Recognition as social lubricant

Photo by Shandi-Lee

The title of this post is taken from a post by Paul Hebert. Here is the gist:

… recognition is the lubricant for social interaction.  Making sure your employees have ways and methods of connecting and recognizing each other within and between organizational silos lubricates the interactions that must happen in order for innovation, engagement, and collaboration to occur.  It is very difficult to refuse a meeting or a conversation with someone who just recognized your work or highlighted how great you are in the company program or on the company intranet.  You can’t refuse a meeting if the person requesting it just gave you a big thumbs up in the Peer-2-Peer recognition program.

I have spending a major part of the last year reading, studying, thinking and writing about teamwork and collaboration. The more time I spend doing this, the more I realize that long-term successful team facilitation (read: great teamwork) is a journey into the path of most resistance. Teamwork is about interaction and relationships. Interaction and relationship causes friction. We are social beings and putting us with other people affects us and causes us to react. Emotions. Feelings. Thoughts. Urges.

Some of these reactions are positive. Joy. Meaning. Sense of progress. Some of them are negative. Tensions. Discomfort. Fear. Facilitating an effective team is about dealing with all of these issues and putting them on the table. This sounds simple, but it is usually the opposite of what we tend do, which is ignore, tip-toe around and hold back.

When done properly, going against the resistance, facilitating teamwork enables negative reactions to be dealt with in a safe environment and for positive reactions to be magnified in order to improve and sustain future interaction. While the fact that issues are suppressed and unattended will be familiar to many of us (even though they might not agree on the consequences of this habit), like in many other facets of life, taking deliberate time to deal with the positive is even more scarce, even though it has the potential to transform entire systems.

And this is where the quote above comes in. One of the most effective ways to use the positive not only as a leverage to more positive habits and interactions but also as a way to discuss the negative in a safe constructive environment, is recognition. Adopting mutual recognition habits can do wonders to the level of actual interaction between team members. As Hebert says, it might prove difficult for anyone who has just been recognized by a team member not to open up and expose himself to a more intense and difficult interaction.

Of course, I am not talking about a onetime event. Recognition has to be part of the habits and culture of team for it to truly work. What will happen if we take time each day (or each week) to recognize others in our team that for their unique contributions? What will happen if we start every meeting by recognizing what and more importantly who allowed us to reach this phase? What will happen if we recognize any mutual learning that occurs in our team or a regular basis? I suggest you try this magical lubricant and see its social effects yourself.


A different approach to collaboration

Photo by D’Arcy Norman

In a post on Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer investigate the relationship between collaboration and performance. They claim that not only does collaboration allows performance, but performance allows for collaboration. When people are feeling a sense of achievement and progress, they are more open to collaborate. That is why Amabile and Kramer advocate celebrating small wins, as this is a way to keep people in the team or organization energized to collaborate:

So, not only is collaboration critical to high performance, but maintaining high performance can be important to keeping collaboration going. Previously, we have talked about the importance of small wins — modest but meaningful successes along the pathway to achieving a major goal — in maintaining high performance and subjective well-being. They can also help workers maintain effective collaboration. When organizations support and celebrate small wins, employees feel like winners; the mistrust and conflict that can accompany losing will be avoided. Without those interpersonal problems, it will be much easier to achieve consistent and effective collaboration. [Emphasis added]

While I appreciate the approach of small wins and the importance of the feeling of progress for motivation and individual performance I think a focus on the effects of performance on collaboration might prove detrimental to effective collaboration.

In most business settings today, especially in knowledge work, performance is an emerging synergistic property. That means it cannot be directly predicted. It cannot be taken apart into specific check-list steps. It is uncertain and ambiguous. Innovation for example, emerges out of the interaction between team members and does not originate from the actions of one individual.

In such an environment, focusing on performance is futile. It is a classic case of Obliquity. The goal of performance can only be achieved indirectly. While this seems like semantics, it represents a different approach to collaboration. This approach doesn’t see temporal performance as an indicator for success. Instead, this approach sees continued long-term relationships as the basis of excellence. It celebrates small wins, not because they represent performance success, but because it means the process the team is engaging with is effective. In that respect it will celebrate small losses the same way, in the celebrated mythical approach of Thomas Edison – “I did not fail—I just learned 999 ways on how not to make a light bulb”.

When this approach is implemented – and there is no attempt to claim that it is easy to do so – the focus of team leaders is the relationship between people in the team. That means that the tensions produced by failure are constantly revealed and discussed even before failure occurs. Failure is an expected result and part of the process continuing of toward excellence. It is not that good performance hides tensions and allows for collaboration while everything is working. Instead, true collaboration actively and consistently attends to the undercurrents that facilitate the emergence of performance.

Reading the comments to Amabile and Kramer post suggest that their approach is resonating with many people. What does it say about organizations’ approach to collaboration? Is the dominating approach pushing us to draw the wrong conclusions and prescriptions about how to manage collaboration? I think it does.

What do you think?


Why do we need leaders?

Photo By dbking

About ten days ago editors of the blog made an interesting comment about the media coverage of what was happening in Egypt in a post called: “Do we need leaders”. The media was thoroughly discussing the fact that there seemed to be no leader to the movement attempting to overthrow the government in Egypt and the editors commented:

We’ve been fascinated by how assiduously various forces, for various reasons, have been trying to anoint a leader on a movement that has been aggressive about not having one. Whether it’s Mohamed ElBaradei, someone from the Muslim Brotherhood, Google’s Wael Ghonim, or someone else, it seems hard for many in the media to grasp the idea of a movement without a recognizable, charismatic figure … in front of it.

But it’s not just the media (and let’s not forget that “media” is a plural word) scouring Tahrir Square for someone to take charge. We want someone to be in charge. There is, after all, plenty of evidence that leaderless organizations can dissolve into chaos just as easily as those run by dictators…

Organizations as diverse as Ushahidi and file-sharing sites show how plenty can be accomplished without an explicitly hierarchical structure.

This comment made me think about a concept called “the myth of leadership”. This concept is described in an 2005 Organizational Dynamics Journal article by Craig Pearce and Charles Manz called: “The New Silver Bullets of Leadership: The Importance of Self- and Shared Leadership in Knowledge Work”.

The myth of heroic leadership – Pearce and Manz claim – is that the source of all wisdom is to be found in the designated leader. The obvious type of leader fitting this description is the ‘‘Strong Man’’ leader or the ‘‘Directive’’ leader. In this type of leadership direction, command and control are used to obtain compliance, often based on fear and intimidation from followers.

Pearce and Manz also claim that most other forms of leadership, such as transactional leadership – founded on the leader offering rewards and incentives in exchange for follower compliance – emphasize a one-way influence process of leaders over followers. The ideas of strong top-down control emanated according to Pearce and Manz from the industrial revolution, through the needs of railroads industry in the 19th century and continued with the rise of the “scientific management” in the beginning of the 20th century. They claim that these ideas continued throughout the 20th century and largely remain to this day.

As editors comment, even though many organizations to date have shown how plenty can be accomplished without an explicitly hierarchical structure, still “We want someone to be in charge”. Why is that? Why do we have this bias for leadership?

Think about how ingrained this myth is in our culture. If I take part of my culture, Judaism, the idea of some external force that will come and save us all is an important part of the faith. The twelfth principle in the 13 Principles of Faith formulated by Maimonides says: “I believe with full faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he tarries, with all that, I await his arrival with every day”. The Messiah, in Jewish eschatology, is a term that came to refer to a future Jewish King from the Davidic line, who will be “anointed” with holy anointing oil and rule the Jewish people during the Messianic Age – a future time of universal peace and brotherhood on the earth, without crime, war and poverty. We are waiting for him to come. To come and save us.

These kinds of ideas are ingrained in other faiths and cultures as well. And I think it is embedded in our own thinking – we have a bias towards the need of a forceful – somehow holy and external – leader who will show us what needs to be done and take us to a better place.

Pearce and Manz argue that these myths about the importance of the single leader stand in contrast to the needs of many modern organizations. In contemporary knowledge-based, dynamic and complex team environments, both the cognitive and the behavioral capabilities of the wider workforce are needed to achieve optimal effectiveness and competitiveness. While some may be drawn to the idea of a larger-than-life, charismatic, all-knowing leader who can inspire and single-handedly positively transform work systems and the employees who work in them, the realities and challenges of contemporary organizational life require an alternative view of leadership.

This myth is relevant to as both as leaders and as followers. Are we waiting to be led or do we stand out and take the initiative? More importantly, when we are put in the position of a leader – do we act like we are The Messiah holding all the answers and put here on earth to show to dumb followers how it should be done? Or do we treat the power given to us as an opportunity to connect, share, enable, amplify and collaborate with the people around us because the true power lies in diversity?

Are you biased towards leadership? What are you going to do about it?


A theory of justice, conflict resolution and collaboration

Photo by wjarrettc

In this interesting post on the MIX (management innovation exchange), Leigh Weiss discusses the concept of collaboration and what an important part conflict plays in it. I found this example to be particularly fascinating:

Some groups use a visual symbol – a yellow card, for example – in meetings as a way for individuals to signal that they have an objection or that they feel their view (or someone else’s) is being overlooked. Bob Sutton and other management researchers have noted the tendency for senior people to dominate conversation within meetings. Raising the yellow card signals that the objector is acting within the group-defined agreement of behavior and serves as a cue to remind the others that the group has agreed on the necessity and value of conflicting opinions and debate

Similarly, Larry Prusak writes in about the lessons NASA learned from its failures to embrace dissent in the past, which include, among other things:

  • Bringing many and varied experts and interested parties together in one room, where they could listen to one another and discuss their findings and opinions.
  • Conducting widespread, “democratic” polls (rather than, say, providing information to a few senior managers who would make the decision themselves).

At a fist glance the yellow card or the “democratic” polls seem like trivial ideas. Why do we need a sign? People can just raise their hands and talk! Why do we need a “democratic” (which probably means secret) poll? If people have objections they will just say them out loud.

However, in case of conflict, there is a lot of power to be found in pre-agreed upon resolution mechanisms. In the heat of an argument or a content-based conflict there it is difficult for the parties abandon their standpoints in order to agree on how to agree. When done in advance, it would be easier for the parties to think of it as fair, as it is not connected in their minds to the current debate. It is similar to the ideas proposed by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice:

Specifically, Rawls develops what he claims are principles of justice through the use of an entirely and deliberately artificial device he calls the Original position in which everyone decides principles of justice from behind a veil of ignorance. This “veil” is one that essentially blinds people to all facts about themselves that might cloud what notion of justice is

If you are a team leader it might be wise to develop pre-agreed upon mechanisms to settle conflicts. These mechanisms should be decided by the team before hand, when people are ignorant to their side of the conflict and to their interests in it. When people perceive these mechanisms as fair in advance it would be hard for them to argue against them in real-time, which will enable better conflict management that will lead to the needed collaboration.

What are your mechanisms for conflict resolution? Are they determined before or during a conflict?


Will middle managers join the dinosaurs?

Photo by Frankie Roberto

Lynda Gratton from the Future of Work blog has written an interesting post claiming that middle management as a role is rapidly disappearing. She gives four reasons to back her claim (for the full explanation, read her wonderful post):

1. Technology has become the great general manager … When technology can play much of the role of the manager – why have one?

2. Skilled team members are increasingly self-managed… it could well be a rotating role. So when teams can manage themselves – what can a general manager add?

3. Attitudes toward management have also changed … Gen Y workers see no value in reporting to someone who simply keeps track of what they do, What they do value is mentoring and coaching from someone they respect. Someone, in other words, who is a master—not a general manager.

4. It was possible in the past to manage ‘intuitively’ and for good management skills to come as part of the whole ‘decent person’ angle. Now management is fiendishly difficult – particularly if people are located virtually across the globe. These situations take extreme specialist skills to lead.

All valid reasons. While I don’t have the empirical evidence to support my reasoning like Gratton does, I still find myself disagreeing. In fact, I think the reasons she mentions just make middle managers even more important.

Increasingly, work, especially radical creative work that creates true long-term value, will come out of cooperation between specialties from different fields. This means that people who come from different backgrounds, have different languages and different working habits and perceptions must come together and create something. Anyone who has ever been is such an environment knows that this is a difficult and stressful situation. More and more there will be a need for people to work together in a way that will create synergy and in ways that will bring about the comparative advantage both in skills and knowledge of every team member. While it is optimistic to think that team members can do that by themselves, it is usually not practical. Not because these people are bad or incompetent but just because their differences are such a big gap that it will usually be impossible for them to create that synergy without a person that help guide the atmosphere and who is responsible for creating the condition for collaborative value creation.

This however, does not mean that change isn’t coming. Just like in other areas the work of a manager will specialize. Management could not stay limited to technical reporting. And it cannot stay forced on leadership through content where the manager uses his superior knowledge and skill. Instead, management should be a specialization by itself, a role for people who are equipped to allow the professional process to be led by the team while they focus on leadership through process – maintaining the environment that supports collaboration on one hand and enabling the uniqueness of each team member to flourish on the other hand.

The change in technology, attitudes, rise of self management and specialization all lead to the conclusion that middle management has to take a different role and use different tools. Not that it is should disappear.

What do you think? I middle management a dying breed? Will they be extinct in a few years?


The last ten percent

Photo by thomas pix


A few weeks ago Seth Godin wrote about the last ten percent. The part of the work that is the hardest to do but makes all the difference. The change from standard to excellent. The change from ordinary to extraordinary.

The last ten percent is the signal we look for, the way we communicate care and expertise and professionalism. If all you’re doing is the standard amount, all you’re going to get is the standard compensation. The hard part is the last ten percent, sure, or even the last one percent, but it’s the hard part because everyone is busy doing the easy part already.

As I see it, a few question come out of this type of thinking:

  1. Do you know how to recognize the difference between the standard and the last ten percent in what you do? Do you know what the little things that make a difference are?
  2. Answer honestly now: in how much of your work do you put the effort of the last ten percent?
  3. If you don’t, do you ask yourself why?
  4. If you can’t because it’s hard or you don’t know how, what are you doing about it?
  5. If you can’t because you are not the right person to for it, do you make sure to find the right people to collaborate with in order to take care of last ten percent?

My bottom line take: find the one place you feel comfortable doing the last ten percent and focus your attention on it.


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