Speaking truth to power

What is Our ResponsibilitySpeak Truth to Power

Over the past few years I have worked with and met a number of social entrepreneurs. I have been struck by how many have come into the work that they do through perceiving injustice, inequity or inefficiency elsewhere. Most social entrepreneurs I know are not new to ‘doing good’ – it is in their blood. For many they have committed their lives and been working for years trying different approaches to creating change or making a better world.

A striking number have recounted to me experiences they have had in previous jobs at non-profit organizations or the corporate sector where they perceived a genuine problem. The problems people have shared have been very diverse, including misaligned strategy, poor spending, workplace bullying, mismanagement, ego-based leadership and perhaps most alarmingly, an unwillingness to listen to contrary or negative feedback. Sometimes these problems create harmful organizations or programs, and other times just keep the organization in a place of mediocrity; locked away from fully achieving greatness or their mission.

Many social entrepreneurs I have come across have actually first attempted to create change, innovate or establish new initiatives within these existing organizations. They have often experienced the resistance that comes from a system trying to protect itself, and not allowing new information to come in. Many have also experienced not being heard when trying to express counter views or challenge authority when they witness unethical behavior in leadership.

I could not even count how many people I know who have felt that they have had no other option than to leave the organization as they have been unable to create change there. In some cases, their departure has not been their choice. The information and perceptions they have had and were unable to share would have potentially saved the organizations they worked for a great deal of money, their brand and created a more aligned strategy. If they could somehow speak truth to power, their experience and the impact of the organization could have been changed.

For me, one of the reasons that people find themselves in this position is because they lack the skills and confidence to deal with and speak to power. By ‘…power’ I refer most often to people in positions of authoritative power (Board Directors, CEO’s, management), and by ‘speaking truth to…’ I mean the ability to give feedback and name what the individual perceives as going on.

I do not write this with any judgement or criticism, I write simply as an observation. I too have been in positions where I have felt unheard or unable to speak effectively ‘my truth’ to people in more senior roles to me. I have also experienced being in positions of authority (CEO, senior management, Board Director) and probably caused pain for people in terms of them not feeling like they could voice certain views with me.

Understanding power, resolving ones relationship with it and being able to work effectively with power is bloody difficult. This is not an easy journey at all. The reason many people find it difficult or lack the confidence is that they have been burnt in their past (earlier life or past-life) by the misuse of power by others. The consequences can sometimes be incredibly painful, and it is totally understandable that people avoid situations where they would need to experience it again.

I have one friend who was until recently the CEO of a major charity. This charity was significant in size, budget and reputation, and had a number of challenges including unethical and misaligned leadership at the Board. This behavior and practice was not obvious to everyone, but certainly a strong number of staff and the community had expressed their being disenfranchised with the organization’s governance. The CEO had a choice of whether to speak against it, or play along with their power games and behavior. She chose to speak against it, which was an enormously courageous act. The consequence was that she was forced to step down from her post, representing a significant loss to the organization and her personally. Positive results did come out of it too, including the Board being forced to look at the way it governed. The courage of this CEO to speak truth to power led to a startling turnaround for that organization.

For me the single most striking problem in the ‘doing good’ or non-profit world is our understanding of and ability to deal with power. So much importance is placed on entrepreneurship, innovation and creating new change. Our ability, willingness and courage to shift existing organizations or initiatives to more ethical, aligned and positively impactful positions is critical. Otherwise we find ourselves in the position whereby creating new good only perpetuates the existing bad. We are not actually transforming that which is at worst harmful or otherwise just mediocre, into that which may be great.

A wise colleague of mine Beth Worrall champions the role of entrepreneurs within existing organizations or systems. Beth taught me a lot about the important role that individual employees within larger systems can play. When these employees work effectively with power, their impact internally and externally can be huge – even from the most ‘junior’ roles.

Whether we are committed to sticking out the journey in our existing workplaces or moving into new ventures, our willingness and ability to work with power is critical. Perhaps I will come back to this in a later post, but it starts with first seeking to understand ourselves and our own current relationships with power. This is challenging and can surface stuff about ourselves that we perhaps don’t want to face. I know for me that journey has been difficult, but one that hopefully in the end will bring me closer to being a better change maker.

 

Pay it forward – searching for a more ethical incentive

Ethical Incentivesethical incentives

In the business world it is a fairly common tactic to use bonuses, commissions and other rewards to incentivize performance and retention among employees. Is it possible to create a more powerful incentive however, where the employee who does the work receives nothing personally? In addition, could it be possible to create an incentive where the individual receives nothing, but generates good will among others?

A few years ago I worked with the business development team at a well known Australian charity. It was at an important stage in the organization’s growth. They had a proven product and a good understanding of their market. The challenge was simply one of increasing volume, filling up business in quiet periods and making the whole operation more profitable. Sounds simple doesn’t it.

Specific Examples

The organization was highly effective at retaining existing clients, with over 75% having been with them for over 15 years. Each year there was a small attrition of clients, and a modest acquisition of new clients. To meet the organizations growth, profitability and sustainability targets, new sales needed to ramp up significantly. The team had participated in training, implemented new sales tracking tools and managed its contacts more closely. The organization also invested in innovating new programs and services to take to market. Aside from the new style programs, none of these made a significant difference to increasing sales.

The Executive Team considered whether the organization needed to business ethics managementimplement an incentive scheme for its sales staff. Prior to this, business development staff were salaried and conducted sales alongside client management. There were no specialist sales people in this team – each person had a client management and a sales function. Over a two year period, the CEO proposed to the team that a bonus and commission system be implemented. Each time the proposal was rejected by staff. They stated that their motivation for working for the organization and serving their clients was not out of money, but out of a genuine desire to see the mission fulfilled.

After two years, an incentive system was implemented anyway. Staff would receive an annual bonus for making budget, and an additional percentage commission on any new clients they brought on. It was fascinating to see what happened to the team culture almost immediately. Where the team was previously highly collaborative, they were now more keen to pick up the new prospect and keep that to themselves. Some healthy competition was good of course, and led to increased motivation for some.

Problems Identified in the Model

What started to appear however were some really strong problems. One of the problems with the operational model was that the organization was already beyond capacity at certain times of the year. The organization needed new clients, but could only accommodate them in the quiet times. It seemed that every prospect that came into the sales cycle wanted the busy times. What ended up happening was that the sales staff made the sale, loaded up the operational team with a workload that would almost break them, and then the sales staff got the commission. This is on top of the sales team already earning more than the operational team.

When word got out that the sales team were earning commissions, it was perceived that they were being rewarded for burdening the staff in the operational team. The organization now had an ethical dilemma on its hands – what is the fair way to reward and treat staff as a way of respecting their various contributions?

The solution came from neither Management nor Human Resources. It came from the Sales Team itself. The sales staff got together to creatively rethink its incentive system – not the management, but the people who were to receive the bonuses. They put forward a proposal whereby the Sales Team and Operational Management Team had to work together to determine how any new business would be accommodated. Any rewards earned through new business would not be paid to the sales team, but rather to the operational team as an end-of-year gift. This recognized that it was the delivery staff that actually bore the brunt of the these decisions.

This was a remarkable cultural act in itself. Further to the cultural success, what ended up occurring was that the operational team were more open to collaborating to see new business find a place in the operational calendar. The two teams worked creatively to find a way to make it work.

This is an example in behavioral ethics of something called ‘bounded awareness’. According to Bazerman and Tenbrunsel in Blind Spots, “bounded awareness refers to the common tendency to exclude important and relevant information from our decisions by place arbitrary and dysfunctional bounds around our definition of a problem”. The problem was initially defined as purely and simply a ‘sales problem’, which led a simplistic ‘incentive solution’. The initial incentive created a blind spot to the more complex dynamic that was happening in the organization around operational flows, interdepartmental management, client needs, impacts on delivery staff and the cultural values of the organization. A simple incentive blinded the staff to seeing that complexity and what was actually needed.

Conclusions

While the new incentive did not necessarily achieve the significant increase in sales that the organization was seeking, it did allow the organization to see and understand itself more effectively. It managed to understand client needs, test the limits of its operational model, push the creative and ethical skills of its staff, build more healthy workplace relationships and bring its multiple stakeholders together around this complex problem.

Incentives can be powerful, and have far greater ethical impacts than we perhaps give credit it. Rethinking incentives in this case opened hearts and minds, and led to a more ethical outcome for all concerned.

 

Beyond ‘disadvantage’: rethinking how we talk

Beyond DisadvantageBeyond Disadvantage

I have long been conscious of words, labels and how language can shape our reality. Initially my experience of labels was a personal one. Not just because of my sexuality, but indeed loads of experiences throughout my life have taught me the power and limitation of words.

After some harrowing times, at fifteen I embarked on a quest to reconstruct my world by being careful of how I spoke of myself and what I was prepared to accept from others. I had previously heard teachers and peers at school describe me in ways that I simply accepted and adopted as truth. More insidious were the words I used internally; flowing without filter or question. I was creating my world and reality in every thought.

My Story

Later in my twenties I became a teacher and heard this language from the other side. I heard teachers refer to students as bad students, good students, ADHD students, non-believers, distracted students and more. These words were used so unconsciously and I doubt the users had awareness of their power in shaping the young people they were supposed to be serving.

This understanding of the power of language is not revelatory. The positive psychology and personal development movements have helped open the world up to understanding how language can shape reality for individuals. While our systems and cultures still perpetuate some of these habits and misuses, I witness greater consciousness among teachers and youth workers now.

Community Development

One field that this has not been as developed or mainstreamed is community development. In my working with communities and non-profit organizations, I continually hear leaders, CEO’s, organizations, politicians and social workers refer to communities as ‘disadvantaged’, ‘deprived’, ‘poor’, ‘developing’ and more. There are endless labels that are used to diagnose, describe and distinguish communities. None of these, or indeed any label is truth in itself. It may provide one way of looking at the total story, but it is not the total story.

The diagnosis of communities via labeling is so prolific, incredibly unconscious, and its impact is profoundly destructive. There is a problem in defining problems. As soon as you give a label to it, that label and its descriptions actually become the problem. By giving collective attention to something, you invariably create that as a problem. Diagnosis limits thinking, not open it up. It narrows focus on just that one way of seeing something.

Last week I was fortunate to do some work in a community in Tasmania. This community has been described by the Government as a highly disadvantaged community. This label was not uninformed of course, just poorly informed and constructed. The label was derived from statistical data that shows the prevalence of unemployment and education outcomes. It is a giant leap to see data like this, and create that language to talk about it. My experience of this community is that it is full of wonderfully creative and highly intelligent leaders. Yes, the community may have challenges in certain parts, but we need to be conscious of how the language we use might fuel or escalate those challenges.

Does this mean that we stop talking or using language? In my own life there was a moment when I came to use labels consciously and powerfully. I struggled for a long time with calling myself gay, and not because of my identity or how I experienced myself. I struggled because I didn’t want to be defined by the word ‘gay’. I saw myself as something more than this. I have now come to be able to powerfully use the ‘gay’ word in my life. For me labels are powerful when used to help describe, and incredibly dangerous when used to define someone or something.

There are two other important aspects to my use of the word ‘gay’. Firstly, I use it in a positive context to describe an aspect of myself that I love. Often the word gay is used in derogatory and negative ways to describe not just people but experiences, objects and more. Secondly, I am conscious when I use the word to describe myself; I am giving meaning to my own life and identity. I am not ascribing a label to others to talk about them. When we use words to diagnose others, we are violating the spiritual laws of freedom. Who am I to give or limit the meaning or identity of another.

The last thing to say about labeling communities or collectives is that they comprise such diversity. To apply simple descriptions to communities, we deny and ignore the magical multiplicity of experiences that live within them. Even individuals are dynamic – changing and growing with life experience. We can label food (as the image at top suggests) because they comprise consistently the same ingredients that should have little variance. Individuals and communities do have elements of variance, and that’s what makes them magnificent.

My Recommendation

If you are a community leader or worker, entrepreneur, business person or whatever, your opportunity here is to become more conscious of the language that you use and accept. Be wary of jumping to simple, quick and accepted diagnoses of problems, especially with labels. As soon as you apply a label to something, it will constrain your thinking. Liberate yourself and your communities by staying in empathy, following creativity, and avoiding the limitation of jumping to labels and diagnosis.

 

Risk Management

Risk Management

Risk Management

When culture failure strikes an organization, the organization is rarely the same again afterwards.

Culture failure is a leading failure mode in major organizational failures.

If you are responsible for Risk Management in your organization here are some facts you should know:

  • All operating cultures harbor deadly flaws that can precipitate large scale organizational failures if not managed and controlled.
  • Operating culture is one of the largest organizational risk factors yet this factor often receives the least attention by management.
  • When organizations experience large scale culture failure the costs can  be counted in both dollars and lives and the organizations involved are rarely the same afterwards.
  • Even smaller, everyday culture failures represent significant costs to organizations that affect their bottom line and strategic position.
  • Culture cannot be managed the same way other resources are managed.  In fact, attempting to “manage” culture as a resource is one of the leading causes of culture failure!
  • Culture failure can only be diagnosed and prevented, and positive cultures can only be nurtured, by focusing on and managing with respect to the “basic nature” of operating cultures.
  • Operating cultures have “basic natures” that can be measured and predicted.

Operating Culture Assessments

Operating Culture Assessments

Operating Culture Assessments

Effective Operating Culture Diagnostics Using Online Surveys

Online Group Surveys

Business experts and academics both agree that a healthy operating culture is integral to the performance excellence of any group. If this culture is constrained even the slightest, its effect on organizational performance can be considerable.  Many  managers lack the ability to identify these culture constraint points early enough to prevent culturally related performance failures. That is where this survey tool can help.

Group cultures operate like biological organisms. When all the parts are healthy the organism thrives.  When any one part becomes unhealthy or dysfunctional it can impact the well being of the other parts and the entire organism.  What can begin as just one dysfunctional sub-factor can ferment over time to seriously degrade several major factors that drive performance. Unless this negative “drift” is identified and corrected, dysfunctional cultural factors tend to progressively worsen until a major failure forces a shake-up in the organism. The goal of our culture survey is to identify this negative culture drift so the organization can address the failure modes, take corrective action to improve the culture, and prevent culture induced operating and financial failures.

The Culture Performance Factors we measure:

  • Leadership
  • Ethics
  • Process Capability
  • Risk/Reward
  • Satisfaction

Our online survey can quickly assess the vital few factors in your organization that are constraining performance the most.  Whether your group’s culture is dysfunctional, healthy, or somewhere in between, this survey will generate sufficient detail to show you where you can improve the effectiveness of your operating culture.

Our web based survey can be used to conduct single group or multi-group surveys of organizations in multiple locations, simultaneously, anywhere in the world, for just $11.95 per survey taker.  The average survey taking time is 10 minutes. There is no limit to the number of respondents or sub groups you can use.  Most employees can take the survey while sitting at their desks without requiring time consuming pencil and paper regimens. At only $11.95 this is a simple, cost-effective organizational diagnostic that can be afforded by just about any organization.  All survey questions and Summary Reports are in English.

Single Group Surveys

Single group surveys are used when a single group is to be surveyed. The number of survey “slots” or participants can be as few as one, or as many as thousands. The survey cost is $11.95 per participant and is purchased via phone using a credit card (Visa, MC, Discover and AMX are accepted).

How to Order.  Simply call us Monday through Saturday, 7:00 am to 6:00 pm EST, to place your phone order, and your group survey will be ready to take online within minutes. You will receive an e-mail order confirmation which will provide an activated survey url for taking your  survey. You will also be instructed to distribute that e-mail (url) to the participants in your group to take the survey. Upon completion of the surveys, a detailed single group report will be e-mailed to you, the purchaser.

See a Sample Single Group Report

Multi-Group Surveys

Multi-Group surveys are used when more than one group (such as departments or locations) within a broader group is to be surveyed, and it is considered useful to compare these groups as a part of a holistic view of the larger group. The purpose of the Multi-Group survey is to reveal which cultural constraints are unique among specific sub groups, and which are common issues in the broader organization.  Sub groups have typically been created around established organizational lines such as departments, branches, locations, divisions, or products, however your sub-grouping is in no way limited to these approaches. You are free to define the sub-grouping scheme that is most meaningful to you and your organization.

There are no upward limits to the number of sub-groups you can specify. Multi-Group studies provide the same Single Group Reports for each sub-group as described in the Single Group studies above, plus a Multi-Group Report to provide the holistic view.

Validity.  Our web based online survey will identify the leading ethical and cultural factors constraining performance in any organization.  Our algorithm measures five performance factors and over 20 leading ethics and culture related sub factors which are supported by decades of large scale academic studies.  While many organizational surveys encounter problems with universality and general applicability, our survey has proven to be remarkably universal and applicable to a wide range of organizations throughout the world. When our survey identifies constraints, and these constraints are addressed, group performance improves!

Improvement. While our surveys are revealing, the survey results will only represent a starting point in the improvement journey. Identified constraints still need to be investigated with the people involved to find the precise conditions that are causing the constraints. Improvement professionals know that in order to find the root cause to a problem, the problem itself must first be identified. Our surveys will tell you what your problems are, so you can focus on finding and correcting the root causes.

 

Merger Integration

Merger Integration

If you are in the business of acquiring and merging firms, you  are also in the culture management business. 

Merger success is not the norm.

Several studies in the early 1990’s on acquisitions by leading consulting organizations and universities revealed more or less the same findings:

  • less than 40% paid for their cost of capital, less than 25% created any appreciable value, and nearly 50% were later divested at significant losses to shareholders.
  • the inability to integrate cultures and management styles was cited as a leading cause of merger failure.
  • the more successful acquiring firms generally placed a higher priority on culture management and integration and were more capable in this managerial skill.
  • the less successful acquiring firms generally placed a lower priority on culture integration and management and were less capable in this managerial skill.

the ethics of merger integrationWe can help you diagnose, estimate, plan, and manage the culture factors involved in your acquisitions using our online survey. A relatively small investment in information can significantly help your chances of success!

Get the culture management skills mergers require. We can show you how to identify and prevent culture failure so they will not spoil your merger plans.