Friday, 30 September 2016

Open Sesame: Exploding the Barriers to a Culture of Openness

We all have our belief systems, values, priorities, and preferences in our lives. Some of these are part of our core being, though we may not even realize the extent to which we’re influenced by them. They can bring people together and also create divides.

So, it can be challenging if these divergences are allowed to run riot and cause havoc in inter-personal interactions in organizations. An environment that values diversity of thought has many benefits after all. It can trigger a healthy irreverence for the status quo. It questions ideas that ought to be challenged. And that’s possibly good for your decision making process too.  How can you make this diversity work to your advantage?

Think about differences in working styles, strategies, policies and approaches to decision making. These can trigger disagreements, and even intense ill-will sometimes. Scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll see how values and beliefs play a big role here. 

For example, let’s look at what happens during a business downturn. Not all departments and companies react in the same manner. Some might want to ‘wait it out’ even as they ‘optimize’ operations with job rotation, pay reduction and other operational efficiency drives. Others might go directly for the bitter pill, downsize the team and hand out pink slips. They believe that the sooner you get rid of the ‘flab’ the better. Ideas that are as different as chalk and cheese.

When value systems collide, the impacts may not be limited to the particular individuals. If allowed to escalate, the atmosphere gets vitiated. 

Heartburn, frayed nerves, disharmony and dysfunctional behavioral patterns can only weigh you down. Deadly enough for a company or team hoping to bounce back or sustain a positive momentum. You’d rather have motivated people doing everything it takes, and staying focused when things get tough.

As a leader, it is vital that you recognize and work with these differences, and also allow space for multiple views to co-exist respectfully. If you allow the drift to persist for too long, it can irretrievably damage the culture of openness that takes so long to create, even in the best of times. The trouble is that sustaining such a culture can be very tough as the issues involved can be too unsettling for many. What happens when you sense a visceral threat to your core values? Some of your most protective and territorial instincts are unleashed. Getting a sense of perspective and proportion will be vital for sanity to prevail!

In this article, we’ll examine three barriers to a culture of openness, and pointers to how we can work around them.  

  1. Opaque Decision Making
  2. Obeisance to the “Maximum Leader” 
  3. Your Insecurity & their Passive Resistance

Opaque Decision Making:

One area that needs major attention is the process of Decision Making in your team and organization. Not just in the case of unpopular and unpleasant decisions. The question is relevant to the ‘ordinary’ decisions too, when certain patterns become too repetitive and entrenched. So, take a break and observe how decisions are arrived at.

What is the process by which decisions are taken? Do people genuinely believe that they’ve got a fair hearing, and often enough? Are decisions rammed through with a charade of consensus? Are key people hiding behind processes and red-tape to avoid difficult conversations? Is there a tendency to cursorily skim through intractable issues? Do people feel that ‘uncomfortable questions’ get stonewalled far too often?

Front-Ending the ‘Tough’ Decisions:

The leader must be seen as owning the good and the bad of decisions, especially ones that can have wide ramifications. A visible ‘front-ending’ by the leader is called for, especially in tough times. Not via emails and broadcast messages or videos.

Walking around the office, and talking with people may sound too simplistic. Maybe that’s why it gets overlooked often! Having well-defined communication protocols is necessary, but not sufficient. Stand up, roll back your shoulders, expand your chest, walk around and convey the decision in simple words. Talk about its impacts, both good and bad. You need to be seen as accessible, and willing to even take some of the criticism, gracefully.

Yeah, take it on the chin with a cool composure. Everyone is watching you. Not every leader gets tested like this too often. And of course not all of them manage to come out with flying colors that often either! Opaque decision making has taken down many ‘celebrated’ champions (leaders and companies too)! It takes some work to buck that trend. Looking at it as an opportunity can be a good start.

Keep your Red-Lines too:

Of course, it may not be possible or even desirable to consult everyone always. You should be able to assert yourself, especially when your scope for maneuver is limited. Keep your red lines intact of course. You don’t want to get hijacked by contentious agendas pulling you in all directions.

You're signaling a willingness to engage, and being open about information that you can share. People are turned off only when they see processes being used as a smokescreen. Most of us are capable of understanding the intention pretty well based on the ‘messaging’ and ‘delivery’. You cant teach them how to do that. They’re already smart enough to ‘get it’!

And what’s the most important tool you can use? Just Listen! Yes, nothing matters more than that when you’re in it for the long haul. Ignoring some of these ‘simple’ points can leave a very bad aftertaste that will come back to haunt the organization sooner than you thought! 

Because, it is in times like these that your resolve to maintain a thriving culture of openness gets tested.

Obeisance to the “Maximum Leader” 

Your leadership style has a direct impact on the level of openness that you get in your team/organization.

Leaders with high levels of self awareness know this pretty well. Others will keep wondering… “How come folks here don't have the gall for risk taking?”, “Why do we wait till things reach crisis point, Why aren't these red flagged early enough?”, “How is it that we get to hear these complaints only from our customers, what’s really going on?”… 

Is it the ‘culture’ thing?

Hold on, let’s not label it so fast!

Well, maybe, just maybe, no one really wants to come across as the baddie out here! Because, directly or (often) indirectly, candor has been discouraged, or even dis-incentivized. The messengers are perhaps getting shot for carrying the bad news. No one wants to spill the beans.

Concurrence and compliance have got top billing status for far too long. You might have created a super-sanitized, almost stifling environment where people pleasing has become the norm, just because that’s a ‘safe’ option. There’s a desperation to show everything is in order, and that all’s well, exactly as the “Leader” decreed!….. After all, the leader knows what’s in the best interests for the team, the leader knows what needs to happen and what cannot be allowed…

This ‘tough’ and ‘caring’ leader is the fount of eternal wisdom, so why look anywhere else! Even if you’d started off with your heart in the right place, a near-paternalistic leadership style can damage the culture in your team.

People become overly dependent on a command-and-control style. They’re always looking over their shoulders and waiting for the nudge and signs of approval from the “Maximum leader”. Sometimes, they’re expected to stay eternally grateful to the leader for his/her benevolence in getting things sorted for them. You know, they’re these poor little souls who needed to be redeemed. 

So, what can be done? Change can’t happen overnight.

Installing a Spirit of Inquiry:

But, you could start by encouraging people to find answers and resources that take them closer to outcomes. Not by looking for readymade answers, but rather by framing the right questions. You can help of course by resisting the urge to tell them “how”.

Instead, focus on giving them access to resources that improve the quality of thinking in the team. An “open source model” of thinking with the right checks and balances is what you could consider installing. Thinking that is more outcome focused. Where assumptions are verified, challenged and even criticized. Criticism that seeks out alternatives and options to start moving from where you are. Not the criticism that endlessly cries over ‘what could have been’ and ‘what didn’t happen’. Thinking that leads to ‘actionable’ insights is more like it. 

Insights which help people to identify real dependencies and bottlenecks. Support them of course with more questions! And effective brainstorming practices can help too.

You may know the answers, but help them figure their way to get there. Or even get one up on you!

There are benefits when the maximum leader recedes to the background, at least a little more often! A culture of openness being one of them. Because people realize things wont move otherwise.

Your Insecurity & their Passive Resistance

Passive resistance to change can post significant threats to a culture of openness.

Where does this passive resistance originate from? It is usually driven by intense emotions like anger, jealousy, fear and anxieties that aren't articulated well. A stifling environment where genuine concerns are swept under the carpet erodes enthusiasm.

Take fear of failure for instance. Or even the fear of being damned for making mistakes. Not getting due credit, appreciation and recognition can also turn off people internally. With diminishing motivation, they’re happy to just go through the motions. Passive resistance can’t be fixed by showering praise or even handing out gift coupons. It may look like it’s working for some time. But then, that’s how passive resistance works, isn't it?!

But are we looking at the right place?

What if the problem is actually with the leader? It isn't unusual to find leaders mortified of getting upstaged by smart folks in their team. This insecurity breeds information hoarding, favoritism and subterfuge of various hues. The leader wants to hog the limelight, and doesn't mind being a control freak, unwilling to let go of power and authority.

Denying visibility about issues and information is a tool that is too easy to deploy. The insecure manager decides to ration information coming from senior leadership teams and even customers. Information will be shared on “need” basis, they claim. People get dis-empowered when they aren't sure what’s really going on in the organization.

Over a period of time, the effects are highly corrosive. Sometimes, lesser capable individuals are promoted, just so that leaders can surround themselves with servile people who can’t threaten their position.
Of course, not many leaders would want to admit to such behaviour. Also, the urge for self-preservation isn’t the real problem. So, if you are that rare specimen who is okay to detect and recognize such insecurity in yourself, albeit on a smaller scale, great! Instead of feeling bad about it, let’s look at the   situation with a different pair of glasses.

How about looking at the big opportunities that’ll present themselves when you have a more empowered and confident team? One that’s willing to play ball for the real big high stakes game? Where people aren't stuck in self-doubt, but are eager to take on bigger challenges, to learn and adapt to tough situations. And also stay resilient while facing difficult situations. No amount of preaching or pep-talk or powerpoint presentations can achieve what an empowered team can do. When you look at the culture that’s in vogue right now, what do you think? Is your team ready for the offensive to move beyond self-preservation and territorial behaviour, and go after audacious goals?

Conflicting agendas, priorities, interests and narratives aren't uncommon in any organization. Why, you’ll see it happen even in families. It’s in the nature of people to safeguard their territory. We all do it! So stop beating yourself up. We can do it differently.

Let People Gravitate towards you & that Vision Thing

You can seize the narrative with a positive and constructive agenda that makes people gravitate towards you. As a leader, people are looking at you to define a compelling vision. A picture that excites them from deep within. It may not be easy, but won’t be that hard either.

Because, the key point is to connect their aspirations to the shared goals, beneficial outcomes, and vision that you’re outlining. You might need to even expand the scope of the work assignments in your team to accommodate those aspirations. Some creativity is definitely called for. So make sure you take it as a challenge! See it as a chance to present a larger pie of opportunities and ‘spoils’ for people who’ll stick with you. You bet! It is so easy to hide behind policies and processes and pretend helplessness. That will only make the insecurity muck hit the fan.

You can read more about how to do this in my article series on Engaged Execution.

Two points that I’ll specially emphasize:

Conveying Trust:
How do you get people on board, and keep them motivated?Well, that needs a trusting environment. A trusting environment cannot be sustained with a perceived lack of sincerity, especially when there’s a wide gap between what is said and how it is said. People can sense the genuineness behind words. Ensure there is congruence between your body language, gestures, expressions and the words articulated. Most of us are adept at recognizing fake praise and homilies from a distance. Somehow, we have those in-built smart sensors that are reasonably good at alerting us.

Brevity & Focus helps too!
Crisp communication is what we are talking about here. You know, where relevant information and data are shared, clarity about assumptions exists, well-substantiated inferences are made, and there’s a willingness to examine multiple sides, dimensions and aspects of issues. This will help you avoid getting pigeonholed into pre-determined predictable patterns, based on “how things are done here”. That one shift is like a kick on the rear end of insecurity! 

Well, handling difficult conversations is an art in itself. Read more about it in this article of mine, where I present a model called “SPEAK WISE”. You’ll get some more ideas there!

So, as you can see, it takes a lot of work to create a culture of openness. Some of these changes will be difficult. It can’t be that easy to step out of one’s comfort zone. You’ve got to keep your own motivation levels high to be able to stick with this change. Defining powerful outcomes and exciting opportunities will certainly help. Taking yourself a little less seriously can make it a tad bit easier too. We’re talking openness here, after all!

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