Earlier in the week, I covered C is for Culture. Continuing the letter C, this beautiful blog post about organisational climate is contributed by freelance OD practitioner Lucy Thompson. Lucy is a creative OD Specialist, Changemaker and Coach. She typically leads the people aspects on major transformational change programmes, focusing on delivering organisational effectiveness and team performance.
Creating the right Climate for Culture to Flourish
I was reminded today of the simplicity of a flower in nature – when you see a flower growing beautifully and thriving, the last thing you do is pick it. You leave it to be nurtured by nature- safe in the knowledge that this flower had found its place in the world and the climate it was growing in was enabling it to be the best version of itself it can be.
A climate in an organisation is often referred to as its culture. You only need Google ‘culture’ and ‘organisation’ to find a raft of insight, models and diagnostics that can help put labels on what is happening at any one time in the organisation and its system.
Many an OD practitioner will tell you that culture is a direct descendant of the team at the top. Leadership shapes culture. It’s the way leaders walk, the way they talk, the messages they send and the way they bounce back when things might not have gone as planned.
Creating high performing leadership teams
Taking this a step further, the leaders in an organisation are a team in their own right – they might be members of several teams but their ‘first’ team is their peer group and the purpose of their roles is to work together to steer their ship to success (whatever that might look like for them). Therefore, if this team shapes culture, then creating high performing teams must start with the top team. This creates the right climate for OD – simple enough? Yet why do many organisations struggle with this concept?
Patrick Lencioni is a true hero of mine. He really puts out in to the ether a simple construct of a high performing team and its characteristics. No long-complicated words or theory, no model that requires you to follow a tube map of arrows to understand the end goal. Quite simply the five behaviours of a cohesive team are Trust, Conflict, Commitment, Accountability and Results – simple when you know how, right?
For OD to flourish in organisations, the culture needs to be right: it needs to enable OD practitioners and their practice to be the very best version they can be, and this means the work starts at the top. Enabling the cohesive team can be the gamechanger for the success of organisation development and its interventions.
We are told that past performance is not necessarily a guide to future performance, especially when making personal financial investments. That’s why, in organisations, we write business cases to prove to ourselves we will get a return on investment. How does this apply to transformational change, when it’s not just finances, but relationships between people that need to change? We are told that past performance is not necessarily a guide to future performance… but it is a good place to start.
Past – Present – Future … where do you tend to start?
“I want to change the culture,” is something I hear a lot from potential clients. They have an idea of what is NOT working and a vague notion that “empowerment”, more accountability” or “better collaboration” are the ways to change things. They then immediately set about defining what the future will look like and writing their business case. If this sounds familiar, chances are you are already on the path to failure. That is because you have over-rationalised it and are trying to make a purely financial case for investment.
The Future is unwritten
I’m not going to bore you with facts and figures about the failure of change programmes. You’ll know yourself that organisations often choose to invest in tangible things that can be measured in financial terms. Thing like restructuring, new systems and business processes. They tend to spend less effort investing in building truly collaborative way of working, innovating and problem-solving. Because these are hard to do. Also, writing business cases forces you down that path. It is often a logical place to start, but it is not the whole story.
Let the Future remain unwritten for a little longer
In my experience, organisations that over rely on these rational aspects of change tend to achieve limited success, smaller business benefits and alienate their people. Those organisations that consider the softer, relationship-orientated, people aspects of change achieve better results. Sometimes. A major issue, even when culture is properly considered, is that those seeking the change only look forwards to envision a brighter future.
Opportunities lie in the Past as well as the Future
This is, I fear, only half the story. By looking at how your organisation got to where it is today, you will understand what aspects of your current culture are already working well and need preserving. Reflect on the journey taken to get to where you are today, the successes, the failures, what has been learned (and what has not). This will give you a better understanding of what makes your organisation tick, and what might be holding it back.
Now is all there is
By achieving a deeper understanding of the Past, you allow yourself, collectively with your people, to let it go. You will become more intently focused on the Present. I believe the Present is really all that truly exists. Looking to the Past helps us understand the Present. Looking to the future tries to hi-Jack the Present and force it into something it is not ready to be.
Be right here, right now with your people and allow your Future Intention to emerge collectively from collaborative sense-making and reflecting on learnings from the Past. Pay attention to the Present to make your Future Intention a reality. There are a few simple, practical techniques and ways of working that can be applied every day to do this. The result is transformational. The result is the culture change you are seeking.
Jeremy J Lewis, committed to making a difference in embedding sustainable change
The trade-off between interpersonal tension and task tension is not that well understood in organisations. And yet it is a fundamental equation that can help improve productivity, the quality of work relationship and outcomes.
Interpersonal tension is a sad thing. It occurs when people simply don’t get along. This could be a personality clash or residual tension from previous encounters. Oftentimes, people simply avoid others they don’t get along with, and that’s fine if it doesn’t impact your work outcomes. But what if your job requires you to work with someone with whom you have interpersonal tension? I’m not talking about a saboteur who actively tries to stop you doing your job – that would require escalation to a more senior manager or the involvement of HR. no, I’m talking more about the persistent naysayer who you just don’t get along with well enough to be able to focus on the task at hand.
Task tensionis a happy thing. According to taskmanagementguide.com, task tension can be described as a positive feeling that a person or a group feels when they have an interesting work to be done. Task tension includes feelings of zeal and enthusiasm that encourage people to intensively research the task, seek for ways to complete it, build their collaboration around these aims, and overcome many interpersonal problems for the sake of common goals.
Chart: the trade-off between interpersonal tension and task tension
The chart shows that, over time, interpersonal tension decreases as interest in the task increases. The challenge is to work on techniques that overcome interpersonal tension quickly so that teams can focus on the task. This moves the interpersonal tension line from A to B, and hence saves time, increasing productivity.
And so, the workplace challenge is first to ensure there is a stream of interesting team-based collaborative work available so that task tension has a fighting chance of overcoming interpersonal tension.
And then, the workplace goal is for task tension to overcome interpersonal tension as quickly as possible.
Self-awareness of our own behaviours and how those impact others (“Knowing me…”)
The ability to ‘let it go’ and work with others as you find them (“Knowing you…”)
So that you can get on with the task at hand (“Aha!”).
Knowing me, Knowing you, Aha!
It is important to bring people together to reflect on their own behavioural style, recognise that of others with whom they work and begin to understand how to collaborate. It helps team members and their leaders play to their strengths, overcome their weaknesses and work collaboratively together for the benefit of the organisation. This is of fundamental importance in today’s complex workplace.
And so, I have three questions for you:
Do you have the reflective practice in place to be able to do this?
Do you have the right behavioural insights to facilitate the discussion?
Do you have the right facilitator to bring people together in a way that values differences, seeks common ground and builds collaboration without the session falling apart?
I can’t help you find a stream of interesting, team-based, collaborative work. But if you’re searching for your “Aha!” moment, I believe I can help with expert facilitation supported by leading edge psychometrics.
Committed to making a difference in building collaborative teams that get the job done
I had the pleasure of exploring silence with a group of fellow coaches recently, facilitated ably by my colleague Ian Smith. We concluded silence can be a gift, as it is received and understood by different people differently.
We experimented with silence to reflect on what silence meant, and then shared our thinking. For the most part, the participants in this reflective discussion viewed silence as a positive thing, as it gives others time and space to think and reflect. I was curious. I see certain instances of silence as being quite destructive; those uncomfortable silences, when something needs to be said, but no one is saying it. Like the silence that is taken as acquiescence in a meeting, but as soon as the meeting is over, people rebel and do not follow through with what was “agreed”. Like the silence that leads to Groupthink. Perhaps like the silence that ignores the ‘elephant in the room’.
Three levels of silence
This inspired me to research the current thinking out there in the blogosphere about silence. I only found positive interpretations of silence. Silence is often categorised into several levels. I found examples of up to 12 levels. This I find excessive, although I also find it excessive that the Eskimo-Aleut languages have 50 words for snow.
Sensible categorisations of silence appear to fall into three levels:
The absence of sound
A disinterest in external activity, where the mind is focused inwards
A deep inner silence brought on through meditation, in pursuit of oneness and total contentment.
There is now a Level Zero
[Children’s movie spoiler alert]
Po: Lets just start at zero; Level Zero. Shifu: Oh no. There is no such thing as Level Zero.
Thus starts the scene in Kung Fu Panda, where our hero, the overweight panda Po, begins his journey to enlightenment. After Po hits a children’s punchbag and is sent flying into moving ropes and swinging pendulums, he endures being deposited into a tilting bowl, where he hits his head several times until the bowl tips over and sets off a chain reaction that causes swinging arms to smack him in the groin and then knock him violently into a fire pit. He slumps over next to his Sensei, Shifu, burned and charred.
Po: How did I do? Shifu: There is now a Level Zero.
I propose four levels of silence for your consideration:
0. Uncomfortable silence
1. Comfortable silence
2. Reflective silence
3. Deep silence.
Level 0: uncomfortable silence
Uncomfortable silence arises through fear of being isolated because you have a different opinion from the majority. This is closely aligned to Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s ideas in the Spiral of Silence. People tend to remain silent for fear of social exclusion when they have a minority opinion that might challenge the group’s dominant idea. They must constantly use energy to assess the climate in a social group and may choose to remain silent or ‘lose their voice’, especially if they have been criticised in the past. This does not apply to those (at the top of Noelle-Neumann’s spiral) who are hardcore nonconformists or who represent the Avant-Garde. Such people are less likely to remain silent.
The advent of the Internet has also arguably lowered this type of silence online, where people with minority (often extremist) views are likely to seek out others of similar views and use chat rooms to find their voice. Such folk can also benefit from the anonymity of the Internet, which lowers the fear of reprisal, and has led to an uprising in airtime for controversial views.
In a workplace context, uncomfortable silence represents a denial of responsibility, allowing undiscussable topics to remain undiscussable, and ultimately degenerates into a ‘snakepit’ organisation, where people retreat into their silos and protect themselves against attack from each other.
Level 1: comfortable silence
The main problem with silence is that we do not know what it means when it happens. Is the silence uncomfortable: a denial of responsibility, or comfortable: a true agreement to what is being discussed?
Comfortable silence happens when we are happy together, perhaps lost in our own thoughts and not needing to fill the silence with words. We are comfortable with the people we are with. This is a passive silence.
I suggest this is only possible if there are no hidden assumptions. Very close friends and life partners can achieve this level of silence.
In the workplace, achieving this level of silence requires good facilitation to reveal hidden assumptions, discuss the undiscussables, explore the elephant in the room, etc. This is necessarily not a silent activity and such facilitation may well move people quickly to level 2 silence.
Level 2: Reflective silence
Reflective silence is when you have the space and time to think. As an individual, you would be well-advised to carve out time in your busy schedule to do this, or perhaps to use the services of a coach to gift you such time and space.
Level 2 silence becomes timeless, lost in your own thoughts. You become disinterested in external activity, your mind is turned inwards. You achieve a quietness inside, regardless of the external sounds. It requires stillness, and yet is an active silence.
In the workplace, a good facilitator or group coach can gift you time and space to think as a team.
Level 3: Deep silence
Deep silence has its traditions in several ancient world religions, such as Zen Practice and Monastic Silence. It is a silence that can be achieved through deep meditation. You may well practise mindful meditation already, focusing on what is happening right now. This does not require external silence. In fact, deep silence is the pursuit of total oneness, total contentment and inner silence, regardless of any external sounds. It is also possible regardless of what you are doing. Deep silence does not require stillness, and yet is a passive silence
I tentatively suggest the following framework:
In the workplace, issues arise when silence is misunderstood. When people push their own views, they demonstrate a ‘stay in control’ or ‘win, don’t lose’ mindset. When silence follows, they may incorrectly assume agreement. A more purposive mindset is to stay curious, adopt the ‘and’ stance (rather than the ‘but’ stance). This can help to surface hidden assumptions, and allow people the space and time to find their voice.
The workplace goal is to move silence from being an active pursuit of denial, towards awareness of the silence and active pursuit of renewal. This moves people’s energy from denying responsibility to surfacing hidden assumptions, to discussing the undiscussable. It requires meetings to include the space and time to think, so that people can engage in the meaningful activity aligned to the organisation’s purpose. It means people can find their voice and take more accountability.
I had the great privilege of working with a health sector client this week, where I will be facilitating a learning programme in business partnering skills for a newly formed professional finance team. This was a launch event and the Finance Director, as sponsor of the programme, addressed the participants. He spoke from the heart about what he’s looking for from his team, using series one of The West Wing as inspiration.
I have never seen The West Wing, however I am aware of Aaron Sorkin’s work through the films A Few Good Men and The Social Network, and the wonderful TV series The Newsroom.
Spoiler Alert: Series one of The West Wing is set mostly in the White House as newly elected Democrat President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) goes about running the world’s most influential superpower (the series was aired before 9-11). There are a ton of political and personal issues to deal with and the series ends in an assassination attempt.
What does this have to do with finance, business partnering and developing great teams?
1. A clear sense of purpose
In The White House, the President hand picks his team. This is everyone’s personal, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do good. Furthermore, the presidential team may only be together for four years, eight maximum. In the show, they throw themselves in 100 mph. Unlike some politicians – our speaker noted the series would not work in the UK as nobody would believe our PM cold be a hero – Bartlet frames the team’s purpose as not to get re-elected at any cost, but rather to do good. To set the direction they want to go and then to lead them on that path. It is journey-based leadership rather than a destination-based goal
2. 100% commitment
This is about delivering on your promises. There is a scene where it is getting late, near to midnight, and an aide has not prepared a brief that was promised ‘today’. When challenged, he replies, “The day’s not over yet”. Only if you deliver what you agree to deliver will you have the authority to advise and to influence others. It requires 100% commitment. It’s about being credible and reliable.
3. Challenge is crucial
You can imagine the behaviours that sometimes ensue in the pressure cooker environment of high Politics. This is somewhat true for any workplace environment where power and politics play a significant role. In The West Wing there is no animosity, however there is high challenge between senior leaders such as The Chief of Staff and the President. In fact, Bartlet welcomes challenge to the point of hiring a Republican to bring challenge ‘up stream’ into the policy setting debates. It’s business, it’s not personal, or as a colleague of mine often says, “Be tough on the issues and gentle on the people”.
And all of this is done with team members showing the utmost respect and support for each other.
So there it is – create passion and great teamwork through clarity of purpose, demanding 100% commitment and creating a climate of high challenge and support. Easy to say, harder to do. My goals for this team’s learning and development are clear, and we can work with that.
In The West Wing these three things went a long way to developing and inspiring the team, and helped to build the resilience the team needed in the face of everything the job threw at them, even bullets.
And as President Bartlet’s personal aide reflects later, “If they’re shooting at you, you know you’re doing something right.”