The language leaders use needs to align with their aspirations for their reputation, team and organization. When I listen to the rhetoric of the current political campaign, and how many people seem to be embracing language that reminds me of schoolyard bullies, it is not a model that I want to see replicated in business (or anywhere else for that matter). In a world where anyone can easily be recorded, “live streamed” in seconds and where their words can be tweeted and quickly go viral, skillful language is more important than ever. And if you are a global leader, the stakes are even higher because many countries have higher standards than ours with regards to the language expected of business leaders.
I was talking with a senior executive in a large, global organization, discussing one of his leaders. He thought highly of this leader and had supported the individual being promoted. He clearly cared about this person and wanted them to be successful. At one point he said, “I think [this person’s] lifestyle is difficult for some people, but not me.” After inquiring what he meant by “lifestyle”, he clarified that he was talking about a homosexual relationship. I am not an expert, but I am pretty sure that most gay people think of themselves just like heterosexuals, as having a “life” and not a lifestyle. It also is preferable I believe to describe whether a person is straight or gay (or anywhere on the continuum) as their sexual “orientation”. Connected, current leaders know this and if they want to represent themselves well, they should.
When I work with leaders I always want them to be as informed, intelligent, inclusive and astute as possible. This is not a superficial desire on my part. I am motivated to help clients create the highest commitment and performance on their teams and in their organizations. My role with clients often allows me access to hearing things that their team might not share openly with others. They trust they can tell me because they know I am committed to confidentiality and direct communication (direct from them and not me). I can tell you that even if you think you don’t have a person who is gay on your team or on a team with whom you work closely, you are probably wrong.
There are myriad other examples where people may prefer to keep information about themselves private: issues of identity, gender, family, health, religious and political affiliation. So when leaders use language that may cause an individual or group to disengage (even when they don’t mean to), what I am most aware of these days is how unskillful they look. Considering how our language might hurt, bother or demotivate another person is not political correctness, it is smart, skillful and compassionate.
None of us is perfect. We all have blind spots and lack awareness on ways of being that are unfamiliar or unknown to us. The world is only becoming more transparent. I anticipate that the next generation of business leaders will be more open in all sorts of ways. I am excited about this. Let’s prepare right now by becoming more knowledgeable and mindful of the language we use and even more important, consider how our beliefs and values when expressed might be experienced by others. This comes with the commitment to lead. The more prepared you are to connect with a wide range of people, the more you will be able to inspire and motivate others to their best contribution, and the more capable your organization will be to meet whatever demands come your way.
This past week I introduced some systems thinking tools on mental models I use almost every day but don’t get to introduce to teams as often as I would like. They are great tools but don’t fit easily into our “here are five things”, “three easy steps” and “two questions that will fix everything” corporate improvement lexicon. Working with mental models can be complex, messy, and really useful. They also require curiosity and practice.
One of the tools, the Ladder of Inference (Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard) can be found in The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. It is an understatement to say that this book rocked my world and helped me gain a much better understanding of organizational learning. If you work in organization development you most likely know the Ladder of Inference. Many leaders have used it as well but I am not sure if it used as often as it should be. The thing about systems thinking and mental models is they are designed to help us maneuver through the increasing complexity of our world. The work done by the Society for Organizational Learning at MIT, and popularized by Senge’s book, is more relevant today than ever.
We all need to keep learning and expanding our understanding. Technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence are all set to offer monumental efficiencies at organizations around the world. If they don’t replace us, they are predicted to make many of our species less busy and less employable. So we all, business leaders included, need to continue to grow: our skills, our knowledge, but most of all how we think. Our ability to think and learn with greater agility is at the center of my work and one of the most important competencies for leaders in every discipline.
Mental models are the cognitive “maps” or operating system we use to inform what we see, make up, and believe about the world. Our formative years are “mental model generating” and as these models become more semipermanent they allow us to maneuver through the world and become more skillful. We add to them all the time and can do so throughout our lives no matter how old we are. But when we become more experienced and knowledgeable, or have been working in a discipline for a while, we often challenge our mental models less and less. We perceive, select data, add meaning, draw conclusions, adopt beliefs, make decisions and act on our mental models without really questioning or testing them. They become a reflexive loop where we perceive and add meaning based upon a filter that only allows in what we have the cognitive capacity to see. When a leader is working on an important project, has a big decision, a high stakes conversation or needs to bring about big shifts in their business, they need to access to other people’s mental models. They need to be able to learn from and apply them.
If you start working with mental models, you will not only make better decisions, but you will expand your thinking in ways that you must if you are going to remain relevant: market a new product to a new customer or inspire an audience in another part of the world with which you are less familiar.
Through walking up the ladder of inference, we can unpack our own and others thinking, we become more intelligent. We are able to see more and better understand the perceptions, assumptions and beliefs of others outside of ourselves. If we practice it (and other mental model tools) often enough, we expand our frame and our perceptive capacity. It takes courage to walk up the ladder, because you may find out that you don’t see things the way others do and that you might not have the best answer. This can be difficult, especially for really smart people in powerful positions. You also need to make sure that the process is safe, especially if there are power imbalances in the room. You can’t really work with the ladder if you aren’t open to hear what others are thinking and feeling. They will smell a rat. So if you are going to do what you want to do regardless of what you learn, don’t use it – you will just look less trustworthy. Sometimes you may not have time to go through the collaborative and reflective process required to work with mental models. That’s okay. But when you have an important project or decision, what you “know” is probably not enough, and if you don’t learn what you need to, it can have disastrous consequences.
 For excellent explanations of both tools I recommend the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, by Peter Senge, Art Kleiner, Charlotte Roberts, Richard Ross, and Bryan Smith. Copyright, 1994.
More organizations are ditching their annual performance review process. Companies such as Microsoft, Accenture, Adobe, Deloitte and GAP have revamped their performance processes, in some instances gotten rid of rankings and the annual evaluation. Some organizations are also uncoupling the process from the timing of their compensation review process. Much of this change is exciting. Revamping these systems was long overdue.
There are lots of good ways to improve this process. How you approach it should be predicated on what you are trying to achieve as a business and the outcomes you expect. There is no perfect system for all companies. There are however some foundations that will make whatever you do more effective and before you implement big changes you should attend to these first:
Ensure you have a really good talent acquisition process.
From many years helping clients with performance practices, it is abundantly clear a majority of performance problems are due to “poor fit” in the first place. Poor fit can be about:
Hiring the right people in the first place is key to making your performance process better.
Everyone knows what is expected and how he or she contributes.
Clarity is one of the most important dimensions in performance. Companies are implementing better goal-setting practices, which is a good start. More work needs to be done up front by managers to set clear expectations and anything else they use to evaluate performance. It is woefully common for me to hear that teams do not know what is expected of them or that expectations are a “moving target”. Make sure the vision, goals and expectations are clear and confirm all your employees know how they contribute. As with everything, these are all dynamic and change happens throughout the year. You always need to do more to communicate this than you think. And this goes both ways. If you aren't sure what is expected of you, regardless of your level, ask.
Your leaders are prepared.
Performance management is a people process and you need people to engage and implement. Build buy in for the change and provide the vision as well as the detailed “how”. There is no way of getting around that ultimately performance conversations are dialogues and we know some leaders are more skilled at this than others. Some companies do quick "check ins" with “yes” and “no” answers (“Would you invite this person on your team/project again?”) and that is great for quick evaluation. Organizations need to invest in people’s development, the best of which happens day to day, on the job. And this requires performance and coaching conversations.
The only other thing I recommend for all leaders these days, especially at the higher level, is that they take greater responsibility for their own performance review process, ask for feedback and make sure they are making adjustments throughout the year based upon what they hear. If you want your team to do this, you need to model it.
When you have the right people in the right roles, they know what is expected of them and there are ongoing, timely feedback and development conversations, everyone can become more skillful, offer more value to their organization and feel good about the contribution they are making to the enterprise.
This past week I worked with two fantastic teams. They were as different as their missions and I know they will do great work. As one of the teams was creating their ground rules, we had an interesting discussion about vulnerability. One leader said that he gets really uncomfortable when people he doesn’t know well share something that he considers overly personal. I understand and I know that there are actually a lot of people who feel this way. This is based in part on personality but also on many other variables.
I shared with them that I think there are some universally positive behaviors with regards to vulnerability at work. And I don’t think vulnerability needs to involve sharing information we consider overly private. There is an expectation that leaders are more open and transparent these days. This is likely due to the availability of information, social media and the fact that we human beings tend to “fill in” and “make up” what we want to know but don’t. In general, it’s better to have accurate information come from the source (you) than through a third party.
When I consider behaviors that demonstrate vulnerability, are highly effective, and almost universally positive, here are my top three:
“I am sorry you felt bad.” (A fake apology)
“I am sorry I told _____ that I did not trust you to follow through. I should have discussed my concerns directly with you and I will next time.” (A real apology)
The truth is we are all seen, heard and known at work. How much we are trusted and understood is up to us. Most of the time when we think we are doing a good job not showing our vulnerability, we are at our most vulnerable. When we apologize, own our mistakes and share how we feel, we are more effective and connected. When these behaviors are more common, I also believe workplaces are happier and healthier and that it more than a bonus.
I don’t believe our current presidential race is surprising. Like all jobs, you attract what you reward and the system (or company), it’s effectiveness and functioning, will always determine the quality of the applicant. David McClelland, an American Psychologist, developed a pretty vibrant theory of motivation and achievement and along with David Burnham applied it to the work and effectiveness of leaders. They wrote about it in popular HBR article called Power Is the Great Motivator (Originally published in January, 1995).
McClelland and Burnham discuss three different motivations for managers. They found the least effective manager was one who is most motivated by affiliation, or for whom being liked is more important than the need for power or achievement. They found that power is an important motivator for the other two types of manager. One of the types is motivated by personal power, and their achievement and success is what matters most to them. The other manager is motivated by institutional power, and McClelland and Burnham called this manager “the institutional manager”. This manager uses power effectively to influence others in service of the organization and it’s success. Both types of power motivation are actually more effective than the manager motivated by affiliation. For an organization, institutional power is more effective and it creates better outcomes.
This theory explains so much of what I see in organizations and institutions (and yes, our government). Leaders motivated by personal power are everywhere, and they can actually be highly successful. They are not usually known for their people development and they are not good at creating cohesive teams. The higher up they are promoted, the less trusted they are by their people because everyone knows that they are in it for their own achievement. Personal power leaders hit a tipping point where they can no longer drive all the results themselves. They have to start influencing the achievement of others. This is different work. It’s more difficult, and it won’t be as satisfying for them to help other people achieve. So they find all sorts of ways to hang on to the power they should be sharing with those they need to influence. The personal power manager may be less satisfied at the higher-levels of leadership but they still get promoted and stay. Power is hard to relinquish and so is the executive pay.
By which type of power do you think our current presidential candidates are motivated?
Talented institutional leaders often get discouraged, especially in publicly traded organizations. One of my clients told me that she didn’t want to be considered for a c-suite role at her organization because she didn’t want to “become a jerk”. She told me that, “They all just care about their own power. I care about the whole organization. I won’t fit into their club and honestly, I don’t want to.” I have heard many versions of this through the years and it’s upsetting. It means that those leaders most motivated to influence achievement through others, are less likely to go after top jobs because the don’t’ want to be surrounded by a team who are in it for themselves. Organizations can change this. You have to be intentional and set up your performance and reward systems so that they promote institutional leaders. Power is good, both types, but one is better. Which one will you promote?
Welcome to Moira's blog. I write a bi-monthly post about the work of building better people strategies, systems, teams and leaders.