In 5 words or fewer, what does "power" mean to you?
I define power (and seek to exercise it) differently in three specific contexts: Within myself, in a relationship with another person, and in a group:
1. Power within myself is the ability to Express AND regulate my emotions.
As I've noted over the years, emotions are critical to effective performance and reasoning, among many other tasks. And much of the work I've done to improve my own effectiveness, as a coach and simply as a person, has been focused on becoming more skilled both at expressing my emotions, so that my impact is aligned with my intentions, and at regulating my emotions, so that while feeling them fully I choose when and how to express them in order to meet my needs. As you might imagine, this is an imperfect process at best, and I am most definitely a work in progress.
2. Power in a relationship is being Open to each other's influence.
In 2008 I defined "interpersonal power" as "the ability to modify another person's state," and while that still seems true, it also seems insufficient. Someone with power over me may modify my "state," i.e. my external condition, without affecting my attitude, beliefs or feelings. This is how ineffective leaders so often fail: they obtain compliance without actually changing anyone's mind, and so their "power" extends only as far as their ability to monitor and police. Real interpersonal power exists only when any changes we seek to effect in another person are persistent, and that happens only when both parties are truly open to each other's influence.
3. Power in a group is feeling Free to speak my truth.
A group's power is an aspect of its overall culture, not a function of its leadership. A powerful group is one in which every member feels free to voice their perspective, even--and especially--when the leadership is ineffective. A group in which members feel prohibited from speaking up will inevitably weaken, no matter how strong its leadership. And while effective leaders will support a culture that encourages members to speak their truth, each member will ultimately have to exercise that power for themselves.
Photo by Maria Ly. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
The Leadership Case for Self-Coaching
Helping people learn to self-coach is central to my approach to coaching. This isn't a noble ideal; it's a result of the fact that I see my clients and students for just 1% of their working hours--the remaining 99% of the time they're coaching themselves through every decision and interaction, and my effectiveness as a coach is reflected in their effectiveness at self-coaching.
A similar dynamic exists in almost all organizations today, especially in fields comprised of knowledge workers, in Peter Drucker's phrase. Knowledge workers rarely, if ever, perform a task under the direct supervision of a leader or manager; time spent together by superiors and subordinates is almost always dedicated to reviews of work already completed or planning for work yet to be done. This reflects the impact of knowledge work on traditional org chart relationships and workplace hierarchies. As Drucker writes in Management Challenges of the 21st Century,
[K]nowledge workers are not subordinates; they are "associates." For, once beyond the apprentice stage, knowledge workers must know more about their job than their boss does--or else they are no good at all. In fact, that they know more about their job than anybody else in the organization is part of the definition of knowledge workers...
To be sure, these associates are "subordinates" in that they depend on
the "boss" when it comes to being hired or fired, promoted, appraised
and so on. But in his or her own job the superior can perform only if
these so-called subordinates take responsibility for educating
him or her... In turn, these "subordinates" depend on the superior for
direction. They depend on the superior to tell them what the "score"
is. [pp 18, 20]
Because knowledge workers require (and desire) little or no direct supervision and typically know more about the work to be done than their leaders and managers, effective leadership has come to look a lot like coaching--which is one of the primary reasons that the new business school curriculum we've rolled out at Stanford over the past decade puts so much emphasis on coaching, interpersonal skills and experiential learning.
And just as my effectiveness as a coach is expanded dramatically by my ability to help others self-coach, leaders can enhance their effectiveness by helping people learn to coach themselves. "Coaching" doesn't need to be a formal activity that occurs between a superior and a subordinate in specially designated conversations, but rather can be a means by which knowledge workers guide themselves through day-to-day activities and over the span of their careers.
Self-coaching can't replace the experience of working directly with a personal coach like myself or being actively coached by a manager, but those opportunities are time- and resource-intensive experiences that are constrained by an organization's budget for coaching and a leader's availability. Effective self-coaching can augment an organization's investment in coaching by outside professionals and internal leaders alike. Further, helping people self-coach is a natural fit with knowledge work's emphasis on self-management and flat hierarchies.
So what does this look like in practice? Here are three principles to bear in mind:
1. Meta-Work (Meta-What?)
Helping someone learn to self-coach primarily means coaching them in a transparent way, so they're aware of the steps being taken and can replicate them later, both on their own and with others--a process I refer to as "meta-work." As I wrote in 2006, meta-work is any effort we undertake in order to work more effectively. Meta-work occurs whenever we step back from a task to ask ourselves "Why do we do this task this way?" or even "Why do we do this task at all?"
In a self-coaching context, meta-work involves leaving time at the end of a conversation to debrief the conversation itself and understand why it was helpful (or why it wasn't), and identifying specific aspects of the leader's coaching approach (both in any given conversation and over the arc of the relationship) so that the other person can apply those techniques on their own. Note that this isn't extra work added to the leader's plate--it's work to be done by the other person with the leader. Our responsibility as a leader is to manage the agenda so that the immediate issues under discussion don't consume all the available time.
2. More Questions, Less Advice
Our first helping impulse is typically to offer advice, and this is particularly true when we're in a leadership role because our mental models of leadership often involve "knowing the answers." And at times effective coaching requires providing some direct advice or feedback. But it's much more useful in a coaching context to ask questions, especially at the outset. As longtime MIT professor Edgar Schein writes in Helping,
The first intervention must always be what I am calling humble inquiry, even if the inquiry is merely careful observation and listening in the first few minutes of the encounter. The critical point is not to stereotype the situation even if it looks like something familiar. [pp 66-7]
Schein notes that the first trap for a "helper" in any helping relationship is dispensing wisdom prematurely; it's essential to defer offering advice or answering questions and shift the responsibility for providing answers back to the person seeking help.
The rationale here is threefold: First, we're more likely to follow up on ideas that we generate ourselves; even when we're accept advice we believe to be sound, we're less likely to act on it. Second, by definition knowledge workers have more information at their disposal than their leaders, and questions will help surface that information more effectively than advice. And finally, while providing answers may make us feel useful in the short run, over time it inhibits the other person's ability to find answers for themselves; asking questions is a much more effective way to help others learn to self-coach.
3. Empathy, Empathy, Empathy
Grant McCracken, an anthropologist who consults to corporate clients, makes the strategic case for empathy in Chief Culture Officer:
In the twentieth century, the corporation was so large it created its own weather system. General Motors, IBM and Coca-Cola could shape the world to their will. And in this world it was enough to be really analytically smart. Now we have to know the world outside the corporation. We have to know worlds alien to our own. We have to know worlds that proceed according to other assumptions. Without empathy, these worlds are opaque to us. [p 128]
This is even more important at the interpersonal level; without empathy--the ability not only to understand another person's thoughts but also to vicariously experience their emotions--their world remains alien and opaque to us. Empathy makes coaching possible.
Another key to the importance of empathy can be found in the work of Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston and best-selling author who's spent years studying the topics of vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. Brown defines shame as "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging." Empathy, in turn, is "the antidote to shame."
The relevance for leaders in a coaching context is that almost everyone seeking help is experiencing some form of shame, even if it's just mild embarrassment--and the more serious the problem, the deeper the shame. Feeling and expressing empathy is critical to helping the other person defuse their shame or embarrassment and begin thinking creatively about solutions.
But note that our habitual expressions of empathy can sometimes be counterproductive. Michael Sahota, a coach in Toronto who works with groups of software developers and product managers, offers a concise synopsis of Brown's work on the traps we fall into when trying to express empathy: "My problem's bigger," "Look on the bright side," and leaping to problem-solving while ignoring the emotions generated by the problem.
The solution is to recognize these responses as traps, catch ourselves before we fall into them and instead truly empathize: Start with inquiry--see above, work to understand the other person's situation and--even more importantly--experience their feelings. We may not identify with their particular situation, and it may not evoke the same feelings in us, but we've surely had those feelings at some point. Tap into them and find a useful way to share them. All this is easy to write about and hard to do, but it's worth noting that recent research indicates empathy can be learned.
The ultimate value from a self-coaching perspective is that people who are met with empathy begin to feel empathy for themselves, a critical step in the process of effectively analyzing and learning from our mistakes.
More on Self-Coaching:
Engaging Ourselves: Consistent self-coaching starts with self-engagement, which is both a fundamental attitude toward ourselves and an ongoing dialogue.
Goal-Setting: The goals we set for ourselves have a significant influence on our performance; that said, goals can support our growth and development, and they can also get in the way.
Self-Awareness: I define self-awareness as both a heightened in-the-moment perception of our physiological and emotional responses and a growing understanding of who we are as individuals based on those responses.
Taking Action: The changes that occur in a self-coaching process take the form of a series of moments when we intervene and act--or choose not to act.
Values and Vision: Self-coaching occurs in a context defined by our personal values and our vision for ourselves. (And when someone's values or vision diverge from that of the leader or their organization, it's critical to
Accepting Ourselves: Most high-achieving knowledge workers are their own worst critics, and a key coaching role leaders can play is helping people feel a sense of self-compassion.
Photo by crabchick. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
I was talking recently with a friend who's considering where to focus his time and energy as he builds his coaching and consulting practice. He's seeking not only to support his own efforts, but also to connect with a community of like-minded people working on leadership, professional development, personal growth and related issues.
Our conversation led me to reflect on the people who command my attention in this regard, people who who consistently maintain my interest through their combination of...
I came up with the list below of 32 people (alphabetized by first name) who fulfill these criteria, and after sharing it with my friend I thought I'd post it here to express my thanks for all they do to contribute to my own learning and development. It's not intended to be an exhaustive list--I know I'll regret leaving someone off--and there's nothing special about 32; these are just the first people who came to mind in this process, and I preferred that to randomly choosing 25 or 50 or whatever:
London-based de Botton is...a working philosopher? I don't really know what to call him, but I know I've benefited from his guidance.
NYC writer Kreamer's It's Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace deftly balances first-person experience with recent research.
Murphy Paul is amazingly productive writer based in New Haven, CT whose articles, posts and tweets have a particular focus on how we learn.
Markman is a prof of psychology and marketing at UT Austin, whose work explores thinking, decision making and motivation.
Simmons is a prof at the B-school of the University of Nevada, Reno who integrates topics like personal branding into his courses on leadership and organizational behavior.
Oestreich is a coach and consultant based outside Seattle who's one of the very best writers we have on the subjects of leadership and organizational life; it was a privilege to be interviewed by him.
10. David Rock (@davidrock101)
McGonigal is a psychologist and lecturer at Stanford whose work focuses on translating findings from medicine and neuroscience into strategies for personal development.
17. Maria Konnikova (@mkonnikova)
Burkeman is a British journalist based in NYC whose recent book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking is simply brilliant.
23. Pam Fox Rollin (@PamFR)
Peters is a well-known management thinker (and Stanford GSB alum); what you may not know is how effectively this longtime author makes use of social media.
Bock is an indefatigable blogger and ghostwriter in Charlotte, NC who has plenty of good advice for fellow writers.
32. Whitney Johnson (@johnsonwhitney)
Boston-based investor and author Johnson translates her business acumen into insights on personal growth, innovation and leadership.
Photo by dpika. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
I've been working with someone who's in a leadership role but isn't as motivated as he'd like to be. He's doing a perfectly fine job, but it's not meaningful, in the way we feel when a task truly inspires us. Although there's nothing tragic about this person's situation, reflecting on it I was reminded of Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. As I've noted before (under circumstances that were indeed tragic), Frankl identifies three ways in which we can discover meaning: "(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. The first, by way of achievement or accomplishment, is quite obvious. The second and third need further elaboration."
No one's suffering here, thankfully, so at least in this context I can set aside Frankl's third option--but his discussion of the second path to meaning offers advice that I find both profound and practical:
Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features of the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true...
If that's not a powerful definition of leadership, I don't know what is. (It's a damn good definition of coaching as well.) To fulfill Frankl's vision of helping others realize their fullest potential, we have to see that potential within them. And to see that full potential, we have to truly understand them--we have to "become aware of their essence." And to do that, we have to love them.
Love is a big word and a frightening one, and we often hesitate to use it in the professional realm, at least in any meaningful way. I suspect that the problem lies with our narrow definition of the term--we hear "love" and automatically think of romantic love, or familial love, and it seems embarrassing or even inappropriate to apply the term to our professional relationships. But in the best of those relationships it's love we feel--not romantic love or familial love, but love nonetheless, and as leaders our ability to summon and express that love can be a powerful force.
I've had the privilege of working with a number of good, very good and truly great leaders in my life, both in my 15-year career before becoming a coach and over the last eight years with my clients and students. The good ones are passionate, but it's not quite love. The very good ones do feel love--for their team, for the work, for life--but they can't quite bring themselves to say it out loud and fully express the feeling. The great ones feel it, and everyone around them knows it and benefits as a result.
At its core leading is an act of love. It's the ability to love those around us in a way that allows us to understand them, to see their full potential, and to enable that potential to be realized. Can we lead this way 24/7? Can we live this way every day? No--at least I certainly can't. There are plenty of days when love is the furthest thing from my mind, and it's all I can do to be civil. But I've experienced it often enough to know how effective I am when I feel it--and even more so when I'm able to convey it to those around me.
Returning to the leader noted above, having considered his struggle to find a deeper source of meaning in his work, I asked him: What form of love might you feel for your people? How might you tap into it and express it? What might you see in them as a result? And what might you do then?
Photo by David Goehring. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
Invest in the culture you want, or get the culture you deserve. And if you think your organization doesn't have a culture, don't fool yourself--you have one--and the accumulated cultural debt will eventually come due.
For the last two years I've done quarterly workshops on interpersonal feedback with employees at a San Francisco technology company. The workshop is a half-day event, similar to the session on communication skills that I did with the MIT/Stanford Venture Lab in January, and it represents a significant commitment of company resources. I estimate that they've dedicated more than 500 person-hours to this training alone.
I end every workshop by asking each person to say something to the group, and at the conclusion of the most recent session last week a number of people referenced the company's culture and its positive effect on their work experience. They talked about the sense of trust that exists among employees, and about how they've grown from the feedback they've received from their colleagues. They also talked about how much less stressful it is to work there than at other companies and about the feeling they have of being valued by management.
To be clear, I'm not suggesting that this company is some sort of magical fairy-land; it's a business, and they pay people to do their jobs like everyplace else. Nor am I suggesting that my workshops are the primary factor supporting their culture; I think I've played a helpful role, but far more important are all the interactions employees have with each other on the 361 days of the year I'm not there.
After last week's session had ended I was talking with two of the participants about their experiences at the company, and one of them, a technical manager, noted the cumulative impact of management's investments in their organizational culture using a metaphor that was new to me: "It's like the 'accumulation of technical debt' in software development. With these trainings and everything else we're doing, we're avoiding the accumulation of cultural debt."
The concept of "technical debt" was originated by Ward Cunningham, who developed the first wiki. Cunningham realized that compromises in the software development process have implications that build up over time, and failing to address those compromises is like steadily accumulating debt while making no payments on the principal. As Cunningham noted,
[P]eople would rush software out the door and learn things but never put that learning back into the program, and that by analogy was borrowing money thinking that you never had to pay it back. Of course, if you do that...with your credit card, eventually all your income goes to interest and your purchasing power goes to zero.
In 2007 Steve McConnell expanded on the metaphor in a post about the two primary types of technical debt:
The first kind of technical debt is the kind that is incurred unintentionally. For example, a design approach just turns out to be error-prone or a junior programmer just writes bad code. This technical debt is the non-strategic result of doing a poor job...
The second kind of technical debt is the kind that is incurred intentionally. This commonly occurs when an organization makes a conscious decision to optimize for the present rather than for the future.
McConnell's perspective on "technical debt" clarifies the concept of "cultural debt" for me, and I see so many parallels in the process of building an organizational culture. Cultural debt can be incurred unintentionally when we simply do a poor job of implementation; for example, we can deliver critical feedback to a colleague in a way that leaves them feeling defensive or demotivated. Mistakes like this have consequences, to be sure, but even failed attempts suggest that 1) we're trying, 2) we'll learn from our mistakes, and 3) we'll get it right eventually.
What's more troubling is the cultural debt that we incur intentionally when we decide to "optimize for the present rather than for the future." We hire the "B" candidate who's not a great fit because we're understaffed and we need someone now. We don't take the time to connect personally with colleagues because our to-do list is just too pressing. Our meeting agendas are always jam-packed, so it's impossible to step back and reflect on what actually happened in any given meeting. And we assume that smart people will figure out how to work together effectively, so we don't invest in soft-skills training and other culture-building efforts whose ROI is unclear at best.
But while we're taking these expedient measures the cultural debt accumulates, and eventually the bill comes due. That "B" hire isn't bad enough to fire, but they're just bad enough to slow down the rest of the team. Our colleagues are engaged and motivated when things are going well, but when the shit hits the fan we find ourselves alone. We sprint through our meeting agendas while everyone multi-tasks furiously, and at the end no one's really sure what was discussed--or why they needed to be there in the first place. And all around us well-meaning people make the same interpersonal mistakes over and over again, wasting countless hours because A) they're too blunt, and they leave a trail of hurt and angry colleagues in their wake, or B) they're too meek or indirect, and they fail to exert influence and effect real change when it's needed.
At times we have to act expediently in organizational life, just as software developers sometimes ship code they know will need to be cleaned up later. But let's be mindful of the cultural debt we're accumulating when we take these shortcuts and look for opportunities to pay it down as soon as we can.
Photo by walknboston. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
In my work with MBA students at Stanford and with many of my coaching clients, an issue that comes up regularly is the importance of making the transition from doing--being a stellar individual performer--to leading--motivating others to perform at their best. The challenge is that throughout our education and in most, if not all, of our early professional roles, we're rewarded for our effectiveness as doers, and when we achieve a more senior position we often assume that our effectiveness as leaders will rely upon the same skills and characteristics that have fueled our success up to that point.
But this can result in the illusion of effectiveness as a leader. We may believe that by working longer, harder, smarter--pick your superlative--than our team on a given set of tasks, we'll inspire by example. We just need to keep doing what we've been doing, albeit at a higher level. And sometimes this has the desired effect--as Daniel Goleman writes in his classic HBR article, Leadership that Gets Results, this "pacesetting" leadership style "works well when all employees are self-motivated, highly competent, and need little direction or coordination." That said, the pacesetting style imposes a high cost--Goleman also notes that it "destroys climate [and] many employees feel overwhelmed by the pacesetter's demands."
Even if we don't feel obligated to outpace our team in a leadership role, we can still undermine our effectiveness simply by continuing to take responsibility for specific tasks--by doing--when we could have a much greater impact by raising our sights and expanding our scope--by leading. And this may involve letting go of work that we find personally rewarding. One of my clients last year was the founder of an online retailer, and he personally built the company's website. Given his familiarity with the code, it was very efficient for him to make changes to the site, and he found this work deeply fulfilling. It was also a total waste of his time and a net drag on the company's performance. He realized this long before we began working together and had been able to compel himself to keep his hands off the code and let his technical team take responsibility for the site.
The challenge he still faced, however, was getting out of the weeds of inventory reports and other quantitative minutia, and the problem wasn't that he disliked this work but that he loved it. "I'm an Excel junkie," he told me. But just as coding had become a waste of his time, poring over spreadsheets was keeping him from spending time with his senior managers and helping them do their jobs more effectively. He eventually concluded that any time spent at his desk, working alone, was an indulgence--he enjoyed it and needed a little of it, but too much of it would hurt the company. His solution was to schedule some "Excel time" each day to clear his head and recharge his batteries, while also recognizing that his most meaningful contributions as a leader were made when he was spending time with his team.
Someone who's gone in a different direction is Theresa Christy, a researcher at Otis Elevator who was recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal by Kate Linebaugh. Christy apparently loves her job and by all indications is terrific at it, and a key to her success is revealed in the piece's final lines:
One part of Ms. Christy's career didn't go as planned. With aspirations of getting into management, Ms. Christy got her M.B.A. from Babson College, but the role didn't suit her. "I thought I wanted to be a manager," she said. "But I really like solving the puzzles myself. I didn't like assigning them to other people. I was a little jealous."
Given the importance our business culture places on leadership--and the high status enjoyed by leaders--it's essential that we be candid with ourselves about whether we truly want to lead. Christy recognized that she's most effective and fulfilled as a doer, not a leader, and shifted her career goals accordingly. At the same time, we may be able to tailor our approach in order to find the right balance between doing and leading. My client recognized that the fulfillment he found in doing was getting in the way of his effectiveness at leading, and he was able to adjust how he spent his time in response. There's no cookie-cutter solution, of course--but it may be worth asking: Am I doing when I should be leading?
Photo by Juhan Sonin. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
Management is what tradition used to call a liberal art: ‘liberal’ because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; ‘art’ because it deals with practice and application. Managers draw upon all of the knowledge and insights of the humanities and social sciences on psychology and philosophy, on economics and history, on the physical sciences and ethics. But they have to focus this knowledge on effectiveness and results.
Tom Peters (who I respect a great deal) and I have been arguing on Twitter about the extent to which what we're doing today at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) lives up to that ideal. Drucker may have had profound doubts about management education--as I've noted before, Peters once read an interview with Drucker in the Australian Institute of Management's journal in which the latter was quoted as saying, "The purpose of professional schools is to educate competent mediocrities." So my purpose here isn't to defend all B-schools against that charge but merely to consider whether the GSB's curriculum rises to Drucker's standard of a "liberal art."
We can debate the relevance of certain components of the GSB's curriculum, but let's stipulate that the school satisfies Drucker's "knowledge" criteria. How are we doing on self-knowledge, leadership and wisdom?
Self-Knowledge: The GSB's most popular elective is our Interpersonal Dynamics course, aka Touchy Feely, which we teach to 360 students every year. (There are fewer than 400 students in each graduating class at the GSB.) I took the course as a student in 1999 and have facilitated groups in the course 10 times since 2007. The course's primary focus is learning how to interact with others more effectively, a process that involves an extensive amount of personal reflection and heightened self-awareness, and there are many other courses at the GSB that push our students to understand themselves better.
Leadership: Every incoming class at the GSB takes our Leadership Labs course in their first academic quarter. I was involved in helping to launch the Labs in 2007 and have been closely involved with their planning and delivery for the past six years. The course involves putting students through a series of small-group exercises in which they share rotating leadership of the group experience, under the guidance of a trained second-year student, one of 66 select Leadership Fellows. There's an extensive list of elective courses in which students can study leadership in greater depth, of course, but right from the start the GSB emphasizes that leadership matters, that leaders are made--not born, and, in the spirit of Bill George, we learn about leadership by learning about ourselves.
Wisdom: So how do we help students transform the building blocks of raw knowledge into meaningful wisdom? Perhaps most effectively by getting out of their way. The GSB gives students a great deal of freedom to experiment and chart their own path. After fulfilling the core curriculum requirements in the first year, students are free to select the courses that matter most to them, and more than half of courses taken by every student are electives. Students at the GSB don't select a major in a specific field of management; once they're finished with the core, they simply pursue their interests. We can debate the merits of having a core curriculum at all, but my sense is that we provide more flexibility than most MBA programs. And as I've written before, B-school will help you get from Point B to Point Z, but finding Point A is up to you.
Is there more the GSB can do in every one of these areas? Yes, of course.
Could the GSB learn from innovative programs like Stanford's own Institute of Design, aka the d.school? Without a doubt.
Do I have serious criticisms of the GSB as an alumnus and as a staff member? No question.
But when Peters says it's "laughable" to call the GSB's approach to management education a liberal art, I take that as a personal challenge. You won't find an executive coach or experiential educator who's more dedicated to Drucker's conception of management or to the value of the liberal arts in general. (Hopefully two years in art school and a history degree from Brown give me some credibility on the subject.) I deeply want the GSB to live up to that standard, I truly believe that it can, and as long as I'm a Leadership Coach there I'll do everything in my ability to support that goal.
Photo courtesy of Alliance Roofing.
I was recently asked by some second-year MBAs at Stanford to help them launch a peer group that would serve as a source of learning and support after graduation out in "the real world." All of the group's members had taken Interpersonal Dynamics, aka Touchy Feely, and they each brought a high level of emotional intelligence to the group as individuals, but they weren't yet an emotionally intelligent group.
Before our launch session I asked them to read my posts on Safety, Trust, Intimacy and Safety, Risk, Learning and Growth, and at the beginning of the session I conducted a short improv exercise, not only to get them thinking a little more creatively, but also (and even more importantly) to create a shared sense of fun, silliness and vulnerability--all of which was intended to heighten their emotional investment in the group experience.
During the session itself I guided them through two exercises, each with an explicit emotional focus. The first--which I learned from my esteemed colleague Inbal Demri-Shaham--involved having the group focus on one member for several minutes, during which the other members would share any positive attributions that came to mind as they reflected on this person. I took notes, creating a list of words and phrases for each person, which I emailed to the group, and then we talked about how it felt to make those comments and to receive them.
The second exercise involved having each member share a personal story with the group that brought up some feeling of embarrassment or shame. Each person had just 2 minutes to relate their story, and I asked them to focus less on the details and more on their feelings; then the group had 2 minutes to share any responses to the story. I went first, talking about my 1995 Volvo and 1) my embarrassment at having such a nerdy car, 2) my embarrassment at having such an old car, and 3) my embarrassment at my embarrassment :-)
The specific point of the former exercise was begin to accustom the group's members to expressing appreciation with each other, and the specific point of the latter was to increase their level of comfort with admitting embarrassment and shame. I see these two factors as particularly important steps in a group's development, but I could have chosen any number of exercises to achieve these goals. The overall purpose was simply to allow the group's members to have an emotional experience together, which would trigger a sense of investment in the group.
We had an intellectually stimulating experience as well. We concluded the session with an extensive discussion about various practices that would support their goals, and throughout the session we debriefed each exercise, and I talked about my reasons for selecting them. But that conversation was much more meaningful because of the emotional experiences that had preceded it--and while I couldn't have predicted precisely how the session would go, I was gratified to hear the group members express how useful it had been in helping them get started. All in all, a really fun two hours that felt like time well spent.
I relate this experience at length as a way to introduce Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups, an article by Vanessa Druskat and Steven Wolff from the March 2001 issue of the Harvard Business Review, that strikes me as both practical and thought-provoking more than a decade later:
Study after study has shown that teams are more creative and productive when they can achieve high levels of participation, cooperation, and collaboration among members. But interactive behaviors like these aren't easy to legislate. Our work shows that three basic conditions need to be present before such behaviors can occur: mutual trust among members, a sense of group identity (a feeling among members that they belong to a unique and worthwhile group), and a sense of group efficacy (the belief that the team can perform well and that group members are more effective working together than apart)...
At the heart of these three conditions are emotions. [emphasis mine] Trust, a sense of identity, and a feeling of efficacy arise in environments where emotion is well handled, so groups stand to benefit by building their emotional intelligence. Group emotional intelligence isn't a question of dealing with a necessary evil--catching emotions as they bubble up and promptly suppressing them. Far from it. It's about bringing emotions deliberately to the surface and understanding how they affect the team's work. It's also about behaving in ways that build relationships both inside and outside the team and that strengthen the team’s ability to face challenges. [p 83]
As noted above, I've written before about my belief in the critical importance of safety, trust and intimacy as foundations for a group's ability to support learning and change, and Druskat and Wolff's research strongly confirms this perspective. Much of my work with groups at Stanford and in my consulting practice involves helping group members establish precisely the conditions highlighted by Druskat and Wolff--mutual trust, group identity and group efficacy--even when that's not the group's explicit goal. The nascent peer support group I describe above is still in the process of determining their fundamental purpose and their basic activities--and yet I fully trust that the work we did in our launch session will help them be more effective no matter what they ultimately decide to do.
It's also clear to me that groups that are able to establish these conditions not only perform more effectively but also provide their members with a greater sense of meaning and fulfillment. It's simply more intrinsically rewarding to participate in such a group--a critical factor whenever the extrinsic rewards of group participation are unclear. Finally, as a coach I deeply appreciate Druskat and Wolff's framing of emotion not as a "necessary evil" but as a fundamental component of any human system. Even through emotionally intelligent individuals and groups must work to regulate their emotions in order to express them most effectively--see below--that's not at all the same as suppressing those emotions.
Druskat and Wolff build on the work of Daniel Goleman, of course, in defining just what they mean by group emotional intelligence:
[A] team with emotionally intelligent members does not necessarily make for an emotionally intelligent group... [C]reating an upward, self-reinforcing spiral of trust, group identity, and group efficacy requires...a team atmosphere in which the norms build emotional capacity (the ability to respond constructively in emotionally uncomfortable situations) and influence emotions in constructive ways...
[In Emotional Intelligence] Goleman explains the chief characteristics of someone with high EI; he or she is aware of emotions and able to regulate them--and this awareness and regulation are directed both inward, to one’s self, and outward, to others. "Personal competence," in Goleman’s words, comes from being aware of and regulating one's own emotions. "Social competence" is awareness and regulation of others' emotions.
A group, however, must attend to yet another level of awareness and regulation. It must be mindful of the emotions of its members, its own group emotions or moods, and the emotions of other groups and individuals outside its boundaries. [emphasis mine] [p 82]
Druskat and Wolff identify an extensive set of norms that 1) create awareness of emotions and 2) help regulate emotions at the individual, group and cross-boundary levels. Laid out in a table on page 87 of the original HBR article, this list is a great resource. In addition to some basic truisms ("Take time away from group tasks to get to know one another.") it includes a number of more challenging concepts ("Assume that undesirable behavior takes place for a reason. Find out what that reason is. Ask questions and listen. Avoid negative attributions.")
The critical question that Druskat and Wolff leave unaddressed, however, is how to motivate people to actually do any of this often difficult work when the costs will be paid by individuals now (not only in the form of time and effort, but also in feelings of self-consciousness or discomfort), while any potential benefits will be enjoyed by the group later. Asking people to read an HBR article and telling them that "study after study has shown that they'll be more creative and productive" probably isn't going to cut it.
I don't mean to be flippant--it's a real dilemma that I face as an experiential educator and as a practitioner in industry. I try to leverage what I know about joyful learning to get a group pointed in a helpful direction, but ultimately the group's ability to develop the norms that support emotional intelligence is dependent on individual members' emotional investment in the group experience itself.
This process may start with some social pressure or even outright coercion--for example, strongly urging or even mandating members' attendance at group events early in its life-cycle. If those initial group experiences create a sense of emotional investment, then it becomes much easier to encourage individual members to identify and establish norms that will support the group's collective emotional intelligence. But if those initial experiences fail to trigger an emotional investment, then appeals to enhanced productivity will likely fall on deaf ears, and increased levels of social pressure or coercion will create a backlash.
I don't know what will happen to the group I describe above, but I do know that they've successfully begun the process of transforming from a collection of emotionally intelligent individuals to an emotionally intelligent group, and the feelings of trust, safety, intimacy, identify and efficacy that characterize such a group will serve as an essential foundation to help them achieve their goals.
Photo by woodleywonderworks. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.