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?


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?


Re-learning about purpose

If there is a lesson I am happy to re-learn many times it is the important of purpose in numerous organizational contexts. Its importance for employees’ happiness, for long-term organizational success and for alignment of strategy never ceases to amaze me. In the last few days, I encountered a number of reminders for its importance.

In the fascinating TED talk above Barry Schwartz gives many examples for the importance of practical wisdom. One of them is other the story of Judge Russell:

Judge Russell created the Veterans’ Court. It was a court only for veterans who had broken the law. And he had created it exactly because mandatory sentencing laws were taking the judgment out of judging. No one wanted non-violent offenders — and especially non-violent offenders who were veterans to boot — to be thrown into prison. They wanted to do something about what we all know, namely the revolving door of the criminal justice system. And what the Veterans’ Court did, was it treated each criminal as an individual, tried to get inside their problems, tried to fashion responses to their crimes that helped them to rehabilitate themselves, and didn’t forget about them once the judgment was made. Stayed with them, followed up on them, made sure that they were sticking to whatever plan had been jointly developed to get them over the hump.

This reminded me of something I wrote almost two years ago:

I don’t remember where exactly I read it. I think it was in one of Marcus Buckingham’s books. Anyway, the writer described an interview with a manager of the prison authority in England. That manager told the interviewer about the ways in which that organization became much more effective. Now, when you think of a prison, you would probably think about things in the lines of tightening security. But the most important activity that was described had to do with the way the prison authority measured its effectiveness. Instead of measuring how many people got out or escaped, which was the traditional way to measure the effectiveness of prisons, the manager changed the way that organization measured it success. They started measuring how many people who got out of prison legitimately, returned to prison. The manager said that he realized that the objective of a prison is to make sure prisoners who return to society don’t go back to the life of crime. In how many other places in life do we still measure the wrong thing because of habit or because of the available data?

I think the two stories are connected. Later in the talk Schwartz explains that none of the Vets that appeared before the special court have re-lapsed. None. 108 success stories. When you think about it through the lenses of the right measurement you understand how profound an achievement it is.

And this made even more sense when I read this paragraph from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning:

Much of what modern workers are required to do on the job is dictated by demands that make sense at some higher organizational level, but are obscure to the worker. Why do we need to fill out these forms? What is the purpose of this rule? What is the outcome of this process? And often even if the worker understands what she is doing, it is not clear to her why. Yet without well-defined goals, both long-term and moment by moment, it is difficult to enjoy what one is doing.

Do I really need to spell out the connection? I don’t think so. It is obvious. I wish it was also more common.


Process and attitude or results and luck?

Photo by striatic

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning:

An organization where only success counts, and one in which an employee who does all the right things and fails is evaluated by the same measure as one who fails because of ineptitude, is an organization that is not likely to generate a great deal of loyalty. It is a part of management function to recognize and reward the performance and the attitude of employees, and not just their success, which may be due to entirely to fortuitous circumstances.

And it is not only a matter of loyalty, but of long-term success. Yes, results matter. Without results nobody will be able to succeed, long-term or short-term. But focusing too much on the “bottom line” results might be detrimental. Not only is luck involved many times, it is also a recipe for repeating mistakes. And most of all, it disregards the human element. If you ignore what people feel and think you will lose them on the way. And without the people, where will you be. And as Csikszentmihalyi points out, you owe your employees to keep those who really give all they can and have the potential (does all the right things) from those who are just not right for the job (ineptitude).

So – when you evaluate people do you focus only on results (and luck) or do you also focus on the process and attitude?


Shorts: Michael Crouch on doing the easy thing

You should read this interesting interview with Michael Crouch for many reasons. One sentence caught my eye:

Some thought we should be selling what everybody else sold because that was much easier to sell

And I ask you – are you selling what everybody else is selling because it is easier? Are you doing what everybody else is doing because it is easier? Are you not standing out and not being remarkable just because it is easier?

If it is easy, there is a good chance it is not worth doing.



Awareness (2)

Yesterday I wrote about awareness and how it is important for managers to be aware of their surroundings in order to to reach a human connection. Then I encountered the next two quotes:

Whoever knows essentially his own nature, can know also that of other men and can penetrate into the nature of beings. He can collaborate in the transformation and the progress of Heaven and earth (Confucian teaching).

How can the soul, which misunderstands itself, have a sure idea of other creatures? (Seneca).

Exactly what I said. Just shorter and more to the point.