Leading without blinkers, imagine the power by Paul de Beer

Recently I consulted to a particular executive team regarding their company structure.  Working with the team early one morning, I started by having them imagine their business in a few years time having achieved a high level of success.  They then worked in two groups to draw up what the describing attributes would be in that scenario.  Next I had the team draw up the attributes considering the worst case scenario, that of the business having failed.  At this point they started looking rather concerned, and commented that many of the negative scenario attributes existed in the present.

These new perspectives appeared somewhat of a surprise to them, yet all I did as their facilitator was enable them to share information they already individually knew. Clearly the team for some reason had not until that moment been able to share their views and perspectives adequately. The ability for a team to share and consider every perspective is paramount to creating high performance teams, a prerequisite to building sustainable high performance organisations.

This type of situation is not uncommon.  Considering the fact that the overall tone, culture and direction of the organisation is set and modelled from the top, team performance can make or break organisations.  Companies that were average performers managed to flourish in the simpler word that lies behind us.  The highly competitive world that faces us today will increasingly only tolerate top performance.  Today increasingly higher demands are placed on senior leadership to develop highly performing companies.

Our cognitive blinkers

In order to understand what leaders can do to better enable companies through their collective leadership, it may be useful to look at some of the potential blind spots we have as individuals, after all a team is simply made up of individuals.   Dr Gregory Berns, neuroscientist and author of “Iconoclast”, describes that the human brain is limited by an energy constraint of about 40 watts of power (a light bulb).  In order to save energy the brain will use information stored from past experiences rather than figure out new options by re-evaluating all the new information.  This small flaw in our system will often result in us feeling that our perceptions are real. The truth however is that our perspectives are just our perceptions. Dr Berns goes on to say that the solution to limit the effects of our past experiences on our perceptions is by regularly bombarding our brains with information it has never encountered before. This information bombarding process will force the brain to think outside of our normal pathways.  Inferring from Dr Berns’ findings, one could go on to say that as leaders we need to always be open to hear different views however tough and despite sometimes feeling that we know better.

The field of cognitive science describes a number of cognitive biases that result in humans making judgement deviations from “reality”.  These biases may well be related to the brains energy constraints.  Below is a list of a few of the most common biases:

  • Bandwagon effect — the tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same.
  • Choice-supportive bias — the tendency to remember one’s choices as better than they actually were.
  • Illusion of control — the tendency for human beings to believe they can control or at least influence outcomes that they clearly cannot.
  • Confirmation bias — the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.
  • Status quo bias — the tendency for people to like things to stay relatively the same.

Full list found at www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias

Rank and power blinkers

Another dynamic that can have a severe impact on people, teams and the organisation is the effects of rank and the related use of power.  In the world that lies behind us, it was more acceptable for management to lead using their positional power as a motivator for example by saying: “I am the boss now do what I tell you”.  Today this old world style would be considered coercive leadership and could result in people becoming fearful and angry and disengaging from the organisation.  Organisations where coercive leadership is the norm tend to develop cultures of dependence, where people hold back their personal power and abdicate thinking and leadership to higher levels.   These organisations become slow and struggle to reinvent themselves.  In such cases, senior leaders are forced to get too involved in operational thinking to the detriment of long term planning and organisational integration.

Today senior leaders need to work very hard to soften the effects of the positional rank they have inherited within their organisations.   They have to demonstrate to others that they are open to receive all forms of feedback by not becoming defensive when the feedback arrives.  They need to search out views and perspectives widely, even though they may think they already have all the information.

Flattening the organisation

High performance organisations require leadership to be distributed throughout the organisation.  In order to foster a culture of agility and adaption which is key to competitiveness, all the resources need to be engaged resulting in staff feeling as if they own the business.  The traditional hierarchy created a vertical flow of power within the organisation, resulting in silos and counterproductive leader-follower dynamics.

The challenge is to create an organisational structure and culture where the power flows horizontally, where staff interacts directly with others outside of their “team” in the business to find solutions, rather they using the vertical hierarchy as a long distance telephone.   In order to achieve this requires a departure from certain traditional views.  As an example, if we ask members of an executive team who their team is, the CFO, CTO, CMO etc will traditionally answer finance, technology, or marketing respectively.  Considering this view, the danger would be that these executives are so focused on their function that they are not spending adequate focus on the objectives of the greater organisation. The chief executive most certainly cannot be the only person with the greater hilltop view.  This same paradigm shift should be applied throughout the organisation resulting in everyone broadening their view of the organisation and their function.  Heads of marketing should not just understand their individual components of marketing but should also understand and influence all of marketing within the organisation.

Today’s winning leadership toolkit

In order to lead organisations to success in this world requires leaders with a set of skills that often seem absent from our toolkits.   Few of the skills required today were used by previous generation’s leaders, nor were these skills taught to us in our homes, schools or universities.

Leaders today need to:

  • Learn to feel comfortable not knowing all the answers.
  • Master the art of having courageous and sometimes tough conversations with others.
  • Invite and receiving feedback without defensiveness.
  • Value opposing, dissenting and unfamiliar views and voices.
  • Suspend personal anxiety and judgement.
  • Learn to be the manager as facilitator and coach.
  • Master listening skills.
  • Create reflective sanctuaries in order to reflect on events and perspectives.
  • Understand and use personal power and rank effectively.

The challenge is that many seasoned leaders may have attained great success without mastering these skills in the old world, but success will demand them in the future. These skills are often labelled as soft skills however when a person tries to learn them, you quickly discover just how hard it is to break old habits and master these skills as well as the powerful  impact their use has on others.

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