CHANGING ON THE JOB
Developing Leaders for a Complex World
By JENNIFER GARVEY BERGER
Stanford University Press
Copyright © 2012 Jennifer Garvey Berger
All right reserved.
Chapter One MAKING SENSE
See if this sounds familiar.
A senior vice president (SVP) in a small corporation called me for some help. Her division had just reorganized, and one of the units in it had been newly created to help with some issues that had plagued the division for years. While this new unit was trying to get its focus and its vision, there was increasing conflict in the whole division. The reorganization had pulled some people off of the work they had been doing, and everyone was feeling pinched and irritable. The SVP noticed that conflict was springing up all over, and that the lines of communication, which had never been stellar, were disintegrating. She worried that unless they began to really understand one another and learn how to deal with their disagreements, new silos would spring up that were worse than the ones the reorganization was designed to dismantle. She thought some kind of retreat would be just what the group needed, including a few days of the basics: listening skills, Myers-Briggs, and so forth, to get into a better space with each other. We decided on a joint focus of, on the one hand, trying to understand and make sense of this new structure now that it was in place; and, on the other hand, building skills around listening to one another and dealing well with the inevitable conflict. We picked a date, the client found a venue, and I bought airplane tickets.
The first day of the retreat was fantastic. The group was much less divided than I had feared, and they were eager to learn new skills and tools. It wasn't until the end of the first day that I picked up on the murmurs about two of the members of the group—both in the newly organized unit. By the end of the morning session on the second day, I had begun to pay attention to those two fellows, and it was clear that they hated one another. In clipped, polite-in-front-of-the-outsider tones, they interacted tersely, each of them looking like he might swat at the other given any provocation. How had I missed this on day one? Because I thought the problem was between units inside this division, not inside a single unit, I had designed the first day to mix the units up; this was a team-building retreat, after all. It was only as we began to unpack strategy that the units got together, and I saw what the SVP had seen. Now the level of anxiety in the room was high. Other groups of people were warily watching the two at the heart of the conflict, and the easy banter of the day before was gone. I took my client outside the meeting room at a break time, and asked her to describe these two guys. "They hate each other," she said. "That's another thing that's going on here."
It turned out that one of the fellows was a supervisor of the other, and the supervisor (Jacob) thought the subordinate (Perry) was out of line. Jacob thought Perry was a maverick, breaking rules and not following the chain of command. Perry thought Jacob was an idiot, following the policy manual like the Bible and ignoring the common sense that he saw. They were both under advisement that this was unacceptable behavior, and Jacob had written up a behavior plan which Perry was to sign by the end of the retreat, or be fired. It was at this point, in the warm California sunshine, that I realized that this whole retreat—with the whole division off site for two days—was to deal, in great measure, with the ripple effect on the culture and on the work when two of its members were openly hostile to one another. This piece about these co-workers who hated each other was not peripheral; it was a key part of the system of negative feelings that the department was facing. And they didn't just have different opinions about things or need additional skills to get them up to speed on their work; it was possible that these two fellows had totally different ways of being in the world—and no way to make sense of one another. I knew that without attention in the direction of this conflict, the whole retreat was partial and not likely to be very useful, like giving a decongestant to someone who has avian flu. Faced with this knowledge mostly too late to do any good, I shuffled some things around, recreated some exercises, and finished the retreat with both a clearer idea of the problem and far less clear idea of the solution.
Perry and Jacob were smart, interesting men with long and successful track records. They each got along well with most of the others in the organization. They had similar backgrounds, educations, and personality types. So what was the problem? Somehow each of them violated core ideas and values of the other. They talked past one another and each felt deeply misunderstood. Yet when I asked their boss what the problem was, she could hardly put it into words. "They just clash," she told me.
It is the subtlety that makes human interactions so difficult—and so rich. And the more time you have to spend with different sorts of people, the more difficult it is. With some skills or tasks, it is simple to see what people can do and how they understand the world. When the task is clear, well-defined, and easy to evaluate, a person's competence is clear—and so is the need for additional training or support. When the task is complex and unbounded, and the evaluation difficult or impossible to connect easily, it is much harder to determine competence. Even once we determine it (e.g., not great people skills), we do not quite know what to do next. Do we offer training? Coaching? Team building? Helping to build the complex skill sets needed in the modern business world is significantly more difficult than it once seemed.
In addition to skills or behaviors we can learn, there are also the reflexes we were born with. When you touch a hot pan, you pull your hand away without thinking about it. This is a helpful reflex and saves you from real pain. If you had to think about the heat and weigh your choices (shall I put this hot pan down and risk my new countertops?), no matter how fast you processed the variety of choices, none of them would be fast enough to save you from a burn. This is a gift from your unconscious mind that protects you from harm. Other reflexes, however, are much less helpful. If every time a manager asks you a question you feel she is questioning your competence and you become defensive, that reflex is likely to get you burned instead of protecting you. And yet changing it is as hard as holding on to a hot pot—and feels, to some part of you, just as stupid. Lots of our ancient reflexes—fight versus flight, for example—that served us on the savanna hurt us now. Our inner wiring is still better suited to the tribal world than the corporate one.
So, in a world where our reflexes are increasingly misleading, and the skills we need are increasingly complex and multifaceted, how can we manage ourselves better? And if we need more-sophisticated leaders throughout our organizations and our world, how can we help organizations actually cultivate leadership and complexity?
UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENCES THAT YOU CAN SEE—AND THE DIFFERENCES THAT YOU CANNOT
Anyone who has ever worked inside an organization will tell you that different people make decisions, deal with conflict, and understand their relationships with colleagues quite differently. They have different strengths and weaknesses, different kinds of skills, and different backgrounds and personalities. In this book, I explore another component of difference: people's capacities to make sense of the complex world in which they find themselves and the way those capacities grow and change over time. While we do not often consider the growth of people's minds in the same way we consider the growth of their skills, both kinds of growth have a vital part to play in a person's success and effectiveness.
Although people have long recognized that as children grow, their ability to make sense of the world in a complex way grows, the idea that adults have minds (and not just skills) that are growing and developing over time is relatively new. It is easy to see these different worldviews in children. For example, when a three-year-old in the bathtub sees the water go down the drain, she makes a fairly straightforward connection between the water that disappears and her body and toys that seem in imminent danger. A kind grown-up who tries to soothe her by explaining that water and people are different will likely have no luck. At this stage in her life, the child does not have the capacity to see the difference between the water that disappears and the toys that are too large to wash away; crying, she begs to be removed from the tub and she struggles to save all of her precious things as she escapes. Several months later, the same child—with something of a different mind now—calmly and playfully watches the last bit of water disappear, poking it with her toys as it goes. The water has not changed at all, but her ability to make fine distinctions has grown more complex; she now has a different form of understanding the world, a greater level of what I call "self-complexity."
Self-complexity refers to these qualitatively different ways of understanding the complex world around us—an idea I'll talk about here as "forms of mind" and others talk about as "order of mind" or "action logics." These terms all describe the changing capacity of humans to cope with complexity, multiple perspectives, and abstraction. And the key news is that this pattern—being able to make sense of greater and greater levels of complexity—continues throughout the lifespan, long after we can handle the magical properties of bathwater.
In adults, self-complexity is not marked by anything so obvious as fear of washing down the drain. Instead, as adults grow and change over time, their ability to deal with the many pressures of their lives changes in important but subtle ways. Leaders with different forms of mind will have different capacities to take the perspectives of others, to be self-directed, to generate and modify systems, to manage conflicts, and to deal with paradox. We do not have to go very far to find ourselves in the middle of complexity and ambiguity; we face complex, unclear situations over and over each day. Here is a quick example of one such unexpected dilemma:
You go to make an appointment to meet with your manager, Monique. While you're scheduling, Monique's executive assistant makes reference to the fact that Monique has a meeting the next day with one of your direct reports, Jonathan, and that Jonathan scheduled the meeting. Monique is relatively new to this division, but she long ago finished the meet-and-greet meetings with everyone in your area. Now, mostly she deals with you on projects from your unit, but on several occasions over the last several months, you have felt blindsided by Monique's tendency to deal directly with your direct reports on her favorite projects, making decisions you only find out about later. You pride yourself on being approachable and easily accessible to your employees. How might you respond to this new information?
Think for a minute about how you would deal with this situation. Would you confront Monique? Jonathan? What would you say? What is the real problem here? What might you be most worried about?
Here is how three different people might deal with this same situation. As you read, think about their perspectives—what does each of them see as the problem? What are they each worried about? Which one most shares your thoughts and concerns?
You scheduled your meeting quickly, and then walked away to think the situation through. You had never had a situation quite like this and you didn't really know how to deal with it. For a minute you wished that you had never found out about the stupid appointment in the first place. It would be better just not to know, because now you were angry at Jonathan for going over your head and breaking all of the appropriate chain-of-command rules. And you were irritated with Monique, too, who shouldn't encourage this kind of inappropriate behavior in her employees. What could this meeting be about, anyway? Your anger quickly turned to concern—what if Jonathan was going to Monique to complain about you? You began wracking your brain to see what you had done that might get you in trouble. Maybe it was something that came up when you were working on that outside project last month. You knew that you were not supposed to take on these consulting assignments, but this one looked fairly easy and the money was good. You didn't understand why you shouldn't do other work on your own time, anyway—it was a stupid rule. And how could Jonathan have found out about that in the first place? Maybe what you would do was get to Jonathan and talk to him kind of casually and find out what he wanted to talk about with Monique. Yes, that was the thing to do, talk to Jonathan and see what the whole thing was about, and then see if you could stop the meeting before it happened. Maybe you would remind him of all those times last fall when he had left early to go to his daughter's soccer games. That kind of reminder had worked well in the past. And it wasn't about blackmail at all; rather, your point was that if you didn't work together against the higher-ups, your lives would be overtaken by stupid rules and regulations. Now you felt glad that you had found out about the appointment because now you would be able to fix it before things got too far out of hand.
You scheduled your meeting quickly, and then walked away to think the situation through. You had never faced a situation like this because your previous manager had been so well-aligned with the appropriate ways communication was supposed to happen. This new manager was either stupid or wrong-headed to be breaking out of these roles, and it made your head spin sometimes. If all of the reporting chain was up for grabs, how do you even understand your role as a supervisor? Were you supposed to take this as Monique's hope that you would start meeting with the direct reports of your own direct reports? Perhaps that was the message you were being given, but you wished Monique would give the message with more clarity—you weren't a mind reader, even if you tried to be. You never had to scramble this way with your previous manager; you two were on the same page, and there was never any confusion over roles. For a minute, you felt a little unsteady. If you didn't know your role as a leader, how could you do your job? And if you couldn't do your job, how could you contribute to your family? What would your friends say? This felt like a terrible mess, and you didn't know how you could begin to fix it. There weren't any guidelines for this in any leadership book you had ever read, and now that your former manager had been replaced, you didn't know whom you might go to for advice.
You scheduled your meeting quickly, and then walked away to think the situation through. You had never had a situation quite like this, but you had been in other interpersonally difficult situations before, even a couple that involved some confusion over organizational roles, and you never enjoyed them. For a minute you wished that you had never found out about the stupid appointment in the first place. It would be so much easier to just go about your business and not worry about the meeting between Monique and Jonathan. But now that you knew, you would have to confront the issue because it pointed toward important philosophical differences in both your manager and your subordinates. You wondered briefly what Monique and Jonathan might talk about together. There were some things that might merit a meeting between the two of them (where Jonathan was bringing a grievance you had ignored, for example, or where they were planning a surprise party for you, you thought, smiling ironically), and if this were one of those meetings you could happily ignore it until directed otherwise. But those scenarios didn't ring particularly true to you. The fact was that ignoring the chain of command was something of a pattern for Monique, and it was beginning to be a destructive pattern. You had noticed new tensions among your employees lately, had noticed the subtle ways they were competing for Monique's time and attention, and you knew that it was hurting both morale and productivity. You decided that you needed to talk to Monique to figure out what her goals were for these meetings. She clearly had different visions of what was expected up and down the chain of command, and maybe if you understood one another more explicitly, you could find styles that were best for the whole team.
Excerpted from CHANGING ON THE JOB by JENNIFER GARVEY BERGER Copyright © 2012 by Jennifer Garvey Berger. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.