The Power of A Question

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Photo by the Author

When teams function best is when individual team members dare to ask questions of their leaders. To challenge indicates a commitment toward engagement, and a willingness to connect to the organization’s vision.

Questions suggest team engagement because:

1. It means the individual team member cares enough about their individual contribution.

2. Questions indicate that a team contributor is interested in doing rather than complaining.

3. New ideas might be imbedded in the question.

4. Through a question, the process of learning is occurring.

A leader should be very concerned with their team when people stop asking questions. It means that a member’s commitment is waning, a team member is not engaged with the vision, or the leader’s direction lacks clarity.

The worse case scenario when questioning is abandoned – is a sort of complacency where mediocrity is accepted and the program becomes a drifting entity.

Managers and leaders ought to encourage and welcome thoughtful questions by their teams. It’s the most reliable indicator regarding the health of an organization or program, including the teams that compose those areas.

How Much Control is Appropriate in Management? An Idea Revisited.

The command and control age of management is (or should be) over. The authoritative nature of interaction, and micro-management paradigm where those that have the authority – should know best – is something that has become out of mode, at least in management theory. The current thinking is that employee engagement and releasing others to develop and implement ideas is more desirable.

In a recent conversation with a colleague, the whole idea of “controlling” functions in the organization, and controlling how things get done was revisited. Being trained in both authoritarian and release/engagement management structures, I found the idea brought up again, fascinating.

The idea from my colleague – Doug Butchy (dougbutchy.com) who is a music educator went like this (paraphrase in italics):

I find myself needing to control all aspects of the organization (this being a music performance organization) because I want to make sure everything gets done – to my specifications. I now have a better understanding why others (he was referring to another colleague) always wanted to be in control of all aspects of the details. I find myself doing the same thing, to make sure things are right.

The idea was referring to the details of running a music performance group, but nonetheless an organization that is made up of rules, practices, a culture, and a “way” of doing something. My colleague’s view was that control worked for him in this type of organization. In other organizations however, having a “release” approach – where you engage others to take charge of more of the details, or delegate plans – might seem appropriate – especially where the organization’s competitive advantage is based on unleashing individual creativity in the organization. This definition may seem a bit broad because there are obviously other components that go into managing an organization. For this discussion however, it seems appropriate.

Over the ensuing several days, I have reflected on the idea why having a more control oriented management structure would work in some ways better than a more “stewardship” – servant leadership style would work. Here’s what I have arrived at:

More Control in Management is helpful when:
1. The organization – community or otherwise has a fluid workforce or membership (much like the organization that was being referred to above.

2. Staff, students, members in the organization need substantially more guidance to be successful with the task. In other words there is a learning curve in the organization.

3. The organizational task is more rigid in nature and parameters for the task are clearly understood. This would suit an educational organization, or some community organizations.

Less Control in Management is helpful when:
1. The organization’s task is more flexible, requires individual creativity, is product oriented, and employs professionals to implement their craft.

2. Where exerting more management control will only disrupt the individual capacity of the workers.

3. Where customers are involved – directly in the provision of developing products, and providing services.

Not to confuse Quality Control with “less control”, the idea for less control, does not mean there is less emphasis on adhering to quality standards, policy, procedures and the like. It also doesn’t negate the reporting relationship. Less control means that individuals in the organization are developed in such a way that they learn to manage themselves within established parameters.

The idea of using more control – often gets perceived as being a micro manager, or authoritarian – neither of which is the right definition for using more control with an organizational task. The idea here is that those that use more control are doing so, based on the unique elements and task of the organization they are managing. It has less to do with squelching employee engagement or initiative, or less to do with actually “controlling people”.

Leading Change Through the Barrier of Doubt

Proposing a change almost always leads to some measure of doubt. Be prepared with your “thick skin”, because where there is something new, there is likely someone out there to doubt your vision.

Envisioning the future is not a comfortable endeavor for some, for the following reasons:
1. It requires others on your team to see what you see.

2. Seeing something new, means that some discomfort might need to be tolerated.

3. Sometimes a vision requires working through ambiguity.

4. Someone doesn’t share the same values. They don’t see what you see.

5. The need for control is high between individual team members. Collaboration is low.

Matter of fact, doubt is the opposite of possibility. Often the doubt is a way of adding a “rational reason” to why something won’t work, when there is likely little evidence that it wouldn’t work.

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Photo by: Brian E. Dick

Working through your vision to its conclusion requires the tenacity to take risks in the face of doubt. Knowing that doubt is a cousin to “fear of change”,and that ambiguity is the foundation to creating success, sticking with your plans and principles is the way to work through external doubt.

Ways to work though doubts:

1. Build a team that shares the same value for the change

2. Base your vision on clear principles

3. Accept your detractors – there will always be detractors…

4. Accept the ambiguity between the vision and the planned outcome.

Each step toward the planned outcome of your vision should actually strengthen your resolve to change and over time lessen the doubt that comes from external sources.

Healthy Discomfort and Change

Change is a constant, but I’m sure that comfort with change will never change…it will continue to be uncomfortable.

Much has been written on a daily basis about change, making changes, personal growth, and adapting to change. It is popular fodder for discussion, but in real life making changes – if done well, is down right uncomfortable for some. It’s easy to discuss and think making change. If change is real, it can be uncomfortable.

A View to Consider:
“Making improvements and change should be uncomfortable in a healthy way. If we’re not comfortable with it, then it may just be window dressing. Real changes require us to be uncomforble (at least cognitively and behaviorally) in order for them to stick.”

The concept:
Cognitive Dissonance: The idea that what we think-feel-behave, is at some kind of mismatch with other known circumstances. Just because we know what needs to be done, doesn’t always lead to the change. Instead, the gap is closed by denial, procrastination, and self-defeating behaviors.

The reasons why some people don’t change:
1. Change requires choice and follow though. Some people don’t possess either.
2. Discomfort means we have to confront our beliefs about the world, and our shortcomings.
3. People like to hold on to old ways. The problem is not immediate or urgent.
4. Weaknesses are not a popular topic.

If a change is needed, there has to be a clear payoff. No payoff, then there is little desire to institute a change. For some, delaying what we think we need to do, will eventually ACT on us, and something will need to be done.

Change is both Uncomfortable and Process:
If you’re not uncomfortable making a change, then what you’re doing is not change. If you think change is a matter of a task list, you’re into self-deception. Change is also not about someone doing something to you. It is about doing something different yourself.

The Change Process:
1. Knowing you have to make a change.
2. Identifying the personal sacrifices that have to be made.
3. Making and keeping promises….repeatedly. And, then again.
4. The payoff – Why are you doing this?

What is keeping you from real change?

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The Benefits of Storytelling

Storytelling sometimes gets a bad rap. It implies that to tell someone a story, means that a half-truth or diversion is being communicated.

In reality, the power of a story has many practical benefits and can bridge gaps in knowledge where information or professional literature cannot. Humans often connect around common themes, and themes can be in many circumstances communicated well using a well formed story. Traditions, and human beings for centuries if not more, have used the story as a way to connect, learn, or communicate important things. Cave drawings? They were forms of getting messages to others.

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Reasons a Story Works:
1. Stories communicate meanings to others in non-direct ways.
2. We can reach others better through information that makes us think.
3. Stories often represent common ground, traditions, and ways of holding our interest.
4. Learning is faster.

The reality is: Often others will not listen if material is not seen to pertain to them. Often a message is avoided when it seems too confrontational, unpleasant, or disinteresting. When someone tells a story that communicates a message, it has a higher likelihood of reaching the listener, because they are more open to the information and can decide what they will make of it.

A personal story
“Last evening, as I was putting my daughter to bed, she was upset about the idea of having to go to bed. This is not necessarily uncommon. Instantly however, I decided to use a short family story that helped her connect with one of her personal interests. With what seemed to be a neutral story, opened up influence, and created more conversation. As some time passed, she was ready for bed.”. Whether you are young or old, stories and the use of narrative appears to be a universal approach to connect with others, and motivate others.

Too many people feel talked to, rather than talked with. Using narrative is an important way to build influence, open minds, build rapport, and communicate tough topics in ways that can be received in better ways.

When was the last time you used a story to engage your audience? What would happen to your message, your sales pitch, or your team that you managed if you told a relevant story that connects with the ideas you are trying to communicate? Chances are, others would consider the message more, especially if they connect with many of the underlying ideas.

Transferring Skills – Learn by Doing

The challenge is not the learning…Everyone can learn something new. The problem is transferring what was learned into meaningful action, and visible results.

At the end of a recent 2 day psychotherapy conference that this writer attended, the presenter remarked: “It’s not the theory that changes people, people change people” – Anthony Mannarino, Ph.D

In many contexts both personal and professional, managerial or with personal clients, the Learning-Doing, implementation challenge is present. How successful we are with our teams, business units, clients, or ourselves is based on the choices we make about what we just learned. Making the connection between knowing and doing requires some effort that goes well beyond taking in information.

Making The ConnectionSkill Transfer
In most cases transferring something we know into a visible product means making a choice. You can say or think the skill all you want, but pure doing is the road to getting a result.

Ways of Making the Connection
1. Practice the concepts
2. Put an end to your avoidance
3. Teach what you learned
4. Evaluate the results
5. Practice again

Working with Clients:
Means you have to teach them how to practice. Create do-able action steps that eliminate the avoidance to do the learning. Encourage.

Working with Teams:
The team creates the steps and shares the practice tasks. The team compares their results with the practice.

Working with Staff
Translate the doing into a visible representation that helps others get to where they are going, thus implementing the learning over time.

Fortitude is usually the defining quality to skill transfer. Those that really want it, are usually those that achieve the results. (Photo by: Brian Dick)

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Moving Beyond Barriers: Open Up Clarity

One of the most frustrating aspects of barriers is that they are perpetuated by the person experiencing them.

Let me explain:

The Self-Perpetuation Cycle
1. An external barrier is seen as too overwhelming
2. We are too obtuse to solutions.
3. We’re too busy trying to get “validated” for our victim thinking about the barrier
4. We actively create a road sign on our back that says “barrier.”

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Seeing Something as Too Overwhelming
What you see is not necessarily what is true or accurate. In the field of psychotherapy, a prominent evidenced based treatment (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) takes on the whole notion that what we automatically see, is not necessarily based on actual reality. The problem is that humans don’t often consider alternatives or evaluating the problem in the first place, thus leading to an automatic overwhelming feeling that fuels the barrier. No clarity on what/how to proceed is the outcome.

Being Obtuse
When barriers are taken for face value, sometimes we close off meaningful reflection on what our role is to do something about it. Instead we obsess, complain, and seek being validated for our erroneous way of looking at the problem. This is like giving up the ship. Creative intention is stymied. We settle for the concrete, instead of seeking other possibilities.

We’re into Validation Victim Thinking
Because we have abdicated any meaningful reflection of our role in the barrier, or what we are going to do about it, we develop a toxic and dead end road mentality. Instead of seeking solutions, we seek sympathy. We say to others, that the issue is outside us. Sympathy is the slow killer to doing something and moving beyond the barrier.

The “Road Sign” on Our Back
The worse aspect, is that we carry around our victim status on our back for everyone to see. We live our barrier, keep our rigid thinking, and exist in misery. Our capacities are dulled, and no movement beyond the barrier is evident. Actually others start distancing themselves from us, because they are uncomfortable with the stance we have taken. Our emotional road sign steals all the air in the room.

Moving Toward Clarity
Clarity and movement around the barrier is only brought about if we can restore the following:
1.Look at our role in the barrier
…is it merely the way we are thinking
about it?

2.Open up ourselves
– Honestly, and deeply reflect on the problem. Face the harsh music of what role you played in your response, or the original barrier.

3. Open up Time to Explore:
Explore more about, and evaluate the barrier. Was it a “boiling frog” that has been going on a long time, or just a bad choice, or a change in the conditions that we didn’t see.

4. Think Ahead.
One of my leadership mentors has preached this principle for many years. By thinking ahead, you gradually own more of your future, rather than becoming a victim.

5. Road Signs Eventually Wear Out.
Ultimately, your job is to create action oriented behaviors, rather than road signs that tell others your problems.

Ultimately, we are the “self perpetuators” of the barrier, not necessarily the barrier itself. Think about your role in problems, even if you didn’t create them. It may be just a matter of thinking and acting differently about the problem.

Developing Perspective: The Skill Behind Effective Leadership

When a photographer composes a portrait or prepares to take a photograph, she must also have a perspective on the subject that lies before her. Choosing the right lens, and carefully planning the layout of the picture takes a skill that knows different perspectives are involved, and there is many ways to create the right outcome and effect, as that photo is taken.

Leading is really no different. It requires a broad experience base that understands how to achieve an outcome or desired effect. The leader learns how to choose the right lens, and combine the right adjustments to create the best outcome.

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Knowing different perspectives is important why?
1. Expanding decisions beyond the concrete: Having depth. A leader that has depth has a greater range of understanding about the problem, but also a greater range of pattern recognition to attack the problem in the most intuitive way.

2. Different problems require a wider range of perspectives: Let’s face it, the world is complex sometimes. Like the great photographer than knows how different lighting and lens will affect the outcome of a composition, a deep thinking leader will often know how different attributes affect or will directly influence different outcomes.

3. Having more “tools” about a situation, means that more variables can be thought through, thus avoiding pitfalls and hazards along the way. Obviously this is why experience and skill count with leadership, although a perspective taker needs to also be open to new ideas by others who may not have as much skill.

Ways that we gain more perspective-
1. Learn to “think ahead”. It is a skill, and can be taught. Those that learn to think ahead, often can see many more perspectives than the concrete or reactionary thinker.

2. Develop humility. Go into the day knowing that your team will teach you something. Over time you will gain sensitivity to many other opinions and perspectives. Many of our greatest national leaders (e.g. Washington, Lincoln, King, or Reagan to name a few…) exercised a leadership style of learning to learn from others – in order to make the next decision.

3. Finally, learn to connect dots. Pattern recognition, even connection of disparate ideas sometimes can determine the next course. In his 2005 Stanford University speech (often discussed, quoted and paraphrased), Steve Jobs – arguably one of our greatest innovative thinkers in this century, discussed the concept of learning to connect patterns “or the dots” between different things, and to be able to look at many different perspectives on how things may be received. Developing a healthy openness to do the mental mining with patterns, may provide several perspectives that were not previously thought of by others.

Learn to think originally, develop different perspectives, and be open to others. These are effective skills that will help you develop your leadership skills and talents.

Is It Reasonable? Is It Responsible? A Decision Making Model

How do you make decisions? Using intuition, a feeling, or temporary mood? Many people are often searching for simple ways to evaluate whether they are making good decisions. There are many ways to make decisions:

1. Through sheer experience…we have years of know how.
2. Through educated guessing
3. Empirical models, data, spreadsheets, statistics.
4. Others’ opinions, ideas, views.
5. Concrete skills

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Often there is no clear cut guideline, and practices may vary at different points. I have found that making so called “value decisions” where our decision affects others should consider two tangiblle principles:

Is it reasonable? Is it responsible? In this case, “it” refers to something that should be acted upon, addressed, or it could be a sensitive personal decision. Many times using these principles can be simply used to evalulate our own logic around a matter that is not clear cut, for example:

A decision needs to be made about a human resource matter. It involves a real person, her future, or her role in the organization. There are many concrete pieces of evidence for and against a chosen course, however the executive continues to go in mental circles trying to weigh each, until no clear decision can be made. It is a dilemma, one that cannot be easily determined. There are certainly evidence for moving this person into another position, but still other barriers and issues that could be created in the process. What should the executive do?

Evaluate each variable in terms of its reasonableness, and responsibleness
Simply asking the question as to whether one variable is reasonable, and responsible is a good starting point to get clarity and to center the decision on something principle centered. The answer will not be arbitary, but likely connect with deeper, and more important considerations. The leader’s own logic as to how the decision is made, can also be evaluated using these two concepts. It brings clarity, where ambiguity initially resided.

The next time you’re stuck with a problem, question the possible options in terms of their reasonableness, and whether they are responsible. You might be surprised how appropriate the conclusions you arrive at clear up your thinking about the problem.