Lop-sided leadership

A short excerpt from my first blog in case you haven’t been following from the very beginning ūüėČ

“Professor Cary Cooper tweeted recently that when senior managers hear about the solid evidence linking improved employee well-being to better performance at the bottom line, they nod their heads but don‚Äôt take any action.”

That is an example of the problem I’ve spent 15 years grappling with: ¬†how to get leaders and managers to understand and value subjective ways of looking at organisations, as well as the traditional¬†objective ways. ¬†So this post is the story of an uphill struggle and what I’ve learned along the way.

I started out as an organisational psychologist in the ‘People and Organisational Change’ practice of a management consultancy firm. ¬†We rejected all accusations of being ‘pink and fluffy’ and invested a great deal of time and energy into translating psychological concepts into tangible, objective tools and techniques. ¬†One particular task of mine was to develop our ‘culture shaping’ offering. ¬†Our challenge was to take the nebulous concept of corporate culture and make it something that could be defined and measured. ¬†Then we set about listing all the ‘levers’ that leaders could pull to change their organisation’s culture and align it with their strategy. ¬† We produced a fabulous set of Powerpoint slides but it didn’t win us much business.

A few years later I embraced the subjective and trained as a psychotherapist. ¬†A simple sentence to write but actually a life-sentence – it’s not just what I do for a living, it’s what I am. ¬†The training gave me a whole new perspective on the organisational work I continued to do. ¬†In collaboration with a former colleague (Jeff Wolfin at Humanicity) I set out once more to articulate my way of understanding organisations and what that means for leaders and managers. ¬†We came up with the phrase ‘dual-paradigm manager’: ¬†managers need to be skilled in both the objective paradigm of ‘organisation as machine’:

  • delivering against targets
  • project / task / resource management
  • process improvement (etc..)

and the subjective paradigm of ‘organisation as social system’:

  • building trusted relationships
  • leading and inspiring people and teams
  • fostering well-being, engagement and creativity
  • having those ‘difficult’ conversations.

Managers’ skills are typically well developed in the first list, but much less support is given to the development of skills in the second list – leaving us with ‘lop-sided’ managers. ¬†I picture them with one very strong arm and one weak arm – how much more effective they would be if they could use both arms together.

One problem as a provider of training, consulting and coaching in this field is how to point directly to the financial value of building strength in the other arm. What will be the return on investment? ¬†There are various ways of estimating ROI for this kind of work but they are unfamiliar to most organisations. ¬†Also because they require a belief in the power of people’s subjectivity, they are easily dismissed by those who don’t ‘get it’ or choose not to. ¬†For example, you might establish a chain of impact whereby increasing ‘engagement’ by x% leads to y% more productivity and z% less absence, delivering a ¬£huge impact at the bottom line – but if the CEO switches off at the word ‘engagement’ then you don’t stand a chance.

Even when a serious amount of high-quality research has been done to demonstrate clearly and powerfully the link between the subjective, in this case employee well-being, and objective financial performance (ref: “Well-being – Productivity and Happiness at Work” by Ivan Robertson and Cary Cooper 2011) it is still difficult to persuade organisations to take action, as Prof. Cooper and many others have observed. Why?

I remember meeting a friend and former colleague, talking about my plans to facilitate workshops based on the ‘social system’ paradigm – for example, “How to improve the quality of conversations in your organisation” using Transactional Analysis approaches. She said to me, “It will never work – you’ll never get people to trust each other enough”. ¬†This is the nub of why it is so difficult to introduce the subjective paradigm, to get people to explicitly commit to strengthen up their weaker arms. ¬†It asks people to be much more of their ‘whole self’ at work, to show some of what is usually hidden. ¬†It is safer to pretend that as we walk through the door of our workplace, we can leave our vulnerable bits behind.

Luckily I have had opportunities to work with teams where sufficient trust is present. ¬†In future posts I will write about what has worked well so far, in my quest to bridge the gap between the ¬†‘organisation as machine’ objective paradigm that permeates business, and the subjective world we really live in.

One response to “Lop-sided leadership

  1. Thanks Esther – a fascinating article. As you say the research is there showing ROI for wellbeing interventions, but they are still not implemented. I hope you are instrumental in finding and promoting solutions as they are vitally needed. There are some fantastic approaches out there being used by organisations for creating positive transformation and wellbeing. I’ve read some wonderful accounts from companies that are using them. Of course it’s still the minority, but I’m optimistic. Look forward to reading more.

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