turn, brings people together in a social environment who previously may never have directly interacted. That recreational interaction in turn recreates the nature and quality of their workplace interactions and stuff happens that enables new, and unexpected, business-related effects. As I said, the so-called ripple effects of changing even a hierarchically low-level position introduces the potential for large systemic transformation throughout the complex system that is the organization.

Thus, the question of hiring becomes (among other things) a question about what we, as an organization, want to become. Into what do we aspire to transform and evolve? What effects to we intend to create and enable among our member constituencies and how will that new person contribute that creation and enablement? Or, more succinctly, what is our tactility? Hiring decisions are, in effect, organizational evolution and tactility decisions—how will we touch the person we are inviting into organization, and how will that person will touch us? The hiring process is about enculturation—how will that individual assimilate and embody our organizational culture, and how will our organizational culture embody the effects introduced by that individual?

So, hiring me, for example, into an organization means that the organization has some pretty inspired, far-thinking, and unconventional aspirations for the future of its leadership. Just the sorts of things we’re playing with here in the Faculty of Leadership and Organization at Adler Graduate Professional School.

01 June 2012

In the Best Interest of the Students

An education-related story caught my attention yesterday, as a textbook example of how a bureaucratic mentality precludes reflective leadership and organizational learning—precisely the attributes required for being effective in the contemporary world. The details of the case are pretty straight-forward:
Lynden Dorval has been a … teacher in the Edmonton Public School system for 35 years. Last week, he was suspended indefinitely for what he says was insubordination for disobeying an order not to give zeros to students. [He says,] “…if [students] don’t hand in work or show up to write an exam … we have a comment policy where we’re supposed to put in comments indicating what they haven’t done. The problem with that is the marks program doesn’t count that for anything, so if a student had only done half the work then their average mark would be based only on that half the work. The average is calculated by whatever marks are in there.”
In other words, if a student does only one or two assignments on which s/he receives passing grades and does no other work through the term – including not taking the exam – the student will nonetheless receive a passing grade according to the Edmonton School Board policy. Mr. Dorval objected to this policy, ensuring that a student would receive a final mark that reflects both the work done and not done. The Board superintendent suspended Dorval for insubordination (notably only three weeks before the final exams when the students are most in need of a teacher familiar with what had transpired through the entire school year).

Seems pretty dumb on the surface, doesn’t it? Despite the seemingly ill-advised policy and inappropriateness of the suspension timing, what does this story have to do with leadership, and the problematics of a bureaucratic mindset? Well, have a listen to what the Board’s official spokesperson, one Cheryl Oxford, has to say about the superintendent’s decision:
“A student is to be assessed on their overall learning outcomes,” she told reporters. “So as opposed to being assessed on what they don’t know, they’re being assessed on what they do know. … All the decisions that we make are in the best interest of students. If the superintendent did not feel that this decision was not in the best interest of the students he wouldn’t have made it.”
Did you catch that? First, counting only those assignments that were done seems to ensure that students are evaluated on “what they do know,” presumably because what they haven’t done, they don’t know (as opposed to, say, simply not doing the work for whatever reason). To a system that is designed to purge human judgment – in other words, a bureaucracy – that sort of comment technically makes sense.

More significant, however, are the effects of the bureaucratic mentality. In his book, The Rise of the Network Society, Manuel Castells describes bureaucracies as, “organizations for which the reproduction of their system of means becomes their main organizational goal.” This means that a bureaucratic system cannot afford to be demonstrated to be wrong: If it was wrong, it would impede its ability to reproduce its system of means. This underlying mentality often translates into bewildering and often arcane public explanations that seem to ignore what to those outside of the system would be simple, common sense. It is the reason why so many bureaucratically minded leaders choose to “stay the course,” rather than admit that a decision was ill advised (because that would be tantamount to admitting that the system which vested in them decision-making power made a mistake). Case in point: Ms. Oxford’s comment that, since all decisions are made in the best interests of students, the specific decision to suspend Lynden Dorval must have been in the best interest of students, otherwise the decision would not have been made. It is a circular (il)logic that steadfastly defends a bureaucratic system over any potential reflection on the usefulness of the policy, practical problematics of its implementation, or – heaven forefend! – unintended consequences like depriving students of their teacher right before final exams which, according to the unique bureaucratic reasoning of the Edmonton School Board, must, by definition, be in the best interest of the students.

Besides, by creating an incentive for students to only submit assignments on material that they know and ignore everything else, we can be assured to create good bureaucrats to fill the cubicles of both public and private sector corporate bureaucracies. After all, bureaucracies exist to reproduce their systems of means, and what is the purpose of the traditional education system if not to serve that bureaucratic objective?