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Turn the hierarchy on it’s head…

July 1, 2011

Having just finished reading  and been inspired by ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett about the detrimental effects of unequal societies I got to thinking about what happens if you apply this kind of thinking to organisations.  However we frame it the majority of large organisations work within some kind of hierarchy and therefore implicit within this is some kind of  inequality. Now we know that hierarchy does have an impact and in terms of organisations  and this can be both positive and negative.  Positively it enables staff working with an organisation to be very clear about the chain of command and therefore the chain of decision making.   However, the impact of a well defined hierarchy is that if decision making is always passed up the chain, staff become dis-empowered and potentially  have less flexibility in their working and tend to stick only in their job roles and responsibilities – laying the pathway to succession planning problems. Worst of all, it sets up the potential for issues not to be shared and problem solving to happen from afar and imposed on those delivering  services or producing the end product. When I have experienced this in some of the organisations that I work with, the psychological distance between staff and managers is palpable, noticeable in the body language, the words that people use, speaking in generalisations about ‘The Management’ and within the culture – feeling as if you would be blamed for unidentified (or even because of the blame culture – hidden) problems that inevitably (given the structure) only become apparent when they become painful issues

Now the answer to this is not easy and yet the organisations that I work with who have an ability to let go of the hierarchy and realise that it is merely  a construct, an illusion  gain the benefit of being able to focus on the outcome and are clear about what it takes to achieve.  They seem to have the ability to hold the paradox of having both clarity of role and be able to work beyond role definition.  This gives staff who work in these organisations the permission to innovate, something which role freedom often brings yet still be clear about the outcome expectations of the role. The defining characteristics of these organisations is, more than anything, the confidence to let go of hierarchy and hold the belief that ‘we are in this together to deliver this outcome’. It is a move beyond  performance targets and towards deliverable benefits. As opposed to putting in place processes that serve to maintain the status quo.

So how do you move towards a ‘we are all in this together’ culture? I believe that the first step towards this is the ability to let go of status as a definition of power and success and a move to a deep understanding of what the role is there to deliver. Now many organisations may talk this talk yet few actually walk the walk – and if they did the hierarchy would be turned upside down and the first indication of this might be in organisation charts, with those that are actually delivering being at the top of the tree, with other roles explicitly set out to support those delivering. Changing the organisational chart may be just changing a piece of paper, yet this can send a powerful psychological message and if followed through may change power relationships within organisations and set the conditions for real conversations to take place…..




Judge not to Judge

April 21, 2011

We are required to make judgements of one kind or another much of the time, whether this is in our roles as Leaders, Managers, members of a team or even in our everyday lives. It is a vital  part of our decision-making process. It  enables us to weigh up the pros and cons and decide the best action to take to move onto the next step. It ensures  that choices are made at the right time to keep the organisation on the right path. So making judgements is a good thing to do, right? And yes it is, except when the process of making a judgement turns into being judgemental, judging ourselves or others.

Being judgemental can be  divisive organisational behaviour, that leads to poor management. It is a behaviour that can quickly become viral and can prevent forward movement and in some cases lead to failure.  Being judgemental is an act of judging others and assigning a label; such as ‘they are poor performers’ or ‘that organisation is rubbish’.  When we label in this way, we seek out and filter for instances that confirm our assumptions   and ignore or don’t even notice exceptions to the rule we have set. And by doing this we close down the possibilities of something different being true, because those who are on the receiving end of this kind of judgement start to believe it is true themselves – that they are just not good enough and never will be. It becomes a self fulfilling prophesy where morale drops and the corresponding behaviours become the norm; lack of care and lack of pride in the job to be done and eventually those who hold the possibility of raising performance exit the organisation leaving those who are left to flounder.  After all, when it comes down to it, it is all about reputation and it’s hard to change reputation isn’t it?

So how possible is it to change this?  The act of being judgemental is usually based on a feeling or an emotion (decision based judgements are based on fact), so what needs to happen is to change what is felt. Set realistic expectations and celebrate success when they are met. Notice and appreciate what works  and start to create a new story. It won’t be easy as human being seem to prefer the drama of failure, spending time gossping rather than taking responsibility. And slowly, bit by bit that new story will start to become true as people’s beliefs shift, behaviours change and a new era of possibility is ushered in….

Past, Present, Future and off we go…

November 24, 2010

Stuck in the Mud

I’ve been thinking about the state of the nation and what might make things better. A big ask I know, especially as I am no politician……

For various reasons we have got ourselves in a hole (UK and globally) and we can’t seem to get out – we are stuck. It seems to me that we are engaged in the worst type of stuckness; an endless going over of ground about how we got here, looking for causes and then wringing our hands, with no movement forward.  This series of symptoms appear to be applying across the board; politically, within companies and with individuals.. If I were to diagnose the problem I would say that we have a virulent case of anxiety and depression going on. It’s becoming catching, leaving markets open to the virus of financial marauders.

When a person feels anxious or describes themselves as depressed, commonly they are stuck in a dysfunctional present which may even connect back to a dysfunctional past. A feeling of hopelessness pervades because there seems to be no way out of the stuckness – there is a forgetfulness of any resources they may have at their disposal and an inability to take connect to the future. A common response at moments like these is : “I don’t know”, with people often only feeling temporarily better when they realise that, at least, they are not as bad as someone else. (A bit like what is going on between Eurpoe and the Republic of Ireland at the moment.  This was featured as a joke on the popular Radio 4 comedy programme “The Now Show” and the Greek Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou has sought to reassure his country by saying that, while things are bad there, at least they’re not as bad as Ireland.) So we make ourselves feel  better by focussing on how someone elses pain is worse than ours and doing  bit of one up man ship.  An Aspirin to treat a tumour.

As well as individuals, organisations I work with are also having the same kinds of conversations. Stuck in the here and now, unable to make decisions or waiting and waiting for others to make decisions about their futures. And these others are putting the decisions of because they too have no idea about where they are trying to get to. We are in somewhat unchartered territory and yet for some explorers this is exactly what spurred them onto find new lands.

But we are not focussing on new lands, we are focussing on how we can get back to what we had before, what we know. So plans abound about how to get us out of this mess and re-establish what was the status quo; strategies to treat the symptoms; tighten our belts; make cuts; put our houses in order. All particularly punishing analogies, if you truly try them on and none  connecting to a future but confining us to think and focus on what we have lost. And yes, we are in uncharted territory and as such we need to create a new destination, one we haven’t been in before. It was the excitement of exploring and finding  new lands that spurred on explorers such as Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus and just like us, each of them was spurred on by solving a problem or overcoming a present crisis. But they were also compelled by the vision of what that exploration would give them.  And that is what we need to do now. Move beyond our past and find  a new and compelling vision of our future. Make sure we have enough provisions and set sail. We really do need to use a different kind of thinking to get us out of the mess than the one we used to get into it. We can’t get back what is truly lost (and what we are finding out was probably a fantasy anyway) but we can decide what an how we want the future to be.

So what to do if you are leading an organisation, or a team or yourself. Set a compelling vision of the future that makes sense to both you and the people around you and remember it does have to make sense. ( A concept like “The Big Society” –  sorry David Cameron- won’t do it, as concepts are just that; an idea with no sensory meaning that others can hook into. ) Honour and recognise where people are now because if you don’t, fear and anxiety will overwhelm  and give them the tools to navigate safely, rather than casting them adrift. And by the way, if you don’t have a destination people will feel lost and cast adrift. And, finally, remember to look up from the map every now and again  to make sure that you and your crew are on course.

** with thanks to Robert Levine and his wonderful book – “A Geograpy of Time”, who got me thinking about this on a more global scale.

Competitive Apprentices Lose Competition or Let go of Personal Success to have Personal Success

October 20, 2010

The Losing Team

I’m now going to admit one of  my secret vices (along with Mad Men and yes, I admit it the Archers).I watch “The Apprentice” and  pretend to myself that I  watch it out of academic interest but I really have to  admit that I am watching it for both the laugh out loud factor and also the inevitable – I can’t bear this any longer watch through your fingers moment.  The last episode didn’t disappoint and was probably the most dismal performance by both teams, ever.  ( If you are a sucker for this kind of thing you can still catch it on BBC IPlayer – The team’s task was to invent a new beach accessory that would appeal to a mass market and sell it and both teams failed on both counts.  Team Synergy invented a beach towel with a cooler pillow -” The Cuuli”  and the Team Apollo invented a device to hold your book on the beach “The Book-eeze”. Neither were particularly inventive and neither solved a consumer problem.  Unsurprisingly sales were low if at all.  The Beach Towel took one small order and the Book Holder took none.

So what led to this murky performance amongst those who are competing to be Lord Alan Sugar’s next bright thing?   More than anything it was a focus on individual rather than team success that led to disaster. It led to bad ideas being taken forward by over assertive members  and less assertive members allowing it to happen, divorcing themselves from responsibility for fear of being held accountable. (Ironically, this is what happened – with the firing of Joy.)

So how did this all play out ? In this episode,  Laura, the elected project manager, struggled with the task of managing and leading this competitive cackle, then  allowed the team to be led autocratically from the side by Joanna. Laura, may of  thought that she was leading democratically but  in all but title, let go of the  leadership entirely.  Joanna, wrested control and asserted herself at every opportunity, talking over others and making her point heard regardless of whether it was a good or not.

“I’m going to speak over you. I’m sorry to be rude.” Joanna could be heard to say, clearly not meaning it at all.

She received little or no feedback on the effect of her behaviour and the leader and  team itself  let go of group responsibility for overall success, choosing  instead to moan and blame from the sidelines or to say too late that it was a bad idea.   Now, I’m not necessarily saying that this was a fault of just Joanna or Laura, it was the dynamic and unconscious consent of the group that created the tyrant, allowing Joanna to fill the leadership void and lead them to failure.

If we look at this from the point of view of social psychology it is clear that a number of things were at play:

  • Team Apollo, at least for this task became competitive and was led from the side lines by an autocratic leader, who mistook, having her voice heard and her idea taken forward as success. We know that democratic groups are more successful – they have higher productivity, they are more creative and behave more on task even when the leader is absent.
  • The group conformed even when individuals within the group knew the idea was wrong.  If the opinion is said consistently and with enough authority, people tend to go along with it.  (See Milgrams’ Electric Shock experiments as far back as 1963!) So the group went along with Joanna’s idea  due to it being said often enough and with enough assertion.
  • This group is at the point of competition rather than collaboration and see and experience each other as competitors. When they are in this space they cannot hold each other as being fundamental to each others success and are engineered to behave and think  as individuals rather than as a group. (Power of Situation)
  • They  have lost sight of the long game where group success brings personal success as well.

So what could they do differently?

  • Create and agree their social rules as a group – agree behavioural rules that will allow the whole group to shine. By this they will create the right environment for success.  – Social Psychologist think that situations are more powerful than character (“fundamental attribution error”).  As humans we tend to overestimate the power of personality and underestimate the influence of the social situation – by creating the kind of social environment that can allow all individuals to contribute and flourish you will negate the power of one overly assertive individual.  Groups often think that creating ‘ground rules’ are an  unnecessary waste of time when they could be getting on with the task. However, they can be a powerful part of group formation, allowing open discussion of group working, value formation and granting permissions
  • Agree a group outcome that is bigger than the outcome of individual success. This outcome needs to be more than just completing the task and include how people personally contribute and work together to achieve overall success

and most of all

  • being able to let go of the imperative and immediacy of personal success to make space for group success which in turn will give you the success you desire.

Are Robots better at Relationships?

September 22, 2010

Back from holiday and  back in the real world.

I had been day dreaming about what a wonderful time we had in Scotland; the beautiful the scenery; the wonderful people; the space, when I was catapulted back into a not so good memory through an email from a little robot. But it wasn’t the little robot it was the reminder how humans don’t always get it right.

On our fantastic trip, where I go to top up my feelings of calm and sense of perspective, there was one moment that disconnected me from those good feelings and catapulted me into annoyance and irritation and thoughts of  how it didn’t need to be like that. It led me to compare between two experiences; one where I was a valued customer and one where I felt I wasn’t. Interestingly, one of those relationships was with a robot….

The Humans *

During our first week of our holiday, a day with beautiful weather, we decided to take the children (girl – aged 8 and boy – almost 4) to a Farm Park. It promised to be a great day with lots for all of us to do; animals and areas to play (inside and out); something for everyone. The children were really looking forward to it (we had already put it off once , when rain called off play,) and it was the thing that they had chosen to do, through their before holiday online search. (Yes, like most children their age computers are intuitive tools.)  We  had a look at the site and saw it advertised as a great value day out for all the family.

So on the day, we paid our £35.00 and went in. Not too bad, we thought for whole day for a family, until we realised that many of the activities advertised cost extra when we were in there. At that point, there was a slight sense of irritation at having to have deep and meaningful converstaions with the pester power twins. And then it got worse from there……

The park was very well staffed and in fact you could describe them as having a plethora of staff. So there was no shortage of people who could help you or could provide some interaction with the customer. The problem was they just didn’t want to . The whole place was staffed with ‘disinterested teenagers’. Now, it isn’t the fact that they were teenagers that was the problem; it was that you as a customer felt that you were an intrusion and a pain. These young people had no sense of connection or pride in the company they worked for or any idea of that they were the outward face of the company and how their  interactions  affected the experience.  The bins weren’t emptied, the place was dirty, the queues were long.  And it wasn’t that there wasn’t enough staff  and  in some cases too many as they spent all their time talking to each other and ignoring the customers. The length of queues  were created by not serving the customer and chatting too each other. These staff were probably employed for the season (and probably season after season) and probably at minimum wage.  I don’t even think it was necessariy all the staff’s fault and I wondered how much the company had invested in making them feeling part of what they were trying to achieve and anticipating their needs so they could, in turn, anticipate the customer’s needs.

The Robots

Compare this then to the robots. Just before I went away, I ordered some customised cards from a company called ‘Moo’. I’d never heard about them before, they didn’t come by recommendation and I found them via an internet search. When looking at their website, I was impressed with how they had considered the perspective of their customers and had developed a proposition which was different and allowed the customer to develop something unique to them at a great price. Somehow, they had got something that felt creative, interactive and individual rather than the equivalent of ‘ you can have any colour you want as long as it is black’ of most online printing companies. They had got it just right at the same (if not better) competitive price. I selected my order through the intuitive website and it got better from there.  I then received my email from ‘Little Moo’  the print robot. Moo has thought it all the way through – how the customer might feel getting an automated response and what would it be like if they gave their computer a personality. It told me when I would expect my order and what to do if there were any problems.

“Remember, I’m just a bit of software. So, if you have any questions regarding your order please first read our Frequently Asked Questions (at X) and if you’re still not sure, contact customer services (who are real

people) at: (link given)

I then got an email telling me my order was in the post  –

” Hello,it’s Little MOO again. I thought you’d like to know, the following items from your order are now in the mail”

And then my order arrived, perfectly packaged, exactly as advertised (and slightly better than I expected) ahead of schedule.

Since then I have had several emails from ‘Moo’ – not too many, with the same friendly tone telling me more about the company.I feel like a valued customer, and hopefully without sounding too twee, I feel slightly fond of ‘Little Moo’ the print Robot.  Their company Logo is : ‘We love to Print’ and you feel like they do.

Basic Needs, Expectations and Adding Delight!

The difference between the two  may appear obvious and yes there is a fundamental difference in that one was a transaction and the other was an experience. However, ‘Moo’ turned the transaction into an experience and the Farm Park turned the experience into less than a transaction.  So what were the real differences? Both met my basic needs, but the Park didn’t meet my expectations of friendly service so I went away disappointed. ‘Moo’ more than met my expectations with quicker than advertised turn around, and then added delight through their creativity and creating a real connection with the customer.  When we do this, companies and organisations created the kind of presence in the world that helps them build business; building their reputation and a loyal customer base. And first, they need to start with their own employees. You can only get the kind of response you want if your staff are engaged and you are meeting their needs and expectations. Although, my interaction with ‘Moo’ is through a robot, I am left thinking that the people who work for that company love the job they do.

It’s a great question to ask yourself in whatever role or organisation you are in.

  • What do my customers want and expect?   And how do I add delight?

Remember, do all you can to get it right first. There is no point in adding delight if you don’t meet the basic needs or the customer’s expectations.

*By the way Real Humans in Scotland do get it right. Culzean Castle is fantastic and in particular Barry the Tour Guide, who got it just right. Anticipating the needs of children and adults alike, telling stories that interested both and kept even an almost four year old agog for almost an hour. It’s simple really – see it from the perspective of the customer, find out what they want and deliver it and if you can, add something special.

Fabio Capello, Football God or Leadership Genius?

June 7, 2010

Fabio Capello

I was reading an article on Fabio Capello in this weeks Observer (those that know me can get off the floor now) and it got me thinking about the merits of his described style, what were the limitations and how this translated to the corporate world.

His style is described as composing:

  • a ‘meritocratic ethos’ rather than ‘celebrity narcissism’
  • a thoroughness; plotting a course through tournaments (which includes, apparently how to conserve energy, how to use each player, when to unleash surprises).
  • a sense of autocratic directiveness

It seems to me that this style could translate well off the field.

Meritocratic Ethos

If you operate this sense of meritocratic ethos, you move away from favouritism and cliques to encouraging people to demonstrate their best. This isn’t, as often thought,  working long hours. That is the narcissistic view of needing to have your face seen, your results and the results of your staff should speak for themselves. It is having the courage to work in way that delivers results and not paying too much attention to the games that are played. Staff who worked with Advertising Guru, Jack Foster, didn’t have their holiday’s monitored as he knew that well rested staff deliver best and often have the great idea away from the office whilst letting their conscious brain take a break and giving the subconscious brain a look in. (And staff who are allowed to be creative are motivated and only take the holiday they need).


Capello’s style appears to be Research, Research, Research and then make your own decision. This works in the way that many great leaders  get their best ideas, research thoroughly, sleep on it and then make your decision based on what your instincts tell you, avoiding analysis paralysis. We know that it isn’t really instinct but giving your brain the chance to do a complex filtering process and so when you make a decision you know it is the right decision. After all to achieve the next step you (and only you) will need to know it is the right decision.  As Capello says about his research for playing in South Africa,  “We are always looking for the right answers. I have spoken to many people who have been in this environment, different managers, to better understand what really happens over 40 days of being together. But after all these conversations, it will be my decisions and my style that must take us forward.”

Autocratic Directiveness

Capello does ‘not .. encourage a cult of the leader in the style of Mourinho, but to insist on group obedience to his instructions and authority’. Now this is controversial, as often, this is the style that is often pilloried. Yet there is a time and place and a football field is probably one of them. His players, are always clear about what he expects of them and the individualised results he wants them to deliver.  Although this style, might not encourage independence of thought, it does enable his players to flourish in a meritocracy as they know what the outcome is.  So to translate this into a corporate world, a directive style has a place: setting the big picture outcomes and occasionally the detail. Just remember whatever, style you adopt at a particular time (having thought through what’s appropriate to the context) commit to it.  Leaders who have a specific way that they want to their follower to do something but can’t quite commit to being directive, leave their followers confused and themselves frustrated and vice versa for a non-directive style.

I’m really not qualified to say whether Capello’s style will get us through the world cup as of course a Leader is only as good as his followers. What I would say is that he appears to command respect from a notoriously fickle English team and fans alike. So may be his style, or at least aspects of it,  would translate well to the boardroom, keeping both staff and shareholders happy.

With thanks to Paul Hayward’s article : If the Italian Alf Ramsey can’t do it, nobody can  – The Observer  6.6.10

Competition or Co-operation?

June 4, 2010

My work takes me into many organisations, particularly in the public sector. Some of these organisations are really functional and others aren’t and this gets reflected in the success of their work with partners.  So it got me to wondering what was the difference? In my experience the difference that makes the difference is the type of leadership within the organisation and the group dynamics of the top team, i.e. how well they work together. This appears to get played out throughout the organisation and in the functionality of their partnerships with other organisations.

Competition - Only One Winner?

Kurt Lewin, whose work has promoted our understanding of functional groups, cites two things that makes groups work: how co-operative a group is and the kind of leadership it has.

Co-operation - Everybody Succeeds...

So what makes a co-operative group?

In Lewin’s theory, groups can be competitive or co-operative. Individuals are either working to their own goal or a common goal.  A co-operative group exists when the ‘group members realise that their individual fate depends on the group as a whole’. In other words their own individual success is dependent on the success of everyone else and vice versa.  This kind of group works collaboratively, always seeking the win-win-win.

And what is the right kind of Leadership?

Again taking from Lewin’s work with Lippitt, he talks about three kinds of leadership.

  • Autocratic – a directive style where the leader holds ultimate power and often the fate of individuals within a group. This style can be seen as aggressive.
  • Laissez-faire –  avoiding confrontation, where followers complain of a lack of direction – a passive style
  • Democratic – a discursive style that involve individuals in decision-making and holds group or corporate responsibility – an involving style

The Democratic style was seen to be most effective and has certainly been my experience.

I have been called in to facilitate discussions between organisations whose fate is interdependent – in other words they need each other to be successful. Calling me in is often the last resort and I have learnt (once to my cost) what will make these discussions successful. It is all to do with the leadership that is in place. If the leaders can move towards this democratic style of involvement and understanding each others perspective then it is possible. If they hold onto a moral high ground or the need for power it won’t be. Usually organisations know their common goal. Sometimes they have forgotten and just need reminding, but if the leadership of that group is not willing to move position nothing else will either.

I have particularly seen this dynamic happening between commissioning and providing organisations or public and private partnerships. The ones that fail are characterised by unspoken or spoken suspicion, often with one party striving to control and the other feeling that their fate is in the hands of the other. Where this works, both partners work together wanting both to be successful, where everyone ulitmately feels like they are sharing and part of a team win.

They have difficult conversations and are the better partners for it, and once a decision is made they share the responsibility for that decision. So what does it take for this kind of partnership to work? One where that kind leadership is already in place within the organisation. Where individuals are prepared to stand up and share their views and not feel like they are putting their heads above the parapet. One where people take risks to achieve the common goal and are lauded for it. These risks won’t alway work and there will always be learning.

So to achieve long-lasting success, lead in a way that allows others to be part of your decision-making. Let go of ego and keep an eye on that common goal.