The ART of Leading Organizational Change

Leading organizational change is often viewed as being about mobilizing others to actively engage in the process. Less often explored is how important a change leader’s own perceptions, habits of thought, and emotional responses are—the internal work of change leadership. When considering the willingness of others to do things differently, the fact that leaders themselves may resist change needs to be explored.

The three cornerstones for personal change that I introduced in the previous post—awareness, responsibility, and transformation (ART)—are just as relevant here because personal and organizational change are intertwined.

Image: © Bob Greene

Image: © Bob Greene

Organizations are complex systems and it is vital for leaders increase their awareness and pay attention to how they impact system dynamics. Early in our careers, a colleague and I were hired to help an organization where management complained about a variety of unproductive staff behaviors. We were quickly and unceremoniously dismissed, however, shortly after our first working session with the leadership team — it was clear that they were not willing to look at their roles or how they could improve as supervisors. In contrast, I’ve previously mentioned a leader who was open to seeing her own contribution to maintaining the dynamics she wanted to change in the system: she was surprised to learn that ongoing conflict among staff was inflamed, in part, by competition for her attention.

Another courageous leader recognized that her habitual defensive reactions impacted staff’s willingness to communicate openly with her. She took responsibility and worked on modeling the kind of communication she wanted to instill in the organization. For example, during an all-staff retreat, when I noticed her responding in a way that seemed to shut down conversation, I asked if she would be willing to engage with me right there in real-time coaching to discuss the dynamic. Her choice to do so demonstrated her willingness to consider her role — and this made a huge difference in encouraging others to be more forthcoming.

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Transformation takes ongoing effort, as it did for a leadership team intent on changing the culture of their organization (I discussed working with this team in a previous post). Because it can be a long journey, it’s vital to pay attention to signs of progress along the way. For example, this leadership team broke through an important barrier when they started to open up about misunderstandings and negative assumptions they were holding on to about each other. By changing how they worked together bit-by-bit, the team could better model real collaboration for the organization as a whole.

Awareness, responsibility, and transformation are important cornerstones for change, whether the focus is primarily personal and professional development or if the canvas is larger: a team or an organization. Leaders are not only screenwriters or directors—we must attend to our own roles as actors in the drama of organizational change.

Personal Change: We Are All Artists

Image:  DTTSP

Image: DTTSP

Creating change is an art. And anyone striving to develop personally and professionally is both the artist and the work of art at the same time. We are all constantly writing our autobiographies and painting our self-portraits. Essential for such creative work, I believe, are the cornerstones of awareness, responsibility, and transformation (ART).

Awareness. It is all-too-easy to go through the day on autopilot, acting out of habit rather than intention. Becoming aware of habitual thoughts and behaviors is necessary in order to change them. For example, someone who finds teaming difficult because of how he expresses anger will need to become more aware of his behavior patterns and the kinds of situations in which he routinely “gets hooked” and vents inappropriately.

Responsibility. For desired change to happen, we must be intentional about the effort. Taking ownership of our own growth requires making an honest assessment of difficulties and options and committing to change what we can. For the person learning to manage anger, taking responsibility may mean acknowledging the impact on others of his habitual behaviors and actively learning and practicing new responses.

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Transformation. Reaching for our goals requires taking action over time. Transformation, however, does not happen only once we reach our goals, but as part of the process. We are transformed by the journey itself, even before reaching the destination. The path toward desired change, whether it’s losing weight, career advancement, or better managing anger, will involve twists and turns, frustrations, and mistakes. But learning from each experience and seeing signs of progress (such as a successful instance of taking a breath and asking a question rather than immediately raising one’s voice in anger) are transformative.

Creativity, whether in writing or personal and professional development, requires more than a flash of inspiration—ongoing effort is necessary. These three cornerstones (awareness, responsibility, and transformation) are foundational for intentional personal change, just as rehearsals are essential to be at our best on opening night.

An Overlooked Quality of Excellent Teams

I was surprised to learn that the group of professionals involved with a surgery—the surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, and assistants—may not know each other’s names. Yet, according to surgeon and author, Atul Gawande, something as simple as introducing each other before starting an operation can help prevent mistakes and save lives. Previously I summarized a few points from Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto; here I’ll expand on some implications for truly effective teams and leadership.

Illustration by Bob Greene. Original photo credit: S. Tipchai at

Illustration by Bob Greene. Original photo credit: S. Tipchai at

Given the tremendous complexity and stress of modern life, whether it is conducting heart surgery, planning strategically, or managing a project, it’s impossible to always note every detail, even if we are experienced experts. One of the most profound implications of the checklist idea is that it creates an expectation of collaboration and sharing information among team members—one reason why the safe surgery checklist that Gawande helped create includes a step where team members introduce themselves by name and role.

To cope with complexity, teams must be able to communicate and hear from everyone, so there are “pause points” in the safe surgery checklist where the team reviews progress together. Each team member is expected to speak up if they notice an error or omission—greatly increasing the possibility of catching and correcting mistakes. However, given the traditional power dynamics in an operating room, encouraging everyone to speak up is a huge cultural shift.

If open communication is to actually happen, team members must feel a measure of psychological safety—a key quality Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson observed in teams learning to implement a new heart surgery procedure. It’s certainly my experience that team members often hold back, assuming their ideas will be rejected or that someone with higher status will object. This can happen among members of any kind of group, whether a surgical team, board committee, project team, or family.

Building real teams is an area of leadership development that, I believe, is often neglected. Creating psychological safety requires leaders and content experts keep defensiveness in check for the sake of the full team’s success. The best teams focus on results, of course, but they also pay attention to how they work together to achieve those results. This requires a personal commitment to self-awareness and a team expectation of open dialogue.

Consider your own experience. Think about a team that you participate in (such as at work or in the community):

  • Are you comfortable speaking up and pointing things out?
  • Does everyone feel safe speaking up? How can you find out other team members’ answers to this question?
  • If you are the team leader, how might your status and actions impact other members’ willingness to share what they know or observe?
  • Regardless of your role on the team, what can you do to influence how the team works together?

Helping Experts Avoid Mistakes

The bad news is how frequently mistakes occur in operating rooms, including even extreme, if relatively rare, errors such as removing the wrong body part or leaving something, such as a medical sponge, in the patient. Noted surgeon and writer for The New Yorker, Atul Gawande, explores why such preventable mistakes occur and what can be done in his thought-provoking book, The Checklist Manifesto. The good news is that an intervention, which Gawande created with a team supported by the World Health Organization, has dramatically reduced the number of errors in operating rooms that have adopted it. More bad news, however, is how resistant many surgeons and others are to using the intervention.

Photo credit: Glenn Carstens-Peters on

Photo credit: Glenn Carstens-Peters on

The tool Gawande helped develop is a safe surgery checklist, which briefly outlines a minimum of absolutely critical steps to take before anesthesia, just before incision, and before the patient is taken from the operating room. The checklist lays out “pause points” for communication among the surgical team to help ensure readiness for potential complications and to confirm key steps—that can all-too-easily be overlooked—have been completed.

Gawande suggests that mistakes commonly occur, in part, because of the sheer complexity of the work at hand combined with the trend for professionals to become ever more specialized in one area of expertise. Each person involved with a surgery has tremendous expertise in their specialty, but no one individual is an expert in everything that needs to go right in an operation. And tremendous complexity and stress make it difficult to rely on one’s memory to carry out all necessary procedures.

Key reasons the safe surgery checklist has not been adopted more widely may be due to a kind of hero worship—some surgeons feel offended at the idea of using such a tool (superheroes don’t like to admit they make mistakes). Yet checklists are employed extensively by professionals in fields where the likelihood of making mistakes has been acknowledged, such as aviation and building construction. Not only do these fields make extensive use of checklists, but when mistakes do occur, they are likely to be studied and, if appropriate, the relevant checklists revised or new ones added. The checklist—if there is willingness to use it—can be a tool to help learn from mistakes and consider how processes can be improved.

Original photo credit: Piron Guillaume on Image adjusted by Bob Greene.

Original photo credit: Piron Guillaume on Image adjusted by Bob Greene.

The point of a checklist for Gawande is not to stifle creativity or initiative, but to make sure the fundamentals are in place—crucial steps that are easily overlooked. In a way, using a checklist is a simple idea — in fact Gawande encourages simplicity and focus when creating them (here is the one-page WHO safe surgery checklist). But that doesn’t make the idea simplistic—as Jonathan Ive, the famous head of industrial design at Apple said when introducing a product, “[T]here is a profound and enduring beauty in simplicity; in clarity, in efficiency.”

I will have more to say on implications of the checklist notion for leadership, decision-making, and high-performing teams. For now here are a few questions to reflect on:

  • Consider an area in which you feel you have expertise. How do you react if someone points out an error? (Be honest!)
  • Have you worked on a team where it didn’t seem that everyone was on the same page and working from the same action plan? What did the team do about that?
  • What can a team—or an individual, for that matter—put in place to make sure to learn from mistakes?

My Road Rage is Justified, but Yours Isn’t!

A new executive hired from outside of a national organization saw that the leadership team in place didn’t collaborate well. Having worked with her on another project, she asked a colleague and myself to help her build trust and open communication in the top team. One factor that makes this kind of work difficult is the natural human tendency to inaccurately attribute causes for our own and others' behaviors. At least in western cultures, it is common to see the causes of people’s behaviors as being due to their predispositions and who they are as people and underestimate the importance of external factors and conditions (often called the fundamental attribution error). However, when we explain our own behavior, we tend to see our successes as caused by our own great qualities while our failures are due to difficult external situations and circumstances (the self-serving bias).

Image: George Hodan from Public Domain

Image: George Hodan from Public Domain

So my road rage is justified because that other driver who just cut me off is inconsiderate and careless, while a bit earlier I switched lanes too quickly (which I never usually do) because I happen to be in a rush to get to a very important meeting. Entrepreneurs may take credit for successes but blame losses and failures on a bad economy, competition from chain stores, or other outside factors. And there is a tendency toward group-serving biases: in our organizations (and, perhaps, our countries), we are doing the best we can under the circumstances, while those others are all “bad dudes.”

In the workplace, I believe that biased attributions get in the way of understanding our colleagues, teams, or departments. We easily become convinced that, ‘he couldn’t care less’ or ‘they don’t understand how difficult we have it.’ Surfacing these kinds of assumptions was critical to help the leadership team mentioned at the beginning of the post address long-standing tensions. The easy tendency to blame and finger-pointing corrodes relationships, feeds defensiveness, and hinders effective collaboration. Conducting an honest assessment of what happened in a project is unlikely in such an environment, thus preventing a team from learning from experience.

Attribution biases can also limit our self-reflection and personal growth: if we believe a project didn’t work out primarily due to circumstances out of our control, we may not take a more careful look at our actions or realistically assess our strengths and areas for improvement. And when things go well, we may give ourselves all the credit when we may have benefited greatly from luck and favorable circumstances.

The tendency to make erroneous causal attributions can have a real impact on personal and team effectiveness. With this in mind, here are a few ideas for reflection and action:

  • Try to pay attention and notice when blame is being tossed back-and-forth. This is much easier to do when observing others, but see if you can note if you have a tendency to focus on others’ faults while explaining away your own behavior.
  • Identify one or more sources for honest feedback (a trusted mentor, coach, or colleague) to help you explore your own strengths, areas for improvement, and blindspots.
  • Look for opportunities to change the rules of the blame game in your organization. It’s vital for team members and departments to open up communication and hear each other out to check assumptions and increase understanding—which can then open the door to developing creative and mutually acceptable solutions.

Teaming in the Global Workplace

Image courtesy Graduate Fashion Management, Fashion Institute of Technology

Image courtesy Graduate Fashion Management, Fashion Institute of Technology

Students in the Graduate Fashion Management (GFM) program are developing as leaders who can innovate successfully in the ever-changing global fashion industry. Today’s and tomorrow’s leaders need to be successful not only when problems are routine or primarily technical, but in uncharted territory, where learning and creativity are essential. Ronald Heifetz and his colleagues talk about the need for leadership that can successfuly meet “adaptive challenges” in addition to more “technical problems.” In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, they write that “[i]n an increasingly flat, globalized third-millenium world, where innovation occurs so quickly, just having the best product at any moment in time is not a sustainable plan.” (p.21) Companies and leaders are being challenged to shift how they have operated in the past and embrace a new emphasis on relationship-building and engaging with complexity and change.

Amy Edmondson suggests that “teaming” embodies the mindset and skills required for the global marketplace. In contrast to previous perspectives that saw teams as static and long-lasting, Edmondson emphasizes today’s workforce may participate on numerous teams that change their membership over time for different projects. Edmondson talks about teaming as a verb, and that people must learn team skills that they can carry from team to team, project to project. And, of course, many of these projects will be adaptive challenges rather than routine, technical, problems, so it’s vital that learning is a central quality of effective teaming. Edmondson, as well as Heifetz and his colleagues, say that leaders must focus on bringing out the best in others, rather than simply rely on command-and-control.

GFM students have a remarkable opportunity to learn and practice teaming skills as they work on three different case study teams and take on real-world challenges that don’t have easy answers and require creativity. During my workshop early in the New York City seminar, I encourage GFM students to pay attention to how they are teaming and what they are learning from the process. Ideas and tools for effective teaming that I introduce include:

  • The importance of intentionally getting to know who is on the team;
  • Developing clear and shared expectations upfront;
  • Recognizing the challenges of working cross-culturally and how easy it is to act on assumptions that may not be correct;
  • Various approaches to preventing and resolving common team issues; and
  • The essential role of team self-assessment to promote learning that can be carried forward to each new team experience.

Hopefully, GFM students will bring the skills and tools they use with their three case study teams to their workplaces—building on diverse perspectives and powering innovation.

References: Edmondson, A. C. (2012). Teaming: how organizations learn, innovate, and compete in the knowledge economy (1st ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; Edmondson, A. C. (2012, April). “Teamwork on the Fly” Harvard Business Review; Heifetz, R. A., Linsky, M., & Grashow, A. (2009). The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (1st ed.). Harvard Business Press.

A Global Learning Laboratory

Image courtesy Graduate Fashion Management, Fashion Institute of Technology

Image courtesy Graduate Fashion Management, Fashion Institute of Technology

I’ve had the pleasure for the past several years of facilitating a workshop on building teams for the Graduate Fashion Management (GFM) program during the New York seminar hosted by Fashion Institute of Technology. Students and faculty from schools based in New York, Paris, and Hong Kong meet with industry experts and work on real-life cases to more fully understand the modern global fashion industry.

GFM students also have the opportunity to participate in cross-cultural teams, a vital part of the program. It’s commonplace to talk about the global nature of modern industry, but it’s rare that students can learn about it by interacting in meaningful ways with counterparts from (at least) three continents.

Much of what GFM students will do in their careers requires being able to cope with complexity and ambiguity, identify creative solutions, and constantly innovate. This is the kind of work that teams of people with different backgrounds, experiences, and skills should be well-suited to take on. Scott Page writes in The Difference that “[s]cholars from a variety of disciplines have studied how people and groups make breakthroughs. The common answer: diverse perspectives.” (p.24) Yet as important as diverse teams may be, in my experience, a great many people have little practice working in effective, well-run, teams. In fact, many have had poor team experiences and dread each time they are assigned to a team.

I believe part of the problem is how we typically think about teams. It’s not enough to put a group of people together, call them a team, and expect that they will be effective. In this common scenario, team members fall back on the way they have always done things, whether that has worked well or not. And individuals typically make assumptions about other team members, a tendency that can be heightened in diverse, cross-cultural teams. A strong argument can be made that diverse teams can be more effective than teams in which everyone is from the same background, yet diverse teams can also run into significant difficulties that hold them back.

GFM students have a chance to experiment with doing teams differently! As part of the year-and-a-half GFM learning laboratory, students participate in three different case study teams, each one including colleagues from across the globe. Early in the first session in New York, I have the opportunity to explore with them qualities of effective teams and tools they can put to use immediately in their case study teams. In addition, we consider potential cultural assumptions related to working in teams. Each GFM case study team then becomes an opportunity to experiment with doing teams well—moving past previous team experiences to gain the advantages of working in global teams.

References: Butcher, M. (2006, March 3). “Intercultural competency a key to global business success.” Retrieved from; Page, S. E. (2007). The difference: how the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Is Mindfulness Another Management Fad?

Previously I suggested that mindfulness may be becoming the brussels sprouts of organizational life (with teams being the broccoli)—“eat it, it’s good for you,” even if you can’t stand it. There is definitely a “flavor of the month” quality to mindfulness now—an apparently easy way to increase morale and productivity. Everyone’s doing it, and yes, there is an app for it (actually there are several).

Image credit: © Bob Greene

Image credit: © Bob Greene

And a backlash has started. Writing in Harvard Business Review, David Brendel (a coach who teaches mindfulness) shares an instance in which staff were required to participate in mindfulness exercises by their supervisor, which works as well as demanding a child eat his brussels sprouts and like them! Never mind real workplace concerns and complaints—just be happy, or, now, mindful. Meditation and mindfulness are talked about by some as if they are a cure-all for all ills, while potential downsides are not discussed. And there are philosophical issues: is mindfulness, separated from its cultural roots, becoming simply a tool for promoting profits rather than growth, insight, and compassion?

While maintaining a skeptical stance, I do believe that mindfulness (i.e., non-judgmental, present-moment awareness) truly is a great gift. It’s not a panacea, and each person must discover an appropriate practice for herself—it can’t be forced. But there is growing evidence for multiple benefits of mindfulness and meditation (a key way to practice being mindful). Meditation can, it appears, enhance numerous qualities essential for leadership, and life in general, such as reducing anxiety and stress, increasing focus, building compassion, fostering emotional self-regulation, and encouraging creative thinking. And it appears that mindfulness may actually change one’s brain in beneficial ways!

I will return to the theme of mindfulness regularly in this blog (just as one continually returns attention to one’s breathing during breath meditation). For now, I’ll leave you with a couple of questions for reflection:

  • Do you regularly notice when you are getting overly stressed-out? Do you have a way to become calmer and more centered that’s healthful, in other words, other than binging on chocolate or getting distracted by cat videos?
  • Do you get caught up in the “chatter” going on in your mind (critical self-talk, perhaps)? How can you notice that noise and “push the pause button” so you can focus more fully on the task at-hand?

What’s Most Important?

Back in the “good old days”—which appear in my memory lit by a warm golden glow like a flashback scene on TV—I used paper planners to manage time and tasks. It was a pain to enter repeating events, but they never froze or needed rebooting. I could access a paper planner even if I was not anywhere near a wifi hotspot. Paper and computer-based tools co-existed for a while until I realized that resistance was futile. Now I primarily use tools from the Googleverse and other online providers, augmented by the occasional note or list written on paper.

Image credit: twobee at

Image credit: twobee at

As much as I enjoy working with these tools (and using precious time finding new ones), I try and remember that they are not the essence of time management. In fact, time is not the most important factor in managing what one does every day. The amount of time we have is set: 24 hours each day. Deciding on priorities is the most vital piece of “time management”—in fact, I prefer to say “priority management” rather use than the more common term.

A famous presentation of this idea is by Stephen Covey in his hugely popular The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey counsels the reader to constantly distinguish between what’s urgent and what’s important.* It’s all too common to put off doing what is truly important and may have a big, if long-term, payoff, because we have so many deadline-driven urgent tasks to accomplish. Unfortunately it’s also common to consider everything currently on the desk or in the inbox as urgent. Is it truly necessary to respond to every email, voicemail, or text message right now?

Once our priorities are thoughtfully put in place, we can start to identify how to pursue them, which may mean finding ways to reduce interruptions, delegate some tasks, break big projects into smaller steps, and all the other good suggestions we think of as time management.

Here are a few questions and ideas for reflecting on your priorities and time:

  • Identify a goal with great meaning to you that you’ve been putting off working on. What makes this goal so important? Imagine in some detail what it would be like, including how it would feel, to accomplish this goal.
  • OK, now identify reasons for not achieving this goal. In other words, what are the benefits of keeping things just as they are? For example, working on your big goal may mean forgoing some other things for a while. Is it worth it? Does the value of working on and achieving your goal outweigh the benefits of just continuing the status quo?
  • What are some of the obstacles to making progress on your important goal? How much of a roadblock are all the urgent items in your inbox? Realistically, are they all so crucial?
  • What do you spend a lot of time on that really is not all that urgent or important? Yes, I am talking about Facebook (or any number of other wonderful things that capture our easily distractible attention).
  • And finally (for now), what will help you get started working on your important goal this week?

* A little extra: President Dwight Eisenhower is often given credit for emphasizing the distinction between the urgent and important, though there does not appear to be evidence for a quote to that effect often attributed to him. Speaking of his long-term vision for the country, he did make a statement in 1961 after he left the presidency that is also relevant to the more modest purpose of this blog post:

Who can define for us with accuracy the difference between the long- and short-term! Especially whenever our affairs seem to be in crisis, we are almost compelled to give our first attention to the urgent present rather than to the important future.

A Solution May Not be the Answer

The inclination if something is not working well is, naturally enough, to jump in and fix it. Before we can take effective action, however, it’s important to make sure we understand just what it is that needs fixing—a key principle of systems thinking.

Image credit: pnx at

Image credit: pnx at

Not long ago I presented a webinar on systems thinking in organizations (find the link to the webinar recording on the Resources page). A participant followed up after the session to ask how to encourage the leadership of her nonprofit organization to conduct an organization-wide retreat. She wrote that the different departments acted as silos and did not communicate with each other well. And while leadership met together and monthly staff meetings were held, my correspondent did not feel that there was a place for staff like herself to air grievances, ask questions, and find solutions to ongoing problems. She believed that a retreat, possibly preceded by a staff survey, was the solution.

I admire this staff person’s initiative and desire to promote positive change. The organization is lucky to have her on the team! She is facing the difficult challenge of influencing-up in her organization. Given this complicated scenario, the best that I could offer in a brief email response were ways to frame the work ahead; here are the (lightly edited) thoughts I shared:

  • Remember, in keeping with ideas expressed in the webinar, that holding a retreat is a possible solution, but not really the goal. A retreat can be very helpful but it may or may not be exactly what's needed here.
  • As you talk with your colleagues focus on larger shared goals: improving effectiveness and better serving your community. How do the problems that you have noticed impact the organization's effectiveness and quality of service?
  • Do others also recognize the same problems? How can you come together and voice your concerns to leadership in a respectful and appropriate manner? Sometimes leaders are just not aware of issues staff face. Part of your challenge will be to think strategically about how to best raise the concerns so they are more widely appreciated.
  • Once there is agreement that something needs to be done, then you can start to explore action steps. Information gathering is essential, and can be done via surveys, focus groups, or interviews. Based on what's learned, a retreat and/or other actions can be planned to have the best chance for impact.

I know that my response probably didn’t provide the hoped-for answer. But if communication is as limited as suggested, a retreat by itself may do little to improve things, especially if staff feel they are unable to voice concerns or grievances. Under such circumstances, a successful retreat would require creating a safe space through careful preparation and facilitation—otherwise the long-standing patterns may just continue in the retreat, or it could turn into a venting session without leading to constructive action.

So given the complexity of even small organizational systems, before jumping to a solution, keep working the questions for a while.

I Will Apologize . . . If I’m Ever Wrong

Illustration: (c) Bob Greene

Illustration: (c) Bob Greene

There have been an abundance of notable statements by the candidates for president this election cycle. One of many that caught my attention was shared by Donald Trump when interviewed by Jimmy Fallon on the The Tonight Show. When asked if he ever apologized, the candidate replied, “apologizing is a great thing but you have to be wrong. I will apologize sometime in the hopefully distant future if I’m ever wrong.”

For the purposes of this blog, my comment is not about Trump per se but about the apparent mindset expressed by the statement—a perspective that is not at all uncommon nor limited to candidates for office. Perhaps Mr. Trump was just kidding around with his comedian host, but a superhero level of confidence appears to be admired by many, while admitting error or doubt can be considered as a sign of weakness. While views of leadership may be changing, I believe this kind of confidence—actually, overconfidence—is still popularly seen as a necessary quality of strong, courageous, and decisive leaders.

Unfortunately for superheroes and their followers, there is research indicating that we (at least as represented by research subjects in US studies) are not very good at accurately estimating our actual knowledge and abilities—a bias known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Furthermore according to Dunning, “In many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.” Psychologist and Nobel prize-winner, Daniel Kahneman, said this about overconfidence in a New York Times essay: “[P]eople come up with coherent stories and confident predictions even when they know little or nothing. Overconfidence arises because people are often blind to their own blindness.”

I will have a lot more to say in future posts about the superhero view of leadership and alternatives to it, but for now I’ll close with Shakespeare from As You Like It:

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

“You Are Here!”

One implication of looking at organizations as systems and seeing interrelations between various elements is that we have to see ourselves as part of the system. No matter where we are in the organization, we are having an impact and playing a role in the system’s dynamics. Yet objectively recognizing our own contributions, especially when they are not as constructive as we would like them to be, is extraordinarily difficult. One reason for this is simply the complexity of even small systems. Another reason it’s hard to objectively see ourselves in systems, I think, is that just because we are human, we are subject to a variety of cognitive biases, including the self-serving bias—a predilection to attribute successes to our own efforts and qualities and to blame failures on external factors, such as all those other people who make mistakes. A related tendency, confirmation bias, is to only take seriously evidence that supports our existing opinions and overlook or disregard anything that might call our beliefs into question. Complexity and our own blindspots guarantee our individual views of a system will be limited.

Illustration: (c) Bob Greene

Illustration: (c) Bob Greene

Peter Senge, a leading thinker regarding systems (mentioned in my previous post), suggests that to explore organizational systems, we need to be committed to “real learning” and to be prepared for the possibility that we are wrong. Seeing systems requires the difficult work of exploring our own assumptions and mental models. Senge emphasizes the need to “triangulate” and bring together people who see different parts of the system to create a collective picture that is more detailed than any one individual can provide.

I have had the good fortune to work with leaders who were open to feedback and willing to examine their own roles in system dynamics. For example, I met with the founder and Executive Director of a nonprofit organization and her senior leadership team to discuss the possibility of my working with two staff members who were in conflict with each other. The leadership team was forthcoming in response to my questions, and it quickly became clear that there was an ongoing pattern of conflict in the organization. Although the tension was centered on two particular individuals at that moment, it seemed like there was always some conflict going on with different people at different times. It appeared, therefore, that there were factors in the organizational system itself that seemed to foster ongoing conflict.

The action plan we created involved both work with the two individuals currently at odds and with the organizational system as a whole. Working together with a colleague, Heather Berthoud, we gathered perspectives from all staff regarding their experience in the organization. A series of workshops and discussions led to a shared vision for working together, improved communication, and greater clarity about how to prevent and resolve ongoing concerns. One key to promoting systems change here was the courageous and open involvement of the leadership team, especially the founder, who came to see how an underlying factor in the ongoing conflicts was competition for her attention. With our coaching support, this leader considered her own contributions to the system's dynamics and made significant changes, which included increasing the leadership responsibility of others and redefining her own role so that how the organization worked better matched the progressive vision she had for it.

I will further explore the challenge of examining one’s own participation in an organizational system during a free webinar, “Seeing Systems to Better Address Complex Organizational Problems.” Please join me on June 1 at 1:00pm EDT. [Update: The webinar recording is now available.]