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.