This paper explores some of the dilemmas in organisations relating to relational capacity. It illustrates how managers and their companies often struggle to engage with its development. I suggest that existing approaches tend to use inappropriate methods and focus on inappropriate capabilities. I propose a straightforward three-part framework for development which can produce a sound platform on which to build those leadership abilities most founded in relationships.
The CEO of a large government agency was leaving to take up a new role and his successor, a long-standing rival, was leaving behind a CEO role at a more practical, engineering-based agency - where he had led a strong process of culture change with a relationally-oriented approach to its work, both internally and externally. The change had been rated highly in two studies by business school researchers. When the two CEO's met for the handover, the departing one's first comment was, "I hear you've been tree-hugging with your engineers."
After 35 years working to develop leadership, people skills and good organisational dynamics, I’ve heard the phrase ‘tree hugging’ many times, along with references to ‘soft’ skills, ’kumbaya’ and ‘baring your soul’. At the same time, I read all the time about how ‘important our people are’, about how ‘people are our greatest asset’, and about how critical relationships and relationship skills are to our success. There seems to be a widespread discomfort with engaging with engagement!
Whenever I hear the phrase ‘tree huggers’, I imagine that the speaker, like the ‘tough guy’ CEO above, likely has a disowned ‘soft side’, maybe even a hidden self capable of genuine relationship and emotional expression - nomatter how fearful, undeveloped and unexpressed it currently is.
I wonder if that ‘soft side’ for many of us, secure in our rational selves, is actually hard to find, express, and build into a mature and skillful aspect. Labelling it as an exercise in tree hugging probably makes it even harder to find, understand, and action in a useful way. The partners and spouses of many experienced managers often say they have been waiting for a long time for their partners to start to find these ‘softer’ aspects in their personal lives. Will they see a more connective, emotional, empathetic person emerge one day, before it’s not too late? For many managers, these are not the capacities on which their career paths so far have been built. Originally engineers, economists, accountants, scientists, planners, logisticians and administrators, they have often seen early success in their fields, and supported by networking and mentorship, they have promoted several times.
Now they find themselves in senior management (or general management), which requires not just work experience, technical knowledge, financial and strategic capability … but now, the ability to lead increasing numbers of people. Suddenly, it seems, they need to know how to build and maintain effective teams (group dynamics), morale, commitment, loyalty, shared identity and purpose, commonly expressed values, internal and external relationships, presentations, organisational politics, board liaison, belief systems, connectivity, trust, openness and honesty.
I have found that many senior managers have had little opportunity to learn people skills; so as a result, for instance, they are uncertain about how to read their staff’s body language. They can be surprised to learn that their people can’t say what the company values are, despite them being mounted, framed and displayed on the office walls. As far as they are aware, working with human forces is something they should be able to do using the rational and measurable tools they have been trained to use to effect strategy, planning, and financial management.
They assume that collecting formal feedback from staff and customers, using third party survey companies, will be useful, will provide useable information on how to improve their leadership. In reality, it rarely does, producing as it does low-grade data both in terms of validity and reliability, and lacking the specificity to guide targeted development in skills and attitudes.
I once sat in on a fascinating management meeting on this matter. The company had recently introduced 360 feedback surveys for senior managers. On this occasion, the subject was the GM of manufacturing (let’s call him Andrew, the most popular CEO name in the top 200 companies in Australia), who had received the summary feedback from his 12 reports, along with that of his boss … which he could compare with his self-assessment. There were about 20 items relating to his management and leadership, calling for ratings from 1 (very poor) to 10 (excellent).
Andrew had given himself between 7 and 10 for all items. He was genuinely bewildered when HR presented him with the summary results from his reports, which in all areas other than technical knowledge and an action orientation, showed averages between 2 and 6. “What’s it mean?” he asked the HR manager. “What exactly do I need to do differently? How do I do that? If they want me to lead better, what does that mean?” “I don’t exactly know,” said HR. “Perhaps we need to get everyone to the table and they can tell you.”
So we all sat together, and each report was invited to clarify what was going on in their minds when they gave each rating (note: the anonymity of the original survey has now potentially been removed). The first report said, “I’m sorry, Andrew, I don’t remember what I gave you for that item.” The next said, “I don’t really have any problem with you about that.” The next, “I was probably just a bit cranky that day, mate.” And so on, person after person, item after item. At the end, Andrew was none the wiser, and the group had locked in its pre-existing patterns of concealment and dishonesty. And for his part, Andrew had no more understanding of how he personally had helped to create and reinforce these relational conditions.
Formal feedback is common in companies, but is seldom useful, because power hierarchies tend to create the conditions for increasing levels of dishonesty the further up the system you go. It’s an understandable effect of everyone’s efforts to keep themselves interpersonally and personally safe. It is an uncommon senior manager who not only understands this dynamic, but knows how to create a contrary dynamic of personal safety and honesty. That kind of capability is usually accompanied by a high level of self-awareness and personal security on the part of the senior person.
The feedback Andrew needed was, of course, sitting right in front of him in real time, the whole time – in the words, body language and voice tones shown by his staff and colleagues, continually. Once Andrew learned how to pay attention to these things, he then learned how to explore them with his people, and how to invite them to honestly tell him about the specific experiences of him which conditioned their responses. He realised they could help him fine-tune his interpersonal behaviour as it happened. For the reader - Have you got the sensory acuity and relational skills required? Can you create the interpersonal conditions for honest, useful and well-intentioned feedback in your team?
This pattern illustrates that all interpersonal and organisational dynamics act as self-fulfilling – each instance helps to create the conditions for more of the same. These are ‘snowball effects’. Trust begets more trust; openness encourages more openness. Every human dynamic operates as a ’snowball effect’. A core task of leadership is to launch and maintain the good snowballs, whether it’s the snowball of openness, honesty, useful feedback, positive thinking, co-operation or mutual support. Launching the snowball always involves an element of risk.
It turns out that when senior managers don’t know how to create the enabling conditions for openness and honesty they inevitably, often unwittingly, create the conditions for concealment and dishonesty. Anonymous, ‘objective’ and generalised feedback mechanisms, such as staff surveys, cannot reverse this dynamic. The only feedback that helps is face-to-face, honest and well-intentioned. And that will only happen if the manager can create the conditions under which that will occur. If he/she knows how to do that, surveys become redundant.
The enabling conditions companies need in order to create high quality relational dynamics include interpersonal safety, along with self-awareness, and interpersonal and teamworking skills on the part of the manager/leader. These three factors in turn suggest a framework for the development of the human skillset which managers need in order to progress as leaders.
If organisations were machines (which they’re not), then feedback would be the oil that keeps them working. Giving honest feedback to colleagues (or your boss) involves an element of risk; receiving honest feedback is often uncomfortable. For feedback to be an integral aspect in the workplace requires a climate of interpersonal safety. To maintain that climate needs a range of skills and constant maintenance. The team leader has to welcome personal feedback (even if he/she doesn’t always agree with it) and model doing something useful with it, without penalising staff. Every workplace experience needs to be seen as potentially a learning experience. Honesty with respect is an important enabler. In most companies with whom I’ve consulted, people initially report a lack of courage in tabling and dealing with people issues.
Good quality leadership development includes opportunities for exploring self-awareness – a better understanding of ourselves as leaders, our strengths and weaknesses, our likely motives, the form and limitations of all those patterns of thinking and behaviour which we have constructed in order to hold our lives together and give them coherence. These automated patterns are what enable us to go about our lives, and we presume that at some time in our lives they got locked in, as the best way we knew at that time, in order to take care of ourselves. But decades later, they have not only protected us, but can now limit us. As mature adults, managers often catch themselves enacting self-defeating behaviour … and wonder ‘How come I do that?’ and ‘How can I learn to move past that?’
Managers with strong and realistic self-awareness tend to be more secure, and less threatened by unknown situations, ambiguity, or honesty. They are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. They relish the challenge of uncertainty or new and unfamiliar situations. Alternatively, those with limited self-awareness can be vulnerable to flattery and a flow of good news. They don’t like surprises or inconvenient truths. They can struggle to take responsibility. As they promote, they can visit their dysfunctionality on increasing numbers of staff, until the whole system is living a lie.
The interpersonal competencies for tree-hugging include both understanding and behaviours. Within the now widely-accepted theory of Multiple Intelligences, this is the domain of the ‘personal intelligences’ – the interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences. This includes understanding, recognising and tracking people dynamics, such as the ways people in the human system influence, manipulate and exercise power over each other; and because it’s a human system, the ways the players’ behaviour are complementary and interdependent.
These understandings need to be extended through skills which include tracking non-verbal behaviour (body language), connection skills such as rapport, sensory acuity, empathy, feedback, language and inquiry, and action skills like negotiation, confrontation, storytelling, presentation and teamworking.
To strengthen these three areas – safety, self-awareness and skills – there is one ingredient which is not negotiable. That ingredient is modelling. If the boss doesn’t do it, no-one else is likely to either. Modelling shows a genuine intent. It shows commitment. And it creates a climate in which people are encouraged to learn and develop their own capacities to play their part. This in turn stimulates organisational, or systemic, learning, the result of which will be improved practices.
Franco, now in his fifties, had been a plant manager in a large manufacturing business for some time, about three years ago. It hadn’t gone so well, and he’d been sidelined for a while. Now he was given another chance, in a different plant, and he was determined to bring more leadership to bear. Imagine his dismay when he walked into his new job, only to see Mercedes, also in her fifties, in a central area of the factory, surrounded by the ten or so women she supervised. Franco and Mercedes had history – four years ago, he had sacked her, only to see her reinstated, with the support of the union. This time, he had a better idea. He walked over to her, and asked if she would sit with him to talk things over. He explained that he was setting out to do things better this time, and asked if she would be willing to give him regular honest feedback to help him do a better job. She agreed, and for the next twelve months they met each week, where everyone could see them, and she gave him her feedback. This time, he welcomed it.
Developing tree-hugging competency cannot be developed in training programs full of theory, role plays and simulations. These are real-time capabilities best built, reflected on and practised in real-time situations. They are best learned in live groups where the feedback is real, where the interactions matter and have consequences, where the relationships and interactions count. So … best learned in project teams, management teams, and course groups where the agenda is real group work. The rest is play-acting.