Monday, 28 October 2013

How should your leaders behave ?

'How should leaders behave?' is the title of a brief article that appeared in HBR October 2013 (reprint F131OE).

Reading it I found myself feeling irritated by the nature of its prescriptions:

'We had to put the focus on the behaviours we expected leaders to display, and those had to be spelled out by the top team that was highly engaged, intellectually and emotionally, in the process.'
What's going on here that makes the writer so sure that this was the right approach and that some level of coercion was required to make the ideas stick.

The 'no alternative' problem

The article expresses a point of view that's commonly found in management development literature: that there is a tacitly stated ‘no alternative’ and that, as the article goes on to infer, adherence is mandatory.  This is backed up by a starkly stated comment:

'...we found ways to foster behaviours using evaluations, surveys, communications and highly visible actions by leaders - including occasional dismissal for consistent and significant violations'
Interesting.  This is the same organisation that was attempting to use behaviours to build, develop and lead empowered and diverse teams.  

What's being taken for granted?  

I have a concern with how the behavioural standards came into being, typical no doubt of how other organisations do this too.  I noticed that the author wanted to emphasise how the top team had been given the chance to explore and challenge the language used in the descriptors.  This privileged the top team and treated them as separate from others in the organisation who would also be expected to adopt the behaviours.  Taken at face value, this set up an approach that felt quite cult-like, almost like commandments from a higher authority.   This may or may not have been intentional, but the effect might have been to have reinforced the status quo of how things get done in that organisation rather than enabling it to respond to growth and change.

Management 'science'

Organisations use behavioural frameworks because I think they like the patina of objectivity which they offer in the tricky process of measuring and rewarding not just what gets done, but also how things get done.  But this is problematical because organisational life is dynamic.

I'm not against behavioural frameworks as such because I think they do provide some helpful clarifications of what's expected.  And behaviours are probably most useful as a means of calibration in those situations that require a snapshot of performance, e.g. for recruitment or talent spotting.  But in the day-to-day work of management my sense is that they are much less effective because, however well drafted and communicated, they are treated as being separate from, rather than integrated with, the work itself.    

Organisations and organisational life is full of paradoxes 

Organisations are awash with paradoxes and contradictions.   For managers and leaders, who are required to manage the performance of the organisation, this is especially complicated.  To illustrate, they must continually:

  • divide up complex tasks to enable them to get done, but at the same time ensure that the outputs are integrated
  • deliver results personally and collaborate to get things done
  • maintain continuity and innovate
  • create order and experiment
  • plan and react
  • control and empower  
And perhaps the most striking paradox in the HBR article is that leaders should display the prescribed behaviours and capitalise on individual styles.  This feels like a 'have your cake and eat it' problem.

It is how we relate with others that matters

The purpose in writing this blog is to explore the paradoxes in play and to think about what this might mean for management learning.  

For me, the heart of the matter is the need for each of us to pay close attention to how we interact with each other.  We might try to boil this down to a set of five to ten behaviours but if we approach it this way we deflect ourselves from paying close attention to what's really going on in any two-way process of communication.

What I'm pointing to is that there are diverse ways of relating to others, behaviours if you want to describe it this way, but these ways of relating will always be situational based on who's involved, the task and the cultural and societal norms of that organisation or group.   The fact is that we are human beings, not machines.  We come with our own unique styles and strengths and what's more important is that each person takes seriously the pros and cons of how they relate with other people rather than attempting to display behaviours annointed by others.  In my experience, the reward for doing so is better self awareness as to what works, more confidence in playing to strengths and, therefore, better quality relationships.       

Concluding thoughts

My sense is that the views expressed in the HBR article describe an approach that is neither desirable nor appropriate for today's business environment.  The greater complexity in organisations today means that we need people, regardless of their level of responsibility, who can think for themselves, who can act as part of a community and who have very good self awareness.  This is even more important for managers because of the influence that they have over others through their roles.  It follows that we need approaches to development that encourage a much greater sense of inquiry, openness and collaboration and much less that is directed and top-down. 

My work on the NODES model sets out an approach for development that pays attention to these ideas.  You can read more about them either in my blog or by going to my presentation on  SlideShare 



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