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Four Fatal Flaws of Poor Leadership

failure-chalkboard-message-thumbWe can learn a great deal from good leadership but we can also learn from poor leadership. I’ve been fortunate to have experienced some really great leaders, but I’ve also suffered my fair share of real duffers. In a world that increasingly asks us to embrace change and inspire innovation I’ve nailed down my top four fatal flaws of poor leadership, and on the flip slide what good leaders can do to avoid them. They are: avoiding failure (at all costs), blaming others, denying failure and failing to decide.

Avoiding Failure (at all costs)

By and large, managers get promoted by showing they’re in control. So even if poor managers recognise that we tend to learn best from our mistakes and that failure is an excellent way to acquire new knowledge, they still do everything possible to avoid it. The way that the good managers resolve this conundrum is to systematically extract value from failure so that it can be evaluated and improved upon. It boils down to two key lessons:

  1. Study projects that do not work out and gather as many insights as possible from them. When something doesn’t go as planned, it’s an opportunity to challenge your assumptions and adjust accordingly.
  2. Record your insights and share them across your team or organisation. It can be a good idea to bring senior leaders together on a regular basis to talk about their failures, with a clear emphasis on learning.

You could even try celebrating failure! Several firms already do this: NASA has a Lean Forward, Fail Smart Award; and the Tata Group has a Dare to Try Award.

Blaming Others

An associated tendency among poor leaders is to shift the blame when things go wrong. The danger here is that blame blocks learning. In the first place, blame stops further investigation. Second, direct reports will only be open and honest about their own failure if they trust their leaders to be fair, honest and diligent themselves. The risk is a circular firing squad, with everyone pointing the finger at someone else.

An additional problem is that blame and disciplinary action are often seen as a way of instilling greater diligence and motivation, under the banner of: “you can’t let people get away with it.” Yet in hospitals high rates of disciplinary action have been found to reduce the reporting of errors, which in turn leads to an increase in actual errors because there is no opportunity to learn from them.

Denying Failure

Both of these flaws are perhaps not surprising given that failure denial is deeply embedded in our cultures and personalities. When confronted with evidence that challenges our deeply held beliefs we are more likely to reframe the evidence than we are to alter our beliefs. We simply invent new reasons, new justifications and new explanations. Sometimes we ignore the new evidence altogether. This protects our self-esteem and helps us live with ourselves.

In ‘When Prophecy Fails’ Leon Festinger related the story of how he and a colleague infiltrated the cult of Dorothy Martin, based in the suburbs of Michigan USA, who predicted the world would end on 21 December 1954. When it didn’t happen, contrary to Festinger’s expectations, cult members became even more fervent in their belief, believing that they had saved the world. They changed their interpretation to fit the new facts. Festinger called it ‘cognitive dissonance’.

Failing to Decide

As Napoleon observed, ‘Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.’ But if the risk of choosing incorrectly is failure you can understand why poor managers defer, delay and avoid decisions. The remedy is to be thorough and to seek feedback. It’s not fool proof, but nothing is and that’s the point.

  1. Gather as much data as you can, but beware the law of diminishing returns: data will always be incomplete.
  2. Check the factual accuracy of information.
  3. Check your own and other’s reasoning, is it logical and consistent?
  4. Is it free of incorrect assumptions, wishful thinking, errors in calculation and underestimation of risk?
  5. Seek feedback – ask others to critique your approach and solution
  6. Don’t be afraid to use your intuition (tacit knowledge) to make sense of the situation.
  7. Always carry out a post-decision review to identify errors in your decision making process.

It’s also worth remembering that delaying a decision or not making a decision are decisions in their own right.

The common thread running through these flaws is ‘avoidance’: if I don’t decide and don’t act I can avoid risk; and if all else fails I can deny that I failed, or blame someone else. It is a status quo mentality utterly unsuited to an environment where change is ever present and innovation is key. In this context, playing safe is the riskiest thing a leader can do. To paraphrase William O’Brien, it is better to have tried and failed, and learned from it, than never to have tried at all.

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Change Individual Behaviour and Organisational Change Will Follow

downloadAttempts at wholesale cultural change are costly, disruptive and unlikely to succeed. This is because culture rests upon long held ideas, customs, habits and attitudes, which have become the largely unexamined ‘way we do things around here’. A more fruitful approach is to identify and reinforce those behaviours that are congruent with your change programme and change those behaviours that will obstruct it. And the key to behaviour change is ‘show don’t tell’.

Just as it is extremely difficult to argue someone out of a deeply held belief, you will struggle to force people to change the way they think and feel about work. Experience, seeing the behaviour being effective in action, is a better teacher than logical argument. In other words, behaviour change is most effective when it is supported by both empirical evidence and observation of better results.

Take for example the London tube strike of February 2014, which caused 75% of commuters to change their routes. The surprising thing was that once the strike stopped 5% of commuters continued to use the new routes (tracked through oyster card use). It seems that prior to the strike some Londoners had unwittingly taken suboptimal routes to work and continued to use them through habit. The reasons for poor initial route planning are unclear, but may include the fact that the tube map is misleading (it can be quicker to walk between some tube stations) and that tube lines run at different speeds. Whatever the reason, the key point is that commuters changed their behaviour as a result of experience.

To influence behaviour in the direction that will help you achieve your objectives try the following:

  1. Identify and focus on those few critical behaviours that are obstructing change.
  2. Identify what factors contribute to those behaviours.
  3. Determine how you can counter or mitigate those factors.

For example, you may want your staff to cope better with change and seize the opportunities it presents. You discover that the behaviours working against you are that senior management don’t communicate clearly and staff don’t reflect on their practice. The factors you identify supporting senior management behaviour are that channels of communication are poor, communication is infrequent and any communication that does happen is detrimental in style and tone. In the case of staff behaviour, they don’t have the time to reflect, they are not exposed to new ideas and they have no sense of what the organisation is trying to achieve.

Having identified the detrimental behaviours you can then focus on turning them round. The key here is to understand why people change behaviour. The reasons are broadly three-fold:

  1. Personal attitude, the perception of the value of the new behaviour (will it work);
  2. Social norms, whether other people are doing the behaviour (psychological research has demonstrated that we tend to feel more comfortable copying others than striking out on our own);
  3. Self-efficacy, whether the individual thinks they can do the behaviour (have the skill or ability) and whether it is worth it (what is the reward).

With these points in mind, develop and reinforce new behaviours with training, metrics, incentives and rewards that lead people to practice them, because they believe they will work and can see the value. Enlist role models (change champions in the jargon) and model the behaviours yourself to demonstrate that other people are doing the new behaviours. Monitor and measure the results, in order to communicate the positive effects, so that staff can see that the changes are worth it. Ultimately, like London commuters, your staff will change if they experience a better way of doing things.

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Acting Your Way into a New Way of Thinking

Julius-Caesar-The-GlobeAre you struggling to change an individual, your team or your organisation to adopt a new way of doing things? The problem may be that you are trying to change their attitude, rather than focusing on their behaviour.

Some years ago I spent time in Afghanistan, working to influence the Afghan population to support the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). We did this through a wide variety of communication means, from face-to-face engagement to billboards and the radio, and at local, regional and national levels. A particular issue was how to stop young boys in one locality from throwing stones at soldiers on patrol. This may seem rather trivial, but the danger is that it is difficult tell if the missile is just a stone or something more deadly, and soldiers then have to make split second decisions about whether to fire or not, with potentially traumatic consequences. Our first reaction was that we had to change the children’s attitude toward ISAF, so they would stop throwing stones. The solution, however, was far simpler and focused instead on their behaviour and what actually motivated it.

Our change of approach rested on a growing realisation that ultimately, successful change manifests itself in behavioural terms. How could we possibly know if change had been successful unless we were observing specific behaviours or the absence them. Furthermore, taking a behavioural approach to change led the way to identifying which behaviours were most indicative of support for ISAF and what we could do to encourage them.

An additional problem with focusing on attitudes is that there is a great deal of dispute among psychologists as to what ‘attitudes’ are. They are not values or beliefs, and not really opinions, although they often used interchangeably with attitudes. In practical terms, this means that attitudes are very difficult, if not impossible, to measure accurately, as they are influenced by so many compounding variables. However, the single biggest problem with the attitudinal approach is that it erroneously presumes that by changing attitudes, behaviours will follow. The unequivocal consensus of social science research over the last 70 years is that attitudes are very poor predictors of behaviour.

Take for example car seat belts. For many years the Government tried to persuade people of the benefits of wearing seatbelts in cars. They largely failed, despite all the evidence to support the behaviour, and it took enforcement to make the wearing of seatbelts an accepted and unconscious activity. Smoking is the same. For decades the Government tried to persuade the British public that they should not smoke. They did so by using grisly pictures of diseased lungs and warnings that smoking would curtail your life. Yet people continued to smoke and in some groups, notably young teenage women, it became more not less acceptable. However, one of the largest ever drops in smoking came about when the Government legislated against it, banning smoking in public places.

This further suggests that while attitude is a poor precursor to behaviour, behaviour is a very strong precursor to attitude. In other words, if you change behaviour, there is a good chance that with time their attitude will follow suit. So, where do you start?

In the first place, identify the behaviour(s) you require. What are the few critical changes that really matter, the specific behaviours that will support the change and deliver results? Think about both the desired behaviours, those that will help you achieve your end-state or new condition, and the non-desired behaviours, those that work against you achieving your end-state.

Second, identify the individual/group whose behaviour you want to change and determine why their current behaviours exist and where their reluctance to change might stem from? Is it personal attitude, their perception of the value of the new behaviour, i.e. will it work? Do they fear losing something as a result of the change: expertise, an established team or social group, or perhaps status? Or does it stem from social norms, their perception of what others are doing i.e. are other people doing it? Or is it an issue of self-efficacy, do they think they can do the new behaviour and is it worth it?

Finally, consider how can these behaviours be changed and what actions will best achieve that effect? The key here is ‘show don’t tell’. Just as you can’t argue someone out of a deeply held belief, you can’t force people to change the way they think and feel. Experiencing the behaviour being effective in action is a far better teacher than logical argument. Take for example the tube strikes of February 2014, which caused 75% of commuters to change their routes, but once the strike stopped 5% continued to use the new routes (a change in behaviour that was tracked through oyster card use). It seems that prior to the strike some Londoners had unwittingly taken suboptimal routes to work and continued to use them through habit. Using the new routes convinced them to change their habits.

In an organisational context, try reinforcing the new behaviours formally and informally:
• Set up practices and processes that make it easy for people to do the right thing.
• Model the new behaviour yourself, on the basis that the best that you can expect is the least that you exhibit.
• Seek out cultural carriers and other role models (often known as change agents in the terminology).
• Develop metrics and incentives that lead people to practice the new behaviours and then reward them.
• Catch them doing the right thing and praise them.
• Measure the behaviour change and the positive results it produces.
• Ask for feedback and don’t be afraid to test and adjust the behaviours if they will still meet your end-state. People appreciate being consulted and at the very least listened to.

So what happened in Afghanistan? Well it turned out that throwing stones at soldiers had nothing to do with hating ISAF or radicalisation. They were kids and they were bored. Throwing stones at soldiers was an amusing pastime. The solution was to give them something else to do, so they were given footballs. No more stone throwing and sometimes the soldiers were able to have a kick about with them, which may even have done something for their attitude toward foreign soldiers.

In essence, it is about acting your way into a new way of thinking, rather than thinking your way into a new way of acting.

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Three Kings

three-kings-day_1388625651Leadership development programmes fail for a number of reasons, but one common mistake is to underestimate people’s resistance to changing their beliefs or behaviour. The problem with change is that you are often asking people to let go of something well known and tangible in favour of something which may be completely alien and untried. In order to tackle this problem of pre-existent knowledge or behaviours we need to understand the notion of unlearning, which, may be as important as the process of learning itself.

In simple terms, for new material to be properly learned it must enmesh with older knowledge, not be left lying beside existing patterns leaving them unchanged. This requires exploration of pre-existing knowledge and the the way in which it was acquired. This is particularly important when dealing with the sort of long-standing myths that often surround existing patterns of understanding and behaviour, and which may be invested with considerable emotional attachment.

As this is Christmas let us take the festive narrative of the ‘the three kings’ as an example. For many people this is a deeply held story, despite having no foundation in bibblical truth. To correct this error we could simply tell them that they were not kings and there were probably not three of them. Such a statement will be assessed and may even be accepted out of respect for our assumed expertise, but it will nevertheless lie uneasily beside their existing knowledge, because it has challenged the source of that information. A few may be convinced, or at least say that they are, but most will quickly reject it in favour of longer standing knowledge and authority.

Instead, we could show them the narrative accounts that speak of ‘certain magi’, not ‘three kings’. Such a reference will give cause for more serious reflection and a few more may be convinced. For most, however, we have still not challenged the weight of tradition and the emotional atmosphere of childhood, including Christmas cards, carols and the like, all of which have created an attachment to the idea of ‘three kings’.

The only successful way to bring about the new learning will be through a process of unlearning, and this will come about by seeing how the two ideas, ‘three’ and ‘kings’, came about in the first place. Only as the learner comes to see how the description of the visitors in these narratives was altered will there be a major change in knowledge and behaviour. For example:how the statement in the Psalms ‘that kings from the East shall bring gifts, was quoted in the early Christian church; how the early representations of the magi in pictures and mosaics, with tall head-dresses, were taken by later interpreters to indicate royal imagery; how the fact that there were three gifts led to an assumption that there were three travellers. Through this process the learners will begin to understand the processes involved in the transformation of these stories, and their traditionally held views will adjust to the new information.

This is a trivial example, but the process of unlearning holds true whenever change is required from existing knowledge or behaviour to new ways of thinking and acting. It is not enough to make authoritative statements about the need for change and give orders to that effect, because neither are likely to overcome the weight of tradition and existing practice. Nor is it enough to examine the basis of the old, undesired behaviour against the new desired behaviour. This may help some, but it will still lead to conflict of authority against authority. What is required is not a striaghtforward contradiction, but a lengthier examination of how the incorrect behaviour came about and has been reinforced through long acceptance and use, and how the new knowledge or behaviour is better suited to the new reality. Unlearning is challenging and time-consuming, but it is an essential part of learning new ways of thinking and behaving.

Happy Christmas.

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